42. Kark­loof Trails

Any­one for snakes and lad­ders? Bi­cy­cling rolls the dice with TIB pro­fes­sional cy­clist and KZN lo­cal An­drew Hill, ramp­ing, jump­ing and rail­ing through the pris­tine trail net­work of Kark­loof.

Bicycling WOW Rides - - Contents -

We’ve heard a lot about the Kark­loof MTB Trails, par­tic­u­larly from KZN ‘ex­pats’ who’ve made the Mother City their new home. Even when we show them the very best trails the Western Cape has to of­fer, the con­ver­sa­tion al­most al­ways ends with the fol­low­ing line: ‘They’re awe­some – but have you tried Kark­loof?’ Well, we’re here – and we’ve roped in TIB pro rider An­drew Hill to guide us through this pine-tree-lined play­ground of vert and dirt.

From the sharp scent of fresh pine nee­dles to the sen­sa­tion of speed ac­cen­tu­ated by the pe­riph­eral blur­ring of trees, noth­ing beats rid­ing through a for­est at full chat. Per­haps I’m a lit­tle par­ti­san, com­ing from the Western Cape – af­ter all, many of its trails (Jonker­shoek, Tokai, Wel­van­pas, Grabouw…) have a sim­i­lar feel, and Des and I feel at home here as a re­sult. And we’re pant­ing again – sorry guys, but 1 150m above sea level for a Capeto­nian is pretty rough. Poor An­drew. He’s had to put up with our whinge­ing for the past three days al­ready…

The vis­tas around the Kwazulu-natal Mid­lands are truly sen­sa­tional. While very dif­fer­ent to the moun­tain­ous back­drops of the Western Cape, the lush green hills – many of which stretch as far as the eye can see – are steep, green and invit­ing; just the way we like them. The trails are about an hour’s drive from Dur­ban, in the beau­ti­ful Kark­loof Val­ley in the Mid­lands. The vast Sappi plan­ta­tions are home to an abun­dance of trails, and the com­mit­ment of lo­cal moun­tain bik­ers and head trail-builder Hyl­ton Tur­vey has cul­mi­nated in the world-class trail fa­cil­ity you see here.

Each route starts and fin­ishes at the Kark­loof Coun­try Club, and is graded in ac­cor­dance with IMBA’S guide­lines. While there’s a plethora of op­tions and routes to choose from, to­day’s ride will be taken

pre­dom­i­nantly from the Out­back trails, which fea­ture in the Kark­loof Clas­sic Marathon race.

There’s no time to set­tle into a rhythm, as Camp­bell’s Climb be­gins al­most im­me­di­ately – a 4km beast of a hill, com­plete with six per cent av­er­age gra­di­ent. While it flat­tens out to­wards the top, it’s the ini­tial tran­si­tion that takes a toll on both legs and lungs. An­drew’s mak­ing it look all too easy (he is a pro, af­ter all), and pro­ceeds to talk us through the route, point­ing out the dif­fer­ent fauna and flora that cat­e­gorise this re­gion.

Des­mond is cruis­ing too; but he has some su­per­nat­u­ral help, from a Spe­cial­ized Levo e-bike. Lucky bug­ger. An­drew as­sures us the re­ward wait­ing at the top will far out­weigh the ef­fort it’s taken us to get to this point. I sure hope so – I’m pretty poked from the pre­vi­ous three days’ worth of trail rid­ing around KZN, and am se­cretly hop­ing we’ll stop some­time soon. (More whinge­ing again, yes.) Des has to be a telepathist, be­cause he’s stopped, and taken out his cam­era. Usu­ally, that means he ei­ther wants to shoot, or take a break – on this oc­ca­sion, we’ll just pre­tend he read my mind…

We bag a good cou­ple of shots at the top, and take some time to ad­mire the spec­tac­u­lar view be­fore hit­ting the good stuff. Look­ing into the dis­tance, you can see the in­fa­mous Le­banon climb on other side of the val­ley, home to a fa­mous de­scent called Bat Out of Hell. Hmm, that sounds pretty fast – but we’re headed to some­thing that’s a lot more scary-sound­ing: the Gaunt­let...

The down­hill sin­gle­tracks are su­per-fast and flow­ing. On our list to­day is Je­witt’s Jive, the En­duro SP2 seg­ment, the Gaunt­let, and Sa­hara. While there’s noth­ing too tech­ni­cal in the way of ob­sta­cles, there are rocks, lips, roots, and the odd jump (you know – the usual foresty stuff), but noth­ing too in­tim­i­dat­ing. Be­sides, there are var­i­ous line op­tions avail­able for those not too keen on at­tempt­ing the gnarlier lines.

Com­pared to Giba Gorge, the rid­ing here is fairly straight­for­ward. But you do need to be fairly adept at ne­go­ti­at­ing rocks and small drops – this is KZN, af­ter all, and the riders around here are gen­er­ally of a higher skill set than those in other prov­inces. Thank­fully for us the trails are all fairly dry, so the chance we’ll slip on wet or moss-cov­ered rocks and roots is pretty un­likely.

I’d heard a lot about the Gaunt­let, and had been warned to be cau­tious when tack­ling it. A ver­i­ta­ble sin­gle­track roller­coaster, it

snakes fu­ri­ously, dip­ping down the side of a gorge over a se­ries of bridges and berms be­fore corkscrew­ing and drop­ping into a trail tran­si­tion. It looks pretty in­tim­i­dat­ing, I must ad­mit, es­pe­cially since it’s not in very good con­di­tion at the mo­ment – the cor­ners are rut­ted, washed out and loose.

But An­drew makes it look ridicu­lously easy, apex­ing every cor­ner and shift­ing his weight around to main­tain equi­lib­rium. My at­tempt is a far less pre­cise af­fair, as I wres­tle with both the bike and grav­ity in some awk­ward-look­ing ma­noeu­vres. Job done, though… from here on, it’s an un­du­lat­ing 8km ride back to the car, via the forestry roads that link the var­i­ous lev­els of the plan­ta­tion.

“There’s at least 120km of trail net­work here,” chirps An­drew. “It’s a pity we’ve only tra­versed about a quar­ter of what’s of­fi­cially avail­able. But we’ve done some of the good stuff.” Look­ing around, it’s hard not to be as­ton­ished by the sheer size of this place. The plan­ta­tions are mas­sive, never-end­ing, and the dis­tant trails and climbs flow through the hills like a river, through in­ter­lock­ing spurs.

The forestry roads give us a chance to re­flect on a great day’s rid­ing, and to take in more of the beauty we find our­selves in. The peo­ple here are friendly, and horses and buck roam these parts freely – obliv­i­ous to the hus­tle and bus­tle of big-city life.

While we didn’t have enough time to sam­ple all of the magic on of­fer, what we did ride was sub­lime – the work that’s gone into build­ing such su­perb trails is sim­ply stag­ger­ing. Our sug­ges­tion for those keen on sam­pling these trails is to make a week­end of it, with the whole fam­ily. Kark­loof is lo­cated in the heart of the Mid­lands Me­an­der, so there are am­ple ac­com­mo­da­tion op­tions avail­able, to suit all bud­gets. Get in there!

Kark­loof has be­come the Mecca of moun­tain bik­ing for a lot of Kzn­based riders. There are some spe­cial sec­tions that tra­verse the threat­ened mist­belt grass­lands, home to many ‘red’ data species. – AN­DREW HILL, TIB PRO ATH­LETE

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