No roads required: Mountain biking on the Wild Coast

On a two-day mountain-bike trail through Pondoland on the northern Wild Coast, you can pedal through a paradise of rolling grasslands, coastal cliff tops and beaches speckled with sunbathing cattle. Bring your bicycle, GPS and sense of adventure. By Alison Westwood. 

I was riding on faith. My wheels and pedals were submerged in the sea of grass that covered the hillside and hid the cow path we were following. Far ahead, Greg Butt of Drifters and local guide Perry sailed away like wheeled dinghies in the fresh sea breeze, leaving a faint wake of swept golden strands. I pointed my handlebars in what I hoped was the right direction, banished images of lurking rocks and potholes, and freewheeled along the invisible trail.

It seemed to work. My bike skimmed smoothly down the valley to a stream that tinkled under red milkwoods and over orange lichen-patched rocks towards the deep blue V of ocean. I caught up with co-rider Jean Sleigh just in time to see her perform a remarkable sideways somersault off her bike. ‘Are you alright?’ I asked the feet sticking out of the grass when she didn’t reappear. ‘It’s lucky I fell here, you know,’ said a cheerful voice. ‘There’s an amazing grasshopper right next to my nose.’

I was glad I’d brought a friend with a healthy appetite for fun. This mountain-bike trail was a far cry from our occasional Sunday-morning jaunts through Tokai Forest in Cape Town. We hadn’t known exactly what to expect when we arrived at Durban airport with our bubble-wrapped bicycles, but when Greg filled us in during the drive down to Pondoland, our excited smiles sank into worried frowns. He used words like ‘technical’ and ‘challenging’ and mentioned a distance of 35 kilometres for the first day.

‘But the brochure said 16 kays,’ I wailed, ‘and that it’s suitable for average cyclists.’ As it happens, I am a distinctly average cyclist. Greg explained that the distances in the brochure were for the slack-packing hiking trail, which goes in the same direction. ‘The 35-kilometre route goes inland,’ he said, observing our dismay. ‘There’s a shortcut we can do along the coast instead.’ Jean and I said we preferred sea views anyway.

We arrived at Drifters’ Msikaba camp in time to take a sunset stroll along the empty beach, from the end of a deep river gorge where Cape vultures breed, past forested dunes and a land-tied sandstone island or ‘tombolo’, which people can walk out to at low tide. ‘It would be wonderful to come here and spend a few days lazing around,’ I said wistfully as we watched a full moon float over indigo waves. Back at the camp’s dining room, hidden among the milkwoods like a secret den, we gorged on fresh-baked Pondo bread, spaghetti bolognaise, peaches and custard. We’d need the fuel for sure.

Elusive tracks, lost treasures

Shushed by waves and shadowed by leaves, we slept so deeply that it was almost 09h00 by the time Jean and I could be persuaded to strap on helmets, shoulder our daypacks and start pedalling – or, quite frequently, pushing. The hills were steep and patches of mud on the furrowed red-clay road were treacherously deep. Whenever we thought we’d managed to pick up a respectable pace, very small boys on very large bicycles would overtake us with wobbly exuberance.

We breathed deep lungfuls of Wild Coast air: sweet with grass, salty from sea and slightly smoky. Fields black and green from recent fires and more recent rains were dotted with brown shapes that could have been sheep, but turned out to be vultures from the nearby colony. Round huts were painted Transkei blue on their eastern sides to keep them cool, their thatched roofs topped with tyres for decoration. Oxen bellowed as they hauled an iron plough; close by, a derelict tractor stood rusting.

Off the main road, a knobbly 4×4 route over a burbling cascade led to an easy, level jeep track. ‘This really isn’t so bad,’ I thought, moments before Greg announced we were off course and would have to cut across country. It wouldn’t be the last time the trail proved somewhat elusive, even though Greg had cycled it more than once before and had it loaded on the GPS attached to his handlebars. I noticed that the more undemanding the path, the more likely it was to be the wrong one. There’s a mountain-biking moral in there somewhere.

Nonetheless, no matter how often Jean and I were forced to dismount, we had no complaints that our efforts went unrewarded. It was an eye-wateringly sunny day and we seemed to have the wide dales all to ourselves. Pondoland’s coastline is sparsely inhabited because its sour grasses and infertile soils make agriculture unfeasible. And, since Div de Villiers’ successful war against the illegal developments that mushroomed here in the mid 1990s, there are only a few holiday cottages to dilute the sense of wilderness. It was early July and the sardine run was in progress just offshore and, as we bobbed along, we saw more signs of whales and dolphins than of other people.

At Lambasi Bay, we stopped near the wreck of the Grosvenor, one of the English East India Company’s finest vessels, sunk by a hidden reef in 1782. Her cargo was supposed to include jewels and gold bullion, although survivors had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a 2#000-kilometre trek to Cape Town in front of them. Only six made it, but not all those left behind perished: several female passengers chose new homes with Pondo clans.

Many arduous attempts were made to salvage the treasure, but perhaps none as imaginative as one in 1912 by the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate of which Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was a shareholder. Their plan was to dig a submarine tunnel, then blast a hole in the seabed so that the treasure could be dredged with a large stream-driven winch, brought from Port St Johns by ox-wagon. Elementary? Unfortunately not. The futile winch stood sentinel over the blocked tunnel until quite recently, when it was stolen, probably for scrap.

Freak waves, magic waterfalls

We collected lunch packs at Drifters Wild Coast Inn just across the bay and tempted the manager to join our bicycling brigade on the shortcut to Lupatana. It was a cinch. In just over two hours and seven photo shoots, we were splashing through the estuary to the well-concealed camp. ‘You can shower later,’ Greg said. ‘First come and check out the waves.’

Jean and I followed him to a ledge beside the sea. The continental shelf drops steeply at this spot so that giant waves pound into the rock with an earth-shaking shock. From a distance, they sounded like thunder. Close up, they resembled a string of explosions. I photographed the others as they watched the aquatic blasts up close. Suddenly, my viewfinder turned white; Greg and Jean disappeared, then emerged, drenched and sliding on the foaming rocks. I read later that several anglers have been washed away by freak waves on the Pondoland Coast, never to be found. Luckily, Jean and Greg just got an unexpected power shower.

There was no easy way around the challenging nature of the next day’s trail, which involved more walking than pedalling for Jean and me. A late start followed by a few wrong turns saw us reach Waterfall Bluff only slightly ahead of a group of hikers who left Lupatana after us. We knew we had to get a move on, but the incredible beauty of a river plunging 100 metres straight into the sea held us captive. We lingered below the falls and above them, where we sat on the cliffs and ate our lunch, watching the spectacle of the sardine run from grandstand seats.

A little further on was another natural marvel: Cathedral Rock, where waves have carved a huge Gothic arch right through a sandstone tower and fanciful viewers can imagine choirboys flocking to mass on surfboards. We didn’t dawdle there. Fearing that we’d end up cycling in the dark, Greg chivvied us on through a large gorge and then down Drew’s Pass, a rocky, rutted chute which, I was astonished to learn, had once been navigable in a 4×4. Now, even goats and mountain bikers have to be careful where they place their feet and Jean and I were grateful when Greg and Perry carried our bikes down the trickiest sections.

A two-kilometre stretch of soft beach was a last test, which none of us succeeded in riding for more than 100 metres. So we strolled barefoot beside our bikes as the sky turned pink and a group of beach-bum cattle trotted home for the night. When we finally reached the gravel road to Mbotyi, the broad, smooth surface came as something of a shock. For two days, Jean and I had battled through an entirely new level of mountain biking. We’d managed without roads, tracks or any rideable routes at all. We were filthy, battle-scarred and a little bit tougher. For a short time, we’d risen from average to almost adventurous.

The trails in brief

A two-day slackpacking hike or mountain-bike trail along the coast of Pondoland, starting at Msikaba and ending at Mbotyi. The hiking trail involves 16km on the first day and 14km on the second. Mountain bikers can choose a 35km ride on day one or a 24km shortcut. Day two covers around 20km. Distances are estimates as routes may vary.

Getting there

Trailists meet at Mbotyi River Lodge and are transferred to Msikaba, where the trail starts next day. Mbotyi is 26km from Lusikisiki – about four hours from Durban and five from East London. The last 19km are on gravel but can be negotiated in a normal car.

From Durban, take the R61 from Port Edward through Bizana and Flagstaff to Lusikisiki. At the traffic circle, turn right. Turn left 100 metres after the Total garage and follow signs to the lodge.

From East London, take the N2 to Mthatha, then the R61 to Port St Johns and Lusikisiki. Just before Lusikisiki, you’ll see signs you can follow to the lodge.

First published in the October 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine

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