24-31 March 2006
Report and photos by Brian Henwood

Don't miss the selection of Brian's Photos at the end of this article (Click on pics to see larger size) - Ed.

And would I do it again ? Yes, for sure.

At 8 pm on Monday 31 March an exhausted but relieved group of mountain bikers quietly cruised into Rhodes on a narrow winding gravel road illuminated by the headlights of a trailing vehicle.

The cyclists had made an early start that morning from the small Eastern Cape village of Vuvu high up in the Drakensberg Mountains. After a gentle ride along the dirt road to the neighbouring village of Ulundi the group crossed the upper reaches of the Tina River and then started the steep ascent up Lehana’s Pass following the tracks of goats and cattle that graze on the mountain. Most of that day was spent hauling the bikes up a 1000m climb to the top of the Drakensberg. On reaching the top of the escarpment the directions guided us to some abandoned farm buildings where we picked up an old dirt track that lead us to a nature reserve and the luxurious Tena Head Lodge. From there it was a short ride to the top of the Naude’s Nek Pass where we enjoyed a celebratory break for group photographs. The end was in sight but not before the final 8km climb took us to the highest point of the ride. With the sun setting over distant hills and the temperature plummeting, we descended 1000m through steep mountainous terrain carefully negotiating the sharp curves and finally at the bottom of the Naude’s Nek Pass were met by our escort vehicle.

My mountain bike recorded 528 km over the 8 day journey from Pietermaritzburg of which less than 10 km was on blacktop road. The route followed the Freedom Trail that was designed and developed by the Waddilove brothers, one an environmental lawyer in Cape Town and the other a Donnybrook farmer. Their brainchild is a 2300 km mountain bike trail between Pietermaritzburg and Paarl over dirt roads, 4x4 tracks, footpaths and cattle tracks with facilities for overnight stops along the way. In June each year a group of intrepid mountain bikers set off from Pietermaritzburg on an incredible journey, called the Freedom Challenge. Their objective is to be the first to Paarl.

Having read an article in a cycling magazine, Allison Gunning was inspired to gather together some like-minded friends to accompany her on a 550 km journey along the route of the Freedom Challenge. However her idea was an adventure allowing time to appreciate the scenic beauty of the countryside and to interact with the local inhabitants. It was to be a mountain bike ride to the hamlet of Rhodes in the highlands of the Eastern Cape not far from the ski resort of Tiffendell along the route of the Freedom Challenge. Being a cross-country ride it was going to be tough albeit at a more leisurely pace and the target was set at 70 km per day.

The group of 12 mountain bikers and two support vehicle drivers that finally assembled at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 6 am on Family Day comprised a few engineers, a land surveyor, an attorney, an educationist, a retired Anglican bishop, a farmer, a ballet instructor, a few energetic health fanatics and a couple of varsity students.

To add a touch of fun to the potentially gruelling experience the riders were trailed by Les Maker of the Natal Vintage Tractor Club on a 1957 Ferguson tractor. A platform attachment was custom made to carry food and refreshments, first aid, tools and bike spares, but also to transport up to 3 exhausted or injured riders together with their bikes. The other vehicle was a Prado with a bike and baggage trailer driven by Philip le Feuvre.

The long meandering route took us on the first day through Baynesfield and Byrne to the Bush Camp in the Highover Nature Reserve at Hella-Hella. It was only with the generous assistance of Pat and Bushy Kirby that the tractor made it to the first overnight stop. A punctured tractor tyre had stranded Les in a plantation near Richmond and it was the Kirbys that saved the day. They transported two tyres back to Pietermaritzburg, collected and fitted the two replacements and escorted Les to the overnight stop arriving in darkness. We owe them big time!

After the long steep climb out of the scenic Umkomaas River valley followed by comfortable riding along undulating gravel roads through the farming district of Eastwolds we arrived at Donnybrook for lunch. Then it was off-road through indigenous forests and plantations to Centocow Mission where Father Stanley was our welcoming host.

The next day we crossed the boundary river at Riverside and entered the old Umzimkulu district of the Eastern Cape. The terrain was fairly flat so we were able to make up the time we had lost after taking a wrong turn that took us through an indigenous forest to a high vantage point. After a peaceful rest and a good lunch provided by the Mission, we parted from the tractor and headed up towards Nsikeni Peak through shady forests and plantations emerging in the late afternoon just below the peak. We followed cattle paths in the light mist until we reached the 2 m high boundary fence, climbed over with our bikes, and found our way to the luxuriously rustic Nsikeni Lodge where we were met by our support team and our host Jean, the mother of the Waddilove brothers.

In the morning the mist was still lying low over the hills and with little more than vague directions we headed off in the direction of Swartberg. This was the day we learnt the meaning of cross-country. There were no roads and very few paths. We were simply guided by GPS way points and topographical features until we reached a farm road. In the late afternoon and not too far from Swartberg we found Banchory Farm, our accommodation for the night. Every afternoon on arrival at our destination we would clean, service, adjust and repair our bikes. That evening a thunderstorm put us into darkness and when we left in the morning there was still no power so there was little opportunity to charge cell phones.

It was Day 5 and again we were on our bicycles just after 7 am heading this time for Matatiele. The day was spent on gravel and dirt roads snaking through rural communities with the Drakensberg mountains in the distance on our right. Our presence attracted much attention and excitement amongst the communities, and the young children in particular. Our final destination was an informal settlement on the outskirts of Matatiele where the community manages the Masakala Lodge, established by the local tourism authority. Though there was no power supply at the clean and well-maintained accommodation, the paraffin lamps provided us with romantic lighting, the gas geysers ensured that we had plenty hot water for showers and the gas stove produced hot traditional food.

At Masakala Lodge we were joined by Pheta, our guide for the next two days. As he lead us out of Masakala the next morning many local women excitedly waved and ululated from their homes. It was their traditional way of acknowledging our presence and welcoming us in their community. We rode through the streets of Matatiele and headed out towards the Drakensberg mountain range. Again the day was spent on gravel roads but the roughness of the road surface slowed our pace. Just before reaching our destination we paid a brief visit to the Mariazell Mission which has an imposing church building built by polish master craftsmen early in the last century using locally quarried sandstone. It is prominently located in the well-maintained grounds of a privately run boarding school. Not far from the Mission but up a mountain was Malekhalonyane Lodge, a similar community-run lodge used mainly by hikers and visitors to the Malekhalonyane Nature Reserve.

We made an early start the next morning knowing that Day 7 was going to be a long day as we were heading further into the mountains and covering a distance of 80km. But it turned out to be much harder than anticipated. Exhausted and in need of water, we were escorted into the small settlement of Vuvu at 9:30 that evening with the support of two police vehicles.

The arrangement was that we were to meet at the school and after dinner various parents and teachers would take us to their homes where we would stay the night. It was a fun experience being selected and taken individually into the local homesteads. I was fortunate to accompany a parent who lived across the road from the school. Keith on the other hand had what felt like a 5km walk down the valley in the darkness carrying his bags to his homestead. Each rider can tell a story about his or her own experience but we all now appreciate the hardship of living with poverty in a rural area where electricity, running water and waterborne sanitation is not yet part of their lives. Something we take for granted.

This Ride to Rhodes was much more than just a long cycle ride; it was an adventure and an experience of a lifetime. As the group leader I am sure that I can speak on behalf of the riders, our navigator Richard Boote, his wife Colleen and son Gordon, Grethe Simkiss, Irene Wisdom, Keith Ashton, Jenny Pickle, Charmian le Feuvre, Patsy Mockford and Andy Stuart in thanking Allison for her inspiration, her determination for carrying it through and her common friendship that brought us all together and gave us this memorable experience. I also thank Les and Philip for their valuable support throughout the journey, and friend Tony Sharples and my wife Veronica for collecting us in Rhodes and bringing us safely home.

Brian Henwood
3 May 2008