It’s early and I can’t feel my face. There’s a shroud of mist, like icy television static, hanging a foot off the Ingeli Forest floor and I’m pedalling into it. Menacing legions of ash-white trees surge out of the fuzz, branches like bayonets searching for skin. The smell of fresh clay fills the air and a clean strip of single-track stretches ahead. If we stay on the track, they won’t get us.
Airship Orange says nothing – he’s an old Trek mountain bike that I named after a spectacularly average indie band from my hometown of Benoni. They were last seen on MySpace in 2005 – about the same time Orange and I fell out. Back then I suffered from an affliction called downhill syndrome that compelled me to throw him off steep ledges. Sometimes I was attached. He sustained bent levers and cracked handlebars. I got six stitches along my shinbone. We called it quits. Now, 10 years later, here we are, alone in a forest.
He looks great. Those levers straightened out nicely. He’s got new cables and bright orange grips. I still have that scar. I don’t have the same legs though. Six years of shuffling between a desk and a coffee machine isn’t exercise and my calf muscles have shrivelled up like a pair of old brinjals. I’m puffing already.
We emerge from the small, stark plantation – eucalyptus trees on death row, destined for the sawmill. Forestry is the lifeblood of this area, but much indigenous woodland still remains and Ingeli has a lion’s share. It makes up a large part of the Weza-Ngele region – one of the largest afromontane forests in the province and is home to towering hardwoods, forest elders and ferns, and birdlife like nowhere else.
We plunge into it. Stones crunch like cereal and giant yellowwoods creak and lean in to see who’s coming. The single-track splits around a sign. Left arrow – blue square – moderate. Right arrow – two black diamonds – extreme. In case it’s not clear, below that are the words ‘Commercial Suicide’.
What do you say, Orange, for old time’s sake? We go right, and fast. Sonic the Hedgehog fast. The familiar turns strange. The track whips left and right, over one, two, three slatted wooden bridges. The trees blur into a green tunnel. The air stiffens and the ground goes into hyper drive and I swear I can see a string of gold coins ahead of me. One wrong move and I’ll end up eating Fruits of the Forest by the spoonful, or wrapped around a tree like a bacon oepsie. But it doesn’t matter because the wind is also tearing a smile into my face. We’re flying again, Orange!
And then we’re not. A hill. More accurately, a merciless logging road that rises out of the timber towards the Ngele mountains. I click down the gears and pedal but my relationship with the horizon suggests otherwise. I’m Sisyphus, eternally damned to push a boulder up a hill, never reaching the top. Before Orange can complain about being likened to a large stone my attention is drawn to a matter more pressing. My thighs are on fire. It feels like someone has shoved hot coals into my Lycra pants and my limbs are protesting fiercely. My butt joins the queue at the complaints department. I give in. I get off. I push. A few steps in I give myself a stern self-talking-to about the definition of ‘tenacity’ and get back on. A grand total of nine pedal strokes later I’m pushing again. It becomes a routine until finally we reach the crest.
Gears click. Brakes squeak. I shift my weight back and Orange and I tear through the trees. Like a toddler who’s been given a cookie to distract it from a grazed knee, I’ve forgotten about the pain already. I exist only in the present. And the present is glorious. We cruise over pine cones and whoosh between shivering ferns. The next climb is less murderous. The one after that feels even easier. I even find the energy to lift my head and take in the surroundings. We’re not alone. Stare at a forest floor for long enough, and it will start to breathe. A small deer shuffles through the scrub. Another pedal stroke, and a ground thrush bops over gnarled roots. A short grunt (by me), a gear change, an orange thrush flutters between two branches. Others squawk and some sing. We reach another crest, and a copper stream of single-track plunges into the green depths. The last rays of sunlight lance through the tall trees and fall onto it like gold coins.
Getting to Ingeli
From Durban take the South Coast road (N2) to Port Shepstone. Take the N2 off-ramp and head inland towards Harding. Stay on the N2, which merges with the R516 about 22km after Harding and head towards Kokstad. Eight kilometres down, Ingeli Forest Resort will be on your left.
The N2 from Port Shepstone to Ingeli cuts through rural land. Be on the lookout for cows, goats and people in the road.
Why it’s worth the trip
- You can pick a trail that suits you – the single-track that cuts through the Ingeli Forest was handcrafted to cater for riders of all skill and fitness levels.
- The mist-belt forests of KZN are home to some extremely rare bird species, including the Cape parrot of which it’s estimated there are just 500 left in the wild.
- You don’t need your own wheels – bicycles (with helmets) are available at the start of the trails.
- It’s a three-hour drive from Durban and just one and half hours from Port Shepstone.
Ingeli Forest Resort is an old logging estate renovated in spectacular style: wood-finished with cosy fireplaces and solid hardwood beams like they don’t make anymore. Accommodation ranges from rooms with all the mod cons to raised log cabins that sleep six. From R670 per person B&B in a standard room and R1800 for the log cabin (meals are not included).
Contact: Tel 0395530600, ingeliforestresort.com
Ingeli mountain bike trails
There are seven routes through the Ingeli Forest, from an easy three-kilometre ride to a 30-kilometre loop. The routes start at Ingeli Forest Resort and are clearly marked. Day permits are R40 for adults and R20 for children. Bikes are available to hire at R350 for a full day or R250 per hour and include a helmet.
Contact: Tel 039550600, ingeliadventures.com
There are four hiking trails, from a 1,8-kilometre stroll to a nine-kilometre loop that reaches a lookout point some way up the Ingeli Mountain. The 3,5-kilometre Green Trail passes a beautiful dam with a picnic area. R20 for adults and R10 for children.
Contact: Tel 0395530600, ingeliadventures.com
The Afromontane forests in this area are home to unique birdlife. Species to look out for are the orange ground thrush and bush blackcap, but the highlight will be the extremely rare Cape parrot, best spotted in the late afternoons when it flies back to its roosting site.
Where to eat
The Eaglet restaurant is part of the resort, serves a cracking buffet, but it’s a little pricey (specials are available). I stuck to the à la carte menu. Try the mushroom, cheese and bacon-topped steak. Buffet from R190. À la carte meals from R90.
More killer mountain bike routes in KwaZulu-Natal
1. Glengarry Holiday Farm, Kamberg
Below the eastern folds of the Drakensberg, the Kamberg’s mountain bike trails meander between working farms, through small clutches of forests, across streams and up into the mountains. There are several loops and rides can be anything from a five-kilometre sprint around the farm to 60-kilometre rides that explore the whole Kamberg area. R30 for a day permit for adults. Children ride free.
Accommodation: Glengarry Holiday Farm has self-catering thatched chalets that look out onto the Little Berg mountain range. From R380 per person.
Contact: Tel 0332677225, glengarry.co.za
2. Lake Eland Nature Reserve, Oribi
The trails that cut through this nature reserve on the edge of Oribi Gorge provide spectacular scenery and the opportunity to do some game spotting from the saddle. There are three trails, ranging from a short four-kilometre ride to a 45-kilometre route that goes from solid sand track through grassland to more technical rocky sections around the gorge. R50 for a day pass for adults and R30 for children.
Accommodation: There are fully equipped self-catering log cabins inside the nature reserve that look out onto the eponymous lake. Alternatively, there’s also a campsite. From R375 per person sharing for the log cabin and R100 per person for camping.
Contact: Tel 0396870395, lakeeland.co.za
3. Clearwater Trails, Port Edward
Atop a sheer gorge that plummets down to the Umtamvunu River, which forms the border between the Eastern Cape and KZN, is a network of purpose-built trails that sweep along the gorge before heading inland through banana plantations, natural forest and a coffee estate. There are 10 trails ranging from a short, fast five-kilometre ride to longer 30-kilometre plus routes. R40 for a day permit for adults and R20 for children.
Contact: Tel 0835498710, clearwatertrails.co.za
Accommodation: Coral Tree Colony in nearby Southbroom (a 20-minute drive from the trails) pulls colonial style into a relaxed South Coast atmosphere. Rooms are quiet and extremely comfortable. B&B from R625 per person sharing.
Contact: Tel 0393166676, thecoraltree.com
4. Holla Trails, Ballito
Five minutes from the coast, Holla Trails is a network of routes that buzz through working sugar-cane plantations. The trails comprise dirt roads that detour into sweeping single-tracks. There are some big climbs but big rewards follow. Routes range from 15 kilometres to 82 kilometre. R55 for a day pass for adults.
Contact: Tel 0828993114, hollatrails.co.za
Accommodation: Secret Spot Backpackers has affordable private cabins set in coastal forest. Furnishings are simple and ablutions are shared. From R380 per cabin (sleeps two).
Contact: Tel 0325255480, secretspot.co.za
5. Detour Trails, Wild Coast
Multi-day mountain bike excursions by Detour Trails offer the perfect balance of leisure riding, breathtaking terrain and socialising with like-minded adventurers. One tour not to miss is the Wild Coast Amble, 19 to 23 May 2016, is a leisurely, five-day ride from Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay, stopping as much as possible along the way and staying in well-known Wild Coast hotels. From R11000 per person including meals, accommodation, support crew and vehicle.
Contact: Tel 0828960392, detourtrails.co.za
This story first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices and contact details correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion.