Imagine a cycle tour that takes you from beach to bluff to ford to forest in five days, and no two routes are ever the same…There is one in SA, and you can do it.
I’d last crossed the Great Kei River nearly 20 years ago. It was an ill-fated adventure: me and a best mate and a girl we’d just met who shared our birthday, same day, same year. Gemini triplets and a hut on the Wild Coast. Good times were written in the star… It was a catastrophe. No amount of cosmic alignment could help us get along, and after an awkward goodbye we never saw her again. The Wild Coast was not to blame, but I’d never returned.
Now here I was, in a borrowed outfit and on this strange-looking bike, about to cross the Kei again – about to cycle five days to Hole in the Wall and never mind that I’d not ridden in nearly a decade. That time I’d broken a wrist. What was I getting myself into?
Meeting my five riding companions gave me some comfort, but then again it also didn’t. Spreading out on the beach in front of me, still yawning with jet lag after their long flight from Colorado, were Adrian, Kathleen, Ron and Earlene – two retired American couples aged between 65 and 72. Initially I’d fancied my chances of keeping up, but decked out in their well-used gear they looked keen and fit. I wasn’t sure my 38-year-old legs would survive.
By now far ahead was tour leader Rohan Surridge. He grew up on this coast and has been guiding cycle tours here and around SA for almost a decade. Add nine Cape Epics as rider or support, plus a few Race Across South Africa events (off-road from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington) and you have a formidable cyclist, but one who has grown tired of racing – he’d assured me – and prefers the variation and isolation of his two favourite destinations – Lesotho and the Wild Coast, of which the latter is particularly suited to Rohan’s latest passion: fatbiking. Developed in Alaska, fatbikes have unusually wide tyres to stop them sinking into snow, a feature which makes them ideal for beach cycling. But they still need to be pedalled. Or, with my lack of saddle time, quite probably pushed.
‘It’s not a bike ride, it’s an adventure,’ Rohan assured me as we drove down from Durban the day before. I told him I’d ridden a bicycle once in the last 10 years. Was that concern in his eyes?
‘Don’t worry,’ he’d said, ‘there hasn’t been a hill yet that I couldn’t walk up.’ And that was that.
Twenty-four hours later I was walking up a hill. But it didn’t matter – everyone else was too. We stopped at the top for a rest and to admire the view. Before us, under a crisp winter sky, lay miles and miles of empty beach, wide and sparkling with the receding spring tide. A distant glint marked a river and, beyond that, endless grassy headlands disappeared into the blue.
The Kei now lay behind us – crossed just after dawn by motorised pontoon. There’d be no more such simple crossings. That river was only one of many that would need to be waded, swum or paddled across in local canoes. Timing is everything when cycling the Wild Coast. Summer rains swell the streams and make fording impossible, and even in winter it’s crucial to hit the larger rivers and estuaries at low tide so that waist-deep water is the most you have to negotiate.
Rohan glanced away from the view and down at his GPS. While we definitely weren’t racing, he had to manage those crossings and no hilltop rest ever lasted long. Back on our bikes we bounced our way down the cattle-furrowed single track, my sea-damp brakes screeching as I chickened out of a full-tilt descent.
Six hours and 30 kilometres later we pulled into Wavecrest hotel, our first overnight stop on the western bank of the Nxaxo River. Five kilometres an hour may not seem very fast. It’s not. But, Rohan aside, we were tired. We’d waded five rivers (one chest-deep), climbed a total of 680 metres and carried our bikes up one particularly steep cliff.
Waiting for us, the team in the support vehicle doled out icy drinks and snacks, took the bikes off for a clean and sent us to our rooms to shower. Then beers, a huge lunch and a sunset boat cruise. It had been a long day but I’d not embarrassed myself. Quietly confident about the riding to come, I drifted off into a deep, deep sleep.
But I’d forgotten what a saddle can do to an untrained backside. Golden light blazed over the Nxaxo as we canoed the bikes across at dawn. It wasn’t the only thing inflamed. I set out tenderly across the beach, standing up a little over the seat, while chatting with the Americans about cycling and Colorado and all the beautiful places they’d pedalled over the years. It was clear that to them this trip was up there among the very best, and it made me feel proud. Pristine beach followed pristine beach – not so much as a discarded bottle cap littered the shore. A woman collecting red bait showed us her haul, laughed, and posed for photos. By the time we rolled into Mazeppa Bay for lunch, one cold beer became two and I found my behind didn’t hurt quite so much anymore.
And every day it got better. Hard-packed beaches gave way to more challenging single track and we raced through the indigenous forest of Dwesa Nature Reserve. Daily cycling builds fitness fast, and although I was still pushing the bike up the steeper hills there was some satisfaction in conquering a few too. By day four we were spending more time off the beach, following narrow trails along bright green cliffs.
‘Isolation and variation,’ Rohan had said, and now I understood what he meant. From beach to bluff to ford to forest – a bike allows you to see so much along this inaccessible coast. Our overnight hotels were well-known establishments with good food and comfy beds, but to reach them by car means bumpy inland detours along hours of gravel road. Often the coastline between can’t be reached by vehicle at all – the domain of local pony and foot traffic, cows, a few hikers and us.
‘Every time we ride it’s a little different,’ said Rohan, as we sat high on the fifth day’s final hill watching a pod of dolphins, 50-strong, slip east past Hole in the Wall. ‘The beaches change, streams swell or vanish completely, but it’s always a privilege to be here.’
It really had been a privilege. It’s hard to do justice to what an incredibly beautiful place the Wild Coast is. And to experience it on a fully supported cycle tour, which included an endless supply of snacks along the way, packed lunches, roast dinners and cold beers … it was pure luxury.
Back on our bikes we free-wheeled down to the beach for the last time. My legs were tired and my bum still a little sore, but my trip had not been a disaster. All the toiling uphill forgotten, I was already scheming on how to get back here again with a group of friends.
Plan your trip
FlySafair flies from Joburg to East London for about R1300 return and from Cape Town for about R2100 return. travelstart.co.za. Transfers from the airport to Morgan Bay and back are included in the tour price.
Book on tours
The Wild Coast Amble is a 140km, five-day cycle tour from Morgan Bay to Hole in the Wall with a day each end for transfers. Four ambles are scheduled for 2017: 22 – 28 May, 21 – 27 June, 6 – 12 July and 18 – 24 August, with overnight stops at Mitford Hotel (mitfordhotel.co.za), Wavecrest (wavecrest.co.za), Kob Inn (kobinn.co.za), The Haven Hotel (havenhotel.co.za), Bulungula Lodge (bulungula.com) and White Clay Resort (whiteclayresort.co.za).
R14000 per rider, including all meals, accommodation, and return transfers. Alcoholic beverages and bike hire are not included. You can take your own fat bike or mountain bike, but beware of damage from sand and salt water. Full suspension is not recommended. Fatbike hire is R2500 per rider per tour. detourtrails.co.za
Alternatively, get a group together and, with Rohan’s input, design your own ride anywhere between Morgan Bay and Port Edward. Increase the overall distance or schedule rest days. Each overnight stop has a range of activities, from canoeing to spa treatments, and the beaches, birding and fishing are excellent all along the coast. There’s no upper limit to group size and kids as young as 10 have taken part. Custom tours can be done from late April to early September. Start dates are tide dependant, and due to tide patterns can be a maximum of eight days only. detourtrails.co.za
Need to know
While not an extreme activity, moderate fitness is required to ride the Wild Coast. Bring your own cycling gear and helmet and be prepared to get wet – there are up to 30 rivers to wade or swim. Rubber-soled riding shoes are essential for slippery rocks. You’ll get a water bottle and daily riding snacks: apples, sweets and peanuts (no sports drinks or energy bars). Bring a backpack with a 2L hydration bladder for extra water, plus sunscreen and a buff. Detour Trails carries basic tools and spares for its fatbikes, but recommends you bring your own as well, especially if you’re taking your own bike. Emergency medical evacuation insurance is mandatory for all riders.
Read more from this story in the January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.
Our January issue features a bucket list of 45 experiences to have at least once in South Africa, a new way to experience the Wild Coast, and a beautiful beach holiday in Sri Lanka.