The road less travelled

Ohrigstad was calling. I admit that once the seed had been planted to map out a mountain bike route from one end of the Drakensberg to the other, it had become something of an obsession.

Ideally, such a route should make use of as little tar road as possible, take in the wildest and most remote spots, but also use existing tourist infrastructure so that bikers can stop overnight at B&Bs, buy food and spares, get their bikes fixed and so on. Also, the trail should not wander too far from the ridge of mountains which defines it and should take in places of natural and historical interest.

Ohrigstad, about 50km north of Lydenburg, the starting point of this four-day sojourn, is such a place.
Established in 1845, long before Johannesburg was even a gleam in George Harrison’s eye, it was both an attempt by the boers to move away from British rule and establish a trade route through to Delogoa Bay.

Ohrigstad was founded by Andries Potgieter with 6 000 settlers after a Dutch entrepreneur, Ohrig, sent a ship to Delogoa Bay to establish trading links. The problem though, was that the area between the two was beset by tsetse fly and malaria. Today we think of this area fondly as the Kruger National Park, but in those days it brought mortal fear. The tsetse fly would take your animals, while the malaria would take you.

Malaria was also a problem in Ohrigstad, taking many lives, including the young. So Potgieter decided to move to the malaria-free Zoutpansberg. The town died. When writer TV Bulpin visited it in the 1950s no one was living there.

Today it is cheery enough, set among a group of hills. One or two of the original houses survive, but are so built over that you cannot recognise the original architecture.

We stayed at the Royal Palm, a B&B of the more-is-more design philosophy. A noticeable feature when you enter is a large hole in the foyer with a ladder sticking out of it. This will become a spiral staircase to a gym below, but owners Peta-Ann and Frans Veltman have not been able to find a vendor to fit a staircase to the size of the hole.

The route from Ohrigstad, in Limpopo, to the sea, the main drag so to speak, was via Caspersnek, named after Casper Kruger, the father of one SJP Kruger, more universally known as Oom Paul.

This road winds out of the town, near an old boer fort, through prime citrus country and disused tobacco-drying racks. The gradient is mostly gentle, the only real hazard being dust. Signs exhort you to travel slowly because dust kills trees. No such problem for mountain bikes.

Now over a ridge and then down the other side towards the Blyde river, the site of a reunification of an early boer party after some returned from Delagoa Bay. No such joy for the Pedi people though, who to this day call the river Mohlatse, meaning fish.

When we reached the Blyde/Mohlatse the more intrepid member of our party, Mike, decided to have a swim. He was making his way to the river through thick grass when something stirred at his feet. He had awoken a man sleeping there. This was a bit of a surprise as, outside of a few farms, we had barely seen a soul all day. It does make you wonder: does every swimming hole in the area have its own resident sleeper?

We followed the river to Pilgrim’s Rest. You can think of Pilgrim’s as being too cutsey, but the informal sector brings an air of reality to the place. Signs warn tourists that they should only transact with informal traders who have been sanctioned with badges. The informal is being formalised.

I like the place. I like the little cottages that serve as hotel rooms. I like the four-poster beds and decor, the pub which used to be a church and the history of larger-than-life characters who rushed to Pilgrim’s and other now ghost towns in the early 1870s.

In the morning we took a back road out of Pilgrim’s, past the working gold mine of Transvaal Gold Mining Estates, one of the country’s oldest mines dating back to the gold rush days, and then into the plantations of Grootfontein.

We headed for Mac Mac, more famous as a gold rush site in its day than Pilgrim’s, and the home to about 1 000 miners, many with names beginning with Mac, hence the name Mac Mac. Today Mac Mac is best known for its waterfalls, a hiking hut and forestry headquarters.

We made our way to Sabie through Tweefontein, stopping at times to watch the world’s most entertaining piece of machinery, the Bell logger. This beast has two large wheels at the front and a small one at the back. The driver uses a giant mechanical arm to grab a load of lumber, square it up neatly and then place it on to a waiting truck. It can lift vast loads and in my next life I want to operate one.

We knocked back burgers with cheese and eggs at Sabie and then followed the Sabie river out of town. The river is nothing special to look at in terms of size, but you have to respect it because it’s one of a handful of rivers that manage to make their way through the entire Drakensberg, from one side to the other.

The gradient is gentle out of Sabie, but turns savage as you near the Long Tom pass on the Lydenburg road. We overnighted at Misty Mountain lodge, which has attentive owners and staff, good food and comfortable accommodation.

Back to the forest
In the morning we went back into the forest, heading down into the valley. Tim James, the current record holder of the Freedom Challenge, the mad annual dash by mountain bikers across the country from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl, joined us for the day. He led us through a disused path, where spiders had set up their webs, taking care to disturb them as little as possible.

One spider in particular impressed. Normally about an inch in size with bright, multi-coloured legs, this fellow can, in a flash, transform himself into a tiny knobble on a twig, perfectly matching the twig in shape, colour and texture.

In human terms this would be the equivalent of me being able to instantly transform myself to look like the backpack I’m carrying, or, as Mike suggested, into a potato salad as a party trick.

We follow three rivers—the Kilpbankspruit, the Blystaanspruit and the Houtbosloop—to Mankele, a mountain bike park a few kilometres from the Sudwala caves.

Mankele offers camping, tented and chalet accommodation. It has two large swimming pools and an entertainment centre, which includes DSTV and a pool table. The idea is that the whole family is entertained. There is also 60km of bike track, catering for everything from the puddysticks to breakneck routes.

A large sign warns of snakes. Mark Meyer and Geoffrey Anderson, the passion behind the park, give us a primer on how to deal with snakes. The adders are fat and lazy, so just go around them. The mambas are dangerous and you need to back off. Then there is the rock python.

Earlier, at a farm stall across the road while sipping a bitterly cold ginger beer, I had spotted the skin of an African rock python. It had been run over by a truck in front of the stall. Its skin reached from the floor to ceiling and back again, about five metres in all.

I did not know pythons this big existed in South Africa. Geoffrey says the pythons are regular visitors to the nearby chicken farm that he co-manages. There are python-sized ventilation pipes which the creatures use to enter the chicken coops. But after devouring say three chickens they are too fat to get out.

Pythons have no interest in mountain bikers so this is one snake we do not have to worry about. As a country we should worry about this species, though. Signs should be erected on roads the creature frequents warning motorists to show caution because a national treasure resides in the area.

Our route was south, but we headed north from Mankele to avoid the busy N4. We took the old road to Sabie out of Mankele which has markings of wagon wheels cut into it from yesteryear.

We shot down a back road to Schagen, spending too long eating pancakes at the Crocodile Inn, and then along another back road to Alkmaar.

Now began a monster 1 200m climb to Kaapsehoop, which took most of the afternoon and a chunk of the evening to complete.

Kaapsehoop is a place to conjure with. A gold rush town from way back when, it retains much of this charm. It attracts both the respectable, who insist that the wood-and-iron architecture and specific colour options be adhered to, and fringe types, who revel in the frontier atmosphere. Wild horses roam here, but they’re friendly enough to approach you in town for a nuzzle.

Some residents actively promote the idea that ghosts help make up the numbers—witness a recent Carte Blanche programme featuring Kaapsehoop and its ghosts. One hotelier grumbled to us that the programme had led to cancellations.

Once known as the Duiwel’s Kantoor, Kaapsehoop still attracts gold miners, such as a recent prospector who set up his machinery to recover gold from the bottom of a beautiful waterfall.

I loved it and will be back in a shot. In South Africa it is the nearest I have found to Savannah in the United States, which easily seems to merge genteel respectability with a dark underbelly. In Kaapsehoop’s case this is evident in the recent robbing of six graves from the town’s enigmatic cemetery.

Two reasons were advanced to us for the six empty graves: muti and gold. But the age of the robbed graves, from the 1950s, suggests neither is likely to be correct. Muti raiders would have wanted fresher corpses; gold raiders would have wanted older ones.

But this is by the by. Our trip was complete, about 240km in all. We had cut a swathe from north to south, following tracks seldom travelled, including old wagon routes and prospector’s trails. With the exception of a few kilometres here and there, all had been off tar.

But from Kaapsehoop a dirt road points south. It shows the way the Drakensberg continues, majestically southwards. That road calls me now.

Useful links

Royal Palm Ohrigstad

Pilgrims Rest hotel

Misty Mountain

Mankele mountain biking

Kaapsehoop Guesthouse

Shuttles:
Bushveld Link: Jo’burg to Ohrigstad

Bazbus: Nelspruit to Jo’burg

Permits:
Komatiland: Carlene Lombard: [email protected]

York Timbers: Suzette Prinsloo: [email protected] or Noel Myburgh: [email protected]

Tweefontein: Santjie Madden: [email protected]

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote. Read more from Kevin Davie

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