“You’re going to cycle for five days through wild game reserves?” exclaimed my friends when I told them of the bush adventure that I’d just discovered. “Are you crazy? What about the elephants? And the lions? You’ve clearly got a death wish.”
But I could think of nothing more exciting than getting up close and personal with the big herds of elephant, buck and other game of the southern African bush. As for seeing lion … we’d be lucky.
I’d signed up for the annual mountain-bike tour that supports the Children in the Wilderness programme. Our route would take us from northern Tuli Game Reserve in Botswana, through the World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe, finishing up in the Pafuri concession of the Kruger National Park.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – where else in the world can you ride for five days through wilderness, knowing that at any moment you might encounter one of the big five? This was to be a real immersion in Africa yet, outside South Africa, the tour seemed to be a well-kept secret. I suspected a conspiracy – the locals didn’t want foreigners snapping up the limited places!
Previous tours had been held in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, through western Mozambique and the Pafuri concession of northern Kruger, but this route from the Tuli block approached Pafuri from the west, so was entirely new ground even for tour veterans.
Most riders took advantage of the transfers laid on from Johannesburg, hopping on their bikes at the reserve gate to stretch their legs on the final few kilometres to camp. We spent our first night under canvas next to the airstrip and were treated to the impressive sight of a classic aircraft, a shiny DC-3, swooping in to collect some of the reserve’s guests. Our kit bags, numbers and detailed race manifest were waiting on arrival and, once we’d labelled and parked our bikes, we were guided to our tents, all neatly numbered into respective groups.
Then it was time for the pre-race briefing. We were out to have fun, but there were ground rules designed to ensure our safety. I’ll admit to being a bit nervous as we rode to camp, but now my fears about riding through elephant country the next day were allayed.
Each group of 15 or so riders would stick together as a tight unit behind an experienced, rifle-toting front guide. The back guide was also trained in the ways of the bush and was in constant radio contact with the front guide, the other groups and HQ. They carried satellite phones just in case there was no radio contact. I slept well that night. This was one well-organised operation.
The importance of the tight drill was soon evident. After a long, 70-kilometre day in the saddle we were less than five kilometres from the South African border and our camp. The thought of a cold beer was putting new life into my weary legs. Suddenly our lead guide stopped in his tracks.
“Over there,” he whispered. Just about to cross the track we were following was a big breeding herd of elephant – females with tiny calves that looked as if they were going to be stomped upon any minute. It was not a happy group. They’d clearly sensed our presence, and were becoming increasingly anxious.
“There’s another group in the trees to our right,” whispered the guide. “We’ll back off.” Suddenly loud trumpeting and the crashing of branches broke the silence of the bush and we mounted our bikes and fled back to the nearest group of big trees. So close, and yet so far: the herd was between us and camp, so we retraced our route until we found a safe place to cross the sandy riverbed.
Some of the guides from an earlier group were sitting out in a hide on the South African bank as we took off our shoes and carried our bikes across the narrow channel of the Limpopo.
“Was that you the elephant were revving?” they laughed. “We heard all the commotion then saw a load of riders retreating at speed.” I’d been praying for some intimate bush encounters, but that was a trifle too exciting for my liking.
That was our third encounter with elephant that day. We’d also been treated to sightings of giraffe, impala, scuttling warthog and a ridiculously raucous display of snorting and histrionics from the clowns of the bush, a big herd of galloping wildebeest, as we followed the game trails through the mopane forest.
It’s classic mountain-bike country, with wide open spaces and a seemingly endless network of single track - the work of elephant matriarchs carving out paths for their young to follow down to the water sources.
The paths weaved through dense sections of bush, forcing us to bunny-hop over fallen branches and dodge thorn trees. There were a few technical sections – the odd rocky downhill, stretch of sand or loose gravel climb, but on the whole it was easy flowing riding past towering baobabs and over dry, stony riverbeds.
This part of southern Africa is not only famous for its elephant, but is rich in history and home to important paleontological remains such as the dinosaur footprints of Vhembe in South Africa and the dinosaur skeletons of Sentinel in Zimbabwe. Our second night was spent at Mapungubwe – a place as seeped in history as it is prolific in game.
The camp was in an incredible spot high up on an escarpment, and the dramatic rock formations of the park glowed in the late sun as we walked to the viewpoint where a bar had been set up.
We toasted surviving the first day and our unscheduled detour from the route. It was an atmospheric place. Below us was the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers and the point where Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa meet. Now that the day visitors had left we had the park to ourselves, and I began to appreciate the privilege of being part of the tour.
Although you ride hard by day, Tour de Kruger is a charity ride to raise funds for Children in the Wilderness, not a race. Groups are arranged according to rider ability and fitness with the speed freaks and the odd professional cyclist breaking the trail and social riders like myself bring up the rear. The emphasis is on enjoying the bush, game sightings and the bush cuisine – a legendary feature of the tour.
You can easily gain weight over the five days despite cycling around 75 kilometres a day in the hot sun. After the first 25 to 35 kilometres of each day there’s a morning tea stop where encouraging Wilderness Safaris staff hand out copious quantities of fruitcake, muffins, hot-cross buns, biltong and sweets, as well as wetwipes, sunscreen, lube and tender loving care.
Lunch is a proper cooked meal, and then there’s another tea stop before you reach camp, where, if you’re still hungry, another cooked lunch awaits. And the spoiling continues once you’ve finished for the day, with abundant quantities of energy drinks, massage and bike repair services, hot showers, a bar and a slap-up dinner.
Day two took us through the impressive koppies of Mapungubwe National Park. The archaeological site of Mapungubwe was discovered in 1932, unearthing a long history of human habitation in the region including the earliest recorded archaeological gold in southern Africa.
Among the human remains were golden ornaments, gold beads and wire jewellery. The most famous find was that of a single-horned golden rhinoceros. All southern African rhinos have two horns, so this find has intrigued archaeologists - some of whom suggest that it’s a representation of a rhino from Asia, where one-horned species exist. As you ride through the park you can’t help being somewhat overawed by this incredible place.
For the second half of the day we cruised the sandy tracks of a privately owned section of the park, the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, a De Beers property which is well stocked with big game and an integral component of the World Heritage Site.
Our camp that night was on the Limpopo River, a truly glorious setting right on the sandy cliff. We sat listening to the soothing sound of running water as we sipped our sundowners then ate out under the stars. The handful of foreign riders couldn’t believe the beauty of the African bush – the tour had exceeded all their expectations.
The next day started with a rollercoaster ride along the river cliff - some of the most demanding riding of the event with steep down- and uphills. The rising sun created a dappled effect in the trees and we flew along, happy, if a trifle saddle-sore. That afternoon we rode into Kruger National Park, through a back gate and into an area that visitors to the park do not see.
We were now in serious big five country. The briefing had been fierce – stick together at all costs and keep moving. The final day through the Pafuri Concession was magnificent. We left our bikes at the tea-stop and climbed up to Lanner Gorge for a view out over the gorge cut in the Luvuvu River. The sight of the great chasm was worth every ounce of energy expended on the 6.4-kilometre sandy trail.
We rode through great forests of glowing fever trees, enjoyed the antics of baboons and saw kudu, impala, warthog as well as some great sightings of tuskers in Elephant Alley.
Our final detour was to Crooks Corner – the point where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. We watched a breeding herd of elephant come down to the water to drink then, once they’d left, scrambled down onto the sand bank for a team photo keeping a wary eye open for crocs.
Early in the afternoon we arrived at Pafuri Camp where, in the usual slick manner to which we’d been accustomed, our bikes were taken off to be loaded onto the appropriate transfer vehicles – back to the start in Tuli, the Wilderness offices in Joburg or, for those with flights the following evening, onto the coaches that were taking us back the next day.
Clean and refreshed, we lounged around the camp watching buck graze next to the raised platforms of the tented rooms and elephant drinking in the river. The event ended with a slide show and presentation and we relived the thrills and spills.
It had been a magnificent ride that had brought together people from all walks of life, united in their wish to intimately experience the African bush, to rise to the challenge of the ride and to support Children in the Wilderness. It was hard to leave – after five days together the members of each cycling group and the support staff had become a close-knit family.
So was I mad to sign up? Well, it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park, but anyone who’s reasonably fit and with a bit of mountain-biking experience would enjoy the ride. The distances are manageable for recreational bikers, and the presence of guides and technicians means that you can seek assistance in the event of bike problems, or hop in a back-up vehicle if you’ve had enough for the day.
The organisers go out of their way to make your life as easy and as much fun as possible. But for all that it’s a challenging ride, largely along fairly straightforward single track or dirt road with a few more tricky sections to amuse the downhill addicts - most of which I walked, and felt no shame.
What makes the ride really special is the opportunity to journey through bits of the reserves that most visitors never see. You can help but feel privileged that these areas have been opened up for the tour to come through. Makes me want to get on my bike again.