Northern Drakensberg – a network of available trails
22 June 2016
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Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, I’m Gerald de Kock. We’re talking all things mountain biking and we’re taking a trip to an area in South Africa that as far as mountain biking goes and events goes, is relatively unexplored. There’s incredible potential for great events and trails there.
Trails are being built and ridden but as yet the Drakensberg is perhaps one of the lesser ridden areas in the country. That’s why we’re going to be talking to Chris Mecklenborg. From Drakensberg Trails, from All Out Adventures and from Ride the Berg, which is a two-day event in June. Chris, thanks for joining us, I think let’s start with the event, Ride the Berg, where did that originate?
Chris Mecklenborg: The idea of it was about sharing all of the greatest pieces of our single track. There’s over 150km of purpose built single track that’s up, of all places, right in the mountain. There’s benches and ravines and grottos and edges, lots of edges. We’ve always wanted to have the best of the best, a weekend away of just great riding in the shadow of the amphitheatre. To make it achievable we put together, the climbs are easier gradients. So you’re looking at 1000m each day and about 55km on day one and 45km on day two. It can be broken up into the Tugela River Tour.
Day one takes you on a beautiful stretch of new track, halfway down to the Woodstock dam. Then back into the main Northern Drakensberg via a new trail called the Berg Traverse. Through the Berg house cottages and areas, down into Montusi.
Day two can be characterised as the original tracks that take you around the Montusi gorge, the new Alpine Traverse and up into the, past the Cavern Berg Resort on the Grotto Trail. Lots of people know that. Finally down past Orion Mont-aux-Sources where there’s a new section of track that goes right into the cliff face of the Tugela River, and back to All Out Adventures where the race started.
The Northern Berg is a great riding location
GDK: That’s the base and you’ve already mentioned the Alpine Heath, the Cavern and the Mont Aux Sources, so there’s lots of accommodation for riders around there.
CM: Yeah, one of the great features and unique points of Ride the Berg is that you can accommodate yourself from all levels. From camping all the way up to very comfortable four star. You have a nice, it’s in the winter and people might think; wait a second, but you’re going to have a warm hotel room. A very leisurely start at 9:00, small batches. A very relaxed race village at All Out Adventures, which is not more than 10km from all of the accommodations that people are going to use. In most cases you can actually ride the single track to the race start, get yourself a cup of coffee and line-up.
GDK: Just give us a geographic position, where, if we come from Jo’burg or Durban.
CM: Sure, an easy four-hour drive from Jo’burg, getting off at Harrismith and you’ll be, with the pleasure of having the R74 resurfaced, it makes it much easier to come in. From Durban, three-hours, getting off at the Winterton, Bergville. Coming through on the R74 that way, very easy driving both ways.
GDK: Great weekend away. Let’s get back to the trails there. I take it that a lot of these, most of them are purpose built and hand built?
The history of the areas trails
CM: The trails, it’s really what the event is about. The event is the expression of well on, closing on ten years of building the tracks. It all started with a few mountain bike rides, we brought some mountain bikes back from the States when we moved.
We started exploring around 2002/03 and really started riding a lot around 2005. The exploration of the Berg has been such a joy of mine. Just being outside, crossing the streams, seeing what’s possible. It’s really creating a clearing to connect with communities, connect with the land owners.
From that vision, the land owners have been more than generous. The farmers have opened up their gates, the resorts see happy guests coming in with their bikes. So there’s been lots of support and that’s encouraged us to think a bit bigger. The trails, now there’s 150km of track, it’s all single track.
GDK: That’s a phenomenal amount of single track –
CM: To organise it all, we just recently colour coded and marked. So there’s seven distinct tracks from 15-35km in length. You can mix and match them as you want and the accommodation is right on the trails. The trails, you can call All Out Adventures the centre of the trails, it’s the trail head.
But each of the resorts have their own trail here where you can hop on and many of the resorts sell passes that you can get on. But the Ride the Berg, it’s a race. Why a race? A race, it’s the vibe, South African’s love the event, atmosphere. I love the event’s atmosphere. I love putting on a big party and having all my mates come and the ride, you know. It’ll be timed, but it’s not all about the time. There’ll be prizes, but it’s not about that.
There’s races within the race and it’s nice to have a challenge. It’s challenging terrain. Interestingly enough about the prizes, we’re actually going to take what we would have put into the normal prize money and we’re actually putting that back into the community. We’ve increased our trails team to 20, just for the race. 20 local community guys are now working because we’ve actually identified, it’s much more interesting to work with them and make trails than it is for a five-minute podium prize giving.
Communities helping to make for gate free transport
GDK: This is a whole new take on events because the event is as a result of the trails that have been built. The community involvement there and the people who get involved. A lot of people put an event on and then look for trails. You’ve gone about it the other way around, which perhaps is a more sustainable way to do it?
CM: That’s a really interesting point. Connecting the communities through awesome trails and personally, it’s become such a, the main inspiration. I’ve learnt so much about myself, having to work with the communities, to work with the land owners. I find that the exploration of those relationships and connections; as interesting as the construction of the most incredible bench cut into the side, like Alpine Traverse or the Berg Traverse or the Grotto Trail.
GDK: Now, someone can come to any of those resorts, purchase a pass or a ticket and ride the trails. Would gates have to be opened or are the land owners, have you found passage through those lands?
CM: It’s a really great question. One of the features of the Drakensberg Trails network is a gate-free experience. How does that happen? There’s 13 land owners, there’s cattle farms, there’s pecan nut farms, there’s resorts. Now there’s going to be game on the Green Fire Estate, they’re putting in all manner of game, so game fences are going up. We have permission to put in ramps, so you have a gate free experience, so all of those gates are ramped.
GDK: Style going over them.
CM: It’s a style going over in varying degrees. It keeps the cattle where they want to be and it also allows the riders to pass freely.
GDK: Chris, this sounds amazing and an amazing place to go and ride, but now I need to drill down into you and as we’re listening to you, you’re clearly not from the Drakensberg. Where do you come from and what brought you here?
CM: Originally, I grew up in, I was born in the Midwest; Independence, Missouri. We moved soon to Binghamton, New York, which is a town the size of Maritzburg, on the East Coast. Lots of, 80 ski resorts, of all possibility in the State of New York, you would think associated. So, we grew up skiing and cycling.
GDK: And the mountain biking side?
CM: Yeah, the mountain biking side, there’s my father who had three bicycle shops. He was a physicist working for a flight stimulation company, but a bit of a mad scientist. So during the early 70’s he started this bicycle shop. The mountain biking part was from him, yeah, really travelling.
GDK: Did you do a lot of riding in the States before you came out here?
CM: Yeah, we did a lot of riding, especially when we were younger. We did some triathlons and mountain biking and got into touring. I’d done long tours up and down the East Coast of the US and across Canada. That was as far as New Finland and Labrador. So that was self-contained, so just seeing how far you can go and where did the road go. In fact, that tour of the road ran out.
How you can tour the Drankensberg
GDK: South Africa, I mean it has this very vibrant race communities, as you’ve touched on earlier. But are we moving towards slowly but surely a more touring style type of riders. As I suppose we as young, new mountain bikers mature?
CM: As Drakensberg Trails we have an itinerary where you can come away and spend three days. There’s a skills clinic included and just 2.5 days of just great riding. We’ll book you in and make sure that everything is comfortable. The guides will ride at your appropriate level. I think that’s taking off, but there’s room for both.
GDK: Where do we find out more about, not just Ride the Berg, but about the trails in the Drakensberg Trails?
CM: Best to go to All Out Adventures, at this point all the mountain biking and trail information is on there. The Drakensberg Trail’s site is under construction and for the race of Ride the Berg, it has its own site, ridetheberg.co.za. If you’re a runner and you’re looking to experience these awesome trails and run in the shadow of the Amphitheatre, then Run the Berg is your event coming up 1st and 2nd October.
GDK: Chris, thanks very much for chatting to us. Chris Mecklenborg from Drakensberg Trails and from All Out Adventures down in the Northern Drakensberg, so as you come off Oliviershoek Pass. You come down the bottom, you turn right at the first opportunity you get and you head into the Berg there. You’ll have all the different resorts there, but All Out Adventures is in that area. It’s a beautiful place to ride your bike.
If you haven’t yet, make your way down there, if you’re not going to do Ride the Berg, you’re going to miss out. But then you can still go back there for a weekend and enjoy the trails any time you like, as you heard Chris say. Thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, until next time, cheers.