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A Long Ride to Coffee

Text: Steve Shapiro. Article from the August 2013 issue of Ride Magazine.

Five days of Wild riding left Steve Shapiro lusting for more.
The rewards of mountain biking underpin so much of what I value. For blissful fulfilment, though, nothing can approach my most recent adventure: a five-day tour up the Wild Coast.

A view back to the ocean after having to climb inland to avoid the Kuamanzimnyanma River Gorge and impassable cliffs which drop directly into the ocean.

A joint venture by Day Trippers and Detour Trails, this expedition was a balanced mix of beauty, hard riding, simple and luxurious accommodation and food, as well as the quality social interaction that emanates in this environment. Given the vagaries of time and tide, this experience may manifest only a few times a year and I would urge any passionate mountain biker who sees a bigger picture than the tired obsession with ‘racing’ to connect with the organisers. Immediately.

Schematic of the southern Wild Coast showing landmarks of major rivers and hotels en route.We traversed the beaches and hills, from Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay. We swam and waded through rivers when ferries and canoes were not available, clambered up rock faces, pedalled the irregular tracks of cattle and fishermen and grunted through quagmires and overgrown forests. Stopping to catch our breath, we gazed on river mouths in the shadow of tropically forested dunes, which reached for the shell-strewn rocky shores, inhabited by eternally unsuccessful anglers and cud-chewing Nguni cattle.

Distance? That’s another mountain-bike obsession: if one needed to measure the ride outside of the poetic parameters, it would have to be in hours – of which there were always enough and never too many. Our pleasure seemed in sync with the joyful play of porpoises that trailed us all along the coast. These were attended by diving birds and even fish eagles, as rumours of an early sardine run drifted out of the old-world resorts that were the end goal of each day’s foray.

It was tough at times, but we were cosseted by the partnership: Steve and Di Thomas (Day Trippers in Cape Town) are among the nicest people in mountain biking, assisted by one of their sons (the gentle Ricky) and Steve’s brother Denis. Their unflinching smiles and optimistic predispositions goaded us through occasionally intimidating challenges.

From the KZN side came the ever-cheerful, can-do Detour Trails founder, Rohan Surridge, who grew up in this strip of consummate paradise, speaks Xhosa and rides with peerless aplomb. He knows his way around the technical mysteries of sodden and sandy bicycles. And then there is Detour’s hostess, Sarah Sawers. With a deceptive reticence she rides like an angel, provides food like a Jewish mother and applies herself to the logistical challenges of accommodation as if born to it. She also has a mischievous streak, and if any of the men on this ride failed to lose their hearts, they didn’t have hearts to begin with.

Riders approach the Mpako River, which flows straight through the famous Hole in the Wall (right). The total landform is known as Camel Rock, as it resembles a recumbent camel.

I am mystified by the convoluted pathology of the human psyche with reference to the poor and the affluent cultures of our often dysfunctional society. Why people who grow up in this pristine milieu, with its rich soil and ample water, have to migrate to the squalor of informal settlements. Why the well-to-do eschew that same, home-grown environment (with the addition of homely but luxurious hotels and gourmet cuisine) and jet off to some Indian Ocean island, to suck alcohol-infused pineapple marrow from a hollowed-out coconut festooned with tiny paper parasols. You tell me. This was to be part of my nightly repertoire of reflection, listening to the sea beating on the beach, eroding it and simultaneously creating it…

Love on the Rocks

Short portage up and over a cliff at the end of Ntlonyane Beach.In order to catch the low tide, this kind of riding starts early, and we were soon engaging with beaches, forests and the squelchy, bumpy, lush green hills. At each river mouth I was frustrated, as an inveterate collector, by the mounds of bleached driftwood. My modest daypack, alas, was not in accord with my avarice.

It was on the first stage that we started our challenging interaction with the fat rivers that plot the route. Gaspingly scenic, the urgency of crossing them was a punctuation mark during each day’s otherwise flowing narrative.

The first major crossing (not just wading) was the Kei River itself – stylishly accomplished by means of a frugal but efficient motorised pont. Other crossings had us wading through neck-deep, often contrary, currents and tides, bikes held high – or, in my case and in the Xhosa tradition, perched atop my long-suffering helmet. Another handicap was my inadequacy, in portage generally, but also in shimmying up slippery rock faces in particular. Everyone else seemed far less troubled.

One wild ride.

Rohan’s story about the Jacaranda shipwreck, its mysterious passenger and the captain’s reluctance to ‘share’ this person with the crew demonstrated our tour leader’s skill as a raconteur. He was the ideal point man by dint of his local knowledge and generosity of spirit, but co-leader Di, having already done a recce ride with Steve, provided the encouragement we sometimes needed.

The Wavecrest Beach Hotel and Spa is a beacon of civilisation in which you wake up to a world that, if not perfect, is the better world you’ve dreamt of. Riding on the beach and on cattle tracks in the hills regularly evoked that standard cliche “This is the best day of mountain biking I’ve ever had!” Rustic anglers’ cottages were dotted about, set just back from the beach, and an occasional hotel would pop up. In one of these, we had tea and decadent cake, hot from the oven.

Down the Creek

Riders board the pont at Kei Mouth, the first river crossing of many. You need to judge the tides just right - high enough to float on but low enough to ride.Many of the rivers were wider and deeper than usual as a result of recent, very heavy rains and we were on our way to the Quora River mouth where, for this certifiable non-swimmer, an interesting and memorable experience awaited. When patience would have been more appropriate (there was one rowing-boat ferry), I reacted to the irrational promptings of vanity and followed the real swimmers, casting myself into the tawny brine. It was a bit of a fright when I got caught up in the tussle between the sea and the river, could make no progress against the currents and began to ingest mouthfuls of salty water. Panic? Not quite, but close.

Perhaps I have acquired some common sense along my road of folly. The waves were breaking on the opposite riverbank but I remembered to go with the flow, making landfall minutes later after garnering an acceptable number of abrasions. Gloriously safe.

Of course I should have waited for the dinghy, which was performing a heroic service with the bikes and sensible people. But Kob Inn was just round the corner and this foolish survivor was able to soak in a bathtub and reflect, with deluded self-satisfaction, upon the miraculous manifestation of (what was by now) intuitive wisdom. This was interrupted by an oyster binge round the corner from the hotel at the cottage of Ernie and Irma Smith. As a boy growing up here, Rohan had spent much of his time with them and the continuing bond was poignantly evident. We went back to the hotel for more of the same plus a superb meal.

Whatever floats your Boat

Steve Thomas contemplates an amazing natural trail sculpted through the ages by millions of cow hooves. It runs up to and through the Mpame Forest.The third day was the Big Mother. We were going to be out there for more than six hours and the hard-packed beach before the first river crossing instilled a false sense of confidence. The river had to be swum – with bikes! Bikes float. So do riders, especially with the added buoyancy of inflated hydration packs. In spite of my unseaworthy disposition, I relished the prospect of heroic achievement in a challenge patently less threatening than its predecessor. Having missed the tide, we marched on with the day, on a beach now bereft of all charitable inclinations.

It was a slog that sometimes approached the tipping point of unpleasant. Even the usually more generous rolling hills seemed marshier than before and there were dense stretches of forest and almost impenetrable reed grasses – the Rhino Valley in Dwesa Nature Reserve is etched…

A sumptuous picnic procured by that iconic model of pulchritude and perfection, our Sarah, quickly restored good humour, as did our arrival at the Mbashe River crossing when we saw a fleet of canoes coming out to transport us to our next comfort zone – The Haven Hotel. The young man who paddled me across regaled me with stories of large sharks he regularly saw here – something most of us had already considered and repressed when we signed the indemnity forms.

Sunday, Muddy, Sunday

The fourth day took us into a classical indigenous forest: a climb and very fast descent marred by Yours Fooly gashing a beach-soft tyre because he failed to inflate it before his display of vulgar bravado.

Our pleasure seemed in sync with the joyful play of porpoises that trailed us all along the coast

It necessitated a repair of such proportions that to call it a gator would have been a disingenuous dismissal of the artists responsible for its creation. This was a crocodile: three R100 notes, half a Clicks reading-glasses case, the best part of a roll of duct tape and a sturdy cable tie. I would still be using it now if I hadn’t thought it pertinent to return the cash. It was Sunday and the beaches were crowded with the usual ineffectual fishermen and their women, who were manually hoovering the tidal pools of oysters and mussels, while children and their dogs teemed among happy cattle.

The team break for Cokes and Lucky Star sarmies at a spaza shop in Mpame Village.

One more aquatic adventure and some tricky rock climbing awaited, before we reached Bulungula Backpackers with its very different experience. This is a sort of ethnic bush camp with long-drop loos and paraffin- powered rocket showers. The food was samp-and-bean-based umngqusho, and quite delicious. Its juxtaposition with the before-and-after luxurious billets was essential to balancing the wholeness of the trip and that night, around the boma fire, I became truly aware of the social cohesion, among wildly disparate personalities, which this trip had fostered. We were family!

The last day, with far less beach activity, took us into the hills past the gaudily painted rondavels and spaza shops: a sparsely peopled environment, and pleasantly chaotic. The district roads of the Wild Coast are made for mountain biking – even if for nothing else. Our symbolic goal was that geological monument, Hole in the Wall, and when we dropped down to it via a steep grassy embankment, after a moment of speechless wonder, a number of members of our happy band admitted to a wet-eyed emotional surfeit. I was one.

By way of denouement, the alfresco repast at this iconic landmark was followed by a massive climb past schools and tiny settlements (we measured 1 700m) which I relished, and then a curvaceous drop down to the Ocean View Hotel at Coffee Bay for luxury again – and celebratory wickedness. Trust me, this is The One.

A Ride on the Wild Side

The Wild Coast is Rohan’s spiritual home and he has been sharing it for several years. Here are the dates (with travel allowed on either side) of upcoming rides:

  • 3-7 September 2013: Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay
  • 26-30 May 2014: Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay (Day Trippers/Detour Trails joint ride)
  • 7-14 June 2014: Wild Coast Expedition, Port Edward to Kei (for the fit)
  • 8-12 August 2014: Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay
  • 7-11 September 2014 Morgan Bay to Coffee Bay.
More info on the town of Wild Coast More info on the Eastern Cape area

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