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South Africa

Your world in one place

Text: Adele Tait. Article from the October 2013 issue of Ride Magazine.

Adele Tait explores the rejuvenation of one of our favourite African adventures.

There is slickrock aplenty in Mapungubwe.

Bike4Beasts (B4B) started off as an annual mountain-bike challenge to raise funds for the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Each year, a threatened species was chosen as a mascot for the event, and since 2007, black rhino, African wild dog, cheetah, lion and saddle-billed stork have each had their turn. While some participants enjoyed racing in the reserves that hosted these events, many felt those settings deserved a different kind of attention. They wanted more relaxed riding, a chance to look at the animals and an opportunity to learn more about conservation and its challenges.

As a result, exclusive mountain-bike safaris are now presented as a joint venture between SAN Parks (the administrator of Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo), Mopane Bush Lodge (a game farm in the vicinity) and Lycaon Logistics (the original organisers of the B4B races). A portion of the riders’ fees still goes towards the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Safari with Bike benefits

At the end of July, my friend Craig Brown and I set off to experience what we believe is a new and improved B4B offering. We spent three mornings cycling and trying to earn our brunch, lunch and dinner, while the afternoons taxed our brains a bit more on walks, game drives and cultural tours. Exploring such a rich landscape in the company of passionate guides and researchers who work in conservation added something really special to the whole adventure.

Our first ride delivered little more than tracks and droppings, but an afternoon game drive with Andrew Rae fixed that problem. Nothing beats an experienced guide on home turf, and by the end of our three-day adventure the list of animals we had seen was almost an A-Z of what you might be very lucky to spot. Two experiences really stand out, and luckily they occurred on the last day as they would have been hard to match. We will cherish these moments forever.

Little feet, Big trouble

No cleats? Ellies ride flats then.Elephants can be quite uninterested in humans, but a breeding herd is a whole other story. The road was smooth, and we were cycling quite briskly when the brake lights of the Suzuki Jimny came on ahead of us. Two big cows ambled across the road, but there were more among the trees, and every now and then a branch snapped nearby. Among the huge footprints we could see some little ones, so we had to be very careful. Bunched up behind the tiny Jimny, we crept along with elephants towering over us on both sides of the road. Andrew followed in the bakkie with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on his rifle. After what felt like a very, very long time, we could breathe and pedal normally again. Cool – we all lived to tell the tale.

Here, Kitty

We were joined on this particular B4B adventure by Susan Miller, a Canadian doctoral student and predator expert with a penchant for lion. Riding with her was wonderful as she patiently shared her expertise and identified tracks, scat, noises and strange smells, while tactfully dismissing some illusions.

An accomplished crosscountry skier and a runner, and on a far less capable bike than ours, Susan would probably not disagree that she struggled a bit on the climbs and in the thick sand. We were quite happy to wait for her, and then, on the third day, it suddenly became impossible to keep up with her.

Expert guides get the riders close to the action - but never too close.We had just hit some soft sand on a 4×4-only track as we looped round the less-travelled eastern portion of Mapungubwe National Park. Among the leopard, hyena, elephant and other tracks, Susan had also pointed out evidence of the paws of a lioness walking with her two 12-month-old cubs that morning. I, for one, missed the significance of the fact that they were always heading in the opposite direction. Apparently this had now changed, and our predator expert had no trouble imagining what might happen if our paths crossed.

Staring intently at the ground, she pedalled like Jens Voigt initiating a breakaway until she was sure we were safer. A refreshment stop had been planned for later, but this effort burned right through our energy reserves, and while we enjoyed some home-made iced tea and fruitcake in the middle of a rocky outcrop with a good view, Susan explained what had just happened. While adult lions are content to snooze in the shade, cubs are rather more like kittens: they like to play. At the main gate we were later told that the mischievous cubs had chased some rangers in a bakkie, and we were quite pleased to come away with a story about some lions we had not seen.

While on the subject of what we would rather not see, Wendy Collinson, who convened our tour and drove the lead vehicle on our rides in Mapungubwe, is studying roadkill to determine the impact of roads and traffic on sensitive animals. After spending a bit of time with her, we still can’t help craning our necks every time we see an unusual speck on the road, even if we get some odd looks from the people around us.

Bring your bike, bring your friends

Preparations were underwasy fo the following weeks Nedbank Tour de TuliThe cycle routes on this tour are all less then 40km long, and mainly on dirt roads and jeep tracks. In Mapungubwe National Park, many of the steep gradients are covered in concrete, but none of them are huge. Even on the flat roads you need to be prepared for some loose sand and gravel, but the views are spectacular and the stretches of moon rock were huge fun to ride.

Mopane Bush Lodge has a four-star rating, and we stayed in thatch cottages carefully positioned out of sight of each other. Even as the staff slaved over our delicious meals and looked after the other guests, we could hear the hooves of the antelope brushing the mopane stick fence of our little boma on their way to the pond nearby. Our favourite indoor spot was the lounge next to the bookcase, where we spent time learning more about the local plants and animals and arguing about what we thought we had seen. Outdoor downtime was passed beside the pool and the pond, where we were visited by warthogs and serenaded by birds both common and rare.

Baobab trees offer little shade, but make the riding here special. Our most enjoyable dinner-and-drinks sessions were spent in the lodge boma with our guides and companions. Mopane hardwood makes an excellent fire, and it was a pleasure to be able to see the beautiful southern night sky so clearly above us. The climate in the Limpopo Valley is semi-arid, and while the summer temperatures can be uncomfortably hot, the winters are mild. The best time to book a B4B experience is probably between May and August. The cost is around R6895 a person for three days and is well worth the money.

If you are accustomed to longer, more demanding rides with tented accommodation, shared ablutions and utilitarian meals, the current B4B feels rather cushy, but you can race and go hard on your bike every day. This is an experience you won’t soon forget.

Guided and pampered to within an inch of your life, you learn from the experts, spend time with people who can’t always keep up, and contribute to a good cause.

Start looking – we all have a ‘chill’ button somewhere.

Ancient thrills

There is much more to Mapungubwe than spotting animalsScience, history, art and culture are all taken into account in the award of UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Set on the confluence where the Limpopo and Shashe rivers separate South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo ticks all the boxes.

Approaching Mapungubwe, the terrain is almost completely flat and covered in slightly monotonous mopane veld, but closer to the Limpopo everything changes. Dramatic rock formations jut up into the sky with fig trees clinging to their edges, and big domes of sandstone dot a landscape that supports a wide variety of plants, including huge baobab trees and dense forests on the edges of the river.

This varied landscape is home to a wide range of animals and is rich in minerals.

Archaeological evidence suggests the river floodplains in the area once supported not just the Stone Age San hunter-gatherers who created mysterious rock engravings and paintings, but also the largest kingdom on the African subcontinent. Mapungubwe’s Iron Age society appears to have evolved complex political and social structures over a period of 400 years, and the fact that it was all rapidly abandoned in the 14th century as climate change forced the population to disperse is a sobering thought.

More information is available on mapungubwe and sanparks.

More info on the quaint town of Musina More info on the Soutpansberg area

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