Berg & Bush Descent: One for the Bucket List
On paper I’ll admit the logistics are daunting for Capetonians. A flight, a 3 plus hour shuttle to the start venue, accommodation for the night before, bike transport, as well as remembering to pack, shoes, helmet, spares, and the correct kit, as well as warm enough gear. Enough to make your head spin.
Naturally, for me (and apparently Tarryn Povey too) this means leaving packing to last minute, almost missing the flight, and bringing a bag large enough to fit a body in it (I can confirm I fit inside). With these boxes checked we slid out of OR Tambo, and into the shuttle clutching armfuls of snacks and woefully underdressed for the icy wind and intermittent hail bombarding the countryside around the start venue at Windmill farm. We gave the warm-up ride a hard pass.
Mercifully we were in a chalet for the night, and there is nothing red wine and large amounts of carbohydrate can’t fix. That, and an incredible duffel bag, serving as our race pack courtesy of Dirt Road. New gear stoke is real.
The raging gale died down at precisely 5:35AM, and we awoke to a perfect, clear, still morning, with the snow-capped peaks of the Drakensberg looking benign in the distance. Apparently the 80km route would be “all downhill”.
This first stage was unquestionably for me a bucket list ride. I could not stop pointing, and saying “look where we are”. The route took us along the escarpment, with the most indescribably beautiful views of the rolling green hills of Kwa-Zulu Natal below. The trails offered the perfect blend of tech and flow, and were constantly entertaining, so the kilometres ticked over all-too quickly, even with the thin air holding our lungs hostage.
If one image tells the story of the first day of riding, this is it. Photo credit: Tobias Ginsberg
I would like to do justice to the water points, but the truth is that Tarryn had me on the rivet, and we rode through them, stopping only to fill up at the second one, where the enthusiasm and hospitality of the children and adults alike was heart-warming. My chain was lubed about five times in the period it took me to fill a bottle and grab a fistful of Bar One. Reports from the field were that the water points were very hard to leave, and that the pancakes were particularly delectable.
The finishing kilometres saw us following a flat forest trail along the banks of the Tugela River, another bucket-list experience for us Capetonians, and farm fresh chocolate milk was waiting for us at the finish-line.
The most striking thing about the event, was the hospitality shown by all involved. Somebody helped me carry my horribly over-sized bag to the furthest possible tent in the field. The showers and toilets were always clean, tidy, and well lit, and every small detail was taken care of: from charging stations to hairdryers.
Tranquil views from Windmill Farm before the start of the first stage.
Something I appreciated was the care the organisers have taken to “greenify” the event. Tea, coffee, water, and chocolate milk were all served in enamel mugs, and drinks from the bar in recycled plastic cups made from mielies.
Most importantly the food was plentiful, and absolutely delicious. I’d need a full separate culinary review to do it justice, so suffice to say it was varied, tasty, wholesome, served by the friendliest people, and therefore everything we needed after a perfect day on the trails!
The second day saw us tackle another sublime route incorporating winding bushveld cattle trails which had us conclude that the cows that made them must have been slightly drunk and meandering. The major climb of the day was followed by a fantastic rollercoaster descent, aptly named the Puffadder, which topped up our stoke levels sufficiently for the flat drag back to the finish.
The highlight of Saturday for me was the race up Spioenkop. This event is separate to the main event, and the idea is that it allows the pros and the crazy to dice it out for prize money on a 1.4km hill climb with 135 metres of vertical ascent, while providing a great deal of entertainment for the sane spectators. The race is followed by a talk on the history of Spioenkop, which was the site of a critical battle between the Boers and the British during the Boer War.
Tarryn and I had our arms twisted into entering the hill climb, and I am so glad we did. It was a once-in a lifetime experience being cheered on by so many people, although I paid dearly for the effort the next day. It was very special watching the sun set afterwards, sipping on bubbles and listening to the story of the area being told.
Specatators were treated to an epic afternoon of racing, a history talk, and a spectacular sunset. Tobias Ginsberg
On Sunday we woke to bone-chilling cold and heavy mist, which bit as soon as we left the cocoon of our tents. We layered up as best we could and curled up in the warmth of the 24 hour tea, coffee and crunchie tent to shiver, and wait for the start, which was delayed by half an hour until the mist cleared a bit.
As soon as we got rolling we warmed up, and a beautiful switchback climb eased us into the day. I was paying the price for minimal preparation, two solid days of riding and the hill climb the day before, so I crawled along feeling very sorry for myself while Tarryn waited patiently.
We traversed more spectacular bushveld terrain including a dry river gulley that made me feel like a Star Wars pilot (particularly the part where I lost focus, and bounced off the narrrow walls).
Marc Pritzen took home the honours for the men in the Spioenkop Hill climb. Photo credit: Tobias Ginsberg
Rouxda Grobler claimed the crown for the ladies. Photo credit: Tobias Ginsberg
Finally, it was time for our second crack at the Spioenkop climb, this time a little slower, but at least we knew what to expect. The last 14 kilometres saw us winding back down towards the Tugela River and our home of the last two nights at Emseni camp, where chocolate milk, a hot shower, and our last delectable lunch were waiting. I could easily have stayed another three days, despite the cold, and the quickly-evolving chaos in my tent.
Looking back, I can say it was one of the best event experiences I have had. It ticked all the boxes from an organization point of view, and rekindled my love of riding bikes in new places, reminding me why this sport means so much to me.
Without doubt one for the bucket list.
Learn more about the event here.