Teigue Payne - Cycling The Battlefields of KZN
Teigue Payne - Cycling The Battlefields of KZN

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Teigue Payne - Cycling The Battlefields of KZN


Cycling is a great way to tour the Battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) - as I discovered when I joined Spekboom Tours’ inaugural tour of the historic sites of the Newcastle-Ladysmith and Spioenkop areas recently.

That region is a combination of the iconic rolling Zululand grassveld with flat-topped thorn trees (Acacia Sieberiana) and sometimes-ugly ex-mining and industrial towns.

Finding the right backwater routes for pleasurable riding has become a mission for Julia Colvin, founder of Spekboom Tours. Howick-based Julia is a pioneer of the nascent cycle touring “industry” in South Africa, having so far opened up touring routes in the Battlefields, the KZN Midlands, and the George-Prince Albert area of the Karoo.

Cycle touring in South Africa is normally done on a mountain bike because it involves navigating small district roads in order to reach relatively unvisited but often spectacular sites. South Africa has a strategic advantage for cycle touring over, for instance, European countries because it has many thousands of kilometres of quiet gravel roads â€" and excellent weather to boot; they almost invariably have tar roads and less favourable weather.

Cycle touring is not to be confused with singletrack mountain biking, although they both use the same kind of bike. Singletrack and technical mountain biking often do not appeal to mature cyclists, probably because of the high risk of injury.

Cycle touring by contrast meets the demand for active holidays but also emphasises appreciation of the countryside and its cultural/historical aspects.

Cycling touring brings the rider close enough to savour the areas visited - to virtually taste them. Maybe the endorphins from the exercise helps the rider to see beauty in almost everything, including the towns en route! Spekboom Tours’ Battlefields tour is made up about 50:50 of riding and cultural/historical/rest time.

The tour begins at Ladysmith, where we ride to the Siege Museum to learn about the bitter 118-day ensnarement of the British army by Boer forces. That night we sleep in the Mawelawela bush lodge near Elandslaagte, overlooking the white gravestones of British soldiers.

The next day we ride towards Dundee via backroads. Our picnic lunch is at Maria Ratschitz Mission, at the foot of Hlatikulu (big forest) mountain.

Another 10km on, our guesthouse that night is the historic Wasbank Farm - allegedly the only farmhouse in the area not burnt down by the British with their scorched earth policy.

The next day, Talana Museum in Dundee, one of South Africa’s finest and most extensive museums, is a compulsory stop for a few hours. But then we hit the pedals for another 42km to reach Rorke’s Drift and our guesthouse, Gecko’s View at Elandskraal, late that afternoon.

The next day we store the bikes and do a full vehicle tour of the 1879 battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. Isandlwana towers over us as our guide describes how a 20,000 strong Zulu force armed with traditional weapons beat the British Empire. But that same afternoon, drunk with victory, another arm of the Zulu army could not defeat 150 brave Englishmen at Rorke’s Drift.

Another blue-sky day dawns against the golden fields. From our guesthouse near Rorke’s Drift we ride down De Jagers Pass, surrounded by remote, flat-topped mountains. Around midday we arrive at the washed out former coalmining town of Wasbank. Then we ride down the railway service road - kilometre after kilometre of deserted two-track.

The only hindrance as we speed along is the tall grass hanging over the road which whips us. I call them bully-rushes because they stand in your way when you don’t really want to fight them.

Being a railway road, the gradients are slight, allowing the rider to build up speed. The railway goes through countryside which is today of minimal value â€" the kind of remote, economicallyirrelevant countryside that most battles of the Anglo-Boer war were fought in.

The next stop is a night in the Nambiti “big five” private nature reserve. Nambiti means pampering with fine cuisine, luxury tented accommodation and sunset and sunrise game drives. The following morning, we rejoin rural backroads to ride back towards Ladysmith. Later the bicycles are transferred by vehicle to our next night stop, the Tugela River Lodge, fronted on the river and overlooked by another towering battle mountain - Spioenkop.

We rise to ride to the top of Spioenkop, where our guide tells us stories of the conceit, setbacks and snafus which made up that futile battle.

On the last day of the tour, a cycling development workshop (optional for tour participants) is held for learners from underprivileged schools in the vicinity of Ladysmith. The workshop, which is attended with great enthusiasm by the pupils, includes instruction on basic bike maintenance and repairs, and a 20km ride-out to one of the more neglected Anglo-Boer War monuments.

One participant in a previous tour, Ingrid Macgregor, a Pietermaritzburg practice manager, wrote this about it: “It changed my perspective of history and made hungry to lean more. I am intrigued by the individual stories of soldiers and the numerous battles. As for my cycling legs, I need not have worried. The unhurried pace of the tour allowed for a relatively novice cyclist to comfortably arrive at each day’s destination, although a little worn out and thirsty for a sundowner or three.”

Up to it?

Spekboom’s cycle tours generally cover 30-70 km per day of riding â€" usually on good gravel roads, although some are corrugated. Where unavoidable, the route includes sections of tar road. Participants always have the option of climbing aboard the backup vehicle and loading bicycles on its trailer.

What’s offered?

Spekboom Tours’ 8-day 7-night cycling tours of the Battlefields costs R13,500 (excluding transport to and from the start point of the trail). All accommodation and all but a few restaurant meals, and the one-night stay in Nambiti, are included. A qualified professional Battlefields guide accompanies the tour giving insight into the historical battles of Isandlawana, Rorkes Drift and Spioenkop. Spekboom Tours also does cycle tours to other destinations in South Africa and slackpacking trail tours.

Gear Needed

A mountain bike with knobbly tyres and puncture sealant (essential in the thornveld). Tubeless tyres are preferable because they hardly ever puncture, but they are expensive. Your bike can be a basic one because roads in the area are relatively good.

However a bicycle with front and/ or rear suspension and a gel saddle makes riding more comfortable. 

Spekboom Tours, Julia Colvin
T: 076 819 0615
E: julia.colvin@spekboomtours.co.za
W: www.spekboomtours.co.za

Teigue Payne - Cycling The Battlefields of KZN

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