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Here be Heffalumps – best cycle rides in the Garden Route

Words and images: Jazz Kuschke. Article from Ride Magazine July 2015.

Planning a trip to Knysna? Here’s everything you need to know.

Ride pg 25 picThe hum of the N2 fizzles gradually. Swallowed by the forest, a kilometre or two in, I’m never quite sure exactly where the birdsong takes over. It depends on the wind direction, the time of year (for the traffic load on the N2), how many people I’m riding with, and how fast. If it’s out of season and I’m alone (as I often find myself on sneaky midweek jaunts) then I take it slow, stop often and enjoy the transition, soaking up the sounds and breathing in the herby mix of decaying leaf litter and ozone.

That moment you realise you’re enveloped by a piece of ancient indigenous forest – under the canopy of trees with names like mountain waxberry, white stinkwood, kamassi and the beautifully flowering Cape chestnut – is something special. The Garden Route’s Garden of Eden: no matter what your religious conviction, this place is close to spiritual.

Stay quiet long enough and the trademark kok-kok kok-kok of a Knysna turaco (I still prefer to call them loeries) is bound to override the other ambient chirp-chirps… and give you a start. If that doesn’t, a critter ruffling in the underbrush close by is bound to. Baboon? Maybe a shy blue duiker, or a bushbuck? Caracal… leopard? It doesn’t matter – usually I don’t stick around to find out.

With the heart rate well up, it’s time for some of the finest mountain biking in the land: another 10-odd kilometres of forest singletrack and fynbos trails down to the coast, where the dominant sound will change once again. There the whoosh of the ocean smashing against the rocks far below will serve as background music. This part surely is the highlight – gravel singletrack along the cliff edge on an untouched part of the coastline – before looping through the forest once again back towards the N2.

You’re unlikely to spend a better four hours on a mountain bike. This is the Red Route. It’s not all that Knysna has to offer, but even if it was, it would be enough reason to visit.

On the Road

Former national MTB champion Kevin Evans has lived and trained in the area his entire life. These are his staple rides (you’re welcome).

Best long ride

±170km, 2 400m, 6 hours

From home (Harkerville), through to Wilderness, turn right up Wilderness heights (helluva steep 1km climb) then left through the old passes past Saasveld and back on the N2, with a small sandwich stop at the Garden Route Mall. I love it. It’s not my absolute favourite, although there’s a lot to see: forest, sea and mountains. The roads are busier than when heading east, which is my normal direction. If I want to make this ride 7 hours-plus long, I add in the Outeniqua Pass. Beast.

Most scenic

106km from Plett, ±1 200m, 3.5-4 hours

This is my favourite loop. It’s the traditional two passes, from Plett out to Coldstream, via the old passes through Nature’s Valley and Bloukrans. It offers good climbs, great views, smooth tarmac, wide, safe shoulders and four possible ways of riding the climbs.

Best intermediate loop

68km, 400m, ±2.5 hours

This is a bread-and-butter ride for me: Plett to tollgate and back, great rolling roads. It never gets boring – and it’s safe.

Best for hill repeats

Old Keurbooms hill for five-minute threshold intervals, new (N2) Keurbooms hill for 10-minute threshold efforts. If only I had a rand for every time I had ridden those climbs.

Harkerville

Ride

Harkerville has four routes catering for all skill- and fitness level all are clearly marked and directional from their start at The Garden of Eden, where permits are obtainable.

The Red Route

Distance: 24km

Time: 3-5 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate to advanced

Many other routes are marked with red signage, but walk into any coffee-shop cycling conversation and mention ‘the Red Route’ and there’d be no qualification necessary: the understanding – and this transcends region and geography, I believe – is that you’re referring to the Red Route at Harkerville.

“The Red Route was the first proclaimed cycle trail in South Africa,” says Jacques Brink of Knysna Cycle Works. “Outeniqua Biking and Knysna Cycle Works helped develop that trail in 1992,” he explains. “It’s the holy grail of mountain biking in this country and the route hasn’t changed. It’s been upgraded -wooden bridges and cement strips have been added over the years – but the route hasn’t changed at all since then.”

That route is a challenging 24km loop of forest singletrack, forestry roads and fynbos trails. Under tyre, expect rooty sections in the forest and gum plantation, and then hardpack (muddy in the rainy season) as you enter the fynbos. These high-density fynbos pockets are as much a feature of the trail as the forest and sea cliffs.

“These ‘islands’ within the indigenous forest are unique,” explains Harkerville Section Ranger, Nico Oosthuizen. “It is montane fynbos and far from any interaction with humans, so you will encounter species of fynbos you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else in this country,” he says, outlining how these areas burn through natural fires (usually started by lightning) – and there haven’t been fires in recent years, so the fynbos is running high.

The climbs are short and steep (the toughest are back up from the coast) and certain descents are gravelly and can become washed out. This, along with the rooty nature of some of the singletrack and the distance, classes it as intermediate. Our recommendation? Leave the training mentality at home for this one, ride it with a pack and take a picnic at the cliff-top viewpoint stop. Then shoot a pic for your computer wallpaper.

Shop here
Knysna cycle works

pg 27 pic2The default LBS in town is Knysna Cycle Works. Run by Jacques Brink (no relation to editor Tim ) – something of an unofficial mayor in town – the shop has been in existence since 1986 in various guises. “It was started back in ’86 by Alan Winde [currently Western Cape Minister of Economic Opportunities],” says Jacques.

“I started working for Robbie Powell in 1992, then in ’98, I bought the shop over from Robbie,” he explains. The shop has undergone four location changes, but now, situated in Waterfront Drive near Agri, they’re not looking at moving anytime soon. Expect honest advice and hands-on service (Jacques was certified in the US as mechanic back in the late ’90s and still works on select clients’ bikes). You’ll also get all the spares you need and the latest updates on who’s claiming which KOM where, as Strava runs pretty much full time on the shop plasma. They offer bike rental and sell permits for Cape Pine forests (ask for directions to some of the more guarded local trails).

Contact 044-382-5153; or visit their website.

pg 28 pic2The Green Route

Distance: 14km

Time: 2-2.5 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate

More forest road than the Red Route, but still challenging, and it offers some classic views. The return loop is the same as for the Red Route, northwards along Kleineiland Road before edging west into Perdekop Road. Ride this one if you have a little less time on your hands, or are looking to build confidence for more challenging rides.

The Blue Route

Distance: 11km

Time: 1-1.5 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate

The Blue Route follows the same initial outward section as the Red Route and returns on the outward section of the Green Route. You’ll ride jeep track, forest road and short sections of blissful singletrack. A highlight of the route is traversing a small plantation of coastal redwood, planted in 1927.

The Yellow Route

Distance: 13km

Time: 1-1.5 hours

Difficulty: Novice

Though longer in distance than the Blue Route, the Yellow Route is the easiest, most family- friendly ride in Harkerville. It heads south-by-east on old logging- and forestry service roads and has very little climbing or descending, and no technical challenges. An awesome introduction to the forest on a fat-tyre.

Petrus Se Brand

Distance: 22.5km

Time: 2-3 hours

Difficulty: Intermediate

This A to B route starts at the Diepwalle SANParks Office (where permits can be obtained) off the R339 (the Prince Alfred Pass road to Uniondale). This is another true Knysna forest experience – in fact, for pure forest thrills, many locals rate this route on remote old logging roads a favourite.

“Oh, they’re still around,” says Nico when asked about the famed Knysna elephants. “They come down from the slopes of the Outeniqua Mountains and trackers find signs in the area around the Diepwalle office,” he says. “This section [through which the route runs] is very secluded and remote; you might get lucky.”

Aside from the ghosts of 1 000 elephants, features of the 22km route include a section of the old narrow-gauge forest railway that used to run in the area; a fairly sketchy descent; a staunch 4km climb (rewarded with spectacular views of the Outeniqua Mountains), and some fast, flowing singletrack near the end. This singletrack segment is a hotly contested Strava segment among the locals.

Riders training for Cape Pioneer Trek and the like have been known to link Petrus se Brand and the Red Route for a big leg-buster (make sure you have permits for both).

Graze where the locals do

pg 29 picLocal writer Martin Hatchuel talks us through some of the hidden spots.

Best Family-Friendly

Muse Creative Food Hub: 044-382-0804

They have a lovely vegetable garden and their harvest table (available from Monday to Friday during lunch hours) is all organic fare.

Best Pasta

Caffe Mario: 044-382-7250

An old (and very popular) favourite – don’t go without reservations. Wide range of pastas and thin-based pizzas. Always has a good vibe.

Best Seafood

O Pescador: 044-382-3476 

For a really good piece of fish and a beautiful view of the waterfront, this is your call. I really don’t think anyone does grilled hake quite like they do. Mid- to upper end of the price scale, where a main will cost you around R130.

Coffee

Shepherd’s Tree Store & Coffee Shop: 044-382-2066 

It’s one of the few co-ops where you can get really interesting art. Best carrot cake I’ve ever eaten, and the coffee isn’t bad either.

Date Night

The Paddle Cruiser

If I’d really like to impress someone, that’s where I’d go. The Paddle Cruiser is the only one of its kind in the country, and it offers an unforgettable experience… Dinner and a cruise – not cheap, but top class. Romantic. Yes, that.

Homtini Trail

Distance: 19km TIME: 1.5-2.5 hours

Time: 1.5-2.5 hours

Difficulty: Novice

The Homtini Trail starts near the Goudveld Forest Station (permits there) outside Rheenendal, some 25km from Knysna.

It’s a gentle ride on forestry roads through the indigenous forest and sections of plantation with a few shortish sections of singletrack. After crossing the Lawnwood River (there are some swimmable pools) some 5km in, there is a semi- serious 4km climb out of the forest and onto a contour that runs along a large section of mountain fynbos. The climb is rewarded with a view that requires your camera’s panoramic function to fit it all in. Way in the distance, you’ll see the Knysna Heads. From there it’s a cruise home, finishing with a fun section of singletrack on Boer- se-pad.

This is the gold country of Dalene Matthee’s Circles in a Forest (there is a memorial for her at the trail head) and, if having a post-ride picnic at Krisjan-se-Nek parking area is not your vibe, then head to Millwood Tea Garden, the only building left in what is now a ghost town in the Millwood Goldfields. There are two hiking (or trail-running) options from Krisjan-se- Nek, so if the rest of the family fancy a stroll in the forest, this is the ideal spot. It’s not uncommon to find elephant dung on the trail…

Farmers Markets

pg 31 picWild oats Community Farmer’s Market, Sedgefield

Every Saturday 7.30am-1l.30am

Started way back in 1999, this market on the banks of Swartvlei lagoon has almost bloomed into more of a tourist attraction than a functional food market. Almost. Thankfully it has stayed true to its roots and remains the default coffee stop and local bush telegraph for passing cyclists and paragliders, and the place to stock up on everything from fresh seafood to homemade cheese and farm veggies; Website.

Harkerville Market, Plettenberg Bay

Every Saturday morning

More intimate arid slightly less formal than Wild Oats, Harkerville is more of a craft market with good food and produce than a dedicated foodie test. It’s a window into the chilled world of the relaxed locals of the Knysna-Plett realm and you should Iqave pretence (and your shoes, if you want) in your car. A highlight of the market is the vegetable seedlings on offer, so you can start your own organic veggie patch.

Brunch, Lunch or Coffee

pg 31 pic2Cafe Throbb

Cafe Throbb is an open (plenty of windows and doors to let in the sea and forest air), unpretentious corner spot a block away from the bustle of Waterfront Drive. Its homely ambience is characterised by rustic tables, benches and chairs, and you won’t feel out of place in muddy riding gear. Having said that, the menu offers the kind of artisan fare you’d expect from a trendy Joburg or Cape Town hipster hangout – a variety of fresh, organic farm produce, artisan breads and pastries. Coffee? Top class. Free Wi-Fi completes the package. It’s open from 7am-4pm. We like.

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More info on the town of George More info on the Garden Route area



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