Black Mountain Magic Tour

Words: Fiona McIntosh | Photos: Shaen Adey

Mountain Biking

South Africa, with its many amazing mountain biking routes, is perfect for touring, and one such gem is the Black Mountain Magic Tour.

Black Mountain Magic Tour

This seven-day, six-night mountain biking tour starts on the Garden Route and finishes in the quaint Karoo town of Calitzdorp, the wine port capital of South Africa. It’s an incredible journey that takes riders from the verdant coast to the semi-arid Karoo, over two spectacular mountain passes - the Montagu and Swartberg Passes - and through some of the loveliest mountain scenery in South Africa.


The tour takes its name from the major mountain range that is crossed several times during the course of the week, the Swartberg, or Black Mountain. The climate on this mountain is characterised by extremes and the weather changes dramatically and quickly. It can be extremely hot in summer, while snowfalls are not uncommon in winter. So come prepared and bring your climbing legs. Although none of the riding is technical there are some steep climbs, as this is a mountain tour after all! But don’t despair as backup vehicles and many rest stops make it an achievable ride for any reasonably fit mountain biker.


Trail at a glance:

Distance: +/- 354 km
Duration: 7 days
Difficulty: 2
Trail type: Gravel roads and mountain passes
Logistics: Guided and catered
Bike hire: Yes, on request
Accommodation: Luxury cottages, lodges, and B&Bs
Cost: Two guests - R18 947 pp sharing. Three guests - R15 550 pp sharing. Four plus guests - R11448 pp sharing. Rates are subject to change without notice. Tour prices include all accommodation, meals, snacks, cold drinks, backup vehicle, guide, permits, and transfers from Knysna to the starting point and return. It excludes all alcoholic beverages.
Areas: Garden Route and Karoo


Day 1 - George to De Rust 75 km | 5-6 hours | grade 2

The day starts with a superb climb from George up the Montagu Pass, one of the first wagon routes to be built over the Outeniqua Mountains and completed in 1847. The gravel road up the pass, which climbs 600 m in 10 km, looks daunting but even if you take it easy you’ll top out in an hour or so and can then pat yourself on the back in the knowledge that you’ve overcome one of the biggest challenges of the tour. As you climb take time to admire the incredible views, or ask your guide about the history of the pass or various features along the way like the old toll-house, a national monument. Apparently this is where George's shoe industry started with the first toll-keeper and his son making veldskoens, which they sold to passersby. The beautiful Keur River bridge is also a national monument and good place to stop if you need to cool off or refill your water bottle. Or you could follow the example of the wagon drivers of yesteryear who would knock back a tot of local brew at Grogdraal as their oxen drank from the stream. Despite the proximity of George and the bustling towns along the Garden Route, you feel like you are deep in the wilderness at this point. The majestic Outeniqua Mountains tower around you and the fynbos is beautiful. Tony Cook, your guide, will enlighten you on the significance of the Cape floral kingdom, the smallest, but richest floral kingdom in the world, and point out the major species in bloom.


Once up and over, the scenery changes as you leave the fynbos covered slopes of the Garden Route behind and cruise down and past fields of hops to the small village of Herold, then over the R62 and onto a long stretch of undulating gravel road, the Paardepoort Pass. You’re now in the arid, rocky ‘badlands’ of the Klein Karoo and the place has a bit of a Wild West feel. Ostrich farms line the road and these big birds often gather to check you out when you stop for snack breaks or to pick up their feathers. Ostrich products provide much needed income for the people of this area, but the birds completely destroy the land and the fields are just dirt. The tour continues past the Kammanasie Dam and up the last steep hill of the day before taking on the sweeping downhill on the other side. You continue past a quaint little church on the hill above Dysseldorp and follow the Rus-en-Vrede Road to the overnight stop at Oudemuragie, a working farm with cottages nestled in the foothills of the Swartberg Mountain.


Day 2 - De Rust to Swartberg Game Reserve 60-75km | 5 hours | grade 2

The route takes you on an undulating ride over gravel roads to the Swartberg Private Game Reserve. The first 30 km is on dirt, then it’s an easy 20 km stretch of tar road and a couple of gentle climbs before cranking the pedals on some rocky roads as you check out the game. You can choose to park off and relax at the private house that is your home for the night, but be warned that sightings usually include giraffe, impala, wildebeest, zebra and eland - so the beers can wait. The distance covered in the reserve depends on the game sightings and your fitness, but this ride, with the majestic Swartberg Mountain as the backdrop, is one you will not want to end. A dip in the pool, cold beer and a home-cooked feast on a log fire rounds off a fantastic day.


Day 3 - Swartberg Game Reserve to Prince Albert 55 km | 4 hours | grade 2

Day three is tough but rewarding. After a fairly leisurely start along the scenic Groenfontein Road you tackle the second biggest challenge of the tour, the switchbacks up the southern side of the Swartberg Pass. Get into granny gear and you’ll manage the 10 km climb no problem, but if you are taking strain you can always take the easy route and catch a ride in the backup vehicle. Completed in 1888, this amazing road rises to a height of 1,585 m above sea level. The vistas over the jagged peaks and deeply incised gorges of the Swartberg range are stunning. It’s a wicked 18 km descent into the delightful town of Prince Albert. If you want to take it slowly there's plenty of diversions along the way such as the ruins of convict labourers’ quarters and the huts at OuTol, one of the overnight huts on the Swartberg hiking trail. There are also a couple of short, circular hiking trails where you can enjoy the magnificent fynbos of this range, one of the protected areas that make up the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site.


Dennehof Country House is your base for the next couple of nights, and only 5 km from the bottom of the pass. It’s a wonderful reward for your efforts, so prepare to be spoilt. After a superb meal of succulent Karoo lamb washed down with a good bottle of red wine, you end the day tucked up in a four-poster bed feeling like royalty.


Day 4 - Prince Albert Loop or optional rest day 54 km | 5-6 hours | grade 3

There’s no vehicle support on this route, so those who don’t feel up to another day in the saddle can relax and explore Prince Albert. For the riders, it’s a short transfer back up the pass to the top of the Swartberg Mountain and the entrance to the Swartberg Nature Reserve where you'll ride through the fynbos along a jeep track with some testing ups and downs for 27 km to the Gouekrans Mountain hut. After a snack at the hut it’s back to Dennehof for a sumptuous lunch and some relaxation.


Day 5 - Prince Albert To Swartberg Nature Reserve plus an optional ride in the reserve 55 km | 4-5 hours | grade 2

Day five is another big day with roughly 1,400 m of ascent. You start retracing your steps with the winding and twisting route up the northern side of the Swartberg Pass that you rode down on day three. By now your legs and lungs should be strong enough to enjoy the steady climb and numerous hairpin bends. After a fast descent down the other side it’s back to the Swartberg Private Nature Reserve for lunch, after which you can choose to ride a different route on the reserve or take a nap.


Day 6 - Swartberg to Calitzdorp 55 km | 4 hours | grade 1

After the climbs of the last few days this is an easy stage on the undulating Groenfontein gravel road back to Calitzdorp. A section of this route follows what was stage two in the inaugural Absa Cape Epic. Riding through typical Karoo vegetation, twitchers will be in heaven as black (Verreaux’s) eagles, pale chanting goshawk, and many other beautiful birds are often sighted in this area. After checking in to the Spekboom Cottages, there’s time to discover the town's delights. A wine/port tasting or a soak in the natural hot spring baths is a fitting end to a week of pampering and spectacular mountain biking.


Day 7 - Calitzdorp to George/Knysna

After breakfast it’s an hour's drive back to Knysna/George Airport before you depart for home.


Book Review

Author: Fiona McIntosh
Freewheeling Southern Africa’s best multi-day MTB trails


From short, easy one-night escapes suitable for the whole family, to hard-core mountain adventures that will test even the most experienced, competitive racers, the 34 trails of southern Africa’s best multi-day trails and wilderness journeys, including detailed descriptions, gradings, elevations, profiles, logistics and altitude gain, featured in this book cover the full spectrum of mountain bike tours on offer in South Africa and neighbouring countries.


A guide and support vehicle accompanies most of the tours, meaning that someone else takes care of the logistics and you are left free to enjoy the best that mountain biking offers.


Whether you want to ride with big game, along empty beaches, through verdant forests or across barren deserts you’ll find a trail to suit, and there are also some specialist trails that are aimed at birders, gourmands and culture-vultures. As the waiting lists for the stage races grow (and with them the entry fees) touring offers an alternative way to get your dirt fix - an active holiday with a group of friends or family. The Black Mountain Magic tour is just one of the many amazing adventures contained in this book.


Book information

ISBN: 978-1920289-53-9
Pages: 184
Release date: August 2012
Images: 150 photographs
Cost: R 185.00


About the author

After riding the inaugural Tour de Wilderness mountain bike tour, photojournalist Fiona McIntosh tried her hand at stage racing, completing the ABSA Cape Epic in 2007. Fiona is now a social rider who looks forward to a soft bed, good meal and some fine wine after a hard day in the saddle.


Bookings: Tony Cook Adventures -



Start/finish: George or Knysna.
Transfers: Transfers back to the start are included.
Highlights: Riding the Montagu and Swartberg Mountain Passes and the views; game sightings in the Swartberg Private Nature Reserve; and the towns of Prince Albert and Calitzdorp.
Longest day: 75 km.
Shortest day: 54 km.
Group size: Minimum two, maximum 10.
Suitable for: This straightforward trail is suitable for riders of all ages and levels of experience. It’s also a great training ride for stage races such as the Karoo to Coast or joberg2c.
Logistics: This a guided, fully-catered trail with accommodation at guesthouses. Bags are transported in the backup vehicle.
When to go: The tour is offered year round, but March/April or October/November are the best months, as summers are very hot, and there’s often snow in the mountains in winter.
Before and after: Spend a few days on the
Garden Route -


Issue 20 Dec '12