Riding wild at the iSimangaliso MTB 4Day

Words: Debbie Cooper ǀ Photos: iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site situated in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal, made history on 22 August, with the start of the first-ever four-day stage ride through the park.

The iSimangaliso MTB 4Day, powered by Nashua, encompassed 260 km (for those who didn’t deviate off track!) of some of the most stunning and pristine parts of seven of the park’s eight eco-systems (the eighth being the sea and its coral reefs). The ride promised participants a unique and unbeatable experience; encounters with potentially dangerous wildlife such as elephant, rhino, and hippo, as well as wild landscapes, pristine scenery, and breathtaking beauty. Judging by the feedback after the event, that’s exactly what they got and a whole lot more besides.

Event Organiser Shane Webster, veteran route developer and host of many one-day races, believes that, “The iSimangaliso MTB 4Day, powered by Nashua, is the perfect ‘Sports Adventure Tourism’ event, allowing riders to experience the 332,000 hectare iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which contains three major lake systems, eight interlinking ecosystems, most of south Africa’s remaining swamp forest, and the re-introduced species of elephant, wild dog, cheetah, oribi, black and white rhino, and buffalo. It also provides partners and spectators with the opportunity of taking advantage of the many nearby game reserves, resort village of St Lucia, and numerous game resorts this area of Zululand is renowned for.

“There is nothing like this anywhere else in the country. The growth of sports tourism within the sport of mountain biking has seen the development of an ever-increasing number of multi-day events and in KZN, the two major events are not just fully subscribed, they have waiting lists. The development of a new multi-day event is creating excitement in the mountain biking circles stemming from, first, a new event to absorb the current overflow, and secondly and even more excitingly, a ride through a World Heritage Site, which in itself is a privilege. Quite simply – this ride is the next big thing in MTB.”

According to iSimangaliso CEO, Andrew Zaloumis, a keen MTB rider who helped develop the track with Shane, “The route was designed to maximise riders’ exposure to as much of the incredible range of experiences as is achievable within an event of this nature. Always adhering to the strictest environmental management principles, and independently assessed by external practitioners, the chosen 260 km route covered four of the park’s main sections, being uMkhuze, False Bay, Western Shores, and Eastern Shores. Riders followed the animals’ historic migratory paths from the Lebombo Mountains to the coastal plains, starting from the uMkhuze Game Reserve section and ending on the coast at the Lake St Lucia Estuary mouth.

Day 1 (+- 56 km)

The first day heralded ferocious winds that added an extra dimension as the route took riders through iSimangaliso’s uMkhuze Game Reserve section, out of the eMshophi Gate, up into the Lebombo Mountain range, and back to Mantuma Camp. Within minutes of departure, an elephant gave the first riders a thrill, as it rumbled past the main road. This segment delivered three particularly grinding hills, named the Devil’s Fangs, and the cause of some grief to the less fit as participants rose to some of the highest parts of the stunning and little-known mountains where time seems to have stood quite still. On a clear day, the spectacular views also enable a glimpse of both the start and distant finish from the same point – the only staged MTB event that features this.

Remote villages, with intriguing designs and intrigued residents, dot the undulating peaks and riders were treated to the warmest welcome by singing scholars from two local primary schools – Mhlekazi and Bheka Mkhonto. The exhilarating downhill saw bikers re-enter the park at a management gate and once again hit single track and footpaths, to arrive back at Mantuma for the end of the first phase and a well-deserved cold one at the pool.

Day 2 (93 km)

Riders headed south through the eastern side of uMkhuze, areas seldom seen by tourists as this area is not part of the public routes. Riding through swathes of savannah and particularly striking fever and fig tree forests, they once again encountered species such as rhino, wildebeest, and various antelope. Exiting iSimangaliso under the watchful eye of a bemused giraffe, riders continued through the ‘Big 5’ Phinda Game Reserve, where rangers kept the resident beasts at bay, with fresh lion spoor indicating a nearby pride. Thankfully, nobody was eaten and only egos were injured by a bruising little hill that led to the spectacular Phinda water and refreshment point overlooking a vast grassland plain.

Linking up with the False Bay section of the park, at the northern spur, cyclists encountered the stunning expanse of water at this widest section of the Lake St Lucia system - Africa’s biggest estuarine lake at 70 km long and 22 km wide. Here, the sight of flamingoes and other water birds offered a glimpse of the 526 species to be found within iSimangaliso. The route followed the shores sheltering ancient fossil beds before crossing the Hluhluwe River on a rickety wooden foot bridge to the next water point at Hluhluwe River Lodge, where tea and cake invited riders to linger a bit longer.

After a punishing 93 km, the approach to Bonamanzi ’Big4’ Game Reserve sand forest for the second overnight stop was a welcome sight. Still, despite the length of this section, the popular vote is that this was the most scenic day of the four, with the most diverse scenery.

Day 3 (+- 73 km)

From Bonamanzi down to the Nyalazi floodplain, some very exciting cycling included a maze of crisscrossing game tracks, black paths, and short-cropped green grass against the majestic backdrop of the lake, before heading into iSimangaliso’s Western Shores across the Nyalazi River. On the other side, the first section through the plantations gave riders an idea of the way this area once appeared when completely under forestry. With the removal of millions of exotic plantation trees, this 30,000 section of iSimangaliso has been rehabilitated with a resultant return of an explosion of natural flora and fauna, including three herds of elephants, buffalo, rhino, and tsessebe.

The riders were among the first of this section’s official tourists, as the area is not yet open to the public. Some of the lead riders had a great sighting of a white rhino near the Makgadankawu Hide, while others were equally fascinated by not one but two massive African rock python encounters. The vote for best water point went to Wetland Water’s spot on the uMthoma Aerial Boardwalk (named after the giant Cape ash tree around which it is built), which overlooks the Lake St Lucia narrows (sadly a few riders missed the track and point!).

The next slightly elevated point revealed a full view over the undulating grasslands to the vegetated dunes of the Eastern Shores, forming one of the world’s highest such barrier cordons, against the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

Leaving the Western Shores through the new DukuDuku gate, a short run towards town led them over the bridge and across the lake St Lucia Estuary, through the densely forested iGwalaGwala trail, and finally to the day’s finish at the St Lucia Estuary Ski Boat Club.

Day 4 (+- 45km)

The last day dawned cool and grey, as riders departed from the Ski Boat Club, across the shaded wooded estuary boardwalk towards Estuary Beach, then along the coastal road, and into the Eastern Shores section. A number of game trails and gravel roads wound past vleis where several buffalo herds were out to play – in one case having to be shooed off ahead of the lead riders. The sand sections were not as extreme as some had feared and proved worth the climb up a forested dune to once again glimpse the endless ocean near Mission Rocks. It was here that the female team Roadies gone Bossies, comprising Lisette Keightley and Suna Ferreira, spotted whales in addition to the zebras and plains game.

Game viewing wasn’t reserved only for the front runners, as one of the tail-enders, the French Frogs, got a huge surprise as they rounded a bend to almost ride slap bang into a young black rhino. Luckily for them, the fellow was mellow and they grabbed a quick photo before backing off carefully and bypassing his territory.

Apart from a couple of riders who dropped out due to health problems, everyone made it safely through ... even the French Frogs, who, by their own admission, were inexperienced riders with little in the way of a training regime and riding basic bikes that cost R450 from Pick n Pay!

Feedback in the Ski Boat Club, ahead of prize-giving, was simply phenomenal with riders in awe of the incredible experiences, heart-stopping moments, and the absolute privilege of being able to ride in a World Heritage Site in this way. With favourable comparisons to the greats like sani2c and Berg and Bush, and a waiting list already open on the website (47 names by that last Sunday night!), there is no doubt in most people’s minds that this experience is a guaranteed winner on the MTB calendar.

And it was not only a success for the event, but also for conservation through the massive support and financial contribution from riders towards the iSimangaliso Rare and Endangered Species Fund. This fund is exclusively dedicated to the protection, monitoring, and introduction of such species as black and white rhino, eland, oribi, wild dog, and others within the park. Truly a win-win situation for all.

The race organisers and management of iSimangaliso Wetland Park give heartfelt thanks to those pioneers who helped to make this an unforgettable ride in so many ways and we hope to see everyone back on the track next year!

iSimangaliso Eco-Series information

iSimangaliso Wetland Park has recently developed an ’Eco-Series’ of sporting and participation events within the World Heritage Site that encourage a broad range of visitors to experience the park interactively in a number of different ways.

Each of these events seeks to enable participants to access and explore areas of iSimangaliso that have previously not been accessible or are little-known. Integral to each event is the compulsory contribution to the iSimangaliso Rare and Endangered Species Fund.

Items include the costs and imminent release of more rhino, oribi, and eland into the park, as well as tracking collars and transmitters for these species to ensure maximum protection. This ensures that iSimangaliso fulfils one of its principal mandates, to conserve the priceless natural resources, which won the unanimous vote of all UNESCO members in declaring the park worthy of World Heritage status.

In addition, every event includes a development or community beneficiation aspect, to ensure that previously disadvantaged park neighbours are able to participate or otherwise be included in the events.

The MTB event has created temporary employment for 18 young men from the areas surrounding the park, who have been trained and paid to work as marshals. Amongst these, two candidates were also given skills in bike maintenance and repairs, which will assist them beyond the iSimangaliso event. The main sponsor of the event, Nashua, donated generously in terms of gifts, such as photocopier machines and office equipment to six schools in the neighbouring communities. The outcome is a mutually beneficial situation for the park and the people, and a key deliverable of the park’s mandate to develop opportunities and benefits for land claimant owners.

The iSimangaliso Eco-Series includes:

iSimangaliso St Lucia Half - Registered Half Marathon, 10 km, 5 km and Kiddies Fun Run, within the Lake St Lucia Estuary and St Lucia beachfront sections of the park. The event takes place annually in April or May and attracts hundreds of entrants across the categories, including 100 sponsored scholars from neighbouring communities.
iSimangaliso Wild Braai Day - A braai / potjie contest takes place in the St Lucia Estuary section annually on the same weekend as the Half Marathon, encouraging a cross-cultural blend of culinary entries.
iSimangaliso Shootout Festival at Sodwana Bay section - this annual underwater photography contest in the September/October school holiday period has expanded to include a road run, trail run, beach activities, and environmental awareness activities for children, in this world-class scuba diving destination.
iSimangaliso MTB 4Day - annually in August, 260 km of pure mountain biking adrenaline through four sections of the park.

To view the results, visit www.iSimangaliso-mtb.co.za, and for more information, visit www.iSimangaliso.com