IN ASSOCIATION WITH VOLVO – ADIDAS – TOMTOM – THULE
What Johannesburg lacks in vert it certainly makes up for in thin air. Fact. It’s hard work just pedalling on the flats, let alone climbing; but I guess that’s what life at 1550m above sea level does to the body – you either have to adapt, or die trying.
One thing’s for sure – the diversity of the terrain, the flora and fauna, and the incredible colour palettes of the landscapes up here at the reef truly epitomise the African zeitgeist. It’s a beautiful place, no question.
And today we’re headed to one of the region’s most complete trail networks, the infamous Thaba Trails. I say ‘infamous’ because for many years, this place was known for its rather technical trails and tough terrain – attributes that scared away many first-timers and beginners. It’s only recently that trail founder Wendell Bole felt the need to diversify by adding a combination of easier and intermediate loops.
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We’re in for a real treat, according to our trail guide Reuben van Niekerk. He’s been showing us around some of his favourite Gauteng playgrounds for the past two days; without him we’d be hopelessly lost, probably halfway across the border and still searching for the Spruit… Thaba’s location makes an exquisite setting. After all, it is within the 450-hectare Klipriviersburg Nature Reserve, so the views are naturally quite spectacular – and polarising, at times; the city sprawl dominates the distant horizon, and juxtaposes the region’s indigenous vegetation and surrounding topography to maximum effect.
“Thaba Trails offers an immense array of trails catering for all skill levels; right in the south of Johannesburg, just a short drive away from the main centres.” – Reuben van Niekerk, Absa Cape Epic Amabubesi finisher
The appreciably warm and dry conditions up here seem unseasonal for your typical winter, but Gauteng is naturally at its driest and brownest this time of the year. However, the setting is far from unattractive – in fact, the bushveld vegetation looks like a scene out of The Lion King. Though the scenery is beautiful, it’s 12pm (the worst possible time of day for any photographer), and Desmond could be forgiven for being a little grumpy; instead, he’s smiling like a Cheshire cat.
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“Look at that! Wow! Guys – quickly, go and ride next to them. But try not to scare them away.” Of course, Des is referring to the herd of blesbok foraging nearby. They’re pretty tame, and pose momentarily before gracefully darting off with their young. Wildlife roams this reserve freely, and if you’re lucky, there’s a good chance you’ll spot impala, zebra, wildebeest and springbok.
“The amount of hard work that Wendell Bole has put into this facility – and in doing so, has transformed a fairly unutilised 450 hectares into a home for mountain bikers – is astonishing, and the mountain biking community is indebted to him for this dedication.” – Reuben van Niekerk, Absa Cape Epic Amabubesi finisher
As with most of the locations we’ve featured in this series, the trails are colour-coded in accordance with IMBA trail guidelines: yellow, green, blue and black. We’re here to ride the 30km intermediate trail, comprising much of the blue and green routes. According to Reuben and some of the locals, we’re in for a pretty special ride. What makes this trail even more impressive is the clever incorporation of the landscape’s natural formations, such as rocks and boulders, while link-up sections feature undulating grasslands and jeep tracks. Of course there’s also a fair bit of purpose-built stuff, but nothing feels stilted and unnatural – instead, the trails have a rhythmic flow to them.
Starting from the trail shed (don’t forget your permit!) riders can follow a clearly marked course, which almost immediately starts with a mild drag up to the first fork. By linking certain sections with the blue route you’ll get to sample an array of semi-technical bits, but there’s nothing overtly over the top in terms of difficulty. But the singletrack is fast and exhilarating, and takes you through some of the endemic bushveld vegetation before reaching a maximum altitude of 1636m.
The views from the top are spectacular, and you’re guaranteed to bank some Instagram gold before the real fun begins – the purpose-built rollercoasters. The last few kilometres of singletrack are some of the best of the entire network, with beautifully sculpted berms and switchbacks; as well as a plethora of small tabletops, drop-offs and jumps to keep you on your toes (there are some b-line options).
“Thaba is without doubt one of the most enjoyable and diverse trails in Gauteng. I love that riders can get up close and personal with the wildlife – it’s a genuine African setting. I’d love to come here in the evening, to experience the magic of riding the trails during a spectacular Highveld sunset. Still, regardless of your chosen route, the riding here is never easy; you’ll leave knowing both you and your bike have had a proper workout.” – Aaron Borrill, Bicycling Online Editor
While the blue route may not be the most technical course around, you’re sure to get a pretty decent workout, like we did – it all comes down to how hard and fast you hit it. The one thing that caught us off guard, however, was the heat: as most of the trail network is exposed to the elements, it’s a pretty good idea to come prepared – even in winter, as it warms up quickly and without warning. In fact, the only respite from the sun comes by way of some of the sheltered singletrack that takes you back to the start.
But no matter what your skill set or fitness level, you’re in for a good day out here at Thaba Trails – there really is something for everyone, even the body-armour-clad adrenaline junkie. From the stunning African vistas and incredible wildlife sightings to the awesome singletrack and unique terrain, Thaba is more about the experience and less about smashing Strava lines (well, there is the XCO loop, if segment times are your thing). It’s sensory overload, bar none.
NEED TO KNOW
START: The Thaba trailhead. The trails can be ridden from 6.30am to 5pm, seven days a week. Remember to pay your trail fee! R50 per visit. R1600 gets you an annual membership.
BEST TIME TO RIDE: In the morning – the exposed nature of the trail means heat is an issue all year round. Carry extra sunblock and hydration.
WATCH OUT FOR: There’s nothing particularly challenging, but novice riders should take heed on some of the rockier sections.
RATING: Green route: beginner to intermediate.
Special thanks goes to Centurion Cyclery for the use of their Specialized Camber and Levo.
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