Life for some is a quest to experience as much as we can, and there are always some experiences we remember more the most, because they speak to the old cliche ‘once in a lifetime’. One such experience landed in my lap, and it might be the last time any human, anywhere, will ever get an opportunity to experience this again.
I was asked by the Dimension Data Group (sponsors of the Tour de France) to help lead them and their top clients on a mountain bike safari through the Makuleke Concession – also known as Pafuri – in the Northern Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Now for those who have never visited the Pafuri, it can only be described as a wilderness gem. It is hard to believe such a place exists anywhere in Africa, a unique and diverse piece of nature that few get to see, let alone experience on a mountain bike!
I was so excited to accept that it felt like I had been proposed to! My favourite hobbies combined with my passion and profession, what could be better?
Logistics of the expedition was organised and handled by Wilderness Safaris, and we would utilise the Trails Camp on the Luvuvhu River and be under their hospitality. Wilderness honestly know how to make you feel comfortable no matter where you are in Africa, but it was negotiating the herds of elephant, buffalo and other wildlife with 12 cyclists that would prove interesting.
I’ve ridden many times in the bush, usually alone or with fellow rangers, and mountain bikes are incredibly quiet against the ground. Which makes surprising animals a lot easier, as one of my friends found out and had his bike nicely demolished by a female elephant. Thankfully, he dropped it and ran leaving the rampant pachydrem to make all sorts of shapes with his Giant 11 Speed.
I had a few chats prior with Warren, a Tour de Tuli Cycle Leader who previously lead a group through the Pafuri a few years ago, and we decided I would go up 5 days before the group arrived and be accompanied by Nick from Wilderness Safaris – he would assist me immensely and be my ‘back-up’ cyclist at the tail of the group, and I was very grateful for his light hearted humour.
Nick and I would spend this time with Rob the Concession Manager driving the area and getting a good feel for where we would be riding, which was predominately on ‘bush’ roads and trails which cover varying terrain and gradients. We decided that as we would be averaging 60kms+ a day through some easy and some otherwise unspeakable terrain, Rob would drive a good 2kms ahead – for dust reasons – and contact me via radio of any potential threats. Another ranger would follow close behind in a vehicle with spare parts, drinks, food and a ‘leg-rest’ for any ailing riders struggling with the soft sand.
What to pack also became interesting, and I decided as I was carrying a radio, binoculars and first aid kit, the lighter my bike the better. In the end, I took every supply with me – just in case – and the Di Data guys also brought a mass of spares which we dumped on the follow vehicle in the event of a major mechanical malfunction.
It is here, where I need to shorten this story some what. If I were to describe in detail every day we rode you’d be one, salivating from jealousy and two, crying with jealousy… and be reading a short novel rather than a blog.
The prologue was 40kms to a sunset drinks spot, then 2 kms back to camp, a great ice-breaker and good occasion to get to know the pace of the different cyclists. Slowest to the front as this ride was ‘safari’ pace, and race pace into the back of a buffalo bum is a awkward place to find yourself.
Day 2, we rode 68kms which included two stops, one at the remarkable Lanner Gorge over-looking the Luvuvhu River and another at an equally beautiful Limpopo Vlei (wetland). Three things stuck in my mind from this day, the 3kms of soft sand to Lanner Gorge quite possibly, was the toughest riding I’ve ever done, but well worth it. The other was that there is no place on Earth where I could ride with a Fever Tree Forest, vleis fringed by Lala Palms, and Baobab covered Hills all within 180 degree view of my handle-bars. And lastly… punctures! Lots of punctures. ‘Plugging and bombing’ became the new norm as not even the thickest of tire-walls could discourage an acacia thorn. Bursting air from tires did nothing but encourage a few choice words and startle confused looks on impala.
At times we were held up by elephants and buffalo, some herds providing amazing sightings. We stopped when we could for unusual birds and wildlife, like 20+ eland, but it’s not easy to manage momentum when you’re in a wilderness such as Pafuri. Everything here deserves a look of admiration.
Day 3 was the most anticipate and exciting day as it began with a full hour canter through the famous Fever Tree Forest, and then along the Limpopo River banks to Crooks Corner – a place where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique all meet at the Limpopo confluence of the Luvuvhu River, as do many large crocodiles.
We saw so much amazing wildlife while riding, and the scenery was just magical. One would think it impossible that not a single elephant, lion or buffalo caused any screeching brakes, and it was in fact a small flock of scarce Grey-headed Parrots that almost caused a massive pile-up.
After 50 or so kilometres, the day ended with a much needed downhill charge through a flood plain littered with eland and zebra, and then to a welcomed cold beer back at camp and a flurry of stories, banter and fines… mostly for the guides!
We all decided to spend day 4 birding, from the comfort of a safari vehicle, which stirred some relief in most members of the group as those cold beers the day before were knocking loudly in few heads.
It’s sad to imagine that this incredibly intimate way of experiencing the African wilderness may never happened in the Pafuri again. I will admit, it’s a tough area to negotiate a mountain bike with all the local wildlife, and Botswana’s Tuli Wilderness Area is definitely better suited for this type of safari.
However, I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to experience it, and also for creating the experience and memories for my guests.
If not on a mountain bike, Pafuri should undoubtably be seen by any one with a passion for a truly wild and beautiful wilderness experience, never mind the birds.
Bucket list.. MASSIVE tick!