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Local Getaway

Wild about cycling? Go on a mountain bike safari at this Lowveld bush lodge

Terésa Coetzee tries a safari with a difference — game-spotting from the saddle of a mountain bike at Abelana Game Reserve

04 April 2021 - 00:00 By Terésa Coetzee
A cyclist passes a mighty baobab on a bike tour of Abelana Game Reserve, about a six-hour drive from Johannesburg.
A cyclist passes a mighty baobab on a bike tour of Abelana Game Reserve, about a six-hour drive from Johannesburg.
Image: Cameron Murray

We arrived at Abelana Game Reserve — not far from Hoedspruit and close to the Kruger National Park — in the early afternoon, after a six-hour drive from Joburg.

After freshening up in our luxurious tented accommodation, we enjoyed a light lunch before climbing onto our "steel horses" to start our riding adventure — a unique aspect of the reserve is that it offers safaris by mountain bike.

What a relief it was to be away from the city. Surrounded by lush foliage, fresh air and the wonderful scent of recent rain, we could melt into nature, free to roam and indulge our senses with only the sound of our wheels on the earth.

I'd been invited by Escape Cycle Tours to try out something different from any other MTB event I'd experienced: the chance to cycle through a Big Five area (with an experienced and armed guide).

We got so much more than we expected: good food, good company, plus enthusiastic, knowledgeable and hospitable staff. The wonderful Lowveld — with its weather, the animals, the smells, the sounds — simply has no comparison.

On our first ride, there was plenty to see, hear and experience. A red-chested cuckoo calling for his mate somewhere out there; a Natal francolin making clear her concern when we came too close to her nest.

"That's a woodland kingfisher," said guide John Fouche about a new song filling the air. As we approached a small dam, he pointed out some hippo spoor — proof that his rifle is not just for show.

We also saw fresh droppings on the road, more proof that animals are never far away. One exciting moment was seeing fresh leopard tracks on the road we were riding along. Big cats roam Abelana and are frequently spotted by visitors.

Our guide also pointed out interesting trees — we were smacked every now and then by ripe fruit falling from the massive marulas. We stopped underneath them to eat some of their succulent, sweet fruit.

Safari Camp.
Safari Camp.
Image: Abelana Game Reserve
Inside the tent.
Inside the tent.
Image: Abelana Game Reserve

Back at camp, we enjoyed sunset from the deck with G&Ts. Slowly the night folded her blanket of peace and quiet over the camp and we all agreed that life is good.

Early the next two mornings we headed out for a ride before the heat of the day made excursions unbearable. We had several amusing moments on our adventures, including when one of our party made the fastest dismount ever recorded after a giant golden orb spider landed on her bike.

These spiders are known for their massive webs, which they spin across the tracks. After this encounter, we stayed firmly behind our guide. We were later told that golden orbs are harmless, but nobody was keen to take any further chances.

The GPS is a wonderful aid, yet we managed to have a few navigation challenges. Going where there were no tracks and simply bundu bashing enhanced the feeling of fun and adventure.

Abelana Game Reserve and Escape Cycle Tours offer a unique experience for keen cyclers wanting to explore the bush.
Abelana Game Reserve and Escape Cycle Tours offer a unique experience for keen cyclers wanting to explore the bush.
Image: Joanne Badenhorst

And our outings were not confined to bikes. We also thoroughly enjoyed two game drives in the Land Cruiser, seeing many giraffes, black wildebeest, waterbuck, impalas and hippos. We did not spot any elephants or lions, but that was comforting, when we were back on our bicycles later, knowing they were out visiting elsewhere.

On our third and final night, we were treated to a magical dinner under one of the biggest baobabs any of us had ever seen.

We left with many great memories to treasure and share, and more than one of our group shed a tear upon leaving for home.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

WHERE IS IT? Abelana Game Reserve is a 15,000ha Big Five reserve adjacent to the Greater Kruger National Park, close to Phalaborwa in the Lowveld.

ACCOMMODATION: There are two camps: River Lodge and Safari Camp. The writer stayed at Safari, a tented camp that accommodates 12 guests.

Cameron Murray of Escape Cycle Tours.
Cameron Murray of Escape Cycle Tours.
Image: Supplied

WHAT ABOUT THE BIKES? You don't need to be super fit — anybody who can ride a bike can do it. As Cameron Murray of Escape Cycle Tours says: "The rides aren't long in distance, but because you're scanning for game they're relatively low-speed so can take a while."

The first ride is approximately 8km (about two hours); the second is 40km (about five hours) and the final ride is 30km (about 3.5 hours). This includes refreshment stops and a break from the saddle. You can take your own bike or rent. Hardtail bikes can be hired at R350 pppd and e-bikes for R850 pppd.

RATES: Abelana is running a special for the rest of 2021: a three-night package is R9,850 per person sharing. It includes accommodation at Safari Camp; all meals, coffee and tea; filtered water; cycling activities with a qualified guide and tracker; evening game drives; and return transport from Johannesburg (by road). There are also walking options, so non-riders are welcome. The team will also wash, lube and check the bikes after each ride and do any repairs that might be required. The rate excludes alcoholic beverages, fizzy drinks and gratuities.

CONTACTS: For Escape Cycle Tours, see escapecycletours.com or e-mail info@escapecycletours.com. For Abelana, see abelanagamereserve.com, e-mail res@abelanagamereserve.com or phone 061-952-4302.

• Coetzee was a guest of Abelana Game Reserve and Escape Cycle Tours.


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