40 rugged kays through the Karkloof valley

May 11, 2015

Jeannie Dreyer charges up the notorious Lebanon climb to win the women’s race in the 60km Sappi Karkloof Marathon. The writer of this article wasn’t so much ‘charging’ as ‘crawling’! Photo: Anthony Grote/
Gameplan Media.

From heaven to hell and back. CHRIS CHAPMAN reports from ground zero...

The aQuelle 40 km half-marathon is not exactly the main event at the Sappi Karkloof Classic MTB festival, and batch I is not exactly the fastest group of riders, being a long way from batch A. But that’s where I found myself at 8.30 am on Sunday 10th May, a fairly recent convert to the fastest growing sport in the world.

Golf used to be the leisure activity of choice for up-and-coming yuppies and business execs around the world to network and clinch lucrative deals in the congenial atmosphere of the 19th hole. Now it’s mountain biking, which suits me much better as I could never get into the slow pace of golf anyway.

MTB is clearly a sport for the well heeled, with the average bike carrying a price tag around R30 000. My bike, in contrast, was clearly somewhat off the pace. I noticed, for instance, that mine was the only bike in the batch with the old fashioned rubber breaks. My wheels were also considerably smaller than the other bikes.

Never mind, I thought, it’s all in the legs!! It hadn’t dawned on me yet that a once-a-week ride along an undulating gravel road with the odd foray onto a benign single track was not sufficient preparation for 40 kms through the Karkloof valley.

When Sappi’s communications manager, Zelda Schwalbach, phoned me a few weeks earlier and asked if I wanted to participate in the event, I was quick to accept.


Sappi's immaculate plantations provided a stunning backdrop to the events at the 2015 Sappi Karkloof MTB Festival. Photo: Anthony Grote/
Gameplan Media.

“What do you want to do, the 10 km kiddies ride, the 20 km family ride, the 40 km half-marathon or the 60 km marathon,” she asked. My mind skipped quickly over the options, starting from the bottom. The first two options sounded a bit lame. The half-marathon sounded like a proper race, but do-able. Thank goodness I didn’t opt for the full marathon, that’s all I can say.

So there I was on race day, waiting my turn to head out into the hills behind the eight batches of riders that had set out before me.

“Never mind”, I thought, “I’ll soon catch the stragglers.”

This thought was blown from my mind a few kms from the start when the eager beavers from batch J came hurtling past.

“Ha, they’ll burn off soon and I’ll reel them in when they’ve blown,” I thought. I never saw them again.

The first real climb was a single track switchback through a pine compartment that was still a bit congested. Some riders in front of me were walking over the tricky sections and there was a bit of cursing and muttering going on which disrupted my rhythm.

Then the guy behind me shouted “coming right”, something I’m used to hearing in the line-up at New Pier in Durban, but not on a bike trail! I tried to give him space by going off the track – not a good idea because I lost control in the rough and fell. The rider asked if I was OK and apologized profusely, said he had a broken collarbone and was riding slow. He said he’d started in the last batch and was trying to catch up with his girlfriend.

“Fair enough,” I thought, not amused at being overtaken by a guy with a broken collarbone.


When you’re tired every obstacle gets harder to negotiate. A rider falls during the STIHL Enduro event. Photo: Anthony Grote/
Gameplan Media.

Pretty soon after that there was no more congestion, just the beautiful flowing single tracks through pine and gum, past a dam and up a long slow hill. Not having a watch, cell phone or distance meter on my bike, I had no idea how far along the course I was. My body was beginning to take a bit of strain and I was convinced that I was either on the wrong track or the organisers had failed to set up the first water point, which was supposed to be at 15 kms.

When the water point eventually materialized, I was mightily relieved, until the realization dawned on me that I hadn’t even reached the half way mark.

From there the slow climb continued along a shady gravel road to the highest point of the route at 1331 meters, and then turned off into a wonderful series of single tracks. I say “wonderful” because I know that if I hadn’t been so tired I would have been styling on those immaculate jumps and berms. But when you’re dog-tired, single tracks become more and more difficult to negotiate.

I vaguely recalled reading the blurb from the organisers who mentioned that there are “a few rocks to pop over to keep you honest” which at the time I thought was quite funny. Now those rocks loomed like a nightmare and felt more like riding over Mount Kiliminjaro. My pedal caught on one of them and I went flying into the bush. I was lying there gratefully dozing off into a blissful sleep amid the soft pine needles when another rider came past and dragged me back to reality.

“Better get back on the bike, bru, still a long way to go.” With that he disappeared down the trail.


Max Knox enjoys his journey to victory in the 60km Sappi Karkloof Marathon, the premier event of the 2015 Sappi Karkloof MTB Festival. Photo: Anthony Grote/
Gameplan Media.

The only people I was sharing the track with at this stage of the race was a guy decked out with the latest bike and gear who said he had been ‘cramping’ since 15 kms, and another guy who was riding in a T-shirt, baggies and sandals who looked as finished as I was.

Somewhere in that maize of trails I came across the guy with the broken collar bone and his missus again. We came to one of those optional forks where you can take the “easy” route marked in green, or the “difficult” route marked in black. I unhesitatingly opted for the “easy” route, while the guy with the broken collarbone went for the “difficult” route.

“Watch out you don’t fall, love,” shouted his girlfriend as she followed me down the “easy” track.

“Shaddup,” I heard him say as he went flying through the air over some rocky obstacle or other. Broken collarbone, my foot!!

At this stage of the race I was bypassing those high bridges that the trail builders love to make. I didn’t think I had the legs to get over the top. I managed to put on a bit of a sprint though when I saw a race photographer lining me up for a shot.

“Is there anybody still behind you,” he asked as I rode by.

“Dunno,” I grunted. “I hope so.”

By the time I reached the magnificent Karkloof Falls, the scenery was no longer impressing me. All I could see was a red mist coming down. I was still riding with the oke in sandals, and somehow managed to drop him on the bumpy climb from the falls.

By the time the writer of this article reached the magnificent Karkloof Falls, he was in no condition to enjoy the view. Photo: Anthony Grote/
Gameplan Media

The final kay to the finish around the polo field at the Karkloof Country Club seemed to take forever. It’s amazing how your body can keep moving long after it should have given up.

Nobody seemed to notice me finish the race, which was a bit of a relief. When I got back to my car I collapsed in a heap. Very happy, but very tired.

At the Sappi VIP tent for lunch, I put on a brave face. Networking was out of the question.

“How was your race,” said Sappi’s environmental manager, Dave Everard, looking chipper.

“Ja, not bad … a bit tired but it was lekker,” I mumbled, while inside my head I was going, “broken … never again!”

Now, writing this piece after a good night’s sleep, I’m already planning my next ride. But this time I’m gonna make sure I put in the hours in the saddle before taking on 40 kms of trails, and maybe I’ll get me a bike with the big wheels.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram