It is the first day of a two-day Meandering the Midlands cycle tour and thankfully the Dargle mist and rain had turned and instead we were greeted with clear blue skies and a gorgeous wintery light with which to explore the Dargle Valley.
Christiano and Simone our German visitors stood gingerly aside, not a bicycle, but a handsome black Friesian horse. The Midlands is fast being discovered as a place offering cycle tourists not just trips focused purely on the bike and the end destination, but rather journeys filled with unique cultural and natural experiences. One of these forms the start to our trip, a ‘horseplay’ session masterfully facilitated by well-known horse guru/whisperer, Carlene Bronner. Unlike the simple react and response mechanisms of a bike, our guests will spend the next hour discovering the art of horse communication using subtle body gestures as a cue for gentle persuasion. Although the couple confess that they were not familiar with handling horses, it was amazing how with new found respect and understanding they quickly eased into the experience and had their horses eating out of their hands (admittedly the tuffs of green grass may have helped).
After an enriching horseplay session and a hearty farm-cooked breakfast, we saddled up our bicycles and headed for the Nelson Mandela capture site using quiet country back roads. As a local South African, who has pored through each page of the “Long Walk to Freedom”, I felt well versed in the life and times of our Tata Madiba and was rather surprised that the museum tour at the capture site could offer such fascinating insights into the life of our great stateman. Brilliantly guided by the enthusiastic Ayanda, under no circumstances were we allowed to ride down to the impressive sculpture of Mandela’s face, “after all” Ayanda quipped, “it’s not called a long walk for nothing”.
With time ticking on, we then made our way through a network of forest paths to the renowned Caversham Mill restaurant overlooking the Lions river. Tucking into a well-deserved signature trout dish, we marvelled at the thought that once this great valley was a royal Zulu hunting ground abundant with lions and elephant. On shooting the last lion of the region, this river was ironically named Lions River.
That afternoon after climbing up the back of the Lidgetton hills, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the Dargle valley. Authentic Italian wood-fired pizza washed down with local Lions River craft beer at the well regarded Il Postino pizzeria provided a fitting end to our day. Delicious!
Our final day presented a welcomed opportunity to warm up tired legs with a morning stroll through the pristine Dargle mist-belt forest lead by its passionate and knowledgeable custodian, Barend Booysen. With Barend’s charming stories of Zulu myths, local legends, and impressive botanical knowledge of these indigenous trees, the secrets of the forest was revealed. It was an inspiration to how a group of Dargle landowners had taken stewardship into their own hands through the formation of Biodiversity Stewardship. Short term gains in destructive cattle farming and other agricultural practices needed to be sacrificed for the long term survival of these rich and biodiverse forest and grasslands.
“For me the highlight of the walk was spotting the elusive Samango monkeys playing in the Cape Chestnut trees”, beams Simone. Samango Monkeys are the only true arboreal monkeys left in South Africa. Unable to adjust their livelihoods to the rapidly changing world, if we lose these precious pockets of Afro-Montane forest, the Samangos could disappear with them too.
After a morning walk we headed with our bicycles out to the cycling mecca of the Karkloof Valley. A network of world class trails, we selected the well-marked 15km Falls loop that swept us through the forest on immaculately sculpted paths to the iconic Karkloof waterfalls. The beautiful falls in full flow after recent rains provided the perfect backdrop to our final picnic spread of local Midland’s cheese, cured meats, artisanal bread and cold beer. “When we signed up for a bike tour, we did not know what to expect” remarked Christiano. With all the cultural, ecological and historical diversity the Midlands has to offer, as the Spekboom Tour’s logo says, “expect the unexpected”.
News supplied by Julia Colvin - www.spekboomtours.co.za