Each day starts and finishes at the Zuurberg Mountain Village, at the top of the Zuurberg Pass just outside of the Addo Elephant National Park. Rider accommodation is split between the Village and the Chalets inside the park, 20 kilometres away by mostly gravel road. We were staying in the Forest Chalets at the reserve.
While this does dilute the vibe somewhat, staying in Addo was not as inconvenient as I’d imagined. There are shuttles to take riders to breakfast at the Village, and you can leave your bike in the bike park at the race village. We opted to drive to the start each day, simply so we could dump all our clothes, spares, and nutrition in the car and roll out of bed each morning. Each venue has a festive buffet dinner and race briefing for the following day.
Day 1: All About Addo
Distance: 72 kilometres
Vertical Ascent: 1300 metres
The first day of an event usually serves as an uncomfortable wake up call, as the field goes out guns blazing. This case was no different. With under ten kilometres of gravel road before the first single track section: the Seven Dwarves Drop, and no overtaking options on the descent, the pace was a challenge on stale legs.
Fortunately, the small field meant congestion was not really an issue, and we found ourselves in no man’s land for most of the following three days.
The Seven Dwarves Drop was a fantastic introduction to the race, a 3 kilometre trail dropping 347 metres from the top of the ridge to the valley floor via a series of mossy, forest switchbacks. It got the fizz going early, and the remainder of the route kept it up.
We traversed the river valley on meandering cattle trails, tackling several punchy climbs, before popping out on farm roads and then heading through a series of citrus orchards. This was our only respite from rough terrain, and it was over too soon. We headed back into the thick bush, with the Zuurberg Pass looming ominously in the distance. Well aware that the last 10 kilometres of the day would be spent climbing the pass, we kept it easy and trundled along comfortably.
Soon we could hear the final waterpoint in the distance: marking the start of the final climb. Thankfully, the gradient turned out to be forgiving, the gravel smooth, and the views superlative. It was hard not to appreciate the scenery, knowing this was the last of the hard work for the day.
After a quick lunch in the sun at the Zuurberg Mountain Village we rolled back down to our chalet for a nice long power nap before dinner.
Day 2: Aloe Legs Burn
Distance: 87 kilometres
Vertical Ascent: 1750 metres
The second day is the queen stage of the event, and the route was appropriately challenging with plenty of climbing, most of it on loose, rocky jeep track. Fortunately, the gradients were steady, and the climbs long, which made it possible to find a rhythm (some of the time).
We started on the same route as the day before, but instead of dropping into the Seven Dwarves, we followed the jeep track, which took us down into the valley, before kicking up again on the first major climb of the day, to the nearest radio mast, obviously.
I was feeling great and before long we were high up in the mist at the dreaded mast, and the second waterpoint. This was followed by some very welcome fast flat sections, and rolling climbs along the top of the Zuurberg mountain ridge. At points, we could see into the valleys on either side.
The descent off the ridge (White Knuckle Downhill) was rather like a dual slalom track: tweespoor with perfect bumps/ jumps, and a few testing sandy corners to catch out the over-enthusiastic.
We were now in proper Karoo terrain, dusty orange trails, surrounded by thorny shrubs and magnificent fields of aloes. A winding single track added some spice, and kept us interested as we traversed a relatively flat section to the next monster climb back up to the mast.
This started on tar, and the kilometres ticked by quickly until we hit the gravel again. This was rough and loose, and pretty heavy going at 60 kilometres into the day. The water point was a welcome sight.
A smidgeon more climbing and we hit the flagship descent of the day. And it did not disappoint. Gowars Gauntlet carved down to the valley floor dropping 370 metres in 3.16 kilometres via a few twisty switchbacks, and later a high speed natural trail which plunges straight down the hillside. My hands were cramped into claws around the handlebars by the end: it was spectacular!
A steep singletrack climb winding through the Addo Elephant Back Safaris game farm drew us back out of the valley and back onto the jeep track atop the Zuurberg mountain range. I was no longer feeling fresh or frisky, and was very grateful to be headed home towards lunch, a cold beverage, and a shower. It was eye-opening, and a little scary to ride past elephant dung bigger than a football, and realise how large the elephants actually are, and how vulnerable we would be if we happened to bump into one.
Day 3: Hayterdale Happiness
Distance: 50 kilometres
Vertical Ascent: 1200 metres
The final day has been designed to have riders end on a high. And it works. The route makes use of the Hayterdale trail network, and until the final climb up the Zuurberg Pass, the only time we found ourselves on jeep track we were either crossing it to get to another trail, or linking to the next trail.
Although only 50 kilometres, the route packs a punch with 1200 metres of climbing. It felt a bit like we were racing XCO for three hours.
The route starts as it continues: with a steep kicker out from the Zuurberg Mountain Village, which dramatically thins the field, before dropping into swooping singletrack which takes riders back down through the hotel grounds.
A newly cut fast and flowing single track follows the contours of the hillside next to the Zuurberg Pass, with epic views of the valley dropping sharply off to the right. As this beds in it will only get faster and more fun.
After crossing the Zuurberg Pass road, we continued to drop, on seemingly endless winding single track, enclosed by thorny forest and cactus, and punctuated by the occasional power climb. It was incredible to explore an unexpected trail network in this way, and with new trails to discover and enjoy there was no time to rest, eat or drink until one of the rare transitions.
When at last we were spat out onto the Zuurberg Pass for the final climb we were grinning like maniacs and both sporting a few thorns bristling from our gloves after tangling with the local flora.
The climb was familiar from the first stage and it was easy to find a comfortable rhythm and trundle up, soaking up the warmth of the sun and comparing war stories.
After shower and a ridiculously generous finish line buffet lunch at the Zuurberg Mountain Village (the dessert table was worth a whole story on its own) we hit the road home, both fatter and happier than we arrived.
Thanks to the race sponsors, both race villages were literally a wallet free zone. Drinks were taken care of by Darling Brew beers, Leopard's Leap Wines, Soga Organic orange juice and Beefeater Gin. Montagu dried fruit and nuts, and African Pride Biltong supplied the snacks and Nutritech took care of race nutrition.
I don’t need to describe the luxury of staying in a chalet, and having a real toilet and shower, and space to unpack clothes, plus a kettle for making that first cup of coffee in the morning. Suffice to say, it is a game changer. It is just that much easier to rest and recover, when you are not stewing in a plastic container along with your sweaty lycra. And it’s even better when you spot a herd of Kudu on your way to dinner. All in all, it was the most wonderfully laid back stage race experience I have ever had. If my legs weren’t so sore I’d think I’d been on a game-viewing holiday for three days.