South Africa is a beautiful country, boasting a gorgeous coastline, stunning mountains and mesmerising bushveld. It begs to be explored, and doing that on a mountain bike is one of the best ways to go about it. The longest trail in the country is the Freedom Trail.
Established in 2003, the 2 300-kilometre Freedom Trail – originally known as the Cross Karoo Challenge – starts in Pietermaritzburg in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and finishes in Paarl in the Western Cape.
The annual Freedom Challenge, aimed in part at promoting the route, takes place over almost a month and includes an extreme triathlon.
10 years of Freedom
The Freedom Trail, launched as part of South Africa’s celebration of a decade of democracy in 2004, is a mountain bike trail consisting of dirt roads, dirt tracks and cattle tracks that includes plenty of technical challenges.
Despite its great length, the Trail can be ridden at any time of the year, either in one go or in sections. It is designed to be ridden unsupported.
Here is an outline of the route:
(Please note that some sections of the route require permits. Information on these is provided on the Freedom Challenge website).
Starting in Pietermaritzburg, the trial makes its way to Hella Hella via Baynesfield and Byrne. In total, the distance is 70 kilometres.
It takes in the Bisley Nature Reserve, and includes stretches alongside the Umlaas and Umkomaas rivers. Forestry tracks are also included.
Beginning at Hella Hella, the Sizonke section totals 200.5 kilometres. There are public roads and single tracks, and the trail passes though Hella Hella, into the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve, along roads that take in villages, through to Matatiele.
From Hella Hella, the stops include Allendale, Creighton, Ntsikeni, The Side, the R617/Swartberg, Banchory, Rama Gate Junction, and Masakala.
The Maluti section is up to 265 kilometres long and it’s a real tester.
It is a mountainous section, running from the Swartberg, above Matatiele, through villages and past mission stations built by Franciscan monks, below the escarpment of the Maluti Mountains and up to Naude’s Nek before descending into the picturesque village of Rhodes.
At up to 470 kilometres long, the Stormberg section is the longest part of the Freedom Trail.
Starting from Rhodes, the trail winds its way upwards towards Barkly East, before heading down into the valley of the Bokspruit River. After exiting the valley, the route continues along the Sterkspruit River to Johnson’s Leap.
Moving westwards, there is a climb before a descent into Bottlenek. Then it’s on to Rytjiesvlakte before heading into the Southern Drakensberg and descending into Vaalhoek.
There follows a choice of routes on dirt roads to Clifford, before a tough section of climbing and descending through Swartnek to Rossouw and on to Dordrecht.
An alternative route follows farm tracks over the mountains to Bonthoek before rejoining the road after Rossouw.
The trail then continues on to Pronkskraal, Brosterlea and Molteno before crossing over the Bamboesberge to drop off the Drakensberg escarpment.
The Great Karoo is another long section, measuring up to 433 kilometres.
It starts in Hofmeyr and heads off to Cradock along dirt roads. It crosses the Great Fish River and heads to the Mountain Zebra National Park. After traversing the park there is an exciting descent through the Groenhoek Farm, before entering the valley of the Little Fish River.
Heading down from the Swaershoek Mountains near Pearston, the trail goes across the plains of the Camdeboo, past Karoopoort and down to Darlington Dam. Then, into the Addo Elephant National Park, the route continues alongside the Witrugberg, through Perdepoort to the village of Kleinpoort, and across the Springbokvlaktes to the Groot Rivier.
Following the Great Karoo is the Baviaanskloof section. Measuring 280 kilometres, it begins in Steytlerville and takes in the Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area. There is thick coastal foliage and plenty of water along the way, as well as lots of birdlife.
Starting Steytlerville, the trail passes through Hadley, Grasnek, Goedehoop, Cambria, Geelhoutbos, Studtis and Voorkloof to Willowmore.
The next section, the Swartberg, is up to 400 kilometres long. Leaving Willowmore, the trail heads towards Klaarstroom and the railway siding at Vondeling. From there is heads north, then west along the Droeberge, past Rondawel and Sleutelfontein to Prince Albert.
Two options are offered from Prince Albert. The shorter route goes to the Gamkapoort Dam, along the Bosluiskloof road and on to Vleiland. The other choice takes one on a more testing route up the Swartberg Pass and into Die Hel before making for the Bosluiskloof road and on to Vleiland.
From there, the trail runs the Swartberg Mountains to Rouxpos and on through the Anysberg Nature Reserve.
The next section, the Klein Karoo, is divided into just two parts. The first of these, from Anysberg to Ouberg Pass, covers 49 kilometres, while the second, from Ouberg Pass to Montagu via Langkloofspruit, is 37 kilometres long.
The route is highlighted by a breathtaking descent down the Ouberg pass, which then heads along the Langkloofspruit.
The Breede River section of the Freedom Trail is 138 kilometres long. Part of the route includes the old wagon trail that runs along the northern side of the Riviersonderend Mountains.
It goes through the Coegmanskloof to Ashton, and then on to McGregor. That’s where the wagon trail is picked up. The route drops down and around the Brandvlei Dam. Then it’s up to the Stettyns Dam, continuing up to the Elandspad in the Du Toits Kloof.
From the top of the pass, the trail runs through the Hawekwas Plantation, through northern Paarl and over Paarl Mountain to Fairview and Cape Town.
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