Rule number one of camping in the wild: don’t presume the wild animal attacking your toes is the hyena that wandered through the camp earlier in the evening. In all likelihood it is the poor sucker who drew the 01h00-01h45 shift, waking you for your 45 minutes sitting as close as you can to the fire, listening to lion telling their mates about the latest hunt. Damn, they sound close…
This cycling holiday in Botswana / South Africa is possibly the best biking experience I have had in nearly 30 years of riding bikes. Mashatu is a 75 000-acre reserve in the Tuli Block, the pointy bit on the eastern side of Botswana, where that country meets Zimbabwe and South Africa. Getting there is simple – drive north from Joburg, turn left at Polokwane – make sure you don’t miss the right turn onto the Alldays road, the sign is removed by errant taxis fairly regularly
– and keep going until you hit the border.
The first clue that this is no ordinary ride is the massive rifles the guides ride with, strapped to their backs. Bullets as thick as your thumb, just in case. not exactly the most comforting of sights. But the guides’
knowledge and experience shows from the first pedal stroke, and the best news of all is that they love riding bikes as much as we do, but are allergic to anything that looks like a road, so for four days you ride a mixture of open grassland and fine singletrack crafted by generations of animals making their way to water.
The beauty of this trip is that, with a maximum group size of eight, the route can be tailored for any and all abilities. There is plenty of technical, loose trail here, but there is as much smooth, level riding. You won’t find 60kph downhills or hour-long climbs, but there is plenty to keep the heart rate up, without blurring your vision as you search for large beasties. We chose a particularly hot week – and operations cease for the really hot summer months – where temperatures in the 40s meant we rose early, rode through to lunch and then collapsed for the rest of the day, but the winter months are more suitable for a visit.
The accommodation completes the African experience – sleeping under the stars, everybody taking turns in keeping the fire burning (flashbacks to army guard duty guaranteed!), and eating hearty, wholesome food prepared on site by the talented chef. You certainly won’t go hungry, and will more than likely end up having dinner with some locals – our first night was enriched by the presence of the local hyena – was he laughing at my cycling tan, maybe? – and day three’s lunch was spent alternating between checking on the boomslang in the tree next to the lunch table, and the breeding herd of elephants browsing, snorting and rumbling less than 50m away. But it is not just about interacting with these animals. We were exceptionally lucky on our trip – lion at 100m, a croc rushing into the water so close we could swear we got splashed, last-second route changes to avoid large, grumpy elephants and following the trail of where a hyena had dragged last night’s dinner – his, not ours – away from our camping area were some of the highlights.
This place offers so much more: peace, relaxation and regeneration. Magical sunsets, no cellphone reception, and silence so complete that we could hear the wind in the feathers of the eagles playing hundreds of metres above us when we stopped for a puncture, make this trip the complete break we all need, and deserve. And it is on bikes. What could be better?