A 22km family biking adventure awaits following the magical Plaatbos Cycle Route in the Garden Route National Park, writes Guy Rogers
BANG! The report wafted back to us beneath the tree canopy and by the time we caught up, my two younger boys were sitting on the side of the road, radiators clearly over-heating, arguing over rights to the last energy bar.
Jude’s back tyre was a wreck: the tube had burst, apparently from the heat, rupturing the outer casing as well.
Even in the late afternoon and the shade of the trees it was sweltering. We were a while away from help and I knew we had to act fast. But there was still time for a mini indaba. Reaching our goal, the cliff top point where we would be able to look down at Storms River Mouth, was not going to happen today, but if we could just…
We leapt to the task and with some doing and some advising we fashioned a rescue. Although the replacement tube was too big (I forgot to cater for different size bikes when packing our equipment) we scrinched it in and squeezed the tyre back on. Then we pumped it hard enough so it didn’t split the tyre more but was okay for Jude, 11, to roll down the hill on.
While he and his brothers did just that, I pedalled hard back to our car and then drove around and met them down at the old Storms River Bridge. Our swim that evening in the cool tea-coloured waters as the last sun lit the forested slopes and the swallows dipped and swooped, was among our finest ever.
That was our second adventure on the Plaatbos Bike Trail in the Garden Route National Park (GRNP), one of South Africa’s most gorgeous assets, where we were lucky enough to spend New Year.
The park stretches from a mountain catchment area in the north through the Soetkraal wilderness, fynbos and indigenous forest to 80km of coastline and, extending 5km out to sea, a world-class marine protected area, the oldest in Africa.
The park includes the Wilderness, Knysna Lakes and Nature’s Valley sections in the Western Cape and of course Tsitsikamma, where we were, in the Eastern Cape.
The park’s wild inhabitants include sounders of bushpig up to 20-strong. Baboons dig from the soil to get minerals and forage in the fynbos and on protein-rich seafood like mussels and limpets. Besides the 202 fish species (and 211 species of seaweed) the wildlife includes Cape clawless otter, blue duiker, genet and leopard and, of course, a handful of elephants.
There are a multitude of hiking and cycling trails in the park and the cycling mostly centres on the Knysna section and the famous Harkerville routes.
But our mission was focused on the Plaatbos which runs into the park from Tsitsikamma Village.
This magical 22km cycle trail follows the alignment of the old national road which was originally built along an ancient elephant track. It was bypassed in the mid-50s when the cantilevered Paul Sauer Bridge on the N2 was erected higher up over the Storms River gorge.
We didn’t spot any elephants but grand old indigenous trees including ironwood, yellowwood, stinkwood and Cape beech arch overhead as you sweep downhill for 5km to the river and picnic spot.
The dense underbrush includes black witch-hazel and giant tree ferns. Due to poor visibility in this dense murky environment the birds including the Knysna loerie and Narina trogon (named after the Khoikhoi mistress of the French ornithologist François le Vaillant) have particularly penetrating calls.
From the river gorge, the Plaatbos climbs steeply to a coastal plateau (steep enough for my youngest to question darkly on occasion, “Why do they make it like this?”).
From there it’s a few kilometres on the flat through the Cape Pine forests abutting the park to the look-out point.
That first day, however, this point eluded us. We lost our way, back-tracked, conferred with parties of wandering Germans and eventually forged our own loop and emerged triumphant at the top of the pass again. It had been a great work-out and we would try again.
Besides cycling and hiking there are many other activities in the Tsitsikamma section of the GRNP including visiting the Big Tree (the 800-year-old yellowwood giant with a 9m circumference) kayaking, scuba diving, kloofing, tubing and taking a Segway tour.
Humming along in single-file, the gentle Segways always looked delightfully surreal to us but they’re an efficient and tranquil way to enjoy the forest byways.
We had been lucky enough to get accommodation in the park’s Storms River Mouth camp and we spent the next day walking to the suspension bridge, swimming out to the platform they have anchored off the beach and snorkelling in the rock pool opposite the Forest Cabin and tent area
Having our bikes made everything more fun. The younger boys made periodic trips down to the camp shop to buy Amabulabula icecreams and as the shadows lengthened their energy levels rose and they whizzed around the camp while my oldest son and I played chess on the veranda.
I also got the chance to interview section ranger and trail specialist Victor Cunningham about his team’s efforts to hone the park’s trails. Working in partnership with the Hiking Association of South Africa they have got all the Tsitsikamma section trails up to Green Flag standard, the internationally recognised level stipulating environmental, access and safety excellence, and the aim now is to roll out this standard across the park.
Clearly at ease with complex process and administration, Cunningham studied at NMMU and Unisa before taking up his position.
But he is also a child of the Tsitsikamma, he told me.
“The direction of my studies flowed from my memories of growing up in this area, camping, swimming and fishing with my grandpa.”
The last day we packed up and drove east across the N2 bridge and then turned off on the dirt road to Mpumulelo Village. I had bought a new tube but we had not been able to fix Jude’s dessicated tyre, and a new one was nowhere available. However, at Misty Mountain we rented another bike and from there we set out on our third assault on Plaatbos Look-out Point.
Old hands now, we raced down the road, took the correct turn first time and sped along doing aerials over the hummocks.
Our destination was even more spectacular than I had hoped, looking west down to Storms River Mouth and east along the Tsitsikamma cliffs tumbling into the sea.
So it made all sense, we agreed. The sharp challenges of our journey made arriving all the sweeter.