Country feel: The pervasive cosmos in late summer. Picture: SUPPLIED
Country feel: The pervasive cosmos in late summer. Picture: SUPPLIED

Some really good mountain-bike touring country close to Johannesburg reveals beautiful high escarpment areas in the eastern Free State. The springboard metropolises for these routes are Volksrust and Warden.

My mountain bike and I got to and from these two centres easily using intercity buses.

From Volksrust to Memel

Volksrust (Elangwane), on the border of British Natal and the Transvaal Republic, was where trains used to stop with recruits for the mines.

The selection process for recruits allegedly consisted of a finger pointed by the selector and the words "long one, long one" (heard as "langwane, langwane"), with the less-tall men sent back home.

To ensure I would not be selected for underground work, I left Volksrust for Memel fairly quickly. From Volksrust, there are two ways to ride to Memel. One is to start out on the quiet tar road to Vrede and 20km along this, a gravel road to Memel is off to the left.

Grassland habitat: The green wetlands in Memel, which is a small town. Memel has good accommo-dation because the town is a birdwatchers’ paradise. Picture: SUPPLIED
Grassland habitat: The green wetlands in Memel, which is a small town. Memel has good accommo-dation because the town is a birdwatchers’ paradise. Picture: SUPPLIED
Right, Memel’s Sneeuberg farm on the S17, a gravel road which heads south through spectacular farmlands. Picture: SUPPLIED
Right, Memel’s Sneeuberg farm on the S17, a gravel road which heads south through spectacular farmlands. Picture: SUPPLIED

After 40km of this gravel road, four cars passed me from behind and the same number from the front.

In my experience, the gravel roads in the Free State are poor compared to other provinces. I attribute this to the legacy of former premier Ace Magashule, who apparently had a "Zuma" approach to development – namely, that it is primarily for the enrichment of the elite.

I was caught in a heavy rainstorm in the second half of the ride so I could not savour the rolling green grasslands for the whole trip. I did think of taking shelter under a tree but then I realised that the tree was on the other side of a tall fence, inside the Mbumanzi lion farm, which offers "interaction with carnivores". I decided against such interaction and rode on to Memel in the rain and lightning.

Memel is a small town with a lot to be modest about. It does, however, have good accommodation options. Why? Because the environment is exceptional. This is wetland central, with excellent birdwatching.

Locals claim the Seekoei wetland near the town, which has Ramsar status, is the largest wetland in the Southern Hemisphere. Besides birds and wetlands, there is the green, green grass (in summer) and pervasive cosmos (in late summer).

The alternative route to Memel starts out of Volksrust southward on the N11. This is a busy stretch of tar road, but it is mercifully short before a right turn on gravel leads to Majuba.

Majuba! A name which echoes in South African history as the place where the Boers first gave the British an unexpected snotklap. Majuba has a private museum.

Continue down the gravel road, which climbs initially but thereafter is largely downhill to Memel. From Memel, if you have time, there are a number of excellent circular mountain biking routes — varying from technical to small, deserted district roads.

Contact guesthouse owner Jimmy Saunders (058 9240034, mahem@xsinet. co.za) for the maps of these.

Preferably spend a day or two exploring Memel and its surrounds, including the reed-filled bird sanctuary. I had urgent business meetings, so I headed out of Memel on the S17, a gravel road which heads southwards through spectacular farmlands and wetlands and up the escarpment before descending rapidly via Muller’s Pass to the Newcastle area. Near the top of the escarpment there is a national heritage site, the huge Vangervlei reedland. There are stories of how British troops were bogged down in this wetland in the Boer War.

Nearing the top, I thought I heard the wheezing of a truck winding up the pass, but then I realised the sound was just the empty moan of the wind as it was cut by the telephone wires.

From Warden to Verkykerskop

An alternative route in the same general area has a different first day — from Warden to Verkykerskop — but joins the same Muller’s Pass route on the second day (although you could, alternatively, easily ride from Verkykerskop to Memel and enjoy its delights, as above).

From Warden, two gravel roads (choose either) climb through similar rolling farmland and grassland for about 50 km to Verkykerskop. The route is another birdwatchers’ paradise.

Verkykerskop was once a wagon stop. More recently it was largely bought up by musician Matt Hoffman. The hamlet’s historic "Jewish store" has been enlivened with all manner of old items, and it hosts a fine buffet on Sundays.

Singers Chris Chameleon, Valiant Swart and Frank Opperman have graced the hamlet’s October festival.

Heading out in the mist from Verkykerskop, I took a road through the highlands towards Muller’s Pass.

I’m told it rains here almost every day in summer.

This route is so remote, empty, high and windy it is reminiscent of the Karoo and the Scottish Highlands. The difference is that it is only a few hours "art" of Johannesburg.

To confirm that this is a remote route, the road increasingly became grassed over.

It was a fairly strenuous ride, up and down, to the Memel-Muller’s Pass road, so I stopped for a snack and a swim in one of the many streams.

• Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours.

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