Umsunduzi Valley, between Durban and Pietermaritz-burg, provides for a soul-searching but not too arduous ride through many pristine rural areas. Picture: SUPPLIED
Umsunduzi Valley, between Durban and Pietermaritz-burg, provides for a soul-searching but not too arduous ride through many pristine rural areas. Picture: SUPPLIED

It takes only 45 minutes on the N3 highway to get from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. But why do that, with everything on both sides of the car a blur, if you could take two days to travel the route through the beautiful Valley of a Thousand Hills?

Travelling on a mountain bike will also cost much less, at least in fuel. And mature cyclists will improve their memories by doing something unforgettable.

The route is along the Umsunduzi and Umgeni rivers on small, winding gravel roads and some single-track trails. It totals about 110km, traversing areas that vary from peri-urban to pristine.

Throughout the ride, with its taverns and small shops, chickens, long-horned cows and goats, stories of rural and urban life unfold. Everything is free range, including yourself.

You will also be able to appreciate the valleys and mountains and the rich tableau of modern Zulu rural life.

Although the area is called the Valley of a Thousand Hills, some of those hills are mountains. Do not fear, the route generally does not cross the mountains, but follows the rivers. But don’t expect the rivers to follow a straight route — the adjective "winding" is an understatement. Rivers generally tend to flow downhill — but don’t count on it.

A good starting point for the tour is about 15km from Pietermaritzburg at the MTB Aloe Wildlife Estate, a well-known single-track mountain-biking destination where there is safe parking.

The first section of the ride is down a good tar road that soon descends steeply into the Umsunduzi valley. There it becomes gravel roads and single track.

To make the best of the route, which is not sign-posted, and to know where best to cross the rivers — there are about four river crossings on the first day, or the option of riding further to road bridges — use a cycling guide from a local cycling team. The cost will be only a few hundred rand a day — very little for moguls who spend whopping amounts of money on bikes and gear.

The best way to secure a local guide is to ask the owners of the recommended first-night accommodation. A guesthouse at Mfula Store is at approximately the halfway mark. It is a charming, historic, restored wattle-and-daub house in a wild, little-populated valley. You could also use the guesthouse as a base for a few days, and drop mistresses, partners and children there for a less strenuous trip.

Most of the first day’s 50km is in fairly populated areas. At weekends it is not unusual to see weddings and funerals along the route.

This area is one of the heartlands of the Zulu nation. The land is generally owned by the controversial Ingonyama Trust, set up to administer land traditionally owned by the Zulu king supposedly "for the benefit, material welfare and social well-being of the Zulu nation".

For local residents this means they can secure a plot for a few hundred or thousand rand and their livestock can graze in the commonage. Many who live here commute to work in Pietermaritzburg, Pinetown or Durban.

An average rider will reach the guesthouse after lunch. When I arrived, I was looking for a person with a cold beer and a warm heart, in that order. I only found the first (because Mfula Store is licensed).

The guesthouse overlooks the river and is surrounded by beautiful trees. A short way down the river is a great area for swimming and bum-sliding.

On the second day, begin the ride as early as possible as this area is hot, even in winter, and you could quickly reach the coastal plain, where it will be even hotter and more humid.

Soon you will reach the junction of the Umsunduzi and Umgeni rivers. Now the ride is down the bigger, combined river, but with the same obstacles if you are taking the single-track option.

Throughout the two days, the single track is generally through fairly thick bush and sometimes navigates steep ravines and rocky outcrops. For average riders, there are many get-off-and-walk places.

This is thorn veld, so you are unlikely to escape without a few scratches and some blood. This should make you feel better, as ancients believed blood and other bodily fluids — known as "humours" — should remain in proper balance.

Halfway through the second day, you reach the large Inanda Dam, one of the main sources for Durban’s water. In the distance you will see urban areas surrounding Durban. The mountains open out onto the flat area of higher population and the Umgeni business district. By now, it is easy riding.

The cruise into Blue Lagoon, at the mouth of the Umgeni River north of Durban’s centre completes the second day, which totals about 60km (longer, but easier riding than the first day because it is mostly on tarred roads).

For people who prefer not to ride through the urban areas, there is an option to be collected after 35km from the Inanda Adventure Centre on the dam.

The summer months get exceedingly hot and unbearably humid in the valley. The river crossings are generally shallow in winter but can be raging torrents in summer, which would necessitate sticking to roads and bridges. So winter is a better option.

Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours.