Friday, November 26, 2010


Hogsback is associated with the classic fantasy novel, Lord of the Rings with some believing that Tolkein's Mirkwood was inspired by the forests of Hogsback. Detractors point out that Tolkein left Bloemfontein as a baby and never saw Hogsback. Others claim that Tolkein's son, stationed in South Africa during WWII, provided the inspiration for Mirkwood, following visits to Hogsback.

Irrespective of the facts or fantasy around Hogsback, one thing is definite. Hogsback and the Amathole Mountains offer the best mountain biking terrain in South Africa. Mountain Biking in the Eastern Cape is like Tolkein and the Lord of the Rings - you can't distinguish between fact and fantasy. Snide comments on the Eastern Cape are widespread - East Slumdon, Ghost of the Coast, armpit of the country, corruption, backwater - the list is endless. But, there is a nagging suspicion that the illusion is encouraged by locals. The objective of the fantasy is simple - let the world think the Eastern Cape stinks so locals can enjoy the benefits. Like surfers talk in hushed tones of secret surf spots, so Eastern Cape locals quietly enjoy the best, without the maddening crowds and prices.

There is ample evidence to prove this. Locals lament the loss of assets such as Shamwari, Knysna and the Cape winelands to marauding bands of high income tourists. Riding areas in Knysna are limited compared to the Amatholes. Whereas the so called Mecca of Knysna has a few good marked trails, in the Amathole's you can ride yourself into a comma. In pure self interest, locals have thrown a cloak of secrecy and fantasy over the Eastern Cape. Feigning pained looks when the butt of regional jokes, locals quietly smile into their sleeves and get on with enjoying their hidden world.

Its an open secret that the cycling world already raves about the Karoo to Coast, Imana Wild Ride and the TransBaviaans. Now, there is also the Lord of the Chain Rings (LOCR) and locals are jealously guarding its secrets.

Hogsback is set in the North West of Mountain Biking Middle Earth. Its a place where the air is rare, the gradients maddening and indigenous forest twisted with mystery. The inaugural event was quietly limited to a field of 60, mostly Eastern Cape teams. While the locals did their best to keep the invaders out by setting unseasonal dates for the event, a number of astute outsiders managed to weavel their way in. Charles Stander (aka Burry's Dad) and Leon Evans (aka Dr Evil aka Kevin's Dad) made an appearance as did a number of switched on Gautengers such as Miles Crisp.

For about R2000 per day you get Porta Toilets, Tents and Polystyrene meals at the Cape Epic. For about R600 per day you get substantially more at the Lord of the Chain Rings. Our team - Team Fat Tracks - stayed at The Edge, chalets on a cliff overlooking mystical forests with views of the ocean 150km South. From this vantage point we could survey our adversaries in the coming battle for the Rings of Middle Earth over glasses of Red Wine, warmed by log fires and fuelled by excellent food. No low tents, smelly thrones and long queues here!

Day 1 started with a headlong rush into middle earth, swooping technical descents through indigenous forest and then a climb with jaw dropping views into the Amathole Basin and Alice. You can view the track from my Garmin here. The Water points were a great combination of function and fashion and seemed to have been dragged into place by the Elves

The Day 1 prize giving set the pace for the subsequent prize givings. After each days ride, the prize giving was held in the grounds of one of the Race accommodation venues. The first night was held at "Away with the Fairies" a legendary venue amongst Backpackers. The Bar is a delight and there's also the fairies bath, hanging over the edge of a cliff, overlooking a forest bowl.

The village of Hogsback seems partly in a world of fantasy and sometimes in a mushroom induced stupor (apparently a forest byproduct in high demand amongst the backpackers). Its also the same riding an MTB in these areas as the distances, elevation and gradients conspire to send riders into fits of hallucination. Take Day 2, apparently only 56km and some 1600m of climbing. On paper, its nothing compared to the Cape Epic, Attakwas or Pioneer. But, do it at an elevation of 2000m, with insane gradients, and you're going to be in trouble. Such is the topography of the area that everythings like a mineshaft, very difficult to climb up, and one big whoosh and you're down. From the village, we transitioned through forests, breaking through the tree lines into grassland, interspersed with rivers and waterfalls. The Amatholes are incredibly rich from a botanical and cultural point of view and have been mooted as a Biosphere reserve. Like most things in the Eastern Cape, despite having been an established priority for many years, little progress has been made.

The route enables glimpses of the real Africa - the inside of the cultural cauldron of the the Eastern Cape. Whereas the Cape Epic enables a view of the affluence of the Western Cape winelands for foreigners, the Lord of the Rings gives a view of the Eastern Cape which few get to see. Even locals marvel at its splendor. For many years the Amathole Hiking trail was one of the most popular hikes in the country. Its volumes rivalled that of the Otter trail, but, bad management has led to a decline in its popularity. This offers clues for the future of LOCR. The Amathole mountains have fantastic terrain for outdoor recreation. The key is managing the interface between the terrain and the users. There is splendid opportunity to put together great single track into a network of marked mtb trails. Despite considerable prompting, the Department of Forestry have not come to the party. Whereas they devote considerable resources to affluent areas such as Knysna (ie Harkerville), they have failed dismally in providing recreational access to the Mountains of the Amathole. There has been a long history of trying, and the organizers of LOCR need to persist with what they have started.

It is not going to be easy and the first reaction is to ignore the potential role of authorities. However, these authorities have an obligation which they are not meeting. In essence they are neglecting the Eastern Cape in favor of other areas. A small bit of effort put into facilitating recreational access to the Amathole's can go a very long way in establishing LOCR as a significant feature on the National calender. However, it is as tempting to stay in the confines of Middle Earth, ward off all invaders, and just ride the terrain!

Unfortunately we had to leave directly after the finish of the race on Day 3. We evidently missed the mother of all parties at "Away with the Fairies" I will certainly be back in 2011 irrespective of where this event goes. Here are my top 5 thoughts:

1) Cape Epic - Here is new terrain: This can easily become the venue for the Cape Epic in years to come. People are tiring of the Western Cape. The jaundiced view of affluent wine farms is good, but, the cultural diversity of the Eastern Cape can be so much better. The Eastern Cape Tourism Board should put in money and brings this event to the Amathole's as a celebration of Eastern Cape diversity and a kick off of the Amathole Mountain Escape / Biosphere. How about this to consider
Stage 1 = Katberg - Mpofu - Fort Beaufort - Fort Fordyce, Balfour - Katberg
Stage 2 = Katberg, De Waals Pass, Thift Dam, Post Retief, Balfour, Katberg
Stage 3 = Katberg, Balfour, Seymour, Mitchells Pass, Hogsback
Stage 4 = Hogsback, LOCR routes, Hogsback;
and there is plenty more to play with. Remember, that LOCR was originally going to be a race from Hogsback to the Coast!

2) Organization: Great - fantastic, you put so much effort into good marketing and branding. It was a really class act with everything from radio stations to good PA systems. However, you need to put more attention into race results. Perhaps have these on a big screen showing splits and finishers. Also make sure you get results out on the web in either real time or near real time. It helps so much with followers and lets the wife know what I am up to.

3) Routes: While you have great terrain to work with, you need to develop Mtb routes. Get hold of Forestry who must invest in marked trails which are supported by local accommodation establishments. Government is willing to invest, but the private sector needs to use the investments sensibly. Past efforts with Hogsback have failed because of bad choices by business in Hogsback.

4) Spread the benefits, but, not at the expense of race atmosphere: While the floating venues for prize giving spread the benefits, it detracts from the race atmosphere. Pay more attention to creating a race village in one area and find other ways to spread the benefits. Get the locals to bring their wares to the race village (like tweede kamp).

5) Reconsider the team approach: There are many team stage events in the country and the market is getting pretty stale. There is probably more scope for an event which focuses on individual honors, but, has a team reward - sort of like the old road stager events. Lets face it, Big Road tours are dead and the Mtb stage races fill the vacuum. Bringing in facets of the old road stage tours into Mtb stage racing could be just the ticket.

For the record, the Fat Tracks team came in third overall and first Vet team. Over the three days, my partner Mike was the machine that kept us in contention. For me the race was a first training race in preparation for the Cape Epic. The home front has given the Green light and its all systems go!

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