A Lake District, here in South Africa? And not on the Garden Route? Seriass, it is true, and best of all is you can pedal to your hearts’ content here amidst the Mpumalanga wetlands. Photographs and words by Jacques Marais.
Sometimes when you’re on a road trip, it is a good thing not to plan ahead too much. Our recent stopover en route from Swaziland was a case in point: Somewhere in between The Kingdom and the first coal stacks of the Highveld, there had to be a spot with enough wide open spaces to run, ride and paddle.
This spot was Chrissiesmeer, a slightly dilapidated (but still delightful) village set within the undulating landscape of the Mpumalanga ‘Grasslands and Wetlands’ region. Most people think South Africa’s ‘Lake District’ is located in the green heart of the Garden Route, but you are sure to change your mind once you bomb into the midst of the nearly 300 lakes you will find here, approximately two and a half hours from Johannesburg.
You’ll find beautiful sandstone architecture and many an ancient oak tree all round, and on the edge of town shimmers Lake Chrissie, South Africa’s largest freshwater lake by far, where a group of brave Scots put down their roots in 1867, naming the region New Scotland.
Micro-adventures. I quite like the idea of that. Get to a cool outdoor destination, ferret around for a do-able, human-powered adventure that takes anything from a few hours to a day at most, and set off (half-cocked, in my case) in search of endorphins.
My plan was to circumvent Chrissiesmeer on my bike, and on paper this looked pretty easy. And it is, as long as you check permissions beforehand (so that gates are open) and you take a head-torch (should the sun set on your adventure).
Whichever way, my starting point was at Miss Chrissie, from where it is a quick pedal onto the public gravel road (1km). Turn left when you T-bone with this road, and settle in for just on 3km of corrugated gravel grinding as you ascend along a slight climb.
Look out for the first un-gated gravel road to your right (3.9km), and dog-leg to your right past the ‘Private Road’ signs. I’ve been assured by Pieter Kruger that the local farmers are fine with mountain bikers, as long as they stick to main gravel roads (or get permission to access the farm tracks).
At 5.5km, keep right past a farm house on your left, pedalling into a gradual climb as you approach the watershed for the Vaal River in the west. Two more junctions (at 9km and 11km) will see you bearing right, all the while keeping Lake Chrissie in sight as you keep on the main gravel drag.
At 14.5km, you get to a juncture of four roads; here my plan was to keep right once again on a dual-track as on the GPS it looked like I could by-pass the farm house (17.5km). I’m still not sure, as there seemed to be no-one at home and I did not want to trespass. Plan B was to head back to the juncture, where a 4.5km sprint would get you onto the N17 tar road with 10 kays to go to town (35km), and finally another 4km back to Miss Chrissie.
That would have meant tar road, however, so I decided to trap back the way I came, with a short foray onto the lake shore to look at the riding potential there. If you’re prepared to hoick your bike over a few fences, this could make for a great ride, especially on a fat-bike, as the surface is mostly hard sand, with intermittent sandstone slabs.
Local rider Andrew Rathbone and some farmer mates ride a combo of gravel and edge-of-the lake stuff a couple of times per week, so he is a good man to speak to if you’re in the vicinity, and keen on a crank.
(An interesting fact is that many anthropologists believe that the Tlou-tle people (a San tribe who settled here approximately 1 500 years ago) built enormous floating villages on the lakes. This enabled them to move around freely to follow fish or, in times of war, float an entire village to safety).
Follow the N17 to Ermelo and on to Chrissiesmeer. Once in town, turn right at the Koolbank sign onto Jan van Riebeeck Street; the road will become a gravel road. Carry straight on for about 4.5km before turning left at the Miss Chrissie’s sign.
Sus the Chrissiesmeer MTB Route
Duration: 2 – 3hrs
Configuration: Circular: 38km
Start Point: Miss Chrissie’s County House (www.misschrissies.co.za)
Terrain: Gravel, jeep-track and sand/stone cranking (along lake edge)
Post-Ride Beer: The Billiard Room
Must-Do Event: The annual Frog Fest MTB Challenge www.chrissiesmeer.co.za
Access: Public access on main gravel; get permission for a lake shore ride.
Cell Reception: Good signal
Accommodation: Miss Chrissie’s Country House where the food is fantastic too.
Local Contact: Andrew Rathbone +27 (0) 82 442 7569
GPS: S26°18.765’ E30°14.065’
Where Are We?
Chrissiemeer is situated on the banks of Lake Chrissie (named after the daughter of Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, the first president of the Republic of Transvaal). The town was originally a stop-over for wagons travelling to the gold mining town of Barberton, but now it’s the perfect place from which to explore the Mpumalanga Lake District, which features over 270 lakes.