Words by: Frans Le Roux | Images by: Jon Ivins Photography
Full Sus was recently invited to Swaziland to participate in the 13th annual Inyatsi Swazi Frontier mountain bike stage race. We spent a couple of days in awe of the beautiful country and its amazing people.
In our industry we’re lucky enough to be invited to do events right across Southern Africa. Once such unbelievable opportunity came across my desk a couple of months ago when an email from the team at Inyatsi Swazi Frontier arrived. The Inyatsi Swazi Frontier is a three-day mountain bike stage race which takes place in the north-western corner of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) every October.
Amongst hard core mountain bikers, Lesotho, Drakensberg and Eswatini rate highly when it comes to proper unspoilt riding. Having never been to Eswatini, myself and partner Francois had no idea what to expect from the conditions or trails. What we did know however, is that high-altitude and long rocky climbs would be part of our daily routine. Event owners and hosts, Brett and Lesley pulled out all the stops to make sure Team Full Sus experienced Eswatini in all its glory.
After we arrived at the registration venue at Hawane Resort, we met up with the staff from Cycle Tribe bike shop from Nelspruit to help us reassemble our bikes after our flights. Master mechanic Anton took less than 10 minutes to put our trusty steeds back together and made sure were ready for the following day’s action. We had a lovely dinner and a decent night’s sleep in one of the chalets at Hawane Resort.
DAY ONE: 60KM / 1850M CLIMBING
We woke up to perfect weather and plenty of happy riders who could not wait to get started. New to us was the fact that horses would lead us out for the first couple of kilos. A gentle leg warmer took us across the Hawane Dam wall. I could feel that we were cycling close to 1 700m above sea level as my lungs struggled to cope with the amount of oxygen available. We had a few short and steep climbs before a close on 10km downhill section between kilos 25 and 35. The only waterpoint was stationed at 35km and here we were urged to refuel as much as possible because the last 25 kilos were supposedly tough as nails. The organisers were not lying here. We climbed for almost five kilos up Gogo, a wide-open forest jeep track to reach the top of the mountain. Here an extra waterpoint was put in place due to the extreme heat. Temperatures above 35 degrees were experienced and the famed ‘Too Brutal’ climb still lay ahead.
Then we plummeted down the exhilarating Heenan’s Staircase, a slalom cut into the other side of the Gogo mountain before we cruised alongside a river in a section called Brown Crocodile. And then, we came to the portage known as Too Brutal – this was a proper sting in the tail. Apparently over the past couple of years, only one seasoned pro managed to ride to the top. ‘Too Brutal’ became a 35-minute walk. A welcome beer at the top made the suffering slightly better. Another couple of kilos saw us roll into our first overnight destination at Bulembu Country Lodge.
DAY TWO: 60KM / 1550M CLIMBING
Day Two saw us leave the sleepy village of Bulembu and it would be personally known as ‘the day of the river’. Rideable river crossings and plenty of them was the main task at hand during the mostly downhill day. After climbing through forest until around 15 kilos, we were greeted by a spectacularly long 25 kilometre downhill. Here I saw some crazy speeds by Bok-legends Butch James and John Smit as they flew past us. We crossed more rivers (34) on this day than I’ve probably crossed in the whole of 2018. The scenery, the locals and the amount of water that this part of Eswatini offers is just incredible. At the daily waterpoint Francois and I spent quite some time enjoying some delicious snacks while watching people try to cross the final (BIG) river. Just like on Day One, this day too would feature an enormous sting in the tail. The sting would come in the form of The Phoppa, a five-kilometre slog through the shady canopy of the indigenous trees in Phophonyane Nature Reserve heading towards the famous Piggs Peak Hotel and Casino. Personally, this was the toughest (rideable) climb of the entire event. You’ve been riding for four hours and then this ‘surprise’ creeps up. Big thanks to my partner for keeping me motivated and for fellow rider Rebecca who doubled as our route DJ. At the finish we chugged two chocolate milks before we went to find our luxurious en suite air-conditioned room.
DAY THREE: 60KM / 1680M CLIMBING
This was the toughest day of my life on a mountain bike.
When we lined up at the start, we were greeted by some much welcomed light rain. The riders rejoiced as this dropped the temperatures and would eliminate the previous days tough dust. Francois and I discussed the conditions and we hoped it would stay damp throughout the day. We would finish our day at the picturesque Maguga Lodge on the edge of Maguga Dam. The thought of finishing however was one we needed to forget about quickly.
Once again, the trails were stunning! We flew along some freshly cut manicured singletracks before heading into another wildlife nature reserve. Certain sections here were very steep and concrete slabs were laid down for the safety of vehicles and cyclists. After riding in dry weather for about an hour, mother nature decided to play a cruel trick on the riders as the heavens opened with torrential rain. Francois and I have never ridden our bikes in such heavy downpours. The rain continued to bucket down for roughly two hours before we reached the waterpoint which was perched on top of a slippery climb next to a pre-school (built by Inyatsi Swazi Frontier as one of its community projects). We stood next to some open fires and ate and drank everything we could get our muddy hands on. The following 22 kilometres took no less than four hours to complete. Mud, mud and more mud was what kept us from finishing quicker. The Eswatini mud clung to us like that ex-lover of yours who refused to let go. At every stream or river, we could find, we stopped to wash our bikes because our wheels were stuck, and we had no gears or brakes. It was great to see all the riders around us embrace the extremely difficult conditions and remain positive throughout the day. We made some friends (Shaun and Teresa) along the way and together we kept our spirits up.
Almost at the end, yet another steep sting in the tail came in the form of a two-kilometre tar road which took us to the top of the Maguga Dam wall. We zipped towards the finish line (still in the rain) at the Maguga Lodge where we were absolutely stoked to finish our first Inyatsi Swazi Frontier.
What we’ve learnt during this amazing event: Eswatini is not flat; altitude is a thing; mud will ruin your kit and bike; Eswatini has the friendliest locals; Inyatsi Swazi Frontier is extremely well organized; the route of Inyatsi Swazi Frontier (just four hours from Joburg) is spectacular and you will return home a changed human being!
A massive thanks to Brett and Lesley. This was a proper mountain bike adventure of note. Thanks to Eswatini Tourism and our friendly driver Jackson! Don’t delay getting your team’s entry in for the next Inyatsi Swazi Frontier so you too can explore this beautiful country and its people.
The 2019 event will be from 10-12 October. Log on to www.swazifrontier.co.sz for more info.