The Dragon Masters: A short tale about a long trail

Loose Cannon Correspondence

As I write this there are two people riding the Spine of the Dragon mountain bike touring trail. Sean Fraenken is pedalling from Beit Bridge, while John Brand is doing it the other way round. Maybe they’ll meet somewhere in the middle, perhaps on some sunny hilltop in the Drakensberg. Words and photographs by David Bristow.


They’re both going solo, although in Sean’s case not quite so: he’s pulling a trailer for his two Jack Russells. I told him he’s barking mad because the dogs should be pulling him. He said he tried that, but each time he shouted “mush!” they bit him on the ankles, so now they sit at the back and bark instructions.

“We’re hungry, feed us,” or “Hey, there goes a rabbit …” and then they jump off and go on a caper.

Sean does other crazy things too, usually to raise money for animal charities such as TEARS and various animal shelters. So if you like animals and giving away your money, go to his website Clearly he’s a good oke. He just has to learn how to mush those two mutts of his.

John, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any pets, pet projects or other trail furniture. He’s just doing it for that best of reasons – because it’s there and because he can. It’ll be a bit past the fact by now, but if you want to back-track over his adventure, the place to look is by searching John’s Beit Bridge Ride on Facebook.


That is exactly what riding the Spine is all about. The truth of it is that I dreamed up the idea of creating a touring mountain bike trail so no-one would ask me to ride the Freedom Challenge, or any other moerse bike race (they often call them “events”, or “tours”, or even “fun rides”, but we all know the lie).

I know how to ride a bike, I just don’t like riding so fast that my heart starts ripping its way out my ribcage, Alien style. An old mate of mine who once went up a mountain with me dubbed me “Diesel Dave” – point me in any direction and I just keep on going. So I’d rather ride 3 400km in 58 days than 800km in just eight.

To date, as far as I know, seven people have ridden the full Spine trail, all 3 400km of it, from Beit Bridge to Cape Point (or vice versa) and then the two who are riding it “now” and should be done by the time you are reading this. We call them Dragon Masters and there are also two honorary Masters.


First up is Kevin Davie who pedalled his mountain bike along a similar route (the Ganna trail), commando-style, in just 30 days. Then there is – or was – Jaco Strijdom, cancer fighter, who tried it twice before eventually riding his way right around South Africa, and then succumbed. May the mountain gods bless you Jaco.

The first to ride the “official” Spine of the Dragon trail (and it’s official because we said it was), was yours truly and Steve Thomas of Daytrippers, the bike tours company. A good man in calm or storm. Next came Rohan, Danie and Craig who did it because Rohan of Detours Trails wanted to scout it out for an annual event, which we hope will one day come to pass.

Next were Dylan and Misty Weyer of Grahamstown who rode the trail to raise money for a cerebral palsy organisation called Malamulele Onward. She’s an occupational therapist who works with children in SA and Lesotho who suffer from CP and who have little access to First World care. So bless them. And bless them too for calling us Steve Bristow and David Thomas; although sometimes it’s true we’re not quite sure who the heck we are.

The best thing about the Spine of the Dragon route is… actually there are plenty. But one is that at the end of each day’s riding there will be a bath, bread and a bed. Another is that distances are generally not great so you can stop to smell the flowers, drink some beer under a thorn tree, or drink coffee in the sack until the sun is well up each day.


Recommendation: ride it in spring or autumn when days and nights are kind, days and nights are neither too short nor too long, and the weather is generally fine.

Then there is the fact that you can ride it in one big chunk or a series of nibbles. The trail is divided into eight or nine (I think, my memory is shot) sections. Roughly, Vendaland, Sekhukhuneland (yes, really), the Mpumalanga escarpment, battlefields, kingdom in the sky, war trail, Karoofolded mountains and fairest Cape. If you have not been laid off the job you could do it as a series of annual holidays, or bi-annual, or tri, whatever.

One thing I can promise you, it will be the best adventure you ever do in this extremely comely little corner of our planet. We wrote a guide book to help with the logistics, then made a website where you can grab all the GPS tracks. Mountain biking doesn’t get much easier than that, or life much better.


You really should do it. And you won’t have to race, unless you just can’t help yourself.

As this edition was going into production we heard that three more steel-wheeled Don Quixotes, Archie Rutherford of somewhere near Pretoria and two chinas, were about to set off on the Spine route. My advice: do it soon, before the generosity of the good rural folk of SA starts to run low. Our wish forthem and all future Spine riders – may all your winds be north-southerlies.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: David Bristow on the Handful of People Who Have Completed the Spine of the Dragon Cycle Route | Struik Travel & Heritage

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