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24 Jul, 2015

Conquering SA’s highest peaks

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The act of climbing the highest mountain in each of South Africa’s nine provinces is on many endurance athletes’ bucket list. Called the Nine Peaks Challenge, hikers and climbers who have done it before normally drive from mountain to mountain but Colin Cooper and his daughter Bianca decided to ride between each climb. And instead of sophisticated mountain bikes or ultra-light road bikes, the pair chose tough Qhubeka Buffalo bikes for this quest. This is their story.


Our Nine Peak Challenge was to be a South African first. To climb the nine highest peaks and cycle between each hike and to do this non-stop over a six week period.

Keeping in mind that we were not born or destined to be long distance athletes, we turned ourselves into becoming them with hard work, mental stamina and true grit.

So with a glass of Guinness in hand, my daughter and I worked out our plan:
a) We would ride to raise funds for Qhubeka, the bicycle charity;
b) On the trip we would ride only Qhubeka bikes. Single speed, no suspension, a pedal-back rear brake and 28 kilograms of solid steel;
c) We would go “Back to Basics” in terms of nutrition and hydration. This means that during the riding and hiking, we would not use any modern attributes like over processed and plastic packaged food and drink;
d) We would do everything in our self-designed and home-sewn shirts along with board shorts. Rain protection would be yellow rain jackets;
e) We would wear takkies with old fashioned toe clips;
f) Camping would be the preference, although guest houses would be used in times of bad weather;
g) We would not use GPS, only maps, odometers and a compass;
h) Definitely no tour guides or porters

We aimed to start in Limpopo and climb Iron Crown in August 2014 and finish in September 2014 by climbing Seweweekspoort in Western Cape, 3000 kilometres later.

The full route included the 2126 metre Iron Crown in Limpopo, the 2331 metre Die Berg in Mpumalanga, the 1852 metre Nooitgedacht in North West, the 1913 metre Toringkop in Gauteng, the 3275 metre Namahadi in the Free State, the 3451 metre Mafadi in Kwa-Zulu Natal, the 3019 metre Kwaduma in the Eastern Cape, the 2156 metre Murchison Point in the Northern Cape and the 2325 metre Seweweekspoort in the Western Cape. And, of course, cycling between each of them.

But then disaster struck. A week before we are due to leave, my wife, Maggie and I were victims of a horrendous farm attack which left me in a coma in ICU for a month with massive head and face injuries along with a smashed hand/wrist and ankle/feet injuries.

A long, tough recovery meant I was back on my Qhubeka bike and three months after the attack, I managed to finish 100 kilometres. By January 2015, I reached my short-term target of three 100 kilometre rides in three successive days. The Nine Peaks Challenge was back on!

Our new date to depart was now 14 March 2015. So, on that day, we reached our starting point in Haenertsburg, Limpopo at around midday and found that we still had time to climb Iron Crown before the sun went down. Number one done.

The next day we got on our trusty steeds and charged down Georges Valley road towards Tzaneen, a super 40 kilometre downhill, where we were supposed to meet our back-up “crew” (my wife Maggie) for the first time.

This first riding day was a long one, we had fresh legs and I wanted to get to the base of Abel Erasmus Pass before the traffic gets busy the next day.

We rode and met a team of students on a charity relay ride from Tzaneen to Hoedspruit. We cycled together and chatted for some distance but eventually left them behind.

After 127 kilometres on day one of the biking, our legs were tired at the start after yesterday’s hike but then they were very tired so we both had a lie down before dinner and bed.

After dodging rainstorms, we arrived at the gate to Die Berg on Wednesday 18 March and hiked the road to the top. This mountain deluded us into thinking that the rest of the trip would be easy.

From the mountain top, we descended a few kilometres to our stop for the night at Lomas Creek. They advertised a campsite but apparently there isn’t one. We “suffered” the night in a fabulous old farmhouse with wonderful hospitality.

Our route then took us to Loskop Dam and Bronkhorstspruit Dam.

We then had to ride through Pretoria on Saturday lunchtime, excellent planning! After swapping paint between bikes and buses, we dragged ourselves along a highway and came out at Hartebeespoort Dam. On Sunday we had a short ride to Ingwe Game Reserve, the base of Nooitgedacht.

From Ingwe we hiked up a road to the top of Nooitgedacht. Peak number three done and no sweat so far. In fact, it is cold, misty and very damp.

We then had two days of dodging traffic from Hekpoort to Vereeniging. Gauteng traffic is mad and we nearly got wiped out several times. Once by a woman in a big SUV who came from behind and swerved in front of us whilst on her cell phone. Then a Coke truck came from the other direction, shot off into the dirt in a cloud of dust before sending us diving for cover on the dirt verge.

We have been trying, by email and cellphone, to get permission to ride in and out of Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve. It was closed for a water supply problem. Next to Suikerbos, however, is the second highest Peak in Gauteng, Platberg. We climbed this instead and it is in fact a much longer and higher hike, so we were satisfied. It is now Tuesday 24 March and we have cleaned up four peaks already.

We left Vereeniging and rode along the Vaal Dam. A light rain fell and we stopped to put on our yellow rain jackets. Bianca christened them the Serial Killer Yellow Jackets ( SKYJs).

I had a really good day that day and lead most of the 114 kilometres at a good velocity. We were booked into Witsieshook Lodge for our assault up the chain ladder to Namahadi but first we had to ride through Phuthaditjaba and on and up to the Sentinel Car Park.

On waking the next morning, I tell Bianca that I can’t climb the ladder, we would have to take the long way round, up and down the gulley.

We hiked the donkey track, I had a few wobbly moments at the steep drop-offs, scrambled up the gulley and headed across the hills and valleys to our fifth peak at Namahadi. Just off the top, we stopped for our normal lunch of sandwiches, then headed back to the gully.

Up was not a problem, but I got into difficulties on the way down. My ankles were in tremendous pain. We stopped for a rest only twice on the way up, but I had to stop every 20 minutes on the way down. To make matters worse, we were both beginning with sniffles.

Number five was done and we were beginning to realise how tough this adventure would be.

Just riding the rolling KZN hills from Namahadi to Injusuthi on a single speed 28 kilogram Qhubeka was tough enough and included plenty of walkies up the bigger hills.

The normal hike up Mafadi takes four days, two up and two down. We left at 07:00 and hoped to be back the next day before nightfall, 36 hours. We took the long way up via Judges Pass as I was still very wary of over-using my hand and ankles.

Judges is probably the easiest scramble to the top of the Berg but with a 15 kilogram pack, it tested me to the limit. At the top, the wind started howling and as it got dark, we set up Bianca’s two man tent about two kilometres from the base of Mafadi.

We ate sandwiches and drank water from the ‘spruit and then turned in for the night. Something crawled over my head the previous night and bit me on the bridge of my nose and again just above the eyebrow. I thought nothing of it at the time, but during this night something swelled up right behind my left eye and the pain was horrific.

The next morning, we de-camped after eating breakfast. The two kilometres to the top of Mafadi was completed at a brisk pace.

Peak number six was complete but we still had to get down. It was a long steady walk to the top of Judges and the pain in my head was getting worse and worse as were the sniffles and sore throat from the cold that took grip.

As on Namahadi, the trip down Judges and on to Injusuthi was a nightmare for my ankles and I fell countless times. Bianca was strong but tired and led the whole way back. The last hour was hiked in the light of head torches and we finally got back to Injusuthi around 19:00.

Our next target was Kwaduma in the Eastern Cape near Rhodes. The ride there was extreme. The hills were endless, we both had colds and the pain behind my left eye was excruciating.

We had to cut back on our normal daily distance of 100 kilometres to around 70 kilometres. To add to our woes, we ploughed into a horrendous headwind for a couple of days.

Eventually we arrived in Matatiele, our base for the next climb. Matatiele is a breath of fresh air. Whoever is running that municipality should train all other public servants how to run a town.

The police gave us advice on the best place to start the climb and we latched on to a span of oxen being driven up the same path to fetch firewood. After we left them, we followed a horseman on the trail to the base of the climb.

When the really steep part arrived, we could see three possible ways over the cliffs. We took the right kloof. It’s a tough scramble, bordering on needing ropes but we made it over the top.

We knocked off number seven and stopped for lunch about a kilometre below the summit. The pain in my head was much less, our colds were getting better but my ankles and feet took another hammering on the way down with much falling over.

From a distance, I must have looked like a drunk. We again finished in the dark but a feeling of true accomplishment swamped over us. The three Berg mountains were done. We cannot be beaten now. We were invincible.

Murchison Point in the Northern Cape was next on the agenda and we had some long bike rides to complete. We decided to push further on the bikes, 110 kilometres per day, to make up the distance and days lost whilst we were not well.

Our daily routine of cycling together developed on its own early on in our Tour. I would take the lead each day for the first 40 kilometres, then when Bianca sensed my power dropping off, she would come past and drag me in her slipstream until we had done about 70 kilometres.

There we stopped for lunch. Back on the bike, Bianca would lead again for the next 15 kilometres or so, then we took turns until the end of the ride.

Occasionally, we got freaky good days like the ride to Camdeboo National Park. This absolutely magical day on the bike was enhanced by stopping to move a giant tortoise off the highway and then a stop for a very close encounter with an aardvark who did not realise it was midday not midnight.

Nieu Bethesda was our base for peak number eight. After the Berg’s difficulties, this mountain was as easy as pie. Hiking legs are definitely not the same as cycling legs. We both were reasonably bike fit when we first started but could not say the same for climbing. But now things had changed and we friskily bounded up to the top and back down. Eight were finished.

The ride to Oudtshoorn and on to Calitzdorp was wonderful. Good roads, traffic behaving sensibly and neither wind nor a puff from the rear. We even finished early one day and enjoyed wine and craft beer tasting at Karusa Winery.

The ride to and through Seweweekspoort was brilliant, what incredible scenery in the pass. There is a gate to the start of the climb up the last peak but the trail soon runs out.

We picked our way through thick proteas and tall spiky grass on the foothills, then a rock scramble and boulder hop to what we thought was the top. It wasn’t. We then hiked along a long ridge and finally hit the top of Seweweekspoort. This was it! We had completed the Nine Peaks Challenge by Qhubeka Bike!

Now we headed down and decided to take the short route to avoid the long walk along the ridge. Wrong decision again! After dropping perilously down the steep side, we hit an endless forest of Proteas and tall spiky grass. We finally emerged back on the road tired, twisted, cut but not quite broken.

Officially we had reached our target and climbed the nine peaks and cycled our Qhubekas almost 3000 kilometres between them. The hardest part of the whole trip was stopping. Bianca had a couple more days of leave left so we continued our ride back from Calitzdorp to Victoria Bay near George.

With beers in hand and watching the ocean from our tents, we started planning our next adventure. Our adventure was completed more or less on time and we raised a good sum of money for Qhubeka to put Kids on Bikes.

To put things in perspective, the final distance cycled by single speed, solid steel Qhubeka bike was 3500 kilometres. In terms of human effort, this is like doing the Cape Epic five times non-stop and, in between climbing Kilimanjaro twice or Everest once.

Would we do it again? Most certainly, and now we know the mountains better.

If any other person wishes to join us on a future Qhubeka trip please contact us via our website; www.heavymetalbikes.co.za or email colinc03@gmail.com. If anybody wants to attempt this journey on their own, we are available for free advice.

Colin Cooper

Colin Cooper

Adventurer |

Colin and his daughter Bianca do some pretty extraordinary things with their bikes. And they willing to tell us about them too ...