As soon as we crossed the provincial border into KwaZulu-Natal, I was wondering how the heck I would get my helmet on. The humidity hit me, or rather my hair, like a brick wall and for the remaining 3 weeks I was there I had permanent fuzz-head which just seemed to grow and grow.
Staying in the city of Pietermaritzberg, I had to be up at 4am to have safe cycling roads but, even that early, the air (and my hair) was thick with humidity. I’d roll out of bed, feeling like it was really still nighttime, and throw on whatever kit was nearest. Habit of early riding had me zip on a gillet or slide on arm warmers in the expectation that it would be a bit cold and damp. Nope. Sticky. Humid. Hot. It was a strange feeling to be hot at 4:30 in the morning but then it again it was strange to have monkeys on the roof. It was all new in Natal.
Within the city, the roads were steep. 6-12% seemed to be the normal gradient of a hill and you were always pretty much going up or going down, never flat. The locally famous climb Town Hill, or Old Howick Road, is a testament to the terrain there. The 3.7km climb goes up 239 meters and really gets cooking after the first 1km. From there, the average gradient is about 6% but it kicks way above 10% in some spots. It’s not a wonder why most cyclists from these parts aren’t sprinters.
While Old Howick is a fun and challenging climb to check off, the roads of the Midlands is where Natal really steals a cyclist’s heart. The long rolling roads can keep you occupied for days. Longer climbs sneak up on you and the downhills serve only to connect you to the next rise. Thankfully, there always seems to be a breeze to keep the humidity away but the weather is about as constant as the terrain.
Within minutes you can find yourself in thick fog. The mist rolls in and suddenly you’ve gone from humid 25 to a wet 18 degrees and you’re pulling on a gillet to save you from the often accompanying rain. Fifteen minutes later, typically, it’s sunny blue skies and you’re feeling a bit hot as you power up the next hill. One great thing about the weather, however, is the greenery it brings. Natal is lush, lush, lush so the rolling hills are as green as they come.
It wasn’t all green fields forever. On one of the morning meanders outside the town of Howick, I rolled past the capture site of Nelson Mandela. The unassuming beautiful piece of land is where Mandela was eventually captured in 1962 before he was imprisoned on Robben Island. A museum and sculpture serve as poignant reminders of the past and mark the historic site.
I also quickly learned that Natal roads are notorious for potholes. Or, to be more accurate, death craters. Riding on some roads was more akin to skiing slalom in order to avoid the numerous holes. Of course, that wasn’t the only thing you had to worry about in the road…
After spending two weeks exploring Pietermartizberg by bike, climbing Old Howick road more times than I can remember and descending it in the mist more times than I would ever care to, riding in the Midlands was the real treasure. The rolling quiet roads outside the city are roads you could ride over and over. Despite having a permanent fuzzy head of hair from the humidity, I can’t wait to go back and explore more.