The Gem Diamonds Kalahari Challenge takes you four hours out of Gauteng, but you’d think you were in another world. With arid plains, untamed bushveld and solid stretches of singletrack, this race belongs on your bucket list.
Words and photographs by Jacques Marais
Botswana is hardly the first destination that springs to mind when you’re looking for a great MTB destination, but you’d better think again. It’s got everything from arid savannah plains, breath-taking sunsets, untamed bushveld crisscrossed by a myriad of game, cattle and goat tracks and people.
In all of Africa, Botswana is possibly the country with the loveliest (and liveliest) people. Things get done, smiles are shared, there is mutual respect and in the end, you have the best possible blend of first and third world.
Biking the African bush cannot get any better than during the annual Gem Diamonds Kalahari Challenge presented near Gaborone in Botswana, Africa. This three-day MTB stage race takes place over more than 230km, mainly on single track, to the south-east of Gaborone. It’s a full-service event restricted to a eld of 300 mountain bikers.
Only four hours from Gauteng, but oh boy, you’ll find yourself in a different world of stunning bushveld singletrack, gnarly technical uphill’s, some Kalahari “mountains” and hard pack track uninterrupted!
In 2016, the 11th Gem Diamonds Kalahari Challenge took place from 10 to 12 June, with full and light distance options. The route covered 237km and included 2 400m of climbing over three days, while the Conquest route covered 185km and a climb of 1 300m.
DAY 1: MOAB MOMENTS
Kick-off saw riders take on a tough 90km stage, with no respite from the bushveld terrain. But the sweeping singletrack more than made up for all the suffering, or maybe it was the ice-cold beers at the chill zone that welcomed riders as they flopped into welcoming couches and hot showers.
It was a great bushveld evening. The atmosphere was electric and riders stayed up chatting deep into the night. Each were caught telling their own Moab moment – there were some proper rock gardens along the Batman Returns section of day one!
Day 2: HORIZONTAL HILLS
In solid mid-winter sunshine, riders took on a tough combo of gritty climbs, sandy slipways, extreme rock gardens and owing savannah single- track looping through the Nhantle and Mogobane areas.
Everyone learned the meaning of “horizontal hills,” the local slang for nasty sand pits. Luckily the ride through the stunning Ranaka Valley soothed some frazzled nerves. The evening saw everyone tanked for the final stage into the finish line just after sunrise the next morning. The third stage promised to be shorter, but with a grunt climb early on, it would be the proverbial cherry on top of three days of bushveld mountain biking.
DAY 3: SERIOUSLY GRITTY
It dawned cloudy, with a chance of suffering along that seriously gritty climb right from the start gun. But in 60-odd kilometres, the front guys crossed the finish line at Lion Park, ending o a top-class bushveld MTB jol of note.
Sitting at Johannesburg Airport afterwards, with dust in my ears, eyes and other dark places, I’m smiling. What an incredible experience.
If you’re keen on a serious session of adventure MTB, add this to your must-do list. Trippy singletrack through the African savannah, littered with mother-cruncher climbs, endo-inducing sandy slipways, and errant kamikaze goats, this is a ride of bucket-list brilliance.