Take a trip into the forests on a self-balancing two-wheeler this holiday. It is amazingly easy – even for those of us who have not been blessed with athletic prowess – exhilarating, empowering and fun.
WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Desmond Scholtz
I’m not particularly brave. Nor am I sporty. Dressed in a skirt, I’ve made a legendary dive from a quad bike, and was sucked into a whirl pool on the Orange River while trying to impress my husband-to-be on a rowing trip. So you can see why bundu bashing in the forests on a two-wheeler inspires a degree of trepidation on my part, and at least hopeful doubt on the part of my husband.
I’ve booked us on the extended two-hour off-road guided Segway tour in the plantations and indigenous forests of the Tsitsikamma. The marketing materials describe a combination of “sheer natural beauty and the thrill of riding the quiet, easy-to-ride, Segway”. All I remember is the affirmative ‘yes’ to the frequently asked question: ‘Can I fall while riding a Segway?’
Arriving at the head office in Stormsriver Village, I am relieved to find adventurous-looking Australian girls appearing to be just as nervous as I am. After signing an indemnity form, we are issued with a hair net, helmet and neon safety bibs. Nope, I’m still not feeling confident.
Our guide, Chester Boezak, a registered tour guide born and bred in the Tsitsikamma, explains the mechanics before we head out for practical lessons on a small bark-laden obstacle course.
“Derived from the musical term ‘segue’ (/sεg-we/), meaning ‘smooth transition’, a Segway is a self-balancing, two-wheel personal transporter. Its operation is intuitive, using five gyroscopes, two tilt sensors, and an array of electronics making adjustments 100 times a second. The Segway remains balanced electronically – you do not have to self-balance from front to back, even over rough or uneven terrain,” says Chester.
The Segway is propelled by leaning forward and backward, and steered by gently moving the handlebar left and right. Unless you do something extraordinarily stupid or irresponsible, it cannot tip forward. If you want to stop, slow down and take both feet off the sensors. If you remove only one foot, it will keep on moving forward – not great when you have temporarily lost concentration in the vicinity of an ice cold forest stream, but generally harmless.
The device is completely sealed to allow it to operate in wet weather, splash through puddles and ride on wet grass – which means, you have finally found something to do on one of those annoying rainy holiday days.
The rules are straightforward: stay in a line, don’t drive too close to each other and pay attention to the road. You can’t speed – the handlebar will literally push you up if you lean too far forward. The smart technology will also slow you down when you go downhill, so fears of momentum-driven runaways are unfounded. The trick is to be relaxed enough for the sensors to read your movements, but in control and concentrating.
The training goes remarkably well. Within minutes the men are making windgat (wild and cheeky) swoops and chasing each other. The women manage to advance from ‘tortoise speed’ (13km/h) to ‘standard speed’ (20km/h). Chester seems to be going at super-duper speed, but evidently does not think any of us qualify beyond the basics.
We start with a smooth ride on tar through Stormsriver Village and into the pine plantations. As we turn onto a parallel road to the N2, Chester tells us it used to be part of the old national road to Cape Town before the highway was built. Considering its width, I have a new appreciation for the upgraded version on my left. Just as I become brave enough to accelerate to beyond a snail’s pace, the terrain turns rough. Erosion-ridden plantation roads, loose stones and bulky vegetation shake my confidence and body, but the smart little vehicle handles well and I stay on board.
And then I fall off! Not as spectacularly as I am usually prone, but luckily without injury, and it is admittedly more a temporary loss of balance and lack of direction than a ‘fall’. Except for Chester, who is obviously paid to notice, nobody seems to have witnessed the inelegant separation of woman and vehicle.
For a moment I think I’m not going to be able to do this… and then I think, ‘nonsense, this is smart technology and I’m more than capable of keeping this thing under control.’ Good decision. The road becomes less bumpy and I become more adept.
And then I start noticing my surroundings. Cool, fresh forest with that strange hollow silence of being among high vegetation that absorbs rather than reflects. The smell of pine needles and wet soil. The bright blue sky framed far above by the needled branches and tall, straight, stark trees.
The relatively soft buzzing of the Segways does not seem to disturb any animals. Chester says he has seen bush buck on tours before.
We cross into indigenous Afromontane forest and splash through shallow root-stained forest streams that sparkle in the sunlight filtering through dappled forest canopy. Chester points out and names several different species of trees, shrubs and mushrooms. We stop to get a closer look at a tree mushroom called an ‘artist’s conk’, named because you can engrave pictures or writing on its soft white surface.
Our tour includes a visit to the huge Tsitsikamma Big Tree – a yellowwood whose age seems to be between 600 and 1000 years, depending on whose research you consult. Irrespective, it is gigantic, beautiful and has been here long before any European set foot on South African soil.
It is the first time we encounter other people (on foot) on the tour, who seem impressed at our nifty crafts. After the bouncy plantation ride, the smooth wooden boardwalks leading up to the tree and around through a bit of more indigenous forest feels great. We stop and get off the two-wheelers for a quick drink of water and some photographs.
It is time to head back to the village. I’m really quite exhausted, both physically and mentally, but also sad the journey is ending. I’m pleased to discover no stiffness or muscle pain other than sore foot muscles from the unusual relative close positioning on the Segway, which fades minutes after getting off.
For me, the Segway journey was not just a stunning and adventurous ride in one of South Africa’s most beautiful places. It was empowering. I too can do adventurous stuff and be cool… well, sort of.
AT A GLANCE
Strict international safety regulations and smart technology ensure reasonable safety within the parameters of any adventure activity.
A rider must be at least 1.1m tall and weigh between 45kg and 125kg for safe driving.
You must be physically fit enough to stay on your feet for two hours, capable of continuously making minor shifts from front to back and side to side, with knees that can bend slightly.
Wear comfortable shoes with a decent grip (like sport shoes), sunscreen and bring a warm top – it can get cold in the forest.