The Garden Route’s MTB Mecca

Knysna is #TrailTownSA for a very good reason. It is the mountain-biking hub of the Garden Route, that glorious area novices and veteran dirt hounds call MTB Mecca…

Words: Fiona McIntosh

Pictures: Shaen Adey

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“Bend ze knees,” says Tony Cook as I nervously approach a bump in the well-groomed path. “Then straighten your legs in the dip and your momentum will carry you over.”

I’m riding the Mad Cow route at the Garden Route Trail Park, at Barrington just west of Knysna. It’s graded as moderate, but surveying the purpose-built single track with its bumps and berms, I wonder if I’m out of my depth. “You’ll manage fine,” Tony assures me. “Just stick close to me and I’ll guide you through.”

Gritting my teeth I follow his instructions. The route looks intimidating but is so well constructed that, once I’m in the swing of it, it’s remarkably easy. “Ride up the slope and let the bike tilt sideways a bit,” Tony instructs me at the next big berm. To my surprise the technique works. I imagine myself in a velodrome, playing cat and mouse like one of the cyclists I watched at the Rio Olympics. This is fun.

“When you come to the muddy bit keep your bike upright,” Tony barks as we approach some puddles. “And whatever you do, don’t use your front brake. Just relax and roll through.”

Back at the trails café I chat with the owner of the Garden Route Trail Park, Rob Dormehl, a dairy farmer who represented South Africa in rowing before becoming an ace mountain biker. He opened the trail park in 2013 and has been cutting new trails ever since.

Sebastian, Tony’s son, is excited to ride Lunacy Lane, which has opened since his last visit a week ago. “How often does your dad bring you here?” Rob teases, as Sebastian shows off his tricks. “Not enough,” insists the 14-year-old.

He loves the place, particularly the Pumptrack, which he volunteers to take me on. The youngster is an even better teacher than his dad, demonstrating how to ride the various obstacles as I follow him round. Such is his skill he can complete the course without pedalling.

The Trail Park, between George and Knysna, has become the hub of mountain biking in what was already South Africa’s MTB Mecca. With its extensive network of trails, easy access, diverse terrain and mind-blowing scenery, the Garden Route attracts novices and veteran dirt hounds eager to explore the beautiful forests and spectacular coastal tracks on two wheels.

And the trail options are about to get even better. Rob takes us high into the mountains to see the new trail he’s recently cut. “This is the pilot for the new Cross Cape Cycling Route, a long-distance MTB trail that will ultimately run from Cape Town to Plettenberg Bay,” he explains.

The aim is to create an iconic trail that any mountain biker will have fun on, a dedicated MTB trail accessible to riders of all ability. Those in the lower-skill groups can ride the trail slowly, taking in the views and the forest environment, while it’s challenging enough for experienced riders to get a rush as they speed on down.

The route is true to Rob’s word, offering spectacular views from the ridge, and magnificent riding on flowing single track. Rob is a master craftsman. “The key thing in the construction process is sustainability,” he explains. “These trails are built to last. We’re lucky to have the weather, terrain and the right soils for such a project. The Garden Route has it all. This trail will showcase the diversity of the region – the rivers, oceans, mountains and forest.”

There is also plenty of accommodation and other service providers along the route, to house, feed and water visitors wanting to make a holiday of a multi-day ride. The Cross Cape is in its early days, but this pilot has been built to a trail specification that will provide the blueprint for other areas. “In a couple of years people will be riding it on e-bikes,” Rob predicts. Which will take the sting out of the hills and make the route even more accessible.

21c-mtb-garden-route-copyright-shaen-adey-2078cOur week of biking the Garden Route had begun further east on the iconic Harkerville trails, near Plettenberg Bay, where Ricky Jantjies, Tony’s right-hand man, was my enthusiastic guide.

“You’re not afraid of heights are you?” asked Ricky as we studied the map at the Garden of Eden trailhead. “The Red Route is fantastic, but it is quite testing, particularly the bit along the cliff edge. Some people get a bit nervous.”

It was an amazing track, as promised, starting in the plantations then popping us out onto a rough track through the fynbos, which afforded splendid views along the rugged coastline. Not that I had much time to appreciate the vistas as we rode. Oh no, with a big drop on one side of me I had my eyes firmly on the path.

Ricky powered ahead, making light of the steep climbs on loose rock. “You’re doing fantastically,” he encouraged. Just one more hill then it’s easy riding back to the start. Originally from Tsitsikamma, he honed his guiding skills working for Stormsriver Adventures and at Forest Ferns, where he was involved with the Dolphin Trail, one of the country’s most luxurious slackpacking trails. He’s sympathetic and a natural entertainer, the perfect guide.

“I’m a combo guy,” he said, when I asked what he liked about his job. “I don’t just want to do one thing. That’s the great thing about working here. There are the hiking and MTB trails but also kayaking. I love taking guests into the forest to ride. When I get them out on the trail they open up and start to talk – about everything, including their personal lives. It’s like therapy.”

The MTB trails on the Garden Route are safe and well-marked, so you can easily ride on your own, but I enjoyed Ricky’s input.

He shared the local knowledge, choosing a trail to fit our ability and time constraints, and advised on other practicalities such as how much water to take. He also told us where to leave a second car on the linear routes such as the Petrus se Brand route, which we rode on our second outing, and he was constantly filling us in on the background to the trails, and identifying flora and fauna along the way.

“The trails at the Garden Route Trail Park are fantastic,” he insisted, when I quizzed him on the best trails in the area. “But from a guiding point of view I still rate the Harkerville Trails. When people see the view of the Harkerville coastline, even if they have struggled they say ‘Wow, that was worth it.’ ”

The next stop was Cairnbrogie, just west of Plettenberg Bay. Part of the Robberg Coastal Corridor, the property has spectacular cliffs and rocky beaches that are every bit as impressive as that of the famous local landmark, the Robberg Peninsula.

Owner Andrew Hill took me on a spin around the forgiving trails of his dairy farm. “We’ve just opened our Pumptrack,” he announced. “It’s a series of bumps and rollers that riders use their momentum to get around. You can ride it on your bike, or even scooter, and it’s great for developing skills and confidence. We’re constantly developing new MTB trails and now have approximately 22km on the farm, as well as a jump line for the more adventurous.” And a café, obviously. Good coffee and mountain biking seem to go hand in hand.

The Cairnbrogie routes have been incorporated into many of the local MTB (and trail-running) events over the last few years. As I followed Andrew on their flagship route, the easy but spectacular Coastal Route, I soon understood why the farm is so popular, particularly with families.

We end our mountain-biking holiday with a spoil, a stay at Fancourt, which gives access to some of the best riding in the George area. Golf director Neil Walsh Tucker, a keen mountain biker and trail runner, takes us out for an orientation. “Although well-known to local riders, most of the trails aren’t marked,” he explains. “So one of the Fancourt team usually accompanies guests.”

Heading out from the estate we ride on dirt roads through farmlands, passing a big herd of buffalo. Hang on. Buffalo? Am I seeing things? “No” says Neil with a laugh. “They breed disease-free buffalo here at Sherwood Farm. We often see them on this fence line.”

The track steepens as we climb through the Klein Uitkyk plantations to the Jonkersberg Contour, a wide jeep track that winds around the lower flanks of the Outeniqua Mountains. It’s easy riding through patches of indigenous forest and high fynbos, the gaps in the vegetation revealing views all the way to the Indian Ocean.

After an hour or so heading east we cross the N12 tar road and head up the old Montagu Pass. Built in 1848 by Henry Fancourt-White, the gravel road climbs, steeply at times, to an altitude of 780m. As we ride past sandstone cliffs, admiring the profiles of jagged peaks and the vistas over the foothills of the Outeniquas, I feel inspired although my legs and lungs suffer from the sustained climb. “This is one of my favourite training rides,” Neil informs us as we stop for to inspect the old tollhouse. Perhaps if I rode this regularly I’d have a toned physique like his.

Neil’s passion for the mountains and outdoor opportunities on his doorstep give us the boost we need to make it to the top of the pass where we enjoy a well-earned breather. After a fast descent we swing left towards the Witfontein Forest, climbing up on forestry roads before speeding down the well-crafted single track of the Witfontein DH bike trail.

Built by George Hillbillies Mountain Bike Club, it’s a superb playground for local riders and visitors, with some optional ramps and challenges to amuse technical riders and kids, some of whom, to our chagrin, fly past us whooping in delight.

“The Witfontein forest is loads of fun for riders of all capabilities, from novices to advanced cross-country and downhill riders,” Neil says. Cyclists like Gert Heyns and Matthys Beukes (two of the country’s top professional mountain-bike riders) use Witfontien as their main training ground because it offers the full spectrum, from climbs to technical sections.

The week has flown by but I’ll be watching the progress of the Cross Cape trail with interest. It sounds like the perfect excuse to return to MTB nirvana.

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Where to Stay
  • There’s a cottage for rent at Garden Route Trail Park, while MTB-friendly Yatefarm Retreat is close to Cairnbrogie and the Harkerville Trails. 083 276 8961, 083 400 2327 reservations@yatefarmretreat.co.za, www.yatefarmretreat.co.za
  • For a spoil, stay at Fancourt, one of South Africa’s grand old dames, and let one of the guides take you out exploring the forests and mountain passes. 044 804 0000, hotel@fancourt.co.za, www.fancourt.co.za
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