“That’s the best downhill I’ve ever ridden,” cries Matthew Holt as we round the final bend. “I feel like going back up to ride it again.”
We’ve just descended Skyfall, a sweeping section of mountain-bike trail in the Banhoek Conservancy. On the Helshoogte Pass between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, the beautiful Banhoek Valley is a little-known adventure playground traversed by trails, and is a real gem of the Winelands.
Go big and tackle the loop
The conservancy’s hiking, trail-running and MTB network is a cloverleaf-structure of three interconnected circular routes, which showcase the splendid scenery of the valley and its wining and dining options.
But the large number of access points means that route planning is not entirely straightforward so, for my first foray into the valley, I gratefully accept an offer from Rose Jordaan, owner of Bartinney wine estate and a trustee of the Banhoek Conservancy, to show us around. It didn’t take much persuasion to go big and tackle the most demanding loop, Botmanskop, on day one.
From Bartinney, we cross over the Helshoogte Road and wind our way up to the top of the pass. There are various trail options from here, all involving some serious climbs up the slopes of the koppie. Our choice, Goddess, a new section of single track built and maintained by the Banhoek Conservancy and the Stellenbosch Trail Fund, is a staunch wake-up for the legs, but after 20 minutes we’ve broken the back of the climb and stop to enjoy the views over wine farms all the way to Table Mountain.
“This is mountain biking with a capital ‘M’,” says a panting Matthew. Despite the elevated start, the Banhoek trails are in the mountains. And you need to get up there.
The trail then contours above the Delaire Graff Estate and into DeMorgenzon wine estate. A sign indicates that we’re on the Luiperd se Fyndraai trail, a superb section of well-crafted track built by André la Grange, owner of DeMorgenzon and one of the driving forces in the development of the conservancy trails. “It’s much more forgiving than it looks,” I shout back at my co-riders, gaining confidence as I zigzag down the mountain.
Falling from the sky
But I stop in my tracks. Ahead of me is a terrifyingly steep corner. “Anyone brought a rope to lower me down?” I ask, trying to hide my fear. “There’s no shame in walking anything that you don’t like the look of,” Rose reassures me as I remount for the glorious traverse through protea groves and vineyards to the start of Skyfall.
Built by Rose and Bennett Nel (a Cape Epic course builder) this iconic section took two years to complete. Some 18 hectares of alien forest were removed and replanted with fynbos, part of a bigger picture of upliftment and rehabilitation.
Founded in 2013 by Rose, André and three other trustees, the Banhoek Conservancy aims to environmentally and socially improve the entire Banhoek Region. “Various mountain-biking events ride through the valley so we
thought why not use funds from the events to start a conservancy?” says Rose.
They started constructing hiking and MTB trails so that the landowners of the valley could share their properties in a controlled way, promote sport to youngsters, create jobs and encourage visitors to enjoy the beautiful area.
“It’s a non-commercial way that we can unite as a valley and do some good,” Rose continues. “Bikers, runners and walkers can look forward to awesome single track and vistas, stopping off to enjoy wine tastings along the way.”
Why the name Skyfall? As James Bond fans, Matthew and I have been wondering whether there’s some link to 007’s ancestral home. Rose laughs. “Kim Lord, who’s been responsible for developing most of the trails in the conservancy, was working on the Sky Traverse, which contours along the higher slopes of Botmaskop,” she explains. “Riding downhill from the Sky Traverse to Bartinney for the first time literally felt like falling out of the sky.”
Building the trails
Despite its intimidating name, Skyfall is so well-built that it’s surprisingly mellow. Rose, an architect, wanted to make it easy enough for her kids to learn to ride on berms (banked corners). “They ride up it,” she teased, smiling proudly at Jeanne, her 10-year-old riding with us.
“I started cycling to get away from my kids. I needed time on my own,” Rose says. Now, of course, they want to ride with her, which comes as no surprise. She’s a natural coach, who willingly passes on useful tips to boost our skills and confidence. “Head up, chin out and get your bum over the back of the saddle,” she instructs as we approach a scary-looking corner. “Look where you want to go.”
We negotiate the berms well and cruise down to Bartinney where we encounter a team cutting a new section of track. As I admire the gorgeous flowers, Rose introduces us to Kim Lord. A retired marine geologist, Kim used to build trails for his son, a junior Cross Triathlon World Champion. In 2013, he was roped into helping with trail building in the Banhoek Valley and has never looked back.
“I like to build link-ups,” he says, and tells us how he set about building new single track to join up existing sections of trail, and to improve the overall flow of the routes.
A typical day sees him hiking into the mountains with a pick, spade, saw and rock-breaking hammer. It’s all voluntary, and hard work but rewarding, he maintains. “We’re creating a healthy, sporty environment to ease people’s souls. You can’t help feel better if you ride or run these trails.”
Kim is quick to praise the skill and graft of his fellow trail builders from Golden Leaf Trails, whom he’s been mentoring. “This Franschhoek trail-construction company is wholly owned by a previously disadvantaged group,” he explains. Led by Booi Horing, a character of note, they now have their own tools and transport.
Fynbos clad mountains
Having built and maintained trails in nearby reserves, they’re experienced and industrious. Employing them in the conservancy has greatly extended the trail network and created jobs, with every cent going into the community.
We thank the team for their efforts and speed down to The Tasting Shed for a celebration. As we rehydrate on chilled Chardonnay, Kim orientates us in the valley and points out the various sections of new trail that they’re working on. We should visit Café Pavé on Camberley, the neighbouring wine estate, he suggests. It serves great coffee and doubles as a low-key bicycle showroom owned by former professional road rider, Mark Nell. The sculpted features that we can see on the slopes of Simonsberg across the valley are apparently ramps and jumps on Vuurberg. The owner’s son, Ike Klaassen, is the Under-13 World Downhill MTB Champion.
In the spirit of sharing the tourism spoils, we overnight, at Rose’s suggestion, just down the road at Lumley’s Place in Pniel, a charming guest house run by another real character and local entrepreneur, Benita Cyster. After being spoilt rotten and given more insight into the charms and challenges of the valley over breakfast, we cycle back to where we left off.
From Bartinney it’s a short section of tar to the Zevenrivieren Road, past Oldenburg and onto a jeep track that takes us deep into the conservancy, across the Dwarsrivier and away from roads and habitation. We climb gently to the base of NikNaks, which twists its way in a series of switchbacks up the slopes of the fynbos-clad Drakenstein Mountains to our right, and pop out onto the Sky Traverse on the slopes of Buller’s Kop. Despite a few tricky rock sections and steep corners, which I negotiate with a bit of coaching from Rose, it’s generally straightforward.
A secret to locals
The track then contours along the Sky Traverse until we reach Klipwerf, an iconic 900m section of trail built for Old Bethlehem Farm by another local, world champion and Olympic triathlete, Conrad Stoltz. Choosing
the intermediate, blue option (there’s also a gnarly black, which I’ll come back to ride when I grow up) we race down the sweeping curves enjoying the flow and the spectacular rock features alongside the path.
Regrouping at the bottom of the single track, we’re breathless with excitement but there’s more to come. Rose points to a large herd of eland plodding up another single track on the opposite slope, on part of Boschendal’s
Sadly, we don’t have time to ride that today, and follow the jeep track down to the Old Bethlehem Farmgate, one of the most popular access points to the trails. From here, a tar road takes us through the village of Kylemore, where we encounter three youngsters buzzing around a pumptrack. On land donated by Old Bethlehem Farm, and funded by the Banhoek Conservancy, Pedal Power Association and Standard Bank, the playground epitomises the ethos of upliftment and unity within the conservancy.
Our weekend ends with brunch at Café Pavé, which is every bit as good as Kim promised. We’re surprised by the number of lycra-clad cyclists on the Helshoogte Road and at this handy pitstop. “The valley is full of road cyclists at this time of year,” Mark Nell tells us. “Lots of Europeans come out to train here.” It seems that it’s only us locals that are still in the dark about the treasures of this magnificent valley.
Pictures Shaen Adey and Fiona McIntosh