Meet the Doctors of Spin… They’re making some magical mountain-bike trails in the Simonsberg Conservancy…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Greg Beadle
“We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Rijk Melck, owner of Muratie Wine Estate, told me as we climbed up through his vineyards in the Knorhoek Valley. “It inspires you to ride. I was one of the first mountain bikers in Stellenbosch and have great friends who ride with me, so I’ve been pushing for the development of a trail network in this valley for ten years.”
We were wending our way up towards the towering Simonsberg in the Stellenbosch Winelands, on a gradually inclining track through vineyards cloaked in autumnal colours. Ahead, rugged peaks jutted into a cobalt-blue sky, while the view in the other direction stretched as far as the mountains of the Cape Peninsula. It was idyllic. And the drive from Cape Town had lasted under 40 minutes, which had me wondering why it had taken me so long to discover the Simonsberg mountain-bike trails.
Master trail builder Meurant Botha of Dirtopia developed the first trails in the Knorhoek Valley some 15 years ago, but back then they were only used for events. Having built MTB race routes from 1997, Meurant and his wife Arina opened the Dirtopia Trail Centre in 2004, on Delvera wine farm just across the R44 from Knorhoek Valley.
Offering an extensive network of trails, a fully equipped shop, bike rentals, clinics, social rides and hikes, showers and a café, it soon became well established as a one-stop shop for mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners, and the hub of a burgeoning winelands race and events programme.
Die Burger MTB Challenge and Cape Town Cycle Tour MTB Challenge provided the impetus to extend the Simonsberg network, and by 2014 they had enough trails to open them to the public year round.
Our circuit of the vineyards complete, we crossed the road and headed up on single track following the Ho Chi Minh Trail towards the trail intersection at Gilloolys and on towards Delheim, the neighbouring farm. It was pleasant riding up a series of switchbacks that required only moderate fitness and skills. Perfect for an occasional rider like me.
“I love the fact that you can unload your bike and get straight on to single track,” explained Arina. “There’s no boring riding a jeep track to the start of the ‘real’ trail, as you have at most of the popular MTB venues.”
The gradient eased up as we plunged into dense forest, the trail weaving between the trees. “I was a big fan of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam,” Rijk said, when I asked after the trail’s unusual name. “The first time I rode this part of the trail it reminded me of how the Vietcong operated in the Vietnam War.” Rijk explained how the Ho Chi Minh trail was the main supply route to the southern part of Vietnam, along which the Vietcong used bicycles to transport food and ammunition to fight the Americans. “I’ve heard claims that the trail was one of the great achievements of military engineering in the 20th century. So the name is, in part, recognition of Meurant’s trail-building skills.”
And the network of multi-use trails was certainly impressive. “Our initial focus was to develop easy-access trails to unlock the fairly steep topography,” Meurant pointed out. “We now have about 30km of routes on the Simonsberg, 25km of which is single track. From this base network we’ll add more challenging trails.”
Some swooping downhill popped us out at Delheim, where owner Victor Sperling joined the ride. “Rijk started all this. He opened up his farm to riders, hikers and runners. And Rijk and his wife Kim are so hands-on. They’re always around on the farm.”
At first Victor was hesitant about following suit. “This is not Tokai or Jonkershoek, where you’re riding gravel roads through reserves. Delheim and Muratie are working farms and mountain bikers must stick to the marked trails. I was worried that riders wouldn’t respect us and our privacy.”
A relative newcomer to mountain biking, Victor has now embraced the sport. His three children, all under 12 years old, ride with him on the single track. And show him up. “They’re always saying, ‘Come Papa, you’re too slow’,” he said with a laugh.
“The winemaker, assistant winemaker and viticulturist advisor at Delheim all ride,” Victor continued. “So does Chris Keet, winemaker at Quoin Rock next door. Who wouldn’t ride here, given the environment? It would be like living next to the sea and not swimming in it. It’s wonderful to go out early in the morning and inspect the vineyards on a bike. You see animals, birds and the farm in a completely different way.”
Victor is convinced mountain bikers are the right market for a wine farm. “People come here with their kids and ride, go for a walk, have a picnic or eat at the restaurant.”
As we climbed higher out of the trees and into dense stands of proteas, we became increasingly aware that the development of the trails was enhancing the environment. The farmers have removed the aliens and planted indigenous trees along the tracks, creating aesthetic and biodiverse corridors for riders to explore.
“The challenge for us is to manage the trails correctly,” said Victor. “We’ll use some of the monthly donation that investment company Fairtree Capital gives to the Simonsberg Conservancy, to employ local people to monitor the routes and combat the problem of rogue riders, or to guide visitors on foot.”
A couple of other riders who had been for an early morning spin joined us for a drink at the Delheim Garden Restaurant. Although chic, it’s informal and welcoming. “We are working to make this valley a destination,” said Victor. “The Simonsberg trails must be worthwhile. This year we’ll put in showers, toilets, a dedicated trails café and picnic area under the Delheim oak trees – facilities for post-ride relaxation.”
A big circle took us through Uitkyk and back to Muratie, where friends were meeting us for an early lunch. Rijk introduced us to his wife Kim, who emerged from the kitchen bearing a loaf of freshly baked bread. “My dream has always been to allow visitors to appreciate our surrounds: to cycle, walk, run the trails, or chill here in the vineyards,” said Rijk.
As we loaded up our bikes, we learnt that they had launched the Fairtree Simonsberg Contour (now called The Fire Ride), with all proceeds from the event ploughed back into further developing the Simonsberg trail system.
“A section of trail is cutting through the protea forest on the flanks of the mountain and this will add to the ‘wow’ factor of the Contour, making it the highest single track in the Cape,” said Meurant. And the ABSA Cape Epic will be coming through the valley this year for the first time, with a spectator spot at Delheim.
But then, in January, just two weeks before the Fairtree Contour, disaster struck. The Simonsberg burned for three days, destroying vineyards and forests. “The first time that I rode the trails after the fire, I was very emotional,” recalled Arina tearfully when I revisited to get an update on the trails. “My boompies was weg en die res swart!”
Little remained of the forest but ash and burnt skeletons. “Years of effort went up in smoke. I know nature will recover, but I’ll miss the forests.”
After consulting with Fairtree Capital, which picked up most of the tab for the emergency repairs, Meurant and Arina decided that the show must go on. The Fairtree Simonsberg Contour was renamed The Fire Ride, 50 workers were employed to clear and rebuild the trails, and the mountain-biking community showed their support and enthusiasm for the routes.
“The fires caused considerable damage at a point where we were still investing in the build,” explained the pragmatic Meurant. “The repairs were expensive and we lost a lot of the foliage that gave the routes their unique character. But the dark cloud has a silver lining. It is much easier to see new lines and this will help us develop the trails going forward.”
Rijk agreed. “We shall be strong in our resolve. The rebuilt trails will be better than ever. As Samson said after felling the lion, ‘Out of the strong came the sweet’.”
I’m sure that the phoenix rising out of the ashes will take the form of sweet single track.
In a Nutshell
Up to it?
- The Simonsberg trails are suitable for all riders. There is plenty of single track, as well as some child-friendly riding.
- The extensive trail network at Delvera farm (which will be linked to Simonsberg trails in the near future) offers more technical riding (as well as plenty of easy stuff for beginners), while the newly developed trails at nearby L’Avenir/ Nooitgedacht are perfect for families.
When to go
- The trails are open year round, but spring and autumn are particularly beautiful times to ride in the winelands.
- Info and contacts Permits are issued at Muratie and Delheim restaurants and at the Dirtopia Trail Centre at Delvera and at Welgevonden
- Where to stay Knorhoek Country Guesthouse is a short ride away.