FIONA MCINTOSH heads out for a weekend of action at Boschendal, one of the Cape’s premier mountain-biking destinations
Pictures Fiona McIntosh, Matthew Holt and Tracey van Wijk
“It was originally called Hi Ho Silver,” says Quinton with a laugh, as we pause briefly on our bikes at the top of the trail. “But after the Simonsberg fires of 2016 we changed the name to Inferno.”
Contemplating the intimidating, pencil-thin dirt track snaking down the mountain’s flank, I feel it’s aptly named. We point our bikes downhill, reluctantly ease off the brakes and feel the rush of air and adrenalin. While Dante was guided on his fictitious journey through Hell by the aesthete, Roman poet Virgil, we’re following MTB enthusiast Quinton Miller, the sinewy, super-fit brand manager at Boschendal.
We’ve come out to one of South Africa’s oldest wine estates for the weekend, largely to check out the mountain-biking opportunities.
A steady climb up the slopes of the Simonsberg on the Red Route brings us to the start of one of the test pieces, a section of the technical Black Route named Inferno.
Just before we drop in, Quinton callsa halt. “We’re cutting a new track off here,” he says proudly, as he scrambles down onto a terrifyingly narrow path. The roar of a chainsaw announces the presence of four men cutting back the trees and building new tracks below us.
“Some of our regulars have been asking for really technical trails so we’re creating a Double Black,” he says with a grin, introducing me to the trail builder, Shaun Havenga. “Yeah. It’s going to be super steep and challenging,” Shaun concurrs with glee. “It’s not easy terrain to cut a trail through,
but we’re proud of the result.”
Quinton is waiting for us at the first safe stopping point on the route. I’m some way behind him, having to put my foot down on the first few bends. “We’re also building a new section of easy trail around the corner,” says Quinton, as if reading my mind, or perhaps noting my incompetence. “And
a family-friendly bike park. It’ll be finished within the month. You must come back.”
In his defence, we had asked him to show us the most interesting trails, but as I gingerly try to follow in his wheel tracks I wonder if I’m out of my depth. There are plenty of mellow routes on the farm and it would have been sensible to warm up on one of those. And
I should have known that this Black Route would be a challenge.
The previous evening I’d met up with an old friend, Bianca Grobbelaar, the newly appointed marketing manager at Boschendal, who’d just ridden the route. Sporting a few scrapes of her own, she showed me a picture of her riding companion upside down in the bush, and roared with laughter at his misfortune. They’re keen riders this lot.
But now my confidence grows with every turn. Although Inferno is steep, long and a tad scary at times, it’s so well crafted that negotiating the tight switchback turns is much easier than it looks.
From Inferno we cut across to another iconic track, an intermediate trail with the more welcoming moniker of Sugar Bowl. After Inferno, the long, bermed switchbacks of Sugar Bowl are sweet but the sight of a tricky black section branching off it down to Rhodes Dam stops us in our tracks.
“What’s this called? Death Corner?” asks Matthew Holt, pointing at the downhill bend ahead with more than a hint of angst. “You’ll be fine if you take it slowly,” says Quinton and then promptly flies around it in a flurry of dust. Using the excuse that I need to take photos, I walk to the base of the really steep section and chuckle as Matthew slithers past and almost takes me out.
We finish just in time for a wine tasting at The Werf restaurant, the farm’s main visitor hub. As we sit out under the oak trees sampling some of the estate’s wonderful wines a couple more riders speed past. Quinton calls them over. “Meet Elrico Pietersen, who’s just opened a bike-rental centre and pop-up coffee shop here. And Quinton Abrahams, the barista at the Farmshop and Deli.”
The two men have been for a post-work spin, completing the 16-kilometre, intermediate Blue Route in less than an hour. “You must ride it tomorrow,” Elrico insists. His companion agrees. “The section known as Porcupine is really fun. I think it’s the best ride on the farm.”
Part of the team that opened the Farmshop and Deli, Elrico spent seven years working in the restaurants at Boschendal. Like many of the staff, he bought a bicycle from the company at a discounted rate. “I used to travel from the Rhone wine-tasting and picnic area to the Farmshop and Deli several times a day,” he recalls. “It’s a good 600 metres each way so having a bike was a godsend.”
One day, two German women came into the Deli. They wanted to go mountain biking, and borrowed bikes from Elrico and Quinton and rode a few kilometres to the Trout Dam where they parked off with a bottle of bubbles. “I realised there was a gap in the market,” says Elrico. “People, especially in-house guests, were requesting bike hire. They wanted to get out into nature and explore the farm.”
Elrico put a business plan to the MD, Rob Lundie, who decided it was viable. In keeping with Boschendal’s commitment to developing tourism facilities, nurturing entrepreneurs and improving the lot of local communities, the farm invested capital in helping Elrico purchase the bikes and equipment.
Since launching in March 2017, the business has gone from strength to strength. Elrico now owns 12 well-maintained and user-friendly rental bikes of different size. “Most of our business is here next to the Deli, where we issue permits, but we can go anywhere on the farm or use the mobile coffee-trailer for events,” he explains, outlining his future plans.
To that end he has also taken on an assistant, Sandiso Xetu, who, naturally, is now a top-notch barista. Having represented South Africa in the World MTB Championships in 2013, Sandiso worked for the BMT Cycle Shop in Stellenbosch and, in 2017, rode the ABSA Cape Epic. “He’s the technical one, I’m still a novice,” Elrico insists modestly. “I battled to get him here but he’s critical to the enterprise’s success.”
In the morning we exchange two wheels for four feet, riding out around the farm on horseback. Our mounts are Shires and Clydesdales – big, even-tempered workhorses that were originally brought to the farm to pull ploughs and the carriages of tourists. The informative tour takes us past orchards and vineyards, and through the beautifully laid-out vegetable gardens based on the design of the old Dutch East India Company’s Garden.
Regrouping at the bike trailer for our late morning MTB outing, I find Hapless Holt carrying his bike. He’s managed to deflate rather than inflate his front tyre. Elrico offers us two of his rental bikes to take for a spin while Sandiso sorts out and washes ours. I’ve never ridden a 29-er (a bike with a larger
29-inch as opposed to the traditional 26-inch tyre) before, and leap at the opportunity.
My big-wheeled steed takes the sting out of the hill climbs then sails down Sugar Bowl. At the bottom we stop at the dam for a dip before remounting for the long hack up to the start of Porcupine. As we’d been promised, it’s worth it. The twisting single track is pure joy.
“Stay right,” Matthew warns as we turn sharply off the road just past the Orchard Cottages (one of the two main accommodation facilities on the farm) on the route back to The Werf. I follow his advice, avoiding some terrifying ramps on the left side of the trail. “This started as a fun track for kids who were staying at the cottages,” Quinton informs us with a grin. “Then Bennet Nel, the former trail developer, got carried away and it’s now an entertaining skill tester.”
“Was it hosting the ABSA Cape Epic 2016 that put Boschendal’s MTB routes on the map?” I ask, remembering that Pieter van Wyk, an Epic route designer, was also involved in the development of these trails. “Yes and no,” Quinton replies. “It kicked us into action, but we had always planned to get the trails in place before the Epic. And, as you’ve seen, the trails are evolving all the time.”
A meal at The Werf, the former wine cellar that overlooks the gardens, is the perfect finale to an action-packed day. As we stroll back to our cozy cottage under a night sky speckled with stars, I rue the fact that we have to get back to work early in the morning. It’s only a 40-minute drive to Cape Town, but I feel a million miles away from the rat race.
While you can easily come and ride the Boschendal trails for a day, I’d thoroughly recommend making a weekend of it. Even that is barely enough to scratch the surface of what the farm has to offer.