Fire-scarred, yet magical – flames could not diminish this Mecca of Cape mountain biking. Silverback athlete Neill Ungerer shows Bicycling around the Swiss Alps of South Africa.
In the Cape, much the same as Tokai MTB trails are to the South, Jonkershoek is the trail Mecca of the
North – one of the pioneering bastions of mountain biking in South Africa.
The similarities it shares with Tokai are indisputable – not just in terms of scenery, technicality and beauty, but also in the vegetation’s propensity for burning, having suffered a devastating blaze back in 2015. The rehabilitation and rebuilding of the trails over the past few years have seen a slew of new lines emerge, as well as the refurbishment of some of the older and more popular trails.
It truly is a magical place. Set within the picturesque valley of Jonkershoek,
the trail network and forestry roads are bookended by the towering peaks of the Boland Mountains – sentinels in their own right, having witnessed the rise and fall of many trails. Tucked away in this little nook, you’re transported to a world seemingly untouched by man, and teeming with flora and fauna.
Is this Europe, perhaps? It certainly feels like it, and it’s easy to see why the European settlers chose this region and surrounds as their new home. It very much resembles the topography and beauty of what you’ll find in France, Germany and Switzerland. On a recent photo shoot with Bicycling, Karl Platt commented that riding here feels a lot like being in the Swiss
Alps. It’s true, but there is a difference: the disparity in temperature. Right now, the mercury is touching 31°C, and it’s only 9am.
Joining me is Silverback athlete and Ultimate Cycling Knysna ambassador Neill Ungerer – a new resident, having recently moved here from the Garden Route. It also happens to be his birthday, and he’s as excited as photographer Desmond
Louw and me to shoot some awesome content. Contrary to what Neill tells me (he’s a modest chap), he’s been riding exceptionally well of late, and has won the first two Western Cape XCO races in the Sub-vet category as a result.
Coached by local MTB professional Matthys Beukes, Neill’s technical skill set and incredible penchant for suffering have seen him register a string of commendable results, and Jonkershoek has become his playground – a test bed to benchmark not only his Silverback Sesta bicycle, but his fitness too.
Jonkershoek comprises many routes, for all types of riders. There’s a 10km jeep track that circumnavigates the valley, showcasing the trails on each side that stretch as far as the eye can see. Owing to its location it can get exceptionally hot or cold here depending on the season, but it’s generally a good idea to come prepared for anything, and to always wear sunblock. Hydration is important, but the crystalclear mountain water from the Eerste River – one of three rivers that originate high up in these mountains – ensures you’ll never dehydrate.
“What’s that noise?” asks Neill. At first we mistake the distant humming of bees for chainsaws (this place is after all undergoing deforestation, in a bid to stimulate the renaissance of the once-natural fynbos); but then we get a move on, to avoid a
The trails force you to leave your comfort zone, and help improve your approach to obstacles and technical features – both mentally and physically.
– AARON BORRILL
meeting with Maya. (The bee – geddit?)
Right now we’re on our way to the Firehut trails, located on the eastern slopes of the valley. They’re accessible via the main jeep track; riders can shimmy their way through the many forestry roads and onto the Firehut contour. These were some of the first trails to be completely incinerated by the 2015 blaze, and now they’re exposed and without shade, the pine trees that once sheltered them all but gone.
A common thread in this section is the use of natural features – purpose-built and designed with the rider in mind, the many lines of the trails offer something for everyone. The Firehut trails aren’t too technical, but everything here is governed
by how fast you ride.
Back onto the main track, and we’re headed towards the western, leeward side. Here you’ll find such trails as The Never Ending Story, Bennet’s Red Trail, and the Canaries – all of which are quite rideable, and exhilarating at speed.
Of course, there’s always something for the daredevils – such as The Plumber Trail, a gnarly 1.6km double-black-diamond downhill line festooned with jumps, gaps and rocky obstacles tough enough to make most riders question their ability and skillset. Like me; steeplechase-like riding has never been my strong point, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Neill, on the other hand, is an animal – he lives for adrenaline, and nails every feature the trail throws at him on his Silverback Sesta.
The diversity of Jonkershoek is very special, because you have everything from smooth trails to technical and rocky features. It’s the full package. – NEILL UNGERER, SILVERBACK ATHLETE
Once the dust settles and Desmond’s lanky frame emerges from the golden blur, it’s fairly clear our lensman wants us to ride down the old XCO forest singletrack before calling it a day. With the morning light still fondling the pine-tree canopy above, and the sound of a bicycle threading a distant singletrack, it’s times like these that remind us why we love this sport and lifestyle so much. It’s a symbiotic relationship between man, machine and nature.
No matter where you live, if you’re a genuine mountain biker the trails of Jonkershoek should be a bucket-list destination. As locals we’re blessed to have such a quasi-religious place so close to home, but we sometimes become desensitised to its beauty and allure. Don’t. There’s a reason many European professionals spend lengthy stints honing their skills and building their fitness base here in Stellenbosch and Jonkershoek: it’s a world-class trail network, bar none – and that’s something we should never take for granted.