These Are South Africa’s Most Exhilarating Bike Rides
Take yourself on a two-wheeled tour of some of the planet’s richest landscapes.
We’re calling it: South Africa is one of the best mountain biking destinations on Earth. Whether it’s seeking out trails along the lush Garden Route, or bombing down the tight and rocky single tracks of the Glen towards the pristine white sands of the beach at Camps Bay, cyclists are guaranteed a run through some of the planet’s richest landscapes.
In Europe, trails tend to be built to accommodate thousands of bike-tourists each day, are a few metres wide, and rigorously maintained. Their South African equivalents are rough and ready. Often just a foot wide, they are tighter, rockier, single tracks. When you do meet other bikers they are always friendly, and keen to ‘talk a bit of kak.’
In February, we found ourselves hanging out at Darkfest - the Stellenbosch-based mountain biking festival located just outside of Cape Town – with globetrotting mountain biker Nico Vink and local rider Théo Erlangsen, safe in the knowledge that if anyone knows how to plot the most exciting route through South Africa, it’s this pair.
They’ve kindly given us recommendations for their six favourite trails. Complete with pointers on how to finish up soaking on just the right beach, their guide offers an insight into a scene few visitors are fortunate enough to experience. We think you’ll be booking your tickets and packing your Cannondale in a heartbeat.
The Darkfest 2018 Run
“It’s a dream come true,” Nico says, when asked how it feels to finally ride the course he has helped to build and design over the past weeks. This year organiser Sam Reynolds, Nico, Théo, and the rest of the crew moved Darkfest from Knysna to Stellenbosch on the Western Cape. For Théo, it was the opportunity to be the first South African ever to ride a FEST series (the loosely connected freeride mountain biking events held in all manner of stunning locations).
‘The course first of all pays tribute to Nico Vink’s Loosefest, another of the FEST series events,” Sam explains. The new course follows the contours of the Hottentots Holland Mountains closely, with the gap jumping over an existing road, and the hip formed over the mountain’s side. Compared to last year in Knysna, where there was a monstrous wooden roll in and a full loop, this year’s course looks much more natural.
Definitely not recommended for your average rider, this one is built especially for the most skilled riders in the world. Worth a look nonetheless, check out the edit and images to see the guys destroy it.
Knysna and the Garden Route
Driving up the east coast of South Africa, through the luscious Garden Route, you reach Knysna. The small town is known for two things. There’s the elephant rescue park, where visitors are invited to stroke the muddy cracked ears of the giants, and then there’s last year’s Darkfest where Canadian cyclist Matt MacDuff revisited the full loop. If you’re in need of some clarification, that’s riding a small bicycle around a 40 foot wooden loop so that at one point, you are completely upside down.
“You don’t mess around with these things because the consequences are too serious,” Nico says, alluding not only to the immediate danger to the riders, but also to the fact that time off of their bikes due to injury can damage biker’s careers.
“Travelling to the trails in Knysna from Cape Town offers ‘a classic road trip experience,” Théo says. Expect plenty of camping rough and wild swimming on the way, before passing through the aptly named town of Wilderness. Single dirt tracks begin at the Trail Cafe located just off of the Karatara river and race into the ancient Outeniqua forests.
Helderberg Basin in Somerset West
In Helderberg Basin traditional farmyards and wineries form the backdrop to some difficult trails. The fifth generation of the Hendrikz/Obermeyer family lives and works on the Helderberg Basin, cultivating the Boland Wineland. Amongst their files of fruit-bearing trees, mountain bike trails have been cut into the red-brown, fertile soil.
The trails range in length from just one mile to almost 15. To ride these specially built tracks you’ll need to get a permit from the estate owners. Detailed maps can be found on the Helderberg Farm website.
There are also the Helderberg trails, which are run by the former World Cup racer, Andrew Neethling, a pro racer on the international circuit for over 14 years. It’s best to park at his shop, The Hanger Bike Co., grab a coffee, and ride from there.
Stellenbosch’s Network of Trails
Stellenbosch is a picturesque university town where, occasionally, a sweaty D&B/jungle night at Die Mystic Boer goes off. Which is always good. Located just 30 miles outside of Cape Town and surrounded by the Hottentots Holland Mountains, it has a solid network of trails. “The Stellenbosch Trail Fund is free, and most of the trails are on the mountain above the urban area,” explains Théo. “It’s best to start in Stellenbosch town by the Coetzenberg stadium, so that you can ride all the trails and finish with a beer in the town at the Fat Butcher.”
Nearby Jonkershoek has the best trail network in the country by far, Théo tells me. “A 10-minute drive into the Jonkershoek valley, the trails are not really part of the Stellenbosch Trail Fund, and are run by MTO trails.” For detailed maps visit the official websites of the Stellenbosch Trail Fund and MTO trails.
Cape Town City Bowl
Just around the corner from the Stellenbosch trails is the Cape Town City Bowl, which offers views of both the bustling city and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. You can ride down the Glen to the bottom of Table Mountain and end up on the white sands of Camps Bay beach with your bike. This route caters for all skill levels and offers stunning scenery. There are also plenty of backpacker spots nearby for those wanting to stay close to the mountain, such as HomeBaseand 91 Loop.
Tokai Forest Mountain Bike Trail
For African wildlife such as baboons and tortoises, there’s no place better than the Tokai Forest mountain bike trail, carved through burned down woodland. Tokai is located at the foot of Constantiaberg mountain, and boasts an extensive and well-mapped network of trails for advanced riders (the top section is particularly technical). At the bottom of the trail there are plenty of great coffee places for a post-ride lunch.