Life behind (Handle Bars)

Posted on 16 March 2021

Elise Kirsten uncovers some of South Africa’s most sublime mountain-bike trails, where exhilaration and nature collide.

Words: Elise Kirsten | Photography: Elise Kirsten, Ewald Sadie/Shift Media, Supplied

Steep switchback climbs and flowing downhill tracks through the mistbelt grassland are just a small taste of the mountain bike trails at Karkloof Country Club in KZN. (Photo Ewald Sadie/Shift Media)

Northern Cape

Papkuilsfontein mountain bike trails, Nieuwoudtville

The sound of my tyres crunching over coarse sand filled my ears as I set out on one of Papkuilsfontein Farm’s new trails on an unusually misty morning. The first set of mountain-bike trails on this farm, lying 20km outside Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape, officially opened in October 2020.

The Ou-Muur, Duifieshoek, Arendsnes and Waterfall trails (which range from four to 21km long) aren’t very technical but allow visitors to explore and cycle to the farm’s canyon to enjoy the views. The second phase, scheduled to open in the first quarter this year, includes the technical Klipspringer trail (27km) and the less technical Son-Op trail (26km).

A five-year drought in the area has made farming extremely challenging. As a result, farmer Jaco van Wyk has partnered with the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Dryland Conservation programme to build the mountain bike trails as part of a sustainable land-management initiative. The aim is to reduce Papkuilsfontein’s dependence on sheep farming and restore the land to its natural habitat, which will hopefully entice visitors all year round – not just during flower season.

Birds dip and dive beneath this viewpoint looking over the waterfall and canyon where you can rest after a cycle at Papkuilsfontein.

This biodiverse region with its Cape fynbos, Hantam Karoo, Renosterveld and dolerite-sill vegetation holds vast numbers of indigenous bulbs and other seasonal flowers. Klipspringer, duiker, aardvark, mongoose and Cape hare make their home here and the array of birdlife includes Verreaux’s eagles that nest in Papkuilsfontein’s canyon. This impressive 80m-high rift in the plateau continues on into the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve.

Day permit: R100 for access to the cycling or trail running trails (hiking trails are only available to guests staying on the farm). Bicycle hire: R500 per day with a 50% returnable deposit. 027 218 1246 |


Karkloof Trails, Howick

To quote Trailforks, an international trail database, Karkloof ‘has what we believe is the best flow in South Africa’. One of many routes, the 37km track consists of hand-built trails through Sappi pine plantations with sections cutting across the mistbelt grassland, home to endangered species like wattled cranes and the endemic Karkloof blue butterfly.

Revel in the technical singletrack at Karkloof or, if you prefer, stick to the wider forestry paths and cycle to Karkloof Falls.

Among the ascents is the challenging Campbell’s Climb, while the snaking Gauntlet with its bridges and berms takes you downhill. The isiKhova black route is guaranteed to up your heart rate and after heading down Bruisers, you can follow the gentle cool-down track along the Karkloof River. There’s a good mix of forestry roads, single- and jeep track for all levels of rider.

Day permit: R60 per adult, R30 for children under 18 (under 6 free), R30 for over 65s at Karkloof Country Club. 071 124 7649 |

We asked some of SA’s top mountain bikers which local trails are their favourites and why.

Luke Moir
My favourite trail in SA is the Tokai downhill line (Tokai, Cape Town). I love the speed and flow and the trail has a bit of everything from rock gardens to jumps and drops. I also love the fact that it’s easy to get to the top of the trail.

Robyn De Groot
It’s so hard to pick one trail that stands out above the rest. We are truly spoilt here in South Africa with incredible mountain biking and each area has its own characteristics which allow for some really diverse riding. There’s an incredible trail network between Saasveld and Witfontein in the George area. I enjoy the variety these trails provide in terms of climbing, technicality and descending – the surroundings are pretty scenic, too.

Luke Moir

Mariske Strauss
There are really way too many to choose from, however, if I had to, it’s the Bloemendaler, which is part of the Tygerberg Trails on Nitida Wine Farm. The view over Table Mountain when those first rays of sun hit the city is magical. It’s also the spot where my best friend asked me to be his human for the remainder of our lives. This little piece of trail zigzags down through indigenous forest, which means even on the hottest days, you have some welcome shade. The climb back to the top is tough, though.

Western Cape

Tygerberg Trails, Durbanville

On most weekends I can be found somewhere on the Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club’s network, which consists of over 150km of trails across 15 farms in Durbanville. Meerendal and Bloemendal wine farms have some good beginner’s trails.

Bloemendal’s winding B-Spot pump track provides a bit of fun for everyone but there are more challenging routes like Lombards Terra, too. Make your way to the summit of Dorstberg, the highest hill at Meerendal, if you want a leg-busting climb. Here you can soak up the view from a bench dedicated to the memory of former racing driver and mountain-bike enthusiast Gugu Zulu. Slightly technical singletrack will take you downhill and then joins up with the tamer Esther Suss berms.

After descending Cheeky Corners you’ll arrive at Contermanskloof’s newest section of small jumps and chicken runs.

Contermanskloof Farm holds my favourite trails, with views of Table Bay that could inspire anyone to brush watercolour onto canvas. There’s a good deal of climbing and intermediate-level descents like Upper Supertubes, Supertubes and the slightly more technical Cheeky Corners that’ll have you hurtling downhill with the wind in your face and an exhilarating sense of freedom. These all form part of the blue route which is pleasant riding for any competent mountain biker. There’s also a green beginners’ trail and for those seeking a bit more adrenaline, the black routes – Downhill Mainline and Black Rhino – provide large, thrilling drop-offs and really rocky sections.

Across the valley you’ll find 8.5km of fun at Hoogekraal, including the really technical Cobra descent. There’s lots of intermediate riding here, too and Hoogekraal links to Welvergenoegd to extend the trails to 24km – and if that’s not enough you can keep cycling onto the Fair Cape section.

Day permits: Contermanskloof, R60 at the Dairy Shed (coffee shop) or in the outside honesty box. Meerendal, R50 for adults and R20 for students, pensioners and under 18s, at the guard house. Bloemendal and Hillcrest, R60 for adults and R40 for children. Pay at the Biosport shop or at any of the Snapscan facilities available at the trail centre. Hoogekraal, Welvergenoegd and Fair Cape Trails, R60 at the honesty box at Hoogekraal, or any of the Snapscan/Zapper facilities. 079 693 3177 |

Bottelary Hills Conservancy MTB Trails, Stellenbosch

There are 85km of trails within the Bottelary Hills Conservancy, on the fringe of Stellenbosch. You’ll be riding in wine country with splendid views towards the Jonkershoek Mountains and flanked by hills with vineyards, woods, fynbos and renosterveld.

The 27.5km circular route is made up mostly of jeep track and a number of loops of singletrack snake up and down the hills and rejoin the main path. The tracks are not too technical and the Lizard and Mongoose trails make for some fine riding.

Day permit: R60, from Devonvale Golf and Wine Estate, Asara, Jordan, Zevenwacht and Hazendal wine estates and the Soneike Engen garage. 083 448 0810 |

Add some extra time to take in the views when you ride Harkerville’s 22km route.

Harkerville Trails, Plettenberg Bay to Knysna

Harkerville’s 22km Red Route, which starts off the N2 between Plett and Knysna, takes you through ethereally lit indigenous forest on singletrack that’s not overly technical. Butterflies flit across the cycle path and bird calls break the silence in this peaceful paradise. After exiting the forest there’s a climb next to the pine plantations. Then it’s down to the cliffs that restrain the Indian Ocean and provide a platform to take in the view, before circling back to the starting point. The trail is not too difficult but be careful of slippery tree roots in the wet; the section just before the ocean is sandy. If 22km sounds like too much, there are also the shorter Yellow and Blue routes.

Day permit: R53, at Garden of Eden or SANParks’ Thesen Island office 044 302 5600 |

Although the distance of some of the Van Gaalen’s trails is not excessive, the tricky terrain can give you a good workout.

North west

Van Gaalen Trails, Magaliesberg

This 100km network of mainly singletrack stretches over 30 farms and private properties at the foothills of the Magaliesberg. The gravel roads and river singletrack are suitable for all levels of rider, while you’ll need to be confident and fairly fit to cover the other routes. It’s advisable to run tubeless tyres as there are sections with sharp-edged rocks. ‘Beautifully designed singletrack, lung-busting climbs, rollercoaster riverbeds and purpose-built riding bridges await enthusiasts,’ says rider Andrew Steer.

Day permit: R60, children under 12 ride free, available at Van Gaalen Farm Shop. 083 226 7834 |

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