Stewards of the trails

Trail runners recce the extreme Mountain Warrior Trail Run route in the mountains above Jonkershoek, near Stellenbosch. Photo’s: Jacques Marais

Few places in South Africa are able to boast as varied a range of trails as Stellenbosch. The town’s location within the very heart of the Western Cape’s scenic Winelands region is a key contributing factor, as the area is blessed with craggy peaks, fynbos ridges, verdant river valleys and, of course, extensive vineyards.

A strong conservation ethic shared by Stellenbosch residents and the surrounding wine farmers has contributed to a boom in outdoor and adventure sport. The result has been a proliferation of mountain biking, hiking, trail running and paddling options, on private as well as public land.

The STF network of routes and trails provides links to many of the surrounding wine estates, including Boschendal, Bartinney and Dornier.

This so-called ‘green economy’ merges seamlessly with the agricultural one, and easy access to trails has resulted in some of the world’s top mountain bikers and trail runners making Stellenbosch their home. Others come here to train for world-class events such as the Absa Cape Epic and, on any given weekend, the chances are good that you’ll bump into a national or even a world champion on the trails.

Jonkershoek lies at the heart of this network of outdoor opportuni­ties and the routes within this CapeNature reserve make it one of South Africa’s prime MTB and trail-running playgrounds. Then, in 2011, devastation struck: a runaway fire raged through this protected area, de­stroying much of the vegetation as well as most of the trails.

Spearheaded by Dr Richard de Villiers, a group of passionate residents formed the Stellenbosch Trail Fund, a non-profit organisation. Together with local stalwarts such as winemaker Rose Jordaan, Holden Marshall and Theunis Stofberg, they took it upon themselves to begin long-term repairs and upgrades to the trails, as well as ongoing maintenance.

Their focus was much wider than just Jonkershoek, however, and much of their energy went into the tracts of public land surrounding the university town. The trail network criss-crossing pine forests and fynbos-clad hills – some a mere 10 minutes from the town centre – had long provided a key entry into the great outdoors for runners, mountain bikers, hikers, dog walkers and general outdoor-minded residents in need of some fresh air and head space.

Thanks to contributions and maintenance work by the Stellenbosch Trail Fund, the running routes in Jonkershoek and surrounds have been re-opened for use by athletes and fun runners.

“Our core values are stewardship, community and inclusivity,” explains Theunis, a lecturer in photography and the media manager for the Stellenbosch Trail Fund. “Effective stewardship is not possible without the support of the community. This is often manifested by corporate as well as private donations, or by members getting their hands dirty working on the trails.”

The outcome has been more than 50km of trails constructed and maintained by the Stellenbosch Trail Fund since its inception. In the process, the organisation has also undertaken an alien clearing and rehabilitation project along the Eerste River and started a trail guide academy to instil outdoor values in local community members while simultaneously creating employment opportunities.

The first question most visitors to Stellenbosch ask is: “Where can I run?” or “Where can I ride?” Few trails can answer this better than the Stellenbosch Trail Fund routes. Anything goes, from looping gravel roads bisecting vineyards to lung-searing mountain ascents and winding forest singletrack.

One of the easiest trailhead access points is near the Coetzenburg Stadium, the home of South African athletics. From the stadium’s parking area, look out for the green signage that points to a jeep track winding up the steep mountain slope to the south-east of town. Many locals know this as Die Bergpad, the mountain path.

This gravel road forms the basis of the cross-country mountain-bike course used during the South African XCO finals in 2015, so it makes for great running or riding. Since then, the new Maties XCO track has been built for Africa’s first UCI XCO event, but you have to keep in mind this is suited only for highly skilled riders – and only those with good medical insurance, according to the write-up on the website!

While Die Bergpad is much easier than the Maties track, you still need to be pretty fit as you grind up against gravity. The jeep track connects to a number of singletrack options if you want to spice up the hard and constant climb. Well-signposted shortcuts between the jeep tracks at various points take you to singletrack sections graded from red (intermediate) to black (technical). The steep drop down to the Welgevallen Dam along the Welgevallen Gorge red track is sure to elicit some whooping and high fives but make sure you ride within your capabilities here.

Perhaps climbs and descents are not your thing, though. In this case, rather stick to nearby Koloniesland with its flat and winding trails that follow the river’s course. This is a perfect track on which to hone skills, or even for a family ride if you want to introduce the next generation of shredders to the joys of mountain biking. The combination of jeep track and footpaths here is a paradise for trail runners as well, so respect for other trail users is imperative.

Once you’ve had your cross-country fix, continue on the jeep track south in the direction of the legendary G-Spot trail, where some heavy breathing and granny gear grinding will get you to the summit of this mythical route. From here it is a white-knuckle run along superb singletrack, either along the G-Spot trail itself or on the route to Eden Forest.

This surely rates as one of the jewels of mountain biking in the Western Cape, just keep in mind that the red designation comes with technical drops, jumps and rollers that will challenge any newbie to the maximum. And if you feel compelled to return to the top of G-Spot again, just follow the up signs.

Should you decide to head to Eden Forest, relax and follow the green signs along the jeep track, where you’ll even find some fresh water from a perennial stream just below the reservoir. Crank through the fynbos valley along a range of easy tracks, or otherwise connect onto the blue route all the way down to the bottom gate.

From here, a network of jeep tracks will take you in a southerly direction through pine plantations to an expansive fynbos area. Singletracks to the right mostly circle back to the Eden Forest gate, or you could cross the small valley until you reach the tracks on Mont Marie. This is a more recent addition to the Stellenbosch Trail Fund network and takes you through spectacular scenery.

While constantly upgrading and adding to the current trail system, the Stellenbosch Trail Fund has as its overall vision the continued expansion of its role in the development of the ‘bicycle’ and ‘green’ economies of the greater Stellenbosch area. In the process, the organisation hopes to create and manage a seamless network of walking, hiking, running and cycling trails that stretches all the way from the town to Jonkershoek and Spier and from Coetzenburg to Paradyskloof. If you would like to contribute to this vision, visit www.stellenboschtrailfund.co.za.