A Never-Ending Story

In the previous issue of Stellenbosch Visio, ERNST GOUWS began a story about the trail blazers who have built mountain biking routes around Stellenbosch, making it the Mecca of off-road biking in South Africa. He continues …

The network of mountain biking trails in and around Stellenbosch gives enormous pleasure to both residents and visitors, enabling them to enjoy riding in the great outdoors and reach off-the-beaten-track wine farms and restaurants. But who are the unsung heroes who have built these trails?

We met some of them in the previous issue of Stellenbosch Visio; in this issue we go back to the very beginning of the mountain biking story in Stellenbosch and follow its development. And in honouring more legendary trail builders – Meurant Botha, Justin Novella and Duran van Eeden – we learn a little more about trail blazing.

Meurant Botha

Meurant is said to be the founding father of mountain biking in Stellenbosch. Growing up in Bellville, he and a few friends were the first to venture into the Tygerberg Hills with mountain bikes, armed with plenty of ‘patch and solution’ to fix punctures.

Later he pioneered the development of mountain bike events in South Africa. With the support of the Lemmer family and their successful Village Cycles bike store, Meurant built the first downhill track used for events on Thelema Farm, in 1993. Together with Jack Randall (a Junior Springbok mountain biker in his day), Meurant later built the downhill trails on Botmaskop which were used to host the 1997 and 1998 World Cup downhill races. Not only did these races bring Stellenbosch to the attention of the international mountain biking fraternity, but they also highlighted the talents of local superstars such as Greg Minnaar.

Carinus Lemmer has fond memories of those years. “We regularly hosted massive marathon distance events around Tulbagh,” he reminisces. “Meurant ended up doing most of the work and typically slept in his little VW Beetle. I recall him being less naughty than the rest of the Village Cycles idiots, and I’m sure he did not partake of the natural joys the Tulbagh Valley offered in terms of imbibing!”

Together with his wife, Arina, Meurant staged South Africa’s first national mountain biking event in Citrusdal in 1999, and the first MTB festival in Greyton, in 2000.

And three years later, when Sonja and Mike Hamel and their partner Kevin Vermaak decided to launch an annual seven-day race from Knysna to Cape Town, they called on Meurant to develop the route. Says Meurant, “We developed the first Cape Epic route without a GPS and without Google Earth. I thought they were completely nuts!”

With the support of Johan le Roux at Stellenbosch Municipality, Meurant built the first trails inside the Paradyskloof plantations. And in 2004, thanks to support and funding from SAFCOL (now MTO) and the Pedal Power Association, he built the first trail in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve – and called it ‘Never-ending Story’.

“I guess the biggest catalyst for trail building in Stellenbosch was the Die Burger MTB Challenge, which Arina and I founded with Raino Bolz of Adventure Centre in 2006,” he reflects. “At its peak it had more than 4000 participants! We built trails all over Stellenbosch to accommodate the race’s different routes between our trail centre on Delvera and the finish at Spier.”

Another huge contribution Meurant made was to get kids involved in mountain biking from a young age. He launched the nationwide Spur MTB Series for high schools in 2009, which transformed mountain biking from a fringe hobby to a mainstream school sport.

Fast-forward to 2016, when he built the trail ‘Never Say Never-Ending Story Again’ on Uitkyk Farm, named as a wordplay on the original trail in Jonkershoek. Thinking about Meurant’s unsurpassed legacy, fellow trail builder Corrie Muller comments, “Thanks to Meurant’s efforts to build links between the different trail riding areas, people were suddenly able to wander and explore.” We salute a true godfather of mountain biking in South Africa!

Justin Novella and Durand van Eeden

The never-ending story of mountain bike trails in Stellenbosch was taken to a completely new level when Hellsend Dirt Compound opened up in the Banhoek Valley.

This chapter of the story begins with Justin Novella, who grew up in Cape Town and spent his teenage years building bigger and bigger jumps and taking part in downhill races. He eventually competed nationally and even internationally, at the Junior World Championships in New Zealand and Scotland.

While studying industrial design, Justin worked at Rob Dormehl’s Garden Route Trail Park in Sedgefield. Here he had the opportunity to build trails using excavators and other heavy machinery – a game changer in what was possible to achieve. After graduating, he turned ‘The Trails Crew’, the name of his local riding and trail-building group of friends, into a lifestyle brand. One of its events, The Night Harvest in Hout Bay, became one of the biggest MTB and BMX dirt-jump events in the world. “The more building and riding content we created to showcase what we were creating, the more people would contact me for builds. That’s how it evolved into a business,” says Justin.

Sebastiaan Klaassen, owner of the farm Vuurberg in Banhoek, reached out to Justin in 2018 and asked him to build a trail on his farm. After seeing this first trail, Sebastiaan asked Justin to transform the area into a proper bike park, and this led to the establishment of Hellsend Dirt Compound, referencing the park’s location at the end of the Helshoogte Pass.

At that time, fellow Capetonian Duran van Eeden joined Justin at Hellsend Dirt Compound. Duran had also been obsessed with dirt jumping and trail building at a young age, having constructed his first trails as a schoolboy while delivering newspapers in the early morning hours before school. “I love dirt, especially moving it!” he grins. After completing his studies in animation, he joined Jan van Schalkwyk’s famous Trails Company business, where he also got his first experience in building trails using an excavator. “I bounced between animation jobs and trail-building jobs until I realised I was actually only doing trail-building work.”

Hellsend was eventually opened to the public, with regular dirt-jump and ‘shuttle’ days, during which riders are shuttled up the mountain with vehicles before riding down the downhill tracks and flow trail. Justin and

Duran continued to expand, receiving enormous freedom and financial support from Sebastiaan to build the ultimate play park.

“The way we build is to make sure there is something for everyone,” says Justin. “Trails that beginners can enjoy but that also challenge advanced riders, so that everyone continues to improve their riding skills in the same bike park. Our goal for Hellsend Dirt Compound is to create a world-class mountain bike park with a focus on gravity and freestyle mountain biking that will help to move the local scene forward and provide a training ground for riders to reach a level where they can compete internationally. We’ve been lucky to have hosted some of the world’s best mountain bike riders and BMXers over the past few years and hope to continue doing so!”

Sebastiaan calls Justin and Duran ‘icons of the South African riding scene’, and Bobby Behan agrees. “Justin and Duran are legends when it comes to progressive mountain bike riding. And the way they’re able to build trails using massive yellow metal machinery is off the charts. They are also super nice and honest guys, with an amazing work ethic.”

Anyone who’s seen the mind-blowing scale of the dirt jumps at Hellsend, whether in person or in the world-famous videos of the annual Monster Energy-sponsored Dark Fest events, will appreciate the amazing creativity and pure audacity of Justin and Duran’s work. And those who’ve been brave enough to actually ride these trails will certainly agree with Duran’s description of Hellsend Dirt Compound as ‘paradise for the riders, by the riders’.

The never-ending story of mountain biking in Stellenbosch started exactly 30 years ago with Meurant Botha’s first downhill trail on Thelema Farm. Since then, a world-class network of trails has been established in and around Stellenbosch, along the slopes of Jonkershoek, Botmaskop, Banhoek, Helderberg, Simonsberg and Stellenbosch Mountain. Pioneers like Meurant, Bennet, Justin and Duran have combined their deep love and passion for the sport with enormous amounts of effort and dedication to turn their vision into reality.

No matter whether you’re a resident or a visitor, and no matter what your riding skill level is, the mountain biking network around Stellenbosch offers amazing trails. What’s more, there are great options to rent bikes, hire a guide or enjoy wonderful hospitality en route.

For more info contact trails@stellenboschtrailfund.co.za or visit their website.

Stellenbosch Trail Fund

Stellenbosch Trail Fund was established as an NPC in 2011. Its management team are all volunteers, and the organisation relies solely on donations to fund its trail-building team of six permanent employees. Please support STF by scanning the Snapscan QR code or by visiting www.stellenboschtrailfund.co.za.