Heli-biking, new adventure on the Jonkershoek trails

Heli-biking is huge in Europe and America, but few South Africans have strapped their MTB to a chopper. This is about to change, reports Jacques Marais, so get ready for new adventure on the Jonkershoek trails.

Kyle Gifford gets some big air along one of the singletrack drop-offs.

I love the smell of fynbos in the morning. The Cape Fold peaks rucking up at your back and spearing into the cobalt sky, the scent of buchu on the breeze, mist veiling along the slopes – they all make Jonkershoek a very special space.

Everything is tranquil in what surely rates as the holy grail of mountain-biking in the Cape, but there is a sense of something brewing. The first inkling of adrenalin is response to a low-level ‘whump-whump-whump’ that echoes from the cliffs high above me. Then the heavy bass beat of blades thumping through the thick morning air kicks in.

I scan the ridge line, and sure enough, there they are: two riders cranking hell-for-leather along the legendary section of singletrack known as Red Phoenix. Everyone in the wider Winelands mountain-biking community will surely know this slip-sliding switchback that ducks and dives along the fynbos-covered slopes. It offers a combo of perfect progression and just enough natural obstacles to challenge an experienced rider, all while brimming with S-bends and jaw-dropping views.

Mountain bikers Kyle Gifford and Marz van der Merwe exploring the Red Phoenix trail on their heli-biking mission.
The H125 Airbus helicopter expertly operated by pilot Schalk Boonzaaier.

Ready. Aim. Fire! I grab a series of stills of the riders – Kyle Gifford and Marz van der Merwe – as they blast into an open space in a spray of gravel. Just then, as I track them in the viewfinder, the H125 Airbus chopper rises like a mechanical dragonfly from the abyss yawning beyond the singletrack. The man operating this 732 shaft-horsepower machine is Schalk Boonzaaier, the ‘Flying Photographer’ responsible for shooting multiple Epics and other multi-day stage races, and he definitely knows what he’s doing. And it’s just as well, because the next trail section drops you down a proverbial lift shaft as you bomb along multiple zigzags to the valley floor below.

Tracking and yawing, the helicopter descends at speed as it follows the riders, then returns to pick me up. We have to shoot the aerial perspective along both Neverending Story and Red Phoenix, and then cut between on-the-ground angles and rider’s point of view footage to create a final edit of Kyle and Marz’s heli-biking adventure.

And that’s the beauty of this incredible outdoor experience; it allows you and your team riders to capture insane footage of your day out in the mountains, all while you shave hours off the time it would usually take you to get from the trail head into the really technical (and utterly dramatic) high mountain sections.

Heli-biking may not be everyone’s cup of tea and I understand that: most riders pride themselves on conquering those massive climbs and making a full day of their ride. But if you’re an overseas bike tourist with only a few hours to spare, there is no better way to get those endorphins going.

The picturesque Jonkershoek Valley and the exhilarating MTO (mountain to ocean) trails traversing its diverse surroundings make a perfect amphitheatre for MTB dreams, too. It’s as good as mountain biking is going to get in South Africa, with those rugged peaks and rolling hills creating the ultimate arena in which to lay fresh tracks.

I’ve ridden here often and can vouch that Jonkershoek is as close to a Banff-style trail paradise as you’ll get anywhere in Africa. Singletrack routes crisscross much of the stellar landscape, with dozens of options for hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers to choose from. In total, the MTO trails network boasts more than 48km of singletrack, plus 74km of gravel roads and jeep-tracks linking these hand-scaped trails. But from the many trail experiences available, the heli-biking experience focuses on just four of them.

First up from the landing point is one of the MTO flagship trails, the Red Phoenix. This beaut bangs from high ground into the valley along a superb 2.77km descent and is guaranteed to put a smile on any rider’s face. It encompasses everything, from flowing singletrack, rolling risers and jumps to a few hand-sculpted berms. This one’s not for beginners and is therefore graded as a red (or advanced) trail for skilled riders who are confident on the bike. (Advanced and expert trails feature fast and flowing manmade sections or may be technical with a range of natural obstacles.)

Neverending Story is a dual-directional trail that mountain bikers can descend, but runners can ascend or descend. With a total distance of just under 6km, this legendary route is graded blue (intermediate level) and also allows for fast and flowing riding.

Next up is the infamous The Plumber, a short, sharp and hardcore descent over 1.81km of extremely technical and rocky terrain. This is graded as a black (expert) trail and aimed at experienced mountain bikers who are used to highly challenging and demanding terrain.

This finally brings us to the Twin Traverse, a beautiful and scenic trail that is shared with both runners and hikers. No riders are allowed right at the top in the lee of the slope, just below the Pieke cliff line. Also dual-directional, the 3km route boasts some magnificent valley views.

To top it all, this stunning trail network in the very heart of the Hottentots Holland mountains lies right next door to a premier student town with quirky restaurants, vibey coffee shops and cutting-edge art galleries. What more can you ask for?

Check out www.mtotrails.com for more information about Jonkershoek trails.

Heli-biking: the low-down

Here’s the deal: there really is only one operator that I know of that offers heli-biking as an adventure option in South Africa and that is Cape Town Helicopters. Its latest Explore Collection includes various experiences, such as mountaintop gin tasting, gourmet fynbos picnics, West Coast culinary visits and photography tours throughout the subcontinent.

Its heli-biking option is an experience like no other: you fly directly from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town to the Stellenbosch mountains and its state-of-the-art helicopter is equipped with aviation-approved bike racks, so you experience a natural high with your mountain bike before you even reach some of the Cape’s greatest trails.

Seating seven passengers and with racks for six bicycles, the Airbus helicopter cuts down on travelling time and allows short-term visitors to make the most of their interlude in the Cape. Half-day and full-day trips are offered, and bikes can be rented if necessary.