There’s rollicking riding to be had where the Eastern Cape’s ‘Frontier Country’ hinterland borders onto the Sunshine Coast. Jacques Marais went native and checked out some brand-new sections along 3 RIVERS TRAIL near Jeffreys Bay.
– Photographs & Copy: Jacques Marais
Khangela mfethu, die Oos-Kaap is ‘n lekker plek, no matter what language you speak. Much of this melting-pot-of-a-province brims with largely unexplored mountain biking options, allowing you to crank till your legs go blunt, and often on trails combining organic single-track with a true wilderness edge.
Anything goes, from rough-shod animal tracks and gritty 4×4 farm tracks to some latter-day gems hand-crafted by those legendary fat-trackers who continue to live the good life here on the blurry edge of Africa Proper. The 3 Rivers Trail – situated in that Dirt Bag Triangle amidst Thornhill, Hankey, J-Bay and Port Elizabeth – is a case in point, and can these days lay claim to being one of the best MTB route networks in the province, if not the whole of South Africa.
You basically get four trails for the price of one if you saddle up for an exploration of the trippy ‘3 Rivers Trail and we’re bringing you the low-down. Originally you had a few km of scratchy single-track at Woodridge School, plus access to around hundred-odd kays of gravel and logging roads in Longmore Forest.
A decade or so back, Didier Duc came to the party with Jbay Bike Park, a series of short and sweet, hand-built loops, running from his Zebra Lodge property. The Swiss MTB fanatic joined forces with local farmer-cum-riders, Grant and Brett Puttergill, and the rest is – as they say in the classics – history in the making.
The Puttergills promptly decided their farms as well as the adjoining Crossways Farm Village could only benefit from a burgeoning MTB tourism influx, and put the hammer (or spade) down to get trail-scaping going in this vibey corner of the Eastern Cape. The end result of this synergy delivered 200km-plus of marked routes, including a whopping 70km of single-track.
Even better, this merry band of mountain bikers managed to get permission from more than 15 landowners (including the forestry operation, Cape Pine) to further develop single-tracks and create a single permit system granting riders access to not only Longmore Forest, but all the surrounding farms as well.
Ride Info …
Just so you can get your bearings: 3 Rivers Trail covers a massive area, basically stretching all the way between the Gamtoos and Van Stadens Rivers from east to west, and then north across the mountains to the Elands River. All these individual routes interlink to guarantee an excellent day of bike play along a combo of purpose-built single-track and forestry roads.
There are a number of potential trail heads from which to start your crank, but the beauty of the current system is that you can get a permit and start your ride at half a dozen spots along the trail network. I usually opt for either Jbay Bike Park or Crossways because of the secure parking, but there’s also the trails centre at Woodridge School.
You need to make the call as to what you’d like to ride, really: is it going to be a hard core day combining gravel-grinding and enduro riding along the Black Porcupine Route; maybe some technical and tight single-track at Jbay Bike Park, plus some air-time on the pump track; or do you want to surrender to the superb flow of the ‘Holstein Routes’ traversing the tranquil farm lands around Crossways?
Whatever option you go for, I guarantee you maximum fun! The route’s web site is well up to date and features concise trail descriptions as well as downloadable maps, plus GPS tracks, for the full range of routes – make a point to go and check out www.3riverstrails.co.za before you go and ride. Plus, get a permit, you plonker, these okes have been busting their asses building track, and the least you can do is to support them.
JBAY Bike Park
Crank up your stoke levels on a handful of intermediate to technical routes radiating out from the pump track, situated at the entrance to Jbay Zebra Lodge (www.jbayzebralodge.co.za). Here’ you can plug into some compact, continental MTB kiffness, courtesy of Swiss/Portuguese owners, Florbela and Didier Duc.
We escaped into this paradise midway between Jeffreys Bay and Port Elizabeth, where Africa Proper awaits. The closest dorpie is Thornhill, hidden away amidst undulating hills and dales, bedecked with stands of sweet-thorn trees and spiky aloe ferox.
The beauty of the main trail hub at Zebra Lodge is that it is a safe and secure destination for the whole family. The riding is absolutely superb, with approximately 20km of steep and gritty single-track traversing the thorn veldt property.
Best of all, as soon as you cross onto the routes to the north of the R102, you’ll blast across a few cool wooden bridges and then plunge into a tunnel to zigzag under the N2 highway. Follow the ‘Yellow Cat’ and then the ‘Green Apple’ Routes, which will eventually connect you to the exceptional Crossways Farm Village trail network.
Both these route sections are well marked, with the Jbay Bike Park single-track designed so as to maximize the natural contours of the steep valley rising alongside the N2 highway. Zippy descents, sharp climbs, tight turns, bush tunnel blasts, wooden boardwalk sections and dippy water-containment jumps all combine to pack exhilarating fun into these side-winding trails.
A good 90% of your riding inside the JBAY Zebra Lodge property is on single-track, and the level is accessible to just about any rider. Care should be taken on the more gnarly Black Route; the ‘Wall of Fear’ definitely calls for a Chicken Run if you’re a beginner!
Here’s a quick overview of the individual trails that make up Jbay Bike Park -:
YELLOW CAT: Moderate route, some tarmac, gravel road, jeep tracks, but mostly single-track, with a few technical sections. Switch backs, bridges and steep uphill – suitable for intermediate riders. 20km / 2hrs
RED / BLUE: These routes crisscross the Zebra Lodge property, with around 8kmof riding in total. The technical level is fine for beginners, while intermediate riders can really push the speed to build your confidence and skills on this.
BLACK: This varies from Easy to Difficult, with 100 % single-track and some pretty technical bits. Steep descents and ascents, plus numerous bridges – suitable for all level of riders, but rookies can expect to walk some sections. 23km / 2-3hrs
BLACK PORCUPINE: This is not to be confused with the BLACK ROUTE, as you are in for 60km-plus of hard core pedalling. Access starts from Jbay Bike Park, with 2 000m of solid ascent on the ride. The views are superb though, and makes for superb training for events such as Epic, TransCape or PE-to-Plett. 60km / 4-6hrs
Crossways Farm Village
As mentioned, the great advantage of the 3 Rivers Trail is that you can link Longmore, Crossways, Woodridge and J-Bay Bike Park from a single trail hub. This is done mostly along the sneaky Green Apple Route (30km), which you can access from the Yellow Cat Route near Thornhill Village.
This gets you onto the Puttergill Farms around Crossways, and from here a multitude of trails traverse the hills, going as far as the Van Stadens River Gorge and Flower Reserve. Brothers Brett and Grant Puttergill have been instrumental in developing the single-track here, and you can always bank on welcoming smiles and a kick-ass day of cranking.
Across the bars, you will see peaceful scenes of pastoral beauty unfold as you crank into the forested hills and amidst lazily grazing Holstein cattle. There’s certainly nothing lazy about the trails though …
I connected to Crossways Farm Village along the ‘Yellow Cat’ and ‘Green Apple’, jolling initially on a preppy 4km of Jbay Bike Park’s forest single-track. From Thornhill main street, you then pop over a wooden stile onto a track following the railway line east, crossing more stiles as you crank to Crossways for around 5km.
If you prefer, you could park at ‘Crossways Country Kitchen’, a delightful eatery set amidst the dairy farms of the area. Thing is, you’ve not yet deserved that roasted pork belly with crackling and berry coulis, so instead head for the Elandsberg hills, following a combo of purpose-built single-track.
I started off on the Red Holstein and followed this onto the Purple Holstein, before finally linking up to the Black Porcupine Trail summiting at the rocky apex of the ridgeline. From here, nearly 6km of scaped trail will bomb you straight down onto the Crossways Common, and you can pin berms and bridges and boardwalks to your heart’s content all the way back.
The routes are exceptional well marked, and I suggest you look out for the ‘Yellow Monkey’ next, as this will trip you through stands of wattle along a winding track which eventually blasts onto the old Van Stadens Train Bridge. Rusty after decades of neglect, it still stands – at a dizzying 70m high – as the tallest metal-span train bridge in the world.
Didier and the Puttergill brothers can pride themselves on having created some of the best MTB route in the Eastern Cape – here’s an overview of the Crossways section …
YELLOW MONKEY: Easy, gravel road, jeep track & single-track, including a few technical parts, but with Chicken Runs, so well suited to beginner riders. 14km / 1hr
GREEN APPLE: The link between Woodridge Trails, Crossways Trails and the Jbay Bike Park. Moderate route, tar and gravel road, jeep track plus single-track, with minimal technical or natural obstacles. Suitable for intermediate riders. 25km / 2-3hrs
BLACK MAMBA: Difficult route, 99% single-track, with technical sections, steep downhills and killer climbs. Rocks, sand and roots will test your skills, so more suited to advanced riders. 6km / 1hr
RED HOLSTEIN: Difficult route, with some tarmac and gravel, as well as jeep track and superb sections of single-track. Expect some proper technical parts to the ride, with steep drops and climbs. Advanced and intermediate riders will have an excellent time out on this one – no cell phone reception. 29km / 2-3hrs
Go Race …
Midnight Express – You can race it or just go along for the ride. Cycling through the Karoo at night brings on shooting stars, moonlit roads, animal calls; a thrilling experience on your bike. The race starts in Steytlerville at midnight, with a 135km pedal to Patensie for breakfast. The route passes through the magnificent Groot Rivier Poort and across the Antoniesberg Pass, a solid 94km into the journey. This means you exit the Karoo at sunrise to enter the extension to the Baviaanskloof – www.midnightexpress.co.za
FedGroup PEPLETT – Challenge yourself with a 4-day mountain bike stage race between Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay. You have a choice between Tough or Lite; there is no time limit on the event, so even social riders can complete the Tough (average daily distances of 90km, with elevation around 1800m per day). The Lite is easier, with daily distances of 60k – www.peplett.co.za
ECOBOUND Trans Baviaans – This humdinger of a 24-hr MTB Marathon will sling-shot you through one of the largest World Heritage Sites on the planet, as you grind the grueling gravel roads from Willowmore to Jeffreys Bay. Due to curfews, this year’s event had to include the option of a potential of a sleep-over camp at the Pakhuis support point, but otherwise it is still as wild and untamed a ride as you’ll get anywhere in SA. I mean, where else will you cross paths with leopard, rhino and buffalo on your bike – www.transbaviaans.net
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|FAST FACTS BLOCK – CROSSWAYS|
|GRADING:||Easy to Difficult|
|DURATION:||30min – 5hrs|
|CONFIGURATION:||Circular Options, 6 – 28km|
|START POINT:||Crossways Country Kitchen|
|GPS COORDS:||S33°53’31.9″ / E25°10’51.5″|
|TERRAIN:||Gravel road, jeep-track and superb single-track|
|MAP:||Available at www.3riverstrails.co.za|
|ENTRY REQUIREMENTS:||Permits and registration at Crossways Country Kitchen|
||Restaurant and ablutions|
|CELL RECEPTION:||Reasonable reception along the routes|
||Rocks, sand and roots in some areas, and drop-offs|
FAST FACTS BLOCK – J-BAY BIKE PARK
|GRADING:||Easy to Extreme|
|DURATION:||45min – 5hrs|
|CONFIGURATION:||Circular Options, 1 – 65km|
|START POINT:||J-Bay Bike Park|
|GPS COORDS:||S33°54’16.1″ / E25°05’30.2″|
|TERRAIN:||Gravel road, jeep-track and superb single-track|
|MAP:||Available at www.3riverstrails.co.za|
|ENTRY REQUIREMENTS:||Honesty Box system for permit, but only valid for J-Bay Park Trails. You must register at
Crossways if you want to do the other trails
|FACILITIES:||Braai facilities, accommodation – www.jbayzebralodge.co.za|
|CELL RECEPTION:||Reasonable reception along route|
||Switchbacks, lots of bridges|
||Contact Didier Duc for more JBay Bike Park MTB info. Telephone +27-83-778-9487|
Follow the N2 from PE to CPT, exiting onto the Crossways off-ramp. Turn right at the top towards Crossways Country Kitchen. The exit for J-Bay Bike Park is the next one (look for the Hankey signage). Turn onto the R102 towards Humansdorp and continue for 2.6km, where you’ll find the entrance on your left.