Closest Town: Stellenbosch
Grading: Easy to Intermediate | Duration: From 1-4 Hours
Location (Area/Province): Peninsula and Winelands and Western Cape
Configuration: Interlinked trail network
Start Point: Various – See Text Below
Access: Day / Annual Permit (See Below)
Beware of: Tight single-track curves
Facilities: Any first-world stuff you can imagine
Cell Reception: Yes - Good
Publication: RIDE Magazine (2016 September Issue)
ROUTE – Banhoek & Boschendal
Beating around The Bosch
Stellenbosch has always been at the forefront of SA fat-track culture, with a whole bunch of rebel trail builders creating MTB magic here in the shadow of Simonsberg. Banhoek and Boschendal now features the next generation of trail – Story and Photographs ~ Jacques Marais
Those Banhoek peaks … hot damn! They rise up in all their rugged glory in the south when you crest Helshoogte Pass from the Stellenbosch side, and don’t seem to quit for miles and miles. I’ve often checked them out on sorties into this part of the Cape Winelands, all the while wondering when I’d be able to work in a sneaky ride in them thar hills.
Up to quite recently, most of these trails have been off-limits to regular riders, and only a lucky few event participants have managed to lay tracks here in the Dwarsrivier valley and on Boschendal Wine Estate. Sure, if you’ve ridden the ABSA Cape Epic or ‘Origins of Trails’ – or had a local contact – you may have been more fortunate.
But outsiders like me … we could but dream. That is, until Kim Lord and the crew from the Banhoek Conservancy gave me a call a few weeks back. “You keen to come and shoot the new routes …” was about as far as he got before I barged into the conversation with a resounding ‘Hell, yeah’!
I long weekend loomed fortuitously on the calendar and without further ado , bikes and kids and beer were loaded into the vehicle. Accommodation had been pre-arranged at the brilliant Boschendal Wine Estate, with some of the new trails starting literally a few chain-ring cranks from the front door.
I know Kim from many a year of AR sprint racing, so it was good to have him as our local guide, especially as the area now boasts a number of brand new trails with public access. These include Boschendal, Botmaskop, Bartinni and much of the Dwarsrivier valley, all of which make up the Banhoek Conservancy.
For those who don’t know Banhoek, it is key to understand the ‘three pillars’ of this conservancy are (1) building the community; (2) nurturing the environment and lastly, (3) creating opportunities for all. The idea is to create space for a healthy lifestyle and fitness outlook through building trails, clearing aliens and re-establishment wetlands and pristine riverine areas, and funding this through events, permits and memberships.
And with more than 70km of trails – most of it single-track – you can bank on days and days of superb MTB Play. There’s even more good news: a bunch of additional new trails are already in the planning stages, with work starting on a few of these.
Question is – what the hell are you waiting for? Limited annual MTB permits will be issued and you need to be in the front of that queue. Go check out www.boschendal.co.za and www.banhoekconservancy.org or get day permits from the Boschendal Deli… Now go!
OK, for the purpose of the article, we will list all trails situated to the south of the R44 as perk of the Banhoek network (with the one exception being the access section to the Botmaskop Route). The trails to the north of the tar road are for most part on Boschendal Estate, and will be treated as a separate trails system.
In essence, there are three individual and separate routes: Banhoek Game Trail (13km), the Dwarsrivier Valley Trail (14.3km) and the newly upgraded Botmaskop Trail (15.7km). These trails can easily be combined in various configurations, but we’ll leave some of the head-work to you for a change.
Your ride will take you onto the slopes of the imposing Banhoek Mountain, culminating at an impressive 1 492m here within the dramatic Hottentots-Holland Nature Reserve. Lower down in the valley, a number of the historic wine farms joined forces to join the Banhoek Conservancy, now bordering onto the reserve.
Together with the local communities, there vision is to conserve the striking environment, partly by developing a permanent and well-marked MTB trail system for public enjoyment. These purpose built single-tracks will have you ducking and diving over wooden bridges, beneath verdant tree ferns and through swooping vineyards, and along the way, sneaky tree roots and steep rocky descents will sort the men from the boys.
One thing you can bank on is a proper climb, so maybe have a quiet chat with your calves before you set off. The routes are well-marked and individually colour-coded, and for most of the distance, will suit most levels of riders. Read on for a focussed description on each of the above-mentioned trails.
You can access this relatively flat, circular route easily from either the Old Bethlehem Gate (on the edge of the village of Kylemore), or from the Boschendal Vegetable Garden side. It is pretty well marked with light blue circles on black arrows, situated at the key junctures along the trail.
From the Boschendal Garden, the route follows single-track along the stream course, and often shared by pedestrians heading to or from the estate from Kylemore. Due care should therefore be taken while riding the route, which eventually links to the Dwarsrivier Trail.
Start off along a gradual climb through orchards and the Dwarsrivier River drift, continuing into the game enclosure over a wooden stile (4.2km). Continue along a range of purpose-built single-track joining the Game Trail Circle Route, keeping an eye out for the eland, wildebeest and other game.
Follow the signage as the trail dips and winds into Old Betlehem Farm, and keep left at the dam wall to go around the dam (7.3km). A fast gravel road connects onto the Houtkapper (8.3km) and Digbos (9.6km), before you hit the original (and quite rocky!) section of trail at just on 11km. A short jeep-track connects you back to the end of the Game Trail Circle (12.2km) before you blast back to Boschendal to finish over the wooden style and into the veggie patch.
Total elevation gain is 260m, but there are a few short and sharp climbs sure to test the legs. The route is suited to beginner riders, but only if they know when they are out of
their depth, especially along the original section of rocky single-track. Also keep an eye out for one of the wildebeest, which may be a touch to cheeky!
This is an easy route extension of the Game Trail mentioned above, should you want to beef up your time in the saddle. In fact, this circular route – marked with purple diamonds on black arrows – can link you to Botmaskop Trail as well. The signs are not huge, but are well placed and clear once you know what to look for.
Once again, you will find the trail head at the Old Bethlehem Gate in Kylemore; crank to your right from the gate via the village streets until you T-bone with the Helshoogte Pass road (1.4km). Turn left to ascend Helshoogte and left again 900m later into Zevenrivieren Road before turning right into the Oldenburg gravel road (4km).
A steep and gritty jeep-track climb bumps you onto a dogleg left to cross along a concrete drift (8.2km) over the Dwarsrivier. Stunning valley views towards the Banhoek peaks will keep your mind off the ascent as you approach the entrance left to the #NickNack single-track (9km) and into fynbos heaven.
Expect a few smallish rock obstacles as you power up the zigzags onto a contour traverse, until you enter through the game fence gate (10.9km). Supper-droppy ess-bends swoop you along some lekker, sweeping curves, so pin your ears back and gooi mielies until you hit the ‘Tunnel of Love’ (11.6km)
The ride flattens out here as you pass the connecting point to the Game Trail, with the last few fast-and-flat kilometres booming you back to Old Bethlehem Gate in Kylemore. Your total ascent comes to 380m, and technically the upper sections of the route will test those without rock-riding skills. If in doubt, get off and push …
Many local riders have been avoiding Botmaskop, purely because of that mother-buffer of an ascent from the tunnel to the summit. Let me categorically state that I do not blame them, but that this excuse is no longer valid since Kim Lord and his crew have tackled the ascent section of the route. Sure, you still climb 700m in total, but chances are you won’t even realise it.
The most convenient starting point is still at Tokara (there is safe parking near the Deli). Be sharpish as you dip down 440m onto Helshoogte Road, keeping an eye on main road traffic here. A few hundred metres after turning right (towards Stellenbosch) you’ll need to cross the tarmac onto the Old Helshoogte Pass gravel road (900m). Blast downhill for just on 1km until you spot the culvert passing under Helshoogte tar road to the left (2.4km).
This is your cue to pretend you’re a home-sick mole; duck into the tunnel and hum a Ray Charles ditty as you blindly aim for the light at the end of said tunnel, a good 300m away. The new single-track starts a few hundred metres later, passing via African Valley land and onto a last piece of steep gravel road (3.9km).
Never fear, as you’ll be back on the Botmaskop single-track in 120m, winding upwards gradually as you take in spectacular views towards Cape Town and over Dwarsrivier till you reach the highest point of the trail at 6.7km. Yup, it’s been a proper climb, but what awaits you is surely one of the best descents you’ll find anywhere in South Africa.
And what better way to start that descent than along the curvaceous excess of whipped dirt zigzag by the name ‘Luiperd se Fyndraai’? You’re now on Morgenzon Estate, and will probably be purring like some near-orgasmic big cat by the time you bottom out (8km).
But wait, it gets even better! You’ve now entered Bartinney Wine Estate, and are about to drop into the legendary serpentine set of curves known as SkyFall. And if by any chance you’re not orgasmic by the time you flat-line (at 9.9km), you may want to get one of your fellow riders to check your pulse.
A flat 560m Fijnbos section along gravel road blasts you onto the next descent, a quickie single-track through Mitchells Proteas, onto the loop-the-loop downhill of Banhoek Berms (just watch out for Marais Steyn’s rabid jack russel terriers here). And that, kids, is how to have a fun time on the bike!
Plug back left into Oldenburg Road for a 1.5km climb left into Zevenriviern Road, before finally looping back past Banhoek Lodge (16.3km) to Tokara. You have the option here to either follow the Helshoogte tar road, or cross over to the other side to follow the signage up via the gravel tracks – I suggest the latter option.
Just as Americans will forever whisper in awe about how mountain biking started on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais – with Gary Fischer and his rag-tag gang bombing the Marin County, California trails – you’ll have the SA fundis holding forth on how the fat tyre tribe tamed the Stellenbosch trails.
They know who they are, so I won’t name names to avoid a lot of muttering into beers around braais, and we owe much of the MTB development boom to these early trailscaper rebels. The Banhoek Conservancy’s new routes borrow from the handiwork of a whole bunch of contemporary trail builders, but the real heroes are their hard-working crews. We salute you!
Thanks to them, the Banhoek Conservancy boasts more than 70km of single-track, all of various levels of technicality, and with dozens more kilometres in the planning or scaping stages. Vineyards, olive groves, orchards, fynbos, alien bush tunnels … it is all there, just waiting for you to come and play.
Last word: don’t go and fuck it up now, please. Buy a permit; keep your frigging dirt bike off the trails (every village has an idiot or twelve); and try to contribute to trail upkeep and maintenance, either through manual labour, or through financial contributions. Here endeth the preaching…
This section of the Cape Winelands between Helshoogte and Franschhoek probably rates as one of the world’s culinary hot spots, so if you cannot find a good coffee or a kick-ass
cabernet here, you should stick to Frisco Instant and dooswyn. Here’s a few pointers for our up-country friends, though -:
Delaire Graff Restaurant – Overlooks an abundance of vineyards and olive groves upon the scenic edge of the Dwarsrivier Valley. This classic bistro rates as a firm favourite with locals and international tourists alike – www.?
Tokara Restaurant and Deli – One of the region’s leading fine-dining establishments, offering terroir-focused contemporary cuisine, paired with award winning wines as well as breathtaking Wineland vistas – www.?
Boschendal Deli – An excellent balance between earthy, organic food and contemporary cuisine, accompanied by world-class wines. Their burgers are a top choice, but there is a menu to suit every taste and quirk – www.boschendal.co.za
If for some reason your taste buds are craving even more gourmet flavours, go and try Le Pommier (www.lepommier.co.za); Banhoek Lodge (www.banhoeklodge.co.za) or the ever-green Hillcrest Berry Farm (www.hillcrestberries.co.za)
A range of permits are available – from day to annual permits. We particularly like the Winelands Trail permits that give you access to more than 400 kilometers of trails around Paarl and Stellenbosch. Find more details here.
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