How one community is helping build one of the great MTB track networks in South Africa and the world.
Located in a deep valley, nearly surrounded by all sides with impressive peaks and slopes, the Jonkershoek mountain biking (MTB) trails have been a thrilling secret among enthusiasts for many years. Jonkershoek was once a single track, literally, attractive for its technical demands and adrenaline rush, now it is a mecca for MTB enthusiasts of all ages and skills, as well as hikers, trail runners and outdoor enthusiasts.
Despite suffering major damage from fires at least twice in the past decade, Jonkershoek has rebounded and is steadily becoming not only one of South Africa’s top MTB destinations but a global attraction.
A place to ride
Only a few kilometres outside of the scenic town of Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek has been appealing to athletes since the late Nineties. One of those is Bobby Behan, an Irish triathlete and Olympian who first visited the region after he heard that top triathletes used it for training. After a few visits, he decided to relocate permanently to the area and continue to tackle ‘Never-ending’, the local name for a single track that charged down the mountain slopes.
Then disaster struck. In 2009 a fire ravaged the area and destroyed the track. Behan and his local comrades were gutted: their favourite trail and the only of its kind in the area was gone. But this was not the end. Instead, Behan, along with rally champion Giniel de Villiers, started working on ways to fund and rebuild the track.
“Selfishly, if I go back on how that started, it was about our favourite single track that had burned down and we had nowhere to ride,” said Behan. “It started from our passion for riding – we just wanted trails. That’s why we still do it today. I love riding. I’m there every weekend.”
This eventually linked them to a local MTB legend, Paul Morris, better known as Paul the Plummer. Eventually, they would meet Bennet Nel, another serial MTB enthusiast who even built his own tracks. Said Nel:
“It all started in the nineties as mountain bikes became available. Jonkershoek never had trails, they had a downhill that was almost illegally made. There was no process. Since then we’d just look for places to get access and ride. I was picking my own spots, and then I helped build trails with the Pedal Power association. But that was development money spent once-off, not on a network.”
To be clear, Jonkershoek wasn’t a single track that suddenly exploded into many. People have been venturing into the hills for years, looking for new tracks and discovering new areas. All of them are fuelled by a passion for their sport, for nature and for this unique part of the planet. Nel became involved through Morris to help design and maintain a number of tracks. In 2012 he met Behan, who used his own network of business contacts and riders to raise funds for the trails. At this point, the project escalated.
A little help from MTO
Things had come to a head. Fundraising was becoming harder. Missing from the party was MTO, the forestry company that is custodian over the lands that include Jonkershoek. Even though it passively permitted the riders to enter its forests, MTO remained very hands-off. As long as the riders didn’t get in the way, it wouldn’t complain, but it didn’t give any support either.
That changed in 2015 when Lawrence Polkinghorne joined MTO as the Group CEO. A fervent believer in sustainable development and transformation, Polkinghorne has been reaching out extensively to different communities that use the various properties MTO owns. Upon meeting with Behan and hearing of the funding issues, he offered that the gate proceeds of Jonkershoek should go to the track building and maintenance efforts. MTO has committed further funding to ensure continued development, building tracks and paths that cater for all.
“Jonkershoek has come together after many years of dedication from people with a passion for the outdoors. It is a privilege for MTO to be able to support these efforts. Guys like Bobby, Giniel, Bennet, Paul and company have made a massive difference over many years and we’re able to build on that dream. It’s super exciting to see Jonkershoek fast becoming a global phenomenon, and what a wonderful way to share this privilege through empowering and engaging our communities, it is all of our responsibility to preserve the natural wonders South Africa has to share with the world,” said Polkinghorne.
A second fire ravaged the area in 2015, but while the damage was incredible, it didn’t stop Jonkershoek’s development. Since MTO’s proactive involvement, things have gone from strength to strength. Already a magnet for top riders looking for technical challenges, the area is now also accommodating to newcomers and families. Rustic dirt roads circle the base of the valley, with trails snaking off along the rising slopes. Currently, there are more than 40 kilometres of trails available, with new ones being planned and built every day!
Nearby, the Ride-In cafe offers food and beverages, parking, shower facilities and a small track where parents can keep an eye on their adventurous children. This makes a day trip to the site, which is less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, a breeze, while nearby Stellenbosch offers many overnight spots.
Looking forward, MTO plans to expand its ecotourism business, offering package tours, and more to visitors.
“Look out for the launch of the My MTO app that will showcase the many exciting destinations including Jonkershoek, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay, Tsitsikamma and Whiteriver, where we have an exciting trail network and eco-cabins. The app will link all of these and our partners to ensure your experience is exceptional” says Polkinghorne. “We have such an incredible diversity of landscapes, each unique, like Jonkershoek, our mission is to bring these to our communities to enjoy and protect.”
Jonkershoek continues to evolve, the tracks developed over the past two years offer riders of all skills the opportunity to challenge themselves, with new signage and maps making the tracks even more accessible to visitors. To guys like Nel, it’s all been worth it:
“I do it for trails and for people, and obviously for the lifestyle! It’s not a big business, it’s a community thing. A bunch of passionate people who wanted to get to new places in the mountains, purely for nature and exploration and adrenaline. I’m thankful where we are right now. It’s a process with many different people coming together and it’s great to see it developing into something special, it is after all Jonkershoek, the world’s best kept secret!”
Source: MTO Group