Garden Route Trail Park
Words and pics Tim Brink
Along the Garden Route lie the historic remains of South African mountain biking’s beginnings. And some exceptional brand-new trails, as Tim Brink discovers.
Sedgefield’s Fat Tyre Festivals are a 20-years-plus distant memory, but the Southern Cape still calls mountain bikers from far and wide to ride some of the iconic trails in this region. Harkerville’s Red Route is the seminal mountain-bike ride here, if not in the country, with forest singletrack, cliff-edge speed-play and weather variables that turn any ride there into an adventure.
The forests surrounding Knysna and George have hosted events and adventures for decades, on trails marked and unmarked. So, when we heard about this new MTB park, snuggled below SANPARKS’s wonderful Farleigh trail system, we packed up the trusty Renault Duster (we can have favourite new four-wheel toys too!) and headed east.
An hour’s gentle drive from either George or 30 minutes from Knysna, the trailhead is simple to find – follow the Karatra signs off the N2 and then just keep heading north for a shade under 20km, following the signs to Barrington. Can’t go wrong! The trailhead is at the T-junction that ends this road, and has an honesty-box system where you staple your entry money to a disclaimer and put it in the box provided. There are no change facilities, so make sure you have a R50 note – although having ridden the full set of trails on offer, we weren’t too fussed about overpaying. Security, courtesy of a Great Dane the size of Sea Cottage, is excellent. The facilites are also excellent – you can see the guys behind this venture ride bikes and have visitied similar spots; there are hot showers, clean flushing toilets and cool drinking water on-site.
The park consists of three main loops:
• The yellow Forest Frenzy route is about 8km long and is as technical as the rest, but without the longer climbs
• The blue Crazy Creek route is 12km long and has some jumps and rhythm sections in it that will test novices, a little, but please accomplished riders immensely. There is a little more climbing (we were there on New Year’s Eve and the mercury peaked at 34 degrees C, so take lots of water) but it is all short in duration.
• The red Jungle Fever route covers 14km and has some long draggy climbs, as well as faster descents like the other two. This is the one with the views – the other two are almost all in the valley, along the river, and forested.
The best plan of attack is what we did. Of course. Start on the Forest Frenzy, which leads into the Crazy Creak and finally onto Jungle fever – a greatest-hits compliation that runs to around 27km (many sections are shared by two or more trails) with 500-odd metres of climbing. That doesn’t sound like much ascent, but all of it is made up of slighly brutal steep stuff, rather than gentle ascents to take in the view. This is a real rider’s park, with berms and whoops and features that make you want to ride sections over and over again. You would think that so many kilometres snugged into such a small area would feel crowded, and repetitive, but it doesn’t. We counted six other cars when we parked and saw just one pair of riders in the few hours we were riding. Yes, you see other paths nearby – sometimes right under you – but you have no idea where they fit in, so it doesn’t bug you, mainly because the quality of the trail-building is such that you are having too much fun.
There is parking for 15–20 cars (carefully parked) at the trailhead, and limitless parking just outside, but you are unlikely to have a problem – it is a longish drive and these trails will never be overcrowded. They are run on an honesty system – R50 gets you access for the day, no matter how many (or few) trails you want to ride.
No helmet - no ride.
There is no food or drink available at the trailhead (other than the lovely fresh water) but the Garden Route is holiday central: you can’t drive too far without finding something delicious.
Showers are plentiful, with hot water in abundance, and the ablutions are refreshingly clean.
Oakhurst Farm Cottages is a 20-minute drive along the Seven Passes Road towards George. Situated against the mountain, it provides access to a huge network of forestry roads and jeep track in the Bergplaas and Biervlei areas. These trails are unmarked but are similar to the Farleigh trails. Garden Route Trail Park is collaborating with Oakhurst, and construction has started on a trail network similar to its own. The farm has great potential for a massive trail network.
The Garden Route Trail Park is located at Barrington, just north of Karatara. PJ Dormehl bought the land in 1910 and it has been in the family for four generations. The taming of this piece of veld, which bordered the Karatara River and what is now the Garden Route National Park, was started by his son Jim. He grew certified seed potatoes and berries, which the farm produced for the canning factory in George. There was also a small dairy herd and a guest house, which was the halfway stopover for the mail coach as well as travellers between George and Knysna on what is now the Seven Passes Road.
In 1946 the homestead burnt down, the fire having been started by stray ashes from the wood stove. All that could be saved was the brass handbell, the breadboard and -knife and the piano. For the next two years the family lived in a cottage which is now the ablution block. Food was cooked on an open fire in the yard. There was a small insurance payout and this was used to buy a tractor.
From 1968 Jim’s son John built up a stud herd of Ayrshire cows and grew vegetables for Table Top (later McCain) in George. Finally, in 2004, John’s son Rob returned to the farm and continued with the dairy-farming operation. In 2011 the decision was taken to start developing a trail network on the farm. The initial sections of trail were intended for mountain-bike races. However, some severe scope creep has led to the development of a trail park aimed at mountain bikers, trail runners and lovers of the outdoors .The farm has large areas that are not suitable for pasture – steep slopes, riverine bush and forest – but are perfect for trails. The steep terrain means that 90% of the trail needs to be cut by hand. The 20km of singletrack on the farm has taken around 15 000 man-hours to build. There are three permanent trail builders cutting new track five days a week. Building is set to continue for at least another year or two.
For 2014, Rob has aquired the services of Mark Gordon, the creator of the G-Spot trail in Stellenbosch. He will be building at the park full-time and has been tasked with taking the park to the next level. His first project is a BMX/MTB jump-track hybrid and a monster pump-track. After that he will spend the year getting creative on the trails, adding roller-berms, jumps and whatever else he can dream up. Garden Route Trail Park is also busy with two new loops: the first will be for kids, novices and those who prefer to avoid uphills; the second will be an advanced trail, with faster decents and bigger everything.
GPS Coordinates: S33.55.01, E22.51.46
From Knysna: the venue is 40km from Knysna. Drive 20km towards George on the N2. At the Ruigtevlei/Karatara sign, turn right. Go over the railway line and then straight up the road for 18km. Follow the sign to Barrington. At the T-junction, turn right and you are at the start.
From George: the venue is 60km from George. Drive towards Knysna on the N2. Go through Sedgefield. After 5km, turn left at the sign to Ruigtevlei/Karatara.Go over the railway line and head straight up the road for 18km. Follow the sign to Barrington. At the T-junction, turn right and you are at the start.
Source: First published in Ride Magazine in March 2014