Feature: Trailblazers Episode 2 – Garden Route

Words by: Richard Müller and Frans le Roux


How did you get involved with trail building? For how many years have you been building?
I did mountain biking for about eight years and enjoyed the forestry roads in the Garden Route area – especially the dedicated MTB trails. At that stage I stayed on the Saasveld Campus, outside George. One day in 2009, I decided to build a trail that leads through pine plantations right up to my house. It was a popular outing with my two Jack Russels (Jellie-tot and Polkadot) in the afternoons after work. Since this
first trail (called Drongos – there is always some drongo birds welcoming cyclists), I never stopped building and maintaining trails. So, I have been building now for about 10 years. However, it is more for the last five years since we had a crisis at the Hillbillies MTB Club and the expansion of XCO races being held at Saasveld (Nelson Mandela University George Campus). In fact, the 2021 Western Cape XCO Champs will be held at Saasveld.


Tell us more about your most recent trails. Where were they built?
In the last year, we built Dirty Squirty (sponsored by Squirt lubricants) as it was a much-needed project which relieves the trail-congestion of the Sampieshoogte and Middle Contour roads in Witfontein Plantation. It was such a success that it was extended through to the new Lockdown and Benji trails. Now there is a 4.5 km string of trails stretching as a contour between the mentioned existing contour roads. Another critical trail was to connect DMC and the Upper Swartrivier Dam Contour with a new trail, Berg Cypress. This connects the Dryland sponsored Chernobyl trail. Lastly, an exciting trail, Sequoia, has been added close to the Campus at Saasveld. It meanders through massive, big California redwoods (sequoia’s). Other exiting new trails are Moose-A-Nice and Die Hark. All the trails can be seen at www.trailforks.com/ region/witfontein-15109/ and https://www. trailforks.com/region/saasveld-15145/ .


You are the head builder at Hillbillies MTB club – what makes your club so unique and special?
A unique feature is that membership fees are 95% spent on trail expenses. With a cheap R250 annual membership, a total of 154 dedicated mountain bike trails with a total distance of 185 km are maintained to environmentally sustainable methods. Note that this excludes forestry and access bakkie-roads in the George area. Many trail runners, hikers and dog walkers are also members of the Hillbillies MTB Club – they see membership as their contribution to pay for the upkeep of the trails. Further, with the forestry activities in the area, there is a lot of rides possible. A forestry estate typically has 600 km forest service roads and there is four such estates stretching through the George- Knysna area. Another unique situation is that our trails and trail mapping on Trailforks enabled critical access for fire fighters during the prevention of the 2018 fires. Further (I think this is general for other clubs too?) it serves as a body that acts as the mouthpiece for MTB’ers to represent them with regards to riding access, maintaining relationships with landowners, security and spreading information for riders’ safety (forestry harvesting operations, etc.).

How many kilometres of trails have you built?
Give-or-take a 16.2 km of freshly built trails. However, there was a lot of rebuilding after three incidents: The massive fires of 2018, the subsequent harvesting of the timber in 2019 and the massive wind damage in 2020 of both burnt trees and live trees. Then, I built about 14 bridges, of which most had to be replaced after the 2018 fires.


Are you a keen rider too? If so, does it help when building your own trails if you can ride them?
Yes, I am keen to ride, and experience taught me that you need to harmonise the natural topography and features with the trail experience. The final corkscrew dropping down to the Garden Route Dam on the Moosea- Nice trail is an example.


What is your favourite Garden Route trail and why?
Mania on the Garden Route Trail Park. Rob Dormehl did his magic in allowing the trail to flow. In the George area, my second most favourite trail is Sequoia. Stop underneath one of those giant Sequoias, look up and reconsider your thoughts of being such an “oulike outjie”.


How big is your team and does each member have his own set of skills?
My team consists of a lot of volunteers, that all chip in. Some adopted a trail, some help with chainsaws to clear trails and some build more trails. A local earthmoving contractor, Tippeton, helps a lot with G7 material. The Hillbillies Chairperson, Braam Pretorius, helps a lot with the operational assistance. My official team, called Trail Troops, consists of two persons. On a constant four days per week basis we have Lionel Pedro and on 1 – 2 days per week we have Morien Muller. Morien is the machine operator expert and Lionel is the trail shaping specialist, looking at the drainage, camber and berms.

What are the biggest challenges of building on George soil?
Luckily, the soils differ a lot and therefore it is not boring! Saasveld trails has a lot of clay and roots. The stuff in impenetrable, though once it is tilled, it can be manipulated, and it compacts to a very hard and
smooth surface. Witfontein has a lovely deep loamy soil, and works easily, though compaction is not that good. Then there are lots of sandstone rocks, typical of the Cape Folded Mountain range.


Did Corona/lockdown make trail building slower or impossible?
For three weeks we could not do anything … officially. However, since the Hillbillies trails and trail mapping network were used extensively by fire fighters during the 2018 fires, it was agreed that we were critical to provide access to the plantations in order to fight fires. Lots of the trails are in the vicinity of residential houses. “So, when lockdown struck we convinced the local Working of Fire personnel that with the fire season starting in the Southern Cape, we could help them and be part of the solution. This enabled us to be classified as “critical services”. This way, we did maintenance on the forest roads, together with Working on Fire personnel. However, we veered off the roads and took care of the trails too. During Stage 4 of lockdown, forestry operations could proceed. We used that angle of forest protection to proceed on the trails.

Any specific area in the Southern Cape you would like to build some new trails?
Being a homeowner at Buffelsbaai, I am partnering with my brother, Corrie, to build a few trails to enable trail users from Buffelsbaai to connect with other cycling areas, without using the dangerous and boring tar roads. There is a lot of sand, so this will be a major challenge.


Any advice for upcoming builders?
A civil engineer once told me that road building involves three things: water, water and water. Think what the water will do and then after good rains go and inspect it. First do some maintenance on trails before you start to build a new trail. Or start with a short trail and monitor it well, while doing trail maintenance. Respect the soil, vegetation, and natural landscapes to enhance the adventure. Remember that someone needs to maintain your trail after you have left.


What is your favourite place to ride outside of George?
The rugged and indistinct off-the-beaten-tracks stretching over various mountain ranges around Calitzdorp. Also, that rock face at Armageddon in Jonkershoek. How could my list miss the drop into the Umkomaas Valley? Lastly, I would love to see the new trails of the Aardvark Bioreserve in the Klein Karoo (Upper Garcia Pass area).

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