The initial cut
Depending on the type of vegetation the initial cut is first flagged to indicate the placement of the trail. Although I’ve experimented with flags on thin metal rods, I’ve found this method fairly impractical on all but the most scorched of terrains. The easiest way is to use the red/white hazard tape, available form a hardware store, and to use the shrubbery to tie the tape to.
Depending on foliage denseness, one will either make the initial cut with a petrol driven brush cutter or a chainsaw. If you are dealing with low grass, it is best to go straight to hand tools like spades and picks/mattocks to clear the tread.
The spade you need is the Lasher no2 as they are well balanced and last a fairly long time. Don’t bother with shovels for breaking earth, they are designed to load coal. But flat head shovels make for great compactors, especially when shaping dirt jumps.
The mattock/cutter combination is our most versatile tool as it can break earth as well as cut roots.
Be careful when using the mattock as a lever to dislodge rocks or roots as they do have a tendency to break off. When they do break the cutter still makes for a robust axe. The biggest issue is the longevity of the mattock handles which can snap in no time, mostly due to using the tool for the wrong job…
I’ve resorted to raiding the pawn shops for tools as these mattocks and spades have become expensive. Don’t bother with rakes or spades painted in nice green and yellow colours as these are designed for garden use and will not last.
On the brush cutter side of things you have to make sure that you get a machine rated for heavy duty use. Ask the salesman which machine the municipality orders and you should be close. Of most critical importance is the gearbox at the end of the shaft that drives the mower. These come in 2 – 3 sizes from thin for garden use to nice and beefy for industrial applications. You want the mower head to comfortably accept 3mm gut as well as be rated to run the 3 blade cutter. We’ve experimented with the circular saw blades for the brush cutter but always revert back to the 3 prong blade.
An initial run with the blade followed by a nice thick gut makes for a very nice initial clearing. Again, don’t use the brush cutter for chopping small trees, although at high revolutions it can easily chop through 3-5cm stems. Excessive tree-chopping will ruin the gearbox and you should rather be using a chainsaw.
Chainsaws are notoriously expensive to maintain, predominantly because of incorrect use. The number one killer of chainsaws is the use of blunt chains. You should be (lightly) sharpening the chain at least at every second refuelling, or with each refuelling when dealing with hard woods.
Although I’ve learnt to sharpen the chains, I find it easier to rotate 4-5 chains and have the garden centre sharpen them with the machine.
Also running the chain too loose or without oil will ruin the guide bar in no time and is exceptionally hazardous.
Choosing a saw is not easy as the price of the bigger models is no joke while going for an entry level saw will leave you frustrated when dealing with bigger trees.
Another useful tool is a pole pruner; it works best in thorny shrubbery and allows you to cut a corridor without getting punctured by camel thorns. Although I own a hedge trimmer it sees little use as it’s not really designed for cutting hardier fynbos, and I’ve yet to find a spot on a trail to do some shrub sculpting…
A note of advice on buying brush cutters and chainsaws is to stay away from second hand machines unless you are intimately aware of their histories.
To save your mattock heads (and your back) it is a good idea to get a crowbar (koevoet in Afrikaans) to lever rocks and stubborn roots out of the ground. I got mine from a scrap metal dealer as the big ones are not easy to find and are too expensive.
For shaping the tread surface the fire rake is your most valuable tool. Also called a mcleod or forester’s hoe the tool has 6 big teeth on one side and a flat cutting surface on the other and is great for cutting small roots and raking larger volumes of earth. Because of the large flat surface, they make for great compactors too.
Where the garden rake bends and breaks, the fire rake manages large tasks with ease. They are available locally, again produced by Lasher, and although pricier than a rake, they are well worth the expense. We do have a few lighter rakes for final polishing but they don’t see much use. You do get a few models with reinforced braces to prevent the rake head from bending that make them last a lot longer.
Mostly overlooked, proper precautions can save limbs and lives. Safety boots and eye protection is a must when striking anything with anything while head/ear protection and chaps are essential when operating power saws and cutters.
Well maintained, sharp tools eliminate unnecessary force that could lead to equipment/tool failure and injury. And yes, soft hands need gloves.