THE TRAIL MASTER
Louise Ehret speaks to Bennet Nel about trail building in Jonkershoek.
There is much more to trail building that removing rocks and dirt. When the fires in 2011 devastated the very limited existing trails in the Jonkershoek Mountain Reserve, a small group of Stellenbosch individuals initiated a project to restore, maintain and extend the trails across these magnificent mountains. Firstly, they needed funding, as the entrance fee to the reserve is only used towards maintaining the main road infrastructure and not the single tracks. This was raised through a few private donations and some local fundraising events. Plus they needed an expert trail builder.
Chatting to Bennet Nel from Ace of Spades, the trail builder behind most of Jonkershoek single-track trails, one gets to understand the challenges involved and the passion that drives him. With over 20 years experience in trail building, Bennet describes the Jonkershoek terrain as perfect with the clay substrate and magnificent scenery. When planning a new trail, he speaks to the actual users to find out what they are looking for in a route then scouts the whole area on foot before one stone is turned. He has to plan around Cape Pine’s harvesting plans within the reserve, as the process of cutting down and moving the trees destroys the trail. He, therefore, builds in young plantations where trees still have lots of growing to do to maximize the lifespan of the trail.
Bennet also emphasizes that regular maintenance of existing trails is vital for the safety of the users. With Jonkershoek visitors increasing from 2011 by 64% to 46 000 day visitors (not including the annual permit holders) in 2013, the trails are subject to a huge amount of wear and tear by mountain bikers. Bennet estimates each route experiences thousands of tyres per month. The winter rains and existing water run offs also take their toll, and he has to include drainage systems to help avoid erosion. His other challenge is the local baboon population, The newly worked on trails are especially attractive to them as they dig in the fresh soil and roll over rocks in search of food. He has experienced massive damage to a new trail within 24 hours of having completed the work.
Bennet employs 7 men from Kayamandi to assist him in the work, creating much needed job creation opportunities for this community. It is a full days hard work for this team as they help carve out and fix up the routes we so love to use. It sometimes takes up to 4 days just to build 100m of trail in difficult terrain. Directional signage has also been installed across the trails to enhance safety for the riders, trail runners and hikers.
Testament to the success of this initiative, Stellenbosch trails were rated as one of the top 10 mountain biking playgrounds in South Africa in Bicycling magazine and are used for challenging trail events such as the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge. In addition to the pleasure they provide the many mountain bikers, trail runners and hikers, they make an extensive contribute to the town’s attraction and inject valuable support for local businesses to thrive.
When asked about the future, Bennet describes the main focus as being the maintenance of existing trails but hints at a few exciting surprises in the near future so we have much to look forward to. None of this will be possible without funds raised to support the work. Yearly maintenance alone costs an estimated R150 000 with any further funding aimed towards extending and upgrading the trails further. It costs around R2 500 per day to cut trails high in Jonkershoek; therefore, the value of well-structured and groomed track cannot be underestimated. The total of R312 013 raised in 2012/13 was fully invested into trail building for the benefit of all that use them.
To raise further funds for this initiative, Stellenbosch’s BMT Shop team have again collaborated with well-known artists, who have donated a stunning collection of art, for a second BMT Bike Art Auction. It will take place on 26 November 2014 at Ride Inn, close to the entrance of Jonkershoek. This coincides with the Origin of Trails mountain biking challenge, with an entry for this world-class event also up for grabs on the night plus many other fantastic items. Tickets can be bought through BMT.
For more information or if you would like to show your support of the Stellenbosch Trail Fund, visit http://www.stellenboschtrailfund.co.za/