I had an opportunity to see the fire damage to Jonkershoek myself this week. It’s worse than I expected. And that’s after a couple of weeks of volunteer clearing work. Here’s some more detail on what I experienced and what’s being done to revive one of the best mountain bike trails networks in South Africa.

By Sean Badenhorst

The revival has begun.

When a massive fire burns out of control, it’s merciless. Huge forests of mature trees were wiped out in the Jonkershoek Valley, home to some of the finest mountain bike trails anywhere. But perhaps more importantly, home to a range of indigenous wildlife and fauna protected from human destruction by way of Nature Reserve status, but unfortunately, not off limits to fire.

The base, where you enter the valley seems almost untouched, but as you start to ride into the valley and up the slopes, you see just how extensive the damage is. On some slopes, small trees have survived, but are black and brown and gray with no leaves. On other slopes, large black chunks of tree trunks remain, some still in the ground pointing upwards in a final act of defiance, while others lie scattered randomly.

Some of these larger sections of blackened tree trunks slide down the steep slopes, pushing smaller trunks and rocks down in what becomes a series of mini landslides.

The upper end of Irish is unrideable currently.

It’s these mini landslides (some not so mini) that reach the sections of trail that mountain bikers use, creating mounds of natural debris that form on the singletrack that’s been bench-cut into the slope. Many of these burned tree trunks collapsed and rolled to a point, but ran out of momentum or became lodged against another stump. These look like they might roll down at any moment and obviously pose a danger to anyone lower down the slope.

In some places, the falling/rolling tree trunks have gouged sections of trail away so that you can’t actually get a bicycle wheel across. You need to dismount and carefully carry your bike across the gap, making sure you don’t put a foot wrong as that could you see you tumbling down the slope, along with your bike.

It’s heart-breaking to see such devastation. But around the blackened, ash-covered slopes is a silver lining. With a large financial contribution by Specialized Stellenbosch (R200K) and Specialized South Africa Managing Director, Bobby Behan (R100K), work has begun by the local trails maintenance team, headed up by master trailbuilder, Bennet Nel, to restore the trails to safe, rideable condition.

Bobby Behan rides up Irish, which sustained major fire damage.

The trails are not yet open for riding. I was tagging along on an exploratory ride with Bobby Behan and Kylie Hanekom from Specialized, the biggest and most consistent sponsor of the MTO Jonkershoek  trails. They were keen to see the progress. Having recently announced MTO Jonkershoek as No. 2 on our TREAD Top 15 Trails for 2020, I was keen to see how I could use the TREAD reach to assist.

Bennett and his crew have already completed the Fire Hut section on the south-western slope and are currently working on the more popular north-eastern slope, which is more challenging and vast. We encountered the maintenance team near the base of the Armageddon descent where they were clearing the trail and cutting back some trees that had fallen into the singletrack.

Bobby chats to Bennet Nel, who was busy with his trail team at the lower end of Armageddon.

Small and larger bridges have been damaged or completely incinerated too, so those are also being rebuilt or repaired. It’s a big job, but it’s being done by an experienced, competent team.

“Some features on Fire Hut will need to be rebuilt in the winter, but for now they are safe and rideable once the reserve opens for riding again,” explained Bennet.

He added that about a third of the work currently being done is to clear the preventative trenches next to the trails to channel water away from the singletrack when it rains. Without these trenches the water running down the slope can create trail-surface chaos.

“We are on a bit of a time limit as we are keen to get the trails ready for the 2021 Origin of Trails event (24 and 25 April), so we are working as quickly as we can. We are focussing on the more popular trails first. Trails like Red Phoenix have a lot of bridges which will take some time to rebuild.

“We are currently moving up Armageddon (descent) and Irish (climb). If there is no rain, and we can get enough wood for the bridges soon, we should be able to have these trails, along with Fire Hut, ready for all to ride by Friday 27 March.”

When we chatted to Bennet on the trail, he said he had seen some lizards, small buck and Caracal/Rooikat while working on the trail restoration.

Although ravaged by the fire, Fire Hut trail is now safe, but will only open once mountain biking is permitted again.

“Some of the faster moving creatures seem to have been able to escape the fire,” said Bennet. “We have seen some dead buck that obviously didn’t though. But there is definitely some wildlife around.”

That was good to know; and before we had begun our descent down Armageddon, we had seen a single crimson, orange and yellow flower growing through the black and gray ash-covered slope. Ironically, the colours of a fire’s flame. A cliché perhaps, but confirmation that nature is incredible and will always bounce back. Always.

If you want to help contribute to the restoration of the Jonkershoek Trails, purchase something from Specialized Stellenbosch and indicate that you are purchasing on behalf of the Jonkershoek trails restoration. There will soon also be a bank account to which direct contributions can also be made (keep an eye on the MTO Jonkershoek Facebook page for details). And if you live in the area, volunteer your time to help the crew.