A world-class mountain bike playground, on our doorstep

The Amphi Bike Park at Paul Cluver Wine Estate isn’t only a top notch mountain biking park, it was also one of the design projects of World Design Capital Cape Town 2014.

The Elgin Valley, a 45-minute drive from Cape Town, is one of the major mountain biking hubs in the Western Cape – and the routes at Oak Valley wine farm, Paul Cluver wine farm, Lebanon and at Cape Pine are rated as some of the best in the country.

South Africa’s premier mountain biking event, the ABSA Cape Epic, put mountain biking in the Elgin Valley on the map, while more recently FNB Wines2Whales has been a major impetus in the growth of the sport, opening up new routes every year.

One of the most exciting developments, however, came in 2014 when Building Bridges @ Paul Cluver was elected as one of the projects for World Design Capital Cape Town 2014.

The project involved cutting down alien trees such as black wattle and blue gum in the Paul Cluver Amphitheatre and turning them into bridges and pathways; the building blocks to a brighter, greener future for both people and nature. The alien trees were replaced with indigenous species and, to the delight of the mountain biking fraternity, the purpose-built Amphi Bike Park opened in February 2014.

Several obstacles reflect the fact that the Amphi Bike Park is located on a wine farm, including a stepped descent of wine barrel lids and the famously intimidating Raka Bridge, which is built from 60 old wine barrels attached to a 50-metre-long tree trunk that is suspended from two other trees.

Dr Paul Cluver himself, a neurosurgeon turned woodworker, built many of the structures in the Amphi Bike Park, including several of the bridges that comprise the Building Bridges project.

Cape of Good Hope has an epic hiking trail. Shhh, it’s a secret

This stunning trail at the tip of the Cape Peninsula is hiking guide author Fiona McIntosh’s favourite two-day hiking trail in South Africa, and one of Cape Town’s best-kept secrets.

The overnight trail through the Cape of Good Hope section of the Table Mountain National Park is an absolute gem, but it’s surprisingly little known.

A self-guided, circular trail, it can be hiked clockwise or anti-clockwise and each has its advantages.

If you hike clockwise you have a fairly short first day (10.5 kilometres, 4 to 5 hours), so you should have plenty of time to explore Cape Point in the late evening when all the day-trippers have left.

The anti-clockwise option means that you do the long day (20.3 kilometres, 7 to 8 hours) first and can explore Cape Point early the following morning while you are fresh, and still get back to your car in good time on the afternoon of day two. That is my personal preference, but it’s worth checking the weather—in particular the predicted wind direction—before making a decision.

If taking the anti-clockwise route you head from the entrance gate towards the Atlantic coast. The trail leads through swathes of colourful flowers in early spring (September) and past herds of Cape mountain zebra, bontebok, eland and other plains game, then traverses Blaubergvlei, an area that is out of bounds to day hikers. The scenery is glorious. The path leads through a section of coastal forest and past empty golden beaches, from which you’ll often see whales and dolphins, before cutting across the neck of the peninsula to the wonderfully located overnight huts on the flank of Vasco da Gama Peak.

The route on Day Two completes the circle, along the dramatic cliffs and wild beaches of the False Bay coast and back to the gate.

Although it’s not particularly steep at any stage, don’t underestimate this trail—33.8 kilometres is a long way in two days if you’re carrying a pack. My advice is to pay the small extra charge to have your bag (and your cooler bag of beer and meat) delivered to the huts. The three huts, each of which sleep six hikers, are equipped with showers, flush toilets, mattresses, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, braais and grids and you can purchase wood at the gate and have it delivered.

Try to factor in two detours. The absolute “must-do” is to visit the lighthouses at Cape Point in the evening of Day One, or on the morning of the second day—a round hike of about two hours. Another worthwhile short detour is to the wreck of the Phyllisia at Hoek van Bobbejaan. The turn-off is about halfway between the entrance gate and the overnight huts on the long day and the path takes you past some KhoiSan middens on the way to the wreck.

The Cape of Good Hope Reserve is part of the Cape Floral Region World Heritage Site and the flora is suitably impressive, with 1080 plants, including 14 endemic species, having been recorded in the reserve. The birdlife is also a highlight so I strongly advise you to take a field guide to the birds and flowers.

Explore the best of Cape Town’s nature on these 5 hiking trails

The Cape Peninsula, with Cape Town’s Table Mountain at one end and Cape Point at the other, is a wild, special place that begs to be explored on foot, says Fiona McIntosh, author of Hike Cape Town (published by Jacana), a full-colour guide with detailed descriptions of Cape Town’s best day hikes.

A network of hiking trails from Cape Town all the way to the tip of the Cape peninsula criss-crosses the peninsula’s mountainous spine, taking you through exquisite fynbos, indigenous forest and to dramatic rocky viewpoints. Easy coastal tracks lead to gold sand beaches, rock pools and whale-watching viewpoints. Much of the peninsula is protected as part of the Table Mountain National Park, an area of complex beauty and biodiversity that stretches about 60 kilometres from Signal Hill to Cape Point. It includes a significant portion of the mountain chain of the peninsula and 1 000 square kilometres of coastline and sea.

Nature lovers in Cape Town are spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring on foot. But these five iconic trails should be on your to-do list:

1. Maclear’s Beacon

The Table Mountain Cableway will whisk you high onto Table Mountain, but if you want to go to its true summit you will have to hike for about an hour each way across the flat plateau to a large pile of rocks known as Maclear’s Beacon. This beacon marks the highest point on Table Mountain, (1 086 metres above sea level) and was constructed in 1844 by the then Astronomer Royal at the Cape, Sir Thomas Maclear, as part of his efforts to measure the arc of the meridian of the earth.

The route, mostly along a natural rock track that leads through windswept vegetation, is marked with yellow footprints but it’s still easy to lose your way—this hike should only be undertaken in good visibility or with a guide. Remember also that on the top of the mountain the weather can change quickly so always take warm, waterproof clothing even if it’s a glorious sunny day. The Table Mountain Cableway is closed in high winds so don’t rely on it being open by the time you reach the top: make sure that you have the time, and energy, to walk down.

Free, guided walks from the Upper Cable Car Station around the plateau and across to Maclear’s Beacon are run by volunteers. Contact the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway for details.

2. Cape Point to Cape of Good Hope

This moderately difficult trail links two of South Africa’s most iconic landmarks  — Cape Point, with its two striking lighthouses, and the Cape of Good Hope, the south-western tip of Africa. It offers stunning views, wildlife sightings and interesting history. The route up to the now-redundant, upper lighthouse at Cape Point is easy, while that to the new lighthouse is steeper and exposed at times, so requires more effort and a head for heights. You can tour both lighthouses in a couple of hours, then hike along the spectacular cliff path from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope in another 30 minutes. Either return the way you came or arrange to be picked up at the car park at the Cape of Good Hope.

3. The Contour Path

This shady path through the forest on the eastern flanks of Table Mountain starts at Constantia Nek and goes across to the King’s Blockhouse above Rhodes Memorial (the car park closest to the King’s Blockhouse). Allow around six hours to hike the whole way or, if time is short, hike only the popular second half, from the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch to the King’s Blockhouse.

Since it is largely flat and shaded this is an easy trail for walkers of all ages and abilities and there are plenty of escape routes down into the Kirstenbosch gardens if the going gets tough. This is a good year-round trail, with the forest offering shelter from the hot sun in the summer. It’s particularly lovely in winter when the forest is lush and moist, waterfalls tumble down the ravines and colourful fungi adorn the dead branches.

4. Lion’s Head

The trail up Lion’s Head is one of Cape Town’s most popular hikes, partly because it is often in the wind shadow so makes a good outing when the southeaster, Cape Town’s dominant wind, is howling. Although clearly marked, it involves scrambling up some steep rocky sections, often with the aid of ladders and metal staples in the rock, so it is for confident and adventurous hikers only. The seasonal wildflowers are a particular treat and the views of Table Mountain, the World Cup stadium and Robben Island from the top of the peak are breathtaking. Allow two hours to return.

5. Sea Point Promenade

The Sea Point promenade stretches south along Cape Town’s Atlantic coastline from the Green Point lighthouse, a Cape Town landmark, to Queen’s Beach at the southerly end of Sea Point. It’s a wonderfully bracing child- and dog-friendly walk that can be hiked one way if you have two cars (or have a pre-loaded myconnect card for use on Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus), or as an out-and-back walk from either end.

In addition to refreshment stalls, jungle gyms and playgrounds there are several beaches along the way, as well as two tidal pools. The pool at Milton Beach is close to the sand and is protected from the crashing waves beyond so is ideal for families, while Graaff’s pool is a stunning, but more exposed gully nestled between jagged rocks.

As with all good promenades there are benches along the way where you can relax and watch the world go by. The Sea Point promenade has a great vibe, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon when walkers, joggers and rollerbladers head out for a little fresh air. Allow an hour each way.

Mountain bike through the vineyards at these wine estates

While there’s plenty of fine food and good wine to be found on the wine estates in and around Cape Town, adrenalin junkies will also be happy to discover superb mountain biking trails there too.

Need to work up an appetite before tucking into the great food and fine wine offered on the wine estates around Cape Town? Saddle up for a ride on one of these three wine estate mountain bike trails:

1. Oak Valley wine estate in Elgin, an hour’s drive from Cape Town, has long been popular for its range of trails that criss-cross the scenic Groenlandberg Mountain. The three trails here range in length from 14km up to 32km, running through oak forests, vineyards and grassy slopes. There’s a happy mix of terrain, with both single track and gravel roads on offer. A big plus are the hot showers and bike-washing facilities at the start/end point of the trail.

2. Delvera Estate, on the R44 outside Stellenbosch, provides the red wine grapes for the nearby Delheim wine estate, but most cyclists head here for the excellent single-track mountain bike trails run by Dirtopia. The Porcupine Trail is one of the best single-track routes in the Cape, while the more sedate Farm Trail is best for beginners. Rental bikes are available.

3. After a major investment in food and wine, the historic Boschendal Estate in the Franschhoek valet has become a favoured winelands destination, and the estate’s handful of mountain bike trails are yet another reason to visit. Exploring the slopes of the Simonsberg, they combine single-track trails with gravel farm roads to offer great views and approachable riding. After your ride, don’t miss the wonderful restaurants in the renovated homestead.

My top tips on preparing for an endurance race

Cape Town hosts various thrilling long-distance trail races, Rosie Carey, female record holder of the 108 kilometre Outeniqua Quest, shares her tips on getting set.

I think that the biggest challenge of an endurance race is the mental challenge. You can go into an ultra trail run a little physically underprepared — and that’s sometimes better than being over-trained — but if your mind isn’t properly prepared, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. I really believe that anything over 50 kilometres is a battle of willpower; a mind game far more than just a running race.

It becomes a case of your mind willing your body to keep going, to push beyond the ache in your legs and the burning in your lungs. You need to train your mind to ignore the negative thoughts. Replace them with positives. It helps to have memorised a few simple, punchy motivational phrases to throw at any negative thoughts.

I use a strategy of breaking the race down into smaller, doable pieces. It’s far less daunting to think of doing 10 sets of 10-kilometre stretches than one set of 100 kilometres. At the beginning, I divide the race up into 10 kilometre segments. Towards the end of the race, when I’m becoming more tired, I count down smaller distances: five kilometres and then eventually one-kilometre intervals.

One of the best pieces of advice I got for pacing myself in long races was to divide the race into three segments. For the first half of the race, run well within yourself. If you are feeling good at the half-way point, increase your pace a bit for the third quarter of the race. If you hit three quarters of the way through and you’re still feeling good, give everything you’ve got to the last quarter. That works for me.

People tend to think that training for an ultra is just about doing endless miles of running. It’s so much more than that. It’s about getting your race nutrition and hydration strategy right long before race day; it’s about testing and retesting all your gear in different conditions, and finding the gear that works for you; and it’s about learning to love spending hours in your own company. It’s about never — not even for a moment — entertaining the thought that it’s not possible.

Overseers Cottage is my best hiker’s hut in Cape Town

The Overseers Cottage on top of Table Mountain is a unique memory maker, says Saskia Marlowe, Hospitality Manager at Table Mountain National Park.

My most treasured possessions are memories, so when it comes to family gifts I go for experiences that will create lifelong memories. For many people the most special memories are about spending family time together: if it’s in a unique location, all the better.

The Overseers Cottage, perched on top of Table Mountain, has one of the most spectacular settings for an overnight stay in Cape Town. But there is a catch: to get there you have to hike. The most obvious route up the mountain, particularly if you have a mixed-ability hiking group, is the jeep track that leads from Constantia Nek up to the cottage—a two-hour walk if you stop a couple of times to look at the view and gaze at the vastness of the city below. For the more adventurous, a hike up Skeleton Gorge and then across the top of Table Mountain is an enticing alternative.

Irrespective of the route you walk, your bags and cooler box will be waiting for you on arrival and you will have earned your drink at the end of the day. The Overseers Cottage is an exclusive-use cottage so there will only be you and those you invite to share this special place.

Overseers has no electricity, but gas makes everything possible and a warm shower and hot cup of tea will reward you for your efforts.  As night falls the twinkling city lights draw you outside and the stars enthral. Remember to take a warm jacket with you: even in the summer months the wind tends to chill the skin.

If you can resist the urge to just sit in the sun and take in the view in the morning, you should drag yourself out of the crispy white linen early and hike towards the dams as the sun rises. Table Mountain is always beautiful, but never more so than when the dams and the view are there for just you and your family to share.

When the magic of an overnight stay ends at Overseers there is still the joy of the hike down. Your choice of route depends on your fitness: one of the easiest options is to meander across the top of Table Mountain and then take the cable car down. Going down the Twelve Apostles side of Table Mountain on either the Kasteelspoort or Wood Ravine path is also a possibility, one often forgotten in favour of the more obvious alternative.  No matter what hiking trails you take up and down, a night at Overseers Cottage will delight everyone in your family and create a memory to be treasured.

Trail running tips for beginners

With trail running increasing in popularity in Cape Town, there’s no shortage of scenic races to be run or great trails to be discovered. Here’s what you need to know if you’re just getting started…

Train right

Even if you’re a seasoned road runner, hitting the trail for the first time can be a challenging experience. If you decide that you want to venture into trail racing, it is a good idea to build up to it by incorporating trail runs into your training schedule. Start off with an easy jeep track and work your way up to a more technical single-track.

Invest in good gear

If you are serious about trail running you’ll want to invest in a pair of trail-running shoes. These generally have a lower profile, which makes rolling your ankles less likely, and more serious tread to accommodate slippery trails. It’s also worth getting a multi-bottle waist belt or hydration pack as you will need to carry your own water with you when you run.

Take it easy (sometimes)

When you first start out, try not to become too despondent about the time it takes you to complete a run or race. Because of the varied terrain and the almost inevitable climbs, it might take you twice as long as usual to complete a distance. Remember that it is also perfectly acceptable to walk from time to time… especially up steep hills!

Keep eyes peeled

When you are out in nature, it can be tempting to check out the views, but if you decide to do so it’s best to stop or walk. Trails are full of roots and rocks and other surprises, so it’s a good idea to focus on the trail in front of you while you’re running so that you know where you’re going to step for the next few strides. Don’t veer off the trail, and yield to other trail users.

Play it safe

Trail running can also be dangerous, so if you are going for a training run, try to run with friends or dogs and be sure to let someone know when and where you’ll be running. There are a number of trail running groups that you can join in Cape Town. Check out the Cape Runners Against Gravity, K-Way VOB Running Club, which has a trail group that runs on weekends, and Celtic Harriers, which offers trail runs on Thursdays.  Most trail races require you to carry water and safety items such as a windbreaker, cellphone and first aid items. If you are heading out onto the mountain for a trail run, it’s a good idea to be similarly prepared.