Friday, May 11, 2012

Beyond the Northeast: Tokai Forest, Cape Town, South Africa

Like Andy, when my wife gets to travel someplace nice, I jump at the opportunity to tag along. So when work took her to Africa this past April we made plans to tack on a vacation in Cape Town, South Africa.

A week in an exotic locale with my wife is a rare luxury, and one normally spent doing things as a couple. However, as it has been her lifelong dream to dunk herself in a cage in great-white-shark-infested waters, it has been my dream for at least as long to avoid stomach-churning boat rides and proffering my body as shark chum. So when she announced the intent to spend one day of the vacation at sea I began searching for the perfect Cape Town mountain bike guide.

Well, I found him. A fortuitous internet search led me to Dan Dobinson and his bicycle touring company, iRide Africa. I made plans to join a ride Dan was leading in Tokai Forest, an arboretum just outside of Cape Town. Giddy with excitement for the chance to ride on another continent, I packed my bike shoes and shorts alongside sandals and swimsuit and boarded a long, long plane ride to the southern tip of Africa.

Map of Tokai trails from the iRideAfrica website

The weather on the morning of our ride was perfect: A sunny, pleasantly warm early fall day ahead of what looked to be nasty weather in the forecast. Just before 8am Dan showed up at the doorstep of my guesthouse with the other members of our group already loaded into the van. In addition to myself were two other clients, one guy from Norway and another from England. Both claimed to be experienced mountain bikers and appeared to be in good shape, allaying my fear of having to spend the day waiting for inexperienced riders to catch up.  After twenty minutes of small talk in the van we found ourselves pulling up to the Tokai trailhead.

We weren't the only ones who thought it was a good day for a ride

This day happened to be Good Friday, the beginning of the Easter holiday weekend, and the number of cars in the parking lot suggested that several of the area's mountain bikers had decided to spend their day off riding. Despite a full parking lot, however, we encountered very few riders on the trails.

Tokai is situated on the lower slopes of Constantia Berg, a 927-meter peak with excellent views of Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain. As an arboretum, Tokai consists of many different species of native and non-native trees, which made for an ever-changing landscape to ride through. Our plan of attack was generally to climb fire roads and doubletrack to gain elevation and then drop into a number of singletrack descents through the trees. The descents ran the gamut of wide and fast to tight and technical, with one trail that had been recently built up with some freeride features.

Tokai fire roads with Table Mountain in background

Dan’s fleet of rental bikes made for fun descending. We were set up on 2010/2011 Giant Trance X2s which were impeccably maintained. Compared with my own Giant Anthem I found the Trance to be a great all-around bike and really enjoyed the extra inch of travel and relaxed geometry on the descents. But I’ll leave the gear reviews to Andy.

Dan had planned to lead us up toward the summit of Constantia Berg where we would catch a long descent down. Halfway up, however, we watched thick clouds race across the valley and quickly envelope the summit in a cold, thick fog. Dan called off the summit push and led us on a short detour to where the van had parked to meet us for lunch.

"See those clouds off in the distance?..."

At the van we topped off our water bottles and snacked on delicious bacon and vegetable mini quiches that Dan had baked the day before. I managed to limit myself to two. The descending cloud cover drove the temperature down at least 15 degrees Fahrenheit and we debated breaking out our rain shells (well, the other guys did—I didn’t bring one). I shivered it out for a few minutes but as soon as we got back on the bikes and descended out of the clouds the temperature climbed back into short-sleeve range.

We spent the afternoon lapping trails on the lower slopes of the mountain, which ended up being a lot of fun. At one point we were zipping through a fast and twisty open section with some optional jumps and features and came upon a rider on a massive downhill bike and sporting a full-faced helmet and body armor. The terrain hardly justified such gear but nonetheless the guy had brought his girlfriend along to videotape him shredding it up. Hopefully he managed to edit out the footage of four spandex-clad guys on smaller bikes flying past him.

While the downhill rider was a spectacle he was quickly trumped by a group of baboons making their way across the trail. I was assured that these baboons were not as aggressive as their relatives from the heavily visited Cape Point, where we had heard of a group of tourists being carjacked by junk food hungry baboons two days earlier. Aware of the sugary energy bars in my jersey pocket I gave the creatures with weird-looking butts a wide berth and managed to pass by without incident.

Even food-crazy baboons don't like PowerBars

We rode a final flowy singletrack descent back to the Tokai parking lot, where our ride finished up after logging around 20 miles of riding. We regaled one another with tales of glory and geeked out about bikes and gear as we guzzled fruit juice and I gobbled up more than my fair share of the quiches. We piled into the van and headed back toward the city where we said goodbyes and returned to our respective vacations.

The four of us came from three different continents, spoke at least three different languages, and rode our bikes at home on different terrain, in different ways, and on different sides of the trail (Note: When faced with a head-on collision with another rider in South Africa, dive left). Standing around our dusty bikes in the parking lot, though, we laughed and joked like we had been riding buddies for years. Even cooler than the experience of mountain biking in South Africa was discovering the bond I shared with three guys from far away places who also called themselves mountain bikers.

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