Dirtopia Trails – the original trail centre
06 January 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking where we talk the very sport of mountain biking, to the people and personalities around this sport. The man we’re going to speak to today is Meurant Botha who works out of Delvera Farm, Dirtopia Trail Centre. I’m going to ask Meurant to describe himself. You wear a lot of hats Meurant, how would you describe yourself, in mountain biking terms?
Meurant Botha: I think I’m firstly a trail builder, we realised that the trail building needs a bit more revenue and saw that it wasn’t so difficult to organise events. We were doing trails for events and started with the event organising about 1998. So it’s about 17 years down the line now and we own about 40 odd event properties and added in some trail running to further drive revenue.
I think Delvera has been our home for the last 12 odd years, we’ve had a trail centre here since 2004. Also, it was the first trail centre in the country, I think, I’m pretty positive it was. Just to prove the concept that you could have a ride centre and people could actually come to a site and park and ride from there and have lunch and stuff afterwards. Obviously after that, after Delvera’s Trail Centre, they cropped up all over the country and now it’s the thing to do.
The key to building a good trail
GDK: Trail building, as you said, is your first love. Almost, I suppose, not everybody can see the lie of the land and see where and how a trail should be set up, what’s the key ingredient?
MB: I think it’s always trying to find the topography. Over the years I’ve learnt to look at a piece of land and I can quickly spot where it needs to go. People have joked that I’ve got a GPS between my ear and my eye. I can walk a contour for many miles without deviating.
It comes with practice, I think. But riding them afterwards, that’s the enjoyment. Now with the bigger trail systems around here, in the Simonsberg as well, we’re really getting to ply our trade and really maximise these mountains.
GDK: The trails are incredible here and they’re growing all the time and there are trails on the other side of Stellenbosch and here on the Simonsberg side here. Trail riding as opposed to event riding, is a growing thing in this country.
MB: I think it’s always been big, especially if you look at Tokai Forest, it could easily get 1000–2000 visitors a weekend, way before Jonkershoek and these places became popular. We always joked, you could have an event in Silver Mine with 500 riders and you’ll still have records, if it’s a nice day, down in Tokai.
The eventing crowd and the trail riding crowd is very much separating more now and you can see, we touch on the endure. Enduro is bringing those trail riders into the eventing space. Because we’re giving them a trail riding experience first and eventing experience second.
Helping grow the sport of mountain biking
GDK: You’ve also got Amarider in that hat, tell us about that.
MB: Well, about 2006, so that’s 10 years ago, I realised the Utopia was a non-profit territory, especially with our trail expansion. We did Jonkershoek and all that with donor funding and probably most of our own funds that went into those trails. I also realised that there were going to be a lot of new tail builders onto the scene, which I was right.
Now you can find a trail builder almost in every town and I didn’t want to compete commercially in the trail building space. As soon as a trail becomes a tender and a contract, the joy sort of drops out of it for me. I still do a few of them, but that was a decision that we would rather focus on what the trail industry needs to grow.
An organisation like Amarider now helps a lot of clubs around the country with their insurance and helps the trail builders to give them the tools that they can go forward and build. It’s important that we have diversity in trails. That’s where it’s great that there are so many trail builders, because they all build differently. We don’t want to monotonise and sanitise the sport. We want to keep it thrilling and a diverse bunch of trail builders will do that for you.
GDK: The other thing you’ve been heavily involved with is the Spur Mountain Bike schools mountain bike league, where is that going in the future?
MB: I think the league has got huge potential still and we’re only scratching the surface. I think we’re probably at a point now where most of the haves and cans are involved. But I think the talent is out there and there’s a lot of kids that don’t have access to bikes and that’s across all demographics. So, the challenge is, how are we going to find them.
I think that’s moving into smaller towns with smaller events, maybe single speed bikes and build a programme that could underpin the schools league and make the schools league your end goal and that we set up well. The school’s final is an important event on the school’s calendar. School’s really try to achieve qualification for that and that builds your pyramid properly.
The growth of school’s mountain biking
You can think about it, 10 years ago how many school kids were in racing, probably 50 at a national. Now the nationals have completely turned around from a veteran heavy participation to a youth heavy participation, which mirrors athletics and the proper big sports.
GDK: So it’s got so successful, so big in a way that is it important for the schools now to take on mountain biking as an official school sport?
MB: That’s why the emphasis is on school teams and not on individuals. You’ve got to qualify as a school team to go to the final. Now that we’ve got top schools around the country, Paul Roos, Grey, Affies, all these guys have got teams.
It really gives the league a lot of credibility and also makes it appealing for other schools to enter. The fact that smaller schools can do well, it’s the perfect opportunity for a smaller school to beat a high profile school, because the riding is equal.
GDK: To get back to the trail building and the trails that you’ve created over the years. Increasingly, I suppose, dealing with land owners is one of the issues that must give you headaches at times? It could also be quite rewarding as well?
MB: We’ve obviously seen the land owners move away, well, into the direction of tourism. Especially the recession has caused a lot of farms to relook at where the revenue is coming from. I do think that we’re going to see more and more land owners wanting to get involved with the economy around this. There’s too many third parties operating on properties, commercially and that’s not sustainable.
The way forward is to pull the land owners into the business models. We’re seeing it happening more and more, so that will keep the trails open longer and sustain them into the future. Because fly-by-night schemes are not going to go well. Obviously liability is an issue and that’s why we’re focused on Amarider and making sure that the liability side of things are covered.
Has mountain biking peaked?
GDK: You’re one of the original mountain bikers almost, if I can say that and this country now, there’s a proliferation of stage races and marathon races. Are we top heavy? Are there too many events, are we getting carried away on that side?
MB: We probably are, but we’ve also got a funny market. We’ve got a market that simply eats the stuff up and I always blame apartheid for our pension for eventing. We always want to prove that we can do things better, in isolation. So that’s why the Comrades, Dusi, Berg River, Argus,.
These events are the biggest of their types in the world and they’ve grown from where, it’s incredible. We are an eventing culture and the events that are building more sustainability into their long term regions are the ones that are going to flourish and go well. The ones that are leaving trail behind and have a bit more a legacy programme behind them, I think they’ll continue to do well.
GDK: Cost is an issue, always, in mountain biking. Be it bikes, be it events. Are we at risk of losing people because we’re so heavy in stage races, marathon races? It costs a lot of money, the next generation, sort of 19-30 year olds are still trying to establish themselves in the working environment. They could be excluded from those?
MB: I think the costs are just going to drive people to do more of a trail riding scenario, where you’re going to Jonkershoek, Tokai, Northern Farm, all over the country. There’s great sites you can ride for R50, there’s places you can ride for free, that’s great. The enjoyment you get out of a bicycle is enhanced in a lower user experience. Where there’s fewer people, you can enjoy the bike, you can actually get up to speed and not wait on single track.
So riders are spending a lot of money on bikes and they want to be able to enjoy them. That’s why I think that the trail riding will continue to grow, not to the detriment of the events. The events will probably go through a cycle, but I think we’re currently riding a wave that’s looking pretty strong.
GDK: Give us an idea of the numbers you get through here, in terms of the trails that are ridden over a period?
MB: Here at Delvera, we drive numbers with eventing. So whether it’s a hike or a trail run or a bike ride, we’re probably doing about 6000 permits a year. Then in total, with all our eventing in the region, probably about 20 000 visitors that participate in our events.
Healthy state of affairs?
GDK: Mountain biking particularly, but trails, it’s a healthy space then at the moment?
MB: It’s very healthy and I don’t think we’ve seen really the product come to fruition. There’s a lot of work still to be done. On our side we’ve basically focused now on building trail that gives riders access to these mountains. There’s a reason why people weren’t riding here before, apart from land access. It was always very steep and not very rewarding.
But trails are very expensive and it’s easy to spend R25 000 to R50 000 per kilometre. You’ve really got to get more of a business plan behind it. I think that’s what a lot of trail owners are realising now. You’ve really got to think before you build and understand where your market is going to come from.
GDK: Interesting thoughts Meurant, thanks very much. Meurant Botha from Dirtopia, from Amarider, you can see him here at Delvera and ride his trails as well. That’s just outside Stellenbosch, on the road, if you were heading out towards Paarl and Wellington, away from Stellenbosch. This has been another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, thanks for downloading, see you next time.