by Kath Fourie
Ruth and I are standing in the kitchen of the Tranquilitas Farm House, trying to fry falafel. Mike Behr, Ruth’s husband, is not impressed with our apparent lack of skill in this regard. “NO! Just get out of the kitchen and let me do it, you guys are stuffing it up!”. A litre of boiling oil and 20 perfect, crisp falafel later, Mike’s brow unfurrows and he wipes the sweat away with the back of his hand. “Now that’s how it should be done. You have been schooled”.
Mike Behr does not stuff around, whether it is in his construction business, building trails or frying Middle Eastern delicacies – the Behr philosophy is ‘do it right or don’t do it at all’. That’s why if you visit Tranquilitas Adventure Farm above the town of Waterval Boven in Mpumalanga, you will ride proper trails, built with purpose and the vision of a few genius minds drinking wine around bonfires at night.
Mike and Ruth Behr hail from Pretoria, and bought Tranquilitas 11 years ago. The couple are well known in rock climbing circles, and the cliffs of Waterval Boven create the backdrop for one of South Africa’s premier climbing destinations. When the opportunity came up to purchase the farm running along the cliff tops, they decided it was time to invest and subsequently set up a campsite, chalets and farmhouse accommodation, as well as pool and tuck-shop for campers.
Fortunately for the cycling community, Mike and Ruth discovered mountain biking. And the two-wheeled bug bit hard. Teaming up with another Waterval Boven local, Glenn Harrison (of Joberg2C trail building fame), a relationship was formed that resulted in a small network of trails criss-crossing up in the hillsides above the cliffs. With the farm being “500” hectares, the Tranquilitas crew started to eye out the Sappi plantations that climbed even higher towards the horizon.
A global paper and dissolving wood pulp company, Sappi are one of the largest land owners in South Africa. To produce paper and pulp, they farm trees (mostly varieties of Eucalyptus and Pine), and it is the even rows of trees that provide the infrastructure needed to keep sustainably built mountain bike trails in place. The trees, their roots and the stability they offer allow berms to be built and twisting flowing trails to stay put, particularly in steep areas. As you may gather, Sappi land is pretty ideal for building trails.
Fast-tracking the story, the Behrs cemented their relationship with Sappi and completed the necessary paperwork and planning to enter a legal land access agreement through the Sappi MTB Project. They were A for away, and Glen didn’t waste time in putting his mini-excavator machine to work. When I finally had the chance to sample some of the goods, they were as good, if not better, than Mike’s falafel.
The thing is, Tranquilitas has a vast range of feelings and moods that one rides through. Starting down at the camp, it’s a highveld environment, tall grass, red rocks and safari-esque vibes studded with aloes and startling views of the Elands Valley below. Moving up a level towards the farmhouse, the trails zig zag between pockets of wattle that are bedded into compact iron-red clay. These are the original trails of Tranquilitas, and they thread riders past old farm walls, grave stones and bits of Boer era farming equipment. It’s historical, eerie and beautiful; and just when you think you’ve mastered the tight twists and flat corners, you’re sent down steep channels filled with rocks and crazy bridge drops – they’ve packed an immense amount of variety into a relatively small area.
With a bit of climbing though, riders plateau onto grasslands on the boundary of the farm that then enter Sappi property. It’s here that things start to change again, with an alpine twist. I’m not going to fib, there is some climbing to be done to access the new trails up high, but it’s worth it. When you’ve dropped into Go with the Flow, and start banking turns in berms reminiscent of European trail parks, the feeling of wanting to pinch yourself doesn’t go away.
On my outing, I was riding a 160mm travel Giant Reign and I think that suspension is overkill for the Tranquilitas trails and makes for quite the work out on the ups, but if you’ve got all day who really cares? A personal favourite for me though, is the Morphine Drop trail – where I was plenty happy to be playing with a full spectrum of suspension. It’s basically 5km of downhill trail that is jampacked with playful natural features that you can hop, manual, jump, skid and plain flat out rail all the way down. Just don’t be like me and have your cleat get stuck and highside down a bank in a cartwheel of carbon, baggies and swear words.
All the trails at Tranquilitas are marked using the International Mountain Biking Association grading system, and what’s nifty is that you can use the MySOS App to pay for trail permits, as well as to download maps of all the trails. Through MySOS, you can see where you are – so if you don’t want to follow a set loop, and you’d like to join various trails together you can easily do that. There’s also a cool feature on MySOS where if you come across a trail issue (like a broken bridge or fallen tree) you can report that straight back to Mike and Ruth with a quick snap of a picture. Again, doing the job properly, the Behrs don’t mess around.
Lying back in a comfortable double bed, listening to rain on the tin roof, it’s hard not to feel extremely content at Tranquilitas. Everywhere you turn there is another amazing view (yawn), a fresh cappuccino being brewed (gimme) or like-minded people to chat to. The décor is fitted with vintage bicycle parts, bottle openers are everywhere (I like the way they think), and the trails…just keep on getting better. If I lived in Joburg, I’d be there all the time as it’s only 3 hours away. Unfortunately, I’m more like 8 hours away. But I can’t wait to get back. I’ve practiced my falafel making and I have a score to settle.
Tranquilitas Adventure Farm
Contact: +27 79 94 04 097 / +27 82 388 0100
Side Bar: What is the Sappi MTB Project
The Sappi MTB Project was initiated in 2011, when it became evident that the informal trail networks on Sappi land were growing in scale and in popularity. Essentially, Sappi created a strategy and platform to engage with the mountain biking community, with the aim of reducing risk for riders and for Sappi. This action has had extremely positive results in KwaZulu-Natal for both event riding and recreational riding, and the model is being rolled out in Mpumalanga with Tranquilitas Adventure Farm and Mankele Mountain Bike Park.