IN ASSOCIATION WITH VOLVO – ADIDAS – TOMTOM – THULE
Despite the lack of air (yes, we’re 1550m above sea level!), Johannesburg looks absolutely magnificent this time of the year. A week of autumn rain prior to our visit has clearly kept the surrounding scenery of the Braamfontein Spruit in fine fettle – it’s lush and green, and judging by the number of people out and about this evening, it’s clearly a popular place.
Joining us is amputee cyclist and four-time Cape Epic finisher Reuben van Niekerk. Reuben needs no introduction to the cycling fraternity, having shot to prominence in 2014 when he became the first lower-limb amputee to finish the gruelling seven-day event. As the resident Vaalie, he’s been tasked with showing us around the Gauteng region and making sure we sample some of the best trails it has to offer.
“The Spruit offers a unique breakaway from the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg, right in the middle of the city – whether for a quick blast, or as part of your daily commute. This might not be the most technically challenging mountain-bike route, but with hundreds of points of access along its length, it’s easy to jump on for a blast up and down, in the heart of Joburg.” – Reuben van Niekerk, 4-time Absa Cape Epic finisher
Our search for the country’s most amazing trails has brought us to the Spruit – a much-talked-about riding destination that boasts a diverse ecosystem and a completely different riding experience to other trails around the country. Nestled between ‘the Parks’ (the northern suburbs) of Johannesburg, it truly is an exquisite place to ride a bicycle. A tributary of the Jukskei river, the Spruit is the longest stream in the region, and sustains a wide variety of indigenous flora and fauna – there are over 200 bird species alone, not to mention various species of snake and fish, as well as mongoose and meerkat.
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Previously known as the ‘Klein Jukskei’, the Spruit originally started out as a hiking trail, but the increasing popularity of MTB has seen it become the unofficial home of Joburg mountain bikers. While the trails can be accessed from various points, we’re starting from ‘The Trailhead’ – the aptly-named cycling shop located in the parking area at the start of the Blairgowrie entrance.
Suburban life quickly morphs into nature, one layer at a time; the only reminder of man comes in the form of the distant city sprawl, and the electricity pylons that pepper the grasslands. But their presence does provide a unique contrast, and highlights the coexistence between man and nature. Unlike some of the other trails we’ve been riding in this series, the Spruit is almost completely bereft of inclines – the only form of climbing comes in the way of steep, rocky slabs dolloped here and there. That said, we are at altitude – 1550m above sea level, remember? – and the thinner is air will undoubtedly make up for the lack of elevation gain.
In terms of riding, there’s nothing too technical on offer – there are a few tricky lines and discreet little gap jumps near the waterfall by Rattray’s Weir, but that’s as far as it goes. The myriad singletracks ebb and flow, but are never boring – there’s just too much beauty on offer, too much diversity. Tarmac? Well, there is a bit, but the only time you’re likely to encounter it is when crossing from trail to trail. See, the Spruit also gives residents of Joburg the opportunity to ditch the rigours of traffic by commuting to work along these beautiful paths.
As for Strava – well, you’ll look like a proper chop attempting to smash segments here.
While distance is pretty much dependent on how far you’re willing to explore, we’ve chosen a scenic stretch that charts an exquisite 20km route spanning a series of parks, stormwater drains, purpose-built bridges, and even sections of the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, before we turn at the Emmarentia Dam and head back to the start. Reuben tells me the Spruit is always packed with action. It even forms part of the annual JUMA (Jozi Urban MTB Adventure) MTB event – a race I have to try sometime…
As far as animal life goes, we encountered an abundance of birds frolicking and feeding in the estuary, as well as river crabs, and many dogs. While safety doesn’t appear to be much of an issue, it’s probably best to visit the Spruit in the morning or evening, when traffic levels are fairly high.
As for Strava – well, you’ll look like a proper chop attempting to smash segments here. The allure of riding in the Spruit stems from its unique setting, especially when the sun puts on the kind of light show we’ve just witnessed. Was it showing off for us, or is this just how it is? According to Reuben, this is life at 1550m.
I have to admit, it’s very different up here at the Reef – the air is thinner, the people are affable, and the sunsets are the stuff of movies. Looking around, it would be difficult not to appreciate what we’ve just experienced. For a brief moment I contemplate whether I could live up here… I probably could. It’s that beautiful. The Spruit is unlike any other place I’ve ridden before. Apart from the immense beauty and abundance of plant life, what impressed me was the relationship between the trail users – cyclists, runners and walkers are all considerate of each other. There’s no hostility, only respect.
But as the sun dips behind the clouds, and bathes the surrounding topography in a rich, orange hue, it goes without saying that the Braamfontein Spruit is the most picturesque setting for riding a bicycle in Johannesburg… if not the country. – By Aaron Borrill
NEED TO KNOW
START: Reuben suggests starting at the Trailhead Shop, 49 Hillcrest Avenue, Blairgowrie.
BEST TIME TO RIDE: For safety reasons and better Instagram shots we suggest riding at morning or evening when there are higher traffic volumes.
WATCH OUT FOR: Aggressive river crabs in the stormwater drains/tunnels. They’re territorial – trust us.
Special thanks goes to Centurion Cyclery for the use of their Specialized Camber and Levo.
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