Backflips and Full Loops in South Africa’s Garden Route
To the backdrop of verdant South African forests, the world's best bike riders are taking on some of the biggest – and most dangerous – jumps on earth.
All photos provided by Monster
Deep into South Africa's verdant garden route, and watched over by the Outeniqua Mountains, stand the world's biggest mountain bike jumps. This is Darkfest, where ancient forests and African wildlife form the backdrop to backflips and full loop attempts.
"There is no way this would be allowed in the UK, a farmer would not just let you go to town on his land and build a big dangerous roll in. And that's why this place is rad, the health and safety is a bit more relaxed, and you can do what you want," says Sam Reynolds, host of the event. "If you were to do this in North America you would need full mining permits," Canadian rider Matt MacDuff adds.
To build jumps like this you need the right people, and for 2017 Sam brought along Nico Vink and Clemens Kaudela. "They are the best at building. I've gone to ride Nico's jumps before and they are unbelievable. And I worked with Clemens for the first time at an event called Nine Knights in the Alps in the summer. I did a bit of building with him and was so impressed that I invited him on the spot, like 'you have to come to Africa to help me build these jumps'. They have done such a great job, I wouldn't even be close if those boys weren't here."
Watching the guys operating heavy machinery might come as a shock to some, but in actual fact, these skills are common amongst big jump riders.
"We use diggers especially in the Fest series because we need to build our own jumps, and none of the contests out there are making jumps that are big enough for us, jumps that we want to ride. So you have to learn to drive a digger to build your own jumps this big."
"As a kid making jumps is half the fun and we always dreamed of having an enormous digger to make huge take-offs, so it's just being a big kid and living the dream."
Just metres away from the course is the riders' house, a small building surrounded by tents for the additional riders that have turned up this year. There is a tight and communal atmosphere – "it is just perfect, hanging out there with all of our friends," Adolf Silva says.
"The atmosphere back at the house is killer," Cam Zink tells me. "You're cooking out of a huge outdoor oven, eating meat with your hands because there are not enough forks, everyone is drinking beers. You've overcome a big day and everyone is safe and healthy."
The atmosphere of the house extends to the ethos of the event, where rather than being focused on competition, the onus is on pushing everyone's limits, and having a good time.
"A big part of what pushes these boys forward so much is the support and encouragement they give each other," Monet-Rose Adams, Scott Bikes Ambassador, says.
It was this encouragement that helped Monet to do the 60 degrees steep, 67 feet long drop-in.
"I guess when Sam tells me he thinks I could do something that's quite scary I take it half as a challenge and half as a compliment. I wanted to rise to the challenge and not be the girl standing on the sidelines, I'd love to hit the jumps one day too."
"We do it for each other, we each have an event and go round the world to ride each other's events," Sam says. "But it's more of an invite only here, for a few reasons. First, it's kind of dangerous, and I trust that all of these guys can ride these jumps. A lot of guys that want to come, you just know that they are going to have a big injury and ruin the event for everyone. Second, these guys are the people I want to hang out with, so it's the top ten guys that I want to ride with."
Injuries are indeed a big concern here at Darkfest, and last March Matt MacDuff sustained ten fractures in his right wrist and three in his right ankle attempting the full loop.
Three years of preparation and research led up to that point – through crowdfunding and hard work the enormous loop became a reality.
Everything was set for the attempt: messages from fans were inscribed on the wooden slats of the structure. MacDuff even had a smaller version of the loop in his back garden at home.
"I think the roll in is what killed it," says Cam. "He didn't necessarily build the roll in for the loop, and then he ended up starting from the top of it. He could have started a quarter of the way up and probably made it. He would have probably been pulling like 5 or 6 g's out of it if he had made it going that speed, he might have passed out you know."
"I definitely think that the loop is possible," Sam tells me. "I didn't really know when I first saw pictures of it. Now I am here it is epic. But you've got to leave it to MacDuff to decide if it is possible. He built it, it's his thing."
"No one else wants to try it to be honest, after what happened to him. He's the best guy at doing loops, and it couldn't have gone much worse for him. So no one's interested in trying it. It's more of a legend now. Matt wanted to burn it, to finish it, to close it, but I think there's a few problems with making fires in Africa."
Talking to the riders you get the sense that the sport is in its infancy, and that the limits of what is possible on a mountain bike are still being defined.
"The sky is the limit," according to Cam. "Here we are kind of pushing the limits of a bicycle, but it is also kind of scratching the surface of what we could do. The jumps don't feel that far-fetched. They look insane, a lot of the Fest jumps are flatter and longer, and these are steeper but still really long. It is just a case of figuring the sport out. In ten years' time they will look back at this and there will be step-ups like the one here all over the place."
"Everyone's pushing their personal limits over and over and it is starting to be dangerous, so you don't mess around with these things because the consequences are too serious," Nico Vink adds.
Against the lush forest backdrop the dirt jumps seem incongruous – indeed, it has taken three years of work to get to this point, and the site now boasts the world's biggest mountain bike step-up with a 35 feet lip, offering 60 feet peak air.
"You are probably going 50mph at the bottom of the pit," Cam says. "Maybe this jump is like 50 feet long but it is also 35 feet up."
"But if you have the right speed it is kind of hard to mess the jump up – it is probably the safest jump here, but is also the most magnificent. It is one of the best for tricks, one of the best for photographs and video, so it is the centrepiece for sure."
The speeds are staggering too. Graham Agassiz tells me that for the full loop attempt Matt was "probably going at like 100k into that thing, brakeless too."
At the time of writing, Sam Reynolds' point-of-view video has over 500k views on Facebook, and the Trails Crew edit is at almost 1.4 million views. With a platform of this size, where do you go next?
"This is definitely the first year of many I hope," says Sam. "I would love to come again and build more, and tweak the jumps a bit. Now the jumps are here we can change them and build around them."
But it will certainly take some work to surpass 2017, where we saw the world's top riders take on the world's biggest take-off and roll-in tower.
More pictures from the bike jumps of the garden route: