31 Jul, 2015

Filing a “ride” plan

Tony Cloete looks out onto Swartkops Air Force Base.
Boeing 707 specially adapted for military use. On static display at AFB Swartkops.
Hawk jet training aircraft seen at one of the Swartkops Open Days.
Tony Cloete riding the trail on Swartkops AFB.
The trail has bridges and various obstacles to ride.
SAA Airbus with the Silver Falcons Aerobatic Team
Silver Falcons Aerobatic Team at rest.
Harvards are a firm favourite at any airshow. In this case, Swartkops AFB Open Day
A Cessna Caravan utility transport as operated by the South African Air Force.
A Cheetah D advanced jet trainer conducting an air display at a Swartkops Open Day.
A P51 fighter which the SAAF used in the Korean conflict in the early 1950s.
The SAAF's latest fighter aircraft, the SAAB Gripen displaying its abilities at a Swartkops AFB Open Day

Claimed to be the only mountain bike trail on an active air force base anywhere in the world, Swartkops Air Force Base just outside Pretoria has got 15-odd kilometres of trail. Although it isn’t open to the general public, there are a few races scheduled to be held there over the next few months so we “organised” a ride there.

The sound of a jet fighter spooling up power is unmistakeable.

It starts off with a whistle and a “rush” sound not unlike a “healthy” Highveld August wind. As more fuel feeds into the combustion chambers, the whistle becomes a high-pitched whine.

Eventually it takes on the more familiar roar and the aircraft it powers starts to strain against a combination of brakes and chocks (those little block things seen propped up against the wheels of a stationary aircraft).

And it is this collection of sounds that most will hear, or should expect to hear, at an active air force base.

But thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated South African Air Force (SAAF) members, the sounds of puffing mountain bikers will soon become part of the cacophony heard at Swartkops Air Force Base just south of Pretoria.

After hearing about this trail, and being a former proud wearer of the famous golden eagle myself, I couldn’t wait for a chance to actually visit South Africa’s oldest air force base on my bicycle.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had often walked through the “right-dressed” and “blue-tinged” red-brick office buildings, store rooms and hangars while on official military duty.

At that time, I had no idea or even inkling that I would not only take up the sport of cycling but that I would ride a mountain bike through those buildings on the way to a mostly-single track mountain bike trail.

But there I was, comfortably riding on that stretch of tar, heading for the northern side of the base where my guide Tony Cloete would not only show me the trail, but also tell me about his and other people’s efforts to actually get the trail to the point that someone with a mountain bike could actually enjoy it.

After riding past some pretty interesting aircraft, like an ageing Shackleton which the SAAF used for maritime patrol for many decades, and a few delta-winged Dassault Mirage fighter aircraft, we hit the trail itself.

With the spikes of the Air Force Memorial on our left, I followed Tony through a maze of camel humps until we switched direction and completed a few nasty but fun climbs towards the fence that separates the air force base from the memorial’s ground.

Then we went back down again, and from there we could clearly see the runway, the base’s main “apron” (where the aircraft normally park) which at this stage was filling up with people. Of all the luck, we had chosen one of the SAAF Museum’s “Open Days” for our ride.

Held regularly, the SAAF Museum often showcases its flying exhibits with mini-air shows and SAAF personnel, volunteers and other enthusiasts were getting ready for the display to come.

But then we changed direction again and rode a section of single track through bushes, grassy areas and a knoll of trees, until peaking on a disused jeep track. This lead us round the airbase until we rode along the fence that separates Swartkops itself from Snake Valley, which is a rather mysterious part of the base complex that is used for storage of equipment and vehicles.

Our trail then went onwards and upwards. After a rather nasty rocky climb, we hit a technical rocky section and then a very well-constructed bridge, which Tony said was built by “volunteer” SAAF employees.

After yet more exciting single track, we ended up near a bunch of hangars which I recognised as those that belonged to 19 squadron when that unit’s Puma, and later Oryx helicopters were still based there.

To my surprise, an old Puma aircraft still acts as a “guard” to these buildings and Tony and I stopped for an obligatory photo.

Then, a dash through the hangars and buildings and we were back where we started.

The trail itself is rideable by anyone who can handle basic (or green) routes at any other bike park, although there are some sections that will challenge that level of rider. However, and as Tony pointed out, the trail is difficult enough to test even the strongest rider as there are quite a few short but sharp hills, and if ridden at a reasonable speed, it can certainly put you into the zone as there are surprisingly few downhills.

I loved the experience of not only riding my mountain bike on a single track trail, but also with the sights and sounds of an active air force base all around me so when Tony offered another quick circuit, I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up!

As we finished and I said my goodbyes to Tony, more people started arriving for the open day and I was very tempted to stay and watch “those magnificent men in their flying machines”. And I might well have, only I was wearing mud- and sweat-covered cycling kit and I didn’t have my “serious” camera and lens kit.

So I drove back home, satisfied with both my 30-odd kilometre ride and my trip down memory lane. For many of us who proudly wore that eagle-adorned uniform, the SAAF and Swartkops will always hold a special place in our hearts.

This base pre-dates any other air base in South Africa and housed, at one stage, the office of the first chief of the SAAF, who was Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, during the 1920s. During the 1970s and 1980s, it housed 41 squadron (flying Atlas Kudu light transport aircraft), 44 squadron (flying Douglas Dakotas and Skymasters) and the previously-mentioned 19 squadron (which flew Puma and Allouette helicopters).

The SAAF Museum, which started with a small number of flying and static exhibits, also based its aircraft at this base at that time. There are now many more exhibits and the museum itself is well worth a visit.

But, like I would have thought at the time, I doubt whether any of the air crew or ground personnel of those various units would have ever thought that there would one day be a fully-fledged mountain bike trail weaving its way around the main runway of this historic air force base.

Tony and the rest of the enthusiastic members of the SAAF Cycling Club have a few surprises up their sleeves with regard to this trail so, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you might just have the opportunity to ride this trail at an event or open day soon.

Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |