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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa
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Wed, 13 February 2019

As surfing pushes impossible boundaries - waves ridden bigger with scarier risks - consider the insane marker laid down by the maniac extreme freeriders of DarkFEST, marvels Spike.


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GNARLED AND GNARLY: Jordy Lunn in role with the Helshoogte as the backdrop. Photo Eric Palmer


Just a puff of wind can mean the difference between you riding out your landing or breaking every bone in your body. If you think that’s far-fetched, talk to young Graham Agassiz, the Canadian freeride legend in South Africa for DarkFEST.

The last trick jump of the nine-feature course at Vuurberg Winery near Helshoogte Pass (aptly named) past Stellenbosch is a gigantic mound that struck fear into me just by looking at the thing.

The kicker on this bad boy – nicknamed the Big Booter or the Rocket Launcher or other adrenaline-soaked expletives regularly coughed up by riders who have just survived it – catapults you 30 metres from when you leave the earth at a speed of 70km/h to the point where you land on the other side of a huge mound of dirt.

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SHADOWLAND: One of the biggest trick jumps ever built, on our doorstep. Photo Eric Palmer


You will hope your mountain bike's dual-crown front fork with the 200mm travel will handle the landing after you’ve soared about 40 feet above the ground.

Everyone was wondering why no-one had been hitting the big jump. They didn’t during the Friday session that I attended, although they smashed it early on Saturday.

It’s simple. Wind. The southeaster is not the freerider's friend. Agassiz, who won bronze at the Red Bull Rampage in 2015, cautions that the slightest puff of air when you’re suspended 60 feet above the gap can push you off your game.

The Rocket Launcher is one of the biggest of its kind in the worldIf you’re even a metre off, you and your undercarriage might drop into a no-mans land for a unpleasant introduction to the rock-strewn fynbos of the Western Cape. Eina! The Rocket Launcher is one of the biggest of its kind in the world, says Ryan Payne, Communications Manager at Monster Energy in South Africa. And, he says, when you bring a bunch of gnarly guys from all over the world to participate in a rider-owned, rider-built, rider-ridden freeride event you get a tendency to go a bit large, almost too large. By large, we’re not just talking spending time cruising in the air with bemused pigeons and falcons and hawks, but also the capacity to drink beer like there’s no tomorrow. Speaking of tomorrow, the beer drinking can extend well into the next day.

SPIKECAM: Spike got so excited by DarkFEST, he made a short video from his cellphone footage.


While this might seem suicidal to some, perhaps it’s a logical way to quieten the thumping part of the heart that wants to raise its hands in horror, and sprint off into the distance away from danger. A bit of alcoholic ‘lubricant’ is known to take the edge off one's fear. It has also been known to make people relaxed and floppy when they bounce, which can lead to lesser injury.

Speaking of bouncing, a week before the event, the British organiser of DarkFEST in South Africa (as in the African leg of the world Fest Series in the ‘dark’ continent), Sam Reynolds, had to abort on the Rocket Launcher in mid-air while he was testing the outcome of his project management skills.

In a sickening video posted proudly on the DarkFEST Facebook page (see video below), without a hint of sensitivity for his poor mum, we watch as Reynolds pushes the bike away from him at the apex of his aerial arc, then drops like a stone. Filmed from a cellphone, you can hear the crunch as his body bounces off the landing feature. Watch the whole video. It's very South African and quite funny.

UNBELIEVABLY KAK: This hilarious video features Sam Reynolds' wipeout and the DarkFEST gees.


Fortunately for him, he falls near the top of the up slope; not in the gap between the dirt mounds. But a 25 foot free-fall is still not good for your health. He shattered his wrist, and is out of his own event.

Jumps like this are built using serious earth-moving machinery and fine-tuned by the riders to maximise air time and trajectory to achieve maximum height and distance. Each year, they go bigger and better, and it gets more and more terrifying for us just to watch without cringing every time.

They fashion a mound of dirt into a ramp or 'kicker' then leave a gap before building a second much bigger mound, but with the slope on the reverse side to facilitate a safe landing. There are lots of variations, with a step-up bringing about a shorter trip through the air because you land on a higher level. Some of the jumps entail sideways ramps, or sharp turns into berms as you land.

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UP THE LINE: Two riders hit the step-up on their way to the final few jumps. Photo Eric Palmer


Of course, user error - or a bit of a gust of wind - can bring broken limbs and steel plates that hold riders’ bones together. But injury is all par for this obstacle course. All that medical attention - all those hospital visits - is a sure-fire way to bond this band of brothers.

Payne adds: "These guys are tight with each other. They have each other's backs. They push each other. They are mental. Actually, they're bat-#$%@ crazy."

Payne, who is also a keen surfer, equates this age-old tribal connection on a series of repetitive rites to big wave surfing. It’s a similar ethic: the kind predicated on moments of such harsh exposure to risk, souls are knitted together.

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SHUTTLE LINE: With the rapid and steep descent, the riders must hitch a ride up. Photo Eric Palmer


The DarkFEST concept came about, says Payne, after the “guys got tired of riding contests constrained by sponsors when they wanted to build bigger and higher ramps”.

Go figure.

So as free riders, they designed their own series, with each course a formula of nine massive jumps set in similar configuration, depending on the terrain where it's built. DarkFEST is built down a mountain on the Vuurberg Winery with the blessing of the owner, and is the only one in the southern hemisphere.

It's the first event in 2019 as part of The Fest Series. Then it moves overseas, with events such as Loosefest in Europe and Hoff Fest in Canada, each managed by a rider from that region.

DarkFEST LINE: Get a birds eye view with some mullets as they hit the full DarkFEST line.


This motley crew of mullets from around the world defy gravity as they smash a special course prepared by Reynolds and his group, who are called Pure Darkness (of course). Watch the video above. Note the traffic it has had. It was posted on Friday morning, ZA time. By evening, it had reached 1.5 million views.

This series is a match made in heaven for social media. It's the driving force behind the whole thing, and the reason the riders broke from the conventional structure so reliant on crowds and sponsors and corporate ownership. I am sure they like the few people who hoot and holler at their tricks, but its all about the reach that goes way beyond the canyon lands of the Cape, or wherever.

Set in the beautiful winelands and mountains at Vuurberg between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, it was a good day out. But as someone said to me at the event, they don't give a fuck about whether anyone is watching them or not. They're on another mission.

Either way, I was a bit afraid to watch, like when the 'ching ching ching' Hitchcock moment comes in a horror movie. I thought I would want to shut my eyes, but these guys are just too good for our insecurities.

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UPSIDE: Another view of the step-up that sees the rider landing on a higher level. Photo Eric Palmer


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