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Trail Hunter - The Brotherhood of Stoke in South Africa
You hear them before you see them, their whistles, threading through the forest like wisps of pure stoke smoke caught on a stiff South African breeze. One, two, three—they're a single thread of riders pulled through the forest as one. They let loose their whistles as they wheelie and swerve—flesh-and-blood kettles whistling wildly on the crust of the earth.
Fanie and Hylly have always whistled when they ride, never really noticed just how much until Matt mentioned it, and now Matt’s doing it, too. Caught up in the moment, he surrenders to the flow state—that part of him that says, “yes” and “more” and “again.”
The part of him that can’t help but whistle.
The Trail Whisperer
Hylton “Hylly” Turvey is a man of few words. Conversations are punctuated by long pauses, and he seems to put as much care into answering a question as he does to building a trail. There's quiet contemplation of the situation at hand, followed by a thoughtful response.
“I want to create this feeling of what I want to feel on my bike,” he says, explaining his basic trail building philosophy. It can be summed up in one word: Flow. “I enjoy flow,” says Hylly, “So I imagine the mountain and me riding down it on my bike—and that's where the trail will go.”
Flow. It’s that feeling all mountain bikers chase. Found in that euphoric moment when the switch flips from riding the trail to becoming one with it. And in that moment, there's nothing but you, the bike, the trail, and the earth. It is effortless.
Matt Hunter is no stranger to flow, of course, but the trails Hylly and his brother-in-law, Fanie Kok, share with him in Karkloof catch him off guard. These trails, built by Hylly throughout the Karkloof valley, were intended to be the appetizer on the trip, set to whet the appetite for the main course of Drakensberg. But something unexpected happened, and it felt so organic that they switched their focus. Sure, they’d still go ride Drakensberg—the berg itself is an UNESCO world heritage site, but the foothills with ripe with rideable trails—but it felt natural for their experience on Hylly’s trails in Karkloof to set the tone for this episode.
“I think the way he’s [Hylly] connected to the land has allowed him to build a trail network through a valley he was born in and loves,” says Matt. “He really created something that wasn’t there before. I don’t think many people do that—live in a place and change it vastly for the better because they love it.”
It was a love born of necessity—a passion ignited by the hills and valleys of his home.
“I didn't really specifically set out to be a trail builder,” says Hylly. “But growing up where I live in Karkloof, […] we didn't really have anything to ride, so whatever we wanted to ride we had to create.” It wasn’t an easy career trajectory for him either—the expected path is doctor, lawyer, accountant—but he saw no other option for himself. “When I said I wanted to be a trail builder, I got a lot of funny looks. I can't really explain it to people, you know? When something resonates with you, you can't really explain it, but it just feels like this is what you're meant to be doing.”
“He builds because riding is also a part of his expression. It becomes this full picture where he doesn't just build for other people to enjoy—he builds it because he also needs to express himself in that way through his riding.” – Fanie Kok, Soil Searching director and purveyor of stoke.
Trail building—is it art, craft, of a little of both?
“I’d say it’s both,” says Hylly. “It’s expression. Some days it's not even about the trail—some days it's just getting up and just digging. When I've been in some of my darkest places, I just head to the mountain and dig. It allows for space, you know? It's almost therapeutic.”
Some people paint or play instruments to relax or express their feelings—Hylton Turvey grabs a shovel and sculpts the earth.
Like a high-pressure hose slashing wildly on a front lawn, the trail twists and turns its way across the face of a grassy hill. From a distance, it’s a single dirt vein on the earth, alive and beating. We see single word—the name of this trail—carved into a weathered piece of wood and mounted to a stake. Sisonke. It's Fanie’s Xhosa name.
Hylly built this trail, teasing it from the earth’s cradle like a splinter from a thumb. Using the hill’s cloaked, natural contours and form, he scratched respectfully at it with shovels and mattocks until it was revealed to world.
“For me,” says Hylly, “It’s [about] not disturbing too much of the land around you and working with what is there, because ultimately, that gives you the best trail. You can't recreate that natural flow that the mountain already has.”
The name, Sisonke—what does it mean?
“I sometimes think of the character of the trail,” he says. “And somebody will come into my mind. This trail, I was thinking of a name and then it just popped into my mind and I knew straight away—it had to be ‘cause it definitely describes Fanie.”
This trail describes Fanie? Wild and exuberant? A bottomless pit of enthusiasm for the ride?
“My name,” says Fanie, explaining the Xhosa word, “means ‘we are together.’ It’s like when you say to somebody, 'are you all right or are we good?' It basically means 'OK, now everything's fine, everything's cool, we're on the same page.' We are together.”
This moment, these guys, this trail—it all falls into place.
Dogs are not immune to it. With their bellies barely clearing rollers as they leap and chase, Syd and Miya (Hylly’s co-trail builders and pup companions), telegraph their joy not with a whistle, but with a look.
“Syd’s face,” says Hylly, after watching an early cut of the film. “It’s all…gooey.” There’s a smile in his voice as he says it.
“When you’re riding with people who are so super stoked,” says Matt, “you don’t have a choice—you’re going to be on that level with them. They bring you to it.”
There’s a long pause before he wistfully adds.
“I wish I was better at whistling, though.”
Fanie will tell you that the quality of the whistle is immaterial—it’s the release that counts. A simple action with its own distinct voice. A voice that says: I am here. I am with you. We are together.
They may have come to South Africa to ride Hylly’s favorite trails, but what they found was connection. Not just to the homeland where Hylly grew up, but with each other. Does a trail exist without a rider? Does a rider exist without a trail? These are "if a tree falls in the woods" questions, sure, but if Matt wants you to take anything from this experience, it’s this: No matter how you look at it—a brotherhood a sisterhood, a solidarity of stoke—every now and then we should all step back and take a moment to recognize those unsung heroes who stoke our stoke. Those whose passion for digging at the dirt and create world-class feast of flow—trail builders like Hylly.
Or to put it another way—when you’ve had great meal, it’s nice to thank the chef.