Riding Roughshod

Mountain biking on one of the most remote islands on Earth


It’s not often you get to travel to a unique and distant location with a friend to make a mountain-biking film, never mind to one of the most remote islands on the planet, with scenery so breath-taking it has the potential to bring you to tears as a filmmaker. Let me tell you how we ended up in the middle of the South Atlantic, armed with a few cameras and lenses and a seriously talented pro-biker, called Martin Zietsman.

It all happened really fast. I was sitting having coffee with fellow filmmaker and friend André Hugo, who’s done film work for the biggest mountain-biking events in the world. We started talking about shooting something different in 2020, something unique, something that hadn’t been done before. I remembered my trip to St Helena in 2017 for another film I’d worked on. I remember being blown away by the diverse terrain. I said to André, “Let’s go and shoot something in St Helena!” He took about half a second and agreed we should go for it. We came up with a concept, found our rider and got a few partners on board. What we’d planned for 2020 was suddenly all-systems-go for early December 2019.

We spent seven days filming Martin having the time of his life riding all kinds of terrain, from misty redwood forests, to single track that can only be described as ‘Mars-like’, to lush green fern forests, to the most magnificent volcanic landscape down at Sandy Bay – a remote and pitch-black beach on the southern side of the island.

Evocative names

As you ascend out of Jamestown, you see a hugeshape in the landscape, called Heart Shaped Waterfall. You have to love the names of places on St Helena – Heart Shaped Waterfall, Alarm Forest, Half Tree Hollow, Deadwood, Crack Plain, Gates of Chaos and Lemon Valley, to name a few. It all adds to the palpable mystery of the island. We started our first day of shooting at the waterfall, on a tame single-track walking trail that ends at the foot of the cascade. The trail twists and turns down the hills, passing through tree tunnels with great views of Jamestown (if you dare to look up while you’re riding). We all agreed that this was more of a walking trail, probably great for less experienced riders, but also a great location to get into the swing of things. I’d been to the island before so, unlike the rest of the crew, I knew what awaited us at other locations like Great Stone Top and Blue Point.

This is where things get exciting. We drove through a forest called Scotland. It’s called Scotland, apparently, because the area was part of a property owned by a man called John Scott (so Scott’s Land). But if you were blindfolded and teleported to this high-altitude part of the island, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d ended up somewhere in the north of the United Kingdom, with the little stone walls, the rolling green hills, the mist and even the sheep making it seem like you’re halfway across the world. We drove through Scotland in search of the giant redwood forest one of the locals had alluded to, twisting left and right through the narrow roads, until we eventually found what we’d been looking for, swaying metres this way and that, with about a thousand tree ferns lining their bases. It was here that Martin was treated to his first true St Helena riding experience, and we to our first unique filming location. Interesting fact: There are no snakes or venomous insects on the island, so you feel really safe at all times. This helps when you’re setting up cameras in the thick of an unknown forest.

Crazy adventures

I think Martin Zietsman may be the first human being to ride a mountain bike down Great Stone Top, and we captured it on film! I remember summitting. Andréturned to me and said, “Hey, I don’t want to be up here for longer than 10 minutes.”  It’s the kind of place that gives you terrible pains behind the knees if heights are not your thing. The vertical black cliff drops 500m down into the Atlantic Ocean below. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the top via the back of the rise and I reckon it took Martin about 45 seconds to get back down. If you ever visit the island to ride, this one is purely for bragging rights. Great Stone Top is one of the famous ‘Post Box Walks’ on the island. Visitors can fill in a sheet as they go – there’s a white plastic tube with a stamp inside at the end of each of these walks. Blue Point is one of my favourite places on earth; the kind of place I’d like my ashes scattered. The ride out to the lookout point is mild single track, the terrain doable for pretty much any rider and the effort-toreward ratio is huge. Blue Point really takes your breath away. It gives you goosebumps – we captured some of our best moments of Martin riding these awe-inspiring ridgelines at sunrise. I have to admit I shed a tear out there, seeing a pro-rider charging dramatic scenery like that. It will be etched into my mind forever. And when thinking of Sandy Bay Beach, imagine the hills of Utah ending on a black volcanic beach, framed by volcanic cliffs and Georgian stone walls.

Treasures abound

St Helena has massive potential for cyclists. Martin was blown away by the unfolding landscape, from the time we left the airport and headed down to Jamestown. Just in that distance, you see British Columbia, Italy, Vermont, the fjords of Norway, The Andes of Peru, Utah and more, all in 122 km2. If St Helena develops trails that link up properly, they could end up with one of the world’s best riding destinations and a tourism treasure.

Speaking of national treasures, the biggest one by far is the Saints themselves, I’ve never met friendlier, more hospitable people on my travels. A conversation with ‘Bow Wow’ and ‘Bimbo’ at the White Horse, or the morning banter with the Saints down the main street of Jamestown, are really the main reason you visit this island; go and you’ll see why. The world-class fishing, diving, mountain biking and all the rest are just the cherry on top. St Helena’s true treasure is its people; it would be worth flying there to simply meet a Saint. You’ll never be the same once you have.


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