There is something incredibly therapeutic about the Drakensberg (to the local Zulus, uKhahlamba, or Maluti in SeSotho), probably because of its unrivalled magnitude compared to any other mountain range in South Africa.
Stretching uninterrupted for a large section of the length of South Africa and Lesotho like a dragon’s back, for generations these magical mountains have drawn enduring bodies in search of conquering and adventure. One is left in awe when witnessing the exceptional natural beauty of their soaring basalt buttresses, incisive, dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts – and even more spellbinding is one of those typical Berg electric lightning and thunder storms which strike from the sky and roll off the escarpment with such severity, one could believe it’s the end of time; although they disappear in a matter of minutes.
The wildness and remoteness of the area has always been a sanctuary for me, and it holds some of my fondest memories of mountain running. Without a doubt one of the best was the day in November 2012 when I first encountered the Drakensberg, by climbing the isolated Mkhomazi Wilderness escarpment and then reaching the top of the plateau close to Rhino Horn – though I wasn’t conscious of it then, it was probably a decisive moment in my running career; and since that day I have pursued every opportunity I could take to run in high places.
So when Warren King, race director of the annual Run The Berg two-day stage race, emailed to request that one of the Runner’s World team attend his event in the first weekend of October, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. It had been two years since I had last visited the dragon’s back; and although I have often frequented the southern part of the Drakensberg, this would be my first visit to the northern area, which is part of the Royal Natal region of the range and plays host to the iconic Amphitheatre – a bucket-list destination that comes up when anyone talks about the Berg.
Getting to the event would prove to be an event in itself. I worked a week of overtime and ate more junk food than strictly necessary to meet our magazine deadline, packed in a haphazard frenzy, and then took the last possible Friday flight to Durban – to immediately do the three-hour drive to the Berg, and still reach the All Out Adventures centre for registration and briefing before sundown. But as I stepped out of the car on arrival, the process of unwinding began.
The registration team greeted us with the smiles and genuineness that I have become accustomed to with people in the Berg; and – after having had many Cape Town-Joburg telephone conversations – I finally got to meet Warren, the man who envisioned this event while travelling through the Drakensberg some years ago, on a sabbatical after leaving his corporate investment-banking career. Although he hails from the metropolis of Jozi, I could have been fooled into thinking he was a Berg local – which in truth he is, because his love of trail running has led him to explore the many trails in the Drakensberg at every opportunity, and to launch the Run the Berg stage race, in conjunction with the Mecklenborg family who run All Out Adventures.
What Warren noticed was that at the time, there really wasn’t a stage trail event in the Drakensberg targeted at relatively intermediate-distance runners, or someone new to trail running. Another drawcard would be that it is close to Johannesburg and Durban – entrants can have a decent weekend of it without having to take too much time off from work, leaving at lunchtime on Friday and departing again at lunchtime on Sunday to arrive home in the evening, making it a fuss-free weekend away. And with loads of accommodation and additional activities in the area, it’s a no-brainer weekend away for families needing to escape the hustle of the big cities.
After our quick catch-up – because as race organiser, Warren was being pulled in every direction, the day before the event – I grabbed my goodie bag and plonked myself on one of the many beanbags under the race-village tent, waiting to hear what was in store for us on the weekend. From there it was a dark drive to my accommodation at Orion Mont-aux-Sources Hotel, and a quick kit pack for the following day. As promised in the race briefing we were guaranteed a decent amount of climbing for the day, and a gruelling start to reach the escarpment. So my pack was filled with plenty of nutrition (and variety) to keep me going for the first BIG day of 25km of pure mountain running, which would include a decent 1 300 metres of climbing.
Unfortunately, my Saturday morning started quite abruptly – I overslept, and it was a race in itself to make it to the start! I tried to take the drive up the Montusi Valley as calmly as possible towards the Cavern Resort start line, nestled in the last foothills below the escarpment, and I noticed how the vegetation was slowly changing, from typical dry, rolling winter grassland to lush, riverine bush fed by the Tugela. At the time, what I didn’t realise was that we would be tackling quite a technical section of that riverine bush on the day, in order to reach the top of the escarpment. Arriving at 7:30am – 30 minutes after the official Extreme start time! – I knew there was a strong chance I would need to downgrade from the 25km Extreme to the lighter 15km Challenge, having missed the last batch send-off – even the sweeper was nowhere to be seen. However, Warren gave me the go-ahead to start right at the back of the pack, and radioed the sweeper to let him know that I was on my way.
I started the day pushing a little harder than I would have liked, to try and get to the sweeper sooner rather than later. And much as I love running on my own, I didn’t want to feel totally isolated while running in the Berg. Though my isolation was soon disrupted: within the first kilometre, I met a troop of baboons by the side of the trail. But they barely noticed me, which I was quite happy about. Shortly after that I was off the contour and making my way into the fern forest, a lush canopy of trees and riverine bush, which is where I found the sweeper – and one of the runners who’d started in the last batch, who was cautiously making his way over the roots and rocks. He asked if there was anyone else behind me; and I said I was pretty sure there wasn’t – I told him my story of waking up late and missing the start, resulting in me making my way from the very back of the pack. He chuckled and wished me well, and I was off.
Soon after that came the start of the actual mountain stage. I looked up, coming out of the forest, and there it lay: that climb of never-ending climbs. Sure, it zig-zagged, and every now and then I’d come to a rock-slab plateau; but it was never long before some proper vertical gain was encountered again. I couldn’t help but notice how lush this section of the course was , seeing sugarbush, streptocarpus, and a number of wild flowers, grasses and ferns, even though the surrounding area has been in the grips of the El Nino for many months, causing below-normal rainfall and drought conditions on many of the farms. The climb finally reached its apex after the last tricky section out of Cilla Gully, and we were finally at the top.
For anyone who has not experienced hiking or running in the Drakensberg, I can tell you that reaching the top of the escarpment feels more like reaching the top of the world, with the most incredible 360-degree views. Some time ago a friend of mine told me that on a clear day, one can even see the Indian Ocean from the top. I have yet to experience this but it is believable. From the top of Hlolela Peak (meaning ‘a kind of beautiful’), the track undulates its way across the top of the Berg – some technical downhill singletrack was par for the course, and climbing a massive boulder required some negotiating on my hands and knees. The next highlight on the way down was the oasis that is Cannibal Cave. Here a water table was stationed, and runners were treated to fresh mountain water, juice, fruit, en ‘n stukkie droewors to nibble on. An hour later this would prove to be a life-saver, as the temperature started to soar because of the dry berg wind, and eat into the energy tank. But from the cave it was flat, fast and beautifully clean singletrack through a forest of protea bushes, and homeward bound to All Out Adventures, where much-needed boerie rolls and ice-cold beer were waiting to be devoured. Day one was done, with dry and dusty bodies sprawled under the race-village tent.
The following day’s briefing was given under an ominously low sky. Warren warned us that rain was predicted, but we would have to wait and see. If it did start to pour, it was going to be very cold and slippery. But as for any other mountain-running event, warm and waterproof gear is a prerequisite for heading out into the elements – if we didn’t have the compulsory kit, we wouldn’t be starting. Batch A was set off at 7am sharp; and five minutes later we were on our way too, into the surrounding Montusi Valley. What lay ahead was a morning of decent full-gas, running with the sharp end of the course requiring some leg speed. I started out very easy, so I could take in the panorama of views and look up to see where we had been the day before. Every so often a stream would appear, and rocks would need to be hopped to ensure the shoes remained dry; then the singletrack would continue to meander along the valley, and I was pretty sure that all the climbing was over for the two days of running. Then came the surprise of Montusi Peak! Hands immediately on knees, we toiled our way up the sharp but relatively short climb. The trig beacon came into sight, but as soon as we were up it was time to head down the other side of the koppie. Once again we were on flowing, hard-packed singletrack (which felt like open road, coming from the rocky trails in the Cape!), and the legs were turning over quicker than I could imagine.
Day two was definitely the day for any road-runner looking to escape the tarmac and experience the grittiness of trail running. As we descended rapidly through the valley, time was passing a lot quicker than it had the day before, and a few women who had started in my batch were hot on my heels. I dug a little deeper as the final stretch of climbing was delivered through a lush stream bed – and thankfully, All Out Adventures came into view again, and the enthusiastic voice of the Lee Fuller on the PA came into earshot.
And with that, my weekend rendezvous with the Drakensberg was done.
- 90% singletrack
- 70% of the singletrack is well-worn paths with very little rocks which make it fast and flowing
- 600 entries (two-thirds Challenge, and one-third Extreme)
- Challenge: 15km each day. Extreme: 25km each day
- Winners: Challenge – Male: MXOLISI NDLOVU; Female: LEANA SPIES; Extreme – Male: KWENZA NGUBANE; Female: MARZELLE DOMINIQUE VAN DER MERWE
- Race camp is based at All Out Adventures. A variety of outdoor activities can be enjoyed here by the entire family while awaiting the return of the runners. Visit www.alloutadventures.co.za
- Hlolela Peak (2 137m)
- Battleship Peak
- Sugar Loaf (2 050m)
- Cold Hill
- Montusi Peak/Ridge