Words Fiona McIntosh, pics Terence Vrugtman
It’s 06.15 when we disembark the taxis at Maden Dam, pose for a quick photo then shuffle off into the dense forest. We’re running the Hobbit, a 90km trail run that broadly follows the route of the Amatola Hiking Trail. Billed as the toughest trail in South Africa, the mountainous route from Maden Dam to Hogsback takes hikers six days and commands respect. We - and 32 other crazy trail runners- hope to complete the course in two.
In keeping with the spirit of the event, there’s no fanfare. Although the Hobbit is timed, it’s not a conventional race. Rather it’s an opportunity for a group of mountain lovers and trail runners to experience the ever-changing scenery and spectacular views of the Amatola.
Geared up and ready to go.
At the pre-race briefing co-organiser Tatum Prins was firm. “This is a tough race. Some of you will be weeping, maybe even vomiting, by the time you reach the overnight hut at the halfway stage. But let me be clear: quitting is not an option. After a night’s sleep you’ll be fine.”
Day one is certainly challenging. After a gentle start we climb higher and higher into the mountains, the front-runners easing away from the pack. The steep, rugged route takes us past tinkling streams, rock pools and numerous waterfalls, while the wonderful birds, fungi, tree ferns and delicate orchids provide welcome distraction from the pain of the constant up and down.
Doornkop, the high point of the morning, is shrouded in mist so marshalls do a spot check to ensure that we have sufficient foul-weather and emergency equipment before the ascent. Following a section of trail that is not open to the general public, we slog up a steep hill to the trig beacon on the summit - only to lose the markers and get lost in the pines on the way down.
An early start for the troop.
The sight of Cata hut, perched high on the slopes on the other side of the kilometre-deep valley, is soul destroying. It’s another hour of bone-shaking downhill and unrelenting up before we pop out into moorland to the welcome sight of Merrell banners. The Mountain Runner team cheers us over the line and cups of hot soup are thrust into our hands as we warm up in front of a roaring fire. The donkey boiler is going and although it’s a bracing ‘off-cold’ temperature it’s good to get clean.
As the stragglers stagger in we sit, like one big family, snuggled around the tables, swapping war stories and photos, tending to blisters and wounds and preparing food for the next day before feasting on chicken curry and a veggie pot washed down with beer, red wine and endless cups of tea and hot chocolate. It’s all very civilised.
No one is particularly interested in their placing, but we’re amused to learn that hot favourite Rory Scheffer took a wrong turn, ran an extra 10 km and still came in ahead of the rest of the field in 6hrs 32 minutes, while the slower runners took nearly 11 hours.
A runner tackles a steady incline nestled in the wilderness.
On the second day we wake at 4am feeling surprisingly sprightly, then, after wolfing down breakfast, set off up the hill behind the hut, blundering into rocks and falling into gullies in the dark. And it gets worse: once on top we’re faced with a steep downhill on the edge of a loose boulder field that results in many a tumble. It boosts camaraderie but it is a miracle that no one gets seriously injured.
Once the sun comes up we begin to appreciate the majesty of the mountains: the route of the Amatola trail is ingeniously laid out to take in the best waterfalls and viewpoints of the area. We wind in and out of thick patches of indigenous forest, ducking and diving under fallen trees, clambering up tree roots, tottering over scree and boulder hopping across streams. Although I’m sure the leaders ran, we go at a more sedate pace, stopping at viewpoints and falls to take photos.
Hikers take in the breathtaking view as they endure the climb.
By the time we reach the Wolf River, the runners on the 38km event (which follows the route of the Zingcuka Loop of the Amatola Trail) catch us. The praise and encouragement they offer as they trot past lifts our weary spirits. The path stays close to the river as it narrows to a steep-sided gorge cut in the grey dolerite rock and we stop for regular breathers, gazing at the rolling, bracken-cloaked hills that stretch out into the distance.
A series of pools and drops follows, the path crossing the stream a couple of times and wandering through grasslands studded with protea, wild dagga and other veld flowers before gradually climbing up to a spectacular viewpoint overlooking the Wolf River Forest. An exciting contour along a narrow path that hugs the edge of the precipitous Zingcuka cliffs is followed by another knee-jarring descent through ferns and indigenous forest, past the Zingcuka Hut and along a short section of forest road to a refreshment table.
Exploring the lush forest takes the mind off any obstacles ahead.
“Only 15km to go, but it’s a mother of a climb,” crew-member Sarah Hearn warns as we fill our water bottles. Putting our heads down we slog up the overgrown path utilising our well-practised technique of pulling on roots and clambering over slimy boulders. After what seemed an age we emerge from the shade of the canopy onto flatter, more open land.
Still up and up we go. The climb is relentless. Behind us is a chain of young men and women who are competing in the 38km race. “Do you want to pass?” I inquire, ready to let someone else set the pace. “We can’t,’ comes the unanimous response.
With a vertical gain of 800m the climb up the back of the Hogsback Mountain is proving a stiff undertaking. There’s no running this section, rather everyone has his or her head down and is focusing on breathing and on negotiating the rocky boulders, muddy patches, overgrown vegetation and other obstacles that we encounter.
A weary smile anticipates the rest of the journey of the Amatola Hiking Trail.
Finally the gradient eases and we see the gap between the sheer cliff of “The Hog” and a rocky outcrop on its shoulder. As we snap selfies we look back with pride at the route that we’ve followed from Maden Dam along the horseshoe-shaped series of mountain ranges around Keiskammahoek to this impressive vantage point. From here the route is downhill. We’ve almost cracked the Hobbit.
An hour later we emerge from the forest into the Hogsback Arboretum and do our best to sprint up the hill and across the road to the finish line in the Arminel Hotel. And although it has been an incredible adventure, my only regret is that I’ve had little time to linger.
The next Hobbit trail run takes place 26-27 April 2019, mountainrunner.co.za
Thumbs up for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Trail runs to try
1 Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon
An iconic seven-day, 250 km self-sufficient stage race in the Kalahari Desert and Augrabies Falls National Park.
Next event: 20-26 October 2018, kaem.co.za
2 Mapungubwe Wildrun®
This 92km, three-day journey through the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area is not a race. Rather you run in guided groups through a World Heritage Site and Big Five game areas.
Next event: 8-12 May 2019, wildrun.com
3 Otter African Trail Run
The breathtaking Otter course, between Nature’s Valley and Storms River Mouth, happens to be marathon distance, but with 2 500m of vertical ascent it’s seriously hardcore.
Next event: 19-20 October 2018, otter.run
Source: The Intrepid Explorer