By Lisa Nevitt

Trail running is an interaction between the runner and Southern Africa’s diverse landscape – a chance to fell, smell and touch.

Whether you enjoy the sting of a freezing river, dry heat in the semi-desert, sweet scented fynbos, or crashing waves, here’s a selection of the best trail races, to suit all tastes.

Best Wilderness Run

Wildcoast Wildrun 1 (Journey)
September 2014, Kei River Mouth, Transkei, Eastern Cape

In between the Great Kei River and beautiful natural wonder The Hole in the Wall, there are rolling grass hills, freshwater streams, cattle trails, hard golden beaches and open rocky reefs. “For me, it was about the journey and the beautiful scenery,” commented participant Liza Burmeister.


Not For The Faint- Hearted

Baviaanskloof Trail Run
September 2014, Geelhoutbos (Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve), Eastern Cape

The reserve is both primitive and isolated, and is home to two of South Africa’s most fearsome wild animals – the Cape Buffalo and the Black Rhino. The 40km race is not recommended for unfit runners, or those who are not prepared to cover harsh terrain, unsupported.


Most Fun In The City

The Crazy Store Table Mountain Challenge 2014
13 September 2014, Table Mountain, Cape Town, Western Province

Still the best way to travel around the old flat top (and with top city views), the 37km trail winds its way along fynbos-covered slopes, beneath shady forests and past thirst-quenching streams. Athletes compete individually, or in teams of three, for the individual legs of 8km, 11.5km & 17km.


Best For Kids

Katberg Sky Trail
September 2014, Katberg, Border

“The 4km Baby Bong Treasure Trail takes kids on a hunt for treasure,” explains race organiser Liam Victor. “Sweets and other treats are hidden close to a magical waterfall, at the horses’ stables and across the fairways at the play area.” For the adults, there’s a 35km high-altitude challenge on top of God’s Planet, and a 10km Sky Lite through the game reserve.


Most Varied Scenery

The Otter African Trail Run 2014
September 2014, Garden Route National Park, Nature’s Valley, Western Cape

“The technical terrain is constantly changing – from sandy beaches, to cliff edges, to the wild river crossing at Bloukrans,” enthuses participant Terry Deats. Trail star Ryan Sandes says race organisers Magnetic South are both passionate and professional.


Best Trip To The Seaside Ever

OysterCatcher 2-Day Trail Run
September 2014, Mossel Bay, Western Cape

“Running on the cliffs of the escarpment, and looking down into the aqua-blue ocean some 100 feet right below, felt unreal,” wrote blogger and participant Petrus Oosthuizen. The 38km race follows the famous Oystercatcher hiking trail from Gouritz River Mouth to Mossel Bay, and the Cape St. Blaize Trail.


Best For Beginners

Diamond Dash Trail Run VIII
March 2014, De Tweedespruit Conservancy (about 15km north of Cullinan), Gauteng North

“The jeep tracks and single tracks are not too difficult underfoot, and the bushveld scenery is beautiful,” says race organiser Landie Greyling. “The last couple of races have been run alongside a babbling river.”


Muddiest Race

New Balance Impi Challenge
19-20 October, Lievland Wine Estate and Wiesenhof Legacy Park, Stellenbosch, Western Province

IMPI Elite Warriors tackle 25 challenging obstacles, while IMPI Challengers tackle 18 fun obstacles.“It’s not often I get the opportunity to wade through a sticky mud pool, splash around in the dirt, and use the grass to pull myself up on the opposite bank,” says 2013 winner Anita O’Brien.


Best For Minimalists

The Jikeleza Trail Run
October 2014, Kob Inn, Cintsa, Eastern Cape

“Paths of sure-footed fisherman, well-grazed hillocks and hard-packed beaches in the Wild Coast could be well suited to barefoot rookies,” says race organizer Sarah Drew. On this limited-entry social tour, runners traverse a stunning stretch of coastline, and all the logistics are taken care of.


Best Chance Of Spotting Game

Golden Gate Challenge 2014
October 2014, Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Glen Reenen Rest Camp, Free State

Close to the Ribbok Hiking Trail, Eland and Rhebok quench their thirst at rock pools, and in the unexplored ‘Little Serengeti’ are herds of zebra. Participants cover 70km of challenging high altitudes in just over three days, staged out of a single base camp.


Best Rural Race

Crazy Store 1 000 Hills Challenge
October 2014, Nagle Dam, KwaZulu-Natal

Explore parts of the river above the dam in the Msinsi Reserve; which is also home to zebra and impala. Longer distances include a river crossing and a steep climb.


Best No-Frills Race

Three Peaks Challenge 
November, 108 Long Street, Cape Town, Western Province

“It’s a ‘no-frills’ race with the friendliest race crew,” says podium finisher Caroline Balkwill. Starting in the city, participants run to Devil’s Peak, Lion’s Head and Table Mountain, returning in between to Green Market Square. The race commemorates Carl Wilhelm Schneeberger, the first trailie to complete the route – in 1897.

Best Atmosphere

Fairview Dryland Traverse
November, De Hoek Reserve, Oudtshoorn, Western Cape

Participant Shawn Dall raves about the great atmosphere and logistics at this race. Starting in the deep chambers of the Cango Caves, runners traverse the semi-desert of the Groot Karoo, to the hilly passes of the Klein Karoo, and the Swartberg Mountain Range.


Most Isolated

Salomon Skyrun
November, Mountain View Inn, Lady Grey

Ryan Sandes recommends this 100km, self-supporting and self-navigated run, through the Wittenberg mountain range of the Drakensberg, to every serious trail runner. “The whole experience is life-changing, and race organisers Pure Adventures make sure the event is epic,” he says.


Best After-Dark Race

The Bat Run
15 February 2014, Kloofnek Parking Area, Cape Town, Western Province

“Running the Mother City’s Peaks at night is challenging, but the views are crazy,” says participant Gary Hutch. The iconic mountains – Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head – are usually tackled by the light of the full moon.


Longest Multi-Stage Race

Wild Coast Ultra Trail Run
15-22 February 2014, Umngazi River Bungalows, Eastern Cape

Of the 270km race, race winner Ray Orchison wrote: “As I ran along looking down at the ocean and the endless green grassy hills in front of me, I wondered to myself how anyone could experience this and believe that it all happened by mistake. The sheer beauty sings out in praise to our creator.”


Best Charity Race

Bonitas Sunday Tribune Three Cranes Challenge
20-23 February 2014, Bushwillow Camp, Karkloof, KwaZulu-Natal

Bella and Danni are orphaned Wattled Cranes at the Karkloof Conservancy. Thanks to funds raised from this three-day race and a number of other community projects, these birds will be rehabilitated into the wild, and will hopefully start families of their own.


Best Race In A National Park

10th Addo Elephant Trail Runs
1 March 2014, Kabouga Gate, Addo Elephant National Park, Eastern Province

Alongside tracks designed to test your endurance, the famous Addo elephant nestles among the citrus trees; Cape buffalo, black rhino and a range of antelope species can also be spotted.


Best Race Food

ProNutro AfricanX Trailrun 2014
14-16 March 2014, Festival Village, Houw Hoek Inn, Elgin Valley, Boland

On the menu is roast chicken, beef stroganoff, and fried hake with tartar sauce. After running each stage in the Overberg with ‘amazing people’, participant Alison Chait thought the variety of food at the race village was delicious. “If all multi-stage races are like this one, I want more!” she enthuses.


Best Sunrise To Sunset Run

K-Way Platteklip Charity Challenge
April 2014, Lower Cable Station, Tafelberg Road, Cape Town, Western Province

Starting at sunrise, the object of this race is to climb to the summit and head back down to the start as many times as possible, within the time limit of 11 hours. “When kids came out especially to cheer me on, I felt like I could run forever,” says participant Tatum Prins. “Each time I reached the summit, I raised more money for their local crèches.”


Best Cattle Run

Nguni Trail Run 2014
April 2014, Blanerne Farm, Elandslaagte, Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal

The indigenous Nguni cattle are patterned white, brown, golden yellow, dappled or spotty, and graze alongside technical trails, the farm’s natural bush, steep valleys and rivers. “The night run was dark, fast and an incredible experience,” commented participant James Erasmus.


Best Trail Festival

Goukamma Traverse
19 April 2014, Goukamma Nature Reserve (Cape Nature), Western Cape

A spectacular trail run through cool milkwood forests, along fynbos-edged tracks and ancient fossilised dunes with panoramic views of the ocean and surrounding lakes. The Sedgefield Slow Festival offers many other events – drive-in movies, a volleyball tournament, the Anything That Floats Challenge, a slow food market, Art in the Park, a street parade, and much more.


Best Vertical Height Gain

JMC 2014
4 May 2014, Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, Stellenbosch, Western Province

Participant Neil Henderson describes the vertical height gains and descents on single-track trails as ‘bliss’. The 2013 SA Long Distance Trail Running Championships featured 2 064m of vertical height gains, on rugged mountain-hiking trails. Massive turrets and cliffs of orange-faced quartzite tower fortress-like over a collection of mountain streams and waterfalls.


Best Stage Race

Grootvadersbosch Trail Challenge
June 2014, Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve (close to Swellendam / Heidelberg), Western Cape

“The two-day-stage, 50km race is my personal favourite,” says Greyling. “The trails are magical, the entry fee includes four meals, goody bags and prizes, and the atmosphere is fun.”


Best Ocean Views

Old Fisherman’s Trail Challenge
7 June 2014, Fish Hoek Beach, Western Province

The race follows a path believed to have been used by fishermen to cross the mountains that separated the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, in times gone by. “There are beaches, river crossings, waterfalls, steps, and stunning views of the harbours in Hout Bay and Kalk Bay,” says participant Mark Wagenheim. “And the distance of 21km is just right.”


Best Start To A Race

Salomon Featherbed Trail Run, Presented By Gu
July, Cruise Café, Knysna, Western Cape

Greyling describes the ferry across the placid Knysna Lagoon to the start as: ‘special’. An opportunity to run on sandstone cliffs, along coastal single-tracks and through milkwood forests in the otherwise privately-owned Featherbed Nature Reserve.


Best Celebration Of The French Revolution

Salomon Bastille Trail Run
12 July 2014, Old Bells Lodge, Berg River Dam, Franschhoek, Western Province

Wearing their finest red, white and blue – the more daring in fishnet stockings – trail runners enjoy festivities at the food and wine marquee, the longest-running boules competition, the Franschhoek minstrel parade, and the popular barrel-rolling contest.


Best Chance Of Seeing Snow

The 26th UTi Rhodes Trail Run
12 July 2014, Rhodes (a small hamlet in the Southern Drakensberg, alongside the Bell River), Eastern Cape

Guy Jennings completed the race dressed in a polar bear suit, in order to raise money for the trail run’s Run to Read project. “It’s the only race in South Africa where everyone prays for bad weather,” he says. “In 2012, race organisers had to re-route the course due to heavy snow, ice, freezing rivers and sub-zero temperatures. It was the perfect day to run in the mountains.”


Harshest Desert Terrain

21-25 July 2014, Sossuvlei Desert, Namibia

Run through the famous Sesriem Canyon and over the two highest sand dunes in the world – Dune 45 and ‘Big Daddy’. Competitors from all four corners of the globe challenge this 220km, multi-day foot race, which features extreme heat, rugged terrain and rocky mountains.


Best Trail-Snake Toughie

Hout Bay Trail Challenge
26 July 2014, Hout Bay, Western Province

Ryan Sandes rates this self-navigated race as one of the toughest in South Africa. The views along the circular loop of Hout Bay’s peaks, says trail star Linda Doke, are special, beautiful and stimulating. Entries are limited.


Least Trodden Trail

Merrell Outeniqua Traverse
2 August 2014, Garden Route Botanical Gardens, Caledon Street, George, Western Cape

Trails that cut through the Outeniqua Mountains are often overlooked. At this time of year, foliage on the trees is a sumptuous dark green, the fynbos smells sweet, and from the mountain slopes, a patchwork of valleys can be seen. This is one of the toughest races in SA, featuring natural obstacles, single track, steep ascents and river crossings.

Best Prize Purse

The Num-Num Challenge
August 2014, Num-Num Trail, Machadodorp, Mpumalanga

Winners of the lung-burning 36.5km will receive R5 000 each, and winners of the 15km Fun Run will receive a voucher for a five-day hike for two, valued at R2 000.


Best Race Village

The Southern Cross 3-Day Trail Run
August 2014, Ebb-and-Flow Rest Camp, Garden Route SANPARK (close to Wilderness), Western Cape

A new race village has been announced this year, which will provide respite from testing mountain, forest and coastal terrain. Sleep in log cottages, cabins or tents in tranquil surrounds, and tuck into scrumptious meals.


Most Extreme One-Day Race

August 2014, Cape Point Reserve, Western Province

“Technical terrain, running in the dark, and testing weather conditions are an extreme combination,” explains 2012 winner Linda Doke. “Sections are run on tar, which zaps the strength you need to tackle the technical section on Table Mountain and the Platteklip Gorge descent. For good reason, the PUFfeR is described as: ‘running in heaven, feeling like hell’.”


Most Technical River Crossing

Umgeni River Run
August 2014, Inanda Dam, KwaZulu-Natal

Follow the Umgeni River on the valley floor, and later the Mqeku River. The first river crossing requires runners to wade knee-deep. The second is more technical – runners hop across small rocks and contend with shallow water.


Best Time-Trial Race

Red Bull Pyramid Challenge
Spring 2014, Moolmanshoek Private Game Reserve, Ficksburg, Free State

Starting in reverse order, on a time-trial basis according to their finishing time for the Thule 4 Peaks Challenge, trailies tackle a vertical ascent of 600m, over 2km. The winner is the fastest to attack the marked route on the first pyramid, from base to summit, and back down again.


Most Colourful Race

Namaqua Quest
August 2014, Springbok, Namaqualand, Northern Cape

During spring, nature’s colours and beauty flourish anew – valleys are painted with spring flowers, wildlife buzzes, ancient mountains are a rugged backdrop, and the trails are ripe for exploring.


Best Trail Series

Spur Cape Winter Trail Series
July-August 2014, Western Cape

There are four races in this popular short-course trail-running series, as well as a 23km XL and the exciting new addition of the GLB46 Ultra. Participant Peter Zehetbauer witnessed a magnificent sunrise in Tygerberg Nature Reserve when he competed in the second race of the 2012 series. He commented: “The weather, the views, the race organisers and like-minded runners made it memorable.”


Best Summer Series

Talbot Summer Series
November – December, KwaZulu-Natal

Each race offers a unique experience in the Umgeni Valley. Encounter kudu and martial eagles close to the trails; run on the tops of mountains, and into the Valley of a Thousand Hills; or wade across two major rivers.


Best Night Series

The Merrell Night Trail Run Series
April 2014, Western Province

Headlamps illuminate Groot Contantia’s rows of twisting vines, the creatures of the night and the shadowy mountains. Afterwards, hungry trailies dressed in whacky outfits tuck into delicious grub in front of the fire at Simon’s Restaurant.


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