The Grail of Trail

Posted on 4 March 2021

Nothing resets your soul like an exhilarating, free-ranging run in a place of exceptional natural beauty. Hit that most legendary trail of them all – the Otter Hiking Trail – but this time, swap your hiking boots for running shoes.

Words & Photos Jacques Marais

A lone runner navigates the rocky section below the waterfall that Otter Trail hikers pass on the first day of this premier hiking trail. Ent trade winds and sloping beaches perfect for this aqua adventure sport.

You tend to remember the exact moment when the impossible becomes possible. One such moment happened for me on 25 September, 2009 when – during the Southern Storm Adventure Race – the iconic five-day Otter Trail hiking route was first attempted as a single-day run.

Nearly 200 trail legends from across South Africa converged on the Garden Route for the event and, over a good few beers shared the preceding evening, predictions were bandied about as to what the quickest time for this technical, 42km off-road marathon could potentially be.

The tempestuous Tsitsikamma coast is a hallmark of the annual Otter African Trail Run.

The conclusion was that it would be ‘humanly impossible’ to break the five-hour barrier. How wrong they were. Those were the heady days of off-road running in SA, and The Otter was soon labelled the ‘Grail of Trail’ and the ultimate benchmark against which all local trail-run events would be measured.

The latter still holds, but the same can’t be said for the predicted time. In fact, a KZN farmer by the name of Iain Don-Wauchope smashed ‘the impossible’ on the very first run by relentlessly charging home in a jaw-dropping 4hrs 59min 2sec.

Dwarfed by the dramatic rock formations.

Organisers and athletes alike were stunned; even more so when his wife, Sue Wauchope, set the first women’s record at 5hrs 58min. When the trail dust eventually settled, this became the new standard, but athletes started gunning for even quicker times.

This gem of a Garden Route trail soon started attracting international attention, and over the ensuing decade, Olympians, world champions and ultra-adventurers from around the globe flocked to this scenic corner of the Tsitsikamma region to tackle the unforgiving coastal route.

The Bloukrans River crossing always claims a few victims as they negotiate the moss-covered boulders.

And the times? Well, they are a-changin. The direction of the run switches every year, with the reverse-Otter (or Retto) delivering the quickest times. Officially, the records now belong to the Polish runner, Bartlomiej Przedwojewski (3hrs 40min 48sec) and Holly Page from the United Kingdom (4hrs 37min 48sec).

What has not changed is the utter natural grandeur of the Otter Trail itself. It is magical beyond the scope of mere words and what makes it even more special is that athletes are allowed to face off against the slippery roots, jagged rocks and thumping tides only once a year, when the trail is closed to hikers for the Otter African Trail Run event.

The photographer climbed a tree to get this bird’s-eye view in the forest.

Imagine the southern tip of Africa, where a rugged, cliff-top path timelines through one of Planet Earth’s most diverse botanical kingdoms. This coastal trail captivates hikers from around the world with its 
dramatic scenery and it’s no wonder many rate it as one of the finest wilderness walks on offer.

Running the Otter is a game-changer, though, and chances are you won’t have much time to appreciate the breathtaking natural grandeur unfolding along the route. Competitors are tested every step of the way, and have to plunge through the tannin-stained waters of the Kleinbos- and Elands rivers, and fight the ocean surge as they battle the thumping Bloukrans swell.

The leap of faith across the waterfall stream.

Yep, your quads and calves feel the burn as you slog into no less than 11 significant climbs, with eight of them in excess of 100m of altitude gain. These ascents are often along near-vertical ‘stairways to heaven’, all while you contend with 12 546 man-made steps en route.

The extreme 42km route varies continually, shape-shifting from the verdant tranquillity of temperate forest to jagged sea cliffs, mossy wooden bridges, boulder-strewn beaches and rocky tidal spurs… unquestionably it rates as one of Mother Nature’s most gorgeous, yet challenging, outdoor playgrounds.

A supporter’s brew along the way

Watch out when The Otter bares its fangs

Waterfall Rock Field

When you speed onto the Otter Trail from Storms River, an unconditional mauling awaits as you barge onto a menacing rock field just 2km beyond the start. Tidal surges, swathes of wind-whipped sea foam, slippery rock beds and leaps of blind faith litter the initial few kays of trail unfolding before Ngubu Hut. Expect to be hammered by the unforgiving terrain and an incessant need to focus; one slip of concentration here and it will be race over.

Ngubu Hut Ascent

Descending towards this first hiking hut, the rocky trail gives way to a glorious forest footpath, winding among emerald greenery and with the tempestuous Indian Ocean at your back. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security, as the first major climb of the Otter African Trail Run is waiting to wreak havoc on your gluteus maximus. There seems to be no end to this jade stairway to hell, and it’s not until you pass the escape route exit that you will find some respite on the descent to Kleinbos River.

A runner’s mantra shows Kyle Smith’s commitment to this tough race.

Bloukrans Crossing

This is the nightmare for most first-timers on the trail – finding yourself synched into sublime scenery as you negotiate the rocky shoreline, while bombing stairs, hurdling tree roots and hopping rocks. The problem is that the cliff-hugger of a trail eventually leads to the Bloukrans River, and this is where you can make or break your race. There’s an infamous (and unpredictable) tidal surge that could easily sweep you out towards the open ocean, so make like a limpet and stick to the safety ropes.

The ‘Fecalator’

The above is a reference from the Second World War, when pilots would involuntarily soil themselves after severe damage to their planes. Well, chances are that when you see the zigzagging, calf-crunching, mofo of a fynbos trail coiling skywards just beyond Andre Hut, you might just do the same to your running shorts. If you feel the force is strong within you at this stage, keep in mind that this is also the King/Queen of the Mountain stage.

Free-flying along the Prologue Route where runners establish their ranking for the race.

Sting in The Tail

You are 100m or so from the finish after a 42km marathon of epic proportions. All you must do is pass through the finish arch, but between you and glory is the 
infamous Otter Floating Bridge. In order to reach the end, you must dig deep and sprint across a wooden pallet pitching and rolling beneath your cramping legs and cross a balance bar. Not fair, right?

More African adventure runs

Oorlogskloof, Namaqua West Coast
Head to the rugged Northern Cape escarpment beyond the Cederberg and get ready for a true get-high tramp in Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve. This little-known wilderness area near Nieuwoudtville encompasses 52km of craggy hiking trails, making for mind-space running of the purest kind.

When: April
Where: Nieuwoudtville, Northern Cape
Route & Distance: A gritty 42km run and scramble
quantumadventures.co.za

Lightfoot Leap (named after a previous men’s race winner) with the waterfall behind.

The Hobbit 100, Amatole Mountains
This is the heart of Frontier Country, with Hogsback the perfect gateway into the Amatole foothills. Cape parrots and Narina trogons flit about within temperate indigenous forest that’ll remind you of Middle Earth as you take on the 100km Merrell Hobbit Trail Run.

When: November
Where: Hogsback, Eastern Cape
Route & Distance: 60/100km, mostly forest singletrack and jeep
trackmountainrunner.co.za

Sky Run, Lady Grey
Many trail runners rate this 100km beast as the original off-road endurance ultra in SA. Pioneered by John-Michael Tawse in the 80s, this self-navigated event is all about pain-and-glory terrain and extreme weather, with natural obstacles such as Dragon’s Back, Balloch Wall and Ben Macdhui Peak waiting to test your guts.

When: November
Where: Lady Grey, Eastern Cape
Route & Distance: 60/100km, mostly mountain
footpathspureadventures.co.za

The rocky launchpad into the Bloukrans River.

Leopard Run, Baviaanskloof
If communing with nature is your thing – but with canyons, kloofs, icy pool swims, jagged peaks and extreme temperatures thrown in to up the adrenaline factor – this off-grid event along the famous Leopard Hiking Trail route is the perfect blend of agony and ecstasy.

When: October
Where: Willowmore, Eastern Cape
Route & Distance: Three stages totalling 65km, mostly on mountain
footpathsecobound.co.za

Great Zuurberg Trail Run, Addo
The Zuurberg section of the Addo Elephant National Park allows you to run stunning trails in a landscape dominated by giant Jurassic cycads and with kudu, eland and mountain zebra along the route. This boutique three-day stage race offers an easy and achievable intro to intermediate trail runners.

When: May
Where: Kirkwood, Eastern Cape
Route & Distance: Three stages totalling 60km along scaped
trailsgztrun.co.za

Nicholas Rupanga on a cliff-side traverse.

And some international flavour

The Dodo Trail, Mauritius

Nothing epitomises a tropical island run quite like Mauritius’ annual Dodo Trail. This one-day ultra-event makes for an exceptional experience, with varying distances on offer. Technical terrain, unforgiving climbs and gnarly descents are sure to test you way beyond your wildest dreams, and we can guarantee that the 50km will feel way more like 80km once you’re done. This event has a strong international following.

When: July
Where: Traversing Mauritius from south to west
Route and Distances: 10, 25 and 50km over the island’s highest peaks
dodotrail.com.

Race Planner

Do It
The Otter run alternates direction every year; the event hub is based at De Vasselot Campsite in Nature’s Valley. The Challenge Run has a cut-off of 9hrs, while the Race Run allows only 8hrs on the trail. A Prologue is run on the day before each event to establish seeding.

Dodo Trail, Mauritius

The Otter 2021 will start at Storms River Rest Camp. Preferably find accommodation near the Event Hub at Nature’s Valley (sanparks.org), enabling easy access to registration, the Prologue, race briefing and post-event ceremonies. A shuttle transports participants from the event hub to the start of the race.

Challenge: 6th & 7th October, R5 700 pp
Race: 8th & 9th October, R5 700 pp

Gabriel’s Pool, Leopard Run

Non-runners

Foodie-licious: Tantalise your tastebuds at The Peppermill Café at The Crags (right at the N2 turn-off to Nature’s Valley) with a few funky variations on old favourites. Best of all, you can appreciate a pianist tickling the ivories while tucking into a ciabatta loaded with pastrami, hummus and organic salad.facebook.com/peppermill-cafe

Shopping country

The Mohair Mill Shop offers a delightful hour or two of browsing if you’re searching for quality garments from locally sourced wool or mohair. mohairmillshop.com

Christine Collins from the Magnetic South organising team, watches the sunset from the Otter finnish arch.

Stay Here

Plett Beacon House
This affordable guesthouse overlooks Keurbooms Estuary in Plettenberg Bay and offers your support crew or family easy access to restaurants, shops and beaches. From R595 pp. 072 203 7885. plettbeaconhouse.co.za

Cottage, please
The Natures Way Farm Stall & Nursery boasts cute cottages within the Tsitsikamma Forest, from R465. There’s also an excellent campsite, from R350 a site (max six). 044 534 8849 naturesway-sa.com






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