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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Bryony McCormick
Bryony McCormick is the Feature’s Editor of Runner’s World South Africa and loves nothing more than being out in the elements and pushing her limits on an adventure.

Whale of Trail

An Iconic five-day hike condensed
into a one-day trail event

start

Whale of Trail

The Whale Trail is a marked, popular five-day hiking trail in South Africa’s Western Cape province. Confined within the Fynbos-laden parameters of De Hoop Nature Reserve, the route offers trail enthusiasts a variety of terrain between challenging mountain ascents, technical and rocky trails, undulating coastal paths and soft, sandy beaches. Graham Bird of Mountain Runner Events, in partnership with Cape Nature and supported by Merrell, successfully gained permission to put on an event that would condense the five days of hiking into one epic trail race. The inaugural Whale of Trail Run took place in May 2014.

  • Trail length: 32.3mi
  • Climb: 6200ft
  • Fastest known time: 06h 06m
  • link

Standing at the start of something new

My nerves on the morning of the Whale of Trail are a frazzled mix of emotions. I’m nervous, I’m excited, and I’m scared. My boyfriend hovers nearby; terrified of the state I am in, unsure if I’m going to burst into tears or laugher at any given moment. I’ve packed my backpack twice but am already going through a mental checklist, stressing about how much or how little I have packed. My eyes grow wider as I consider my food compared to the time I have estimated I’ll be on the course. I don’t think it’s enough. A tear leaks from my eye. My boyfriend steps even further away.

A group of local kids sing the South African anthem before the start. 160 trail enthusiasts huddle together for warmth and listen, contemplating the 5-day Whale Trail hike that they’re going to attempt to complete in one day. Before I have time to do one last mental check, we’re off. We set off from Potberg, the official start of the Whale Trail. The sun is barely peaking over the horizon and the air is chilly, but the vibe is buzzing.

"160 trail enthusiasts huddle together for warmth and listen, contemplating the 5-day Whale Trail hike that they're going to attempt to complete in one day."

The Mountains

The trail leads straight into the first climb up the Potberg Mountains. It’s steep, but I’m in the second half of the pack so we are trekking it. Immediately I’m overwhelmed by everyone’s friendliness. The chatter is on-going and while I zone in and out, enjoying the soft sunlight on my cheeks, I hear someone mention Cape Vultures. I glance upward, while still trying to navigate the trail, and am bowled over by the flock of vultures majestically circling right above us. There must be seven or eight of them. Once on the endangered list, the Cape Vulture is deemed vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They are huge, silent and almost eerie. I have a fleeting moment where I want to shout out “Spirit of the Vulture” at the sky, as I’d expect a Native American to do before battle. I refrain. Begrudgingly.

Not long after the vulture experience do I realize that I am happy. The slow start has allowed my legs to warm up and as I begin to trot along the ridgeline, I smile. I descend down to CP1 (checkpoint 1), Cupidoskraal, and back up toward the mountaintop, taking my time and picking my way through the overgrown Fynbos and Ericas, vegetation found in abundance in the area. As I clamber, very inelegantly over a rocky outcrop, I notice the Breede River down in the valley below me to my left. The morning sun reflecting on it has turned it gold, and I follow it’s course with my eyes to the coast.

I’m running now, and the beauty of my surroundings seems to be fuelling me, energizing me in a way. The pre-race fear has dissipated and for the first time in weeks I am running with a childish grin on my face. The long descent towards CP2 is slightly technical, but I’m in too much of a good mood to be sensible. With the Spirit of the Vulture echoing around my head, I fly down the hill. Exhilarated, I arrive at CP2. A quick check on the blister plasters, some food, and then a short, flat section toward the coast before I pop out at CP3.

"I'm running now, and the beauty of my surroundings seems to be fuelling me, energizing me in a way. "

The Coast

The route turns on itself at Noetsie, CP3. It is the point at which the mountain trail meets up with the coastline. There’s something calming about turning a corner and passing half way. For the next five miles I scratch my way over technical, cambered trails, doing my best to avoid running off the cliffs, but often teetering dangerously close to the edge to see how high it was, or admire a cave or crevice. I have no idea when this part of the course ends, so I succumb to the undulations and opt to continue using my newfound fuel - my surroundings - to feed my energy sources.

It was at this point on the trail that I had an actual moment of self-realization: The Whale of Trail had turned me into a nature-loving hippy. The cliffs are steep and rugged, the ocean below over powering and relentlessly crashing into the rocks, and the views are spectacular. While the wind is churning up the sea, the undulating course acts as a windbreaker most of the time. In fear of exhausting the Spirit of the Eagle, I decide to see if I can spot a whale or two, from the higher viewpoint the coastal path is providing. The huge, slow moving creatures are not great divers, and thus made for perfect prey when whaling was a thing some 20 years ago. I glance out at the ocean, a windy mass of seahorses and foam, and almost instantaneously I stumble, trip and fall. Spotting one will have to take a backseat. I like my knees more.

"The Whale of Trail had turned me into a nature-loving hippy. "

The Beach

After battling the tapered, undulating coastal path for seemingly endless miles, I round a corner and see a vast expanse of white sandy beach open up in front of me. Through squinted eyes I can also see the welcoming flags of CP4, Lekkerwater, in the distance. Initially, my first feelings are of excitement and relief. The beach looks like it offers a flat, smooth solstice compared to the scratchy, uneven trail I’ve been hacking on for hours. Several meters into the beach section Graham Bird’s voice popped into my head and I was instantly taken back to the morning’s brief. ‘The sand is softer than we thought, and the section is actually tougher than we originally expected. Save your energy for the beach,’ rang his words in my ears.

It was basically impossible to run, even though I desperately attempted to in a bid to shorten my time spent crossing this desolate part of the coast. Along this section of the Whale Trail, no one gained ground, no one increased pace. It’s a tough 2.5mi slog, testing my feet and ankles as I drag my limbs through the soft sand to CP4. Mentally, it’s hard going too, as without being able to run and thus restricted to a slow crawl, the CP4 never seemed to get any closer. Added to the soft sand, the strong headwind blows a fine layer of sand into my face every few minutes. The final 12 miles ahead are a combination of gruelling soft sandy beach sections, and hard packed coastal paths, split up with the final CP5 at Vaalkrans.

"The final 12 miles ahead are a combination of gruelling soft sandy beach sections, and hard packed coastal paths"

The Finish

32.3 miles is hard work, whether you’re running to win, or running to finish. I trained hard for the event, but was still beside myself when I saw the orange Merrell banner, marking 0.6 miles to go. With renewed energy I ran up the wooden boardwalk to the finishing arch, grinning both inside and out. With a medal in one hand and a beer in the other, I collapsed on a beanbag while a friendly staff member brought me my race bag.

By doing the Whale of Trail and condensing the 5-day hike into one day, you are exposed to such a varying selection of terrain and environments. The beauty of this is that you never get bored or fatigued by a repetitive trail or the same scenery, and are constantly kept on your toes at just about every corner. And you might just find your spirit eagle.

photo credits: Mark Simpson: main image.
Peter Kirk: night runner, Bryony McCormick, coast, sunset & beach.
Natasha Faccio: pier, finish line photos.
Thribe: Merrell flags.
"With a medal in one hand and a beer in the other, I collapsed on a beanbag while a friendly staff member brought me my race bag."

plan your travel

When to go
The Whale of Trail single stage event takes place in May, which is autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. If you choose to travel to South Africa and do the 5-day trail on a separate occasion, avoid going in winter, the Western Cape's rainy season.
How to get there
The closest major city with an international airport is Cape Town, a 150 mile drive from De Hoop Nature reserve. Hire a car at the airport and enjoy the meander through the Western Cape's wine regions as you make your way to the reserve.
Visa
You do not need a tourist visa when visiting South Africa. www.southafrica.info has a lot of helpful links and information when planning your travel.
Gear
If you know English, you'll get by just fine in South Africa. Incidentally, South Africa has nine official languages, English and Afrikaans being the most common in the Western Cape Region.
Length of Trip
The race last one day. However, if you were to hike this route, it would take five.
Difficulty
Moderate. The trail starts off at an easy trekking pace with the climbs, but increases in difficulty as it becomes more technical and physically demanding during the second half. The soft beach sand is especially tough going.
Accommodation
De Hoop Nature reserve offers a variety of accommodation, from camping to self catering units from as little as $30/night/pp. Book early when you enter the race to ensure you get a good spot.
Food and Drinks
All meals around the race, excluding the breakfast beforehand, are included in your entry fee and are served in the race village tent. Be sure to mention any special dietary requirements prior to the event to be accommodated.