Three of the best trail running routes in the Western Cape

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If like me you are a Capetonian who enjoys running for exercise and relaxation, and also loves spending time in nature, then it should come as no surprise that the Western Cape offers some of the most picturesque trail running routes in the world.

My three favourite trail running routes are all based within a 120 kilometre radius from Cape Town and are all three situated within protected conservation areas. The furthest, Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus, is a mere two-hour drive away. The other two, Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, approximately 10 km outside Stellenbosch, and Helderberg Nature Reserve in Somerset West, are both only an hour’s drive from the city centre.

Fernkloof Nature Reserve

Fernkloof Nature Reserve

Fernkloof Nature Reserve | photo by Zoe Shuttleworth / CC BY

Arguably the toughest prospect of the three, Fernkloof Nature Reserve covers about 1,800 ha in the Kleinrivier mountains above Hermanus.  Although the well known Cliff Path with its magnificent views of Walker Bay and the occasional frolicking whale has recently been incorporated into the reserve and offers a fairly non-challenging 10 km route along the coast, we are more interested in what happens in the 842 meter high mountains behind the town.

Getting access to the reserve is a breeze; just drive through Hermanus till you spot the biggest and most opulent houses hulking on the lower slopes of the mountain looming over the town. Point your nose towards the mountain and continue onwards and upwards till you hit the entrance gate. There’s no entrance fee and the gates are open from 07:00 till 19:00.

With about 60 kilometres of trails winding through the mountains you have more than enough variation to keep a sense of discovery and adventure alive. A word of caution though, many of the trails are no more than rocky footpaths, and the inclines are pretty unforgiving. Winter rains tend to exacerbate trail erosion and heighten the risk of a twisted ankle or other injury.

Fortunately the rewards are commensurate with the level of exertion. The panoramic vistas of mountain slopes covered in more than 1,400 species of verdant fynbos with the omnipresent blue of the ocean in the distance are truly breathtaking. That’s if the journey to the lookout spot didn’t already take your breath away.

Keep an eye out for the odd baboon foraging on the lower slopes, especially during winter when food is scarce. You often hear their sentinels barking a warning to the rest of the troop as you make your way through their territory. Encounters are not necessarily dangerous but it may be a good idea to run in pairs or groups in the higher reaches of the nature reserve. Unfortunately encroachment by humans have habituated many of them which has made them less fearful of humans and more likely to be aggressive if they think you pose a threat or carry food. So leave the trail mix at home.

Jonkershoek Nature Reserve

Jonkershoek Nature Reserve

Jonkershoek Nature Reserve | photo by Marc Steyn ©

Speaking of baboons, I had an interesting run-in with a troop in the Jonkershoek Nature Reserve outside Stellenbosch recently. I was halfway through the enjoyable, not too strenuous 10 kilometre circular route on the valley floor when I ran smack bang into about twenty of them. Since I spotted them hopelessly too late, I was caught in the middle of the troop, most of whom were females with youngsters either piggybacking or slung from their bellies. Despite being dismissed in almost lackadaisical fashion by the strolling simians I warily extricated myself by slowly back-pedalling, making sure that I didn’t accidentally make eye contact with any of the adults. You don’t want to antagonise an overprotective mob of breastfeeding mommies.

At 9,800 hectares Jonkershoek Nature Reserve is the largest of my three trail running spots. A fact that is reflected in the wide variety of trails, ranging between 5 km and 18 km, that criss-cross the natural amphitheatre formed by the mountain peaks surrounding the pine tree plantations and reservoir at the bottom of the long valley. Gates open at 07:30 throughout the year and close at 18:00 during winter and 19:00 during summer. The entrance fee is relatively steep at R40 per adult, but worth it.

My favourite short route in the reserve, since my student days at Stellenbosch University many moons ago, is the 6.4 km ramble-slash-scramble that starts along the Eerste River (which flows all the way into Stellenbosch) and then proceeds up a fairly steep gorge to Tweede Waterval (‘Second Waterfall’). At the end of the final scramble you are rewarded with one the most beautiful sights on any hike – a waterfall cascading over the edge of the cliffs above you, all the way into a huge circular rock pool filled with crystal clear water.

The ascent to the top of the waterfall has been closed due to numerous accidents in the past, one of which I was an unfortunate party to. The most dangerous aspect of that section is the risk of losing purchase on the cliff face when the shale suddenly starts crumbling underneath your hands. Before you know it you are sliding over the precipice into the gorge below. That was exactly the scenario twenty years ago when my hiking companion fell ten meters down the cliff face onto a ledge and got knocked unconscious. I ran down that mountain in search of help in what must still be a record time. Thankfully she was only slightly hurt and made a full recovery. Goes to show, as with the ocean, you need to respect the mountains too.

For those who really want to exert themselves there is the 18 km Swartboskloof Trail, which starts with a steep 4.5 km section before levelling out. On the way down you can take a dip at Tweede Waterval. In winter the rains can cause the trail to deteriorate quite a bit, so take that into account when choosing foot gear.

Alternatively there is the 17 km Panorama Circuit which takes you all the way to the top of Guardian Peak (1,227 meters above sea level) from where you can see as far as Table Mountain and Robben Island.

In summer be on the lookout for puff adders and Cape cobras, especially the former since they love sunning themselves in the area’s hiking paths.

Helderberg Nature Reserve

Helderberg Nature Reserve

Helderberg Nature Reserve | photo by Marc Steyn ©

My latest trail running haunt is situated in the heart of Somerset West, only 46 km from Cape Town’s city centre. The Helderberg Nature Reserve may only cover 402 hectares but it packs a powerful punch for its size. It is home to 613 plant species, 170 bird species, 42 mammal species, 30 reptile species and eight species of amphibians. If ever there was a nutshell example of the natural abundance that South Africa has been blessed with, this would probably be it.

Back to the business of trail running though. There are seven main trails in the reserve, starting with the 2.2 km Sugarbird Walk which you can negotiate with your zimmer frame. If however you are in the mood for some trail running action I recommend the 8.2 km Leopard Loop – it starts off with a fairly innocuous incline which becomes progressively more steep and then follows a semi-circular route around the bottom of Helderberg Mountain’s West peak, before descending back down the protea-dotted slopes. With almost no level ground, the route will challenge your hill running and braking skills. Careful in winter when rain can make the clay-ish path super slippery.

The West Peak route is more of a hiking trail and takes you right to the summit of the mountain (1003 metres above sea level). The view from the top is spectacular (there’s a gushing adjective I haven’t used in this piece yet) with most of Somerset West, the Strand, Gordon’s Bay and a slice of False Bay unfolding below you. I was fortunate on a recent outing to spot a pair of Verreaux’s eagles circling in the skies above me as they scanned the slopes for prey.

Once again finding the nature reserve is easy, drive through Somerset West looking for the most affluent leafy suburbs, then up towards the mountain overlooking the town and Bob’s your uncle. The entrance fee is R20 per adult, and R10 per car if you want to park closer to the starting point for the various trails. Gates open at 07:30 right through the year and close at 17:30 in winter and 19:00 in summer, except during the December school holidays when they stay open till 20:00.

Seems to be a bit of a pattern, beautiful conservation areas surrounded by the abodes of the wealthy. Since most of these nature reserves were proclaimed in the fifties and sixties the only explicable conclusion would be that unbridled development in favour of minority interests and unethical developers has been allowed by not-so-above-board municipal and city officials. Something to chew on methinks.

What is trail running?

Well, here is my definition based on my outlook in life. First of all, it is not a commercial race designed for inflated egos and greedy opportunists. That would be the perversion called trail racing, a fairly new and rapidly growing sport for vapid yuppies across the globe. True trail running is based on mankind’s oldest athletic occupation since the Palaeolithic era, the tracking and hunting of animals for survival’s sake. In my opinion that makes trail running the purest form of sport that exists today.

Distances vary from 5 km to over 100 km and covers varied terrain, but usually includes hiking trails, foot paths and mountainous or hilly sections. It differs from cross country running in that it includes much longer distances and is not an IAAF governed discipline. Unfortunately the Western mentality of wanting to control and box everything has seen the emergence of numerous trail running organisations that want to standardise the sport, often for commercial reasons. Frankly a pox on them and the mindless tools who support their avaricious activities.

Except for the odious whiff of elitism that permeates many of these events, there are also some question marks over the use of public land for private gain. With entry fees for some races charged at over R1000 per person it should be mandatory that financial particulars are made publicly available. In any case, income derived from the use of public land should be ploughed back into nature conservation, not into the pockets of some devious marketing scumbag.

I love trail running for many reasons, but the chief one is probably not having to inhale petrol fumes and hastening the onset of my dementia. Closely followed by the humbling feeling when you do a solitary run through fynbos decorated valleys and shadow dappled gorges with the majestic mountains of the Western Cape towering over you. Like monolithic sentinels they were here long before us and they will remain standing long after our bones have dissolved into dust.

What’s your favourite trail in South Africa or anywhere in the world? Share with us in the comments section.

1 thought on “Three of the best trail running routes in the Western Cape

  1. Cape has many superbly organised trail runs(there are a few highly talented, ridiculously fast and fit mountain goats who bounce over rocks, dance up mountains and actually try and win these runs) but for the rest of us we are happy to spend a day in stunning surroundings pushing our bodies to the limit and being rewarded with a cold beer and  that tired but very satisfied feeling.

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