Trail Running In South Africa

Destination Dirt logo[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Rebecca Johansson and Sean Cowgill. If you’re interested in writing about trail running where you live, please contact iRunFar!]

For many endurance athletes, running in South Africa means the Comrades Marathon and Two Oceans Marathon, two immensely popular road ultras amassing 18,000 and 11,000 participants respectively from all over the world. However, the trail running in Africa’s southernmost country (population about 52 million) has it all. The topography includes high, remote mountain ranges such as the Drakensberg (up to 11,000 feet in elevation) and metropolitan oceanfront cities such as Cape Town with the iconic Table Mountain in its background. One day you can be running through a lush, green mountain valley with waterfalls rushing over your head, and the next running past stunning desert rock formations.

The South African trail running community is tight-knit and growing. Local pro athlete, Ryan Sandes, boasts out-of-this world photos from his daily trail adventures in and around Cape Town. He plays a large part in the trail community, most recently creating a community-focused FKT challenge for a nine-ish-mile route running across Table Mountain. South Africa also boasts hard-core trail runner Ryno Griesel who shares the FKT for the Drakensberg Grand Traverse with Sandes (post-FKT interview with Sandes and Griesel), a 137-mile, grueling, off-trail traverse with 26,900 feet of elevation gain. The pair completed the route in 41 hours and 49 minutes in 2014.

Due to the country’s size and multiple mountain playgrounds to choose from, you will be hard pressed to squeeze in a good sampling of trail flavor in just one visit. Cape Town boasts easy access to trailheads as well as nightlife to boot after a long day out running. If you desire something more remote, head to the Drakensberg or Cederberg mountains for camping and long trail days at higher elevation with a fraction of the people in the larger city of Cape Town.

Cape Town Trails

Lion’s Head
For an easy to moderate run, head up Lion’s Head. The run is roughly four miles roundtrip with about 1,400 feet of vertical gain. This route is immensely popular with tourists at sunset or in a full moon. At the 2,200-foot summit, you have incredible views of the ocean and Table Mountain. If you’re looking for something more challenging and you’re a sucker for ridges, start the run from Signal Hill.

Table Mountain from Lion's Head - South Africa trail running 1

The view of Table Mountain from Lion’s Head at sunset. All photos courtesy of Rebecca Johansson and Sean Cowgill.

Table Mountain
Local Cape Tonians refer to this iconic natural wonder as “the mountain.” The trail system is vast and there are endless out-and-backs and loops to explore. Here are two possible Table Mountain runs:

  • Constantia Nek Loop (15 to 17 miles and about 4,500 feet vertical gain) — From Constantia Nek, take the Contour Path along rolling hills with views of sweeping vineyards (Eagle’s Nest and Beau Constantia). You’ll traverse above the magical Cecilia Forest and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. After about six miles, you’ll reach the King’s Blockhouse. You’ll run around Devil’s Peak and head up to the top of Table Mountain via Platteklip Gorge, a lung-buster climb (2,000 feet in 1.5 miles) including an endless number of large, rocky steps. Tag the highest point on Table Mountain, Maclear’s Beacon at 3,500 feet, and head back down via Skeleton Gorge or Nursery Ravine. Think steep and technical here.
Cecilia Forest - South Africa trail running 2

Cecilia Forest seen from the Contour Path.

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Local runner, Armand du Plessis, looks down Platteklip Gorge as the fog envelops Table Mountain.

  • Devil’s Peak Loop (16 miles and about 6,000 feet of gain) — The challenging climb up to the 3,280-foot summit rewards you with 360-degree views. Start at the Deer Park Trailhead and climb about 2,500 feet in three miles to reach the summit. For a shorter run, do an out-and-back or if you’d like to explore Table Mountain for a longer day out, take Newlands Ravine down to the Contour Path and climb up to the top of Table Mountain via Skeleton Gorge. Run on top of Table Mountain, and then take the harrowing Platteklip Gorge (descent of 2,000 feet in 1.5 miles) back down off the mountain. If you do, watch your step!
Devils Peak view - South Africa trail running 4

The breathtaking view from Devil’s Peak.

The Drakensberg Trails

Literally translated from Afrikaans, the Drakensberg is “Dragon’s Tail” and this mountain range spans over 620 miles from the Eastern Cape in the south to Limpopo in the north. The highest peak, Thabana Ntlenyama, is 11,424 feet altitude. If you aren’t traversing a rocky ridge or ravine, then expect to run through the soggy marshland that is unique to the area. March gives the best promise of missing the characteristic summer afternoon thunderstorms but is still too early for any significant snowfall.

The Amphitheatre
This seven-mile roundtrip route (with 1,852 feet of vert) is located at the northern end of the Drakensberg escarpment. From the top, you can view the second-highest waterfall in the world, Tugela Falls, which pours into the Tugela River below. The Amphitheatre’s basalt rock face is a marvel in and of itself. Start at the Sentinel Car Park. Folks who are scared of heights beware: the final climb to the summit involves crawling up a couple of ladders.

The “Big Five”
The run is 11 miles roundtrip (with 2,000 feet of vert) and is also located in the northern Drakensberg. You hit five peaks in this run including Hlolela, Battleship, Sugar Loaf, Cold Hill, and Camel’s Hump. You’ll pass Venus Bath, a collection of natural pools and a great way to cool off on a hot day. This route is also your best chance to see eland (a large antelope).

Cederberg Wilderness Area Trails

About 150 miles northeast of Cape Town is the Cederberg Wilderness Area in the Cederberg mountains. The climate is arid compared to Cape Town or the Drakensberg and you are likely to experience more drastic temperature swings compared to the coast. There are a number of privately owned campgrounds and cabins, but expect to drive a good distance on gravel roads and over passes, however most all roads are acceptable for a two-wheel drive vehicle.

Wolfberg Cracks and Arch
This 13.5-mile route is for all the runners out there who love a bit of rock climbing in their runs. The cracks involve technical scrambling across larger-than-life rocks, but after climbing through the cracks you reach a relatively flat and runnable path that takes you all the way the massive arch that stands at 50 feet high. The trailhead is located at Sanddrif Campground and you can purchase a trail pass at Dwarsrivier Farm & Winery.

Wolfberg Cracks - South Africa trail running 5

The author, Rebecca, searches for the best line up the Wolfberg Cracks.

Maltese Cross and Sneeuberg Hut
The trail to the Maltese Cross is very runnable with only a moderate amount of climbing. After 2.5 miles you reach the cross, which stands at 65 feet high and provides views that truly embody how expansive and remote the Cederberg mountain range is. Continue on an additional 3.2 miles to the Sneeuberg Hut—an enclosed basic sleep shelter roughly one third of the way up to the highest peak in the Cederberg. From the hut, you can either take the jeep track down toward Eikeboom (4.5 miles from hut) or run along singletrack toward Uitkyk Pass (about eight miles from hut). The trailhead is located at the car park past the Dwarsrivier Observatory.

Maltese Cross - South Africa trail running 6

The Maltese Cross

Jonkershoek Nature Reserve

The Jonkershoek Nature Preserve is located in the Jonkershoek mountain range, near the wine region of Stellenbosch in the Southwestern Cape. The topography and climate is similar to that of Table Mountain, and the mountains in this region are notorious for sudden weather changes.

Panorama Trail
The 10.5-mile Panorama Trail circuit provides just what its name suggests—panoramic views of the entire mountain range. Enjoy views of the lush green Jonkershoek valley and take advantage of its numerous waterfalls on warm days. Be sure to take the short detour up to the summit of Guardian Peak where you can see the entire Cape Peninsula on a clear day.

Swartbokskloof Trail
At 11 miles roundtrip, you will climb a stout 3,000 feet or so in the first 2.8 miles. After the initial climb, enjoy a relatively flat run before a steep descent.

Races

Ultra-Trail Cape Town
Only in its second year, the Ultra-Trail Cape Town (UTCT) is quickly gaining popularity among locals and international runners alike. They offer three distances, a 20k, 65k, and 100km. The 100k-loop route (with 14,400 feet of elevation gain and a challenging 15-hour cutoff) starts and ends at the Gardens Tech Rugby Club and you get to summit Table Mountain and Karbonkelberg as well as experience beach and urban running. This year, South Africans owned the men’s and women’s race with Christiaan Greyling and Kerry-Ann Marshall crossing the line at 11:24 and 11:53 respectively in windy, cold, and wet conditions.

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Ocean views on the UTCT route.

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Soaking in the view from the top of Karbonkelberg on the UTCT route.

Three Peaks Challenge
The Three Peaks Challenge is a 50k race limited to 150 participants. Ascend Devil’s Peak, Table Mountain, and Lion’s Head. Oh yeah–you’ve got to run back to town at sea level between each climb. It’s a doozie.

Cederberg Traverse
South Africa offers a number of unmarked trail races, and the Ceberberg Traverse is one of them. Runners must circumnavigate the 97k (with 12,500 feet of vert) course using maps and GPS units, and pairs are encouraged.

Sky Run
For the true adventurer, the Sky Run is considered to be one of the toughest races in South Africa. Runners traverse the Witteberg mountain range located just off the southwest corner of Lesotho. There are 65k and 100k options and the course is off-trail and unmarked.

Tips for Visitors

  • Slingsby provides the best and most comprehensive trail maps.
  • Guided Runs — Avoid running alone on the trails around Cape Town, particularly as a tourist. In certain areas, especially in dark hours, personal safety may be at risk. There have been muggings on the trail, and to both play it safe and get a smorgasbord of trail sampling, sign up for a guided run. Running the Cape provides reasonable, tailored, adventurous, guided runs without a cheesy, touristy feel. They set up runs to your request down to distance, vert, technicality, desired views/destinations.
  • Personal Safety — If you do choose to run solo or with friends, run during daylight hours and don’t carry valuables or large sums of cash. The emergency number for the Mountain Club of South Africa is +(27) 0219370300.
  • Wildlife — Beware of snakes especially in hot weather. Some of the more common venomous snakes include cobras and the puff adder. Puff adders are notoriously lazy, so don’t count on them moving out of your way. Troops of baboons are also a common sight in many areas, and although not typically aggressive, don’t feed them and give them space. In the higher mountain ranges such as the Cederberg, you may spot a leopard if you’re lucky.
  • Weather — In Cape Town, the locals will admit you can experience up to four seasons of weather in one day on Table Mountain. The morning may welcome you with sun and heat while the top of the mountain could very well greet you with rain, wind, and enveloping mist. Many tourists have lost their way in heavy rain and clouds, so carry a map and/or GPS unit or even better, get off the mountain in inclement weather.
  • Opposite Seasons — South Africa is in the Southern Hemisphere. While the temperatures in places such as Cape Town never dip below 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, winter brings with it a rainy season. At higher elevations, such as in the Drakensberg, winter weather can be snowy and treacherous. The best time of year for running is September through May, the Southern Hemisphere’s spring, summer, and fall.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you a trail runner in South Africa? What trails, races, and community events make your country’s trail culture special?
  • Have you traveled to South Africa for trail running or racing? What kinds of trail opportunities did you find there?

There are 8 comments

  1. bdugo

    Very nice article! I'm an Oregonian living in Mpumalanga, South Africa for field research. South African trail running is super technical. The trail is often a field of basketball or larger sized rocks and "runnable" is a common adjective when describing a route. I ran the UTCT 100k this past weekend, and I'm still in disbelief that such an incredible day happened. The kindness of the other runners and volunteers was exemplary. ZA trail runners' passion is a reflection of the amazing otherworldly beauty of the diverse landscape. There is so much to explore!

  2. Andy

    As a US east coaster who has been to South Africa a number of times, I agree completely with all of the above. The beauty and majesty of the landscape, and the warmth of both the sun and the people cannot be overstated. The country's general orientation to the outdoors, — running, hiking, and biking — is impressive. Was just in Cape Town in August and spent a couple days running Table Mountain and Lion's Head. There are few places in the world where 3,500-foot mountains rise right out of the sea, with a spider web of endless trails, and a cosmopolitan city at the mountain's base for food and drink afterwards! Should be on every trail runner's and outdoor lover's bucket list!

  3. dotkaye

    good article. I grew up in S. Africa so can remember when it was safe to run alone on Table Mountain. My regular 13-miler ran from Kirstenbosch up to Constantia Nek on the trails, would drink from the streams.. not these days.

    1. MartinTrail

      I'm from Cape Town and its still (generally) perfectly safe to run on the mountain (and the water in the streams is delicious and clean). Its probably not wise for a female to run solo but fine for a male, but just take a buddy and then its more fun! In fact tonight I am planning on a long solo one across Table Mountain, training for an upcoming race and the weather looks great. Come and take a look for yourself, we are incredibly lucky to live in a trail paradise second to none.

      1. dotkaye

        I'm happy to hear that – the impression I have from my running friends in Cape Town, as well as this article, is that it would be unwise (generally) for tourists to attempt solo runs. Certainly the locals know where and when might be unsafe..

  4. Iantrail

    I remember walking the arch with my folks when I was ten and it felt like an eternity crossing another planet to get there. Ran it last Decemeber and was blown away by the beauty of the trails…and that it really can be done in 2 hours there and back from Sandrif:)

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