The following is a piece written by Pall Catt on the fantastic NumNum Race. The NumNum is a great trail, so we include this as a trail route which we highly recommend exploring.
The temperature in nearby Dullstroom (where we were staying) read an icy -4 degrees celsius when we woke up at 4h30am. After the early morning pre-race routine we set off for the Pongola Express Camp, roughly an hour away via Machadodorp, on the lip of the Drakensberg escarpment. On any other day you might find a handful of hikers preparing to set out on the 5 day hiking trail, however, on this day the camp was swarming with over 200 trail runners who were going to try and conquer the route in the allotted 10 hours before cut-off. This was the 5th edition of the Num-Num trail challenge.
The race provided two options, a 32km and 15 km. This was to be my first trail running race and I had signed up for the 32km route months prior, safe in the knowledge that there would be plenty of time to get the necessary training in, but injuries had been plaguing me ever since and the longest run I was able to build up to a week before the race was 14km on the road. In some ways this was a blessing in disguise – knowing that I was massively underprepared meant I wasn’t putting any pressure on myself and simply wanted to enjoy the trail. Being a 5 day hiking trail, there are 4 hiking camps en-route with vehicle access and so I knew that it would be possible to abandon the race at any of these points should it all have been a little too taxing on my body. I did however have some long hiking days (with heavy backpacks) under the belt and so I was secretly confident I could cover the distance, I just wasn’t sure how quickly I could do it.
We set out at 7am as planned, and being my first time, I wasn’t sure exactly where in the pack I should seed myself. I hung back a little and with the route being almost all single track, there was some congestion to start out with, but it was going to be a long day and there was no need to get impatient. Being forced to take it easy was probably a good thing for my legs. The route started with a climb up and then passed through some indigenous forest before reaching a plateau where we could stretch the legs for the first time with the trail hugging a ridgeline over sweeping vistas. It wasn’t long before we were on our first technical descent with all the participants still quite close together and in high spirits, the trail banter was rife.
The first camp, Aloe Kaya, which acted as the first water point, stocked also with fresh fruit, came reasonably quickly and I was feeling good about the race and really just enjoying the sense of freedom that comes along with allowing the body to express itself in one of its most ancient conditions in the great outdoors. I felt like I was dancing. A little way down the hill from the camp my friend rolled her ankle and we took a little picnic break to assess the damage. Although it is not advisable practice, she wasn’t going to allow her run to come to an end that prematurely, so she popped some pain killers and soldiered on.
The next section of the trail, The Bladdernut Track, winds its way along some plains towards Hells Kloof, where a steep descent takes you into lush indigenous forests as you criss-cross the crystal clear waters of the stream, the steam from your breath now the only reminder of how cold a morning it actually is. The climb out of the kloof is just as steep as the descent and reduced most of the runners to walkers. At the top, views as far as Swaziland are a pleasant celebration of the hard work you’ve just put in, and we skipped into a trot once again across some grassy plains to the next water point beside some sparkling dams.
A gentle descent allows a good pace to be sustained down into the Bankspruit gorge where you encounter the first swing bridge to cross the river and then climb up on some loose track to another great ridgeline where you look back across the gorge at the trails you have just come from. A little rock labyrinth leads you to the Bermanzi camp and the third waterpoint for some refreshments and a chat with your fellow runners.
The Milkplum path starts with yet another steep descent into another section of the Bankspruit gorge where you meander along the river again via a network of trails and bridges with great cliffs soaring above so great that they even at one point disrupted the GPS connection on my watch. Pungent green moss carpets the forest floor between fascinating root structures intertwined with rocks. All flowing water on the route is potable and delightfully refreshing. The real star of the show awaits at the end of the gorge as you emerge from the forests at the foot of the Uitkomst falls – second highest falls in Mpumalanga. Owing to the cold front which had swept through the area, a substantial amount of water had actually frozen, shimmering on the rocks and this was a spectacular sight to behold. What goes down, must come up, and the climb out of the gorge was again another brutal one, interrupted though by multiple stops to admire and photograph the icy waterfall.
Once out of the gorge, it’s a gentle open trot to the Candlewood camp for another refuel. By this point, about 22km in, I was really starting to feel the pain and you could also see it on the faces of the other runners. We trudged on and were gifted with some open running terrain which allowed us to cover the next few kilometres relatively quickly by Num-Num standards before the Pom-Pon way led us down the Skurwerand into yet another small kloof with twisty forests and trickling waterfalls.
As you emerge at the top of the ridge again, you can at last see down the valley to the finish line, and can hear the music and announcers. This is a bit of a mirage though since although the route has brought you back close to the start, there is still another 6km loop to be undertaken in the opposite direction. After the final waterpoint we tackled the Kokoboom pad. This takes you on a gentle climb halfway up the Skurweberg before a zig-zag descent drops you down into the Schoonspruit Gorge where the Mac falls lie. A wrong turn led us to a refreshing pool where we wet our faces and had a drink before turning around to take on the final ascent out of the gorge and back to the Pongola Express Camp.
We arrived at the finish line 7 hours and 16 minutes after we had started, in a lot of pain but with a great sense of accomplishment and a tangible feeling of being alive. We had seen in one morning enough natural beauty to usually keep people stimulated for 5 days and we had put our bodies through a great test and they had once again proven what remarkable gifts they are and how privileged we are to have functioning bodies capable of carrying us through experiences such as this. With these incredible vessels at our disposal it almost seems a crime not to make use of them to take your mind to places that will inspire. The Num-Num trail itself is a thing of beauty and there has clearly been a lot of work put into developing it and I certainly recommend it at least for a hike. Check it out here : http://www.thenum-numtrail.co.za/