My family and I have been spending the festive season in Plettenberg Bay since as far back as I can remember. Over the years I have visited the Robberg Nature Reserve a number of times for various reasons, but never had I attempted running the trails there, so this year I decided to give it a try. The Garden Route is an incredible place for all kinds of outdoor activities, and amongst all the world class trails of the area, Robberg stands out as one of the most iconic.
If you look online at the gate opening times of Robberg Nature Reserve during the summer months, you will probably be made to believe that you can only enter from 7am. While strictly speaking, this is true, and the gates for vehicle access do indeed only open then, we discovered upon our planned 7am arrival that in fact many others had arrived much earlier and had simply left their vehicles parked on the road outside the reserve and entered on foot. This seems to be tolerated by the authorities, however it does mean that the office is not yet open to pay for and obtain your permit, so I can only imagine it must work on some sort of trust system that you will then pay for your permit upon your return. I think this is very lenient of the park authorities and really does benefit those among us who wish to make use of the Reserve at first light and so it is important that if we as the trail running community decide to follow this approach, we should respect the system and ensure we pay our dues. Abusing this trust might just result in this privilege being taken away from us.
We visited Robberg during the December festive season, when the whole of Plettenberg Bay and the greater Garden Route area are incredibly busy. All of the trails and nature reserves during this time are no different. The Robberg Nature Reserve by our experience, even at gate opening time is already fairly congested with leisurely holiday makers taking casual family strolls and much of the route is quite narrow single track which makes it difficult to pass, so for this reason, coupled with the intense summer heat as the morning progresses, getting a head start makes a lot of sense.
The Robberg Nature Reserve is a long and narrow peninsula that protrudes out Eastwards from the coastline near Plettenberg bay. There is a choice of three circular routes of increasing distance and difficulty.
- Walk to The Gap and back to the car park, round about 2km.
- Walk to The Witsand sand dune and down to The Island and back. Around 5.5km.
- The round trip via The Point is 9km and covers some fairly technical terrain.
All of the trails have the same starting point and track along the Northern side of the peninsula, looping back via the Southern edge. We got started on the full loop via the point. The beginning of the trail was quite busy and we had to navigate our way past some walkers but it wasn’t long before we were ahead of the crowds and found ourselves hopping on and off the fringes of the rocky trail. There are some short sharp climbs in the early stages of the trail but it is well maintained and certain sections even have some assistance in the form of railing to help you through tricky sections. Views from the steep ridges of this side of the Peninsula look across the expansive blue waters and white sands of Robberg beach and further into the distance, beyond the iconic Beacon Isle hotel, the remainder of the “Bahia Formosa” (beautiful bay – as the early Portuguese explorers called it) and even further, the majestic Tsitsikamma mountains.
After passing the first turnoff point at “The Gap” (aptly named as a sort of saddle between the two higher bluffs on the respective ends of the peninsula) the trail climbs back up out of the gap before becoming quite sandy as it snakes a tunnel through some dense vegetation. This really calls on the calf muscles to perform as your feet churn up the sand looking for some traction to propel your body forward. We emerged from the vegetation on the summit of the Witsand Sand Dune, the second of the turnoff points for people wishing to do a shorter route. It is here also that one begins to really get a strong whiff of the seals down below. We headed on and up some sandy steps to one of my favourite parts of the route. Here you can really find your rhythm as you dance along the ridge uninterrupted for about 1.5km, with not much elevation change, stopping occasionally to admire the masses of Cape Fur Seals frolicking in the waters down below (Robberg’s direct translation from Afrikaans being “Seal Mountain”). On a good day, you might even be lucky enough to spot dolphins and whales in the waters as well as a collection of turtles. There is also no shortage of ocean seabirds that make the Peninsula their seasonal home between migrations and the country’s smallest antelope, the rare blue duiker, also hides in the thickets while dassies scurry across the rocks. It is a steep drop-off over the edge and down to the water and so care must be taken to watch your footing.
This section of trail ends with a technical and twisty descent down to the point where you will likely find some anglers fishing from the rocks. This is also a favourite nesting area for the seagulls as is evidenced by thick layers of their white droppings covering the rocks. You change direction here for the first time and skirt around the Eastern edge of the peninsula. This section traverses large rocks awash with orange lichen almost at the water’s edge. Apparently this section can be tricky at high tide though. You will eventually be forced to use your upper body as you climb up some of the rocks and gullies. This is not your average morning trot, however there is infrastructure in the form of chains to assist you in getting up and down these sections. You slowly begin to turn back in the direction of the start, now tracing along the Southern edge of the peninsula. The elevation here is much closer to sea level than the other side and you run beside some refreshing rock pools with the waves crashing over them. After getting through the tricky “Strydom’s Sloop”, another highly enjoyable stretch allows you again to find some rhythm for just short of a kilometre before you emerge on a sandy beach at the foot of the Witsand dune. This is also where you would have come down if you had taken that second turnoff mentioned earlier.
From here you have the choice of either cutting straight across the beach to complete the trail, or heading left towards “The Island” to extend the run slightly. This huge rocky promontory is connected to the main Robberg peninsula by a tombola of sand, which is covered over during spring high tide. At any other time, it makes for an awesome beach. Running to the island and completing the full loop along the boardwalks there will add just below 1km to your total distance. By this time the heat was intense and I was tempted to take a swim in the cool waves on this beachy section but for fear of chafing the remainder of my run, resisted this temptation and turned instead towards the island. There are a fair amount of steps on this section making the running reasonably challenging but to compensate you are rewarded with some nice benches at viewpoints to stop and gaze off into the ocean while catching your breath.
Coming down off the island we ran along the sandy beach at the water’s edge to where we again picked up the trail where it again becomes rocky. From here you pass by the Nelson Bay Cave, a Stone Age archaeological site showing evidence of human occupation as far back as 125,000 years ago when grasslands, rather than sea, stretched beyond the southern horizon. Some life that must have been. Before long you find yourself back in “The Gap” and then have to climb 50m of altitude out of it back up to the top of the peninsula escarpment where a gentle trail leads you back to the car park. The car park itself has some beautiful viewpoints and picnic spots to soak up the beauty of the area while you do your warm down routine and replenish your body.
Overall, this is a challenging but shortish trail. It is one that should not be rushed, but should be savoured and enjoyed. The scenery is spectacular and the fauna and flora are worth admiring. The trail is well maintained and there is even a cabin along the trail for overnighting. We thoroughly enjoyed our run there and the only thing I would have done differently, would have been to go earlier in the day, as mentioned previously. This trail is a real gem in an exceptionally beautiful part of our country and probably doesn’t really need much promoting but I’ll do it anyway.