Being quite familiar with the Dullstroom region, having done a fair amount of hiking, running and mountain biking in the area over a number of years, and having spent hours poring over satellite maps, I have long been fascinated with the idea of exploring the escarpment at the edge of the highland plateau on which Dullstroom rests. To date, all my surveying, probing and prospecting has only pointed towards it being inaccessible to curious and unconnected members of the public, such as myself.
The inaugural Highland Gate Trail Run therefore lit up on my radar as a great opportunity to get admission into at least a portion of the edge of this mountainous wonderland. The event was to take place within the Highland Gate Golf and Trout Estate, about 15km outside of Dullstroom, in the direction of the escarpment. Among the three distance options of 6km, 11km and 16km, the longest route, whatever it would have been, would inevitably be the most appealing to me, regardless of fitness level or ability, purely for its optimal prospects of adventure and discovery.
A crisp and clear March morning greeted approximately 350 runners who gathered around the WildTrail banner by the golf course clubhouse, preparing themselves for the 07h30 start. A quick race briefing preceded the kickoff of the 16km run. Body temperatures soon increased, negating any traces of the early autumn chill as the runners set off initially along the paved roads and pathways of the golf course, criss-crossing between fairways and around manicured greens.
It wasn’t long before the terrain underfoot turned into a grassy jeep track that took us up a gradual incline to the northern boundary fence of the estate. From there we turned in a south easterly direction and tracked parallel to the fence where a little technical rocky descent dropped runners into a little dip in a small valley at the foot of the longest climb of the day. This was a sustained, grassy hill of 1.5km, climbing 206 metres of vertical elevation at an average gradient of 14%, cresting at an altitude of approximately 1850m, meaning that oxygen wasn’t exactly abundant. This reduced most of the participants to a walk and meant you could watch the leaders further up the hill putting more distance between yourself and them.
The summit marked the 5km point and was also the venue of the first water point, offering some refreshing and welcome drinks, as well as a few snacks, most enjoyable of which for me were some boiled potatoes and a bowl of salt to dip them into.
From here the scenery opened up in front of us as the route traversed along the edge of the escarpment, where steep cliffs dropped off to farmlands 500 metres below us. The sweeping vistas incorporated the Bakwena dam to the east as well as the Verlorenkloof Estate, reasonably well known to Gautengers for their delicious all-natural yoghurt.
We then looped back around and began a long gradual descent back in the direction of the golf course and club house. Another short section on the paved roads led to the single track along the stream running down into the valley that splits the estate almost into two halves. This starts about 9km into the route with some rock hopping over a stream crossing by a small cascading waterfall and is followed by a well-defined trail beside the river. Short sections of loose and rocky terrain keep your mind engaged before passing in and out of forested patches, still in the valley. Ladders and bouncy bridges assist in crossing over the stream a number of times before finally emerging approximately 3km later at a sparkling dam and another waterpoint, this time serving only liquid refreshments.
Skirting around the dam and over a suspension bridge leads to a steep climb out of the valley and onto some more paving which carries you back up to the highlands. From here the route punches through a small forest section and then proceeds on a track beside the paved roads of a more residential part of the estate on the fringe of the golf course. This is the first time that it feels flat enough to find a bit of a rhythm. It is effectively the home stretch as you then begin to sense the finish line is near and before long the club house and fairways come into view as you make your way to the finish banner to receive your medal and have your timing chip scanned.
As always, at the finish of a race, the vibe is festive and the appetites are raging. There are plenty of options for food and refreshments to indulge in. Specific mention must be made though of the local microbrewery from Dullstroom, Anvil Ale, which had a little stall at the venue serving their delicious beer. They use buchu (for whatever reason, they spell it “bookoo”), a fragrant, ostensibly medicinal Southern African plant, in the making of one their beers, giving it a distinctly South African character. Having recently attended a beer discussion where a German brewmaster was emphasising the need for the South African craft beer industry to experiment and find its own beer identity rather than just following global trends, this is definitely one which I would propose as a potential flagship. So if not at next year’s event, when otherwise just passing through Dullstroom, stop in at the brewery and try one out.
In summary, the Highland Gate Trail Run was a tough but most enjoyable event with no real organisational hiccups that I was aware of and would certainly appear on my list of recommended runs to do. Thanks to Highland Gate for allowing us to explore their beautiful estate.
Results can be found here:
I also found this cool application called relive which takes a strava file and turns it into a little video clip of the route. It’s called relive and you can check out the video clip here: https://www.relive.cc/view/903265247