Last year I ran in one of the most stunning locations that I have visited in South Africa when I took part in the 3-day Golden Gate Challenge. After a day of relative relaxation (I travelled into Lesotho and hiked around a bit) following my race at Mont-aux-Sources (read that race report here) I was travelling south towards the Wild Coast for my next race. I decided that I would drive through Golden Gate National Park and re-live part of last year’s race by completing the course from the first day (read the race report here).
The first stage had followed the 2-day Ribbok Hiking Trail, and therefore would supposedly be navigable without the markings that had marked the route the previous time I had followed it. As a backup I also loaded a GPS track onto my watch and marked some of the key turning points and geographical features.
After driving into the park I made my way to the Glen Reenen Rest Camp for the start of the trail. I headed out of the camp, and followed a river to the base of the ridge where I would start the main climb for the day. Last year there had been heavy rain in the days preceding the race, continuing right through to the night prior to day 1. Therefore we had encountered huge volumes of water in the rivers, with waterfalls aplenty, and many wet river crossings. This time I would be running at the tail end of the dry season and expected a lot less water. I was proven correct when I reached the first river crossing for the day, where a trickle of water was flowing and I would have had to push some rocks aside in order to wet my soles.
I progressed onto a ridge and would then climb along its spine, with the drop on each side becoming more precipitous as I ascended with each step. As I made my way higher I felt the wind getting stronger and stronger. The previous day while visiting Lesotho I had encountered a wind that I would easily describe as the most powerful I have ever experienced. One day later while climbing on an exposed ridge I felt the second most powerful. The route involved narrow trails or rock hopping, and I found that I could not run in a straight line with the wind constantly pushing me off balance. Therefore I opted to walk most of the way along the ridge to avoid taking a mis-step.
The views from the ridge were as stunning as I remembered, and eventually I made my way off the ridge but continued to climb until I reached the highest point on the course. From there I turned into the next valley along, where I would descend while crossing the river at its base numerous times. Last year each crossing had involved wet feet and some of the crossing had even featured fast-flowing, thigh-deep water.
This time I was able to cross each time without any risk of getting wet. I did however encounter a couple of muddy sections, and one of those turned out to be my downfall. I was running along at a good pace when I suddenly spotted a large mud puddle in front of me. I quickly pulled up to pick a route over or around it, but when I planted my right foot just at the edge it hit a slippery spot and slid right into ankle-deep mud. I ran along with a particularly muddy shoe until I reached the next river crossing, where I splashed my foot about in water that was only halfway up my shoe in an attempt to remove some of the mud.
Towards the very end of the route I made my way well above the road through the park, with views down towards my finishing spot. Just as the path descended to a trail that would lead directly back to my car I reached the wonderful surprise that Heidi, race director for the Golden Gate Challenge, had thrown in. I believe Heidi to be something of a sadist, so instead of following the path directly down to the finish line she had turned us onto another path that climbed a set of steep steps up and over a feature named Mushroom Rock. I considered that since I wasn’t actually running the race I could simply take the direct route back to my car, but since I believe myself to be something of a masochist I instead turned up the steps.
I climbed up and over Mushroom Rock, descended a steep section involving a chain, and then was able to enjoy the lovely downhill finish back to my car. It had been a very different experience to last year, but was still inarticulately stunning and immensely enjoyable.