Drakensberg Northern Trail 2019
“Offering incredible outdoor experiences to anyone keen or willing” - The vison of KZNTR
Writing these photographic diaries after a weekend at one of the KZNTR events is always quite a challenge. My mind is still far away on a single track, drifting across ridge lines and soaring with the vultures. For most of us Snapping back into the office chair on a Monday morning is waaaaay harder than actually completing the race we ran that weekend. Suddenly an 8 hour work day seems more daunting than an 8 hour run with huge climbs and quad crippling downhills.
It’s an interesting thing, this sport we call trail running. A sport which enables us literally to escape into nature, an activity that is so basic yet so appealing. A unique feeling of freedom the moment we set foot on the trail. I don’t want to sound overly emotional, but flip, after the 5th edition of DNT I have renewed love for our sport.
As a sport, trail running has grown immensely in our country. One just has to look at all the races currently on offer. Stage races, night runs, and for the crazy bunch, even a couple of 100 milers. Slowly were becoming a group of people that is moving into the realm of where we might start losing that unique “community” feeling - one of the things I like most about trail running. After this weekend though I am super glad to say that our community is healthier than ever. I’ve got a few reasons for this, but my main reason is the smiles and good vibes that we got to witness this weekend. People venturing out onto the trail for the sole purpose of enjoying nature and everything it has to offer.
The 2019 edition of DNT marked our second year as head of media at the event. Coming back to a race is not always easy as we always try to be creative and wow our viewers. We realised that we had to go about things differently this year. Pulling into the race venue on Friday afternoon after a week spent shooting video in the Sani Pass area of the Drakensberg, creatively, we were quite drained. Switching your mind from doing only video to doing stills is actually a lot harder that what it seems. Conceptualising your next shot or even just getting creative angles is different in both mediums, so you have to function on a level where you have to focus on capturing unique motion and appealing stills. Meeting up with all our trail buddies and sharing some mountain stoke, we were however quickly firing away at registration. The registration team however made for the biggest smiles as Olga Thangavay was in charge of things, always happy to see the dodgy Nelspruit photographers!
Drakensberg Northern Trail has a very special place in the hearts of Andrew and Lauren booth - organisers of the race. The first edition of the race was not what they exactly wanted, with a few things not really going to plan on race day. Year two they got the opportunity to host the South African trail Chmaps, and they pulled off one spectacular seamless event. Fast forward another three years, and Drakensberg Nothern trail has become one of their flagship races. Situated right at the top of the oliviershoek pass overlooking the Sterkfontein dam to the west and the mighty Drakensberg to the east, the race is perfectly situated to act as a get together of like minded runners from Gauteng and KZN , all looking for a weekend of challenging but beautiful trails
Our aim for this year was to really capture the full extent of what DNT really has on offer. This means we had to somehow cover the whole 40km of the race on foot. The fact that we had Toy Dupper as self appointed - sherpa / pack donkey / gear porter - enabled us to split up and cover different portions of the race route. Race morning arrived and everything looked perfect, the weather, the vibe and the smiles on the startline. Sven and Toy headed out early to get the runners out on route towards Vultures pass a nasty uphill that literally brings some runners to tears! My task for the day was to capture all the start line action and then drive around to Greenfire mountain Lodge which marked 25km into the race. From there i would backtrack up the mountain all the way to the top of Vulture's pass where i would meet up with Sven and Toy and then head back to the car with them. Arriving at green fire, the mountains and Ridgelines was engulfed in clouds. Soaring cliffs with moody mist belts made for quite unique scenery and a few time lapses followed. Clouds dancing to the rhythm of the morning breeze, got me really excited for the rest of the day.
I love food. And yes, the jellies at the green fire aid station were considered a healthy source of nutrition in my opinion. If its green its apples and if its red it’s strawberries right?! A handfull of glucose had me quickly backtracking on the trail. It wasn’t long before Kwenza Ngubane came storming down the trail followed by Nomore and Pieter Conradie, the eventual top 3 on the day. Ladies race winner Emily Clarke soon came hopping down the trail followed by a steady stream of runners making their way down from the higher reaches of the mountain. A good two hours of run shoot run followed. I was quite suprised with the variety of different plant species and habitats the backside of the trail offered. Patches of indigenous forests reminded me of some of our local Lowveld trails, Scenery that i didn't expect in the Northern Drakensberg.
The one thing about trail running i enjoy most is catching up with people that we've met over the past few years. Getting to photograph them in their happy place makes it even more special. As the morning went on , it was awesome to greet so many familiar faces. As always Tracey Zunckel had the biggest smile and Kevin blasted past without his shirt. I even met a couple of UK runners doing their first trail run on South African soil, and seeing the expressions of joy on their faces made me come to the realisation of how fortunate we are to call this country and all it's beauty home. While shooting I got into a groove and very quicly lost track of time, nearing the back of the field i realised i still had quite a lot of ground to cover back to Vulture's pass where surely Toy and Sven would be waiting.
Right at the back of the field i came around a corner and a princess with a crown, high heels and glittery purple dress made her way up the trail, for a moment or two i thought this altitude thing is real serious business, i was at 25000 metres after all, but luckily it became clear that it was Cindy louise White running in this interesting outfit in aid of a little girl with cancer. Cindy unfortunately did not end up finishing in time , but the way she still rised to the challenge was quite admirable and i gained a lot of respect for her effort.
Cindy informed me that she was the last runner, this enabled me to pack the camera away, and hammer it towards Vulture pass which was still a good 4km away. Running this section was truly amazing, me on my own in the mountain. Just being quiet and moving along the trail. an inexplainable piece and relaxation came over me, a feeling i only get when i'm alone in nature. It is this feeling of total in the moment contentment, that i believe we as trailrunners all crave. A feeling of just being, running unrestricted.
Getting to Vulture's pass i was quite suprised to not find Sven and toy waiting. They clearly had an awesome day out as they took more than 4 hours to cover 12km. A few runners were moaning and groaning their way up the climb when a pair of Cape vultures drew circles in the crisp drakensberg air. Suddenly everyone looked up and the pain of the uphill was long forgotten with the sight of the vultures. Vulture's passs climbs almost 250 metres in about 800 metres, after 27 km of Mountain running this teststed runners to the the utmost, giving me the opportunity to get creative with different angles. Now the thing about Sven is, you hear him loooong before you see him. I heard him for about 20 minutes before he and Toy eventually joined me to witness the tears of runners at Vulture's. Sven's got this unique way of talking LOADS AND LOADS of banter while runners are at their lowest point, it works magic however for capturing facial expressions. He got quite a lot if different looks as he photographed the runners from the top of the climb. Let's just say it was not all smiles and good vibes this time around!
The last little sections of the pass is quite steep and runners need to scramble up a section of rock with the help of the mountain medics on duty. A tried to capture a few interesting angles on this spot as most runners are properly "gatvol" when they get there! A lot of fears were overcome on this section of the trail, and to most of the runners this was tilt in their race, once they were up vultures they had an easy 12km trot back down to the finish line. The back of the field made their way up the pass and we decided to head back to the finish for some race emotions and interviews.
Being greeted with a cold one supplied by notties brewery, always makes a day of hard graft worth it. The finish line vibe was incredible with runners supporting and cheering on the last few competitors to dip beneath the finish banner. As the last runner crossed the finish line i glanced across to Andrew and lauren, the joy and contentment in their eyes was clear and I noticed that it was yet another special edition of Drakensberg Northern trail for them. Judging by all the good reactions and comments coming of the course it is safe to say that the KZNTR team offered yet again an incredible outdoor expereince to all that was keen and willing to set foot on this magnificent route!