Bernard Rukadza, one of the favourites for the title next weekend, descends to the Cupidoskraal checkpoint at 14km en route to taking second place in last year's race. Photo: Stephen Granger

Trackways of ancient beasts abound along the De Hoop Coast. Woolly mammoths, quaggas, long-horned buffalo and giant Cape horses are just some of the mammals which left their footprints along this iconic section of the Southern Cape coastline in bygone eras.

Next weekend hundreds of trail athletes from around the country will be following in the footsteps of those extinct species, making trackways of their own in a quest to complete a five day hiking trail in less than a day.

The Whale of Trail has become a “must do” event for the country’s elite, with the lure of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, which was declared a world heritage site in 2004 as a planetary hotspot of biodiversity, acting as a “calling card” for the 53km mountain and sea adventure. Every-increasing numbers of the Southern Right Whale, hundreds of dolphins and over 200 bird species will be some of the faunal life runners can expect to encounter.

Add the traditional high-quality race organization, lucrative prize money and the promise of spectacular sunsets over De Hoop Vlei, and you have a winning formula, few serious trail athletes in South Africa can refuse.

And while, with a few exceptions, international stars have not yet discovered the shores of De Hoop as trail race extraordinaire, as they have at the Otter African Trail Run, it is surely a matter of time before they do. 

Melkbosstrand athlete, AJ Calitz, in jovial mood in the early stages of the 2017 Whale of Trail. Photo: Stephen Granger

The first half of the race takes place in the Potberg mountains and includes two significant hill climbs, spectacular scenery overlooking the vulture colony to the west and meandering Breede River to the east. The second half is along the coast with athletes having to negotiate undulating single track sections along cliff tops as well as long sections of soft sand down at sea level.

Close contests can be expected in both the men’s and women’s competitions.  Former track and cross country star, Johardt van Heerden, returns to the Cape following his difficult race at the Hout Bay Trail Challenge in March, and has the credentials to take the title, but will face strong competition from Cape Town athletes, Siviwe Nkombi (winner of the Jonkershoek Mountain Challenge in May), AJ Calitz (third in 2017 and winner of the Fish River Ultra 100km in June) and Bernard Rukadza (second last year) and Knysna athlete and past double Whale winner, Melikhaya Mzisi.

The women’s race promises a mouth-watering contest, with 2017 winner and record-holder, Johannesburg athlete, Nicolette Griffioen, taking on young Cape Town star, Toni McCann.  McCann has been competing in the Golden Trail World Series in Europe and will be running her first race in excess of 50km.  Ultra-trail Drakensberg and Bastille Day 50km winner, Naomi Brand, and Karin Bezuidenhout are other strong podium contenders.

IOL Sport