For one day a year, the Whale Trail, a five-day hiking trail through De Hoop Nature Reserve, is reserved exclusively for Merrell Whale of Trail entrants to boldly tackle the full distance of 53km in just one day. Frequented by hiking and outdoor enthusiasts for the remainder of the year as a five-day excursion, it is only natural to break the route down into five sections (as per the five days). Bryony McCormick, two-time Whale of Trail finisher together with Graham ‘Tweet’ Bird talk through each section giving you a better opportunity to fully understand the highlights, lowlights, challenges and terrain throughout the 53km course.
Section 1 | Potberg (the Start) to Cupidoskraal | 13km
“The first half is in the mountains on beautiful single track,” says Bird, “with some very technical rocky parts and some awesome fast flowing smooth paths.” It’s a relatively slow start from Potberg as you make your way directly up your first, and incidentally the biggest, climb of the day topping out at 611m at the top of Potberg. Despite screaming legs and burning muscles, this section is a sensory overload, with 360 degree views of the Overberg farmlands, the Breede River, endless valleys and the Indian Ocean. It is also during this 13km section that you might be fortunate enough to spot one of the rare Cape Vultures that nest in the area. After the big climb, the trail descends to Cupidoskraal hut, the first CP1 of the day. Advice from the Race Director is to hold back in this first section and conserve energy.
Section 2| Cupidoskraal to Noetsie Hut | 14 km
The next 14km steers you up through fynbos laden single-track again, but not for as long this time, before traversing you along a spectacular ridgeline once again flanked by spectacular views. As you move off Potberg the fynbos starts to change, as does the terrain underfoot. Enjoy a fast and technical descent to CP2 and the first water point of the day, situated roughly the 23km mark. The first cut-off is also at CP2 at 11:45am. From the CP it’s a few kays to the turn at Noetsie, also the point that you intercept with the coastline and roughly half way. Before you make the turn and point in the direction of the finish, be sure to glance north and try and spot the beautiful hiking hut on the beach. You’ll find an official at Noetsie as it is also CP3 and will be required to give your number. Now it’s time for the second half!
Section 3 | Noetsie to Hamerkop Hut |7 km
“The second half is along the coast with undulating technical single track along the cliff tops, followed by a beach section and soft dune paths,” says Bird, which is precisely why he encourages taking the first half conservatively. In fact, Bird continues by saying that the Whale of Trail is all about the second half. “For me the hardest part is the first 8km once you hit the coast after Noetsie,” he cautions. “This section has many small little climbs (little 30-50m ascents and descents) and will wear down even the fittest runner.” Despite it being gruelling on the legs, this is also the first time you run along the coast and thus your first opportunity to soak in the majestic, sheer coastline, the wildlife and do a spot of whale watching. The undulating coastal path ends at the start of the notorious beach section, a daunting but incredible site when you pop over the horizonand see it stretching the full distance to Hamerkop hut.
Passing Hamerkop doesn’t mean the beach is over – you’ve still got a few soft, sandy kays to get through before reaching Lekkerwater at the 36km mark, and incidentally CP4 and the second and final water point of the day. But don’t despair, “the coastal section is very special, what with the ocean in constant motion on your left,” says Bird. Empty your shoes at Lekkerwater before making your way further down the coast past beautiful rock pools, while doing the occasional beach crossing and whale spotting. Stay clear of the sensitive calcrete rock formations, but to have a look and enjoy the incredible geographical features. You might spot interesting seabirds during this 10km section, like the shy oystercatchers and white-breasted cormorants.
Section 5 | Vaalkrans to Koppie Alleen Hut (the Finish) | 6 km
Reaching CP5 at Vaalkrans hut is mentally awesome, because you know the next CP is the finish line. Do a quick kit check (make sure you have all your mandatory gear), grab a snack and put your head down for the final stretch. Vaalkrans has the second cut-off of the day at 16:30. trail undulates and throws a few last-minute challenges, but nothing that you haven’t experienced during the course of the day already. Expect a few soft beach crossings, a couple of ups and downs and some technical trail. Enjoy the sceneray and take a moment to say goodbye to your whale friends who have hopefully kept you company over the last few hours. The final sting is the last few hundred (uphill) meters to the finish line, but hearing Tatum’s voice on the mic is encouragement enough to keep your legs moving until Koppie Alleen. Get your medal, hug everybody and get yourself a well-earned cold beer! You did it – 53km of trail in one day!
Download the route map off the Whale of Trail website here.