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Red sand roads
Red sand roads through the Karoo

Running the Freedom Trail in South Africa

The 2400km Freedom Trail in South Africa is not a running trail or even a hiking route, but could it be? Emma Timmis decided to find out. With only her brother on his bike for support, and living on a diet of mostly rice, it was an adventure in an exotic country that they would never forget.

The Freedom Trail is a rugged mountain bike trail that is generally used only once a year, in the middle of winter, for an organised race involving multiple checkpoints. It passes through some of South Africa’s most remote regions and includes many nature reserves with no protection from dangerous wild animals. I had the bright idea of trying to complete the trail without all the official assistance and without the bike, in the middle of summer!*

On the website it now says that this trail should not be attempted outside the organised event due to private land permission and locked nature reserves. That explains a few of our problems!

My goal was to run the Freedom Trail, one marathon distance per day, for the full 2400km. At this point in my life I’d never even run a single marathon. Nothing like setting your sights high! I think the process in my head went something like this… I like running… I like hot weather… I like reading maps. For sure I can run 57 marathons across South Africa!

Cacti basking under the bright blue sky

With absolutely no idea what I was doing I figured it’s just like the ‘eating the elephant’ metaphor. Break it down into bitesize chunks. I printed the maps and written directions that were available on the website, I bought some kit and I did a lot of running. Simple. It got to about six weeks before I was due to leave, and I hadn’t figured out my support crew. Thankfully, my brother, Leigh, was cycling around the world and I managed to convince him to add a bit of Africa into his journey.

Before I knew it, preparation time was up, and I was on my way to Pietermaritzburg on South Africa’s east side. From here I would be aiming to get to Cape Town, on the west, in less than two months to ensure I didn’t miss my flight home.

Seriously hot

The landscape during the first few days of running was surprisingly lush and green. There were rolling hills as far as the eye could see. It was also seriously hotter than I anticipated. It was only two days before I had my first dose of dehydration and heat exhaustion from the extreme temperature. By day three we had recorded 46°C. Apparently, there’s a theory for choosing clothes to run in, you should dress for 20° hotter than the actual temperature. I don’t know what you wear in 66°!

These temperatures made me obsess about ice-cold drinks. With our only option being the almost-boiling water we were carrying, the sign of a shop on the map was like heaven. We thought of all the possibilities that could be in the fridge, only to find that it had closed down years before. We passed many run-down stores and businesses near isolated areas.

Gradually, our routine started to develop, and we spent less energy on housekeeping activities and more time appreciating the impressive scenery. The landscape gradually changed and we entered an enchanting forest region. The smell of the pines was a nostalgic reminder of Christmas. The shade under the trees was a very welcome escape from the sun. In among the miles and miles of forests somewhere our navigation went to pot. We found ourselves back at the same stack of tree trunks multiple times and we knew something had gone wrong. We eventually made it out to be met with our first of many river crossings.

Most of the trail consists of dirt track, which was great for my knees as it’s more forgiving than tar. Although it was not so great for my hygiene as every time a vehicle passed it would throw up a thick cloud of dust just the right consistency to cling to the layer of sweat I was constantly wearing, in addition to the suncream.

I can’t remember if people in South Africa refer to these cars as ‘dust-monsters’ or if it’s just the deserving name we gave them. At the end of each day I was very grateful for our ration of two baby wipes to scrape off most of the gunk.

The highest point of the whole trail was Naudes Nek, standing at 2596m, the fourth highest pass in South Africa. I think most people would find the tedious job of slowly trudging up a long climb like this absolutely terrible, but I loved it. I had to call on some of my best mind games to get myself up and over this long gravel pass. When I got to the top a car pulled up next to me and Leigh. A guy jumped out and explained he’d been watching us climbing the mountain. He said: ‘I bet you’re thirsty!’ For sure, we both were, but we weren’t expecting what he presented us with. Out of the back of his vehicle he pulled two ice cold Bacardi Breezers. Not exactly what I was thinking about drinking, but it went down a treat anyway. We had run out of water so that might have been more sensible!

The kindness of strangers

The sight of me running through the middle of nowhere must have been so bizarre that lots of people would stop and ask what I was up to. Some would invite us to stay in their houses, which was great and gave us a chance to wash and eat a decent meal. Most of our meals were rice or porridge. If we were lucky, we’d throw in an onion or some stock or honey. As with many places around the world, the kindness of strangers shone through and was a highlight of this beautiful country.

From my rough calculations, we should have been able to pass through a town or village with a shop where we could stock up on food at least once a week. Most of these towns were very small and had only basic supplies. When we did find a shop with treats, we made the most of it and stuffed our faces with pies and chocolate milk.

As if food supplies and flooded roads weren’t enough of a challenge, it appeared that the wind was always against us. As we left the small town of Dordrecht, we had a very long, straight road, much to Leigh’s delight on the bike. Unfortunately, the wind was so strong it stopped me moving and ripped the air from my lungs. It felt like there was a bus slowly reversing into my body, pushing me backwards. I’d have to give it all my effort, pushing for a few hundred metres, then stop to gain some energy before trying again. I learned a great lesson on this journey: always check wind direction when planning a mega expedition!

After crossing the half-way point, we dipped in and out of the Karoo, a semi-desert defined by its low rainfall, arid air and cloudless skies. We had to rely on windmill-operated farm boreholes for water or the odd water tank, which you couldn’t trust for their water quality. The rusty sand on the ground and the vibrant blue skies gave a feel like I was in the Wild West. It wouldn’t be out of place for a cowboy to ride past, and this did occasionally happen.

Our direction turned slightly south and we entered another nature reserve, Addo Elephant Park. This one seemed more controlled and I was approached by a ranger in his jeep. He explained very seriously that I wasn’t safe running through, and I must get in his vehicle. I told him I’d run over halfway across South Africa and I wasn’t giving up or cheating now.

After a brief conversation he agreed to leave me to it at my own risk. Fingers crossed I wouldn’t come across any angry animals!

After leaving the reserve I was running along and could hear someone shouting at me. I kept looking round and didn’t see anything, yet the noise continued. As I turned again, I noticed a big dark figure on an embankment moving towards me. It was a huge baboon that was barking, looking right at me and moving in my direction. For the next 5km I ran with a stick in one hand and rocks in the other, just in case he got too close for comfort. That night we ended up sleeping in another nature reserve. Well, camping but not sleeping, as there were so many baboons fighting and screaming outside the tent that sleep was not an option.

At the entrance to the Baviaanskloof Wilderness area we met a guard. He asked us a few questions before allowing us in. One of which being: ‘Are you carrying firearms?’ This seems to be a common question in South Africa and the answer was definitely no. We rose up onto the tops of gorgeous green, rugged mountain guided by a thin trail winding over and around the peaks. Running down from the mountains the environment changed again and signs of civilisation appeared. Sweet, fresh aromas filled the air as we ran through citrus fruit plantations.

Close encounters

Having to pass through multiple nature reserve along the route I completely understand why it’s not recommended to tackle this trail outside the official race. For good reason, these reserves are confined by 10ft-high metal fences. Presumably to protect people outside from dangerous animals. For us, it seemed they were trying to make our lives difficult by blocking the path. I can tell you that lifting a heavy steel framed bike and multiple panniers over a huge gate, time and time again, is not fun! Thankfully, we never came face to face with those caged animals.

However, we were very lucky throughout the whole journey to see numerous wild animals. I ran alongside beautiful giraffes, we woke to an ostrich outside our tent, the iconic springbok were everywhere, I had a lucky miss almost sitting on a puff adder, we saw colourful lizards, birds of prey, many tortoises, mongoose, meerkats, mice and monkeys. South Africa is a real treat for any animal lovers.

During the whole run we heard about prickly pears. This mysterious wild-growing fruit that you can eat, if you're prepared for the effort it takes to pick them. We looked out for them everywhere and didn’t find them until we approached the end of the journey. They’re small, guarded by a thorny plant, covered in almost invisible spikes, and they stain everything they touch a vibrant pink. Also, don’t sit down anywhere near them. From experience I know that the invisible spikes do get stuck in your butt cheeks.

As we approached South Africa’s west coast, we entered wine territory. After a beautiful day running over sand-dune like escarpments and through bright yellow wheat fields, we struggled to find somewhere to pitch the tent. The only option was under some vines in a farmer’s field. In the morning, while packing up the tent, we were rumbled. The farmer drove past and reversed back. We thought we were in trouble, but we were wrong. He thought we were stupid for camping out and said we should have come to his house, which it turns out wasn’t far away. He then gave us no choice but to join his family for breakfast, which then led to a trip to the winery, and wine tasting, and then a family barbecue. Eventually, running for the day was a write-off.

The family put us in touch with another wine maker 50km away to provide us with accommodation and food for the next night. This theme continued until the end of the trail. The final few days running into Wellington, just outside of Cape Town, were very picturesque. Rows upon rows of vines filled the views between quaint villages and farms. The running was downhill, the air was fresh and the gentle breeze warm. A beautiful end to a long and eventful adventure – 57 days after leaving Pietermaritzburg I ran into Cape Town and achieved my far-fetched goal.

* Both I and Cicerone do not recommend under any circumstances that you attempt to repeat anything in this article. Having an adventure is great but safety is way more important. Look after yourselves out there and stick to established trails.