It is called a marathon, but a title can be misleading. Falling just under 10km short of the traditional distance, it is shorter than a marathon, but can take up to 3 times as long to complete. It is a mix of scrambling, power hiking, trail running, bundu bashing and bum sliding over a distance of 33km. Starting on Botmaskop and traversing along the horseshoe shaped watershed around the Jonkershoek valley all the way to Stellenboschberg. Along the way you summit 7 peaks; Botmaskop, Squaretower Peak, Pieke (North Twin), Rifberg (Virgin & Third Ridge Peak), Second Ridge (Katedraal), First Ridge (Katedraal), Haelkop and Stellenboschberg.
The first recorded attempt was on 19 May 1962 when Rudolph Buhrman, Piet Hugo and Jan du Plessis completed it in 19h30min. In the same year the legendary Ernst Lotz set the standard at 14 hours. In December 1962, a new record was set at 10h45min by Christopher Spottiswood. On 10 October 1991 it was the ladies setting the example, with Lydia Roos completing the route in 10h13min. And then in October 2000 Henco Jordaan set the record at 9h40min where it stood for 15 years...
Update (2016/09/24) - Ryan Sandes, Andre Gie and Kane Reilly bettered the time set on 16 December 2015 by 9 minutes completing the Jonkershoek Marathon in 8:35:58 (report)
Update (2016/10/29) - Christiaan Greyling and Edward van der Merwe set a new record on the Jonkershoek Traverse in a time of 8:21 (report)
The best way to prepare for this challenge is to spend time on the route. The book, ‘Jonkershoek en sy Berge’ by Ernst Lotz is a great guide for exploring the magnificent Jonkershoek Valley. Though cryptic in nature, it gives enough route descriptions so that, together with Google Earth and the cairns along the way, you should be able to find the correct paths with some exploration. If you plan on doing the marathon, I would recommend joining the Mountain Club (MCSA). Andrew Milne and Paul Verhoeven from the MCSA where very helpful in getting more information about the route from experienced Jonkershoek mountaineers like Coos Diener and Lydia Cilliers (Roos).
Over the past 4 months I covered each section of the route between 2 and 3 times. The route is long and there is much to memorize if you want to move fast without worrying about navigation. A GPS track will not help you much when standing in front of a ridge wondering whether you must go left or right.
I started taking splits for the different sections to set some time goals for an attempt.
There is not much running involved when working the route. Most days you would do 25km with at least 2000m climbing and only the lower sections of the valley really runnable. Exploring the route is also very weather dependent - rather stay off the mountain when the weather is bad. During the week I tried to mix it up with cycling, runs in Majik Forest and other core strength training.
When climbing the peaks of the normal paths in Jonkershoek, it is important to complete the Cape Nature Route Safety Form and email it to the reserve manager Patrick Shone (email@example.com) or his deputy Juanita Alberts (firstname.lastname@example.org). Contact 021 8661560 for more information.
Finding the perfect day for the marathon is not easy, especially in December. On rainy days the rock is very slippery and all the other days just seem way too hot to even consider spending over 10 hours on the mountain. It is a process that involves obsessive page refreshes on Windguru.
When we saw the forecast for 16 December, we decided to just go for it. Some rain was forecast for the morning and expected to clear at around 09:00 while still staying cool enough for a long day out. I decided to only start from Botmaskop at 06:30 to avoid most of the rain.
Hiking up to the start on Botmaskop, the rain did come down quite hard but with no real wind, the conditions suited me. The start from Botmas is a bit of a mixed affair. This is one of the few sections with an established trail but it alternates between hopping over slippery boulders and running on nice flowing single track, never finding any real rhythm. After 35 minutes I reached Die Saaltjie, marking the end to the relative easy start. From here you start climbing up to Squaretower Peak quickly getting into some B grade scrambles. The recent fires made this section faster than previous years and I reached Squaretower in 58min giving me plenty time to reach Pieke within my target.
Coming down Squaretower is probably the first slightly exposed technical section and it is slow going on wet rock. From here you slowly start to climb along the ridge over to the top of Nerinakloof. From Nerinakloof there is a nice steep path up to Vensterkloof which is always one of the highlights for me in Jonkershoek. With the clouds still around me, I crossed over to the other side of the ridge through the Venster. With one last climb ahead I reached the Northern Twin Peak in 1:53, 17 minutes below my target. While taking a quick 3 minute breakfast break, I was getting worried that I might be pushing the pace too hard from the start, but I still felt good and was not sure how fast I would be to Bergriviernek.
The section between Pieke and Rifberg is probably the area with the most interesting route finding - it is well cairned but still challenging. It first drops steeply down towards the upper nek of Langrivierkloof and then takes an excellent scramble up the rock face back to the ridge. My climbing legs still felt good on this section and I got past Virgin Peak and to the top of Rifberg in 2:57, still ahead of my targets.
From Rifberg I again had to drop back to the valley towards the Slab route. Just before reaching the grassy slope you take an ingenious ledge route to your left towards the 1st and 2nd Ridge Peaks. Going up towards the Ridge Peaks (Katedraal) is where one starts to feel all the climbing in the legs. About 3:45 into the day I started descending towards Bergriviernek knowing that I am looking very good for time. I spotted Andrew and Nicolaas just before the Green Mamba (steep grassy bum slide section) and they joined me from there, reaching Bergriviernek in 4:17. At this stage I realised that I am going at a sub 9 hour pace but was not sure if I could maintain for another 4,5 hours.
Bergriviernek to Swartboskloof has the most runnable trail of the whole route. I have probably done this section more than 20 times over the years and it never gets old. The king proteas are already starting to bloom and the views of the valley in parts are spectacular. With Andrew’s encouragement and a quick 5min lunch stop I reached the top of Swartboskloof in 5:40. This was also the last spot where I could top up my water supply. This time of year it is usually dry but with the recent rains, the small stream was still flowing.
Having previously done the next section in 2:40, I knew a sub 9 hour time was possible and that I should easily be able to do it under 4 hours in order to improve the previous record. But the Swartbos-Haelkop section is also the toughest for me. There are no paths, lots of rock hopping on steep angles and plenty of vertical. Up to the old rusted trig beacon on the ridge the going is relative easy but as soon as I started dropping down towards Sosyskloof I started struggling. There are plenty of B grade down scrambles that take a bit of time on tired legs. Going up the ridge from the Sosyskloof area was the first time I had to start taking breaks on the climbs. The best part of this climb is the beautiful climb through the old Yellowwood trees and up a C grade scramble. The fires unfortunately burned most of the trees and it does not look like all of them will recover. After a long hard slog I reached Haelkop in 7:25 but really feeling at my lowest. I knew I should push for a sub 9 hour time but at that stage I was really suffering. But after a quick chat on the phone to Karien, my wife, I decided to just go for it.
Soon after I started my final big descent down Haelkop, I started feeling better. However, I nearly made the classic navigation error coming down but traversed onto the ridgeline just in time. This is one of the sections that is much faster when dry and I could quickly make my way down to where the Haelkop route turns away towards the valley. From here I opted for a contour below the ridgeline that would not have been a great option previous years but was opened up by the recent fires. Once I got a clear view of the Stellenboschberg path going down to Assegaaibos I knew the sub 9 hours is possible and it was just head-down-hands-on-knees climbing up to the beacon. After 8:44:57 I reached the beacon by hopping over the large boulders with very tired legs.
After a quick chat to my wife on the phone, it was time to start one of the less desirable parts of the marathon - going down. With little water left I did not hang around and started the slow and painful descent to Coetzenberg. Paul Verhoeven from the Stellenbosch MCSA section was there to meet me and take me back to my car. And he had some cold water for me, thanks Paul!
Thinking of doing it
Please note that this is not a trail run on a marked route and this blog does not provide sufficient detail for prospective hikers. The Jonkershoek Marathon is a great mountain adventure with some exposed and dangerous sections. If you want to attempt it, first take time to explore the beautiful Jonkershoek reserve. The spirit of the Marathon is really in the time that you spend on the mountain in preparation for it rather than just going out there following a GPS track. I would recommend joining the MCSA. There you will find a wealth of experience and willing mountaineers to explore with you. Please also keep in mind that you should complete the route safety forms.
Even though I managed to take almost an hour off the previous record, I do believe that this record will not last a year. Update (2016/09/24) - Ryan Sandes, Andre Gie and Kane Reilly bettered the time set on 16 December 2015 by 9 minutes completing the Jonkershoek Marathon in 8:35:58. Update (2016/10/29) - Christiaan Greyling and Edward van der Merwe set a new record on the Jonkershoek Traverse in a time of 8:21, Will we see a sub 8 hour marathon in 2017, maybe sub 7:30?
References : MCSA journals articles from Tony Grogan, Ernst Lotz, Lydia Roos.