By Jon Meinking – a trail runner & VWS photographer’s perspective
There’s something special about being on a mountain at sunrise. Perhaps it’s the promise of adventure, the fresh stillness, or quite possibly the view of pink fluffy clouds on the horizon. Either way, the morning of Sunday, May the 13th, was a combination of all those things in Deer Park, at the base of Table Mountain, at the start of this year’s Trail Challenge. And what a morning it was!
Being a member of the Volunteer Wildfire Services has not just introduced a new set of skills & knowledge into my life, but also a multitude of amazing, like-minded people, some of who have become close friends of mine. And that’s one of the extra benefits of becoming part of an organization that’s about more than just self or profit.
So, when the 110-odd members of the VWS started arriving from 5am (some even earlier!), there were many smiles around – although some needed caffeine assistance. Luckily Bootlegger Coffee Company was on scene as the well-organised machine started setting up the staging area. Having briefed my team of photographers, I could help where else was possibly needed, and even then, all the teams had their directives and were executing them efficiently under the canopy of star-dusted trees.
As the event structure began taking shape, runners started to arrive and the atmosphere soon became a beautiful mix of quiet excitement, nerves and chatter as running friends came together – and that’s one of the many things I love about trail runs. I too found my excitement levels start to rise, especially once the 20km runners left, as I was running the 10km route with a bunch of other VWS members. And whilst my fitness levels aren’t that great, the promise of sweeping views to come on the route kept me from running away.. Haha!
The 20km runners shared most of the 10km route with us, which by no means is an easy one, but it wouldn’t be called the Trail Challenge if it was. Climbing up around & back down through the Deer Park forest, the heart rate of most runners spiked quickly as cold muscles protested at various volumes – or maybe that was just me. As myself & VWS friends Tessa & Werner traversed the slopes of Table Mountain, the crunch of trail shoes & (not so slightly) laboured breathing sounding on the gravely jeep tracks, the city fell away below us and we headed towards the tar crossing of Tafelberg road leading up to the Kloof Corner ascent. The cheering VWS members at Water Point 1 were a welcome boost ahead of those flippin stairs around the corner. Those runners who hadn’t questioned their sanity prior to this point sure started then! With lungs burning & chirpy remarks being made to help distract from the rapid ascent, we arrived at the contour path start, to much relief!
The worst was over and now we could gently cruise the route, taking in all of the scenery, some of the route having recently experienced wildfires showing signs of beautiful regrowth, as we headed towards our turn off at Platteklip where the route split. I watched as the 20km runners started their next ascent up over Devils Peak saddle, with its oftentimes-wild nature up at the top. Maybe next year I’ll consider that route.. Oh boy.
Seeing my friends Kylie & Robin marshaling the route as we hit Tafelberg again along with the excitedly-cheering VWS members at Water Point 3, was another great spirit lifter as we headed down to the finish. And what a welcome at the finish! Being greeted by so many of ones fellow VWS members was one of the best experiences of the day. And I am sure that many of the runners could also attest to that!
As if I wasn’t tired enough (clearly mad enough though), after a quick rest, I headed back up the route towards the enthusiastic crew of Water Point 3, in an attempt to also capture elements of the route that our team of (amazing) photographers couldn’t get to for sheer scope of the route. All the runners I encountered back along the route had smiles on their faces. I guess some of those smiles could’ve been through gritted teeth, but regardless all agreed that it was the perfect morning to be out on the mountain enjoying the exquisite beauty & varied elements of the route.
I didn’t intend of going too far back down the route but once I was on the upper contour path heading towards Kings Blockhouse, I was drawn along it, curious to see what was around the next bend – perhaps tunnels of trees, fynbos-covered slopes, stream crossings, cliff traverses or overhangs. And I was richly rewarded as I ventured further!
Looking back, the front face of Table Mountain opened up and only then did I begin to realize the magnitude of the area & terrain covered by those supporting the VWS. In the distance I could see a number of lumo-coloured 20km runners navigating the contour path bends of the return leg, dwarfed by our iconic natural landmark, decorated by some white wispy clouds. I sighed contentedly, taking in the splendour, and feeling invigorated after the endorphin rush, knowing that #VWSTC2018 was a successful experience for so many, on different levels.
Being part of a passionate team of volunteers is incredibly rewarding, even though a lot of time & energy goes into planning and executing such an event, but it’s all so worth it when we get to experience first hand all the support & love from the public, knowing that what we do is bigger than us. Thank you to all of the VWS members who put in so many hours, and of course to the communities for joining us on the day. I can’t wait to see you all again next year, perhaps some of you on the 20km route!