Sunday, 13 May 2018

Zingela two-day trail run

My Valentine's gift this year from Celliers was an entry to the two-day Zingela Trail Run (he booked himself in for the mountain bike option). Weeks passed and last weekend we headed down to Zingela, a remote spot on the Tugela River, near the small town of Colenso.

Celliers knows this place from paddling the Tugela from upstream to Zingela. He says the stretch of river has high-grade rapids. He loves Zingela and has been wanting to take me there for some time - the race was a perfect excuse to go there.

We left on Friday late morning and made it to the Zingela camp just before dark. Dropping into the Tugela valley - on a dirt road fit only for 4x4 high-clearance vehicles - was a treat. The surrounding hills and vegetation changes kept me captivated and looking ahead for a glimpse of the river.

After checking in we went to find our accommodation named 'Badlands'. There are two 'units' at this spot. They have 1/3-height mud walls with thick curtains 1/2 the way around the elongated-rondavel shape that make up the rest of the 'wall' and a thatch roof. The 'wall' behind the bed seems to have been thatch with a section of mud wall on either side.

The best feature of our place was the donkey-fired outside shower. I totally love outside showers and this one ranks as one of my all-time favourites.

The stars! The Milkyway! Jupiter still so bright in the sky! Too spectacular!

I was just done showering when I shouted to Celliers that I really should have checked  the Heavens-Above website for timings of satellite sightings. Not a minute later, still gazing up at the stars, I saw two satellites cruising across the sky - one after the other - like stars sliding down the surface of a marble.

I also appreciated the biodegradable body wash and shampoo provided, which I enjoyed using.

Zingela does a lot well but one big thing is catering. They make the most amazing food. The race entry fee includes accommodation - a number of options from camping with your own tent to camping in their tent (bedding provided) to comfortable to luxury chalets, all meals and your race entry. We had such superb meals. Their salads, perfectly braai'd chicken and homebaked bread (an incredible wholewheat bread and a too-amazing steamed bread) stand out.

Most of the people at this event hail from KZN - many repeat participants - so we didn't know anyone.We sat at the Friday night dinner table with Theresa and Vernon, Vanessa and Andrew, Nina and Peter - making new friends that we enjoyed seeing and chatting to over the course of the weekend.

We didn't hang around too long on Friday night. Having to be up at 5am for the 6am start, Celliers and I needed an early night to be able to wake up in the morning.

The day dawned clear and magnificent with mist coming off the river. I was in for the 32km run so I started before Celliers' 45km bike ride. There were only about 14 of us on the start line for this longer distance run. I was pretty near the back at the start, taking it easy and warming up over the first few kilometres along the river. Chalk markings on the dirt road were dotted regularly to reassure us that we were on the right track. I ran on my own pretty much from the beginning.

I make two errors on this first day. Maybe two kilometres from the start I missed a turning. It must have been at this point - where a big-ass arrow was drawn on the ground! - that I was looking at the river. I was thinking about the braided channels and rocks and wondering whether to take a photos and deciding not too because of all the shadows... I maybe ran 300m too far and thought it was odd that I hadn't seen any more blobs of chalk so I turned around and retraced my steps, seeing the big-ass arrow on the ground. This early error made me even more cautious and I kept a close eye on markings.

Checking out the terrain on the way into the valley, I had been expecting gnarly, rocky, technical trails. Instead, the trails are all very, very runnable. They have clearly put in a lot of work over a number of years to create trails that are pleasant to run on.

I took a fall on a wide-open dirt road, grazing my left knee and getting raised 'eggies' on both knees. The sole of my right shoe is coming off a bit at the front and it must have hooked on something - there certainly were not any big rocks around to trip over!

A minor graze at home with many other scars on my knee.
We'd be warned at the start about the uphill that would go on and on until about 14km. Although I was running on the trails and seeing regular markings, I certainly wasn't climbing, climbing, climbing. The route took me into a T-junction and there was a small marker board to the left reading '16km'. Nothing for the 32km route. I first went right and was scanning the ground for any footprints going that direction. They all looked to be going into the 16km direction. Logically I didn't think that they would have walkers, runners and bikers (bike tracks too) going bi-directional so I took the 16km direction and ended up back at camp.

The marshals for the river crossing were heading out so I caught a lift with them to get back on route. I would end up skipping a section though as they were not sure where I'd gone wrong (I should have gone right, running 'against' the flow). The guys dropped me off before their point, directing me on a non-course track up the side of the hill. There I rejoined the route but for fun, as I'd buggered up anyway, I ran back along the route, enjoying a steep climb that the mountain bikers would ride down (death defying!) the next day. I got to the top but then thinking that it may only be a mtb route and not a run route that that I'd missed something, I went back down. I scouted down at the bottom for any other possible tracks that I'd missed and finding none I got back on to the proper route and made my way to the river crossing.

There I paddled across and enjoyed a super 9km run - on the route - to the finish. I probably did more than 16km but definitely less than 32km. I'd maybe say 22-24km. Nonetheless, I had a most lovely time out there, I loved the trails and the scenery and had a good day.

I hung around at the finish to see if any bikers were coming in. I ducked off for a shower and returned to the finish to wait for Celliers. No sign of him. After a while I headed back to our chalet to read and nap. Not long later he arrived. Toast! He says it was the toughest 45km ride he has ever done, especially as his gears wouldn't go into the small ring. He was fried. I got him a big plate of lunch, which definitely restored his spirits.

A leisurely afternoon was followed by a gathering in the main area where the people from Wildlife Act told us about their vulture conservation project, which extends into this area. Fascinating - and sad. Vultures are seriously under threat. While I've known this, the numbers are even lower than I expected with only 1 to 5 breeding pairs of some species in KZN.

A delicious dinner followed and then it was off to bed.

For Day 2, I was in for 21km run. Celliers had considered the 12km walk but as he woke with a cracker of a headache, he made the good choice to instead eat breakfast, nap for an hour and then wake up feeling much better.

Again I had a lovely, leisurely run. Varied terrain, a pretty kloof, old elephant trails and interesting scenery.

Scramble up a 'waterfall'. Magnificent rock!

The Baboon Scramble took us from the top of the waterfall to a lovely contour path that used to be an old elephant track - back in the day when there were ellies in the area.

Celliers had seen the giraffe the day before and I hoped to see a few on the run. I got even better than this with a sighting of the herd near me.

I'd guess at 15-20 individuals. I like the sound of giraffe hooves as they lollop. I tried a selfie.

I look like a clown but the giraffe are cool. The lady I was running with was no more than a minute or so behind me. I was trying not to disturb the 'raffe so that she could see them too.
I ran with another lady for the last few kilometres - a vet from Creighton. Lovely run, perfect weather and a great start to the day.

Friendly Wildlife Act people manned the water table.
A last shower in the fabulous outside shower, bags packed and we were ready for the delicious lunch.

With goodbyes to the people we'd met, we were on the road for the five-hour trip back to Parys.

This Zingela event ticks all the boxes for me with small participation numbers, great location, lovely routes, phenomenal catering and a variety of accommodation options.

They run two events a year - in May and in September. Of course, Zingela offers river trips and safaris too as their usual course of business. Check out their Facebook page or their website.

If you like remote, small, personal, friendly and hospitable - with chilled running and great scenery thrown in - then you'll love this one too.

A fabulous Valentine's Day gift - thank you Celliers xxx

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