South Africa is renowned for its amazing races both on the road and the trails. Of course, its two most famous races are the two ultra-marathons, The Old Mutual Two Oceans and the Comrades marathon. But South Africa also has a host of wonderful events that are not as well-known but are “bucket list material.”
Three of these events that spring to mind, and that I have run, are the Knysna forest race, the East London Surfers race, and the Skukuza half marathon in the Kruger National Park.
But now there is another addition to the bucket list family. The Highlands Mountain challenge held at Katse Dam is not strictly a South African race as it is run in ‘the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho but Lesotho is our neighbour so I’m happy to include the race in the Southern African calendar. This annual event is held on the second weekend of September and features a marathon, a half marathon and a 5km fun run. The adventure is well worth the journey to the centre of the country. The race is run from the village of Katse along the mountains and valleys surrounding the Katse dam. The dam is part of the Lesotho Highlands water project which supplies the Witwatersrand with much of its water. This year the race was organised by Highland’s Trout, supported by local volunteers and generously sponsored by Nashua.
The experience of running the race is quite unique as the route winds its way through rural Lesotho past small villages and hamlets full of enthusiastic villagers who man small seconding tables. It is run on a mixture of tar and dirt roads and on rough stony trail. The views are breath-taking and the weather varies from hot to cold with strong winds. Last year it snowed heavily the morning after the race.
The race is not for the faint hearted but rather for those who enjoy a challenge. The Highlands Mountain challenge is an incredibly tough test of physical endurance and mental fortitude. There are many races which whose participants boast, “This is the toughest” but the Highlands Mountain Challenge doesn’t need to boast. The viciously steep climbs are some of the steepest and longest in the world, and every metre of this climbing must be run, or plodded, at an altitude of 2500 metres or higher. The first major climb in the race follows a precipitous drop down to the bottom of the dam wall. After crossing a small bridge, runners have to negotiate a solid 3 kilometre hill. It is the first of many. And yet that is what makes the race so addictive. Runners relish the challenge and they understand that it is the challenge and not a fast time that is the allure of the Highlands Mountain challenge, that and a unique medal featuring a miniature woven grass Basotho hat.
It’s a long drive to Katse in the centre of Lesotho and the race is run on a Saturday morning so ideally runners should drive through on the Thursday and make a family holiday of the trip. There is an adequate hotel in Katse and several cottages that can be booked as well as camping facilities.
The drive there is very special and is on a good quality but winding road. The views of the mountains, valleys and Katse dam itself are spectacular.
There is plenty to do and explore, from the trout farm to Bushman/San paintings, birding (Drakensberg/Maluti endemics) and pony riding.
There have been 5 Highlands Mountain Challenge events and I’ve participated in all 5. I intend to return next year for the 6th event.
Main image taken by Ryan Weaver. Other images by Gill Fordyce.
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