The Golden Gate Challenge [Photo Journal]

The Golden Gate Challenge [Photo Journal]
A photo Journal of The Golden Gate Challenge 2014, a 3 day trail run that covers 70km in Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Freestate

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]

This year I took part in my third Golden Gate challenge and was given the opportunity to share my experience. This is not an official report on the event but rather, a few glimpses into my personal experience of three amazing days spent at play in the stunning mountains and valleys of the Golden Gate National Park.

Before writing this I promised that I would avoid using those tired old words: “amazing”, “stunning”, “awesome” and so on and now I’ve already used two of them in the very first sentence – with a lot more to come!  In my defence, how else do you describe the Golden Gate 3 day trail run without using every superlative in the dictionary? Not to mention overusing the words “tough”, “gruelling”, “hard”, “steep”, “monstrous” and ‘breath-taking”?

I love anything with the word challenge in its name. I love mountains. I love trails and I love the awesome (sorry) events organised by Wildlands so when Thursday, 23 October 2014 arrived, Sanet and I abandoned the concrete jungle and headed for the Glen Reenen campsite. This would be the location of the race village, set up by event organiser Hilary Bruss and her tireless team of helpers.

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
The iconic Golden Gate buttress which standsover the camp as seen from the race village. We would climb to the top of it and scramble down again, twice in three days.
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
A view of the camp from the top of the buttress – not for those with vertigo…
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Em Gatland

Day 0 – Registration

The Golden Gate experience really starts the day before the race when you arrive at the race village, set up camp, register, visit the chill zone, make sure you know where the medical tent is, greet old friends and make new friends. The atmosphere in the village is one of excitement tinged with more than a little nervousness as the old hands try to scare the first time Golden Gaters with horror stories of what lies ahead.

After registering, the runners gather at the round tables laid out in the main marquee for the briefing. The slide show of previous events which is shown at the pre-race briefing gives the new folks their first inkling that the horror stories may just be true and serves as a sober reminder, if needed, to the returning runners of just what lies ahead.

We are welcomed and introduced to the new race director, Hilary Bruss, of adventure racing and canoeing fame. Pint-sized Hilary is a bundle of enthusiasm, but she displays no sympathy for the apprehensive trail runners… Any whining is met with the retort “Get some cement and harden up!”… Much cement would be needed in the days to come!

After talks by the Wildlands team and the SANParks people we enjoy the first of the excellent meals provided by the tireless catering staff.

With war stories exchanged and pre-hydration attended to, we wish each other luck and retire to our tents to get our kit ready for the battle ahead. By 9pm the camp is all quiet. All that can be heard is some gentle snoring and the sound of tent zips when midnight pit stops are required.

Day 1 – Generaalkop, heat, an unnamed hill and the Brandwag Buttress

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]

Day 1 dawns bright and clear as we gather for the 06:00 mass start. After some last minute instructions from course marker, Nick, and race director, Hilary, we set off on our long awaited adventure!

Day 1 would turn out to be one of the toughest days many of us have ever experienced on a trail. After a short warm-up around Glen Reenen, the route winds up a little gulley and past the dam that provides water to the camp. Our mood is still excited and upbeat as we banter and spare a thought for our friends and colleagues who have to go to the office while we are at play in these majestic mountains.

The banter all but dries up as we hit the first real slopes of the foothills of Generaalkop. The gradient becomes serious and our breathing laboured.

I’m still feeling good though as I crest Generaalkop and head down the other side towards the waterpoint at the Ribbok Trail’s overnight hut, at about halfway.

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
My race village neighbour, Richard, looks pensive as he experiences Generaalkop for the first time. Just behind him is Michaela, who would, on Day 2, produce an incredible display of courage and determination.
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]

I still feel fine after the waterpoint and lope down the runnable trail all the way to the road crossing and start on the homeward stretch. By this point it is really hot and after the road crossing is an energy sapping unnamed hill which seems to just squeeze the life out of me.

Several kilometres of tough single track lies between this point and the finish and the temperature just keeps rising. This is a really tough day and the sight of an unfortunate runner lying next to the trail on a drip put up by Vusi, who hiked far into the mountains carrying his full medical kit, doesn’t help!

At the foot of the buttress, the friendly encouragement of the rangers who have carried some cold water up from the camp revives me and I set off up the stairs to the top of the buttress with renewed determination. These stairs are tough and steep and seem to never end.

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Em Gatland
As always, just putting one foot in front of the other eventually gets me to the top. I scramble down the other side and run along the last km or so along over the little bridge, through the camp and over the finish line.
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Kirsten Oliver
I am more than a little relieved to have completed the first day and a lot more than a little apprehensive about day 2, which has the infamous Heidi’s Hill as well as another monster up to the Highland’s Retreat.
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]

After an ice bath, a big mug of tea, a hot shower, lunch and a trip to Clarens for an Erdinger rehydrate, it is time to get our kit ready for the next day. We need to attend the day 2 briefing, supper and an early night.

Day 2 – Heidi’s Hill, the little Serengeti, Monsters 2a and 2b, my most amazing day and an incredible display of courage

In 2012 Heidi Carter-Brown replaced the Day 2 bus ride into the little Serengeti part of the park, with a monstrous climb over a mountain. This is now known as Heidi’s Hill. It is long, it is steep and it tests one to the limit. Like most of the climbs here, it also has a false crest so when you get to the top of this:

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
you see this, which is even longer and steeper…
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
But today is cooler than yesterday and I feel really good. I am one very happy camper at the top:
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]

And so this becomes one of my best ever days on the trails and I just feel stronger and stronger as I take on the sublime jeep tracks and single tracks that wind through the plains and hills of the area known as little Serengeti. We are really privileged as this part of the park is not open to the public and we have the whole place to ourselves.

The second big climb of the day is a kind of double-headed monster. It is really steep and has to be tackled on tired legs, which already have big kilometres in them. The views from the top are stunning (that word again) and one can even see my other favourite mountain playground, the Sentinel in the Drakensberg, in the distance. One really feels on top of the world. Being here is exhilarating and humbling at the same time.

The sight of the chalets at Highlands Retreat and the Honorary Rangers manning the water point there, is very welcome, although the jarring 7km descent is murder on the quads. None of this, nor the little curve ball in the last couple of kilometres, fazes me in the least and I have enjoyed every single minute of this tough (sorry) but amazing (sorry again) day in this awesome (eish) place.

I have the biggest smile ever as I cross the finish line and give Hilary the umpteenth sweaty, smelly hug that she will receive over the weekend. I head for the ice bath and am the envy of the other runners as my wonderful, amazing, ever-loving wife brings me a steaming mug of tea while I chill my aching legs before heading for the showers and a delicious lunch. I then follow this up with another rehydrate session in Clarens.

Today I am treated to a massage by the Radox team who work like Trojans all weekend to coax destroyed limbs back to life. The healing hands of Eryn work their magic on my back, quads and ITBs and I know now that I will finish another Golden Gate and earn my permanent number.

While I am relaxing and recovering there is a major drama playing itself out on the trail. One of our runners, Michaela, is having an awful time. She has injured her groin and is in great pain. Every step is agony but she plods on determined to finish.

Her husband and Hilary head out to her to try and persuade her to bail. Clearly however, bail is not a word that she knows the meaning of and doggedly, with the help of a medic, Tiny, and the route sweeper, she plods on until, after more than 8 hours of pain, sweat and tears, she crosses the finish line to tremendous applause. Her courage and determination are truly inspiring.

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photos of Michaela and Tiny by Kirsten Oliver

That evening, I and eight others are honoured by being presented with our permanent number jackets for having completed three Golden Gates. We are told that if we don’t finish day 3 we will have to return them! No pressure…

Clearly, route guru, Nick Floros, and I have different understandings of the word “hill” as he never once uses the word “mountain” and I saw only mountains – not a single “hill” all weekend.

Day 3 – Wild weather, Highlands Retreat, another “hill”, the Brandwag Buttress (again), Sasha, elation, a feast fit for royalty and sad goodbyes

Day 3 starts with a mass start at 04:00 on Sunday morning.  There was much talk during dinner and the day 3 briefing the previous evening, about day 3 being easy and a walk in the park.

The trail running gods don’t approve of such loose talk so sent some truly awful weather to test our resolves one more time.

The wind howled all night and the runners, who had a sleepless night were greeted by rain, mist and cold at the pre-dawn start. Undaunted we set off through the mist and rain, buffeted by a freezing wind. The elements can today do nothing to detract from my enjoyment of another fantastic day in these mountains that I love so much.

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Kirsten Oliver

That evening, I and eight others are honoured by being presented with our permanent number jackets for having completed three Golden Gates. We are told that if we don’t finish day 3 we will have to return them! No pressure…

Clearly, route guru, Nick Floros, and I have different understandings of the word “hill” as he never once uses the word “mountain” and I saw only mountains – not a single “hill” all weekend.

Day 3 – Wild weather, Highlands Retreat, another “hill”, the Brandwag Buttress (again), Sasha, elation, a feast fit for royalty and sad goodbyes

Day 3 starts with a mass start at 04:00 on Sunday morning.  There was much talk during dinner and the day 3 briefing the previous evening, about day 3 being easy and a walk in the park.

The trail running gods don’t approve of such loose talk so sent some truly awful weather to test our resolves one more time.

The wind howled all night and the runners, who had a sleepless night were greeted by rain, mist and cold at the pre-dawn start. Undaunted we set off through the mist and rain, buffeted by a freezing wind. The elements can today do nothing to detract from my enjoyment of another fantastic day in these mountains that I love so much.

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Winner, Herman Mulder (centre), awesome trail runner and all round nice guy – like all the Golden Gaters…
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo courtesy of Hilary Bruss

The post-race champagne breakfast and prize-giving is just so special but then sadly comes the time to bid farewell to our new and old friends, pack up and head back home, stiff, sore, exhausted but at peace with the world.

The Golden Gate Challenge – a unique event?

Unique is another one of those words which gets bandied about far too easily and just about everybody describes their event as a unique event.  Is Golden gate a unique event? Well, let me help you judge for yourself…

These are some of the things which support the claim for uniqueness in this event:

Medics on horseback

The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
This medic went where no 4-wheel drive ambulance could go!
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Free massages for about 10 hours a day
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo courtesy of Hilary Bruss
A 24 hour chill zone stocked with drinks and munchies
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Em Gatland                                                                    Photo by Kirsten Oliver
The Golden Gate Challenge makes you feel like you are on top of the world
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Beautiful spectators
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Kirsten Oliver
Support in the most isolated places
 
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Camaraderie
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Sasha who ran the whole of Day 3, finishing just behind race winner, Herman, despite several detours into the veld.
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Kirsten Oliver
Joie de vivre
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Kirsten Oliver
The views
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photo by Em Gatland
This backdrop to the start / finish area
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
A race organiser made of the strongest cement!
The Golden Gate Challenge [A Photo Journal]
Photos courtesy of Hilary Bruss

Unique?

And because any non-review wouldn’t be complete without a pro’s and cons list…

SOME REASONS TO DO THE GOLDEN GATE CHALLENGE

The whole experience – Awesome

The sheer natural splendour of the Golden Gate National Park – Stunning

The routes – Amazing

The race village – Friendship

The passion of the Golden Gate SANParks staff – Heart-warming

The dedication of Andrew and the Wildlands Trust – Inspiring

The Honorary Rangers – Standing ovation

The sponsors – They deserve our support

The catering – Yum yum!

The massage team – Life savers – all

The bearded vulture – Majestic

Helping the conservation of the bearded vulture – Humbling

The MC and music – You are the champions… of the world!

The medics – Went the extra mile, literally

All the participants – Camaraderie!

Adrian Carter’s rendition of “I’ve lost that loving feeling” – Brought the house down

The beautiful photographs of Em Gatland and Kirsten Oliver – Memories

Hilary and her team – Speechless

Cement – Buckets full of cement

REASONS NOT TO DO THE GOLDEN GATE CHALLENGE

Seriously? The only plausible reason for not doing Golden Gate would be a severe cement allergy!

WANT TO DO THE GOLDEN GATE CHALLENGE?

The Golden Gate Challenge is a 3-day stage race (trail running) that takes place in the Glen Reenen Rest Camp, Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Freestate. Covering over 70km in 3 days, it takes runners through restricted parts of the reserve rarely seen by the public.

Family and friends of runners are allowed to stay in the race village for an additional fee.

For more information visit Wild Series

Get more race news, reviews and tips by subscribing here
Have a race story you want to share? Email us at info@nutreats.co.za
Chris Wilcock
Follow Chris

Chris Wilcock

Chris is an Ultra Runner (Road & Trail) and a sports nut. He’s an avid Red Wine drinker, but not a connoisseur, “That would require knowing more than is this nice?”. He has been happily married for many years and a devoted dad of three.
He's a reader, writer and coffee addict who has a child-like thirst for knowledge. Chris believes that Life is Good!
Chris Wilcock
Follow Chris

Latest posts by Chris Wilcock (see all)

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.