The Otter African Trail Run (Retto Edition)

Someone mentioned rocky and I thought they meant Rocky which meant I completely missed the plot with this video’s soundtrack, my bad.  As part of my pre-race stress and conditioning I took to the trails to get some footage of my brother’s run on the Grail of the Trail, the Otter African Trail Run.


The Otter African Trail Run, as the name suggests, happens on the famous Otter Hiking Trail in the unspoiled Tsitsikamma National Park between the Stormsriver Rest Camp and the quint little town, Nature’s Valley.  The run gets swopped around every year and this year was the Retto edition, meaning we had to do the hiking route in reverse, going east.  I worked on my doublejointedness and managed to get my backwards running technique spot on in training before realizing the other guys were all facing forward when standing in the start shoot.  My dreams of winning were shattered.

The event has two entry options, the Challenge and the Run.  Apart from the little more relaxed eleven-hour cut-off time on the Challenge it is essentially the same two events that happens one after the other to limit the number of feet on the route per day.  Don’t for a second think that you’ll skip any of the toughness or over ten thousand wooden steps when entering the Challenge event though, it’s the exact same route, equally rugged.

The Grail of Trail

Photo credit: Jacques Marais

Drill down into any one of the above and you’ll be forced to run a prologue the day before the start gun goes off.  For me the prologue was a fantastic platform to get rid of the nerves and jump straight into the festivities of the weekend.

The idea of a prologue is for everyone to go balls to the wall to try and categorize the start shoot per ability and not have the old tannie from Benoni standing right at the front because she arrived there at three o’clock in the morning.



Photo Credit: Andre le Grange

A technical short course through a piece of jungle spurted with roots and lots of sharp turns, oh and don’t forget the ups and downs.  Combine that with the drizzling rain we had and you’ll have a slip and slide affair of note.

The route is basically rolling mostly uphill for the first three kilometers where after you’ll have to lose all senses and just bomb down a crazy little descent.  With the drizzle added to our equation we simply could not brake or corner properly and had to rely on instinct being the autopilot.  Staying on the route and off the roots were essential to staying upright and avoiding wooden bridges at all cost was a no brainer.


Photo with Marc Lauenstein, first person to go sub-4 hour in both directions.  Photo Credit: Andre le Grange

If you’re reading this and usually get nervous when encountering mud and downhills, don’t be.  Losing a bit of traction is normal.  Don’t use any sudden breaking techniques and just go with the flow.  Eventually you’ll have lot of fun and make it to the bottom, hopefully in one piece.  I must just add that one can reach a point of no return like pro runner Sheila Avilés did during her prologue run.  It has the potential of eliminating you from race day which means you’ll probably have to sit and stare at the whales and dolphins for the entire day while having your drinks served, a typical horrible day in Africa.


Photo Credit: Louis le Grange

I’ve added a link to a short video produced by Jeff Ayliff on the Otter’s Facebook page which shows the insights of the prologue route and how some world class pros tackled the conditions, including Sheila’s fall.  It’s worth the watch.



Photo credit: Louis le Grange

Get through the prologue unharmed and you’ll be seeded into a rolling start setup for the event that you’ve signed up for, the Otter African Trail Run.

If you don’t know what you’ve signed up for you’re going to be in for a surprise.  It’s an absolute stunning route through the roughness of unscratched nature at its finest.  The Retto route starts on the beach where after you’ll go up and down steep little climbs, cross boulders, run on rocks, swim through rivers, smell the ocean, spot some whales, swerve through a jungle and for crying out loud, encounter thousands of wooden steps, literally.  For the math gurus out there, it’s roughly forty kilometers with a total elevation gain of over two thousand meters.  What makes this route different from the usual is there’s no real big climbs but rather an unlimited supply of ups and downs making a piecemeal of one’s legs.  Death by a thousand cuts.


Photo Credit: Andre le Grange

The water points along the way were situated close to the respective overnight hiking huts.  They were properly stocked with good attitude, cheery faces and much needed encouragement.  One must understand that access to the route is very limited, but apart from this the event team and sponsors like GU went out of their way to carry much needed munchies and fuel supplies down to the halfway point.  The time I’ve spent there could possibly be considered as camping, but it was just too good to simply give it a skip.

As this is essentially a hiking route it’s almost impossible to get lost as there is a clear path with directions all along.  One or two danger spots can get you into deep trouble should you go hors piste but unless you have a brain fart you’ll probably see the danger signs and just avoid the inevitable.  The rocks close to the ocean were challenging to me with uneven surfaces creating uneven stride lengths.  The rocks were also harder on the legs than the jungle sections where soft ground, roots and steps were flourishing.  The fact of the matter is we don’t have oceans where I come from up north and as a result they were not my forte.

The Grail of Trail

Photo Credit: Jacques Marais

Running aside, another familiar feature of the African Otter Trail run is the short swim through the Bloukrans river.  The rescue teams did a phenomenal job to create a safe environment and guided us on where the hazards were.  I took a nose dive into the river and man was this little swim refreshing.  I came into the race scared of the idea to combine salt water with running as I though chafing could become a problem, but it wasn’t a problem at all.  One must remember it’s not like you are riding the waves onto the beach like a proper Vaalie and then having to dig sand out of your ears for the next two weeks.  No, the Bloukrans crossing is a combination of fresh water coupled with the salt water from the tide creeping in.  I got through the crossing without any salt stains and never did anything feel out of the ordinary afterwards.  I would guess one’s shoe and sock combination is key if you’re not used to running through water.  You need something that’s breathable and that dries up quickly to avoid getting wrinkled feet and whatever leads from there.


Photo Credit: Jacques Marais

Back to the event, it’s probably not the cheapest but I’ve got my value for money and will most probably be back next year to experience doing it in the opposite direction and who knows what will follow thereafter.  All I can say is that I’ve experienced a superb event lead by enthusiasts for nature conservation and the sport of trail running in particular.

The 10th edition was special though as it was also the final of the 2018 Golden Trail Series presented by Salomon which meant we were on the start line with the top eleven woman and top ten men in the world.  I say top eleven woman because of local star Toni McCann creating shock waves by nearly snatching the win from all of them, a super performance to get third on the day.  Other top performances on the day meant no records were left untouched with the Polish speedster, Bartlomiej Przedwojewski setting the new benchmark to three hours and forty minutes.  A personal highlight for me though was when arguably the best trail runner in the world, Kilian Jornet, pulled out due to injury and instead of swearing and getting all angry about it, stood next to the trail cheering mortals like myself on and even giving me a high five.  What a champ.

The Grail of Trail

Kilian Jornet on the muddy prologue route.  Photo Credit: Jacques Marais

And lastly, although I was way down the field, I’ve got myself a medal that will always remind me of what a great piece of living this was.


Photo Credit: Louis le Grange

Till next time, enjoy the trails and live a little…