(photo credit Jack Davis)

I was woken by the gentle rhythmic cooing of an emerald-spotted wood dove heralding first light. The sky was a deep burnt orange, and as I lay there listening, it was as though every second introduced another bird to the dawn chorus, soon a cacophony in the acacia towering above me. I’m a sucker for a star-studded night sky so I’d slept outside my tent – lying under the stars in a game reserve filled with wild animals isn’t necessarily the wisest plan, but I’d figured that being in an open boma next to a slow-burning camp fire meant my chances of being mauled by a hungry carnivore in my sleep were fairly slim. Besides, as there were three of us who’d braved sleeping in the great outdoors, I had figured there was a 66.6% chance of me not being the human dish of choice. And let’s face it, if the only negative from the whole experience was a rather dew-sodden sleeping bag, then what wasn’t to love?

(photo credit EWT)

(photo credit EWT)

Where is the Soutpansberg and why is it special?
The Soutpansberg is a range of mountains in the northernmost section of South Africa, in Limpopo Province near the border with Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Botswana. Declared the UNESCO Vhembe Biosphere Reserve in 2009, the range is internationally recognised and protected for its wildlife and its unique biological and cultural diversity. Interestingly, the 120km length of the Soutpansberg covers less than 0.5% of the surface area of South Africa, but contains 30% of the tree species, 48% of the genera of flowering plants, 60% of the bird species, 40% of the mammals, 30% of the amphibians and reptiles, and 70% of the 66 families of spiders. The comparison often quoted is that the whole of Canada (9 220 970km2) has 3 829 native plant species, while the Soutpansberg has about 2443 species in an area of just 6800km2!
And why Soutpan? That’s easy – the region’s name hails from the salt pans that have been mined at the foot of these mountains since the 1800s. The region is also a cultural hotspot, being the site of the lost Mapungubwe Kingdom. Thulamela was a hilltop stone fortress in the 13th to 17th centuries, and remains a prominent archaeological site in the eastern section of the Soutpansberg range.

EWT’s Soutpansberg Protected Area Programme (SPA)
Realising the urgent need to protect this valuable ecosystem, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) entered into a partnership with the Limpopo provincial government and began the process of biodiversity stewardship in the western Soutpansberg. With the help of donors, EWT purchased two properties, Medike West and West Nature Reserve (2,733 hectares), which form the heart of EWT’s SPA, and is in the process of proclaiming a network of connected properties, 27000 hectares in extent, into a protected area which will be known as the Western Soutpansberg Nature Reserve (WSNR) as a vital network of connected reserves as a vital corridor to combat the poaching of leopards, rhinos, pangolins and other threatened species, and ensure the protection of endemic plant species. The WSNR will be proclaimed for 99 years on a title deed endorsement as nature reserve.

But why the recce?
Well yes, a good question! And in the answer lies the (for now hidden) gem: it’s a bit of a secret, known only to the privileged few… BUT I’ll whisper it here in this blog so only you can know. But of course, I can trust you to keep it under wraps, right?

ssssh, here’s the secret…
Sometime during 2021, KZN Trail Running in partnership with EWT, will be staging a multi-day trail running event, 100-120km, over at least 4 stages. Runners will sleep each night in the beautiful rest camps along the route, devour delicious bush cuisine under the African night sky, visit sites of bushman painting, and enjoy evening talks explaining rich cultural and botanical offerings of the region.

And for those wanting to maximise their Soutpansberg experience, there’ll be an additional trail spinner to add to the mix – a single-stage 40km mountain marathon (or a 20km and 10km version for those who prefer to get their run done early to hit the bush breakfast buffet sooner).

This plan is a dream of Andrew and Lauren that has long been brewing. Together with EWT’s Oldrich van Schalkwyk, they’re passionate about conservation and feel strongly about opening up the Soutpansberg to likeminded trail runners who’ll appreciate this hidden South African gem.

“The Soutpansberg holds our past and future. It’s a retreat to slow down and connect with nature to understand where we have come from and where we’re going to. The area is diverse in every way, presenting surprising scenes over every ridge and gorge, reflecting the beauty of nature and guiding us forward. An event like this perfectly fits the philosophy and ethos shared by KZNTR and EWT – to protect species and habitat for the benefit of people,” says Andrew.

Final heads-up
So, all you trail running crazies out there who love discovering unexplored gorges, game paths, waterfalls, forests and grass veldt, keep an ear to the ground for this one – it will be announced in the coming months and no doubt there’ll be a rush on it because numbers will need to be limited. After all, that’ll be yet another bonus about the event, right?

(photo credit EWT)