Robberg, the mountain in the sea 

Robberg trail run, the mountain in the sea
Published: August 2nd, 2022

Robberg trail run on the mountain in the sea

I’m always five minutes late for our Thursday morning Robberg run, and Matt, my running partner, has come to expect this. It’s a standing joke… we agree to meet up at 06h00, I arrive at 06h05 and he stands there tapping his watch and rolling his eyes.

This morning was no exception, other than that at around 10pm last night Matt sent me a WhatsApp message telling me to meet him at the Robberg gate at 05h55. I duly responded, “Cool, see you then… LOL”, and we both knew what that meant.

So, when I drove up to the gates of Robberg Reserve this morning, I was surprised not to see Matt’s double-cab bakkie with him beside it, tapping his Garmin. I checked my messages again, just to make sure that I’d got the time and day right. There was a new message waiting: “Running a few min late. Forgot my shoes!”

This delighted me because it meant I was now standing beside my car tapping my watch as he drove up almost 10 minutes late! With our running-buddy ritual over, we signed in at the CapeNature gate with our Wild Cards, which give us a year of access to the reserve, and stretched our legs briefly on the stone wall. The sun wasn’t up yet but with Petzl headlamps comfortably in place, we felt pretty sure we’d manage to at least start the run without going over on an ankle.

The start of the Robberg trail run is dark in the early morning but not for long once the sun pops up over the Tsitsikamma Mountains
The start of the Robberg trail run is dark in the early morning but not for long once the sun pops up over the Tsitsikamma Mountains

The beauty of a Robberg trail run is that the moment one leaves the brick-paved car park and heads off down the narrow path towards the bay, you’re on your own. It’s just you looking after yourself over terrain that is tricky – one foot wrong and you’re likely to get hurt. It’s also so dramatic, the way the slope falls away steeply, and one can see right across the bay for about 20km without a single break in the water.

The sky was now just starting to change from dark purple to a bright orange in the east as we made our way cautiously over the uneven surface of the pathway. Usually, we run to the gap before stopping to look at the view, but this morning we decided to pull off at the Meidebank signpost to try and spot a great white shark. In the winter months, there are frequent sightings of the sharks along this section of the peninsula where the seal colony lies. We thought we’d see if we could spot one. Sure enough, even though the light was still very dim, there below us was the unmistakable outline of a shark just below the surface, hugging the coastline. We watched in awe as another three great whites followed the first, just as silently and gracefully as the first.

With shark-spotting checked off the list, and the sun now threatening to break above the mountains, we continued our run, through the gap and up the steep path towards the viewing deck. This part of the run is always a killer, most probably because I’m not yet warmed up enough to be in my stride, but also because it’s a climb of about 100m over a distance of 300m, so it’s more of a laboured walk than a sprint.

Throughout this climb, however, Matt always chatters away happily, while I simply respond with grunts and the odd ‘ja’ thrown in for good measure. I try and put it down to the fact that he’s five years younger than me, but the truth is his cardio fitness is next level compared to mine, and always will be.

At the top of this climb there is a large wooden viewing deck and this is where I collapse my head onto my folded arms on the railing as I try and catch my breath while that familiar metallic taste sears the back of my throat.

A  quick breather from the viewing deck  on the Robberg Trail Run before making our way to Witsand
A quick breather from the viewing deck before making our way to Witsand

Matt is still moaning about the cost of school fees and electricity prices when I finally pull myself off the railing, slug some water from the bottle in my shirt pocket and we head off along the path which is now mostly flat almost all the way to Witsand. We hadn’t gone far when we rounded a bend and came to a barrelling halt as a francolin pair squawked wildly with surprise, and with plenty of running and flapping, they took off wildly into the dawn sky.

The closer one gets to Witsand, the more one can hear and smell the Cape fur seal colony. It’s not exactly a pleasant smell, let’s be honest, but it is a reminder that the seal population is flourishing on this landmass that bears their name. Robberg is of course a conjunction of the Dutch/Afrikaans words ‘rob’ (seal) and ‘berg’ (mountain). Aside from being home to thousands of the creatures, the peninsula also looks a lot like a massive seal stretching nearly four kilometres out into the Indian Ocean.

The descent from Witsand to the Island is always a relief after the energy-sapping climb up the Robberg Trail Run
The 500m downhill from Witsand to the Island is always a relief after the energy-sapping climb.

Witsand is decision time for most people when hiking the ‘berg. You have the choice of either continuing towards The Point or taking a sharp right down the dune towards The Island beach. For Matt and me, midweek time is limited, so we always opt for the turnoff, and this is where the fun starts. Roughly 500 meters of sandy downhill lies ahead and it’s a chance to switch off and enjoy as gravity helps us all the way down to the beach at the bottom. It’s also arguably the most beautiful stretch as The Island comes into view with its wide, sandy stretch of beach. 

The Island is home to breeding seabirds and has an elevated boardwalk around it, so stick to the path we always do. It’s also only truly an Island for a very short time at spring high tide when the rising water covers the tombolo beach briefly and then recedes a few hours later. If you’re running or hiking Robberg for the first time, it’s a good idea to check tides to avoid certain sections on the spring high. 

Once we’ve rounded The Island, the return journey starts, and halfway across that beach is where I normally start thinking about the coffee that awaits. However, there’s still a rocky section to navigate as well as passing some impressive, ancient caves where you can truly feel yourself transported back in time thousands of years as you gaze into their dark recesses. Each time I pass that point I think of how the scene I witness now is probably exactly the same one that the families who inhabited these caves would have seen all those millennia ago. It’s humbling and has a way of making me feel both insignificant and yet somehow full of meaning all at the same time.

With my consciousness now fully awoken, and another steep climb ahead that needs to be conquered before the final segment, I take a few deep breaths and prepare myself. That steep climb is the final killer, and I once again find myself gasping for breath on the bench at the top while Matt chatters on with seemingly fresh lungs about the rising cost of fuel and the price of his daughter’s new horsebox.

The ancient cave on the southern side of Robberg is filled with old seashells left there by inhabitants from thousands of years ago.
The ancient cave on the southern side of Robberg is filled with old seashells left there by inhabitants thousands of years ago.

The final leg starts with a slight rise and then a pebbly, ankle-risking downhill path back to the car park, along the brick road and back to our cars outside the gate. It’s a time to warm down and let the endorphins flood the body. The feel-good part has arrived. It’s also a time to reflect on the privilege we have being able to enjoy this trail run whenever we want to. May it always be a protected area so that generations to come can enjoy it the way we do every Thursday.