Beers, dance offs and epic trail | The ITEC Oxpecker

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Image by: Em Gatland

I stretched my double-socked feet tentatively into the colder, unchartered depths of my sleeping bag, exhaling a swirl of relieved misty breath when my icy toes found what they were looking for: my hot water bottle. I wriggled into my warm zone and let my toes thaw while I waited for my snooze alarm to go off for the third time that morning. It had been a cold night in my little tent, but nothing that a few Nottingham Road Tipsy Tiger IPA’s, double-socks and a complimentary hot water bottle couldn’t sort out. As my toes regained life thanks to the hot water bottle, I wondered how the Green’s got it right every single time? How on earth did they manage to make you feel like you were at home when in fact, you were 2000km from home, in a little tent pitched on an enormous field with 1000 other snoring ITEC Red-Billed Oxpecker trail runners, just outside Winterton in KwaZulu-Natal?

Classic Greens I thought, classic.

About half an hour into the first 20km day, I had zero recollection of what it felt like to be cold and the thought of double-socking had long since left my mind. We had been going roughly uphill from the start, and despite stripping off as many of my unnecessary layers as I could at the Subaru Strip Zone, I was still heating up. My body’s core temperature seemed to rising proportionately to the incline of the single track, which was starting to get very vertical, and as we wound our way up Spioenkop I questioned the third Tipsy Tiger IPA’s I had overzealously enjoyed the night before.

The queasiness didn’t last long, and the endless views spanning over the area combined with an entire army of fellow trail runners, all of us in the same uphill-boat, brightened the mood. The climb, which had been going on for about two days at this stage, got significantly steeper, and my conversation skills dipped to non-existent and borderline unsociable.

Fortunately everyone around me also started to lose composure and together we huffed and puffed rather ungracefully up the final few hand carved steps to the top of the mighty Spioenkop.

The area at the top was small and crowded, but never for a second did it feel claustrophobic and here’s why: everyone up there was stoked. I looked around and realised that there was no way you couldn’t be! The view was unbelievable, and through my salt-encrusted eyelashes I soaked it in. Farmlands, koppies, Spioenkop Dam, mountains… it just went on for days and was an epic reward for the grueling climb. I’ve never seen so many happy people at the top of a hill. It was like standing at the summit of Kilimanjaro, and I joined in the mass high fiving and even hugging with complete strangers. I took about 37 photos for elated people and of course the obligatory selfie, before trotting off in the direction of the water table.

I rounded a corner and was greeted by madness, and I mean that in the best sense. A large group of Mamas had gathered and had formed a moving, dancing, foot-stomping tunnel to run through – singing and ululating as each runner passed through – throwing high fives and hip bumps (yes, hip) that would send even the most steady of runners flying. It was hysterical, it was loud and it was epic. All that was missing was the Nottingham Road Brewery stand. I remembered that Gary Green had mentioned that these women had single-handedly carried all the food and water up to the table for us, and here they were, carrying on like it was the New Year’s countdown party, yet I could barely compose myself? I wondered for a second if I could ask one to carry me down, but the thought flickered past quickly as soon as I saw the food. I hip bumped my way to the table and took a moment to soak in the vibe.

The second half of the day was blissful trail running: a combination of jeep track and single track wound us down to the Tugela River, where a table laden with Old Brown Sherry awaited us unsuspecting runners. I had my obligatory shot, immediately regretted it, and continued towards the finish through ‘the Garden of Eden’. Shaded by magnificent trees, the final stretch of single track undulates gently along the bank of the Tugela, the path laden with autumn leaves and the river babbling quietly alongside. It must be some of the prettiest trail running I’ve done, and the finish arrived quickly.

The afternoon was a blur of people, conversations, more beer-tasting in the sunshine and a walk through the much-anticipated Valley Bakery #HotZone, which can only be described as a high tea in the middle of the KwaZulu Natal bush. The afternoon light faded into gold, and the entire field of runners (and then some) enjoyed a beautiful sunset while listening to the infamous history talk about the battle of Spioenkop. After dinner and a very hysterical prize- giving, the brave, bold and stupid gathered around enormous bonfires at the secret bush bar location for the ‘stiff-legged-jol’, where I feel like my dancing skills far exceeded my uphill running ones!

Peaking at the stiff-legged jol seemed like a brilliant idea at the time, however I felt slightly less enthusiastic about my decision the next morning sitting in the back of a taxi on the way to the secret start, ‘pye-eyed’ and half asleep. A cup of tea and rusk around a glowing brazier certainly did wonders, but it wasn’t until I started the descent of the second (thankfully shorter) day that I finally started to shake the fuzziness brought on by the 67 litres of Nottingham Road beer the night before.

The second day of the Oxpecker started uphill for a short distance, before popping runners out at the high point. The rest of the route is spent winding down the glorious Puffadder Pass’s flowing single track towards the river and the final finish line and is hands down the most fun you can have trail running. Within a few kays of the descent I had forgotten about the banging headache and stiff-legs and was flying downhill, arms out, images of Kilian Jornet in my head. Everyone around me was loving the trail, and you could feel a unanimous sense of stoke growing as the finish drew closer. The final obstacle was a floating bridge over the Tugela River, but even that was easily overcome with laughter and a bit of fun and before I knew it I had finished the two-day Red-Billed Oxpecker Trail Run!

Fortunately, Nottingham Road Breweries hadn’t packed up yet, and I managed to get my paws on a cold Tipsy Tiger IPA, the night before’s hangover a distant memory already. I kicked back, after two solid days of running (with a pretty decent sized jol thrown into the mix), I let the bantering between Gary Green and Lee Fuller, along with the sporadic laughter and squeals from the crowd encompass my thoughts. As sun warmed my cheeks and my mind wandered over the highlights from the past two days, I couldn’t help a huge smile from spreading across my face. From making awesome new friends, being hip bumped, snuggling a hot water bottle and eating more delicious food that I needed, to attempting to win dance offs, flying down Puffadder Pass and tackling the mighty Spioenkop mountain – every part of the weekend was a part worth remembering. My train of thought was broken by a new trail buddy, who had spotted me across the crowd and wondered over.

“One for the road”, they asked, nodding suggestively in the direction of Nottingham Road Brewery…

It would be rude not to… I thought!