Mnweni Marathon 2019
4 May @ 06:00 - 17:00
The Natal Drakensberg has a network of paths and trails that cover the sandstone hills and valleys of the little berg all the way up to sheer trails that wind torturously up the passes that are the occasional chinks in the formiddable basalt wall that is the main escarpment and run along the high alpine country beyond. The series of 1:50 000 maps by Peter Slingsby covers the whole Natal Berg in six sheets and are essential to runners and hikers here. These are available at certain news agents and the KZN Ezemvelo berg reserve offices. They show all paths with distances as well as caves where you may overnight and vegetation cover.
The Drakensberg is part of the karoo sequence and is one of the best places in South Africa to observe most of the layers of this mostly sedimentary sequence. The dwyka and ecca deposits being the oldest of the sequence are only found at lower altitudes and do not occur in the Drakensberg. Next from around 190 million years ago come the red beds. These shale deposits are in evidence in the lower elevations of the little berg and where exposed are mostly well weathered forming slippery red earth. The Molteno beds laid down thereafter comprise alternating layers of shale, deposited in moist climatic times and sandstone, laid down in drier times. These form the slopes of the little berg leading up to the sandstone cliffs that mark the upper extent of the little Berg. As the climate became increasingly drier the sandstone layer was deposited around 180 million years ago. These rocks form the impressive cliffs of the little berg. Finally 150 million years ago as Gondwanaland broke apart, massive fissures opened up allowing one of the greatest outpourings of basalt onto land in the history of the earth. This basalt comprises the entire main berg from 1900 m asl to almost 3500 m asl in the Drakensberg where it reaches its greatest elevations. This marked the end of the depositional cycle and subsequently the rocks have been eroded back about 200 km from around where the coastline lies today over the past 150 million years. The berg retreats about 1 to 1.5 mm each year
Flora and fauna
The berg is primarily grassland. Afro montane forests are found on the moister south facing slopes of the little berg and valleys up to 1800 m asl. Above 2000 m Leucosidia boulder bed scrub and ouhout trees are found in the valleys. On the escarpment summit short alpine suited grasses occur.
Various small mountain antelope live in the berg but larger species such as eland are also common in certain areas. The bark of the chacma baboon is a common sound in the berg and they are found at all elevations. Eagles and raptors find home amoungst the high cliffs of the main escarpment with the lammergeier or bearded vulture being one of the most majestic. They are often sighted in the Mnweni area.
The Mnweni section
The Mnweni area is one of the remotest parts of the Natal Drakensberg and the most dramatically beautiful section of the high berg with many basalt spires and pinnacles. It is situated in the northern section of the berg between the Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak reserve area. It is the only section of the main Natal berg that does not fall under the provincial parks authority and their restrictive rules and the Mnweni marathon run in this area is therefore the only trail run in the entire Natal berg without a significant stretch on gravel road.
In days of old the Isandlwana police station was the starting point for people wanting to explore this area and the mountain register was kept there. Nowdays the Mnweni cultural centre, located another 4 km in from the police station serves as the starting point for exploring this area
It is a four hour drive from Johannesburg and 2.5 hours from Durban
Take the R74 to Bergville from Harrismith or after Estcourt (if coming from Durban)
Travelling from Harrismith take the Rookdale turn off to the right on entering Bergville and drive for 16 km on this road
Turn left to the Mnweni cultural centre (signposted) ,drive for 1.8 Km and turn right again
16 Km of rough dirt road brings you to a large drift where the Ntonyelane river flows over the road
The Mnweni cultural centre is a further 200 m on the right
The Mnweni cultural centre is the only accommodation available in the Mnweni valley. It is well run as a community project and they do deserve your custom. Other guesthouse and B&B is available further afield. .
Accommodation fees are payable to Agrippa on arrival.
Camping is available at the Mnweni cultural centre and does not have to be booked beforehand.
Very comfortable but limited rondavel accommodation is also available, with linen provided. This must be booked by phoning or SMSing Agrippa on 072 712 2401 (Reception in the area is poor – the SMS option is preferable).
There is also dormitory accommodation that can be booked through Agrippa.
The entire Natal Berg is a wilderness area and camping is permitted apart from in the immediate vicinity of the entry points and certain caves that contain bushman art. This is however wilderness camping and there are no facilities at all.
The Mnweni marathon follows the most popular hiking route in this part of the Drakensberg and the route is open at all times of the year to the public. The route starts at the Mnweni cultural centre and winds its way into the berg alongside the Mnweni river. There is a well trodden path that is used by the local inhabitants to get to their huts and to travel up the Mnweni pass into Lesotho. This trail often consists of multiple parallel trails but generally makes its way up the Mnweni valley, sticking on the left hand bank up to the Shepherd’s cave area. In two sections, the path gains height above the river but in both instances the river section thus skirted contains some of the most impressive pools to be found in the berg and it is worthwile to divert to see these.
After about 15 Km the trail crosses the Mnweni river for the first time and a kilometre later takes you past Shepherd’s cave, a popular overnight spot for hikers. At this point you have climbed from 1200 m at the start up to 1650 m asl at the cave and one is in the remote upper reaches of the Mnweni valley. The trail continues for another five kilometres up the river valley, often crossing the river to the base of the Mnweni pass at around 2000 m asl in the Mnweni cutback. Over the next 2.5 km up the pass you climb almost 1000 m to the summit plateau. There is a roughly level section for two klometres across the top where the Orange river is crossed virtually at it’s source. The descent is via the aptly named Rockeries pass that takes you past the spires of the Rockeries and the imposing saddle on the other side for a six kilommetre bone jarring descent before the route levels out more for the last faster ten kilometres through the lower reaches of the little berg back to the start point, descending down the Ntonyelana river valley.
The Mnweni marathon was born in the midwinter of 2000 when trail-running legend Bruce Arnett and friend Mark Tannian pioneered the original route of this race, starting their hike in clear sunny weather from Isandhlwana Police Station and ending, about 50 kilometres and a raging blizzard later, at Club Maluti.
The allure of the challenge grew, and the first running of the point-to-point route as a race took place in January 2001. 11 runners took part in what was to all intents and purposes a gathering of friends who had set themselves to conquer the route. In 2002 the route was changed to today’s circular and less extreme format due to the logistical difficulties associated with a linear race that spanned such extreme terrain.
Over the years, entries have grown, largely by word of mouth, but recently through listings on internet and other trail running schedules, from about 30 in 2006 to around 70 in 2010 to the event being fully subscribed with the 100 runner limit being reached in 2012 , many of them now on an “annual pilgrimage”, and confirmed members of the Mnweni family.
Bruce Arnett, besides being the founder of the Mnweni race is also a well known trail runner having won multiple times and set course records(many of which still stand) for races that include: Puffer, Four Peaks Challenge, Skyrun(12 wins), Table Mountain Challenge, Addo 100 miler and his own Mnweni Marathon.
This is a mountain trail run, with all the terrain and weather implications that the term implies
Only the first and last 5km of the route are jeep track and accessible by vehicle
The remainder of the route is single track, or no track
You are advised to be prepared for extremes of heat and cold, the possibility of fog and rain, and the eventuality of being benighted on the route
This 38 Km run involves ascending from 1200 m asl to 3000 m on the berg summit in Lesotho, a total climb of 1800 m.
It is a circular route which starts and ends at the Mnweni cultural centre (roughly at the confluence of the Mnweni and Ntonyelane rivers)in the northern Kwa Zulu Natal Drakensberg
The route follows the Mnweni Valley, ascends the Mnweni pass, crosses the source of the Orange on the plateau and returns down Rockeries pass and the Ntonyelane Valley
The route is not marked and has to be self navigated
Some straightforward route finding is required although there is a path most of the way
There is NO access for seconds and NO refreshment or water stations and you must carry your own water and energy food
The mountain water is clean and suitable to drink untreated, however it is probably best not to take water from the rivers running through inhabited areas (encountered in the first and last 5 Km of the run)
You will run through pristine wilderness. People who follow you will want to do the same. Please treat the area with respect and make sure that you do not drop litter, or cause any harm to the environment you are enjoying. Help by picking up any litter you may see on the trail.
You will receive a copy of a 1:50 000 map of the area marked with the route
All compulsory equipment (see below) must be carried by all competitors
A short route briefing will be held at 20:30 on the Friday evening before the race
The start time is 6 am, and the cut-off for official finishers is at 18h00 hours. If you have not begun the ascent of the Mnweni pass by 11h00, you will be turned back and accompanied to the start by a marshal.
Most people take between 6 and 12 hours to complete this run
The route is ideally suited to adventure racers, trail runners, and strong hikers
The route is NOT suited to people who are unfamiliar with rugged single-track trail running conditions
Novice trail runners with no navigational ability are advised to pair or team up with a navigator, beforehand or on the day
Please note that this is NOT a Comrades qualifying event