Words & Photos: Jacques Marais
The Otter African Trail Run – presented by GU and Salomon, and organised by Magnetic South - is unarguably South Africa’s ‘unofficial national trail running championships’. Shooting it is an experience of a life time, even after five years of covering this amazing event.
Nowhere else in the world will you find so much concentrated natural beauty distilled into 42.2 km of trail, and that is no lie. I’ve hiked, trekked, and done trail runs on so many routes around the world - from Patagonia, Greenland National Park, and Borneo to Outer Mongolia – and nothing quite compares to the Otter.
Ancient montane forest, plunging sea cliffs, boulder-strewn beaches, hidden bays, coastal promontories, and fynbos ridges combine along this legendary hiking trail, making it South Africa’s favourite multi-day trail.
Getting a spot on this popular hike may take a year or more, but even that does not come close to the desirability of running the route in a single day. As Mark Collins - one of the passionate organisers from Magnetic South – says: “It is a place where you can release your soul to dance free within one of the most beautiful natural spaces on Planet Earth.”
He is absolutely right, but the 200-plus athletes who annually compete in the Otter African Trail Run race (there is a Challenge Event as well), don’t come here to dance … they come to face off against one of the toughest trail challenges in the world.
There are longer runs and runs with more altitude gain, but the Otter combines the classic 42.2 km marathon distance with relentless ups and downs, constantly changing terrain – think slippery tree roots, knife-edged striated rocks, ankle-snapping boulder fields, and more than 7,000 steps – plus one of the strongest running fields ever assembled in Africa.
World Trail Running Champion Ricky Lightfoot was one of the athletes who lined up at the start this year. This Salomon-sponsored speedster came to South Africa with a mission, and that mission was to destroy the record for this iconic race.
This he did, in the most emphatic fashion imaginable and despite going against the cream of SA's 'generation trail' heroes. Lightfoot's new record of 4 hours 15 minutes seems just about impossible for an event that, at inception, nobody thought could be run in under five hours.
This year, the top three men broke the previous record set up Ryan Sandes, with a further twenty-plus athletes managing to finish in under five hours. Lightfoot was followed over the Bay Port floating bridge by the indefatigable Iain Don-Wauchope in 4 hours 25 minutes, and AJ Calitz claimed the final podium space in 4 hours 27 minutes.
The Otter, however, is certainly not only about the men. The Women's race proved a hotly contested event, with the ladies breaking the 5 hour barrier for the first time ever. Ruby Muir from New Zealand ran impeccably (and seemingly effortlessly) in 4 hours 55 minutes, while SA’s ‘Darling of Trail’, Landie Greyling, claimed second place in 4 hours 58 minutes. Nicolette Griffioen managed a hard-fought third place in her first Otter.
Noteworthy was an amazing performance by Noel Ernstzen, who became the first Master (yup, that’s the over 50's category!) to smash the 5 hour barrier. The winners are certainly not the only heroes though; any athlete who finishes the ‘Grail of Trail’ is a hero in their own right.
This certainly holds true for the backmarkers who suffer for 11 hours during the Challenge Event, held two days after race day. Huge respect therefore goes out to each and every competitor who came, experienced, and conquered the incredible Otter African Trail Run.
No other trail race ever generates this kind of excitement, and shooting this Magnetic South event comes with a huge responsibility. As photographers, you need to cover the majority of the course on foot, while carrying all the camera equipment required for the job.
This was the first year I shot the Otter with my new Sony equipment, and I knew it would be a major test for both the ALPHA-SLT and NEX Systems. The latter bridge cameras proved a massive boon, as their lightweight lenses and bodies, combined with an impressive DX-Format sensor, meant a substantial weight saving.
The NEX-7 also fits perfectly into a small Digipac waterproof housing, which meant I could shoot the Bloukrans River crossing without fear of losing my equipment in the treacherous surge pumping through the mouth. As always, the A99-SLT’s full frame capabilities pumped out eye-popping colour and crisp landscapes, but that is exactly what you would expect from their range of immaculate Carl Zeiss lenses.
The beauty of Sony is that it is a cross-platform system. What exactly does this mean, you ask? Well, my waterproof Xperia phone communicates on NFC (Near Field Communication) with my camera, allowing me immediate sharing on social media platforms, while I can control my Action Cam using the phone as an interface as well.
And NOTHING can touch the speed, lightness, and rugged aluminium gorgeousness of my Sony Ultrabook. A Core i7-processor, intuitive touch screen display, and seamless synching with my full system make for total compatibility, and at a weight of less than a weekly magazine.
After four days on the Otter, all I can say is 'another perfect day in the office'. The Magnetic South team are like family; sponsors Salomon and GU are the best brands in the business; the Garden Route National Park is truly glorious; and the athletes themselves are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. Kudos, to each and every one of you!