Jonkershoek Marathon - The ultimate hiking (trailrunning) challenge!

The Jonkershoek marathon Article by Stellenbosch local Coos Diener - Extreme Lights Ambassador & Adventurer The Jonkershoek marathon is an unique hiking challenge in the mountains around Stellenbosch covering just over 30 km with a vertical ascent of 3000 m.

Jonkershoek marathon route profile

Behind Stellenbosch lies a horseshoe shaped valley called Jonkershoek. The entrance to the valley is marked by Botmaskop on the northern flank and Stellenbosch Mountain to the south. One cannot say for sure when someone first noticed that these to two peaks lie less than 5 km apart in a straight line, but the ridge connecting them is about 30 km long and presents a very unique hiking challenge.

 This challenge was first completed by three Matie students on the 19th of May 1962 in 19 hours and 30 minutes. Two months later Ernst Lotz, who wrote “Jonkershoek en sy berge” the definitive guide to the valley and its mountains, raised the bar to a very impressive 14 hours. It should be noted that the convention is to measure only the time taken to travel between the trigonometric beacons on Botmaskop and Stellenbosch Mountain. Hence the approach and descent times of about 3 hours are not included. Since then the Jonkershoek marathon, as it is known among the hiking fraternity of Stellenbosch, is seen as a challenge for the very fit and adventurous mountaineers. Highlights of the marathon include that the record time of 10 hours 13 minutes was held for a decade by a lady, Lydia Cilliers. That was until Henco Jordaan came along and knocked 33 minutes off it in October of 2000, for a time of 9 hours and 40 minutes, the current fastest known time. Jonkershoek marathon route profile The fact that each record seems to stand for about a decade and has only been held by Stellenbosch locals is a testament to the technical nature of the challenge.

Being just over 30 km long, with a vertical ascent of just over 3000 metres, it doesn’t quite measure up to some of the trail runs on offer in the surrounds. Then again the marathon is anything but a trail run since only a quarter of the entire route is on established paths. It is probably better to classify it as a long hike, done at a fast pace, that demands lots of navigational and mountaineering skills to complete. It also requires many scouting trips, not only to familiarise oneself with the route, which in sections is only marked by strategic cairns, but also with the various escape routes. An attempt to complete the traverse should best be undertaken when lots of daylight is on offer and the weather is still relatively cool, probably around October/ November. In these months there should also still be plenty of water available in the mountains. Due to the remoteness of the route adequate rain gear, warm clothing, a basic first aid kit including a whistle and space blanket, and enough food to last 15 hours should be carried. Water is in general scarce on the ridges and hence water to last 3 to 4 hours of strenuous physical activity (in the order of at least 2 litres) should be carried and replenished whenever possible.

Before any attempt or scouting trip the necessary permits should be obtained from the CapeNature office in Jonkershoek. The safety register at this office should also be completed since any rescue attempt would have to be coordinated from there. There is no official route description, although most of the route can be deciphered from the individual descriptions offered in “Jonkershoek en sy berge”.

It is not impossible to figure out the route on your own: Michael Owen and Robyn Kime completed the marathon in a very respectable 12 hours 30 minutes in 2013, but only after they undertook various scouting trips. By far the best way to get to know the route is to join either the Stellenbosch section of the Mountain Club of South Africa or the Berg- en Toerklub of Stellenbosch University. Both clubs undertake regular hikes in Jonkershoek and in this way the peaks can be explored one at a time and along various routes which can serve as escape routes in case of an emergency or bad weather.  However, there are many sections that are not part of any trail and these would have to be explored on your own.

The marathon should never be attempted alone since some of the peaks are just far too remote and cell phone reception is sketchy at the best of times. But there is a trade-off in the numbers, since the bigger the group the longer it takes to traverse any obstacles. Three to four people is probably the optimal group size. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted and few people have done it more than once since the effort has been compared to that of an Ironman event. As always there are those for whom the challenge is simply irresistible. In that sense it is record holder Henco’s father Retief Jordaan who leads the charge with eight attempts of which he completed six with a best time of 10 hours 05 minutes at the age of 55! Further reading Jonkershoek en sy berge, Ernst Lotz, translation available here. Die Jonkershoek marathon, Tony Grogan, Journal of the MCSA, 2000.


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