Treading lightly over the trails on Table Mountain protects the environment. Photo: Kevin Sawyer)

By Stephen Granger

The environment and trail running are two sides of the same coin and while challenges remain to be solved, the partnership between SANParks and the trail-running community in South Africa is strengthening conservation and becoming a global leader in sustainable partnerships.

Distance running events have been held successfully in South African national parks in recent years, including Kruger, Table Mountain, the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park and Golden Gate National Park, in addition to provincial parks, such as the Drakensberg and De Hoop  Nature Reserve in the Southern Cape.

Prodigal Khumalo racing clear to win the 2017 Ultra-trail Cape Town 2017 in record time. Photo: Stephen Granger

As trail athletes arrive in Cape Town from all corners of the planet this week ahead of the country’s premier trail race, Ultra-trail Cape Town, the event’s strong emphasis on the environment has been noted by SANPark leaders, who have welcomed the athletes to compete but urged them to be conscious of the important natural and cultural heritage of Table Mountain National Park.

And in recognition of the strong link between athletics and the environment, athletes from around the world have come together under a World Athletics banner to call on world leaders to take action now to curb the impact of climate change, which is impacting negatively on the sport of athletics and distance running in particular. 

Trail running and the conservation of sensitive ecosystems go hand in hand. Photo: Stephen Granger

Athletes spoke out clearly in the World Athletics video “We can still fix this” made for leaders who attended the Climate Change summit. “We will not stand by and accept the irreversible damage to our planet”, said New Zealand pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney, while Kenyan super-star and world marathon record-holder, Eliud Kipchoge, added “When we are running, we need fresh air and a good environment. The only way is to respect the environment.”

“Climate change is getting worse and I find it shocking that 7 million people lose their lives annually to breathing polluted air,” said former world marathon record holder, England’s Paula Radcliffe, while 400m Dutch Olympian Lisanne de Witte reminded world leaders that “The guilt we feel that we are the cause (of climate change) should empower us that we are authors of our own destiny.”

spectacular vistas and rich biodiversity typical of Table Mountain trails. Photo: Stephen Granger

World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe concluded by recognising that athletes are responding to this global challenge. “They are using their voices to encourage their fellow athletes and elected leaders to work together now for a healthy environment, the future of our sport and the future of our planet.”   

In a similar vein, Ultra-trail Cape Town organisers and SANParks conservation managers have spoken of the importance of protecting Table Mountain’s natural wonderland while recognising the role of trail running in contributing to its conservation.

“We are very privileged to have Table Mountain in Cape Town, which is the most biodiverse city on the planet,” said Stuart McConnachie, Race Director of UTCT. “Few, if any other large cities in the world can boast such an iconic mountain in the centre of its city, offering a variety of world-class mountain trails on their doorstep.

UTCT committed to environmental conservation – CT Race Director Stuart McConnachie (right) with founding partner Nic Bornman. Photo: Stephen Granger

“And I’m pleased to say we have established a strong partnership with SANParks, the custodians of Table Mountain National Park, where we are working together to support conservation-related recreation on the mountain,” McConnachie siad.

“Both sides have worked hard in past years to find one another. It has not always been easy, but we now have developed strong mutual respect based on a professionalism which promises to stand us in good stead for the future. We are passionate about supporting SANParks’ conservation agenda for the park and to contribute to the conservation of globally important biodiversity, in particular in respect of trail maintenance.”

And showing that UTCT is ‘walking the talk’, the environment features strongly in the race rules for the weekend. The environment section of the rules recognises that “The mountain you will be running on has been preserved by many people before you – please take care of it and leave it pristine for those who come after you.”

Six sub-clauses could lead to disqualification if transgressed by participating athletes, including 

·    Any littering on the course is strictly prohibited and there is strict adherence to the “leave no trace and take no souvenirs” policy;

·    No taking short cuts, including avoiding switchbacks, and no overtaking by going off the trail; and

·    If you deliberately ignore rules of conduct along the trail concerning safety, waste, erosion and hygiene, you will at best incur a time penalty or it could be grounds for disqualification

Managing Executive for Conservation at SANParks, Luthando Dziba, stressed the global importance of Table Mountain and called on UTCT trail runners to respect its heritage as they traverse its trails on the weekend.

“Table Mountain National Park is a very special place in South Africa and the World,” said Dziba.

“Dedicated to conserve one of the most diverse plant communities on earth, the Cape Floral Kingdom, the park is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Dr Luthando Dziba – Managing Executive Conservation Services. Photo: Courtesy, Luthando Dziba

“I hope trail runners of UTCT will quietly appreciate this as they make their way through the fynbos vegetation that is characteristic of this beautiful landscape. I hope they will take in the beauty of this majestic mountain and the wide vistas of the Cape Peninsula it provides – the beautiful sea views, the bays, the distant mountains, the (Cape) Flats and people and their settlements who surround this iconic mountain.

“We know they will tread carefully, knowing that this is a conservation landscape (and) also a cultural landscape. I hope the trail takes runners to some of the historic places in the mountain and connects them with our shared history as the people of the world. I also hope this epic race leaves enduring memories to all the participants and that it will call them back to visit the Mother City and the beautiful mountain that makes Cape Town, Cape Town.

“Last but not least, you must all run proudly knowing that you make a contribution to conservation by participating in this race. This contribution will be directed at enhancing the management of the park including the maintenance of trails that many admirers of the mountain use. So keep running!”

Table Mountain National Park manager Frans van Rooyen talks about the challenges of running a reserve that requires surveillance by sea, air and high altitudes. Hikers’ favourite Lions Head looms over his right shoulder. Photo: Tiara Walters

Table Mountain National Park manager, Frans van Rooyen words emphasised the importance of the partnership. “We are proud to be associated with Ultra-trail Cape Town, which has established itself as South Africa’s premier trail running event and one of the best in the world.

“Table Mountain is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve and one of the natural wonders of the modern world. It’s a special place on the planet and we welcome travellers from all over the world to marvel at its exceptional landscapes, important cultural heritage and rich terrestrial and marine diversity while enjoying its many recreational opportunities.

“Promoting the conservation of the Park for future generations and encouraging responsible tourism are goals we share with Ultra-trail Cape Town, which is why our partnership is one which we value. Introducing some of the world’s best trail athletes to our well-maintained trails on Table Mountain profiles the park on the world stage.

“We wish all visiting athletes to this year’s race the adventure of a life-time. Run well and run safe.”

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