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Heidelberg is a small town just outside Swellendam, halfway between Cape Town and Knysna, and I do mean literally small: 23 square kilometres, with a population of just over eight thousand. It’s considered the beginning of the Garden Route, and it’s green as anything, but it sits on the side of N2 in such a way that it is very easy to miss, and so most people often do, and when my parents moved out there a few years ago I wondered what on earth they were doing.
The first time I went out there to visit them I didn’t stay long. It was in February, and hot as hell, and I spent most of my time sitting on the balcony, drinking tea and watching the birds. The time after that was in the middle of winter, and every morning the grass in the garden was frozen over, and I wasted the long weekend inside, reading and sleeping. Each time after that, for about a year, was about the same: late mornings, lazy afternoons, and evenings around a fire.
The Staff Challenge, six weeks in, has taken a turn. Bigger weights, much bigger, and more running: each weekend I spend 10km on some pretty tough trail and another ten, and fast ones too, on the road. When I booked the leave around 16 June, way back at the beginning of the year, I had no idea of the distance I’d have to do, and once I looked at the schedule Chris designed for me I thought, shit, where am I going to find 20 kilometres in Heidelberg?
The thing about small towns is that to go for that kind of distance most of the time you have to go in circles, and if you run enough rings, counting kilometres can feel like counting sheep. For a long time I thought of my parents’ small town as a sleepy haven away from the noise of the city; I looked out the car window and saw a few houses, a lot of farms, maybe two shops and absolutely nothing to do. But this past weekend I explored a bit more, and I found its treasure.
Alongside Heidelberg runs a range of mountain peaks called the Langeberg, home to the massive Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve. It’s there on the left almost all of the way as you drive along the N2, just far enough, past rolling canola fields and clusters of cows, to ignore completely, but if you look closely enough you’ll see steep peaks, deep ravines, waterfalls, even snow.
And you’ll see trails. You’ll see them from far away, as far as the national highway, and more of them the closer you get: winding tracks, big and small, pointing into the sky, saying come on up. Maybe it’s because these days Chris has me running 20km each weekend but I went to visit my parents with half an eye on the mountain; I looked out the car window as I drove and saw the same few houses, the same cows, but this time, I saw a lot more to explore. Like the river, called the Duiwenhoks, or Dovecote, named after the doves, and a dam, and a forest around it, and long roads deep into the mountain. These are not paths you’ll find on Google Maps – they’ll start with gravel and quickly break down into mud, rocks, and just plain bush, and if they ever end, they end at the end of the world. And these are not paths for just anyone: for a moment I stood at the top in the thinnest air, my eyes wide and my legs on fire, with a panoramic view of everything and everywhere and wondered where I was going and what on earth I was doing.
On Saturday I ran up past the high school, took a left through a bunch of pine trees and got lost. There was a muddy Jeep track that ended at a farm gate, and a steep path straight up a mountain that had a trig beacon on the top; there was a rocky single track that led me right into the middle of a buzzing bee farm. I looped back and went right, past a few farms filled with sheep; I ran straight up a field, then down again, then all the way round, into someone’s back garden and their barking dogs. On Sunday I ran out of the town past grain silos and abandoned tractors, milk farms and a lot of people walking to church. There was a long road all the way to the horizon, and all the way a couple hundred cows stared at me like they wondered what the hell I was doing.
Every time I’ve been to Heidelberg I’ve been half-awake, sleepwalking through some of the best countryside anyone will ever see. But coming home we passed Elgin and Grabouw, and all the way I had my eyes glued to the mountain. In six weeks I’ll be up there taking on the Spur Winter Trail Series, in the thinnest air, my eyes wide and my lungs on fire. Chris promises I’ll be ready. I hope he’s right, because I’m not done looking around.