About the Meiringspoort 21.1km & 12.5km
When a road running event attracts athletes of the calibre of Bruce Fordyce, Alan Robb, and legendary Super Rugby and international referee Jonathan Kaplan, you just know you must be doing something right. Add the beauty and splendour of sweeping landscapes and you have the perfect formula of an annual event that has become a tradition for thousands of athletes across South Africa.
Not that road builder Adam de Smidt had any of the above in mind when he completed the Meiringspoort road in 1858. Before that, farmers in the Little and Great Karoo may just as well lived in two different countries, for the majestic Swartberg Mountains effectively cut off most transport between the two regions.
The road was approved by the Cape Government after one Petrus Johannes Meiring (1799-1876), campaigned vigorously for its construction to link the Little and Great Karoo. Meiring was the grandson of the Reverend Arnoldus Meiring, who left Lingen, Germany, to settle in South Africa in 1743. Petrus Johannes Meiring married a wealthy widow and farmed from 1822 on the southern parts of Meiringpoort in the area where present day De Rust is situated.
Meiringspoort was officially opened on the morning of 3 March 1858, after all the speeches were completed, a procession of 250 mounted men and 100 distinguished guests in carriages and wagons entered the gorge from the south (De Rust) and proceeded northwards towards Klaarstroom.
By building the old road following the contours of the Groot River through the poort, de Smidt allowed access between the coastal regions of the Southern Cape and Little Karoo to the Great Karoo and farther inland to the interior.
This led to booming bartering and trade between farmers, businessmen and exporters and importers of wool and fresh produce.
Although de Smidt’s road was regarded as solid as could be, barely a year later he would be back in Meiringspoort for repairs and maintenance after these very flash floods. De Smidt’s enigmatic engineering pales in comparison to the greatest architect and sculptor on the living planet – nature.
The road through Meiringspoort has been rebuilt many times, and today it has a flash flood resistant tar road that crosses the Groot River 25 times.
In prehistoric times the Great Karoo comprised a vast, inland lake which was dammed up by the Swartberg in the south before it had any drainage systems. Rain and fluctuating water levels caused the lake to start overflowing and erode the mountains over millions of years, resulting in the majestic poorts such as Meiringspoort and Toorwaterpoort.
To this day the Groot River still continues its endless quest of carving through the sand stone rocks of the Swartberg – its source being the rain and flash floods from the north in the Great Karoo as it tirelessly surges southwards towards the Indian Ocean.
It is spectacularly humbling to observe the huge, gigantic gnarled rocks which have been reshaped over a time period which few humans can comprehend. Some rock faces have been impossibly contorted and twisted by both water and vast subterranean pressure over so many millions of years caused by continental drift that it overwhelms the mind, besides the vast scale of the looming mountain range.
The systematic carving through rock has created habitats in and around the Swartberg which are not really regarded as typical of the Little or Great Karoo. Meiringspoort’s soil acidity is particularly high compared to adjacent areas, allowing plant growth one would associate with biomes found in the southern Cape coastal areas. This is the wonder of microhabitats – where plants occur on their own with no similar species for perhaps another few hundred kilometres.
One of the most remarkable features of Meiringspoort is the abundance of Pelargoniums, also known as geraniums or malvas, which hug the rock faces and grow near the riverbanks. One of these, Pelargonium zonale, is regarded as the mother of all Pelargoniums across the world, the progenitor of every single Pelargonium found in flower boxes in Switzerland, Austria, across Europe and the rest of the world. This was a result after a Dutch horticulturist visited Meiringspoort in the 1600s and collected cuttings of Pelargonium zonale before sending it off to the Duchess of Beaufort in England, who immediately started cultivating it.
Today a range of varieties of zonale (which refers to the horseshoe-shaped zone, or watermark, on its leaves) is found in gardens across the globe. Oil is extracted from the scented-leafed varieties and used commerially as a base for perfumes.
Beyond the Interpretation Centre near Grootwaterval (Great Waterfall), for instance, grows an ancient, gnarled Cape Holly, which would hardly survive the harsh conditions of both Karoos.
Other trees include two cabbage tree (Cussonia) species, rock fig, camphor bush and wild olive. The wagon tree is one of South Africa’s magnificent proteas – its name derived from the early settlers who used its wood to manufacture wagon brake blocks and other parts of their wagons. The leaves were used to produce a reddish ink.
Myths and legends of the origins of the cabbage tree’s Afrikaans name, kiepersol, abound. There is also a Nooiensboomdrift within the poort named after one of the cabbage trees (Cussonia spicata). One story suggests the name “kiepersol” originated from a small party of pioneers travelling through the veld on foot who were suddenly charged by a lion. After scrambling for the nearest tree – a cabbage tree – and as the enraged lion circled the tree below them, eyeing each of them as a potential meal, someone nervously whispered, “Will this tree keep us all?”
Red alder and keurboom one would expect to find in the Knysna Forests and not in some gorge in the Karoo, but that is the beauty and surprise of a microhabitat such as Meiringspoort.
A tale of road running
No one could have envisaged that the Meiringspoort (10km and 21.1km) would become such a huge annual event and even a tradition to thousands of athletes, after a small group of local women started jogging early mornings off the beaten track near De Rust in 1993.
Someone had a flash of brilliance, if not sheer genius, and the first marathon was born that same year. These days the organisers are experienced and smooth operators, some veteran and honed over the years and who know all the possible hitches, angles, rules and regulations, sponsors, traffic control and law enforcement officers, not to mention all the athlete club rules and regulations, and which farmers will readily offer up their time, fuel and trucks to transport the athletes to their different starting points - in their now famous ostrich trucks, of course – it has become all part of tradition.
The organisers’ tasks have just become a little easier by inserting computer chips in athletes running shoes, which will give everyone exact timing of each athlete.
The villagers of De Rust and farming community now combine annually to offer one of the most popular events in a well-oiled operation second to none.
But back in 1993, organising something you have never done before? It must have been a mindboggling, if not a downright frightfully fearful experience and a huge leap of faith. The first Meiringspoort Marathon (21.1km) was held on the 23rd of October, 1993, with 310 athletes competing and 286 finishing in the cut off time.
An idea had germinated, become reality, which has since become a national tradition. In 2006 the first 10km marathon was held for the first time, with 203 athletes competing.
This event has since 1993 become so popular that organisers have to limit athletes’ numbers to avoid overcrowding within the confined spaces of Meiringspoort. While some athletes are seriously super fit and are there for the race, others just enjoy the event and being there under the towering cliffs and massifs of the timeless Swartberg. One businessman in Oudtshoorn has yet to miss a single marathon since 1993.
It is an extraordinary kind of ecstasy keeping your body fit through the months before running through a mountain range old enough to blow your mind away, while observing nature at its absolutely best – a soul enriching assault on all your senses, if there ever was one.
Live and be alive – be there.
Marincowitz, Helena. 2001. Meiringspoort – a Scenic Gorge through the Swartberg Range. Bowles Printers. Oudtshoorn.
Nell, Leon. 2008. The Great Karoo. Struik Publishers. Cape Town.