Getting to know the Swellendam Hiking Trail

The Marloth Mountain Challenge Ultra Skymarathon® (MMC) is a 55km grueling trail race, with roughly 3494m of elevation gain and 3493m of descent over the course. Starting and finishing in the small, quaint and historical town of Swellendam, trail runners spend roughly 90% of the race inside the Marloth Nature Reserve following the paths and trails of the Swellendam Hiking Trail, a tough, six-day long mountain hike in and around the Marloth Mountains. The hiking trail is closed to the public, making recces impossible, but the Wild Challenge Series has compiled a host of information to help you familiarise yourself with what is to come.

The Marloth Nature Reserve

The race takes place inside the Marloth Nature Reserve, 14 123 hectares of pristine land tucked away between the small towns of Swellendam, Ashton, Barrydale and Suurbraak, and home to the Swellendam Mountains. The Nature Reserve is a World Heritage Site and was originally named after the botanist who, together with a deputation of Swellendam residents, petitioned to have the area sectioned and reserved. Managed by Cape Nature, the reserve is roughly two and a half hours from Cape Town, and has a host of activities, from day hikes, mountain biking trails to picnicking and birdwatching for adventure travellers looking for an active, beautiful weekend getaway. It’s R40 (R20 for kids) to get in, and if you plan on using the trails you’ll have to buy a permit from Cape Nature. Gate times vary according to the season, so be sure to check them out before arriving!


The Swellendam Hiking Trail

The Swellendam Hiking Trail is a challenging, circular six-day long hike through the Swellendam Mountains. It has been considered as one of South Africa’s top 10 hikes! What makes the six-day hike challenging is not only the relentless, technicalterrain and climbing on some of the days, but also the unpredictable and sometimes extreme weather conditions. When you’re dealing with such extreme elevation gain, you have to be prepared for ever-changing weather! “Swellendam mountains are notorious for being very hot or very cold and we’ve had two years in a row now with rain - that would hopefully suggest that this year we have clean conditions, easier conditions,” cautions Owen Middleton, the Race Director. Each of the six days’ finishes at a rustic, overnight hut that has mattresses, loos and drinking water. Some of the huts are situation near streams that offer crystal clear pools that are ideal for cooling down in after a long day of hiking in summer! The Swellendam Hiking Trail is unfortunately closed to the public, so running the MMC is a unique opportunity to see a remote, and beautiful part of the world that the public no longer has access to! 


The flora

The Marloth Nature Reserve, and thus Swellendam Hiking Trail, is predominately made up of mountain vynbos, and according to the website, those that are particularly infatuated with the wild flowers of the cape Mountain biome will be elated to know that the flora in the Reserve is some of the best examples to be found in the Cape area.  Apparently there are up to 30 members of the Erica family to be found in the area, including some that endemic to the Swellendam mountains. In September, when the MMC is run, you may run through the start of the flowering season, although the main season is in November. Don’t forget to look out for flowering proteas either, there are six members of the protea family along the trail. Aside from vynbos, expect to run through wooded, indigenous forest too!

The geography and terrain

The Swellendam Hiking trail is largely made up of technical single track, and aside from the section at the start and finish through Swellendam, you can expect technical terrain for most of the way! “There are very few free kays, made up of mixed terrain - from rocky technical to muddy, loose and rocky slab crossings to open vlakte and plains at the top,” says Middleton.  

Broken up into three distinctive sections, you can expect something different from each.

A) Leg 1

The first leg takes you up into the mountains and has the majority of the climbing, through beautiful indigenous forests. Before topping out on the ridge, expect incredible views over the southern planes. “After the climb, as you drop into the middle part of MCC, enjoy the beautiful remoteness of the mountains with views of wide open valleys and rivers cutting east and west through the mountains,” says Middleton.

B) Leg 2

The second leg starts with another climb before popping you into the pristine Protea Valley. “You run up this beautiful long valley that stretches out for about 10kms, it’s almost a depression in the mountains,” gushes Middleton. The second leg also boasts gorgeous views, as well as the highest point on the race, Misty Point! Be warned, according to hikers it is often true to its name!

C) Leg 3

The third and final leg is undulating, and steers runners through a myriad of vegetation, from wooden forests, rugged rock formations and mountain vynbos. “You’re constantly getting mix of terrain, which makes last leg interesting,” says Middleton.


Don’t be put off by the challenging aspects of the MMC, it’s a 55km Ultra Skymarathon® - it’s not supposed to be easy! Instead get excited about the fact that you’ll be able to have one of South Africa’s top ten trails all to yourself for the day – a privilege so few people will ever experience! If the MMC Ultra Skymarathon® sounds too daunting, why not sign up for the 35km Marloth Extreme, or the 24.5km Marloth Lite!

 Article written by Bryony McCormick.