Landmarks on the Comrades Marathon route

The land marks are presented in order, as you would find them on the up-run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.

Durban – Archaeological evidence suggests that the Durban area had been inhabited by communities of hunter-gatherers as early as 100,000 BC. Mainly oral history has been passed down from early generations, with no written history of the area, until it was sighted by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. He sailed parallel to the KwaZulu-Natal coast during Christmas 1497 in search for a route from Europe to India. He named the area “Natal” – Christmas in Portuguese.

In 1686 the Dutch East India Company’s ship ‘Stavenisse’ was wrecked off the eastern coast of South Africa. A few survivors made their way to the Bay of Natal where they were taken in by the Abambo tribe under Chief Langalibale. Three years later, on 9 December 1689, the Dutch Cape Colony purchased the Bay of Natal from the Abambo people for £1650. A formal contract was drawn up by Laurens van Swaanswyk and signed by the Chief of the Abambo people.

More than 130 years passed before the British, on 7 August 1824, concluded negotiations with King Shaka for a cession of land, including the Bay of Natal. The modern city of Durban dates from 1824, when the settlement was established on the northern shores of the bay near today’s Farewell Square.

Port Natal was renamed in 1835 in honour of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, Governor of the Cape Colony from 1834 to 1837. In Zulu its indigenous name – eThekwini comes from the word itheku meaning ‘the port.’

Tollgate – A tollgate was set up to collect tolls for the building of Berea Road from 1866 to 1901.

Tollgate – originally to collect tolls from 1886 to 1901

45th Cutting – The British 45th Regiment of Foot, the Sherwood Foresters, were stationed in Natal between 1843 and 1859 and constructed a cutting through the hill near present day Mayville.

Westville – (229 m above sea level) A sprawling residential area near Pinetown, the area was originally settled by German immigrants and proclaimed a borough in 1956. It was named after Martin West, first Lieutenant-Governor of Natal.

Cowie’s Hill – (366 m above sea level) Was the site of the farm Buffelskop, owned by a farmer William Cowie, in the latter part of the 19th century.
Physical Features – Cowie’s Hill hardly features on the up-run. It is only 15 kilometres into the race and not very steep. It is still early and the air is cool. For runners on their way to Pietermaritzburg, it is a time to relax, enjoy the atmosphere and prepare for the next climb – Field’s Hill, only six kilometres away.

Cowie’s Hill on the way down is an entirely different proposition. You have just encountered the damaging descent of Field’s Hill, and the combined effect of the Field’s and Cowie’s descent is murder on a tired body. The sternest test of the Comrades Marathon is found here, little wonder that the most dramatic changes in the race take place on the back end of Cowie’s Hill on the way to Durban.

Pinetown – (305 m above sea level) Established in 1849, the town was named after Sir Benjamin Pine, Governor of Natal from 1873 to 1875. The town was established in 1850 around the Wayside Hotel, itself built in 1849 along the main wagon route between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

During the Second Boer War, the British built a concentration camp in Pinetown to house Boer women and children. A number of German settlers made Pinetown their base and this accounts for the neighbourhood known as New Germany and the German Lutheran Church. Personalities associated with the area are relatives of the leader of the world-renowned Ladysmith Black Mambazo musical group.

Field’s Hill – (518 m above sea level) Named after William Swan ‘Paddy’ Field, a local farmer and former magistrate.

Field’s Hill – the hardest of the Big Five


Physical Features – The hill sits like a colossus on the course. On the up-run, it presents the first mighty challenge. It is the longest hill, bending three times before the top is reached. From its very base, the hill rises relentlessly for over three kilometres.
On the down-run it accounts for much of the rigours of the Comrades route. Not only is the descent a crucial factor, but the camber of the road – while of little consequence on the ‘up’ run – produces demanding running. 

Kloof – (540 m above sea level) The word means ‘gorge’ in Afrikaans. The area is named after the deep ravine formed by the Molweni stream. The Kloof Gorge is part of the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve. It is known for its mist-belt with winding roads and tree-surrounded mansions.

Gillitts – (600 m above sea level) Named after William Gillitts, a local farmer and son-in-law of Paddy Field. The area is situated above the sub-tropical humidity belt, in the mist belt area. Gillitts originated as an extensive farm that extended over the whole of the Upper Highway area.

Hillcrest – (671 m above sea level) A booming suburb incorporated into the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality. Hill Crest was founded on a rise in the main road from Durban to Pietermaritzburg in 1895. It started off as a farming or “weekend” village, a reasonable distance from Port Natal. The village was laid out as leasehold sites on a portion of the farm owned by William Gillitt.

When the first Hillcrest Health Committee was established in 1943, the total all-race population was 1135 persons and only the Main Road had a tar surface. By 1971, when Town Board status was obtained, the total population had grown to 2799.

Botha’s Hill – (747 m above sea level) There are different opinions about the origin of the name of Botha’s Hill. The Dictionary of Southern African Place Names claims it was named after a settler, Philip Rudolph Botha, grandfather of General Louis Botha. However there are others who argue the hamlet was named after Cornelis Botha, a former harbour master of Port Natal.

It is the gateway to the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Kearsney College moved to Botha’s Hill in 1939. Alan Paton, a famous author who wrote novels such as Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope, moved and resided here until his death in 1988.
Physical Features – Botha’s Hill may not rank as the most difficult of the Big Five hills, but on the up-run it is a stern test of character. The hill is 2,5 kilometres long and twists and turns on its way up to Drummond. The base of the hill is deceptive. Officially the hill starts at the Assagay turnoff, just outside Hillcrest. It starts fairly gently, on a long right-hand sweep. It is here that an unwary runner may be taken by surprise, for once around the long sweep, the hill continues to rise sharply.

The early section of the hill includes a number of left- and right-hand bends where you cannot see the top of the hill. Then follows a steep, straight section some 1,3 kilometres into the hill, and once around the third left-hand bend the tree- lined section leading past Kearsney College is a welcome sight. There is a final right-hand bend before you crest the hill at the 51-km-to-go marker.

On the way down to Durban, Botha’s Hill is an entirely different proposition. The tree-lined section is first encountered on a fairly steep descent. Some 400 m down lies Kearsney College and the 37-km-to-go mark. The twists and turns, the camber and the steep descent take their toll on the runners. Mercifully, once around the third left-hand bend, some 1,8 km into the downhill, the long gentle left-hand sweep flattens out as you run past the Assagay turn-off and the 35-km-to-go marker board.

Wall of Honour – (670 m above sea level) A wall that contains the names of runners in the Comrades Marathon. It honours the brave spirit of all those who have taken up the challenge and have won a coveted Comrades medal. You may purchase a block on which is mounted a plaque recording your name and race number.

Wall of Honour

Arthur’s Seat – (665 m above sea level) Named after Arthur Newton, the first Comrades Great. Newton dominated the race in the 1920s and was the first athlete to notch up five wins. This little niche, cut into the bank near the Wall of Honour, abounds with stories and legends. It is said that the ghost of the great runner sits on this seat on Comrades Day smoking his pipe. If you pass by and greet Arthur with a hearty ‘Morning Mr. Newton,’ – never just ‘Arthur,’ and place a flower on his seat, Newton will see to it that you will have a strong second half.

Drummond – (640 m above sea level) Named after Lord Drummond, Chairman of the Natal Land and Colonisation Company. The area was first home to local tribes whose way of life was steeped in tradition and rich in culture. In 1902 Captain Percy J. Kingham established a farm, selling produce to suppliers in Durban. It is the halfway mark

Inchanga – (762 m above sea level) Named for the Zulu ‘Ntshangwe’ – a long-bladed knife or ridge.
Physical Features – The excitement of reaching Drummond and the halfway mark quickly evaporates, for by the time the average runner reaches Inchanga it is hot, humid with three of the Big Five hills left behind. Inchanga, with its mad twists and turns, is steep and punishing. After Polly Shortts, it is the most difficult hill to negotiate.

Inchanga is kinder to runners on the down-run, however. From the top, you can see the Valley of a Thousand Hills. Drummond comes into view, and while the day may be warming up for some, it is a joy to run down the Inchanga Bank in the splendour of the KwaZulu-Natal countryside.

Cato Ridge – (732 m above sea level) Named after George Christopher Cato (1814-1893), the first mayor of Durban. Georgedale which is part of Cato Ridge, was the birthplace of James Mpanza who became known as the “Father of Soweto”.

Camperdown – (732 m above sea level) A settlement in the Umgungundlovu District Municipality, it was laid out in 1865 on the farm Camperdown. The hamlet was named in commemoration of a British naval victory under Admiral Adam Duncan over the Dutch fleet at Kamperduin, a small village in the Dutch province of North Holland in October 1797.

Umlaas Road – (870 m above sea level- highest point) A Zulu name for ‘that which looks like whey.’
Physical Features The highest point in the race is surprisingly unremarkable – there is no major hill and the only recognisable feature is a concrete water tower on the other side of the freeway.

Polly Shortts – (737 m above sea level) Polly Shortts has been misspelt for almost eight decades. The hill is named after Polly Bentinick Shortts, a farmer in the Pietermaritzburg area in the early 1900’s.
Physical Features – Polly Shortts is of little consequence on the down-run and does not even warrant a mention. However, the hill more than makes up for this on the up-run. This is the ‘heartbreak hill’ that comes 80 kilometres into the race. It is 1,8 kilometres long and rises nearly 120 m over this distance. In layman’s terms, this is a steep hill.

Polly Shortts – the last hill on the up-run

It consists of four bends and a long straight section. The first bend is 500 m into the run to the left. It is deceptive because the road does not look steep at all and you cannot see the second bend, a right-hander. As you quickly run around this bend you are still blissfully unaware of the terror that lies in wait. Suddenly you are on the long, straight and steep section.

You look up to find the third bend, a right-hand turn, almost 400 m away. Psychologically this can be terrifying, for you are not sure how many bends lie behind number three. The fourth bend, a left-hander, comes fairly quickly and the top of the hill is in sight. From there a 300-metre-Iong straight section leads to the top.

Pietermaritzburg – (596 m above sea level) Founded in 1838, is the capital and second-largest city in KwaZulu-Natal. Its Zulu name umGungundlovu, is the name used for the district municipality. Pietermaritzburg is popularly called Maritzburg in Afrikaans, English and Zulu alike, and often informally abbreviated to PMB.

There is divided opinion about the origin of the city’s name. Some say it was named after Piet Retief and Gert Maritz, two Voortrekker leaders. Others argue it was originally named after Piet Retief alone, since his full name was Pieter Maurits Retief. In this interpretation the original name was “Pieter Maurits Burg” and later transliterated to the current name.

Finish at Scottsville in Pietermaritzburg

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

One thought on “Landmarks on the Comrades Marathon route

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