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South Africa’s siren call to the ‘wild’ open-water swimmer

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Refugee finds hope in open water swimming
02:22 - Source: CNN

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South Africa is home to some of the best open-water competitions in the world

The new Walkerbay race runs along the coast, making it safer for swimmers and fun for spectators

CNN  — 

Open-water swimmers are a unique breed. They flirt with danger while maintaining a calm resiliency that would serve nearly any difficult challenge. You can identify the species by their especially fit frames and foam neoprene markings.

This adventurous yet disciplined breed tends to migrate toward certain areas of the world, with South Africa as one of the most habitable for them.

The country, and Cape Town specifically, has gained a reputation as one of the great capitals of adventure sports, including but not limited to climbing, surfing, mountain biking, triathlons, river rafting, hang-gliding and long-distance open-water swimming.

If you’re addicted to the secretions of your own adrenal glands, there’s no shortage of ways to get your fix in South Africa.

The geography provides a lot of these opportunities. There are more than 1,800 miles of beautiful coastline, stunning cliffs, mountains and lakes. And that diversity extends to water temperatures sought by ice swimmers, those who prefer more tropical seas and all degrees in between.

South Africa is home to two of the best-known open-water competitions in the world, the Midmar Mile (the world’s largest in terms of participants) and the Freedom Swim, a series of charity races spanning the 4.6 miles between mainland Cape Town and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other apartheid-era political prisoners were held.

One of the newest in the local race circuit is the Walkerbay Open Water Xtreme, which runs along a small stretch of South Africa’s beautiful, dramatic coastline.

Free-range swimming

Open-water swimming, also known as “wild swimming,” can take place in any large natural body of water: Oceans, bays, lakes and rivers all count.

Its origin as a distinct organized sport goes back to the first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896, in which open-water swimming was an event. Feats of swimming derring-do are even older. Lord Byron captured the world’s attention decades earlier when he swam several miles across a body of water now known as the Dardanelles in Turkey.

Over the past 120 years, the tide of new races and newsworthy firsts across various bodies of water has slowly risen. Now there are open-water races of various lengths, conditions and water temperatures all over the world. The recent popularity of triathlons, which start with open-water swims, has further developed the sport from novelty to professionally organized sport. And it’s still offered at the Summer Olympics.

There’s even an international organizing body, the delightfully acronymic WOWSA (World Open Water Swimming Association). It has a full calendar of races and noncompetitive swims, filtered by lengths, types (relay, eco, charity) and venues (river, lake, ocean, “cold”).

Xciting new race

About 75 miles east of Cape Town is the pretty coastal city of Hermanus, a former fishing village now known as one of the top whale-watching spots in the world, especially in the spring months of September and October.

But the town and race organizers invented another reason for tourists to line the cliff and beaches. When there are fewer southern right and Bryde’s whales to spot, you can cheer on hearty sea swimmers instead.