Bilbo Baggins Returns

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

There really seems to be no limit to what can be run these days.  The Otter Trail (a five day hiking trail) can be run in under four hours ….the 50 km Whale Trail (another five day hiking trail) is clobbered by the racing snakes in just under 5 ½ hours.

So why not take on a six day hiking trail, but run it over two days? Why not indeed!

Meet the Merrell Hobbit 90 k Journey – a trail run that can be (and was) run in 13 hours by one particularly speedy chap this year.

They call it a journey, and that it most certainly is. It is one peppered with more twists and turns, ducks, dives, leaps, bum-slides and face plants than your average trail run.

The route is never dull. You cannot, and should not let your guard down for a second. If you do not keep your wits about you, you will trip on a mossy rock or tree stump and find yourself with a mouthful of worm ingested mud. If you lose sight of the faded yellow footprints (on trees or rocks), you will find yourself wondering into never-never land…feeling as though you had gobbled up the magic mushrooms you stumble over.

If a print appears upside down you are going the wrong way. (Hobbit Journey notes)

Day 1 starts with a rather rude 3-30 am alarm clock. A fleeting “why am I doing this?” and a pillow-over-head-moment is swiftly Carpe Diemed into submission.  The 1 ½ hour bus ride is a chance to take stock, eat a little, listen to the nervous chatter around you and consider the day ahead. We hit the early morning bustle of King William’s Town and then wound our way out of town on a pot-holed, roller-coaster dirt road to Maden Dam. The sun was just inching her way onto stage, the fish eagles welcomed us with a resoundingly hopeful cry, and all 33 of us huddled together for a quick pre-race photo.

The first 9.5 km leg is largely forested single track that snakes its way around the dam, into the forest and along the banks of the Buffalo River. The path winds its way precariously over mossy rocks, roots and logs, eventually popping out at Gwili Gwili Hut after crossing two forestry roads. The barbets, orioles, turacos, robins, thrushes and parrots usher us through the forest with an orchestra second to none. I mention to Filippo how much I would like to stop and ID a particularly strident bird call.

No time, I fear, no time. The competition is stiff, with a woman I have never met ahead of me and showing great tenacity and focus.

I have to catch her, the chase is on….

Bilbo’s Aunt – giving chase

We slip and slide our way on giant, slick mud-worm piles, cross rivers, pass freshly used porcupine holes and slice through sunbeams. We pass a gigantic, ancient Yellowood.. I silently wish I could sit and chat and hear her stories (of Redcoat/Xhosa bloodshed, elephants, leopards and early axe-wielding pioneers) ….no time. Only time for one quick embrace. I put my arms around her gnarled trunk and rest my damp cheek fleetingly against her, almost expecting to feel a pulse.

Filippo must think I am mad.

I am.

Barking.

The second 15 km leg is mostly through more damp, beautiful indigenous forests. We occasionally pop out into the hot sunlight and get a view of the surrounding countryside, but for the most part, it’s all just mossy, peaty, ferny, mushroomy, dappled brilliance.

The last 16 km winds up to the foot of a moss-encrusted waterfall. Here I spot my competition up ahead and I turn to F to click my fingers and exclaim “prey up ahead!” F is flagging, he silently indicates for me to carry on, catch her.

A final vicious ascent pops us out of the canopy and onto grassy flat stuff. We can see the sky and better still, I can see my competition up ahead. She is flagging. Walking, bending over.

I take the gap. She stands aside and says “well done”…..

Game on!

With screaming legs, there is yet another climb, this time in the hot, midday sun to the top of Doornkop. I accidentally lose sight of the wretched yellow feet and wonder off down into a vicious bramble forest that attacks my legs from all sides. I emerge with blood pouring, soaking my gaiters and socks…

A final steep relentless, fast descent on rocky, grassy, cambered paths sees you heading down towards another forested gorge. In this forest, I catch up with another running friend who is flagging. I pass him, we mutter and grumble at one another. Enough of the climbing already….enough of the f*&$#ing climbing already….

I am met by Lofty (Tatum’s hubby) – a wonderful, familier friendly face. He has come down to meet runners and warn them of a fat, angry Puffadder on the trail. We run (or rather clamber up) together for a bit and then I see Cata Hut, hear Tatum “whooooping and whoo-hooing” and I run the final stretch to the finish.

Cold beer, hot, meaty soup, a hot shower and soft mattrasses in the sun. Heaven.The evening is all about cosiness, warmth, recuperation, steaming pots of food, laughter, birthday candles, red wine and new friends. And sleep.

Dori: May I tempt you with a cup of chamomile? Gandalf: Oh, no, thank you, Dori. A little red wine for me, I think.

Day two starts with a rude, dark, steep 3 km climb. My torchlight is weak, I have my competition on my heels and I fear the day will be a long, pressurised one. We skirt around Geju Peak and then try and convince our shaky legs to work down a 1 km descent to the plateau, avoiding a massive scree slope.

Gollum: Is he lost? Bilbo Baggins: Yes, yes, and I want to get unlost… as soon as possible!

The forest embraces us once again, we stop to drink and fill bottles from the water that cascades off the black rocks, admire the scenery (briefly) and then charge on. UP, up and more up…..hills so steep it is almost impossible to get purchase.

We wind our way through yet more forested sections, finding the route infinitely more runnable than the previous day. We skip over great whirls of papery lemonwood bark that erodes into strange shapes as it rots on the forest floor, pass towering Streptocarpus that glues itself to tree trunks and competes with the orange, yellow and white fungi for space to grow. The harebells, watsonias and falling stars are in delicate bloom, and I try not tread on any of them as we whizz through.

The very final climb heads across the infamous and much talked about “Hog”. Words cannot really do justice to this not-so-little piggy…photos do that best.

Gandalf: Far to the east, over ranges and rivers lies a single solitary peak. Elrond: So this is your purpose, to enter the mountain? Thorin Oakenshield: What of it? Elrond: There are some who would not deem it wise.

The final 10 kays are a bit of a blur of down, down, down, forest track, conifers and zig-zagging switch backs, until the final slog to the finish line at the Arminal Hotel to run into the wonderfully welcoming arms of Tatum and her team.

Here the great curve of the Amatole Range holds in its embrace a valley of grace and beauty, equaled in few other places and excelled in none in South Africa…. Across the valley was the strange mountain the Xhosa called “Bhukazana”, with its three peaks of serrated ridges; and, between these and the Juanasberg, the Hogsback, but which the Xhosa called “Belekazana”, from its fancied resemblance, when seen from the Mnyameni valley, to a woman with a child on her back. Basil Holt

 

Dwarves: [singing] The pines were roaring on the height / The winds were moaning in the night / The fire was red, it flame spread / The trees like torches blazed with light…

This really was an unforgettable journey into Hobbit country.

The Mountain Runner team of organisers (Tatum, Graham, Sarah, Lofty et al) is quite simply exceptional. Their effortless professionalism – mixed with an array of delightful personal touches – and a degree of nurturing (that one does not get in other races) totally blew me away.

THANK YOU.

Thanks for Andrew King for his excellent images and to he legendary Mr Tolkien too of course for the inspirational Hobbit quotes!

 

 

Chasing the Red Rock Tokoloshe

(Only a few months late, but had to wait until it was published in SwimBikeRun magazine before posting….)

Whenever I visit the Cederberg, I play with the idea that billions of years ago, the man upstairs had a tantrum of truly epic proportions. Thunder roared, fire cleaved the clouds and as he bellowed and howled, he tossed his toys out of his cot. They tumbled down, broke into a thousand fragments, scattered and thrust themselves firmly into the barren land below, forming the many extraordinary rock gardens that make up this unique World Heritage Site. To run through and between these red rock towers that tease the mind and change chameleon-like from a bad-ass tokoloshe one minute to a mermaid the next has to be one of life’s great privileges.

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Race briefing at Sandrift HQ on the Friday evening was an intimate affair around the cooking fire. Peppered with Energy Event’s Trevor Ball’s unique and irrepressible humour, every runner’s name was called out and they were asked to share something about themselves (or rather dodge abuse from our resident comic). By the end of it, we all had a good sense of who we would be sharing the wilderness with. We ate well, and after getting a pretty good feel for what lay in store the next morning, we shuffled off to our tents and chalets with maps, buffs, race tops, a complimentary bottle of Cederberg Shiraz and bellies full of butterflies.

The next morning, about 50 of us lined up under the Cape Storm arch, adjusted our head torches, clutched our GPS units and posed for photos before Trevor gave us the countdown to our 5am start. The first two kilometres were pretty brutal, with a steep climb up to Wolfberg Cracks – one of the better known and much-loved rock features in these parts. We zigzagged our way in the early morning gloom through the Valley of the Red Gods – so named because of its extraordinary collection of rock pillars and citadels that glow red at sunset.

The Cracks are best enjoyed in broad daylight, but there was still a certain magic in the air as the sun inched its way into the ether, the Robin chats were singing and the mountain seemed to be holding her breath, unsure what the weather would unleash upon her. I switched off my torch as I entered Adderley Street – the widest, easiest section of Cracks and one that can be run through without climbing or squeezing through narrow gaps. At this stage I had hooked in behind Andy Davis, a running mate. It looked as though we were going to pace one another well, so we opted to try stick together for a while. We ran beneath the “Knobless Robot” – one of the many tall rock pillars favoured by climbers – and then found ourselves at the top with a lovely flat, sandy path and the best of the sunrise to come.

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The stretch up to the Arch was exquisite – outrageously peaceful, we were surrounded by wilderness and space and big sky. The gargoyle-like rocks were tinged with the pinky orange of the sunrise and the wide single track was perfectly runnable, with a sprinkling of rock hopping and the odd reassuring cairn to help you on your way.

Once past the Arch, it was a gentle downhill trot where we met up with Gabriëls Pass (Gabriël was reputedly the postman who carried mail from Wupperthal to the various farms a century ago). We then hung a left and headed down towards the first checkpoint at the farm Driehoek, crossing the shale band jeep track, which we would meet up with a little later in the day.

From CP1 at Driehoek it was a short slog on a dirt road to Welbedacht Kloof, followed by a fairly steep climb up past the Pepper Pot and Welbedacht pinnacle to pop out back onto the shale band jeep track. Now with the Langberg to our right, we traipsed along the jeep track for a good few kilometres. Andy was by now well ahead of me, and running with ease. I was battling to get into a rhythm, with more walking than running, dodging muddy patches and ankle-rolling mounds of grass and trying not to think about the various annoying niggles starting to make themselves heard. We were running along the “sleeppad” or sled track – used to haul firewood and other goods on sledges and mules many, many moons ago. Finally, up over a crest and down below, the welcome sight of a quaint, low stone hut with a vehicle and a couple of Cape Nature guys clapping and smiling. I refilled my bottles, grabbed an energy bar and was off and back on the jeep track. After a while, we hung a sharp left down Engelsmanskloof, a steep ravine on the northern side of Sneeukop. Over 100 years ago, a group of Boers allegedly stored a small cannon here, which they used to ambush a party of British soldiers. It is thought that one soldier had his head blown off with said canon. This hapless (or headless) fellow’s ghost now haunts the Crystal Pool, particularly on misty nights, looking for his head. Thankfully it wasn’t especially misty when we passed Crystal Pool, in fact it was getting quite hot and Andy and I were stopping frequently to refill bottles from the various streams we crossed.

With Jurie se Berg to our right, we ran… and ran… and ran through endless clusters of cedar trees, flat grassy sections and some very steep technical sections. CP3 was at Middelberg Hut where we were met by the wildly enthusiastic, much loved and well-known Brundel (Robert le Brun of Red Sock fame). He poured me a Coke, and was just the sliver of sunshine I needed after a minor dark patch earlier. We filled up bottles again and then soldiered on, over the Middelbergvlakte and up, up, up and over and then down a very exposed, hot, scratchy and rather nasty technical zigzag downhill. Here some fancy footwork was required to navigate a gnarly contour path to Algeria. The voices started to bicker and quibble in my head as we skirted the Teekop, Langkop, Gatdeurkop and Steenrugkop. At this stage I had hooked up with my partner Filippo, and we ran into Algeria together. There is a very well-timed (enforced) 30-minute stopover at this 60km mark. It is a chance for the team to check runners out, ensure they rest, eat and hydrate. I had a knee wound cleaned up and dressed by a super attentive medic, was offered a range of drinks and handed a delicious freshly-made burger. We were pampered and made to feel like royalty. Bottles filled, food supplies replenished, we set off again – our sights set on the much maligned “river walk” which takes one up towards Uitkyk Pass. We crossed the beautiful cool, clear rivers and pools a few times to splash faces and immerse aching legs.

Before long we were slogging up Duiwelsgat – a long single track with yet more up, 12 kilometres of pretty hard slog. Joints were starting to ache, nausea was taking hold and my partner, in particular, was taking strain. Duiwelsgatkloof lifted the spirits for a while, with sweeping views down into a deep valley, kloofs crammed with indigenous trees, sparkling waterfalls and black eagles wheeling overhead. We then popped over the saddle at Noordpoort and the route flattened out for the final stretch to CP5 at Sneeuberg Hut, nestling in the shadow of the highest peak in these parts at 2 027m. This peak was first summited in 1843 by none other than Thomas Maclear (of Maclear’s beacon fame!)

After a quick Coke refuel, we headed off again – this time into a chilly wind and rather ominous dark cloud hanging over Sneeuberg. It’s 7km to Maltese Cross, and at this point, Filippo was insisting that I leave him as he could see I was stronger. At the top of the final downhill stretch, I donned my head torch and plugged in my iPod. My night rock-hopping was buoyed up by Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. I found myself singing out loud to keep myself going… “we’re just two dark souls swimming in a fish bowl” and realising that no one could hear me, bar the odd leopard or porcupine!

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I was smiling all the way – getting high on the fresh, sweet smell of buchu, loving the cool, moist air in my face and the little moth flitting along with me for a bit in my light and the immense solitude. I soon hit the sandy road to the Observatory – an easy, flat 5km. At this point I knew I had the chance to break the ladies winning time of last year, so I picked up the pace. I finished in 15hrs37, very happy and completely drunk on mountain air. It was the furthest I have ever run, and the longest time spent on my legs – but if one is going to have a first time, this is definitely the one for it!

Race Stats

 

Mountain trail: 100km

Climbing: 3 800m

Checkpoints: 5

Cut off time: 30 hours

Single track: 85 percent

Jeep track / dirt road: 15 percent

Race fee: R2 950

Next race: 13-15 October 2017

Note: Runners should be completing 50km one-day events

UTMB qualifying points: 3 points

If you wish to be invited, email your running CV of the past year to info@energyevents.co.za

www.cederbergtraverse.co.za/

2016 Results

Men

1 Jock Green : 13:04

2 Andrea Biffi : 13:21

3 Ryan Eichstadt : 13:46

Women

1 Karoline Hanks : 15:37

2 Alana Jane Munnik : 17:31

3 Suzette von Broembsen : 17:31

Photos: Govan Adrian Basson

Cape point splendour

We headed off on another little jaunt down to the reserve this past weekend, and we were once again treated to some exceptional wildlife sightings and experiences…

The silence, beauty and diversity is so dazzling in this place – I have to keep pinching myself as I very quickly forget that we are not far from the suburban sprawl of Cape Town.

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The morning was warm and as we drove down towards Olifantsbos (a favoured haunt), I mentioned to the company (two kids, one adult) that we would almost certainly see a snake. I then went on to say “I think we are going to see a really big fat Puffy….quite soon”.

I think I am a witch.

My son is convinced of this fact (and my husband too, for that matter).

I say that because literally a minute after this utterance, I slowed the car down and we watched as a very large, sleek, powerful Puffadder cruised effortlessly across the road before us. He raised his head in a strange defensive position (something I have not seen before) and then slunk off into the bushes. What a specimen!

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I very often have this bizarre intuition when it comes to serpents, and when I feel that I am about to see one, I generally do. So it was a little unnerving to have made my gut-feel public and to then have it confirmed. However….

We boulder hopped along the coastline as far as the Thomas Tucker ship wreck.  Here we stumbled across a massive herd of Eland – lovely to get so close to these massive creatures. And so odd to see them in a coastal context.

The slightly sulphurous smell of kelp mixed with sea salt and ozone, the windless heat of the sea-reflected-sun, the rhythmic pounding of the waves and the tink-tink of the Oystercatchers….it’s a delicious combination.

We came across a large baboon family – happily munch-crunching their way through the sour figs, restios and other glorious fynbos tit-bits around them. One large male lay sprawled, legs hanging over a rock as his partner sat and meticulously groomed him. They are so wonderful to watch. Particularly when you know how persecuted they are in the urban fringe where a tragic human/wildlife conflict is playing out. Here they are at ease, unaggressive. As it should be.

We saw armour-plated lizards, pollen saturated bees, tortoises, ostriches, baby seals and bontebok. We listened to frogs chanting in the vlei, and interpreted strange lines and tracks in the sand._DSC1169

We ended the day with a sea swim on the other side of this little perfect little slice of the peninsula….two tired, sun-soaked happy kids bounding in the churning surf having sampled more wilderness treats than many of their peers in one day.

Now. I must be off. I have a broomstick to polish and a cauldron to stir…

What do Springboks and Kangaroos have in common?

Antidorcas marsupialis is a medium-sized brown and white antelope. It is roughly 80cm high and can run up to 90 km/hour. It is also able to leap 3.5 m high and stot, pronk or jump 15 m.

Hell, I wish I could do that.

But I am not a Springbok.

The second half of the Springbok’s latin name ‘marsupialis’ refers to the blind fold or pocket-like contraption on its back that stretches from its tail to the middle of its back. So why, you may well ask, is there this need for a Kangaroo-like pouch on an antelope in Africa? And what on earth is it doing on its back?

We found the answer to this question on a particularly good game drive from Nossob on our last trip to the Kgalagadi. Melissa (ranger/game driver) was at the helm. She shared so many amazing stories and through this, managed to turn the usually mundane into the extraordinary. This is a real art – and distinguishes the wheat from the chaff when it comes to rangers on night drives.

The story is thus:

When the male Springbok is doing what male Springboks do best (strutting their stuff and trying to show off their infinite strength and prowess before a gaggle of fascinated females) they do a wonderful stiff-legged trot and jump into the air with their backs arched. Every few paces or so, they lift this hidden crest/pouch affair and this causes the white hairs to stand up in a classic fan shape.

At the same time, a strong scent of rank sweat is emitted.

This, of course, is guaranteed to coax even the shiest of Springbok females out from behind the camel thorn tree.

I mean really, wouldn’t you?

The whole performance is dubbed ‘pronking’ and it stems from the Afrikaans word – to boast or show off.

Another theory is that pronking is a way for these animals to show that they know they have been spotted by a predator and that they are now showing off their supreme fitness and strength.

In this way (they reckon) the predator should thus be encouraged to rather go off and find someone else who cannot jump as high/far/elegantly with the same degree of stinky, sweaty white bum fluff as they can.

All very complex.

Whatever the reason, they always make it look as though they’re having a whale of a time. And one hopes that they are!

(With huge thanks to superstock.com for the shamelessly searched for and found photo…we didn’t manage to get a beautiful backlit shot of a pronking male on this last trip. Maybe next time.)

New Year

This is a photo of 2011’s last big juicy sun sinking behind the Noorhoek sea. Warren and I waved goodbye from the top of a beautiful mountain. We snacked on pate and raised our glasses of bubbly and gave a toast to the beauty around us. We said Adios to the year from what has to have been one of THE most beautiful spots in the world. Well, we thought so anyway!

And here we are, 6 days into a brand new year and on the eve of another trip up north to Big Sky, Big Cat country – the Kgalagadi. The excitement is mounting. I can’t wait to feel that hot red sand between my toes, go to sleep to the sound of giggling hyena and spend hours watching all that wonderful wildlife theatre play out…

A friend and I have made a pact to one another this year. To speak to one another only of positive, beautiful things relating to the world around us. The positive energy is wonderful. In the past few days we have shared stories of swims with dolphins, fish nibbling our toes in mountain streams, leopard scat, newborn owls and so much more. There are so many things to wonder and marvel at. It makes a refreshing change from our rather depressing habit of bemoaning the state of the world and what we are doing to it. No more of that…

I hope to share as many wonderful wild sightings and experiences with you this year. I aim to keep it positive and to dwell on the brilliance of it all.

Happy New Year to you all!

Better to be an ostrich..

Every now and again I haul my weary head out of the sand and tune into the ‘environmental’ noise above ground.

I do so very reluctantly as I know that when I really tap into the reality of what we are doing to our beautiful planet, I will end up having to dig my heels in very deep to make sure I don’t get sucked into that bottomless murky chasm that leaves me feeling bleak and ever so hopeless.

I popped my head out and shook the sand off recently.

A local shark attack has led to the inevitable slew of letters to the press filled with insane suggestions on how we have to make our seas ‘safer’ for swimmers and surfers. Tired, worn out arguments roll around and flop about on the letter’s page and on Facebook and I am left feeling so deeply saddened.

NO thanks to Mr Bright-Spark Cohen. He who chose to arrogantly ignore all the perfectly clear warning flags and sirens and entered the sea (devoid of all other sensible, intelligent humanity) regardless, head held high.
One singularly conceited decision to ‘go for a swim anyway’ could well toss yet another species closer to the edge of extinction.

In the eyes of your average Joe Bloggs FishHoek resident, it is now all about Sharks VS Humans…
The voices of intelligent ecological reason are drowned out in the cacophony of mindless ranting around introducing shark nets and hunting down ‘serial killer rogue sharks’…

And then there are the snippets in the press about our forthcoming COP17. Climate change talks about talks about ….well, talking again in a few years’ time…Plump hotel bills and many flights and big important suits drinking coffee and talking and negotiating. And a representative COP Minister who has a little temper tantrum about a handbag search and decides to hop on her own special jet to get home.

Bugger the CO2 emissions. Sorry for you polar bears!

And then the rhinos. The poor bloody rhinos. And another one down…and another one down and another Mum bites the dust….while her little one scurries about, blinded with fear and panic, panga slashes across her crumpled face.

I can no longer look at the images of bloated stiff-legged beasts with bloodied noses. More than 300 down in one year. How CAN we let this happen? How can we?

And then I read a book written by a young man who travelled to Kenya in the mid-60s to work with George Adamson, the lion man. In the space of a decade he watched as their insanely robust elephant and rhino populations were obliterated.

Now you see me, now you don’t.

And then I hear from someone who works with hotshot corporate types that he recently overheard an important Executive /champion of industry type say “We can’t see dinosaurs anymore, so why should I worry if my son never gets to see an elephant?”

And then my son gives a little presentation at his school about climate change and the one 7-year-old child starts to boo halfway through. He doesn’t believe in climate change. It is all rubbish. In the same breath, he says….WWF is all rubbish.

They start them young, these denialists. God alone knows what the parents are telling them over dinner at home.

SO….every now and again it’s good to clamber out of the quagmire and escape into the wilderness and pretend it’s not happening.

Last Thursday we did just that. We turned our backs on every bit of this madness and headed to the Kouebokkeveld mountains with a tent and our camping gear.

We spent a day exploring a beautiful mountain stream with glorious drinkable water that frolicked and chortled about the craggy Cedarberg rocks and was home to pointy-nosed frogs and fish and happy wagtails. We sat and watched a pair of Karoo prinia buzzing and flitting around a restios and disappearing within. Just spending the time sitting and watching the pattern of their movement led us to investigate. On closer inspection, we found a perfect little nest tucked deep inside the reeds, lined with soft fluff and holding two demanding little chicks.

We came across a bat-eared fox while out walking, sat in our camp watching robin chats hop right up to us and sat silently as bright-eyed striped mice came up to nibble crumbs around our feet…
We heard and saw a Freckled nightjar against a purple sky and watched a plump moon skim the ragged mountains above our tent.

And then we came home.