Just AdDO it!

I hadn’t planned to write about this race. Which is strange, given that it is the farthest I have ever run in one go, and a race for which I trained HARD.
Bloody hard.

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Perhaps there was just too much to process. Or maybe the intense heat in the first hour (and then the final 24th, 25th and 26th hours) just fried my Hippocampus to a crisp. The latter quite likely. I still feel a little brainless and vacant come to think of it.

Though some would argue that signing up for 100 miler points to the fact that you are brainless and vacant to start with.

The week back home immediately after the race was somewhat fraught, with a post-race dose of flu, a presentation on plastic at an Ocean Summit to prepare for and a very sick young Ridgeback to nurse. Not a whole lot of time, inclination or energy to cobble words and thoughts together on a 26-hour-long running experience.

A whole two weeks have passed since all 76 of us Mad Dogs & Englishmen (MD&Es) set off from Addo Main Camp at 2 pm. Yup! 2 in the afternoon. A grand old time to start running 100 miles in the African bush. Makes perfect sense!

Rumour has it the temps nudged up towards 40 degrees in that initial hour or so. For some reason, Addo heat is especially intense. It’s in-your-face honest-to-God-bitch-slapping-heat that really tries its level best to suck the brain matter out of your ears and slap it down onto the dusty earth below.

It’s fry-eggs-on-your-forehead hot. And I am really not trying to over dramatize things here.

The initial dirt road section, which takes us out of the reserve and up towards the Zuurberg, was a chance for us all to settle into a rhythm, ease into the whole vibe, maybe partake in some idle, sociable chit-chat with other MD&Es.

I partook in some fairly idle chit-chat, but not much – thanks to aforementioned heat. I said hello, howzit to Jo McKenzie. For just those initial 10 kays, my pace actually matched hers. We laughed a little, exchanged pleasantries about mutual friends, and then she was gone. Kabooom! Gone.

Jo ran like a demon, lead the woman’s race for much of the way, and finished second, and third overall.

I then had a little chat to Annelise – we even shook hands while running…and again, after Checkpoint 1, she was gone. Kabooooooooooom. She also ran an absolute pearler and won in a record-smashing time.

So at about 15 kays, it became fairly clear to me that I would be chasing Tracey Campbell’s pocket-rocket-silhouette for the whole race and that this put me as fourth woman. The latter a detail I was told time and time again to NOT worry me or think about or do anything at all with. Of course, it is ALL I thought about. “The race only starts in the last 40 kays” they all chorused. “It’s a long day out, Karoline – anything can happen!” they chanted. “Don’t be tempted to chase anyone – they’ll blow!” they assured me.

Yeah right.

They didn’t blow. Not one of those wonderful three women. They bloody blitzed the course – convincingly. The whole 100 miles.

(The men did blow though. Many of them. Like flies. Or to quote the lovely Kim van Kets, “they melted like Salvador Dali clocks”. But more of that later.)

Anyway – back to chasing Tracey. I was immensely thrilled to catch up with her and run up alongside her at about 15 kays. We had a bit of a chat, but I could sense that she wasn’t really in the mood to engage in pleasant banter or to make light of the fact that we had both run out of water, and still had 5 kays until the next water point – so I let her go. Which was pretty darn thoughtful of me come to think of it.

This was to be how it was for the entire race. I literally became like a lion (an aged, quite ragged one, granted) – chasing my prey…..! I felt a little bad for Tracey at times. It must have been horrible having me on her arse. I realised this. Really I did. And given that I am the world’s most empathetic of empaths, I made a mental note to hang back once or twice, thinking how crap it must be having someone tail-gating you the whole time.

Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it…

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I mention the whole predator-prey thing because it was real. Honest to God! There were times – in that 26-hour period, especially in the dead of night….when I could literally SMELL Tracey. I could tell that she had JUST been through the one river….or brushed past the one bush. THAT is how finely-tuned one’s senses become when all you have is your torchlight and the night is inky-black around you.

I started fixating on the ground for footprints, looking for wet sploshes on the rocks at river crossings to try gauge how far ahead she was. The whole gig was just short of me on all fours looking for freshly snapped twigs and bits of hair snagged on thorns!

(It must be said at this point, that Tracey smells just GREAT – all sun-lotiony and floral and stuff. Not sweaty, feral and nasty at all – which is how I started to smell at the 18-hour mark…. or maybe quite a bit earlier).

Things start to happen in your brain after a while – when you’ve been at it for 10 odd hours and it’s pitch dark and you are completely alone in the wilderness.

We had all been told about the potential for Hippo encounters around the rivers. This, dear reader, was my only real concern going boldly into the good Addo night. I am super cool with most wildlife – indeed, I was really WANTING to bump into big snakes, spiders, bushpig, kudu, jackal und alles. I love wild animal encounters – it’s what makes me tick, it’s why I run trail….

BUT a hippo? Not so much hey.
The race director was very helpful and most diligent in suggesting what we should all do IF we Happed Upon A Hippo. “Turn your headtorch off and lie down!

Riiiiiiiiiiight. That’s exactly what I am going to do when face to face with a 1 500 kg beast getting sniffy because I’m between her and her babba…..

Thankfully there were no hippo to worry about, so the two bigger river crossings (which both boasted a taught rope tied across them) were an absolute breeze, and the only thing I had to worry about was the odd giant earthworm and a pissed off warthog at sunrise.

I loved LOVED running alone at night. And I was completely alone. Well, bar the occasional waft of Tracey, who seemed to get faster as the night wore on. I would ask at every water table “How far ahead is Tracey?”…..”Oooooh”, they would say….”probably about 10-15 minutes?”…..then the next water table “Hmmmmmmmmmm, maybe 5 minutes?”…..then sometimes I would actually meet up with Tracey at a water table. But never long enough for much more than a mumbled greeting as she would be off – kaboooom!

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The water tables were all quite epic – all with their own character and vibe and personality. They were like oases in the desert – seriously heaven-sent little moments of stillness and friendliness and warmth and water and sometimes soup and almost always a Tracey catchup update.
The legendary Ellie’s Tavern was quite the most exceptional of all water tables. I have fond memories of the little puddle of light deep, deep down in the valley below at the end of a very, very steep downhill. One hears all about Ellie and her fabled, famous millionaire’s shortbread, which is spoken of in hushed tones. I am quite appalled to admit that I never sampled the stuff. Oh the shame!

But I DID sample the incredible hospitality and warmth and love that every single volunteer exuded at that water point. Particularly on the return leg – which happens AFTER the much talked about Valley of Tears. I needed Ellie and her team of merry elves a whole lot then. I got to them somewhere around mid-morning on the Saturday – with about 115 kays in the legs, or maybe more. This after misplacing my sunglasses, my one water bottle, my buff and my cap along the way somewhere – or at the drop bag station. My specially-for-the-race braided hair and thus very exposed scalp was literally sizzling in the Addo sunshine.

The loss of all sunshine-diversion-apparel discovery was made about halfway along the Valley of Tears, which elicited a good bout of self-pitying weeping. Appropriately enough.

At that point too, my tracker unit was starting to jab repeatedly into my scapula, causing untold pain and anguish, and more goddamn weeping (in the Valley of Tears). Oh, and let’s not forget the CHAFFING that had started to take place in a place where the sun doesn’t shine, and which, upon squatting to pee, was quite literally akin to having hot sulphuric acid splashed into an open wound. Again, more tears (in the Valley of Tears) and a whole whackload of F%&ks.

It’s one thing having a childlike tantrum when you have an audience. It’s quite another when you have none whatsoever. I had none (in the Valley of Tears), and so they were relatively short-lived affairs, as after the first barrage of F*&cks and sobbing, you feel unutterably daft and pathetic, so you suck up your snot, wipe away the tears (with your non-existent buff) and carry on.

Which is pretty much when I stumbled into Ellie’s Tavern – for the second time. They held me, they patched me up, they offered me a jaunty old hat, they soaked my sizzling scalp, they gave me a massive dollup of Vaseline for the raw arse AND they even found a pair of old sunglasses with McGyvered plasters as a strap to keep them on.

These people were quite simply magicians. I fell in love. They warn you about this. The falling in love bit. You get sucked in see – and you don’t want to leave. And it’s not just because they’re SO nice…it’s because of the monster ARSE of a mountain that you then have to climb as you leave.

I have recently watched Free Solo – an epic doci about a loon who climbs up a steep rock face for hours on end without ropes.

Well I was that dude. Climbing that bastard jeep track, without ropes. I imagined myself in my own Nat Geo documentary, and somehow it got me through.
The final 40-50 kays were a bit blurry, but good, in that I knew I was going to finish the beast.

There was a brief moment of joy when I saw Tracey (who had been very elusive for many hours) ahead of me. My second wind kicked in and I chased after her with huge enthusiasm. She turned around, saw me, got a big fright and was GONE.

So that was that really.

The last 15 kays were very, very sore and I had legs that were not terribly keen to come to the party, but I knew I had to just keep on swimming…

The less said about the final ascent to the finish the better.

What was wonderful and so very well timed was the final kilometre of the race. I summited the final monster mountain, looked around and there was Duracell….(who had just done the 76 k race). He looked strong and happy and VERY chuffed to see me, and he basically saw me through to the finish line. I weaved, wobbled and staggered my way to the blessed finish line arches and it was all sweaty hugs and happiness.

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I finished 4th woman, 7th overall in a time of 25:53:04.

The fact that only 3 dudes finished ahead of me makes me more proud than the 4th woman bit.

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This race really, honestly shows how women have the tenacity and strength and stamina and mind to do these crazy distances.

Annelise, Jo, Tracey and me….we all did women proud that day – coming in as we did in the top 7 – and leaving many a Salvador Dali clock flopping over rocks and tree stumps – in the Valley of Tears – and beyond.

WOMANDLAAAAA!!!!!!

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With massive, elephantine thanks to Sheena and Sian and their truly spectacular team for organising a SUPERB event. And to my wonderful coach Linda for her excellent training programme, guidance and support before, during and after this journey.

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Running in Remarkable Rwanda

Our rhythm is good, we are all enjoying the pace, leaping over volcanic rocks in the path, clambering up and down steep, mica-speckled slopes and teetering over wooden bridges that crisscross the canals in the lush tapestry of tea plantations.

`Mwaramutse!`, I yell enthusiastically as our little group scampers through a small copse of banana palms and past yet another humble dwelling. The woman I am greeting is wearing a bright yellow patterned Kitenge dress, her sleeping baby’s little cheek flattened against her back. She is sweeping the area around her home, rendering it even more immaculate, working her way around a large sheet covered in russet-colored millet seed, drying in the sun. “Yeego!” she replies, her face breaking into a glorious flash of white, her eyes wide and astonished. A few other women join her, laughing delightedly. We run on and I ask Jado, our young Rwandan guide why they are laughing. “They are really happy to see you”, he says, “they love to have visitors like you, they are welcoming you!”

We all came to learn these little Kinyarwanda phrases and greetings and it felt good to connect with the locals in their language – even if only on a fairly superficial level. I suspect we were something of an enigma to many of the rural folk we ran past. Seven Mzungus, four of them women, moving at speed through remote villages, waving, smiling and whooping with joy as they went. “Where is your car?” was a frequently-asked question….”Where are you going?” another….”To Kigali“, we would say, tongue in cheek. This was generally met with some hilarity. Crazy bloody Mzungus…

Travelling in a new country on foot is a unique and privileged experience. Travelling at speed, on foot, even more so. Running in wild places has been something I have been lucky enough to do more frequently in the last few years. I have covered 400 km in 8 days through the soggy bogs and rugged peaks of the remote Scottish Highlands, got swallowed up by boulders the size of houses of the Tattasberg and brushed past the endangered, prickly Halfmens of the Richtersveld, run into elephant on the banks of the Limpopo in Zimbabwe and wrapped my arms around the gnarly, rutted ancient bark of a giant baobab tree.

When travelling to new countries, I prefer to veer way off the beaten tourist track, stay well clear of the tour bus and selfie-stick brigade, and come eye-to-eye with as many of the local people, wildlife and habitats as possible in the time I am there. Lacing up a pair of trail shoes, throwing a few essentials in a pack and sniffing out the single track opens up a whole new window on a world beyond the road network and normal tourist routes. It’s often not easy to seek out this kind of travel in a foreign country, so it helps to be guided by those in the know and benefit from years of research and time on the ground.

Wildrunner’s Owen Middleton is one of South Africa’s most successful trail running event organisers. Wildrunner is well known for extremely slick events, ambitious destinations and more recently, with Wildrun Africa, for African wilderness running experiences. I have run three of Owen’s Wilderness multi-day adventures, all of them unique and memorable (the Richtersveld and Mapungubwe mentioned above are his). When he advertised his latest plan to run for a week in Rwanda, I looked on with envy and interest, but shelved it, thinking that it would be something well out my reach. So it was with a huge sense of disbelief when my partner announced he had paid the first installment (for the two of us) of the Rwandan Wildrun 2019! Digging into a fairly significant chunk of his life savings, this was a bucket list item that Filippo FOMO Faralla did not want to miss…

Enter Active Africa’s Chris Goodwin – close friend of Owen, and African travel expert of note. Trained chef, elite runner (in his earlier years) and all-round great human – Chris is one of those people who is just tailor-made for tourism. He exudes patience, a world class sense of humor and diplomacy. He’s also not afraid of some bloody hard graft. These qualities make up an essential skillset for one who makes a living taking tourists to remote locations on the African continent, ensuring that their every need is taken care of.

Chris has over 8 years’ experience in Rwanda, knows the country like the back of his hand, and has made some valuable connections and friends on the ground. His deep respect and understanding of how things roll in the country was visible in the week we were there – rendering our trip utterly seamless and hassle-free. He was also remarkably adept at arranging ice-cold, scented hand towels at the end of every run. There is nothing quite like being offered a rolled-up towel on a silver tray after a long, hot run in deepest Africa.

Wildrun Africa’s Rwanda 2019 inaugural trip was an absolute treat – from start to finish. Owen, Chris and their team of four local Rwandan youngsters Jado, Olivier, Emanuel and Danny laid on a completely unique trail-running experience.

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Our two Rwandan guides Jado and Olivier – wonderfully athletic young men, brimming with passion for their country

The 7 of us (all from South Africa) were treated to as many days of running through far-flung districts of the Northern & Western provinces of Muzanse, Rubavu, Rutsiro, Krongi & Nyamasheke. Our total mileage was 146 km, with a cumulative elevation gain of 5 700 m and 7 500 m of accumulative descent.

The adventure started and ended in Kigali – an impressive city of 12 million people. This city is spotless. Quite literally eat-your-breakfast-off-the sidewalks spotless. I have never seen anything like this, ever. And I have travelled widely – on the African continent, in Europe and North America, where waste and disposables are ubiquitous and highly visible. Litter and roadside trash are simply not a feature in Rwanda. Toss something on the ground and you will be reprimanded – not by a member of the armed forces or anything sinister like that – but by fellow Kigalians. It is just not done. Self-regulation and self-policing completely work here and this sentiment plays out on the roads too – with drivers of motorbikes, bicycles and vehicles all respecting one another with grace and humility. I am not sure I heard a single hooter honked in frustration or rage while I was in the city.

Plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda since 2006, the collection and recycling of plastic drinking bottles is rigorous, and many of the markets are completely packaging free. And it shows.

We ran twice in the city – exploring its (very clean and safe) side alleys, main roads and neighborhoods, passing easily between houses perched on the slopes around the flood plain, running through the highly cultivated landscape, and transitioning into cityscape, with some swanky hotels and ex-pat homes in the leafier, Jacaranda-speckled streets. Our hotel was within spitting distance of the presidential residence – an intimidating rolling-lawn affair, all high walls and armed guards at every pore.

On the first day we ran to the Camp Kigali Memorial. This was the site where the shit hit the proverbial on the 6th April 1994, shortly after the plane carrying Rwanda’s president and Burundi’s new president was shot down, killing both. Ten Belgian UNAMIR peacekeepers who had been deployed to guard the house of the Prime Minister were brutally tortured and all ultimately murdered by the Presidential Guard. The building where this played out has been left as is. The bullet holes peppering the exterior walls and doors, the rash of bullet holes in the corner of the room, all testament to the horror that would have played out 20 years ago. From that moment on, all hell broke loose. The army and the interahamwe began their systematic slaughter of around a million Tutsis, and over 100 days, the country quite literally bled to death – while the world stood on the sidelines, watched and did nothing.

The Gisoze Genocide Memorial is a harrowing experience, but one that must be done if you are to move through and get to grips with this country. It helps contextualise things and throws the spotlight on the extraordinary, forward-thinking resilience and optimism displayed by every single survivor. It is impossible to understand the depths of despair faced by so many, the sheer horror of neighbors turning on neighbors, the indescribable cruelty displayed by humans on other humans. We all left the museum feeling quite numb and pretty gutted.

Every individual I subsequently saw walking the streets (over thirty years old), would have witnessed and lived through the hundred-day horror. Looking into the eyes of these older men and women (many who would have been children at the time), it is impossible to fathom what goes on inside their heads. How is it possible to emerge from something so unspeakably traumatic, where entire families were erased – yet to stand up, shake off, look forward and build a nation from scratch?

On the afternoon of our first full day in Rwanda, we all boarded a mini-bus and headed to Kinigi, about 110 km to the north-west of Kigali. We settled into The Five Volcanoes Hotel and got our heads around the next day’s adventure in Volcanoes National Park – made famous by its many family groups of mountain Gorilla. We were off to play in Dian Fossey’s misty, mythical hunting ground. And so began our Rwandan Run…

Day 2 Bisoke Volcano hike (7 km) and run in the foothills (14 km)

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The group about to embark on the Bisoke Volcano hike

Dressed in waterproof pants, sturdy shoes and cold weather gear we set off early to the Gorilla Centre – Rwanda’s gorilla tourism hub. Here visitors from all corners of the globe come together to receive a guide, get divided into groups and depart for their gorilla encounter experience. I found it a little overwhelming – and was grateful that our small group would stay as was for our planned Bisoke Volcano hike. We were told that should we come across any gorilla groups, it would be totally incidental. We had not paid the very hefty US$1.500 per person for a permit, so would quite possibly not encounter these primates. We drove to the trail head, met our larger than life camo-clad guide Fidel, were joined by a veritable flotilla of armed guards, issued with walking sticks and off we set.

The initial stretch had us walking through fields bursting with white daisies (Pyrethrum), which we noticed were being harvested by teams of women. This is a valuable commercial crop used to make insecticide. Rwanda is the world’s third largest producer of this incredibly valued flower.

Rwanda’s mountainous landscape is due to the fact it straddles the eastern rim of the Albertine Rift Valley. The nation’s highest peaks (the volcanic Virungas) are a 20 million-year-old by-product of the same tectonic rumblings and labor pains that gave birth to the Rift Valley.

The hike was strenuous and extremely muddy, with a 900 m vertical gain over 3.5 km, but we all soldiered up to the top where we had fleeting glimpses of the crater lake below us when the thick mist cleared. The armed guards disappeared into the mist and watched from the sidelines – a sensitive area, given that this is the border with the volatile DRC. We slip-slid our muddy way back down and were met with a picnic feast. Here we shed our waterproofs and put on our running kit, to get ready for a 14 km run back to our lodge.

That evening before dinner we were addressed by the very impressive and knowledgeable Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli, better known by his colleagues as Dr. Noel, from the Gorilla Doctors. He left us all feeling quite positive about the future of these incredible mammals. Wildlife tourism – as uncomfortable as it may make the likes of me – is this species only chance of survival. These daily, hour-long encounters between human and beast are what will ensure that these beautiful mammals continue to thrive in a very compromised world.

Day 3 Gishwati forest and Lake Kivu (16 km)
The day started with an early drive through to Gishwati, the start of one of the longer runs – a 28 km stretch to Lake Kivu. We disembarked at the end of a bustling, dusty road, fringed with busy stalls, shops and many bemused onlookers. The run took us through a tapestry of tea plantations, fields groaning with yams, cassava and sweet potatoes, mango and banana trees and eucalyptus forests. We ran through endless villages and were rarely alone or away from large groups of small, ecstatic children or men and women working in the fields. Since Rwanda has one of the highest population densities in Africa, it came as no surprise that we were almost constantly surrounded by people. When we arrived at one school, the kids couldn’t contain their excitement, and all dashed out the classrooms to surround us and stare wide-eyed and fascinated.

The terrain is hilly, and the running involves many ups and downs, but the views are always spectacular. We eventually reached the verdant banks of Lake Kivu, and after more of Chris’s famous towels, a blissful swim and an ice-cold Virunga beer, we settled into our rooms for a brief nap.

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The view down to Lake Kivu on Day 3

Lake Kivu is Rwanda’s largest freshwater body, and it also forms the border with the DRC. Reaching depths of almost 500 metres, with a water content of 333 km2 renders it one of the world’s deepest freshwater lakes.

That evening we went out on a small motor boat to watch traditional fishermen with their three-boat system (amato), long bamboo poles and nets. These incredibly fit young men head out at sunset (often singing as they paddle). They spend the night out on the water, catching as much of the only species of small fish, called iSambaza, able to survive the methane-rich waters of the lake and return at sunrise.

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Fishermen setting off for the night’s fishing in the methane-rich waters of Lake Kivu

Our evening was rounded off with an incredible dinner on the sandy banks of the lake, with some local drummers and dancers to entertain us.

Day 4 Lake Kivu trail to Kinunu (28 km)
Another 28 km day saw us skirting the lake shore, again passing through numerous villages, through fields, over hills, into valleys and along ridges overlooking the lake. With 10 km to go, we had a very welcome break at Nkora Market village. Here we were treated to some spectacular Rwandan hospitality (quite the most delicious warm chapattis dripping with local, dark honey and an array of locally grown fruit), courtesy of Mamma Nellie, a local Nkora Market village entrepreneur.

We ended the day at a small, basic but very cozy guesthouse at Kinunu where we were treated to a fascinating bean-to-cup coffee growing/washing plant and processing warehouse experience.

Day 5 Kinunu to Kibuye (25 km)
The trail continued southwards along the many bays and inlets of the Kivu coastline through fishing villages and fields of crops – the terrain becoming increasingly curvaceous and lung busting! Our run ended with a short boat trip to an island where a magnificent picnic had been laid out by Chris (with his towels) and his team. After a refreshing dip and welcome feed, we all boarded the little boat and chugged our way back to the mainland to our final Lake Kivu accommodation. Cormoran Lodge on the steep, lush banks of Lake Kivu is a unique place to stay – with vast treehouse-like rooms on tall stilts set above the sunbird-saturated canopy.

Day 6 Transfer to Nyungwe Forest (rest day)
On the morning of the 6th day we drove to Nyungwe Forest. On the way we stopped in at Gisakuru Tea Factory, which gave us a fascinating insight into how tea is processed – literally from picking, fermentation, drying to packing.

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The view across the tea plantation of Gisakuru towards the fringes of Nyungwe Forest

Day 7 Nyungwe Forest and Congo-Nile Divide Trail (42 km)

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The group at the start of the 42 km run

Day 7 started with a 3-30am alarm wake up call. We bundled into the vehicle and hit the road for a long, winding journey to the trail head of the Congo Nile Divide Trail. We were destined for a section of the Rift Valley Escarpment, which slices through western Rwanda, and which sits as the watershed between the continent’s two biggest drainage systems – the Nile and the Congo.

We were to run in the only large stand of protected indigenous tropical montane forest remaining in the country and in sub-saharan Africa. The trail boasts bracken fields, ericaceous shrubs, bamboo forests and primary forest. Our guide Jado referred to Nyungwe as “Kamiranzovu” – the forest that can swallow an elephant!

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Deep in the magical Nyungwe forest on the Congo-Nile Divide trail

The 970 km2 park contains 13 primate species (a staggering 25% of Africa’s total), 275 bird species, 1 068 plant species and 85 mammal species. We were delighted to see and hear the Ruwenzori and Great Blue Turacos – two extraordinary endemics. We also came across a Bamboo squirrel, Colobus monkeys and a host of other endemic bird species. The trail was 100% runnable, soft and leafy underfoot and incredibly well maintained. We flew along some of the flatter sections, slogged at a fast hike up most of the hills and whooped our way down the longer hilly sections. We all felt incredibly blessed to know that we were the first group of runners to complete what is a standard 3-day hike in 8 ½ hours.

The trip was very elegantly rounded off with a sumptuous dinner at the newly revamped One & Only hotel on the fringes of the Nyungwe Forest. We indulged in this other-worldly bubble of luxury for a few hours and ate and drank ourselves silly, sharing war stories and making appreciative speeches of thanks to our guides and the team.

The Rwanda Wildrun was a bucket-lister of note that exceeded all my expectations. Rwanda has a very tangible soul – she is powerful, positive, hopeful. As a country, she has drawn me in hook, line and sinker and I have fallen quite hopelessly in love.

Thanks to Filippo Faralla for all the photos!

In search of the Kelpie’s Bridle – an 8-day ultra-trail running expedition in Scotland

kelpie-water-horses-spirit-legend-cryptid-creature3In May this year, 110 people completed the Cape Wrath Ultra, an 8-day, 400 km race – described as Scotland’s answer to the Marathon Des Sables. Filippo Faralla and Karoline Hanks held the South African flag up high at the Cape Wrath lighthouse. This is Karoline’s story…
Scottish myth has it that while wandering through the Highlands a ‘kelpie’ may appear to a weary traveller or inquisitive child as a magnificent horse, ready to be ridden. When touched or mounted, alas, the hapless rider becomes stuck to the kelpie, which will dash into the loch and drown the victim…

I had just completed the fourth and final day of the Richtersveld Wild Run in 2015 and was sitting on the banks of the Orange River, when I spotted my partner Filippo on his cell phone, tapping away madly and trying to enter us both for the 2016 Cape Wrath Ultra. He had been chatting to world-renowned trail running journo Ian Corless, who was with us and covering Richtersveld that year. Corless had been extolling the virtues of the Berghaus Dragon’s Back race in Wales and was very excited about the prospect of covering a spanking new entry in the international Ultra Trail calendar – the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU). This one was going to be a good few days longer than the Dragon’s Back and would play out in the Scottish Highlands. It was being organised by the same Race Director, Shane Ohly of Ourea Events, a UK-based organisation.

The prospect of running and self-navigating (at speed) through remote wilderness is essentially what drives this adventurous man of mine. So… when Corless spoke of an eight-day ultra-trail running expedition that weaves its way through some of Britain’s more challenging landscapes, a seed was sown, and before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a CWU entry!

Alas, my Achilles was having none of that, and due to major surgery in December 2015, which took me out of running for 6 months, we opted to carry our entry over to the 2018 event instead (the CWU is a bi-annual event, alternating each year with its little sister, the Dragon’s Back).

Which is why, on the morning of the 20th of May, 2018, Filippo and I found ourselves alighting from a ferry onto the banks of Loch Linnhe in Fort William, accompanied by the evocative and goose-bumpy sounds of bagpipes being played by a ruddy-cheeked fellow in a kilt. Along with 177 other ultra-enthusiasts, we were about to set out on an epic 400 km journey.

The Cape Wrath Trail is touted as one of the toughest long-distance hiking trails in the UK. The trail starts in the relative comfort of Fort William (a charming little town at the base of Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis). It then winds through an exquisite patchwork of mythical, ancient mist-drenched lochs, boggy glens and rugged peaks and includes Morar, Knoydart, Kintail, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland until it reaches Britain’s north-western most point – Cape Wrath. The trail often follows centuries-old, traditional drovers’ and funeral routes – routes that crofters and their animals would have used to navigate the remote north-western seaboard of Scotland.

Most people take between two and three weeks to complete the full journey and whatever time of year you attempt the trail it will test the limits of your physical and mental endurance. But dark, boggy moments are quickly forgotten amid a solitude and beauty rarely found in modern life. (Walking the Cape Wrath Ultra Trail, Ian Harper)

To say that I was ill-prepared for this race is a gross understatement. We have been talking about ‘The Scotland Trip’ in our household for years, so it always seemed a somewhat mythical thing that was going to happen in the very, very distant future. I barely gave it the time of day or attention it deserved, leaving it all up to Filippo, who has always been a meticulous planner and sorter of all things adventure related. He was the one who made sure we had all the right mandatory kit, that he was clued up on all the many Do’s and Don’ts and Must Haves. He spent days pouring over google maps and overlaying the organisers waypoints with his own, ensuring we had a detailed breadcrumb track for each day’s route (a solid purple line on our hand-held Garmins). I would come to love that solid purple line (and depend on it – quite literally – for survival!)
‘The Scotland Trip’ came about too quickly, of course. My training was haphazard and sprinkled with odd ill-timed affairs like the Two Oceans Ultra and the Platteklip Charity Challenge.

About two weeks before the event, I thought best to get some insight into the race and get my game face on. They say ignorance is bliss, but I was quite quickly coming to realise that I was in for a very BIG and very tough challenge – and I was being far too glib and nonchalant for my own good!

In describing the route, the hiking guidebook speaks of ‘some of the remotest country in Britain’, ‘one of the wettest places in Europe’, of ‘sudden weather changes, impassable rivers, extreme temperatures, ticks, midges and deep, dark bogs’.

The race
Day 1 started at a hellishly brisk pace. Given that we had some insanely long days ahead of us, I was quite alarmed at just how brisk. We ran along a lovely little oak-lined country road adjacent to the beautiful Loch Linnhe for a good few kays, with the front runners jostling and posturing for positions. Carol Morgan – an Irish lass – had set off at a bristling pace from the outset. She remained the female leader for the entire race. A veteran of ultra and endurance challenges, she also won the last Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race and the Montane Spine Race in 2017.

We then ran along an undulating rocky jeep track into a massive valley/glen – still at a very stiff pace and I found myself being overtaken by many runners. The voices of doubt started to niggle. We were just into Day 1 and already my lungs were bursting, and my hip flexors were twitching. What have you done Hanks? Who do you think you are? Why would you think you could possibly run 8 ultras in as many days?

I could just feel the steely eyes of a kelpie on my back on Day 1 already…

On the other side of our first ascent, I had my first real encounter with the boggy, soggy, humpy-lumpy, slippery stuff that would become the norm for much of the race. Often one would take a misguided step on what looked like mossy ground and you would plunge into a sucking, slurping bog – often up to thigh height. It took my breath away. Is this how it’s going to be the whole week?!
Roughly 3 ½ hours later, I got to the camp – an impressive layout of about 22 eight-man tents and a few main white marquees (kitchen, mess hall, medical tent and race HQ) and 70 welcoming, super- friendly race volunteers and staff all going out of their way to make our experience as comfortable as possible. We were staying a stone’s throw from the tiny settlement of Glenfinnan has been made famous largely for the Harry Potter viaduct – an impressive construct that towered above me as I stood in the icy river and had my first bracing, post-race Scotland river wash.

Day 2 saw the organisers batch us into groups based on our ‘prologue’ Day 1, with the slower runners starting first. The clouds were heavy and threatening to wobble, as were most of our moods – knowing that we faced a 57 km day in icy, wet conditions. The terrain was challenging, with bogs, slippery humps of grass and rocks. We passed through some utterly gorgeous countryside – fairy-tale waterfalls fringed with ancient, gnarly forests. Sadly, the technicality required such an intense degree of focus, that there wasn’t much time to stand around and take it all in.

At the top of the very final peak I could feel my mind and body shutting down. I was soaked through, the wind chill was hectic, and I could sense system collapse. I remember Filippo hearing my mumbling and seeing my face and then taking control, helping me put on two extra thermal layers and forcing me to eat something. My hands could not work, they were frozen into useless claws. I burst into tears and wept pathetically, taking huge gasping breaths and feeling immobilised by fear. I heard later that our tentmates (a young couple from Malaysia) had to be hauled off the same mountain, suffering hyperthermia. The end of the race for them.

Many participants found the day’s route and run brutal, and there were some despondent faces around camp that night. Some runners only trickled in well after midnight. There had also been one or two dramatic rescues off isolated peaks and one rescue even involved a boat, such was the inaccessibility of the route.

The Kelpies were at work – and runners were starting to topple.

Her slick, green skin twitched feverishly. She shook her vast, wild mane of dripping water weeds and serpents and pawed the Loch’s muddy bank angrily with her vast hooves. The kelpie then slid effortlessly back into her dark, misty home. She had just missed making eye contact with one lonely, exhausted runner….just. She would wait for the next though. And the one after that. She would wriggle her way into their minds, lure them into her dark, bottomless waters, and never let go…

water-horses-legend

Day 3 was another brutal, long day with endless trackless boggy sections through the remote glens of Kintail and with four massive climbs. By the time I staggered into camp at 7-30 that night. I was in a dark mood. I could almost smell the Kelpie’s fetid breath, she was so close…

The one thing I realised very early on in this event was that nobody has any sympathy for or interest in your ailment, pain levels or discomfort. They’re all in the same boat and it really is all about each to his/her own. So, you could go about feeling sorry for yourself, but it began and ended there. It was a case of toughen the hell up, or go home…

Even though Day 4 was the second shortest day of the CWU, the accumulation of the two previous days distance and climbing was etched all over runners’ faces (and bodies). Many were held together with K-Tape and the meal tent mood was a tad more sombre than previous nights. Despite its relatively short distance, Day 4 still managed to bite many of us firmly on the arse with a long stretch of trackless boulder hopping towards the end.

Days 5, 6 and 7 have become something of a blur for me. I know they were all spectacular, and that they were long and tough and challenging. We would be out there scaling endless steep mountain peaks, negotiating our way through incredibly boggy, trackless moorland for hours on end. Yet on all those days the weather was perfect, and the rare window of sunshine would burn away any chilly, dark sentiments about one’s predicament. Had it been cold and wet throughout the week, I think the fallout would have been tremendous.

Kelpies have a weak spot. If you can get hold of a kelpie’s bridle, you will have command over it and all other kelpies. When a kelpie is captive, it is said to have the strength and stamina of ten horses. It is highly prized. If you have the power to use a kelpie bridle on this malevolent spirit beast, then it will bow down and serve the master of the bridle.
The final day’s route was spectacular, taking in as it did some exceptional coastal landscape and beach running. It was the shortest day, and we all knew it, and were eager to finally reach the seemingly elusive lighthouse that we had all heard about perched on the end of those ragged cliffs at Cape Wrath. My biggest regret is that I did not explore that little finger of land that plunged dramatically into the wild Atlantic below….I was just too shattered and overcome with relief at completing the race!

How does it compare to Marthon Des Sables?
So – is this really Scotland’s answer to Marathon Des Sables (MDS)? Says Edward Vincent who completed MDS in 2008, and ran CWU this year, “I would say that CWU was a lot tougher than the MDS. I think mainly it’s the 8 days with no rest day and the elevation that makes it tougher – even though of course it is 100 miles longer. I never felt out of my depth on the MDS (apart from on Day 1), whereas there were a couple of times at the start of the week on CWU (Day 4 in particular) when I was a bit worried.”

Another 2018 CWU finisher Alan Li, who ran MDS in 2015 says, “With MDS, sandy terrain, heat and nutrition was the biggest challenge. You can be more strategic as you have the option of sacrificing luxury over mobility and also there is a rest/recovery day after the long stage day. Having said that, the length of CWU and the brutal cut-off times makes it less of a ‘walk in the park’. I believe that the CWU is a much tougher footrace. If you don’t look after yourself from the outset, there’s a high chance of DNF. I raced CWU – not against others – but to make sure I had enough time to feed, wash and take care of basic body admin back at camp.”

I like to think that when you run the CWU, you dance with the kelpies. The kelpies, of course, being the voices in your head, the ones that want to see you fail, drag you down and snuff you out. The Kelpies got hold of 38% of the field this year…

With any tough endurance event, where you are asking your body to do unspeakable things for an inhumane amount of time, where the pain levels shoot through the roof and beyond, yet you know you must keep going – up the next peak, through the next seemingly impassable bog field, the mind and how you control it becomes your greatest weapon. I found my kelpie bridle out there in the magnificent Scottish moors….possibly halfway through Day 5.

I met some extraordinarily powerful humans out there too – people who stared pain right in the face and blew those kelpies right out of the water, with the reins firmly in their hands.

Race results
Robert Barnes, England, won the men’s race in an impressive time of 45:37. Carol confirmed her place as one of the UK’s best ultra-runners by winning in a time of 55:11 and an impressive 12th overall. Filippo Faralla had an astounding week of running, and despite a hideous stomach ailment throughout the night before Day 6, he bounced back and claimed 6th overall with an excellent time of 52:20. I was placed 3rd woman, in an overall time of 59:22.

Route details
Day 1: Fort William to Glenfinnan (37 km; total ascent 500 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 2:37
Easy running up and into Cona Glen and the moorlands of Ardgour with a cascading river to the left. Runners head up and over the shoulder of Meall na Cuartaige and down to the camp in Glenfinnan.

Day 2: Glenfinnan to Kinloch Hourn (57 km; total ascent: 1 800 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 6:35
The route ascends into remote territory with several high passes. The day’s highest point is at 522 m.

Day 3: Kinloch Hourn to Achnashellach (68 km; total ascent: 2 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 8:46
Route takes runners through through the valleys of Western Ross, with the highest point at 800 m – just below the dramatic Forcan Ridge. The waterfalls of the Glomach are the most voluminous in the Highlands.

Day 4: Achnashellach to Kinlochewe (35 km; total ascent: 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Ian Stewart 4:21
Runners will experience the mountains at their loftiest, with high rocky passes. The terrain is rough underfoot and the last section requires careful navigation.

Day 5: Kinlochewe to Inverbroom (44 km; 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 4:37
Runners take on a moderate 1 400 m climb into the Fisherfield mountains and into some very remote wilderness, surrounded by high peaks, including An Teallach.

Day 6: Inverbroom to Inchnadamph (72 km; total ascent: 1 400 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 7:43
On this, the longest day, the route penetrates some very remote and rough high ground, but is preceded by significant distances on double-tracks in the glens, and through prime salmon-fishing country.

Day 7: Inchnadamph to Kinlochbervie (61 km; total ascent 1 600 m)

Day’s fastest times: Robert Barnes 7:04
A great contrast of moor, mountain, and deep inaccessible sea lochs. Eas a’ Chual Aluinn is the highest waterfall in the UK.

Day 8: Kinlochbervie to Cape Wrath (26 km; total ascent 700 m)
Day’s fastest times: Jim Mann 2:41

Runners leave Kinlochbervie and head to Sandwood Bay, one of the UK’s most remote and beautiful sandy beaches. They then crossing rough hills and moorland before the lighthouse comes into welcome view

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!

maltese

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…