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.


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.


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!


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

2016 Results


1 Jock Green : 13:04

2 Andrea Biffi : 13:21

3 Ryan Eichstadt : 13:46


1 Karoline Hanks : 15:37

2 Alana Jane Munnik : 17:31

3 Suzette von Broembsen : 17:31

Photos: Govan Adrian Basson

Christmas Boot Camp

This year’s Christmas will go down as one of the least conventional (and infinitely more adventurous) for me.

Earlier on in the year, we decided we wanted to get as far away as possible from the festive consumerism and madness. We were determined to separate ourselves from the horror that starts to play out long before December – the overly cheery jingle-jangle, sparkly, happy-crappy musak in the malls, the tsunami of gift wrap and plastic landfill, the constipated out-of-towner-traffic, the atmosphere of forced jollity and greed….all of it.

So F and I took flight and headed for the hills. The idea was to flee into the solace and still embrace of one of my favourite wilderness areas, the Cederberg. It’s rugged, it’s unpredictable, it’s spectacular and very, very peaceful.

We were seeking big skies, big mountains and a chance to camp out under the stars one or two nights. I had in mind a few reasonably brisk hikes up the odd hill to get to a flat spot where the new lightweight tent could be pitched and views and books could be savored. I fantasised about long tea breaks perched on sunbaked rocks, mountain stream dips, lazy picnics, star gazing and sunset contemplation.

This, I felt, would be the order of the day.

What I had forgotten was that I had signed up for all this “downtime” with a chap who has this little piece of wisdom stuck to his fridge door…

There’s nothing more satisfying than the primal feeling of being able to move quickly and    proficiently through a rugged, natural landscape.

Anton Krupicka

We shall call him Duracell from here on.


The first morning the alarm went off at 5am (!) I managed to throw one cup of coffee down my throat before we popped on our trail shoes and charged up the mountain in front of our chalet. Our mission was to explore the extent of the big burn. A nasty fire had ripped through roughly 30 000 ha of the reserve’s east section some days before and since we had run through this two months earlier while racing the Cederberg Traverse we wanted to get an idea of how much damage had been caused.

So charge we did….or Duracell did….at a rate of knots….with me sagging, sighing and whining ever so slightly behind. It was just too much, too early, and I was on holiday!

The burn was pretty devastating, but we did see a pair of Klipspringer bounding across the scorched sand, so we felt a little heartened by that…

Duracell flew back down the mountain – sinking into the mist below – and I followed a little lamely behind, vowing quietly to myself that I would need to be firm and set the boundaries for myself on this holiday of ours.

I laid this out on our return and settled down with some coffee and a book while he charged off to buy matches from the nearest shop about 20 kays away and to charge the battery which was powering our fridge.

Later that morning, run long forgotten, I found myself packing the tea stuff, our gas stove, lunch, drinks, hoisting packs on our backs and setting off up another mountain to have a picnic at “Andy’s Waterfall”. It was a fairly solid mission in the heat of the day. We did (granted) sit and have tea, sip from the stream and peruse the map. This, you understand, was in order to plan Days 3 – 9.



Day 3 dawned bright and early and this time we were all set for a mountain bike mission…we navigated and rock hopped our way through and over some excellent, reasonably gnarly single track. Duracell had a nasty fall, ripped hisimg_0988 T-shirt, but got up laughing and wanting more…as one does.


We then locked up our bikes and set off on a walk (with lunch). Much later that afternoon after a brief breather we set off on a 10 k run. Then the clouds rolled in and some beautiful soaking rain drenched the mountains, dampening down the soot and fed the thirsty earth.


Day 4 saw us heaving pretty hefty packs on our backs and setting off on our first overnighter…our route carefully crafted and selected by Duracell. I thought nothing of the route, the distance, the destination, just knew that we planned to be out in the mountains for Xmas eve, and would wake up somewhere beautiful on Xmas Day. I trusted his route, thinking he would have a good sense of distances, heat and water en route, etc.


We clobbered about 20 kays that day – a beautiful route which takes in the second half of the Cederberg Traverse. Duiwelsgat valley has come to be one of my favourite corners of this wilderness, and I vowed to Duracell that I wished to have my ashes scattered right there…a place where I will most certainly ride thermals with the Black Eagles and be left well alone by people. Pure bliss.

We had lunch and a break at Sneeuberg hut, then set off on the last leg of our journey to get to the top of Sneeuberg Peak. We were rewarded with some superlative views, a glorious sunset and a comfortable, albeit chilly night’s sleep.556a5523

556a5618Day 4 dawned and after tea we packed up and set off back down the mountain, off on our return journey – via Agter Kruis Valley…we knew it was set to be a long day, but we had not really bargained on such intense heat.

Long and short of it, we walked….and walked….and walked….and bitched (well I did)….and bitched some more….and after about eight hours of this (in temperatures that rocketed well over 40 degrees), we found we had to negotiate two very steep gorges…so up we went, blisters screaming, hot sun on our backs, streams starting to run dry.


Tempers were frayed, sense of humour got lost somewhere deep down a porcupine hole, some harsh words were exchanged, but we eventually got ourselves home. Literally just short of 12 hours after we had started that morning.

The G&T’s (note, plural) were utterly delightful that evening.

We really did rest up the next day. Read books, caught up on some work, and slept.

Day 6 saw another pack hoisting affair – destination Middelberg hut and surrounds….a lovely reasonably gentle haul up to a stunningly peaceful camping spot in a valley.


We made camp, brewed tea and had lunch. Leaving everything in camp we skipped off down a path looking for cell signal, and came across a beautiful pool – crystal clear, tree fringed and with a waterfall. We swam and drank and soaked it all up… and vowed to keep our discovery a secret…

Day 7 was a horror story…truly.

Slingsby (bless him, and all due respect to the man for a set of exceptional maps) claims that the path linking Middelberg to the next valley on was “old and faint”…we were up for that challenge, and fought our way fairly valiantly down a very steep section of burnt out fynbos, legs covered in soot and scratches by the time we hit the valley floor.

What we hadn’t bargained on was the path in the valley itself being completely non-existent.556a5758

We set off in search of the path through a solid wall of fynbos…and I mean solid. Thorny, scratchy, nasty, whipping, spiky, bastard, f*%&ing fynbos. It just came at us from all sides – in our faces, slapping our battered, bloodied legs and eliciting the foulest language ever heard in those parts – of that I have no doubt. We crossed the river a few times (choked with typhus and some other invasive shite), slipped, cracked skulls, twisted ankles, had some more branches whip and slash our raw legs…we tried scrambling over to the other side of the valley which looked cleared and more walkable. It wasn’t. So back over the river….556a5759

Eventually we met up with a decent path – the one that goes up, up and up to the saddle to take us back home. One final hot ascent, and then a long, dry descent and we were home….battered, bloodied, bruised and looking like something out of Platoon. It really felt as though the mountain didn’t want us on board that day and she was doing everything in her power to chew us up and spit us out.

I have had so many conversations in my head (some out loud) about those two tricky, testing days last week. Long and short of it, I am grateful for the adventure and the pain (retrospectively anyway). I like that I am being pushed – sometimes to my limits, getting far out of my comfort zone, getting angry, then just pushing through and buggering on. And getting stronger through it all.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – and why on earth would one want to whittle away a day sipping cocktails by a pool anyway?!

Run anyone?


But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself—expanding and learning as you go—you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.

Dean Karnazes

Last chance to see?

My big rubber boots are slick with sulphurous, black tundra mud. A thousand or so snow geese are cavorting  noisily a few hundred metres away, their feathers and guano all mingling in the sludge beneath.  I am eye to eye with a 600kg male polar bear.  He’s lying on his belly, four limbs splayed out, rug-like.  I am so close I can hear him breathing and I am able to follow the jagged line of a scar that runs from below his left eye down to just above his nostril. Tiny midges are hovering around his nose and eyes.

He is just 20 metres away. There is very little separating us, bar the odd tuft of grass and a few bits of driftwood…. If he were to stand up, he would be a little over 3 metres tall.



Mimi leans towards my ear and whispers almost imperceptibly in a broad Idaho accent ,“He looks meaner than a junkyard dog”. I nod in agreement. It’s the scar that does it, I think. But right now, he’s completely chilled and apparently unphased by our presence.  And not showing any junkyard dog-like behaviour. He’s more like a giant sleepy pussy cat really.

I am part of a small group – 8 telephoto lens-wielding lodge guests and our two guides Andy and Albert. Andy is a burly, ginger haired Canadian with over thirty years of guiding to his name. Albert is a ‘First Nations’ Cree, ex-hunter. IMG_9190

I feel safe standing close to Albert. He’s built like a tank and clearly knows these animals and their behaviour. Both guides have loaded guns slung over their shoulders. And a few rocks in their pockets. These, we are told, will be used to bang together to make a noise should the bear become unhappy and make a move towards us.

The midges are starting to really piss our big bear off and he puts both paws over his eyes. He now has that Monday morning look. That or (I think to myself), he’s also had enough of our pesky paparazzi vibe and wants us to shove off and let him sleep.


We are all standing in a seriously remote wilderness area 250 km southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coastline in Manitoba, Canada.  Our big boy is one of about 1 600 bears in the wider Hudson Bay region. They’re all land-based for now and have been since the big July melt – foraging on the plentiful summer berries. That’s all they have to feed on though and it’s a pretty long wait until the November chill sets in and the bay ices over.  It could be a particularly long wait this year….and the next. And the year after that…

We are all painfully aware of this as we admire our bear….and wonder about his very tenuous future as it’s no secret the Arctic is changing.

We had arrived at the lodge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Only an hour after flying in in our 10-seater single engine plane, a Black bear cruised right up to the lodge fence and we watched her foraging busily, completely unaware of our presence.

556A0131The lodge is surrounded by a sturdy, tall fence, so we’re on the inside looking out. It’s a truly unique wildlife encounter opportunity – to witness bears in a true wilderness context. We are lucky if they happen to pass by.

A few hours later we are indeed blessed with a polar bear female and her cub. It’s absolutely remarkable to see these creatures so close. It really does render one speechless. In the first two days, we see three mothers and cubs, and a handful of males. They are all in very good condition and, according to Andy, the population is thriving in the Hudson Bay region. So what unfolds before us on Day 4 is unsettling to say the least.

We are cruising along on our morning drive – out to find bears. We are all seated up high atop what they call a Rhino – a purpose built vehicle, specially designed to withstand the thick slick mud, rocky river crossings and difficult terrain of the Tundra.


The guides are absolutely brilliant spotters. From literally five or more kilometres away, they spot a bear. This spot was different though. Andy had his binoculars peeled on a very small dot – a speck on a shimmery, hazy horizon. He was unusually quiet. Albert – in the other vehicle also appeared stumped.

The dot was a polar bear cub.

What was immediately unsettling for Andy was that the cub was alone. They are never very far away from their mothers. For two to three years, they stick velcro- like to their mothers. So to see this little guy alone was alarming to say the least.556A0939

We bumped our way over some difficult terrain, inching ever closer and then Andy spotted something even more alarming. There was another bear lying down. He was clearly feeding on something. It was – on closer inspection – a very, very big male. The cub was bleating and circling the male, but never going too close.

The harsh reality of the situation dawned on us all, without having to put words to it. The male was eating the cub’s mother.


Chances are, the mother would have been confronted by the big male., who may well have been after her cub. A mammoth fight would have ensued, and she would have been badly injured. He would have turned on her, killed her, and was now eating her.

This was nature playing out in all her raw, red, bloody, dangerous attire….and it was utterly shocking.

I have spent enough time in the wilds of Africa and seen enough kills to accept the rawness, the lack of dignity or empathy in the wild. But this was just too much to witness. We sat around and watched the train wreck of a situation for a little too long for my comfort levels, and before long, I began sobbing. I was embarrassed by my reaction in front of the other guests, so tried to stifle my sobs into my thick jacket and scarf but not very successfully.

The little cub did not know where to go, or what to do. In the seven months of his short little life, he had only known a warm teat and a constant presence. Just earlier that morning we had watched a mother and cub pass the lodge – heading in the same direction we were now sitting.

Could it be the same pair we wondered?

The bond had been so precious, so intense. Everything she did, he did. She showed him how to forage and he was attached to her like a limpet.  To see him so lost and hopeless now shredded my heart strings. I think the fact that I was so far away from my own son did little to calm the emotions.

556A1047It was terribly hard not to anthropomorphize the situation and as the guides eventually made a decision to drive away, I could not help look back at the little guy as we retreated…..and watch as he circled the male, bleating quietly.

That night back in the lodge was very difficult. The mood was desperately somber. One guest had to leave the dinner table as I could see she couldn’t control her emotions. The guides were equally stunned by it all, and I could tell they were battling to stay professional, and keep a consistent thread through it all for us paying guests.

Because the lodge is in a conservation area, and because we had come across the situation (as lodge guests). they were compelled to inform the conservation authorities. And that they did, immediately.

“Resources” we were told would arrive at first light the next day. I asked them what they thought the authorities could possibly do in this situation and was told that in all likelihood they would take the cub to a zoo in Winnipeg. The thought horrified me. I wept more.

That night I slept little…my heart broke for the little creature out on his own in the cold, dark night, so close to the big boy who was no doubt still feeding on is mother…

Part of me quietly prayed that wolves or indeed the big male would swiftly take him out – for nature to clean it up, finish it off, put him out of his misery….I could not bear the thought of this little creature being airlifted out of there and confined to a city zoo for the rest of his life – having tasted freedom and wilderness? No. No. NO.

The next morning we drove back to the scene, all of us VERY quiet in the back of the vehicle. Hearts sank as we came over the rise and saw both bears still in fairly close proximity….little cub still calling, circling, looking bewildered….big male now covered in blood and fat and still feeding.

556A0906“Resources” (based a two hour chopper flight away) in Churchill – had asked that the guides take us guests far away from the scene as they dealt with things.

We paid our respects to the little chap, gave them both a wide berth and drove off. Only after having a much closer look at what the male was eating with our binoculars. Yes indeed – paws, fur, and half-eaten carcass of an adult polar bear. It was big mamma alright.  I wept more, and felt quite barren emotionally as we drove off and got on with the day, only returning to the lodge quite a lot later that afternoon.

We had heard and seen the chopper come in from many miles away, but there was little talk of what could have/may have/ should have played out. The guides were quite tight-lipped and I soon picked up that perhaps they did not have the greatest respect for the methods adopted by “Resources”.

When we drove past much later in the day, we found her crumpled and bloody remains. No big male, no cub in sight.

On our return to the lodge, the manager informed us that “Resources” had found the cub had mercifully been “taken out by wolves” (after we had seen him that morning – in broad daylight).

That was all we were told.

My partner and I looked at one another and raised our eyebrows as we made our way back to our bedrooms. Likely story, we both agreed. We suspect, the cub would have been euthanized. My suspicion is that they probably also took out the big male. I could well be wrong on the latter, but I found it very odd that he was not back on the carcass after the chopper had vanished.

What was also a little disconcerting is that significant parts of the carcass (head and paws) had been removed. Research perhaps?

I am not entirely clear why the authorities, or the lodge for that matter felt the need to pull the wool over our eyes, but there we are.

It was an emotional experience all round, and none of us felt the need to probe or delve further and potentially compromise the professional integrity of the lodge staff. They had their reasons – perhaps lodge guests had muddied their name in the past with similarly emotional sightings, who knows…

I guess the really burning question for me was WHY was the male driven to cannibalism? How common is cannibalism in the area? The fact that both guides had never seen anything like it in all their years living here made me decidedly uneasy.

A bit of desktop research and reading a book called “On Thin Ice” by Richard Ellis immediately after the trip brought a few things to the surface for me.

It seems the jury is out on whether this phenomenon is climate change related, and judging by the tone of the literature, it is prone to being sensationalized by the media, but whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion it has a human element to it.

There is a 50% mortality rate in cubs in the first year or two, and it is unusual to find a mother with more than one cub at the age when they are ready to be completely weaned. Six out of ten cubs die in their first year – as a result of attacks, starvation, accidents or infanticide.

There has, it seems, been a noticeable increase in occurrences of cannibalism amongst polar bears. This seems to play out when polar bears are deprived of food for an extended period, which is particularly acute due to the delay in the build-up of sea ice as a result of climate change.

In 2009, up to eight males were found eating cubs in the Churchill area in one season. Previously these bears were able to travel the iced-over Hudson Bay to find food, but more recently, with it taking longer to ice over, they had resorted to killing and eating cubs.

Our mum-eater certainly didn’t look emaciated or weak – he was a big, healthy looking animal. So could it just be an opportunistic feed? A fight to the death (over the cub) ended in a free, fat and protein-rich meal?

We will never know. But it was a substantial eye-opener, and it definitely piqued my interest in the management of these magnificent animals, their future and our influence in all this…

More of this in my next blog as I explore the rather unique and positively disturbing approach to human-wildlife conflict in the town of Churchill, where they make use of what they proudly call a “polar bear jail”…


If you go down to the woods today..

We are cruising down the Atnarko River in a Clackacraft drift boat – a rather bulky, tinny affair. It is, we are told, the best in the business. As we set off and clunk and grind our way over the shallower rapids, I wonder about this assertion.

The regal and appropriately named snow-dusted Mount Stupendous casts her gnarly profile down upon us and the reflections of lush and lofty cotton trees and Douglas Fir wriggle and stretch in the calm pools between the busier rapids.


While negotiating his way with ease around vast cotton tree stumps and through churning rapids, our 70-something river guide Les Koroluk waxes lyrical about the great run of ‘pink’ or ‘kap’ay’ this year. He rolls off names like ‘chum’, ‘coho’, ‘cutthroat’, ‘sock eye’ and ‘bull trout’ – all with a delightful, and slightly quavering Canadian lilt.


Vast clutches of gravid females swim urgently upstream, males not too far behind them. The crystal clear water darkens with salmon as they move en masse beneath and alongside us. Occasionally one leaps out of the water and belly-flops back. These remarkable fish face an astounding suite of challenges as they turn their backs on the ocean and make their way upstream.

I notice a few rather ropey looking fish, large white fungus-like growths on their flanks and fins. “Signs of decay”, explains Les, “long before their number’s up, many of them show quite erratic behavior and will flop about. They spawn and they die. Their job is done”.

Despite his advanced years, our guide’s burly arms tweak and tug at the two oars with total confidence. He is clearly well attached to his beaten up old boat – and refuses point blank to guide in the souped-up inflatables favored by his younger guiding colleagues.

We are in the company of a real mountain river man….boiling rapids, feisty fish, charging bears, icy mountains…he’s seen it and done it all. A deep understanding and reverence towards the land and its critters – hairy or scaled – oozes from every pore. He’s a story teller of note.

In the 80’s Les owned and ran a successful guiding company in the Bella Coola valley, where salmon and trout fishing was the main focus. This ultimately gave birth to commercial bear viewing ventures in the British Columbia region of Canada. Les, we find out later, was the brain behind the ‘river drift’ approach to viewing wildlife.

And thus we drift.

We are looking for bears. Big grizzly ones. They have been spotted all week on these drift trips, so we are feeling lucky. Sometimes they are within arm’s reach, we are told. Les tells us about all sorts of bear encounters – ones he has had with clients or on his own. Bears sitting on logs dipping paws into the river, bears mock charging, bears with cubs, big male bears swimming alongside the boat….bears all over the place.

Our rookie excitement mounts with each story and we strain our eyes up and downstream – we would give anything for a hint of hair, a flash of a pointy dark muzzle.

We’re here at the right time. When the salmon start migrating, the bears move up and down the river in a collective feeding frenzy, in a bid to fatten up for winter.

Towards the end of September, as fresh salmon numbers dwindle, the bears become less picky and start gnawing on spawned-out, dead and dying salmon. Very often, the putrid smell of rotting fish is what you will smell before you see a bear deep in the forest, explains Les.

We are in deep wilderness – with no signs of human habitation for many, many miles. The Bella Coola valley cuts through the coastal mountains from the Pacific to the interior plateau. The area has the lowest population density of any habitable area on earth and is one of the few places where ‘natives’ or ‘first nations’ folk outnumber the ‘non-natives’. Because of this, many of the bears that are encountered have not had negative experiences with humans. They are, Les explains, fairly tolerant and allow humans to watch them at pretty close quarters. It’s a balancing act though, he goes on. “There is a degree of trust that one needs to garner from the bears…we have to behave in a certain way that they are able to both tolerate and predict. The guides in the area undergo very specific training and we all adhere to the strict regional and provincial standards.”

I ask about client numbers and whether there is ever a sense of crowding the animal. “That’s very much part of it”, he says “the guide to client-ratios must remain small…we have to almost melt into the background for these bears, for these tours to continue to bear fruit”.

We come to the end of our three hour drift empty handed and a little disappointed. There’s always tomorrow…

The next day we set off with Mad Mike – a 30-something gingery bear of a man who has lived and guided in the area for many years. Mike shares Les’s deep passion for the area, but is also fascinated by the cultural history and tells us some rather alarming tales of how first nations people were mistreated by the Canadian government (enough material for another blog entirely!)


We follow the ‘Tote road’ – a rough gravel road (used by the early settlers in the late 1800s) that winds its way parallel to the Atnarko River for about 11 kays upstream to the confluence of the Hotnarko River.

We are, of course, looking for bears.

We find a pika (a small hamster-like rodent), a garter snake and many frogs. We watch red-tailed hawks ride the thermals and a juvenile bald eagle swoop between the cottonwood tops. We come across Culturally Modified Trees (CTMs) – cedars that have been stripped of a few sheets of bark to make clothing or hats.

But there are no bears in these deep, dark woods. Not today anyway.

We find more than an enough tantalizing evidence to indicate their presence though. Big piles of fresh bear skat peppered with rose-hip pips; fat, dinner plate sized prints pressed into the mud; a broad, winding urine trail along a stretch of tar road (a male bear, we are told – they don’t stop to wee, they swagger and wee); rubbing trees scarred with deep claw scrapes and even hair embedded in the bark. I pluck a hair out and pocket it for my son back home – knowing how much of a treasure a genuine grizzly hair will be!

These trees talk, says Mike. Well, to a bear anyway. The scent left on the tree will tell the next bear who passed before it, their reproductive status and possibly their mood. Marking is usually done by males during the mating season, but some is done by both genders throughout the year. A bear will always stop at a talking tree and read the news, make its own mark.

Mike tells us that marine-derived nitrogen is found in these trees – even though we are about 100 metres from the nearest river. Indeed it is difficult to find a tree that has not been influenced by salmon! In a single spawning season, one bear will carry up to 700 salmon from the river and leave half behind on the forest floor. “The larger tree growth rings correspond directly with the large salmon runs” explains Mike.


Remarkable stuff.

Every time we approached the river, we would be warned in hushed tones to quiet down, to be aware. Our guide would go ahead, stop, listen then pick his way through the tall reeds and gingerly check the river banks. Adrenalin levels would soar and I would start to imagine bears crashing out from the dark woods or rising up from day beds, all gnashing teeth and claws.

By now our feet were starting to ache a little, we had hiked the whole morning and into the afternoon. We had lunched on the river bank, taken a dip  in the river and now were really starting to think all these Grizzly encounters were pure fallacy…

On our final river bank check, I glance up and spotted a beautiful, massive golden-tinged Grizzly male sploshing about in the rapids. We watched him for less than a minute before he sunk into the water and vanished around the corner. It was enough to get the juices flowing. I had seen my first real live grizzly in the wild!

The next morning our first trip down to the hide revealed a sow and her cub right up close and munching away at a dead fish she had plucked out of the river. We watched through binocular and camera lenses – hardly able to contain our excitement.



The bond between mum and cub was profound – he stuck to her like Velcro, and she constantly made sure he had his fair share of the rotting flesh.

The little guy became quite playful at one stage, jumping up and down on his hind legs playing what looked like hide and seek behind a bush. Mike had explained to us that bears often show a human-like sense of humour in their behaviour – signs of being aloof, scared, friendly, goofy and inventive. We saw all this and more in the way these two interacted. Eventually mum and cub ambled off to disappear from sight leaving us all, slack jawed and star struck…

On our last day we went on another drift – again with Les. This time we were rewarded with an excellent sighting of the legendary “Bent Ear”. This big chap had a floppy bottom lip and a battered ear from too many bar brawls and encounters with rival males or even females.

bent ear 1

“That’ll be Bent Ear”, says Les, in his lazy drawl….”he’s fat alright – ‘prolly got a belly full of cubs”, he chortles.

“Cubs?”, I ask, horrified….

“Yip….many sows will give birth to three cubs, but only one’ll make it. They either suffer den death because mum doesn’t have enough milk, or they’ve come across the likes of Bent ear and he’s picked out a cub and gobbled it up in front of his siblings”.

Tough stuff this, but it’s nature – red in tooth and claw and all that.

We watch this magnificent creature for a while. His shiny hippo-like bulk swims for about a kilometre downstream and then he emerges, shakes, glances up at us in our boat and swaggers off up a bank to be swallowed up in the gloom of the woods.

Trail runner’s nirvana

[The unedited version of the article that featured in the M&G today….]

I am sitting in a damp camping chair under a canvas roof. The rain is coming down in sheets, the khaki seams above bulge and occasionally issue an icy waterfall down an unsuspecting recipient’s back below. Desert winds nip at our ankles, howling and snapping at tent pegs and guy ropes. The cold front froths and comes at us out of the gloom, gnashing rabidly, threatening to send our whole tented village tumble-weeding across the mountains, over the Orange River, into Namibia and northwards to Timbuktu.


It feels like we are in the middle of nowhere and, well, I guess we are. We are sitting in a remote corner of the 6 000 km2 /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park – a park that encompasses one of the world’s oldest and perhaps most pristine mountain arid regions.

I am with 40 other trail running junkies. We have all completed the 35 kilometre Day 1 of the 4 Day Richtersveld WildrunTM. The sense of shared accomplishment is tangible as we wait eagerly for a hot dinner. The red wine and Arnica oil is flowing as liberally as the tales of extraordinary rock formations, crystal-strewn fields and some rather woeful navigational errors. Shin splints, scratches, sprains, bruises and shiny black toe blisters have been compared and oohed and aaahed over.

No matter how much kneading, pummelling and massaging we apply to both our bodies and the meteorological facts presented to us, the following day’s forecast remains bleak. We are all in for a cold, wet, windy and very long Day 2 in the desert. Yes, the desert.

But for now this seems not to matter as we listen to the mellifluous tones of Pieter van Wyk – a SANParks botanist who has lived in the region all his life. This is a man with enviable and utterly infectious passion. He’s waxing lyrical about the geological history and describing the succulent riches that he has come to know in his 24 years. Pieter has not seen rain this potent for years and is already anticipating the botanical jewels that will emerge from years of oblivion as soon as the sun tickles the grateful rain-drenched soil. Excitement is etched all over his face as he talks about seven-year old kids in the area who have scampered indoors when it rains as they’ve never seen water plummeting from the sky.

What makes the Richtersveld WildrunTM so unique and wild is that the trail is completely unmarked. Runners are given a GPS unit onto which waypoints are loaded and we are told to make our way from one waypoint to the next. Whether we clamber over a granite-clad ridge or shoot down a river valley, it is up to us to figure out the most runnable route.

My running partner’s navigational prowess came to the fore a mere two kays into the race on Day 1. While other runners scrambled up a steep ridgeline, he hung back and nodded quietly to me indicating rather that we cruise up a river valley in the opposite direction. Off we galloped, and about ten minutes later, I was surprised to see the leading male Thabang Madiba (who went on to win the race) bound up behind us.


This was the first of many such route choices, and it wasn’t long before the leading lady tucked in behind Mr GPS, recognising the advantage. It added a certain degree of pressure to things for me, however, and it soon became clear that if I were to lose sight of his rather speedy GPS-programmed rear end, I would disappear into the wilderness and never be seen again.


The geology of the area is utterly fascinating. Over 2 000 million years ago, the Richtersveld Earth Dragon awoke from her million year slumber. Her guts rumbled and she issued a colossal burp that buckled the ancient slab of continental rock above her. Red-hot granitic and basaltic magma bubbled out of the vast steaming fissures, and the Richtersveld Suite emerged to the surface. Eons later, the area was blanketed in the ancient Adamastor Ocean. A mere blip in geological time later, large rivers threw down sheets of sandy, calcareous sediment to the shores of the continent from the east. Continental plates butted heads again, the ocean receded and gave way to more buckling and tilting and the sedimentary layers shot up into gnarly mountain ridges. Our restless dragon awoke about    1 500 million years later, exhaled again, her fiery magma breath punching through the sloping sediments and crustal rocks to form the Tatasberg – a 1 000 metre high granite massif. We had the absolute privilege of running through this boulder strewn extravaganza on Day 3.

After a very wet and technical Day 2, we were all very relieved to see the clouds lift to reveal the rainbow drenched glory of our camp at Hakkiesdoring. We charged into and up the Gannakouriep river valley, then faced east to top out onto the vast and spectacular Springbokvlakte, a plateau upon which many thousands of Springbok used to graze. Just after this, we hit the much talked about Tatasberg. We found ourselves clambering and crawling our way through and between giant granite boulders the size of double-decker buses, to emerge at the top where the 360 degree views were utterly magnificent. I was quite literally speechless – and not from the physical exertion!


As if the mountain vistas are not gargantuan enough, there are all the small things to marvel at. Everywhere you look, all sorts of succulents are squeezing their podgy little pink and purple fingers from underneath rocks or snuggling up to sparkling chunks of quartz.

“You have to be on your hands and knees to really see and understand this place”, explains the ever beaming Pieter. “There is so much to learn, to know. There is something under every rock, every sliver of crystal…I read this place like a book”. On our third night in camp, he addresses us all again. More stories, more wonder.

A self-taught botanist who reels off scientific names with consummate ease, Pieter goes on to tell us about the endemic succulents in these parts. He talks about the Lithops (or living stones) that often grow in close association with the micro-climate created by a sliver of quartz. He tells us about minute plants with a transparent “window”, beneath which lies a small crystal embedded within its flesh to reflect sunlight to less exposed parts of the plant where food is made…all in a bid to reduce surface area and minimise water loss. Pure evolutionary genius.

He reels off exotic and somewhat subversive plant names, translating from the Afrikaans as he does…. “perfume bottle”, “child’s penis”, “old granny’s tits”….

He enthuses about the extremely rare Pachypodium namaquanum, an 800 year old spike-studded succulent with an elephant-like foot and a quaint north-facing tilt to the rosette of leaves at its tip. It looks uncannily like a lone man standing facing north, which is why it is also called Half mens. He tells us we will be coming eye to eye with these very special plants on our last day. And that we did.

Pieter tells us about the creatures found here. We are all riveted. “We have about 30 species of Toktokkie here, and like most other desert beetles they have a waxy covering that controls water retention and body temperature”. Some insects, he tells us, even have the capacity to actually make their own water.

Pieter modestly lets slip how he discovered a new species of spider a few years back. There are, he explains, 18 species of scorpion in the park. One of these endemic whipper-snappers is almost as large as a dinner plate! He tells us about the Namaqua chameleon. Just short of the length of a Shatterproof ruler, this little guy packs some punch and has been known to hold his own against crows and Cape cobras. They breed them tough as nails in these parts!

The WildrunTM team really are the crème de la crème of trail race organisers. Great care is taken to provide just the right measure of luxury for weary trail runners. The tents are robust, yet comfortable, there are canvas toilet cubicles and showers every day with donkey-boiled piping hot water. This is all set up effortlessly in the middle of nowhere. Each day the entire camp is whipped up in a new spot and always in time for the front runners to run into camp and chill.

This was trail running at its wildest, most extreme, most luxurious and insanely enjoyable best.

[Photos taken by the immensely talented Nick Muzik and Ian Corless…]


Bewitched by the twitch

To what lengths would you go to, to see a Horned Screamer? Or a Black-eyed Fairy? How much would you pay to catch a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Lesser-spotted, Long-toed Monklet?  For starters, you would have to head into the depths of the Amazon jungle.  It would not be easy though. You may have to play dead for hours under a blanket of rotten leaves – or scale the buttress roots and perch Attenbrough-like in the canopy.

I refer, of course, to ‘twitching’ – a somewhat derogatory, if not highly appropriate name ascribed to seriously committed bird watchers.  Twitchers hunt in thoroughly intense, often humorless packs, and have been known to go to bed with their monopods.  They are defined by the reflex ticking action upon sighting, or hearing a bird.

Having worked for a few months for a safari company specialising in birding trips in Malawi (in the early 90s), I have been exposed to some obsessive twitchers.  They came on these tours with one goal and one goal only – to see, or hear, as many species as possible in the two weeks available.  As chief cook, bottle-washer and assistant bird-spotter, this was, very often two weeks too long.

At the end of a birding trip, some groups would have successfully clocked up 350 species – and leave satisfied with a ‘been there, done that, got the list, lost-the-T-shirt-in-the-process- attitude’.  Satisfied with another list of what they call “Lifers” (first time spotted), they would head off to the next continent – to hunt down a whole new bunch of unsuspecting feathers.

They would very rarely cast a glance at the world outside their circled vision to marvel at the swirling mists of Mt Mulanje, the frenetic markets of Lilongwe, or the rolling plains of Nyanga.  Instead, time would be spent arguing over Latin names with the guide, or in rabid squabbles over who saw it first.  Every evening, before dinner, they would all huddle together and consolidate their tickings – the name of each bird would be read out and claims made to their sighting.  This was often when there was the greatest derision and least humour.  The dedication was astounding.

I remember one particularly keen group from Australia.  In a staunch effort to catch a glimpse of a highly persecuted White-eared Barbet, they lay on their backs under a tree, binoculars skywards, mouths open, postrate for two hours, in anticipation of a mere flutter, a hint of a feather.  They would quite honestly, have donated organs for a sighting – such was the commitment.  Imagine the atmosphere, when Tony, our guide – borderline comatose and high as a kite at the best of times – ambled back to the party and claimed that he had just had an excellent 3 minute sighting of our feathered friend in another tree up the road while he was having a joint.

The group didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

We did have one or two non-twitcher groups.  They were invariably more relaxed and dare I say it – on the same planet.  They were more interested in bartering with the local people in the bustling markets, seeing the exquisite countryside and snorkeling in the Lake than ticking off names on a list.

Their ambivalence toward birds was, for me a breath of fresh air.  One group was especially memorable.  At breakfast one morning in one of the bush camps, one of the punters (clients) – a Cambridge History academic, Charles, asked:

‘Karoline, what is that ghastly bloody bird that wakes me up at the crack of dawn and goes “Knyack, Knyack, Knyack”?’  Many hours were spent going through the options with the rest of the group and a guide-book – debating the possibilities and deciphering the unlikely combinations of beak, body size, colour and tail length, based on vague alcoholic sightings the night before.  What really threw me though, was the “knyack knyack” bit.  Charles eventually called his mystery bird the “Double-breasted Knyack Knyack bird” and he had a rather subversive sketch to prove it.

After a few days later he spotted it, while it was “knyacking”, and it turned out to be a relatively harmless Black-eyed bulbul.  For the rest of the trip, all birds, (feathered and unfeathered), were labeled “Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks”.

As a self-confessed traitor to the twitching fraternity, I am far happier listening to calls and watching behaviour, and I would encourage any aspiring birder to rather enter the world of birding through this door.  They do not, however, make call identification easy for beginners if the descriptions in some of the more Field Guides are anything to go by.  If an over-zealous new birder on the block imitates the written version in an effort to flush a bird from the undergrowth, he or she is guaranteed to send any self-respecting bird into premature migration.

These are some of the offerings:

The Burchells Sandgrouse, if alarmed, utters GUG-GUG-GUG but in flight calls CHOK-LIT CHOK-LIT.

The Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, on the other hand, simply emits a hoarse GOLLI-GOLLI-GOLLI.

The Bar-throated Apalis goes PILLY-PILLY-PILLY, and if that’s not bad enough, your average Little Brown Job (or LBJ) is accused of emitting anything from ZWEET-ZWEET-ZWEET to CHIRRIT, CHIRRIT, TZEEP.

I find calls (and the interpretation thereof) one of the more fascinating aspects of bird watching.  There are calls associated with courtship, flight, alarm, bonding, injury and aggression. Once the connection is made, calls can tell you things about the bush and could help save you from coming face to face with a ravenous predator (or a despondent Australian).

My advice to any birder starting out, is don’t get bewitched by the twitch.  Don’t get bogged down with names, numbers, Latin and lists. Rather find a good waterhole or forest and watch, listen and absorb.  You will learn more this way than in a lifetime of ticking.  Try to fathom the meaning from calls and flight pattern, courtship rituals and nesting strategies.  Only then, if you have to, reach for your guide-book and see what name us humans have given it.  After all, what’s in a name?

It is more important that we come to understand the private lives of birds – the mysteries of navigation, their language and repetoire of song if we are to begin to understand what their very survival depends on.  Without birds to delight us with their colour and song, the world would be a very dull place indeed – even if they are all Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks.

A tide in the affairs of men…

Something deep, primordial, an ancient call

She answered, and left her weightless world

For the uncertainty of the shore.

How heavy the burden of herself became,

the massive shell, the tapered limbs

That scratched and clawed for purchase in the too forgiving sand,

she knew alone,

and alone she bore, amidst the shadowy terrors

Of an alien world seen through eyes already tearing.

A few weeks ago, we were incredibly privileged to spend a week up in Maputaland in the north-eastern corner of KwaZulu-Natal. The region – which nudges up against the border of Mozambique – is relatively unpopulated and the coastline boasts some of the more pristine and undeveloped beaches, dunes and sub-tropical forests in the country. These glorious skeins of golden sand thankfully fall within a protected marine conservation area. For a very good reason…


Our mission? To seek out and observe nesting turtles – loggerheads and leatherbacks specifically. The area is famous for its healthy nesting turtle population, and the November–January period is peak nesting season. We did not want to join the organised vehicle-based turtle tours which were on offer every night, preferring instead to go on foot and in our own time. In the 6 days we were there, we walked and ran the beaches flat searching for turtle tracks and covering a total of about 100 kilometres. We generally set off later in the evening after 9 pm or first thing in the morning (the alarm was duly set to ping at 3.45 am!)

On days 1 and 2, we returned from our night-time and early-morning forays disappointed.  On Day 3, however, we were rewarded quite spectacularly. We had set off in the early morning gloom. Torchlight was unnecessary as the moon was still quite plump. A little over 600 metres from where we were staying we could make out the riffles and dips of a dark shadowy trail in the distance. We quickened our pace and soon stumbled upon a vast, fresh tractor-like track heading up into the dunes. A quick check beyond to see if there was a return track…no! Heart rates immediately rocketed, as we made our way quietly up the beach. In the distance, up against a sand bank, we could just make out a big moving shadow. Yes – at last!

Being so close to a wild creature this endangered and this magnificent is quite life changing and emotional. One knows that the most respectful thing to do is to keep one’s distance and respect her while she goes about the task of laying and covering her nest. At the same time, there is also an overwhelming desire to get up close and to just feel her energy. I very quietly and carefully stroked her lightly on her back flipper and then placed my hand on her shell – just for a moment. I then stepped back, sunk into the sand, held my breath and watched her.

Sandy strings of mucous clung to her mouth and her eyes seemed to be weeping slightly. In the fading gloom, I watched her mouth open and close occasionally, and listened to her straining rhythmic breathing. Every laboured, rhythmic sweep of her powerful back flippers seemed to take it out of her. She had already delivered her precious clutch into the 80 cm deep, cool sandy womb further up the beach.

From an evening encounter with a laying female later in the week we learned that the soft-shelled eggs are gently dropped into this perfectly excavated hole, her back flippers acting as tunnelling guides. The ping-pong ball sized eggs have a unique mineral structure which prevents breakage on impact with the rest of the clutch. Turtle eggs are said to be so yielding that one could bounce one off a hard surface!

We suspect our female had laid her eggs quite a while before we arrived and had moved away from the actual nest. She was now disguising the site and creating as much diversionary disturbance as possible – digging, spreading, turning and weighing down patches of sand away from the actual eggs. Researchers in the area have watched some leatherbacks spend up to two hours after laying disguising an area of up to 100 m2 in an effort to confuse and deter predators.

I had such a ridiculous desire to look into her eyes and connect at some level…oh to just have a conversation with a creature this wild and mythical! For her to tell me her story, to share her turtle adventures in the big seas, and for me to try and reassure her that every single one of her perfect leathery little progeny would make it into the surf in two month’s time.

And that she too will be ok when she returns to the sea…

What I didn’t want her to know was that of the 1 000 hatchlings that enter the sea, only two reach nesting maturity. But my guess is she’s well aware of that – hence the healthy clutch of 100 or more eggs!

We watched her for over an hour – the sun was inching its way up behind the quivering sea beyond and the clouds were turning pink. We started to become quite concerned that she was still exposed and likely to be out on the beach in broad daylight. Some internal chemistry was telling her to keep confusing all those faceless predators – ones she would never meet.


We watched her, breathless, perform the rite,

Marveled at her close-lidded patience, her energy,

The thick head that nodded slow acceptance

Of utter exhaustion, the unrelenting will

that rendered her oblivious to all

Save her pearly charges’ burial

We fondled her leathery skin,

Gazed into her eyes admired the thickness of her wrinkled neck,

and thought deeply of the soft expression on her darkened face.

As George Hughes observes in his book Between the tides: ‘There is no room for sentiment ….once the eggs have been laid, they are on their own’. Yet despite this harsh reptilian parenting reality, one cannot help be completely in awe of the degree of dedication and meticulous attention to detail around the nesting process. There are no half measures here, no ‘quick let me just get the job done and head off back to the sea where it’s easier to move…’.

It takes a female 25 years to reach nesting maturity. That is over half my lifetime! After all those years out in the Big Blue, she just knows it’s time to procreate and make the epic journey onto land to usher forth another generation. And she does this up to four times in a single season.


Eventually our turtle turned her massive bulk around, harrumphed her way over the little sand dune she had created, pointed her beaked face towards the white-tipped waves and started her homeward journey. She seemed to be energised by the downhill stretch, the sight of the waves and the harder sand. She heaved her (possibly) 400kg+ frame down the beach, stopping only occasionally to catch her breath. We watched a wave lick the sandy mucous from her face, another wash the sand off her carapace, and yet another engulf her completely. I swear I saw a hint of a smile just before her head dipped below the final wave.

And then she was gone.


The deed was done, the sand replaced,

She joined the sea again,

And we waded with her to the edge of our world,

Saw her graceful form retreat into the darkness

In silence, we filled her clumsy tracks,

Erased all trace of what we’d seen,

And dreamed of another cosmic night

When sand shall scatter, and the sea

Shall open up her arms to turtle minions…

I wished her well – out loud, but my words were whisked away from my lips in the early morning breeze. The cynic in me couldn’t help feel a sense of great longing as she disappeared from view. I felt I had lost a friend and there was no way I could or would ever see her again, know where she is or how she would fare.


I corresponded with George Hughes after this encounter and was delighted to hear that in the 50 years working with these animals he has NEVER encountered a leatherback on the beach in the daylight hours.

Once she had gone, all I could think about were the dangers she faced on her return to the ocean… from all-consuming fishing nets and the horrors of bycatch to the equal horror of long-line fishing….from warming oceans and fickle, schitzo-currents to the ever-growing tsunami of plastic.

A day or two later, while walking along a 1.5 kilometre stretch of beach between Rocktail Bay and Thonga (all prime nesting beach), we managed to collect two large black garbage bags of plastic – all in the space of an hour. Our harvest included ten cigarette lighters, an untold quantity of drinking straws, bottle tops, shoes, bits of plastic crate, fishing rope and plastic bottles. What was perhaps more alarming were the miniscule chips and particles of colourful plastic – bigger items that had become brittle and broken down over the years – becoming one with the sand and shells.

George Hughes agrees that plastic waste is a massive threat to turtles globally. Hatchlings tend to ingest anything that looks edible – these very small plastic pellets for example. Adults have also been known to ingest large sheets of plastic and plastic bags. These block the gut and lead to tragic fatalities. Hughes has come across many examples of plastic ingestion in the five decades working with turtles. In one particularly severe case, he came across an adult leatherback which had been caught in the shark nets off the KZN coast. It died shortly after being brought to the research institute where he was based at the time. When dissected, Hughes’s team unravelled a solid 3 x 4 m sheet of heavy plastic. Frightening stuff.

Sadly the oesophagus is designed in such a way that once an item of plastic has been ingested, there is no way for it to be regurgitated and it has to be swallowed completely. Once lodged in the gut the animal is quite likely to starve to death or suffocate.

On a more positive note, the conservation status of the both loggerhead and leatherbacks has seen dramatic improvement over the past few decades. Protection of nesting females began in 1963 when a paltry 5 nesting females were recorded in the entire 1966 season. The decline was almost certainly caused by the relentless harvesting of eggs. Numbers of nesting females has thankfully grown steadily – up to a remarkable 168 in a single year!

Encounters such as the one I describe here leave one with a heightened sense of personal caring and responsibility for endangered creatures – all over the world. On one of our evening meanderings, we came across one of the lodge vehicles, guests offloaded and surrounding a laying female leatherback. It was great to watch her eggs drop into her meticulously crafted hole, but sharing the experience with several others (too many perhaps for my comfort levels), took away so much of the magic for me. There is a loss of dignity somehow, when guests pose behind the female to get that all essential Facebook shot and I felt that there insufficient respect for her space and need for quiet.

Of course, I realise the importance of the tourism element in the conservation of these extraordinary animals, so it was great to see foreigners and locals alike enjoying the experience. As long as the encounters are carried out sensitively (and married to the excellent data collection and conservation efforts initiated by Hughes), then I am all for it. The more people can experience and treasure such a rare and sacred moment, the more likely they are to feel the visceral need to help secure the future of these magnificent animals and their fragile ocean environment.

Poem extracts from ‘Turtles’ – author unknown

Thanks for F Faralla for the pics.


Riding the Sky Dragon

10620468_766714520043946_252352620298145692_oMy last blog was about a race in beautiful big-sky Drakensburg mountain country. This past week saw a return to the very same wilderness playground. Once again, I was blessed with a very well-priced entry offer and opportunity. Having committed months back to going upcountry to support anyway, it seemed a bit of a no-brainer to just enter and run it too.

This was a race I have heard so much about, had always revered (and considered a little bit out of my league), so it seemed too good to be true to pass up on the chance to partake.

Friend and partner Filippo – a seasoned Sky runner – has spent many hours scouting the route. He’s plotted and planned, gazed lovingly at the route profile, researched alternative paths and spoken to local landowners. He’s run the race three times and always done well. In the ill-fated 2013 event, he ran 75% of the route in some of the severest weather conditions – helping to guide fellow runners off the mountain when the organisers cut it short. In the 2013 race, two of the winning elite runners were taken off the mountain with serious hyperthermia.

This man eats, sleep, shits Sky Run.

I was in damn good hands, in other words. This was a massive comfort to me – given that I have never run an unmarked race before and (horror of horrors!) have never used a GPS.

As a fiercely independent person, I needed to know that all would be well if I were to end up alone on the mountain for 12 hours – convinced as I was that my self-appointed guide and race-day hero was going to get thoroughly fed up with my pace and want to bolt off into the distance to claim a podium spot. This was despite his endless assurances to the contrary.

I spent an hour or two the day before getting to know my borrowed GPS unit and tried to get my technologically- challenged brain used to the rather uncomfortable process of having to look down and check my wrist to ensure I was still on track and not about to run off a cliff. It definitely took some getting used to, and I’ll have to admit, my nerves were well shattered.

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Everyone talks about the remoteness of this run, the altitude, the potential to take a wrong turn, get hopelessly lost. A conversation with a local farmer in the car en route to the race start in Lady Grey did little to stitch my frayed nerves together. “These are serious mountains”, he says, “you can’t mess around….people can die….you have to know what you’re doing or you’re stuffed…. last year the conditions were so severe, that I got lost for hours trying to find two runners in distress….and I grew up here!”



Race morning dawned and at 4am (!) and I found myself standing at the starting line alongside 72 other Sky Run Lite runners. We were only doing 65 kays. The other intrepid 134 guys and girls were bravely taking on the Big Daddy: Sky Run Proper – a thoroughly daunting 100 kays.

The first leg is steep and dark. Runners and their bobbing head torches jostle and vie for a spot along a nasty, endless and uncomfortable rock-strewn single track. The odd mutter and grumble and a few sharp words from one runner to the next as race morning frustrations blur all logic and there’s a crazy urge to overtake and charge up ahead.  After about an hour, the dawn light seeps through, torches are switched off and the mountain tips turn orange.


After a fairly tough 7 kays we reach Check point 1 (the Tower). I catch a glimpse of Salomon ambassador and Sky record holder Ryan Sandes who has come out to support. We shout our race numbers out to a marshall with a clipboard and off we go.

A further 14 kays on we hit Check point 2 (Olympus). There was a bakkie with a large tank of water and a pipe and we took the opportunity to fill our already depleted water stocks and try and throw down some food.

Another 8 kays on we hit Snowdon – here we had to unpack our kit and show all our compulsory equipment and gear to a kit check guy. One or two runners were ‘man down’….having feet strapped, asking for headache pills or claiming they were vomiting and not feeling good. Heads down, carry on.


And on we ran….again, our navigation GPS master at the helm, showing me (and a few hangers on) the quickest, safest route into increasingly remote countryside. At times I would question his choices as they seemed completely illogical – I even had the gall to dispute one call to leave a clump of runners and head in the opposite direction! At this point, a wonderful chap who had hooked in with us from very early on put me firmly in my place and humbled me into submission…. “That guy ahead of you Karoline…..that guy. Shoo, he’s an expert. I trust that guy man – you’re damn lucky to have him as your coach!” (Thanks Mazu!)

We then hit the infamous and much anticipated ‘Dragon’s Back’. What a glorious, glorious section of the mountain! This had to have been the highlight for me. I was so enamored with her I whipped out my cell phone and tried to capture it all on video. Tricky thing to do however – running to keep up and take a video, that is – particularly when the air is a little thinner than usual and the wind is tugging at your feet.

Turned out to be an epic fail, sadly – my footage mainly of my shoes and some gasping and panting in the background. I had pressed the record button thinking it was the ‘off’ button.

The name Dragon’s Back could not be more apt. It was exactly that. It feels as though one is sitting on her, legs clinging to her heaving flanks, dodging clouds, her massive tail swooshing behind. She’s a friendly dragon too. I really felt that. She wanted us there and was doing everything in her power to keep us astride. Not an easy mount, granted – sheer drop either side of her, and levels of exposure second to none.

But compared to the mountain we were set to meet a couple of hours later…… she was a delight!



After this highlight, it was all down, down, down. Well, relatively speaking. A few ups between, but mostly down. Mr GPS still working his magic and along the way, many fellow athletes hooking in to make the most of his route knowledge. At one point I could have sworn I was running behind the Pied Piper .

Check point 6 is Balloch – a spot where most runners stop for a bit, refill, chill and enjoy a bit of pampering from loved ones and seconds. With 58 kays in the bag, one is grateful for the rest…

While we were heading down the fairly steep descent into Balloch the heavens had started to darken, growl and grumble. Ominous thunder and the snap, crackle and pop of electricity in the air made me nervous. We were about to make a vertical 500m ascent up ‘The Wall’ to find ourselves on a 2 400m ridge – perfect target for a well-placed lightning bolt!


Balloch was a Bitch. No other words for her. Where the Dragon had been friendly and youthful in spirit, this snarky little cow was just grumpy. Her mood mirrored mine. She tore at my hands and my fingers bled… barbed wire strewn across her paths tripped me up, I picked it up and tried to toss it aside, but it clung to me snake-like and I wrested and swore at it to get off me.

She was the playground bully and I fought back like a child. I kicked and screamed even sat down and wept for a bit. I swore out loud like a fish wife….something foul along the lines of “You f*&king wanker mountain”. I was reminded of these words later that evening.

Not pretty. I even kicked at a few rocks. As one does…

And then we were through the hole in the wire at the top, over and out.


By now my toes were on fire and blisters were blowing up, popping and rubbing – perhaps less as a result of the rock kicking episode, and more due to ill-fitting shoes and gritty, wet socks.

The descent was painful, but by now I could see and smell the finish at the Wartrail country club…

Not so Mr GPS. We parted at the 63 kay mark. He went on to run a further 37 kays – into the growing darkness. He had another 7 ½ hours of slogging it out alone! (Rumour has it …in true ‘Loneliness of Long Distance Runner’ style, the man later had a long conversation with a black sheep on his way up Bridle Pass! As one does…)

I was just grateful to see the Salomon flags and banners and my last 2 kays were comparatively fast on gloriously comfortable dust road. I came in second overall and first lady in a time of 11:03.

Remarkably, about an hour later after I finished my little jaunt, in trotted Ian Don-Wauchope who bagged a new course record for the full. What an absolute legend! My respect to him, to Landie Greyling (winner and new record holder) and ALL the runners who completed the full knows no bounds.

[With huge thanks to the pro photographers (Craig K et al) who took most of the excellent pics here!]




The ice dragon

The ‘Rhodes Trail Run’ has always had a certain mythical air about her. People talk about her (in hushed tones) as though she’s a sleeping mountain dragon who may wake up and breathe her icy breath all over you – freezing you firmly in place should you mention the word ‘entry’.

Entries are like hen’s teeth, and many a runner’s conversation will be peppered with expletives over Rhodes and its entry process. One has to find the hen (running free and headless in a vast undulating mountain landscape), wrestle her on the ground ….and then get on a waiting list, only to realise she is indeed headless and thus toothless once you pop out at the top – of said list.

It’s complicated in other words.

So when I heard that a good friend had managed to wangle a wildcard entry for me a few weeks ago, I was beside myself with excitement. I knew next to nothing about the route, the distance, the terrain….all I knew was that it was very far away and very, very cold. There could even be snow.


I kept it that way right up until race morning – the state of blissful ignorance that is. I have never approached a race with such a blind faith and so it felt a little surreal to be standing alongside the other 287 frozen runners at the starting line on the morning of the 12th July.

Rhodes is a charming little mountain hamlet in the southern Drakensburg – where the term ‘time stood still’ has never been more apt. Really. This here misanthrope would settle there in an flash – were it not for the biting cold. Our sleeping ice dragon had gripped the place the week before – all rivers and waterfalls solid, suspended, white.


We set off at a fairly blistering pace. My legs and feet frozen, lungs sucking in the icy air. We left the village and ran for about 13 kilometres along the Bell River and into the Kloppershoek Valley, crossing the Bell a few times via frosty causeways and low-level bridges.

We then hit the offroad stuff – an 8 kilometre stretch of grassy, stony undulating terrain – criss-crossed with cattle and sheep tracks. The route is marked by the occasional orange flag – and bits of sheep wool stuck to thorny scrub. We eventually arrived at the bottom of the infamous ‘Mavis Bank’ – a very steep climb along a fence, which had many fellow runners cursing and heaving.

After this festive check-point, we hit the Lesotho border road, put our heads down and forged ahead into some icy headwinds, passing the ski slopes of Tiffendale at 3 000 metres to the right. It was quite uncanny to see the ski lifts (well, one) and little specks weaving down the patch of snow, while running. We pass the highest point at this point – Lesotho view at 2 680m.

The scenery was utterly breath-taking and I managed to whip out my phone to take a few squiff photos – difficult to capture the beauty of such a place on a cell camera. I have never run in such spectacular big sky, wild mountain country. I can see how this kind of running could become addictive.

The fourth stage took us off-road again from a check point in a quarry to Hooggenoeg Ridge via Hooggenoeg Point. I had a severe sense of humour loss at this point, knowing there was a female competitor behind me, chasing me down and putting my first place in jeopardy. My very calm, patient, tolerant running buddy/coach quietly put up with my howling and wailing and swearing and we got through the difficult terrain (full of hidden rocks and holes) with only a minor loss of dignity (on my part).

There were snow flurries at the next check point – remarkable considering we had set off with clear skies and sunshine.


With sense of humour back intact and a clear view behind, I left the water tables with intent and bolted down the steep descent for about 8 kilometres. My legs felt strong and I knew this was the place to extend the distance between myself and the woman in lumo green who had been taunting me for so long. This stretch took us off the mountain plateau into the Carlisleshoek Valley. We dropped several hundred meters per kilometre. Those last 5 kays were long and hard – but by then I knew I had a win in the bag, and was feeling comfortable and happy.

I won the ladies race in 5-33 and was in the top 10. A long way off the winning ladies time last year, but no matter – I shall put it down to being in the ‘old bag’ category.

It was an absolutely fabulous run, and a great weekend adventure in totality, with wonderful company and some incredible icy scenery. What an extraordinary corner of this truly amazing country.

[With thanks to Filippo for the great pics].

For more excellent shots, go to:


Soul food

This weekend I took part in a two day trail event in a very special part of the world. I have always loved the Grootvadersbos area and have spent many weekends up there over the past decade or more exploring it’s densely forested nooks and crannies. There is something special about this place – from its extraordinary sunsets over the rolling grassy hills and craggy mountains to the big skies and silence.


Day 1 (34 kays) took us deep into the Boesmanskloof wilderness area, which was a first for me. I was completely blown away by the route – it was utterly spectacular from beginning to end. At one point the single track rolled along the top of a ridge, with views to the left and forever down to Barrydale and beyond to snowy peaks and to the right down to the sea over endless rolling farmland…


We climbed and puffed and climbed some more and flew and danced and leapt and sloshed and skipped and whooped. Well I did anyway. Have never felt such a sense of complete freedom and sheer joy at the ability to move through such extraordinary countryside at pace – and loving every step of the way.


Day 2 (roughly 23 kays) had a bit of mountain, plenty of grassy, muddy jeep track, some river bed and plenty of gnarly, indigenous forest. Giant redwoods, bracket fungus, roller coaster forest paths and plenty of steep hills at the end to keep the heart pounding….

A truly spectacular weekend in every way.