Picture: Jim Freeman
Picture: Jim Freeman
The rugged and compelling Fish River Canyon is a magnet for adventurers.
The rugged and compelling Fish River Canyon is a magnet for adventurers.
Cycling is a great way to see remote areas, even if it is hard on the legs.
Cycling is a great way to see remote areas, even if it is hard on the legs.
Cycling is a great way to see remote areas, even if it is hard on the legs.
Cycling is a great way to see remote areas, even if it is hard on the legs.
An unfettered photographer finds the curiosity can be mutual.
An unfettered photographer finds the curiosity can be mutual.
The Desert Knights is an endurance ride, but participants are competitive.
The Desert Knights is an endurance ride, but participants are competitive.

Jim Freeman


Johannesburg - “At last he came to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees.”

So did Rudyard Kipling describe the waterway that separates South Africa from Zimbabwe and Botswana, but he probably didn't see it during a drought: the day I got there, I waded across the single 50m channel to the north bank, barely getting my thighs wet.

My arrival in Zimbabwe was watched by a pair of bemused immigration officials, resplendent in their black, white and gold uniforms. They were to be our cheerful shadows for five days as a tough bunch of (mainly) South Africans took part in the recent inaugural 90km Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun.

Unseen at the time - and possibly a good thing - were two armed Zimbabwe Park Services rangers watching closely as we forded the river, alert to the possibility we were attracting the attention of crocodiles. We could not see them, but the crocs were there; each night as we shone our torches across the water, the beams would pick out the little red pinpricks of eyes.

Everyone - runners, back-up crews and journalists - had their passports stamped when they got to shore, a process that was to become familiar over the next few days. Because base camp was in Zimbabwe and the daily routes took the group back and forth across the Limpopo (as well as the Shashe, which divides Zimbabwe and Botswana in that part of the world), passports took as much of a pounding as the 37 runners’ legs.

Maramani, as the camp was called, was the nexus of the three-day cloverleaf trail run. There was only one rule: “Stick together, keep your eyes open, the rangers will be at the front and the back - listen to them.”

Put together by South African trail event specialists Wildrunner, with the support of Boundless Southern Africa, the event was billed as a “safari on the run”, following elephant paths and game trails.

It took runners through Maramani community lands and the Sentinel Ranch in Zimbabwe, across the Shashe River into the savannah of Botswana’s Northern Tuli Game Reserve, and over the ancient Mapungubwe citadel in South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park.

This was a national park and wildlife abounded. As a photojournalist who had no intention of running if I could help it, the “stick together” stricture did not apply and there were several occasions when I tramped the bush solo in all three countries, once over 7km of koppies and valleys by dead reckoning to a refreshment station. For two hours, my only companions were a myriad birds, impala, wildebeest, kudu, klipspringer, giraffe and baboons.

My God was it hot! I had plenty of water, but rarely have I enjoyed a cup of tea as much as when I eventually rejoined the support crew.

Another time, I came out of the dry Shashe to scale a koppie on an island flying Botswana’s flag, to photograph the runners as they crossed the broad sandy expanse.

As I started up the game trail, I noticed elephant tracks so fresh their edges were crumbling. Sure enough, a few minutes later I found the two animals browsing about 50m in front of me. I climbed that rocky hill a lot faster than I thought I could.

Hey, the runners had it tougher. They had elephant pad marks day after day and twice they ran over fresh lion spoor - so fresh even the rifle-carrying rangers were on edge.

For Susan Parker-Smith, scaling Mapungubwe was a “soulful experience”. Mapungubwe - the hill of the jackal - was once the centre of the largest known kingdoms in southern Africa and is regarded with reverence by the Shona.

“I felt a deep sense of place. I felt privileged to visit such an historic, sacred place.”

Future runs will be limited to 80 participants.

Three weeks before Mapungubwe, I’d covered a mountain bike race, the Desert Knights MTB Challenge, in the 6 045km² /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, three quarters of which is in Namibia.

At Hobas - the Namibian nature conservation-run camp at the Fish River Canyon - I’d met Roland Vorwerk, marketing manager of the Boundless Southern Africa unit in the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.

“Cross-border events are key to raising awareness of the seven transfrontier parks in southern Africa and attracting visitors to these isolated conservation areas. Seven parks span nine countries.

“Desert Knights is the classic joining-of-the-dots of the tourist highlights of the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, without the complications of crossing international boundaries. Not only does this promote tourism in the parks, it furthers regional co-operation and the integration of border-crossing matters.”

With all the transfrontier adventure sport events, the home affairs ministers of all the countries involved agree to allow all participants to cross borders at non-designated points of entry.

The designated point in the park was at Sendelingsdrift, but the bikers were given a dispensation to travel downriver by kayak from Gamkab in Namibia and put ashore at De Hoop on the South African side - a distance of about 20km.

“What this does is it forces officials from various departments from all participating countries to work on time-specific projects to reduce bureaucracy without compromising national integrity,” says Vorwerk.

Desert Knights is a six-year-old, week-long event held twice a year, in April and September. It’s an endurance rather than an extreme sporting event.

Camp is struck each day and recreated at the new finish point. Riders of all ages - there were several families taking part - carry with them only what they need for the stage. There are numerous refreshment stations, and a medical team and bike-repair specialist are in attendance.

The 208km tour - it is not a race, though some of the riders are fiercely competitive - comprises five cycling stages, most of which start mid-afternoon and continue into the night to avoid the worst of the extreme heat in the southern Namib Desert and Richtersveld.

There's a bright and early start for the kayak leg, which followed a particularly brutal day's riding from the /Ai/Ais resort to a purpose-built fly camp in the Gamkab canyon.

“I’ve done a lot of 60km rides, but that was easily one of the worst,” one exhausted cyclist grunted as he arrived shortly before midnight.

The winds on the route had been vicious and icy, the rocky roads undulating and corrugated. Several kilometres had to be negotiated through thick sand.

At one stage, a woman cyclist said, she felt she was pedalling like hell, but making absolutely no headway.

Part of the attraction of the event is riding under a full moon and the final ride in the Richtersveld coincided with the moon rising half an hour after the sun set.

Participation is limited to 100 riders. There is a waiting list, so a R5 000 deposit is payable.

Saturday Star


What it costs

The fully inclusive charge for taking part in this year's Mapungubwe Transfrontier Wildrun was R16 950. Because this was a “trial run”, the charge will probably be adjusted next year.

The 2016 Desert Knights MTB Challenge cost each participant R12 500. This includes ancillary activities such as hikes and Fish River Canyon visits during the non-cycling part of each day. For details of these and similar events: www.wildrun.com and www.desertknights-mtb.com