Kimberley - A futile attempt to locate our position on the map confirms my worst fears: we’re lost. We scale the nearest peak and search the winding canyons and boulder fields for other runners.
Nada. I’m sweating, not just because of the heat, but also because of anxiety. We’re deep in the Richtersveld, the mountainous desert wilderness that forms South Africa’s northern border with Namibia.
For the next four days we’ll be taking part in the annual Richtersveld Wildrun, a 150km journey over the mountains into the most inaccessible sections of the rugged park. This is serious 4x4 country that puts fear into the hearts of even seasoned adventurers, yet we’re deliberately avoiding the 4x4 routes in favour of faint goat paths. There’s no cell phone reception out here, no springs or rivers, no settlements and no chance of helicopter rescue. So if we don’t get back on track we could be in serious trouble. But I have only myself to blame.
I have a preloaded track on my GPS, but despite the thorough briefing last night I’ve clearly not understood the instructions. Shaen Adey, my running partner, is equally bewildered. We decide to take a water and food break, hoping that sustenance will bring inspiration. Then, after deciding that our route lies to the west, we fall back on the tried and tested method of navigating by compass.
Soon we find a faint sandy track with the unmistakable spoor of other runners and follow it south. Cresting a rise I see what looks like a figure on a ridge in the distance. My heart soars then I have a moment of doubt. The ‘person’ is not moving. Perhaps it’s one of the Richtersveld’s famous Halfmens succulents. As we approach the figure waves: Mark Middleton, the brother of Wildrunner founder Owen Middleton, has walked back up the hill from the checkpoint.
I feel like crying with relief. It’s taken three hours to cover 15km. Unless I master some navigation skills quickly it’s going to be a long four days.
By the time we stagger into camp nearly five hours later we’re footsore and weary, but we’ve gone slowly stopping often to photograph flowering desert plants and to marvel at the bizarre geology of this ancient landscape. As I wander over to my tent I check the standings. Despite the international field, Pretoria-based rookie Thabang Madiba (well, not exactly a rookie – Thabang has quite an accomplished trail running podium record), has taken the day’s honours, while last year’s women’s winner, Cape Town based Katya Soggot, is sitting third overall.
A hot shower later – you run hard by day but are spoilt at night with soft beds, great food and other treats – I join the other participants swapping stories and sharing photos in the chill tent. Everyone’s buzzing with excitement, blown away by the wild beauty of this little-visited part of the world. Many have taken part in the tough three-day Wildcoast Wildrun, the original ultra-marathon dreamed up by Owen and his wife Tamaryn, that also involves significant route finding and tough terrain, but all agree that the Richtersveld is in a different league.
To add to the challenge the forecast is dire and sure enough we wake to thick, engulfing mist. Struggling out of our tents we gather in the moody dawn light for the staggered start. By the time we reach the midway checkpoint the elite athletes have stormed past, and it’s bucketing down. The climb up then next high mountain pass is steep and relentless, but the descent is worse. The heavy rain has turned the clay slope into a treacherous quagmire that we slip and slide down.
The rain lets up for a while as we near camp allowing us to eat out around the open fire. The talk is all of the crossing of the fabled Tatasberg that’s on the programme for the morning. I’m excited.
What a day. We weave our way up narrow gorges to the top of the plateau and jog over the forgiving plains of Springbokvlakte to the foot of Tatasberg’s vast rounded granite boulders. The field divides into rock rabbits and those who are uncomfortable on such extreme and exposed terrain. Thabang is fearless, bounding from boulder to boulder without breaking stride. Thea-Mari Franken, in contrast, is terrified. It’s her first ever ultra-run so she’s already out of her comfort zone and she’s frightened of heights. She sobs uncontrollably as her husband and other competitors coax and help her through the maze. The view from the top is so mind-blowing that even the serious runners take a few minutes to take in the incredible tortured landscape and to pose for photos.
The rest of the day’s run is glorious: a fast descent down a forgiving sandy basin before then a tricky section through a steep rocky kloof in which we come across a fresh leopard kill. The overnight camp is right on the Orange River so we throw ourselves in hoping that the chilly water will soothe our aching legs. The surrounding rocky peaks glow orange in the late light then, as darkness falls, a million stars twinkle in the night sky. I’m aching all over, but sleeping out in the wilderness is ample reward.
The final day takes us away from the river and over yet more high, untracked passes to a ridge adorned with flowering Halfmens then back through a bizarre, moon landscape to base camp at Sendelingsdrift. I confidently maintain a good pace, chuffed that I’ve finally mastered navigation. Thabang sprints by, still out on his own, but the next seven competitors come through in a group, navigating by consensus and enjoying each other’s company and the extraordinary landscape that they’re passing through. Their collaboration epitomises the spirit of the event: while it certainly lived up to its Wildrun moniker, this was no ordinary race. Quite the opposite; instead of pitting us against each other, our journey through the Richtersveld has brought us together into a tightly knit family united and enriched by the privilege of being able to go where few others have ever been, and by our sense of achievement at having survived.
I leave feeling proud. Of Thabang and Katya, who retained her title, of Thea-Marie for overcoming her fears, and of the organisers and SANParks staff for being brave enough to host such an extreme event. How quickly I’ve forgotten the pain. My memories are full of waking to birdsong, running through some of the most dramatic landscapes on earth, being welcomed at each checkpoint by big-hearted staff and volunteers, and sitting under the stars at night.
The Richtersveld Wildrun was tough, but man it was a jol.
l The next Wildrun is on June 13-17 2016. It’s a 200km, five-day crossing through the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park that include the untouched southern section of the Fish River Canyon, www.wildrun.com