Race to Rhodes, 480km and 10 750 D+ (part of the hardcore Freedom Challenge suite of MTB races).
The idea came to Andy Wesson during a visit to the Eastern Cape highlands during the winter last year. Exploring the mountain peaks around Tenahead Lodge he saw some people carry mountain bikes up the mountains on their backs, through the veld. Recognising Alex Harris (Munga Trail race director) he hatched this crazy idea to try and run this thing.
With Munga Trail 2020 having being cancelled, we had to find an alternative, and there were three other suckers that jumped at the opportunity to be part of an experiment, Nicky Booyens, Dean Barclay and myself. For us runners this was not an official race.
I remember the pain of bruised and blistered feet during and after Munga, the severe fatigue, the swollen ankles approaching the end after almost five days thinking to myself that I had found the limit to non-stop racing. 400km is the limit when the body starts to really break down badly and the reason that there aren’t really many (or any) non-stop foot races beyond that distance world-wide.
But hey! Why not let up on an opportunity to test that thinking? Mother nature is kind – she makes you forget the difficulty and pain. This was it, this was the opportunity given that The Munga Trail had been cancelled for 2020. I guess we did not know what we were getting ourselves into, but our self-belief and preparation
never left any room for over-thinking the whole affair.
Packing for all eventualities. PIC:Peter Purchase
Just as well because the further you get into this race the more remote this race becomes, and it creeps up on you, and you don’t even realise how remote you are having started at PMB City Hall. But after a few days you eventually realise that “help is not coming” and “you are not almost there”.
And after committing and paying the entry in a hurry, the facts started coming to light. We had thought that us runners would have some slack on cut-off etc because the race was obviously set up for mountain bikers with much longer stretches between water and food and mostly rideable at reasonable speeds. Typically race villages are 100km apart and intermediate “basic” stations typically 55- 60km apart.
But no, us runners were subjected to the same rules and cut-offs as the MTB with map and compass navigation, no outside assistance whatsoever and another 25-odd pages of rules. “What could possibly go wrong?” I asked myself. Well – probably a lot, but that is what makes this such an adventure into very remote and inhospitable parts of RSA, unaided. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough. After all, life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally work out, shouting “Holy sh…t, what a ride!”
Peter’s pack.PIC: Peter Purchase
Plan for the worst and hope for the best – the only way of tackling extreme events. For starters, I realised that we were going to have to get by with minimal sleep if we were to make cut-off, but at the same time we were at risk of getting lost at night We had no choice though as we had to push the limits. Never before have I had tetanus and rabies inoculations as part of race preparation, but rather safe than sorry.
I spent many hours, but not enough, studying the eighteen (18) 1:50 000 topo maps that the organiser issued us with. Relating the race narrative (a booklet describing the route as you go) to the maps and Google Earth images – late into many evenings prior to the race, I realised that the night-time navigation was going to be hard and trying to time on difficult sections for the day would be ideal. Maps are near useless at night and the narrative makes generous reference to landmarks which are not visible at night, especially for sleep deprived rookies.
A route with a difference. PIC: Peter Purchase
Subsequent to the race my understanding was that most rookie MTB participants race during the day and sleep over at race villages in their first year and subsequent years once they are more familiar with the route they may race into and through the night … not a luxury we had.
Leading up to the race we wondered whether the medics would know how to doctor feet, but upon arrival heard that there are no medics … only a doctor on call (probably located in Pmb or Dbn). Here it kicks in – prepare for the worst. We all packed as if we were going to doctor our own feet. Thank goodness! Our journey from Jhb to Dbn airport was freaky – COVID19 had arrived and the airports were virtually deserted. Quite scary and sobering.
I sensed a lot of subtle scepticism about “these crazy runners” from both the race organisers and the mountain bikers when we arrived for race registration in Pmb on Sunday eve and probably with reason. Fast forward to Monday morning and a 6am start at Pietermaritzburg City Hall in a drizzle. The last time I started a race here was in 2014 during the Comrades Marathon down run thinking it is the longest run I would ever do. I was wrong and now we were tackling 480km (about 5.5 Comrades back to back) with a backpack that was on the wrong side of comfortable and that weighed about 8.5kg. And to crown it – the backpack was brand new and had never been worn, going against all good sense. And my shoes were basically new (two 5km runs in them just to wear them is ever so slightly). I was afraid of using my On Clouds that had about 100-150km on them fearing they would not last the distance so opted for new Salomon Ultra Pro shoes.
Four nervous runners outside the Pietermaritzburg town hall.
We were escorted out of town by the race organisers in a bakkie dodging peak hour traffic in the drizzle, hoping the backpack would “settle down” a bit as we went. It was uncomfortable for the first 20-odd km and then I think I just made peace with it. It was heavy, too heavy and hard to run with. I could feel that my feet were going to take a pounding over the distance, and probably my shoulders, but had not choice as we had to carry water, food and kit over long distances. Water was a concern – especially not knowing where it would come from on 50-60km legs of the race. A
roadside spaza shop about 30-40km in was great – we could buy some Coke!
Water purification tablets would come to the rescue on Day 1 already. It rained most part of day 1, and was icy cold up in the mountains approaching the radio mast at The Peak near Cunningham’s Castle mountain peak (in the Minerva Nature Reserve) before descending down into the Byrne Valley to The Oaks Hotel – our first “interim station”. It was damn cold and we were all soaked … hot soup, coffee and some toast be
fore we set off early evening.
A welcome meal with hot soup PIC: Peter Purchase
The rain had let up and we were in for our first night with the maps and compass. We were a bit naïve as to how difficult and challenging navigation is with maps, narrative and compass at night (when map and narrative reference is made to landmarks which are then not visible)!
What a jol! – it quickly turned into somewhat of an adventure race with a team of four – one girl and three guys with maps and compass! But no roles defined and not nearly as organised. That first night we got lost a few times, missing the turnoff to KwaGengeshe, struggling to find our way up from the Mkomazi/Umkomaas (“The Mko”) River through thick bush, trying to find the Hela Hela road (adding quite a few km and a lot of time to an already long run), but we eventually descended down a road that turned into a path and then disappeared into the bush from a village KwaGengeshe (in the erstwhile Kwazulu) past the village filled with howling and barking dogs. A bit of a worry given previous run-ins with dogs, our solitude and lack of medical backup, and down to the Mko River.
We quickly realised that at night we should move through villages quietly, not to unsettle the dogs, but that didn’t always work though. We carried pepper spray and the odd rock when necessary and the rocks came in handy. The river was in flood and we could hear it from a distance, probably an hour before even reaching it. This sound of the rapids and roaring water chases the adrenaline level up, going into the unknown in a little tunnel of light. The going was tough, steep downhills at night, with cattle paths and unclear paths through low hanging bush parallel to the river for quite a while and eventually got to the river around midnight and it was a sight to behold. It looked a bit like the Zambezi in flood with standing waves in the rapids of between 2 and 3 metres at places. We had to skirt around a vertical rock face dropping straight into the river, moving through the river at the base for about 100m. It was quite frightening in the dark, the noise, the rapids and large standing waves not far off, and exactly what we need to fight off the sleep monsters. We crossed through the water and bush-whacked our way onto a “path” through tall grass, trying to follow any signs of MTB. We eventually became expert trackers using any sign of their tracks as last option for navigation (the rule is to never follow the person in front of you – he may be lost himself … but when all else fails one has no choice and you hope for the best).
Mkomazi River and Valley – traversed at midnight
River crossing at night. PIC: Peter Purchase
“but on you will go,
though the weather be foul.
On you will go
Though the enemies prowl.
On you will go
Though the Haken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
A frightening creek,
Though your arms may get sore
And your sneaker may leak.” Dr Seuss
We eventually got to the Hela Hela road after getting lost again next to the Mko River and started what seemed like a never ending climb (about 900+m vert from the river) . About a third of the way up we took a 15minute nap under some trees using space blankets outside a lodge with a dry tap!
From here it was simply a slog through the rest of the night up the pass to just beyond dawn to Allandale Farm – the first ice-cream box drop-point (and first “full” aid station). We could send a 2-litre ice-cream tub to each of the main aid stations (about 100km apart) with any supplies we needed … typically food, supplements, meds, plasters, batteries, space blankets etc. A 2-litre tub does not take much!!! (no external assistance was allowed and would result in DQ).
2-litre tubs for stocking food, meds etc. PIC: Peter Purchase
Quick shower, freshened up, some coffee, food, re-stock and foot treatment and then off towards Donnybrook and Ntsikeni through the veld and plantations. I did not sleep here at all at the station.
Early on in this leg I developed my first of two bouts of diarrhoea. Luckily, I had Immodium Melts and Smecta and I managed to get it sorted out within 2 to 3 hours, but that meant I had to top up on electrolytes and get energised. I had to get it under control and it could end the race there and then otherwise.
We worked our way through plantations, veld, over fences, past full farm dams due to recent rain, back into plantations (way-finding in the plantations can be tricky, because everything looks the same and there are networks of roads/paths.
At one point I sat down on a log (about midday) to take a stone out of my shoe and before I was done I had fallen asleep, to be woken by a chuckling Dean as the others had already left. We were all in the same boat, all falling asleep for a minute or two at a time, anywhere and any time of day. We got to Donnybrook and there was a Spar!! It was around 33C and we bought some coke, chips, water and restocked what we could. We left after gorging ourselves. The sanitising spray on entry to the Spar was a reminder of Covert-19 pandemic, even in these small rural and remote towns.
We left and crossed a railway line (in the wrong place), quickly finding our way back onto the route and into plantations, and then into a beautiful indigenous forest (Mxumeni/Sarnia Forest) and then back into plantations.
We found ourselves confronted with a plantation manager in his bakkie wanting to know what we were doing. Explaining to him what we were doing, it seemed to take a while for him to grasp the gravity of the task, for it to sink in. He thought we were nuts and so did everyone else who stopped to ask. Locals would stop and ask if we needed help (especially in the former Transkei) and ask either “where are you going?” or “where do you come from?” but strangely hardly ever, “where do you
come from AND where are you going?”. We were often met with blank stares and disbelief with many people clearly not even knowing where Rhodes is. It was quite funny. The friendliness and willingness to held by complete strangers was incredible. We live in a great country!
From time to time we would be passed by a group of MTB riders who would stop and have a quick cha, with good camaraderie between all participants and bridging the runner/MTB gap. It was late afternoon one day … who knows what (possibly day 2 or 3) and we decided to stop and have supper, some Nomnom and a shake – not knowing what time we would reach the next interim stop (Centocow mission station). Some real hardcore characters amongst that MTB bunch! We quickly
became known as “the crazy runners”.
We were doing okay with navigation going into the night and this was a particular tricky section in forests above Centocow, I remembered while doing my homework looking at the maps, possible tracks, Google Earth images. We had not spent enough time studying this section and would come
to regret it later that night. We got hopelessly lost on that mountain coming down towards Centocow through the forests, and to crown it the sleep monsters had set in for me. I was struggling so hard to keep my eyes open and was not able to assist much with navigation, not that it would have helped much at that stage. After, I guess , 2 to 3 hours of trying to find our way, knowing we were lost, it was dark, cold, mostly asleep and seriously crappy. I felt like curling up in a bush and waiting it out until day-break. Thankfully Andy and Nicky persisted and just never gave up!
That’s one thing about Wesson, he just never stops! Dean and Andy were particularly good at using the narrative and I was completely rubbish at that, clearly a skill I need to focus on.
They managed to relate a fence to one which was the one we were looking at on the map. Thank goodness, if not it would be hopeless and we would probably spend a night on the mountain under a bush somewhere. The scale on a 1: 50 000 map is deceptive (2mm on the map is 100m (2cm = 1km) on the ground), so everything is so tiny on the map and so big around us. We would come to learn that clearly the late next afternoon approaching Ntsikeni. We followed the fence and found a
crossing road, thanks to Andy and Nicky. Now we knew where we were and could make our way to Centocow.
Spirits lifted we moved on and almost missed the mission as load shedding had set in and the village and mission was dark. We were flagged down by mission staff running after us (thankfully), and we met Chris Fischer there at about 2am and had some cold pasta (thanks to load shedding) and decided on a two hour sleep. We woke early in the morning (about 4am) doctored our feet, took pain meds, made sure devices were charging, had some early breakfast and coffee and left in the dark making our way through the village. The Centocow stop was rejuvenating after the mental exhaustion of getting lost at night.
Centocow Mission Station – reached at about 2am
We left and started making our way up a steady 10km plus climb (about 600m vert), the first of three big climbs for the day. Leaving Centocow I was out on my own and boom!! A dog comes after me. And then two more, a pack and they were aggressive. I was desperately picking up and flinging stones until I managed to chase them off. My family and I had a nasty incident with a dog in Mbotyi over December and there I gained some new respect for dogs. Nicky, not far behind, also picked up some rocks and pepper spray. By then the owner appeared and managed to get them away. We had entered Gxalingenwa Nature Reserve. It is beautiful on top of the mountain with sweeping views in all directions.
We were well and truly into our adventure. Down the other side of the mountain and into the village of Oqaqeni and I found a spaza shop for a coke!! From here we headed off into the veld down into a valley to cross, what we thought, was a minor stream . It turned out to be a 100m plus hip deep torrent on slippery rock. Slip and fall and the river could take you, to some rapids just downstream. I helped Nicky across … being all of 1,5m it was much worse for her!
Nqwangwane River crossing, deep and tricky. PIC: Peter Purchase
From here we all left together through the veld and up into the plantations and again some navigation challenges, but we manged fine and got to the saddle on the mountain and down the other side. It was hot and we were running out of water (again). A local in his bakkie stopped to ask us what we were doing and managed to direct us to a stream for water, down the mountain a few km away.
Purification tablets (36C at this point!) so it was slow going for quite some time after that up “the wall” a 500m vert over about 2-3km, straight up the mountain in 35C heat.
“Here are some who like to run
Thy run for fun
In the hot hot, sun” Dr Seuss
The remaining section to Ntsikeni was stunningly beautiful but a slog, and we luckily found a clear mountain stream and topped up, then through the veld in the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve and wattle bushes in the general direction on the map and per narrative. But no MTB tracks so that was perhaps a sign that we were off course. We forged ahead through a wattle forest just to end up on a mountain lost again in the late afternoon.
It was here that we really got ourselves confused in respect of the map and the scale and there was a sense of urgency to keep moving, to get to Ntsikeni before dark and the cold. Thankfully we took 10-15 minutes to understand the lie-of-the-land and figure out the map first from a macro-mountain scale and then more detailed. We very nearly headed off in the wrong direction. It would have set us back by many hours I reckon. This place is stunning beyond words – beautiful and remote.
Sitting there late-afternoon, on the side of a mountain, figuring out our bearings looking over the Mangeni, Ntsikeni and Tsawule mountain peaks in the Ntsikeni Wildlife Reserve was special (all the panic and confusion aside). We misjudged the map scale badly and learnt a valuable lesson here!! Your mind plays tricks and you keep thinking you are seeing map features in front of you when they are actually kilometres behind you over the next mountain. Map navigation is not simple when sleep deprived and wanting to see what you want.
Ntsikeni Wildlife Reserve
We got back on track and ran to get to Ntsikeni Lodge before it was too dark. We came over a hill and saw a light in the distance, the lodge!! And there was a crazy black wildebeest running alongside following us, ranting and kicking. I was a bit concerned as I know that these animals are sometimes trained to chase stock thieves, and perhaps we looked like stock thieves not being on bicycles!! Nicky and I were about 200m from the lodge and reached a 50m wide steam crossing and
that going into a cold night! I was not prepared to wet my shoes and this stage! I realised there was no way to avoid getting wet so I decided to take my shoes and socks off. I normally never do this but it was the right decision under the circumstances. I saw a MTB headlamp approaching from behind and decided that I would try and reach the lodge before him, so I ran with my socks and shoes in my hands about 200m through the veld, not considering what I may tramp in or on. I didn’t care much at that stage, and just ran flat-out for 200m barefoot. Reached the lodge before the bike and luckily no thorns, cuts or issues!
“Ntsikeni Nature Reserve comprises 9000ha of pristine flower-filled grasslands 60 Km’s from Creighton and 30 kms from Franklin in Southern KZN. It features a large and very important wetland of some 1200 ha at 1800m amsl (the same height as Wakkerstroom so it can get cold!). It is surrounded by impressive buttresses with evocative names like Mangeni, Tsawule, and Elephant Hill. Visible forever, Ntsikeni Mountain towers above all, with its unmistakable shape making sense of the name”.
Ntsikeni Nature Reserve was until recently managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, but they abandoned the reserve and cattle are now grazing in what is a beautiful reserve. It is apparently a bird wat
chers paradise and one of the few places where the crowned crane and wattled crane are found in the same area simultaneously.
The stopover at Ntsikeni was an experience, the hosts, the setup, some time to have a solid plate of food, doctor our feet, restock and a few MTBers arrived while we were there. Relaxed for about 30 minutes, and we were off into the cold night. Some of us took a quick snooze there, and I just took a moment to lie with my feet up. The next section could be a navigational nightmare and this is where many went wrong. Thanks to decent prep beforehand, vigilance en-route we managed to get through the night, 100% through the veld, sometimes in disused and overgrown farm tracks past plantations and strange large holes in the ground through which underground streams were flowing. We came across old ruins and took a 10 minute rest at about 1am.
Supper for Dean. PIC: Andy Wesson
It was a slog through the night, having gotten a bit lost only once. We came through massive erosion dongas just before dawn and joined a farm road where we stopped to re-group, have something to eat and change into dry socks. I was carrying 4 pairs of socks and rotating them constantly, rinsing then wherever possible and hanging them on my backpack to dry out.
It was taking a lot of time, especially at night, to traverse tricky navigation sections and the terrain and pack weight did not help. We made our way down the farm roads, took a 2 minute nap waiting for one another, past Pleasant View farm where we restocked with water, and then to Glen Edward farm. This was a gravel road slog. I got some good running in, with earphones and music on. Underfoot the hard and stony gravel road was taking its toll, slowly but surely the feet were deteriorating. The view ahead was of the magnificent southern Drakensberg.
We arrived at Glen Edward at about 11h30, I think it was Wednesday. This was our halfway mark! 240km!!
240km (150miles)!! HALFWAY!!
Our host, the farmer (Charles) had prepared amazing food and we could restock and doctor our feet, we were becoming professionals! A few cyclists arrived and Charles Mansfield shared some inside info on route choice etc having done the RASA about 6 times. Charles the farmer and Charles the cyclist, both gave us pain meds as ours was running low and we were only halfway. We left in the early afternoon along another long gravel stretch … walk …run … walk … run making good progress towards the Eastern Cape but those damn gravel roads!!
We crossed the Mzimvubu River into the Eastern Cape (old Transkei) and headed up past St Xaviour Mission where we thankfully managed to get some water and had something to eat shortly before sunset.
We set off through village after village in a journey which would now change character and we got quite lost trying to find a turn off to Lubaleku village and decided to sleep for 15 minutes in an old disused quarry next to the road. It was cold and not comfortable at all, 15 minutes of bad moist sleep, at least our feet would get a 15 minute rest. We set off and all was well until we were making our way through KwaVikinduku village when we were confronted by a pack of dogs, probably around 9pm. We stuck together and managed to fend them off – not nice as we were boxed in by fences and had little room to move.
Navigation was getting tough and we eventually got out of the village going toward wattle plantations. This is where things went pear shaped and became mentally very challenging. It was like a maze, pitch dark with storm clouds gathering in the south, lightning and thunder in the distance but coming closer and closer. And to crown it all, I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. We managed to bugger around lost in these woods for, I would guess, 2 to 3 hours. The problem is that when sleep deprived, time slows to a blur and you lose all sense of time elapsing and can’t think clearly at all.
The narrative read “For the sake of easy navigation head up through the village keeping to the left and look out for the large track to the left running down the spur. Follow the track as it then drops away from the village towards the wattle. Pass through the middle of the plantation dropping slightly as you go. You want to be about halfway up the slope of the spur (don’t go through fences or gates) As you head around the spur the track runs around the right dropping as it goes. It will pass below a rock face above which tall gums are growing. Keeping the slope on your right, the path then drops gradually as it heads around the spur to the right, then turn left down to cross the Little Umzimvubu River”.
Try this at night … where there are multiple tracks, zero visibility and a storm brewing!! Oh, and when you are so sleep deprived you can’t stay awake on your feet … literally!
No spur visible at night, no middle-of-wattle, no big gums, no rock face, nothing – just patches of wattle trees as far as the torch will shine and they all look the same!! This is what made night navigation so tricky.
Again, Andy and Dean just kept going looking for the route! We found the route at the same time that the storm broke. We rushed into an area with a small rock shelter and wattle bushes and hauled out rain kit and space blankets. I used my space blanket like a tent, keeping it down on one end with my feet and over my head clinging to it so that it wouldn’t blow away in the wind. A proper thunderstorm had broken and we all fell asleep through it. When we woke up I was wet but the
storm had passed.
“Hello darkness my old friend….
I’ve come to talk to you again…”
Thankfully, just before the storm we managed to get our bearings and knew where to go. I guess we slept for about 10-15minutes. My first thoughts were- “damn, now the storm has washed away the bike tracks and nav has just become even more tricky”.
We were on track and crossed another river, the Little Umzimvubu River – not that little! Just to be faced again by zero path and narrative that made generous reference to invisible landmarks and features to be looked out for. It is in circumstances like these that the compass plays a big role. It never lies, and Andy made generous use of it, so the lesson is to use it and think! Another wrong turn and then tentatively in another direction, tentative for a few kilometers until we realised that
we were correct. This was slow going, up through the veld and was a very slow night with little distance covered.
We eventually got to the Shenxa village in the early morning hours, and overshot our turnoff due to sleep deprivation, so we turned back and were back on track. As we progressed the path disappeared … gone. It was probably about an hour before dawn so we decided to sleep in the veld next to a fence until it was light. It was cold!! And damp but good. Bad sleep is better than no sleep.
Damp, early morning snooze. PIC: Andy Wesson
The narrative read “the track turns up the hill with a dam on the left, it then turns to the right behind the school. Follow the track as it heads away from the village. The riding is flat and easy. Off to your left is the flat topped hill Gnolintaba. The track swings to the left and heads up a valley towards it. There are two old farm houses in the valley…..”
We read this narrative about five times and could not figure out where we were. At night – not so easy!! When we read it at dawn and could see the landscape it took the best part of 10 seconds to figure it out!
As we were going up the valley we hit ankle deep b
og, and that carried on for the best part of a kilometre and a half until we reached the ruins of the farmhouse. We made our way around and a herdsman on a horse assisted by showing us where to go, up over the saddle and down the other side. A few kilometres further we went up the road to a village called Mademong.
Charles Mansfield had mentioned that there was an allowed alternative route through the village which would cut some distance and a hill out and we took it…thankfully so because we found a Spaza shop on that diversion and we annexed it for the best part of half an hour, gorging on chips, sweets, cooldrink and topping up with rain water from a Jojo tank.
Spaza stop. PIC: Nicky Booyens
Through the village Hebron, where we again overshot a turn off, adding about another 2-3km to the trip. I was complacent just following the road. Masakala is only a few kilometers north of Matatiele and close to a town called Maluti.
According to the map we were close the Masakala guest house, our 3rd race village stop, but again … the scale is deceptive and it took probably an hour longer to get there than I thought it would.
We were now about 300km (about 188 miles) into our trip. We had a plate of food, and as per usual, restocked, had a quick shower (which was electrified!! Thank goodness no one got electrocuted) rinsed socks, doctored feet and were off. Again, the clouds were building to the south-west over Drakensberg. We were convinced we were in for a challenging stormy night again, but thankfully the storm stayed to the west. From Masakala we traversed a large dry floodplain, and travelled down the main tar road connecting Matatiele and Qacha’s Nek in Lesotho, turning off
towards Jabulani. This road was dusty and busy and dangerous. Night was falling and we eventually settled next a busy road for a Nomnom supper.
Back into the night with the night-navigation challenges! We only had about 100 miles left. We were moving as fast as we could under the circumstances and had endured tremendous night-time adversity up to here. Each night brought its own challenges and made for slow going. Navigation, rain, dogs, sleep deprivation, etc. We hadn’t slept much and I would have ended up sleeping only about 5 to 6 hours
in total in 5 and a half days of running.
We passed through the villages of Molosong and Andris and got lost again exiting up a hill, but eventually got back on track. Through the veld for a few kilometres until we reached Malota – tricky navigation up to here. Leaving Malota through the veld we got back into the ankle deep bog … again over a long distance just to be confronted by a river with a vertical far-side bank. All of us tired and cold, our
tempers frayed a bit and we back-tracked to find a crossing. Back-tracking cost us precious time and distance and it took a while to sort ourselves out. It wasn’t good for the team spirit either.
What I learnt traveling between these villages at night was that lights are deceptive. They could be 500m away or 5km. It is impossible to say when you are travelling straight to them in a sleep-deprived state. We passed through Sprinkana en-route to Pontseng and Queens Mercy. This section was hard to navigate and I was very sleep deprived. Somewhere here we found a bluegum bush off route and had a 10 minute nap under the space blankets.
A 10 min nap under a space blanket. PIC: Peter Purchase
Somehow, we went through Pontseng without realising, and arrived at Queens Mercy thinking it was Pontseng, a nice surprise. I was technically asleep for the last hour or two. As we were hiking through Queens Mercy dawn broke (I think it was day 5, Friday?) and we stumbled across a funeral gathering at dawn. We had a chat
with some locals to confirm that we were in Queens Mercy and found a place (a clinic I think) to restock with water and change socks etc. Just a pause. We took turns being “useless”, obviously not planned, falling asleep on our feet just trying to move
forward, waking up and falling asleep again as we fell from side to side. This happened at night and during the day. Often. At times three out of four of us were “asleep” with a single soul leading the group of zombies. I ended up sleeping about 5-6 hours in almost 6 days.
Andy was sleepwalking and it was about 8am, so we stopped for him to take a quick 5 minute nap. That was all he needed.
To our left we looked over a vast floodplain in the Seeto River valley. Beautiful fields of cosmos where crops once grew. We passed the Maria Linden Mission (we did not have time to go in and have a look) and made our way up to another spaza shop. We spent some time here gorging on chips etc, changing socks and restocked. From here we got a bit lost leaving the village up onto the mountain past a radio mast. Travelling along the ridge line to the west for a few km trying to figure out where we would drop off the mountain to the south. We were tired, needed sleep.
Whilst we were figuring where to descend from a mountain – a tricky exit and we all sat down in a row … at that point, a rare event when I was reading the narrative for once. It was about 12h30 just past midday. I remember reading the first sentence perfectly well, the second somewhat blurry as I started falling asleep and I never even got to the third … fast asleep. I suddenly woke up and all the others next to me had also fallen asleep, luckily only for about 10 minutes.
A herdsman helped by pointing out the path off the mountain to Gladstone farm, and we descended through the bush and veld crossing a few streams. Away from the farm to the south along a jeep track towards Malekgolonyane Lodge, our penultimate formal stop and ice-cream box drop (Vuvu).
The time between the main drops were long! Typically taking 24 hours.
We went down a hill to a river through the veld and my feet were killing me!! Every step was excruciatingly painful and felt like someone was stabbing me. That took me straight back to Munga Trail entering Graskop (at about 330km). My feet were badly bruised and I decided to wait until our stop before taking pain meds. We crossed the river, soothing cold water, and then we had a killer 2km climb to the lodge. But what a setting overlooking the Drakensberg!
My “brand new” Salomons were tearing, I didn’t think they would make the last 120km and I had some duct tape in my pack with which I could strap them. I hoped I had enough tape to get the
shoes to the end.
Salomon shoes took a beating. PIC: Peter Purchase
We eventually realised that we should co-ordinate when we take our pain meds so that we could all have 6 hours relatively pain free at the same time and capitalise on that by moving fast all at the same time. We were gradually getting reports of the Covid-19 situation and that the President had declared a national emergency so our minds were everywhere, waiting for a lock-down call. We were getting distracted. We also realised that if we were to get to Rhodes ahead of any Covid announcements we would have to move quicker. We had jettisoned what we could from our packs
in the last 100-150km but they still remained heavy. There was very little we could get rid of. We also knew that things were going to get tougher leading up to and over the mountains beyond Vuvu and that our
physical state would get worse and not improve, our feet in particular. We needed to get to Tinana before daybreak and then to Vuvu by no later than midday so that we had some of the day remaining to get up over Lehanas pass past Tenahead Lodge. We started realising that we had to
be mindful of the Covid-19 pandemic, our families, lock-down looming, timing, etc. Discussion started moving into that direction and it has slowly been building up in the preceding days by some locals “asking” us if we have “coronavirus”. Not a good head-space to be in for the last 120km!
We left Malekgolonyane late afternoon and immediately started getting into navigation issues…this did not bode well for us…we bush-whacked down to the river and crossed. There was a sense of urgency and desperation to move quickly, to get to Tinana…but with this came navigational errors which we could not afford. We were in the veld and could not afford to get lost on this night … the weather was also starting to build and that also factored in on the unfolding situation … it was like watching a crash in slow motion. As the sun set we decided to abandon our effort and arrange for extraction. We were all emotional and disappointed. There were thoughts about continuing but realised that we had worked as a team and that is what got us this far. So, we either do it as a team or we abandon it…we made our way back to Malekgolonyane. This was emotionally hard and there was a lot of introspection. Not this year. Perhaps we can come back, better prepared and with some better route
knowledge and tackle it in future. It was the right decision at the right time, but it was a hard decision and difficult to accept. What an amazing yet humbling experience. A very bittersweet end to an epic adventure.
Our extraction took almost 12hours, Paul and Kelly Freeth arrived at alekgolonyane at 4am after leaving Rhodes at 9pm to fetch us. We got back to Rhodes at about 9am if I recall correctly. I never realised quite how remote the area that we were in is. And in retrospect it is quite frightening, if something had gone wrong … who knows!!
Total distance covered: 407km
Route distance covered: 365km
Time elapsed: 134h50min
Snakes – only one small one at night
Dogs – 2 incidents – way scarier than any snake
Like I always say – The only bad race is one that one learns no lessons… I learnt a lot, we all did.