It has occurred to me in the past few days that I have accomplished something quite incredible athletically. It was such an overwhelmingly emotional and spiritual experience, that I forgot that I ran 180,57 kilometres over 5 days in the desert. That’s an amazing athletic and mental achievement and I did that. I did it slowly, but I did it. I had help from a walking GPS, but I did that! I camped. That was totally awful, but I did it. I camped for 6 days. Well done me! The biggest lesson I learned is that managing the hydration that goes into your mouth, out of your eyes and in every other way, is the most important thing in the desert!
There were 5 days and many lessons. Click on each day to read about it.
The final and longest day. My mindset was good. I was tired, but I was ready for the longest day. I was concerned because my fingers had swelled painfully the previous day and of course, my face was still swollen. I put it down to dehydration and so I resolved to hydrate constantly. This turned out to be a very poor decision on my part. I went from being swollen from dehydration to being swollen from over hydration and needing to pee every 45 minutes. Every 45 minutes! I went from being someone who NEVER pees in the bush, to being a person on a constant look out for a rock formation that most closely resembled a porcelain toilet. Literally every 45 minutes. Strava looks hilarious. On this Friday, Kevin had resolved to walk the first half and then see how he was feeling. Gerard had the same idea and, together with Leane and Thor and Tigger, we all set off up a boring 15km grindy sandy uphill. Each of us with our own aches and pains. Me stopping to pee ever 45 minutes. I spent a few kilometres chatting to Kevin. He’s an amazing dad to his three sons and he has such a good heart. What a privilege it was to spend some time with him at the start of the day. He and Gerard found their legs at some point and raced off into the distance. Their recovery was quite miraculous.
In addition, the briefing the night before had told us that we should follow the goat paths (even though they’re sheep) and so I unfortunately got this stuck in my head “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd. Layee odl layee odl layee oo! Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd. Layee odl layee odl oo.” Yes friends. The Sound of Music! As it turns out, the Sound of Music tapped into wonderful childhood memories for Tigger and the two of us at times, belted out mumbled songs from the Sound of Music. It surprised me that even though I thought I knew all the songs by heart, out in the hot desert, with no backing track and with a running brain, I knew only a few of the rhyming bits! I know that Tigger and I had no-one else in the entire world with whom we would have been able to share those moments. It is surely something I shall remember forever.
The Friday route was a great deal of uphill and then a little bit of downhill and then a great deal of flat sandy, gravel road running. Someone got lost on the Friday. After one of the big gorge climbs of the week, we plateaued onto a piece of flat desert plain. It was Leane, Thor, Kevin, Tigger and myself. We received word via Tigger’s radio that Nonhlanhla had not checked in to the water station which was unusual because she should have been almost finished by then. It was getting hot and she was probably not prepared for a long day out in the desert like we were. We were asked to fan out and keep an eye out for her. We looked to all the surrounding mountains and gorges to see if we could perhaps spot her. I called and whistled. It was amazing how the desert just swallowed sound. My whistle can silence a 2000 people strong crowd, but in the desert, the sand just swallowed it up, making it sound like a tiny chicken chirping. The five of us spread out and soon fou d ourselves again walking together. It was difficult to be away from the safety of the pack in that hot and lonely place. Satellite tracking devices were activated as soon as the crew reached the rest camp and they found Nonhlanhla’s location. Man, had she wandered off course to a remote and almost inaccessible part of the Richtersveld. Tigger kept reassuring us that everyone was prepared for this and we were not to worry because Owen was a Springbok orienteer and knew this area better than anyone. I suspect he was reassuring himself more than any of us. We had faith. I mean here we were wandering in the desert. Me without a compass or GPS! Actually, now that i think about it, what was i worried about giving my hand to Thor in that gorge for when in dact, i’d placed my life and well-being in the hands of the unseen Owen and Tigger!
Leane, Kevin and Thor were so unconcerned about their finding Nonhlanhla that they took off at the end of the desert plain and Tigger and I ambled forward singing our Sound of Music songs, waiting to hear the news that they had located Nonhlanhla We received the news just as we came upon “The Hand of God”. I won’t lie, when people tell me they can see the face of Jesus or the hand of God or some other deity in toast, sand, rock, a cave, etc. I’m always a sceptic. But I was told, when you see this rock, there is actually a handprint in the side of the mountain. This year, the course was a bit different and only because I was with Tigger, did I get to see this thing. We came ambling down the route and, as per Tigger’s advice, we went off the route slightly to see “The Hand Of God”. So as we got closer, I looked up to the mountain where he was pointing and I see a piece of rock jutting out from the mountain which looks remarkably like the mountain showing me a big fat middle finger. And I’m like, what kind of a sicko thinks that God is out here showing people middle fingers. I saw the sign
And it was pointing towards the huge flipping-the-bird mountain and Tigger proudly announced, “There it is! Isn’t it magnificent?” I was so confused and somewhat angry and irritated by stupid shit that people believe. And as I came to the clearing where he was standing, I saw it. The Hand of God.
It’s actually a stand alone rock in front of the rude mountain. It’s very impressive and quite eerie and inexplicable. So Hand of God. Go there. Check it out, and don’t be alarmed by the massive middle finger sticking out of the mountain behind it!
We hooked up with Nonhlanhla, gave her some food and rehydration and she went off on her way. By the end of the day she had done fifteen more kilometres than anyone else and she still managed to finish ahead of almost everyone! She’s amazing! I can’t wait to see her on the Comrades route later this year.
The rest of the day was spent baking in the sun with Tigger. We shared some deep and meaningful life stories and enjoyed a mostly pleasant afternoon out in the desert sun. I eventually stopped needing to pee. Actually, that’s not true. It got better, but it was still extremely annoying to have to stop more than just once every 6 hours! We trundled along a road that winds through a mining area. That was a bit boring, but soon we could spot the yellow Wildrunner arch beckoning us to the finish in Senderlingsdrif. The last 8km were run through what are basically mining sites.
I was interviewed at the end and I said “No-one should do this race!” I think if this is your thing, you should totally do this race, but i wish no-one would go there and ruin the place. It is so untainted by human beings (except for the mines, of course but they’re just a very tiny section of this world). It is so unlike anything you have seen before, of that I am certain. It is beautiful and relentless and peaceful and spiritual and dignified and rugged and dichotomous and dangerous and ancient and eternal and beyond your imagination. Even with everything I have told you and shown you, you still cannot imagine this world. It is beyond the capture of any camera lens. It is beyond the realm of my mortal words.
I’d say that Day 4 was a Thursday like any other. But it wasn’t. I had woken up on the banks of the Orange River for one. The night before, I’d had someone rub the bulge on the back of my knee and I’d woken up with slightly less of a bulge out my knee, but my right eye had swollen shut. In fact, my whole face was swollen, but my right eye was definitely more puffy than the rest of my face. I figured all the crying was making my face puffy, but seriously, even after my biggest heartbreak, my face never looked like this. How much more unkempt did Mother Nature need me to be in this deserted place? Just not an iota of dignity was left. Aside from the jokes about running circles in the sand I was quite worried about my swollen face. Swollen things are never a good sign, especially if you’ve still got a fuck load of running to do and the swelling isn’t in your joints or muscles. In hindsight I know what happened, but on that day I was utterly perplexed by my swollen shut eye. No-one else seemed to care or even notice!
The other thing about Thursday is that I met Thor for the first time. Up until then I had been running mostly with Leane, Ray and Tigger. Leane had become a victim of the blasted sand from the previous day and was by this time hobbling with a groin that was in no way interested in her future endeavours. Thursday was sold to us with two big climbs. One early on and then a very nice runnable section from 7km onwards and another big climb at half way. My favourite quote for the week was:
Ray: Didn’t he say we’d have a runnable bit from 7km?
Ray: Well we’re at 9km!
Everyone then looked back up the gorge to see if we missed the runnable bit. The gorge views were magnificent. Oh who am I kidding? Except for the relentless dry river beds with treacle-like sand, the views were magnificent everywhere. At about 10km, the runnable bit arrived and it really was runnable and so we ran. At this point, Leane was heading for anything that didn’t look like soft sand and Ray and I found ourselves running together down this runnable section. I should tell you that Ray has completed 5 full Iron Mans, so he’s quite an athlete. A tall guy. Early 40s but looking early 30s. So we ran. And boy! Did we run!! Fokkit! I kept telling myself, what the fuck are you doing? You’re not even halfway today and you still have tomorrow? Why are you burning all the matches here? I didn’t care. I was running. It felt like the first time in months maybe even years that I was running properly. And I was having fun. But I am a bear of very little brain, as we know. Bliksem! When we got to the bottom of the runnable section and hit a beach sand uphill my battery died. The water point was 3 or 4km ahead up this revolting sandy uphill. The thought of potatoes and banana bread waiting for us imbued me with a bit of enthusiasm and the three of us trudged towards it. The next second, out of nowhere, the comeback King, Gerard passed us and headed for my potatoes and banana bread. We jokingly raced after him so that he didn’t eat everything. But yor! Something had bitten him and he’d found renewed legs. Tigger was following behind at his reliable pace. Gerard got his leg strapped up at the water point and took a handful of painkillers, regardless of the renal failure warnings we were giving him! Leane, Ray and I headed off again. We were promised a climb up a gorge just after halfway and that looking back at the end of the gorge, round about 19km would give us a magnificent view of the boulder-ridden Tatasberg in the distance.
The gorge arrived. We were the first, after the route creator, to ever go there. There is no way to get there other than on foot and the word from the community is that no-one has gone there before. We did!
And it was in this gorge where I met Thor and I had a public meltdown which laid bare my Cancerian trust issues, my control issues, my independence über alles issues. It was fucking hard climbing up the gorge. There were sheer rock faces, some slippery with nowhere to grab onto. You basically had to rely on the stickiness of your fingers and shoes to get up some rocks. Half way up the gorge, we came to an incredibly huge sheer rock face with no way to get up except via a small crevice on the right hand side of the gorge. But, to pull oneself up through the crevice you needed to reach up, pull yourself over and forward and onto more sheer rock above. My toothpick arms provide zero to negative value in this regard. You’ll remember the shoulder operation I had a year ago. The shoulder has regressed somewhat because I haven’t bothered to keep up with the rehab. And so there I was. Ray went up first, turned around and offered his hand to Leane and pulled her up. I was next in line, what with gentlemen like Tigger and Gerard in the queue. I tried to do it on my own. But I wasn’t strong enough. And I didn’t want to fall because falling would have meant a broken something. At worst a neck or back, but at least an arm or shoulder. Ray offered me his hand and I refused and then I tried again to pull myself up and I couldn’t. Ray offered me his hand and I refused and then I started sobbing. Loud sobbing. I was frightened. I was frightened of falling. I was frustrated. I wished I could just be strong and pull myself up. I saw Ray’s hand and I knew that to grab his hand would mean letting go of my control. Over this crevice. Over my life. I would be placing my life in the one hand of a guy I met 48 hours ago. Yes, we’d got to know each other and he didn’t seem like a murderer and yes, he’d just pulled his wife up. But this was my life and my safety and I was being asked to give up all control of that to someone else. I reached up my hand and he pulled me. He pulled me so firmly that he actually flung me further along the route. I landed in front of Leane and I looked and her and said, “Holy shit! You’re married to Thor!” “I know, right!” And that’s how I met Thor. I still cry about this. I’ve told this story so many times now and I still cry about it. I literally placed my life in someone else’s hand and he didn’t let me down. In fact, he let me fly. I know at the very core of this story is a garbage truck of baggage that I probably need to address with therapy, but the physical terror I felt when faced with no other choice but to trust Thor, I cannot explain. When asked later that night if I’d turned around to look at the view, I remarked that I had turned around and seen a lot of demons slain.
It’s hard to believe that so much had happened on Day 4 and we were only just past half way at that point. The scale of things on this run were on another level. I’ve just had a look at the race photographer’s photos. In seeing those, I realised the magnitude of this undertaking and the enormity of this part of the world in which I had placed myself. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this experience. And I’m not even at the coolest part yet! My close friends will know that I have recently…well a year ago now….relocated to a farm in the bushveld area of South Africa. And this city slicker was suddenly faced with farm life banalities like snakes. Cobras by the dozen! This exposure let me experience the beauty and gentility of snakes and I’ve really developed a love for snakes. A healthy respect, mind you. Angry little spitting cobras will fix any delusions you might have about your love affair with snakes! It was fitting, therefore that on my journey through the desert, I was lucky enough to encounter many snakes. How many is many? Well, 3 that stayed still long enough for me observe and another 3 that crossed my path at lightning speed. Someone recently told me that snake sightings are a sign of transformation, of spiritual awakening. Sounds about right. I want to reiterate….a lot of snakes!
James has the picture of the other snake I spotted, a rhombic skaapsteker. The above two snakes were spotted on this Thursday that was unlike others. The rest of Day 4 was spent at the back. The back back. Poor Tigger was so patient. I just didn’t feel like running any more. I was tired. I was overwhelmed by what had happened with Thor and I was feeling like I hadn’t trained hard enough to come this far. So I walked. And walked. And walked. Tigger and I ambled on for the remainder of the day quite a way behind Leane and Thor and Gerard. We arrived back at camp, hot and tired just after 4pm after having set out at 8am. It was something!
It was a sombre evening because Gavin received news that his Dad has passed away. It tapped into my own feelings of loss when EP’s mom had passed away just a few weeks prior. But mostly I felt abject sadness for Gavin who was now stuck in the desert with people who weren’t his family, but who were his family, while he grieved. He resolved to make the following day’s run meaningful and contemplative. My heart ached for him.
How special to wake up in the tranquility of the desert on one’s 49th birthday. The stars in the morning are transcendent. In fact, the entire place is transcendent. It is ancient and sacred and eternal. When you stand in this place you realise that climate change is bad, but this will survive our climate change. Nuclear wars are bad, but this will live long after our nuclear wars have obliterated us all. The perpetuity of this world is wholly indifferent to your or my existence. It is, was and always will be. We are but a microscopic bug on the sole of the Earth’s shoe!
And that’s all the existential mumbo jumbo I could muster at the start of Day 3, the start of my 50th year on this eternal planet. That’s because reality bites and Day 3’s running was not going to wait for me to bask in my birthday suit. Being sung to for my birthday by a group of strangers who don’t know any single thing about me except that I cry a lot, moved me, to tears unfortunately! I decided to take a companion out on my birthday journey. For some reason, a family of stuffed animals from Winnie-The-Pooh were at the race village and I offered to take Pooh bear out with me as Piglet had already had his moment atop the Tatasberg boulders. Because I too am a bear of very little brain, I thought Pooh would be a fitting companion. You know how when you hold a baby and it gets heavier and heavier the longer you hold it? Well that’s what happened to Pooh. What started out as a light fluffy stuffed toy was eventually like a ten ton brick attached to my back. I dumped the bear at the halfway mark. I loved the day, probably because it was my birthday, but also because there were some nice rock climbs, my style this time! Although, I won’t lie. There was a fuck load of beach sand. Oh my word and the miggies!! Leane and I were alternately praying for the sand to end or for the miggies to disappear. In hindsight, they both seem like a waste of prayer tokens, but yor! The sand was relentless on our poor calves. The sand together with that fat, honey-filled fucker perched on my hydration pack eventually led to my back aching like a 90 year old’s back. I ditched the bear at the water point, but the damage was already done. Look, I’m blaming the bear here, but it’s probably got more to do with the treacle-like sand than the honey-pot bear! Leane, Ray, and I got through Day 3 in relatively good spirits, but Leane was a bit broken from all the wading through sand. Gerard had experienced a tough day out with Tigger. After that enormous climb the previous day, he had developed ITBS and had used hiking poles to get through Day 3. It had been tough going for him. I spent a bit of time on my own, but I happened upon Dave and he told me to just follow the road all the way back. Sand…sand….sand! And then suddenly an oasis! It was the wildest thing. All this arid dryness and then the jungle because the Orange River. And there was a shepherd with his flock watering them at the river. There are a specific type of sheep farmed in the area called damara sheep. The sheep and the shepherd and his dogs stayed near to our camp site that night. I got cake, candles and another happy birthday for dinner! It was lovely. It was such an incredible feeling to be showered with love by all these people who know nothing about me at all. They just wanted to show me that I’m loved on my birthday. One of my most memorable birthdays ever! It’s not my first birthday in the desert and I certainly hope it won’t be the last.
And then a strange bulge appeared out the back of my left knee!
We were told that Day 2 was going to involve a spectacular climb. I’ve told you before about my fear of falling from a height. I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of falling from heights. This is often a source of much anxiety in races that involve climbing boulders and rocks and ladders. You might remember my fall at Klipspringer. What I’d actually forgotten until just a moment ago was the cracked rib that resulted from that fall. Just one more sign pointing me away from The Namibia Crossing 2022. It’s for reasons like this that I’m terrified of falling from a height. Oh, and the potential for death or permanent disability, of course! I do, however, really like scrambling up mountain sides. I just don’t like climbs where one slip or one wrong grab or one bad footing could see me bouncing down a cliffside or a bunch of boulders. Day 2 certainly had a surprise in store for me.
On Day 2, Tigger was taking a day off to rest his ankle. So a new tail runner in the form of the sports massage therapist – Chris – opted in to tail runner the first half and James would tail runner the second half. I ran off, thinking that I had been gifted a new and fixed GPS device, only to find myself heading off in the direction of my house in Gauteng, where no-one else in the race was going. I was going to be irritated, but I decided that I would accept it as just part of my week and I would stick with Leane and Ray and then later, after the climb, with James. The running in the first half was spectacular. The mountains are a red brown slate colour and they tower around ancient dry river canyons, oblivious to our climate change concerns. They are unmoved by our desire to conquer them, knowing that Sir Edmund Hilary had it spot on when he said, “It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.” They exist not for our pleasure and not on a whim. The mountains in that area are, have been and always will be. Does that sound like anything familiar? I plateaued over a rise with Chris and I was stopped in my tracks with a most breathtaking view. I can give you this photo, but your mind needs a thousand fold amplification of the magnitude of this world to truly understand what I experienced as I popped over that rise. It is astounding in its godliness. It is deafening in its impact.
And then I met the miggies. I once heard an Afrikaans guy call them “midges” when he spoke to me about feeding his spiders. But the Afrikaans word “miggies” is a much more irritating word and therefore more accurately conveys their meaning. As soon as the temperature would rise above 18° these shitty little fly/mosquito/ant goggas would fly around anything that was remotely moist on you. Up your nose. In your eyes. In your mouth. Right to the back of your throat. They were so irritating, you could often hear people shouting out, “Fuck off!” or hear them spitting things out of their lips or choking on one that had flown into the back of their throats. And they bit me. I still have the bites all over my face and hands. They were a cause for significant prayers from Leane and I for the remainder of the week. Leane was super clever. She sewed an Aussie slouch hat out of beer can tabs and her cap on Day 4 so she had a lovely iggieless day out on Friday! I found using my cooling cloth as a swatter helped a bit to keep them away.
Okay where was I? Ah right! Indescribably impactful vista…..as we came up the hill where we met the miggies, we were confronted with a wall of sheer rock face, interspersed with large boulders. We were meant to climb up that! We had been promised that at the top of this rock face we would have two options: Go left up a wall of boulders to the most magnificent view you will ever experience or go right to the water point and then go up the boulders. You had to go up the boulders because a checkpoint was at the top. The slate was navigable. A little scary in parts, but exciting and exhilarating to know I was doing something this cool and somewhat dangerous.
The words Francois said to me at Klipspringer were my mantra this entire section and for a large part of the entire 5-day journey: “Trust your gear.” My Saucony Peregrines grabbed onto these rocks like I had little Spidermans attached to my feet! When I got to the top of this thing, I saw the water point off to the right. Leane and Ray had already decided to head up the boulders and I decided to do the same. Chris had brought me as far as he was going to go and sent me on my way. It started off okay. I was following little orange markers, the only part of the 5-day route which was marked. It was a kind gesture from the organizers because there were times when there was no clear path upwards, but a tiny orange tag flapping in the distance was good enough to give us a clue. The boulders, some bigger than my Jeep, were daunting and steep. There were times when I thought, “How good can this view be? Really? I mean for this level of work….and terror….there had better be the most spectacular view in the world up there.” I always believe that at the top of the toughest clubs are the most spectacular views. And so I continued onwards and upwards. At one point I decided to just turn around and go back down when a runner coming down said there was Coke (a cola) up at the top. I was buoyed by the thought of a sip of my happy drug and decided to keep going. Fifteen minutes later and about 3 meters higher I decided to give up and go back down and another runner coming down promised banana bread at the top. That seemed worth it. Fifteen minutes later and another 3 metres, I wondered if I could go to my rest as an old person, having never seen the view atop these boulders? I asked myself this several times. The answer was always yes, but I knew I’d always wonder what it was like up there. And of course, Leane and Ray weren’t giving up, so neither should I. But I was terrified and tired and my legs were starting to ache with each push up and over a huge boulder. And there was the prospect of having to go all the way back down this. Going down is often way more treacherous than going up. Just the anxiety of this climb was exhausting enough. The boulders got bigger and the “path” less achievable with each new giant rock. Eventually I heard voices (not imaginary ones) and realised the trauma was almost over….for now. As I pushed myself up onto the landing, I stood up and burst into tears. I was so relieved to be up there. I was so proud of myself for not giving up, not going the way my GPS would have been pointing me. Mostly though, I was crying because it was just so hard. I’ll bet you’re wondering if it was the most spectacular view ever. Firstly, I have to say that I felt traumatized by that climb. I know that sounds incredibly dramatic, but I can’t go five rungs up a ladder without crying. Secondly, I didn’t go all the way. There was another small climb which everyone else did which was where the most spectacular view could be had. But I was just too terrified to go any further. The view from where I was, was deafening in it’s magnificence. Was it the best I have ever seen? Had I not met God atop Ararat at Klipspringer just six weeks prior to this day, I would say that it was the most spectacular view I had ever experienced. You truly do find the most spectacular views at the top of the toughest climbs. Oh, as an aside, I got the last sip of Coke that there was and a half a piece of banana bread. If I had been 2 minutes later I would have had the view only! It was truly special up there. And being welcomed by Liberty and Jack with the Coke and banana bread was mercy personified.
Going back down this thing called Tatasberg was less treacherous than the up route, although I did have a crevice rock which I was using to lower myself onto the next boulder down give way, but I steadied myself and apologized to all the flora and fauna who had now lost their hiding place in that crevice. Someone had trampled a succulent on the rocks on the way down and the perfume was so beautiful. So otherworldly. So intoxicating. And all the time I could see the water point beckoning me. Leane had eaten a rock rabbit at the top of the mountain and skipped all the way down the boulders in a matter of seconds. I got to the bottom a long while after her and Ray and cried again. This time, just out of pure relief that I wasn’t dead! That was really fucking hard! I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced that level of anxiety before. Death seems more appealing than ever doing that again. I hope I never see a view more beautiful than that because, 1. That climb totally earned me the best view in the world ever and 2. I never want a climb tougher than that. Ever. Seriously. Fuck running!
So that view was unspeakably incredible, but it wasn’t my favourite for the day. What I was about to experience was exactly what I had signed up for. James was going to accompany me for the next half, what with my GPSlessness requiring me to have a permanent chaperone. We were promised an 8km expansive desert plain. Oh my word! This was so beautiful. So remote. So arid and yet so alive with succulents and animals. Kudu and klipspringer spoor littered our path. There were what they call Kalahari Ferraris and toktokkies. A snake raced out of James’ way and crossed my path and headed under a bush. Because I’m so slow, I was able to spot quite a few snakes on my 5 day journey! The desert plain was everything I hoped it would be and I’m so grateful James was there because alone there I think it is quite possible to go insane. We had a GPS, right? And a clear bearing. We could see the gully we were headed for on the other side of the plain. Often though, we found ourselves way off course and pointing in the wrong direction, even though we felt like we were traveling straight. It was so crazy. And so beautiful. It was quiet. You could hear the heat searing. You could hear the sand crunching and evaporating beneath your feet as you walked. You could hear the mountains looming. I could hear my lips cracking. James had lost connectivity with the communications team and we seemed abandoned, deserted. Naturally we weren’t because James had a working GPS so even though I couldn’t help hearing the theme tune from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly playing over and over in my head, we happily and mostly silently, God bless him, trundled forward towards the gully, correcting our bearing every now and then.
That section was everything I had signed up for when I entered the race. It was exactly as I had imagined it and it gave me the peace and joy I had hoped to experience. By the time we got to the gully, however, I was a bit hot and parched and was looking forward to something less like sand. The last few kilometers were peppered with a little bit of concern for the fact that we had lost contact with the race crew, but we still seemed to be on track and so trundled forward, running occasionally. Well done to Chris, James and Tigger! Their patience is admirable. I am ever grateful to them for being my compass in the desert. Karen met us with another “just around the corner” to go. Seriously, the number of times I heard people tell me something was just around the corner when it wasn’t! Runners are such liars! Trail runners even more so. I finished ages behind anyone else, but I’d really seen some incredible things and climbed some crazy boulders up Tatasberg.
On Sunday afternoon, 19 June 2022, a group of 17 runners and as many crew members descended upon a remote mining village called Senderlingsdrif in the Northern Cape province of South Africa on the border of Namibia.
Quentin – an ex-South African homed in London
Leane and Ray – married ex-South Africans homed in London
Nonhlanhla – Amanzimtoti
The guys…I’ll try and remember them all, but all South Africans based all over the world:
The KZN boys
Dad – Jim
Son – Mike
Son – Nic
Richard aka Tigger – the tail runner, so part runner part crew
As we all stood outside our miniature tents, I looked at them and recognized all of the people standing there. It was the weirdest feeling. I felt like I had met them all before. I shouted it out to them and some of them mumbled places or events where I might have met them, but it made no sense. I just felt like I knew them. All of them. From before.
Little did any of us know that we were about to share an intimate, life-affirming experience together. Obviously, Leane and Ray, the guys and the KZN boys might have suspected that a life-affirming experience might be on the cards, but no-one could have known then what we know now.
I’ve told you I hate camping, right? I like bricks. I like cupboards and shelves. Surprisingly enough, I discovered this week that I really like countertops. I like having no sand in my bed. I like an en suite bathroom. I like getting dressed standing up. Straight. I like that the futon, which was a feature of my 20s, is a thing of the past and I no longer have to bend or crawl to get into a bed. I think possibly, I take these things for granted and I acknowledge the privileged position in which I have worked hard to place myself which affords me these basic human rights. Camping, certainly the camping we were all about to do, robbed us of these basic human rights. And that’s why I hate camping! Yes. All you glampers that have all the gear. I hear you. I also have camping gear, but it’s still pretty shit to have to build a house every time you want to sleep. Also, no bricks!
What was going to make this camping trip even more challenging for us was the move from camp site to camp site which necessitated our having to pack 5 days worth of running gear and sleeping bags and night time gear and toiletries into a 70 x 30 x 30cm bag. A merciful God looked down on me and gave us all a race bag which was identical to the one with which I arrived at the race, so at least I’d already had a chance to pack everything I was going to need and make sure it fitted into an identical version of the bag into which we had to repack. Some of the overseas people arrived with their entire bag straight from the airport and had to figure all this shit out outside their miniature tent without bricks and counters and cupboards. Some unpleasant trade offs had to happen for some of us. Luckily, I only had to leave my onesie behind because it didn’t fit when I repacked everything into the identical bag. How did that happen? Yes, a onesie, okay! I was expecting it to be cold.
Our first night in our miniature homes was eventful, from what I’m told. Apparently Nonhlanhla, on her first time sleeping outside in her life, got the distinct feeling there was a snake in her tent and she shrieked, waking everyone except me and Ray and had to have the crew totally clear out her tent to convince her that there was no snake. This was 2am and I heard none of it. Apparently there was also a party going on somewhere. Never heard that. I heard cats fighting at some point, but I kept sleeping. My ability to sleep anywhere at any time and through any nuclear war is a gift for which I will be grateful all my days on Earth! I am especially grateful for this gift after a week of camping!
Although my neighbour in tent 5, Martin, says he likes camping, I could hear and feel his frustration with the lack of routine and the million fucking zips and no countertops. It really made the race that much tougher, but I think it stripped away all our pretences and created a world where we were at our most basic humanness. We were all at our most real. Most raw. And of course you know what happens then, right? The tears come. I really have tried to analyze where my tears come from. I am able to express emotion in words and I’m able to feel emotions on a huge spectrum. But I just don’t know why always the tears. Anyway, stripped of all my usual defenses like countertops, bricks and high beds, my tears were free to flow about everything. Including my missing human rights!
You’ll remember from my previous post that I met Mark and Yon early on Day 1 when we three headed up a mountain side? Notwithstanding the fact that I had met them both before in another lifetime. Lol. What nice guys! Mark was lucky enough to see an owl take off in front of him when he headed into a gorge. Yon and I had decided he was way off course – he was, as were we – and we went another route. I’m not sure when Yon and I parted ways, but I had hooked up with Tigger the tail runner who had been very irritated by our heading off like unruly goats up the mountain side instead of taking the tried and tested road! School fees on the GPS device were paid early on. Never mind that mine pointed me towards my house in Gauteng the full 5 days.
Sadly, I don’t remember much of the route on Day 1 because I had a kak attitude. I was angry that my GPS didn’t work which made me dependent on others. I was angry because my watch works fine and I had trained using my watch and so this shouldn’t have been part of my race. I have realised that it was definitely supposed to be part of my race! I can say that now. But on Monday I was kicking stones big time because I hate being dependent on others. Just hate it! And these people are all strangers in this life, so I had no reason to trust them enough to depend on them. At some point, just a few kilometers from the end, the tail runner, having twisted his ankle a little earlier, jumped into a support vehicle and gave me his GPS device. With that, I took off and flew the rest of the way to the end. It was all runnable downhill and I could see where I was going and what to look out for next. What an exhilarating feeling that was. It was also quite special arriving at a camp site all moved and ready for us in a totally different place. A spectacular place. A remote and unspoiled place. An ancient place. A sacred place. After a trickle shower and a delicious dinner we were briefed about Day 2.
I will remember these 16 people with love for the rest of my life. Thank you for sharing this life experience with me. You and I shared a moment in time that will last forever for me.
Winnie the Pooh said, “I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I have been.”
The funny thing about a life-altering event like The Namibia Crossing is getting back to a life in which the previous version of yourself lived. How does one navigate the altered reality that is yourself in what always was? My Damocles’ Sword was both a feast and a beast! I spent 5 days in the desert picking up life lessons and otherworldly scenes. I’ve got to had it to the Israelites. Five days wandering in the desert was pretty much as much as I could handle. I don’t know how the older okes managed 40 years! And they had to rely on an unseen God. I at least had a hugely unreliable GPS. But I did have companions which helped. It also helped that their GPS devices were reliable.
Lesson 1 – Don’t always trust the signs
Actually, this has been my theme for this race since I entered in 2019. The signs pointed me away from this race from the moment I entered.
Covid 1.0 the one where so many people died, you didn’t even have time to grieve – no 2020 race
Covid 2.0 the one where Namibia doesn’t want us to come visit – no 2021 race
Floods making Namibia a no-go for the 2022 race – so no Namibia then?
Dad’s cancer – how can I train when my Dad might be dying? (Happy to report that scans this past Monday showed up all clear and he is well on his way to recovery)
Lots of falling because of new shoes
Covid 3.0 – getting it and it’s lingering effects
EP’s mom died 2 weeks before the race
Camping in tents. If I’m to be honest, this should have been the one that said, “Don’t go there. Too dangerous. Just don’t do it!” And I knew about this one even before I entered.
And yet, there I found myself on Monday morning, crawling out of a tent and lining up at the start of the race, undertrained, a little battered and bruised and with as much emotional baggage as I could fit into my now 58kg frame.
And then my GPS for the race kept pointing backwards. No matter which way everyone else was going, my GPS was pointing me in the direction of my house. So I hooked on to two new friends. One of them veered up a steep cliff and we followed. Meanwhile the tail runner and two others, the three of whom featured throughout my lessons, took the lower road and plodded along, calling me back from the bush in which I was entangled and telling me to follow the path they were on. It was a lovely suggestion, but entangled and also, it was a sheer drop from where I was to where they were. So I decided to head up to the ridge and follow the ridge until I met up with their path. By now my arm was bleeding. Probably an hour into the 5 day race and there was blood pouring down my arm. Fuck Mark and Yon, my two new “friends”! I had followed the sign that told me they knew what they were doing. Clearly just as clueless as me, but with working GPS devices so therefore way dumber than me! I vowed to never follow them again. That turned out to be a good call on Day 3 when I saw them as tiny specs about two kilometers ahead of me on an open desert plain, misread the GPS by just a degree and head off in the wrong direction, only to have to double back to get back onto the route. I say they were way dumber than me, but really, I’ll never know because I spent the remainder of the week being wholly dependent on Leane, Ray aka Thor (more about that name later) and the trusty tail runner, Richard aka Tigger, for direction because of my faulty GPS.
And if all of these things weren’t signs enough to deter me from finishing this race, a bulge popped out of the back of my knee at the end of Day 3. And the next morning I woke up with one eye swollen shut. We joked about my run being what Belinda Carlisle was actually talking about with her song “Circles in the Sand”. I have never had a bulge pop out the back of my knee and I’ve never woken with one eye swollen shut. Even when I splashed hydrogen peroxide in it. Even then I didn’t wake up with one eye swollen shut. But here was this sign telling me to just GO. BACK. HOME!
Any one of those signs should have been signs for me, but something bigger needed doing here and maybe that was the sign. The sign that says, all these odds are stacked against you and yet you still want to do this? Why? What sign do you need?
I’ll post a lesson 2 installment when I’ve had some sleep.
Yours in trusting the signs or disregarding the signs.
“The famed “sword of Damocles” dates back to an ancient moral parable popularized by the Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book “Tusculan Disputations.” Cicero’s version of the tale centers on Dionysius II, a tyrannical king who once ruled over the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Though rich and powerful, Dionysius was supremely unhappy. His iron-fisted rule had made him many enemies, and he was tormented by fears of assassination—so much so that he slept in a bedchamber surrounded by a moat and only trusted his daughters to shave his beard with a razor.
As Cicero tells it, the king’s dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.” ~ Evan Andrews
It was just a few weeks ago where I had decided to pull out of Namibia Crossing. Since entering the race in 2019, a million signs had been dished out to me that maybe I shouldn’t do this race, not least of which was a global plague! I prepared for the race from 2019 until the race for 2020 was canceled. And then I went and sat on the couch until the end of 2020, when it seemed likely that the race would be on for 2021. Until the race was canceled in March 2021. And then I went to have a long overdue shoulder operation in May, knowing I had a few months for recovery before I would start training for the race, scheduled to take place in 2022. When I picked up training again in August, I was eager and enthusiastic. My race would finally be happening. Then in October, the falling started. Regular falls made me sore and unable to train for a few days. Then I would just get back into it and I would fall again. Then in November my Dad got diagnosed with cancer, the treatment for which brought him to the very edge of being. I really know that Dad’s Cancer is not about me, but the prospect of losing my dad or worse, knowing my dad was suffering, weighed heavy on my mind and it came out in mental exhaustion that had me walking most runs and just barely able to put one foot in front of the other. It brings me great joy to know that my dad’s treatment went well and he is looking so much better than in early March. Then in April they announced that the route would not be crossing into Namibia because of flooding at the border post. I wasn’t sure i wanted to do a multi-country race that didn’t take place in multi countries.
Then later in April, I got Covid.
I really got the feeling that Namibia Crossing didn’t want me. Covid lingered and lingered. I couldn’t breathe. My heart rate would shoot up every time I started running and obviously, my big week of training which I’d planned for the end of April went out the window.
I wanted to give up and just forfeit the entrance fee (which is a fuck load of money) and just move on to the next thing. Nicolette said that if I didn’t do the race, it would forever be a something I wished I’d done. So I started hiking. Running and hiking. And I hope I’ve done enough to see me through the next 5 days.
It was when I almost forfeited, that I considered that this race was my Damocles sword. I didn’t even know what Damocles sword was until today, I just felt like a Damocles Sword, shaped like a Namibia Crossing, was hanging over my head. I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably not run this entire race. And I may not even finish the entire race. But the beauty that surrounds me is lavish, like Damocles’ spoils. And the suffering is almost a given, much like the precarious sword hanging over Damocles’ head.
I will endeavor to give you a debrief after each day, but for now, I shall revel in the spoils being provided by this most ancient of places, the Richtersveld.
I’ve come to realise that I am no longer funny. This has distressed me because funny is how I cope. Recently I re-read some of my blogs and they’re just not that funny. Poignant maybe, but not funny! What happened to that funny girl who was crippled by Kaapsemoer so many times and whose pain managed to amuse others so? She grew old and serious, it seems. I could offer that 2020 kicked the funny out of me, but as I ran up the first hill at the Platinum Trail Race in Buffelspoort, (Have you ever? No. Neither had I heard of Buffelspoort until last week!) I realised that suffering is what makes me funny. Funny to you, at least! And so why on Earth have I not been suffering? Well, for one, I haven’t been wearing office wear for two years! I also haven’t been doing much road running. No yoga….schmoga. No having no mute button when I roll my eyes and call out, “What a fucknut!” In a work meeting. See no suffering!
But if only that were true! During 2020 and 2021, I lost so many people whom I love. And so many people whom I love lost people who they love. And not only to COVID. It was like the Grim Reaper was on some kind of binge! Most of the time I found no funny. In 2021, my dad got cancer in his face and the radiation was so brutal, he nearly died from that! Although that was mostly not funny, watching my mom’s ruthless, Calvinistic love was often pretty funny. We moved house in 2021 which was nice and we started building a house a little way from where we live now. I’ll never build a house again. Talk about reality not meeting expectations! And then there were the cobras! Living on a farm has been both wonderful and a fucking horror story. Summer brought cobra after cobra to our patio. But it also brought frogs and toads and loads of butterflies and a spider called Daisy (because she kept killing her husbands) This has been a stressful year and yet, still not that funny!!
EP’s Mom passed away last week after a short battle with cancer and that is still not funny. What was funny was when she came to holiday with us at the summer, snake-infested farm earlier this year. She’s a morning person, you see. I am not. I can hardly be deemed homo sapien before 9am and a whole coffee. And every morning, as I rose to great another alarmingly regular sunrise, Jacqui would be there by my side, telling me all about the latest news she’d gathered from her early early morning internet surfing. My God, it was horrendous! If I didn’t love her so much, I might have started to hate her! Some days I just wanted to put my hand up in front of her and shake my head with a “Nope. Not now. Just not right now, capiche?” But I was still trying to be a good daughter-in-common-law and so every morning I listened to the Internet while I tried to squeeze into my human form. The suffering was unbearable. And as the butterflies danced about me on the trail run on Sunday, the pain was still unbearable, but I had a good smile to myself about the suffering that Jacqui had unwittingly dished out to me each morning.
I met two lovely young people on that trail run in Buffelspoort. Aakifah and Izzy. What amazing young people! Relatively new to running and eager to find out all there was to know about running. They filled me with hope for our country and our world because they were hard-working, ambitious, measured, unentitled, humble, moral young people. Of course, when they tell this story to their friends, it goes like they met this fucking loony old lady who looked younger than she seemed and swore a lot and seemed like she was only half a cup away from totally losing her marbles. But she was very sweet! I hope that’s what they’re telling their friends.
They helped me forget about my suffering. The mental suffering that has been going on for the past two years. The suffering from the previous day’s 5 hour hike. The suffering from the week of grief and loss. The suffering from the very hilly course. Their joie de vivre and youthful eagerness helped me forget all the suffering and I ran with my love tank overflowing.
I’m still not very funny, but I am suffering a bit, so there’s hope!
The desert is a fascinating place. It’s alive with possibilities and the opportunity exists to meet or just observe the work of a Supreme Creator. So that’s what I did this weekend. I’ll admit that the COVID I got two weeks before this weekend had left me feeling bleak and depleted and unfit and tired. Which was poor timing because this weekend Klipspringer Challenge was supposed to be my big weekend before my much-anticipated goal race in June – Namibia Crossing. I was supposed to be running 35km per day this long weekend for four days. Two of the days would be race days and the other two would be just running. I had offered to help put up and take down markers as part of my just running days. By the time Wednesday came and my COVID test came back negative, I was feeling in no shape whatsoever to run even 4 consecutive 10km in my neighbourhood, never mind 4 consecutive 35km off road in the desert!
I contacted Warren, the organiser, and told him that I wouldn’t be able to help on day one because I was still feeling like last week’s soggy cheese and tomato sandwich, but that I should be able to help on Day 4. This gave me time to have a leisurely drive down on Thursday, armed with a negative COVID test and enjoy a super relaxing day on Friday. We were booked in at a lodge/camp site venue called Khamkirri. This is the view over the Orange River from our patio.
I’ll tell you that leaving this little cabin to go do anything was extremely difficult. The Orange River is currently flooding. Worst flooding in many years and it flowed past our cabin terrifyingly fast. Kayaking is usually offered here and when EP enquired about it, the manager raised his eyebrow and said that kayaking at the moment would guarantee a short two minute trip to plummeting to one’s death over Augrabies Falls.
The Augrabies Falls.
I will endeavour to capture in words the magnificence and majesty of the Augrabies Falls. Words can’t describe it and neither can pictures and neither can videos. I’ll try.
It is quite simply spectacular. For thousands of kilometers, the mighty Orange River meanders through Lesotho and South Africa and arrives at a 200m high cliff face which is a massive chasm, with glassy grey and reddish brown rocks on either side. The Orange River then shoves it’s contents over the edge of these cliffs and water, which has covered sweeping plains of river bed just a few hundred meters before, is forced like lambs to the slaughter into hundreds of narrow channels to tumble violently into the gorge. The affair creates a loud rumbling noise which is exactly from whence the name, Augrabies, is derived – Aukoerebies (The Place of Great Noise). It is extremely loud. You have to raise your voice to be heard above the din of the water. As the waters from all the channels converge, they create a spray which rains a gentle storm over the entire place for a 300m radius. Many people wear raincoats visiting Augrabies Falls. But it doesn’t help! On some days, the falls create their own cloud above the gorge.
The most remarkable thing about all of this is that it’s in the desert. I laughed at the Augrabies Falls National Park reception today when I saw they had a collection of publications under a banner of “Arid National Parks” of which Augrabies Falls is but one. Arid. It’s the most bizarre paradox. All this water and it’s running through this crazy arid Kalahari desert.
The Klipspringer Challenge
I know you come here for the running….most of you, but I couldn’t not tell you about Khamkirri and the Falls! So as for the running.
I told you that I had signed up for the longer version of the race – 2 days of 35ish kilometers. There was a lighter version of 23km and 19km on respective days. I arrived at the start for Day 1, fully prepared, equipment, nutrition and hydration-wise. What was not prepared was my body. I was still full of the after effects of COVID. I am fully vaccinated but this had not helped me to not feel like shit for the past two weeks. I was on the mend, but I was worn out. My heart rate would rise uncontrollably whenever I ran a little faster than slow coach pace and really, I was just always worn out. At least my sense of taste and smell had returned! I set off with everyone else and vowed to be conservative and I was. I followed a path behind two ladies and ended up having to back track for about a kilometre to get back to the route. And it was thus that my mojo left, my head injury kicked in and I started walking more and more and more. I blamed the COVID, but really it was me. COVID: it’s not you. It’s me! I was frightened going down rocks. I was lazy going up. At one point, fully rejecting a hand to pull me up a rock face, I fell as the rocks beneath my footing gave way and I went bouncing down the rocks, smashing my sternum, exploding one of my water bottles (this I only realised later in the day when I turned to drink out that bottle and couldn’t create the required vacuum to suck out the juice. Aha! That’s why my arm was getting so sticky!) And grazing and bruising my thigh and butt. And then I burst into tears. I blamed the blood on my leg for my tears, but really I was crying out of frustration with myself. I’ve been training. I’ve been working hard, but I had just tapped out. I knew I was supposed to be taking it easy, but it was like I wasn’t even trying. And now I’d fallen because I won’t accept help from anyone. What can’t I just not be me!
The sweeper, Francois, was now with me and sitting patiently on a rock while I bawled my eyes out. Francois deserves a medal. He was caring, patient, encouraging and kind. He gave trail running advice which I knew, but clearly wasn’t putting into practice and I accepted his advice with gratitude. And while I stood there and cried, he did nothing. He just let me have my moment and had no judgement. In fact, I got the distinct feeling he’d had a similar moment himself at some point. We carried on together and eventually i overtook another runner. I may have found my mojo again. The terrain was not very runnable for me and eventually it was the COVID and I became totally worn out, just 16km into my run. I resigned myself to just walking. Francois had stayed with a lady who had fallen and needed medical attention and I carried on with Paul who was the kind person whose help I had rejected earlier in the day. I tried to feed myself energy and eventually I had depleted almost all my food stash. Paul gave me some of his which I took graciously this time! Eventually, I told Paul to go on without me because I was going to pull out at the water point as I was just to exhausted to go on.
At about 23km, I came up to the water point and was certain they would pull me off the course, my having missed the cut off (which was extremely generous). Another sweeper, Angela, picked me up and asked if I wanted to continue. I wasn’t sure if I did, but the alternative was waiting for a lift back to the finish. So Angela and I headed off to the finish at a decently brisk walking pace. Her company was wonderful. She was kind and really just lovely to be around. We spoke about everything and the kilometers disappeared beneath our feet. I finished the day utterly depleted physically, but joyful and quite positive that I’d had a wonderfuld day out.
I knew that doing that to myself again the following day would not be good for my body and so I opted to do the Lite version of Day 2. And that’s where I found God. The Kilpspringer Trail at Augrabies is actually a hiking trail you can do it in the Winter months. It is for experienced hikers only and you should not attempt this trail/hike if you’re not fit. A good pair of hiking / trail shoes are required. The trail started with us wading through a few offshoots of the flooded Orange River and then a series of boulder hopping stretches interspersed with some really fast Kalahari desert running. If you kept your eyes open, you saw some spectacular views.
It was so cool because there was a lot of rock climbing, but you could easily run and walk on the rocks. The steep down climbs hurt my knees because my fall the day before had left my thigh and butt on the left a little out of action. But it was delightful. It was after a climb up a sheer rock face that I came upon what is known as the most beautiful water point in the world – the top of Ararat.
At the top of the sheer rock face which is part of the mountain known as Ararat in Augrabies, a scene unfolds before your eyes that defies explanation. You’re standing at the top of a 200 or 300 metre gorge and from about a kilometre away you see the mighty Orange River crashing towards you at the bottom of the gorge. It then snakes it’s way beneath you 200 meters down and veers off around another corner of the gorge further along. It is only Godly. There is no human involvement in what you see and you realise that it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is that you think matters, doesn’t, because the Creator that manages this is infinitely greater than anything you could meaningfully contribute. You realise at once that you are tiny and your impact in the world, whilst probably meaningful to some, is never as eternal as this water chiseling away at this gorge. And you realise that God is there, controlling that for meaning that surpasses any comprehension you might have. And you realise that, like God, that river is, was and always will be. Of course I cried! And Francois was there to see it! Hahaha! That’s pretty funny, now when I think about it.
After a time contemplating the presence of God on Ararat, I carried on with my walk. I had resigned myself to walking the entire day. And then I met Braam. He was finishing his 35km quite near the front and I was finishing my 19k. very near the back. We helped each other spot markers and we walked/ran together. And would you know, he was running. At a very nice pace. And I was running with him. And then we would walk at a very nice pace together and then we would run again. And then we walked on something called Moon Rock which was suitably named. And I sang a Police song and then I ran. And I was running. And I wasn’t dying. And I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. And I wasn’t being conservative because COVID. And I was having a good time. And we were grateful for each other’s company. And I found the joy that comes from running in the desert. And then we walked. And then we ran. And then we finished.