First in a 3-part Series
The promise was clear; 3 days, 3 African countries, 92km. The website went on to say, “From the ancient Mapungubwe citadel in South Africa, to the rolling savannah of Botswana’s Tuli block; this trail running journey of discovery would take a small group of runners across the mighty Limpopo River to the banks of the gigantic Shashe River, through the rural villages of Maramani, past huge Baobabs and along ancient elephant trails etched into stone in Zimbabwe.”
Referred to as “The ultimate safari-on-the-run.”
It was all that, and so very much more.
The journey from Cape Town involved a flight to Johannesburg, an overnight with family, and a very early Uber ride with official event photographer, Mark Sampson, to the bus depo at the airport. Here we met our fellow participants, filled our new water bottles, received our snack packs and embarked on a 6 hour luxury bus drive in the direction of the Limpopo Province, to the gates of the Mapungubwe National Park. Another hour of game driving through the National Park, and we were dropped a short walk from the Limpopo river bank, where a boat took us in groups of 8 over to our first ‘informal’ border crossing. We had entered Zimbabwe. Home for the next 4 nights would be in the Maramani Community Camp. The Maramani community area is situated at the confluence of the Limpopo and Tuli River, and the union of three countries.
I stood and looked out at the surrounding African bushveld and felt my mind begin to quieten. A hippo wallowed in the cool dark water, about 100m away, flicking something from his ear and watching us curiously as we carried our bags over to the tents. Wildrunner directors, Owen and Tamaryn Middleton passed us glasses of ice cold Steenberg bubbly on arrival. It went down like a homesick mole.
The tent itself was a lovely surprise. A stretcher, mattress and small pillow in each, along with a custom embroidered towel and laundry bag awaited each runner. Our honeymoon couple, Joe and Caroline, were set up in a separate 6-man tent; the honeymoon suite; a thoughtful touch by the organisers. With the river on one side, and the rest of the camp set up on the other, our tented camp boasted unbeatable views. Cows wandered down to the river to drink, keeping a watchful eye out for crocs. There was little left to do but explore, and then prepare for dinner. At 5pm, the crew set up a craft gin bar at the top of a small koppie where a breathtaking sunset view swept the last of our big city worries away. No cell reception, no chance of a quick inbox check. No To Do list consolidating.
Dinner was the first of many delightful meals. Catering to 150 people (runners and crew) in this wilderness area is successfully achieved by a combination of local Maramani camp and kitchen crew, and mother and daughter catering duo, Marion and Fran Siebrits. This exceptional team combines locally purchased ingredients with those grown in the area; a food security initiative that is part of the event’s community investment. Bright, tasty greens and other vegetables are in no short supply, and the team achieved a sumptuous spread at every meal. Huge potjie pots of lentil and bean stew, meat stews, braaied meats, chickpea curry, “pap”, rice, roosterbrood, pot breads, salads, homemade dressings, jams and mustards. Meals were enjoyed on tables beneath the trees, with the occasional curious monkey looking down on our tin plates.
Travelling to one of these events without a group of friends or significant other is potentially one of the most indulgent things I’ve ever done. No one to check on, or keep up with. My world shrunk to the very simply tasks of eat, sleep, run, shower, repeat.
Day 1 – 30km
My phone alarm woke me from a restless sleep at 5:30am. I switched on my headlamp and wriggled quickly in to my running kit, adding plenty of chafe cream and sunscreen, before heading to the toilets and then to breakfast. A hot porridge such that I’d never tasted before was dished in to my bowl from its pot on the fire. I filled a cup with coffee and watched the sun rise over the river. Deep oranges, red and pink hues heralded a picture perfect day. Birds heralded the break of day. Surreal, stunning.
We were divided in to groups according to the pace we had selected on entry, and each group was hosted by a guide at the front and a local ranger at the back. My group’s guide was a ranger called James Tyrrell from a private game reserve called Londolozi, within the Greater Kruger National Park. Bringing up the rear of our small group was a Parksboard ranger called Lovemore. Between these two fine men we would miss nothing out there. Game, animal tracks, plants, insects and birdlife. They had so much to teach us, and we lapped it all up. For day one, there were only 3 runners, India, Alex and myself, with James and Lovemore. Fran, from the kitchen crew, joined us. As we were the “fast” group, we set out first, shortly after 7am.
The 30km route, navigated by James who had the route loaded to a GPS device, took us over Maramani community land and into the breathtaking landscape of Sentinel Ranch in Zimbabwe. We viewed ancient bushman paintings in caves, a 200 million year old dinosaur fossil and plenty of wildlife. Impala ran below the ridges on which we ran, Wildebeest ran ahead of us. Zebra scampered as we passed by. We spotted Meyers Parrots, my first African Green Pigeons, White Backed Vultures and tiny Whitefronted Bee Eaters. We saw Black Eagles and a Spotted Eagle Owl. With two tea stops on the way, there was no need to carry more than a litre of water in our packs at any time. Fran had us hugging huge Baobab trees and taking part in rock yoga. James told us about an insect called a Banana Nightfighter… was he having us on!? We never quite knew with James.
Unless you have experienced African bush exploration on foot, there is little that I can say that will adequately describe the experience. Every sense is heightened as you literally become one with the sights and smells. It felt like the most authentic way to view game. Hot sun, wide open blue skies, rocky trails and the gentle tap, tap, tap of our trail shoes as we began to realise the magnitude and relevance of our journey. The running wasn’t too challenging, although soft sand and thorns caused a few short-lived low moments, so there was every opportunity to look around and commit it all to memory. I decided not to take too many photographs, as Mark was out there doing that in a professional capacity, and I wanted to see, really see, all I could.
In the last few km there are elephant wires set up permanently to prevent resident ellies from making their way down to the river camp. Unfortunately James did not spot one of the wires, and it almost caused a nasty head injury, along with a move that might have placed him in a Russian gymnastics team. Thankfully nothing serious resulted, other than my usual uproarious and uncontrollable laughter. The ice was broken, and laughter would become a prominent part of our team dynamic.
On arrival back at camp, a cold Zambezi lager was followed by a “shower”. The shower involved collecting a donkey boiler from the guys heating them on smoldering coals, and carrying it to the makeshift cubicles lined up for Men on one side and Women on the other. From within the privacy of the cubicle, you have to pump the handle of the donkey boiler to build up sufficient pressure, then spray the hot water in a rinse-lather-rinse-repeat pattern, until almost all the daily dust is removed. Soon after shower-hour, the drum sounded to announce lunch, and another feast followed. Sated in every way, I carried my stretcher to a shady spot and napped until it was time to climb the koppie for another gin and tonic, and a sunset that might have been even more beautiful than the one prior.
I sipped and wondered about the legitimacy of an insect called a Banana Nightfighters… Then made my way down for dinner and a solid 8 hour sleep.
Words by Kim Stephens
Photographs by Mark Sampson