“I’m a vegetarian, and I ain’t f’king scared of him.” Hiking 210km over the Drakensberg’s highest peaks is one thing, but having that song stuck in your head for 200 of those kilometres is murder. Maybe one day some psychiatrist can explain to me what goes wrong in your brain to bring on the phenomenon of the ‘Stuck Phrase’ during endurance events (SP for short – see I’m creating a new medical term here). For now, all I know is that this was the worst experience of SP I ever had to endure, and I don’t even like the song!
If we would backtrack a bit, I would say that my severe case of SP was a result of Ryno Griesel phoning me a week or so after he and Nicholas had to withdraw halfway during their attempt at the Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) record. Ryno casually enquired if I would join him, Gert Forster and Nicholas Mulder for another attempt at the DGT record. No pressure, we just see how far we get and build up some experience in order for a well prepared attempt later on.
Now I reckon myself a bit of a mountain runner, so what could I say? “For sure bru, I’m in”. I felt fit and strong as ever, having finished Wartrail tjree weeks ago and the Long Tom Marathon the week after that. This left me with two weeks of good rest for our attempt at the DGT on the 9th of April. Unfortunately Nicholas could not make this attempt due to his orienteering commitments at the Western Cape Champs.
“But what is this DGT challenge?” I hear you think. Well here is a very good description from Lisa’s Adventure Racing site ( http://www.ar.co.za/ )
It is a traverse of the Drakensberg that starts from North to South. It starts from the Sentinel Car Park perimeter fence and then stops at the Bushman’s Nek Border Post perimeter fence. Various checkpoints have to be visited along the way. These include:
- The Chain Ladders
- Mont-aux-Sources summit (3282m)
- Cleft Peak summit (3277m)
- Champagne Castle summit (3377m)
- Mafadi summit (3451m)
- Giant’s Castle summit (3314m)
- Thabana Ntlenyana summit (3482m)
- Thomathu Pass must be used to descend to Bushman’s Nek
The only other rules are that it needs to be entirely self-supported (i.e. no seconds, food caches or resupplies) and entirely on foot. GPS is allowed.
The Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Challenge Blog ( http://drakensberg.ning.com ) has this to say:
Aiming to beat the current record for running the six highest peaks south of Kilimanjaro or three high altitude comrades in a row.
Okay, now that I have your attention back to my story.
Ryno sent me the GPS tracks from Stijn Lanen (The hero that started the latest spade of attempts) and the waypoints of Andrew Porter (Held the record of 61:24 – 18 December 2009). I used this info together with Google earth and Garmin Mapsource to check out the route choices behind the comfort of my computer. I soon realised that Stijn and Andrew had done their homework over the years and that apart from small nuances I would use their routes as is. To save on the amount of maps to carry, I plotted Stijn’s track on Mapsource and printed my own set of 1:50 000 maps on A4 paper. I then laminated this set of 8 double sided maps and voila, I had my own very compact set of waterproof maps. In addition each of us carried a gps with the tracks and we carried a set of the Drakensberg hiking maps in case we had to withdraw and needed to find a pass down the mountain. I guess we were a bit ‘mapped out’ in the end.
Having experienced mountaineers like Gert on your team has their advantages, but some interesting challenges arise when people are too relaxed. So it happened on Monday morning just after I persuaded my manager that he can give me short notice leave (that would be the Thursday and Friday 2 days from now) that Gert phoned me and asked if we could move it by a day. That was an easy answer – “No!”. Next question, do I know anybody that would be willing to drive the car from Sentinel car park to Bushman’s Nek? Well 2 days were a bit short notice and with all the usual excuses of feeding the gold fish etc. by promising drivers, we were setting of on Thursday morning on our attempt at the DGT, without a driver. We had a plan though, we would take taxi’s back from Bushman’s Nek to Sentinal car park. The fact that we intended to finish Sunday morning and that it would take us a day to get back to Sentinal with taxis, we ignored at the time. We slept at the sentinel car park hut on Thursday night sharing the hut with a group of friendly Dutch hikers. (The ones from Netherland, not Benoni)
Friday morning 9 April 2010 at 04h00 in the Drakensberg cold morning mist the 3 of us were outside the hut making final adjustments to our packs and packing everything else in the car (the one without the driver). Ryno said a quick prayer for us, as we realised the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, and at the same time the size of the undertaking. At 04h07 we’re off after my second attempt at finding the gate (there was a lot of mist… okay).
I don’t know how it is with other long distance racers but from my experience it is usually a quiet affair, I don’t really talk during long races and clearly Gert is also the silent strong type. Ryno claims that we are too silent but I can’t remember him really trying to strike up a conversation. It was around the chain ladder after we had exited the mist into the clear night sky that Gert broke silence, “Dis mooi in die berg.” I answered, “Ja”. Don’t think Ryno said anything. We reached the summit of Mont aux Sources just before 06h00, our first check point in the bag, the sun is rising, the sky is clear, we feel great. “Dis darem maar mooi in die Berg,” says Ryno. My SP starts nagging.
Before we started the DGT I did a couple of calcs in order to get a gut feel of how long this would take. I based my calcs on my Wartrail and Skyrun (100km Southern part of the Drakensberg) times and felt that if all goes well I should be able to do this under 50 hours. However the first thing I realised upon starting the DGT was the difference in altitude. During Skyrun, the average altitude is most likely below 2500m with the highest peak at Tiffendell – a cool 3001m high. The DGT on the other hand, started at 2550m, immediately climbed to 3000m at the chain ladders, and from there on it basically stayed in a band of 2800m to 3400m with the highest point, Thaba Ntlenyana, at around 3460m. Around Mont aux Sources I realised that my sub-50 hours might have been optimistic.
By the time we passed Mnweni region just before Ntonjelana ridge (about 40km into the hike) Gert realised how he can solve our driver problem. He would go down the mountain at Mnweni, catch a taxi back to near Woodstock dam, and hike another 15km back up to Sentinal car park. Part of his decision was based on the fact that he hasn’t yet fully recovered from his hang-gliding incident (but that’s a story for another day) and that he realised his fitness is not on par for the pace Ryno was pushing. My fitness was also not on par for Ryno’s pace but I had no excuse and Gert thought of the driver thing first, so I was stuck with finishing the DGT with Ryno.
The fact that Gert decided to withdraw at this stage saved my arse because I didn’t pay attention to Ryno’s kit list and forgot to bring my hiking poles. So luckily Gert gave me his poles for the remainder of the race. I also didn’t think that it would be that cold on the berg (Yes, I know) so I didn’t bring my gloves or any head gear. Fortunately Ryno had an extra buff which kept my head warm during those ice-cold sections over the high peaks in freezing wind conditions. However Ryno did not have an extra pair of gloves. It’s Tuesday now and I almost have the feeling back in my hands. It’s also fun having wet feet at that altitude, at night, with wind.
The one thing where I went one better than Ryno was my sleeping bag. Hardcore Ryno apparently doesn’t sleep. Well, I warned him, and I warned him again, I even dramatically showed him my sleeping bag when I packed it, but nooo, he reckoned that IF we had to sleep he would be fine with his super bivvy bag. His bivvy bag is a robust version of a space blanket that you can climb into. Well no surprise after our third check point at Champagne Castle around 23h30 my wheels came off. The initial fast pace of the day was getting to me and my progress slowed down quite a lot. This is always a good sign to rather sleep a couple of hours in order to recover and pick up the pace again. The problem was that the area was a bit rocky and barren, so I chose the softest rock and hopped into my sleeping bag.
Now just keep in mind that my ‘sleeping bag’ is an ‘Adventure Lite”. This is what we adventure racers use to pass the minimum kit requirements during AR kit inspection, but apart from this feature the ‘Adventure Lite’ doesn’t offer much. I think it’s rated as a +5° sleeping bag. We sort of slept for almost four hours, but I had to move around so that each part of my body could get a change of lying on the rock. For me it was very cold. For Mr Bivvy Bag, it was much colder. It was definitely a mistake to sleep for so long. Two to three hours would have been more than enough, but tell that to me when I’m cold and miserable. It’s always a sad affair when you have to get out of your freezing sleeping bag into more freezing conditions, taking of the extra layers of clothes used for sleeping and getting your now frozen / wet shoes back on – yippee. At least I was strong again and we picked up the pace for the next round, even my SP was quick to join me after the 4 hour break.
The beauty of the ‘berg becomes a bit much by the end of Day Two. By now it is not another beautiful valley anymore but more like another torture session up another bloody ridge. I’m also getting tired of throwing Basotho dogs with rocks or swinging my hiking poles at them. My SP is now really in full flare and no matter how hard I try no other song will survive more than 2 minutes before my SP returns. Not a keen user of the F word, but cursed by this specific phrase of the song, I have by now filtered and tried about 50 different versions that might work:
“I’m not friggin scared of him”
“I’m not nearly scared of him”
“I’m not even scared of him”
I try hard to embed the words, “Hy maak my voete soos die van ‘n ribbok, op hoe plekke laat Hy my veilig loop” (Habakkuk 3:19) into my head, since I know that my wife is thinking of me and singing this song for me as she always does when I’m racing. But unfortunately SP syndrome doesn’t allow for that.
In the valley before Giant’s Castle saddle we had a brief incident with two Basotho’s on horseback. The one had a knife just short of a cutlass, and the other was holding his whip in a very flashy manner. The two kept on saying “Give me!” and rode next to and in between us, not wanting to back off. Ryno had his tear gas in a firm grip by now and I was walking with my hiking poles in such a manner as to suggest that they are much better suited for killing annoying locals, than hiking with. After about a kilometre of this adrenaline hike they decided to back off and leave us alone. Well the upside of this was that I had a brief recession from my SP and me and Ryno both had a healthy supply of adrenaline to work off over the next few kilometres.
We really couldn’t complain about the weather, it was nice clear skies most of the way, with cold mountain wind blowing during the day, and night unfortunately. Only in the Giant’s castle region did we have periods of mist. It was actually quite spectacular, apart from a navigational point of view, but the mist would just suddenly blow up over the ridge and cover us completely in a matter of minutes. Then five minutes later it would be blown away across the ridge, leaving us with a beautiful view of Giant’s Castle in front of us and everything below covered in thick clouds. I later found out that it was actually raining quite heavily in the valleys below. It’s cool walking above the clouds.
By the time we reached sunset of Day Two (Saturday evening) we were at the start of the long 800m climb up to the highest point, ‘Thabana Ntlenyana’. This point has a great psychological significance, since it is the highest point and at 147km into the race, you start to get the feeling that you are going to make it. One thing is for sure that reaching the summit just before 22h00 with icy wind howling, it was one of the coldest places to be on the mountain. I just ducked next to a heap of rocks marking the highest point, with my frozen hands tucked into my clothing, while waiting for Ryno to take the photo serving as evidence for each check point. It was good to get off that peak. My clattering teeth added a nice “k k k k k I’m n n n n not scared of him” to my SP.
After dropping about 300m into the next valley I spotted a nice spot with tall grass and cattle tracks making an excellent shelter against the wind. Remembering our cold sleep of the previous night, I told Ryno this is it. He didn’t argue and actually for the first time in the hike Ryno looked a bit stuffed to me. This time we had a much warmer and much more comfortable three-hour sleep before setting of on our last leg.
We crossed the Sandleni Saddle just before sunrise. This saddle is just after the Sani pass road and is the point of no return. You know that you have only 40kms left and with no fast shortcut off the mountain you can just as well finish the DGT (I almost said damn DGT). At the same time this was the most difficult part of the race as it seemed that there was nothing else but mountain range upon mountain range all lying perpendicular to our path, and even though we’ve crossed the highest part of the route these peaks were still topping out at 3200m with 300m climbs in between.
“But I’m not really scared of him”
Approaching the last real mountain ridge called Walker’s Saddle Ryno started worrying about our time – we were looking good for a new record. So it was at this stage that he whipped out his bungee cord and pulled me up the last significant hill of about 120m. This is the first time that I’ve been towed on a hike and all I can say is, “WOW”. After that I realised that Ryno would be able to shave at least another 10 hours off our time if he can just find a strong enough partner.
Although this was the last ridge, the ‘berg doesn’t let go that easily. Going down Isicatula Pass was the most dodgy and difficult section of the whole DGT. It is a very steep drop of about 500m over less than two kilometres, of which the first 200m drop is real hairy and therefore slow. After this initial steep drop follows the longest 10km downhill hiking section you can ever imagine. You KNOW that you’re almost there, it’s just around the corner, just another stones throw, just a last push, you can almost see the border post, BUT IT JUST DON’T WANT TO END!!!
Then finally after descending another 1000m after Isicatula Pass over roughly 10km you finally cross a little stream that got my feet wet for the last 100m run / stumble to the gate, which marked the end. I was eyeing my stopwatch for the last kilometre noticing that we are heading for a time of 60:30. So I basically pushed the pace as such, stopping the clock at 60:29:30 as we reached the gate.
And we had a driver with our car waiting. Thanx Gert.
This was one of the big ones for me. I will definitely treasure this run with two of my solid friends as one of the remarkable things I’ve accomplished in my life.
Author: Cobus van Zyl