45 intrepid trail runners braved 200km of the arid Richtersveld over five days from 13-17June 2016 during the Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun®, traversing this vast mountain desert wilderness area and crossing the Orange River to complete the first cross-border trail race between South Africa and Namibia through the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, with local communities supporting the event and celebrating the tourism opportunities created by the annual cross-border event.
The race started in the Richtersveld National Park section of the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, with the first three days covering ancient iconic landscapes such as the crystal fields near Sendelingsdrif, the massive Vanderster mountain range, the Springbok ‘Vlakte’ or flats, the giant boulder strewn Tatasberg and Helskloof Pass. Local and international trail runners pitted their technical skills against loose shale, deep sand, boulders and gnarly trails as they climbed in and out of the valleys crossing mountain ranges and river beds along the way.
Day four saw the runners crossing the Orange River by boat into the Namibian section of this Transfrontier Park and took the runners up the lower reaches of the Fish River Canyon, into a wilderness area, normally off-limits to the public. Mountain zebra, kudu and wild horses greeted the participants and fresh spoor of wild otter and leopard and other animals indicated an abundance of wildlife in the area.
The last day of the race was a relaxed day with a late start, climbing out of the Fish River Canyon up a slot ravine onto well-worn game trails, and climbing to the peak above the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Resort to a magnificent view over the mountain wilderness surrounds. A technical descent into the /Ai/Ais Hot Springs resort brought the runners to the finish and a welcome dip in the hot springs.
The daily distances over the five days ranged from 26km to 49 km, and with the challenge of navigating remote areas with compulsory GPS devices, over unmarked territory, the race challenged even the most experienced runners.
Top runners participating in the 2016 race, included local and international athletes, with exceptionally strong female runner Jo Williams from New Zealand emerging as the overall winner with a blistering time of 22:23:01 for the five days. Second place went to one of the UK’s leading adventure journalists and athletes, Tobias Mews in 22:42:00, followed by a local resident Dawid Kaswarie in 23:07:34. Swiss runner Daniel Meyes took the men’s third position in 25:18:24. One of the older runners John Cuff who is 65 years old, came fourth in the men’s race in a time of 26:41:19. The second lady home was Linda Doke (RSA) in 25:43:52, followed by UK runner Elisabet Barnes (Current ladies record holder for Marathon des Sables), who came in in 27:01:56.
Wildrun® race director, Owen Middleton said the race had a significant impact on the local communities: “The race was a great mix of cultures with runners enjoying a taste of Nama culture through dancing, storytelling and singing by community members and Richtersveld Tours created extensive employment opportunities for locals in setting up the complex logistics required to move camp every day and cater for over 70 people in the desert.”
The 45 participants were well supported by the Wildrunner crew throughout, with daily check-points, aid stations, an event sweeper and satellite radio communications. Runners stayed in individual tented accommodation during the race. The full campsite was moved each night as the race progressed through the park. The logistics involved in setting up an event in such a remote location are immense and include transporting 34 tons of water; moving 25 tons of luggage and water equipment throughout the event; setting up, taking down and transporting 400 tents, stretchers, mattresses and bedding; moving and preparing 1 ton of food and carrying 100kg of firewood.
“The support of the local community and related conservation organisations is essential for an event like this to succeed – It’s a small seed of growth in a big area, but it involves the community in the future of conservation, and encourages everyone to work together to preserve an amazing heritage.”
“We are particularly grateful to Boundless Southern Africa, South African National Parks, Namibian Parks & Wildlife, Namibian Wildlife Resorts and Richtersveld Tours and, for helping us to make this cross-border event in the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park a reality.”
Roland Vorwerk of Boundless Southern Africa said that the inaugural Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun® helps to put the /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park on the global map as a spectacular adventure tourism destination, with elements of nature, culture and community built into the unforgettable experience.
Nadia Lemmetuis, Communications Manager, Arid Region, South African National Parks (SANParks) explained the impact the race had on the region: “The Richtersveld, particularly Ai/Ais – Richtersveld Transfrontier Park – the largest mountain desert park in South Africa – is the perfect location to stage the Wildrun®. For its breath-taking mountain views, perfect weather conditions, for this time of the year, and countless indigenous succulents are truly remarkable and so unique to this area. It is a huge honour to be associated with the Wildrunner brand. Their races are meticulously planned and perfectly executed. This particular race was no exception and the runners were so enthusiastic and in awe of the surroundings, which they obviously are not used to and will never see by just driving through the park.”
What the runners had to say
Top South African runner, Linda Doke was thrilled at the experience: “What an incredible privilege it was to spend 5 days running through this magnificent part of the world on the Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun®. Sometimes it takes experiencing places like this to remind us how just how fragile and yet so powerful nature is, and how unbelievably insignificant we are in the bigger scheme of things.”
Elisabet Barnes commented: “I love the fact that this is a small race and that the route is not marked, but moreover it is an incredible experience – We hiked and ran through a remote, arid mountain desert, Martian in character. We followed zebra trails over sharp mountains of volcanic rock, crossed crystal fields and sandy plains, descended into deep canyons (the Fish River Canyon is the world’s second largest canyon), and crossed the Orange River from South Africa into Namibia. We camped in some locations only ever visited by a handful of people and we were lucky to see wildlife including Zebra, Kudu, wild horses, baboons, snakes and Ostriches.”
Local runner Dawid Kaswarie Who participated in his first multi-stage trail running event last year, had a better idea of how to train for this year’s event, and felt comfortable running with the lead runners every day. ‘I would like to get some training on GPS navigation for next year’s event and am hoping to encourage more people from my community to start running longer distances, so that they can possibly also participate in this event and others in the Northern Cape in future’
Well-known international charity runner Gavin Sandford, who had done a ‘double back-to-back Marathon des Sables (MDS)’ and was participating with his partner Hayley, had to pull out with an ankle injury just a few kilometres into Day One. Sandford continued to travel with the race crew over the course and raved about the experience and the extraordinary beauty of the area, “This is MDS on steroids – with some LSD thrown in!”
Sandford said that Richterveld was easily as challenging as the legendary MDS, but offered more variety in terrain.
The oldest race finisher was South African Larry Claassen, who is 70 years old, did the race with his daughter, Janine Mazery, crossing the finish together in 44:04:49.
Runners were able to experience the uniqueness of the Richterveld’s biodiversity and enjoyed talks by local botanical expert Pieter van Wyk. The /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is home to over 2,700 different plant species, around 600 of them endemic to the area and found nowhere else in the world.
He explained how the species survived in the harshest conditions – In the summer temperatures in the Richtersveld reach over 50 degrees Celsius. Water is very rare and life is dependent on moisture from the early morning fog. Plants and animals have developed ingenious ways of conserving the smallest amounts of water and also protect themselves against heat, draught, sand and wind. Perhaps this is why, in spite of the extreme arid conditions, Richtersveld is the most bio diverse desert on the planet. Part of the area is a UNESCO world heritage site.