The promise was clear; 3 days, 3 African countries, 92km of trail running. 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. The ultimate safari-on-the-run experience in one of Africa’s most sought-after big-game areas.
It was all that, and so very much more.
My journey 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 called out 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.
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, and resulted in 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 Nightfighter… Then made my way down for dinner and a solid 8 hour sleep.
Day 2 – 34km
The same wonderfully simple routine as the morning before; headlamp, running kit, sunscreen and chafe cream then toilets and off to coffee and breakfast. The atmosphere was light, full of laughter and relaxed, friendly banter. Without the distraction of social media and phone connectivity, conversation became blissfully present and focused on the people in our company. Our group grew, with Henko and Carl, as well as the honeymooners, Joe and Caroline, joining us. Still a small and manageable group, still consistent banter and laughter.
From base camp we followed the Limpopo River west a short way before taking the line of least resistance up a ravine between two basalt ridges. James pointed out leopard tracks first, educating us on the difference between male and female tracks and showing us that the leopard had been dragging prey along. Then hyena tracks, about a day old. From there we found our way over to the top end of the ‘hyena maze’. Negotiating the maze we arrived at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. We crossed over to Botswana’s ‘Shalimpo’ island and the infamous Tuli Game Reserve. Here we were told was high chance of a Pels Fishing Owl spotting. To be honest, and to my avid bird watching mother’s dismay, I had never heard of one. But others in our group had, and were determined to catch a glimpse of this famously reclusive bird. The second largest owl in Africa, it feeds almost exclusively on fish and prefers dense forests near rivers. We were in Pels heaven, but even after backtracking 2km because one of the groups behind us thought they might have seen one, we came away with that box still to be ticked.
After traversing Shalimpo Island we accessed the eastern edge of a series of basalt ridges. And finally, word of elephant ahead. We spotted them from afar, only a km from our tea stop. “Would you like to get closer?” asked James. A unanimous yes from the group. He and Lovemore guided us within about 100m from a breeding herd. They pointed out the calm demeanor of the elephants, indicating that they were aware of us, but unthreatened. We stayed put for a while, using binoculars to see the tiny baby suckling from her mother. An unbelievably special bush experience. After a snack at the aid station we headed north to the big baobab trees. The heat was rising fast. From there, northeast through the plains of sesame trees and the edge of the riparian forest that lines the western shores of the Shashe River. We cross the Shashe River back into Zimbabwe, and made our way back to base camp through the Maramani Community land. A fast, flat final 3km gave us an opportunity to up the pace a little, and stretch the legs.
Zambezi lager, shower, two helpings of a delicious lunch, then nap time under the trees. Four fat crocodiles sunned themselves on the opposite side of the river bank. A Fish Eagle devoured a large fish a few metres from them. I wished I could show my children all I was seeing. I wished I could bottle that calm, uncomplicated feeling.
A yoga class, led by Fran, took place each afternoon at 4pm. Yoga with the Limpopo River as a back drop. Yoga with the local cows wandering past. Gin at 5, sunset at 6pm.
That evening we watched a historical documentary on the Kingdom of Mapungubwe. We would be visiting the famous Mapungubwe Hill the next day.
The Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a pre-colonial state in Southern Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, south of Great Zimbabwe. The name is derived from either Venda or Shona and may mean “Hill of Jackals”. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe existed for about 80 years, and its population was around 5 000 people at most. The residents of Mapungubwe were the ancestors of the Shona people of Southern Africa. The first people in Mapungubwe were early Iron Age settlers.
The king and an estimated 50 of his family and / or servants lived at the top of Mapungubwe Hill and their followers stayed in the surrounding area. There is only one safe way to the top of the hill, and guards stood by with a pile of rocks to protect the king from anyone who might have tried to climb up there illegally. There is no specific explanation for the desertion of Mapungubwe. Some archaeologists think the kingdom began to decline in the 1100’s because the climate changed. The weather became colder and drier, reducing the grazing land and making cattle farming difficult. Others think there was a change in trade routes. Mapungubwe relied on trade and any shift in this activity would have forced people to move away. From about 1220 to 1300 Mapungubwe was an advanced trading centre, its inhabitants trading with Arabia, China and India through the East African harbours.
Mapungubwe was ‘discovered’ on 31 December 1932, when a local informant, Mowena, led E.S.J. van Graan (farmer and prospector), his son and three others, to Greefswald farm on Mapungubwe Hill. It is said that he did so reluctantly, after years of pressure. The van Graan family caught wind of the potential archaeological site after being served water in an interesting clay pot. On the hill they noticed stone walls and on closer inspection, they recovered gold and iron artefacts, pottery and glass beads. Van Graan’s son contacted the head of History Department at the University of Pretoria, Professor Leo Fouché. As a result of his intervention Greefswald was bought by the Government and excavation rights were granted to the University of Pretoria. The University established an Archaeological Committee, which from 1933 to 1947 oversaw research and excavations.
I fell asleep within minutes of climbing in to my sleeping bag. Hippo song was our lullaby.
Day 3 – 28km
The final day of a multi-day event is always bitter sweet. Generally, the body is weary and home beckons. But it means the end of a grand adventure, and the imminent return to reality. I’d missed my youngest daughter’s first stint as hockey captain, one of my son’s important early season rugby matches and my eldest would be turning 21 two days after my return. My husband was juggling a lot, and I couldn’t wait to share all the stories with them. But, dressed in the last of my clean running kit as I sipped hot Rooibos tea and looked at another dramatic sunrise over the river, I didn’t want to leave.
We started the day’s route in one large group, slow jogging, walking and stopping from time to time to keep the crew together. Owen had something up his sleeve and our weary bodies did not object to the reduced pace.
We hadn’t got far before our first “wet” river crossing was upon us. We had crossed many bone-dry rivers prior, imagining their full-flow beauty during the floods as we crunched the sandy beds full of animal tracks. Of course this is crocodile country; the flat dogs of Africa. But the crossing was at a point where we were all about knee deep at most. Some removed their shoes, some chose not to. We tidied up on the far bank, then headed towards what is known as Poachers’ Corner in the Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa. Our passports had been stamped in camp. From here we ran west through the riparian forest along the banks of the Limpopo River to the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. We headed back east to join the confluence viewpoint track and proceeded up to the first of the confluence viewpoints; a large wooden platform with views that spread out for kilometers below. Owen’s sneaky surprise was a table of ice cold bubbly, egg wraps, tea and coffee. The first of two aid stations for the day, and by far the most social. We had a big team photograph on the platform, and left in our previous group order, with James taking the lead for us. The heat came up quickly, and I started a little internal battle to remain chipper. I didn’t want this incredible experience to end on a low note.
From there we ran down to the base of Leokwe Valley before following elephant trails up into the valley and turning east, down into the Mapungubwe Valley. James pointed out young male lion tracks criss-crossing the sandy trails around us. I looked at the rocky cliffs spread out on either side of us and wondered if we were being watched by Africa’s King.
At the bottom of this valley we turned north to make our way to Mapungubwe Hill where a guide named Cedric was waiting to take us on a guided tour of this incredible piece of history. He showed us the original grave of two kings and a queen, discovered buried in seated positions facing East, one with the famous golden rhino buried at his feet. The site of an ancient, sophisticated civilization.
It was soon after the visit to Mapungubwe Hill that I started feeling awful. Soft sand, temperatures of well over 30 degrees and absolutely no shade. My amazing team made helpful suggestions around drinking more water, taking in a Gel etc. Thankfully the next tea stop wasn’t too far away, but by the time we arrived I was ready to lie down in the shade of the support vehicle and have a nap. James was right, I needed to drink. I’d not managed my fluid intake and the sun was beating down on us. I smashed two cups of delicious local orange squash (do NOT tell my children that I drank something like Oros!) and refilled my hydration bladder with cold water. I ate some banana bread, half a potato and a date. Home stretch ahead.
We turned east before making the final turn north over the ridge and crossed the river back into Zimbabwe and our campsite at Maramani. We stopped for a shallow swim in what James had promised us was a croc-free stretch of water. I regained my sense of humour sufficiently to laugh uproariously once again as Joe went hip deep in a sink hole during our river crossing. The drums and ululation of the camp crew welcomed us home one last time. We raised the first of many Zambezi lagers for the afternoon, and took our final bush showers before slipping in to a melancholy kind of celebration, resisting the inevitable return to laptops, deadlines and To Do Lists.
Later that evening, with about 20 of us seated around an enormous fire and James singing as he played familiar tunes on his guitar, I became aware of a lightness within. Something entirely opposite to that gnawing feeling of being pulled between the pressing responsibilities of a career and city dwelling. I had found a reset button out there somewhere between a rocky ridge and an owl-less tree.
Oh, and there really is an insect called a Banana Nightfighter.