In January 2014 a friend of mine, Sue Carter-Brown asked if I wanted to join her and a few mates on a hike up the Drakensberg. The plan was to climb Giants Castle which I thought this was a fantastic idea as I had never been to the top of Giants. Giants is one of the Drakensberg’s iconic peaks at an altitude of about 3300. It is the most easterly part of the Drakensberg Escarpment and can be seen prominently from a large area of KZN. I wore what I would normally wear on a hike anywhere, crocs, shorts, t-shirt, and a little day pack with some biltong, a camera and some warm and wet weather gear. Sue is a serious fitness fanatic and represented South Africa in adventure racing in 2013. Adventure racing is where your team navigates a ridiculous mileage of close to 1000km. This takes about 8 or 9 days and you only sleep a few hours each day. You cycle, run, hike and canoe. It takes a special kind of person to to enjoy that kind of pain!
Sue looked suspiciously dressed for something like an adventure race, rather than a stroll up Giants Castle. I thought nothing of it until I met her two friends and I became a little more suspicious. They were wearing tights from head to toe, something that looked more like an arctic swim suit rather than hiking attire. They had tiny little day pack thingies that lay flat against their bodies to prevent wind resistance. They wore hectic looking GPS watches that looked like something used to record time, distance and speed. All things that fitness fanatics seemed to wear. These guys looked on another level! What the hell was I doing here? I have always had a good natural level of fitness, but I last ran more than a few kms back at university. I didn’t think too much more of their dress code as we got into debating nutrition and diets on the road. I had recently taken up the “Tim Noaks” or Banting diet. I had lost quite a lot of weight and was feeling really good. I had spent the last 6 months or so reading as much as I could on the subject, and It’s a natural thing for me to express an opinion if I have one. What’s the point of having an opinion an not sharing it. When you are debating the benifits of eating lots of saturated fat with someone who is on statins for dangerously high cholesterol levels then the debate can become quite interesting and distract you from the tough day that lies ahead.
Sue and her mates were mildly amused at me hiking in crocs and socks. I have not worn a hiking boot in about 10 years, and that’s no joke. Crocs are what my feet love best, whether I’m fishing, hiking or farming. You can imagine the strange looks I got from other hikers when I spent a week hiking in the German Alps in 2013. You would get a polite greeting and then they would glance down and as they walked past you would hear a mumbling of something in German ………..crocs….. ! Probably along the lines of “WTF is he doing wearing crocs on the top of Zugspitse” (the highest peak in Germany).
Enough about my strange dress code and back to my story. We arrived at the Parksboard offices and paid for our day tickets. It was a cloudy windless day with a low lying valley mist which I suspected we would walk through on our way up. Sue and her mates set off up the path that led out of camp ahead of me at a run. This was NOT what I signed up for. I couldn’t run 5km let alone 30km to the top of Giants and back! They laughed at me and carried on at a trot and disappeared around the next corner with Sue shouting over her shoulder that they would wait for me ahead. I couldn’t give up that easily so I took off after them down this rocky and slippery path into the valley below. It’s not often that you celebrate arriving at the bottom of a steep hill, but that became the order of the day. My running friends would cruise on ahead of me and I would run/walk until I caught up to them. They would be either waiting catching their breath having a drink or walking on ahead of me. After a while I slowly got into a little bit of a rythm. I liked to keep plodding on whereas Sue and her mates would charge off ahead when the going got easy, but they took it slow up the hills. I was trotting if there ever was a downhill or a flat section, but mainly I was walking and enjoying the view. I took some gorgeous pictures on the way up. It was perfect weather for hiking, cool with a high cloud cover. It had recently rained and the streams were flowing strongly. Every direction you looked you could see water cascading down the mountain side. The wild flowers were also at their peak. It was just too beautiful to do justice to it with words and photos.
I may not have been running fit, but I’ve always been walking fit and known how quickest to get to the top of a mountain. By the time we got to the bottom of the pass, which is a grueling 1000 m ascent over a distance of 2km I had caught up to the others where they were chilling on a big rock having a snack. I waved to them as I plodded on past. I suddenly got this little competitive urge to get to the top first. For those who know me, competitive is not a word associated with Rex Fey, but here I was determined to at least keep up with them up the pass. My motto when climbing a mountain is “Pole Pole” which in Swahili means “slowly slowly”. Pronounced a bit like the victory chant “ole ole” that SA rugby fans sing at a stadium when they are winning, but obviously with a “p” in front. The moral of the story is if you feel tired then slow down rather than rest.
I got a head start of a hundred meters or so and I wasn’t 5 minutes before they roared past me! Then they stopped for a rest and I plodded on past them as they regained their breath. A few minutes later they past me again but not too far ahead I caught up to them again. I plodded past them once again and that was the last I saw of them until the top. It definitely wasn’t a competition for the others but for me it was a matter of pride, and I saw Sue trying to catch up to me while I looked over my shoulder. In the end I got to the top a good 20mins ahead of the others, mainly because of my climbing method rather than fitness. I was quite proud of myself after that. I had definitely never climbed to the top of the berg so quickly. I think it took us 4 hours to do the 15km to the top of the pass. Unfortunately the mist was swirling round the Giant and so we gave the last part of the hike a skip. We spent an hour or so resting on top and taking some photos of the gorgeous flowers before heading down.
Going down now was the fun part. We ran and skipped down the pass. I was by far the fastest at this, but I kept loosing my one croc which didn’t have a strap, and I would have to stop climb back up and fetch it. I have always prided myself in being very sure-footed and being able to run down mountains and rock hop along rivers. I grew up rock hopping rivers, and it’s still something I love doing today. I think all us fishermen know that feeling of looking down into a gorge at a beautiful river below. It’s an exciting view, and it one of the things I still love to do today is to run at full sprint down into the gorge. You sort of loose control and instinct takes over. If you have done it often enough like me, then your feet just seem to know where to land. So far I have never had a bad fall, or twisted an ankle. Maybe walking barefoot and in crocs has strengthened the muscles involved.
By the time we got down onto the flatter areas my legs were stuffed! They were like jelly and shaking. Sue and her mates ran on ahead and I ran where I could and walked where I had to. I remember seeing some German tourists ahead of me walking up the path. As I came ran closer I greeted them and they asked me what type of sport this was? “F#$%@ng Madness” I shouted as I ran past grimacing with each step.
I won’t bore you with describing how stiff I was the next day, other than to say I could hardly walk! Climbing the Berg, and running most of the way, when you haven’t run for years IS F#^#£÷* Madness! This crazy day was the start if my love of trail running. Once I could walk again I started to do the odd slow jog in the evenings. As I got fitter I started to really enjoy the running. Its a funny thing that I had never enjoyed it before, but I was now really getting into it. I was loving heading off into the hills with a head torch and only returning long after dark. I am convinced that part of me enjoying my running was that I was eating a diet more suited to my body. Even before I started running I had a huge increase in energy levels. I felt like a kid again, where you bounce around the farm all day. Trotting from the dairy to the house had become my norm since loosing weight.
Trail running and getting really fit had the potential to open a whole lot of doors to explore more rivers in a shorter period of time, especially those rivers over the top of the Drakensberg in Lesotho. Unfortunately I hurt my foot in a silly drinking injury that has put my running on hold but thankfully not my hiking and fishing. Hopefully I will be back running again soon. It’s something something only runners will understand, but I really miss the running.
I have a goal for this next year and that is to do the Mnweni Marathon. I don’t just want to complete the marathon, I also want to catch a trout at the top in Lesotho. It’s only about a 6 or 7 km detour to the waterfall at the source of the Senqu (Orange) River and I have fished that section of river several times and there are usually lits of trout in that section. The rout of the race up the Mnweni Pass and then along the top of the Drakensberg for a few kms before running down the Rockeries Pass. The route actually crosses the source of the Senqu River. Now that would be an epic this thing to do, run a marathon and catch a trout while you at it. I’m sure that would be a first. I have already completed my own private “Trout Marathon”, but that’s a story for another day.
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