Bucket List: South Africa’s Richtersveld Wildrun

Roughly 60 runners started the Richtersveld Wildrun on June 4 in South Africa, including Colorado's Wendy Drake (black tights and hat at left). Next year's race will be held June 2-5. Photo: Kelvin Trautman/Nikon/Lexar

Finding life in the desert at South Africa’s Richtersveld Wildrun.

Love adventure? How does this sound? Run 150K+ over four days in “a desolate and forbidding landscape, seemingly devoid of life.” That’s what was some of the first information I learned about the Richtersveld Wildrun, a new four-day 150K wilderness stage run through South Africa’s amazing Richtersveld National Park. I discovered in the spring that the inaugural race was to be held June 4-7 and it seemed like a spectacular adventure.

I was intrigued, but back-to-back weekend long runs was the closest I’d come to this kind of distance. Even so, running in unique places over challenging terrain is my passion. I took a week to complete my research and committed. A month later, I packed a bag with my hydration pack, clothes, race nutrition, first aid kit, electronics and sleeping bag. At the last minute, I noticed a sentimental rubber duck on my bathtub. I didn’t know why then, but for the first time since I bought her, I picked her up and carefully placed her in my carry-on, cushioned by my favorite pullover.

Race directors Owen and Tamaryn Middleton had arranged to share Richtersveld National Park in four 36-38K/day stages with 60 fellow adventure lovers from around the world. This inaugural loop through Northern Cape province of South Africa would not only be unmarked, we’d traverse rugged, wild and uniquely stunning landscapes. After an hour crash course from my partner, Jorge, familiarizing myself with GPS principles, I realized basic navigation was easy. The rest was a rewarding challenge.

PHOTOS: 2014 Richtersveld Wildrun

Most South Africans will drive 12-18 hours to arrive in Sendelingsdrif. A Boulder, Colo., gal? Three days in four planes followed by an overnight in Cape Town to eat and sleep. My journey to Sendelingsdrif ended with the shortest 12-hour drive I’ve ever experienced. The hours disappeared with Roland Vorwerk from Boundless South Africa and new friends who were as into adventuring as I was. When we weren’t talking, we were speechless while taking in the landscapes along South Africa’s western coast. We stopped to dip our toes in the Atlantic Ocean at Port Nolloth and I indulged the waves with my daydreams. Before long I wandered into George Moyses’ museum of diamond diving, a gem dedicated to his experiences of diving and life. He didn’t say much only that some people wait all their lives to do what they love. He decided to do it now, so he writes and creates videos about his experiences.

We continued up the coast and knew we were getting close when the road transitioned from pavement to dirt. Separated from Namibia by the Orange River, the Richtersveld Park lodge was our starting point on June 4. We checked in and received bib numbers and maps. Each of us was assigned a Wildrunner race bag into which everything we needed for four days was required to fit. I removed from my race bag a few warm layers and other items I didn’t expect to need.

Even though I’d read temperatures reached up to 127F/53C in the Richtersveld, the forecast predicted lower than normal temperatures and according to Wikipedia, “Rain is a rare event.” I looked forward to seeing this park “regarded as the only Arid Biodiversity Hotspot on Earth, with an astonishing variety of plant, bird and animal life (much of which is endemic).”

How did it all survive in such a harsh place? I’d soon find out.

Our days “began” at 6:30 p.m. with a briefing of announcements and a Google flyover of the route. Owen’s scouting tips were invaluable and included bonus route deviations on Day 2 and Day 3. Each evening included something special to bring us together. The Kuboes Cultural Group performed a Nama Stap dance on the first evening. Mid-dance, everyone tapped feet and, perhaps like me, resisted the urge to jump up and try to follow. The Stap is danced at any celebration, but in particular when a beau is trying to woo a girl from her chaperones.

Instead, the Richtersveld wooed me. En route to my tent that first night, I stopped, flipped off my headlamp and gazed. A gazillion stars reminded me of late summer nights in my Ohio hometown in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. I remembered lifting my chin the same way as I was doing in Richtersveld. My nightdreams hadn’t changed in 40 years. Anything was possible.

Richtersveld’s courtship continued. Wildrun had created the space that emerges from an uncomplicated routine. Sleep outside, despite the unidentified snorer nearby. Wake early in sleeping bag, tempted out by bacon and coffee. Dress in tent–quickly. Unzip the tent, get packed and ready to go. Finally, at 8 a.m. all 60 of us were ready to run on Day 1. Like everyone else, I waited to start my watch and GPS on Owen’s countdown: “3…2….1…Go!” Into the desert we ran.

The first day’s pace was fresh-legs fast. Elites like Bernard, Matt, Katya and Tracy disappeared ahead by the first mile. I’d have the pleasure of meeting them later in camp; Bernard and I had talked in the bus all the way to Sendlingsdrif.

Groups of a few to a dozen began to form in the middle and back. The first runner I acquainted with was John Brimble, a 49-year-old accomplished runner and mountaineer from Cape Town. He would nickname me “America,” and together, we took our time finding the way through a gray and dusty topography with soft, crunchy rocks under our weight. As soon as we got comfortable, the terrain changed.

For me the fascinating footing varied as much as the “if you don’t like it, wait a few hours” Colorado weather. We ran across top-crusted sand, along barren land lacking even a hint of animal prints, onto hard-packed dirt and eventually rough, rocky, then boulderyroads maybe a 4×4 could pass. Before long, we were scrambling up 200-foot bumps of rotten rock, down quartz fields, through 18-inch trenches foreshadowing the slot canyons of the next few centuries and around contours opening up to expansive views tempting tomorrow’s adventure.

Nothing except the aid stations compared to anything I’d ever run. Halfway through each run, I’d take as few minutes as possible for intermission from my peaceful dream into which I’d return after replenishing my water.

I wanted to stop in every moment and record these memories. Fortunately, professional photographers Kelvin Trautman and Dylan Haskin as well as Big Shot Media captured the landscapes, plants and animals, and all the human guests of the Richtersveld and showed us the images every evening. (Watch videos from Day 1Day 2Day 3, and Day 4.)

Each day offered the unexpected including hours long deluges that appeared the second night in the park. My rubber duck made a guest appearance at the party, thanks to camp mom extraordinaire, Marion Siebrits, when we began a precautionary evacuation at 3 a.m. that turned out to be quite necessary. Even the freak flash flood through our camp at 4:30 a.m. couldn’t dissuade us from continuing through this wild terrain.

On Day 3, chilled and wet, we departed, climbing then descending the Tatasberg. This mountain seems to be made of thousands of two- to three-story high boulders stacked in the middle of a sand pile 10 miles in diameter. I’ve never had so much fun boulder-hopping down a mountain, helping others, being helped too.

On the fourth evening my love for the Richtersveld hit its tipping point when 25-year-old botanist, Pieter Van Wyk gave a talk about how plants adapt and survive in the park. He captivated us all. Never in your life will you be so excited by a botanist as when listening to Pieter. I considered dropping everything to stay and learn how so many species not only lived, but also thrived there. Never mind that my botanic background consists of seventh-grade science, looking at interesting flowers and noticing them. Had I inadvertently ingested some medicinal plant? I didn’t care and danced with the moments taking copious notes.

Van Wyk described plants that had adapted to live mostly underground, those that extrude their cells to optimize access to sunlight and water and those that “hide” in the shade of larger plants to survive. Psammophorous plants transformed themselves to excrete sticky residue to attract sand, a defense mechanism to protect their existence from sandblasting sandstorms. Some, like the self-taught Halfmens trees developed waxy trunks to reflect the sunlight, others migrated to the reflective quartz “golf” fields through which we ran; both achieve cooler temperatures. The humans that ran through the quartz on the other hand took on the heat for these creative little guys. By the end of his talk I not only believed there was life in the desert, but I also almost believed they were as sentient as you and I.

RELATED: Bucket List—Iceland’s Laugavegur Ultra Marathon

My bucket list is a concept rather than a specific list of places. I love to explore beautiful landscapes with small groups of like-minded humans…usually because it seems hard or maybe even impossible, but also because it’s quiet. I relish the hours of being alone and having the space and calmness to think. I asked one of the racers at our last dinner together what she thought about while she was running. “Nothing really, but I know I process a lot and think,” she said. “Often after a run, I hear myself saying ‘I’ve been thinking about this or that and here’s how we can solve this problem together’ and I don’t recall that thought process. But I know it happened when I was running.”

I understood what she meant. It wasn’t until a few weeks after running another desert stage race then returning to Boulder that I realized I knew the solution to a problem I’d been working on for four months.

Wildrunner along with its operations team, sponsors and partnership with SANParks and Richtersveld Tours, masterfully hosted a bucket-list worthy destination race. Zimbabwe’s Bernard Rukadza was crowned the winner with a cumulative running time of 13 hours, 20 minutes and 46 seconds, finishing almost an hour over runner-up Matt Hart from the U.S. South African Katya Soggot was the women’s champion (and the fifth-place overall finisher) in 18:05:56. I was proud to finished 12th among the 22 women in the race in 26:50:04, but for me—and most runners in the event—it was the experiences during the race I’ll cherish much more than the race itself.

RESULTS: 2014 Richtersveld Wildrun

Registration for the 2015 Richtersveld Wildrun (June 2-5, 2015) opened on July 3. For more information, visit the Richtersveld Wildrun website.

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About The Author

Wendy Drake is a mountain ultrarunner based in Boulder, Colo. She is the author of Running to Thousand Letters and a co-founder of the Boulder Banditos running club.

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