RW’S Tobias Mews tack­les the Richtersveld Trans­fron­tier Wil­drun


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At 5pm the sun fi­nally be­gins to mel­low in the clear South African sky above the Ai-ais Richtersveld Trans­fron­tier Park. Though the air is slowly cool­ing around us and to­day’s mid­win­ter tem­per­a­tures have been rel­a­tively be­nign com­pared with the scorch­ing 55C it can reach here in the sum­mer, I still seek out shade un­der the can­vas of the mess tent. A gen­er­a­tor gently buzzes in the back­ground and above that the air is alive with the ex­cited chat­ter of com­peti­tors re­count­ing their ad­ven­tures in the third edi­tion of the Richtersveld Trans­fron­tier Wil­drun, a 200km, five-day stage race across the world’s old­est moun­tain desert.

Hav­ing spent the fi­nal day of the race run­ning 26km across sand and rock, I’d ex­pect to feel noth­ing but ex­haus­tion, but as I sit sip­ping on a bliss­fully cold beer and watch­ing the sun set be­hind the an­cient moun­tains that char­ac­terise the Richtersveld, I feel only a deep sense of tran­quil­ity. In con­trast to the dozen or so other multi-stage races I’ve run, which var­i­ously claim to be the ‘tough­est’, ‘long­est’ or some other equally en­tic­ing su­perla­tive, the Richtersveld Trans­fron­tier Wil­drun doesn’t make any boasts. With a low-key at­mo­sphere and a field lim­ited to just 80 par­tic­i­pants, I’d de­scribe it as a bou­tique ul­tra­ma­rathon sa­fari for en­durance run­ners look­ing for an ad­ven­ture that might well change their lives: long-winded for sure, but ac­cu­rate. This race is an op­por­tu­nity to not only chal­lenge your­self phys­i­cally, but also to ex­pand your mind as you im­merse your­self in a unique nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment – an an­cient desert with a ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory dat­ing back two bil­lion years, des­ig­nated a UNESCO World Her­itage site, the only Arid Bio­di­ver­sity Hotspot on earth, and home to many species of fauna and flora you won’t find any­where else on the planet.

As the sun sinks lower and lower into the jagged hori­zon I cast my mind back to the be­gin­ning of what has been an epic ad­ven­ture.


Five days be­fore I sip my divine sun­set beer, the race be­gins at Sen­del­ings­drif Rest Camp on the banks of the Or­ange River, a day’s drive north of Cape Town, on the border of South Africa and Namibia. With no route mark­ings to fol­low for the next 44km, we’re re­ly­ing on our maps and GPS de­vices, and a few of us, in­clud­ing a world-class ad­ven­ture racer, im­me­di­ately take what seems the most di­rect route: mo­ments later we find our­selves in a lo­cal res­i­dent’s back gar­den.

A cou­ple of fences later, we’re back on track and scur­ry­ing through a maze of dry river gorges that lead us to what can only be de­scribed as a crys­tal plane, where the ground sparkles as though lit­tered with a mil­lion rose-tinted di­a­monds.

The ini­tial miles pass al­most too quickly. I fall into step with a small group, each of us ut­ter­ing gasps of won­der as we are struck again and again by the beauty of the el­e­men­tal, arid land­scape un­fold­ing around us. I find my­self try­ing to avoid step­ping on the veg­e­ta­tion, de­cid­ing that it’s hard enough to sur­vive on 68mm of rain­fall a year with­out be­ing tram­pled on by a wide-eyed trail run­ner.

My con­cern for the lo­cal flora takes a back seat to my con­cern for my own aching limbs as the dis­tance and gra­di­ent take their toll, how­ever, and it takes some­thing grit­tier than won­der­ment to get me


up the vi­ciously steep Hell’s Val­ley Pass at around the 35km mark. No mat­ter how stun­ning the land­scape, 44km is still 44km, and this par­tic­u­lar leg of the race also has 1,180m of as­cent, but as I cross the stage fin­ish line all the ac­cu­mu­lated pain melts away with two sim­ple sen­tences: ‘Lunch will be ready in 15 min­utes. Why don’t you grab a warm shower.’

One of the many beau­ties of this event is that you don’t have to worry about any­thing but your run­ning. At the end of each stage your tent is pitched and wait­ing, your kit in­side, and warm show­ers, a bar and a mess tent for com­mu­nal eat­ing are all pro­vided, too. It’s hard to con­vey how much these lux­u­ries are am­pli­fied after a day pound­ing through desert moun­tains.


‘Did you sleep well?’ my tent neigh­bour cheer­ily asks as I poke my head out of the can­vas.

I head for the break­fast tent, grab a cof­fee and watch the first run­ners set off. Start times are based on the pre­vi­ous day’s fin­ish times, with the slow­est run­ners leav­ing first and the fastest play­ing catch-up. A while later I watch David, a mem­ber of the lo­cal Nama peo­ple, set off at a blistering pace. Hav­ing ac­ci­den­tally missed a check­point yes­ter­day, which landed him an hour’s penalty, he seems de­ter­mined to make up time. I won­der how on earth he knows where he’s go­ing with nei­ther map nor GPS to guide him, but soon enough I’m fol­low­ing.

To­day’s stage is shorter – ‘only’ 33km – but we soon dis­cover it’s by no means eas­ier. It seems that the deeper you head into the Richtersveld the more beau­ti­ful it be­comes, and the less ac­com­mo­dat­ing the ter­rain un­der­foot. One mo­ment we’re on sand, the next we’re hop­ping be­tween rocks, which re­quires a deft­ness of foot that chal­lenges even the elite run­ners. The bloody knees of for­mer Marathon des Sables Cham­pion Elis­a­bet Barnes pro­vide a stark re­minder that one false step can be costly.

Later that evening, lo­cal South African Na­tional Parks (San­parks) man­ager Pi­eter van Wyk re­gales us with tales of how the lo­cal wildlife sur­vives in a desert where it rains just once a year. His pas­sion shines as bright as the stars above us, and some­how our scrapes and bruises don’t seem so bad.


Day three’s 40km stage prom­ises many re­wards – in­clud­ing the spec­tac­u­lar Tatas­berg Boul­ders – but also some se­ri­ous chal­lenges. We be­gin on tech­ni­cal trails, weav­ing in and out of a se­ries of gran­ite gul­lies be­fore reach­ing the Spring­bok Flats – a vast ex­panse of desert flanked by tow­er­ing moun­tains. For a mo­ment I think I spy other run­ners in the dis­tance, only to re­alise they’re ‘half­mens trees’ – cac­tus-like and so named be­cause of their hu­man-like shape.

The sub­se­quent flat(ish) 10km should be a chance to stretch the legs and make up time, but the sandy sur­face saps our en­ergy. There is, though, am­ple re­ward for our toil: the Tatas­berg Boul­ders are a sight to be­hold. Some of these mighty lumps of an­cient gran­ite are the size of a house; oth­ers are stacked one upon an­other as though plonked there by mis­chievous giants. We clam­ber up them, leap­ing across the gaps, mut­ter­ing prayers that we don’t slip. At the sum­mit, we’re given an un­par­al­leled view of the Richtersveld and our camp for evening, De Hoop, on the banks of the Or­ange River, where we’ll later take a dip in the re­fresh­ingly cold wa­ters, Fish Ea­gles hov­er­ing above us and lush oa­sis green­ery all around.


As dawn breaks over De Hoop Camp, ex­cite­ment is in the air. To­day the race will take us into Namibia. ‘ We had to get per­mis­sion to do this,’ race di­rec­tor Owen Mid­dle­ton tells us as we squeeze into an in­flat­able dingy. There are var­i­ous of­fi­cial border cross­ings into Namibia but this isn’t one of them, which adds an ex­tra fris­son of ex­cite­ment to our care­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion of the Or­ange River.

After dis­em­bark­ing on Namib­ian soil, we be­gin our jour­ney through Fish River Canyon, the sec­ond largest in the world after the Grand Canyon. We trace our route along old jeep tracks be­fore a climb takes us up to Ze­bra Pass, named after the moun­tain ze­bra that have some­how man­aged to adapt to this arid cli­mate and un­for­giv­ing to­pog­ra­phy.

The route is gru­elling, with sand, loose stone and rocky ter­rain un­der­foot, but the ex­pe­ri­ence is


mag­i­cal. The an­cient moun­tains ris­ing on ei­ther side bear si­lent wit­ness as we snake our way up the river canyon in the bril­liant sun­shine, while some run­ners are treated to glimpses of os­trich and ze­bra.

We ar­rive at Wilder­ness Hot Springs ex­hausted and elated in roughly equal mea­sure. As he leads us to a rather un­der­whelm­ing shal­low pud­dle, the Namib­ian Park Man­ager tells us that this area, which is nor­mally off lim­its to the pub­lic, is the orig­i­nal Ai-ais, which is Nama for ‘burn­ing wa­ter’.


The next day, we leave Wilder­ness Hot Springs with heavy hearts. Only 26km now sep­a­rate us from the end of what’s been one of the great­est ad­ven­tures of our lives. The ca­ma­raderie forged in this bru­tally, beau­ti­ful land­scape will live long in the mem­ory, as will the priv­i­lege of im­mers­ing our­selves in this unique and truly wild corner of the world.

After the majesty of the Fish River Canyon, to­day’s stage is a trail run­ner’s dream: ridge run­ning, steep climbs, tech­ni­cal de­scents and the sort of sin­gle track that would have moun­tain-bik­ers sali­vat­ing.

The fi­nal tech­ni­cal de­scent is a glo­ri­ous way to ar­rive at our fi­nal desti­na­tion, the Ai-ais Hot Springs Re­sort, a luxury nat­u­ral spa ho­tel nestling in a lush val­ley and the end of the Fish River Hik­ing Trail.

After a life-af­firm­ing gulp of lager I pause to re­flect, ob­serv­ing the grins carved into the faces of my fel­low run­ners as they em­brace, con­grat­u­late and gen­er­ally share the mo­ment. It’s dif­fi­cult to put into per­spec­tive what we’ve just ex­pe­ri­enced. We are sim­ply pass­ing through a nat­u­ral won­der that has stood here for mil­lions years. Any­one who is lucky enough to run the Richtersveld Trans­fron­tier Wil­drun will have an ex­pe­ri­ence that can­not be repli­cated any­where in the world. It’s the bench­mark by which all my races will now be com­pared. It’s been a rare and won­der­ful chance to run wild.

The vast, arid wilder­ness of the Spring­bok Flats and ( be­low) this is a race that re­quires climb­ing skills as well as run­ning abil­ity.

Top to bot­tom: pre­par­ing to cross the Or­ange River; moun­tain ze­bra; on the fi­nal de­scent; at the end of the race, the joy is clear.

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