by Grobler Basson
Monday 6:27am: A look of confusion and shock was clear on Dirk’s face as he looked back towards me while hugging the up-side down kayak with his left hand and the paddle with his right, half way through the first rapid of the day. I suspect the confusion part is due to the fact that I told Dirk I have been down this stretch of river (with the same kayak) many times before and that I never had to take a swim. The shock part could be attributed to the cold dark muddy water as the sun has not yet reached into the canyon at that hour. We were about 4km into a 60km paddle, this was day three of the Led Lenser Wartrail Challenge.
My race partner (Dirk Immelmann) a formidable trail runner and a ‘no-fuss’ ‘hard-as-nails’ type of guy agreed a few months earlier to do the Wartrail Challenge with me in a team of two, since I am a firm believer that life is better in a team. This meant we had to finish each leg together.
For those of you who are familiar with the Witteberg Mountain range, Lady Grey or have done any of the ‘Pure Adventures’ events in this area will agree that the weather is always extreme come race day. I have ran in snow (in summer), in hail the size of golf balls, I’ve experienced sleet in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon and the 2018 edition of the K-way Skyrun was marked by extreme drought and heat.
Saturday: Toeing the famous 4am start in front of the Mountain View Country Inn, Dirk and I were ready for the day! A couple of days with good rain has cleared and we could see a starlit sky above. Knowing that we would only be running in the dark for around 2 hours I opted for my lightest headlight with some serious punch – the LED LENSER SE07R. Dirk, used his all-round favourite – the NEO10R.
After reaching CP I (Tower) Dirk and I were just about leading the race, purely as a result of some navigation errors by other participants (you know who you are). Surely the best part of leading a race in these mountains is surprising unsuspecting mountain Reebuck (red and grey) on the high slopes as they awake from a cold night trying to get the first rays of crimson light on their bodies. Over the 57km course I counted around 35 Reebuck. A conservative approach saw us taking it easy the first half of the race “we will get some rhythm from Avoca” (the highest point at 2760m at approximately 40km) Dirk kept saying. I admit this made me a little nervous, Dirk’s strong suit is downhills and he only knows one speed and that is maxed-out. After reaching CP II (Olympus) we took some experimental lines that we contemplated before the race and managed to save some distance and more importantly elevation. We reached CP III (Snowden) to see the old dilapidated kraal empty. I suspect all the rain and mud made a brutal hike up even more treacherous for the marshals to reach it in time. This leg is known for an initial ‘fast’ (nothing is fast on this route) stretch and then the infamous climb to Avoca (aka. outer space according to a 2018 Skyrun race report). Like clockwork, I usually get a headache while approaching Avoca but this normally serves as motivation to decent as quickly as possible. We took a great line leading up to the peak and turned the corner to see the LED LENSER banner. I quirkily asked the marshals if we could help them set-up as they clearly did not expect any athletes at that time and I was feeling the best I have ever felt at that stage of the race. I took on some nutrition and said to myself ‘just stick’. I can’t really recall how we got to Balloch or Skidaw (CP IV) for that matter. All I know is we managed to do it in a time of 2h and 6min. I do however remember taking a hard tumble just before the Dragon’s Back. Picking myself up I saw Dirk descending even faster, oblivious to my fall. No time to feel sorry for myself, stick or get dropped. Descending into the picturesque Balloch valley is always special, this time was the most beautiful I have ever seen the valley. At 12:07 we were home, the running leg in the bag with a time of 08:07min.
Sunday 06:30am. I need to stretch the following, I’ve mentioned before that Dirk is a formidable trail runner (read, not a cyclist) I also mentioned he is tough as nails and this day proved me right in the last regard. Dirk brought along an old 26er Scott duel suspension MTB that he bought for the same price as a pair of trail running shoes. No really, I think the guy asked R3 500 and he ended up paying R2 750. To make things more interesting Dirk doesn’t believe in cleats – so he attempted a 120km self-navigation stage with 2 553m of elevation gain without cleats in his rather bulky road tekkies (which puzzled most of the runners the previous day) and broad pedals similar to those on your first bike. I wasn’t concerned, firstly because Dirk looks like he was chiselled out of Rhodesian Teak, secondly because I’ve come to know that when his personality fades due to fatigue his character takes over and thirdly because I myself have only spent a hand-full of times on a bike in the last 4 months.
We had a lead of around 1h30m heading into the cycle stage. We started out of a cool misty Ballcoh valley straight onto our first climb. I quickly realised on the down hills why the mountain biking community has done away with 26ers. This did not dampen Dirk’s resolve. On the up-hills he and his road tekkies put in the hard work and managed to stick. However, we were dropped by the lead group before CP 1. I told Dirk let’s just stick to our race, we will make-up some time when the going gets tough. This is exactly what happened as soon as we started with the dreaded (obviously not by us) 4km hike-a-bike section. Dirk with his 26er on his back literally starting running downhill past many of the other participants. Once again I found myself with one goal in mind, ‘just stick’ this time however with a bike on my back – through rivers and up mountains. Half way up the mountain, with sweat pouring from our faces, Dirk made a strange laughing sound and he said, “now THIS is adventure”.
Ironically, at the next CP we lost some time when my one cleats got stuck to my pedal and we had to fix it before we set off for the next stage. Dirk and I soldiered-on as we slowly creeped up the rankings and started reeling in some participants. It was only on the last climb (Jouberts Pass at 2240m) when Dirk said ‘Joh, hierdie fietsry ding is anders’ that I knew Dirk’s is now getting tired. By this time, only his front brake was working – no problem we only had a steep 10km decent into Lady Grey to the finish. We came in at 08h07m, 50min behind the bike winner. Grateful that we would not be using our legs for the final stage we had an amazing supper, a couple of beers and a bottle of 2007 Shiraz before retiring to bed.
My advice for Dirk on rapid number two was pretty much “lean a bit forward and paddle hard”! This seemed to help a bit until it did not – as an oversized boilly at the tail-end of the rapid caught us both off-guard and for the second time in as many rapids as we did the ‘dismount’ and ‘mount’ thing! I could see Dirk was now more confused, I suspect he questioned my paddle ability as I told him we will be fine after swim number one. Honestly, I questioned it myself at that stage even though the Orange River was flowing at 260 cubic’s per second. I Knew our boat was slower than a K1 and K2, however I told Dirk if we kept at it hard and kept the momentum up we might not lose too much time on the faster boats. Our recent swims were not helping our cause as our overall 47min lead heading into day three was starting to dwindle.
We somehow found our rhythm just about the time the canyon opened up. Game plan was to sus-out the best lines and keep our heads down and focus on solid form. Dirk might not be an expert paddler (yet) however for the next 30km’s Dirk’s knowledge of water flow was inspiring, as he kept guiding my steering towards the best flow-lines and we somehow managed to just about stick with the K1’ and K’2 leading the race. The thing is, Dirk, if he is not running his friends stupid in the mountains, he spends his time as one of South Arica’s foremost fly fishers. In order to present the perfect dry fly to entice a trout – he understands water flow and rivers probably better than most paddlers. 4 Hours and 2 minutes after we set-off we arrived in Aliwal North. Our reception, a small party of likeminded people on the banks of the Orange River, congratulations all around, this is how I like to spend my Mondays, I remember telling myself as we climbed out of the dark muddy water! Full heart, tried bodies and absolutely content. 20 Hours 29 minutes total racing time, the fastest overall time for the 2019 event, with the river flow assisting considerably, I suspect this might be the FKT on the course?
Dream givers: To Led Lenser, my sponsor and also the title sponsor of this spectacular event. I can’t imagine doing an event like this without the amazing Led Lenser products. From lightweight robust lights for running, cycling and an amazing LED lantern (ML6) that doubles-up as a charging device for my navigation systems and phone. It is such an absolute privilege to be associated with this brand. Thank you and what a perfect fit for this event. Products used:
To Adrian and Mike and the entire Pure Adventures team. You guys are the real dreamers arousing a sense ofadventure into all of us by providing the opportunity to express ourselves andexperience this epic event.
To Dirk, such an inspiration to spend 20+hours of racing with you. For sharing some cement-tea with me on acouple of occasions. They say, if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together, going fast together is also possible it seems. Perhaps some cleats next time Dirk…?
And then, to my dearest Erika, my wife and hero, for the best seconding support I can ask for, for stuffing food in my month while attending to bike mechanics, to punching holes with a (rather big) needle into toenails and everything in between.
Until 2020! #Ledbylight