Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Fish River Canyon Ultra

Almost a year ago, to the week, I first found out about the Fish River Canyon Ultra in Namibia, presented by African Extreme Promotions. Old-time Namibian adventure racer Russell Paschke and Tinus Hansen are the organisers.

Distance & route
Although the well-known, four- to five-day Fish River Canyon hike is listed at 85km, I think that this run is around 65km, which is plenty distance on varied terrain through the canyon. The event starts with an 8km run from a viewpoint. This is on a good dirt road and it is a very gently undulating, mostly down, gradient.

The descent into the canyon is steep in places and you've got to watch your footing. This isn't the standard descent used by the hikers and as such you skip out the nasty boulders between the start of the hike and Sulphur Springs. This descent spits you out just upstream of Sulphur Springs. Looking online, the section from the bottom of the regular hiking descent to Sulphur Springs takes people on the five-day 'programme' two days to complete and it is tough. I think it was a really, really good decision by the race organisers to leave this section out. When they did the race record in 2003, they did this section and Russell said it took them just under three hours. Although the time is not too much more, the effort and fatigue level will be exponentially higher, especially for runners not at the front of the field.

The rest of the route flows down the Fish River, crossing it 20 times, to Ai-Ais.

I ran with my iGot-U tracker logging my progress from the start of the descent. I filled in the track from the start and had to add about 4km at the end when the logger battery was done (I hadn't completely recharged before leaving home). I've got 64km measured on Google Earth from the logged track plus the bits I added at the start and finish. Ah - we also took shortcuts across some of the bends, which would have reduced the distance compared to strictly following the river. The hiking trail goes cross-country too and the routes are marked.

At the hiking trail 80km mark.
Heat and water
At the time of running the river was still flowing after super rainfall during summer and into early winter. The water is good for drinking straight out of the river - no purification drops required. Delicious! And, with 20 river crossings, there is plenty of opportunity to drink from the river, so you don't need to carry a lot of water.

Heat. Yeah. Nice and hot from about 10h30 to 16h00. Real heat. Not much of a breeze down there so you feel the heat. It was light when we started at 06h00 and was dark at 18h00.

The race will probably be held in July next year so conditions will be cooler but amount of daylight will be less.

The terrain is varied throughout from an abundance of fields of rounded river stones/boulders to soft sand and firm trail. The hiking trail is not always distinct and after river crossings it usually hugs the rocky mountainside, away from the boulders. On the approach to and departure from the river at every crossing, there are boulder fields to negotiate. These are taxing on your feet and you quickly learn which boulders are more pleasant to walk on than others.

Just into the canyon; sun hadn't made it down here yet. Yes, this is a boulder field. Nice-nice. John in the very orange top; Roelf ahead.

I made all but one river crossing with dry feet, hopping from boulder to boulder.

Lovely photo, by Roelf (stitched together from three images). 'Table Mountain' in the background. Here I am with John. This is where we got our feet wet - no boulder field.
The map provided (1:50,000) with drawn trail and crossing points was spot-on. Although you don't need to use a map to navigate (just follow the river!), it's useful to check where the best crossing place is located; sometimes it could be between bends and other times it is on the bend. And, by making crossing you cut out distance around the bends. I lost time on one crossing where I ended up just downstream (following a 'trail' of sorts) and had to negotiate a boulder field upstream and then nasty rocks on the other side. A swim would have been better (deep section of river; mostly it looked fairly shallow).

The runners
A small field of only nine runners; two women, including me. Roelf was the only other South African; the rest were from Namibia. Nice to see Alpheus again. We met at the inaugural Namib Desert Challenge two years ago; it's a five-day event run in the Soussousvlei area. I do so love inaugural events because of the small field and it is novel being the first to do a course.

I ran 11h39 on the course and without too much effort would be able to take 45 mins off this time. In cooler conditions, maybe more, although I ran nice-nice even in the hottest part of the day. Race winner, Frans, with Hentie in second, were two hours (exactly, I think) ahead of me. I came 5th; first lady.

I flew SAA from Jo'burg to Windhoek on Thursday afternoon. Flight was R2400 (I got a good deal as I booked early; I believe flights are usually around R3600). I stayed at the lovely Klein Windhoek Guest House. They have a super breakfast spread, including those delicious little Portuguese custard tart things. Great way to wrap up scrambled eggs on toast. Also a bar for drinks and lunch or dinner. Nice big flat-screen telly in the room, with the many MNet and movie channels.

Friday morning we drove to the Canyon; a massive 700km trek South - it's an eight-hour drive. I was with fellow runners Clive and Hentie with Clive's son, Timmy, doing the driving (thank you Timmy!). It's a long, long drive through the towns of Mariental and Keepmanshoop to get to the Canyon. It really makes sense to split the trip into two days and to overnight in Mariental or Keetmanshoop (500km from Windhoek).

It looks to be about 420 kilometres from Upington to Fish River Canyon; I'd definitely look at this for next time around as I'm not big on long car trips. On the drive down I was eyeing the railway track that runs near the highway. Looking online I see that it runs from Windhoek to Keetmanshoop; and from Keepmanshoop it is only a 200km drive to the Canyon... I would really fancy an overnight train trip there and back - better than a drive from Upington; that would be neat.

There is a small landing strip at Ai-Ais; but this would probably have to be a charter flight

Superb! From start to finish. An absolutely brilliant location for the pre-race overnight camp on a spur overlooking the canyon. Event sponsors Windhoek were superb with a big marquee tent, lights and an endless supply of refreshments - lots of beer plus water, juice and sodas. Catering on this night was absolutely yummy; a braai with veg, baked potatoes and even a choc mousse for dessert. Tents with mattresses were provided; just got to bring your own sleeping bag. A toilet trailer (fancy chemical toilets; not the plastic box type) was parked at the camp.

Pre-race overnight camp. What an amazing spot!
Like a laager; tents ready and waiting for us. Yeah, it gets windy up here.
Delighted to be in Nam. L-shaped headstand time.
At first I thought "Vygies!" and I was right. These are part of the vygie family.

From Wiki: Mesembryanthemum crystallinum is a prostrate succulent plant that is native to Africa, Western Asia and Europe. The plant is covered with large, glistening bladder cells, reflected in its common names of Common Ice Plant, Crystalline Iceplant or Iceplant.
Post-race at Ai-Ais we stayed in the campsite where the ablutions are good and a swimming pool is nearby. Dins was a meat or chicken stew. After races I crave fresh and crunchy and I favour veg so I would love to see a salad and veg option added to the menu. Next morning was breakfast at the hotel - cereal, eggies etc.

Prize giving was at 11am on Sunday (last runner was in around 22h00; about 15h30). Super finisher's tees and trophys. We then departed for the drive back to Windhoek but other runners stuck around for lunch and an afternoon of R&R next to the pool and dins, before Monday departure. the organisers stayed on for a clean-up initiative along a section of the canyon. As you can imagine, with a large volume of hikers there's a proportional volume of litter. Must say that although I did pick up some little, I didn't see much. Russell did say that the Canyon people do clean-ups down there a few times a year.

One of about four or five groups of hikers we passed. So super to see groups of teens and, especially, girls out doing this multi-day hike.
Bragging rights
The final element that makes this race cool - aside from spectacular scenery, interesting terrain and superb organisation - are the bragging rights. It is really just a super-cool thing to be able to run a multi-day hiking trail in a day. You get 24hrs for an 'official' finish and I presume that most people will do it in 9h30 - 17h00 if they have a smooth day; obviously more difficult with boulder fields and river crossings when Mr Sun goes bye-bye.

This was my first time visiting Fish River Canyon and super to see it in the way I most enjoy - fast. Hahaha. I had an really good run and a super day out. I ran where I could and trekked the un-runable sections. Nice and steady with plenty opportunity to check out the scenery. I ran the last six kays with speed, aiming to get in before dark. Just made it.

So, yes-yes-yes, a highly recommended run. No need to be super fit but you do need to spend time on your feet in preparation for this event. Race entry fee this year was R5,000, incl. transport to and from Windhoek, hosting, meals etc. Rate is certain to be different if you arrange your own transport, say coming from Upington rather than from Windhoek; keep an eye on the event website for info on next year's event. It's a wonderfully exotic destination that is close to home.

My thanks to Tinus and Russell for inviting me to run in their inaugural Fish River Canyon Ultra; to Sally for fetching me at the airport; to Timmy for those hours of driving; to my car companions, Hentie and Clive, for your company and to Francois from Klein Windhoek Guest House for warmly accommodating me. Lovely to see such superb sponsor involvement from Windhoek (the brewery). And fellow runners - what a wonderful experience!

My track. North is on the right. If you click this image you should be able to get the bigger version.


Lobby said...

Looks stunning, well done L!

Tam said...

Wow looks amazing! :) Well done!