Friday, 20 March 2009

Finding heaven in Hell

Michelle, Tracey and Lisa - girls on the roadHell Run last Saturday night was fabulous. The quiet and isolation of the Gamkaskloof, full moon up early and the sound of feet on dirt...

Michelle kindly fetched me and Tracey from the airport; and so began our drive through to Prince Albert. I haven't been into the Karoo for years so it was quite amazing to be a passenger watching the changes in vegetation and distribution of rocks. By the time we took the turning to Prince Albert, off the N1, the vegetation was sparse and the rocks abundant.

The town is quaint - my first time there. Brookielace trim on the buildings, many tidy restaurants, cafe's and B&B's lining the main road and a big ol' church in the middle. We registered at the school hostel and headed off for lunch at one of the tidy restaurants, lapping up the beautiful weather. (History of Prince Albert)

I managed to sneak in about an hour's nap before race briefing. We then clambered into car and set off Die Hel. The road leading into the Gamkaskloof comes off the Swartberg Pass, about 2km from Ou Tol (and 15km from Prince Albert). I was glad to be sitting in the front of the car, especially going around the bends...

And then we turned off, starting down into Die Hel, on the same road we would be on until well after midnight. Again I was relieved to be sitting in front... I do get awfully queasy on mountain passes. I arrived at the bottom of the kloof with a cracking headache, which Panado dulled by the time we started at 21h00. It took us around 90 minutes to cover the 36km into the kloof. And then we drove a further 12km into the valley (40-minute drive) to the starting line.

The first 12km are easy going with very slight rolling ups and downs and the full moon was already up within 30 minutes of starting.

The real challenge starts when you start to climb out of the valley. Steep swithbacks climbing up and up and up. A couple of false summits too; and then a lovely long down at a good gradient; and then up,up, up again; and then down again and then a more consistent climb again, leveling off for the last 10km. I ran/walked this section with my friend Tracey; and by the time we'd covered 40km we were very much looking forward to be done with the dirt road. Nonetheless, the terrain was of a good quality, the full moon made headlamps unnecessary and we were making steady progress.

At Ou Tol, with 50km completed, we were welcomed by the aroma of pancakes. There was quite a queue of 50k finishers, so I skipped on the pancake and headed out to start the final 30km sections within 10 minutes of arriving. Tracey was doing the 50km and reported back that the pancakes were delicious.
On the rugged jeep track and running alone I was in my element. I caught up to the two guys ahead of me and just before we started climbing, climbing, climbing. A big haul upwards. We met up again just before we reached the trail turn-off; my tummy wasn't in a good place and I can only presume that lunch didn't agree with me. It took us just under 2 hours to reach the hiking trail turn-off, 11km of so from Ou Tol!

The nice part of the hiking trail, just after turning off the jeep track. It got nasty on the descent.

Most of the next 9km were my worst of the whole race. After a lovely kilometre or two, we started descending - steeply. Very, very rocky trail with unstable footing and sharp downward gradient. My least favourite thing. I took it a bit slower than the guys, feeling the 200km in my legs from RAW Namibia two weeks earlier. It was a relief when the trail descended to the river, just below the Swartberg Pass road. As I got on to the road, I saw the guys disappearing around the bend. Ten kays to go.

The first part of this dirt road section is visually stimulating. A river runs on your right and the road runs with cliffs on either side. Thereafter it opens up... and the sun was warming the earth. I was feeling a bit lazy, walking in the shady sections. I saw no sight of the guys ahead.

Then, on to the tar road leading into Prince Albert. I couldn't remember what the section looked like as I hadn't paid attention on the drive out of town. I also didn't put more water into my hydration pack at the last river crossing - and I was clean out and parched. Michael, race organiser, found me on the road - must have been about 3.5km from the finish. He didn't have any water in the car, only Coke, which I don't drink. The only thing to do was run... so I did a bit of running and walking, pleased to see the sign marking the town's boundary. But then it was still a good way to go; and the irrigation canal running near the road had started looking very attractive even though I know not to drink from canals...

As I reached the houses I started looking for a tap. Saw one on the side of a B&B;and although the place looked quiet, the tap was just outside a window. Too risky. Further along I saw the perfect tap - on the front of the house facing the road; it even had a hosepipe attachment. I turned the top... nothing came out. With only a kay or so to the finish, I took it as a sign that I'd better just damn well run the rest, which I did.

Total time: 12h08. The silly part is that if I hadn't been such a lazy butt on the last 10km, where I was more than capable of running more than I did, I could have done a sub-12. If, if, if...

All in all I had a superb run. Feet certainly tired by the finish. This race comes highly recommended especially as the three course options (38km,50km and 80km) cater for different preferences. The best part was definitely the opportunity to run at midnight under a full moon. Good for your soul. Running heaven.

About the Swartberg Pass
The pass was planned and constructed by engineer Thomas Bain (1830-1893). Construction started in 1880 and took 8-years to complete. It was built with convict labour. The Pass was officially opened 10 January 1988. This was his last engineering masterpiece. In the second half of the 1800s Bain built 24 (another resource says 17) major mountain roads and passes (names you'll easily recognise - Baviaanskloof, Prince Alfred, Stormsriver, Cogmans and other) in the second half of the 1800s. His father, Andrew Geddes Bain, built 8 during the first half of the same century.

The pass is 24 kilometres in length and it stretches from Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert. It is an untarred road that winds in steep switchbacks, to the summit at 1583 metres above sea level. Dry-stone retaining walls secure the roadway; some 2.4km in lenght and up to 13-metres in height. Bain got the number of side drains and culverts right too; for a centuary the road suffered little damage from rain. The Pass underwent specialist maintenance from late-2000, after a few years of particularly heavy downpours. The Pass was declared a National Monument in 1988, its centenary year.

As for Ou Tol, which is now a hiking overnight hut... (from a document on the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism website highlighting places of interest, and their history, along the pass).

The foundations of the original toll house can still be seen at this spot. A small village also existed at this locality during the construction of the pass with a shop, butchery and school. Today nothing remains of this village. On May 5, 1888 notice was given to impose a toll at the summit of the pass. John F Mackay was appointed as the first toll official with a salary of £45 per year. He was responsible for collecting the toll and maintaining the road. A toll fee four pennies per wheel and one penny per animal was charged.

About Die Hel (from PA Tourism website)

Gamkaskloof, also known as 'The Hell / Die Hel', is a fascinating valley near Prince Albert, where a small, proud community lived in isolation for more than 100 years. Access was on foot and horseback and harvests of dried fruit and wild honey were carried out by pack animals.
Legend has it that Gamkaskloof was discovered when trekboers lost their cattle and followed their spoor into the fertile valley. Petrus Swanepoel was the first to farm there and the valley supported the hard-working community until 1962 when a road was carved into the valley. A gradual exodus occured and the last farmer to leave was Piet Swanepoel in 1991.


Anonymous said...

Well done Lisa. It is no longer Adventure Lisa, but 'Hardcore Lisa'. Thanks for the history lesson as well. You running out of water brings back memories of army days....not a nice feeling.
So what are the totals? 280Km in three weeks? I suppose Comrades would be a fun run for you.

adventurelisa said...

Yes, 280km in three weeks. I did nothing after Namibia and I've done nothing this whole week. Will get back to training on Monday. As for Comrades... I'm yet to run it and, oddly enough, that 89km run on tar is far less attractive than 100km off-road. I keep thinking that, as a South African running institution, I should perhaps do it at some stage... but the thought doesn't really motivate me. So, until it does, I won't be running it.