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Running with the Desert Gods

Words by Annabelle Latz

Images by Hermien Burger Webb


Running across the Kalahari Desert for 250km requires a lot of hard work from the top two inches. And some solid graft from the legs too. Signing up for the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon gave me the chance to experience first-hand the tales of desert running I’d heard so much about this year.

Even as I ran across this arid land in the thick of the heat of the day with the sweat drying as quickly as its dripped, the deep sandy surfaces causing havoc on my exhausted legs, and my breath in rhythm to your shuffling legs, that sense of respect for this savagely mighty place was ever prevalent.

This iconic desert foot race, the ‘Big Daddy’, takes place in October each year and covers the Augrabies Falls National Park and private farmlands. We passed through vineyards and working farms, graced rocky outcrops, sandy riverbeds, boulder-strewn hills, navigated Death Valley, which lived up to its name with the strewn animal corpses, and covered vast outstretched grasslands.

The mighty Orange River weaved its way through our week, and at times when it was just sand and rocks, all I could think about was that delightful childhood movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, half expecting a coke bottle to fall from the sky.

In the Kalahari Desert, our journey superiority lay within the realms of the scorching sun under which we worked, where for seven days we respected it, because our lives, well, literally depended on it.

We ran six of the days, with a welcomed Rest Day sandwiched between a testing 77km and 50km day, during which we relaxed on the banks of the Orange River.

Everything becomes precious when one runs in the desert; food, water, shade, comfort, functional feet. We were allocated drinking water at various checkpoints, plus an additional five litres when we reached Base Camp each evening. One big survival trick was to get used to warm water, but there are needs and wants, and it might as well have been liquid gold.

You learn from your mistakes while racing; you learn on the go what your system can handle, and you learn the hard way that some of the goodies you were sure you’d crave, you can no longer face. Daily assessment of feet was vital, blisters of any fashion had to be attended to immediately.

These technicalities aside, it’s the people who made this race. It was the fellow KAEM soldiers, those who set up the camps each night, the medical team, the smiling faces and helpful hands at the checkpoints.

Together we departed from our familiar worlds and ventured into a world of dirt, sand, rocks, stars, scorching sun, Weather God activity, canvas and cosy evening fires.

Everyone was a hero, from the racing snakes to the final two feet to slacken the finish line tape and ring that bell.

Being a stubborn kiwi certainly helped my cause, and I was thrilled to bits to be the third woman across the line and within the top ten overall.

But what counts for more than stubbornness is heart and soul, and these two factors were illustrated in our sweat, tears, rage and happiness, and transcended all barriers.

With enough heart and soul, you too will be able to run 250km across the Kalahari Desert, when for one week of your life and allow that big place to rule you. And your answer to its power is simply – your attitude.

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