No Free Step
The Drakensberg Grande Traverse by Ryan Sandes
Written by Jamie Bunchuk
At the very outset, the Drakensberg Traverse never appealed to me. I always saw those mountains as quite foreign, because they’re in northern South Africa and I’m from Cape Town. I’d never spent any time up in the range and from far off, it seemed intimidating and very wild. But as my trail-running career progressed I started chatting with Ryno Griesel about the infamous route through the mountains, and the seeds of a plan began to grow. The legends of the Drakensberg Traverse were born nearly twenty years ago. The Raubenheimer Brothers were the first to ‘officially’ do hike it, over 105 hours, or four and half days. Then, what began with a traditional hiking mindset soon progressed, with guys attempting to speed trek the traverse, followed later by a few adventure races. Ryno and I kept talking and we developed plans for our own attempt at the route. We looked at the Drak differently – from a purely running point of view – to see just how light, how fast and how far we could actually go.
The hardest part of the preparation for the run was the results from the initial reconnaissance. The Drak is something you have to do completely self-supported. There are no paths, nor trails. The rules are that you have to start at the Sentinel Car Park and finish at Bushman’s Nek, the border post. There are six significant peaks that you have to reach along the way without any aid or food-caches. These peaks are all over 3200m, all steep and all high; the tallest one being over 3,400m. There was no way I could attempt a route like this on my own – it was just too wild out there. From very early on, it became clear that Ryno and I would both have to work together if we were to stand a chance of pacing through the entire distance without serious incident.
Even then, from the moment we set foot in the Drakensberg she went out of her way to show us her fangs. We got caught out in a bad storm on the very first recce. Normally in October the weather is supposed to be calm and quite pleasant – so we were taken by complete surprise when a calamitous front ploughed straight into us. I hadn’t expected to be in the middle of a snowstorm and then, a few hours later, in stinging hail and thunder. The brutality of the storm made me think a lot about the feasibility of a full attempt. I came out of that first foray pretty scared, having realised how far removed we would be from rescue – completely at the mercy of the elements. In the Drakensberg all four seasons sometimes arrive in one day. But we would have little gear, no sleeping bags, no tents – just enough to survive what she could throw at us, if we ran fast enough.
Attempting to trail-run an unmarked route of approximately 220km through one of South Africa’s harshest and most rugged mountain ranges seemed at best foolish, and at worst, utterly dangerous and unachievable.
I was expecting to suffer physically, which obviously we did to quite an extent, but I wasn’t finding the running as bad as I’d initially dreaded. We were really lucky and the weather was keeping good. No, the hardest part to contend with was the mental obstacles we had to overcome, especially the sleep depravation.
With the Drakensberg having no paths and trails, the running was really difficult. I found it almost like I was moving in slow motion. Our average pace was just five kilometres an hour. By contrast, when you’re doing a trail race, I’m normally settling somewhere between 10-15km/ph depending on how good the trail surface is. Perversely, it was more of a battle to go deliberately slowly as I’m so used to moving quickly. The thick feeling of immobility was mind-numbing at times, as the scenery started to blend together. We kept moving over monotonous rolling hills and valleys that were all the same. Those moments were tough to handle.
I was expecting to suffer physically, which obviously we did to quite an extent, but I wasn’t finding the running as bad as I’d initially dreaded. We were really lucky and the weather was keeping good. No, the hardest part to contend with was the mental obstacles we had to overcome, especially the sleep depravation. Ryno and I only stopped for 40 minutes over the course of our 41 hours of running. Of those 40 minutes, I only slept for ten. The first time around, we were supposed to have a thirty minute power-nap but I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there, cold, shivering, awake. So that didn’t work for me, but then I got so fatigued about two or three hours later I just told Ryno that I had to stop and sleep and dropped to the ground then and there – passing out immediately. I woke up about seven or eight minutes later, still shaking with the cold. But that was enough rest to get me through to the next morning, luckily.
When I enter a race, I always know – barring injury or something going really wrong – that I’ll complete it. But with the Drakensberg Traverse, in all honesty, I wasn’t sure that I had the mental and physical fortitude to pull it off. A lot of great athletes and trail runners have attempted that trail in the past before getting stuck, moving too slowly and finally pulling the plug. For me, I always knew the run was probably going to be a battle primarily fought inside my head rather than through my feet, and ultimately I was so happy that everything went the way it did in the end. But the elation only really kicked in a day after we’d finished, once the realisation came that we’d really completed it.
It was in that delayed moment I realised that – for both Ryno and I – the attempt had never really been about breaking a record. The Drakensberg Mountains are so iconic, so foreboding and prominent that the biggest achievement came from being able to traverse them from the top to the bottom. In twenty or thirty or forty years’ time the deep sense of pride I feel won’t stem from the number of hours we traversed it in, but that we ran every step of the way through those great and terrible mountains.
Ryan and Ryno successfully set a new Drakensberg Grand Traverse speed record of 41 hours and 49 minutes. The previous best time stood at 60 hours, 29 minutes.