Story by Ryan Sandes // Written by Alex Roddie // Photography by Craig Kolesky
I always listen to my gut, and my gut is telling me that something is wrong.
I know what things can be like up in the high Drakensberg. Minor situations can escalate. As gusts batter my body, I feel the freezing, wetted-out fabric of my jacket clinging to the saturated base layer below. Looking back down through the mist that tears over the endless rocky landscape we’re traversing, I can barely see our support team. Can the horses even make it up here? What are we doing? Nothing feels right. Nothing is how I expected it.
It’s day six. Ryno Griesel and I are not even halfway into our attempt to run around the kingdom of Lesotho – a journey of some 1,100km – and already the mountains have thrown everything at us. It has barely stopped raining here for months. The ground is sodden. Wind and rain lash at us, and my frustration mounts at how tortuously slow our progress feels. We’re hampered by the ankle-twisting rocks, the logistical challenges of finding a route that our support team can negotiate, and the uncharted pathless terrain in this southern section of the Drakensberg where tourists never come.
The horses know these mountains, they’re born for the terrain, but there are limits. I wonder if we’re testing those limits right now. We’ve just climbed up onto the high escarpment and it feels like we’ve stepped into a freezer. I glance at Ryno, a rain-soaked blur a few metres away, as he hops from rock to rock. His expression is grim under his hood. ‘It’s flipping cold,’ I say to him. He nods but doesn’t reply. Our gear never had the chance to dry out from yesterday’s soaking and I can hardly remember the last time I felt warm and dry.
Ryno and I can make it over this terrain. It’s nothing we haven’t faced together before on countless adventures, from the Drakensberg Grand Traverse back in 2014 to the Great Himalaya Trail. If it were just us, we’d press on. But this time it’s different. I feel responsible for the guys in our support team – especially, at this moment, Wiesman and his horses, tirelessly working to support us. I have to think about the safety of the whole team now. Wiesman won’t want to be the one to turn us back, no matter how hard things get; it’s up to me to call it.
Is it really that bad? Part of me hopes I can convince myself to keep going. It’s wet and windy and near freezing but I’ve seen conditions far worse. And the weather is only half the story. This isn’t Europe. There’s no cosy refuge halfway down the hill for a hot meal and a bunk. Getting down is a whole process by itself. These mountains are harsh and trackless, and it can often take a full day to descend to safety. Picking our way down scree slopes, scrambling rain-scoured gorges, slippery boulder jumps, cliffs to avoid, navigation decisions piling up – all just waiting for the smallest mistake. Deep fatigue and a dozen chances for twisted ankles if we turn back right now. Leave it longer, climb up into the howling wind and sleet where the horses will struggle, and it all gets worse.
I already know the answer. Overwhelmingly frustrating, but I know it’s the right call. Ryno agrees at once, but Wiesman is so far away that no amount of shouting will raise him, and I have to send an inReach message: ‘Guys, let’s backtrack, weather’s not looking good.’
Hours later at Bushman’s Nek, after 30km of brutal descent, I’m beaten up and dejected. Is this the end of the project? The finish line of our big circumnavigation, Telle Bridge border post, feels as far behind us as it is ahead. Although we only left six days ago, I can’t visualise getting to the end.
Decisions about the weather began right from the start. Eight days before our decision to turn back in the Drakensberg – a lifetime before – Ryno and I met up with Adrian, Craig, Wiesman and the rest of our support crew. We found accommodation at a trading post near Telle Bridge, and looked out through the windows at the drizzle and overcast skies, distracting ourselves with logistics and planning.
The day before our planned departure, I admitted to Ryno that I was feeling a little nervous. ‘Reckon I’m less confident now than before our recce trips up into the mountains. Physically I know I can do it – you know what I mean? But mentally…’ He nodded. ‘Have you seen the forecast? It’s going to rain the whole of tomorrow.’ I could only laugh at that. ‘I don’t think I ever processed everything that went wrong on the Great Himalaya Trail,’ I said, veering the conversation away from the weather, something I didn’t want to think about just yet. ‘Maybe it’s harder now, having been through all that, knowing what we’re about to let ourselves in for.’ Ryno replied: ‘I know what you mean, but at least we’re more prepared now.’
Were we prepared? I wasn’t sure – not with these forecasts to worry about. Faced with 24 hours of relentless rain, we made the decision to delay our start date by one day. It was a decision that came hard at this early point, and I couldn’t help but wonder what precedent this set for the harder decisions to come.
‘Let’s just start.’ That was my instinctive response. How bad could it be? But then Adrian reminded me that we wouldn’t even have the horses for the first 70km – that they had a long inland trek on bad roads to join up with us, and flooding or landslides in heavy rain could make the journey even more treacherous. ‘This is a long game,’ Adrian said, and I saw that postponing by one day could be the wiser choice.
‘If it were just us,’ I said to Ryno as we relaxed, making use of a day of rest before the push, ‘we could have gone for it.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but if it was just us we couldn’t do this at all.’ That 24-hour period, spent honing the details of our logistics and resting before the exertion ahead, helped me to see past my impatience to the bigger picture. Although part of me wanted to start, it would have felt like forcing things. This was about so much more than just the first day – and so much more than just us.
After nine days in the Drakensberg, nine days of fighting, I’m ready for it to be over. We’ve come over 500km, and are up into the highest part of the mountains now: a crazy ridge of plateaus and pinnacles at around 3,000m altitude, held aloft by a bewilderingly complex maze of cliffs that arc from pass to pass, confounding any logical route. Storms have dumped enormous quantities of snow on the mountains. Now the escarpment has been brushed to a glowing white under a deepening blue sky, with the first stars just starting to burst through. It’s beautiful, I can’t deny it, but I’m so focused on the demands of the journey that the greater part of me feels numbed to it all. Thick snow underfoot makes the unrelenting rocky ground all the more technical. We can’t break concentration for an instant, least of all now: past sunset and descending steep ground with invisible rocks hiding under the melting powder. It’s goddamned cold. I hear Ryno swear in frustration at a misstep, but I resist the urge to look up. Our support teams can’t follow us up here, so we’re on our own for a couple of days, carrying 8–10kg packs laden with tent and sleeping bag. Focus is all the more important now. Slow. Heavy. Cold. Tired. Slooooow.
‘Screw this,’ Ryno calls to me. ‘I’ve had enough. I never want to run another mountain again.’ His tone is only half joking. We’ve just come over Cleft Peak and I can’t pretend to myself that there’s any light left in the sky any more. The snow reflects only the barest glimmer of sunset’s afterglow. Out with the head torches. On with the job of finding somewhere flat enough to pitch the tent in this jumble of a mountainside.
An eternity later and it’s 8.00pm. ‘What about here?’ Ryno is just a shadow, surrounded by the halo of his torch beam. But it’s far too windy here; our ultralight tent would be ripped from the ground. Every part of me wants to stop. I am shattered. I am barely functioning. We’ve been stumbling along in the dark for hours, our pace barely better than a walk, and it takes every scrap of effort to keep looking for somewhere more sheltered.
A bit later: somewhere else reasonably flat, or as close as anywhere is up here. It’s still windy but suddenly my exhaustion is making demands and I don’t care about how sheltered the site may or may not be. If we don’t stop now then we might never find anywhere, and I picture us freezing to death on the mountain, the wind robbing our bodies of what little warmth we’ve managed to cling on to. Ryno understands without a word between us. The ground is a disgusting churned-up mess of slush. The tent flaps like a bin bag while we fumble with poles and stamp in pegs, swearing when they hit hidden rocks. But eventually it’s up and we pull on all our clothes before diving inside, spreading out a space blanket on the floor to make the most of what precious little insulation we have with us.
‘We’ll get four or five hours of sleep,’ Ryno says, his voice dull and slow, ‘and then we’ll get going again. It’s not far to Rat Hole Cave. We can meet up with Gert. Maybe they’ll have a four-course meal ready for us.’
I get into my sleeping bag cold and I never warm up.
Four or five hours of sleep, my brain repeats over and over in a loop as the deep shivering starts. The cold is unbearable. I feel the ground as a block of ice directly beneath me, and every body part in contact with it slowly begins to freeze. Tendrils of pain penetrate my flesh like worms. Even my insides begin to feel as if they are freezing. I curl up and I shake. Ryno’s shaking beside me. Perhaps I snatch five minutes of exhausted sleep here and there, but for most of the night I just lie there in a stupor, wondering if this is it, if we’re actually going to freeze to death. The wind rips at our tent and the noise lifts me out of whatever scraps of sleep I manage to find. I feel so tiny and vulnerable in this remote place, far from the team who are looking out for us, far from the horses and their patient mountain wisdom, far from comfort and food, far from everything.
The next morning, Ryno looks at me from the hood of his sleeping bag with hollow eyes. My body feels trashed, tortured, lethargic. But we get up and we get moving and we carry on. The sun rises and a little warmth creeps back into my limbs.
As we make our first kilometres of the day I have a word with myself. Focus, Ryan. You asked to be here. Nobody is forcing you. And look at where you are – the Drakensberg under snow! You’ll never be here like this again. Be present, yeah? Stop thinking about the finish line. Think about the next step, the next peak, reuniting with the guys. Think about getting down into the lowlands and the easier terrain ahead. You’re nearly out of the mountains. Maybe see the funny side every now and again too.
And it helps, it really does.
‘I thought the lowlands were supposed to be the easy bit,’ Ryno says as we splash through yet another flooded field, the ploughed-up mud sucking at our shoes. This terrain is almost as much of a workout for our quads as the mountains. We’re about 700km in, well over halfway round, and navigating the farmlands near Maseru, Lesotho’s capital city. We’re able to run with much lighter packs – sometimes without packs at all. Our support team is never far away, equipped with four-by-fours now that the terrain allows it, but when will the rain stop? Everything’s flooded. Rivers are up. We’re changing the route on the fly, trying to find runnable ground so we can up our pace a bit. Trying to avoid these epic river crossings that are sometimes 100m wide or more. Trying to find some respite for our battered feet.
Still, I’m focusing more on the positives now, breaking the journey down into manageable chunks. Maseru will be a nice little landmark for us, and it’s not far ahead. I spy a gate at the far side of the field. When we get there, we find a decent farm track heading in the right direction, so we fly off down it in the drizzle, clods of mud splatting away from our shoes as we run. The vehicles are about 2–3km away and meeting up with us later on. It isn’t even raining that much, although as we pass a small farming village, just four or five houses clustered on the edge of the track, I notice the clouds gathering and the light darkening around us. ‘Storm’s coming,’ Ryno says, and at that exact moment I hear a roll of thunder and feel specks of heavier rain on my cheek.
Movement out of the corner of my eye. Instinctively I think it’s a feral dog, and my body tenses for a confrontation, but when I turn my head I see a gaggle of kids running out into the road after us. ‘You are going to swim the river, you are going to swim the river!’ The boy in front makes a face at me: mouth open, eyes wide in devilish amusement. ‘What river?’ I say as we run along with them. ‘I thought it was just a trickle.’ The rain feels committed now. I’m already soaked, so I hardly care. ‘No, no,’ the first kid says, ‘it is a river. You’ll have to swim.’ I ask him if anyone has ever swum the river before, and get laughter in response.
Lightning is cracking down only kilometres away when we reach the riverbank. The clouds have that violent look about them, rolling in with dark folds as they spit out ever more brutal volleys of rain. The river must be at least 70m across. Opaque brown water surges past, frothing with foam. I can see debris surfing the swell and the splintered remains of entire trees caught up in the banks, forming deadly sieves.
We pause for no more than a moment. I can’t even imagine the detour that getting around this will take. Suddenly Ryno looks at me. ‘OK, so this isn’t ideal, but let’s go for it. We’re already wet, right?’ I scan the river, calculating where we’ll wash up on the far bank as the current sweeps us downstream. We’ve just got to keep making progress. We’re not in the mountains any more, and we are so close. We can do this. And we are about to jump in, about to commit ourselves, when I feel Ryno’s hand on my shoulder. ‘No, hold on,’ he says. ‘Look at the banks. There’s nowhere safe to get out. This is going to be stupid.’
I think about our team again, what they’ll have to go through if we need to be rescued – or, worse, if they need to recover our drowned bodies. This is not the time for impulsive risks. Sometimes you’re so invested, so focused and in the moment, that pressing on feels like the only option, but there is always another choice. We stand there on the bank for another moment and then I break the silence with a laugh. What does any of this matter, really?
‘Wouldn’t want to make things too easy for the guys to find us,’ I joke to Ryno. ‘Following the planned route is overrated anyway.’ A few kilometres later we meet up with the support vehicles after yet another detour.
The last few kilometres back to Telle Bridge are a blur. More of the same: slogging across flooded farmland, getting a bit lost, finding an asphalt road to bomb along, sore and swollen feet,. Then comes a moment when I realise there are no more obstacles, just a gentle downhill to the end. We pass the turnoff to the left, where we’d run in the other direction 16 days before, and it hardly feels real – as if we’ve circumnavigated the globe and ended up running just behind our own younger selves, snapping at our own heels. I feel like a different person now. That was an aeon ago. ‘Crazy, right?’ I call to Ryno, and he gives a whoop in response, pacing along beside me. Suddenly I can’t feel the fatigue or the pain in my Achilles any more. Suddenly I feel fantastic.
We pass houses, dodge vehicles on the road, and then, just before the bridge over the Telle where Lesotho becomes South Africa, I see our friends waiting at the finish line, cheering us on. There’s Craig, Adrian, Stephan, Marcel, and their cries of encouragement rise up over the traffic. We’re 20m from the border –
HOOONK! A horn blares as a taxi cuts right across the road in front of us. I catch a momentary glimpse of the driver’s irritated expression before the vehicle speeds off down the road. For just a moment, all thoughts of the finish line are banished, as I’ve banished them so many times before in my quest to be present and take this journey one step at a time. Nobody here knows or cares that we’ve run around Lesotho, I think. They’re just carrying on with their lives. The perspective in this moment is beautiful and suddenly I feel vindicated in all the times when I’ve been cautious, acted against the impulse to push on and take the risk in the name of forward progress – each one a hard call. It’s a pretty random and arbitrary thing to run around a country, after all. It matters to me and Ryno and a few other people, but does it matter to anyone else? I’m glad I’ve done this, and I’ve shared a lot of special moments with a lot of people, but it is not the be-all and end-all of life, and it never was.
Just a few more steps. I take them one at a time, and now the finish line is the next step. I am fully present as Ryno and I cross it together. No more decisions to make or risks to weigh up. We hug each other fiercely, and it is done.
First published in Sidetracked Volume 24
Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel completed their circumnavigation of Lesotho on April 27th, 2022, after 16 days, 6 hours, and 56 minutes. Find out more about their adventure at redbull.com