Day 1 – Saturday 15 Oct

Hey George, there is a cloud in the sky. Remember it, Edward, remember it. The waiting is over. We jump out of bed and burst into nervous action. Final check, final things thrown out and thrown in. Pack our exploding orange ochre bags and hand them in. Too late for any faffing now. Back to the chalet, tuck into our pre-packed breakfast, realize that it is inedible while still in civilization, dip into our afternoon snacks, last cup of coffee, fill water-bottles.

Everyone is making their way to the start. Some are practicing running with their packs, checking the balance and degree of wobble. Others are simply strolling along as if this is the most normal thing to do on a Saturday morning. A few Park guests watch us as if they have just discovered a new species of animal. Everyone is excited. This is it. All the training, all the dreaming, all the fears – they all come together in a flush in the face, a nervous titter, a quiet moment in a world  a universe away.

Happy Birthday dear Maretha, Happy Birthday to you! We’re all relieved to have a good way of venting all the pent up nervous energy that engulfs us. Hip hip hooray! Then the Windmill gives us some final directions and we all nod forgetingly. The Head of the Augrabies Park, Frans, welcomes us to his beautiful domain and wishes us well – dankie boet! And while we might curse Estienne later, for now we thank him and his team for this wonderful opportunity and promise to make the most of every moment.

Off we go! We don’t even see the top runners as they promptly disappear into the veld. The party starts immediately at the back with a casual stroll out of camp. I see Alfred stopping every 20m to take photos and I wonder how long this will last? Answer: the whole way! Alfred knows exactly why he is here and he is savouring every little thing. And there are lots of little things, and he is capturing the lot.

I catch up to Phil and each of us in our own way are singing our Halleluyas. This is a magical world, filled with memories of previous times and people. This is a very special ‘walk in the Park’ for Phil, and for the first time he is not running and just taking it all in.

Refreshment station, please George tell Ben to drink, drink, drink, he must drink. Okay I’ve got it Judy, I promise I’ll take my tent-mate in hand tonight and tell him to drink, drink, drink. The country-side changes as we head down towards the river. The yellow tufts of grass provide a splash of brightness amongst the shattered rocky koppies of every shade of brown and black. It is yet another reminder of why we are here.

12.10 pm
Steep, steep climb down to the lazy river far below. Hard work, but we cannot help but ooh and aah at the green and purple and brown patterns and smudges on the scattered rocks. The river is inviting and I give in to the magnetic attraction. Ah, this is just heavenly! Cold and rejuvenating, while I take in the soaring cliffs and koppies, and the lush green reeds and grass.

The walk along the river is a real challenge. It is an endless clambouring over rocks, into sandy gullies, up powdery erosions, through ovens presenting as small gorges … and the temperature just keeps rising. The fast folks are already resting in the shade at Camp 1; the back markers have to keep grinding. The water-bottles are going down; how much longer can it be?

The sand is deep, the gorge is hot, but eventually I see the flags of Camp 1 and the day is almost done. Everyone is relaxing under the gazebo or under trees in various positions of rest and relaxation. Most are sipping on cups of coffee or energy drinks, and nibbling on nuts and droewors.

Some, of course, have simply waxed the day. Local man Dirk Cloete came in at 11.37am, followed by international visitors Tomas Sundman and Thierry Triconnet. Maretha Combrink led in the top ladies, with Altie Clark and Allison Glass not far behind. The gauntlets have been thrown down, the markers made, and the challenges issued. How is it all going to develop in the next 6 days?

Dirk is an old hand at this and is looking supercool, but when I look in his eyes I can see he is k*kking himself. Because he knows that even though he has quite a cushion on me after Day 1, he knows that my pack gets 2kg lighter after every meal I have, whereas after he has eaten his 2 peanuts and 1 raisin for supper, his pack is NO lighter. And even though my number plate doesn’t say anything, I think he has heard that I also once ran a sub 6.30 marathon in my youth. Just saying.