Day 4 – Tuesday 18 October

Cheers Fransa, bye Luiggi, have a good time! The Big Day has begun. This is the one we have had in the back our minds for months. 80km through the Kalahari Augrabies Desert. That’s almost the distance of the Comrades Marathon, but it’s through rocky gorges and sandy plains, not on tar, and on your back you still have all your kit and 4 days’ food.

Unfortunately Jacques had to leave us last night, for medical reasons. Whenever the going gets tough today, or we are tempted to complain about anything, we know that Jacques, Patrick, Phil and Bendaniel would give anything to be in our positions, and we will shut up and wake up.

The weather is a blessing. Completely overcast with dark threatening clouds over Namibia to the north-west. We can’t ask for more.

What a great time for my little group to leave; no rush, but no wait either. And from now on time becomes irrelevant. Our day is broken up and lived by checkpoints, 9 in all. For many of us, our first major goal is Checkpoint 5, the half-way point. It is as far as yesterday’s run, so we know it is do-able.

Two powerful themes dominate our day – sand and beauty – and we have to be careful which one we allow to frame our world. The sand is relentless. Not only is it in every river bed and gorge, it also fills up every jeep track and every road. It varies from thick shingle to fine powder, and it is always gruelling. Sometimes we choose to walk through the veld of grass tufts and scrub, about 10m parallel to the track, and find harder ground, but the veld is also full of haak-en-steek bossies which rip us apart if we but brush against them. So mostly we just put our heads down, curse The Windmill, and grind on.

But mostly we rise above this, and drink in the world around us which fills us with awe. These are big spaces which invite big feelings and big thoughts. As we get up onto the higher ground, the horizons fall back spectacularly. To the south, there is just an endless expanse of black and green scrub, with the odd koppie giving the perspective of almost infinite depth. To the north, the horizon of Namibia has a constant imaginary line a few hundred million years old, and between us there is the great gnarled valley of the Orange River. Eons of erosion have left only the hardest of rocks still standing, and the rest has tumbled and disintegrated in heaps and … sand! In the soft light of the gentle day, the earthy colours of cream, gold, brown, and black glow all around. Every now and again, even in the throws of a stimulating conversation, we suddenly stop in mid-sentence … and ooh and aah or just fall silent and spread out our arms.

Because of the staggered starts, the field is spread wide, and it is only later in the day that we begin to see more of our fellow runners. First up is Luiggi, the metrognome with small rhythmic steps powered by Duracell. Then we pass Lindie who took a fall yesterday and has had a few stitches on her knee, but just keeps babbling hilariously on. At Checkpoint 5 Guiseppe erupts with WTF (his best English yet) as he sees Yves lying spread-eagled in the back of bakkie. Unfortunately that actually does mark his departure and we bid him a reluctant farewell.
Sarie and Estelle motor past, slow down, shoot off, and stagger cheerfully on. Annie and Annelise sing and dance into every checkpoint with their banner for the fight against cancer, and give everyone hope. Geert comes past full of the joys of spring, just purring about the sunset. And he is right; it is indescribable. A fiery ball in a purple sky, framed by silhouetted quiver trees and fluffy clouds. Our bodies are starting to ache but our souls are singing.

Merhaba Bakiya (my entire repertoire of Turkish). Kalahari gut! (her entire repertoire of English). You’re looking good, Altie! Feeling much better, thanks. Well done, Dirk, you’re on track! Going well, dankie. Alwyn follows shortly afterwards, driving his bus of Maretha, Richard and others. Here’s your Ginger Nut, John, you’ve been a good boy! Where in the hell are Eric and Belinda for their bit of reward? Ian and Tess disappear into the sunset.

We’re all digging deep now – the front runners, the middle mixture, and the bottom plodders. In the dark we meet up with Andrew, a superb runner but battling with nausea. At Checkpoint 8 Charmaine joins our exhausted bus and we splutter along in the dark, quietly encouraging each other or just fumbling forwards in companionable silence. Words aren’t always necessary in these moments.

There comes a time in many extreme activities when we wish we were anywhere else on earth but here, the truth is that we would rather be here, wishing we were anywhere else on earth but here, than anywhere else on earth. Read that again carefully, because if you don’t understand that, you will never really understand the endurance athlete.

Agonisingly slowly, the end line approaches and we see the vague misty KAEM banner emerge out of the darkness. The Big Day is finally over. Yes there was much to savour, but yes it was hard-earned. We stretch out delicately under our gazebo, with a deep sense of peace with ourselves and with the world. Sometimes all it takes is to stop and be still.

The leaders have increased their leads. Dirk is now about 45 minutes ahead of Tomas, and Thierry is another 50 minutes off. Maretha is almost 4 hours ahead of Rene, who in turn is less than 3 minutes ahead of Allison. The race is not over yet.