The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (250km/155miles) by Heather Howells

The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon 2010

My adventure began on the 12th October 2010 with an extreme travelthon from Hawaii to South Africa, eventually arriving in Johannesburg 36 hours later. It was at the hotel in Johannesburg that I met Chanleigh and it turned out that her and I were joined at the hip for most of the event. That evening we also met the British contingent who kept us entertained throughout the event with their stories of other extreme marathons and their witty banter. The following morning we embarked on a 10 hour bus drive to Augrabies through a thirsty looking landscape and were joined by more runners and crew members from Johannesburg for the trip. All in all a 46 hour journey to get to the start line and the games hadn’t even begun!


On arrival we were housed in comfortable chalets at the Augrabies National Park and had a visit from Vervet monkeys almost immediately. Within the near vicinity we could view the spectacular Augrabies Falls and had the opportunity to take photos of Quiver trees, Dassies (Rock Hyrax), Broadley’s lizards which are only found within a 100km radius of the falls. The females are brown and black with three cream stripes on their backs and the males are rainbow colored in order to attract a mate. A huge chunk of Rose quartz was on display at the park and I was soon to find out that the Kalahari is littered with the stuff. That evening a game drive ensued and we came across multiple giraffe and a small herd of Springbok and stopped off at a scenic lookout over a deep gorge which the Orange River flowed through. That evening we had dinner at the Augrabies Lodge and met more of the runners and crew.

Registration Day: The next day we had our backpacks checked for compulsory equipment and listened to a race briefing from race director Estienne. We were weighed and I weighed my pack which was 10kg dry weight which fellow runners thought was too heavy and thanks to Nic, helped me purge my bag of at least 1kg of excess food which I discovered I did not require.
A special mention needs to be made of the caterers who made an effort to accommodate my vegan diet which I’m sure was rather an alien concept to them.


Day1: I felt fantastic as the race started, as though I had wings on my shoes. I had elected to represent Hawaii in the race to pay tribute to my island home of the past decade and to perhaps add something unique to the event. I found that after Check Point 1, I was pretty much running on my own and followed the red and white striped tape that was tied to bushes. Somewhere along the way I stopped seeing the markers but the terrain seemed to match the written description of the route. After a short while I stopped and felt confused and could see runner’s footprints in the sand along the track. I backtracked, reread the instructions and thought that I must be going in the right direction. Which led onto a dry river bed in a gorge. I kept going but had a constant nagging feeling that I must be wrong and that I should have seen tape. I then saw a wet patch (of urine) in the sand and more footprints which admittedly started to look confused, going in both directions. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was going wrong and eventually came to a fence and looked for the supposed ‘gate’ that was meant to be there and saw none. By now I had wasted more than an hour and decided to go back the way I had come thinking “how wrong can I go, just follow the dry river bed back up the gorge and resume where I had deviated off the path”. As we had been briefed beforehand, once you turn around, nothing looks the same anymore and I should have stopped when I first noticed that there were no markers. At this point the potential to panic was there but I decided to take out my safety whistle and mirror to try and attract attention. The act of blowing the whistle actually prevented me from panicking but no-one ever heard it. It occurred to me that I might never be found and ‘this could be it’. At this point I stopped under the shade of a tree after drinking my last drop of water. Approximately 2 hours had passed since taking the wrong turn and then I heard the beautiful sound of the quad bike and saw Estienne. He was understandably furious with me, as I’m sure it must have been very worrying when the crew realized I was lost after not showing up at Check Point 2. At this point Dr Charl arrived in case I needed medical attention but fortunately I was feeling physically 100 % fine and was taken back to the trail to resume running again, arriving at the finish so much later than I had anticipated and a bit shaken from the sequence of events. I made an on the spot decision not to dwell on the misfortune and continue to enjoy the adventure and make the most of it which was my best decision of the day.

The first camp was situated along the banks of the Orange River and was a blissful oasis of cool water with grassy river banks where we all swam and felt very refreshed. I photographed otter prints on the banks of the river and we heard the beautiful cry of a Fish Eagle. During my extra 12km excursion I had also seen three Klipspringers bounding through the river bed. Each day I would have the opportunity to have fantastic interactions with fellow runners who were all friendly and encouraging.
The camps consisted of open sided canopy tents and a ground sheet. I had not brought a sleeping mat as I thought it would be too heavy and this turned out to be a mistake. Just before the race started I laid claim to a strip of cardboard cut from a box just long enough to pad my shoulders and hips and this was now my ‘bed’. We all lay next to each other in rows and every night I experienced jetlag insomnia from the 12 hour time difference, waking up at 2am and finding it difficult to fall asleep again amidst the snoring of 30 men and rustling of plastic bags.
That day I had covered 26km (plus an additional 12km)/16.2miles (plus 7.8 miles) in 5:33:33 -a horrible time due to my misadventure. Apparently I was not the only runner to have lost the trail but had set the record for being the ‘most lost’.
Unfortunately one runner had to withdraw from the race already and was taken to a hospital in the town of Uppington, but was doing well.


Day 2: We started out on the sandy banks of the river and then discovered that we had to rock climb out of the gorge with our heavy packs. I wasn’t expecting this but actually quite enjoyed it and once we got to the top, the views were spectacular. I spent the majority of day 2 running by myself and would find myself in the company of other runners here and there. It was during these moments that I really bonded with fellow runners. I was extremely alert and vigilant for markers as I did not want a repeat performance of the day before. Upon arrival in the camp after having made up a significant amount of ‘lost’ time after Day1, I was feeling very nauseas and it took at least a half an hour for me to feel remotely better. The temperature under the tent canopy was 40 degrees C. At this point the race director came to the camp and called me aside. He informed me that I was now in 3rd position for the women and wanted me to know in advance that I would not be recognized with a trophy if I did come in third place due to my getting lost episode the day before and having to get into a support vehicle. For a few brief moments I felt like I had been hit by a double decker bus but I managed to quickly compose myself and made my second decision to not allow this to affect my enjoyment of the event and I was happy to still be in the event considering the distance I had traveled to be there.

Day 3: I felt great and had an enjoyable run. The terrain was a mixture of sandy river beds, gravel roads with deep sandy tracks and trails with millions of small loose rocks and chunks of rose quartz scattered across them. Whilst running through a dry river bed I came across the skull of a Gemsbok. Earlier in the day I had seen a family of four Gemsbok running together which was marvelous. This was a fairly uneventful day ending in Camp3 situated in a dry patch of veld surrounded by beautiful rocky koppies (small hills).
The physiotherapists were very sought after in the camps for much need massages after a hard day out in the desert.
I covered 30km/18.6 miles in 4:34:00
One runner withdrew after day 3 due to an iliotibial band injury.


Day 4: The long run took place on a blisteringly hot day! Chanleigh and myself spent most of the day together which really got me through the eternal bleakness of certain sections, interspersed with mind-blowing beautiful sections. I actually enjoyed myself due to the company. We cracked jokes, sang, went past runners, were passed by runners and were in awe of the fact that people actually lived so remotely out there in the wilderness. Much of the route was through private farmlands. The temperature soared to 46 degrees C/114 degrees F and we spent time at Check Points to change out our socks but it was too late for me as I was developing deep seated blisters on the balls of both feet. Just before the sun went down, at a very busy Check Point 5 at 44km into the day Chanleigh urged me to go on ahead as she wasn’t feeling too good at that moment. I still felt great and headed off down the gravel road at a trot. It was stunningly beautiful as the sun set red and pink over the Kalahari and the full moon arose illuminating the gravel track ahead of me. As I got to Check Point 7 my wheels fell off. I must have reached a stage of calorie depletion and felt extremely nauseas. I had been consuming running supplements all day but had not actually eaten anything. I crawled along the 10km from CP7 to CP8 in the bright moonlight dry heaving every 5 minutes and moaning in a wretched state, forcing myself along mentally in a forward motion and trying to nibble on some almonds with great difficulty. It was at this moment that French runner Patrick Mouyen came across me and he could see that I was in fairly bad shape. He stayed with me all the time until we reached the next CP even though he was quite capable of running on ahead. I could not speak a word of French and he could not speak a word of English but just having him by my side made a world of difference. I was a mess at CP8 and thanked Patrick with the only French word I knew “merci” and he went on his way knowing that I was safe. I nibbled some more and very soon Chanleigh appeared looking full of energy accompanied by Laura Foster, our wonderful journalist for the event. Later she told me that she had been pretty worried about me due to how I looked with my hair standing on end and the wild eyed stare I had been reduced to. I now urged her to go on ahead and not long afterwards started to feel much better and set off again accompanied by Laura. We caught up with Chanleigh and British David and all made it to the camp together. Chanleigh and I finishing hand in hand in the time of 16:19:00 for our 76km/47.2 mile leg.
It was excruciating doing the last few kilometers in the thick, sandy tracks leading to the dried river bank of caked clay where Camp 4 was situated.
Unfortunately we lost 2 more runners on the long day due to heat exhaustion and not feeling well enough to continue.

Day 5: A day of resting, threading blisters and drying them out. I spent much of the day lying on my strip of cardboard in the tent and hobbling around in flipflops to wash my clothes and hair in the river which was rather nice. Few people actually swam but it was a refreshing camp for sure. With the long day behind me, I was confident that I would complete the event even if it meant crawling along on my painfully blistered feet. Race director Nadia sent our e-mails to us every night which was extremely motivating for me knowing that there were people out there rooting for me and tracking my journey.


Day 6: One runner withdrew at the start of the day due to septic blisters that required IV antibiotic treatment at the camp. This was to be a brutal 46km/28.6 mile leg on painful blisters. During the course of the day I had to constantly push the pain aside and keep running which wasn’t always easy to do. Every time I stood on a small loose rock or chunk of rose quartz, I experienced searing pain in the balls of my feet. The day was a process of one step in front of the other and Chanleigh and myself spent much of the day together, again finishing hand in hand in the time of 7:56:00.
That night in our final camp a fierce, cold wind swept through the tent, waking me up and fuelling my ever present insomnia.


Day 7 : The last day: In the morning I ceremoniously cremated my cardboard sleeping mat on the camp fire. There had been moments during the event when I questioned my sanity: a 44 year old woman running 250km through the Kalahari desert with a piece of rolled up cardboard on her back somehow seemed a bit crazy at times but I was obviously in excellent like-minded company.
Only 24km/14.9 miles to go! The run was relatively easy except for the trail sections which had lots of small, sharp rocks which seemed to dig into my blisters, causing me to sound like a bit of a sailor at times. Right towards the very end I took a minor wrong turn through some reeds and had to backtrack again but it was not serious and then the end was in sight. What a relief! What a great feeling of accomplishment! I had covered 252km in the Kalahari desert, this was the first time I had ever attempted anything like this and it wont be the last. My total running time was 45:18:33 , I was the 4th woman and 23rd overall. Running an extreme marathon is a bit like natural childbirth ~ agonizing at times but once it’s over and you’re ‘holding the baby’, it’s the best feeling in the world. The highlight of the experience for me was meeting the most incredible, humble and wonderful people. Without them, covering the distance would not have been the same. The camaraderie was indescribable. When you’re with other people for 7 days on foot in the desert you get to know a very special side of them. The crew for KAEM were also exceptional, many of whom were volunteers and it wasn’t an easy job sometimes. Co-director Nadia was dubbed the mother of KAEM and had everyone’s well-being at heart. Simon, the other co-director who filmed the event kept me laughing with his humour and witty banter. Estienne and I bonded at the end and he requested my head lei of flowers that I had brought with to wear at the finish line. We were all weighed and I had lost 3kg/6.6lbs in 7 days.

After festivities and an awards evening I headed off to Cape Town for a couple of days to visit HOKISA, the orphanage I had been fundraising for. They had also been tracking my progress through the KAEM website, alongside my friends, family and co-workers. It was a fabulous feeling to arrive at HOKISA in the township of Masiphumelele and have the kids run up to me saying “you ran for us, show us your muscles”. They inspected my beautiful glass leopard finisher’s trophy and we spent time together and took photos. I felt like a bear needing to retreat into a cave to process everything I had been through and fortunately still managed to see family and a few friends. En route home I overnighted in Johannesburg and managed to connect with a few friends there before heading back to Hawaii on another extreme travelthon.

Now back at home, my blisters have healed and I’m searching online to see which extreme event I can sign up for next…..


I would like to extend my thanks to my family, friends and co-workers who very generously donated towards my fundraising effort. Between this year and last year I have raised R81,935.00/$11,743.00 for HOKISA. A huge thank you to everyone who supported me, trained with me, ran the perimeter of two Hawaiian islands with me and all the e-mails, motivational messages and love that were sent to me during the event. Also a special thank you to the event organizers and crew, Simon for driving me to Cape Town and my fellow runners at KAEM ~ you rock!
All of the above has made this experience extra special and life enriching.