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Running the Fish River Canyon

Words: Jan-Daniel van Deventer | Photos: Lindy Truter & Jan-Daniel van Deventer

Following my solo cycle expeditions to Namibia and Lesotho, life was becoming mundane again and working from 8-5 in the office was getting the better of me. A new, out-of-the-ordinary challenge was needed; it was time to go on another adventure. So I started tossing ideas around that wouldn’t cost me a fortune, were unique and challenging and only required a few days leave from work. After seeing the Youtube video of world-renowned trail runner Ryan Sandes running the Fish River Canyon, in a record time of 6 hours and 57 minutes, I immediately knew what my next challenge would be.

Photo credit: Lindy Truter & Jan-Daniel van Deventer

Ryan Sandes described the Fish River Canyon as one of the places with the harshest terrain and most brutal weather conditions he has ever run. I am not a professional athlete, so my challenge was simply to run the 85-90 km route solo, in the quickest time possible within my own capabilities.

In the weeks that followed, the expedition started to fall into place. My leave was booked, the logistics were taken care of and my training was going well. Now, I’m not much of a research kind of guy when it comes to things like this and although I did read a couple of
web-related articles about the canyon, I didn't know what to expect.

On the morning of Saturday, 24 May 2014, my wife, two friends and I drove out of Cape Town. We arrived in Ais-Ais (the end of the Fish River Canyon route) in time to enjoy the natural hot springs pools and a good night’s rest.

The next morning I made my way to the start of trail, feeling incredibly excited about the fact that I was about to experience the canyon in a whole different way.

The route starts close to the Hobas Campsite and ends at the Ais-Ais Resort. As I marvelled at the wondrous sights and magnitude of the canyon from the Hobas viewpoint, I knew immediately that it was going to be tough. My biggest challenge would be looking after myself, as the harsh terrain could easily cause injury and the blistering heat heatstroke.

I wouldn’t be able to do the entire route in one day's daylight, so I decided to start my run at noon on the Sunday and finish on Monday afternoon. Splitting the run over two days also added to the challenge because even though I wanted to spend a night in the canyon, I wouldn’t be able to take a sleeping bag with me or any real food. All I was taking was my camelback, some energy snacks and a warm top for the night.

As the clock struck noon on Sunday, I bid farewell to my wife and friends and set off on the biggest run of my life, excited and pumped with energy!

The descent is said to be the trickiest part because the steepness, loose rocks and gravel can easily cause you to fall and injure yourself. The proof of this is that on average, five evacuations by helicopter take place each year from this canyon, mostly due to injuries during the descent.

Photo credit: Lindy Truter & Jan-Daniel van Deventer

Cautiously making my way down, the next few hours flew by as I ran (and hopped) along the trail that mainly consisted of deep sand, boulders and small river stones and continuous river crossings; not the easiest to run! Another element I became increasingly aware of was the blistering heat during the day. The temperature reached almost 40 degrees and took its toll on me. The flowing water of the Fish River was a life saver, as it provided me with drinking water throughout the run and a much-needed quick swim on occasion.

By 18h00, and six hours into the run, the sun had disappeared and left the canyon in total darkness. The sound of barking baboons on the ridges and sight of a small scorpion crawling out from under a rock made it an eerie place at night.

To make matters worse, my headlamp only shone about 10 m in front of me and with the canyon being so wide, I was battling to see ahead far enough to determine the best areas to run. This made me plonk down on the best sandbank I could find for the night, with my camelback as a cushion and an energy GU and banana for supper.

After ten-and-a-half hours of sleep, I set off at 06h00, re-energised and motivated by the rising sun as it cast its golden rays across the canyon, lighting the way. The canyon is a beautiful place that is like no other, and its sheer magnitude takes your breath away. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of wildlife I saw, which included a couple of wild horses, antelope, rabbits and lots of baboons.

By mid morning, the lack of proper food and extreme heat made the last few kilometres a real struggle and I felt sick on a few occasions. Pushing on, the water pipes of the Ais-Ais Resort eventually came into view and the thought of a cold drink and proper food consumed my thoughts.

After an exhausting 28 hours and 45 minutes, I was elated to have finished the entire route. The canyon run was everything and more than I expected it to be and is an experience I will never forget. It taught me about the ability to delve deep within myself in the harshest of conditions and push on.

More importantly, I proved to myself once again that being adventurous is within my grasp. It is expeditions like this, and the prospect of doing something different and unique, which make life so exciting.

Special thanks to my sponsor, Nick Velthuysen, owner of the specialist trail running shop Runners Rest, in Stellenbosch, who sponsored most of my gear.