A Dragon’s Fury
Words Linda Willemse, pics X-Berg Challenge
She has slashed at the earth to leave deep valleys. Her breath can be as hot as fire on some days and she can give you the most chilly look that leaves you standing in a cold sweat on others... Attempting to a traverse from her spiky tail to her rugged neck is only for the brave! This is the DRAGON, which sees 18 extraordinary athletes set out to conquer in the Drakensberg (Mountain of the Dragons) in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.
Declared a World Heritage Site, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park, comprises the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho and the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa. The soaring basalt buttresses, gold coloured sandstone ramparts, dramatic cutbacks, cliffs, rock pools and caves makes this mountain range one of the most special in the world. There is a diverse range of fauna and flora, most of it endemic, with some endangered species such as the bearded vulture and Cape vulture calling it home. About 14% of South Africa’s water also originates here with rivers such as the Orange and Tugela flowing from these rocky ridges. It’s a wilderness area that also offers some cultural experiences such as meeting the Batlokoa as well as viewing ancient San paintings (some over 4000 years old).
The X-Berg Challenge is a unique concept whereby trail runners, mountain bikers and paragliders compete directly against one another by self-navigating via pre-set turn-points set out in this magnificent wilderness. Unlike stage races, the flexibility in deciding on a route gives athletes the option to choose how tough, adventurous or long they want to make each section between turn-points. There are re-supply points along the way that athletes may use if they don’t have a dedicated support crew or person. The athlete who reaches all the turn-points in order in the shortest time is declared the overall winner of the race. The length of the race is measured in a straight line connecting all the turn-points, with the 2016 route being 146,2km, though one of the mountain bike teams did a total of 332.6km and 81 hours of ride time to reach the goal.
All athletes are issued with Sportraxs live tracking devices to enable organisers, support crews and spectators to follow this exciting event in real time via internet. It is probably more exciting watching this event over the internet than being at the event in person… Though it definitely not good for your work productivity rating!
A festive race briefing at the Phatt Chef Roadside Diner & BB, who are responsible for some of the tastiest meals in the “Berg, along with an interesting talk on conservation by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife representative, Stephen Richert, had all the athletes fuelled up the race. The next morning athletes gathered at the border post on top of Oliviershoek Pass with ‘fresh legs’ to start the race. The rippled blue waters of the magnificent Sterkfontein Dam behind were a clear indication of a windy day ahead… certainly not what the paragliders wanted to see!
Setting off with RaceFood and a bottle of Aquella in the bag they headed for the first turn point on top of a scenic hill en-route to the splendid rock outcrop known as the Sentinel, found in the northern Drakensberg. Passing the Windmill Farm’s gorgeous chalets it was clear that the trail runners would take the lead. After 2 hours 38 min trail runner Andrew Porter (currently the Grand Traverse solo unsupported record holder) took the lead at the first turn-point with trail runners, Neel Breitenbach and Mbulelo Thinta, only 2km behind.
Newcomers to the event, mountain bike team Mad, Bad and Dangerous (Clive Leader and Rory Eidelman), took a surprising new route to overtake another mountain bike team, Wild Mountain Goats (Andre Dempers and Andrew Armstrong) just before the Witsieshoek toll-gate. Mad, Bad and Dangerous managed to maintain their lead and reached the second turn-point, Witsieshoek car park, in 3 hours 48 min.
The second turn-point, in case you are wondering, was the Sentinel car park and it is here that the race really got exciting. Andrew Porter came in after 6 hours 55 min, still in the lead. The first of the paragliders reached the Sentinel car park turn point after 9 hours 24 min, spending the bulk of the day on foot with Gradient lightweight paragliding gear on their backs. Conditions for flying were not favourable the whole day but just before sunset a small window opened and rewarded paragliding pilots Pierre Carter and Juraj Koren (from Slovakia) an opportunity to take to the skies. Within seconds these two athletes thermaled their way high into the soft blue skies and disappeared to the next valley over a bronzed coloured Sentinel overtaking everybody.
The next paragliders, Joe Engels and Jeremy Holdcroft, arrived an hour later (11 hours 22 min) unfortunately missing the launch window. By now trail running team Bad Medicine (Laura de Haast, Michael de Haast and Mark Human) were well on their way to turn point 3 after reaching the Sentinel car park in 9 hours 51 min. Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge, situated just before the Sentinel Carpark is within close range, and all athletes grabbed the opportunity to re-fuel, with either a juicy burger or well-deserved night’s rest. Some of the stronger competitors pushed on into the night before a compulsory 6-hour rest period kicked in.
After rubbing a good layer of ici-co healing cream on the aching pains the mixed discipline athletes, Mike Semple, Francois Miog and Hendrik van Zyl, opted for the more sane option, a well-deserved night’s rest, and to continue the race on bicycle on day 2.
Meanwhile on top of the Drakensberg mountain range athletes made their way past the spectacular Amphitheatre towards Royal Natal or continued to Ifidi pass before descending. The first athletes, being the paragliders after their magical evening flight, made turn point 3 at Mweni and set off early in the morning to turn point 4, Mikes Pass at Didima. Another flight saw Juraj Koren and Pierre Carter well ahead of the pack with Andrew Porter close behind them. At turn-point 4 mountain bikers Andre Dempers and Justin Armstrong met up with Pierre Carter.
The dragon’s heat took its toll this day as Pierre Carter suffered heatstroke, despite a few refreshing dips in the rock-pools along the way. With nightfall the temperatures fell very low and the rain set in, making it even more challenging for athletes to stay the course. Most of the field chose to overnight at Ezemvelo Wildlife’s stunning Didima Campsite or opted for warm chalets at the luxurious Didima Camp.
Between White Mountain and Injisuthi area Juraj Koren had some welcome support from friends who offered him tented accommodation and a warm meal for the night. This was one night Juraj did not have to worry about ‘noises in the bush’ - a lion, snake, beast or whatever else the Slovakians warned him about.
A rainy 3rd day did not break the spirits of mountain bike team Andre Dempers and Justin Armstrong who made their way to the Monk’s Cowl. Bad Medicine and Mbulelo Thinto ran into navigation problems in the thick white clouds on the mountains which halted their progress, but thankfully the live tracking devices allowed the support crews to assist them. Mike Semple and Hendrik van Zyl entered Monk’s Cowl on bicycle in drenched clothes and full of mud. Improvising, they ended up cycling with black plastic bags for a while to shield them from the wet weather until their support crews came to the rescue with proper rain gear… and some sympathy.
On day 3 a 500m-hop and 55km on foot saw Juraj Koren sprint over the finish line first at Mountain Splendour Eco Resort in the Champagne Valley. Despite the weather this phenomenal athlete managed to be the first paragliding pilot to ever win the X-Berg Challenge. And yes – by only hiking and flying! Unfortunately most of the field elected to drop out with the terrible weather and Juraj’s lead taking a toll on their spirits. With nightfall all athletes were accounted for..
Day 4 and the final day of the race only saw two athletes finish, Justin Armstrong and Andre Dempers, on mountain bikes. It took them the bulk of the day to navigate from Champagne Valley across grassy footpaths and dirt roads to White Mountain, Injisuthi and back to the spectacular (and ironically now sunny) Mountain Splendour. What better way to celebrate a tough event than a late afternoon potjie-kos meal sitting outside on the terrace with the Drakensberg as your view? It is clear, the 2016 X-Berg Challenge saw the Dragon’s Fury!
1st Place - Juraj Koren (paragliding)
2nd Place - Andre Dempers & Justin Armstrong - Wild Mountain Goats (mountain biking)
3rd Place - Pierre Carter (paragliding)
1st Place - Andre Dempers & Justin Armstrong (Wild Mountain Goats)
2nd Place - Clive Leader & Rory Eidelman (Mad Bad and Dangerous)
1st Place - Andrew Porter
2nd Place - Mark Human, Laura de Haast & Michael de Haast (Bad Medicine)
3rd Place - Mbulelo Thinta
4th Place - Neel Breitenbach
1st Place - Juraj Koren (Slovakia)
2nd Place - Pierre Carter
3rd Place - Joe Engels
4th Place - Jeremy Holdcroft
1st Place - Mike Semple
2nd Place - Hendrik van Zyl
3rd Place - Francois Miog
2016 X-Berg Challenge Route
Start – Oliviershoek Pass, The Border Post @ 07h00 am, 28 April 2016
TP 1 – Point en-route to Witsieshoek
Straight line distance from start 10,3km; Altitude 2,293m; Ascent 557m; Descent 0m
TP 2 – Sentinel Car Park
Straight line distance from start 29,4km; Altitude 2,566m; Ascent 830m; Descent 0m
TP 3 – Bottom of Rockeries (Mweni Valley)
Straight line distance from start 54,2km; Altitude 1,604m; Ascent 830m; Descent 961m
TP 4 – Mikes Pass (top)
Straight line distance from start 72,4km; Altitude 1,846m; Ascent 1,071m; Descent 961m
TP 5 – Point above Calfargie
Straight line distance from start 87,1km; Altitude 1,645m; Ascent 1,071m; Descent 1,162m
TP 6 – Monks Cowl car park
Straight line distance from start 93,5km; Altitude 1,532m; Ascent 1,071m; Descent 1,275m
TP 7 – Cottage in Wonder Valley
Straight line distance from start 98,0km; Altitude 1,542m; Ascent 1,081m; Descent 1,275m
TP 8 – Point near Injisuthi entrance gate
Straight line distance from start 103,6km; Altitude 1,428m; Ascent 1,081m; Descent 1,389m
TP 9 – Point on White Mountain
Straight line distance from start 117,8km; Altitude 1,719m; Ascent 1,272m; Descent 1,389m
TP 10 – Point on hill near Cathkin Saw Mills
Straight line distance from start 137,7km; Altitude 1,268m; Ascent 1,272m; Descent 1,740m
Finish – Mountain Splendour Eco Resort
Straight line distance from start 146,2km; Altitude 120m; Ascent 1,372m; Descent 2,988m