A cold start to the Karoo Kopie X-ing, Tanya and I (Source: Willem Avenant)
“Life has taken me on journeys that I didn't care to take. Life has also brought me back to exactly where I need to be”
(Angel Laney Sutton)
During late April 2016, my angel Tanya and I packed our car with lots of running gear and took to the road. When we left Pretoria we had no idea of the amazing adventure that awaited us in the small town of Murraysburg in the Karoo. We setoff to run a race but received so much more. It is difficult to describe the hospitality of the people, the excitement of the runners, the beauty of the Karoo and the little town of Murraysburg in a way that will do it justice. I will, however, attempt to convey as much as possible, but know that it will fall short. This is not an event to read about but rather an occasion that must be experienced and I urge everyone that reads this to treat yourself with the gift called Koppie X-ing (koppie crossing) hosted by the team from Karoo Running.
Usually I write a fairly technical race report and I will attempt to do so again, but only towards the end, this event cannot simply be described in technical terms only. It is an event filled with friendship, caring, dreams, romance and adventure, this is the reason why I have decided to write about the event and not just about the run, and it is the true reason most of us run trails. This race is a clear embodiment of what trail running is about, the people, nature, the elements, the test of self and above all adventure.
About the Event
It all started as all great things do, with a dream. Willem Avenant, our race director and the dreamer behind the Koppie X-ing says that “the idea of this run is to combine the beauty of the Karoo and its people, gourmet Karoo food, and the spirit of trail running and adventure into one event where you challenge yourself and appreciate nature”, and this is exactly what he and his team of wonderful people delivered.
It might be a good idea to introduce Willem and his team at this time. Firstly there is Willem, a native from Murraysburg with a true spirit of adventure burning within him. Soft spoken with a kind heart and a beard that will make the guys from Buffelsfontein Baard Olie proud. He met his American wife in Alaska, toured Southern Africa with an old Landrover (because nothing says adventure like a Landy) and ran a successful business in Cape Town before relocating to the Karoo so that his daughter can grow up in this beautiful environment. Then there is his wife, Julie, an American that understands Afrikaans, doesn’t eat meat, and has an amazing ability to make logistics seem easy. Her spirit of adventure burns as bright as his, and she is without a doubt the backbone of Karoo Running.
As with any dream it takes a team to give it wings and Willem has his teammate. It was with great pleasure that we met their four year old daughter Aileene, a vibrant, easy going little girl that speaks fluent Afrikaans and English, and seems to be able to adapt to the ever changing schedule and environment out there. In the four days we spent with them, I did not once hear her complain, cry or become difficult. My take on this is that the Karoo, and in specific the little town of Murraysburg has given this family an inner peace that is contagious. I saw that in the spirit of adventure and discovery, in imagination, confidence and peacefulness that this little four year old carries with her, by the end of our journey she had filled the hearts of everyone with a little of herself.
The first face we saw when we arrived in Murraysburg, however, was that of Jenny Ballantyne the owner and manager of Kweperlaan Guesthouse and Coffee Shop. A friendly individual that is involved with the local community and makes every guest that walks through the front door feel welcome. The place is beautiful and alive with the buzz of people coming and going, the chatter of people adds to the homely atmosphere and soon we felt at home. I usually find it difficult to settle-in and get comfortable in other people’s homes, but not here, the welcoming smile when we arrived and the casual way of getting us familiar with everything just broke the ice, there was simply no awkwardness here.
Then there is John Swanepoel, the race sweeper and verger / sexton of the local Dutch Reform Church, a beautiful structure that houses a congregation of 150 in a building with a rich history that dates back to 1856 and which was used as a hospital during the Anglo Boer War. We had just arrived in Murraysburg and were taking photos of the beautiful church when John and his wife Renée pulled up and asked whether Tanya and I would like to see the inside of the church. An appointment was made for later that afternoon and we were treated to our own private tour of this amazing building, its clock tower, the bell and the wonderful organ, of which there are only three in the country. We listened with some sadness of how the church lost its beautiful chandeliers and how this was replaced by something that is simply not adequate, given the rich history of the church. We also learned that people drive a lot in this little town, when John came to pick us up for the church tour, we were only about a street block away, but that is how this town operates, in the Karoo, comforts are created and they become as entrenched as the culture of this community.
After our tour of the church, Tanya and I visited the local café where we met Willem’s dad, Paul Avenant. He is a friendly individual who proudly introduced himself as Willem’s dad; we were quickly given a brief history of the family, Willem’s travels and his dream for this event in the Murraysburg area. We were introduced to Willem’s brother, Naude. Naude is a younger look-alike for Billy Gibbons from ZZ-Top and somehow his ‘eccentric’ look didn’t appear out of place here in the Karoo. He teaches at the local school, studied the arts, like Willem travelled abroad after which he returned to his roots. Over the four days we were there, both Paul and Naude made every effort to assist where they could.
Next on the list of interesting people we met was the international chef, Erika Grebe from Karoo Cuisine. She is a hardworking and accommodating chef that is up for any challenge and for whom nothing is too much effort. During the race briefing she treated us to a spread of amazing finger food that set the tone for the rest of the event. Breakfasts, lunch-packs and dinners were all prepared by her and we all ate like royalty. Special dietary needs were catered for and I can truly say that there were more food than what we could possibly eat, Karoo hospitality at its best. The Murraysburg community can count itself lucky for having her there; she travelled Europe and worked as chef on a super yacht that sailed the Mediterranean, yet came to settle down in the Karoo.
During the race briefing we were introduced to Luanè Stapelberg and Adri Smit, our aid station support crew that made sure we were welcomed with a cheer, some smiles and lots of things to drink and eat. They kept our spirits high around the halfway mark each day and did so with the typical Karoo friendliness. At checkpoints stories were told, updates were given and with lots of encouragement we were setoff each day.
Louw, or as he became known – the hand, and Adri Kruger, provided support, transportation, general logistics and was there to assist whenever and wherever. They are two wonderful people who are passionate about the Karoo and its people. Louw assisted Erika with the braai on the first night, being closely ‘supervised’ he did an excellent job with the meat.
We met Linda van den Berg, our medical standby, only once and that was during the race briefing. Thankfully her services were not needed but it was comforting to know that she was ready to come and assist if a medical issue were to arise.
The other critical members of this wonderful Karoo team are the Theron families who allowed us to run and stay on their farms, but more about them later.
One thing we noted was that most of the people we met had grown up in Murraysburg, went to school there, left to study and travel, mostly abroad, but all had eventually returned to their roots. During the afternoon we spent time exploring the town of Murraysburg, we launched our drone took wonderful video and photos, drew a crowd of children and saw in their faces the wonder of adventure, and at the same time the innocence of being totally child. I fondly recall, how, as a 7-year old in Pietersburg (Polokwane now), I had walked in the streets, as these kids do, stayed outside in the sun and the dust until the sun set, as they do, and laughed with my friends about everything. I was glad to see that this romantic ideal of innocence was still alive, even if I had to travel 1000km’s to find it.
Our Entry and Race Briefing
Tanya and I came across the Koppie X-ing race by accident. We were looking for something different, a run with some technical terrain, a little climbing, but in an area where we have not run before. Soon we entered and paid our race fee and then as the time grew nearer the excitement set in. Three weeks to go to the start of the very first Koppie X-ing and the news wasn’t great, it seemed as if the event hadn’t drawn enough people and some of those that committed to going could not make it, but Willem insisted that the race was going ahead. As time went by a few more runners joined and eventually we were a group of eight.
Tanya and I were the first to arrive in the little town of Murraysburg on the 28th of April. Soon we were joined by John Stewart, Jacob Volmoer, Cecile Reed and Marelise Vlok all from the Cape Town area. Hennie Prinsloo and Carien Hamman, two fellow runners from Pretoria, joined us later. Two weeks earlier I had a telephone conversation with Hennie about the race, this would be their first truly technical trail and he was a little concerned, but after our conversation him and Carien were committed and it was great to finally meet them face-to-face out there. Hennie, a multiple Comrades silver medallist is no novice when it comes to running long distances, but when one adds technical terrain to the mix, running takes on a very different dimension.
The ride out to Murraysburg was beautiful and Tanya and I made the most of it, we took it slow and arrived rested. On Thursday evening we were treated to a feast and a race briefing, for the first time we saw the race profile, flat and fast for day one as promised and a technical mountain crossing for day two. I have learned that races always seem to look much easier on a computer screen so I mentally prepared myself for a tougher second day. I would have to make sure that Tanya and I run conservatively on day one so that we have the legs for day two.
After the race briefing the runners all retired to make final preparations, take hot showers and get into a comfortable and warm bed. By now the warm weather we had been experiencing on our journey there started to change with a really chilly wind making sure we reached for our jackets. It became clear that we might be battling more than just the terrain and distance.
Day 1 – 34.8km from Murraysburg to Visgat
We were up early, had a shower and dressed in our ‘finest’ running gear. The fleece and beanie came out and would stay on for the remainder of the two day run. We made our way to number 8 Kerk Straat (Church Street) where Erika made sure that no runner setoff into the Karoo without a solid breakfast. After eating, and may I say more than what we should have before a run, it was time for the kit check, booking in our ‘drop bags’ for the camp site and putting our cars into secure storage.
Willem and the first eight brave souls who ran the Kopie X-ing 2016 (Source: Willem Avenant)
At eight, the church bell across the street announced that it was time for us to go and after some photos to commemorate the first brave souls to attempt the Koppie X-ing we were off. It came as no surprise that the younger Jacob, Cecile and John took the lead followed by the rest of us. Soon we were off the dirt road and there we were, running in the Karoo. As the day went on we had to climb over numerous fences and went through about 26 gates, if there is one thing I am really good at after this run is to sprint ahead, open the gate, and let Tanya through, close the gate and catch-up to her, a skill I am sure will come in handy at some time in the future. We had some good laughs with Tanya trying to climb over rickety fences, an art that my angel got better at as the race progressed. We enjoyed the run, the scenery was stunningly beautiful and although an icy wind was blowing, we seemed to be managing well. Tanya and I kept a steady pace and were running well within our ability, my angel with a knee injury sustained during the Addo 100-miler and further injured four weeks before this run, and myself with a twisted ankle that was the result of a fairly technical Saturday run a week before. We could not help but stop to take photos every now and so often, it is impossible to be out there and not fall in love with the beauty of the place.
Our running conversations are a mixture of philosophy and psychology as we try to define our place within each of the ‘worlds’ Tanya and I get to run in. We have done this in the beautiful Eastern Cape, the dry and inhospitable Sahara Desert, and again here in the Karoo. For us this place just felt right, it is difficult to describe but the combination of people, environment and terrain all just fit together in harmony.
Halfway we were cheered into the aid station by Luanè and Adri and there it was our ordered potatoes with salt and marmite. We filled our running bladders, ate our potatoes and listened to how the local farmer’s son made his girlfriend climb to the top of a really high koppie to get engaged. I could not help but think that this is a great idea, a sort of partner selection, where you test compatibility, commitment and endurance before you pop the question. Soon we were off, I was amazed that the further we ran the more beautiful the Karoo became. Along the way, we would repeatedly see Willem who took on the role of race director, photographer, support and direction giver, no matter how many times we passed each other, his friendly face was always full of smiles. It was evident that his dream had found its wings, and that he enjoyed every moment of it.
Tanya, following behind Marelise Vlok at around the 8km mark on day 1 (Source: Genis Pieterse)
As always, Tanya and I seem to find ourselves when we are out in nature. On the trails I get to see my wife achieve her goals, she comes alive, shows her strength and when nature growls at her she growls back with confidence. I love this, I love seeing her bloom and it makes me extremely thankful to be out there with her. This time around my angel were flying over the hills, the height didn’t seem to have any impact on her and for the first time it seemed as if she had conquered her fear of heights. As usual, Tanya upped the pace during our second half and I had to work hard to stay with her. We crossed the river a few times, mostly without getting to wet, but on a few occasions very muddy. On our second to last river crossing I couldn’t help but think how much I love putting my tired feet into ice cold water, something that is just never possible when we run in big deserts. Soon our day’s journey had come to an end and I had the privilege to run into Camp Visgat, hand-in-hand with my angel. We had completed our first 34.8km distance in the Karoo and loved it.
It was clear that our weekly hill and speed training, combined with more technical trails was starting to pay dividends. This time around we were able to maintain a very constant 6.9km/h with mostly even splits across the entire 35km’s, although we took a wrong turn early on in the race we were able to maintain a very constant pace throughout. Thankfully Willem had spotted us and phoned Marelize to tell her we were heading the wrong way, there is no need to make a long run even longer by taking the long way there.
Jakob was as formidable out there as I had thought he would be, finishing 36 minutes ahead of his nearest rival, John Stewart. John and Cecil crossed the finish line virtually at the same time with only 3-seconds difference between the two of them. Then it was Marelize’s turn followed by Tanya and I. We could see that Hennie and Carien had to work hard, but as novice technical runners, this was expected, and I remain amazed at how well they were actually doing.
At Camp Visgat, a rustic hunter’s cabin welcomed us, made of mostly reeds, but with a warm fireplace, clean bathroom and soft beds, this little hut, which we had the privilege of calling home for one night. It is situated in the most amazingly beautiful spot. Soon we had washed ourselves, dressed in clean clothes, something Tanya and I as multistage self-sufficiency runners are not used to during a race. We visited around the fire which kept the cold at bay, ate our packed lunches and then it was my turn to attend to Tanya’s blisters. These were the usual race visitors and soon they were cleaned and drained. The rest of the afternoon was spent chatting, resting, eating and generally just having a great time. At around five, our chef and the hand arrived with pre-dinner snacks, lots of laughs and outside we could hear the children playing. The fire was quickly rearranged by the hand, and then the preparation for our feats started.
While the ‘skaap stertjies’ (sheep tales) were on the coals some more people joined our little group of intrepid adventurers. Rikus en Alna Theron, the owners of this beautiful farm on which we have spent much of the day together with their children Berno Theron, his wife Mia Steenkamp-Theron, their son in-law, Casper Schmidt with his wife Barbara Theron Schmidt, all came to visit. What an amazing evening this turned out to be, great food, good conversation, friendly people and some light rain made for a wonderful atmosphere. Again the food was great, the ‘skaap stertjies’ were followed by lamb tjops, wors (sausage), roosterkoek (type of bread), jam, home-made butter, mielies, salads, and dessert consisting of truffles and fudge, what more could one ask for, I could not think of anything.
The kids played outside, in the dark and the cold, freely running all over the place. It reminded Tanya and I off our own childhoods. The sadness is that most modern children will never experience this freedom, the safety to explore, and the liberty to let their imaginations run wild.
Aileene presenting Tanya with a treasure, a goat scull, that has found its way back to Pretoria (Source: Tanya Pieterse).
We also learned that the Dutch Queen has a farm in the area and spends much of her time there. It is clear that the Karoo and the little town of Murraysburg must hold some type of magic to everyone who has the privilege to find their way there. I do believe that once the Karoo magic has touched you, you will, forever, be drawn back. This is maybe the reason why everyone returns, eventually.
After dinner we were off to bed, and soon the chatter and laughter died down gradually making way for the night sounds of the Karoo to fill our cabin. We slept well and awoke to the first frost for the year. It made me realise how fortunate we were, to be here, right now, at this very moment in this very place.
Day 2 – 31.4km from Visgat to Misthoek
Tanya and I were up early, got dressed and ventured out into a cold Karoo morning. We walked on to a plateau where we photographed the sunrise, but the moment was over too soon and we returned to the cabin. An icy wind gave us a taste of what the day would be like. Tanya said how wonderful it would be to have a cabin on this plateau, to wake up with such a beautiful view of the Karoo sun setting on the one side and rising on the other. This place allows you to dream, to dig into your desires, your heart and your being and find that which brings pure delight.
Sunrise over the Karoo on the morning of day 2 (Source: Tanya Pieterse)
When we arrived back at the cabin Erika had prepared yet another of her big Karoo breakfasts and again we had far too much before setting of for the day. We were under no illusion about what the day would be like. The race briefing had prepared us for a day of some technical running while crossing over a beautiful Karoo mountain, but even I was surprised at the amount of fairly large stones we encountered during our assent. This made running fairly difficult which slowed us down somewhat.
By the time we finished the day we had climbed a total of 539 meters over very difficult terrain, but with priceless views. One of the most rewarding elements of trail running, for me anyway, are the views, the sunrises, sunsets, the feel of the sun on my skin, the wind in my face and the silence around me, but most of all, the quality time I get to spend with my wonderful wife out there.
Tanya and I just after leaving the checkpoint at the halfway mark (Source: Genis Pieterse)
It was another great run with eighteen gates to open and close again, by now I was working the gates like a well-oiled machine. We started by winding our way across a reasonably flat plane with a slight incline for the first 12 kilometres, and then the climbing started. We summited at around 22km’s with the most beautiful views of the Karoo. The aid station at the halfway mark offered a welcome reprieve from the climbing and treated us with a panoramic vista that will remain one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The climbing was difficult for three reasons, one, much of the climbing was steep which made running up fairly taxing, two, the size of the stones meant that it was difficult to find a firm footing and three, the wind just always seemed to be blowing in such a way that we were running into it. The cold and wind made for a challenging but enjoyable run. Our time crossing the mountain was broken-up into running to a point where we thought the final summit is, then stopping to take a photo or two, then running to the next point we thought the summit to be. Without a printed map and profile it was somewhat difficult to orientate where we were on the route, but this made it exciting.
Then the downhill section started, we ran where we could do so without too much risk of falling, but at times the big stones just made it impossible for Tanya and I, so our descent consisted of running and walking combinations. We were amazed to hear that a 90-year old lady who farmed the land till recently, would inspect her land by bicycle and would often cycle over the same pass we were running. From around 19 kilometres we could see the end and what a view, the farmstead for the most part, until we reached about 25 kilometres just didn’t seem to get any closer. Then final stretch to the end was fairly easy running with wild ostriches sharing this part of the Karoo with us. Close to the end Tanya did her usual fall routine, fortunately this time without injury.
Again it was Jakob that arrived first, followed by Cecile and John that arrived together, with the rest of us following in the same order as on day one. Jakob, however, was the only runner in the group that took less time to complete day two then day one, with the rest of us all a little slower on the second day.
We ran through the finish arch at the farm Misthoek where a welcoming committee awaited us, the farmhouse was warm and welcoming, with a warm shower, fire and lots to eat and drink awaiting us. Soon Tanya and I were showered and dressed and it was our turn to see Hennie and Carien finish, a starling effort by two novice technical trail runners who refused to give up.
The finish line, taken with our drone (Source: Genis Pieterse)
It was here that we met Bienkie, the tame Springbok orphan. He wanders the homestead and even walks into the house if he thinks that he is not receiving enough attention, something that was not going to happen with our group. He was photographed, spoken to and attempts were made to feed him but apparently he prefers Karoo grass.
Sunset at Misthoek (Photo: Genis Pieterse)
Again, at around five our chef and a team of people entered and preparations were made for dinner. We met Jacques and Maretta Theron, the owners of this beautiful farm, and the people who allowed us to run over their land during the day. Jacques and Maretta came to spend the evening with us and we truly enjoyed their company.
It was a feast of feasts when we sat down for dinner, starters were Springbok cigars served with a preserved quince and feta salad, for the main course it was lamb shank with vegetables and for dessert we had Vanilla Panna cotta with berry compote. This is a far cry from the usual post-race dinners of two-minute noodles and maybe some salami, we are used to. After dinner it was time for the prize giving and besides the wonderful prizes that made its way to the few runners who were there, the highlight came when Willem thanked Julie and had to fight hard to hold back the tears. According to him ‘chicks dig this’ but it was the moment that I realised that all of us, the farmers who so willingly gave us permission to run over their farms and live in their houses, every member of the crew, the children that always seemed to be there with us, the runners, and Julie his wife, we as a collective gave wings to one man’s dream, a vision for the town of Murraysburg, a town he feels extremely passionate about. But we gained so much, we made new friends, had great experiences and breathed in life.
After dinner, the prize giving and visiting, Willem called us outside and gave us the opportunity to see the night sky as only the Karoo can present it, beautiful, overwhelmingly majestic and painted in perfection. Afterwards the runners, one by one, retired for the night, and as with all adventures this one ended too quickly.
By the time we were up on Sunday morning, our trusted chef was there again; ready to treat us one final time. After breakfast we packed the Landrover and with a little sadness drove back to town where we collected our cars, said our goodbyes and parted ways, hopefully only until next year.
On the way out, it was time to visit the cemetery where graves date back to when the little town of Murraysburg were founded. It was here where the ground gave way under Tanya and she found herself with ‘one foot in the grave’ literally. We had our laugh, and knew when we got back into the car to start the journey back to Pretoria, that this community in the Karoo has found a place in our hearts for ever. We still fondly recall the little herds of sheep that roams freely, the banter between the Merino and Angora farmers, the humour of the local people and the hospitality of a community. It was this that we didn’t pay for, it was given freely, and we enjoyed every moment of it.
A simple question remains; did Willem and the team that made up Karoo Running deliver on their promise?
As runners we were promised;
a beautiful Karoo landscape,
wonderful Karoo people,
gourmet Karoo food,
the ability to challenge ourselves, and
the opportunity to appreciate nature.
I don’t believe that anyone who attended this great event can honestly say that all five of these promises were not met. The area in the Karoo where we ran was simply breathtakingly beautiful, the people were warm and welcoming, and we were received not as a gathering of outsiders but as part of their community. The food was excellent, too much and here also the team kept its promise. The terrain and route was a mixture of different surfaces, some obstacles, climbing with technical sections, distance, and the Karoo weather played its part in allowing each participant to find something to challenge him or her out there. And finally we were allowed enough time to simply appreciate this beautiful place. I can say without a doubt that this team delivered on their promise and exceeded my own expectations.
The Karoo team with all of the 2016 runners (Source: Willem Avenant)
Lessons Learned in the Karoo
I found that I love the humour of the Karoo people; it is a practical humour, without pretence. It belittles no one, and its only aim is to bring a smile. I loved the stories like how a Karoo farmer knows that the girl he dates is the one to marry. Apparently he drives with her on the farm, stops at a gate and lets her open and close the gate, if by the fifth gate she still smiles, she is the one.
I also learned that all Karoo farm wives ask for electric gates for their first Christmas on the farm, a gift that I have not seen delivered. I must say that after opening and closing 44-gates in two days these women have my respect and if I had any influence with Father Christmas they would all be getting electric gate openers for Christmas 2016.
But I also learned how dependent people are on one another out here, how they support each other and their community. How important education is for them and how entrepreneurial they all are. I had to drive 900 km’s into the Karoo to find the evidence of selfless teamwork, and I am glad I made the journey.
STHIL (South Africa)
Buffels Fontein Baard Olie
UltrAspire (South Africa)
VivoBarefoot (South Africa)
L-Avenir Wine Estate and Country Lodge
Namaqua Boxed Wine
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