A whole month later and I’m still processing. I’ve never run anything more than 19km’s - I have the iconic 9km Robberg trail as my base and for something more juicy there’s the 19km Cradock Peak. Trail running has never been about the distance for me, it’s about being out there, discovering. When a route in the Baviaanskloof became topic of discussion, it was clear that it was going to be tough. Distances in one day that I’ve never covered, never mind back to back days of running with distances more than halfway to a hundred in extreme mountainous terrain. Sitting there contemplating my capabilities I committed without much thought - little did I know that these two days of running would alter my very existence. In hindsight, discovering a lot more than what I bargained for.
Rounding up the crew. Cars loaded. We head off onto gravel road. The GPS says 3 hours 40, we get there in 5. I have to admit, once I get behind the wheel of my little 4 x 4 time stands still, I go into cruise control and take in the world unfolding around me like a child in bewonderment whenever experiencing something for the first time. I was created for the slow life. Originally we booked the weekend in the Baviaanskloof, due to floods it got cancelled. The trail and roads got washed away. The only road intact was the one to the farmhouse we were staying in. The trails that survived were the ones out of reach of flash flood river levels. Looking at the map, 3/4’s of the trail on day two would be gone. After quite a few emails back and forth, the weekend was back on. Elated, because what’s an adventure without a little risky edge.
We arrive through a few river crossings, recently worked roads (as in the day before) - the remnants of a devastating 2016 fire and the previous weeks floods still visible. Raw and beautiful. Sun already dipping low, stormy clouds lay their bellies to rest on the mountains in the distance creating an ominous lure towards where we’ll be running the next day. Red cliffs towering above us on either side, alight from the evening sunset glow. The Baviaanskloof sure knows how to woo an adventurer, she has us all speechless and staring. I would go as far as saying we all fell a little head over heels for the hidden wilderness welcoming us with that moment in time. We drive to the farmhouse in silence, taking it all in. We unpack the vehicles. The bags get roughly strewn inside. The kitchen fills with prep for an evening next to the fire. Mountain silhouettes visible against the evening sky. For a moment all plunges into darkness as the faint light from the sun gives way to a night under the stars with Orion keeping watch. The milky way slowly filters through as the night grows older. The full moon peeks out behind the ridge line - it makes Orion blink from brightness and makes the milky way shy away. All of this unfolding and we get to be witness to it. No cellphone reception. Hugged and sheltered, nurtured by mother natures embrace, at her mercy, in awe of her grace. Everyday routines long forgotten. The fire crackling gently. How easy it is to flow back into the simple life I think to myself. How effortlessly this feels like coming home. Every time. I sigh and cherish that life makes sense again.
I am forever asking deep rooted unanswerable questions, to the point of exhaustion. I have come to accept that they matter to me. Even if we don’t have the answers, it’s so important to ask anyway. I couldn’t go through life just skimming the surface of existence, I will not be satisfied. A shallow existence will by no means fulfill me. Tell me what breaks your heart. Tell me what makes it whole. Show me your scars of the battles you’ve fought. Show me the way they healed. Tell me your fears, your weaknesses, your most loved moments captured and kept in the most precious parts of your heart. Show me the real, the ugly, the raw, the truth. I need to know the truth. My truth. I want to walk, talk and live what is true to my heart and have a deep rooted understanding of what it means to be alive, what it means to be humbled by the gift each next breath brings. I want to know why and how and when and what for all things in life. I want to know as much as I can in this short life time so that I can live a life worthy of remembering by those I leave behind. I want to live so that people, animals, trees, things knew that I loved in a way that made them matter to themselves because I went the distance to discover the love that lives within. If I don’t have a big enough drive to understand why I’m doing something I can’t see myself doing it at all. The why’s in life are the real pathfinders. If a life worth living is what I am after, I better get comfortable with that uncomfortable journey to the depths of myself where the answers to my why’s are lodged. Adventures into the wilderness creates a perfect platform.
I’m an early riser. We have a manageable 22.5km’s ahead of us, we don’t have to get going just yet. I gather my camera gear by headlamp and head out to meet the sunrise. I like to ease into my mornings, feel my way into the day. A 5h30 start to brew my first cup of coffee, slowing things down before the day manages to speed up is crucial to how I react to life on a daily basis. Make good use of what you can control, steer it into ways that enrich your life and all the uncontrollable will be a walk in the park. The ground is cold, my feet slightly cautious from everyday studio life. My skin awakens to the crisp mountain air, a slight tingle, goose flesh - kissed and caressed by nature herself. I stand still for a moment, breathe it all in. I make my way up the dirt road to see the moon still up, the sun still sleeping, on route to showing face. Standing there, at dawn, was enough. If nothing happened for the rest of that day I would have been utterly content with the mere idea of existing. Being outside is enough. Being is enough. Why do we forget this in the chaos of civilization? The stillness of the morning seeps into bones, calms me to my core and all feels right with the world. I am at peace. Nature brings balance between the wild and the tame and always leaves us slightly more wild than she found us - isn’t this why we return? Lost in thought. I come back to my surroundings. The moon has dropped to just above the mountain top to my right, the sun, a golden sliver of light visible underneath it. The sun and moon greet, each honoring the other, acknowledging each one’s existence and birth right in this solar system they call home. In perfect equilibrium they dance across the sky, one to say good night, the other to say good morning. The moon bows graciously and disappears. I change positions, the sun not yet visible apart from it’s touch on high tops and a distant kloof - I capture one last moment of the morning light and it’s sacred divinity it bathes the world in. It’s time to gear up and head out for the first day of this two day odyssey that lies ahead.
I don’t run with a watch much, a heart rate monitor never. I run without those things to feel my way through my running - too many gadgets and I get distracted. Trail running is so much more than trails and running, it’s an adventure within and I want to be present at all times. It’s important to tune in to what my body tells me along the way. To rely on my breath to know when to speed things up, when to take it easy. Our bodies are incredible messengers, the best there ever was. It’s my guide out there and I trust it to bring me home. I’m not a fast runner either. Give me distance and a slow pace, or speed over short distance but combining those - a tall order. I find it challenging to run with other people. It takes a bit of getting used to, to find my own rhythm and keep up. For the majority of my trail running love affair, I’ve been a solo runner. So, it was only normal to have slight anxiety setting off on a two day trail with three other trail runners all with ultras under their belts.
We start with a steep climb, already I want to go home. You can’t go home, you just left. Hills. Sigh. At the top, we stop to turn around and take in the view. Farm house down below. Senses heightened as we set off on a trail we’ve never run before. I’m just glad that hill is over. Running along the plateau, we wind our way across a red dusty trail. We’re about to slip off the plateau and into the valley. The pace is quickening and I’m struggling to keep up. Already!? My mind is already hurling insults at me. I’m starting to think my mind is an enemy, hello, I need you as a friend. I stop. Pull yourself towards yourself Stef. I fall back, slow things down. I remind myself that with a clearly marked trail, kilometres of visibility I can let go of the urge to keep up, the fear of getting lost, the voice in my head that keeps on saying you won’t make it, you’re not capable. I find my flow. Outstretched infront of us lay rocky, shrubbery, vast open spaces. Mountains like sacred historic cathedrals in the distance with ancient tales to match I’m sure. Hues of green, greys and blues as they fade into sky. I fall behind on hills and flats but I more than make up for it on the technical downhills. It does mean it’s going to be a full day of fall behind and catch up. That’s what I love about trail running, I think to myself as I dance across loose rocks and boulder hop, it exposes our weaknesses, shows what needs strengthening and leaves you with things to ponder and better and improve on (my mental state). My mind is a freight train of thoughts when I run, if only I could transfer that to my legs. Right there and then, on that first decent into that first valley I knew that this journey had nothing to do with my capabilities but everything with a long slow journey within. The challenge, a healthy strong positive channeling of thoughts. This was to be a mental game. Yip, 5km’s in and my mind was already bringing it’s A-game, coaxing me to play, I bravely accepted.
Horses roaming down below - strong, free, wild and a little bewildered by our intrusion in their territory. I don’t think they have human company all that much. With no cellphone reception, we’re left to our own devices. Headlamps (always), space blanket, an extra layer for warmth in case we are out longer than anticipated and the sun drops out of sight. Shadows, shade and evenings here in the Baviaanskloof can get nippy, in the mountains in general you have to be prepared for all things unpredictable. Water and then some and food, whatever fuels your fancy when you’re out there klapping 5 to 6 hours on your feet. We were told about Cape Cobras, Puff Adders and leopard - the Cape Cobra with a bite so venomous you have three minutes to say your good byes, a puff adders bite you can survive if you get to a hospital in time, there are no hospitals and the leopard well…let’s hope the spoor we came across were a few days old already. All things here in the Baviaanskloof see very little human interaction, it has kept the wild wild. We’re the ones entering their domain. Tread lightly. Not to mention soaring temperatures in the midst of summer with little to no shade and water scarcity. You better come prepared.
I have a history with snakes, convinced it’s my spirit animal, I would go as far as saying that they know the moment I step outside - I am forever hot footing, ballerina leaping, triple twist shrieking when I trail run. Needless to say I really hammered on about the potential dangers of snakes out there without immediate medical attention. They thought I was a bit extreme until the first Cape Cobra crossed our path.
The day had a great amount of flow to it. Just when the uphills felt relentless they would even out to get the legs going on the flats. I welcomed the meandering technical downhills. The crew would check in with each other ever so often and every time we’d confirm we’re feeling strong, we headed on. The map showed plenty of detours to pools, potential waterfalls and camping spots along the way in case we felt inspired, we did. We ran every detour, wanted to see every pool, waterfall and camp. The philosophy - we’re running this trail once, better see everything there is to see. By kilometer eighteen, third detour of the day, we were definitely nowhere near 4.5km’s from camp. By kilometer twenty five I hit a wall. A baby wall. By now, the trail was slightly overgrown, more meandering and I couldn’t really see the crew. That made me feel even more sorry for myself. They were going from strength to strength while I was throwing stones at my wall - this was the only solution I could find currently to break it down so I could carry on, I didn’t have the strength to climb it. I felt like a failure. My mind plays a brutal game . What my mind very conveniently forgot to bring to the foreground was that I was now stepping into uncharted territory - seven kilometers past what I’ve ever run before. That in itself should have been triumph enough and given me grace. It didn’t even feature. Every now and then a faint voice would say, you’re going to be so proud of yourself when you get back. I tried to quiet all the noise and hold onto the faint positive nearly shredded thread of confidence. Tears welled up in my eyes, my heart sank with disappointment. I feared the worst, discovering nothing within. I went discovering only to find that I’m not capable of being the runner I’ve always wanted to be. The adventurer I always thought I was, was nowhere to be found. I wanted to discover that I am worth loving, that I can love without judgement. But here I am falling short of all of those things - I can’t find it within me to love myself at my lowest or be gentle with myself and not judge. There were no answers to why the hell I was out there and what made me think I could do this. I stopped. Tears streamed down my face. I tried to remind myself of why I am here, why I run, that it’s not for time, for speed, for recognition but for the love of being out there, discovering. I broaden my perspective and pull from my memory bank. I’ve always been a runner. I ran long distance in primary school, barefoot. My dad standing on the sideline ready to catch me if I fall, gently reminding me when it was time to take it easy, or speed things up (like my breath guides me today). His encouraging guidance ebbing me on to win plenty of titles. Instilling in me a priceless passion for the pure love of running. Thanks dad, I say under breath, salty tears on the tip of my tongue. I will carry with me these memories for a life time and here they are saving my ass. Moral of the story, all those things that are important in life aren’t things, they are memories with people that deeply care about you. Allow it. I’m busy making memories right this minute, embrace it. I was so lost in thought that I didn’t notice one of my crew running back towards me. When he reached me, he gave me a high five and slotted in behind me. Allowed me to set the pace. My spirits were lifted. I felt lost no longer. I mattered. My hips were killing me. I didn’t think I had it in me to run any more. Before I knew it we were trotting at a good pace. Grant ever gently spurring me on. Home was in sight. Day one, done. Beer. Swim. Braai. Sleep. The watch clocked 30km’s for day one. 12km’s past anything I’ve done before. What a start to this two day journey deep into the recesses of that which is me.
Day two comes around, miraculously. I’m not sore, but my body is tired. I make use of an extra hour of sleep. So much for boasting about being an early riser. I had a mango for breakfast the day before. This morning I’m on my second cup of coffee and massive bowl of muesli with extra banana. Compensating for all the kilometers I’ll have to mind-bend myself to get through today. This will be the day that it all unravels to reveal what I’m really made of. It’s going to take a little more of whatever its going to take to get through today and I can feel resistance creeping in. There is no memory bank of experience to pull from, there are no references to make of what it is like to run 30km’s back to back. It’s not about the distance. I really am out there just to take it all in, experience something I’ve never experienced and embrace uncharted territory. Because today will have nothing to do with my capabilities, my capabilities left the building at kilometer 18 yesterday and since then hasn’t returned. Today will have everything to do with the deep rooted why - why I get geared up and out there; how willing I am to spend time with the lesser known part of me and how much I want to achieve this very personal goal. The day will see us clock 30.5km’s, plenty of ridge lines to scale, plenty of river beds to navigate. On the map most of today’s trail has seen the full scale of flood damage, we’re going to have to rely heavily on our navigational skills. For me, today will purely be about finishing.
Positive beginnings - my legs are moving and resembling some sort of rhythm. I’m optimistic. Just then our first climb comes looming across a well frumpled trail through the riverbed. Rock hopping, water frolicking and we hit the foot of the first saddle. I’m tired. My legs are tired. My mind clearly too, because there is no positive left in me. My legs don’t want to. My mind is already yelling at me. Only 3km’s into the run I was trying to convince myself that I could still turn back, that I don’t have to do this. I actually clearly remember telling one of the crew at kilometre 18 the day before that I’m happy to not run day two, it’s clear as day light that I under estimated what it would take to make it through two days of running in the Baviaanskloof. But, here I am, three kilometres into day two. My mind very conveniently celebrated the triumph of day one in such a manner that it made me forget how soul destroyingly hard it was out there yesterday. Bless it. Everything within me wanted comfort, wanted easy. I wanted to cry but very quickly decided against it and wanted a teleporter instead. I wanted answers. I wanted to know why I’m out here doing this. Who am I doing this for. I wanted someone to blame. My ego appears on the scene and very loudly states the following: there is no reward at the end of this, no praise to be found in this odyssey. There is no medal, there is no celebration, there is nothing. My ego has stepped in only to take me down. It wants guts and glory and recognition and praise. I give it a moment to have a rant, it’s having a good one. Ping ponging my brain from side to side as it throws a proper vloer moer. I observe. Resistance is a funny thing.
I resist because of fear. I am scared of the unknown, scared of what it will make me feel. What if the feelings make me uncomfortable. It must be some sort of defense mechanism. I think about how comfortable I have become within my comfort zone, how self preservation has become the norm, how much I am in need of pushing past this vloer moer and let my lungs burn, my legs ache, lose my breath, feel uncomfortable in my own skin because then at least I’ll be feeling something for a change. I’ve been numb. I need to feel. My ego still vloer moering. I realize that all of this ping ponging in my brain is directly connected to my walk with vulnerability. I resist vulnerability because it will make me look weak. My ego doesn’t like admitting to weakness. My heart aches. It all floods to the surface. My heart has been broken for a long time now and I have been fiercely protecting it by creating situations around me that keep my heart safe. Safe from pain. Creating a world around me that allows for minimum connection but maximum comfort. I’ve been coasting along. I resist because pain makes me uncomfortable. I understand now that this is one of the major reasons why I don’t race, why I don’t push limits, why my running doesn’t improve. I’ve been so scared of feeling anything and as a result my heart has ceased to love at all. I thought I was healing, but I was hiding. What a discovery right at the start of kilometre 5. The truth about feeling pain, mourning, is that it brings growth, it brings perspective, it gives life. It births us into a new life. In order to really live we must embrace feeling all things to the extent they need to be felt. That takes bravery. I say out loud that I am scared of finding out that I am not capable. Scared of being left behind. Scared of ending up alone. Scared of falling, failing, not reaching the top. Scared of being forgotten. Scared of being average. Scared of dying. Scared of everything. The loving part of myself steps in as soon as I surrender and gently asks me not to attach. Just observe. Before I knew it we were at the top, staring back at the rocky winding riverbed below, the moon behind us, blue sky and sunshine ahead. In a short space of time, I discovered a life time of me. Also, that was the hardest climb of my life.
Quick stop for a map consultation, I revel in the rest, whip my phone out and take pictures to remind me of this journey because right now it’s all a blur and taking photo’s are a welcome distraction from the ache of tired bones. The map gets folded and put away. Snack time and sweet singletrack ahead. I stopped counting at the third saddle we had to scale, all I knew was that somewhere in the distance (behind yet another saddle) was a kloof we needed to turn left into and follow the river home. Home, I don’t know what that feels like anymore and the concept of it has shifted all together. By kilometre eight we reached the kloof. No shade or water apart from a lonely little pool under a slight overhang. Ice cold water, welcomed our aching bodies. We lay there for a while, dire relief from the heat. Two hours into day two and we’ve only done 8 kilometres. The severity of the terrain clearly put into perspective. We snacked some more and off we went. By this stage I had nothing left in the tank. The day literally just started and I had no idea how I was going to keep on moving forward. One foot infront of the other was all that came to mind. So for the next few kilometres that’s all I did. The heat was relentless. We nearly ran out of water. The day took a lot longer than expected. With washed away trails, severe heat and water rationing the Baviaanskloof really brought it’s A-game. With having to consult the map on a regular basis and no real trail to fall into rhythm with the going was slow. I was grateful for the rock hopping in the river bed because it slowed us all down and I could keep up for a few kilometres at a time. The going was even slower when my legs decided to stop working. No detours today thankfully. My whole day two felt like a detour back to myself though. For a brief moment I ponder about less difficult ways to get to know myself, surely there must be other methods. At this stage I couldn’t feel my legs anymore. I was running so slow I might have made more progress walking backwards. I somehow convinced myself that this slow trot in 34 degree weather was taking me where I needed to go, wherever that might be. We were still a good 20 kilometers from anywhere. The day went on what felt like forever.
Rounding a corner of the trail to find the crew hunched over the map once more, we’ve reached the part where we can make up some time on the flats following the river all the way before we head up and out and over and down and up and over and down and around and then camp - that sounds inviting. I was feeling strong for a moment as we took another break under the sparsely shaded trees. Enjoying my peanut butter sarmie and a few pieces of braai vleis from the night before. As we sat there, briefly taking it all in, sharing this mammoth adventure with this crew made my heart swell with emotion. It’s easy to run on my own. It’s easy to be a pain in the ass or at my weakest and shed some tears when I’m out running on my own. But to reveal the darkest side of myself to those around me was a sobering experience. To share with this crew who I am at my lowest was the most terrifying out of all of these two days of running. To allow the space where I, myself couldn’t even bare to be with myself to be the space for them to encourage and carry me through. To no longer have the strength for bullshit or pretence. For guards to drop and admit to weakness only to find out that they won’t leave me behind, that they still love me and that they keep on running with me was life changing in itself. To discover I am lovable at my worst by others was life changing.
We run to try make up time. I’m still convinced walking backwards will make me go faster. We reach water, I want to swim, can’t swim, got to keep on moving. Stop now and I stop forever. We’ve reached the last stretch of the river bed. Now it’s time for up, over, down, up, down, over and around…something along those lines. I have no brain left, no legs, no ego. It got properly lost and left behind. I dipped my head in the water, whenever there was water, but it never seemed enough. A few kilometers on I would have a panic stricken moment - we’re going to die out here in this heat from dehydration and heatstroke. It took every last fiber in me to keep my head from finding the first malhuis and booking myself in. What a drama queen. I felt delusional and just shy of hallucinating. My arms hung at my sides, there was no strength, mental capacity to make them move. I had no energy to smile even. I was broken. If breathing didn’t come so naturally, I would have stopped doing that too. I stumbled on a few kilometers and had to sit down. I told the crew that I can’t go on. They kept on telling me that I could. Every time I tried running, my head would overheat and anxiety made me panic. I decided to walk. Walk fast, walk strong. What added to the panic was that there were no clear trails and I was the slowest crew member. My navigational skills need work, some would say it’s none-existent. I confessed that I can run no longer. It took me a whole long agonizing amount of kilometers to admit to this defeat. I could contribute by walking but that’s literally all I had in me. We settled into a single file with a sweep behind me. It was hard. Hard to know that all I could do was walk. I felt defeated, embarrassed, my ego that was. I had to let it all go. I had to focus on getting home in one piece, I was stumbling in all directions by now, my feet silly from tiredness.
I was so glad to see the end of the riverbed. Yet the Baviaanskloof continued to play games. We probably reached five fake ridge lines that pretended to be the last one before really reaching the last ridge line to scamper over and back to camp. I was angry, I felt defeated, I was tired, I was weak, I was void of everything and anything. Six hours later we stumbled into camp. My face, ego, body, heart a mess. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I walked straight through the house, out the back door, bee lined my way to the dam, got in with everything on and just sat there. Tears of relief streamed down my face. If death was to come fetch me that day I wouldn’t have resisted. This experience has documented itself as the toughest thing I’ve done to date. It was a psyche altering, spirit shifting, soul rearranging odyssey. For the first time in my life I understood what it meant to be loved without being able to bring anything to the table. I had nothing to give yet my crew cared enough to got me home. I made it home. We are capable of so much more than what we give ourselves credit for.
I was broken yet birthed into something new. Something deep within me shifted, forever. As I sat in the dam, feeling to all things returning I knew that I could never go back to being the same person I was before. The experience changed me.
Sitting there my mind drifted to the conversation around the fire the night before - why we run and the following flooded through my mind - I run to connect with myself, to discover what I am capable of and definitely come to terms with what I am not. I run to let my mind roam free, it centres me. Running strips me down to the bare necessities to expose who I really am. Although I try not to, I wear so many masks in the working world, on a daily basis, even in and around different groups of friends and family. Running allows me time into the wilderness to step outside, ultimately to step out of the daily commotion, into the dark starry night sky where no one sees and no one cares, out of the center of attention to breathe. I step into the wilderness and my unconventional tomboy feminine state gets comfortable in her skin. I get to shrug off the inconvenience of societal etiquette and step into a raw, rough edged, pure state of warrior woman. One that feels more at home with the unknown wild surroundings than in a grocery store where everyday items are sold. I don’t have to pretend here, I don’t want to pretend anywhere but sometimes we just do. My unbrushed hair, loud laugh, childlike curiosity, strong legs, muscular physique and quirky mannerisms are welcomed. All that I am comes into play and has purpose. Nature accepts me without judgement and I feel like myself. In turn running into the wild gives me time to learn how to accept, love, embrace the wild rough edged woman that I am. It teaches me that the woman who owns no make up, doesn’t spend her money on high heels and dresses, the woman who would much rather have an adventure of a life time than a wedding in a church, the woman who doesn’t have flawless skin, doesn’t flaunt what she’s got, rides her bicycle like a boy, enjoys playing soccer, carries a pocket knife around for in case something needs cutting, slicing or for protection purposes isn’t a woman less worthy of love; that she can take care of herself does not mean she doesn’t need to be taken care of by others at times; that the unconventional way I live my life has left me a little outcast, lonely and depressed at times but that I wouldn’t compromise and change a thing. I run to learn more about this wonderful, sexy, capable, independent, funny, boyish, beautiful woman I am. When I run, I run towards her, I want to be more of her. There is nothing more liberating than getting know yourself, nothing more empowering to discover that you actually like who you are becoming. To do more of what makes you feel like yourself. To have the privilege to do those things, the opportunity to have a season of self-discovery. I run because it liberates me. I run because it empowers me. I run because the wild and wilderness is a place that makes my heart come alive and those places are the places that we should spend more time in. I run because it reminds me that my life has meaning, that my heart is an authentic adventurous playground worthy of discovery, that my heart can love deeply, that I am loyal, that I am strong, that I am worthy of love and adventure. I run because it reminds me that my life is worth living.
These two days of running in the Baviaanskloof was so much more than a multi-day trail running experience. All this time I’ve actually wanted to know what breaks my own heart and what makes it whole again; come to terms with my own scars left behind by the battles I’ve fought; I want to become familiar with my own fears, accept my own weaknesses and share my most loved moments captured and kept in the most precious parts of my own heart. Little did I know it was to gift me with the most epic inner odyssey to the deepest recesses of myself. The mountains and her mysteries shared with me secrets that will heal me in this life and the next.
To the crew and the Kloof I salute you!