Back in the BC (before children) days of disposable income, I was fortunate enough to stay at some of the luxury lodges in the greater Kruger National Park area which included a couple of trips to the Timbavati. In addition to the morning and evening game drives, the lodges offer post-breakfast bush walks. I would always enquire (much to my wife’s embarrassment) about the possibility of a post-breakfast run instead of the more sedate walking option. Lodge staff are trained in exceptional customer service and are used to dealing with stupid questions from demanding guests. However, my question always broke through the poker-faced veneer of the luxury hospitality industry and produced a look of extreme incredulity before composure was regained and a polite, “No chance of that I’m afraid” was received.
Running in a game reserve is exhilarating and, despite the reluctance of fancy lodges to accommodate my compulsions, I would take the opportunities where I could. There are several ‘running with the wildlife’ events in South Africa, including two exceptional marathons (Marakele and Big 5) but sightings of wildlife on these runs are sporadic – and the organisers deliberately keep you away from animals that are big and grey, bad-tempered, spotted or maned. However, like the exclusive game lodges spread out across the Timbavati Private Game Reserve, the Timbavati Traverse is an event that offers a personalised experience you won’t get anywhere else in the world – and the route is designed to maximise the possibilities of seeing Africa’s fiercest and finest beasts.
The first Timbavati Traverse was run in July 2021. At this stage, the country was still in deep-Covid with no formal running races. Luckily, formality is strictly optional in the bushveld and the ingenious Timbavati team managed to put on a 45-kilometre group run for 20 very lucky participants. I am Facebook friends with a few of those first 20 traversers and remember the massive feeling of FOMO when I saw the clips and photos that they shared from the event.
The Timbavati Traverse went straight to the top of the bucket list and was then further expedited in the middle of February when I received an email from email@example.com asking whether I’d be interested in a sponsored entry to the event. This was essentially a rhetorical question – and I excitedly replied to Edwin Pierce, head warden of Timbavati, that I’d see him in July.
There have been a few silver linings to emerge from the Covid pandemic and one of them is the Timbavati Traverse. The event was conceived by Grant Murphy, head guide at King’s Camp, who didn’t want all the training he’d done for his 16th consecutive Comrades marathon to go to waste. It’s hard work getting the mileage in for Comrades but even harder when you make your living as a game ranger.
Morning and evening runs are out because that’s when you are entertaining guests on game drives. The only time to train is in the middle of the day when the sun is sizzling – perhaps someone should update the lyrics to Noel Coward’s classic song to, “It’s only mad dogs, Englishmen and South African game rangers training for Comrades that go out in the midday sun.” And in Grant’s case the mad dogs would include hyenas, wild dogs and jackals that he regularly sights on his training runs.
Therefore, Grant decided to run 2 x 45 kilometre laps in the Timbavati reserve on the original Comrades 2020 race date to raise money and awareness for anti-poaching activities. He enjoyed himself so much that he thought he might as well make this an annual event, invite others to the share the experience and raise funds for anti-poaching activities and the local community.
I’d booked my accommodation at the “Bush Pub and Inn” which looked to be the closest reasonably priced accommodation to the start and fortuitously was also the venue for the pre-race briefing and dinner. After a 6-hour drive, it was great to kick back with a couple of beers and rummage through the lavish race pack which included a full running outfit, various other useful items and an envelope crammed full of food and beer vouchers.
The entry fee is fairly steep at R10,000 for the ultra and R8,000 for the half marathon but this is essentially a donation toward the Timbavati’s anti-poaching efforts and community upliftment programs. Combined with a raffle and other fundraising activities, the event organisers expect to raise about R300,000 from this year’s event.
The briefing was casual and unpretentious and, in addition to the race day instructions, showed video clips of the 2021 event and anti-poaching efforts. Essentially the Timbavati Traverse is like a long club run in an extremely exotic location. Grant Murphy’s laws for running in the bush were logical and simple. Ironically, the most important rule when running with the wildlife is “If you see a dangerous animal, don’t run!” (Which I like to think of as “Rule number one of fight or flight club.”)
This year the field was expanded from 20 to 60 entrants with three choices, a fast 45km bus averaging 5-5.5min/km, a slow 45km bus averaging 6.5-7min/km and a 21km walk*. I mentioned that game viewing possibilities are optimised, one way the event promotes this is by having the two 45km groups run in opposite directions over the 45km loop so that the front bus does not scare off all the game.
* There are plans to add a 21km run to the 2023 event.
When I accepted the invitation in February, I thought I’d be lining up with the fast bus. A lot can happen in 5 months and for me it was 6 marathons, 2 ultras and one boring* knee injury. My knee started playing up at the end of May so I took it easy and spent all my free time being tortured at the bio-kineticist and doing exercises to get my lazy glute and hamstring firing again.
* Basically just a case of bad biomechanics caused by running with a fat stomach.
Overall it was a torrid June (5 marathons entered; 0 marathons run) but I was saving my knee for something special and planned to end this lengthy period of marathon chastity at the Traverse. I hoped my pre-June training would get me through, switched from the fast to the slow bus and realised that it was highly likely that I was going to be the weakest of the herd (not ideal when you are running in lion country).
In the week before the event, I cashed-in on my horded supply of race pack loot by applying what was probably a decade’s worth of free Arnica and Deep Heat samples to my problem leg. I figured that I was giving myself the best chance of getting to the finish and hoped this would be enough to avoid suffering the indignity of having to hitch a ride home in one of Land Rovers.
On race morning we were entertained by a drill exercise by Timbavati’s field rangers and kept warm with a combination of campfires and gourmet cappuccinos. The sanctity of the morning was disturbed at 6:30am when a rifle shot signalled that it was time to get going. Each bus has a lead ‘spotting’ vehicle which drives far enough ahead to ensure there is no ‘dust-eating’ for the runners, a trailing vehicle in case anything is sneaking up behind us (or for anyone who needs a break) and three bike riders (one of which is an experienced ranger armed with a rifle). Our rifleman was James Walker (Timbavati Ranger) who gave us a quick rundown on the rules of running in the savannah as well as some hand commands we’d need to follow when we came across large mammals.
We’d barely broken a sweat when we got the first chance to apply what we’d learnt as James raised a fist, signalling for us to stop and group together. The reason for the stop was first heard and subsequently seen when an elephant leisurely lounged across the road a few hundred metres in front of us. Over the next kilometre there were more signs (like large bran muffins deposited on the side of the road), smells and the occasional sighting of more pachyderms from what was evidently a large herd*.
* With their extra-large ears, Elephants have the best hearing of large African mammals, so it would be more appropriate to call it a ‘heard of elephants.’
We enthusiastically set off again, full of excitement for what might be around the next corner. James suggested we drop the noise levels as we approached the 7km mark and the first waterhole of the day. The route is deigned to pass all the waterholes in this part of the reserve, once again maximising the chances of game sightings.
My expectations for this event were high but they were once again surpassed when I saw the magnificent spread that had been laid out for us. Whilst watching hippopotami steam and snort in the dam, I regretted filling my stomach with peanut butter sandwiches that morning (my standard pre-marathon meal) as some hungrier compatriots tucked into avocado ritz and other elaborate hors d’oeuvres.
It wasn’t long before James raised his fist again, this time for a curious crash of rhinos just 40 metres in front of us. Rhinos have an exceptionally good sense of smell and hearing which makes up for their terrible eyesight – however we were so close that even the rhino saw us. Terrible puns aside, this was a brilliant experience. We spent several minutes observing the four rhinos whilst their olfactory systems got their fill of us. We obviously smelt particularly good and James eventually had to walk down the road coughing loudly to get the rhinos to turn tail and disappear into the bushes so that we could continue.
James pointed out that the rhinos we saw had been dehorned but unfortunately this has resulted in more rhinos being executed for the same amount of horn. This was an unfortunate reminder that rhinoceros poaching is a complex problem with no simple solution – it’s difficult to fight against the well organised, well funded and well connected crime syndicates that are behind poaching.
The good news is that there are many people doing their best to halt the greedy slide into extinction – and we had the honour of running with three of the field rangers from the anti-poaching unit in our group, Sargent Orlat Ndlovu, Ntiyiso Mzimba and Thabiso Sekome. I was told that Ntiyiso and Thabiso did a bit of training for the event but Orlat, who aspires to become a helicopter pilot, was a last minute entry (replacing a sponsored runner who pulled out) and he relied entirely on ‘on-the-job’ fitness. Chasing down poachers is obviously good training as Orlat was more comfortable over the course than most of the rest of us.
Aside: I was shocked to see the news headlines a few weeks after the event that Anton Mzimba, the Head of Timbavati’s Ranger Services, was assassinated at his home in an apparent hit by the rhino syndicates.
The support tables are every six to seven kilometres and it wasn’t long before we reached the second stop at Sandgrouse Dam, where another bloat* of hippopotami were relaxing in the dam below. This gave us a chance to reflect on a spectacular ‘solid grey’ morning filled with elephants, rhinos and hippos whilst we rested and snacked.
* The same collective nouns is used when describing a group of aqua-aerobics participants.
Steady sightings of plains game like giraffe, wildebeest, kudu, nyala, jackal, zebra and another crash of rhino were interrupted by a bit of excitement when a scattering herd of impala was chased by a young leopard in the distance.
During the gaps between wildlife sightings, event founder Grant Murphy (who was also running in our bus), regaled us with tales from his training runs through the reserve and the various animals he’s encountered. Grant, who sports a beard similar to that of a sub-adult lion, once attracted the interests of a lonely lioness. Another memorable run resulted in some unplanned speed work over, under and through the thickets after he disturbed an elephant bull in full musth. When it comes to ranger danger, grumpy old men pose the biggest threat – it seems that in the wild as in the real world, it’s the emotional males that cause all the problems!
We progressed steadily around the route and made it to Caroline’s Big Dam which is about two kilometres before the halfway point and here we met up with Bus 1. We compared sightings (their highlight to date was a hyena) and I reflected that the early bird might get the worm but the slow bus gets all the good sightings!
All the tables along the route were fantastic but this was one by Midrand Airconditioning Systems really stood out. They had motivational messages on the way in and the way out, an assortment of snacks including energy bars, pringles and even a “rate your race” voting station. The only thing missing was a portable “chillout room” where we could cool off with their airconditioning products.
Other than crossing the occasional dry riverbed, the route was very flat. The conditions were also good, if slightly bumpy, underfoot and there were no technical sections that flat footed road runners like myself had to worry about. Trail shoes are recommended but I had no problem running in my normal asphalt treads.
As we entered the final quarter of the run, I was hoping that we’d get another game sighting as I was starting to tire and could do with a little break. I had noticed that there were now regular cow patty-like landmines in the road and asked Grant which beast was responsible for the deposits. The answer was “Buffalo”. My fatigued, undertrained legs resulted in diminishing dodging skills and it wasn’t long before I stepped smack bang into the middle of a big fresh pile of buffalo poop. To this Grant remarked, “Hopefully it wasn’t the dominant bull’s – or he’ll take that as a challenge to his authority.”
On a good morning I could probably challenge the biggest buffalo bull to a midden building competition but before I could brag about the efficiency of my bowels, the fist went up and we screeched to a halt. Sure enough the stop was for a giant buffalo bull crossing the road. Grant followed up our earlier conversation by casually remarking that everyone else should probably give me some space. I countered this suggestion by observing that my predicament would be even worse if the bottom of my Asics were coated in the dung of a female in oestrus.
As we gradually moved forward, it became apparent that there was a large herd of several hundred buffalo in our midst. Although they have a reputation for being the grumpiest of the Big 5, they casually went about their business as James calmly explained what was going on inside their heads. We moved forward in cautious twenty metre stretches paying particular attention to the straggling ‘dagga boys.’ These are the old bulls who struggle to keep up with the main herd and, if we needed to do some rapid tree climbing, they would be the cause. Once again, I was reminded that Mother Nature’s biggest problem is grumpy old men!
Another remarkable experience at the Timbavati Traverse – never did I think I would nonchalantly stroll past a large herd of buffalo in the wild. For those potential future Traversers who might be worried about safety running amongst Africa’s fast and furious, I can assure you that this event is probably safer than running in Sandton (and is definitely safer than running through Pinetown).
As the temperature rose, the conversation started to dry up but a quick dip in a watering hole was out of the question as hippos and crocs don’t like anyone encroaching on their personal space. Instead, we had to be content with visualisations of ice-cold beer and a dip in the swimming pool once we got back to Timbavati HQ.
The official temperature reading that I got from Africa Geographic CEO, Simon Espley (one of our accompanying bike riders), was 32°C. However, the incredible support tables continued to sustain our journey through the heat of the day. The sun was now well past the yardarm, the swimming pool would have to wait but the reward on reaching the final couple of support tables was a cup of beer to help wash down the other delicacies on offer.
With so much wildlife around, there’s a risk of not seeing the tree for the woods. There is plenty of stunning scenery to take in over the route and a final highlight was the baobab tree below. The baobab, which is estimated to be 2,500 years old, provided some welcome shade as we regrouped just before heading back to base camp.
There was a full day of activities and entertainment like snake handling, traditional dancers and live music at the finish to entertain the supporters and spectators. The festivities were in full swing by the time we returned and most of the spectators gathered around the finish line to welcome the last batch of runners home.
After a long run in the heat (and restrained beer consumption at the support tables), I think I was quite severely dehydrated but prioritised finding an empty seat to rest my weary legs before tackling the rehydration problem. As I scouted out a resting place, what is undoubtably the finest phrase I have ever heard after running a marathon was directed my way, “Running Mann, I love your blog – let me buy you a beer!”
My benefactor was Matthew “Petal” le Grange, tax consultant, cricket enthusiast and lapsed runner (working on becoming a current runner again). His wife, Dr. Julia, was on duty as the event’s medical doctor. Dr. Julia was busily attending to one of our group that had started to wobble with a kilometre to go and needed a drip for dehydration. Ironically, both spouses were administering the same treatment to Traverse runners at the same time – although I’d have to say that I was much happier taking my post-run medicine orally rather than intravenously.
My budding relationship with the Hoedspruit Brewing Company was only interrupted for prize giving. Each runner is called up by name and individually presented with their award, a mounted trophy handcrafted by local artists from the Munene Art Gallery. This was another great touch and will no doubt take pride of place in the trophy cabinets of all the participants.
I am a faithful proponent of brewmance after a long run, but the Traverse was even able to inject some romance and bromance into the day with the appearance of MotoGP star Brad Binder. Motorsport is extremely popular in this region and Brad made time to chat to some of his adoring fans. The passionate looks of adulation were so intense that I overheard the remark, “I bet their wives wished they [their husbands] still looked at them the same way!” Brad himself made the most his romantic weekend in the bush by proposing to his long-time girlfriend, Courtney Renniers.
As the sun set on a magnificent day, I headed back to my room at the Bush Pub and Inn. Having seen so much diurnal wildlife during the Timbavati Traverse, a test match against Wales provided the opportunity to observe the nocturnal wildlife in their natural habitat as locals flocked to the Bush Pub (which is the only watering hole in the immediate vicinity). Unfortunately, the big game in the Timbavati Reserve was a lot more impressive than the big game on TV as the insipid Springboks succumbed to defeat in the final minutes of the match.
As for me, after a long, hot day I was completely bush whacked. Whilst we’re told that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, it’s impossible to equate 45 kilometres through Timbavati’s bushveld with any number of kilometres on the road. On a bad day, running an ultra marathon in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve is a fantastic experience; On a good day, it may well be the best single day running experience in Africa. Put this ‘once in a lifetime experience’ into your 2023 running calendar – missing out on Timbavati Traverse would be a Timbavati travesty.
How can you help?
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting the Timbavati’s anti-poaching efforts and community upliftment programs by donating on their givengain page or via direct deposit: Account: FNB (First National Bank); Account Number: 62613138032; Branch Code: 270652; Branch Name: HOEDSPRUIT
Future Traversers: Recommended Travel Itinerary
Entries are open for the 2023 Timbavati Traverse – make sure you book your spot!
I’d recommend spending the night before the event in Hoedpsruit or somewhere just outside the reserve and then, if you have the budget, taking a few nights of R&R at one of the luxury lodges inside the Timbavati Reserve. There are several sites that offer really good specials for South African residents. If you stay at King’s Camp make sure you ask for Grant to be your ranger and make sure he shows you all the animals you missed on your run!Follow Running Mann: