The Rhodes Mountain Race has to be amongst the toughest and most unusual races in South Africa. Restricted to 80 entrants, the one aspect that makes it unique is that this is known for its snow. Run from the hamlet of Rhodes on the Eastern Cape side of the Drakensberg Mountains, at the 32km mark it passes Tiffendal, South Africa’s only ski resort. The selection of the date was deliberately made to co-incide with the likelihood of snow.
On my first attempt, I was not to be disappointed as the snow was at least a metre deep at the top.
This is the story of that odyssey together with John Mostert
Main picture: Between Mavis Bank and Tiffendal. Underfoot it was mushy with melting snow and slippery mud
The first indication that this will be a different type of race is when one passes the warning sign “Beware of snow” just as one leaves Barkley East on the gravel road to Rhodes. At this point, it is 50 kays to go and not a mountain in sight.
Rhodes is an old town that has seen time pass it by. It has no natural advantages and therefore was slowly dying until some far-sighted person from Joburg, who had fallen in love with it, introduced a special 52-kay mountain race.
After +- 15 years of running, I thought that I had seen it all as far as running was concerned. There are plenty of unusual races on the running calendar, but this race easily takes the prize for the race with most number of unique features. For example, would anybody ever dream of taking a camera on the Comrades? I doubt it. But here was a race in which there weren’t only lots of cameras, but a handful of videos too!
The registration on the Friday afternoon had the harassed, but hospitable, organisers frantically trying to discourage the runners from running, as it was too dangerous. The rivers were down in flood and the vehicles were not able to get through. If that wasn’t enough, the snow was so deep at the top that the snowplough has broken down and the road was blocked. That meant that the normal seven-kay section without refreshments had been extended to 15 kays. Normally a local farmer on horseback provided refreshments on part of this section but due to the weather, the horse couldn’t get through.
The Organisers try in vain to put the fear of God into the runners by their scare tactics. It has the opposite effect – it makes the runners even more determined to run it. As it does not seem to discourage any of the runners, they realise that their efforts are futile. They then agree for the race to proceed but disclaim all responsibility by letting the runners sign an indemnity.
The race commences at 6 am, like any other reputable race would, except that it is in the middle of winter and the temperature is a chilling minus seven degrees centigrade. From the appearances of the participants, one would never guess that it was a road race as no running kit is visible. It is a jumble of balaclavas, windbreakers, Helly Hansons, cycling shorts, daypacks and multiple pairs of gloves. What distinguishes it from a hike, are the running shoes.
The starting point is outside the clubhouse in the main street of Rhodes, with every local inhabitant for 30 kays around in attendance. A gentle 2 kay run, which takes one far outside the town culminates in the first climb. A series of steadily rising undulations, if one may call these steep inclines that provide one with a panoramic view of the town far below and a magnificent view of the snow tipped mountains ahead. If one closed one’s eyes, one could imagine that one was in another country because, as we all know, SA is the land of sunny skies, braai vleis and something else, if you believe the advert, and not snow, ice and sub zero temperatures. This definitely cannot be SA.
After passing a Druid temple, the road descends steeply to the river below, losing much of the height, which has so arduously been gained. One has to wade across an icy stream after taking ones shoes off. Some runners, obviously veterans of the race, put plastic bags over their shoes and run across. Whilst great in theory, many become waterlogged as the packets rip open on sharp objects.
Others try boulder hopping across with equally disastrous consequences. All the rocks are covered with an invisible layer of ice. One runner with plastic coverings on and wife on his back, piggy back style, slips and falls flat into the water, dunking both of them totally. The last pitfall for the unwary runner is a thin film of ice at both the entrance and exit to the water. If not negotiated with caution, it also claims it fair share of victims. Of course, this is the first of many such streams.
At 14 kays, one leaves the dirt road at the first checkpoint. All the runners have to hand over the first of the two ID tags. This will serve as a control to check whether all the runners have made it to the other side. The water table denotes the entrance to the footpath, which will serve as the track for the next seven kays – obviously without marshals or refreshments. The trail is marked with stubby yellow flags at irregular intervals. The path heads the only way it can – up, towards the snow and the peaks. The first section of the ascent is diagonally across the grain of a slope. The pace is down to a slow shuffle. Then down to the next stream in flood and the same rigmarole with the shoes.
Then up to the snow line, or more aptly, the ice line. As the snow had fallen two weeks prior to the race, the alternate melting and refreezing has converted the snow into ice. The small bushes do not provide much assistance to pull oneself up as their branches are covered with small thorns.
On closer inspection, the waterfall on the opposite slope turns out to be suspended in mid air. The frozen stream waits for the warmer weather to let it continue on its way to the pool below.
Across the stream lies the mother of all hills, appropriately known as Mavis Banks. You can imagine what unsavoury epithets she is called! . Before the race, if one had asked any runner what was their slowest kay ever, they might have said seven minutes a kay or at the outside, seven and a half. Well that will be the time of the winner up this hill – for half a kay. 20 minutes is good and 30 fair – for one kay. One really cannot call it a run. It is more like a pull. A barbed wire fence is fortuitously placed on the path. The organisers obviously realised that the runners didn’t need any more obstacles – the ice and snow underfoot is sufficient to slow everybody down to a slow cursing pace. Nobody appreciates the scenery, which is supposed to be the highlight of this run but one focuses on the next bit of fence and ice. A quick glance back reveals a string of runners the whole way down to the stream, all clutching the fence as if their lives depend on it.
From the banner “ 200 metres to go” to the top takes at least another five minutes. A welcome sight waits. Obviously the vehicles got through. A refreshment station greets the runners. As the saying goes, “Not your everyday fare,” but hot soup, coffee and tea. Not a cold coke in sight. The organisers have by now broken every rule in the book. The station is sprinkled with chairs. The runners sip their hot drinks and munch on rolls and sandwiches. The atmosphere is like a Sunday morning club run, not some major race.
This is the 21-kay mark. Four hours and fifteen minutes later. A cut off of four and a half-hours applies at this point which also serves as the second check point. Tags are handed in and names taken to correlate with the previous checkpoint.
The worst part waits in sullen silence. In previous years the wind has been known to produce a wind chill factor of minus 30 degrees. We are lucky. It is a warm freezing point. But what the weather gives with one hand, it takes with the other. For the next eight kays, the surface of the gravel road is a thick mush of ice, snow, mud and whatever other nasties Mother Nature can devise. For those not concentrating too hard on these problems, the view is spectacular. The path leads along the edge of the escarpment. To the north are the mountains, white as the virgin bride, in their snowy blanket.
The run degenerates into a futile attempt to avoid the worst of the slush. It proves to be worthless and impossible and therefore pointless. One resigns oneself to sloshing through mush. On certain sections of the way to the highest point, next to Ben McDui, one of the highest mountains in SA, the snow is more than a metre deep on its northern slope.
Around the corner lies Tiffendale, one of SA’s only natural ski slopes. There certainly has not been any need for the snow machine for some time as the hills and valleys are thickly sprinkled with snow. Looking like a miniature Aspen, Colorado, the village nestles far up the mountain slope.
The snow line abruptly ends at the 29-kay mark. Like a horseshoe, the road winds back on itself, revealing the full length of the path along the escarpment. Before the descent at 35 kays, all the excess clothing has to be shed. For this, it is useful to have a small daypack.
As the descent is too steep and slippery to allow one to make up time, it is better to relax and enjoy the view. Then finally a gentle jog into Rhodes, eight hours and 50 minutes later.
It is certainly the most spectacular Ultra on the calendar, but don’t bother to try and enter – the waiting list is now estimated to be at least 10 years long. As most participants will not give up their entries, don’t plan on a Rhodes race just yet.
Of course there was one last “obstacle” which I will never admit to. Due to the shortage of accommodation, I had to share a double bed with a fellow runner. Of the male variety unfortunately.