Set high on the plateau of Addo Elephant National Park, comes a race so wild, you would vow to never run another ultra again, yet for some uncanny reason, you’ll find yourself at the start line again, and again. This is Africa’s Wildest Ultra, the oldest Trail run in SA, the Addo Elephant Trail Run. An Ultra race so wild, you could swear you were lost in Africa somewhere. Africa’s Wildest Ultra, brought to you by Live Adventure Falls roughly in March each year and has trail disciplines of 44 km, 76 km and the Ultra 100 miler (160 km) set over 3 days over the rolling plateaus of Addo in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
It’s at one of these previous races, that i got thrown in the deep end and fell into the world of trail running… literally. I got invited to photograph Addo Ultra in 2017, and four years on i ran my first ever 44 km trail run and in keeping with tradition, once again, thrown in the deep end. My journey over the last 4 years at Africa’s Wildest Ultra have been remarkable. What other job in the world, would you get paid, to spend three days on the top of a mountain, on a quad bike (3 or 4 but let’s save that for later) chasing the agony on ultra athletes faces, to get “that” shot? For me, being an adventure photographer, i’ve always lived by immersing yourself in whatever you are shooting. You can’t get “the shot” if you are not out in the action, regardless of where it may be.
And keeping with tradition, we don’t do things half heartedly. My first year, i brought Honda CRF 250…. needless to say, that broke down on top of the ridge… Giving Sian more grey hairs to get the thing down from the ridge. 2018 i was given a quad to use….. Man, what’s up with “technology” the damn thing broke down on top of the ridge again. Last year (2019) , was the decider, Having been entrusted with the same quad again, alas, what happens? It broke down. Seeing as i wasn’t going to wait around, and not for the lack of trying to fix it…. I grabbed my camera bag and ran roughly 8 km to the next checkpoint. Wow another quad available… let me take this beast and carry on. Well that didn’t last, 2 km down the road from ellies heading to Kouga gate, she was not going anywhere. So yet another few kilos running to the next checkpoint. I think at this point, Sian had given up, and as punishment, really threw me into the deep end… “Enjoy Valley of tears Ryan” as i made my way from the water crossing to the medic checkpoint before entering the dreaded Valley Of Tears. Needless to say, i ran it (well let’s be honest, run / walk same same but different) cameras attached and ready for some action. roughly 40 km later, my weekend was done.
To be honest i don’t know if i lost my mind on that mountain, but this year, i threw my running kit on and entered the Addo Ultra 76 km race, as an athlete. Has the bug bitten? I don’t know, i’ll have to answer that at a later point. Sian and Sheena were very excited to have me on the course, but did encourage me to rather do the 44 km, and boy am i glad they did. Months leading up to the run, i had numerous meetings with Sian, who has somewhat become a mentor for me on this new journey to Cairo. Just the advice, encouragement and tips really do go a long way. Don’t ever take any small piece of advice an ultra runner gives you and shrug it off. It’s invaluable.
My Addo Journey started off working the whole week in Jozie, flying into PE, heading straight out to Addo Elephant National Park to shoot the Ultra start, heading up the mountain to drop camera crew, bumping into Pamela and Sharon after checkpoint one, straight to race briefing that evening, driving back to PE to collect stuff i stupidly left behind, driving back to Addo and eventually getting to bed around midnight if not later, in the front seat of a Mitsubishi Colt, WILD! I wasn’t prepared, and i knew it when i was up at 2 am, to get to Kabouga gate, to start capturing the start from around 3am. It was actually so good to see familiar faces, Dave Jal and Hayden and after conversing for a few months only over email, getting to meet Deon from Trail Mag face to face for the first time! There was nothing but encouragement from many who knew this face from behind the camera. It’s gonna be a good race i thought…
As usual i was snapping away the start of the 44, and before i knew it the race was on…. quickly being ushered by Hayden to get in, and the game was on. When i say game, it was a game plan i set way before heading out to Addo, the run/walk strategy. Run 5km, walk 1km and so progress to smash out the 44km. I knew i’d finish, as during the week previously i was walking average 30-35 km a day at the event in Jozie, and training leading upto the run wasn’t bad either. Yet, mother nature came back to bite me in the arse and just let me know who rules the mountains. Averaging under 7 min p/km by the time i got to ellies, and before the climb to the plateau, i thought i was good. and then the wild side of Addo kicked in, raising the average temperature in the 30’c… I knew it was going to be a hot day. By the time i had reached the top of the plateau, 40’c was knocking…. I had previously been told about how changing socks was a thing, so i had packed a few pairs, and honestly till this day i didn’t realise what a life saver it is. My average pace by 21km half way was around 10-12 min p/km still inline with finishing. By this point, after numerous water points, i had no socks left. This was the ultimate fight till the end. The temp well in its late 40’c took its toll on every single runner out there, regardless of distance. A force of nature that cemented the notion of Africa’s Wildest Ultra.
By the last checkpoint, with only 11km to go, i was done. This was me, this was the end of my race right here. I heard there was a stoppage in the race, and they were trying to pull some people off the top of the mountain to get into shade. It was so hot on top of the mountain, with absolutely no shade, that you’d sweat so much, it would drip down into your shoes and alas blister were real! Everyone decided to use water sparingly at this point, as the 100 milers who had been out for 2 days would be in much need of a decent amount of water. People were dropping like flies here, DNF as the heat was too much. Vehicles were coming off the top of the mountain bringing runners down to the checkpoint. This here was the end of my run.
And then something remarkable happened, and i was told about this by an URSA Ultra Runner Dane Sweet, that regardless of your run, distance, or effort, that if you take an hour to sit, assess, rehydrate and get your mind right, you can absolutely save your race. I sat for just over an hour. In comes a friend from the UK, Charlotte Harper, who by the way was remarkable in pulling it together, pulling me together and continuing to head to the finish. Charlotte had just come in with an ailing foot on fire, presumably from a scorpion sting, or stinging centipede. Both of us were about to DNF, this was it. Yet remarkably, after a bit of down time, we just said let’s go… After asking around for a bit, and willing to take any dry socks off of others pulling out, thankfully Colin Schroeder at the checkpoint gladly gave me a clean dry pair of socks out the back of his bakkie. I don’t know if this was to get me out of there, but i’m very thankful nonetheless. Getting down into the rivers and the pools was definitely the highlight of the day. I was ready not to leave here, and someone would have to pull me out. It was one of the most refreshing things that coupled with great company, encouraged us that little more to get to the end. Only 4 km to go, but this, was the the devil in surprise. From here on out it was all climbing. Somewhere up on the ridge, slowly sluggin on, Charlotte got another sting. this i thought was the end of it for her as well as me, as i wasn’t going to leave her there. I honestly couldn’t tell you what i had said or done, but i wasn’t having it. I knew the pain was real, i knew Charlotte didn’t want to carry on. I just managed somehow to convince her to get that shoe back on in all its glory and the agony that came with it.
On we headed. i was somewhat happy i “made” Charlotte feel that pain, because it would be all worth it in the end, and yes maybe selfishly, it meant i would finish my race. With just one kilometer to go, Charlotte told me to go. Just run, get into that finish with pride, as i would tackle my first ever 44 km Trail Run. it wasn’t selfish at all or was it? I didn’t know what to do, yet she encouraged it. Charlotte was good from here, and would meet me at the end! And did i run…. The joy of just crossing that line, the finish was unbelievable. Not that i had finished, but that i had finished with the weather nature was throwing at us all day. Truly to everyone who finished, whether it was the Ultra, 76 km or 44km, kudo’s, it was one tough day. You are all truly legends. Africa’s Wildest Ultra – Where Legends Are Born! Charlotte pulled through and crossed the finish line and straight to the medic. From not knowing someone to becoming friends, this is what a bond Addo brings to the community. Welcome to the Addo Family!
Thanks to everyone who encouraged me, and the advice, and words of wisdom. The trail community is amazing and reminds me of home. To Sian and Sheens and the Addo Family, it’s been a journey, and so grateful to have gotten into it with a remarkable team!