“Why on earth am I doing this again?” This nagging thought crosses my mind as I am trying to power my way up Mount Nyangani. To avoid negativity creeping in, I turn around and look at the landscape before me and I am immediately filled with a sense of joy in spite of my weary and aching limbs. So I smile, look at the pathway above me, and start moving again.
We began just before dawn. I am half way through the Sky Run, somewhere between Far and Wide, (an adventure camp in Eastern Zimbabwe) and Aberfoyle Lodge which, hopefully, I will reach before sunset!
There is often a time in our lives where we feel the need to challenge ourselves and achieve something that we would be proud of. If you are a sportsperson and you love the outdoors, there is a race right on our doorstep that ticks all the boxes and is well on the way to becoming a popular event.
The Sky Run Zimbabwe was launched in December 2015 and a small group of enthusiasts jumped at the opportunity to try something different. Trail running is still relatively new in Zimbabwe but it has been one of the fastest growing sports worldwide in recent years.
The run is limited to 60 people for the ultra event and 40 for the light event. It follows the route of the Turaco trail, which was opened in 2012. This trail took three years of construction and was cleared, by hand, keeping the environment in mind and not a single tree was cut down during the process. It takes hikers on a journey through a vast and untamed mountain wilderness, through wild rivers and waterfalls, forests, grasslands, valleys, gorges and peaks.
The trail is approximately 53 km long and it is not for the faint hearted. To complete this event, the Sky Run athletes have to build their strength and endurance through months of rigorous training. If you hope to finish this race, without properly preparing yourself, you will probably stand a better chance of getting selected for the All Blacks for the next rugby world cup! There is also a light version which is approximately 30 km for people who want to get a taste of this event for the first time.
The Sky Run is divided into 3 stages.
Stage 1: This is approximately 15 km long. It starts at Far and Wide, just before the crack of dawn. Competitors will run along the escarpment enjoying spectacular views of the rising sun until the trail leads you down, through a series of switchbacks, to the base of the Chikorokoto Mountain and up to the summit. The long descent takes you into the beautiful Pungwe gorge and downstream through forests until you reach the confluence of the Pungwe and Nyazengu rivers. The first nutrition point will be situated here, where there is a chance to catch your breath and replenish your liquid and solid reserves. Race marshals will check for any signs of exhaustion, dehydration and the mental state of the runner before that person is allowed to continue across the mighty Pungwe. In my mind, the race begins here.
Stage 2: This is approximately 8 km long. After crossing the Pungwe you will be faced with what I believe is the hardest climb of the day. Approximately 4 km of near vertical climbing takes you out of the gorge before reaching the Nyazengu ridge. On this section you will definitely find out whether you have properly prepared or not! The path along the ridge leads you to the second nutrition point at Golden Pools. This point has to be reached by 11:30 a.m. or you will not be allowed to continue. The race marshals will assess each individual again and if you manage to answer their questions coherently, you are good to go.
If you have opted for the lighter trail run version, this is the start of your race.
Stage 3: This stage is approximately 30 km with a slight downhill past Golden Pools, where you will cross crystal clear streams lined with golden rocks and pebbles. Usually, the fly fisherman inside of me, wants to chuck all the running gear on the side of the bank and cast a few lines in search of a trout but I quickly remind myself that I am here for another reason and any time off the trail would cost me dearly. Once you reach the base of Mount Nyangani, take a deep breath, begin the climb and take a moment or two to look down at the spectacular panorama around you. As the mountain flattens out a small kick takes you to the summit and then back along the top towards little Nyangani. A long descent through a very pretty forest, interspaced with the odd short climb, will eventually take you into the grassland, winding your way down over a few rivers and past occasional waterfalls. Eventually, a path along the edge of the river takes you to a clearing filled with tea plantations and finally through a canopy of trees which opens out onto the Aberfoyle golf course.
Drummers welcome you at the end of the green and the sound of those drums is the sweetest thing you will hear for a long while! Pick yourself up, sprint for the last 200 meters and you are home and dry.
It is a long day. There are no prizes offered here for completing this event but each competitor does receive a bag of superb, export quality tea, from the Aberfoyle plantation! The camaraderie felt between fellow runners and actual completion of the challenge is immense reward in itself.
The pain endured will soon be forgotten but the self pride for accomplishing such a difficult event, in one of the most scenically rewarding parts of Zimbabwe, will remain etched in your mind forever.