counting down to the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

This is a blog I’ve looked forward to writing for more than two years – ever since I first mustered up the courage in January 2013 to ask Ryno Griesel whether he’d be interested in teaming up for a mixed record attempt of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse.

His response was immediate – not only was he keen, but he’d be honoured. Honoured? Good grief, what was he on about – he was the joint record holder, had years of adventure racing under his belt, and having climbed mountains around the world, had notched up way more real mountain experience than I could ever dream of. He was a true man o’ the mountains. I’ve got loads of trail running experience and have done heaps of ultras, sure, but that’s completely different from an endurance endeavour the likes of this. The DGT is in a completely different league from any piddly trail race, regardless the distance.

So in he was.
And nervous I became.

We stalled our mixed attempt plans for two years to each squeeze in a few additional ultra-distance challenges. In March 2014 Ryno did the DGT with Ryan Sandes, whipping a solid 18 hours 40 mins off the previous fastest known time, which had been set in 2010 by Ryno and fellow extreme adventurer Cobus van Zyl. At an astonishing 41 hours 49 mins, Ryno and Ryan’s record won’t be broken for a very long time.

And now the time for our mixed record attempt is here. At 4am on Friday 27th March, I’ll be setting off from Sentinel car park with the two most capable and highly experienced mountain men I could wish for – Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl know the Drakensberg escarpment better than most, and together they set the previous DGT record of 60 hours 29 mins (April 2010).

The history of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse

The Drakensberg Trans-Frontier Challenge, renamed the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, was set by the Raubenheimer brothers, Gavin and Lawrie, in 1999. They achieved the DGT in 4 days, 9 hours 39 minutes (105 hours 39 mins). The brothers had drawn up the following criteria for the DGT:

The DGT in numbers:

Total elevation gain:  between 9 500m and 10 000m
Horizontal distance:  205km
Full distance including ascent/descent:  215km
Climbs in excess of 200m:  more than 28
Number of unsuccessful attempts since 1999: way more than 30…

Current records  (thanks to Lisa de Speville for this info,

Current record (men's group): Ryno Griesel and Ryan Sandes
Date: 24-25 March 2014
Distance: 209km
Duration: 41 hours 49 mins
Griesel and Sandes broke the previous record set by Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl (set 9-11 April 2010) of 60 hours 29 mins

Solo male record: Andrew Porter
Date: December 2009
Duration: 61 hours 24 mins

Women's group record: Laura Forster and Fiona McIntosh (Team Water For Africa)
Date: November 2008
Duration: 157 hours 11 mins

Mixed group record: Team Merrell Adventure Addicts: Graham Bird, Hanno Smit, Robyn Kime* and Grant Ross
Date: 11-14 November 2014
Duration: 78 hours 57 mins
* Robyn is therefore the fastest woman across the DGT route.
Merrell Adventure Addicts bettered the previous mixed group time of 110 hours 57 mins established by Christine Harris and Carlos Gonzalez in January 2010.

Ryno Griesel and Cobus van Zyl

Three aspects I’m particularly nervous about:
  1. Weather:  As with every DGT, weather will play an enormous role in how we fair. We’ve specifically chosen this time of year as it’s said to be the most stable – the summer thunderstorms are more intermittent, and it’s theoretically before the cold months set in. Note the word theoretically. This is the Drakensberg, and at altitude the weather can be unpredictable. So, we can only hope it’s on our side!
  2. Feet:  Regardless of wet from above, we most definitely will be wet underfoot. And that’s pretty much for the entire 215km distance. The ground on the escarpment is marshy, even quite boggy in places, so I’m nervously anticipating all that’s entailed in having wet feet for +/-70 hours.
  3. Nutrition:  The longest endurance event I’ve ever done (Grand Raid of Reunion, 174km) took me 44 hours. That’s substantially less than I’ll be slogging for the DGT. I know all the gastric discomforts one goes through during ultras, and I’ve tried so many different combinations of foods over the years in the hope of hitting the one that works for me. And yet I can honestly say I’ve never mastered my nutrition for ultras. No event and no conditions are ever the same, and there’re so many factors to consider – the biggest of this one being the ask on the body: to be pushing the pace, virtually without rest, for 215km, through three days and two nights (hopefully not a third night…) will put a mammoth strain on the digestion, let alone the rest of the body. That’s adventure racing territory, and I’m not an adventure racer. This time, I’ve done more research than ever, and I’m hoping that the selection of foods I’m taking with me will see me strongly through the distance.

One thing is guaranteed: whatever next weekend brings, whatever happens, the experience will be incredible.

* all photos credited to Ryno Griesel

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