Johardt’s Mafadi FKT Attempt – The Back Story

One athlete, Johardt; two fishermen camouflaged as the camera crew, Sven and Arlo; and one storyteller, me.  That is how the story began.

It started one late afternoon with an easy trot along the Njesuthi river. Johardt flew up from the Cape to try and attempt the fastest known time (“FKT”) to the highest point in South Africa, a record set by Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel in October 2015. At the Njesuthi river crossing, about one and a half kilometers from camp, water was flowing gently through the rocks. Half of us took off our shoes and crossed the river with ease. The lazy brothers didn’t bother though, as it was going to get wet anyway over the next couple of days. We took a few camera shots, checked out how overgrown the footpaths were, and went “only around the next corner” to try and see the majestic Drakensberg escarpment in the distance. The Injisuthi triplets trimmed with a stunning waterfall just below the Injisuthi Summit Cave were all visible by eye, clear as daylight.

As soon as the daylight started to fade and we decided to head back to camp, the clouds all of a sudden rumbled in and a few drops started to fall. Only when the first raindrop struck Sven in the middle of his forehead could we sense some real urgency, as he increased his walking speed a couple of notches. Then, as the first lightning struck only a couple of meters away, it was a flat-out sprint. The camera crew overtook the athlete, running whilst sheltering their lenses; no one could keep up. A huff and a puff later though, Sven ran out of steam and quickly passed the lenses to his camera crew companion, Arlo: “Run as fast as you can”. In a hurry we made it back to camp, squished in like sardines under the gazebo, but relatively dry. The Drakensberg’s unpredictable weather said hello.

On the first night after the thunderstorm went to rest, the tents were pitched and dinner was slowly being prepared on the gas cylinder, Sven was mumbling some words of wisdom whilst sipping on his whisky: “My wife predicted that on Thursday morning we will have clear skies followed by days of non-stop rain. Johardt, you have to go for the FKT attempt tomorrow or we won’t hear the end of it.” But Johardt, being Johardt, decided that Thursday wasn’t going to be the day: “I need my legs to adapt to the Drakensberg first and the weather looks as good for Saturday as it does for tomorrow.” The implications of that statement were tremendous, even though not that clear at the time. Firstly, if Sven’s wife’s weather prediction was going to be correct, Johardt could possibly lose the opportunity to attempt the FKT. Secondly, if you get a window of opportunity in the Drakensberg, take it. Johardt, however, also knew that by extending his attempt he would be treated like a king for an extra couple of days, lying in his tent whilst being served coffee, rusks, food, water, and compliments. He milked it.

As we peeled out of our tents on Thursday morning, the sun was already a couple of hours into the sky. The weather was perfect, just like Sven’s wife had predicted. The camera crew was excited, they had ideal shooting conditions and a secondary plan. As soon as they could get the shooting out of the way they could start fishing, leaving the all-or-nothing attempt purely in Johardt’s hands.

Packed and loaded with camera gear, peanut butter Portuguese rolls, a foldable cooking set, and coffee, we headed out for a morning of shooting: “Just run that hill quickly”, “Now, run back”, “Just run around the next corner”, “[Whistling], Ok, Johardt, one more time”. From what was going on, I quickly realized that Johardt was going to find his Drakensberg legs sooner rather than later. He was doing intervals all morning under the direction of the camera crew. We were treated with stunning conditions, saw some mountain buck, beautiful valleys, green grass banks, the Trojan Wall, and even the Old Woman Grinding Corn. Arlo was intrigued by that name.

The intervals continued as the camera crew directed Johardt to run up and down one of the steepest sections of grass in probably the whole of South Africa. Sven was adamant: “Listen, we are here to shoot the film, you are here to run, so run. Surely you can run this section, we can’t have you walk in a running film.” Johardt was more realistic: “I will be walking this hill in the attempt.” But Sven was flabbergasted: “No man! Are you serious? Even I can run this with my 8kg backpack full of camera gear. How can you not run this bit?” As we all finally reached the plateau in both our humor and that grass bank we were on, we decided that that was going to be the coffee and interview spot. Sven finally came to his senses after walking that ascent and had an interesting film story up his sleeve. Arlo was shooting a time-lapse of this final good weather at offer, looking busy, and passing batteries to Sven upon request. The calculated questions were being thrown at Johardt one after the other, and suddenly, things were serious. One thing that I’ve noticed though was that although Johardt might have moved to the Cape, his roots were still pretty much grounded in the Lowveld, and so was his accent. Then Sven reeled me in for a few words. With my washed-away branded shirt, a visvanghoedjie, my worse-than-Lowveld English, and half unshaved face, I was being pranked with an interview of my own.

Whilst they were wrapping up the interviews, I decided to head out in search of a mysterious Dinosaur cave, but couldn’t find it.  I then took what was meant to be a shortcut back to the camp and was reminded again to never underestimate the Drakensberg.  Valley after valley, hump after hump; spear grass, thorny shrubs, river crossings, and dead-end animal trails.  It all added up, scratches over scratches, cuts within bruises.  While moving slowly I glanced back and saw some heavy, dark clouds rolling in over the escarpment.  I could feel the temperature drop and all of a sudden, I needed to get back down to safety, fast.

On a few lesser-used trails, some of which were only animal paths, I finally made it back to camp ahead of the storm and could hear the others chattering around the corner just as I eased into my camping chair.  I couldn’t understand what took them so long though.  They were on the standard route back to camp.  What were they up to?  Through the laughter, it then became apparent that they were so busy pranking younger hikers for their vaccination passports that they completely lost track of time.  It was a successful day.  Most of the shooting was ticked off, the story was being written and only the start, the finish, and some in-action shots were left for attempt-day.  Then, it started to rain, and rain, and rain, and didn’t quite stop.  Sven’s wife’s weather prediction was spot on.  The guys were surprised but not too worried.  We were being very optimistic.

So, let me share some insights into what happened around the cooking canister that night.  Firstly, we found out that Sven’s gazebo was fifteen years old, and like him, had stood the test for time.  It was leaking though, which meant that you had to be strategically positioned under it in order not to get wet.  Johardt was with us in spirit, but not in flesh.  In addition to his running abilities, he also has the ability to be part of a conversation whilst lying in his tent, and then expect the minions to walk over with the snacks, chips, coffee, rusks, and whatever else made it to his buffet-platter selection.  Luckily, he came to the party at some point as I packed an extra chair to cancel out any no-seating excuses he might have thought of.  Arlo, the newly dubbed machete guy.  Being a tree-felling expert by trade, and being from the Lowveld, one could kind of expect him to pack a machete for every occasion.  I am not entirely sure what his idea was.  We were in no way going to cut the footpaths any easier for Johardt and we were not planning on shooting any Braveheart scenes.  However, I soon realized that it had a dual purpose.  Arlo used his tree-felling skills to cut a trench so that we didn’t have to sit in a muddy dam all of the time.  It miraculously worked, he cleared out most of the water and we were soon left with only the mud.  Then some blast-from-the-past racing conversations started.  Sven was adamant that he never raced Arlo at Num-Num, and that if he had, he would’ve beaten him.  The conversation escalated and hit a climax when Sven told everyone that he, apparently, got the better of Bennie Roux one year.  We couldn’t remember the details and there was no reception to help us verify the facts.  Next, we laughed about Johardt passing me time and time again on the uphill sections during our first Otter run together, all this while he had his calve muscle torn.  That race will always remain my claim-to-fame race though, beating Johardt and Kilian on the same day.  I also claim to have retired after that.  Sven also had his Otter story.  He started this renowned difficult race with one energy gel in his pocket, only to have his goody bag with extra supplies stolen by another runner at the halfway spot.  We all knew there was only one way for that story to end, a death march to the finish.  Like Sven’s potential running career our conversations then spiraled into a black hole.

As the sun rose on Friday morning, we could tell from the amount of water on our gazebos that it had been quite a heavy storm.  But, although only misty, Johardt wasn’t going to attempt the FKT on this day.  He argued that he couldn’t do the attempt after being on his legs for more than 5 hours the day before.  In addition, Johardt’s sports watch wasn’t fully charged, the camping site didn’t have any electricity and my gadget-light had too little power to help him out the previous night.  Perhaps a reminder why watch companies are so eager to push the battery-life envelope, to compensate for the forgetfulness of the elites.  Nonetheless, the camera crew went fishing whilst Johardt and I went for an easy run, ignoring the watch-charging issue currently at hand.  In my head, it was supposed to be a twelve-kilometer jog to Marble Baths and back.  It started as an easy jog, we were treated with beautiful valleys, plentiful caves, and stunning waterfalls along the shortcut we took to Marble Baths. 

Only once we reached the furthest point away from camp, the “should we head back or push ahead?” questions started to surface.  All of a sudden, the footpaths were overgrown, if even visible, with spear grass everywhere.  I haven’t been that close to crying in ages.  The bruises of the previous days’ shortcut were still fresh on my legs and I was in for a second dose of torture.  Soon, we reached a point where we decided to just head directly to where we wanted to be and ignore the winding contour route altogether.  Down a steep embankment and up the other side.  Another one, and another.  At this stage, even Johardt started to have this subtle little laugh.  It was a typical dog show of a day. 

Finally, around the next little bend, we reached some sort of civilization.  A group of four hikers was sitting joyfully in a riverbed below us having some brunch.  {In retrospect though, the thought of how far they still had to go crossed my mind a lot.  It must’ve been one very long, difficult day.  I prayed for their safe return.} 

Just as we left the brunch party, it started to rain.  We were moving inside, over, left, and right of the river we were in, just trying to reach the T-junction with the river containing Marble Baths.  It felt like ages.  We were soaked, collecting the rain from above and scraping the water from the abundant tree branches.  There was no way our rain jackets could keep this amount of water out. 

When we eventually reached our halfway destination, three hours in, we shared two small nougat bars before heading back via the faster, more tourist-friendly, route.  As we passed Barry, Kerry, and Gerald, some fast-moving hikers the guys had met the day before, they mentioned something about the river being in flood and that we should take an alternative route going back.  Apparently, the experienced Gerald’s life was literally hanging on a thread as his feet washed from underneath him whilst trying to cross the river, leaving him clinging onto the safety cable with only his fingertips.  Luckily, he made it through.  We were tired, and soaked, and just wanted to get back to a hot shower at the campsite.  We’ve crossed a lot of rivers already that day and were confident that we could do it again.  I mean, we crossed this river the day before at the exact same spot without even getting our pants wet.  Being stubborn, we ignored the hikers’ advice and pressed on.  Only once we reached the river crossing did we realize how much, and how quickly, things had changed.  Water was thumping down.  It almost turned into a disaster. Being close to four hours into our run, Johardt went to do a routine crossing while I was capturing the moment on camera.  After a few scary seconds though, Johardt was in the middle of the river but not going anywhere.  He couldn’t match the pure strength of all that water battering down. I switched off the camera and stepped in a bit closer for assistance.  He made it back, but we were stuck.  We assessed the river a little bit up-and-downstream to try and find another potential crossing, but to no avail.  The Njesuthi was simply too strong.  So, we had no choice but to head back via the alternative route, whereafter we broke the news to the fisherman.  Their reply: “No man, we will teach Johardt how to cross that river”.  They couldn’t.

Back under the gazebo, Johardt borrowed my other gadget-light to get some power back into his watch while Arlo and Sven were sorting out their flies with no worries at all.  Unfortunately, I had to get back to civilization and started packing while lunch was being prepared.  We sat down for some warm pasta and a final coffee before I left the three Lowvelders on their own.  As I reached cellphone reception, I relayed some messages to Johardt’s wife and told her that he decided on doing the FKT attempt the following morning.  She was glad to hear that everyone was still safe.  Well, sort of safe.  Perhaps I didn’t enclose all of the detail.

Saturday morning was quiet as I kept an eye on the clock.  I knew that Johardt would probably start his FKT attempt as early as possible to try and utilize the early morning weather window.  I also knew that he would go and search for reception in the afternoon to phone his beloved wife.  I left a message on his phone and then, half-past-three in the afternoon a message came through.  “Louis, we are on our way to Winterton to have some coffee.  I started the attempt but couldn’t get through the river.  I will try again tomorrow, but will have to take the long way around.”

By this time, Johardt had missed both the weather windows that were originally on the cards, the river was still in flood and panic started setting in.  He had two more days left in the Drakensberg and with a flight back to Cape Town on the second, there was not much room for error.  The rain continued to fall, wiping Johardt’s attempt for the second last day altogether.  This left him with one chance to take on the longer route, the foul conditions, and whatever the weather could throw at him.  It was going to be all or nothing.  If Johardt was going to start his FKT attempt on that Monday morning, he had to take the longer route, break the record, pack up camp, embark on the five-hour drive back to the airport, and be in time for his late afternoon flight.  There was no room for error.

So, Johardt started his FKT attempt on Monday morning, 20 December 2021.  He ran the first kilometer at around 4-minutes per kilometer pace and had to take the longer, alternative route.  The trail was overgrown and wet, making foot placement extremely difficult and challenging.  He was forced to rely on instinct rather than sight.  A slip and a fall later though, Johardt was on the ground, thinking that he had broken his arm.  He walked a bit, tested mobility, and slowly started to jog again.  Things started to add up, and there was no more room for error.  But, Johardt dug deep into his roots, cleared his head, and brushed off the pain.  Knowing Johardt, he strives for moments like this. Moments when the cameras are off and he can just focus on running.  He is an athlete after all, and nothing beats that feeling of beating the clock.  A number of other dangerous and slippery sections along the route meant that Johardt had to switch on the afterburners on the sections he deemed runnable.  And he did just that.  A wet Corner Pass was a nightmare, and an altitude of over 3000 meters even brought the fastest trail runner in South Africa to a sluggish pace a couple of times.  Speaking to Johardt afterwards he emphasized that he forgot how long that section on the escarpment really was.  On paper, that section looks easy, quick, and runnable.  However, when you get there, it is proper fell running, difficult to breathe, and not nearly as runnable as one would expect.  Johardt reached the top of South Africa well below record pace and was able to tag the highest point before plummeting down the same route, cautious but fast.  One final spanner in the works was lurking though.  As Johardt reached the final few kilometers of the route, he had to decide on what to do with that river crossing.  Should he risk going through it or risk losing more time by going around to the alternative route again?  He heard a blurry voice in the distance: “Take the shorter route and cross that river”.  It was Arlo.  In true brotherly spirit, Arlo had been plotting different ways to cross that river for the past five hours.  He wasn’t going to let his brother fail this attempt.  There was no room for error and no room for going back to the alternative route.  Johardt simply had to risk it.  In true Lowveld style, he just bombed into and through that fast-flowing Njesuthi, trusting his brother’s advice. He successfully made it to the other side and blasted the final few kilometers to a new fastest known time to the magnificent Mafadi summit.  He took half an hour off the previous time and set the new benchmark at 5 hours and 18 minutes.  In his own words: “A sub-5 is possible”

That’s it from me.

Thanks to Johardt, Sven, and Arlo for an unforgettable couple of days shared as friends in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.

I am looking forward to the video by Phonix Capture cc (Sven and Arlo)

Till next time,

Cheers,

Louis