The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM), in South Africa, is the second oldest multi-day desert race in the world; the oldest is the Marathon des Sables (MdS). Both are extremely well organised tough events and are very similar in terms of distances, format and compulsory equipment, but are entirely different experiences. If you think in terms of a night out MdS is a visit to a nightclub, whereas KAEM is an evening with a group of friends in an exotic restaurant. The MdS attracts over 1,000 entrants; KAEM is limited to 100, but has never reached that limit. It is a hidden gem.
It is a 250km self-sufficiency desert foot-race in six stages over seven days. However, it is much more than that. This is what the organisers say about it:
“Taking place in the Kalahari Desert with the route covering the Augrabies Falls National Park and private farmlands, participants get the opportunity to run in the footsteps of the ancient Bushmen, while enjoying sightings of wildlife. The varied terrain includes rocky outcrops, sandy riverbeds, boulder-strewn koppies and vast outstretched grasslands. Each year this desert race attracts not only elite athletes, but also slow runners and adventure hikers. As much as this event is a challenge, both physically and mentally and demands proper preparation, it is THE DESERT FOOT RACE that gives back just as much in the form of a soul-fulfilling adventure!”
The terrain is certainly varied, one minute you are running through a rocky gorge to the soundtrack of the warning barks of baboons and then you emerge into wide open spaces with eerie silence and the possibility of seeing giraffes, springbok, kudu and other animals. Later you will be down by the Orange river clambering over big boulders before turning up another sandy riverbed and looking forward to getting to the next checkpoint to fill up your water bottles and perhaps find some shade. The crew looking after the checkpoints have all been coming to the event for years and therefore know what competitors need to get through. Whether that is tender words of encouragement or a brusque ‘man-up and get on with it’. By the end of the event they will be your best friends.
The overnight camps consist of gazebos erected to half the normal height to provide some shade before nightfall. These are arranged in groups of six with the grouping changing each night so that, even though you share a gazebo with the same three people, your neighbours are always changing; you get to meet people of all nationalities.
Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is a very sociable event, before during and after the race; by the time you leave you will have forged friendships that will last a lifetime and become part of the ‘Augrabies family’. Many of the competitors return year after year. Trailrunningman (Edward Chapman) holds the record for the most number of completions, ten. However, Patrick Hobbs, also from the UK, beats him by one for the most number of starts.
Every year there is a battle for first place and a battle for last place, or perhaps not to be last. It is a great feature of the event that at the prize giving everyone is called up to receive their trophy (a hand-made glass leopard) and the person in last place gets just as much applause as the winner.
In 2017 Dion Leonard, of Finding Gobi fame, was determined to win having placed second previously. His blistering pace in the early stages burnt off the opposition and he was able to cruise in comfortably after the long stage, where he is always very strong. Alwyn Mass from South Africa was the second male home to notch up his 9th completion, so snapping at the heels of Edward for the most number of completions. Second overall and winner of the woman’s title was Maretha Combrinck.
In last place was Bilal Gul from Turkey who ran in a suit to raise funds for Cystic Fibrosis treatment in his country. Why a suit? “It is the goat that gets noticed in a field of sheep.” This is a very tough race to run in a costume; of the 41 people who started 10 did not make it to the finish. That is not unusual.
It is without doubt a tough event, it will strip away all your protective layers and leave the raw you to battle it out through a most extraordinary environment; hostile, but so stunningly beautiful that it will enrich your soul.
This is what one competitor said at the end of the 2016 event. “Another Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon has come to an end … or has it? Some things will always live on in memories, friendships and in spirit. Thank you, Estienne, Nadia, Simon and everyone else involved for offering us such an opportunity to live that much more. May we have done your generosity justice.”
There are some great daily race reports from Kim van Kets and some stunning images from photographer Hermien Burger Webb on the event website: www.kaem.co.za.
Photo credit: Hermien Burger WebbLast updated on Oct 11, 2019