SKYWALK : The first official Skywalk was at the end of 1993 with the “Border Outdoor Adventure Association” – from East London led by Bertie Reed, two of the group, Jim Baker and John Hewson were over 70 years old. Skywalk was registered as an official Hiking Trail with the Hiking Trail Association of SA and published in Janee Levy’s Hiking Trail Guide for SA. On the 20th of October, 2002, the Mountain Club of SA traversed ‘Skywalk’ as a four day unsupported hike from Lady Grey to Tiffindel Ski as part of celebrating the ‘International Year of the Mountain’. Skywalk was initially planned as an extension of the original, Lady Grey community, Lammergeyer Conservancy and Hiking trails with the plan of networking a trail route to Rhodes. The original Skywalk is identical in route to the Skyrun.
Lammergeier Adventure Trails : In 1995, local farmer Dick Isted from Tempevale farm employed me to build the Lammergeier Adventure trails. In that period I was running the Comrades marathon from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and completed 10 consecutive runs in 2001, (No 14111) this is also when I started inviting fellow runners such as Ron Moody, Pieter Du Preez of the local Lady Grey, Lammergeyer Mountain Run, and Daan Kotze to join me on a ‘test’ Skyrun. Eventually the first Skyrun test was completed in 1996 together with Dr. Rudi Thethard, then the local Barkly East, District Doctor, who also happened to be an ex ‘Spes Forces’ Doctor and myself, when I was still involved in local community mission’s, ministry. Local farmer, Joe Sephton baled out at Balloch Wall with a leg injury.
Support : Deon du Plessis and ‘Oom’ Mike La Grange from Aliwal North were part of the initial Skyrun support team, eventually involving the Free State section of the SA Mountain club with Derek Odendaal who at first had serious reservations regards the feasibility of Skyrun and then went on to develop the Four Peaks, which is very much a mini ‘skyrun’ in the Free State at Moolman’s Hoek mountain resort. The Free State 4X4 Eco Club with Fanus Zondag also teamed up as an integral and vital support team for Skyrun. Two other events closely related to SKYRUN are Dave and Chel Gassner’s AMATOLA – BAFER and the Cape Town PUFFER with Jean Paul Van Belle.
The First Official SKYRUN : The first official Skyrun took place in 1997 with 15 maverick ‘Skyrunners’, however Skyrun had to be cancelled at Snowdon Peak due to extreme weather conditions, gale force winds, snow and sleet. At the time we had a TV film crew in attendance with ‘Old Mutual World of Endurance’, motivated by Two Oceans organiser Chet Sainsburry. John Fobian and Brent Robart assisted with a SAPS Helicopter and medical support back up. The following two Skyruns 1998 with 27 finishing and 1999 with 44 Skyrunners, both ended in Rhodes with consistent winner, Bruce Arnett who started his winning streak in 1998, in his first attempt at trail/wilderness running. Helen Collins then editor of Runners World SA labelled Skyrun as “SA’s Ultimate Ultra”, in the April 1998 Runners World, unfortunately in participating in 1998, Helen baled out at Olympus Peak after suffering from altitude sickness, however her companion and good friend, Talia Raphaely completed the Skyrunning adventure in really ‘heavy’ weather getting caught up in lightning strikes and thunderstorms. Articles in the Comrades Magazine Beyond 42 confirmed these initial claims. In the year 2000, 60 Skyrunners started with 41 completing the distance now ending at Tiffindel Ski. 2001 had 82 entries and 2002, 77 entries. 2003 was almost washed out with extreme floods, where many streams could not be crossed due to flooding. We had SANDF, military support from the men in Umtata under the command of Lt/Col Louis Buys.
Running Wild – Flying High : The Tiffindel finnish is too keep Skyrun essentially what I see as a ‘pure’ Mountain Wilderness Run, on an unmarked trail, in as much it follows the main ridge line of the Witteberge and Southern Drakensberg along the Herschel Border fence line, serving as a very basic route indicator. This was the initial route until the ‘short cut’ pioneered by Bruce Arnett for ‘speed’ and ease, became the accepted route, cutting out the Snowdon Annex and the main ridge line through to Avoca Peak, from Snowdon Peak. This is where many Skyrunners now lose out on the ‘Ridge line Run’ climb to Avoca Peak. For me a definition of a ‘Skyrun’ would be a mountain runner who decides to follow any mountain range by running on the highest ridges and peaks, preferably on unmarked wilderness terrain, i.e. No trails, not a trail run.
Logo : “RUNNING WILD – FLYING HIGH”, ‘running at altitude without attitude’ – its a truly humbling encounter. I honestly do not believe that there is another running event of this nature, which follows an unmarked wilderness route for almost three quarters of its length, at least. Skyrunners are dedicated environmentalists and only leave footprints and keep on, cherishing and sharing the memory and experience.
Spirit : Ultimately for me Skyrun, despite its physical nature is essentially a spiritual pursuit – it strengthens my personal faith in God and shows me how great He truly is. “The Lord talked with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire.” Deuteronomy 5: 4 is one of my favourite Bible quotes for all Skyrunners. A Moses, Elijah and Jesus encounter. For the men and woman competing against the mountain, the great outdoors and themselves, the personal transformation is also very apparent. “Primal Action” as I call it is also a restoration of our more noble and basic instincts and actions focused on encountering, surviving and overcoming extreme challenges, getting back to the heart of true living, and caring for those on the ‘journey’ alongside us. “Escape to the Mountain lest thou be consumed” Genesis 19: 17, is also a very real call to escape from the corrupt living of ‘modern’ society, consumerism madness and general corrupt living of today, back to the the mountain, which has always symbolised a place of spiritual purity and great power.
Commemorating : Skyrun also carries the memories of two stalwart Skyrunners Paul Mitchel who died tragically whilst marking an adventure racing route and Wynn Green a local farmer who had also completed Skyrun and supported in the early days. Wynn’s wife Dawn is still active in the community and is a veteran Skyrunner of note. Their memory is cherished and commemorated every year by the handing out of cup cakes, ‘brownies’ to all finishers on day one at the Balloch check point.
World Aids Day : My other commitment is to ‘grass roots’ community restoration through local missions ministry and as such Skyrun has always been dedicated to the marginalised, especially those infected and affected by the HIV/Aids scourge that is decimating our rural communities. Therefore the date of Skyrun is preferably on the closest weekend to the 1st of December and is purposely designed to support World Aids Day. This is a ‘mission’ where I was very involved in, up to 2004, in training and working with Community Home Based Care Givers. As it is, Skyrun also serves as a grand finale to the years’ running calendar and as such belongs to the farming community notably farmers such as Joe Sephton, Gregg Sephton, Dawn Green, Graham and Margie Frost who own and live on the land and then temporarily to those who enjoy the physical and spiritual privilege and challenge of running over mountain ranges by Skyrunning.
Background : A short summary on my origins: Born in South West Africa/Namibia, originally from Windhoek, yet more at home in Swakopmund, I grew up in a wilderness environment, the Namib desert and Khomas Hochland. On completing my schooling in Grahamstown, at St. Andrew’s College in 1978, I joined the Permanent Force and served operationally as a Platoon/Hawk Group Cmdr with the Airborne Unit of 1 Parachute Battalion. I used to spend off duty weekends at Ben Nevis with the Greens during those crazy years. From there my path developed into a more ‘special forces’ role as a Pathfinder, and then Recce Wing Commander of 31 BN, the Bushman Units, Recce Wing. In my time with the military we spent most of our time operational and in the bush, ‘fighting’. From there, after much soul searching in 1987 after my last ‘bush tour’, I went into community missions, which for me is very much the adventure of true faith in fully knowing God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
IRAQ : In October 2004 I went to work in Iraq for 5 years as a private Security Contractor and approached Adrian Saffy to take over the organising and running first of the Wartrail Tri Challenge which also developed out of Skyrun in 2004 and then also Skyrun from 2005. For this I remain truly grateful, and both events together with the ‘4 Peaks’ at Moolman’s Hoek now fall under Pure Adventures. Adrian now works together in a partnership with Mike De Haas from OFM. Sponsorship has also been sourced from Thule, Garmin and Salomon, this is quite a step up from the days of mainly unsponsored support which also added to the viability and sustainability of Skyrun and Wartrail, as truly unique sporting events with the opportunity to be utilised as fundraisers for local community projects.
Wartrail Tri Challenge: This ‘xterra – triathlon’ was ‘birthed’ out of Skyrun in 2000 with Alan Coulter, Mike Leyland, Colin McIntyre and Jurgen Muller. By starting with the first phase of Skyrun, Lady Grey, 65 km to Balloch, a 135 Mountain Bike was included over Lundin’s Neck down the Telle River on the Lesotho Border, through Sterkspruit and Herschel and then to Mdlokovane, where a 65 km paddle down the Orange River, completes the staged event, finishing in Aliwal North. The date of the event on the 21st March ‘Human Rights Day’ also works out to what is usually the middle of the rain season when the Orange River is usually flowing at its strongest, although this is not always the situation. This was also pretty much part of the route chosen by Hano Otto for the Africa Quest 500 km Adventure Race in June 2004.
The Future: Personally I remain very much interested and available for the continued development of Skyrun and the Wartrail Tri Challenge which I will continue to support, after all it is my ‘baby. I have since moved down to Cape Town and now reside in Fish Hoek. It is here, where alongside local community, missions ministry to the homeless and destitute, I also work with the SANDF, Reserve Forces as Company Commander with 3 Parachute BN, Charlie Company at Fort iKapa in Goodwood. With the birth of my son Joshua Michael on the 29th of April 2010 with my wife Brigita, I expect to be around with my family for many more Skyrun’s and Wartrail Tri Challenges. In the meantime running on the amazing trails in and around Cape Town, mountain biking on the trails and roads and paddling in False Bay amongst the Southern Right Whales and Great Whites is a state of paradise for me right now.