'Did you hear that?'
'That sound! Sounds like some big animals.'
'You never hear anything anyway. Always in your own world!', MC said with a spousal scorn accumulated over a 35-year union, the kind of which I have been hearing more and more of over the past 14 years since taking up this all-absorbing hobby of mine --- marathon running --- after turning 50.
I might have heard something, but decided to ignore it. In the past two nights, sporadic death-screams of a prey, strangled and silenced by a predator, shattered the otherwise stillness of the wilderness around us. That night, I needed some sleep, and was in no mood to get up and explore. And there was nothing I, the lone male in Room No. Five, surrounded by Big Five, could do anyway, since we were under 'lodge-arrest' --- with a strict order of not going outside after dusk without first calling the lodge office and being escorted by one of the park rangers. (One evening we were attacked, not by the animals, but by one staffer, verbally, for ignoring the order and walking to the dining room not more than 30 feet away.)
Fear and foes were lurking around the lodge in darkness! The Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos, called so because they were difficult to hunt, roamed freely around the non-barricaded lodge, with ferocious animal curiosity, piqued even more by the scent of lean meat of a soon-to-be-crowned seven-continent marathon finisher from Calgary, Canada.
It was the nerve-racking night before the Big Five Marathon on 21 June, 2014, a marathon that was shaping up to be a stumbling block to my goal of running marathons in seven continents by the end of September 2014. It was to be the marathon I chose for the continent of Africa, the fifth continent, after running 26 marathons in four other continents.
Why by the end of September 2014? In 2015, I would be the same age as my outwardly healthy elder brother, when he succumbed to a massive stroke. (My mother also finally died of stroke after having multiple episodes of strokes over the years.) Thoughts of mortality invaded my mind since my brother's death in 2012. So I packed four marathons in four continents: Antarctica, Africa, South America, and Oceania, the first two of which were adventure marathons. All four over six months in 2014, at age 64!
Inside a white, see-through, decorative mosquito net in malaria-free Hanglip Lodge in Entabeni Game Reserve --- four hours, first by a bus and then by an open wildlife-viewing Toyota (OWVT) vehicle, to the north of Johannesburg airport (JNB) --- I lay sleepless after pinning two bibs onto my running singlet: one at the front holding the time chip and the other at the back, both showing my race number 31; spreading the running gears on a sofa chair; packing three personal-supply bags to be placed at three strategic aid stations on the marathon course in the morning; taping the tender right foot arch; placing a 2nd Skin (a protective patch) over a blister-susceptible area in the ball of my right foot; placing stretched KT tapes over both hip adductor muscles; and making and remaking a list of things-to-do and things-to-take with me in the morning, lest I forgot an important item. Meticulous preparation the night before each marathon was something I had done 26 times, including my first marathon in Vancouver in 2000.
Even the comfort of the five-star lodge bed, after overcoming the jet lag by staying five nights in a modern apartment hotel at Sea Point in Cape Town, with a 'nerve-soothing' view of the Atlantic swell splashing against the sea wall, failed to lull the restive Calgary runner to sleep, the night before an event that relies on considerable physical and psychological stamina.
The marathon route inspection, sitting in the comfort of an OWVT earlier in the day, had raised my level of consternation even higher. As I lay staring at the inside of the thatched roof of the African-themed lodge, the complexity of the course played through my mind.
I visualized the 2.5-km descent, during which the OWVT was on the verge of flipping over, and the same descent turning into an ascent on our way back, during which it was screaming spasmodically, summoning up all the energy to inch upward; shoe-filling and blister-inducing dry sands over a 9-km section; the uneven rocks protruding out of the sloping ground, a misstep or a stumble on which would cause scraping off of skin, twisting of an ankle, or breaking of a 64-year-old bone.
The difficulty of the course arising from geological features was worsened by its very formidable zoological population. It snaked through an active private wildlife reserve, where the Big Five and other animals, including crocodiles and hippos, crawled and roamed freely. Visitors go to Entabeni mainly for African safaris. MC and I were there mainly for marathon running (by me) in the continent of Africa.
Sitting in the seeming safety of an OWVT safari vehicle two days before and two days after the marathon, we saw up close, on or around the marathon course: baby and adult rhinos, one of which became temperamental and started going after another rhino with frightening ferocity, with a weapon of destruction, a half crescent-shaped horn rising from above its mouth and pointing up; about a 6-ft long crocodile having a mid-afternoon nap on a low-level bridge, oblivious to the vehicle noise and other wake-up calls by Amos, our experienced park ranger, forcing him to drive the vehicle on reverse for quite a distance before finding an alternate route; a female lion chasing a herd of wildebeests (belonging to the cow family) and aborting the chase, presumably finding the chased too fast on feet or too many in number; a male lion, wearing a majestic mane, waking up and roaring for his female partner, who had gone hunting to bring the lazy but hungry king of animals his dinner, his deep roaring sending a wave of terror through the jungle to other fleeing animals and to us humans in the stationary OWVT that started shaking; an elusive, annoyed leopard moving fast through a grassy land at night, trying to avoid the moving flash light of the park ranger who was tracking it, disturbing its privacy and search for a prey; close to ten elephants, some breaking tree branches just to show off, according to the park ranger, and one scooping up loose sands and dirt from the course with its trunk and spewing those out at other elephants and into the air, reminding me of Holi (a Hindu spring festival of colours) humans in my childhood villages, Bishnupur and Matlab, observed by throwing coloured dry powder (aabir) into the air and smearing it on faces of others.
Watching the faunas and floras, and listening to the sounds of birds and animals of Entabeni, a UNESCO biosphere reserve boasting six ecosystems, I reckoned all these 'out of South Africa' experiences would have been missed, were it not for the Big Five Marathon I had decided to run. I felt blessed and then fear, in trepidation of what lay in store on the day of the run. (The next instalment will appear tomorrow.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada