The Skukuza half marathon is one of South Africa’s most iconic races. Every August, 1,000 lucky participants run through the Kruger National Park in a unique bushveld experience. Heavily-armed rangers are posted every few hundred metres along the course. However, one cannot help but be continually alert, and the thought that one of Africa’s big 5 could be lurking behind any bush en route can be intimidating.
It’s a real threat. A few years ago, the race was suddenly changed from a 21 to a 14 kilometre, because a pride of lions had decided to sleep in the middle of the dirt road on which we were supposed to run. And this year, the rangers resorted to using a helicopter to keep an irritated black rhino away from us runners.
I was delighted to be joined by Jonathan, my son, who ran his first half marathon at Skukuza. We ran together for a while before he said he had to go (but it could have been because he was so keen to watch the game between the Lions and the Hurricanes once he’d finished!)
It was a proud moment for me when I saw his distinctive blue shirt far ahead on one long, straight stretch. It was clear he was going well, as he’d put considerable distance on me in a relatively short time.
Bruce Fordyce with his son, Jonathan, after Skukuza Marathon, Kruger National Park.Bruce Fordyce with his son, Jonathan, after Skukuza Marathon, Kruger National Park.
He eventually ended up just pipping me. I felt like a very proud father indeed when I reached the finish line – a mere 10 minutes later – and saw him with his own finisher’s medal around his neck. We plan to run the full London Marathon together next year in April, and the Skukuza is a major stepping stone in the preparation for that.
Despite that ‘short’ 10-minutes gap between Jonathan and my finishes, I’m happy to say this year’s run was a whole lot better than last year’s. In 2015, Skukuza was my first long marathon after being told my knee was so bad I’d never run again. As you may have guessed, I was determined to prove them wrong; but, in the weeks before 2015’s race, I was nervous enough about my chances that I learnt all the cut-off places off by heart. Just in case.
At the time, the Skukuza half marathon was a very important race for me. I knew that if I could run 21 km on a tough course like Kruger’s Skukuza, I could finish Two Oceans, which was my ultimate goal then. I’m happy to say I finished miles inside the cut-off times. However, I ran with a really noticeable limp.
This year I was about 10 or 12 minutes faster on exactly same course. Even more encouraging was that some of the other runners I met along the way remarked on the difference in how I was running. This time, they couldn’t see I had a problem – apart from being old and slow!
There was one more memorable event before we left Skukuza. The following day, my family and I were delighted to attend a function at the Kruger’s Park’s K9 (canine) watchdog training centre near the Phabeni Gate.
Along with a group of other donors, we handed over sizable donations before meeting some of these incredible dogs and their handlers. The donation we handed over came from a dedicated group of fellow parkrunners from around the world.
We were also treated to an amazing display of the K9s’ trackers skills, along with many stories of their courage under fire. As we all know, rhinos are being decimated Africa-wide for their horns, and the Kruger Park has been under siege. The teams of rangers in the park are literally waging a war, and are doing an incredible job.
“These dogs have noses like hoovers.” we were told. “They just scent the air and sprint off after the poachers, with us following as quickly as we can.”
Having helped to apprehend dozens of poachers, it’s clear that the tracker dogs are potent weapons. It was an inspiring thought to realise that we had contributed to the training of these special dogs, dedicated to tracking and pursuing rhino poachers.
We left the function full of optimism and quite proud of our small contribution. It will not be our last.