“No Pain, No Gain” - Running Through the Gobi Desert with a Mission - Part 1
More Deserts to Conquer
This is a very special year for everyone associated with SANGONeT as we celebrate a significant milestone - our 25th anniversary. We have much to be very proud of and would like to celebrate our achievements in the appropriate manner throughout the year. But 2012 is not about SANGONeT and our achievements, only. The services we provide and the activities we implement are a direct response to the challenges facing NGOs in South Africa and beyond. Without the activities of other NGOs, and their need for information, communication and technology services, there will be no role for SANGONeT.
We are therefore using our 25th anniversary to celebrate SANGONeT's achievements, as well as recognise the unique contribution made by NGOs to South African society in general. And the annual “No Pain No Gain” campaign is the perfect platform to create and maintain the necessary interest and momentum in this regard throughout 2012.
Having completed the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon (KAEM) in October 2010 and the Sahara Race in Egypt in October 2011 as part of the “No Pain No Gain” campaign in the previous two years, I wanted to make the 2012 campaign extra special as part of SANGONeT's 25th anniversary celebreations. This meant only one thing – more desert races. As a result, now in its third year, the 2012 campaign include both sand and snow linked to three footraces through three deserts on three continents - Namib Desert, Gobi Desert and Antarctica - and will require me to run approximately 750km in some of the toughest and most demanding conditions on the planet. It will be tough, but can be done!
Although my body, and especially my feet, took a pounding running 250km through both the Kalahari and Sahara Deserts, I wanted to experience more extreme desert running adventures.
Having completed the Namib Desert Challenge in March 2012, the focus now shifted to the second desert race of the 2012 campaign – the Gobi March in China. Another fantastic experience as I attempt to conquer the deserts of the world while raising awareness and support for SANGONeT and other NGOs in South Africa.
This is my story of another experience of a life-time and the meaning of it all - both personally, and to the work of SANGONeT and the South African NGO sector in general.
“No Pain, No Gain” Fundraising Campaign 2012
The objectives of our 2012 "No Pain No Gain" campaign are two-fold.
Firstly, we aim to raise R1 million linked to my successful completion of three desert races. Money raised will be used to expand key SANGONeT services in support of NGOs in South Africa and other parts of Africa. Services such as the NGO Pulse Portal, Prodder NGO Directory, SANGOTeCH Technology Donation Portal and others are already making an important contribution to the NGO sector, but we need more support to reach a larger number of NGOs with a wider range of services.
Secondly, we are using the campaign to raise awareness about the important work of various South African NGOs. Over and above our ongoing work in support of the sector via a number of strategic projects and services, we have also started publishing detailed weekly profiles about NGOs on the NGO Pulse Portal as of 23 March 2012. This will continue until the end of November 2012. Daily profiles will be published during each of the three desert races to maximise our awareness-raising efforts in support of NGOs in South Africa. Click here to view the NGO profiles published to date.
We hope that the three desert races, our fundraising objective of R1 million and the special focus on the work of other NGOs, against the background of SANGONeT’s 25th anniversary, will result in significant ongoing public interest and support for the 2012 “No Pain No Gain” campaign.
Background to the Gobi March
The Gobi March is a seven-day, six-stage self-sufficient footrace across the Gobi Desert in China. The ninth edition of ther race was held from 10-16 June 2012.
Organised by RacingThePlanet, the Gobi March forms part of the 4 Deserts, a unique series of self-supported footraces across the largest and most forbidding deserts on earth, including the Gobi in China, Atacama in Chile, Sahara in Egypt, and Antarctica. These races take competitors on journeys through the driest, hottest, coldest and windiest places on earth, testing their mental and physical limits and endurance. Running self-supported in the most inhospitable climates and formidable landscapes, competitors must carry all their own equipment and food and are only provided with drinking water and a place in a tent each night to rest. All absolutely basic and intimidating, and certainly not to be contemplated if not convinced, in body and mind, that your mental and physical resources are able to endure the virtually unimaginable challenges participation demands.
The 4 Deserts series was named by TIME magazine in 2010 as one of the world's Top 10 endurance competitions.
The 2012 Gobi March was held close to Kashgar in the west of China, starting in a very small village called Gazi with the finish in Upal. Kashgar, meaning “variegated houses” in Chinese, is the Ancient Silk Road’s gateway between China and Central Asia on the westernmost edge of the great Gobi Desert. It is situated west of the Gobi’s Taklamakan portion of the desert at the foot of the Tian Shan mountain range. Kashgar is located in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the largest political subdivision of China, which accounts for more than one sixth of China's total territory and one quarter of its boundary length. The main Silk Route presently travels northwest through the Torugart Pass about 200km west of the present city and past the present border with Kyrgyzstan. Kashgar has long benefited from the Silk Route, establishing itself throughout history as both a political and economic centre.
The Gobi Desert is the largest desert region in Asia and the fifth largest in the world. It is also the windiest non-polar desert in the world. The climate in the area varies greatly depending on the specific location due to the topography, which varies from plain, desert and mountain climates. The area selected for the 2012 Gobi March has been closely guarded by the Chinese government due to its distance from Beijing. As a result, very few outsiders have been able to freely explore the area.
A total of 163 competitors from 42 countries entered the 2012 Gobi March.
The Final Countdown
After months of determined training the departure date marched forward almost relentlessly. Beyond a demanding business situation it was indeed a challenge to combine that with an exhaustive, and eventful training programme, and life at home with my wonderful wife and two sons. Each bidding for their share of attention. But the moment had arrived to say good-bye to colleagues, friends and family and set off to the airport. Although quietly confident about what had to be accomplished over the next ten days, especially given the dedication devoted to my training and preparations, there remains forever a consciousness of the unforeseen and uncontrollable which could bring disappointment.
However, after a 14 hour flight from Johannesburg, I arrived in Beijing late on Tuesday night, 5 June 2012.
During the flight I was able to reflect on the last few days at home. It was hectic period in terms of work commitments and final preparations for the race. Packing for a seven-day self-sufficient desert race is a science in its own right. It is all about weight and substance. Whatever goes into your bag must serve a real purpose because, over the seven days, you carry everything you need in your backpack, from start to finish. Too much weight and you pay the penalty, too little substance in terms of food, not only do you suffer but could jeopardise your progress. So it remains absolutely essential to find the right balance.
This was my fourth desert race, and from hard earned experience, Dalene and I have definitely improved in preparing for, and managing the packing process, although it still requires a lot of planning, discipline and patience!
With a suitcase full "powder" - rehydrate drinks - and a bag of biltong ("the secret weapon of all South African participants"), the prospects of getting through customs on arrival in Beijing was a nerve wrecking thought which lingered in my mind for the duration of the flight. So much care was taken with the packing and only the essentials retained, so any items confiscated through the actions of an over jealous customs official could have had far reaching consequences. I adopted an attitude of total innocence, but fortunately, no-one was interested in checking my bags.
This was my first visit to Beijing since 1999 and it didn't take long to realise how much has changed over the past 13 years.
The new airport is a very impressive building. Constructed in support of the 2008 Olympic Games, it is massive in size. The highway from the airport into Beijing is also very impressive, although it was very congested even at 11:00 at night. Beijing itself is a transformed city. Big new buildings everywhere. And like anywhere else in the world, everyone is talking on a cellphone! The unfortunate consequence of China’s economic growth and population size is the smog cloud that permanently covers Beijing. It is definitely not a city to live in if you are a runner or like to be outdoors.
I used my two days in Beijing to adjust to the six hour time with South Africa, and to continue working on various aspects of the “No Pain No Gain” campaign, including a radio interview with SAFM in Johannesburg. I also went for a walk past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
The Friday morning I met my fellow South African and Sahara Race buddy, Geoff Heald, at the airport and we travelled together to Kashgar. We left Beijing at 09h00 and arrived in Kashgar at 17h00, a full day of travelling across China from east to west. Sitting in a window seat allowed me great views of this massive country and beautiful snow-capped mountains.
On arrival in Kashgar, Geoff and I went for a quick walk in the town and then joined Luba and Nigel Vaughn, our tent mates from the Sahara Race, and other Gobi runners for a few drinks. After that it was time for bed – the last time we would sleep in a bed for a week. Unfortunately, the mattresses on the beds in the Tianyuan International Hotel were made of something as hard as bricks – good preparation for sleeping in the Gobi Desert over the next week!
The Saturday morning was a madhouse of final preparations. At 08h00 all competitors met for the first time in one place for the compulsory race and medical briefing, followed by kit and equipment checks. My bag weighed approximately 10kg, which was not too bad.
Then it was back to our rooms for a final Skype call home and checking our luggage into storage, before we all got onto buses for a two-hour trip to our first campsite in the Gobi Desert.
During the bus trip we also had the opportunity to meet our fellow tent mates for the race. Tent 6 – Karasahr – consisted of my four Sahara Race tent mates – Geoff Heald, Patricia Luft, and Nigel and Luba Vaughn; Ryan Hill and Sarah Lord who also participated in the Sahara Race; and George Chmiel, and Jimmy and Tara Gaston.
The last part of the bus trip was interesting if not scary. Going through a few narrow canyons with sharp drop-offs on the sides, the skills of the bus drivers were tested to the limit. These narrow gravel roads were not build for big buses. However, we made it safely to our first campsite – Gazi – where we were met by approximately 100 people from the local village. Following a few speeches by RacingThePlanet staff and local dignitaries, the villagers entertained us with an interesting display of dancing and singing, with many Gobi competitors joining in. The final event was a horse game - think polo cross with rugby – with two teams of three wrestling for possession of a dead goat!
Thereafter we were treated to Pepsi and watermelon, followed by the first of many freeze-dried meals. After that it was time for bed and the countdown to the start of the 2012 Gobi March the next morning at 08h00.
The wait was finally over!!!
For blogs from other competitors, race results, and photos and video clips about the race, click here.
To view my photos of the race, click here.
To support the SANGONeT “No Pain No Gain” campaign with a donation, click here.