Marathon 6/7: Africa, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe – June 2015

As I began to prepare for my penultimate marathon, the thought of running 26.2 miles on the continent of Africa was a daunting one. Maybe it was the thought of arid deserts, shimmering in the heat, bringing back memories of my marathon in Sri Lanka, or the fact that Africa was the home to long distance running, that made the prospect even more foreboding. My choice of African marathons was a tough one. There are a variety of stella options including:

  •  The Two Oceans marathon – An epic run that, as it name suggest, spans between the two oceans of the Atlantic and Indian.
  • The KilimanjaroMarathon – If running a marathon on Africa wasn’t amazing enough, you could combine the run with a climb to the highest peak on Africa.
  • The Big 5 Marathon – A run that takes you through a National Park with the opportunity to see some big African game.
  • Marathon Des Sables – The hardest marathon in the world, running through open desert.
Despite these fantastic choices, when I read about the Victoria Falls marathon I was immediately sold.
There is something about the energy of a waterfall that makes me stand in awe as I watch the millions of gallons of water cascade over its precipice.  At Niagara and Iguazu Falls, I stood transfixed, hypnotised by nature’s wonderful water show.
Not only would the Victoria Falls marathon go past one of the most iconic waterfalls in the world, it also traversed into two countries. The run included a section in the Zambezi National Park, providing the opportunity to see giraffe, hippos and elephants. All these factors were why I was so excited for this run.

I knew that I couldn’t come to Africa, without exploring some of the amazing cities and countries that were within easy reach of Victoria Falls. After booking my entry into the marathon, I planned out an itinerary spanning 7 countries and over a dozen cities.

Cape Town
Before my flight had even landed I was blown away by the beauty of this amazing city. Cape Town reminded me of a cross between Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. Not only did Cape Town have a number of beaches (one with Penguins frolicking on it) but also mountains and National Parks galore,  a stone’s throw from the city centre. In one apartment I stayed in, each evening I would walk into Tabletop Mountain National Park for my after dinner stroll.
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There was so much to see and do in Cape Town, something for every possible taste. If you are into extreme activities you could go sky diving, paragliding or cage diving with Great White Sharks. I came face to face with a 12 foot shark, who decided to use the metal cage I was in as dental floss.  If you prefer something a little less extreme you can visit the stunning botanical gardens, with it’s canopy walkway or tour the iconic Cape of Good Hope.
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The quality of the restaurants in Cape Town amazed me.  Not only were the restaurants of excellent quality, but the cost was surprisingly low. I had some of the freshest, melt in your mouth sushi I’ve ever eaten as well as the most tender cuts of meat. What struck me most about the restaurants was how accessible they were. I didn’t have to make any bookings or plan in advance, something that you would expect from a top restaurant in a major city like London or New York. To complement the food, Cape Town has some of the best vineyards in the world, which would have made for another fantastic day trip, if only I had more time.
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Zimbabwe
I could have taken the easy option and flown directly into Victoria falls. Instead, I decided to really experience Zimbabwe and arrive at Victoria Falls by train. Zimbabwe was a British colony until 1980 and it still uses British railcars from the 1940’s. I had read some very bad reviews of the carriages and the overall experience of taking the night train to Victoria falls but despite this I was adamant.
I arrived at Bulawayo airport, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, from where I planned to catch the train to Victoria Falls. In an almost comical welcome to Zimbabwe , the computers stop working as myself and my fellow passenger went through immigration. As the one immigration officer processed the entire plane’s passports manually, we waited in line enjoying the scenery of the airport for over an hour! When I eventually exited the the arrivals section of the airport,  I approached the information desk where three friendly looking ladies were talking to each other intently. I smiled, and as I did, they all stopped talking and I enquired on the best way to get to the train station. One of the ladies, informed me that there was no train station in Bulawayo.  Slightly worried, I looked at each of the the ladies in turn, waiting for one of them to smile and say “Only joking!” but after a short pause it became evident that this was not going to happen.  I started to wonder if the information that I had read was outdated or if something had recently changed as the economy in Zimbabwe isn’t exactly stable.
“I thought there was a train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls” I asked the three ladies.”Oh yes” one replied as they all started laughing, “but that train is for locals. You do not want to take the train. Fly or take the bus, it is much better than the train”. They continued laughing as they imagined me, riding the train with all the locals.  I insisted that I did want to take the train to Victoria Falls, and with an incomprehensible look they proceeded to tell me the location of the shuttle bus that could take me to the train station, that only a few moments ago did not exist!
The shuttle bus driver went above and beyond to help me. Not only did he take me to the station but he also waited for me to buy my ticket before dropping me off at a cafe where I planned to wait, as the train would not leave for another 4 hours.  As we drove to the station I was struck with how happy and friendly the  Zimbabwe  people were despite the hardship they were experiencing. There was a sense of unwavering pride about the people. Most were dressed in suits, with even some homeless people wearing suits.
The cafe gave me a wonderful glimpse into Zimbabwean life. It was a remarkable place full of character and charm. I ate a hearty meal, before ordering a coffee. As the waiter placed the cup on my table he told me that at 6.30pm there would be  a poetry reading by a number of local writers. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire performance  but I am very glad that I went, as the quality and depth of the artists were  phenomenal and one of the highlights of my trip.
Unbeknownst to me, the waiter had organised a taxi to take me to the train station and as it arrived he came over to let me know and wished me well and thanked me for coming. As I arrived at the station everything was dark, it looked like the station was closed. With the help of some locals I found my train on the other side of the platform, old, outdated but headed for Victoria falls.  With low expectations, I boarded the train. When I booked my tickets I was told that first class tickets were  $12. My initial plan was to buy two first class tickets in a double cabin so that I could have it to all to myself, however all the double cabins were taken, so I had to share in a 4 man carriage.
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I squeezed past locals and other passenger crammed in the corridors of the train and finally made my way from carriage E to F and then finally to my home for the next 14 hours: carriage G.  The other occupants were already in the small room including two Americans and a Spanish/American gentleman. We introduced ourselves and I learnt that the two Americans were missionaries and the other Spanish/American gentleman was travelling through Africa, with a noble goal of building a school.
It didn’t take long for the Spanish/American to tell us that he had recently been released from prison in the U.S. for domestic violence, which was slightly perturbing because I was sleeping above him!
An hour past the departure time, the train slowly started moving, and as I stood with my head out of the window, the evening breeze cooled my face. I looked forward to the anticipation of the long journey ahead.
I was not expecting the train to have a restaurant car, and additionally I was pleasantly surprised to discover that beer could be purchased for just a dollar . The restaurant car was the social room of the train. Everyone came here to escape  the close confines of their rooms. There was a convivial atmosphere with an interesting mix of friendly people, chatting about their unique life experiences and stories. The benches and the tables were so old that when someone sat down, the person on the opposite side would be catapulted like a seesaw at a child’s playground , adding to the jokes and fun.
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I retired to my bed at around 11pm and I was pleasantly surprised to find how easy it was to fall asleep from the rhythmic motion of the train on the tracks, despite the recently released felon snoring below me.
I woke up, wonderfully refreshed,with the sun shining through the windows as the train came to a gradual stop, the brakes screeching. Half asleep, I wondered if we had arrived at Victoria Falls, but as I checked the GPS on my phone, the blue dot on the map stopped at a small village near Hwange National Park (the park where sadly Cecil the Lion was recently killed).
The route of the train would follow the National Park the entire distance to Victoria Falls and I was excited to see if I could spot any wildlife as the train started moving again. I eagerly made my way to the restaurant car,  where I bought some biscuits for my breakfast and watched as the beautiful sun rose over the Savannah. The only animals that I saw were Baboons, making a nuisance of themselves, climbing over the roof of the train, looking for any opportunity to steal some food from an unsuspecting passenger who had left their window open. As the train continued its journey I enjoyed watching as we weaved through villages, waving to the locals as they looked up to see the train pass their village.
A few hours later we stopped again and as I stood up from my seat and peered out of the window, I couldn’t help but see the huge cloud of mist of Victoria Falls in the distance. We had arrived.
Victoria Falls
As the train slowed to a gradual stop, I  checked to make sure that I had all my luggage before disembarking the train. I walked past the station sign that read ‘Victoria Falls’ and I nodded to myself in agreement that I had made the right decision in taking the train, it was an experience I am glad that I did not miss.
Maybe it was the energy from the billions of water molecules cascading down the waterfall, or it could have been  the anticipation of the marathon ahead, whatever it was, there was a distinct energy about the town of Victoria Falls. As my taxi traversed through the town centre, we took a left turn towards the Zambezi National Park,  I wondered if in 48 hours I would be running on these same streets.
As I had arrived early my room was not yet ready, but as the hotel bordered on the Zambezi National Park I did not mind waiting. I ordered a cappuccino and sat on the huge, raised, outdoor patio where the bar was located.  Here I could enjoy a wonderful vista over the National Park, it was stunning. Usually on a safari you have to find the animals, here, at The Victoria Falls Safari lodge, the animals came to you. There was a waterhole, easily visible, and I could see a number of animals including buffalo and antelope who were waking up with a morning drink, just as I was with my cappuccino.
As I sat at my table enjoying the view a lady on the next table offered her binoculars and said ‘do you see the crocodiles on the left of the waterhole’. I gladly accepted her kind offer and we started talking. She was from South Africa and was visiting her son who was working in Victoria Falls. Everyone that I met was so friendly and helpful.  Africa has a bad reputation from many people that I spoke to because of corruption  but everyone I met couldn’t have been more warm and kind.
Later that evening I met a gentleman named Hugh. We started talking and as he saw that I was travelling alone he invited me up to join his family and another British/South African family on the top level of the hotel which had the best view of the park. Hugh told me that he came to Victoria Falls every year. I met his  family and wife who would be running the half marathon on Sunday and we chatted over drinks.
On my travels I have been lucky enough to see some amazing sunsets but that evening as we sipped on our Amarulas and looked out over the Savannah it was no doubt my best sunset. Just as the sun was starting to set, a family of elephants came to the watering hole. It looked like a scene out of a Disney movie with all the animals enjoying the beautiful evening sun, drinking at the watering hole as we too enjoyed the same sun.
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 I retreated to my room with it’s amazing view over the park. As monkey’s played on my balcony and hyenas laughed just meters below, I slowly drifted into a deep sleep.
The following day, as the hotel was fully booked, I needed to check out and find a new hotel for the night. Before leaving, I went into town to register for the marathon and to pickup my race packet. Usually at  race registrations there is loud music playing and dozens of vendors giving away free items. On this occasion there wasn’t the same level of excitement but that didn’t stop me from feeling the anticipation of the 24 hours ahead.
Later that evening I met up with Christey, a friend of a friend who introduced us over Email. She knew that we would both be in Victoria Falls and thought  it would be nice if we both met up. Christy was volunteering at a Lion rehabilitation centre and it was very interesting to talk with her and her colleagues over a wonderful dinner, learning about the amazing work that they were doing to bring lions back into the wilds of Zimbabwe.
After staying at the amazing Victoria Lodge Safari Lodge, my benchmark was high for my new hotel, especially as the name of the accommodation was  ‘The Paradise Lodge’.
As the taxi approached the address that I had given him, all that I we saw was a dark outline of a metal gate. I double checked the address and nodded to the taxi driver who gave me a quizzical look in return. With 3 beeps of the car horn, the birds in the nearby trees flew away, distracted from their nightly slumber. As I started to formulate a plan B in my head, I realised that the marathon training books do not provide advice on what to do if you are stranded without a room, the night before a run!  The taxi driver beeped the horn a few more times, and finally we heard the sound of metal on metal, as the gate slowly opened. In the silhouette of the taxi driver’s lights we saw a bleary eyed nightguard.
Maybe I wouldn’t have to sleep rough after all, I thought as the taxi driver and the security guard had a conversation in their native tongue. After a few minutes, the taxi driver turned to me and said that the security guard had  no record of my reservation but we could come in and he would have a look in the office. Despite my reservation being clearly visible on my phone, the secutity guard proceeded to go through every draw in the office looking for a record of it.  The taxi driver informed me that the guard had only started working a week ago and he didn’t really know how to check someone in. After going through every piece of paper in the office and finding no sign of my reservation, the security guard opened a draw which contained a number of keys. He seemed to randomly hand me one and I prayed it wasn’t a spare key for a room that was already occupied.
It was hardly ‘Paradise’ but at least I had a ‘Lodge’ for the night . As I opened the door I half expected to walk into a room with someone already sleeping in the bed.
I prepared my running gear on the chair, ready for the morning, replaying the crazy day that I had, before tucking myself in to the faux leopard skin blanket and going to sleep.
I was still dark when I was awoken by a knock at the door and greeted by the security guard who pointed to a van that was waiting at the entrance. Apparently this van had been arranged to take me to the start of the marathon, unbeknownst to me! I had planned on taking a taxi and waking up 30 minutes later. This unexpected, but kind gesture left me wrong footed and I quickly brushed my teeth and put all my things in a bag, hoping that I had not forgotten anything, before hurrying out of the door.
It was still dusk  but already there was a good buzz of activity at the starting line of the marathon. As I opened the door of the van and walked around, I could smell the stale smell of sweat from the other runners. I found a spot to sort myself out and get everything ready for the 26 miles ahead. Nearby an older, official looking lady was setting up for the race. I asked her if she knew where I could find some water. Usually there are tables at the start of races with drinks and food, allowing runners to hydrate and fuel themselves before they run. The lady reached into her truck and passed me a water. Taken aback at this kind gesture, I tried to explain that I was looking for the drinks table, I didn’t expect her to give me her own water, but then I realised, this was their version of a drinks table.
The volume of the music increased as I walked back and forth from the starting area, warming up and waiting for the race to start. There was an interesting mix of people, elites and amateurs. I saw one older gentleman who had a badge on his shirt that read ‘300’ and I wondered to myself “could he have run 300 marathons?” I stopped and asked him and he told me that indeed he had run 323 marathons, as he pointed to his bib number. What a coincidence I said, your bib number is the same as the number of marathons you’ve run. He laughed and said “No, when you have a small enough race like this, you can request your bib number”. We continued to talk as the music paused and the MC gave us a 5 minute warning. I wished the gentleman good luck as I went to find a good starting place.
As I walked to the start line, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a young man named Tash. The previous day I had met Tash at one of the local stalls in town. As we were talking we discovered that we would both be running the marathon and both be wearing orange shirts. We agreed that we would look out for each other and here we were: both of us in our orange shirts at the starting line. Tash’s friends at the surrounding stalls said they would look out for and cheer us on which I thought was a very kind gesture. It was nice to see a familiar face as it can often be a little lonely when you are running all alone. We wished each other good luck as the MC shouted “1 minute”.
People frantically pressed buttons on their GPS watches and wives, husbands, friends and relations gave kisses and hugs. It was not long before the MC counted down “3…..2……1…….”.
“B A N G “
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Like an animal let out of a cage, we were free. We ran past the starting line with cheers and well wishes from the crowd. We headed down hill and it was refreshing to feel the cool morning air on our faces as tried to slow our fast pace down to conserve our energy for the 26 miles ahead.
As the road meandered out of town, the elite runners were already a speck in the distance.
As we turned a corner we ran past the entrance to The Victoria Falls National Park. On the opposite side of the road the stall vendors shouted and as I waved I heard  Tash’s friends call my name which was very motivating.
Victoria Falls borders the countries of Zimbabwe and Zambia. The 120 year old steel bridge is the entry and exit point of these two countries, allowing  cars, trucks, trains and people to cross between them. The border crossing was closed for the marathon and all runners were required  to submit their passport to the authorities of each country before the run, allowing us to cross freely into Zambia and back into Zimbabwe. As we approached the bordering crossing there were officers lining each side. Some appeared to be working, checking to make sure that only runners with bib numbers were leaving the country and others looked like they were enjoying the party atmosphere. As I ran past a sign that read ‘You are now leaving Zimbabwe’ I extended my hand and gave one of the officers a high five. I’ve never seen an immigration officer smile so much.
With each step, the roar of the falls became more intense and I became increasing wet from the mist of the falls. As I turned  my head around, the other runners behind me all had their heads arched to the left as they ran, trying to make the most of this magical scene that was unfolding in front of us.
Victoria Falls is awe inspiring on an average day , but as I slowly ran along the bridge, we were slowly greeted with the most amazing sun rise over the falls which made for a perfect backdrop for the run. As much as I wanted to stop and  really take in the view and experience, I knew that I needed to keep going and wistfully I continued, past a sign that read ‘You are now entering Zambia’. As we climbed the road further into Zambia, a metal fence ran perpendicular to the road with many local Zambians cheering us on. Again I put out my hand and everyone lining the fence gave me high fives which was really fun as I cheered ‘ZAM-B-IA’ in appreciation of their support.
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At this point the route turned back around, allowing us a second opportunity to pass the falls and back into Zimbabwe.
As the memory of the falls was still fresh in my mind, I  found my stride, both in a physical and mental sense. The road took another left turn and ats the track started to thin out,  we followed the route of the Zambezi river on the left and the National Park on our right.  I could hear the distinctive grunting of hippos and I wondered if I would maybe see one as we ran very close to the river.
(I would later learn from a South African lady that as she ran through the National Park she encountered a huge elephant. Seemingly annoyed at the ant like stream of marathon runners obstructing his daily walk he became more and more distressed.  As an armed guard game to see what all the commotion was about, he raised his gun in an attempt to stop the elephant from charging, firing blanks into the air. I’ve never known an animal to be calmed by the sound of a gun, and as the elephant charged towards the woman, her instincts kicked in and she ran as fast as she could in the opposite direction until the adrenaline wore off. She showed me the GPS route of her run,  which highlighted a 3km detour, making her run 50km in total! As much as I wanted to see some big game on the run, I’m glad that I didn’t have a similar experience)
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There was an interesting mix of people running the marathon, both elites who were now miles ahead,  and other runners, running for the experience of completing a marathon in an interesting location. There was a very relaxed sense of camaraderie and as I slowed at a water stop I started talking to two Dutch men who were also in good spirits. Usually during a marathon the drinks are in cups but here they were in little bags which made it much easier to drink or carry for when they were needed. As one of the Dutch men bit into his water bag, he proceeded to spray myself and his friend as an impromptu water fight broke out, making for a much needed cooling down in the middle of the run.
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At the halfway point I was still feeling very good with no signs of slowing down. I didn’t want to push myself on this marathon as I knew there would be plenty to see and take in and I wanted to refrain from looking at my watch the entire time.
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As the sun started to rise, I could feel the temperature noticeably increasing. Running on the sandy soil in the National Park didn’t make things easier but my spirits were high and I was having fun, high fiving the little village kids that I passed and spraying the volunteers at the drinks stations with the bags of water as they shrieked, trying to avoid my improvised water gun.
As I ran, I took stock about how far I had come, from someone who couldn’t run a mile without feeling like I was going to have a heart attack, to running (almost) 6 marathons. At this point it would be harder to not complete my challenge of running a marathon on every continent than it would be to stop and give up, I had so much momentum behind me.
As the yellow kilometer markers steadily increased I was surprised that I had not hit the wall as I entered the final quarter of the marathon.
This thought may have been premature as at mile 22 my performance rapidly nose dived. Maybe it was the increase in heat or the elevation. As we headed up towards the Victoria Falls Safari lodge, a road that my taxi driver had warned me not to walk on because of the buffalo, I wondered how long I could keep running for.
I didn’t care about my finishing time, but to distract myself, I calculated what my time would be if I continued at the same speed. I had been running at a 4 hour pace and I thought to myself how wonderful it would be if I could finish this marathon under the 4 hour milestone. I knew that a similar achievement would not be possible for my final marathon on Antarctica.
As my pace slowed I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make the 4 hour mark and this took a psychological effect on my moral too and I started slowing down and finding it more and more difficult to run.
I could see a water stop In the distance, like an oasis in the desert. Each step was a challenge as I tried to find some energy and motivation to move forward. In addition to water, like pieces of gold glistening in the sun, this water stop had a table of oranges cut into 1/8ths, exactly what I needed to replenish my sugar. Memories of my younger days flooded back, when I would play football (soccer). At half time we would be given orange segments to boost our energy for the second half. The oranges (and water) were exactly what I needed, renewed by these natural shots of sugar.
The last 3 miles were a real challenge. To make the journey more mentally manageable, I broke the miles down into half miles chunks, and  for the final mile, 1/10 of a mile segments, each one being a major accomplishment. As I neared the end, I could see some runners with their medals already leaving, shouting words of encouragement as they hobbled past.
I turned a corner and saw a big field with hundreds of people, banners, balloons and music playing. I had almost arrived at the promised land.
In what seemed like the longest finish in the world, I followed the route around the field back to the start where I had came in. As I approached the final turn, I heard someone shout ‘Go David and I saw one of the guys from the train who had already finished the half marathon.
As I crossed the line, I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment but also a sense of sadness as I knew this would be the last time I would run a (conventional) marathon again. It felt like the evening of Christmas, happy but also a little sad that the wonderful day that you have been anticipating for so long is finally over.
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These thoughts quickly faded as the hectic scene in front of me fast forwarded. I was handed a medal and a ice lolly (of all things!). I can honestly say that this ice lolly was the best ice lolly I have ever tasted and that all marathons should be required by law to provide them at the end of a race. It was exactly what I needed, an ice cold, sugary delight.
As I sat down to rest, I felt a twinge of cramp in my leg and I  remembered what happened at the end of my last marathon. I quickly got up and continued to walk, stretching out my legs to ensure I didn’t get any cramps, despite my tiredness.
After a long shower and a much needed meal. There was an amazing afterparty on the Zambezi river with all the other runners. With a sense of accomplishment, we sipped our drinks and recalled stories as we watched hippos, elephants and giraffe on our cruise.
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As I watched the sun set, I was  glad that I choose to run the Victoria Falls marathon, it was my best yet.
After the Marathon
The following day, despite my aching legs, I took a car into Botswana to Chobe National Park where I spent the day on safari and the night camping in the bush surrounded by wild animals. The following day I was lucky enough to see some  amazing wildlife including lions and two Honey badgers.
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As a reward to myself I flew  to the amazing Seychelles where I spent a week, enjoying the impossibly beautiful beaches of this island nation.
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I wanted to thank everyone that was kind enough to donate to my fundraising for this marathon. In total I raised $1200 for USCRI. I especially wanted to thank my parents, without their support, encouragement and love I wouldn’t have been able to achieve half of what I did. Thank you.

 

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