The annual X-Berg Challenge is a unique multi-day adventure race that took place in the Drakensberg from 2-4 March 2017. Attracting only the toughest athletes with exceptional durability and navigational skills, the event permits a maximum of 45 entries each year.
In an attempt to cover the approximate 110km straight line distance in the fastest possible time, paragliders, trail runners and mountain bikers raced from the Border Post on Oliviershoek Pass to the Mountain Splendour Eco Resort in Champagne Valley.
X-Berg Challenge route
Total event distance in 2017:
Straight line – 110km
Run / hike – approx. 157km
Cycle – approx. 305km
Supporters were able to follow the participants in real time as the event was live tracking enabled (a service provided by SportTrax). Athletes chose their own routes to reach specific turn points (TP) that had been set out. After starting the adventure race at the Border Post on top of the spectacular Oliviershoek Pass, athletes were taken past the newly renovated Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge up to a point near Sentinel Peak. From there participants either chose to head down via Royal Natal National Park or up and over via chain ladders on top of the escarpment to Mnweni Valley. The next point was at Mikes Pass at Didima Lodge / Cathedral Peak before crossing into Monks Cowl and finishing in the Champagne Valley at Mountain Splendour Eco Resort.
X-Berg Challenge rules
Athletes can participate in one discipline throughout the race, or enter in the either the mixed discipline class or as a relay team (only changing at turn points to a next team member or discipline).Paragliding pilots competed almost equal to trail runners when on foot making use of lightweight paragliding gear. A number of rules determined the overall position of competitors, such as missing a turn point (not getting within the stipulated radius of that particular turn point) or transitioning at an incorrect spot were penalised (subtracting hours). An enforced rest period at night for a number of hours was also implemented for safety reasons, and athletes were penalised if they did not adhere to this.
A glimpse of the event from the eyes of the adventurer:
Mountain bike and trail running relay:
Piers Pirow is set on racing at the 500km Expedition Africa in May, and used the X-Berg Challenge as part of his training plan. He won the event 5 years ago, but entered in a MTB and trail running relay this year to save his strength for the Double Moon Adventure race taking place next weekend, and to finish in the fastest time possible. Friend and fellow adventure racer David Barkhuisen teamed up with Piers, and the two crossed the finish line first (placing second overall because of the fresh-leg advantage as a relay team)
Day 1 (Piers’ account): The plan was that I would MTB first and cover 60km. I set off at 7am from the Border Post top of Oliviershoek Pass and watched as the paragliders ran to the best take off point, and the runners headed out on the shortest available route.
This leg was possibly the toughest for me, but also the most beautiful. The uphill climbing (2540m), rough route to TP2 that I’d selected, and technical issues meant lots of ‘hike-a-biking’, mud and long grass without paths. A jackal joined me for a while and I saw large herds of Eland. With a punctured front wheel and broken valve I hiked for 8 km through severe thunderstorms and terrifying lightning bolts to the Sentinel car park. I was rather grumpy, tired and wet, but got to TP2 in third place.
I quickly swapped the tracker over, and David raced down to Mnweni via the Royal Natal National Park. After 80km he arrived at TP3 in first place! I was back on the bike that evening with David’s front tyre after several failed attempts to fix my own. After a tough (and dark) ride I arrived at TP4 just before the 11pm rest time. Imagine summiting Mike’s Pass in the rain and being greeted by a sky full of stars! I got a good four hours of sleep that night before the 5am start the next day. I woke up to a morning view from Cathkin to Cathedral Peak with a rainbow thrown in for good measure, ready to smash the day!”
Day 2 (David’s account): It was 5am and I had not started running yet, mainly because I was still finishing up my coffee, but by quarter past I was heading down Mike’s Pass. The plan was for me to run hard for 38km from TP4 to TP6 at Monks Cowl.
It started out with a nice long downhill to warm up, before I turned off the road and went up a beautiful valley trail. This was a highlight for me and there was a short kloofing section and some climbing. With an abundance of water due to all the rain I could run light and carry minimal water. I topped out the valley and found a stunning ridge line run; the beautiful Bell Park Dam was in the distance, views were all around and there were all these vultures circling in the thermals. I kept looking up expecting to spot Pierre Carter (overall winner) who we had passed in the dark the night before; it was a great driving force that kept me pushing! After dropping down towards TP5 it was a smooth run along the overgrown trails contouring around the valley through to Monks Cowl and TP6. After 5h30mins I handed the tracker back to Piers and he rode off to TP7 in Wonder Valley before the last stretch down the finish line at Mountain Splendour.”
Jeremy Holdcroft entered as a solo participant and finished third in the paragliding division. He gives his account of the ups and downs he experienced (literally).
“The paragliders of X-Berg bear the burden of between 15kg and 20kg of kit to carry, making them significantly slower, especially uphill. But if the weather is right and the pilots have a chance to fly, the game changes and distance can be covered very quickly.
It’s very rare to find perfect weather in the Drakensberg – you have to be at the right place at the right time. And when the opportunity comes, there is nothing like the shortcut of flying instead of walking down a pass. After falling a little behind the other paragliders on day one, a few of us woke up very early to hike through rain and wind over the top of the escarpment from Witsieshoek car park to Ifidi pass. After waiting for the wind conditions to improve we were rewarded with a long 20 minute glide with the most incredible views of the entire Berg down towards TP3, safe in the knowledge that we had just saved ourselves several hours of a painful and a tiring descent.
There were a few occasions where I hiked as hard and as fast as I could to try to reach certain points along the route; I knew that if the weather held I would be able to fly from those points. On many of those occasions though, I was just too late. I missed the opportunity to fly down from the top of Cathedral peak, near Orange Peel Gap, by a few minutes due to a storm in the valley. That resulted in a steep four-hour descent of that pass (something like 600m) in the stormy dark. Throughout all of this though, the motivation for me was the personal challenge to go out and push myself.”
Go Multi caught up with Vanessa Fisher, who won the single discipline category of trail running at this year’s X-Berg Challenge. She made some final comments on the event after entering alone as a woman: “Yes, there are the lows like tumbling down the never ending Ifidi Pass, I fell hard a few times; or shivering and cramping on top of the mountain as I tried to catch a few snippets of sleep on the first night. But there is something about being in the wild, not feeling threatened or unsafe. I was on my own, just loving the adventure. I really enjoyed the little moments, like finding the cattle herder on a real path down the Ifidi pass, who then proceeded to tell me how brave I was (lol). Meeting him and the path meant that I no longer had to rock hop and was getting closer to civilization. I know that I can come back next year, stronger and fitter to tackle the Dragon again.”
To sum up an event that filled the hearts of adventure seekers: “The X-Berg Challenge is a race well suited to adventure racers as it encompasses navigation, extreme conditions, own food and water supply, sleep deprivation, heavy legs and a lot of planning. It certainly encompasses the spirit of adventure and comradeship, and I always feel privileged to have been a part of it. Almost every participant comes back to do it again,” said Piers Pirows.
2017 X-Berg Challenge Results
- Pierre Carter (paragliding, solo)
- Team Gimlet Eyed Dorks – Piers Pirow and David Barkhuizen (trail running and paragliding relay)
- Juraj Koren (paragliding, solo)
Relay Mixed Discipline:
- Team Gimlet Eyed Dorks – Piers Pirow and David Barkhuisen (trail running and mountain biking)
- Team NetTrace & Co – Jonathan Bass, Ted Wood and Andre Dempers (mountain biking)
Mixed Discipline Throughout:
- Team Pure Adventures – Michael de Haast, Laura de Haast, Adrian Saffy & Floors Welthagen (trail running and mountain biking)
- Hendrik van Zyl (paragliding, trail running and mountain biking)
Single Discipline Throughout – Mountain biking:
- Justin Armstrong
- Team Mad Bad & Dangerous – Clive Leader and Rory Eidelman
Single Discipline Throughout – Paragliding:
- Pierre Carter
- Juraj Koren (Slovakia)
- Jeremy Holdcroft
Single Discipline Throughout – Trail running:
- Vanessa Fisher
- Team Tail Gunners – Wiljee Blom and Terence Westcott