EQ LIFE - Race The Wild Coast 2018
The aptly-named Wild Coast of South Africa is a region of untamed wilderness where the crashing surf of the Indian Ocean meets the rugged cliffs of the Eastern Cape.
Stretching from KwaZulu-Natal Province in the north to East London in the south, the Wild Coast is the traditional home of the Xhosa people and the birthplace of many prominent South Africans, including Nelson Mandela.
This stunning part of the world is now home to a multi-staged endurance race that sees competitors cover 350km of coastline from Port Edward to Kei Mouth, through river and estuary crossings, narrow cliff-top tracks, rocky paths and pristine beaches. Launched in 2016, Race the Wild Coast is a challenging event cofounded and organised by Barry Armitage, who won the Mongol Derby — another long-distance adventure horse race — in 2017. Dubbed “the wildest horse race in the world” and arguably one of the most technically challenging, riders battle often-adverse weather conditions and difficult terrain in search of glory.
The 2018 edition of the race, run by Rockethorse Racing, saw 13 competitors take part from all around the world, with the UK’s Rosie Riall taking top honours “This year’s race was certainly tough and it’s an achievement just to finish,” says Barry Armitage. “We congratulate all our riders who traversed the rugged paradise that is South Africa’s Wild Coast. And we take our racing cap off to the winner. It was a tight finish, but Rosie pipped her mate Anna Boden to the line due to strategy, determination, sheer grit and excellent horsemanship!”
Taking part in the 2018 race were 14 riders in total: Anna Boden (UK), Daisy Soames (UK), Jamey Altman (USA), Katy Willings (UK), Iain Paterson (UK), Francisco Schnaas (MX), Courtney Kizer (USA), Catriona Paterson (CAN), Melissa Montgomery (USA), Rosie Riall (UK), Hanna Bartnick (USA), Julie Eldridge (USA), Mohammed Nasser (UAE) and Chetta Crowley (AUS).
No South Africans took part in the 2018 event, but the 2016 race was won by South Africa’s own Monde Khanyana, who beat an international field that comprised a high number of Mongol Derby veterans, including the 2014 Mongol Derby winner, Australian Sam Jones, who finished second.
During Race the Wild Coast 2018, the constantly changing conditions due to rain and wind on the first two days resulted in frequent alterations to the leader positions. Horse and rider had to work together to overcome obstacles, as the terrain of the race varies: it spans hard sand on beaches with outgoing tides; coastal hills cut by ravines that often require leading the horses; tight forested tracks; and soft sand where haste could result in tendon injuries. Not to mention several river swims! While thrilling, this rugged coastline forces riders to keep a steady pace while reading the immediate landscape for the fastest or most efficient route – never knowing what might come next. Each year the race window is a total of five days, with the winner usually finishing early on the fourth day.
At times riders grouped together as teams, with the trailing pack working together to catch up to the leaders. Melissa Montgomery (USA) impressed fans on Day 2 by catching up with the leading pack after a tough river crossing despite a fractured left wrist. Other riders were not so fortunate, with Hanna Bartnick withdrawing on Day 3 after an injured ankle affected her ability to ride and Mohammed Nasser withdrew on Day 4 due to an injured knee. Julie Eldridge was unfortunate to have her third horse (the riders change mounts at various stages) vetted out at the Bulungula vet check, but continued as a non-competitor after mounting a spare horse. Covering 80km per day, the race takes place over 12 stages. “Riders stay overnight in simple tented. Tents, food and simple paddocks are supplied by the crew. Other than that, the riders carry their own gear including their sleeping bag,” explains Barry. Riders are given a team of three horses, and there are two horse changes at the 123km and 209km marks in the race. “The rider’s first horse is drawn out of a hat at start camp and then horses are selected by the riders on a first come first serve basis at each of the two horse changes,” says Barry. At the end of each stage (approximately every 40km), horses are thoroughly checked by Rockethorse Racing’s own head vet, as well as SPCA vets, to ensure that the animals remained in top condition. The horses’ health is paramount and time penalties are incurred for overworking the horses, which can seriously impact the leaderboard.
Australian-born competitor Chetta Crowley is another Mongol Derby alumni who regularly competes in international adventure racing. Growing up in Australia, her father was a thoroughbred breeder and trainer; today, she competes in dressage and endurance riding in the US, and most of her equine focus is rescuing thoroughbreds and Arabians from slaughter and rehabilitating them for second careers. “I have three competition horses (dressage, jumping and endurance) that all were bought directly off a slaughter truck. Rescuing and rehabilitating horses through natural horsemanship is my main focus,” she says. Chetta heard about Race the Wild Coast through fellow adventure racing competitors, and although no stranger to these tough events, she describes the race as “terrifying, exhausting and thrilling”.
“The terrain was extremely technical. You would be traversing the edge of sea cliffs hundreds of feet over rocky swirling surf, riding and running up and down mountain sides at 60 plus degree slopes with some sheer rock faces, so a fear of heights just won’t do in this race!” she says. Chetta has experience climbing at Yosemite and the Sierras and is no stranger to heights, but she found riding these cliffs on horseback put her right to the edge of her comfort zone. The rain and river crossings meant competitors were constantly wet, something Chetta claims was one of the toughest factors. “The practice of getting back into wet clothes in the freezing mornings is what kept me on the brink of wanting to quit. It’s cold, you’re hurting and your clothes are cold, stinky and wet.”
“Race the Wild Coast isn’t an event for the faint-hearted.”
However, Chetta says there were some amazing moments in the race as well. “You often catch yourself being in the midst of this incredible experience. Galloping along deserted beaches, where whales are frolicking and leaping out of the water only a short distance away, is something one cannot explain in words. Those moments eclipsed all the exhausting and physically painful elements of the race.”
Chetta lists the ceremonial end of the race, where all competitors were presented with a red and white Xhosa blanket, as another highlight. These blankets have a powerful tradition in the initiation for the Xhosa people; the young boys have to go through a series of challenges that test their strength to its core to earn their right into manhood. “Once they do, they receive their ceremonial blanket as they’re shepherded into the tribe as adults,” explains Chetta. “That’s exactly what you survive in the race, you survive through moments that test and break your strength and will and physical abilities, but you are something else at the end. You’re stronger and wiser and braver, so it was the perfect ending to be initiated to the other side, which is a wonderful place,” she says.
Despite these incredible highlights, Chetta still lists the horses themselves as the most amazing part of the race. “They were incredible! This race tests every element of horse and human trust, as well as horsemanship and riding ability. The horses will test you, take care of you, amaze you and impress you,” she says.
This year the horses were sourced from local endurance stud Moolmanshoek, run by Wiesman Nel. The mounts included three types: purebred Arabian horses for speed, Arabians crossbred with local Boerperde for their hardiness and temperament, and pure Boerperde suited to the tough conditions of the Wild Coast.
For the first time in the race’s history, other intrepid adventure sports enthusiasts from different disciplines were welcomed onto the field. Legendary endurance trail runner Steve Black and adventure canoeist Clyde Barendse pitted their skills against those of the riders and raced the horses to the finish line, with Black running the trail and Barendse paddling across rivers and breakers. In 2019, this is set to become a more permanent feature of the race. “We will be introducing the Wild Coast Challenge for RTWC 2019: runners, paddlers and mountain bikers can take on the challenge to beat the horses to the finish line,” explains Barry.
A test of endurance, horsemanship, survival and navigational skills across an iconic wilderness, Race the Wild Coast isn’t an event for the faint-hearted. However, if you think you have what it takes, 2019 applications are now open — read more at rockethorseracing.co.za/ race-the-wild-coast.
A modern breed of horse, the Boerperd is a re-creation of the traditional Cape Horse or old-type Boer Horse. The origins of the breed go back to Berber-Arabian horses imported to southern Africa from Java shortly after the landing of Jan van Riebeeck in Table Bay,1652. The breed was influenced very early on by Persian Arabs and Andalusians, and then a little later by Flemish stallions from the Netherlands, as well as Hackeys, Norfolk Trotters and Cleveland Bays. Many Cape Horses were exported to India in the 19th century, and the first horses to be imported into Australia were of this breed — and thus contributed to the evolution of the Australian Waler. The equine population took a big hit during the Boer War (1899-1902), and those not killed in battle were subsequently shot by the British on the farms in an attempt to deny the Boers their advantage. By the end of the conflict, only the hardiest and those deliberately hidden away by their owners in remote areas beyond the reach of the British remained. After the war, a formal movement to conserve the breed began. Over the years, there have been different registrars, however, in 1996 the Boerperd was accorded the status of a fully recognised and indigenous breed by the Registrar of Livestock Improvement. In 1998 the name was changed to SA Boerperd, and it is today one of the truly South African horse breeds. As from 2002, no new or estranged bloodlines have been or will be introduced into the breeding programme, as the huge gene pool is of sufficient strength to ensure prosperous breeding without inbreeding. Today, the SA Boerperd Horse Breeders’ Society of South Africa is the official registry for the modern breed, and promotes these horses as “the ideal sporting and pleasure horse”. Boerperds compete in everything from showing and harness classes to dressage, jumping, eventing, equitation, western and endurance; they are incredibly versatile and are not dissimilar in appearance to the Waler.