The taxi, fully laden with items bound for the next ultra marathon refreshment station, bumps along what is little more than a track, way up in one of Africa’s highest mountain ranges. It has left behind the Sani Stone Lodge, overlooking an achingly beautiful valley on a broad river bend, on the South African side of the alpine border. The driver, Mapaseka Makoae, is on her phone to her team members already at the next station, giving information about the expected arrival times of lead runners and what is required pending the taxi’s arrival. Turning to her companion, she discusses how long it will likely take to pitch the marquee tent which is occupying much of the taxi’s interior.
Sani Stone Lodge is the second refreshment-aid station of the world’s toughest ultra-trails, the Ultra-trail Drakensberg (UTB) 100 miler. The lodge is situated 32 km into the race. From it, just thirty minutes previously, top ultra-trail runner Ryan Sandes and a lead shepherd on horseback had departed a little more than three hours into the 2021 race. Makoae is now guiding us expertly to the station at 46km, adjacent to the summit of Black Mountain Pass, 3240 metres above sea level, high in the “mountain kingdom” of Lesotho. Makoae has become the “go-to” person for anything related to the UTB in Lesotho.
Swinging onto a tarred road to ensure the swiftest transit to the station, Makoae turns to me. “Basically, everything that happens with Ultra-trail Drakensberg in Lesotho has to go through me,” Makoae says. “If anything goes wrong, I’m the one in trouble!”
Makoae, who hails from Mokhotlong in the Lesotho Highlands, is a key player in the success or failure of the event. Co-ordinator of all matters relating to logistics, hospitality and infrastructure within the Lesotho section of the UTD races, primarily the 100 miler (almost half of which is in Lesotho) and the 100 km (which just touches the border), Makoae’s role was hardly an expected one for a young woman growing up in the region. She stumbled on the UTD more by good fortune than intent.
“I was working at the Sani Mountain Lodge as a cultural guide a few years back, when the person I was working for introduced me to Spurgeon Flemington, the overall race director,” Makoae explained. “He said I had to meet ‘Spurge’ which I did, and the rest is history!”
Her years belie her ability and clear authority. “I am turning 32 in two days’ time and I’m happy with life and what I’m doing,” she enthuses. For Makoae, the Ultra-trail Drakensberg has been a life-changing and enriching experience.
When not involved with the race organisation, Makoae is a tour guide and monitors bearded vultures and cape vultures in Mokhotlong. Her experience stands her in good stead for the never-ending tasks required for the UTD. That involves arranging for the necessary infrastructure at refreshment-aid stations (which includes the pitching of marquee tents and the provision of wholesome Lesotho food). Apart from the volunteer crew, which included all the staff to run the aid stations, the UTD employs twelve local Basotho people from the surrounding villages, all of whom report to Makoae.
She also has to arrange for the shepherd-horsemen to ride alongside the leading athlete for the entire 76km circuit in Lesotho, arrange for vehicles and drivers for all manner of tasks and most of all, mark and clear the route.
“We took a month to clear the paths and mark the entire route with stone cairns,” Makoae boasted. “I had to make absolutely certain that the route was able to be followed by all the runners. We fixed the yellow ribbon markers just a few days before the race, as these tend to disappear if we put them out too soon.
“It used to be much worse. The shepherds would take them and wear them as souvenirs. Part of my job was to communicate with the local people and rope them in to help as volunteers. They were quite excited to help putting up the markers instead of taking them down. They feel proud to have been a part of the success of the event.
“I was able to give each volunteer a woollen race beanie for them to wear against the cold, and food while they worked. They wore them with pride.”
A video of the 2021 Ultra Trail Drakensberg is available here:
Story by Stephen Granger