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Connoisseur's Guide · Africa · south africa · South Africa ·

The Big Five

Author: Aigars Nords0 COMMENTS

The Big Five

The Big Five Marathon is fairly new event taking place in South Africa only since 2005. Although not so familiar yet, it ranks among the toughest and the most exclusive marathons in the world. Not every sports enthusiast would be able to travel around the globe to spend a vacation in the wilderness. The race has got its name from five magnificent savannah inhabitants, referred to as the Big Five Game: lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhinoceros. You will not encounter any of the most dangerous animals during the race in savannah, however. Moreover, fully armed local rangers keep eye on participants all through the distance - to be on the safe side, so to say.
The Big Five offers a full marathon and a half marathon, both routes leading through Entabeni Reserve in Limpopo province. It spreads over about 250km2, comprising all the diverse savannah ecosystems - from a humid plateau, rivers, lakes and waterfalls to arid areas, sandstone monoliths, mountains and ravines. There are both lowlands and steep hillsides, orange African sand and bunches of yellow grass. Getting to the start is not so easy, in fact, especially if you decide to travel on your own, avoiding overpriced services of travel agencies. Everything seems simple enough on the map, and even though you know the direction, most probably you will lose your way as soon as you decide to take a shortcut. There are no signs whatsoever and some places you see on the map seem to be long since renamed. No wonder that The Big Five gathers merely some 200 enthusiasts every year (versus tens of thousands of participants at the NYC Marathon), most of them tourists. Some runners arrive at the start with a delay of more than hour, yet for individual time measurement it's all right as well!
The Big Five is not for setting world records. Those who have covered more than enough city courses and crave for fresh sensations, go to Africa. As a matter of fact, where else could you see silhouettes of giraffes, zebras, antelopes or buffaloes in the distance? Buffaloes are worth of special mention, as it is a bit scary how all of a sudden they just dart across the course. If you run - they run, if you stop - they do the same, like in a weird game. It brings back some movie scenes where a herd of grey-black, huge animals uncontrollably crush anything that comes into their way - a recollection that sends a quick shiver up your spine... There is no fencing, just savannah, and watching animals is the only entertainment in the length of 20 or 42 kilometers. No masks and costumes, nor rock groups along the course, only water stops. Yet they do not help much either, in spite of pretty reasonable temperatures of just +15 - 20°C, typical to African winter (May - July). Maybe it is so tough because the course goes uphill for about 10 km. At first you struggle and try to run, but soon the last scraps of heroism vanish, and you slowly walk upwards. For me it was the hardest half-marathon ever, but still an amazing experience! It definitely gives a feeling that the following two weeks of non-stop eating, while crisscrossing small villages and vineyards of South Africa, is well-deserved.
Aside from The Big Five, the company Adventure Marathons has several more exotic adventures to offer - The Great Tibetan Marathon, The Great Wall Marathon in China, The Polar Circle Marathon and Petra Marathon in Jordan. More information on the website: and

Where to stay?
The Marakele National Park is just a short way from Entabeni. It is sited on a private land, once owned by the late Dutch businessman, Paul Fentener van Vlissingen. He was entrusted by Nelson Mandela himself to develop tourism in this godforsaken corner of the earth, at the same time preserving the national park. Marataba lodgings are hiding in the bush in the very heart of the park, almost next to the slopes of Waterberg Mountain. They are 15 luxury tents, in fact, offering the top level comfort. It is a perfect spot to escape to if you wish to relax and enjoy this remote African area surrounded by genuine wilderness. Returning from dinner, for example, you may encounter elephants towering just next to your tent and munching without any hindrance. What a sight to see! According to personnel, it's been quite a fight with thirsty animals during the driest summer months. Even a fence built around the swimming pool hadn't helped much, and the gray giants managed to get through anyway. Now a new fence with a slight electric current protects the bathing place. Also lonely walks at night are out of question - a ranger will accompany you if you wish to get somewhere, just call reception. The hotel offers also safari tours in the territory of the park. And the cuisine is excellent, which makes up for few tiny inconveniences!
Renting a car is the best way to get to Marataba. Rates from R2750 (a double suit)

Useful information
- An air temperature on a sunny winter day in South Africa reaches +20°C - warm enough for swimming in a pool and sunbathing.

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