For the love of rhinos

Mark Pretorius completed the arduous Marathon des Sables, all for the love of rhinos. Here’s his story…

Can you even fathom voluntarily opting to run more than 250 km in just 6 gruelling days? Add to that sizzling temperatures that consistently soar to the 50°C mark. Oh and did we mention these 250 km cover treacherous and seemingly never-ending sand dunes, jagged rocks, slippery shale and scorching white-hot salt plains?

I can’t even fathom running 10 km. Indoors. On a treadmill (ok, slight exaggeration). Let alone willingly signing up for what has rightfully been coined the toughest footrace on earth. But that’s exactly what former &Beyond guide, Mark Pretorius, recently did when he boldly set out to conquer the world-famous Marathon des Sables. The ultimate outdoor challenge for daring athletes, this arduous 250 km trek traverses the endless dunes of the mighty Sahara Desert, a harsh terrain renowned for its extreme, unforgiving climate, blazing hot sun, unexpected sand storms and blistering heat.

Why did he do it? Well, for the love of rhinos. And we cannot thank Mark enough for enduring such physical, mental and emotional pain as he pushed himself to achieve the unthinkable all in an effort to support Rhinos Without Borders. It was Mark’s love of the critically endangered rhino and his desire to help save it from what has now become the brink of extinction that pushed him to cross that finish line.

Not only did he earn enviable bragging rights for completing one of the most challenging marathons on the planet, but he also managed to raise more than ZAR 74 000 (that’s almost USD 6 000) for Rhinos Without Borders. A joint initiative between &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation, our goal is to move up to 100 rhino from the poaching hotspots of South Africa to the relative safety of neighbouring Botswana. It costs USD 45 000 to translocate just one rhino, so every bit helps and Mark’s impressive contribution will go a long way towards securing a future for these beautiful creatures.

Here is Mark’s harrowing journey, in his own words, as he “ran, walked and crawled the Marathon des Sables for Rhinos Without Borders.” Mark, you are a true wildlife hero. Your physical strength is admirable and your determination is clearly unwavering. From all of us at &BeyondAfrica Foundation and Great Plains Conservation, we extend our congratulations and heartfelt thanks to you for putting rhinos first.

“Every year, in April, a group of athletes and lunatics gather in the Sahara Desert to take on ‘the toughest footrace on earth’: the Marathon des Sables. This year, I found myself amongst this madness, trying to raise funds for Rhinos Without Borders. Imagine a giant inflatable start line, a shimmering mess of dunes and rocky planes framed beyond, and the knowledge that there lies 250 km of heat and exhaustion until you can call yourself a ‘finisher’. Because that is all that matters; if you finish this race you have championed your own physical and mental battles. Whatever they may be.

The motivation to take on this race has its roots in my extremely privileged day job. As a field guide (who started with &Beyond) I spend long periods observing and enjoying the presence of rhinos. However, I have also had the misfortune to see rhinos persecuted, mutilated and murdered in and around the place I call home. There is a sense of helplessness shared by rangers, field guides, camp managers and trackers when confronted with yet more appalling narratives of our beloved rhinos falling to a poacher’s bullet. It was this feeling of frustration that compelled me to run for Rhinos Without Borders.

And so I found myself deep in the Sahara, drinking up to 12 litres of water a day, running when I could but often walking over the scolding sand. The race requires that you carry everything that you need to survive on your back, except water for the 6 days of racing. Each stage starts once the sun is already high in the sky and the temperatures are well into the 30’s (centigrade). The mercury continues to rise into the low 50’s, in the shade, at midday. Each night racers would gather at medical tents where doctors handed out 6 000 painkillers, 2.3 km of bandage and 150 litres of disinfectant. After the longest stage (87 km run through the day and night) doctors performed 750-foot operations, on a field of 1 000 runners. The pain was very much the order of the day.

It may sound bizarre, but the endurance of mind over the body can bring levels of unadulterated joy, often preceded or followed by shattering lows. I experienced this at its most intense 60km into the long stage. I was walking through a dune field, under a full moon, my head torch switched off with only the distant light of another runner to guide me. Suddenly just beyond my next step, a desert gerbil rushed across my path. The appearance of such a delicate life in this starkly beautiful, but desolate landscape gave me immense strength to drive on. There lies in all of us a will to discover what we are capable of, right at the edge of what we deem possible. In that quiet moment, I found an answer; we can do anything if the cause runs deep. The knowledge that each step could make a fraction of a difference to defending the rhinos I watch each day, made the pain and will to sleep fall away.

The mission of Rhinos Without Borders is hugely ambitious. Some would even say out of reach. Yet when I signed up for the Marathon des Sables I had never run a 10k, let alone a marathon. If the cause runs deep you will find a way to silence pain and doubt. So says my finisher’s medal and so say the rhinos who now hold strong in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

~ Mark Pretorius, former &Beyond Guide

Click here if you would like to join the fight against rhino poaching and make a much-needed (and much appreciated) donation. Every bit really does help.


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