Michel Bega

By Michel Bega

Multimedia Editor

WATCH: Marakele Marathon takes runners through Big Five game reserve

Photographer Michel Bega shares his experience of running the Powerade Marakele Marathon.

It’s 5am, still dark, but there’s a bustle of activity at the entrance to the Marakele National Park in Limpopo. 

Just over 1 200 mostly neon-clad runners are about to head off, on foot, into the rugged wilderness of an unfenced Big Five game reserve to take on a unique running experience: the Powerade Marakele Marathon. 

A total of 130 of these athletes are about to face the full marathon distance of 42.2kms, including climbing a section of the steep and challenging Lenong Pass. 

The remaining runners will attempt shorter distances, including a half marathon, 10km and 5km fun run. 

Nervous chatter, filled with excitement and fear, fill the air. 

It’s always tough to take on a marathon, but there is an added factor of danger running in a park which is home to over 36 lions, 200 buffalo and 400 elephants. 

The day before the race, park manager Koketso Kotsoe assures us all precautions are taken to ensure the safety of the participants. 

A runner competes in the Marakele Marathon
A helicopter flies overhead ensuring the route is safe for runners. Picture: Michel Bega/The Citizen

“There is a helicopter that travels along the route from early morning to look out for animals that might be near the roads, and armed rangers are deployed in strategic points, plus at all the water points.” 

This is the 15th edition of the marathon, and over the years there have been no Big Five related injuries reported (running related injuries are another story though, and possibly ego-related injuries too, since it’s a tough route with over 800m of climbing). 

Big Five close by

In 2012, runners had to be couriered around a pride of lions lazing in the road, and in 2017, the race was hindered by an elephant bull, according to running blogger Stuart Mann. 

This year, there were no such incidents. But according to media and stakeholder relations manager Gabrielle Venter there was a roaming lion spotted at the 21km turnaround point earlier that morning, and another near the 10km mark on the route, but not close enough to cause concern. 

A runner competes in the Marakele Marathon
A South African National Parks ranger is on the look out as the sun rises. Picture: Michel Bega/The Citizen

The day before the race our media contingent was taken on a game drive and we did see three white rhino along the route, plus a herd of about 15 grazing buffalo. 

Our guide said it is the buffalo that he is most afraid of, adding there is a reason they are part of the Big Five. 

As the race is a Comrades Marathon qualifying race, times do matter, and Venter explains that, should a dangerous wildlife encounter occur, the race officials will stop the clock to deal with the situation before proceeding.

A runner competes in the Marakele Marathon
A runner passes through a tunnel entering the Big Five section of the park. Picture: Michel Bega/The Citizen

As runners head off at 6am, they are greeted by the patrolling helicopter. 

The race is an out-and-back route, which sees you running 21km into the reserve and then turning around and heading back to the start/finish. I was unsure what shoes to wear, considering the race is run on a mixture of gravel roads, paved roads and tar, but my trusty road shoes, the New Balance 860s, were more than adequate. 

At around the 21km turning point, you might see vultures circling above the mountain tops (hopefully not to pick off tired runners). 

This unique sight is due to the reserve homing over 800 breeding pairs of Cape Vultures. 

A runner competes in the Marakele Marathon
Runners make their way past an armed ranger. Picture: Michel Bega/The Citizen


The race was won by Othaniel Phahlane in a time of 2:43:56, followed by Gordon Lesetedi in 2:45:01. Katy Van Meter won the ladies race in 3:29:19. 

But for the slower runners, such as this writer, the marathon is more about appreciating the beauty of running in such a scenic and unique location. 

The stunning cliffs of the Waterberg Mountains rise up to greet you as they change colour with the morning sun. 

The thick bush that hugs the route reminds you that you are running far from civilisation, in contradiction to where a person would usually run a marathon. 

A runner competes in the Marakele Marathon
This year the event was dedicated to the Kransberg Widow butterfly, endemic to the region. Picture: Michel Bega/The Citizen

There are no crowds of spectators along the route – just you, alone with your thoughts, and fellow runners struggling the harsh climbs. 

Despite not having throngs of spectators, the SanParks Honorary Rangers definitely make up for it in spirit, cheering along tired legs, and offering refreshments and snacks every few kilometres. 

Each year the race is run under a different theme. This year the event was dedicated to the Kransberg Widow butterfly, which is only found near the Kransberg Mountains of Thabazimbi. 

Upon completion, runners are presented with a special commemorative medal unique to this year’s race. It is something for you to take home and brag with – about your run on the wild side.

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