Well, that’s it. The orienteering bug has bitten.
I spent a week over new years in the beautiful forests of Kaapsehoop, Mpumalanga for the Big 5 Orienteering competition, which had 191 competitors from all over the world. This was all very new to me. I had done some basic orienteering as a scout but nothing like this. I only took part in 3 of the 5 events, which included orienteering through rockeries, forests and the Nelspruit Botanical gardens.
Together with my friend Tessa we dashed out into the complex rocky area inside the town on a miserable cold, misty and rainy day. With my compass in one hand and the map in the other we headed towards… well, I’m not sure. Somewhere between here and the river was an orange and white flag that marks the first control point. The first skill of orienteering is to orientate your map- find your position by lining up your compass with your map, so that you know which direction to run, but always make sure you are holding your map the right way. Yes we learnt the hard way. Once we got the hang of it we cruised from control point to control point, occasionally spending a few more minutes than needed searching for a control point like it was an Easter egg hunt.
Here are two things I learnt on my first day of competitive orienteering; where you are going is only part of the challenge, but the hardest part is figuring out how to get there. Orienteering is like playing connect the dots on a large scale. You are stuck in a field of controls, numbered in order you must find them. Between the controls are cliffs, boulders, rivers and dense bushes. The aim is to get from point A to point B the fastest without getting lost.
The second thing is that the shoes you wear for orienteering are the shoes you ONLY wear for orienteering. Although I started off not very keen to be stuck in the rain, I actually enjoyed it too much, running through mud and jumping through puddles (not knowing how deep they were, occasionally ended up knee deep in a hole).
After the first day getting drenched in the rain. Day two started off all misty but ended up with the sun shining. Set in the beautiful forest in Kaapsehoop area, my friend Nick organised a world ranked long distance orienteering event. This was a tough one as many of the men’s elite and woman’s elite course did not finish within the 3 hour mark. I did not take part on this day as two days before Tessa, Nick and I ran through the eerie misty forest placing all the controls in preparation for the event.
Day 3 was another forest event. Feeling more confident and excited we headed off as the man with the clipboard gave us our cue. We tried to stick mostly to the roads gaining an altitude of 1900m but we often entered the forest, which was very frustrating as a beginner. The biggest thing about orienteering is to study the features of the map to find the location of your next control (brief clues, such as ” southeast side of a boulder” or “the north side of a distinctive tree,”). Well can I just say that the only two features on the map and in real life were trees and boulders. I still don’t know how people found their way around. But running through the forest like a headless chicken was actually really enjoyable, dodging through trees while hearing the pinecones crackling under your feet and running through butterfly swarms. That dopamine rush when you see that orange and white flag in the distance is totally worth that lost feeling of never getting out alive.
The last day had come and this was a fast and sweaty sprint through the Nelspruit Botanical Gardens. Again we were found running through a beautiful area with a huge waterfall but we didn’t get much time to enjoy and take in the beauty. This was my first event by myself and unfortunately my nerves did get the best of me and I had a bit of a bad start, purely because I did not read the map properly, but once I found myself I got through pretty quickly ending with a giant smile on my face and a feeling of accomplishment.
After a week of orienteering I completely fell in love with the sport. I cannot think of anything better than running around lost (Literally) in any beautiful environment; in Rockeries, in a village and in forests. Orienteering is a thinking sport; you are not just mindlessly running. I love the feeling of running fast through the forest unconfined to trails (Bundu bashing) and able to go through any terrain in any weather. Finding controls adds a sense of purpose and adventure.
Orienteering is just addictive!