Inside The World’s Toughest Race – The Munga

It's 1 000km of hard riding from Bloemfontein to Wellington, with five days to finish and no obligation to eat or sleep.

Erik Vermeulen |

It’s a tour, but not the Tour de France. It’s epic… but not the Cape Epic. It’s 1 000km of hard riding from Bloemfontein to Wellington, with five days to finish and no obligation to eat or sleep. It’s The Munga, and this is what it looks like: the grittiest pics of some of the toughest cyclists in the world.

It’s billed as the toughest race on earth; and at 1 000km, The Munga MTB is fast becoming the bucket-list event of the ultra-endurance world. The race’s organiser and photographer – who has been there for all three of the events since the race’s inception – captures the mood and excitement from the 2017 event.


The Munga is not your average bicycle event. It’s a crazy single-stage mountain-bike race across the middle of South Africa, over some of the toughest terrain south of the equator – a 1 000km rush from Bloemfontein to Wellington, in the middle of the South African summer.

The Munga was created in 2014 by adventurer Alex Harris. The dream was always to create a race with a huge reward, and that’s still the ultimate goal. This sort of race is inspired by hardship and difficulty, because it’s only through adversity that we truly come to terms with who we really are.

The first event took place in December 2015, and was a massive success. Since that inaugural race, The Munga has gone from strength to strength. New sponsors have joined the team, new riders have completed (and not completed) the mad journey. This year, Alex participated in The Munga himself.

There are five race villages where riders can rest, eat and get mechanical assistance. There are also a number of water points, posted between 50 and 60km apart. The race is semi-supported, meaning that riders will be provided with support from race officials and at race villages, but will not be permitted to have support along the route. Everything you need must be carried with you on the bike, or bought along the way.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

For the first time we had a field of over 100 entrants, with international riders from Portugal, France, Mauritius, Namibia and the UK. Last year we had a rider from New Zealand, who was completely flabbergasted that we actually farm sheep in the desolate and arid Karoo!

The start is always filled with tension and apprehension – whether you’re in it to win it, or for your own reasons of self-discovery and testing your mettle. That’s what makes The Munga such a unique event; every rider comes to the race for their own reasons – and I’ve seen those reasons change over the course of the race, and even over the course of an afternoon.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

We get more and more riders asking us for permission to use our logo. We don’t mind, because it allows each rider to express their own philosophy and reason for becoming ‘Mungrels’. Riders are building their own lexicon as part of the history of the race.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

After a sunny start, inside the first hour the weather turned, and riders raced through gusty winds and dust storms – eliciting fears for a repeat of 2016, when an incessant headwind decimated the field before waterpoint 1. But in 2017, the wind soon abated.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

The Munga is billed as a self-supported ride; but of course, as organisers we do provide five race villages and 10 water points stocked with snacks, PowerBar products, and water.

Riders can also make use of any infrastructure they come across on the route. Like the Steunmekaar, about 100km into the race – this little shop, with its cool cement porch, is a firm favourite; and the ladies who run it look forward to the stampede of thirsty riders smashing their supply of Clover Super M chocolate milk.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

Most of the riders will see less than half of the route in daylight, missing out on an amazing part of South Africa. Our reasons for the routing is not simply because it’s remote, but because the Karoo seems to be largely overlooked by travellers. There are gems here. The people. The farms. The architecture and bridges. It awakens something in your soul that – despite the desolation – leaves your soul filled.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

There is a distinct difference between the halfway point on the map and the real halfway point. On paper, halfway on The Munga is around the town of Loxton and RV3. The real halfway mark is actually RV4 in Sutherland – that’s ‘only’ about 270km from the end, but it’s halfway, believe me.

Once riders drop off Ouberg Pass into the Tankwa Karoo, they’re faced with two prominent climbs: Dagbreek Pass and Swaarmoed, which tests the spirit into Ceres.

But wait, there’s more – the ‘Highway through Hell’ lies ahead too: a dead-straight 60km stretch of road from Tankwa Padstal to the base of the climb before dropping off into RV5 at Ceres.

The mental game is huge at this stage. Psychologically, you can taste the finish – but it’s still over 20 hours away for the backmarkers.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

What I love about The Munga is the opportunities it’s given riders to carve out a niche market for themselves, where their exploits and personalities merge. Kevin Benkenstein (right) rode last year’s Munga, using it to propel him to placing second in the Race to Rock, and in 2017 he came back again.

Beneath the calm and showboating exterior, he places a lot of pressure on himself – as does every rider who believes they’re in with a chance.

The format, however, means that just about anything can happen. Right before taking this photo I received news that defending women’s champion Jeannie Dreyer had broken her rear axle and was limping along the course – doing anything possible to manufacture a temporary fix and keep moving forward.

She only managed to get it fixed at RV2, 400km later – and still went on to defend her title. The emotions are always just beneath the surface at The Munga. So when they are high and positive, you’d better make the most of them, because that will pass. But so will the times of desperation.


Image by Erik Vermeulen

Waterpoints are special – not only because of the relief and support they bring to the riders, but because of the relationships we’ve forged with landowners across the Karoo. Every one of the 10 WPs is staffed by the farmers and their families, with each one taking great pride in delivering something special – something iconic, that will make their farm stand out from the others. WP1 treated riders to amazing biltong this year. WP7 stands out for its lush green lawns, about 80km from Loxton; and Pampoenpoort has become a firm favourite for its pumpkin fritters and made-to-order pancakes – whether riders arrive at 2pm or 2am!


Image by Erik Vermeulen

Marco Martins from Portugal greeted us at with glee at registration, and then dropped the bombshell that he would be aiming for a sub-60-hour time. Knowing the variables, I was sceptical; but I applauded his determination – especially since he’d never been to SA, and had no idea what lay ahead. I’ve seen some of the toughest riders I know succumb to The Munga.

When we first called it the ‘Toughest Race On Earth’, the riding community baulked – there are longer races, races with much more vertical gain, races with more extremes in temperature… But what makes The Munga tough is the combination of all the factors.

As a photographer, I’ve seen many grimacing faces in many races across the world; but keeping up with Marco as he set a blistering pace across the Karoo produced one of my most iconic ‘grimace’ images. He knew I was there – I was lying sprawled across the road – and he couldn’t muster even the hint of a smile. He was leaving absolutely everything on the roads and tracks of the Karoo.

At this point, I also knew that one of two things would happen. Either he would implode spectacularly, or we were looking at a new record. It was the latter.

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