By Jo Mckenzie-Mclean
An Alexandra woman is using her feet as a political vehicle running across the Sahara Desert to help protect endangered wildlife in Africa.
Jacqueline Manson, 31, a vet clinic manager, has returned from running 250km across the Sahara Desert competing in the Marathon des Sables - touted to be "the toughest footrace on earth".
She ran the gruelling six-day adventure race with friend Hollie Woodhouse, of Christchurch, Peter Newland - an ex-soldier of the British army who trains rangers across Africa, and two Kenyans who work on conservancies and help run anti-poaching units - Sam Taylor and Joss Craig.
The group ran a campaign called, Running for Rangers, prior to the race held in Morocco in April and raised over $100,000. The money would support rangers who patrolled conservancies in Africa around the clock to protect the rhino and elephants from poachers, Manson said.
"The recent demand for rhino horn and the resulting resurgence in poaching has reached catastrophic levels. In South Africa 650 rhino have been slaughtered in 2014 alone. In proportion to its population, Kenya has lost even more. The situation is even more dire for elephant, with some estimates suggesting that 100 elephant a day are being killed across Africa."
Poachers had become ever more determined and motivated, using high calibre assault weapons and sophisticated night-vision to operate at night. The poachers in Kenya came from an underworld of illegal gunrunners, involved in all facets of gun-crimes in the country, including human-trafficking and drugs, she said.
The rangers operated in tough conditions, and covered vast areas on foot each day and they needed top-quality clothing that was suited to the warm days, cold nights and tough terrain, she said.
As part of the training leading up to the race, the group spent time at Borana Conservancy where team member Sam Taylor is the chief conservation officer.
"We decided to do the race in September last year and were put on the waiting list for ages then all of a sudden it was all go. It is perfect out here (in Central Otago) for training. The landscape is quite similar with all the rocks and heat of the summer. The Sahara Desert is not just all big sand dunes so I had good training. I also went to Kenya for two weeks before we started - I had never seen a rhino before so we stayed at Sam's conservancy and for two weeks we trained in the altitude."
The race itself was tough - more mentally than physically, she said.
"The longest day was 92km in one day and it took us 22 hours. It was pretty tough. We were pretty knackered. Our feet were getting quite sore by that stage but nobody had to pull out. There were 1400 who started and 200 pulled out from dehydration or their feet packing up."The main aim was to stay in front of the camels at the back who were the "tail end charlies".
There were sandstorms, gear was minimal - everyone wore the same set of clothes and slept together in freezing conditions under a woollen blanket pitched over them like an open tent.
It was the first charity race the "Running For Rangers" had done together, but they had already planned their next one for next year - a 230km race in Peru through the jungle, she said.
"I am feeling fitter than I have ever felt in my life so I want to keep that up. And it is a good way to see the world. I'm not one who likes siting on a beach all day drinking alcohol. Most importantly though, we are raising awareness and supporting anti-poaching units to protect these endangered and iconic animals."