In March 2014, Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel successfully set a new Drakensberg Grand Traverse (DGT) speed record (post-event interview). It took them 41 hours and 49 minutes to traverse the 205 mostly-off-trail kilometers through the Drakensberg, a remote mountain range bordering Lesotho and South Africa. Travailen is a 27-minute film documenting their journey directed by Dean Leslie and produced by the team at The African Attachment (in-depth profile). Actually, let me be more clear, this film is about a mental, physical, and spiritual journey, one that started for Ryno and Ryan several years before the actual record attempt and one that I would guess, now a couple months after the outing, is still in progress.
The film was released today at a live premiere in Cape Town, South Africa, and will shortly be more widely available to the public.
The Full Version
Section 1 – Setting the Landscape
To document this journey, the film is broken into three sections. The first eight minutes introduces viewers to the Drakensberg itself, Ryno and Ryan, and the history of record attempts on the route. In this portion of the film, viewers are treated to a rich mix of land- and air-based cinematography that reveals the Drakensberg landscape: wide, treeless expanses of grass; vertical cliffs that drop thousands of feet before their first break; the range’s herdspeople who I believe are the Basotho; Ryan and Ryno full on gallivanting around this wilderness; and rocks, rocks, and more rocks. The shots break constantly, changing scale and view from big, to little, to macroscopic, to big again, introducing viewers to the landscape’s multiple layers.
In an age where trail running films are becoming a dime a dozen, The African Attachment comes out of the starting gates flying, right away setting this film visually apart from most out there today. Yes, of course, they have a helicopter, the best cameras, time and money for post-production treatments, and other resources on their side, but it takes the eyes and the minds of artists to create the visual feast that is the film’s first eight minutes. From start to finish, the cinematography never deviates from this highest quality.
In the film’s first section, we learn the history of the DGT and meet the men who established the line and the couple ‘rules’ that folks who attempt the full traverse must follow. It was the quirky and humble pair of Gavin and Lawrie Raubenheimer who created the route and put down an honest, fast attempt in 1999. We meet Stijn Laenen, another previous record holder, a tiny guy who speaks wildly with his hands and clearly possesses endless internal excitement for the Drakensberg. We also meet previous record holder Cobus van Zyl; he and Ryno together held the previous record of 60 hours, 29 minutes, and 30 seconds that Ryan and Ryno were attempting to break. Cobus, we learn, is a dedicated soul, perhaps as eager for Ryan and Ryno’s record attempt than the men themselves. He becomes a sort of wingman, sharing information, helping Ryan and Ryno recce the route, and monitoring their progress during the event.
Ryno and Ryan. What would a film introduction be without a meeting of the protagonists? Here, the film deviates from the norm with trail running movies these days. There’s only minor focus on Ryan and Ryno’s previous athletic accomplishments; instead, the focus is on the relationship they are building with the Drakensberg and each other. We learn of Ryno’s deep history and infatuation with the Drakensberg, of Ryan’s introduction to it through following Ryno’s experiences there, and of Ryno’s perhaps equal infatuation with Ryan as an athlete. There’s a delicate moment when Ryno shows viewers his hat, which we learn was signed by Ryan at the 2012 Salomon Skyrun in South Africa, a race they both ran and that Ryan won. The storyline reveals that the laws of athletic attraction seemed to draw the pair together for this record attempt.
In this first section, The African Attachment does an excellent job of character development, of teaching us who Ryan and Ryno are and revealing the personalities of some of the other men who have history with the DGT. My only critique to this portion of the film is what feels like a slightly overindulgent focus on Ryno’s respect for Ryan and his abilities. While it’s clear by the end of the film that Ryan feels an equal level of respect for Ryno, and that Ryno is a helluva athlete himself, it’s not as obvious here.
Section 2 – Little Men, Big Country
The second part of the film lasts for about eight minutes, and its focus is on the recce Ryno and Ryan did in the Drakensberg in October 2013. We learn that the two, along with Cobus, were meant to traverse the route at a moderate pace, fastpacking their way along. But the group was hindered by cold temperatures, rain, graupel, and, eventually, snow. They wake on the third day, somewhere after their halfway point, to a couple inches of fresh snow. Ryan asks the group if it would be okay to abort the attempt, and they all head out of the mountains.
While the cinematography does an excellent job of showing the environmental duress the trio was under, what it does best here is unfolding the plot. First, and while it’s not 100% clear to me, what I think the viewer is meant to understand is that Ryan was originally thinking of tackling this record solo, but that he learns during this difficult recce that he couldn’t go it alone. What we do understand with 100% clarity, however, is that Ryan walks off the Drakensberg in this first recce not knowing if the record attempt was something he could do at all.
I’m not gonna’ lie, I love this portion of the film. In a day and age where we’re constantly bombarded with imagery and words about people in crazy trail and ultrarunning circumstances who rarely seem to fail or be at least scared shitless about some of the stuff they are doing, it’s refreshing and honest to have a man look at the camera and say, “If things went wrong, I didn’t think I was capable of looking after myself.” He essentially points to his limits, the end range of his capacity, and shares them unabashedly with the world. Ryan’s personal limits we learn, are bad conditions in a remote and trail-less mountain range.
Even more, we see that he doesn’t go forward with the attempt solo, banking on good conditions or the hope of a rescue if things go belly up. He doesn’t pretend to have skills and abilities he doesn’t yet have. He realizes his limits, knows that he needs the help of someone who is experienced in the areas he lacks, and he reaches out and asks for it. Viewers understand at the end of this section that Ryan and Ryno will go forward, in a pair, possessing the collective skill set to hopefully move through the Drakensberg faster than anyone else has.
Ryan says that he felt vulnerable up in the Drakensberg during that bad-weather recce. His vulnerability is palpable. Huge props to Ryan for his honesty. You don’t see this much in our sport, the reality of just how hard something can be, an athlete checking his or her ego to the power of the natural environment and the difficulty of a challenge. You see it here.
Section 3 – Eyes Up, Hearts Open
The last 11 minutes of the film are focused on the record. The scene cuts to the hour or so before their 12 a.m. start time, of Ryno and Ryan respectively making their last preparations. It’s a quiet go of things, a couple friends and loved ones giving sweet, gentle cheers as the athletes disappear into the black of night.
This third part of this film watches like a conveyor-belt-style smorgasbord of Ryno and Ryan’s experiences during the attempt, a steady stream coming quickly at the viewer. Nighttime running, tagging mountain summits, Ryno’s battle with heat and resultant nausea, Ryan’s fight with sleep demons before the pair curls up on some grass for a nap on the second night, a few trips and stumbles and grunts over rocks and steep pitches, tagging more summits and the twosome’s quiet encouragement of one another as they do so, Ryno’s continual navigation by map and GPS, the long light of two sunrises and one sunset, crossing rivers and stopping for snacks, cows scattering at the pair’s approach, and, finally, the look of relief and fatigued joy on Ryan and Ryno’s whole bodies when the attempt concludes. Joy and labor are equally conveyed in this sequence through the cinematography, voice-over narration, and music. “Keep your eyes up and your heart open,” rings the song’s refrain.
I bet it’s really hard, as a filmmaker, to whittle a 42-hour record attempt into 11 minutes, but The African Attachment does it without issue. While there are many types of great storytelling (whether cinematic, oral, or written), there’s one that especially resonates with me. For me, a story is well and rightly told if it transports the viewer or the reader into the event, making them see and feel that which the subjects see and feel. I will tell you, I was right there with Ryno and Ryan for each of these 11 minutes, laboring and toiling and effort-ing along. In other words, there’s stellar storytelling here.
The film ends at the record attempt’s finish line. There are no whoops and hollers, no showboating, no big frenzy. The two men simply glide up to the fence that marks the route’s end point with these big, fat grins of jubilation. You can see in their bodies that this journey–205k across the Drakensberg–has ended, but you can see in their eyes, which emanate wonder and shock and the enormity of the land they just traveled, that their respective inner journeys will go on. It’s now clear that Travailen, a name that seems to be a blend of the word ‘travail’ and ‘traveling,’ is ever so fitting. Perpetual travel. Perpetual travail. That was Ryno and Ryan’s DGT adventure. That is life.
Red Bull, for whom The African Attachment produced this film, will be releasing Travailen to the public soon. Stay tuned; we’ll let you know when we hear their plans.