Today marked my official foray into the sport of orienteering. A couple weeks ago during my orientation weeks at Wits, I was looking for the football and futsal club tables to sign up. Unexpectedly, a booth caught my eye because of the large map displayed behind a bored-looking student. I reached the booth to find it was the Wits Orienteering Club, and was greeted with enthusiasm by the student as if I had finally broken the monotony of her post. I heard of Orienteering before but let her know I was new to the sport. I enjoy hiking and enjoy maps, so it didn’t take much for her to sell me on joining the club.
The basic premise of orienteering is that the participant is given a map of a defined area – a farm, park, neighborhood, etc. – and the goal is to navigate through the map based on a predetermined route marked by waypoints. The key is that each waypoint must be reached in a particular order, and if you accidentally break that order and tag in to the wrong waypoint, you’re disqualified. The most popular players of this sport are in the UK and Europe, where there is a professional league with events across the continent. After seeing a promotional video during my first club meeting, it seems the pros all have one thing in common: lankiness. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or just a result of the sport essentially being a long-distance running competition with the added wrinkle of navigation.
My maiden event happened this morning at Rietvlei Zoo Farm, a recreation area on the south side of Johannesburg. I hitched a ride with a fellow Wits student and we arrived to check in after a nice drive through the rolling hills and rocky outcrops of the high veld. Before starting, I was handed a small scanning device that electronically tags me in to each waypoint. It comes with an elastic slip to tie to your finger. Your other hand is for the map and waypoint list, which isn’t retrieved until the moment you begin the race at the starting line. This is an individual sport, and starting times are staggered by a few minutes for each participant to minimize following. I started 3 minutes behind a fellow Witsie, my orienteering mentor if you will, and the last time I saw him was when he disappeared over a rise just seconds into his race.
As I tagged in at the starting line, the clock ticked down, the starter signaled, and I grabbed a map from the box. As seen above, the bottom left of the map contains a sort of hieroglyphic list of all 16 waypoints needed to check into during the race. These are displayed on the map only as numbers and circles in which each waypoint lies. The symbols on the list describe in orienteering code both what type of feature the waypoint is located at, and where the waypoint lies in respect to said feature. For instance, waypoint 8 was located on the east side (dot on the east side of circle) of a thicket (hash marks symbol). Waypoint 13 was on the west side of a knoll (single dot) on which there were boulders (five small triangles).
I quickly located the first waypoint while carrying a brisk jog. With numerous buildings and man-made paths to guide me, I breezed through the first 6 with relative ease. Feeling pretty good about myself, I launched through some high grass looking for waypoint 7. Trying to follow the power lines on the map as a guide, my head was on swivel looking for the orange and white flags. Still looking, still seeing nothing but chest-high grass, I found myself too far north and turned back when I immediately spotted the waypoint. I must have run right past it. At this moment, a competitor who started three full minutes after me briskly swiped his scanner on top of the waypoint and bolted on to the next. Reminded I was still definitely a beginner at this, I dashed to check in at number 7 and push on to try to make up the time I had wasted jogging 50 yards past my check point. 8, 9 and 10 were easy to spot, but the altitude and my relatively poor fitness were catching up to me. I trudged through high grass towards 11, trying to keep my bearing and breath.
After crossing the dirt road, I realized that waypoints 11, 12, and 13 were hidden among thick forest (represented on the map in white) and meandering dirt trails. Picking what I thought was one trail on the map (turns out it was another), I bolted into the woods to the spot where I expected the check point to be. Nothing. I continued to amble around somewhat aimlessly, trying to orient my map with my surroundings and growing more and more confused. It would have been interesting to see me wander around during those six wasted minutes desperately trying to locate number 11. Maybe for my next event I’ll wear the GoPro.
I found my way through the trees, but I knew I had given up a fair amount of time in the northeast portion of the map. I quickly spotted the thicket adjacent to waypoint 14 and then ran as fast as I could to reach 15 and 16, before finally huffing and puffing through to the finish line. I finished in 13th place at 30:23, right around the middle of the pack for the men’s division. The winner of the event, the man who started just after me and passed me at station 7, completed the course in about 16 and a half minutes. All in all, I was pleased with my first try, and I also managed to have a bit of fun. I have never been one to really enjoy going out for a run for running’s sake, so when I find a sport where you are running for a purpose, like soccer or orienteering, I tend to stick with it. Now back home to do some work on my Masters, which, among other things, will include looking at maps.