A fire crackles just after dawn in the bushlands of northern Tanzania. The sun is starting to rise over the Yaeda Valley and the start of a new day means one thing to the Hadza tribe. It’s time to begin their daily ritual of finding the food that will sustain them until the next dawn.
For women, this means reaching out with long wooden sticks in search of berries and digging for edible tubers. For men, it’s time to hunt. With handmade bows and arrows, they will cover up to 40km on foot by noon.
In the summer of 2023, a group of ultra-marathon runners will arrive on the land of Hadza for an 80 km race. Competitors will use Hadza survival skills to sustain themselves.
There will be no power zones or energy gels. Runners will not be able to bring supplies. The water will have to be collected from natural rainwater cisterns in the baobabs while the fruits of the trees will be among their energy sources.
The Hadza tribe has lived in this region for thousands of years. They are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world. They live sustainably on a daily basis outside their homeland in the Yaeda Valley, hoard no food or resources, and have no history of famine.
However, their population dwindled to 1,300 due to the encroachment of pastoralist tribes and agricultural settlements. They have lost 90% of their land since the 1960s.
“When I was a child there were no other tribes in the area up to 80km from here,” says the Maroba tribe elder as he sits on a rock overlooking the valley.
“The game that was here then — everything from elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests — was plentiful for hunting. It slowly changed and people started moving out.”
The race will take place during the dry season when the landscape appears barren and unforgiving. But Hadza women point out that there is plenty of food if you know where to look. During a morning forage, Apooa shows us a greyish looking branch which signals the presence of edible tubers underneath. She says, “We are looking for makalitako and this food will sustain us until tonight.”
Early the next morning we are about to experience part of the course first hand with two members of the tribe, Moshi and Sindano.
The Hadza are a completely egalitarian society in relation to gender and age. However, there is a definite hierarchy of experience in our ride group.
With a bow and arrow in one hand and the other in his pocket, Moshi moves quickly over rocky, uneven and hilly terrain with Sindano, alert to any potential hunting opportunities. You have to run to keep up.
Early that morning, the route of next year’s race was explained to Moshi by Mika Peterson, our guide and translator from the Dorobo Fund, a conservation arm of Dorobo Safaris that works with the Hadza to maintain land rights. She will be working with ultra-marathon expert Josue Stephens and her company Barefoot Adventures to organize the race, which still has no name.
The Hadza do not use kilometers or miles. Mika – switching from Swahili to the Hadza click language, Hadzane – explains the route using well-known Hadza landmarks.
“Researchers have put trackers on the Hadza and it’s very common for a Hadza to go hunting and go 30 or 40km in the morning,” says Daudi Peterson, Mika’s father, who has been working with the Hadza since the 1990s.
Run organizer Stephens has spent long stretches of his life running with the Tarahuma tribe in Mexico, the subject of Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born to Run. He was attracted to organizing a competition with the Hadza in part by their athletic stamina.
Studies have shown that a typical member of the Hadza tribe completes the UK’s recommended weekly guide for exercise – 150 minutes – every day. They also found that the Hadza have enviable heart health, with low blood pressure and low cholesterol levels, even in old age.
Some members of the Hadza group tell us they would like to do the race, with Mika adding: “Someone like Moshi, we’ll probably ask to stay in the rear to help those in need.”
It will be a tough course for the 50-100 riders expected to compete.
Eighty kilometers in temperatures above 30C at an altitude of 1,300m (the same as Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain) will be tough enough. Runners will also forage for wild berries, dig tubers, make hand arrows, collect honey, and climb baobab trees for water and fruit.
“For runners, these challenges will be time-consuming, but I’ll be able to tackle them very quickly,” says Moshi.
You can spot the ubiquitous baobab trees from any vantage point in the valley. Their thick trunks give them the appearance of water hydrants.
The baobab is known throughout Africa as the tree of life and for good reason. It is one of the largest succulents in the world and can store more than 100,000 liters of water during the rainy season. Its citrus fruit is a well-known superfood with six times more vitamin C than an orange.
Mika says, “The baobab will be the main sustenance food for the race. Runners cannot bring their own food and will have to get food and drink with skills learned from the Hadza.”
Midway through a morning hunt on our penultimate day in the valley, we stopped to practice our baobab picking skills (also known as stick-throwing to pry the fruit off the branches). Moshi is in the foreground again, laughing, smiling and teaching us the traditional Hadza greeting.
‘It’s me?’ translates as ‘are you alive?’
Previously, Moshi smoked killer bees from their hive for honey. It took him minutes to build a small fire, using the friction of branches with a hand drill technique and dry grass as firewood. Runners will also have to master it for roasting tubers and warming up at night.
To our right is a piece of wood painted white on one side and green on the other. It is about a meter high and is a boundary marker.
The peeling paint draws the lines of Hadza land and marks where pastoralist Datoga tribes can access Hadza land at certain times of the year for grazing livestock.
Part of the proceeds from the race will be paid directly to the Hadza, for the use of their land and sharing their survival skills. They spend money on health care, education, and land dispute settlement. They have lived in this region for tens of thousands of years, but only since 2003 have their traditional territory been officially assigned to them by Tanzanian law.
On our last afternoon with the Hadza, we spent some time sitting on a huge rock overlooking the Yaeda Valley with Maroba. When asked how the valley has changed in his lifetime, Maroba began a long story, arms outstretched in various directions as he explained the different areas on the horizon that were once Hadza land.
When he finished speaking, we asked him what he thought of the invasion of rival tribes.
He smiled and, with characteristic Hadza compassion, said, “It has become much more difficult to live off the land than it was when I was a child.
“The increase in people and the pressure, even though we have these designated areas that have some kind of protection, it makes it so difficult to hunt. The way it’s going doesn’t sound too good, but those people have to make a living as well. “