Saffa musher tames 
1 600km of frozen wilderness

25 Jul 23 | Profiles

In 51 years, only 830 people have completed Alaska’s Iditarod, known as the ‘last great race’. An ex-pat became the 828th person and the first South African to cross the finish line.

Gerhardt Thiart spent his 55th birthday on March 15, stuck with his 14 Alaskan huskies in a 24-hour Arctic windstorm at the isolated Iditarod Shaktoolik Checkpoint of the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Despite this, the ‘minimalist’ musher, who travels lightly but responsibly, became the first South African to complete the Iditarod, an annual, gruelling dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska.

It was a remarkable achievement for the proud South African, who made sure that his country’s national anthem greeted him at the finish line.

While he loves adventure and getting out of his comfort zone, Gerhardt says he is not an adrenaline junkie and ‘plays the field with caution’.

“There has to be a reason for every challenge I take on… A why, a purpose, a goal. Most importantly, there has to be growth. These are the things that drive me,” he says.

Born in Citrusdal, north of Cape Town, Gerhardt went to Stellenbosch University to study mechanical engineering after matriculating in 1986. But, he laughs, his studies interfered with his social life and he called it a day after a year. In 1988 he joined the army and completed his basic training in Grahamstown, before being transferred to the South African Defence Force Infantry School in Oudtshoorn where he obtained the rank of 1st Lieutenant Platoon Commander and went on several tours to Angola.

He then joined Volkskas Bank (Absa) and, for extra money, worked as a waiter at Saratoga Spur in Parow. He left the bank to become the manager at Spur, where he met his wife Al-Jo when she came for a job interview. “Here came this girl, blonde, blue eyes, long summer dress, barefoot and no make-up. I fell in love.” Gerhardt was transferred to Silver Creek Spur in Durbanville as senior operations manager and, in 2003, the couple got married. In 2005, they bought Sabino Canyon Spur in Malmesbury, which they owned until 2010 when they moved to America.

“When I was a child, I promised myself that I would always explore and find new things. I didn’t want to be like my loving, honest, hardworking parents, who did the same thing over and over for 30 years. That’s not living. There is a wide world out there to explore and experience,” he says.

Shortly after they were married, Al-Jo wanted a Siberian husky. “We got one. Then another and another, and began dryland sledding with carts and scooters on dirt roads outside Malmesbury.” By the end of the winter, there were about 20 other dryland sledders.

One night at a braai, a friend asked him if he had heard of the Iditarod. He had not and, after not being able to find a book about it in the library, ordered an Iditarod documentary online. “We watched it with all our husky friends present, a pig on the spit, lots of beer, brandewyn and wine. That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to do that race one day. Mark my words!’ Everyone laughed.” Even though the idea was fuelled by Black Label beer and Chateau Libertas, it stayed in his head until 2010, when he lost his passion for the restaurant industry.

The couple applied for jobs as sled dog handlers at a racing kennel in Cheboygan, Michigan, and got their visas. “The idea was to go to America for a short time and take a break from the restaurant world.” Still living in Cheboygan, they haven’t been back to SA since, but plan to visit this year. While in America, Gerhard obtained his business management degree and a degree in financial accounting, while Al-Jo graduated as a veterinary assistant. They obtained their green cards on September 11, 2020. Moving to the US was not easy.

“We both worked three to four jobs, trying to keep our heads above water. We did everything from mowing lawns and cleaning houses to ploughing and planting fields, serving, cooking and washing dishes in restaurants.” In October 2020, they moved to Alaska to handle sled dogs for Mitch Seavey, a multiple Iditarod champion and record holder for the fastest Iditarod. “He’s an icon in the Iditarod world and we have admired him since watching the documentary.”

Broken ankle dashes hope, but not spirit

Gerhardt competed in his first Iditarod qualifying race in January 2021 and his second and third qualifiers over the next two months. “We were in Alaska from October 2020 to the end of March 2021, before going back to Michigan to work in restaurants as servers, cooks and dishwashers to pay the bills.”

“We were in Alaska from October 2020 to the end of March 2021, before going back to Michigan to work in restaurants as servers, cooks and dishwashers to pay the bills.” They went back to Alaska in October 2021, to Seavey’s Iditarod racing team to train for the 2022 Iditarod, which started on March 6. A broken ankle cut short his race when he and another musher got caught in an Arctic hurricane storm.

“My 20-year dream ended 50 miles from the finish line. I only needed six more hours.”

But Gerhardt didn’t give up. In the summer, with his broken ankle, he and Al-Jo worked as sled dog tour guides on Punchbowl Glacier, near Girdwood in Alaska. He started training for the 2023 Iditarod in October 2022 and made sure he was at the starting line in Willow on March 5.

“What you don’t have with you, you have to do without. It’s just you, 14 dogs and 1 000 miles of Alaskan winter hardness,” says Gerhard, who crossed the finish line in Nome on March 17, in 26th place.

The race took him 11 days, 21 hours and a few seconds to complete. “At the start of the race, I could taste victory. My 20-year dream – with all of the hard work and training and hardship to get a green card – was coming to fruition. My victory was to get my dogs to Nome. My aim wasn’t to place, but to finish.

“Fifteen miles from Nome, while my ‘kids’ were moving hard and fast, going strong, they somehow sensed they were going home. I broke down in tears, which were frozen to my cheeks… an emotional breakdown from satisfaction, with a goal and purpose achieved. It was the most humbling experience ever,” he says, adding that he couldn’t have done it without his wife.

When not off sledding, Gerhard runs the GAT Foundation, a registered non-profit organisation that he established with Al-Jo. The foundation has joined forces with wildlife conservation organisation Tusk to promote the 2023 global Wildlife Ranger Challenge.

“Our mission is to amplify the impact of progressive conservation initiatives across Africa. Tusk supports about 90 community-based conservation projects across 23 countries throughout Africa.

We support over 9 000 rangers’ livelihoods, protecting 45 endangered species and preserving over 
40 million hectares of wild ecosystems.”

SACCUSA plays role in boosting trade relations with Zimbabwe

SACCUSA plays role in boosting trade relations with Zimbabwe

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