Australian Bush Doctor Paul Liebengerg: The Grit and the Grind, by Robin Postell

Paul LiebenbergPaul Liebenberg doesn’t have time to train for the upcoming Egyptian Sahara installment of the 4 Deserts Series, or the penultimate golden ring of the Last Desert Race in Antarctica.

Training was completing both the Atacama Crossing and the Gobi March earlier this year. With those under his belt he’s got the wisdom and gumption to keep plugging all the way to the final finish in Antarctica.

The smallish amount of running and some gym work counts, but training is delivering babies – sometimes up to 3 a day. As the only full-time obstetrician in the Australian town of Katherine, he’s constantly making aero-retrievals of critically ill patients out in the remotest areas of the Northern Territory.

It’s a tough racket out in the grit and grind of the Outback, where 85% of his patients are the indigenous peoples of the bush.

He manages a rare break while waiting on an Aborigine woman to give birth and calls me in the States for an interview. It’s been a difficult few days, he says – several patients didn’t make it.

Not to mention he fell off his mountain bike yesterday and knocked out his two front teeth. The dentist, he says, tomorrow. He’s more concerned about the wallaby problem down on their airstrip.

“We can’t keep them off it,” he says, adding, “We hit one on take-off recently, then another upon landing.”

If it gets really serious, he says, the have to fire up a chopper.

Fun, for Liebenberg, is pushing himself even further than his job does. The long hours he keeps at work – days on end and often well into or through the night – take as much training as the races in which he participates. The two feed off one another.

“I have found the only way for me to deal with the physically and especially the emotional demands of bush medicine is to push myself physically hard as well,” he says. “The 4 Deserts Series compliments the way I want to live my life.”

Of uber-marathoner Dean Karnazes, he insists they aren’t in competition. Dean, he says, is a professional athlete – nothing like himself at all. He’ll leave the winning to those in the business of it. Liebenberg runs for a cause – the SOS  Children’s Villages (the world’s largest orphan charity), raising as much money as he can for them.

Liebenberg is kinetic and efficiently undone; a mess of process and structure, a kind of freaky arrhythmia of nature’s heartbeat. He grew up surfing in a rural fishing village of Melk Bosstrand on the West Coast of South Africa. His father was a long distance runner and young Paul would ride along beside him as he trained to spend time together.

Coming from a travel-keen family (who now live in Jeffrey Bays, SA), with a fearless eye always fastened on the horizon, Liebenberg carried this with him to Stelleneosch University where he attended medical school. He recalls telling his mother he’d decided to visit the always-volatile central African hotspot of Rwanda and her only inquiries were the route he was taking and whether or not he was going to climb Kilimanjaro.

Liebenberg became a savvy hitchhiker, exploring the African continent with the same voracious appetite he had for surfing back home on the coast. He spent 3 months motorcycling from Cape Town to Morocco before catching a flight to New Zealand’s North Island where he took his first job as a rural trauma surgeon.

In 2007 Liebenberg entered several mountain bike races, 24-hour races, and the New Zealand Ironman.  Three weeks later, after hearing about an ultramarathon in Morocco, he was at its starting line.

This year, Liebenberg felt compelled to top 2007’s expeditions and came across the 4 Deserts Series while doing an online search. He signed up for the entire series at once, thinking it was necessary to complete all in order to go to Antarctica – a place he knew he’d love to add to his list of achievements.

His first 4 Deserts experience at the Atacama Crossing in Chile humbled Liebenberg and wised him up quickly. By day 3 he realized he had underestimated the importance of caloric allowances. Opting for a lighter pack, he chose high-fat foods that weighed less. The high altitude didn’t help his nausea. “I couldn’t keep the food down,” he says, of the untested items. “And that slowed me down.”

He hadn’t figured on walking. Running grew increasingly difficult as the race progressed and his calorie depletion ripped weight off his slim frame. Slower paces meant longer time out in the sandpaper of the desert, which was turning his feet into mulch. “I stayed in a hypoglycemic coma most of the race,” he reflects, but insists the experience turned out to be “wonderful.”

Lessons learned in Chile enriched his racing in the Gobi March. A heavier pack meant better tasting grub. Double the energy in China, Liebenberg thoroughly enjoyed the race and was able to appreciate the culture woven into it. Finishing all four races seemed more than doable by Gobi’s finale.

“I’m hoping the biggest issue in Sahara will be the heat,” Liebenberg comments. A bum knee from a mountain biking accident also figures in, but he says this only makes it more challenging. “It’s so hot here in the Northern Territory that I think I’ll definitely have an advantage.”Paul Liebenberg

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