Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Freedom Challenge 6 Brosterlea and The Return of the Crazy German

By this stage of the race, you're getting used to waking up at 03h00, so the battering and clashing sounded quite normal. Until I realised that it was the roof rattling in the wind. Nothing like that to fill you with dread and harden your resolve all at the same time. I was so intent on avoidance behaviour that I cooked breakfast for the team that morning. It almost turned out to be our Last Breakfast. Suffice to say that the early morning conversation was full of 'polite anticipation'.

I don't remember too much of the scenery that morning, maybe I was just having a bad day, but all I remember was wind. Wind on the uphills, wind on the downhill, wind on the flat bits. And more wind. In hindsight, I know I fell neatly into the mind-trap of focussing too much on the wind, wasting energy with negative thoughts. I do remember riding along, just above walking pace, hearing the wind howling in the fence wires when into view came a few magnificent Lincoln Red bulls. Proof to me that Brosterlea was nearby. That meant a welcome respite in the form of a soup and bread lunch and shelter from the wind.

Getting to Brosterlea was a milestone for me in a totally different way though. In the early 1960's, my father was involved in cattle breeding and he had bought several Lincoln Red bulls from the legendary Henry Stretton. Meeting Barry and Alta Stretton was personal milestone for me.

Needless to say, once inside the warm house, my thoughts turned very rapidly to a "new race strategy". The rest of the "team", were adamant that it was best to press on. My superior race strategy/cop out option (delete as required) was to eat a good lunch and then sleep until the wind had died down, then to ride on in the very early hours of the morning.

All credit to the Three Wally's for trying their best to drag me out, but I think they realised that they weren't going to win. It was difficult for me to see them ride off, realising that just maybe I would not ride with them again.

Thanks to Alta and Barry's hospitality, I ate like a king and slept like the dead, waking up for supper and to prepare for a 2 am start, then back to sleep. I had noticed that there was a fatbike outside one of the other rooms, but the owner was asleep. Again, I took a chance, not knowing if I'd meet Maarten (aka The Crazy German aka Marty McFly) again.

Maarten and I go back a while, one night he arrived on my doorstep in Prince Albert needing to remake a steel sole-plate for his shoe. During a memorable evening in the workshop we "bodged"a sole-plate that would have made Shimano proud. I hoped that Maarten would keep me company over the next section of the race.

Little did I know quite how lucky I was about to become, good things happen in three's that I now know for a fact.

It snowed a few inches that night, so when I left at about 2:30am, I was riding in a dead calm winter wonderland. Cold, dry and frozen.

Luck number one was that the wind had delivered it's snow, without rain, and moved on.

Luck number two happened just before dawn when I saw a light approaching from behind, it was Maarten "The Crazy German". Let me dispel a few myths. Maarten is not German and he's not crazy, but he can ride and navigate like a demon.

We rode on in silence. Well, not really.

At one stage it started raining heavily, so we stopped to put on all our rain gear. I had visions of repeating the night that Deneys Reitz so clearly describes.

Allow me:

Adrift on the Open Veld

From Commando  Of Horses and Men
by Deneys Reitz

As we started, hard rain came down once more, and the darkness was so intense that we could not see a yard ahead. We had not gone three hundred paces before we heard horsemen splashing through the mud in front, and we ran into the tail of an English patrol or column, we could not tell which, evidently making for the same farm. Neither side was prepared to risk a fight in the rain and dark. The troopers galloped away, and we sheered off too, but with this difference, that they were able to continue on to the shelter of the farm, whilst we were adrift on the open veld.
The night that followed was the most terrible of all. Our guide lost his way; we went floundering ankle-deep in mud and water, our poor weakened horses stumbling and slipping at every turn; the rain beat down on us, and the cold was awful. The grain-bag which I wore froze solid on my body, like a coat of mail, and I believe that if we had not kept moving every one of us would have died. We had known two years of war, but we came nearer to despair that night than I care to remember. Hour after hour we groped our way, with men groaning who had never before uttered a word of complaint, as the cold searched their ill-protected bodies. We lost fourteen men that night, and I do not know whether they survived, but we never again had word of them.
We also lost many horses, and I remember stumbling at intervals over their carcasses. We went on until daybreak, dragging ourselves along, and then, providentially, came on a deserted homestead and staggered into shelter, standing huddled together in rooms, stables and barns until dawn, still shivering, but gradually recovering from the dreadful ordeal. When it grew light, some fifty or sixty horses lay dead outside. My little roan mare was still alive, but both my uncle’s horses died here, and he, with thirty or forty more, was now a foot-soldier. (As practically every man had crossed the Orange River with two horses, the number of dismounted men did not necessarily correspond to the number of horses that were lost.)
This night’s ‘Big Rain’, as we called it, left such a mark on all of us that later we used to call ourselves ‘The Big Rain Men’ (Die Groot Reent Kêrels) to distinguish us from those who had not experienced it, and for my part I passed through no greater test during the war.
Buy the book. Read it.

We made our way pretty quickly over the famous Stormberg portage, Maarten's knowledge of the route helped lift my spirit and no doubt saved me a good amount of wandering around. In fact, we went over the Stormberg so quickly that I later regretted not having stopped for a look around. (That I'll save for the tandem ride).

Romansfontein was our next port of call, but by now I was out of sync with my boxes. "Raiding" one's own boxes while gulping down a warm lunch and trying to do all this while appreciating our host's hospitality. In some ways I had over-planned my Freedom Challenge, so it was good lesson to let go and just collect what was needed before moving on.

The Aasvoelberg was next, again, Maarten's skill as a navigator played a big role in getting us through there without any navigation conferences. Coming off the back of the Aasvoelberg is spectacular (or would be with less mud). Needless to say, Maarten flew down, phatty style, while I simply made sure that I got to the bottom in one piece.

By now it was dark and I'd be lying if I said the warm golden lights of Hofmeyr beckoned. It was cold and miserable and muddy as we set out on the long slog into Hofmeyr. Not far along, we came across three riders covered in mud and, politely put, in need of some good cheer. This was how Allan, Ian, Paul were re-united and I ended up riding to Diemersfontein together.

Without water and feeling flat, we eventually managed to find some "windpomp sherry" that could certainly have earned a Veritas medal for the Brakkest Kakkest Water Ever". But we drank it.

Hofmeyr at 22h00. 150-odd very long kilometres. Straight into the Hofmeyr hotel. Food. Hot showers. And all is forgiven.

Luck number three was that the Wallys regained their anchor ;)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the shortened version of how Maarten became the Belgian representative of the Prince Albert Dikwielkommando. The citation is for service above and beyond the call of duty.

If the Madeiran and French postal services can get their acts together, he will be receiving his certificate on his birthday, the 9th of March.

I'm sure three Wally's, a Meryl and a host of other riders will join me in wishing you a very happy birthday Marty McFly.

PS This section is photo-less. I had other things on my mind and Ian was ahead.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Freedom Challenge 5. Phase Two, if you can call it that

Simply getting to Rhodes in one piece had lifted my spirits, so as the very welcome respite sped past in an evening of watching others receiving their whips, the long trek ahead started to occupy my thoughts.

To be quite honest, for me the next bit was all just a jumble of farm names, portages, legendarily hospitable people and more portages. With the possibility of some rain snow and wind to relieve the boredom....  ;)

Late departure from Rhodes (Image Ian Verwayen)

The departure from Rhodes was later than planned, getting riders out of warm dining rooms is never easy. Somehow the first few hills out of town seemed quite do-able and we found an early rythmn with Rob and Tess setting a cracking pace. Sadly, the wheels came off all too soon. Tess and Rob decided to abandon. I must admit that this shook me up somewhat, two strong riders bailing right in front of us.

We parted on a hill looking back towards Rhodes, knowing that we had lots of work still to do and not a lot of time.
Eating. A lot. Often. (Image IanVerwayen)


Before long we came to the famous Bokspruit turnoff and a memorable tailwind on the sweeping descent. The adventure was off to a good start as we flew down into the Sterkspruit valley, all these places I'd heard of over the years were now unfolding in front of me. The morning's ride down the Sterkspruit valley and on to Chesneywold was a dream and we knew Mienkie would be waiting with her renowned hospitality and even more renowned food. While we enjoyed a very generous lunch, the clock ticked at double-time, so much so that the tracker watchers were concerned about our leisurely approach.

Brimming with confidence and lunch we made haste towards the infamous Slaapkrantz portage. By now we were generally in agreement on the navigation, but that too, was about to change. The light was fading fast as we reached the top of the nek, truth be told it was actually dark. We were fortunate to spot the Cypress trees in the remaining light, giving us a rough bearing on the Spitskop farmhouse.

A rare closeup of the cameraman

There was quite a lot of walking....

This was another ungainly scramble downhill in the pitch dark, offering the usual salutations to a certain David. After finding the farmhouse and confirming it's identity (by the presence of the murals) we blundered our way out of the valley and finally ended up at Slaapkrantz. Warmth, food and hospitality are always a welcome change from cold and dark.

The next morning out of Slaapkranz we made good progress over the Louterbron and Bontehoek portages, not without the by now usual reading and rereading of the narratives. If ever Paul Dalton doubts his patience, he only needs to think back to the n plus 1nth time I asked him to reread a previously reread section of the narrative. I sometimes wonder how I wasn't shot and left next to the road.

After giving the tracker watchers a bit of a scareby veering 180 degrees off course, we pulled ourselves together and headed for Rossouw. Here we finally managed to find some water at the local    SAPS before making for Moordenaarspoort, albeit at a somewhat reduced pace as we were running on reserve.
When we arrived at Moordenaarspoort, well after dark, we discovered that there was a cold front on it's way. That meant wind, so we decided to move on to Kranzkop given that it was a relatively flat and easily navigable section. It turned out to be a good move.

The 38km was covered quite comfortably after the quick supper at Moordenaarspoort. Kranzkop was our first experience of a "self-service"support station, the hosts had everything set out for us. After a late second supper, we all crashed, not knowing what the cold front held in store for us.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Freedom Challenge 4: On and off roads to Rhodes

Day Five dawned long after we'd left Masakala. The ride out of Masakala was neither the first nor the last un-checked dark exit. It would appear that we were slow learners. I'd say it was more of a fumble than a dropped catch and after some fiddling we made it to the correct road without sloshing around in the mud. Our group had grown (albeit briefly) in size with the addition of Merak Greaves, Rob Alexander and Tessa Hess. They soon set off at a pace quicker than ours.

We rode and rode, through villages, across plains, off the route, on the route, through more villages, across more plains, and finally we end up in Queen’s Mercy. The day by now was cold and grey, fortunately for me the shop had a one litre bottle of maas. Fuel!!

We set off out of Queen's Mercy and before we knew it, we were at the infamous Mpharane Ridge. Infamous because one needs to get the navigation right, otherwise you'll spend lots of time fiddling in hills and dales. By this stage Merak, Rob and Tessa were just ahead of us and we caught them just before the descent to the ruins of Gladstone Farm. Thanks to improved navigation we dropped off the ridgeline at the correct point and popped out at the Gladstone Farmhouse after some FUN riding

Sometimes environmental degradation can be fun. OK, don't shoot, let me explain. For decades, local residents have been dragging sledges and trees along paths from the mountains down to their villages. This practice causes huge erosion dongas which have a disastrous impact on the environment. That is not good. Not good at all....but, riding down those drag paths is what I imagine some people think heaven to be. I will ride that section again one day.

That doesn't look like fun?       Image Ian Verwayen

                              OK then, this ?   Image Ian Verwayen

A little over-confident, I followed some tracks down the smooth downhill...mistake. Turn around and go back. It's important to note that we had not yet learned the Golden Rule #1: If it goes downhill and it's smooth, it's not the correct route. We wasted some time buggering about in wattle scrub, but before long we were in at Malegolonyane.

There was a sense of urgency as our plan was to ride the tricky exit bit before dark which would then enable us to exit via the road in the dark the next morning. Determined to redeem my navigation credentials, I led the team through that exercise in double-quick time. Decisive leadership and clear navigation, but no HR management as I managed to lose one of our number on the return journey. God only knows how.

                                  Looking          Image Ian Verwayen

This day, Day Six was to be a big one as it involved getting to and through the Vuvu valley to Vuvu School, the overnight stop. The Vuvu valley has a reputation, and is generally referred to in not-such-polite terms. There was that and Black Fountain and Tinana, all in one day. By now I think we all knew deep down that we were in for a bit of an opvok. Plain and simple.

We did well until we tripped ourselves on a very basic navigation error. Read the narratives, look around and don't listen to people who "think" they remember things. Oh, and also, the white bollards are white pipeline markers. If I had read the narrative and stopped to think.....
It took us a while to find Black Fountain, so by now the pace needed to be quickened, not slackened. 

The turn onto the Tinana ridge caused more delays as the merits of varying interpretations of the narratives were debated and micro-navigated. Each nav. conference ate away at the rapidly diminishing daylight.

It was at this stage that I took the hard decision to ride on with a group of faster riders, leaving John Bowen to ride with Mike Roy. Although we both knew it was unlikely that we’d reach Diemersfontein together, it was still the most difficult decision of the race. 

Anyway we blasted into Tinana, so much so that we didn’t even see the suspension bridge. Tinana wasn’t what we had expected, so we ended up scrounging water from a private home. Note to Jacob Zuma and his ministers: the state of rural water supply in rural South Africa is yet another serious indictment on your government’s track record.

We then moved on at a pace, towards the Vuvu valley, hoping to see most of it in the daylight. After a quick stop at the famous shop with the bakkie on the stoep, we raced to get to the entrance to the valley as fast as possible. We saw enough of it in the light to know that the party was only about to begin.

                The sun's position tells the whole story......    Image Ian Verwayen
We were a bunch of rookies,but I feel we did well enough. The ability to track through long grass by the light of an LED headlight is a useful skill and by good tracking or good luck we managed to get within a hundred metres of the famous Lone Tree before calling for help. By now it was pitch dark, so wandering around in the veld had it's ups and downs. Somewhere here I fell into a hole, a deep hole. The first thought was that I might have disturbed a warthog (but there are no warthogs here). Maybe the grunting was just me trying to get out of the hole? That cost me a cracked or bruised rib and made coughing and laughing not very funny till long after the finish.

We then managed to get across the river and followed the track onwards, but were confused by not being able to see the red light on Vuvu's cellphone tower. Eventually we headed up a side valley and then their came the realisation that we might just be well and truly lost and without a "get out of jail free" card as there was no cellphone reception. 

Just as we were beginning to think about settling down for the night, someone shone a torch from way above on the mountain. There followed a hollering in pidgin Zulu (mine) and very fluent Zulu (a voice in the dark) regarding preferred access route to Vuvu. Suddenly we saw figures moving in the light cast by our headlights... 

Enter stage left Vuyo Ngwenya, (a grade 8 pupil from the local school) his younger brother and their dog. Vuyo had decided to run down the mountain in the pitch dark and biting cold (he had no torch) to guide us up the Vuvu Tiger Line. I don't think he knew how much his help meant to us. It was Vuyo who also told us that the light on the cellphone tower was not working, which had confounded our navigation.

Then began a climb of note in the pitch dark, with Vuyo, his brother and the dog waiting patiently as we struggled up the climb, finally we got to "level" ground and Vuyo bid us farewell. Vuyo’s spirited assistance certainly saved us from what would quite likely would have been a night out.

We arrived the Vuvu High School for supper and shower at the school and then we set off to our lodgings at various private homes in the village where we slept till 4am. This is a special feature of the Freedom Challenge, riders sleep in private homes in the village, ensuring first-hand experience of how the majority of South Africans live.

                                     Leaving Vuvu school       Image Ian Verwayen

Day Seven was to be a big day, and it was. Vuvu to Rhodes via Lehanas. When I think back to the first time I saw the blue container and the sense of resignation / disbelief / laissez faire I wondered what had changed us so quickly. Three days ago I would simply have refused to push my bike up there J

                                       Lehana's?  Steep?          Image Ian Verwayen
Looking up at Lehanas, it’s a long way up, even without a bicycle. At this stage we were a group of seven (Ian, Alan, Paul, Merak, Tessa, Rob and myself) and we slowly but surely gained altitude, frequently looking back to encourage ourselves. Eventually we reached the main ridge and climbed up to the cairn. From there more climbing and then crossing over to the saddle below the container, then more scrambling and pushing until we were at the top and the old ruins. Someone later tweeted that we had chosen the “difficult” route up Lehanas, if there’s an “easy” route, I’ll eat my Niner. All of it. 

After a short ride to Tenahead where we were made to feel very welcome and offered coffee and toasted sarmies. That might sound trivial, but it wasn't and they weren't!
 We lingered, but not for too long as we knew there was still lots of work to be done to Rhodes, despite assurances that it’s all one long downhill. There is a very long downhill section, always better than uphill, but still tiring. Rhodes somehow just didn't want to get closer, but somehow we eventually we got into the town. 

Riding those last few hundred metres into the aptly-named Rubicon was a very, very special feeling. We had made it this far, over the first big hurdle and a major milestone for those of us going on to Diemersfontein.

                                      The Rubicon Crossed       Image Ian Verwayen

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Freedom Challenge: 3. Starting....straight into the deep end

Yes, the trailer came right off the bus just north of Beaufort West. Sirrias. Fortunately 
we had just left the town and:

  • the bus was travelling at about 30kmh
  • the trailer went off the road to the left and not into the oncoming stream of trucks
  • the trailer stayed upright
  • a passenger heard it uncouple and informed the hostess who informed the driver
  • the veld was level and open 
  • my bike was very securely packed

Suffice to say, I think I used up a lot of my good luck credits right there, but my bike was unharmed. The rest of the trip to Pietermaritzburg was uneventful, except that I had nightmares about what could have happened........but in the end it had worked out. Perfectly. Good lesson for me, live in the present, stop stressing about what “could have happened”

Arriving in warm Pietermaritzburg was like a blast from the past, my high school years happened around here. Maritzburg is a funny kind of a dorp, a mind and a character all of it's own, possibly something to do with being one of the last outposts of Her Majesty's Empire caught in an Anglo-Zulu War time warp ? 

Fortunately John Bowen (my brother-in-law) and I had decided to get to the start a day early to give ourselves time to settle down. It turns out to have been a good call, particularly as it gave me a chance to buy some gloves (yes, I had found the last pair of Sealskinz gloves for sale in SA and they happened to be in Maritzburg)

I last stopped in Maritzburg in 1978 for the start of the Dusi canoe marathon….. lots of bridges have been under water since then. My one and only Dusi took about 13 hours to complete and it's something I'll always be proud of. 

Here I was again, about to take on another challenge, in the opposite direction and somewhat longer. I had the same feeling of standing at the edge, about to dive into the deep end without a clue of what to expect. The section to Rhodes was virgin territory to me. (That's not entirely true, I do know a borehole near Matatiele)

Waking up on the Saturday morning to a "free' day, with nothing really to do, except think and stress and worry about what “could be”. The weather was balmy, which meant sent us into a frenzy of forecast checking, but nothing on the radar.

I had the privilege to meet Ollie Burnett of PYGA (I don't even ride a PYGA, but I know and rave about their customer service) and the photographer Hayden Brown. ( I later saw some of Hayden's images....yo! He certainly knows his stuff)

Later in the day we met the other riders in our batch, the Three Wallys, ( Ian Verwayen, Paul Dalton and Alan Haupt ) and Mike Roy. The rest of our batch was made up of Oom Leon se Trein (as we later knew them) who were on a serious race to Rhodes mission. I immediately clicked with the Wally's, particularly when I realised that they were not racing and that their strategy was to simply finish in a dignified manner.
The rider's briefing was (for me) a bit surreal, I've had the privilege of knowing the inside of the race for years, so having the details spelt out to me was quite strange. (Glenn's briefing also brought home to me that I may have been a little under-prepared) I think at this stage I was in that big Egyptian river... in denial of the fact that the shit was about to get very real very soon.

Sunday morning was the first of many 04h00 (or earlier) wake up, get up, get dressed, eat-and-go mornings. That surreal 'lambs to the slaughter" scene as we set off following the race car to the start at the Town Hall... I wonder now what was going through our minds?
The clock strikes six and these mice set off on the neutral zone followed by a goodbye to Meryl and Glenn "see you in Rhodes" 
Almost missing the first turn-off….cane fields, micro-navigation, the first left right left..

To be quite honest, most of the day went in a blur, but the attempted "Tiger Line" into the rear-end of Minerva Museum stands out. As does the vast collection of old equipment, prompting the first of countless "I have to come back heres". 

My next clear memory is the beginning of the rapid descent down to the Umkomaas and the infamous concrete strip. "That" concrete strip provides an ideal opportunity for an early exit from the race, just try.  Admittedly it was fun (and a little re-assuring to meet Ollie Burnett and Hayden  Brown who were there to take photographs of us. Were we the "Main manne" or were they just out on a turkey shoot?  Shortly thereafter we dropped down onto the Umkomaas floodplain and made our way across the open grassland and in and out of the thornbush, following the river downstream. Our first "strategic decision", do we cross now and get wet or go to bridge? I argue for the bridge (my mentor’s advice) because I want to see the bridge again. Let me digress. As a schoolboy I was a very keen canoeist, back in the days when canoeing wasn't considered a "proper or appropriate" sport for Michaelhouse boys. I kid you not. During one of the Hella-Hella  to St Josephine's races I wrapped by boat and walked back to the bridge and spent most of the day waiting to be collected, cold and miserable. Not much has changed. This time we were hot and sweaty and there was no waiting around as the Hella-Hella climb was waiting to teach us some manners.

Then the Hella Hella climb came and whup, it smacked me, was this a taste of things to come? Here I am, two months later, still trying to make sense of what went through my mind that afternoon. Certainly there was a lot of the lingering (that's the wrong word ) impending (wrong again) Damoclean sense of uncertainty that almost made one's knees knock. They would have if they weren't so buggered.  There was a clear realization that this has suddenly gotten real, it’s a long way to Allendale and the sun is going down faster than the Titanic. We had a quick water stop at High-Over and pushed on. Before long the light was gone and we came upon what should have been “familiar terrain” for Sani2C riders, the Mackenzie Country Club, but even they were confused.

It got cold and dark quickly, but  a we hung together, even re-grouping for a dignified entrance into Allandale, without leaving any skin on the driveway. 

Here we were warmly welcomed by Dana and Ian, consummate and experienced hosts. In very quick succession we were fed and showered. This was also my first experience this winter of biting cold.

I have a very clear memory of standing in the warm bungalow thinking "what the hell?" We weren't told that we'd be ripped right out of our comfort zone and given such a "snot klap" on day one. Or maybe we weren't listening. Or maybe we didn't want to hear. 

I fell asleep that night with the nagging thought in the back of your mind “Am I going to make this?”

Day Two started in a blur as I "wake up get up dress up eat up" and then try to hang onto “Oom Leon se Blitspatrollie”, fortunately one of the troepe had a puncture (was he shot for this?) which gave us some time but they shook us off before the eastern sky even got vaguely pale. We did OK on the infamous Allendale exit, with only a minor fudge. Not long and the navigation turned into a maps vs narrative debate as the clock ticked smilingly away...
Donnybrook, limited uncertainty...   (Image Ian Verwayen)
We zoom into Donnybrook and the Spar (the last real supermarket until Willowmore) and then out through the plantations towards Centocow without too much hassle. From Centocow the route seems to climb forever….Fortunately I only much later learned that the second half of day two involved 1800m of climbing, just as well I didn't know that beforehand. I’m not sure where the time went, but it was dark by the time we climbed the stile into Ntsikeni Nature Reserve.

Navigation Committee Meeting  (Image Ian Verwayen)
Then came another trying bit in the pitch dark, no landmarks and the ever-present “have we gone too far, are we on the right track, are we even on the correct side of the mountain” questions. And it’s cold. And the day has been long, heading for 15 hours long.
Eventually we  wind our way up to Ntsikeni and the famous Mr Nqgobo, with abundant warmth and food. Lots of both. All hail Mr Nqgobo!
I decided on a quick hot shower before supper, the temperature shock left me shaking uncontrollably for a good 15 minutes.  

And so endeth day two, the second lesson. Snot klap number two. How the hell am I going to make this? I later learned that Ingrid  Avidon had ridden to Ntsikeni in one day? Just as well I only learned that much later.

Day Three starts ahead of schedule as Oom Leon se Trein clatters and clumps out of the support station an hour ahead of us. It's cold and dark, but at least we have some idea of where to go as the dawn light slowly shows us the beauty that is Ntsikeni. Herds of Black Wildebees looking none too amused at being woken so early.

Ntsikeni morning    (Image Ian Verwayen)

We press on over the hills and through the gate and left….oops. A difficult call, the majority say go left, so we go left. Left was the wrong way, and we paid for it, but in the end I think it probably made us a better navigation unit. Once we were back on the correct side of the plantation, it was pretty simple. A neat Politique move and we set off ‘clockwise around the mountain”  mmmmm. After which comes the  “Tiger Line” through the donga or the longer “rideable road. Fortunately we took the Tiger Line as it turned out that the rideable road had been ploughed up.
By the time we crossed the tar road, we realized that we were going to have to call it a day at Glen Edward. This turned out to be a good move as it saved us a cold night out where we would have been hopelessly lost looking for Masakala in the dark.  I also realised that our hour in the valley of the shadow had cost us half a day. A valuable lesson. The "easy" day and we had screwed it up. 

We spent a very warm and comfortable night at Glen Edward which gave us some of the rest we needed. I realised that I needed to make Masakala and regroup, to gather myself towards myself
After an early start at -6 degrees and we were well on our way to Masakala by the time the sun came up. This was in some ways, the day we got our shit together. We had finally begun to wake up and operate as a unit. 

Oblique second breakfast at dawn  (Image Ian Verwayen)

Beaten back by the flames before Masakala (Image Ian Verwayen)

Shortly before Masakala, while the others went into a spaza shop for cokes, I stopped and had an interesting conversation with a group of women about service delivery and water in particular. Sadly, not much has changed here since I was last here in the early 90’s. Government officials are still in the habit of turning off water supply to communities to enforce compliance, there is no sense of ownership and a widespread distrust of local government. So what happened? Sober reflections while we are on our journey.

Without much hassle we had enjoyed a great day to Masakala, getting there by mid-afternoon. There was some talk about pushing on, but this was soon forgotten in the light of the wonderful reception we received at Masakala. The welcome to Masakala was beyond expectations, ululating women and smiling faces. I felt very much at home amongst the Sotho speaking women of Masakala, almost transported back to my formative years in Sekhukhuneland.

Masakala is one of the support stations I’d really like to go back to (but then I guess that’s true of all of them)

In hindsight, Masakala was a highlight for me, it was as if we had finally managed to climb out of the valley of the shadow. Radiance. Warmth. Genuine hospitality.

Allow me to digress. At times during the event I think one is more (or less) receptive to warmth and hospitality. It is a product of one's state of mind at the time. By the time we reached Masakala I was feeling more positive, more open and probably more confident. It's difficult to "rate" support stations objectively precisely because in hindsight one begins to realise that one's judgement may have been clouded by a certain frame of mind, be it positive or negative. Masakala was a high point for me, for whatever reason. Ke lebohile haholo, Mmago-Nchabeleng.

Somewhere along the line, the narratives are going to teach you something. In my case it was that I needed to learn to see things from another person’s perspective. Beyond, of course, the "one man’s right is another man’s left" basics. How often we cursed and queried the narratives, only to later sheepishly acknowledge that they were correct (see, I didn't use the word "right" as it could lead to confusion and have left doubt in people's minds))

In truth the narratives are a fundamental part of the process (well they were for me). I was forced on countless occasions to stop and think, to re-read (or re-listen if someone else was doing the reading)..often a light-bulb moment would occur and suddenly I’d see that the narrative WAS in fact correct. At times like that I often saw David or Glenn's faces smiling knowingly.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Freedom Challenge: 2. Getting Ready - Getting Real

Once I'd actually entered and paid, it started to dawn on me that there was no turning back, my name was on the list. Fortunately I spent 2014 working on a large drilling project in the Eastern Cape, so there was plenty of time to start preparing. ( Being near the Big Smoke that is Port Elizabeth had it's benefits )

I know that I started “over-thinking” every possible eventuality, my mind would spin at the thought of all the "what if"scenarios.  My ice-cream tubs, the ziploc bags and all the little containers were bought by late 2014. In hindsight, I realise that I became rather obsessive about the planning. 

While in PE, I was also able to slowly start putting in the miles of training, this was generally riding around on site and doing intervals on the concrete cycle path between Bluewater Bay and the city. Not exactly my idea of fun riding, but I kept on telling myself that once on the Freedom Challenge I'd look back and be thankful for these miles. I did and I was.

There was also time to start preparing mentally, to slowly but surely start getting my head in the right place. Actually my Freedom Challenge training was what kept me sane while working with some very trying drilling contractors.

Once I was back home by the end of February, I was ready to start training and preparing seriously. This consisted of intensive interval training, long distance riding, night riding and some hike-a-bike on the Swartberg Pass. I've always enjoyed training when I have a specific goal, in this case the goal was huge, and in my case anything but a given.  

Part of my plan was to get my body-weight down, so I combined the training with a more restricted LCHF diet. Before I knew it I was back at a weight I hadn't been at since 1984 (I'd lost 9kg). This was a huge motivational boost, as I'm only too aware of the energy cost of hauling lard over them thar hills.

Boxes packed and sealed. Committed!
I'd decided to prepare as much of my food as possible myself to avoid eating preservatives and other poisons. (My riding food was primarily biltong, droe-wors, dried fruit and nuts and of course supplements"). The droe-wors came from Leonie Maasdorp of Steytlerville (072 150 3450), it is outstanding droe-wors. The trick lies in using good quality meat and the correct fat. This prevents the icky side-effect of the rancid fat sticking to one’s palate). I brought the droe-wors home and laid it out to dry completely in order to minimize the chances of it going mouldy while in the boxes.
I also bought biltong from a trusted supplier, had it sliced and then also dried it completely. Trying to slice hard biltong while riding is not an option.

One box of apples and another of pears were sliced up and set out to dry, again just plain dried fruit, none of the crap one gets onto commercially dried fruit.

Finally, I made dried fruit roll of apricot and prune, sheets and sheets of the stuff, later cut up into manageable bits.  
Dried fruit sheets
The plan was that there would be two snack packs for each day:

Savoury – Biltong, droe-wors, dried olives and dried tomato with a shake of turmeric (anti-microbial properties) for good measure, then wrapped them in in butcher’s paper to prevent any “sweating”.

Sweet – Dried apple and pear, fruit roll, nuts, coconut, dates, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds all in a Ziplock bag.

Marking and packing the boxes was relatively straightforward, but I suggest you make yourself a "Box 0" for the first day. This helps get the right maps in the right boxes, (a not uncommon mistake is to put Day One’s maps in Box One) and also means your snacks for The Big Wake-Up (aka Day One) are in place. 
The boxes (the famous 2 litre ice-cream tubs) ended up full of food, supplements, maps, spares, and the odd treat, bearing in mind that I was planning a 24 day ride.  

Typically the box contained the following:
  • Snack packs x 2
  • Supplements ( PVM Octane, PVM Fusion, Hammer Perpetuem and GoNutrition Pepto-pro)
  • Maps with narratives attached
  • Bombs, sealant, spares, batteries (not in every box)
  • Toiletries, vitamins, etc 
  • Chocolate (low sugar)
  • Washing powder (taped to the lid to prevent contamination)

 (If anyone is interested, I can email the spreadsheet with the contents of each box.)

After filling all the boxes, I taped two small ziploc bags of washing powder to the top of each box. (Washing powder has a smell that permeates everything). Omo Auto for de-greasing and Sunlight Baby for the Merino base layers (if you really want to know). This way you don't have Kleen Green leaking in your box....

In the rider briefing there's an instruction to write your name and the support station  on the top and the ends.
There's a very good reason for this, as you may discover later.

Then a moment of truth as the boxes are packaged and sent off  to Race Office courtesy of Aramex (not only do Aramex sponsor the Freedom Challenge, but they are the best courier company around)

Boxes of boxes of commitment.

Preparation of the maps and narratives kept me busy when I wasn’t thinking and re-thinking the box contents and other finer details. The Freedom Challenge does not allow the use of GPS, so navigation is a key component. Riders are given a set of maps and a narratives. I have no idea how much time I spentreading the narratives, looking at the maps and "Google Earthing" the route. Telkom ADSL supplied enough bandwidth for me to “fly” over the tricky bits of the route, again and again and…. This was later to lead to some rather déjà vu moments where I "recognised" features, despite never having been there.
Another crucial part of navigation is knowing how far you have travelled from the last known point on the map. I fitted two odometers, one to use as an odometer and the other to measure navigational splits. Two.Tips. Use odometers that record distance when your speed is below 4.5kmh . Mine did not. Oh, and remember to zero them at the right place.

A snip of Map 2, note the Bermuda Rectangle, one of many.

Living in a small dorp like Prince Albert, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to training rides;

  • Out and back interval sessions, on tar or dirt
  • Long rides, loops, on dirt and or tar
  • Long dirt road night rides
  • The Swartberg Pass (very good for practising pushing or carrying your bike too )
  • The Swartberg hiking trail (as above)
  •  And on any one of those rides you might be unlucky enough to see ten cars. On one 120km night ride I saw one car twice.  

The Swartberg Pass at night. Pitch dark silence.

By now I had accumulated pretty much everything I could possibly have needed on the Freedom Challenge (and some more) and everything was falling into place.......until Sandra fell while riding in the Richtersveld, dislocating her ankle and breaking her leg rather badly.

Fascinating images, the detail is astounding.
 I immediately drove up to Windhoek to be with Sandra while the various bits were put back together by Dr Jonck. It's astounding what damage a walking-speed fall at just the wrong angle can do. Suffice to say, if I ever break any bones, I'd be glad to have Dr Jonck put them back together again at the Windhoek Catholic Hospital.

While in Windhoek, I was lucky to find Canvas and Tent, who very professionally produced a bar bag and a top-tube bag in less than a day. The bar bag carried the vital and heavy, but infrequently-used rain suit, 950g off my back.

The top tube bag became the proverbial, “hoer se handsak” with everything from spare spokes to food, at all times it was more than a feeding trough. To complete the “bike load” I had a Revelate Designs saddle bag, courtesy of Steven Thomas.  The plan was to put the heavier stuff in the saddle bag (spares and tools) and keep the backpack space for clothes. Writing this with the precision of hindsight, I took too much stuff, way too much. What would I leave behind next time ? Difficult to say, but the spare tube won’t come along next time. 

Most of my training was done alone, which is fine, but at some stage I began to wonder if I was training in a fool’s paradise, as I had no-one to compare my fitness level with. Time in Windhoek enabled me to get in some rides at altitude and to fine-tune my equipment. 

Once back home in Prince Albert, it was time to slow down and focus and enjoy the anticipation....if you believe that.

Finally the big day dawned and I was dropped at Prince Albert Road by Lindsay Steyn of Dennehof, bike in a box, everything else in my backpack.

Leaving home

Load 'n Go
Getting anywhere from Prince Albert usually means driving long distances, unless of course you're cycling. Well in this case it was different, I needed to be in Pietermaritzburg with only my bike. Greyhound is the perfect way to do this, book a Business Class seat and sit back.

Just outside Beaufort West, the trailer (yes, that trailer in the picture) unhitched itself from the bus......

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Freedom Challenge: 1. The Preamble

Early cycling days

Way, way back in the beginning there was a blue Raleigh with a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub. 

It came directly from the Hammanskraal factory to the farm in a big box. My idea of a dream bike and that it was.  I remember it being assembled by Frans Mabunda, the farm mechanic, who had worked at the Raleigh factory as a young man. That Raleigh, with it’s 26 x 1 3/8” wheels, was the beginning of a dream.  A dream to ride long distances and to camp along the way.

One could only dream, free-wheeling along listening to the tick-tick-tick of that SA 3 speed hub, urgently flipping through the three gears. One of my ambitious plans was to do a solo 400 km ride to the Kruger National Park, camping out along the way. (I was 12 at the time, so I was understandably steered away from this by my parents, probably as a result of one particularly reckless display of 12 year old stupidity on the local tar road.) Yes, there was a local tar road)

Some time later, a friend and I rode to the Rust de Winter dam for an overnight camping trip, about 25 miles (my geared odometer was British and kilometers were new in SA). Bikes loaded with heavy equipment including a canvas tent, we set off on a tar road. We loved tar roads with a passion as all our riding was done on sandy farm roads on 26 x 1 3/8" tyres.

 I have one very clear memory of that trip. The hippos that shuffled around our tent all night, grazing on the lawn where we had chosen to camp, threatening to squash us on our inaugural trip. A night of sheer terror, underlined by the feeling of utter helplessness as a herd of hippo graze outside your tent.  As it got light, we cautiously looked out, only to find that the hippos had covered the lawn in donkey shit.…

The desire to travel and camp by bike never left me, it just took time to get back to it.

Fast forward to early 2004  when I received a call from David Waddilove, wanting to know if I still remembered him from a camping trip in the Drakensberg 22 years previously? I have a memory for faces and places, particularly naughty faces and wild places, so he was in luck.  Would I be able to help him and two others who were riding the inaugural Freedom Challenge? Thinking back to that moment, I could have said no thanks and my life would have turned out quite differently. The rest is history, I have been honoured to be part of the event since then.

Then came the GT Peace 9r. Seriously motivating bike that, it caused this .... things have never been the same again. 

Over the years I had gained a degree of mild notoriety for surprising Freedom Challenge riders with coffee, snacks and on some occasions even a toolbox and the ability to fix broken things. For me the best part was meeting these generally humble, often quirky, totally exhausted, “super-extreme-athletes” (my term, definitely not theirs), getting to know some of them, and very slowly beginning to form my own game plan. 

At the same time I had communicated up and down the trail with support station hosts, trying to reduce the “surprise effect” of un-announced riders at odd times of the day.  In that way I’d developed “once a year telephonic relationships” with some interesting people. The frustrating bit was never having met them personally. Also bugging me was not having personally met some of the legendary people “upstream” of Prince Albert.

Despite prodding from various quarters during the following ten years, I never got it together to ride the Freedom Challenge, an ingenuous array of excuses and some very real challenges had intervened. Until 2015. Eleven years of watching and planning turned into a commitment to ride. Things were about to change.

Slowly but surely it dawned on me that I had signed on the dotted line and things were about to get real, very real.

Monday, March 10, 2014

An inconvenient truth

Some people have the ability to sum things up in a way you wish you could.  This quote came from Ken Peters, Professor of Economics in the Czech Republic. 
"The danger to South Africa is not Jacob Zuma, but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency.  It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of a Zuma presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate, willing to have such a man for their president.  The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Zuma, who is a mere symptom of what ails South Africa.  Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince.  The Republic can survive a Jacob Zuma who is, after all, merely a fool.  It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him their President."