Friday, April 22, 2011

This Aardvark Doesn't Pack Baby Potatoes

We were trying to work out where this whole idea started and it appears it has something to do with Liam wanting a bike and someone mentioning that he ask his uncle to help him build one. Well, that's one version anyway.

A while back Liam and I built up his bike, and the result was good. So good in fact that Liam decide to ride from Prince Albert to Plett to raise funds for his school. Liam attends the Wittedrif Waldorf School which doesn't have a science teacher, hence the need to raise money.

The choice of route was left to me. I hate tar roads and traffic and particularly people rushing to their holiday destinations (yes, some of them with a big pile of bikes on the arse end of the SUV). No problem. Just go the back routes which I so love, but this particular route goes through one serious mountain pass, again, no problem. I'd be guiding a 12 year old who'd be riding a 26" mtb with a 1 x 8 drive, 44T chainring so there'd be plenty of slack in it for me.
Big BIG mistake. You see, Liam is no slacker.

Day one started literally as the clock struck 7 with a small group of well-wishers (including the Richard Boots contingent who were  Touring the Freedom Trail,  but more of their imprint later)

Immediately out of Prince Albert and we're into familiar territory, miles of open space and sandy, uphill, corrugated road into the east wind. I guess at the age of 12 you don't notice these things as astutely as us lazy older riders do? Liam couldn't get why I was suggesting that he tuck in behind me to avoid taking the wind head on. Or rather, I couldn't get why Liam couldn't get.....

The beauty of this route (which forms part of the Freedom Challenge) is that there's so much to see...tracks in the sand, skeletons, plants.

That ain't no footprint
One of the joys of these sandy tracks (yes, I'm biased, but then 29r wheels just DO sand ) is the stories one finds left behind. By this stage of their ride the Boots Contingent had clearly had enough of sand and corrugations which is why we are graciously offering them the opportunity to come clean and tell us who left this in the sand. I have my suspicions....... ;)

There is enough on the road verges to keep your mind busy, in this case a stunning Steenbok skull. 

And so we progressed, primarily on a diet of boiled baby potatoes and chai. Karen knows her chai. No bicycle juice just yet, just proper food and loads of carbs. Our target for the day (I had never ridden more than 20km with Liam) was a dry river bed at 54km, we reached this in time for an early lunch and then pushed on until Karen found us a neat camping spot. ( I have since learned to leave the choice of campsite entirely in Karen's hands, clearly she is an expert at this).


Not many know it, but this is the legendary breakfast spot of the very first Freedom Challenge. To David Waddilove this is THE doesn't look like much, but he'll tell you all about it.

A five star campsite at 68km, complete with a windpump (although we generally call them "windmills" in SA). Water was not a problem and we were able to enjoy the luxury of a bucket shower. It doesn't get better than this (or so we thought). The next night's spot was to be very different. 


We were up long before sunrise to pack and eat breakfast, everything covered in dew. The Karoo has a special light in the early morning. The second day's route took us even further east, still into a not so gentle headwind, but it's such brilliant riding that one tends to forget the wind. More interesting tracks and lots of evidence of meerkats eating tortoise eggs, one was so fresh that the egg yolk was still soft. It was somewhere along here that we found the delightful imprint of a male antbear having dug an exploratory hole. The nature lesson surrounding this picture was something I'll treasure.

The Aaardvark has been busy.
Eventually the eastward grind did a sudden swing to the south and the wind disappeared (why is it that we notice headwinds but not tailwinds?) Through Soetendalspoort and on to the rather desolate settlement of Vondeling. The name translates as "foundling", but it's become a castaway on the beach of change. As the railway system changed and was allowed to disintegrate, these little places lost their meaning. Sitting in the old station building having yet another of Karen's wonderful lunches, it was not hard to imagine this as a thriving hub, with people and parcels and goods being loaded and unloaded moving between the wild hinterland and the harbour city of Port Elizabeth.

Toorwaterpoort (which translates as "The Gorge of Magic Water") is where the railway line goes through a narrow gorge in the Swartberg without an adjacent service road. I had some years previously entered from the south and, tired of riding between the lines, turned back.

We set out into the "unknown" along some narrow bits of track interspersed with riding on the ballast (not fun) to riding on the sleepers (NOT fun), to pushing.

Liam riding on a bit of the beach of change
It was along here somewhere that I managed to snap a brand new 9speed  chain, I guess it's the old singlespeed habit of stomping which did the damage.

Liam admiring the bridge he nearly bought

Walking ON the track is better than skipping on the sleepers

Handsome bloody bike

And we're through and suddenly it's cloudy and cold

From the Toorwaterpoort "station" to the overnight stop was a short (5km) hill. That was a long 5km for both of us, but waiting at the top was a 5 star campsite!

We pitched our tents on the verandah of the derelict old resort which provided shelter from the wind and the light rain that had begun falling. The highlight (for me anyway!) was the massive flow of HOT (over 42 Deg C) water flowing out of the ground. There cannot be many greater luxuries than being able to strip off your sticky cycling kit and pour unlimited quantities of hot water over yourself. Well, right then I could not think of many. Next time we'll take a fold up tub of some nature.

10L/s  @ 42 Deg C. Constant!
Another of Karen's famous meals rounded off a perfect day.

Two Bicycles at the Hotel California

The third day was to be less laid back as we had to cover about 50km of tar road, not without a few climbs. This turned out to be less onerous than I had expected, it was early on Sunday morning and traffic was minimal. In no time we were in (and through) Uniondale, with our sights set on Avontuur and the Prince Alfred's Pass.
Smile. You now have 13km of winding downhill.
 This was a really sweet reward, winding down, down, down to the very bottom at the Keurbooms river and the coffee shop. (Yes, I was fully aware that we'd shortly be paying for those sweeping downhills ) "Tea/Coffee/Scones" the sign at the bottom said, how could we resist?

Oops. Immediately after the coffee break comes the climb out past the Trout Farm, much too soon. Anyway, we approached the task at hand pragmatically, not knowing that we'd soon be at another magnificent campsite. High up on a fynbos ridge, perfectly positioned to see the sun set and the full moon rise. My talking camera pictures don't to it justice (I'll have to make some of Karen's images smaller and put them onto the blog)                                            

A crisp early morning downhill of about 5km to start the day and we're at what has for years been my dream campsite. No more. We had camped high on the ridge and were dry and warm as the sun rose, down here in the valley it was not only cold, but seriously wet. Shattered dreams in hand I faced the Diepriver Heights climb. There are many things to laugh about, but this is not one of them. If I said that I walked to keep Liam company, some of you would choke on your drink and spew it all over the screen.

At the top of the Dieprivier Heights we found this..........

Ok, it's possible that it was left there by a trail runner, but highly unlikely. I'd bet anything it was discarded by one of our two wheeled brethren. Some poor jerk who couldn't make it up the hill without this stuff, OK, it's a democracy he can eat what he likes. But why the hell can't he just put the empty sachet in his pocket and take it home? The sight of the damn GOO/GEL sachets littering the trails is really offensive and puts me on my soapbox in no time. The Swartberg Pass is also often littered with these.

We wound our way down to Kransbos where Brenda fed us as we cooled our heels (the welcoming committee would only be ready by 12). Thanks Brenda!

For the last 15km we were joined by Liam's classmate, Kevin. This stretch was largely downhill and a good chunk of it on tar. There was something pulling Liam towards the finish line like a magnet, Kevin shared some secrets with me on condition that I remain tight-lipped. OK Liam, I won't say a thing about girlfriends!

Before we knew it, the end was 200m away, so like the hot shot pro's that we are, we laid it down and flew the train over the finish line.

Done. 252km. 18h31  12yrs old. Pretty damn impressive

Part of the welcoming commitee.


  1. Tough to beat spending time with almost any kid.

  2. Johann, this is a beautifully worded post - you did something really special, as did Liam. I was just a bit choked up near the end of the story :)
    I hope you don't mind - I borrowed a couple of your pics to illustrate a post to thank my friends in the UK etc. who supported him (at


  3. Thanks Tracey,
    Feel free to copy and distribute as you need to, Karen has hundreds of excellent pics.
    Liam excelled, that's the bottom line.