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.