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.


  1. Loving your insights. The head spaces is such a funny thing when challenged physically, mentally and emotionally.

  2. Thanks Fi, Writing it up is (for me) an important part of the process.

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  4. Brilliant write up, chop chop with the rest, your customer service is very poor :)

    Writing up trips is a very important part of the journey and often more enlightening than the journey itself(IMHO). Often now when I'm thinking of how to write things I'm experiencing I actually see more I would if not blogging, weird but true.

  5. You really are remembering the detail.... I am enjoying reading what you were acrually experiencing after watching you so closely on the tracking and imagining how it was going. New blog color scheme also good!

  6. Hi Johann. I do apologise if we took off in a hurry on each day. During RASA14 I paid the school fees with many a late night arrivals after getting lost as the sun set. Or worst was arriving at a packed Masakala at 01:30 in the morning with all beds occupied. The ladies managed to borrow mattress for us so we slept on the floor in the dining area without blankets. This year we got in during daylight each day and had an awesome ride. Oom Leon