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


  1. Excellent read during breakfast, thanks :)

    Its fascinating that someone who knows the FC so well is so shocked...I pity the people to go into it even more blind :)

  2. Deja vu !!! Enjoying it immensely, where is the rest of my first time experience ??

  3. Does Golden Rule #1 to every ride? :) Anyway, it's inspiring you were still able to finish after falling into that hole!