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.