Saturday, 4 April 2020

Race To Rhodes 2020 - Trip Report by David Graber

The Background

Exactly a year ago, as I lay in my hospital bed, limited by over a dozen fractures, my intrepid South African friend, Sandy, sent me an email, saying, "Dave....I have the rehab goal for you". When I read the details, I dismissed it out of hand. Mountain biking 65 miles a day? Climbing 10k ft a day on the bike? It was 2-3x anything I had ever done before...and certainly insane to be doing day after day, while navigating by map and compass (GPS strictly prohibited) across complex and totally unfamiliar terrain at altitude. But as I healed, I was plagued by intrusive thoughts of the Race the Rhodes. Maybe, just maybe... I was well enough to begin tentative riding in the summer, but real training did not begin until December. It was then that the challenge had become an obsession.

As many of you recall, you responded to my recruitment efforts with oh so appropriate and entirely reasonable negative (or at least doubting) assessments....save one individual. While I was mentally prepared to go it alone, I had no clue at the time how essential the strength and spirit of Emily would be so absolutely crucial to success. Except for a few hard core racers who had been doing this event many times over, it was the opinion of all - confirmed by my experience - that having riding partners was entirely necessary to completing all the challenges.



The Race

The Race to Rhodes is a 500k route from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes in the eastern part of South Africa. It crosses public and private landholdings through a wide variety of environments. About every 60 miles there is a support station (a farm house, a forest lodge, or a local guesthouse) where you can spend the night and be fed, as well as sleep in a real bed. About every other 30 miles, there are "soup stops" - often idyllic homes or lodges or a church in the countryside, teeming with all the drinks and food you could eat. Other than these support stations, you must carry everything you need, and no outside help or supplies are permitted. The race had to be completed in a maximum of 7 days. While we all were issued maps and a sort-of accurate instructional narrative, no GPS was allowed. We all carried GPS trackers so the "dot watchers" could tell if we were off course or stopped moving, or as in the case for some...needed extraction. The event was managed and coordinated by an amazing and thoroughly committed race director and his wife. Of consequence, this was the first time the race was held at this time of year - autumn, supposedly at the end (ummm..) of the rainy season.


The Protagonists

Emily and I were the only foreigners. The great majority of others had prior experience in this same or very similar races. We were started in small batches each morning over

about 4 consecutive days. There were 26 of us total, including 4 accomplished ultramarathon runners. None of the runners were able to finish. About 4 of the others were unable to finish or were disqualified. As you can imagine, we would often go long periods of time without seeing anyone else.


Pre Race

I arrived in South Africa 10 days early, and had a plan to do some training at altitude out of resorts in the Drakensberg mountains. Actually, I ended up spending much more time with the maps then mountain biking. Emily arrived a couple of days before the race....and in true EM doc style, fresh off her last shift.


The Race

The official byline of the event was, "Adventure Guaranteed". I had thought, sure...some contrived hype....but no, they meant it ! There is absolutely no way this could have been held in the USA. The race often felt wild and at the limit. It seemed at every turn, some new obstacle or challenge would be thrown at us. Those distances and climbs were magnified many times over by the amount of pushing & carrying the bike; lowering and raising the bike; climbing fences; performing repairs. The navigation was often slow and uncertain. There was little rest, as I felt driven by a background anxiety of having do complex navigation once darkness ensued. The support stations always felt so far away in effort and time. The intermediate stops were often idyllic lodges or homes with fantastic buffets of food and drink. Yet we stuffed ourselves to certain heartburn, and were often gone in 20 minutes, driven the by need to extract the most from every minute of daylight.

I was shocked at how the experienced groups made serious nav errors, sometimes going many hours off course. It was so easy to mess up. There were times when I was distracted just a little while (like when my chain broke). Emily was there on task to spot the next obscure turn off. I was also shocked when a very experienced couple we had been leap frogging the first day quit the race just 5 miles from the support station - they has seemed so strong - it was disconcerting.

They call it a race, but it was so hard, that when you would meet up with others, we all tried to help each other. Making a hard race harder was the heaviest rainy period in 9 years. The mud was thick; the grasses very tall to the point of hiding so many of the tracks; and the rivers were flowing high. The race director said he will not hold the race again this time of year - the river crossings were too dangerous.






Some of our Challenges

- weather - we had oppressive heat and humidity, and the complete opposite extreme with icy cold, windy rainstorms - mud, including the "death mud" that would pack up and stop all rear wheel travel without q5min debulking - bushwacking....or the local term is "bunderbashing" thru dense thorny acacia thickets - swamps - you'd ride along thru the thick grass and suddenly submerge - chest high grass obscuring the tracks. We rode these invisible cattle tracks that you could only sense when your tire sidewalls scraped the edge of the ruts - donga's and donga pits: these are vertically sided deep water channels, small to monstrous. The big ones presented challenges to cross, the smaller ones hidden by the grass were another kind of hazard. We both endo'd into one pit, breaking gear and a couple of my ribs. - basalt and sandstone cliffs - where it's hard to believe you are on route - river crossings - some okay, some a little scary (brown water and rapids, etc) - quicksand - that was a surprise....took a while to get Emily extracted - and the one of the most difficult - night nav, often in rain or fog when you are at your most exhausted


Our Progress

We survived the huge day 1, getting to the support station at about 9pm. The next day was a different story, with a cold rain storm and riding deeper mud puddles than I ever thought possible. We were only 2/3rds of the way at a tricky river crossing just before 5pm. We contemplated an exceedingly unpleasant night - likely out in the open....and we were already cold and soaked. In what I think was one of our best decisions ever, we went back a kilometer to a small group of Zulu huts. The old man knew about as much English as I knew Zulu, but he caught on right away, as I pleaded our case. His wife had a priceless look of shock when she came out and saw these 2 totally mud encrusted white folk. With no hesitation, they cleaned us up, and fed us the best tea and bread dinner you could imagine around a warm, dry fire. The evening was one of the most memorable in my life.

We were now well behind schedule for finishing before the week was out under the cut off time. But we persisted. Each day we took some sense of satisfaction of navigating to yet another milestone - the Gladstone Farm, the swamps of Malota, the Tinana Mission, the Black Fountain, the Queen Mercy Shop, the abandoned house with the derelict truck on the porch, and onward.

On the 6th night we sat at the table in Mrs Kibe's kitchen, eating chicken and fresh vegetables from her garden, contemplating our situation. One more day to cut off. We were hoping to make it the next day thru the Vuvu Valley, a full stage short of Rhodes, but we could still be proud. It could still be considered a decent effort. Everyone reported what we intuitively knew, that a finish at Rhodes was not our prospect. The valley was notorious for what one racer called "serious nav". In fact, that night, an experienced party would get lost for 4 hours in the Vuvu Valley, returning defeated a long distance to shelter. After a well needed, uncharacteristically long sleep (6 hours), we had a good start the next morning, and for some reason everything seemed to click. Our nav was right on; the river crossings were efficient (except for a bit of quicksand); we pushed hard for the 2000 ft climb out of the valley. We arrived at the support station at noon. Wow,...our times were so good we considered going on. To go onwards, would usually mean the traditional route, involving a 3000 ft climb and bike carry including some exposed 3rd class terrain. Our calculation was that we would be short the 8000ft plateau before dark. There were endless stories of even the best racers coming to grief benighted up there. Instead, the course rules allowed a route variant - the Mcambalala ("Thinking About Sleep") route. It was much longer and had an extra 2000ft climb, but....with decent nav I thought we could reach an abandoned cattle post by dark. From that point onward, there began a series of dirt roads, which I knew we could figure out, whatever the conditions.

Off we rode, committed to one last push. The high plateau, with its trackless grass and wildflowers, radiated a beauty as extreme as our lives seemed to be. Our compass bearings were right on, and we were on the roads just before the failing light. In the dark, the clouds, and the mist we literally pushed on - our legs would no longer allow any uphill pedaling. Emily got quite quiet, while I rode my bike like a circus clown, wavering back and forth struggling with my balance. We felt the cold that comes with so many days of exhaustion, which doesn't respond to more layers. By 9pm we started a 3000 ft technical descent, my hands frozen in place on the brake levers. At 10:30p we finally arrived in Rhodes, to the cheers of the handful present, under the cutoff time and official finishers. The ceremonial Zulu whip and our patches would soon be awarded, followed soon after with so desired food and sleep.


Reflections

While the above narrative may stress our difficulties, the experience was far more. The camaraderie of all who participate is intense, and we have some absolutely wonderful new South African friends. I was blessed by riding with a partner of incomparable suitability to the challenges faced. I wouldn't have gotten thru day one without her contributions and efforts. And, I want to say that in the midst of all those challenges, I witnessed incomparable beauty - every single day. Imagine yourself amongst brilliant green, tall grassy rolling hills going on forever....lit up by the long shadowed low light of dawn, and the resulting sparkle of dew upon the rain-driven bloom of endless flowers. You are riding those grassy slopes, following not a track but a compass bearing to a fence line far out of sight. You are enjoying this sense of endless freedom when your attention is diverted by a herd of wildebeest & eland stampeding across the hillock directly in front of you. It's all you can do to stop for a moment and just feel alive.


The Journey Home

Our trip home had too many elements of further adventure. We had a series of return flight bookings and rebookings canceled. Phone and online airline services became unavailable. We located to near the airport at Durban and made repeated trips to only receive conflicting information. We were acting under the stress of an impending strict lockdown - restricting people to indoors except for grocery shopping. All civil aviation was to cease with the advent of the lockdown. The US embassy had no plans for

repatriation flights. The end result was that we were the very last people on the very last flight (going standby) escorted by airline staff to the waiting plane, to take off half an hour before the airport was closed and the lockdown deadline to begin. We pleaded our rebooking case in London, and flew back to the USA on huge Airbus with 395 vacant seats. We are happy to be back, whatever the corona virus risks. My wish now, not just for myself, but for all of you - family and friends - is to remain boringly healthy and cope well with our newly restricted lives.

See video featuring David and Emily HERE

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Run to Rhodes - by Nicky Booyens

“Watching you guys. Well done. But you do know you nuts right?”

A message received from the Legendary Mike Woolnough during the race. I LOVE being NUTS!

Soooo my Munga Maaitjie Andy Wesson came up with this idea round about August last year… lets run the mountain biking event, The 480km Freedom Challenge RaceToRhodes. It did not take much to convince me, I am always up for any adventure and the tougher the better. With fellow Mungrals (anyone who has finished the Munga Trail earns “Mungral” status) Peter Purchase and Dean Barclay joining us as well, it was going to be fun!

This race was going to be the big brother of the Munga Trail:

1. Longer in distance

2. More distance between the aid stations

3. MAP NAVIGATION, no GPS’s allowed

After numerous discussions with Chris Fisher (The organiser) on how to make it more doable for runners, we were like nope we are going to take this race on under the same conditions as the riders 🙈🙈🙈, to see if it is possible!

I received our maps and narratives early January, I spent some time going through them, but not enough it would turn out to be. Putting the narratives with the maps, the nav looked doable and everyone said, you can’t get that lost on RaceToRhodes… they lied!

With my “ice cream” containers of goodies sent end of February, all other stuff I needed would be carried by me the whole way. Once our packs were packed with the necessary goodies and then food and water for about 60km, we were shocked at the weight of our packs but expected it, mine was over 7.5kgs and the boys even heavier!

We stood merrily on the start line in front of the Pietermaritzburg Town Hall in drizzling rain and waited for GO! Once escorted out of PMB, we relaxed a bit more and started our adventure with map navigation!

We seemed to do pretty ok with the daylight navigation, but as we climbed higher into the forests, the rain and mist got worse and it got very cold. It was round about here that Andy got super excited about spotting the Dispersis fanninninae, and in the rain photos were taken (the first of many orchid pics). A few doubts of which way to go, we soon got to the masts on top of the misty mountains and started heading down towards Byrne. We got to our first aid station, The Oaks after about 9 hours of running and most of it in the rain and mud.

We were cold, wet and muddy but we were welcomed with open arms by our hosts, who even tumbled dried our wet and muddy clothes for us (this was where Deans white cap turned brown). Our feet had taken a proper beating on this first leg and were all pretty sore, so we knew we were in for a tough few days!

We left the Oakes in good spirits and in the rain and headed for the Umkomaas River. A lady drove past did a u-turn and came back to ask if could take us to her home for the night, we thought she just took a keen liking to Peter! Moving on, this was where we made our first of many nav errors. We missed the turn off to the Illovo Nek forest station, but soon realised our mistake and turned back. Back on track (you will hear this phrase often) we headed through the settlement of KwaGeneshe and down to the Umkomaas river. The concrete track down was super steep and super slippery even in trail shoes, serious respect to the mountain bikers on this section. We got down to river and realised after all the rain during the day, the river was a lot higher and flowing a lot faster. We managed the scramble against the rocks only slipping once or twice and were amazed how the riders went the same way as us with bikes – the river was WILD!!!

Heading towards the Hella Hella crossing, we once again made some nav mistakes but were soon back on track and crossed the river at the bridge and started the big climb up! We stopped at the Highover chalets looking for water but found none… by now the sleep monsters were un-expectantly getting to us, so we took a quick power nap in the bushes before continuing up the hill… this was a proper hill! As daylight broke, we were almost at the next aid station, Allendale. Our pace was a lot slower than we had anticipated.

We were super happy to get to Allendale so we could rest our feet a bit and have some proper chow! We were greeted by happy hosts who got us all sorted in no time with coffee, toasted samie’s, koeksisters and quiche!

We have learnt that our feet need to rest and dry out properly else we are in for trouble. There are no medics on route, so foot care was our responsibility. All of us have done the Munga Trail so we have all learnt from the best foot medics, Johan Raath and his team at Bike And Trail Adventure Medics - PTY LTD, on how to look after our feet. Once rested we were on our way. The nav was ok here and we got to Donnybrook hassle free. A quick refuel at the Spar and we were on our way again heading through some proper muddy forests.

Next stop would be Centocow. At the top of the mountain it was dark and the nav tricky… we eventually got off the mountain, not quite the desired race route, but were soon at the Centocow Mission, our next aid station.

Greeted with load shedding, we ate something quick and headed to bed with the promises of a hot shower when we woke up. Here we took our first sleep in a bed for about 2 hours. We did our best to try lighten our packs, anything that would help speed up our average pace. After that hot shower and some more chow, we were heading early morning through the settlement of Centocow to the mountains.

It was a beautiful sunrise! Once on top of the mountain it was spectacular scenery. We then dropped down towards the next big river crossing, and like the Umkomaas, it was pumping. Slowly we made it through the river and headed into the forests again and onto a big district road. From this road we took the sharp left turn up the steep hill to the northern entrance road to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. This was a proper steep and rocky climb, once again respect to the mountain bikers. The last 5km’s to the Ntsikeni Lodge proved eventful. So close yet so far as we found ourselves on the wrong saddle, so after some more detouring we got back onto the right track and found the lodge.






We once again were treated like royalty and had some great chow! Thubalethu Shange and Charles Mansfield and his crew pulled in just after us and some war stories were shared before we jumped into bed for another quick 1h45min sleep before heading out round 10pm. It was round about now that I felt like I was doing an adventure race (me, 3 teammates and only a map to get us from A to B) with a very looooong trekking leg!

This was where the first real game of “I Spy with my little eye” came into play, it was later followed by “Noot vir Noot” with Dean going through his playlist, playing the first seconds of each song and us guessing it – anything to stay awake! This was a tricky nav section, not sure how Peter did it, but we magically appeared where we should have at sunrise – nice work Peter! Once on the track, it was a long downhill to the tar road passing Pleasant View farm which had much needed water for us. From here it was a long slog to Glen Edward in the heat of the day.

Glen Edward was a welcome relief where we were treated with a delicious soup, fresh fruit, home baked cookies and coke! Glen Edward was a milestone as it was the halfway mark in distance, but the clocks was ticking faster. Here again Charles Mansfield and his crew caught up to us again, always great to have chats with fellow racers, thanks for all the nav advice Charles! Thuba was doing some of his own sight seeing at this point but would soon catch us again.

Just after 2pm we left the comfort of the farmhouse and headed out in the midday heat towards our next stop, Masakala. The first section was lots of gravel road, our feet really took a beating on these gravel roads with the heavy packs when running. At the St Xavier Mission, the folks very kindly bought us jugs of water to replenish our stocks. As nightfall fell we were heading towards the Little Umzimvubu River but we had some proper fun in the wattle plantations first… “Find the middle of the plantation”, yes, not so easy in pitch darkness. With a thunderstorm stopping by we ran for cover in the plantations and waited the storm out. Once going again, we found our way (we always did) and crossed the river and continued forward, one foot after the other. Heading into a valley, we had no idea where we were and decided to bush nap until daylight. At first light, we saw where were and we were still pretty much on the route, bonus! We made hast to get to the farmhouse through some muddy marshes. At the farmhouse we were greeted by a local on his horse who kindly showed us the way to the main road to Mademong. Before heading down towards the cattle dip, we found a spaza shop (one that was actually open) and boy did we do some shopping – what a bargain. The highlight being the Flyers and Mama’s Puffed Corn, only R2.50 a bag!!

As we headed down to the flood plain of the Botsolo River, we were not paying attention and ended up on the wrong road which went way off to the right. Some friendly locals showed us the way to the road we needed to be on. Back on track, the last little bit to Masakala was a sting in the tail especially in the heat of the day. Going through the village of Masakala we were greeted by friendly locals, some wanting to organise a car for us. It was a welcome site to get to the colourful Masakala Lodge and to be greeted by the friendly ladies. Here, it was just a “quick” stop to dry the feet out and refuel.






Early afternoon, we headed out again with some big rain clouds looming. From here it was plain sailing getting to the settlement of Jabulani. After passing through Jabulani things started going pear shaped again with the night-time nav. There was a lot of walking around in circles but like always we eventually got on the right track. Heading through one of the villages we were higher up than what we thought and ended up slogging through bog for kilometres before meeting up with the river. Here we realised where we were on the map… and it wasn’t where we were supposed to be. This was where the first and only real nav disagreement between us happened, as to go left or right of the river. Left won… We backtracked following the river until we got to the river crossing, we needed to be on. Here I think I did some proper sleep walking as it is all a blur until we ended up at Queens Mercy sooner than expected and much to our surprise! Here we took some time to clean the feet and shoes out of all the bog before continuing. Some more Mama’s Popped Corn came out and we were in a happy place.

We passed some massive fields filled with cosmos, a pretty site as we made our way onwards towards Malekgolonyane Lodge. Andy did some spectacular sleep walking here, so we took a quick power nap to get him going again. Another Spaza shop stop and more puffed corn before we headed up the mountain. Here the track was a bit tricky, but some herdsmen showed us the way. After a climb, a drop down to a river crossing and then another climb we were greeted by smiling faces and a great stew at Malekgolonyane Lodge.

We tried to make this stop as quick as possible so as to make the most of daylight. Late afternoon we headed out. We by now had realised that we were not going to make the 7-day cut off but were pushing on to see how far we could get. As we head out, we made some silly nav errors and found ourselves off course again.

It was here, after 5 and a half days of racing and covering about 362km of the official race route and over 400km in total, the boys decided to stop as time was not on our side. Our race was over and I sheaded a tear or two as we headed back to Malekgolonyane Lodge to wait for our extraction crew. What an epic adventure and certainly one for the memory banks! This was 5 and half days I would not trade for anything in the world! We spent 5 and half days running (and well walking) through our beautiful country being cheered on by all the locals we passed, what a privilege ! We learnt a lot of lessons this time round and are extremely disappointed not to have finished the full route, but we will be back to give it another go #unfinishedbusiness

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller.



Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Freedom Challenge - (RASA) June 2019 by Andrew Ryan

Freedom Challenge - Race Across South Africa (RASA) June 2019

Finishing RASA in 2017 was a tremendous relief. Ever since watching a documentary on the first RASA on TV I was infatuated with the idea of participating. I would find myself telling friends, “I’m going to do that race someday” but it was never the right time. There never is a right time, one can always find a good excuse not to enter - I can’t afford 3 weeks off work; my daughter’s in matric, and so on. After about 10 years of procrastination, I finally plucked up the courage and managed to “tick the block” finishing 17 days later in Paarl. During the race I had made a wonderful friend in Gavin Robinson, we rode 16 of the 17 days together. “That’s it, it’s done” I told Gina (wife) no need to worry about that one again. “I’m a blanket wearer now I can relax”. Famous last words!

That was 2017, this blog is about the first 8 days of the 2019 race. But first, what draws you back to RASA? Those who have participated know the answer. I have really battled to explain it. All I know is that within a couple months of recovering from frozen fingers and toes in 2017 my mind started wandering straight back to the Freedom Trail. Bizarrely I found myself telling mates that I wanted to go back and do it again, afterwards I would chastise myself “are you nuts? you have your blanket, shut up, why are you putting yourself under pressure again?”. It wouldn’t take more than two beers at a braai and I would start thinking about it, talking about it, dreaming about it, feeling like I really really had to go back. I would lie awake at night thinking about the route, clicking through the support stations: Allendale, Centocow, Ntsekeni, Glen Edward, Masakala, Malekgolonyane, Tinana, Vuvu … as if I was counting sheep! Eventually I would envisage myself arriving at Diemersfontein outside Paarl looking thin and feeling happy. My mind would then wander to the navigation…….turn left after the school, don’t forget to get a coke at that spaza, look for the bokkie sign, fill your bottle here, jump the fence there, look for the windmill, eventually drifting restlessly off to sleep having gone through the entire route in my mind but not before thinking about what I would do better and what kit I would take next time. What next time? If I need another damn blanket, I’ll bloody well buy one at Pep! 

But the Freedom Challenge addiction eventually won. I couldn’t be satisfied with one blanket I needed two. I have two children, each must have a blanket! Late in 2018 I took the plunge again and entered but not before I had persuaded my good mate Renier van der Merwe (Van) to join me for his first race and oh yes, I also convinced poor Gavin back for his third (he has 3 children ;). My plan was for us to knock it off in 15 days at worst 16. I knew I could take a day off 2017, piece of cake. Little did I know.



DAY1- PMB-The Oaks-Allendale-Centocow 151kms
Although RASA is a solo race participants are allowed to ride together and assist one another as fellow racers. Van, Gavin and I had a pact that we would stick together the entire race unless one of us was unable to continue. Our batch set off from PMB town hall at 06h00 on 9th June 2019. We arrived at Allendale by +-16h00 after the big slog through the Umkomaas valley. The race consists of a variety of different terrains, 99% being off road using dirt roads, jeep tracks, foot paths, no paths, loads of portaging and of course you have to navigate it all without GPS using only a narrative and a 1:50 000 topographical map. It is not normal mountain biking, there is no water table, no mechanic at the end of the day, no medical tent. A great deal of time is spent checking the route, jumping fences, carrying your bike on your back the general rule of thumb is 10km per hour (even for the top racers), the terrain or weather alters your pace all the time.

I was adamant that we were going to knock off 150kms and reach Centocow mission on Day 1. Van was unexpectedly cramping at 60kms and Gavin was, by his own admission, “not good” but they gritted their teeth and we persevered to Centocow. At sunset I caught a glimpse of Gary, one of the other racers in our batch, a couple of hundred meters behind us in the Sani2C forests before Donnybrook, but he never caught us up. We eventually arrived at Centocow at 21h30 after a very solid 15.5-hour first day effort. I was tired but happy that I had navigated the tricky Centocow forests at night perfectly. An hour later, still no Gary. After telling the mission ladies that there was another rider on the way and wondering to myself why Gary hadn’t pitched, I went to bed. 

DAY2-Centocow-Ntsekeni-Glen Edward 91kms
I’m not an early starter and woke up at 05h00 to start breakfast. There was Gary looking rather bedraggled. After questioning him about why he didn’t arrive last night after us, he told me his free body broke (random event) in the Donnybrook forest. First, he phoned his missus for help, then he slowly made his way to Donnybrook. In no time at all, his wife rustled up an old wheel from a friend and drove it that night to Donnybrook from Hillcrest (brave lady) which then allowed Gary to get into Centocow at 01h30.He had also given her his malfunctioning wheel with instructions to get it fixed and make sure it got to Chris Fisher (race organiser) before he left PMB so that Gary could get it back from Chris later in the race. The race organisers leave PMB after the last batch and follow the race down the route to Paarl. Gary had to serve a 4-hour time penalty at Centocow for outside assistance. After some commiseration, we set off hoping to reach Masakala.

Day2 was pretty uneventful, the big climb up to Ntsekeni took until lunch and then in the area of Politik kraal Van started complaining that his big toe was hurting him. We duly removed the offending toe nail and then jointly decided to stop at Glen Edward after an 11 hour effort - no one was in the mood for an additional 6 hour night ride to Masakala.

This is probably where my trouble with 2019 started. The farmers at Glen Edward are lovely people and made us feel right at home but that night I just couldn’t sleep, 2am came and went, 3am, then 4 and we got up at 05h00. I genuinely did not sleep. I had lost a whole night! Feeling very sorry for myself I wondered how I was going to ride 13 hours to Malekgoloyane with no sleep? Gremlins find easy passage into the minds of tired men, gremlins told me it would be SO easy, just pick up the phone to wifey, she was only 3 hours driving distance away, I would be in my own bed that night, it would be so embarrassing but so what? Thankfully gremlins didn’t last long, with a bit of sympathy from my buddies and words to the effect of suck it up, they vaporised and out into the sub-zero Swartberg morning air we went. 

It was also at Glen Edward that we heard the sad news that Gavin’s mother in law was very ill. Gav started wondering whether she was going to live long enough to allow him to complete his race or whether he would need to withdraw and go and support his wife. I could see the quandary etched all over Gavin’s face - he’s a family man through and through. 

DAY3 Glen Edward-Masakala-Malekgoloyane -114kms
Grinding away on the district roads about an hour after departing Glen Edward Gav asked me if I was still grumpy from not getting any sleep. My answer was that it was entirely my choice whether to scowl or smile and that I have chosen to smile, ”that’s a good boy Andy” Gav told me. We passed through Masakala (not far from Matatiele) at lunch and by 18h00 the 3 of us were at Malekgolonyane chowing chicken and rice. It had been another long day on the saddle but I had survived it and actually hadn’t felt that bad considering. 

There is signal at Malekgoloyane so Gav decided to satellite track Gary (all racers carry satellite tracking devices) who had made excellent time. His “dot” was on the mountain ridge line above Malek at +-16h00. That would mean he should arrive any time now. But by bed time at 21h00 there was still no Gary? What is with this dude man where is he again? That would be twice in 3 days that he is out there alone and doesn’t arrive when we expect him to! Rural East Griqualand is not a place I fancied getting lost in at night. Its wild country, you are very far from help, good motivation to make sure you reached the support station in daylight. I saved Gary a bed next to me and chucked some bedding on it, knowing that that if he arrived some time during the night, he could just climb straight in. Suddenly I startled awake, Gary had arrived at 01h00 (this guy likes the wee hours!). On asking him where the fo0k he had been, he told me he had been lost in the wattle forest before (the abandoned) Gladstone farm for about 7 hours. Black wattle forests are nasty and have been the cause of many a problem riding at night, they are dense and very dark, everything looks the same at night. It’s easy to go around and around in circles. Gary’s answer was to stop and make himself a brew on his high-speed boiler. He regrouped and eventually found his way out, what a boytjie! Gary thanked me for keeping a bed handy for him and we both went to sleep.

DAY4 Malekgolonyane -Tinana mission - Vuvu - 65kms
Next morning, we set off for Vuvu. It’s a short day in kms but very difficult terrain makes the going very slow. After 6 hours the route leads to a big mountainous drop into the dusty bowl that is Tinana mission. We were chilling next to the stream that runs through Tinana (where the small suspension bridge was, which is now washed away) eating our padkos and Gary arrived and sat about 50m away on his own. “Jirre this oke is painfully shy” I thought to myself and waved to him “come and join us Gary”. He did, then I suggested he ride the rest of the day to Vuvu with us to which he surprisingly agreed (random event). I knew a group of 4 was too big but hey who is counting? Gary had been on his own from the start and he had already had 2 shit luck episodes. I sensed that he may need some companionship and his spirits lifted. It was on the other side of Tinana mission that I realised I had made a very bad choice in riding glasses, they were cheap, useless, rubbish - a bad mistake at attempting to save money on my part, only 4 days in and already scratched and falling apart with thousands of kms to go. 

After an 11 hour day finishing with the final 11 km haul up the desolate but beautiful Vuvu valley we arrived at the remote village perched on the mountain side to bad news. Gav’s mom in law has passed away. He immediately made his mind up, he would withdraw (random event) at the next support station in Rhodes where his wife could pick him up on her way to the Cape from Jhb to bury her mother. I was very bummed for Gavin and his family. I also cursed our luck knowing that my navigation further down the route was weak between Hofmeyer and Jakkasfontein, that was to be Gavin’s section to navigate and would also be sorely missed on that score. 

Vuvu is always an interesting experience in that you have a wonderful warm bucket wash and spend the night in a local’s kraal. They literally vacate their beds for you. You really get a close and personal experience of the life of a rural South African villager. With the powerful Tina and Vuvu rivers a couple of hundred meters below the village on either side, it blows my mind that Vuvu does not have running water.

DAY5 Vuvu – Rhodes - Chesneywold -121kms
We departed Vuvu at the usual 05h00 and rode the 8km district road bit to the start of Lehanas which is the longest portage of the race. Half way up the 5.5km mountain scramble, negotiating a slippery rocky section before the shepherd’s hut, I face planted and smashed my 2000 lumen bike light. Eeish glasses are kak and now no powerful bike light. We decided on the tiger line route over the top of Lehana. On the summit we built Gavin’s mom-in-law a cairn. On the way to Rhodes Gav offered me his glasses and his bike light. That offer quite possibly saved the race for me. I had another much weaker helmet light but there is no way I could have ridden the balance of the race without riding glasses especially with what was unknowingly in store for us in the future - 12 days of howling dusty headwind! Sadly, we said our goodbyes to Gavin at Rhodes and suddenly it was Van, myself and now Gary making up the threesome. 

Summiting Lehana on the Tiger Line-it’s a good slog!



The weather can change so quickly-the photo above and this one were taken within 10mins of each other , here we are building a Cairn for Gavin’s mother in Law on the top of Lehana (altitude 2710m very close to the highest point on the race), you can also see just right of us in the back ground the blue container that everyone aims at from the bottom of the mountain

On the long cold 68km night haul to Chesneywold farm (vicinity of Barkley East) Gary started opening up. Turns out Gary was one of the 2 navy divers who had evacuated the passengers off the sinking Oceanos in raging seas off the Transkei coast in the early 90’s. As you grind away at the distances each day you are more than happy to listen to a story to pass the time (and take your mind off the suffering). I remembered the saga of the Oceanos and I begged for the story to be told in blow by blow detail. Gary delivered in his usual quiet and unassuming way. It was a fascinating and heroic tale, every passenger on the ship survived. The story ended well, although Gary had thought on a few occasions that “his ticket was punched” he survived the ordeal and was awarded one of the Navy’s most prestigious medals for valour (Honoris Crux Silver). Besides the fact that Gary had already endured 2 freezing late nights (out of 4) so far on this race, after listening to that story it became very apparent to Van and I that Gary was not to be underestimated. The temp was -8C on the final 10 kms valley descent down to the farm, we arrived cold and fatigued to a warm farm kitchen after 17 hours on the bike at 22h00.

 We also established during that night ride, that Gary happened to know Arthur Limbouris (random coincidence) who was Van’s business partner but most importantly Arthur had agreed to be our “go to guy” in case of needing emergency support at some point on the race if the race organisers couldn’t help.

DAY6 Chesneywold – Slaapkrans - Moordenaarspoort - 95kms
Leaving Chesneywold is was cold, f0ken koud! Little did I know that this day was going to be one of my hardest days in endurance sport. We had planned to ride to 135kms Kranskop well aware that 2 big obstacles were in play that day – the Slaapkrans portage and the climb up and down Luiterbrondt. The morning temperature was -6.5C at 5h30. 

On the subject of cold (in my opinion) morning cold is definitely worse than evening cold which is why I prefer late starts and late finishes. In winter at best you get 11 hours of daylight to ride in, either way on most days you are going to start or finish in the dark if you are pushing for 16 days, so why ride during the coldest part of the day being early morning - rather ride into the night surely? Riding in the cold on a bicycle is obviously exacerbated by the wind chill. In 2017 we had -11C one evening on the way to Brosterlea which was ridiculously cold - nothing helped! Dressing for defence against extremely cold temperatures is as follows: cycling bib –shorts, skin tight thermal under layer, wool T shirt 200g, wool long sleeve 260g (100% wool garments can be ridden in day after day and does not pick up body odour as it is a natural product), fleece lined wind breaker, extreme cold water canoeing jacket, buff, skull cap with ear warmers, -20C rated gloves, fleece lined (leg) cycling tights, wool socks, seal skinz thick waterproof socks, Shimano Gortex riding boots. From time to time nature calls usually in the morning at the wrong time ….you need number 2 – bib shorts means everything must come off until you are stark naked - you can’t just pull your pants down!

We hadn’t ridden far, about 4 kms, after crossing the Barkley East tar road the trouble started. Gary’s rear shock completely collapsed. We fiddled and faffed around but there wasn’t much we could do so after about 20 minutes of failed attempts to fix it we rode on. Then 5 minutes later my front shock collapsed! More fiddling more time lost. What is it with shocks this morning? (Later we found out severe cold can cause rubber shock seals to contract letting the air out) We did not have a shock pump. Annoying to have 2 shocks collapse suddenly but not the end of the world. We rode on, Gary leaning back, me leaning forward and arrived at Slaapkrans farm at midday hoping the farmer was around. No such luck, just his young daughter and no shock pumps to be found, compressed air didn’t work either. Leaving Slaapkrans behind, we pushed up the steep Slaapkrans portage and then made our way slowly down to the Luiterbront area knowing the big Luiterbront climb awaited. After some dodgy navigation and getting ourselves slightly lost, then several hours of ascent, we eventually neared the top, found the foot path that took us to the summit and then started the very rocky, treacherous and unrideable footpath descent. Towards the bottom there is the odd place you can ride. I was a bit ahead of the other 2 and noticed my chain was doing an odd flicking movement when I free wheeled. As I got to the cultivated field at the bottom and started riding in earnest, I realised I had a big problem - my free body was gone (random event). Every time I stopped pedalling the bloody chain jumped off!

To say I was pissed off is an understatement. Pre-race I had carefully gone through the bike with mechanic and we had replaced just about every moving part. The last thing I wanted on the race was a major mechanical. We had agreed that the hub was a good quality Stans, the mechanic had opened it up and was satisfied that it looked fine. That was literally the only moving part we didn’t change or upgrade on the bike!! At the water tank at the bottom of the Luiterbront descent we stopped to take stock. Van then showed me the bottom of his shoe. The entire cleat had pulled out of the sole of the shoe, just a hole in the sole where the cleat was meant to be and the cleat was in the pedal. His shoe was an impossible fix! Suddenly and in the space of 20 mins, 2 potentially race ending mechanical problems had happened simultaneously! (random coincidence).

Those that know the RASA route would probably agree with me that this particular area was probably one of the worst places to have a major mechanical. You really are miles from any chance of getting a spare part quickly. Rossouw was 30kms away but that meant nothing. If the earth needed an enema Rossouw is where they would put the hose pipe. From 2017 I remembered it had 1 spaza shop and a police station. It was now 17h00 and we had 30 mins of light left. We had to come up with a plan fast. Gary suggested that he ride ahead to get help and that we follow as best as we could. We were unsure if there was signal in Rossouw, Gary would get there first and because we knew that we had big trouble on our hands he would immediately give Arthur Limbouris our back up support a distress call for help. We needed a new wheel and new size 13 shoes not a small ask! He would also update Chris Fisher, the race organiser, that we had problems. Off Gary went and then Van and I started limping to Rossouw.

Not sure if anyone has had the pleasure of riding a bike with a broken free body and a flat front shock? The difficulty is that you have to pedal constantly, uphill, or downhill against the brakes, if you don’t the chain is off. Van was riding with 1 shoe clipped in, neither of us had much of a sense of humour. We couldn’t see how we could avoid a major delay of many days whilst we waited for spares. At about 19h30 we reached Rossouw. There was no bloody signal. We decided to head for the police station. Gary was nowhere to be seen, in fact there was no one in the entire godforsaken town. Entering the police station, we found 1 cop on duty. He was very pleasant and gladly offered their landline. 

We mulled over the permutations. I must emphasize here, very tired brains don’t do permutations well. The way we figured it, to get size 13 shoes to Moordenaarspoort farm (next support station) would take a minimum 72 hours if you can find them at all (you don’t find decent quality size 13 Mtb shoes easily remembering that it can’t be any old shoe type, they had to be good for hiking and cold weather or you will pretty soon develop feet problems). To get a new wheel – maybe a bit quicker perhaps from Kokstad? We could not fathom how we could actually continue the race with such long delays. We were literally fuc7ed by the fickle finger of fate! 

The combination of being extremely fatigued and emotional leads to bad decisions. We both felt utterly deflated and defeated, it was 20h00 and we had already been on the road for 14.5-hours that day. Reluctantly we decided that we would rather withdraw than sit around waiting for spares for (maybe) 3 days? Like I said, bad decisions. Looking out the window a storm was kicking off and a cold icy rain started - that was the final straw. Using the police land line, I phoned my wife, Gina, first and then Van phoned his wife, Jenny, to deliver the bad news. Then, I phoned Chris Fischer (race organiser) and told him we were out. He tried to dissuade us but we were adamant we had no option but to bail, there was no way we could continue without a major delay and how would a courier company find us anyway?

What we were unaware of was that Gary had ridden up the mountain road outside Rossouw hoping that there would be signal on higher ground. Luckily (random event) it turned out he was right. He found a weak signal but managed to call Arthur and gave him a summary of the situation. He had to speak quickly as the storm was gathering momentum and it started sleeting.  Subsequently Jenny had also gotten hold of Arthur and told him about our decision to bail. 

Back at the police station the phone rang, we hadn’t moved and we weren’t going anywhere anyway whilst the rain poured down outside. Our hope was to bum a ride to Barkley East the next morning from where, with our tails between our legs, we could be collected. Policeman answered and said the call was for me?! It was Arthur. On answering I received what can only be described as a very stern and forceful bollocking for even thinking of bailing. Anyone who knows Arthur also knows it’s not a good idea to disagree with him! Arthur said that he had already found shoes. Luckily Shimano happened to have 1 pair of the right type shoes in size 13 and they were in CT (random coincidence). Art had persuaded the Shimano boss to open up his warehouse, he also managed to get hold of a wheel set and told me that the shoes and wheels would be leaving Cape Town asap courtesy of Steve, one of his business managers who was willing to leave immediately and do the monster drive to us! The kit would be with us by the following afternoon. I couldn’t believe our luck! We were back on! I asked Arthur to deliver them to Kranskop farm and to get the co-ordinates from the race organisers. We hoped to be able to limp to Kranskop by the next afternoon even if I had to push my bike. Then I called Chris and asked permission to enter back into the race given that we had not yet broken any race rules. He agreed that we had not transgressed and granted us permission to continue. 

In much better spirits we exited the police station in the rain which had lightened up a bit and began the 6km climb up the red mountain road toward Moerdenaarspoort farm 12 kms away. Half way up the mountain the storm returned, this time it meant business. It rained so hard that our lights reflected off the rain drops causing a sheet of light that made seeing difficult. It’s tricky keeping those pedals turning going down steep hills on a muddy slippery district road against the brakes, just stop rotating that crank for a moment and instantly the chain is off! Punishment for letting the chain slip off is to stop in the freezing rain, take your -20C rated warm full length gloves off and put the chain back on. Eventually your fingers are numb and even that simple task becomes quite difficult causing more time to be lost in the rain and mud. 

We reached Moordenaarspoort farm at midnight and must have looked like filthy drowned rats. Gary was waiting inside the support station. He immediately made us a warm drink. I was extremely grateful to be out of the bone chilling rain and wind. Drinking something warm was ecstasy and slowly as we dried and got warm the shivering subsided. Most importantly Gary had good news, besides calling Arthur from the top of the mountain, he had also managed to call Chris Fisher who agreed to detour to Moordenaarspoort. Chris had Gary’s original wheel (the one that had failed back in Donny brook and then had been repaired) with him in his bakkie. Gary would put his original wheel back on his bike then I could take over the substitute wheel his wife had borrowed from a friend which would fit my bike set up. Great! Now we only had a shoe problem to deal with, things were looking up. After a 19 hour day from the pits of hell we finally went to sleep.

DAY7 Moordenaarspoort - Kranskop 38kms
We woke to a howling north west wind that had followed in the wake of the storm system. Lounging around luxuriating in the fact that we were able to rest and didn’t have to ride whilst we waited for Chris was heavenly. You don’t waste the time though, you fix kit, clean kit, attend to sore bits etc but thankfully for a change you are not on the saddle. Chris arrived at +-09h00.We quickly swopped the wheels out and set off for Kranskop at 10h00 given that the timer on our 4 hour day time penalty for outside assistance was already ticking from 6am. There wasn’t the normal level of pressure to keep moving as we only had to ride 38kms to Kranskop where we would hopefully wait for the arrival of the shoes. 

Nature had decided that there was going to be no rushing in any event as we were riding against probably somewhere in the region of a 70km/hr headwind. The 38kms that should have taken 3 hours took 5 hours but that’s still a very short day on RASA. At times I felt like getting off and pushing the bike the wind was so strong. Silently I thanked Gavin for his glasses – without those glasses my eyes would have been sand blasted. We reached Kranskop farm mid-afternoon. Again, there was no signal so we couldn’t find out about the inbound shoes. We had faith in Arthur but we waited and wondered. At 19h00 a white golf arrived - it was Steve with the shoes! He also had the wheel set and a shock pump. I now had Gary’s substitute wheel on my bike so didn’t need the wheel Arthur had sent nor did I want another penalty, besides we thought it may not be the most sensible idea to start changing clusters from one wheel to the other. Then Chris Fisher arrived unexpectedly at Kranskop (random event). I asked him to keep the wheel set Arthur had sent in his bakkie and that I would get it from him at the end of the race. We thanked Steve profusely before he left on the long drive back to Cape Town, he told us that he had had to drive the golf really slowly in case he blew a low profile tyre on the rough dirt roads. It had taken him 20 hours to find us, I was amazed that he had! Between the penalties and the time lost due to the mechanicals we had lost a full day but we had dodged a large bullet. That surely was the end of our mechanical problems?

DAY8 Kranskop – Brosterlea - Romanfontein 121kms
The north wester continued to howl the next morning but we were in good spirits. Our problems were behind us now and we could focus on catching up some of the lost time, wind or no wind. About an hour later as I applied power, I felt the pedal slip. On closer inspection I realised that the smallest ring on the rear cluster (of the substitute wheel) had stripped. After a small amount of cursing I accepted that I had now lost 1 gear of 12, not the end of the world, the other 11 will still get me to Paarl. We rode on into the blasting north wester reaching Brosterlea support station mid-morning. 

A couple of hours after leaving Brosterlea my gears started jumping. The substitute wheel cluster was a 3-piece cluster as opposed to a single cluster machined from one block of metal which is the much stronger option. I would never have chosen a 3 piece for the race as I knew they were prone to movement but beggars could not be choosers. The stripping of the small part component of the 3-piece cluster had now allowed movement to occur and the 2 bigger component pieces of the cluster with the balance of the bigger gear rings were wobbling badly! Essentially the cluster was disintegrating and the chain was jumping from one gear ring to the next. All the power of the pedal stroke goes through the drive chain and is then transferred to that cluster, no way it would last to Paarl in that state. I just couldn’t believe it, another major mechanical the very next day. Someone is taking the piss, can’t be! Again, we were signal-less so we couldn’t phone. Again, we were miles from the next support station being Romansfontein. Again, this was potentially a race ending mechanical. 

It was a very stressful ride 50-odd km ride to Romansfontein. Although I had to be very careful with my gear changing, I could still ride the bike although I expected the whole cluster to collapse and fall apart at any moment. But it didn’t. 

Closer to the support station we found a signal and called Chris. I knew he had my old wheel and the wheel that Arthur had sent. We could take my original cluster off my old wheel and put it on the new wheel Arthur had sent. That would work and I’d be back in business but only if Chris was still somewhere in our vicinity. Lady luck was on my side again. Chris had decided not to drive further down the race route like he had originally planned, he was actually at Romansfontein (random coincidence) filming the race and could assist!

One of the first things you do when you arrive at a support station is collect your 2lt ice cream box. These are boxes you have packed with food and spares that you use on the race that have been shipped to each support station in advance by the organisers. In every one of my boxes there was a message of encouragement from home courtesy of the females in my family, wife, mother and 2 daughters. It had been another nerve-wracking day not knowing whether I was going to be forced out the race by mechanical problems.

Arriving at Romansfontein Chris and his cameraman were incredibly kind and volunteered to swop the cluster and wheel for me, I think they could tell I was totally wasted. Whilst I wearily watched them work on my bike, I opened my 2lt box and in it was a message from my youngest daughter Amy. As I started reading the note I suddenly felt completely overwhelmed. Embarrassingly the tears flowed freely. I think that the night’s sleep that I missed, the long days we had put in and the stress of being out of the race and then the relief of being back in it twice had finally caught up with me. Gary and Van stuck with me whilst I served another 4 hour day time penalty the following morning. We accepted that 16 days was probably no longer on the cards. We had lost one and a half days of riding time but we had dodged bullet number 2!

I am going to end this story here although there was another 10 days and 1400kms that followed. I had no further mechanicals on the race not even a puncture. I had problems with my stomach, probably from drinking farm water and we had another 9 days of strong headwinds but that didn’t stop us and we reached Paarl in 18 days.

Day 6 and 8 will be etched in my memory forever. When you think you are defeated, RASA taught me that you are not. When you feel despair, RASA shows you that human beings are resourceful and compassionate and will lift your spirits. When you are missing your “normal” life, RASA teaches you to patiently await its return. Gavin’s withdrawal helped fix critical kit issues. Gary, with his wheel problem that ended up causing him to ride with Van and I which in turn allowed him to make that call to Arthur which saved our race. Arthur, his incredible support and resourcefulness, Steve dropping everything and racing off to find us in the middle of nowhere, Van’s companionship and level head throughout, Chris going the extra mile and being in the right place at the right time twice. A combination of so many helpful genuine human beings along with several random events and coincidences pulled it all together.





In life, any significant event that places you far outside of your comfort zone, may also have a similar effect on you. RASA has certainly helped me deal with stress. I can handle not being in control far better. I think back to those days in the high Eastern Cape mountains whilst I sit here on Lockdown not knowing and uncertain about our future lives. But I have hope and faith that in the new and unknown world that we are entering, the human spirit and resourcefulness will shine through. That in adversity we will unite, show more compassion towards one another and win through in the end. Freedom Challenge - Race across South Africa is difficult but doable for any relatively fit person with a sense of adventure and willing to be out of their comfort zone. My personal take from both 2017 and 2019 was that it underlined the fact that life is completely unpredictable: life is a compilation of random events subject to the law of attraction. In the present moment we often do not see random events for what they are. But as we get older, we mature, look back at our lives and possibly come to the conclusion that it is how we responded to those random events that has shaped our life’s journey. 
Andrew

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Race to Rhodes 2019 || Highlight Reel - by Nicholas Louw


A few highlights from the 2019 Freedom Challenge Race2Rhodes I did with my dad.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Desirable Difficulties and Simple Pleasures on the Freedom Trail - By Greg Fisher

“In our modern age, we yearn for authentic experiences where our courage must be summoned. One way we do this is by willingly under-taking extreme physical challenges. Through these experiences...we drop our pretenses, ego, and arrogance in favor of truth and transformation. We fulfill our intention to be authentic.” -- writes author Amy Snyder in the ultra-endurance cycling book “Hell on Two Wheels.” 

As I trudged up the steep rocky incline of a path, with my bike on my shoulder, the sun beating down on my neck, and my cycling cleats making irritating clanking noises as they collided with stones every time I took a step, I thought about how different this experience was from what I usually expect when I go out to ride my bike. I am mostly a “fair-weather” rider. I like to know exactly where I’m going before I head out (preferably with GPS to help guide me); I calculate precisely how long it should take; I examine the weather forecast so I can dress appropriately: if it’s likely to be too hot, cold, wet, miserable or dark, I usually opt for the indoor trainer instead. 

But here I was, late in just the second day of a planned 475km, 6-day race (read: ride) from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes covering some of the gnarliest and most difficult to navigate terrain that one could imagine, as part of The Freedom Challenge Race to Rhodes. The previous day I had spent 11 tough hours on the trail, 3 of which entailed bushwhacking through the thick, overgrown, thorny brush at the bottom of the Umkomaas Valley and another 2 climbing the long, steep ascent out of that same valley. On this, the second day of my ride, having already spent 8 grueling hours on the trail, I still had at least 4 more to go to reach the second overnight stop at Ntsikeni Nature Reserve in the foothills of the Drakensberg in Southern KwaZulu Natal. And the path just seemed to keep going up; it felt like we had been climbing forever. Everything about what I was doing was tough, challenging, and uncomfortable. For a few preceding hours, I had been in a deep pain cave. Then all of a sudden I came to the realization that this is actually awesome - a real privilege: “I am out in the middle of nowhere, seeing parts of the country that almost all South Africans will never get to see, I am suffering a lot, but it is making me feel alive and focused. How can I reconcile this?” I wondered. “How can I feel so tired, so depleted, so uncomfortable, and so uncertain about what I still need to do, yet also so excited and engaged?” It was then, in my mental wanderings, that I was reminded of the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ - the idea from learning theory, that suggests that when a task is extremely challenging and difficult, to the point that it is usually uncomfortable, it often generates new insight, perspective, understanding to the point of becoming enjoyable. Here I was experiencing this for real, with my bike, on the trail. The difficulties of the Freedom Trail - hike-a-biking, navigating; taking many hours to cover just a few kilometers; arriving at support stations after dark and then leaving before light; getting hungry, thirsty and tired - all made the experience rich, intense and, dare I say, fun. They prompted me to learn things about myself that I would not have otherwise learned. They engaged me, forced me to be present, and to focus on the task at hand. They made me feel alive! 




Coming to the realization that the extreme difficulties of the trail were actually quite desirable quickly and positively changed my perspective on the Freedom Trail experience. My fear of riding in the dark was transformed into a new challenge; the difficulty of hiking with my bike up sheer mountain slopes became an opportunity to overcome something really difficult; and I began to experience the pure joy of just riding in the most remote parts of South Africa. From that point onwards on the trail, I began to look forward to the difficulties that lay ahead as each represented a chance to learn, grow and engage more deeply with my surroundings. And there was no shortage of difficulties still to come. Having trudged into the second overnight support station, after 12 hours on the trail, just as the sun was setting on day 2, we woke up to cold rain on day 3. Setting out on our bikes in the predawn pitch black, with the raindrops clouding the light from our headlamps, and the cold biting through my gloves and socks necessitated that I seriously embrace the idea of desirable difficulties. By the time I reached the lunch stop at Glen Edward, I could no longer feel my feet or hands due to the combination of wet and cold. I peeled off my socks and gloves and lay on my back with my hands and feet stretched out to absorb heat from the farmer's anthracite heater in their living room, trying to thaw out. With some delicious soup in my system and some vague feeling back in my hands and feet, I set back out on the trail with my four other riding partners, who prior to the race I had never met, but with whom, due to this shared experience, I was quickly forming a strong bond. We made our way up and down mountains, through thick groves of wattle and across chilly rivers; we stopped for Coke and chips at a spaza shop in the absolute middle of nowhere and eventually, just as darkness was descending, we arrived at Masakala, a simple guest house in a rondavel in the middle of a rural African village. 

The Masakala guest house was not fancy by any stretch of the imagination: two wooden bunk beds per room, a single bathroom for all the guest staying there to share, a small spartan dining area with a pine table and chairs, and a tiny kitchen from where our hosts prepared food. We got a basic, yet comforting meal of meat, potatoes, and spinach and as I crawled into a warm bed that night with a full stomach, lying under the heavy Basutu blanket provided by our host, it struck me how, when out on the trail simple things are transformed into wonderful pleasures. Most people who partake in the Freedom Challenge are relatively well off: we have (or have had) good jobs: we can afford nice luxuries like a meal out or time away at a hotel when appropriate; generally we don’t want for much. If required to sleep in a bunk bed, or share a tiny bathroom with multiple other people, or have a cold shower in any other circumstance we would probably complain, but when out on the trail, no one complains. In fact, these simple things become wonderful pleasures in the context of the Freedom Trail. On my way to falling into a deep slumber that night, I realized that I need to be more grateful for what I have; I need to spend less time complaining and more time appreciating the simple pleasures in my life. The trail was revealing to me these authentic truths. 

The shorter day of riding on day 4 was a simple pleasure in itself, after 3 days of more than eleven hours on the trail, a day of only 8 hours was a treat. As was the sunshine when it eventually appeared that morning. We had set off in temperatures of minus 9 degrees centigrade before dawn, riding through frost ridden fields and floodplains. So when the sun eventually emerged from the east to warm things up and to reveal the beauty of the mountains surrounding us, the five of us were all extremely grateful, lapping up its rays like as though they were an addictive drug of sorts. The time ‘off’ at Malekgolonyane that afternoon was a treat: we sat on the patio in the afternoon sun, enjoying a Black Label quart or two, discussing nothing much that I can remember. Then suddenly we were awed by the arrival of the eventual winner of the race, Mike Woolnough. He had set out from Pietermaritzburg just 34 hours ago and covered the same distance it had taken us 3.5 days to cover. Mike dropped his bike on the front lawn, ate a quick meal, shared some wild stories from riding through the night, took a 15-minute nap and within 40 minutes of arriving at the support station he was back on his bike, heading for Rhodes. As he left, the five of us looked at each other, shell shocked by what we had just seen. The endurance, resilience, and commitment of these top racers is something we struggled to fathom and comprehend. Seeing it in person made it even more unbelievable than just hearing about it. 



On paper, day 5 looked quite easy; only 60 kms of distance to cover with some nice single-track descents along the way; lots to look forward to I thought. I was taken aback when one of the experienced riders in our group said we should budget 11 hours “What? That's not what the navigation narrative suggests and that’s less than 6km per hour” I argued. Lo and behold, he was right! Even though there were some epic single-track downhill sections that had all of us whooping and hollering, there were also some long, hot, difficult climbs through remote valleys and some really tricky, un-rideable descents off nothing less than a cliff face. So in the end, the eleven-hour prediction was pretty much spot on. At 4 pm we arrived at Vuvu, the overnight stop that is “famous” for its bucket showers, and home accommodations. We gathered at the local school where we got food to eat and hot water in buckets to shower. Then at around 7 pm, we were introduced to our local hosts who took us to their homes to sleep for the night. While I was skeptical and a little nervous of invading another family’s home, I was made to feel extremely welcome and comfortable, and I ended up having the best night of sleep of the whole trip -  a simple, yet extremely enjoyable pleasure.   

That good night of sleep was a godsend because, on the final day of the race, the major obstacle is Lehana’s Pass, one of the revered and highly feared sections of the Freedom Trail. Almost every person who has done this section of the Freedom Trail has a ‘Lehana’s story’. It is a historic donkey trading route up to Naude's Nek, the third highest point in South Africa. To state that there is a ‘route’ up Lehana’s is a gross overstatement. It’s just a very, very large mountain that one needs to scale with a bicycle. The so-called ‘route’ up is approximately 8.4 kilometers and takes at least 5 hours; assuming you get the navigation right (which many do not). The history of the race is littered with legendary stories of people getting stuck and lost on Lehana’s. Luckily by this stage of the race, I had come to seriously embrace the idea of ‘desirable difficulties’, and I was lapping all the ‘simple pleasures’ that the trail had to offer. The views as we scaled Lehana’s were nothing short of exquisite, the higher we ascended the further we could see; as we neared the pinnacle is felt like we were on top of the entire Drakensberg range. It was an effort just trying to take it all in. On reaching the summit, one of the members of our group reminded us that it was Father’s Day and all of us had a sentimental moment thinking about our families as we sat atop the world. The descent down to Rhodes from there was pure joy, as was the feeling of finishing this magnificent event. Yet the joy of finishing was coupled with more than just a tinge of real sadness to have to leave the trail and go back to real life. Yet the lessons of the trail are so important in real life: the lessons that difficulties foster learning, engagement and growth and that appreciating the simple things can create a whole new perspective. What more could I learn, I wonder, if I tackled the entire 2300 km of the Freedom Trail from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington, in the Race Across South Africa?