Sunday, July 15, 2007

...Contrast cont. (The End of RASA2007)

Something really different this year was the aspect of group riding. At times I rode alone, savouring the solitude that can only be experienced out there, at other times there were 10 of us together working our way through a difficult navigation section.
Mentally it is a lot easier doing the race with so many people around you, but then a whole new set of challenges are delivered to you. You have to deal with the pace of moving a bunch (which is slower, because you need to stop for each person's problems), interpersonal relationships, and fighting for a shower at the end of the day when 10 stinky cyclists pitch at the same time all wanting to get themselves sorted out as soon as possible.
The times I spent alone were an absolute pleasure - these are the times when you can truly admire the beauty of the trail. Once you move in your own world, you become much more receptive to the environment around you. That said, when riding alone you are much more susceptible to mental meltdown - there is no one to talk you out of your misery, tell a joke, or moan more than you!
It is quite strange how quickly strong friendships form in an event like this. Very early in the race I had already clicked with Andy and Earle, although I was not riding together with them all the time, but at the support stations we would share rooms together, and generally look out for each other on the trail. Little did we know on Day 2 that we would finish the race together. The bonds developed over the course of the race can be seen by Gerrit's actions when he brought me parts from Jhb. At many times later in the race I was planning on pushing on and try to finish earlier, but the thought of not finishing with Earle and Andy would hold me back, and in the end I finished with them, probably a lot more satisfied than if I had gone on alone.

Andy and Earle

I don't know how Earle finished the race - Myprodol, and a lion heart seemed to get him through everyday, sometimes comfortably, but in other times I could feel his pain. I think it was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other for him, after he tore ankle ligaments on the fifth day of the race. Luckily we had Andy, always smiling, always with something funny to say, and always positive. There was no time for moping in our little group. Andy was our morale, Earle was our inspiration, and I tried to keep us moving forward at a good pace.

And finally, personally - obviously this race has a major effect on one's outlook in life. The people you meet, and the generosity shown make you think twice about how you treat others. The race itself was "easier" this time. I was under no pressure to perform, all I had to do was finish. The bike, however silly, was a pleasure to ride - ride when you can, walk when you can't, no worries about trying to ride up steep hills, riding faster etc. All I did was ride what I could - easy.

My body held out exceptionally well - a slight sore throat after the snow in Molteno, sore ribs after a fall in the Baviaanskloof, and a sore ankle from the walk out of Stettynskloof. There were other aches and pains, but nothing to hamper the progress of the race. No sore hands, kidneys, legs, ass or other body parts from riding a rigid bike (Ass was a bit sore form riding fixed, but it soon recovered). The body is a fantastic thing - it soon adapts to what is thrown at it, and gets on with the job.

The only day I struggled was the long flat day from Willomore to Prince Albert, but that was more out of frustration of not being able to go faster, than fatigue. Every other day I would find something new about the trail, about my body, about my riding mates - at no stage was there any sense of boredom, although at the end I was dreaming of nice fresh clean clothes, and just being able to call Corrinne when I felt like it. Not being able to talk to her whenever I wanted was really hard again!

That's a brief summary of my race - so many more stories, opionions, and experiences, but these will come out over time every time I recount the race to someone new.

Next year? Sure - just have to work out how to up the challenge.... Tandem anyone?

How thick was the vegetation?

Here's a pic that Earle sent to me. That's me, and you can just see Andy in front!

Saturday, July 14, 2007


So, I've had a few days hanging around at home, and some time for contemplation. The thing that struck me most about the race this time was contrast - in everything about the race.
First of all there is the trail, the scenery, the country. We traversed so many different regions of the country in such a short space of time. Everyday something new would pop up - the land would have a different feel - from the high mountains of Lesotho, to the flatlands of the Great Karoo. Sometimes it was so steep and rugged that carrying your bike was the only option for hours on end, on other days you could coast a lot, as the flatness became almost monotonous, but that is South Africa. No one day was the same - each day offering up a new challenge, a new experience.

Andy dragging his bike up "Die Leer"

Welcome to the Karoo

The vegetation ranged from lush forests in the Baviaanskloof, and some areas of Natal to the sparse semi-desert of the Southern Cape - the small valley of desolation near the Addo Park still makes me nervous - I think there are lost souls walking around there! The grasslands of Natal were also a treat, allowing the construction of fantastic single track, and the ability to veer off the beaten track without too much pain, for some additoinal exploration.

The valley of desolation

Next, the cultures of the people we came across. It seems all cultures (except the culture of commercialism) have some sort of component based on generosity. It is strange that we got the most help and assistance from those that expected no money, and in some cases had no money. Those that needed money in return for service seemed to give the least (even though they had an open cheque book with us - we would've paid any amount for food).

It is truly inspiring to see how people manage to care for themselves in adverse conditions - although many of the population can be described as "unemployed", they are by no means under the breadline - the subsistence lifestyle keeps a basic meal on many tables, and that included us at some stages. When I see how they live I find it strange that there is this huge migration to the cities in search of the better life - I think they have the better life - relatively speaking of course (they don't have DSTV). Their generosity and respect for visitors is non-existent in modern city life!

Of some consternation is the commercial farming sector that we past through. In some cases 4th and 5th generation farmers are trying to stop their kids from continuing the legacy, as they believe that the commercial viability of farming is in a steady decline, and it will not possible to run the farms in years to come. Surprisingly this is not a result of politics, land-reclamation, weather or anything like that - it is the invasion of the recreational international farmer who is paying top $ for farms purely for occasional recreational use.

Speaking of the many genarations of farmers - wow - some of the farm houses have 200-300yr old furniture, pictures, and some have European heirlooms standing around that pre-date 1700. Next time I'm going with a lorry, not a bicycle. In some of the houses you feel like you are in a living museum!

It seems all cultures can bake good bread - we were so spoilt with the variations to the common loaf of bread, and fruit jam. mmmm....

Our accommodation at Masakala

Our accommodation varied from traiditional huts, to living in the houses of local communities, sharing farmhouses, luxury guesthouses, small hotels, a revamped ranger office in the middle of no where...Although we usually didn't care for the luxuries - as long as there was hot water for a shower, food, and a warm bed we were OK. Andy did have a fright when someone felt his hair in the middle of the night - he he - same place that I had them staring at my chest hair last year. Seems like the kids took the chance to feel our hair while we were sleeping, either that, or it was the tokolossie, but the beds were on bricks, so I think we were OK.

To be continued.....

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Earle coming through a water crossing in Baviaanskloof

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On top of the world

Andre, Earle and Andy on top of Stettyns kloof

Thanks, thanks and more thanks

To my army of supporters - I was not always able to get to my blog to see my messages, but when I did I was overwhelmed by the level of support given. Sometimes when things get tough, its good to have a big backing team urging you on - hard to give-up and disappoint so many.

To those that helped when my bike struggled, Gerrit, Olaf, Mike's bikes, Linden Cycles, Tim, everyone in and around Burgersdorp... eventually we got it right, without all off you it would've been the "Long Walk to Freedom".

There are hundreds of unnamed people along the route that feed, wash, service and make sure that we can live our dream - they are the angels of the Freedom Challenge. All they get is a "Thanks for everything", and we vanish into the early morning darkness. Also in this group are Stef and Wil Terblanche - I seem to be making a habit of using their kind hospilitality to the max - this is the second time I have spent an extra day with them in Molteno.

To my family, in-laws, out-laws and repossesions, its great that all of you support my passion, and it makes it so much more fun knowing you are all with me

And of course my love - Corrinne - many months of planning, training, discussing... you endure my obsession with enthusiasm, and allow me the freedom to do what I need to do. Thank you

Who is the "one arm bandit"?

Now I get it...

Standing on top of Stettyns kloof, I got it.

I think there is a thing called the Spirit of the Freedom Challenge, and it seems to come to you when standing atop that Kloof. The completion of the race (experience) bonds us all at some spiritual level. There are no loud cheers, or big high-fives as we each complete - each one just finishes and understands.

Gerrit, I now know that I would do the same for someone needing my assistance to complete the race, but still, I am eternally greatful for your kindness. Many days I rode "with" you, and in later stages I was amazed at what you had achieved with your broken knees (Die Leer, Stettyns and other places). Your generosity and tenacity inspired me to complete the race - thank you.

Home, sweet home

I am home again - one basotho blanket richer, healthy and happy. Over the next few days I will be doing general posts about my trip, trying to describe an indescribable experience.

Day 22 - The final frontier

What a day! The dreaded Stettyns kloof loomed before us at 8am this morning (after an early puncture for Earle, and harnessing our bikes to our packs). To say it is inimidating from the bottom is an under-statement. The neck in the distance (5km or so) calls your name, but you know you are going to suffer to get there.

A path has been cut part way up the kloof, so the going is not too rough, occasional river crossings, and those darn bikes seem to hook onto every single bush. We were just starting to think about an easy day out when we came to a waterfall, which should have been my warning - just when things are going well this race is going to give you that smack against the back of the head again.

We could not find some markers, so decided we would just create our own path for a bit. Within 30 minutes, Andy and I were stuck in the middle of the thickest bush, and Earle was struggling to stay on his stuffed ankle. At one point I made the decision to go back and find the markers - should be easy enough, as I would just backtrack along the path I had just made. Not! When I turned round the path was gone, and I had to remake a path back.

Every now an then we would call each others names, and you would see bushes shaking were that person was. Funny in a strange kind of way. This was the first time I saw Andy lose his rag - I heard a loud kung-fu scream and saw the bushes around Andy rustling with great ferocity. With that one move Andy had manage to progress about 30cm - fantastic. In the end we got back on the right track and started moving again.

The last section out of the kloof was another bundu bash, and a really, really steep climb up onto the neck. We had learnt from our last experience, and all stuck together though this section, which allowed us to take turns at breaking ground (bush). I also found out why no one complains about "Die Leer" in The Hel - its note close to as difficult as this slog. Our legs were scratched to pieces by Hakia, dead ferns, and anything else that could hang on to us, each step forward was agony in some sections.

After so many km the kloof has a way of causing dispair - one moment we were walking along, the next we were being taken captive by the underbrush. We all reported feelings of "Never getting out of here". The fact was that we only lost about and hour messing around, before getting going again. The absolute relief we felt when standing in icy water with those painfully sore scratched legs was phenominal - instant gratification - until your feet go numb!

Once on the top, we were able to sit down an contemplate the Kloof. It is a fitting end to this race - it signifies everything that is the Freedom Challenge. I have no words to decribe the moment, other than maybe "peacefully content".

Day 20 & 21 - Almost there...

The last two days have been really quiet, so I decided to blog them as one. On both days we decided to double up to make our goal of reaching Paarl by Monday. We are now silidly in the Western Cape - everything is green! The days have been glorious easy riding, we just seem to take evrything in our stride, and all focus is just to get us to the foot of the kloof that we need to climb before getting to Paarl.

It is quite amazing how the ride can be so different everyday. We climbed up the path under the power lines that Epic riders know so well - its hard to believe I actually rode most of that during the Epic - today I walked (stumbled) up, then it was into rolling wheat fields. At this time of the year they are bright green, and look like a well manicured lawn - such a change from the brown of the previous 3 weeks.

I stopped for lunch today on top of some remote hill, and was joined by Earle and Andy. Once we were settled, Andy hauled out his phone to check messages. After leaving a message for one of his mates, a car drives past with none other than the mate in question in it. Freaky! They drove past, then came back a few minutes later with wierd outfits, and waving banners. Earle and I were crying with laughter - Andy was over the moon.

We have got so used to being pampered (if that's what you can call it) by our hosts, that we had a bit of a disappointment at the McGregor stop. They treated us more like clients, than guests, food wasn't really enough, and they couldn't even organise us cereals for breakfast, as "We only do breakfast at 9am". But, every cloud has a silver lining. Andy called ahead to Kasra, which was our next stop, and arranged breakfast with them at 10am. When we arrived we were treated like kings. A full spread was laid out for us, and our food reserves were stocked up again - definitely made up for McGregor.

So we're at Dwarsberg now trying to work out how to rig bikes to our backpacks - tomorrow it the big day!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Day 19 - Recovery

After our string of hard days we decided to take it easy and just do one stage today. The terrain was very easy - mostly jeep tracks and a steep road. Some sections were really sandy but we just got off and pushed these. No one eager to cause problems at this stage of the race - we all just want to finish.
We stopped for coffee with an old lady that lives in this really remote farm all alone - no workers or anybody for company. She was too happy to invite us in for coffee and tell us her life story. Shame, she blushed and got all shy when Andy wanted to take some photos of her.
The bike is running really well and the others are starting to have gear and brake problems. Brownie just keeps on going. We ran out of lube, so I just used cooking oil - haven't had to re lube in 4 days now. I do have half the Karoo hanging off my chain though - I suppose you can't have everything.
We have all got niggling injuries or pains but at this stage we don't really care - myprodol is our drug of choice.
Whoopee - 3 days to go!

Day 18 - Some things to do before you die

Go to hell - or rather "Die Hell". Whether you walk, drive, ride or whatever, you should try and see this place. It is a secluded valley that is totally unspoilt and beautiful to behold. I'm not sure what you can do once there but just getting there is a load of fun.
We planned to double up again so we were on our way by 6am. The climb up the pass was brutal. I was still fascinated by the precision of the stone walling used to construct the pass. Builders in the city cannot build with that quality using rectangular bricks, never mind irregular shaped rocks. As usual the views were magnificent (where have I heard that before?)

On the top of the pass you drop into "Die Hell" - you don't actually drop into it, it undulates downwards then it drops - for anyone who watches the Tour de France, Alpe d'Heuz has nothing on these switchbacks. This is one of the fastest, hair raising downhills I have ever ridden. In Andy's words, "yyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaa"

Contrary to popular belief, there is an alternative way out of Die Hell. It's up a beast of a donkey track called Die Leer. I think regular hikers stay clear of this path as it is seriously steep and littered with loose rocks. You can't push a bike up - it must be carried. It took us about 75 minutes of carrying to get to the top. Many comments made about a certain race director when deciding on this route.

The rest of the day was a fairly straight forward road to the next support station that we made at 9:30pm. 15.5 hours of hard riding and 140km. A bonus for us was that the 3 guys that we were chasing we at the support station so we have finally bridged the gap. I think tomorrow will be a fairly easy day - only 90km or so to do.

Day 17 - Patience

Any race claiming to be a race across South Africa would need at least one day of real Karoo riding. For us, that day was today. The landscape was flat with wide open spaces dotted with ankle high bushes and a few sheep. The roads are straight and corrugated and just to make things interesting, very sandy in places.
This is not the place to bring a single speed bike. Boy, did the guys with gears sort me out today. Andy arrived at our support station more than an hour before me and that's only in the last 3 hours of his riding. It was definitely a lesson in patience. I could do nothing more than turn the pedals as fast as I could and coast along until the bike slowed down enough to pedal again.
After a late night yesterday, we slept in a bit and had a full breakfast at the guest house and only left after 8 - quite decadent considering we were about to tackle the longest stage of the race. We worked our way to the lunch stop at about 2:30pm where some coffee and biscuits woke us up a bit.
Earl and Andy then upped the pace and I was left spinning along for the last 70km. The sunset was awesome over the Karoo where you get the longest shadows because everything is so flat. Just before I got here, I stopped and lay down in the road and stared up at the stars - the milky way is a thick, white band and there a few more stars than we see in Johannesburg. I cruised into the support station and had a nice, home-cooked supper.
We discussed our plans to the end and barring any bad fortune, we should be finished by Monday.
On that note - while I was flat on my back staring at the sky, Maarten finished the race in a new record time. Good for him!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Day 16 - Up, up and away

As we were trying to double up, we left really early from Cambria towards the top of Baviaanskloof. This is a series of passes, big hills and small hills that need to be negotiated. The going was really hard at first but the views are indescribable. At one point I said to Earl and Andy that it's a pity that we cannot capture the whole experience and send it back home. My tubeless kit got damaged so I had to put on a new tyre and tubes so I will have to be on the lookout for thorns now - haven't had to do that for a while.
We had a delicious pasta dish at Damsedrif but immediately pushed on to Willowmore. There's not much to say about this stretch other than it was dark and cold.
There are no other guys here at Willowmore - they all left at 3pm this afternoon so we'll have to try and catch them some other time.

Day 15 - Into the Baviaanskloof

What a fantastic day riding - the stretch from Bucklands to Cambria must surely rate as one of the hardest stages but is probably the most scenic.
Thanks to my boys Gerrit and Olaf back home I was able to take full advantage of all the downhills on offer which were many. Of course with each downhill there was a corresponding uphill but we were happy with the opportunity to walk. The difficulty of the day can be measured by the 90km that took 10.5 hours. Steve and Kevin are still out there and it's now 8:30pm.
The highlight of the day was the steepest, roughest technical downhill ever causing every muscle in your body to beg for mercy. The bottom of the jeep track drops into Utopia - a secluded valley with steep side walls and plenty of wildlife. We came face to face with a huge kudu bull as we entered the first river crossing. The path basically follows the course of the river - no where else to go so every now and then the river must be crossed. Luckily it is not too deep but in some cases the crossing is 100m long.
Today was definitely a major highlight of this years race - up there with the day 3 single tracking in Kwazulu Natal. The riding is very different to that, but equally rewarding.
Our stop is lovely house overlooking the bottom of the Baviaanskloof. The food took a while to arrive but once it was here we ploughed through it like there was no tomorrow. We will be doubling up tomorrow to try to get through to Willowmore and see if we can put some pressure on the other guys.