I have always wanted to get to know the mountains above and around Franschoek. Ever since descending the Jonkershoek mountains in that epic snow run, and standing on the Bergriviersnek saddle staring down the barrel of the Assegaaiboschkloof valley that runs towards Franschoek. The curious part of me desperately wanted to go back and explore that valley.
On Saturday that opportunity arrived, and it did not disappoint. I can exist in peace now in the knowledge that I must have covered every stuffing square inch of that valley. The battle wounds on my legs and a few souvenir snapshots showing a decreasing sense of humour bear testimony to that. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve done some stupid things in my life, but this was officially the stupidest. And that is saying a lot considering my track record of dubious milestones. I’m beginning to think Darwin introduced his theories to try and warn morons like me from becoming increasingly hazardous to oneself by repeating the same mistakes over. I obviously have yet to learn…
The event – the WCAD Adventure Series. WCAD being an acronym for Western Cape ADventure series. Pronounced ‘wicked’ I should’ve known what I was in for but I trusted in that one line that read “race suitable for novices…”. And to set the record straight – I did not actually enter this thing. I had the privilege of receiving an sms a few days before saying “I hope you’re not doing anything on Saturday because I’ve entered you into an adventure race’… enter Rob Smyly, runner friend and complete nutcase (obviously). And I couldn’t even whinge, I had done the same thing 9 years ago to a friend entering him into the 3 Peaks Challenge. Clearly it came back to haunt me in a big way. And all this bearing in mind my cycling career is less than a month old – I’ve only just taken off those training wheels. Think Robben Island swim when you’ve just ditched your water-wings and you’ll get an idea of my fear.
Saturday morning 6am – meet up with Rob and fellow team mate Damon de Boor, an instantly likeable character with a wealth of adventure racing under his belt, to study the maps and discuss tactics.
8am – we set off after a relaxed an informal race briefing that completely underplayed the enormity of the task at hand. I’m used to 5am starts, by the time we set off the sun was already starting to cook us, not a good sign considering the winelands are notoriously a good few degrees warmer than Cape Town which was forecast in the upper 30’s. The route started with a short micro-navigation, essentially sprinting around like loons in the bushes for a few kms trying to find 5 checkpoints. If you were tracking the participants you’d have ended up with something resembling a bowl of spaghetti as participants dashed off in every possible direction.
Back in the transition area and next up was a hike / run of around 30 something kms – supposedly. After 9hours that became completely irrelevant. It was insane. Up every mountain and down the other side with the sun raging down relentlessly. Through bushes, up river beds, and right up to the very end of the valley that I so wanted to explore, to within sniffing distance of the nek where I had previously stood.
And all the way back down, down the river bed and up more mountains, it never ended, and when it eventually did after 5 o’clock that afternoon we had our first glimpse of what this madness had done to the field with the transition area looking like a battlefield and a host of ‘withdrawns’ on the competitors list. We trudged in and stepped amongst and over people, some lay there like corpses in the shade of their vehicles, dead still and exhausted, others were sitting staring blankly at their kit and wondering about the upcoming mountain bike leg.
We refueled, gathered our sense of humour, got on the bikes and set off for what we had been warned was going to be a long night. I have never been to war, but I would imagine the send off we got would be along similar lines. The quietly sympathetic stares and bowed heads, shaking in disbelief, were a clear sign that we were heading blindly straight back into the firing line. Conversation was awkward, how do you say goodbye to someone who may not be coming back.
My naivety of being a novice kicked in and I didn’t think, or rather didn’t want to think, that it could outdo what we had been already through but the organizers clearly had thought of everything to throw at us. Around the far side of the Berg river dam we had to get off and start portaging – our next stop was the dam wall, but to get there involved swimming the bikes around the edge where they could not be carried over the crumbling sandstone walls. The portaging continued on into nightfall, the beauty of a star-filled sky and the moonlight bouncing off the water was our saving grace in an otherwise mad world out there. We eventually found the track up the mountain that ran parallel to the edge of the dam, and started making better progress. It felt good to be in the saddle and not having the thing prodding me in the back of the head while trying to portage it. Bikes were clearly made to be ridden, not carried.
Riding nicely now on good surfaces we were in much better spirits and went in search of the next checkpoint out past the dam wall. Back in below the dam wall and more good memories of watching the spray released from the dam sparkling like a never-ending fireworks display in the moonlight. Another checkpoint on the dam wall, clambering over barbed wire fences and gates, and then it was decision time. The next checkpoint at the mast on top of the hill. After a long debate it was agreed that we would continue on to the other checkpoints, with the option of an early morning dash up to the mast (a laughable plan in hindsight but it made sense at the time, humour had clearly returned!). Riding on around the lower slopes of the mountain and back onto the dirt road and up the next hill in search of checkpoint 17.
An hour later and the elusive Checkpoint 17 had other names (not printable here). It was madness, I lost track of time, I lost track of humour, I was completely out of water and getting hot and dangerously thirsty by the minute – even at 1am it was still cooking out there as the road just went up and up and up and never-ended (we realized later we had taken the turn-off too soon and had taken the severely long way up). With dwindling motivation to keep this mindless slog up we gave ourselves another 5 minutes and another 5, and eventually called it quits, there was no point to it anymore and we descended the rocky path back to the road. I absolutely hate a DNF next to my name, especially after 17hrs on the move, but this was completely futile.
A quiet ride back along the dirt road to the finish area provided some time for introspection and convincing yourself it had been the right call. At the finish everyone but the organizers had gone home – and even they were busy packing up – quite relieved to see us coming in. It must’ve been somewhere between 1 and 2am, we’d been beaten fair and square. The only reason I’m looking so happy in the ‘after photo’ is because the guy taking the pic encouraged us to swear at the organizer.
A few lessons learned the hard way out there, but its Monday morning and I’m trying to keep it in perspective. I’ve been told there is usually around a 20% drop-out rate, apparently in this case 2 out of over 30 teams finished having clipped all the checkpoints, with one guy commenting “This was a REAL adventure race. I ended up using more equipment than in Expedition Africa” (EA is over a week long, non-stop and covers over 500km).
Consolation as it may be, it still feels like unfinished business out there. I’ll be back, when I can walk normally again.
Thanks Di for a well-timed post this morning to put it in perspective – “Failure is a step toward your ultimate success. It’s a lesson. A challenge. A chance.”