Freedom Challenge 2013

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Every now and then you stumble upon something new. Something that flicks a switch inside and brings you back to life. Something that snatches you from the daily routines and makes you aware of much more than you would have discovered while staring into your coffee cup at 4am trying to figure out why you can’t sleep and your mind is already churning with the day’s work to-do-list. And my ‘something new’ came unexpectedly in the form of two wheels.

For the record, I am a runner. Not a cyclist. I absolutely love running. I’ve grown up running. I’ve run since I was a scrawny 12 year old after officially earning the title of the smallest, nerdiest, non-sporting kid at a boarding school where your position on the food chain was determined almost solely by how big you could tackle and how far you could hit a cricket ball, and realising the only way to escape the miseries of that life, dictated by a schedule of bells, and blokes twice your size, was to run. Away. Plotting my own personal “Great Escape” was a good sideline project in-between class work, but through it I realised I’d have to be able to run. Faster and further than the guards who stood duty at the gate or the teachers that would give chase. On the time-table it was officially called cross-country training. To me it was a way to get beyond the grounds and look for routes out of the valley that ran alongside the school grounds. And I quietly regarded as heroes the two guys who got out successfully one night and made it down to the Eastern Cape before getting caught. (Note to self: be afraid of the day my son asks for his first pair of running shoes…)

20 years later and I still love it as much, having seen and done things by foot I would never have imagined since first lacing up those retro Adidas Seattles back then. But as I embraced the sport back then, I have come to love another in equal doses now. Not for the rush and the adrenalin or for chasing the clock and racing yourself and that taste of blood in your mouth when you’ve sprinted with every single last drop of oxygen left inside to the top of a hill, but for almost the opposite – the peace, the calm, the getting away and the slowly ticking over and over of the pedals and ending up miles and miles away in the middle of nowhere. Maybe it’s still ‘running away’ but it’s so much more, it’s a means of transport, a way to discover places, to tour. Admittedly, yes – you can also put a backpack on and run 200kms into the Karoo but it is going to take a mammoth effort and a lot more time to do so. And guaranteed you won’t want to repeat that the next day.

The bike has given a newfound sense of freedom, of having the ability to feel the wind in your hair and against your face, see the sunrise from the roadside and discover small villages and towns dotted along the way. Stop for coffee and carry on – try doing that while running and things start getting seriously messy a few kms down the road.

Rewind a few years back, I had heard about this incredible adventure, journey, challenge, race – call it what you may. It was an official feature on the sporting calendar and immediately, like a moth to an open roaring bonfire, against all sense of self preservation, I was drawn in. I knew this was dangerous territory, I knew I’d get my wings burnt and spiral helplessly to the ground, but I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what that thing is inside of us, that stares face to face with the beast, straight in the eyes, tempted by nothing but blind courage mixed with absolute fear, willed on by experiences that have given us confidence to rise against a challenge. Those moments of staring feel like hours, like an eternity, but in reality they are just a few seconds. Then I hit the “send” button. Entry in. Done. Signed. Sealed. No way out now. Time to buy a bike and learn how to ride.

Admittedly this was a pretty poorly thought out and very flawed process and in hindsight I got it just completely wrong. Most people have ridden bicycles most of their lives, and then would maybe venture out to take part in a race after losing a bet over a few beers in a pub one night. For me, the adventure drew me in quicker than I could get my running shoes off and get my feet onto the pedals, so once the entry was in, it was off to get a bike. This took months as the clock ticked away but I was precious with finances and trying to make the most of the decisions encountered within a tight budget. 26 or 29 inch wheels? Cleats or cages? How do I even fix a puncture? Eventually by the new year I had narrowed the bike selection down and very excitedly, in mid January, proudly walked out the bike shop with my new trusty steed. I had absolutely no idea back then where and how that beautiful shiny frame of metal and wheels and gadgets and things that clicked and spun would take me. And it probably had no idea what it was in for either.

The excitement gripped me and I couldn’t wait to get out, my first outing proved an outright disaster but a good taste of things to come. After a dinner invitation on the other side of the mountains and naively thinking I could ride there up Cape Town’s notorious wagon trail and do a quick run down onto Chapmans peak with my trusty new chunk of metal slung over my shoulder . It turned into a mini adventure in itself, a ride, a bushwhack, and a two hour portage to get off the mountain in the fading daylight. Needless to say I was a few hours late for dinner but felt happy that my cycling career had gotten off to a solid start – adventure is what it was all about wasn’t it?

From there things just got more complicated – rides became longer, then harder, then came the backpack and the list of stuff that had to go in it, and on the bike. I’d heard that race packs generally weighed in between 8 to 10kgs so I trained as hard as I could with a pack of around 16kgs, lumbering slowly up hills and wearing myself and the backpack out in the process. Learning how to strip brakes and fix parts with something other than duct tape and cable ties. Including how to fix a puncture, which I did successfully with superglue on many occasions. The support I had from a few close friends was very encouraging too but I tried my best to keep this plan under the radar as long as possible – I’ve come under fire in the past for doing stupid things and I wasn’t ready for any insults on this one. Eventually word got out after having being discovered going for a hike one day up the mountain. With the bike strapped to my back. How do you talk your way out of that one.

Somewhere along this process I realised I was not going to meet the financial commitments in time to start the race – from paying off the entry, to still having to buy a bike and some of the basic, essential kit, I just couldn’t manage it all and with a very heavy heart had to email the organisers to discuss a possible plan B. They were fantastic and encouraging and gladly moved the entry to 2013, again in hindsight probably one of the biggest blessings in disguise as I now had a few more months to prepare.

In the meantime I was trying to keep the running training going too, good to mix it up and cross train and I was beginning to feel fitter than ever before, the two combining for a good all round workout. My local running club no doubt thought I had given up on them as I only ever appeared by bike and usually laden with a backpack full of wine bottles and tins of baked beans. And just for the record, this was not a reflection of my diet during training.

The days grew shorter as summer’s daylight faded, and the training grew longer. Days and nights merged into measures counted by hours in the saddle. The logbook started to look like a profile of the Himalayas, and then, after a brief short lived attempt at cramming an entire cycling career into 18 months, I was standing checking in at the airport, one way ticket in hand. That was a very nervous moment, a daunting moment of one single, brutal, simple truth – you’re about to fly across the country and ride your bike back. Nothing more.

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Arriving in Pietermaritzburg was the last formality, signing in and listening to our final instructions the night before leaving. It all seemed surreal, then it was 6am on that long awaited Wednesday morning and I was standing outside the town hall listening to the big clock chiming. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Everything fell silent as the last gong faded on the cold morning air. My heart pounded and echoed in my chest. And then we were moving. We had finally started the long ride home.

The following are the extracts from the writings scrawled at various points along the race, sometimes under the luxury of a warm electric blanket in a heated room, sometimes under the thick warmth of layers of basotho blankets high up in the Drakensberg mountains, by the light of a paraffin lamp in a hut in a village.

FC  (5)The start in Pietermaritzburg. Photo: Ben de Lange

Day 1

Done and dusted and we arrived at Allendale around 6pm. The heart-pounder lump-in-throat moment of hearing the Maritzburg town hall chiming 6 and the long ride home began, from crunching through frosty white ground on the outskirts of Maritzburg to scorching under the African sun by mid afternoon and wondering about this talk of having to pee on your bike chain when its frozen under a layer of ice . Some long hauls out there today including the portage along and through the Umkomaas river, icy cold and flowing strongly – I’ve served my time portaging canoes down rivers (with thanks to Andre) but this was a first, shouldering a bike and heading off downstream. Then the big climb up the monster that is Hela Hela, out of the Umko valley and an amusing encounter with a bakkie seriously overloaded with wooden planks going down with no brakes!
So far the plan is to survive, and I survived, so I guess it’s safe to say everything went according to plan!

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Day 3 got kick started by a freezing dash across what felt like the entire mountainside between our bungalow and the toilet, followed by another freezing dash to load up on breakfast before heading out. The climb up and out from Ntsikeni was mildly baffling, a) navigating in the dark has its moments of blinding confusion and b) after the ride in on day 2, or rather night 2, I didn’t think anything was higher.
We climbed up and up through dry grasslands, typical of the Drakensberg foothills in winter, that crisp crunchy frosty grass underfoot, before flattening out at the base of the Swartberg mountains of East Griqualand. Somewhere up here we had a spectacular moment to grace the distant sunrise as a herd of wildebeest stampeded across our tracks in front of us.
The obligatory 10 o’clock coffee stop has become a fixed daily habit – I figure if you’re going to come in 4 hours after sunset a fifteen minute break isn’t going to make any difference.
The district road should have been good riding but a strong headwind coming off a snow capped Drakensberg made the better part of the last 60kms really tough going.
Growing up in Kokstad has left a very special place in my heart for this magnificent part of South Africa and it was good to be back – nothing like the taste of the thick layer of cream off milk , forget this fancy skim and low fat stuff!
After lunch it was time to continue west and via some really off the beaten tracks we finally arrived at our over night stop in Masakala, the township outside Matatiele.
Another 15 plus hour day, added to yesterday’s and I’m starting to wonder what I got myself into here, but so far … surviving, so all going to plan

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Day 4

Heading west from Matatiele we set off on district roads before skewing off through villages and obscure valleys, before picking up the Mpharane ridge, giving unbelievable views of the Drakensberg above and the valleys dotted with villages below to eventually end up at Malekholonyane just north of Ongeluksnek. I am officially the slowest out there in our group mostly thanks to my two wheeled beast and backpack of cameras but I’m here for the journey and soaking it up. An undisputed highlight of the day in the first few hours was watching a very smart twin cab bakkie roaring up and down through the head high mielie fields. We couldn’t figure out if this was some kind of rural ploughing method (not very effective because everything in its path pretty much got destroyed), neighbourly love gone horribly wrong, or just a bizarre marketing effort by Mitsubishi but it was really funny to watch and I have some classic footage of it!
The best though is still the two ladies in Masakala township yesterday who asked “where are you going?”.
“Cape Town”.
Silence then big smiles and “okeyyyy”.
All this is not without pain though – this thing is brutal and mostly everything hurts in one way or another, not a great sign when you’re not even a quarter of the way but its a day at a time out there. Head down, grind on. We’re the Freedom punching bags tomorrow as the route takes us alongside the berg to Vuvu but its another day in on this incredible journey and another day closer to home.
Signal is dodgy from here-on so just in case I cant do this tomorrow, dad, happy Father’s Day for tomorrow and thanks for raising me to appreciate the wilderness. I think rock hopping to fishing spots on those wild coast trips started it all

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Day 5.

I think. Starting to lose count as the enormity of this thing starts sinking in. Today was just insane, an early start in the dark with just the silhouette of the berg lined up against a star filled sky, we began the trek south to Vuvu some 70kms away. Dropping through massive valleys and climbing up the other side, traversing spurs and ridges and clambering up and down mountain slopes, through villages, past ox trains pulling wood and encountering lone herdsmen wrapped up in their blankets high up in the mountain as they gallop past on horseback.

We had been warned today was going to be a beast and it didn’t disappoint, its reputation smeared across our faces as we crawled in some 16 and a half hours after setting off. Catching some quick zzzzs then it’s off and over the berg tomorrow.

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Day 6

Today was Vuvu to Rhodes. Another stage that stands its ground as one of the monsters that make up the Freedom Challenge. It began with an undulating ride out from Vuvu, then straight up the mountain on a small track that would eventually get us over the Drakensberg. The legendary portage up Lehanas pass was about as gruelling as the myths led to believe, 5 hours of hiking with the bike on your shoulders. The training paid off though and after the hell that was Vuvu yesterday, this was a surprisingly good day and I started really enjoying it out there. I’ve always loved hiking in the berg but never imagined I’d be back with a bike across my shoulders.
The dramatic scenery stretched on to eternity, while a beautiful Lammergeyer circled majestically just overhead. Frozen waterfalls dangling off the cliff faces and the distinct sound of cow bells rising up from the valley beneath are all part of the magnificent memories of today.

From Lehanas we joined up at the top of Naude’s nek and made the descent in Rhodes into another spectacular sunset.

Somewhere out there in the last day or two we rode under the 2000km to go barrier, no flags and bright lights but its a small victory to tuck inside for the tough moments. I don’t know how some guys are making this look so easy while I’m suffering trying to keep up but I just quietly keep ticking over and over and over. I’m a runner in a cyclists world out here and that is very clear, I’ve managed to stay in a group until Rhodes but I’m guessing from here on things will change as they speed ahead and I’m anticipating many hours of solo riding out there.

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Sunrise on our way to Lehanas. (Photo: Martin)

Sunrise on our way to Lehanas. (Photo: Martin)

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Day 7, the routines start to become habit.

We quietly left Rhodes under a crystal clear blanket of stars, chasing the clouds of our breath that briefly lingered then quickly evaporated up into the night sky. The temperature dropped slowly but steadily down to -12, until the eastern sky started to lighten and brought with it the warmth of a new day. Some spectacular moments on the undulating road to our midday stop at Chesney Wold, iced up rivers across the road and one really beautiful display of an impromptu ice sculpture in the front garden of one of the farmsteads along the way thanks to what looked like a sprinkler system that had been left on all night, and no doubt one garden boy in serious trouble today. Trying to drink from the bladder in my pack proved pointless as the pipe had frozen up completely and only thawed out by late morning.

The road to Chesney proved great riding, I was on my own for the most part of it, feeling stronger than any day so far, going at my own pace and loving the scenery and the solitude, stopping for photos and to admire the surrounding landscape through which we were traveling. By lunch I had caught up with a group ahead of me and we made the afternoon climb up over the mountains together, dropping over into the valley on the other side before riding out at sunset to Slaapkrantz which is our base for tonight.

As big as the mountain ranges we are crossing, so too are the piles of food I’m eating at breakfast lunch and dinner – think scrumptious farm meals loaded with nothing other than fat and meat. And gravy. This might sound insanely unhealthy but I’m learning fast one very important ingredient to surviving the days of the Freedom. Eat. The first few days I was constantly hungry but now I’m wolfing down big thick meat sandwiches at every opportunity – if there is a lunch stop I make extra sandwiches for the afternoon, and a few hours later I’m ready for more. I’ve never been one for measuring calories and all that fancy stuff but I’m pretty sure that we’ve burned up a few and I’m now seriously overdue a good glass of red wine! (One might be all it will take right now to put me horizontal)

Daily routines are becoming more efficient habits now, drummed in repeatedly every day and making life easier in the process. Today felt surprisingly good, after the first 5 days of sheer abuse, followed by Lehanas (which is in its own category of human stupidity) it is comforting to know that good days do exist.

Tomorrow we cross more mountain ranges with another hiking session in the Stormberg to begin the day.

7 days down, 18 to go… Bring on the meat sarmies

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Days 8, 9, and 10.

All lumped together in the category of undeniable oblivion. I’m not one to easily admit to weakness or feeling completely helpless but day 8 pretty much started setting the tone along those lines. Up during the night at Slaapkranz running to the toilet wasn’t a good way to start the crossing of the Stormberg and the effects were felt badly yesterday – its a dreadful feeling waking up in the morning and knowing immediately that things aren’t right, when you have a guaranteed 12 hours plus ahead of you of carrying, riding, hiking, dragging, pushing and pulling your bike over the mountains. The day was a monster, 130kms to get to Romansfontein in the middle of nowhere.

Our group set off under pre-dawn skies and slowly made our way into the veld before sunrise. Seeing the trickle of lights moving quietly through the fields always reminds me of Dead Poets Society. By mid morning I was lagging far behind, we had routed onto a seriously corrugated district road, riding into fierce headwinds and I was on my own fighting my battles out there, just desperate for the lunch stop to try and get some food inside. Soup and rolls were all that kept me moving forward hour after hour while everything was shaking apart around me.

By midday I started realising something on the map wasn’t looking right and at the next farm entrance I stopped to double check and realised I somehow had ridden past it, confused by the name on the board. I stood there head in hands just swearing in utter disbelief, but going back was not an option which meant there was only one choice – carry on moving forward. The riding was gruelling into the wind and I broke it with walking to try and ease the strain. It wasn’t long before the rest of the guys in the group caught up after their lunch, shoved some food down my throat and declared that they were staying with me. It was an amazing decision because these guys are seriously strong with an assortment of incredible achievements under their belts – from Comrades, Oceans, Epic’s, and even a trek to the North Pole, there is no way I can keep up with them but they would ride ahead and wait and make sure I was okay. By nightfall we still had a tricky navigation section to cover and managed it bit by bit until the very welcome lights of the Romansfontein farmhouse came into sight.

After a solid nights sleep, plenty of rehidrates down the hatch, today was marginally better, still fighting the weakness that the jippoguts left in its wake, and the now standard thumping headwind. I was aiming to make it to Hofmeyer, an interim stop, and stay over to break another monster day in two, but we made good time in, shoved the legendary Hofmeyer pies down in record time (I’ve never seen so many pies disappear so fast!) and off we set to Elandsberg. This was a huge moral booster and we made it down the mountain just in time for the sunset.

Tomorrow is a shorter day, most of the group is aiming to double up and push through to the next stop but I am hoping to overnight at Stuttgart and get some recovery time. It’s been a hard time until now and it’s a constant battle to keep up. The bike is taking a beating of note – things are starting to creak and groan and break, along with the body, which is gradually turning various shades of black and blue but everyday is one day closer to home.

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Day 11.

Up at 4 again after a restless night with little sleep (perhaps OD’ing on the chilli sauce at supper wasn’t a wise move, they make it pretty lethal out here). Today the group officially split – the Freight Train Five of Ant, Guy, Martin, Shaun and Ted are ready to burn some gas now across the big expanses of the Karoo with talk of skipping support stations from now on. I’m well aware this isn’t within my capabilities so am still on the one day at a time approach. We said our goodbyes this morning at 5 as the train left, and after packing my stash, hoisting the backpack and mounting the old workhorse I left Elandsberg in the darkness of the early morning. After 10 days of company it was strange to be riding alone, you are effectively just a tiny dot on a map, a small glow of a headlamp moving quietly across the country. We are now officially in the Karoo, and the cold early mornings can get really freezing when you’re sitting on a bike. By mid morning it had warmed up nicely as I made my way towards Stuttgart farm which is about 40kms north of Cradock. The hosts Francois and Amanda are renowned for their legendary hospitality towards the Freedom riders, and I was looking forward to another round of lekker plaas kos!

Today was a relatively short day and arriving at midday was a very pleasant surprise. There was always the temptation to push on to the next stop, but after the carnage that has been the last 10 days I was quite ready to have a few hours to get sorted and not be riding into the night again. Clean bike, wash clothes (these could just about be walking themselves to Cape Town shortly) and catch up on a few precious hours sleep before the rugby, another huge farm dinner, and now finally time to drift into dreamland again.

I heard on arrival that today is officially half way which is daunting but good news all in one!

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Day 12. Karoo riding.

An early start and difficult to leave the warmth of Stuttgart to step into the chilly -3 air down the valley. Today was another shortish one, it shows how warped it gets out here when you classify a 7hour ride as a ‘rest day’. But we took it easy, as easy as hauling your bike over another few mountain ranges could be, and had some magnificent riding on one of the district roads, wind at our backs, gentle gradient, getting a chance to breathe and smile for a while. And for a change. In at Grootdam by early afternoon then discovered that my precious folder of narratives had somehow dislodged itself and was nowhere to be seen (surprising that more stuff has not come flying off the bike by now considering the shake and rattles it is receiving). So, back out and back up the mountain, I cant lay claim to much on this race as the speedsters are leaving me in their dusty tracks, but I’m pretty sure I can at least bag the title of being the only ‘cyclist’ to have gone for a trail run too out here. Thankfully I found them a few kms out or I might have found myself in East London in two weeks time.

Tonight my roommate’s nicknamed ‘Moose’. No, wait, that’s his real name. Just my style. Not sure whats going to be playing through my mind tonight with that watching over me but things may just get a little weird as I ride through dreamland.

Long long day tomorrow so its an early bed an early morning. Another day closer to home.

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Days x, y, and z.

I’ve stopped numbering them as I’ve lost count.

Can’t quite recall which day things officially fell apart but it was shortly after a reasonably good days riding to Toekomst, a farm in the Karoo alongside the Darlington dam and nearing the mountains that would ultimately lead us into the Baviaanskloof.

Not a wink of sleep that night as the entire time was either spent vomiting or writhing in agony hugging the toilet. And that’s how it stayed until sunrise. The group I was riding with the previous day left at 5am, around the time I had purged my system for the umpteenth time and it was only around 8 that I eventually managed to drag my weary carcass over to my backpack, shove my belongings inside, and start pushing the bike towards the next stop. It was the start of another day in hell, with no energy at all, and having to navigate up mountains and down valleys, getting lost repeatedly simply out of a sheer lack of concentration. By nightfall I was over the worst of it and had arranged to stay at a place called kleinpoort, a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere. As it turned out it was a magnificent old house and I slept in warmth and peace, something which I’d been longing for the whole day.

The next day proved another weary challenge just to get going, still feeling very weak from the previous days events, but slowly the pedals ticked over to Bucklands (which should have been the previous nights stop) for breakfast, then carrying on to a farm called Hadley on the northern side of the baviaanskloof mountains. This isn’t an official stop but the organizers recommended I move to here rather than stay at Bucklands to break up the following day.

While quietly pedaling along selfishly absorbed in my own world of pain and exhaustion a car drove up alongside with the usual question – where are you going? After a brief conversation I learned that I was about to be swept up by a group of 45 cyclists- far from what i ever thought would happen out here in the middle of nowhere! I quietly looked forward to the company for a few kms, it was a 5 day Karoo MTb tour event and they were overnighting on the farm next to where I was due to stay.

The end result was that the race snakes caught me with ease and left me in their dust, but I did get a chance later that afternoon to go across and see the festivities – thanks to Carol who made a complete stranger feel so welcome! I generally hovered around the food table (no surprises there), and left a few hours later happy to have had some good company for a few hours. My night was spent again in complete solitude in a very rustic farm cottage, with a donkey for hot water, paraffin lamps for light and a fireplace inside for warmth. Peace is sometimes found in the most unexpected places, and I was in those few hours quite glad not to be part of a big group riding across our country.

Another slow start to the next day and still weak but managed to get going by 5 in anticipation of the Osseberg track that would ultimately take me over the mountains to the south and into the Baviaanskloof. The beginning sections on the deteriorating dirt road dropped down into the Grootrivier Poort with a steep climb back out, followed by some undulating hills along a ridge before the steep descent down in the very overgrown valley to follow the river through the mountains.

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There are no words to describe this section – only those who have travelled through there will know of the beauty, and the equal carnage it leaves. It is an isolated, desolate, forgotten world down there, the tracks soon become one, then none, and you are left to fight through overgrowth and head high reeds, clambering downstream, pushing, shoving, anything to get one or two metres further. The constant cold and rain made the isolation seem even more desperate and there were tears and blood shed in equal doses. I cursed and hit the bike, shouted and screamed, anything to get the anger and frustration out, but it didn’t help. No one was coming to help. It was move forward or spend the night there. (There were riders who spent the night down there, having animals running over them, taking shelter under bushes and trees, listening to leopards through the night, and even a spotting of a rhino) By late afternoon I had finally emerged onto a track that was running in the right direction and made it through the final section and out to the farm at Cambria before nightfall, beaten, absolutely exhausted, hungry, cold, wet, filthy, and desperately in need of sleep.

Another night on my own at the overnight stop and another slow weary start to the day today. I had by all accounts thrown in the towel last night after yesterday’s carnage – I have given absolutely everything to this race and am fighting daily to stay within reach of it, but yesterday was the final straw.

I slowly packed my belongings again, hoisted the backpack and opened the door in two minds about what to do – to stay, or ride on. My leg was swollen and bruised from the bashing in the valley and bike not looking any better for the experience. But I got on, and slowly drifted out of sight from the farmhouse and into the cold morning mist hovering in the valley. I was moving and that was all that counted and I resorted to focusing only on where today would take me – I’m here, I might as well see what’s down the road, go for a ride or something. It’s better than sitting around.

The route over the Baviaanskloof is tough but beautiful, some very steep passes and more river crossings but it was a peaceful day, the sun came out and I saw more game today than ever in my life – maybe the joy of being on a bike and not in a car is that you’re less noisy (despite my bikes rattles!) and less of a threat but I saw loads and had big kudu passing across the road right in front of me hardly frightened off. It was beautiful and today felt like a blessing, like some desperately needed soul food in amongst the madness.

My bike computer speedometer thing is now toast (another of yesterday’s victims) and I have no way of measuring distance so I have been using the maps and the markers on the farm fences to get an idea of how far I was traveling. Back to basics. It bought me safely mid-afternoon to tonight’s stop, and I’m in the very hospitable company of a super family at Damsedrif, halfway through the Bav valley.

It’s really a day at a time now, every new day cycled is a gift and every support station reached is one more than I would have.

Tomorrow is another opportunity…

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Day 19

An early start today to try and get the big day I have been quietly fearing under the belt. At 170kms it promised to be a long one, that’s a lot of turns of my little wheels. A good night at Willowmore, tucked in one side by the warmth of a heater and the other by a tummy full of their legendary steak helped get the day off to a good start. Day 7 of riding on my own, quietly leaving Willowmore under a Karoo night sky full of stars was beautiful, and I rode in the darkness for what seemed likes hours before the horizon behind me started glowing pink with the arrival of a new day.

Keeping a close eye on the markers on the fences to keep track of progress kept my mind busy for hours, the gentle gradient helping to ease the legs into it and by mid morning I had arrived at the interim stop of Rondawel, tucked into a cup of tea and a bowl of superb pasta before heading off again.

The road west got increasingly sandy, rutted, gutted and corrugated and made sure that everything inside got churned up and bounced around nicely. Somewhere along this road it straightened out into a 40km neverending haul, straight as an arrow headed for the horizon, then the next horizon, then the next. No fence markers, just head down and grind on.

Doffing my helmet to a magnificent big gemsbok running gracefully through the veld alongside the road, the magic of those few hundred metres that we travelled together will remain etched in my mind long after the pain in the legs has worn off.

Bumping into the legendary Johann, (he’s a Freedom Challenge icon out here) in the middle of nowhere, with a coffee plunger and box of rusks and some good conversation. Seeing the unmistakeable peaks of the Seweweekspoort mountains, smiling big at recognizing this first really encouraging landmark in weeks and thinking maybe this thing is actually going to be possible. The minutes whiled away over coffee, then it was time to pedal the final 20kms into Prince Albert and find my hot shower. Home for tonight is at the wonderful Dennehof Guest House, busy tucking into a bowl of hearty soup then bed. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to go for a ride in the morning – no rushing though, it starts with a monster haul up the Swartberg pass before heading down into Die Hell. No need to mention that all the camera batteries are on charge tonight.

Tomorrow is another day, and another week apparently. My last Monday out here.

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Day 20. Klein Karoo. The calm before the storm.

Most of the riders leave Prince Albert in the very early hours of the morning but having never seen the famous Swartberg pass I opted to leave closer to sunrise so I could see this amazing feat of engineering. It’s a long long climb up, with its impressive zig zags and tight turns before finally reaching the turn off west into the Gamkaskloof valley. It was around then that I started realizing the day was anything but simply riding up the pass and dropping into die hell. The road into the valley is neverending, with long climbs and descents before arriving at the very steep switchbacks to drop onto the valley floor. I got stuck on the switchbacks behind a grader that was churning a nice hard packed surface into mud and slush but thankfully the driver saw me in his mirror after a while and stopped, I clambered over the giant earth moving contraption one wheel at a time ( there was no simply going around it, not like road width is in abundance out there) before trying to get as far ahead of him down the zig zags as quickly as possible without having rocks landing on me from above. Not the best timed move in the history of overtaking!

A quick ride on the green mossy valley road before arriving at the overnight stop, a rickety old Sprite caravan with a distinct Deliverance feel to it in the campsite, but what it lacked in comforts the hosts more than made up for with food and friendliness. I befriended the campers in the campsite next door that evening and enjoyed their fine company and roaring fire before hitting dreamland.

The body has started its own weird ritual now, 7:30 pm it starts yawning, 8 pm it self destructs into a sleepy slumber. 1am wake up drenched in sweat no matter how cold you are (I remember this happening once in a while during peak training for big runs but its a daily occurrence out here) and anything from 3 to 5am is wake up time.

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Day 21

The haul out of the Gamkaskloof started with a gentle 10kms along the valley floor, over the Gamka river and enjoying the views of the canyon heading north to the dam just catching the early morning light. A few climbs up and down and then it was time to tackle one of the Freedom’s legends, die leer – or the ladder. It’s a rocky path that basically leads straight up the mountain to get out of the valley which is effectively a cul-de-sac. Bike on back and hiking up and up and up before eventually reaching the signpost, foolishly pulling the wool over your eyes that you’re at the top. The track then continues its rocky way through a good few more valleys before eventually dropping down to the top of the Bosch Luis Kloof pass. This was back in familiar territory having been here a few months back so I took a few minutes to indulge in a long awaited cup of coffee. Nearby the Seweweekspoort peak, dotted with snow, would make brief appearances from under its cloudy blanket before disappearing again. From here it was a wonderful afternoons riding alongside the Klein Swartberg mountains and into the farm Rouxpos, a magic setting in a beautiful valley tucked up right against the mountains. Another good meal and the legendary Rouxpos waffles preceded a good nights sleep.

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Day 22

Another early start and a few hours riding before sunrise to get into the Anysberg where I had hoped to spend the night. Arriving early afternoon it was discovered that there was no bed available (the famous Cape Nature incompetence on its finest form again) but it was early enough and I knew most of the route ahead so quickly sorted my things and headed off again. It was a long days riding but arriving in Montagu by nightfall was a huge boost as I had made up a day and I enjoyed settling into the night at the fine establishment of the Montagu Country Hotel. Dinner in the nice posh restaurant in my orange croc slippers before succumbing to dreamland again. 3 more sleeps.

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Day 23

The ride out of Montagu is spent dodging big trucks and cars on the R62 before swinging a left just beyond Ashton to take in some vineyards and the district roads to Mcgregor. It was great riding, the chilly morning air keeping everything nice and crisp with another beautiful sunrise behind me. One unexpected skill I’ve learnt on this ride is angry-dog-management. You can just see it coming as you approach labourers cottages, one minute everything is nice and peaceful the next you’re hauling like there’s no tomorrow with a farmyard special gnashing at your pedals. Out comes the water bottle, preferably the one with sticky concentrate juice, and fire away! Those dogs blessed with half a brain cell usually back off after the first shot but some of the more ignorant persistent ones just keep coming back for more, in the face, an eye full of it, up the nose, you name it they get it. All’s fair in love and war out there.

Arriving in Mcgregor midmorning meant there was time for a quick cup of tea and sandwich before starting up to the mountains. Following the main road through Montagu it climbs up gradually towards the mountains before becoming a dead end at the Greyton Mcgregor hiking trail. Somewhere along this road before the hikers cottages we swing west and go over the mountains and through the farms and veld, basically running parallel for a while to the hiking trail but one valley north, before picking up a farm road running to the farm Kasra which was to be my overnight stop.

I had been forewarned about the wonderful hospitality at the Oestervanger, the guest cottage at Kasra, and it was as super as expected. Dinner was one of the best to date and I even savoured a few sips of Robertson red wine (they’re patriotic about their wines out this way!) before again succumbing to the night time ritual. With all this wonderful food I do believe I may be one of the few riders arriving home having put on weight!

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Day 24

This morning was admittedly a lazy start to the day, the sound of rain falling wasn’t helping to get me going any faster but I set off at first light into soft rain that cleared as the morning grew light. Up and over the mountains again following the electric power lines, through fields and meadows, talking to the cows (its been almost two weeks on my own so I’ll take whatever conversation I can get) before dropping down to the Brandvlei dam and up the valley to Trouthaven where I am spending tonight. This is a bitter sweet moment as I sit writing this tucked up in this valley with its steep walls on either side. It’s difficult to imagine that there is one mountain range separating me from finally putting this journey to rest, but its in these last mountains that lies the sting in the tail of the Freedom Challenge. Stettynskloof. It’s a name I’ve been dreaming of for 23 days and its a place I’ve been fearing for 2 years. It’s a monster with a reputation as hard as they come, and its the Goliath standing tall out there right now. It’s going to be one of those one step at a time episodes but I’m looking forward to getting in there and knuckling down to the fight tomorrow. The battle of Stettyns will be brutal without doubt but come hell or high water I’m getting over those mountains and to the finish tomorrow.

I’ve made a good long haul out of this so far but I stand in absolute awe and respect at the people that rode this thing as if they just ride across the country every other week. The likes of the champions Martin and Jeannie that wrap it up in 12 days, Glenn flying over the Black Fountain mountains on his single speed to blitz it to Rhodes in a little over two days is unfathomable, and especially the Freight Train Five that made it look so easy – Guy, Ant, Shaun, Ted, and Martin – you guys are brilliant, very big respect indeed.

Well, little else to do now but lie in wait for tomorrow. Sort bike. Sort pack. Sort mind. Then we tackle those last steps and bring this home.

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Day 25. The battle of Stettyns and the final miles of the Freedom.

With the early morning bugle call sounding the call to battle, we rode off quietly under a cloudless, starry sky, deeper into the valley that would finally take us around, up, and over this last mountain range to home. I had been joined late last evening by fellow rider Gaeren, who had left Montagu in the early hours, skipped Kasra and had pushed on through to Trouthaven. After so many days of riding solo it was great to have such good company, especially for this final daunting day.

The route up into Stettynskloof follows the road up the Dwarsberg valley as far as the dam, then becomes a narrow footpath around the dam to get into the kloof, then becomes a no-path-bushwhack session up the valley. Following stone cairns as far as we could proved more mentally comforting than anything else, its not like you were on a path but at least you were comforted in the knowledge that others had been here before. Past pieces of wreckage of the Shackleton plane that had crashed in this desolate valley decades ago, sliding on rocks across the river, thrashing through thick overgrowth, and cresting one ridge after another after another before finally emerging at the foot of the final climb up the headwall to the saddle at the end of the valley.

Stettyns doesn’t give up easily and the last haul up was a brutal climb up loose shale, into fierce headwinds that had blown into us all day. Nearing the top two lone figures on the skyline provided a target to aim for, one step after another, before I started hearing the cries “do you want coffeeee” – the best thing I’d heard all day! It was like the peace treaty finally being signed over the battlefield, the bloodshed and carnage a thing of the past after shouldering the bike some 8 hours earlier in the darkness at the foot of the valley. To my huge surprise there stood brothers Charl and Andre to welcome us to the top with coffee on the boil – no way to describe that moment of seeing the first familiar faces in almost a month.

The ride out winded over and through another valley before dropping steeply to come out near the N1 at the entrance to the Huguenot tunnel, then climbing up the Du Toitskloof pass and dropping through the forest and back entrance into Diemersfontein, circling the dam and finishing in front of the manor house. It was a moment I’d be dreaming of and waiting for for so long, there were times when it seemed unlikely I would get there and times when it was all I could focus on, times when I tried not to think about it because it was just so dauntingly far away and times when it completely consumed me for hours on end on the saddle, and it was finally here. The tears and smiles and laughter all flowed freely, and thanks so much to Mike, Jean and Debra and family for joining Lara and Kade at the finish, it was wonderful to see such happy familiar friendly faces!

It’s going to take as long for this to all sink in as it will be to put some weight back on and return to normality, plenty of midnight snacks and cups of tea at odd hours and reliving the many moments and memories out there in the weeks to come.

As much as everything that goes into something like this, so we get out too and with so many hours alone I couldn’t help likening the whole experience to the simple but wonderful story of the professor standing in front of his class with a jar full of different size pebbles and sand filtered down in-between. How you look at the things in your life couldn’t be more clearly defined than in that analogy of the jar and the pebbles, the big pebbles naturally representing the important things in your life, down to the sand that is the everyday clutter. If you empty the contents of the jar out in front of you, and try to refill it by putting the sand and small pebbles in first, you’ll never get the bigger rocks in at the end.

I’ve learnt that you don’t conquer the Freedom Challenge. At best it will conquer you, leaving nothing but an empty jar and a table full of pebbles and sand before you. And the opportunity to start refilling the jar from the beginning again.

And on that philosophical note, I’m off to take the training wheels off my bike and give them to Kade.

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Thank you again so much to all my family and friends, and to the complete strangers for the overwhelming and incredible support over these weeks, I will do my best to thank you in person as I get the opportunities, but a very big thank you to Damon for assembling the bike in Pmb, Colin for coming to the start, and Rob for the weather updates, and especially to Andre and Charl for the ongoing advice and not laughing at my silly ignorant questions (I’m sure there were times when you must have put the phone down and just shaken your head in disbelief!)

And above all, a big thank you to my dear Lara, for manning base camp back home and for the constant belief in me from the word go that this thing was possible – that meant more than anything

Postscript

There is a huge amount to digest and process after something like this and time is the only ingredient in the mixing bowl right now. We always learn most when we look back, trying to make sense of things that didn’t make sense at the time and trying to understand and come to terms with looking ahead, settling back down, and resuming a ‘normal’ life with a heartful of emotions and a mind full of memories, lessons learned, and vows silently undertaken out there.

I was out of my depth from the word go on a route that itself is an absolute eye opener and I now realise why driving from Durban to Cape Town is 1600kms and the Freedom Challenge is 2300. It certainly isn’t main-lining it across South Africa on wide open roads as we took in some places I would never even have known existed out there. ‘Off the beaten track’ was a luxury, a lot of the time we had to make the tracks.

In hindsight the biggest challenge of the ride also proved the biggest blessing. Getting so violently ill, and spending days clawing my way precariously along that giant map of South Africa just to stay within reach of finishing within the cut-off, also provided a situation that forced me to ride alone and confront every situation knowing the outcome lay entirely in my hands. I talked. I thought. I laughed, I frowned, I sang, I rode, I fell over, and over. I stumbled, I pushed and hiked and shoved and threw that bike, over fallen trees and fences and through bushes, anything to inch across the landscape. I got filthy. I got angry, I got delirious. I shouted, I hit the bike as hard as I could with a fist clenched in nothing but outright fury. I hugged it, I screamed, I cried, and I prayed. For an emotionally exhausted human being there was a lot of stuff that came out out there and you’d be surprised, if you were in that situation, what lies inside you.

Getting back to ‘normal’ life is proving an interesting challenge. I do remember how to drive a car but I have forgotten how to set the house alarm, which taps are hot and cold, and I am having to relearn a few manners for being in public. You don’t have to wolf down that sandwich in 2 seconds flat leaving egg and bacon dripping off your face anymore. Snot and Gu frozen down over your scruffy beard isn’t so cool when you’re not dressed in a sopping, filthy rain jacket and tights. You don’t have to rush into every café you see to buy a coke anymore, and you can banish those terrible, lingering thoughts of having to knife that lamb in the field alongside to feed the wretched hunger inside.

Among plenty, there were 3 questions which came frequently out there. The first was from people we encountered along the way – Where are you going? That answer was quite straightforward and drew some interesting and sometimes very funny replies. The second was based on how many sores you have on your rear end. Again my ignorant introduction into the cycling world meant it wasn’t complicated by all these fancy creams and gels to prevent saddle sores. I went without any and thankfully I can report all is in good order, but I believe it does get pretty nasty! And the third question was ‘have you changed’. My immediate reaction was – yes, I’ve grown a beard, but its an interesting question and deserves more than a one line reply. You certainly dont change overnight, but a race like this opens yours eyes very very wide. To the world around you, places you didn’t know existed, places you would love to go back to, and places you never ever want to see again for as long as you live. And it opens your eyes to places inside you along an identical vein. Some you want to close your eyes and go back to over and over, and some you never want to touch. I go back to the jar story, penned over a cup of tea at 3am the morning after finishing the race, sweating, legs twitching, unable to sleep. The Freedom empties the jar, the change is in how you refill it.

Some people can take on a challenge like this and be the water in the river just flowing downstream completely untouched, while some of us are like the pebbles tumbling along the riverbed, getting bumped and knocked and rounded and smoothed as we learn all the time along the way. I sometimes envy those that can just drift along unscathed but there are other times when I am truly grateful to be able to be put to such a test and come out hopefully stronger for the experience. And this was one of them.

(Thanks to Ben de Lange and Jean du Toit for providing some of the photos of the start & finish, and to Gary Van Wyk for the Gamkaskloof campfire photo)

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4 responses to “Freedom Challenge 2013

  1. Pingback: Freedom Challenge 2013 » Hout Bay Harriers

  2. Such a great post Eric! I have no idea how you got through this, you have my total respect for this awesome achievement! And you articulate it all so well, plus all the photos…it’s like we were there:)

  3. Pingback: It started off as an innocent idea… |

  4. Pingback: Cape2Knysna Challenge, 2014 |

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