I sit up. Its dark all around. Pitch black. Middle of the night sometime I figure. Where am I? My head is freezing cold, my body drenched in sweat. My leg is throbbing with a dull, numb pain.
I try to bend it but it’s impossible. The pain rises then dulls again. I fumble around for anything within reach to provide some clue. A small light flickers on… 2:50am. Great.
I lie back down, half relieved that I can be still for a while longer but deeply worried that I can’t move when the time comes. I try to put the pieces of this dark puzzle together, how I came to be lying here, too sore to move, too tired to sleep.
My mind flashes back to that morning. 4am. It seems an eternity ago. I was sitting on a mountain, looking over the moonlit landscape beneath me, my bicycle beside me. My little tent wrapped around me like a blanket offering warmth and shelter. The lights of the far away towns twinkling in the distance. It was quiet. I remember the sense of relief at the calmness. And the exhaustion. I remember the long day it been to get there. The hills. The mountains crossed. The winds. Invisible. Relentless. Pounding. Head on. Side on. But never from behind. I remember the small goals along the way, the important moments on the side of the road that decided where I would go.
Its coming back to me slowly.
The ride. The fall.
The journey. The adventure.
I try to move my leg again in the hopes that I was just lying in a funny position and it would ease. But nothing. Still too bloody painful, and my mind grimaces as it races through the possible outcomes here.
Its coming back to me slowly. The ride. The fall. The journey. The adventure. I’m listening to rain falling outside and I’m remembering there is another mountain range to cross today. A few more minutes of precious down time then all systems go to pack up and head out again into the dark, into the cold and the wet.
I close my eyes and start thinking back, my thoughts becoming a pleasant distraction from the dark and the endless dull sensation of pain pulsing through my body. It’s a week ago and we are driving to Cape Point, the moonlight dancing on the ocean alongside the road. I’ve been here plenty of times in the pre-dawn hours going to the start of the Puffer. But this time the journey is a bit longer. Through the sickeningly bureaucracy-filled gates of the reserve, surprisingly hassle free for a change, and down to the lighthouse where the bike is assembled and my thoughts are scattered on the wind over the ocean, like ashes, cleansing out a mind swamped by daily clutter and deadlines, the start of a short new life, a new journey, by bike.
The ride is swift through the reserve, Chris and Andre joining up as we head out up along the False Bay coast. Surviving morning traffic mayhem amongst Kalk Bay’s endless life cycle of roadworks and stop-go waits. A quick cup of coffee in Muizenberg then I kiss family good bye and begin the ride east, running the gauntlet along the precarious Baden Powell where your life hangs in the balance between trucks on one side and suspicious, staring eyes on the other. Thankfully Geoff and Jean, and Leo, their newest recruit to the Skollie Patrollie making these kms infinitely less nerve wracking with their personal escort through towards the winelands.
I stop for lunch in Stellenbosch, almost doubling up as dinner but the wait was worth it for a legendary portion of shlap chips to get the legs going for Helshoogte pass. A long awaited downhill past Boschendal (no time for wine tasting sadly) before paying for the early morning tailwinds suffering for the last 20kms into relentlessly pounding headwinds up to Franschhoek. Caine coming out to meet me on Helshoogte telling me how good the riding was, until he turned into the wind! I was very kindly hosted by him and his family at their magnificent guesthouse, Avondrood. It is seldom (read: never before) that my bike has stood alongside a four-poster. My dress code (and smell) certainly not appropriate for the standards but I’ve been generously welcomed in like long lost family and will most certainly be remembering this night of luxury when hunkering down in my tent. Dinner with long standing friends Bruce & Mary before saying bedtime prayers that those winds abate the next day.
6 days ago…
Stepping out into the chilly winelands morning air, we lasted a few hundred metres before succumbing to tradition and paying homage to the baristas at Sacred Ground – its an essential ingredient to get you up the Franschhoek pass. The word ‘up’ doesn’t quite do the pass justice, especially when the howling winds and cloud covered mountains add an even more ominous feel to the setting.
A swift descent, battling the invisible giants of swirling cross winds on every corner made me nervous for the rolling hills around Theewaterskloof dam and beyond – infinitely more exposed to the wind it can turn a days riding into a grueling and never-ending task.
But my fears were laid to rest as I cycled in peace alongside the dam, it’s still reflections casting a picture perfect mirror image of the beautiful mountains behind. Dodging trucks and cars and eagerly awaiting my favorite downhill to see how fast the load could go, but I somehow managed to time it all wrong and got caught in Overberg rush hour traffic behind a big hay truck that was going nowhere in a hurry!
Finally off the tar and riding the magnificent winding back roads alongside the Sonderend river, stopping for lunch while listening to fish eagles above, before arriving in Greyton late afternoon.
5 days ago…
The journey starts to get real. The trail from Greyton to McGregor stands it’s ground as one of the best around, and for good reason – it has a magnificent climb up out of Greyton, then a meandering descent to the valley floor once over the saddle, before the sharp climb out the other side of the valley – all with spectacular views down into the valley below and across to the high peaks above. A kind of local Machu Picchu. As a run it is pure magic, running heaven. As a hike it’s a tough one not to be underestimated. But I would highly recommend you don’t do it with a bike across your shoulders if you can possibly avoid it.
It seems SPProtectionUnit member Jean couldn’t get enough of the Cape2Knsyna novelty this year, and after doing his shift along Baden Powell opted to resurface in Greyton to join in on the hike. A year or two back I watched him suffer an agonizingly cold hike into the snow in the Jonkershoek so I suspect this could have just been a kind of sweet revenge, his turn to watch me suffer as he effortlessly bounded ahead to snap photos.
We left under under a thick soggy cloud of mist – but as we gradually ascended above the cloud we were greeted with the most magnificent morning imaginable – looking out over swirling white clouds, rising and twisting from the valley below, brightly lit up against the dark cliff faces behind. A photographers dream.
The slog to the saddle was as tough as expected under the weight of the bike and the pack. Pete the faithful cooker pot once again restored some dignity to the festivities by brewing another cappuccino masterpiece in a setting second to none before setting off to tackle the final slog out at the far end of the valley where Jean and I parted ways – him back to Greyton and myself down to McGregor and on to Montagu, dodging the well oiled locals before arriving early evening in time to pitch tent, refuel for tomorrow, and catch up with friends Dave and Chel over a pizza in town. An hour or two with these two enthusiastic outdoor nuts and you feel like a whole map of new routes waiting to be explored has opened up before you!
4 days down, 4 to go..
The long trek up into the Karoo. Up being the operative word with the gradual climb out of Montagu to the start of the Ouberg Pass, and then the pass itself. And I can officially say this journey doesn’t get any easier second time around!
It’s roughly 30kms to the Anysberg turn off at the top of the pass but it takes the better part of the morning to get there, leaving a long haul of around a hundred kms for the rest of the day. The dusty Karoo roads straighten then dip and wind their way around the south of the Anysberg. Riding through some beautiful and impressive landscapes with sharp drops and steep climbs you realize the Karoo is anything but flat.
The long day dragged on into the late afternoon and evening, but I was wakened quickly by a close encounter with a bakkie that was practically airborne when it came over the hill towards me with an engine roaring like a rocket and stones ricocheting in all directions. The chilled Karoo pace was clearly lost on this one and I was grateful to hear the cacophony disappear into the background – hopefully headed back to the city where they belonged.
Home for the night is the magical, mystical, and quirky Wolverfontein discovered on last years ride and I couldn’t resist stopping by again. Greeted like a long lost friend at the farm gate, you know you in for that legendary Karoo hospitality. As I write I am sitting on the front stoep of an old restored barn under a beautiful Karoo sky. Soul restoring,and peace, are words that come to mind.
Somewhere late today the half way mark of this journey was passed, but there is an occasion even more worthy of celebration if you’ll allow me to digress for a moment. Pete, our gas cooker and long standing adventure partner, faithfully keeping bellies warm with endless cappuccinos and soggy 2minute noodles, has, somewhere out there today, passed the 6000km mark. That’s all travelled by foot, bike, or boat over the past four years. He’s well and truly crumpled, battered and bruised from his many escapades and is now sporting a metal patch to stop the main leak, but he’s hanging in for another adventure out here! There are too many journeys shared to mention here and worthy of a coffee table book on its own, and I’m not sure how many more miles he’ll survive but I am eternally grateful for all those that have been and it will be a tough call to retire him.”
It was the eagerly awaited low-key day, a ride to recover from yesterday ahead of tomorrow. Leaving Wolverfontein after watching a spectacular Karoo sky go from star-studded black to orange to pink, with the moon setting behind the mountains in the distance, the route travels through the beautiful Touwsberg reserve before crossing the R62 and winding around the Rooiberg to VanWyksdorp.
A short day so there was time for coffee, and time to appreciate the stillness out here, admire the scenery and even the bright flowers occasionally lining the road.
The same bakkie from yesterday came roaring past again, shaking the ground as the engine gulped down the diesel, leaving little in its wake but debris and a bewildered cyclist wishing there was one less bakkie in the world.
As always it’s moments on the quiet days that sneak up and catch you off guard, ending unceremoniously in a crumpled heap on the road after performing a disastrously ungraceful dismount halfway through a near perfect ‘look ma no hands’ routine. Unfortunately when it comes to riding without hands there is no ‘near perfect’ and no grey area – you either get it right or you don’t. And this time I didn’t. My theory of trying it with a tent mounted on the handlebars was exactly as predicted some time back – it’s not going to end well and I’m quite sure the screams could be heard echoing off the Rooiberg in the distance as I sat on the roadside removing half of the R327 from my limbs. A sharp reminder to reel in the random acts of stupidity out here.
Tonight I’m in Vanwyksdorp and once again witnessing how that famous Karoo fireside hospitality and lamb stew go hand in hand. Nicole and Claire, my very kind and generous hosts at Paddavlei are making sure that I’m not leaving here with any chance of going hungry tomorrow, and after a disastrously blood soaked entrance into Vanwyksdorp I once again leave the town with nothing but memories of simple, generous, kindheartedness.”
We went north, and as I write I am lying in my tent at the most northern and highest point of the ride – the top of the Swartberg pass, the sun has set into a magnificent sky and I am watching the lights of Oudtshoorn twinkling in the distance.
Cracking a super early start from the warmth of Vanwyksdorp the only certainty of today was to get over the Rooiberg pass early and decide from there. It was a day of constantly setting small goals and making decision along the way. The one option was to head east directly to Oudtshoorn but the one I was hoping for was to go north via the Red Stone Hills road and link up onto the Swartberg pass road near the Cango Caves. It was the much longer and more hilly route but would provide a chance at the cherry on the top – to be able to reach the top of the pass, which I managed by late evening.
It was a bitter sweet day – the goals along the way boosting enthusiasm but the afternoon headwinds were insane, fighting endlessly to progress at snails pace, resorting to walking downhill after being blown clean off the road by crosswinds. The winds on the pass were angry and cold but one foot in front of the other and we eventually got to ‘Die Top'(!) I am camped out up here in the most sheltered spot I could find but the wind is just roaring around here at gale force – the tent is shaking violently and I’m suspecting not much sleep tonight. But I am happy – it was a good day out, the long hard one was as challenging as expected but deeply rewarding on reaching the top.
Dinner tonight is a ‘white chocolate cappuccino’ – a real treat saved for a hard fought day.”
4am… The wind has finally eased after a rough night of waiting to be blown off here or have the tent ripped away from around me
“Day7…4am… The wind has finally eased after a rough night of waiting to be blown off here or have the tent ripped away from around me! The good thing about the wind is that if there were any leopards sniffing around my tent last night, I sure didn’t hear them!
It eased around midnight but picked up again, banging the tent around for the next few hours but it seems to have finally dropped. I am now sitting under the peaceful moonlight, sipping a hot coffee looking out over the lights of the Karoo twinkling in the distance. What a magic place to be.
6am. After that perfect early cup of coffee, sitting in my little wind free part of the world looking out over the still, moonlit Karoo, it was time to pack up and head south. The descent off the Swartberg is magnificent but it was freezing cold and I had to stop often and stomp the feet around to keep the numbness at bay. The kms flew by and I arrived in Outdshoorn before 8, riding past a coffee shop with doors open and I spotted a roaring fire inside – no thinking twice, the brakes were hit, I came to a screeching halt and did a u-turn straight in through their front door.
Oudtshoorn was a perfectly plotted part of the plan to stock up on food for tonight and tomorrow, before hitting the long gradual climb up away from the town. The next 60kms were generally spent going up and up, and I am now tucked in right at the foot of the Outeniqua mountains on the farm Louvain. It’s a working farm and I am loving the sounds of the farm animals in the fields nearby the cottage.
The arrival was a close sprint finish against the weather – from far out I could see the rain clouds thickening up and it got me in the last few kms but I could have been a whole heap wetter on arrival.”
Day 8 is nearing dawn. The farm, Louvain, where I spent the last night is set right at the foot of the Outeniqua mountains, and the track for the morning starts at my front door, running in front of the cottage, through a gate, around the dam, and then straight up the mountain. Goodness knows what the Voortrekkers were thinking, they have come in for a lot of stick in our recent history but one thing you have to admire is their tenacity and determination to get themselves over any mountain range. Ox wagons, clanging pots, and all. This pass was no different to the ‘come hell or high water we’re going over this mountain, not around it’ approach to their other passes I’ve experienced, when you reach a sign giving an option to either go on a 4×4 drive, or over the pass, you’ve got to know what you’re in for. Hilux vs the ox wagon… It’s the ultimate showdown and no contest when you throw a heavily laden bike and its limping owner at it.
It is a long slog to the top, starting in the cold, rain, and dark is always a tough ask – made harder by the wounds that were now throbbing in pain after last nights cleaning session – there was simply no changing bandages at the top of the Swartberg pass so it was a grimy affair two days later.
”The morning gradually grew light – daybreak bringing on a new energy and we were soon at the top, descending the gnarly rock garden that seems to go on forever before reaching the mud infested upper forest. Riding through pine plantations in thick mist when you’ve got no clue where to go can be daunting but I managed to get the nav spot on an wasted no time going on fruitless detours. Straight down, through the gate and slip sliding in the thick mud all the way down before arriving freezing and soaked onto the 7 Passes road.
Back on familiar turf now my mind could relax again and the kms gently ticked by, slowly warming up the body.
On last years ride through here I discovered the Garden Route Trail Park, a farm owned by a very keen mtb enthusiast who built a heap of tracks and trails across the farm. And more importantly, for a cold shivering cyclist, converted one of the sheds into a coffee spot serving the most delicious cappuccinos this side of the Noordhoek Farm Village. It’s a super vibey spot and a definite must stop if you’re in the area and like bikes, friendly people, and super coffee. It was great this time to also meet the owner, Rob – hobbling around on crutches and his body held together with metal pins, his injuries clearly worse than mine so I didn’t even want to compare notes on bicycle stunts.
With some warmth inside and fire in the belly it was time to hit the final 40kms to the lighthouse. The Homtini pass is magic, pure magic, a wild and winding descent, through that lush Garden Route vegetation, that goes on forever (one slide out of control and I would’ve been comparing notes with Rob) and the never-ending but beautifully rhythmic ascent up and out of the valley, before the final descent down the Phantom Pass.
Again it all came together out here, there’s something inside that loves those careless, sweeping, corners, it was like being a kid on a bike again, just simple and fun. The pain from the wounds faded, the smile widened, and in those moments I can’t help but think a whole heap of years got added to my life. Perfecting the hands-free thing again (it’s taken a lot of practice since leaving those skills on the road side near Vanwyksdorp!) I rode in a blissful euphoria before realizing this road is running out and you’re about to get onto the N2. Mixed emotions churn inside, it’s been a lot harder and challenging this time around but part of me always want to suddenly hit the brakes and ride back into the Karoo, away from the noise and bustle, the cars, the people, and the worlds problems.
But the welcoming committee and pom-pom girls were waiting at the lighthouse so I tucked those days worth of precious memories deep inside and ventured through Knysna’s rush hour traffic to get to the lighthouse.
The evening was made of sundowners and the sweetest beer anyone could have offered, and precious time catching up with family. Even a brief radio interview on Radio 702 thrown in!
It all seems a bit weird now, lying here not planning the route for the day ahead in my mind, not getting the bike ready, nor layering up to walk out into the cold and dark. It always takes time to settle and to find the right words, I have 42kms to think about those tomorrow, but for now I am happy after one helluva ride!”
“Happy. Relieved. Tired. Sore. And heaps richer for the whole experience!
The marathon is my most feared and dreaded distance – it always catches me off guard maybe because it’s far too long to take casually, and somehow not long enough to get properly psyched about for months on end, and the wheels usually fall off somewhere along the way.
Or in scientific terms it’s probably also called ‘under-training’!
The Knysna marathon has a reputation for being a tough one, the first half mostly uphill, and the downhills in the second half are killer and knee jarringly steep, so it was with huge relief when that last km into town finally ended and the start of some good solid rest and recovery can now kick in.
“You’re doing what? I work for BMW. That’s a car. You should try one one day”
You get used to people looking at you strangely, (or just keeping their distance from the smell!) and you get used to being on the receiving end of some funny chirps. But one of the best I had was right at the beginning of this journey, along the lines of “You’re doing what? I work for BMW. That’s a car. You should try one one day”. Not a bad concept, and it goes hand in hand with the second most offered comment “where’s the fun in that?”
Lying in my tent at the top of the Swartberg pass I thought a lot about that. The conditions were atrocious up there and I was completely exhausted, hunkering down in my cycling kit layered over with whatever warmth I could find, but smiling like I haven’t for a long time. It was simply nothing more than a personal challenge to get there, the deviation from the direct route to Knysna to reach the top made absolutely no sense at all – but if you want to take the quickest route then I might as well have been in car on the N2.
But that’s what challenges are – they push us way out of our comfort zone and beyond what we thought possible, defying logic and defying our own beliefs and limits – it’s not always about making sense, and seldom about simply being fun.
The Freedom Challenge instilled in me a very deep respect of those precious last hours as daylight fades to darkness, when you are left to deal with your fears and anxieties that seem so much more ominous when you cannot make out the horizon nor any landmarks anymore. Ascending the pass into late evening, alone, into screaming winds where riding became impossible and I was nearly blown off while just pushing the bike, every footstep up was one closer to confronting those fears head on. A kind of conscious, deliberate battle with an angry, invisible enemy. You know you won’t make it down by nightfall, you know the conditions are worsening with every metre towards the top, you know it’s going to be a rough night out up there, but you know that daybreak, no matter how far away, will bring relief.
Sometimes we are very fortunate and there is that Basotho blanket waiting at the end of it all, but sometimes there is nothing other than that exhausted smile at conquering our own fears and limits.
This kind of journey needs many thanks you’s:
To Ian and Chris from Cranx Cycle works in the far south for their generosity and workmanship on the bike
To my amazing hosts along the way, Caine and family for the very memorable stay at Avondrood in Franschhoek, Ashley and Andre at Wolverfontein for the shopping packet of supplies and for the kind warm welcome, Nicole and Claire at Paddavlei in Vanwyksdorp for taking in a wounded cyclist and feeding him up for a long day ahead, and to dear family in Knysna for welcoming in a smelly, sore, tired body.
To CHOC, Rob and the Cow Committee for the privilege of riding as part of the herd – it is always a deep honour to be in the black and white kit, despite the fact that I must be the worlds worst fund-raiser.
To Tammy & Wayne of Whitewashed Cafe in Knysna, for hosting another wonderful coffee gathering & celebration on the Friday morning.
To Defy for making a washing machine that cant run away and for challenging the odds ( there is a reason its called ‘defy’) against 8 days of mud, dust, sweat, and blood stained clothes.
To Pete, for now clocking over 6500kms and brewing one of the most memorable cups ever at 4am overlooking the Karoo,
To Geoff, Jean, and Leo – the Skollie Patrollie for the safe passage out of town, and to Jean for the additional photos along the way including the Greyton McGregor portage.
To Drill-Sergeant Serge (Sergio Capellino, the legendary “Spider” from the MTN Gladiators), for his phenomenal enthusiasm, excitement, interest, and encouragement in the journey, for his assistance with nutrition and for the honour of being involved as a Team-24 Athlete. Exciting times ahead!
To my friends and family who usually look at me a little strangely but never fail to encourage and support,
To my mom and dad who would send a wonderful message every day saying they were with me throughout and sharing a coffee with me in spirit wherever I was on the roadside, those messages were truly heart warming to receive,
And to my dear wife and son, Lara and Kade, for always encouraging and believing.