The story of the thousand mile duathlon, from the canyon to the coast.
From the Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon, to the Knysna Marathon.
Day 10. Somewhere high up in the Cederberg mountains…
I am completely submerged. It seems time has just come to a standstill and I am adrift in no mans land. The world around me is cold, blurred, distorted. I make out the shapes through the water, bold shadows of rocks, and thin lines of fine sinewy grass, swirling, moving, and flowing.
I stare up, through the red tinged blackness that has encompassed me, the cold grey light above the surface seeps down, flickering through the wind and the shadows.
What the hell has just happened?
My mind is spinning trying to process it all, I try to move but the weight of my backpack is keeping me pinned down. The bike. Where the hell is my bike? I kick my legs around under the water in the hopes of finding something solid to stand on, while the cold continues to creep in, deeper and deeper. My foot strikes something. A log. I am able to balance precariously and pull myself slowly up, up towards the surface, toward the light.
Time passes in front of my eyes like a slow, delayed reaction. Dragging itself out, making sure I am taking this all in, the severity of the situation, the truth unfolding in the moment. In reality it is just a few seconds, a plan gone wrong in a fraction of an instant. The mountains have caught me by surprise and dealt a cruel blow, it’s a harsh lesson learnt in an unforgiving environment.
Clambering and crawling, I fumble my way through the submerged grass and bushes. I hit something hard under the water, a shape that is instantly recognisable. A handlebar. I grab onto it, hauling and dragging with every bit of strength inside to get the bike up and out of the river.
The rain is pouring down now, the wind is thundering, and I can feel my body temperature dropping with every passing second. My movements start to slow down as the cold begins to turn numb. Finally out of the water, my mind is fighting to digest this all, but the clock has suddenly started ticking furiously and there is simply no time for standing around thinking.
The two distinct options are immediate, and very very clear. Strip down and try to change into warm dry clothes, or keep moving in wet clothes. Warm up from the outside in versus the inside out. The choice is brutally simple, with unthinkable consequences in either direction and suddenly hypothermia is a very real risk. It’s a vicious spiral, you start losing feeling in your hands and feet, which makes you move slower. Moving slower means your body temperature drops, you get colder, and you get wetter, and you move even slower. The thought of coming to a stop, not being able to convince your body to move any further, is not a comforting thought when you are high up in the mountains, exposed, and alone.
I picked one option and ran with it. Literally. There was no time to stop and fumble around with useless fingers trying to open backpacks and zips. With clothes drenched I grabbed the bike and started moving, one foot in front of the other. Faster and faster. Trying to keep my body warm by running with the bike. Over rocks and fallen trees, through streams, up gulleys, along valley floors. Hoisting it time and again onto my shoulders to get up steep inclines, then dropping it back alongside to run with it. The well rehearsed routine was perfected into a smooth fluid motion and I was glad for all the hard work and training that had been done. For this. For this one moment when you need things to happen like second nature without thinking.
The rain is coming down in sheets and the wind howling through the bizarre rock formations that make up the Cederberg. They are usually a beautiful, majestic sight, but today they are sinister, brooding shadows, appearing through the mist and rain, lining my path like giants laughing at me, mocking me as I go upwards, higher and higher into the mountains.
The rocks are treacherous and slippery, and in a blinding flash of pain I have slipped and fallen while trying to run, crashing down hard on my knee. The bitterness of another setback sinks in deep. I am accustomed to being alone, these types of trips are built and tackled on that familiarity. But it is seldom I have felt a desperate loneliness creeping in. The rain, the wind, the cold, falling in the river, the pain now rising from my knee, and the reality of the situation starting to hit hard. I know the portage is far from over, but the daylight hours are limited and fast approaching their end. Unknown to me, the mountains have been closed by Wilderness Search and Rescue because of the conditions out there, and with the temperatures certain to plummet after dark I had to desperately get to the hut by nightfall. Racing into the storm and the fading daylight, I eventually began to recognise the landscape close to the hut.
It is a basic hut. Four walls, a metal roof. A rickety windswept door. And a carpet of straw. But it is shelter. From the wind and from the rain. And the emotions of getting inside and closing that door against nature’s fury will remain with me for a very very long time.
The temperature during the night drops far below zero and the long awaited sunrise brings horizons of hope. Yellow shades of warmth creeping through between the surrounding peaks, mountain sides of white frost and frozen streams. And layers and layers of clothes, iced and frozen solid.
I have been going non-stop for ten days, and I have just arrived at the Sleepad Hut, nestled high up in the Cederberg mountains near the prominent peak of Tafelberg that will be a landmark on my horizon for an entire week, as I travel towards it from the north, around it to the west, and finally away from it to the east through the Tankwa Karoo to Sutherland.
The first week of the journey seems an eternity ago, my mind wanders back to the memories that made those days. Sun scorched plains that stretched to distant horizons, ceaseless headwinds, sun burn, star filled nights, and exploring parts of the country I never knew existed.
The route had started a long way north, at the Fish River Canyon in the Namibian desert. The canyon is an outrageous place, a scene of jaw-dropping beauty on an unprecedented scale, in a landscape as harsh as they come.
It runs from Hobas in the north, to Ai-Ais at the southern end. It was a daunting moment arriving and staring out over this trench that nature has carved out over millions of years. You can’t help but get a lump in your throat, trying to grasp at some sense of perspective of the journey that is lying ahead. A hundred kilometres by foot to get through this tomorrow. And then the ride.
From the canyon to the coast, almost two thousand kilometres away, my legs were to be the engine and my heart the fuel.
The Fish River Canyon Ultra Marathon.
Every year in June a group of runners tackle the canyon in the form of the Fish River Ultra, now a well known event on the trail running calendar. Depending on your navigation, the distance varies between 80 to 100kms, and you’d be looking at spending aywhere from 12 to 24 hours in that canyon. The race village is set up precariously right on the very edge of the canyon – this is not an exaggeration, at the race briefing sleep-walkers were advised to keep themselves tied down and their tents zipped up as a warning to heed against going venturing out in the night. You sleep barely a few paces away from the abyss, and it’s a sheer, unprotected drop over the cliffs that will undoubtedly kill you.
The race does not attract a huge field, and for good reason. There aren’t many who want to pit themselves against that kind of terrain, trying to cover a five day hiking trail in less than a day. But after more than a year of dreaming and planning and training, I found myself amongst them, a small group of runners with hopes and ambitions, whose dreams of running the canyon were about to become a startling reality.
The runners around me were a frightening sight of lean, mean looking athletes, and I began to feel horribly under prepared. It’s not like we have canyons or truck loads of sand to train on back home so I was happy to fly under the radar and just go out and enjoy it. Stop to take in the sunrise, to chat along the way, to take photos of the flowers, to drink from the river, to take it all in. Appreciate the simplicity of being completely self-supported in such a harsh and beautiful environment.
The route begins at the race village and traverses the top of the canyon for around 10kms, before arriving at the notoriously treacherous descent. You drop half a kilometre in less than 3kms, it is like trying to run down steps into a mineshaft – loose, steep, slippery, but exhilarating, and reaching the canyon floor a short while later provides a bizarre perspective when you look back up at the giant walls looming over you. The passage ahead is equally overwhelming, a valley floor surrounded by majestic cliffs that guide you for the entire day.
One large sweeping corner after another.
The kilometres slowly ticked by. The sun rose higher into the sky, and with that the temperature too, the pools along the way becoming increasingly valuable for cooling down. Passing groups of hikers during the day provided some humour, I was quietly envious of them and that they could spend the nights down here experiencing the full glory of the canyon, and I sensed they were deeply envious of that fact that I’d be enjoying an ice cold beer later that same night at Ai-Ais.
Then back into the solitude bubble. Back over the endless beds of rocks and boulders wishing there was softer sand underfoot, then into the endless sand beds wishing there was something solid like rocks underfoot, and I spent hour upon hour trying to figure out which was better.
Sighting the wild horses of the canyon was a very special and rare treat, and I felt exceptionally privileged to be part of their existence for a few brief moments when I encountered them again further along. I was happily running in my own world when I came around a bend and there were two of these beautiful animals on the trail just ahead of me. We ran on together and in those moments the world was just ours, we were wild and free in the canyon, as if there was something ancient and primitive that connected us. Breathing in the fine dust that they kicked up ahead of me, and listening to their hooves strike a rhythmically graceful pace over the stony ground.
By late afternoon I was getting mildly nervous. The canyon was gradually beginning to widen which means, in theory, it should be running its course and nearing its end but my watch battery was going down even quicker. Not wanting to get stuck out there after dark without the GPS route map it became a race to see which would reach its end first. The last checkpoint told me 20kms to go but the maths was not adding up and if that was the case I was certain to be in trouble running well into the night.
But my fears were put to rest late afternoon, just as the sun sank lower into the sky and filled the ground ahead with the long shadows of the canyons’ walls, and the unmistakeable sight of the flags lining the home straight to the finish line came into sight. It was a body filled with relief, exhaustion, bliss, and peace that clambered the last few metres up the steps and over the line to finally put a long day to rest.
The next few hours were spent trying to balance the sense of achievement at having finished the race, with the daunting and overwhelming prospect of the journey ahead, while packing, sorting, unpacking, resorting, and loading the bike in preparation for the departure in the morning.
After a disturbed nights sleep with legs continuously twitching, it was all systems go. My body was tired and my legs battered from the effort the previous day, but my mind was racing with excitement to get going on the adventure.
By mid-morning, after prize-giving and the brief formalities, I could finally bid farewell to friends, to civilisation, and to transport by car, and throw my arms around the voyage that had patiently been waiting to start, embracing all the prospects ahead – the great unknown landscapes, the highs, the lows, the dark moments, and the thrilling ones, the people I would encounter along the way, the tears, the smiles, and the laughs.
The first week of riding would take me from Ai-Ais in Namibia, back over the border into South Africa and via all the back roads possible to Niewdoudtville which lies just north of the Cederberg.
The first two days riding were on wide open plains, heading south from Ai-Ais to the Orange river where I spent my first night on the banks of the river, and the following day through Aussenkehr, Noordoewer and across the border to stay on the Orange again, on the South African side.
The customs officials did get a laugh out of ‘Bicycle’ being stated as my mode of transport, with the last official between me and home soil being a bit uncertain if I was to be treated as a ‘pedestrian’ or not as there is no tick-box for ‘cyclist’!
Leaving the river on the 3rd day of riding gave some insight into what lay ahead. By now my legs were well and truly feeling the canyon, along with a horrendously volatile stomach and nausea, meaning there was really not much gas in the tank for long days of exercise.
The route I had plotted was carefully planned to keep as far from the main roads as possible, heading south west away from the river into the Nababeep Reserve towards the Richtersveld. The next few hours are just about impossible to describe – the road is nothing more than a sand track, interwoven with rocks (clearly my sand and rock experiences had not come to an end), stretching endlessly ahead. Hemmed in on either side by majestic cliffs rising from the valley floor. It was as if I had stepped back in time to some ancient, untouched place.
The track slowly curved and snaked its way up and up towards the top of the mountains in the distance, the air was completely still and quiet, and I made my passage through here with a sense of peace that I have seldom felt. I knew deep down that I was prey for the roving eyes of a leopard, hidden somewhere nearby in solitude on its rocky perch.
This is where it becomes difficult to describe, because I knew this not through fear or panic, but through a strangely profound sense of calm and comfort. As if there was a bond between us, an understanding that I was just a traveller, passing through its territory with a deep respect for its revered space. I even found myself stopping to scan the rocks on the mountainsides for any signs of it, my eyes could not find this beautiful animal but my soul was connected with it, and when I passed over the mountaintop out of the valley later in the day I was almost sad to leave it behind. These experiences remain inside forever but are truly impossible to explain, it is not something that can be told in words, it is felt very deep inside.
Exiting the valley, the route picked up the ‘main’ road (this is a very relative term out there) from Eksteenfontein (yes, there apparently is such a place), and ran south for the next hundred plus kilometres, before turning east and embarking on a never ending climb up to Springbok.
From Springbok it is over 300kms south-east through distant unbroken horizons of endless open space, through the tiny farming settlements of Gamoep and Kliprand, before eventually meeting the Loeriesfontein road and turning south to Niewoudtville.
Water became more and more scarce, so much so that there was no chance of letting any be used to clean the dust off the bike parts that need constant maintenance, and every pee break was wisely used to rinse chains and cogs… recycling at its most efficient. Peeing on your chain is common practise in bitterly cold areas where your bike parts are frozen and iced over, but this was a first for me.
The days from Ais-Ais had been long and gruelling, covering anything from 100 to 170kms, into relentless headwinds, up insane climbs, rationing water in the heat, fighting through fine Kalahari sand, and being swiftly beaten up and destroyed over some of South Africa’s most horrendously corrugated roads.
More worrying was that I could not keep any food down, and I was getting weaker and thinner by the day. Plagued for the entire week by increasingly severe diarrhoea and nausea that I could only assume had come from drinking water straight out of the Orange river, I spent the days fighting harder and harder, to recover from the previous day, and to make progress. The warning signs had been getting louder and clearer. By nightfall I did not have the energy to put the tent up – I simply marched off into the veld and threw down my sleeping bag. And I had absolutely no appetite to try and force supper or breakfast down, knowing it would just come straight back up.
The result was inevitable, you simply can not ride for days on end without eating and relying on a cappuccino sachet and a rusk for fuel, and gradually it all started to take its toll. By the 7th day I was beaten, filthy, exhausted, and finished, a dusty and windswept shadow of the person that had started this adventure, hunched over his bike, staring with gaunt eyes into the sand, wondering what, and why.
Its moments like those that define you, that allow you to look deeper inside yourself than you ever could while grinding through a routine existence back in the city. When you have nothing left inside to give anymore, and you are a long long way from anywhere.
I wearily continued my southward journey towards Niewoudtville, and by day 8 I was finally able to keep a single tuna sachet down, and then bravely risked taking a second one. Anything to try and reverse the spiral, to get food inside and get some energy back.
It started working very slowly and I could gradually feel my body start to heal.It took a long time, the days of hard work before were always going to be difficult to recover from but day by day I could feel the strength return, the hills became manageable, the winds became tolerable, and the ride started to become enjoyable.
From Niewoudtville the route continued south, across the Doring river, and deep into the heart of the Cederberg, turning off just before Wupperthal into the mountains into the long lost valley of Kleinvlei, before hoisting the bike upon my shoulders and embarking on the daunting 18km portage up to Sleepad hut. By now the weather had done a severe turn, with daytime temperatures going from the sunscorched 40’s in the north down to between zero and 5C, with mud, slippery rocks, mist and rain. Anything that was a dry stream bed was now a deep flowing river and waterfalls could be heard gushing over anything vertical.
The unexpected swim, high up in the mountains while trying to cross an innocent looking river, came as a very very sharp reminder of how quickly things can change. The temperature that night dropped to -6C and the following days in the Cederberg provided a chance to thaw out, and dry out all the drenched kit, to stare at maps and plan how to get into the Tankwa Karoo.
The original route had been to mainline it straight east, I had permission to go through the private reserves and effectively straight over the mountains to the Doring river where I hoped to cross into the Tankwa, but I knew the Cederberg is a massive catchment area, and with all the rain that had fallen, flowing into all those rivers before flowing into the Groot and Matjiesriver which then join forces to form the Doring, that this was going to be a completely formidable, knife-edge task with the very real possibility of losing all my gear to a river in flood, or at worst, drowning.
After an endless internal argument, I began to realise it would downright foolish, and simply not worth the risk. The journey was barely half way and I still had a long way to go, and so it was decided to opt for the safer but longer route, to the far southern end of the Cederberg range before turning east and wrangling with the Katbakkies pass to get over the mountains.
The final hours of that day provided a memorable moment, the long evening shadows being cast on the ground ahead of me just as I arrived at the edge of the lower Cederberg overlooking the entire Tankwa Karoo. The descent of the Skittery pass into the evening Tankwa air was wild and exhilarating, and the next two days were spent going north and east to cross the Tankwa before ascending the monstrous Ouberg pass to Sutherland.
An Ode To Pete
Somewhere out there, in the vast landscapes and endless miles that had paved the way through the Cederberg and the Tankwa, a big milestone was reached, quietly, and unassumingly. The one piece of gear that is never left behind when setting out the door for an adventure, Pete (the gas stove), that has been beaten, crumpled, almost drowned a few times over, hauled through every kind of terrain this country has to offer, and who has faithfully restored dignity to every challenging situation shared, through every cup of coffee made, meal warmed up, breakfast lunch and dinner cooked, and even just igniting a fire to provide warmth, had faithfully clocked over 10000kms. This is the equivalent of a quarter of the way around the world.
We have shared sunrises, sunsets, wind, rain, hail, and snow, deserts plains, mountain passes, beaches, endless distant horizons, river expeditions, Drakensberg portages, pretty much every back road through the Karoo, and even solely keeping Team Tumbleweeds alive for an entire week during Expedition Africa.
It hasn’t all been days of glory and hot coffee though, following a near catastrophic fireball incident that resulted in a lot of panic and luke-warm cappuccinos, he was rushed off to the emergency ward at a nearby engineering factory and he is now sporting a flashy prosthetic limb. While snow cappuccino’s will always rank as one of the highlights of his career, the champagne decanted into his buckled torso to celebrate the milestone is beyond doubt the finest tasting liquid that has ever passed his rim, doing justice to a richly fulfilling lifetime of adventures.
The weather had again taken a turn for the worse, with snow forecast that night. At the top of the pass the temperature dropped steadily, with windswept rain and hail that was sure to precede the snow. The snow that night was a dusting and mainly on the higher ground but the following morning’s temperature was again well below zero, with magnificent frost and frozen puddles everywhere. The riding to Sutherland became a messy session, in and out of frozen mud, and dodging ice all over the road.
Nature coated with frost needles, Sutherland.
The next stop from Sutherland was to be Merweville, a dot on the map in the middle of the Karoo. With some tactful planning I had engineered the back roads between the two towns into a carefully plotted route that should have been an easy afternoon’s ride to get close to Merweville by sunset, with the possibility of even reaching the town itself. Fuelled by Sutherland’s finest burgers and chips, I became determined to gun it as fast as possible to see if I could make it all the way, but with the late afternoon shadows growing longer and the remaining daylight hours growing few, an epic glitch in my planning reared its head, and I was still a long way from Merweville.
Arriving at one of the important turns that I had carefully plotted was a sign saying no through road, and I would have to either back track to Sutherland, or take a very long detoured route to continue. I was stunned, it was a huge mental blow. Google Earth can clearly only prepare you for so much.
Just as I was contemplating the circumstances and trying to figure out what to do, a bakkie arrived alongside and I was greeted with an unforgettably warm welcome and a giant friendly handshake. The man behind the wheel was a local farmer, determined to help save a traveller from the bitterly cold night ahead. It is the top of the escarpment, in the Karoo, in one of the coldest places in South Africa, in winter. It may have been over emphasised but never underestimate the advice of a local in these parts. In his words “you will die out here tonight, so you will stay with us”.
As things unfolded, I was also introduced to his neighbour, the farmer to whom the signpost belonged and I was kindly granted permission to travel through his land to Merweville the following day, on my original route.
The day that followed was a difficult one on many counts. This section of the journey should have been well within my grasp but it was far beyond anything I had expected. What was meant to have a short day from Sutherland to Merweville was now well into day 2 and the supposedly brisk traverse through this land to the next road became a fiasco of deeply eroded and gutted tracks, climbing fences, and facing one unexpected valley after another. Psychological warfare in full battle.
But emotionally it was more profound than that.
An excerpt from the journal reads “I have properly lost count of the days now. They don’t really seem to matter anymore, seamlessly merging and blending between canyon walls and distant horizons shimmering in the sun, desolate wilderness and mountain ranges, frozen streams and icy winds, and the endless life cycle of pedals clicking and wheels turning over and over and over.
It gradually becomes part of you, and the best moment is when you cannot hold on anymore and let everything go and become part of it, completely broken down and allowing yourself to be built back up by the journey, immersed unconditionally in the landscapes around you and becoming comfortable in the familiar routine of the unfamiliar. The letting go. And the holding on to only the things that matter inside.
Emotions get raw as the days draw deeper into the journey. The fine line between keeping it together and not becomes increasingly thin and blurred, and some days, like today, it disappears completely. Smiles come quickly and turn into carefree laughter. Tears too come quickly, and they come easily, leaving streaks through the layers of dust on my cheeks. Not because of having to push your bike up another hill, but because late last evening a farmer plucked you off the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and insists that you spend the night under their roof and have dinner at their table. You are made to feel part of this family, absolutely unconditionally. There was nothing to bring to the table but they shared freely of what they had. Complete strangers connected by a heartfelt handshake, and in sharing grace around the table, giant hands that have worked hard and toiled the earth welcoming in a traveller who is merely a tiny dot on the landscape, passing through the tapestry of vast mountain ranges and endless fields that link the farms and towns out here.
It’s just one moment among so so many. Learning gratitude. And deep, deep humility. In truly overwhelming doses.”
I let go that morning, in that valley. Learning humility. Learning to be deeply thankful for blessings. It was many hours later, with lines down my dusty cheeks that quietly told their own story, that I finally emerged onto the road that would ultimately take me all the way into the long awaited town of Merweville.
But the battle was not over yet, as my bike proudly announced that the brakes were no more, right at the start of the descent off the escarpment and into the central Karoo. The timing was just mind-blowing. Of all the things a long distance rider yearns for, a downhill like this is an absolute treasure not to be missed, and here I was cautiously white-knuckling it down with metal grinding on the discs and waiting to be launched over one of the hairpin bends at any time.
With a threadbare sense of humour I scraped my way onto the wide open plain at the bottom of the pass. A wasted downhill at its best but I relished the fact that I was now in the ‘Sentrale Karoo’ and one giant landmark closer to the coast. To add to the procession, I could now also see the majestic Swartberg mountain range. It was on the distant horizon and still two days riding away but rising high above the other peaks was the Seweweekspoort Peak, a distinct landmark that holds good memories for me, and I knew I was starting to get a vague sense that this journey was real, that maybe I had made it al the way from the canyon to the coast.
Merweville is an intriguing place. It’s a one horse town at best, and that lone horse appeared out of nowhere and gave a fine display of cavorting through the veld when it saw me seated on the opposite side of the road enjoying a break about 10kms before the town. Then it bolted completely out of sight. The most bizarre display I had witnessed for a long time. What do you call a one-horse town after the horse leaves?
The next stop was Prince Albert, a nice day’s riding 100kms away over the N1, followed by the Swartberg pass to Outdshoorn. By now the days were becoming manageable, and apart from the frightening sounds coming from a beaten and bruised bike I had eased into a very peaceful and calm Karoo state of mind. It is a completely bizarre perspective when the Swartberg Pass is treated like a rest day, but I was doing well now for time and had fallen completely into the rhythm of the ride.
Passing through Oudtshoorn, I resupplied and indulged in a long awaited proper cappuccino in the town. Another memorable and completely unexpected conversation followed, this time with an elderly gentleman just as I was finishing up my coffee. He walked in and I watched him looking at my bike with curiosity, and a broad smile that hinted of a quiet understanding. With a glint in his eyes, he beckoned me over as I was leaving, and we indulged in a brief conversation which he ended with “you must live your life and be happy, and I can see that you are”, parting with the words “Don’t ever grow old”. It is small moments like those that make a trip like this. You cannot plan for them, but they leave you smiling and somehow deeply fulfilled.
I departed Oudtshoorn with mixed emotions and enjoyed a nice day’s riding before arriving at Louvain for the final night, tucked up at the foot of the Outeniqua mountains. When I travelled through here last year I was in thick clouds and rain but this year the final morning dawned bright and cold and clear.
The fields at the foot of the mountains were white with frost, and from the top of the Voortrekker pass I caught the sunrise and the first sighting of the sea. It was a big moment, for three weeks I had this on my mind, and there it was before me, the final 50kms to Knysna. A swift descent through the forest bought me to the 7 Passes road, one final stop for the most well known cappuccinos on the route, before tackling the last few passes.
Despite now being down to the last 20 or 30kms, my progress drastically slowed, as if I just wasn’t ready to end this journey yet and was doing anything to avoid doing so. At the top of the final pass, with not much more than 6kms to the N2 and 15kms to the Knysna lighthouse, I pulled up the brakes and sat on the roadside, just thinking. Thinking back, thinking ahead. Going through each and every photo taken over the past three weeks. I smiled, I laughed. I had tears in my eyes. But I was not ready to call it a day. I must have been there for almost an hour by the time I decided to lay it to rest, to ride the final stretch to the lighthouse, and with it bring this incredible journey to its final resting point.
It was late afternoon by the time I arrived at the lighthouse at the Knysna heads. I had been dreading any fanfare, and inside all I wanted was a quiet and unobtrusive arrival.
It was exactly what I got.
There was only a family there fishing, and I asked them to take a photo which they kindly did. I carefully unpacked out of my bag a tiny treasure I had carried with me the entire way, a rock from the northern most point of the journey, at the start of the descent into the Fish River canyon. I held it tight in my hands, said a soft prayer of thanks, and quietly threw it into the ocean as a symbol of the journey that had been.
The stone that was carried all the way, thrown into the ocean at the lighthouse.
And with that another unforgettable voyage came to a deeply peaceful end. The sun gradually sank over the lagoon as I watched in solitude from a deck overlooking the water while I waited. The memories of this trip, the highs that kept me afloat for days, and the lows that left me hollow and empty, will last forever, that is without doubt.
The task of coming back becomes increasingly difficult. The essence of endurance lies in the ability to shut out the world and focus purely on the immediate task of surviving. By nature it is incredibly, incredibly, selfish.
Endurance sports take that one step further because we are there entirely by our own choice. We are not heroes. It’s not like someone is holding a gun to our head forcing us to do what we do. Over time I have grown accustomed to this concept. Hours, days, weeks, spent fighting battles. Drawing inwards and shutting out the world. And it is not easy to simply come back and reopen those doors.
This trip has been in the planning for a long time. For well over a year I have spent countless chunks of time staring at maps, staring at Google Earth and staring at my bike, plotting, planning, marking, measuring, re-measuring, packing, unpacking, fitting the bike, dismantling it, refitting, testing my gear, training in all every kind of weather, day and night, weekdays, weekends. And in the process I have received all manner of comments for this undertaking, some encouraging, some abusive, and some downright insulting.
Among those, I’ve heard that I’m ‘lucky’. That comment cuts the deepest. I am many things, from stubborn, to grateful. But the one thing I am not is lucky. Getting up at 4am on a cold Sunday winters morning to step out into the rain and get onto your bike in the dark and the wet for another ten hour ride on tired legs. That is not luck. That is a choice. Running up every hill you can find and feeling the exhausted pain in your legs because you did the same thing yesterday and the day before, that is not luck. That is training, to make yourself stronger. Crawling along at snails pace with bricks and rocks and wine bottles in your backpack, and then hoisting your bike on top of it to hike for hours up a mountain with 50kgs on your back. That is not luck. That is preparing yourself, mentally and physically for when the time comes and you need to do it instinctively and without thinking or else face a night out on the side of a mountain in rain and in sub-zero temperatures where your clothes will literally freeze solid with ice in the night.
Those choices come at a price, both financial and personal. The costs are enormous, and the sacrifices are beyond measure. I have lost work, I have lost income. I have destroyed gear, bike parts, and body parts. I have fallen and I have got up again to continue. I have lost count of the days, of the months preparing. I have lost myself in those hours. And I have lost more than just friends along the way.
So why do it.
Why pursue this unquenchable thirst for more.
Its one of the most asked questions, and I can never answer it. And I’ve stopped trying now. I’ve stopped trying to digest it, to analyse it, to make sense of it. I am now complete in the moment. I have found my peace in the wide open plains, in the mountains. In the solitude. In the heat. In the cold. In the dark. In the starlit skies. In the sunrises, and in the sunsets.
The wheels turn, the scenery evolves, the seasons change. Every day is a new gift, tomorrow it will be gone. The days pass, the seasons pass, and so too will the hardships and the pain. We take the lessons learnt out there and bring them back. And then go back out to remind ourselves, and to learn more. It gives time to think. To plan. To dream. And to make wishes. Lines on maps become tracks in your life amongst vast open plains to explore. And crossroads become life changing decisions.
Some people may never experience anything like this, some may try once and decide to turn their backs on it never to go again. For some of us we need to go back time and again. It is simply how we are hard wired. It is what is inside. It is a deep and inexplicable hunger, for more. It ruins lives, it destroys the world around us that we once knew, and yet it rebuilds and reshapes us along the way. And we realise we cannot live without it. Those who experience it will understand it. Those who have not will seldom understand.
Going further. Going longer. Going harder. Pushing yourself further and further away. Becoming less and less part of this thing called a ‘normal’ society.
The journey to Knysna may be over but I’ve learnt to realise and accept that there never really is a finish line. I understand this now. There never will be a final horizon to cross.