Wednesday, 11 July 2007

People of the Race

Have you ever had the experience of going to the movies and at the end of a profound and moving story nobody moves or says a word when the credits begin to role and the theme tune starts to play. It is only when the screen goes blank and the lights come on that everyone (normally there are not many people at movies that really touch you) silently makes their way to the exit. This race has been that kind of experience for me. I finished days ago but had to be there to see the last man home. Hanging on to the race until the last moment. Thinking through the experiences of the last 3 weeks and savouring the memory of every day. But the lights are now on and the show is truely over. This race now belongs to those who follow.

Talking of credits I have decided to give a snippet of my impressions of the people who rode the race around me.

Maarten, Tim, Hannele and Lee I didn't get to know but certainly enjoyed their antics from a distance. Well done guys (and gal)

Rohan - Started and ended the race with Rohan. We didn't spend everyday riding together in the beginning but overnighted at the same support stations. Once through Struishoek we spent the rest of the ride together as constant companions. He rode sections that I walked as his damaged shin made riding a lot less painful than walking. At the top of each climb he would flop down and wait for me. It was his drive that kept us moving forward.

Adam - An amazing man. Only 6 weeks training to do a 3 week ride! In the last few days when I was struggling he would drop back and walk with me not because he was tired but just to keep me company. When I lagged I would see him looking back often to make sure I was OK. Thanks Adam and well done on a spectacular achievement.

Jannie - Quiet but determined. At one stage during a miserable snow storm I joked that I was going to stop riding for the day and seek shelter until the weather improved. Jannie looked at me totally horrified and bolted for the door, got on his bike and headed off into the storm. Near the end we sensed he was like a tethered race horse and were happy to see him charge off with Xolani and chase down the group in front. His riding over the last few days was wonderful to watch. Will always recall fondly the time we got out my little cooker and had tea together at Mariazell Mission and his impromptu birthday tea in the bush.

Xolani - "Xolani the Navigator" Navigator he was not! Xolani was an absolute delight on the ride. He is strong and determined beyond belief for someone so young. When all of us were reduced to pushing our bikes Xolani would pedal on slowly waiting for us at the top. His simple explanation - "I hate walking." He could win this race if only he could navigate. His best miss was at Elandsberg. Emerging from a track at the end of a portage section we came out on a road 100 metres from the farm house. The lights were on and our only decision was to decide if the driveway to the house was on the left or the right. Xolani said he knew and started going right. After 50 metres we told him it wasn't the correct way and then turned around and rode back 100 metres into the sign posted driveway and the comforts of warm tea, food, bath and a bed. Xolani was right behind me when we turned around and was following me. Somehow he forgot to turn into the driveway (and it wasn't dark yet!) and was fetched 2 hours later many km's up the road by the farmer.

Andre - A powerhouse of a rider he would zoom past us on the climbs on his single speed, legs pumping like steam driven pistons. Incredibly generous with advice. Saw him during the early stages of the race spending time with the racers wanting to make a break, drawing them maps and explaining the scratchy bits to them so that they could charge on ahead.

Andy - As I have said before he was the Genuine Nice Guy. Early on we were riding in a big group and he got in before me. I arrived to find Andy there. He showed me where I could sleep, explained the location of the showers, food etc.. That's just who he is. Obstacles were faced with glee and mountains were made for riding down at speed - no track necessary. Andy has a love of life and a love of riding. He does however have reservations about the necessity of self navigation. After all it does interrupt the riding.

Earle - A strong and determined athlete who had to come to terms with a debilitating injury early in the race. He showed fierce determination and finished the race against the odds. Would spend time alone not because of the need to get away from us but the necessity to get his leg up and rested as much as possible. Quick to smile in spite of his pain. Hard not to really like someone like Earle.

Kevin - Spent a wonderful few hours wandering around lost in the dark, in a forest, in a thick fog with Kevin. At no time did it seems to faze him. Took it all in his stride. Shared many a cup of trail side brew with him. Kevin I will remember for the way he sat on his bed in Masakala poring over his maps with a perplexed look on his face. When I asked him what he was thinking about he said "We need a strategy!" I commented that I didn't really care about a strategy and that I was just going to stick with the group for a while. "That's it then!" said Kevin, "That's a strategy right there - I need a strategy, now I have one."

Steven - Unflappable, cheerful and there for the full experience. Steven once commented that 26 days seemed a little limiting and that he wouldn't mind spending twice as long to just suck in the richness of the whole experience. The look on his face last night showed that although he did "race" through the route he lapped it all up and found it entirely satisfying.

Dillon - Had an unfortunate fall on morning two but made a remarkable comeback. Incredibly independent and so didn't really engage with the group dynamic. He quietly exited the race and we never heard from him again.

Glenn - Forest as I like to call him after his first night spent sleeping on the forest floor completely lost. He got as far as Rhodes before illness got hold of him leaving him no option but withdraw from the race. However, that was not the last of him! He was well and truly out of the race but he still followed it constantly. I would get Sms's from him almost daily and then he magically appeared on the road near McGregor near the end. He had flown to Cape Town to meet the riders and welcome them to the finish. He did some shopping for us and spent the last night with our group at the last Support Station pampering to our needs. A quiet, humble and totally nice guy. The sort you want your daughters to bring home one day. Forest will be back in 2008 and will be a rider to watch.

Mike - Ordinary Cyclist basking in the satisfaction of completing the toughest expeditionary mountain bike race in the world!
Last riders home

Last night went out to watch Kevin and Steven get to the finish. They were tired but elated. They seem to have made to most of their last day. Not being fond of early rising (Kevin's 2 am "Lets get going" on day 2 seems out of character) it seems they started off a little before 7am and only just made the 8am start on the portage. The rules of the race state that Stettynskloof portage may only start between 4am-8am. I heard that Steven was under the impression that the portage could be completed in 6 hours - would have been a new record if they had achieved that. In practice it took them 9 hours. We hung around for hours waiting for news of their successful summitting of Stettynskloof. Zero cell phone coverage over the previous 24 hours meant we were uncertain as to their plans. They finally arrived at Ashanti in Paarl at 21h25.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Stettynskloof Revisited

Yesterday I returned to the top of Stettynskloof to wait for Andre, Andy and Earle to claw their way out. From the top it looks like an idyllic seting, the perfect valley. The reality of getting through it is entirely different. It is hard. For the uninitiated and the outside observer it may seem a cruel and unusual punishment, and it is. But it is not insurmountable - I did it and I know. The morning I set out for the kloof I was at my lowest physical point of the race. I have lost a lot of weight and something I ate in the previous day or two didn't agree with me. At the first sign of trouble I paused and reminded myself that I was not going to let this last experience cloud the memory of the race. When we found ourselves entombed in a 10 foot growth of man-swallowing proteas we laughed, clawed our way out inch by inch and regrouped and pressed on. When I fell headlong into a ravine landing chest first onto a rock I reminded myself that I was going to crest this kloof with my sense of humour intact.

Climbing to the top yesterday to get a view of the others coming up I marvelled at their ability to climb the near vertical face with their equipment and bikes strapped to their backs. I struggled to walk up a lesser incline armed only with a few cans of Coke. Yet the previous day I had done exactly the same as they were doing. As they came over the top they were elated. Completely exhausted but elated.

Waiting for them a bit later at the finish was a special moment. I relived my finish the day before. Less tired and more focused I was able to fully appreciate the enormity of what we all had achieved.

Andre was truely elated, Andy as always had a huge smile on his face and Earle said very little.

Andre had finally earned his blanket after illness forced him to withdraw last year and the challenges of bike problems this year. To compound his challenge he rode the race on a single speed, non-suspension bike. He is a strong determined man and I was glad to see him finish.

Andy, all-round nice guy, embraced the challenges of the race. When others said "Thank goodness that is behind us!" Andy would say "Wow!" At the top of Stettynskloof that is exactly what he said.

Earle damaged his ankle a few days into the race and has soldiered on ever since with the ankle getting worse by the day. Its not a pretty sight. It is with him that I identified the most with yesterday. He is stronger and more determined than I but pressing on with an injury of that magnitude was an enormous undertaking. This race seems to have taken its toll on him. Like me he has lost a lot of weight, but he has also endured a lot of pain. We rode a large part of the race together and only became separated when the difficulty of walking down a particularly long and gnarly poratage slowed him down. At the finish words were unnecessary. A clasp of the hands and a hug were all that were necessary to convey mutual respect. Well done buddy - job well done.

Before the race the question was asked "Should Stettynskloof remain?" There are both proponents and opponents. The answer is simply - Yes. The version of the kloof we rode through is a more sanitized version of what went before. The kloof of yesteryear that Ben, Cornell, Wessel, Amy-Jane, Xolani, Gerrit and others battled through has been made a lot easier through the cutting of the path that covers just over half its length. There is enough of its virgin state left to pose a serious challenge and make us appreciate the achievement of those who went before. It is a rite of passage that that makes you get to the end and wrap the finishers blanket around you with a sense of pride and unparallelled achievement.

Monday, 9 July 2007

The last few days of the race I just wanted to get back to a normal life. For one, I wanted to be able to lie in bed until after the sun came up. This morning, day 1 of life after the ride I woke up at 5am, as I have done for most mornings for the past 3 weeks, and found little joy at the prospect of staying under the covers for a few more hours. It has become a habit to get up early. However I can report that I did not miss my constant companion of the last few weeks - my bike. Left it in the van with David, don't know where it spent the night and quite frankly I don't care.

Got an early night last night as I went to bed feeling like I did before Stettynskloof, really nauseous. Today I plan to head back to the Kloof. Not to walk it again but to show my support for my fellow competitors, Andre, Andy and Earle, who will be passing that way this morning. Hope to able to go back tommorrow for the arrival of Kevin and Steven.

Blog is not done yet - stay tuned.
Day 21 - Trouthaven to Paarl

47km 12h15 1800m of climbing
Planned to get up at 2am (after only 2 hours of sleep) and get to the bottom of the portage for a 4am start. Woke at 2am to the sound of gentle rain - back to sleep. Finally got up at 3.30am and got going at 4.40. Was feeling a little nauseous when we left and it just got worse. Lost my breakfast half way to the start of the portage. Considered a retreat because of the demanding portage ahead and feeling fragile didn't help. Reasoned that I could get some more sleep and go up with the following group the next day. Bit the bullet and forged ahead. We got to the bottom of Stettynskloof at 6.00am. It was dark, drizzling slightly and there were plenty of clouds about. Adam led us through a rough track that had been cleared recently. The winding track crossed the river a few times. If your idea of fun is wading through rivers in the middle of a Cape winter in the dark with the thermometer in single digits then the Stettynskloof ramble has been designed specifically for you. If that is too tame for you then add a bike to your list of things to take with - along with your 10kg backpack. The first 6km went reasonably quickly, taking only 2h30. Then it got really interesting - the track ended! The next 6km took 5 hours! We followed the "Waddilove Line" for a short while - the odd bit a tape tied to a tree to show where the cut trail was supposed to go - apparently the work force gave up. At one stage it led us to a HUGE pile of rocks that looked like they had been quarried and then piled together. Rohan and Adam with bikes on shoulders just walked over them. I was not as brave and slowly hauled my way over. We went too far right and got stuck in the river growth. After about 20 minutes we had made about 20metres of headway only to discover that the Waddilove Line was on the other bank of the river. It took us nearly 30 minutes to cross back over. The density of the growth is staggering! You move forward inch by inch. At one stage we were over the river. We knew this because we could hear the water beneath us. As I stopped to contemplate how bizzare the situation was the "raft" beneath me gave way and I dropped into the river.

Eventually the Waddilove Line ended and we had to make our own route choices. At one stage my foot got stuck in the undergrowth and I fell head first into a ravine. Landed hard on a rock that has left a bruise and a few aching ribs over my heart. For the next few hours we plodded on eventually shouldering my bike for the last few km's and climbed out of the kloof. Adam, Rohan and I then sat down next to the track and brewed a celebratory cup of tea (always coffee for Adam) with my gas cooker. We wanted to celebrate our achievement, not only of the day but of the ride, without the intrusion of outsiders - we had done well. Getting back on our bikes we then spent the next 3 hours getting to the finish at Ashanti in Paarl. Our final time 20 Days, 9 hours and 50 minutes.

A short celebration and we were presented with our prize - a blanket.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Sunday - 8 July - to the finish
12h15, 47km
Mike has safely arrived. He is somewhat exhausted and will give full details tomorrow.
Thank you all for your support.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

“Things lost along the way”
During the race we have at one stage or another lost a couple of things. The first was my speed sensor on day 1 later replaced at Rhodes. A water bottle left behind at a support station and my fancy cell phone at Vuvu.
But, by far my greatest loss occurred today when I left a card my youngest daughter made for me before the race. It had the usual ‘best dad in the world’ stuff but the best part was a line about “you would also win at Ballet”. It has been on my map board since the start. A loss of unmeasurable value.
Day 20 – Montague- McGregor –Kasra – Trouthaven
Triple stage today.
158 km, 14h20m 1870m
Got in late this evening. Hard day but we are at the final hurdle. This race has become the sole focus of what we do day after day. Looking forward to other options!
We have cranked out nearly 550km in the last 4 days and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by our bodies.
A few hours sleep and we start the big one.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Day 19 - Rouxpos - Anysberg - Montague

150km,1600m climb, 11 hours
After bombing on the previous day today was so much better. Rode twice as far but finished stronger. Doing a double today sets us up for an interesting finish. If we are strong tomorrow we can ride a triple stage and then finish on Sunday or if the wheels fall off we finish on Monday. Been an amazing journey so far. Tonight we dined in the local hotel. We don't have any fancy clothes so walked up the main street dressed in our cycling tights. Must look like a troupe of ballet dancers. Got some looks but we are past caring about that. Now off to get some sleep.


Navigating is tricky enough without having to deal with David's rather interesting written instructions. One such recent incident was the instructions to get to the start of 'The Ladder' at the end of Die Hel. The instructions say "keeping the house on your left, head toward the river where you will see a stand of poplar trees". In practice the house must be kept on your right and you need to head toward a stream where there are two sad looking poplar trees and not a stand! By this stage of the race we have worked out that David is directionally challenged so are able to figure out what needs doing!

Going where Vodacom doesn't

Had a number of complaints that my Blog is not up to date. The route we follow takes us places where electricity is not the norm and where the population density is such that the cost per user is not viable for cell phone providers. We have gone days with little or no coverage. I write the Blog copy every day and then, when we get the odd freak coverage on a mountain top, I try get them off often without success.

Day 18 - Up the Ladder

67km in 8 hours 1800m of climbing.
Die Hel is situated in the remotest of valleys. From what I can gather 2 trekboer families somehow made their way into the valley and stayed. A tiny community then established itself. We stayed in a refurbished cottage that was the first house in the valley to have a black wood-fired stove and that was around 1954. It seems that provisions and goods could be transported to the edge of the valley and then dismantled and carried down in pieces, as was the stove. The track down is called "die leer" or in english "the ladder". Until a road was pushed through in 1962 from the opposite end of the valley the ladder was the way in and out. We climbed out via "the ladder" this morning. The 1km climb took me about 90 minutes and it was physically demanding. You need to carry your bike or manhandle it over the big obstructions. My legs and shoulders were shot. We were hoping to do 2 stages today but I hit a serious flat spot coming into Rouxpos (Vleiland support station) and we (Rohan, Adam and me) decided that pushing on was going to make the day far too demanding. I had a shower, bite to eat and then fell asleep for a few hours before dinner. Am expecting Andre, Andy and Earle to come in soon. Now 21h15 and no sign of them yet. Wind is a little into them so perhaps made the going a bit slow. Hope to see them at breakfast.
They have just arrived at 21h20. Looking a bit tired but they have done a good days ride.

Day 17 - Into the Hell

Rondawel - Prince Albert - Die Hel
130km, 1880m climb, 11 hours.
Am so tired of waking up in the dark and then riding through the dark in sub zero temperatures waiting for the sun to come up. Hands and feet are permanently numb.
The first 70km saw us leave the Karoo. Reasonably flat riding but the corrugations and sand are brutal.
During army training (nearly 30 years ago!) we were involved in conventional warfare training and advanced day after day in torrential rain digging fox holes every night and then trying to get some sleep as they filled up with water. After a few days during a simulated attack, diving for cover, a friend dived on top of his rifle and broke a few ribs. He was stretchered from the battle ground sporting a huge grin. I tell this story to set the stage for a near race ending incident last night. We were barrelling along at about 25 km/h, down a boring stretch of farm road, well after dark and dropped into a small depression. I went from 25 to 0 in 2 seconds flat. I had ridden into a small soft gravel stream bed. Very nearly went over the handle bars. My state of mind at that stage was, "if I had fallen and broken something at least I could have withdrawn from the race with dignity".
After a cold miserable start this morning we rolled into Prince Albert, upon arriving at the guest house, were given a breakfast of muesli, yoghurt and fruit followed by eggs, bacon, toast, tomato, baked beans and mushrooms washed down with orange juice, coffee, tea and coke. A quick shower followed and we were off again.
A quick 8km road section was followed by a 7km section that gained 800 metres of altitude. Stunningly beautiful but having done it on a 1X2 would rather suggest a 4X4. A 35km section then saw us plummeting into the Gamkaaskloof Nature Reserve at Die Hel.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Day 16 - Damsedrif to Rondawel

182km in13 hours.
Finally out of the Baviaanskloof mountains. Had a late start as 3 of us are struggling with aches and pains. My knees and left ankle are protesting. Adam has a particularly sore knee and Rohan has a swollen and tender shin.
Jannie and Xolani left at around 1.00 am after only a few hours sleep and I think they knocked off about 250km today! We are at an intermediate station for the night somewhere between Willowmore and Prince Albert.
While I don't have saddle sores I do have saddle soreness. My butt and saddle are not on good terms right now. If they were a couple they would need serious reconciliation councilling.
Made good progress today but wonder if the physical demands were worth it. We started the day as crocks and today hasn't helped at all. But that's life and this is a race after all.
We know Andre, Earle and Andy are going to chase us down eventually but we just want to make it a bit more of a challenge!

The depopulated countryside

Since leaving Rhodes we have been struck by the number of deserted dwellings as well as the scarcity of people. We are told that small farms are no longer viable as real incomes have been in serious decline. We are told that a study showed that a decade ago a bakkie cost 5 times less in stock value than today. Farms are being consolidated and the extra workforce is then redundant.
The upside of this is the quality of the veld is improving from the over-grazing of years past. There is also a natural increase in the number of buck. Many farms have also been consolidated and converted to game farms. This also results in lowered population levels.

Day 15 - Trek through the wilderness continues. Cambria to Damsedrif

81km, 8h30, 1560 climb.
Today we continued our trail through the Baviaanskloof. Unlike yesterday, where it was devoid of people, today we encountered at least a dozen 4x4's.
We decided to do a single stage today as we realised that we are really tired. So much so that we have little energy left to enjoy the true majesty of the terrain we are passing through. Big climbs and fast descents characterised the first half of the ride followed by undulating roads into the stop.
Apparently there are buffalo and rhino in the area we rode through. At one stage a Parks Official stopped and asked us if we had seen his rhino. Pleased to say we hadn't, although we did see rhino and buffalo spoor on the road.
Conditions still a bit muddy under tyre which made tired legs a bit more wobbly. An early stop was really needed today. Anyone wondering how we do it every day must understand that it isn't easy. We spend every day on the brink of exhaustion. Within minutes of starting a day's ride you have had enough. Jannie muttered something yesterday that kind of sums it up - "robot mode".
I hear Lee's bike broke in half and is now held together with wire. He has been reduced to touring the event like our bunch which is a pity cause he made the race really interesting to follow.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Day 14 - Sunday - Through the Wilderness. Bucklands to Cambria.

77km, 12h15 , 2100m of climbing. More of that later.
Last night the 5 of us stayed at Bucklands. As they were expecting 7 of us we were moved to a cottage up the road. First impressions were not favourable. No electricity, no hot water, dingy and drafty. Its amazing how perceptions change. Got the donkey boiler going, fire started and kettle on for tea. We all had steaming hot baths and enjoyed sitting around the fire. The beds were the most comfortable and snug we have had. It started raining around midnight, which sounded lovely on the tin roof, pity we had to ride through it in the morning!
Morning found the rain still falling. Decided to leave at 7.00 because of the miserable weather. Spent the first 4 hours trying to scramble over a mountain and then climbed and climbed toward the Baviaanskloof in intermittent rain and through mud. We finished well after sunset. The Baviaanskloof is outstanding, however wading knee high through a dozen river crossings wasn't much fun.
Arrived near our overnight stop with no idea where we were supposed to stay so just went to the closest light and found an unoccupied house with food and our resupply boxes inside, very fortunate.
If you do the maths on our distance and time taken today you will appreciate how much walking we did. We reckoned we walked for at least 9 hours!
As an indication of the remoteness of the wilderness area we traversed today - we saw only 2 people as they drove past in the only vehicle of the day.

Day 13 - Saturday - Toekomst to Bucklands

105km, 10 hours.
Legs not happy puppies today after 2 double-ups the previous 2 days.
Slightly tricky navigation but once again our luck held and we got it exactly right. Today we came across a cafe and ordered coke, tea, pie and chips. Hardly remarkable except that it was the first place we have passed that sells coke in over 300km. Such is the routing of this race. Our group is currently only 5 riders being Adam, Rohan, Jannie, Xolani and I.
Xolani had a hard day today. Punctured within 1 km of the start and continued with puncture problems all day. He spent the whole day following our tracks and at one point went over the handle bars at speed. He has no rear brakes, his front disk brakes are almost dysfunctional and his derailleur stopped working. We all spent hours getting his bike back into some sort of order. His tyres were a mass of thorns as I guess ours are except that he is the only one not riding on tubeless. He arrived at the support station about an hour after us looking like he had been dragged through a bush backwards several times. He has gravel rash and a swollen lip as a momento of his fall. Hopefully things will improve for him tomorrow.
We stopped under a tree along the route and celebrated Jannie's birthday with cups of freshly brewed tea and a slab of chocolate.