Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The challenge of riding and navigating at night.

Night riding is not everyone's cup of tea. The Joburg chapter of Freedom Challenge Veterans and Friends regularly get together most weeks for 50-60km off road night rides. I guess it's a habit picked up from riding the Freedom Trail where night riding is a requirement even if the strategy is simply to ride one support station at a time. The advise to novice Trailers is to start early in the dark and if things go pear shape at least give yourself the chance to ride out of trouble when the sun comes up rather than end up trying to navigate to a support station after last light. Get it wrong and you sleep rough.
When racing to Rhodes there are a handful of sections that attempted at night pose challenges even for experienced veterans of the trail. The forest section in and out of Donnybrook is always fun as logging activities reshape the landscape and roads. Lots of stories from this section over the years. Getting lost there has been known as the "Donnybrook Maneuver" since 2007 when Glenn Harrison slept rough after heading into a thick mist after dark armed with first generation narratives.
The forest section about 2 hours out of Centocow is also a pearler. I rescued 3 lost riders there 3 years ago. They had started a day ahead if me and by 14 hours into my ride I found them wandering about the forest looking rather forlorn.
And so the stories of the last 10 years go. Lots of lost riders on all sections of the race. So how do you better your chances of success if racing through the night? The simple answer is ride it first instead of raving it as a novice.The current Race Across South Africa record holder made a point of doing the race at a leisurely pace in 2011 before his record ride of 2012.
Experience alone is not the only ingredient. When I ride the route during daylight I always make a point of looking for visual clues that would be visible in the arc of my lights. Mountains and distant forests as landmarks are of no use. I memorize things like trees, rocky outcrops, houses, fences and even the changing soil types under tyre. I make a note of critical distances to decision points as the distance you cover at night seems a whole lot further and faster than it is.
Many sections are left for you to figure out a route to get from A to B.
It is then important to be able to construct an aerial view of the landscape in your head. Even experienced Trailers spend hours looking at Google maps which helps them better understand the task. With this degree of the geography loaded you can mix it up to keep it interesting. A few times over the years I have tried new routes in the dark just for fun and they have worked out just fine but only because I had a good sense of where I was at all times.
Being able to get your bearing by looking at the stars and moon can be a great help. Knowing how to use a compass is invaluable when the skies are obscured.
Lastly, know the risks and be prepared to suffer the consequences if it doesn't go as planned. In 2012 Trevor and I headed up Lehana under a moonless sky knowing we faced an interesting navigational challenge as well as snow higher up. We didn't factor in a gale force wind that forced us lower down the valley than we intended. When I realized we had strayed from the perfect line is was just a case of figuring the best way out. With an understanding of the terrain and fence lines we were able to get out without too much difficulty. It might not have gone as smoothly and we were prepared for an uncomfortable night out if that had been the result.
With all my experience and knowledge does it mean I won't get lost? No, because no one is bigger than the trail.

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