Sunday, 5 April 2015

Storm Clouds Building

Storm clouds were building around Stuttgart. As we pedalled down the road looking toward Schurfteberg where we were headed it looked clear. I commented to Casper that we might get a 'get out of jail free' card. 
As we started up the Garland Valley Casper rode over a cattle grid just as a rinkhals was making its exit. The rinkhals reared up and dropped away from Casper while Casper swerved off in the opposite direction. I suspect each was as surprised as the other. I caught up to Casper. 
"Did you see that?" he said. The exhilaration clear on his face. 
Casper set off a a good pace and I trailed behind. I was really tired now for the first time since we we had left Rhodes some 57 hours before and I battled to keep my eyes open. The track was wet and muddy. The tyre tracks of the group a few hours ahead of us were obscured by recent rain. Looking behind us a huge storm blackened the early afternoon sky and we could hear occasional thunder. We had already endured 12 hours of rain and weren't keen for more. About half way up the valley I called out to Casper that I needed to have a quick nap. Stopping in the shade of a tree I lay back on my backpack. I set an alarm for 20 minutes and pulled my buff over my eyes. A dog was barking in the distance. I heard it bark twice before I felt the darkness of sleep drop over me like a heavy blanket. It had taken seconds to fall into a deep replenishing sleep.
I killed the alarm, put my helmet back on and pushed my bike back on to the road. 50 metres ahead a farmer had stopped by one of his gates. He pointed behind us by way of warning. The storm was closer and a lot bigger. We acknowledged his warning with a wave and pedalled off with more purpose. 
The Schurfteberg portage appeared ahead of us bathed in sunlight. Perhaps this was a 'get out of jail free' moment. 
We kept moving and eventually arrived at the Die Hoek farmhouse ruins where the climb over the mountain starts. The track to the top of the mountain looks spectacular if not a little intimidating.
"How long will that take?" asked Casper. 
"About an hour," I replied. 
"Are you mad! That's going to take at least 2 hours," said Casper. 
If you have ever stood at the farmhouse and looked up at the track that scribbles its way up that mountain you will have sympathy for Casper's assessment. It looks like a massive challenge. In truth, on a fresh pair of legs most of it is ridable and a good rider can knock it off in 30 minutes. We hadn't had a fresh pair of legs for a few days now and settled into a trudge to the top. 
An hour later our efforts were rewarded with magnificent vistas over the Karoo. Clouds, pregnant with rain, loitered menacingly over the plains below. 
"I am not so sure about the 'get out of jail free' card now," said Casper. "The best we can hope for now is some parole." With that he hopped on his bike keen to savour the exhilarating 20 minutes descent off the back of the mountain. 
We reached the road at the bottom of the mountain as it began to drizzle.
"Maybe we should put our rain gear on?" suggested Casper. 
I looked up the valley toward the exit we would take and saw it was still basked in sunlight. "Nah, I am sure we can outrun this." With that I put my head down and powered down the road. 
We cruised down that road at high speed belying the fact that we had been on the go for days. We slowed occasionally for puddles that stretched the full width of the road and then resumed our charge. All the while I kept an eye on the rain clouds around us. The nek we were headed toward was still clear even though we were all but surrounded by clouds. The drizzle continued. 
As we reached a steep climb that would take us over the ridge and down toward the district road at the foot of the Swaershoek pass the rain intensified. It is a steep climb, steeper than many parts of the Schurfteberg track we had just walked. Spurred on by the prospect of outrunning the rain we powered up the climb without any thought of walking. Cresting the ridge it became immediately apparent that we weren't going to outrun anything. The plain ahead of us was fully obscured by torrential rain. Casper made some comment about my dumb idea of not putting our rain gear on and charged off into the downpour. 
I desperately wanted to stop and put my rain coat on and my cell phone wasn't in its waterproof pouch. Casper however was a hundred metres ahead and in the reduced visibility I didn't want to lose sight of him. For twenty minutes I chased him down the road past the Jakkalsfontein farm house toward the district road. We were soaking wet. It felt like I had just walked out of a muddy dam. Catching up to Casper just short of the district road I suggested we take shelter under the cover of a shed at the junction where we could wring ourselves out. 
We arrived at the shed sopping wet but still high in spirit. We looked back toward Schurfteberg and wondered how Tim was going through the storm that engulfed the mountain. 
We spent 30 minutes putting on dry base layers and wet leg warmers and realising that the rain was there to stay we headed back into the deluge to take on the last climb of the trip. It's 10.4 km's to the top of Swaershoek pass. The first 8 km's is a gentle climb. We rode side by side chatting for most of this. The pass ahead was pitch black while the sunset behind us was clearly visible in a break in the clouds. At one point Casper mentioned that the rain had stopped. Indeed it had. We had been so engrossed in our conversation that we hadn't noticed.
Casper had spent many a holiday on a farm nestled at the foot of that mountain. He reminisced about days spent wandering around the bush and nights of warmth and laughter around the kitchen table. We stopped at the gate of the farm that used to belong to his family. The post was still there but the nameplate long since removed. Like most farms in the Karoo the small farms have been consolidated into larger farms as market prices force up the minimum size of economical farming units. It is no longer possible to profitably farm 1000 hectares in the Karoo. I am told the minimum economic unit is now 3000 hectares. 
As the road kicked up to start the last few kilometres to the top we stopped pedalling and walked. The race was all but over. Alex had arrived earlier that day to secure the win and we were certain of finishing in second place ahead of Tim who we figured was at least 2 hours behind us. We savoured the walk and spoke of nothing in particular. As we came over the top of the pass we were enveloped in mist. We noticed snake like critters on the road. On closer inspection they were giant earthworms. The rain must have forced them to the surface. They were about as thick as an index finger and about 2 feet long. We saw hundreds of them as we rode down toward Cradock. We also saw hundreds if not thousands of frogs. They didn't hop as you would expect. They ran towards our lights like rodents. 
As we dropped below the mist we could see the lights of Cradock in the distance. They seemed so close but we still had 17 kilometres to go. The descent at night, although looking fast, is a whole lot slower that doing it during the day. I had previously ridden this section of 18 during the day in just under 30 minutes. At night, with mist and a little mud to deal with it took us almost an hour. It went on forever. Every time I thought we were at the bottom it dropped down even more. 
Finally we got to the T-junction at the bottom and turned toward town. A short while later we took our final turn and rode toward the finish at the Ou Pastorie. Waiting outside to greet us was Glenn and Meryl. It was good to see them. Our race was over. We had done well. 

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