Sunday, 26 July 2015

Race finish

I arrived at Rubicon, the official finish of the Race to Rhodes, with Gawie and Andrew at 14:50. The ride from Tenahead had taken just over 90 minutes. Andrew stayed for a short while and then pushed on to Chesneywold. Tim had yet to arrive and Gawie had started a day ahead of me so was a day slower completing the race. The previous best riders to Rhodes had covered the distance in 4 days and something like 7 or 8 hours. My time of 3 days 8 hours 50 minutes although 17 hours slower than the previous year was good enough to secure the win. 

Having arrived at the start line hopelessly prepared with little to no training I had managed to win my first Freedom Challenge event. It hadn't been easy and I will definitely be back to race it again but never again without adequate training. 

Janine finished less than 2 hours behind me having dug deep to prevail in spite of the severe pain she was in. To my shame I was in the bath when she finished and was not there to greet her when she came in. I am not proud of that. We had ridden together for 3 days and I missed the opportunity to celebrate her success. She had finished faster than I though she would have. She is one tough lady and rode hard on that last day in incredible pain to get to the finish. Incidentally, she also finished well ahead of Tim's arrival in Rhodes.  

Last word. On the trip home Janine thanked me. I commented that she had nothing to thank me for as she was often much stronger than me and knew exactly where she was going. She didn't need my help in any way. Her reply is one I did not expect. She said that she was in incredible pain in Vuvu and wasn't sure if she could get to Rhodes. Then she thought back to Allendale on day one of the race. She said "When I saw you stand up at Allendale, completely shattered and say to me, 'come lets go' I realised that we are so much stronger than we think we are. I decided that even if I had to crawl I was going to get to Rhodes. Thank you for that." 

Over Lehana to Rhodes

Sitting in the school at Vuvu I realised that I was still in the company of the RASA race leaders in Andrew and Tim. If I wanted to win the Race to Rhodes I would have to either beat them or arrive at the finish line with them. One look at Tim and I knew I had the beating of him. Andrew was riding strong but I had finally found my legs. 

I didn't know at that stage that for the first time the Race to Rhodes (R2R) was considered a separate event to the Race Across South Africa (RASA). Last year I had ridden to Rhode in 2 days 16 hours and finished third because I was beaten to Rhodes by Graham Bird and a friend of his who is also a member of his adventure racing team. They were an hour or two quicker than me but were doing RASA. I have always argued that line honours to Rhodes should be opened to both R2R and RASA entrants as in theory it's much harder for a RASA rider as they can't give the effort to Rhodes everything as they need to ride on.  

The four of us left Vuvu ahead of Tim and I was determined to keep ahead of Tim. It's quite satisfying to beat Tim, only because he is an amazing rider. As it was, he went on to win RASA this year. His third win in the event. Beating him to Rhodes became my objective whether or not I could keep up with Andrew. 

The road heading down to the start of the Lehana portage has a number of challenging climbs. Janine who is normally a very strong climber struggled. She was lagging behind. Her legs were destroyed and yet she kept pushing ahead. Normally quiet she had become even more so. I dropped back on one particularly steep section and asked her what I could do to help her. I asked if she wanted encouragement or sympathy, for me to ride next to behind or in front of her? What was it I could do to help? She replied with "I'm fine!" 
I concluded that she had dropped into survival mode and was best left to get on with it herself without being pestered. 

I looked back down the road and Tim was nowhere to be seen. I pushed ahead to catch up with Gawie and Andrew. As we got to the start of the Lehana portage we could see other riders ahead of us making their way up the mountain. Within 30 minutes we had caught and overtaken them. Looking back I could see Janine someway back but she was catching the riders behind. She would be fine I thought. There were enough riders on the mountain should she need help. 

About halfway up the portage I rounded a rocky section and bumped into Andy Wonnacott who I had last seen in 2007 when we both did our first RASA. We fell into step and chatted as if we had last seen each other a month before. It was surreal. 
He eventually stopped as he needed to wait for the rest of his group. I was left with Andrew Barnes. Gawie had gone on ahead and we could see him contouring around the mountain a few hundred metres ahead. 

I suggested to Andrew that we take the tiger line up the steep face of the mountain instead of the path that contours around. I figured it would save us twenty minutes - I still had an eye out for Tim. What I didn't know at the time is that he had opted for the alternate route around Mcambalala which takes a lot longer. Andrew was game for the tiger line and the two of us crawled up the mountain face. 

As we got higher we had to pick our way around the snow patches that lay on the upper slopes. It was pristine white. I stopped a number of times and popped some in mouth. It was cold but refreshing. Although snow lay on the ground I was wearing only a short sleeve riding shirt and the zip was down. I was working hard, the engine was warm and I was having fun. Summiting we emptied out onto a snow covered plateau. The road that winds up to the container which was way off to our left was mostly clear of snow and we got on to the road and headed toward Tenahead Lodge. I hit the first snow bank at speed and instead of riding over it my front wheel dug into the soft snow and I ended up sprawled in the snow. I had a soft landing so no harm was done and Andrew got in a good chuckle. We treated the the rest of the snow banks with more respect. 

Rounding the last corner before the lodge we saw Gawie waving at us from the deck. He had arranged coffee and toasted sandwiches for us and we wasted no time heading in to the lodge. I wasn't keen to spent too much time there because I still had Tim in mind. Our tiger line over Lehana gave me some comfort as I was sure Tim wouldn't have been able to replicate our effort as all his lot was on his bike with made it difficult if not impossible to carry on his shoulders. The coffee was good, the toasties even better and we only left the lodge after 30 minutes. 

Gawie and Andrew were quick and I worked hard to stay in touch. The first big climb saw them put a big gap into me. Both are very relaxed individuals and they waited for me at the top. As we started the last descent off the mountains Gawie took off. He has amazing bike skills. He was riding a single speed hard tail with a rigid fork and gave us a lesson on how to descend at speed. Andrew and I rode together and made good time into Rhodes where we found Gawie waiting for us. Together we rode to the finish (for Gawie and I) at Rubicon. 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Tinana to Vuvu

We planned to get to the start of the Vuvu valley as the sky started to lighten. That way we would be riding into daylight which would aid our navigation. Janine started the day with pain killers to dull the pain in her shins. 

We left Mrs Kibi's house at 04:15 and opted for the longer but simpler route on the road rather that trying to thread out way through the donga littered plain that lay between us and the scratchy bit across to the river crossing and on to the district road beyond. 

We decided to take the lower line which meant we had to stay high against the cliffs on our right to avoid the monster dongas that littered the land below the cliffs. The sides of these dongas so steep that without ropes they are impossible to traverse. It was still dark and we couldn't see them and simply followed tracks. As the tracks split we chose to keep right. Once or twice we abandoned those choices as they petered out and dropped left to pick up the other track. It was cold and the frost sparkled under our lights. We knew that just after a kilometre we could drift left as we would have passed the last of the impassible dongas. Judging distance at night is tricky. We overcooked the distance and took a minute to orientate ourselves. In the hesitation the group split but we came together quickly and made good progress onto the road. Although cold it wasn't uncomfortable and there was no wind. Progress toward Satabataba on the district road was fast and we had another moment of hesitation at the turnoff as it came up quicker that expected. Satisfied we had the right turn we headed up to Setabataba where we would find the jeep track that would lead us to the start of the Vuvu valley. 
Rounding the last corner of the new district road we were confronted with a massive void. The road ended abruptly with a deep dark hole. To say we were a tad perplexed is an understatement, we were completely nonplussed. Last year it was a gorgeous new road. Now it was washed away. The chasm was so wide we couldn't see the other side with our torches. That's when doubt started creeping in. Had we taken the right turn at the district road? I assured everyone that we had. Should we have taken the previous turnoff a kilometre back? Gawie assured everyone that we were on the right track as he recognised a house we had just passed. In daylight it would have been a few seconds delay. In the dark we wasted a few minutes. I rode back and found a route into the chasm. It actually wasn't they deep, 3 or 4 metres, but it was rather wide. Riding out the other side I found the continuance of the road, in perfect order. A huge rain storm had obviously washed the road away. 

We found the jeep track without difficulty and entered the Vuvu valley just as we were able to make out the outline of the mountains surrounding us. Our timing was perfect. It took us only 2 hours to thread our way through the valley. Janine was struggling with the pace especially the portage sections. Climbing up the final cliff face to the Vuvu plateau I waited for Janine to catch up. In spite of her obvious discomfort she wasn't that far behind. 

As I approached the school where the support station is located I heard someone call my name. Looking back I saw Tim exiting a hut and he looked very second hand. He had left Tinana about 12 hours before us and we had caught him in 4. Obviously his night escapade hadn't ended too well. At 8:30 we entered the school where Andrew and Gawie were busy with breakfast. Tim joined us a few minutes later. We had done okay. Another 6 hours should see is in Rhodes and our race complete. We ate up quickly and prepared to take on Lehana's Pass. 


We arrived at Mrs Kibi's house in Tinana at 16:40 with daylight to spare. Tim had pushed through to take on the Vuvu valley in the dark. The valley isn't that hard in daylight but the prospect of traipsing through there at night under a moonless sky didn't appeal to us one bit. It seemed Andrew and Gawie were in accord as we found them well settled in Mrs Kibi's house. By the time we arrived Andrew had hunted down a spaza shop and proudly displayed the spoils of his sortie - two cans of sardines, one 2 litre Coke and two quarts of beer; milk stout and a larger.

The pair of them had started on the beer and Andrew had successfully ripped the lid off one of the sardine cans and was busy sampling the contents. The luxury of arriving at an overnight stop in daylight had us all in jovial spirit.

Mrs Kibi was out of town..... Hmmm.. Out of village....that doesn't sound right....She was away! We were attended to by an older woman who, in spite of the language barrier, busied herself quietly arranging drinking glasses and tea. She then went outside and started heating water over an open fire so we could wash. She pretty much hovered around in the background. Then something fascinating happened. Andrew started speaking to her in her own language. Right in front of my eyes she inflated. She went from a shadow to a full blown personality. It made me think of the English we hear practiced on us as we ride through the Transkei. The perennial favourites being; "Good morning." "How are you?" and "I love you". The first being rolled out at all hours of the day. We smile at their attempts, but how much isiZulu or isiXhosa do I know? None, they at least knew three sentences.
The effects of not being able to communicate and the resultant opinion formed about people we cannot speak to is unfortunate. This lady in Mrs Kibi's house was just someone doing mundane things in the background. The moment she found her voice in the comfort of her own language she was someone else completely - in my eyes. And I lay the blame squarely on myself. As a first and only language English speaker I have fallen foul of the trap that makes us feel smarter than people who don't speak our language. That is a very sad state of affairs. My ability to speak English is an accident of birth. My inability or unwillingness to learn another language, particular in a country with a diversity of languages, is a poor reflection on me.

This lady, now comforted by the fact that she could be understood, told us (via Andrew) about the bathing arrangements and when dinner would be ready. Washing is an awkward affair if you are not used to it. You are generally presented with 3 shallows buckets. One to wash in, another with boiling water and a third with cold water. You mix the water to your liking and have a strip wash. It makes one almighty mess, but this is apparently okay. Still makes me feel uncomfortable as water is slopped all over the floor. Clearly I have yet to master the technique of the bucket wash.

Spruced up we gathered in the lounge and ate a hearty dinner. I was ravenous for the first time in the race and I knew it was a good thing. After dinner we sat around talking. All in all we spent a good few hours hanging around chewing the fat with each other. Bed time arrived. I was still coughing badly and chose an inside room to spare the others who bunked in an outside room.

By bed time we became aware of Tim's antics in the Vuvu valley. He was going the wrong way. For that matter, it appeared that everyone still in the Vuvu valley was going in the wrong direction. I heard later that Glenn, the race director, was concerned. The only logical explanation he could come up with was that there was a fire in the valley and the riders were trying to avoid it. Why else would they have scattered like shrapnel. He even sent Tim a message asking about it. As there is no cell reception in the valley Tim didn't receive it immediately. Hours later when he had scrambled up the side of a mountain (way off course) he received the message. His reply to Glenn was something like 'I wish!'

So, with at least a half dozen riders wandering around lost in the cold Vuvu valley I lay in my bed, pulled the thick warm blankets up around my face and settled into blissful sleep.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Black Fountain - Part 2

The route to Blackfountain from the previous village consists of a slow ride up drag paths and cattle trails. It is a little tedious and takes just under an hour. Along the way we passed a herd of cattle. I rode on ahead and waited for Janine. The herd numbered around 50-60. They were being driven by a single man and his two dogs. The dogs in that part, particularly around Black Fountain which is used for grazing cattle, are not your average skraal mongrel. They are beautiful dogs that look like the average pampered family dog you would find in the suburbs of a city. Except these are working dogs. All appear well fed and the long haired ones well groomed. Whenever I have stopped to talk to people and they have their working dogs with them I notice the dogs sit quietly and fix their gaze on their owners face waiting for their next command. Their loyalty and obedience is incredible to behold. 

After a tight river crossing the cattle started to scatter. The dogs went straight to work and in short order had them moving along in tight rank. Order restored the dogs fell back to take up position beside their master ever alert for an errant cow. 

After riding adjacent to a wattle forest for a few kilometres we followed the jeep track as it turned into the forest where nestled the village of Black Fountain. We rode out of the trees just beyond the tiny village - a handful of huts as far as I could tell - and sat on the grass enjoying the warm afternoon sun. The snow capped mountains of Lesotho jutted out of the land a few kilometres to our west. They are incredibly rugged and form a fortress like wall around that mountain kingdom. Fortunately we were headed south along a mountain chain that possessed none of the protective menace of the Lesotho sentinels. 
Back on our bikes, aided by a slight tailwind we spent the next hour winding our way along the mountain peaks following well used cattle trails - route options abounded. At times we barrelled along at speed and at other times we picked our way carefully down rocky 'staircases'. Apart from the occasional dab it was all rideable - on the edge occasionally, but all good fun. 

At the end of these trails one is faced with an assortment of options on how to navigate off the mountain and down the cliffs to arrive at the Tinana Mission station located in the crease at the foot of those mountains. None of them are easy. Ahead of us Tim, Andrew and Gawie had each opted for a different route as would we. The armchair critics back home tracking our progress on their computer screens had a field day. Times and lines were compared and critically assessed. Janine and I were the last ones into the breach and we were watched closely. I opted for a line shown me by Anton last year - it's a tiger line of note. At best I approximated his route. The starting point is vague and involves just heading down. Once about a third of the way down the mountain a scratchy cattle trail emerges. More of a suggestion than a well defined track. We followed this off the mountain to a dirt track below. It's not a pretty route but it's fast and effective. I did grimace from time to time when I heard Janine's bike take the occasional hit as she dragged if over the gnarly rocks. My bike, as ugly as it is, wouldn't make it through the preliminary round of a bike beauty contest so the odd contact doesn't faze me. Janine on the other hand has a contention bike. The scramble down also did nothing for her ailing tendons. 90 minutes after leaving Black Fountain we wheeled our bike across the rickety suspension bridge next to the mission station. A short while later we joined Gawie and Andrew at our overnight stop at Mrs Kibi's house. It had been an enjoyable afternoon on the bike - for me. Janine on the other hand had fallen foul of her injuries and was on the threshold of a tough finish on the day to follow. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Black Fountain - Part 1

There are a number of sections of the Freedom Trail that stand out. Most for the hardship and commensurate satisfaction derived from conquering them. Black Fountain however is remembered for the splendour and joy derived from kilometres and kilometres of the finest single track that traces its way along the ridge of a mountain chain that starts at the nondescript village of Black Fountain and ends with a challenging 'dismount' off those mountains to get to the ramshackle mission station at Tinana. That joy does come with a 'price tag'. It isn't too onerous, a couple of bite size challenges that start the moment you walk out the door at Malekgalonyane. 

The trip to Malekgalonyane although slowish had been refreshing. The winds that hounded us the day before had abated and it had warmed up. It was a perfect day for riding. We as yet had not cashed in on that promise.

Tim had left just ahead of our arrival and Gawie and Andrew were a little way behind. Gawie arrived a few minutes ahead of Andrew. I don't remember much about the lunch. I do know I had recovered my ability to drain copious quantities of tea and was pleased to indulge in that talent. The food must have been adequate or I would have remembered what it was. The sun streamed into the building as we sat around the long table and simply hung out. I was cognisant of the warm ambiance and cheerful chatter. It was a good day to be out on the trail with friends. Looking back it was the point in the race where my hollow legs filled and my inner furnace caught light. I was on the trail, I was happy and my heart, mind and body synchronised. 

Janine and I left ahead of the other two and took on the first challenge of making our way off the ridge and across the veld to the dirt road near Ongeluksnek. The river crossings were easy and even though I did get my feet wet it didn't matter because although the water was cold the day was warm and I knew my shoes would dry. 

Leaving Malekgalonyane the dynamic between Janine and I changed - our lines on the performance graph crossed. For the first time since the start of the race I got a chance to turn my neck to look behind. I had found my legs and Janine had started to feel the onset of chronic tendinitis in hers - it was an unfortunate coincidence. 

We made good time to the road, walked up the steep climb by Ongeluksnek Reserve and rode through to Thaba Chitja where we contoured around to the cattle tracks leading off the mountain. Crossing the river we looked back and saw Gawie and Andrew climbing down the last cliff just before the river. They caught up quickly and we chatted on the walk up to Kubong village. Once at the village and we started on the track that would take us to Black Fountain village the other pair got into a good rhythm and got smaller by the minute until I eventually lost sight of them as they dropped over a ridge many kilometres ahead. 

Friday, 10 July 2015

Queens Mercy to Malekgalonyane

We left the Queens Mercy store at 07:30 and wiggled through the village that lay beyond. Fairly soon we were bouncing down the rutted district road that led to Mparane, Janine as always up ahead and me trailing behind. Having never ridden this section at that time of day I was pleasantly surprised to see school children out in their hundreds making their was to the various schools, differentiated by the varying colours of their uniforms. Many keen to greet us as we passed by. 

Nearing Mparane village we came across dozens of workers who, judging from their overalls, were working with Working for Water. Their job is to rid the area of wattle trees that exist in innumerable forests in that area. Time will tell if their efforts yield any results or if it is merely a community upliftment exercise in that money flows into the area. The area could certainly do with the money. 

Wattle trees were imported from Australia in 1864, initially for shade and firewood. During the middle part of the last century they were found to contain a high percentage of tannin (used for tanning leather) and were grown in massive numbers that supported a thriving export market. Australia being one of the countries that imported tannin from South Africa. Those heydays are over but the invasive wattle survives. They play an important role today as firewood. The harvesting of wood for this purpose has resulted in massive erosion scars across much of the rural landscape where the are harvested. They are cut and tied together in massive bundles and  then dragged behind oxen and more recently by tractors. As destructive as this practice is in terms of soil erosion it does produce the most wonderful riding tracks imaginable as they rise and fall over the landscape for many kilometre at a time. In places the rocks have been polished smooth by the process. 

As I watched the workforce gathering with the purpose of removing the wattle I wondered if any real attempt had been made to improve the electrification of the area. Without electricity and accessible firewood how were people to cook and heat water? Riding in that area we often see people busy harvesting the wattle for firewood so it seems that it is still an important resource. 

Arriving at the base of the Mparane ridge we engaged our inner mountain goats and scrambled up on to the ridge. For the next 30 minutes we rode along the the firewood drag path that runs the length of those mountains. I use the word 'rode' in its loosest sense as I was often reduced to walking. Legs hadn't come around yet. I didn't make much use of my gear shifters. I was either freewheeling, walking or trickling along in granny gear. As I commented at the time, it wasn't the most epic of strategies but it was working. The mighty Tim James was just ahead and the powerhouse that is Andrew Barnes was still behind us. 

 Dropping off the ridge we made our way down to the river crossing, rode across the grass covered spur above the Mariazell Mission station before dropping off the last ridge that saw us reach the road at the mission station entrance. A pedal and a short push had us arriving at Malekgalonyane. It was 10:25. We had plenty of time to refuel before pushing through to Tinana where we planned to overnight. 

Masakala to Queens Mercy - Scribbling through the dark.

As I stood on the threshold of Masakala with favourable weather forecast for the next few days I was eager to get on with the days riding. Little did I know, I was about to make 3 navigational blunders in the space of no time at all. When nav skills are supposedly your "thing" nav errors sting no matter how insignificant they may seem. Janine got to experience them first hand and had a part to play in fixing two of them. I knew there had to be a reason for keeping her around. That reason was about to play out in my favour. 

I hadn't anticipated riding out of Masakala in the dark. I planned to be passing through there 14 hours earlier so had never bothered processing the finer detail required for seamless nighttime navigation ahead of time. Dave Bell had set the getting out of Masakala "Blunder Bar" very high a few years ago when he zigged at the precise point when he should have zagged resulting in a predawn phone call enquiring how to get out of Matatiele. I remember my initial response to that call. "Where?" Followed immediately with "How?" For those who don't know, Matatiele is not on the race route - it is a one hour 'detour' in the wrong direction. You could do it in half an hour if it was on purpose but when unplanned the uncertainty kicks in and it drags  out the agony as you ride slower and slower. 

As I zagged where Dave had zigged all those years ago I felt quite smug - too smug. Reaching the place where I  normally picked up a track that led behind the school and down to the river I found a newly erected fence blocking my path. Unperturbed I kept going until the fence ended and it looked like we could skirt around it and pick up the track I sought on the far side. The fencing and building business must have undergone a boom in the last year. I picked my way through the maze of new dwellings, some with and some without fences. 

Having cleared the last of the houses I had no idea which direction I was headed. I stopped, looked up at the lights on the horizon and was filled with navigational uncertainty. It is not a feeling I am familiar with and as a consequence, not comfortable with. I scanned the lights in the distance desperate to see car lights which would give me a sense of where the main Matatiele road was. If I could get a fix on that then my brain gyro would reorientate itself and all would be good. Murphy, of Murphy's Law fame, intervened and not a single vehicle could be seen which wasn't surprising as it was only 04:30. I guess that if I had waited long enough I would have seen a car moving along the road. To add to my woes, the sky overhead was obscured due to the light pollution of the nearby town. Besides, the stars that I usually rely on had dipped below the horizon so were out of play. 

I don't subscribe to the saying "when in doubt stop". I would rather be moving. I proceeded to make my way down the nondescript and featureless grassy slope in the direction that seemed right. Janine didn't like my line and headed off almost 90 degrees to my right. After a few seconds I heard her calling out to me. She had found the track. Once on the track and heading down to where we would cross the river I looked up at the lights scattered across the horizon and everything fell into place. It was hard to believe I had been so discombobulated - I chastised myself for taking my eye off the ball. Obviously not enough - more muddlement was to follow in short order.  

We moved quickly and an hour after leaving Masakala we had made our way to the point where we were obliged to leave the main Queens Mercy district road and start our trek across the flood plains. The route I follow does not follow the suggested route as marked on the tracking system. It was also a route that Janine was unfamiliar with. I explained my intentions and she was skeptical and that skepticism was scribbled all over her face. To her credit she shrugged and followed me. A kilometre or so in I turned right at what I thought was the T-junction in front of the school. After a minute I became concerned because there was no school on my left hand side as expected. I stopped. Janine said we had turned too early. Huh? How can you turn too early at a T-junction? What I did know for certain is we had come the wrong way. Riding back I found that what I had interpreted as a T-junction was in fact a small kink in the main track. Somehow, under the glow of my lights I had missed that small detail and assumed the road had ended. Riding on a short distance we reached the school and I proceeded to wind my way through the various dirt tracks that lead in the desired direction. 

Reaching the end of the dirt road we had simply to loop around the last house and pick up the track that would carry us over the first section of the flood plain to the village beyond. Simply? I had never scrutinised this part of the route in detail. In daylight the track is simple to pick up. Where it gets a bit scribbly near the start it is easy to see where it resumes a hundred or so metres ahead. Just by scanning ahead you can see it. In the dark that didn't work. I stopped at a junction in the track. The left track seemed to peter out so I continued on the right hand fork. After a short distance it turned and headed off in the wrong direction. To cut a long story short I traipsed up and down in the grass looking for the right track. When that yielded no result I headed off through the thick grass on foot towards the lights of the village that were visible up ahead. After some while it became apparent that I was heading toward the wrong village. The village I wanted was about 20 degrees more left. Not a big error but sufficient to assure we didn't intercept the track we were looking for. So we spent the next 20 minutes plodding through the knee high grass that covered the cattle pocked dry mud beneath. 

As darkness yielded to light we tweaked out final approach to the first village. Riding through the bush we were reunited with the elusive track 50 metres from the village. In the light of day we made short work of getting across the rest of the flood plain and by 07:20 we were sitting outside the old Queens Mercy store. It had taken us 2 hours to cross the plain so my T-junction fail and our fumbling through the grass cost us about 30 minutes. Janine made some comment about my "awesome" route choice which I chose to ignore. I still believe it's the fastest and simplest route - if only I had zigged instead of zagging. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Willing head but broken body.

Here is the message I send while tucked up in bed at Masakala. 

"If you accept that fitness is not the absence of exhaustion but rather the presence of recovery you will understand why I am broken. I entered that space yesterday before  Allendale and there has been no bounce back. As I sat at Allendale yesterday I was certain I was going to vomit and pass out. I have never felt so physically drained. Sitting here I am a further 160km's down the road and we have ridden through snow and into the teeth of an icy headwind for 18 hours. It hasn't been fun but we are over the half way mark to Rhodes. But now I am completely drained. Hopefully a good nights sleep will get me back on track and enable me to finish this thing. No records going to broken this year, just me!  Bedtime."

What stands out for me in this message is the juxtaposition of mind and body. I was physically drained yet cognitively aware of my depleted physical state. I was, as it were, an expert witness and commentator on my ongoing physical challenge. 
Charles Darwin said "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" - the genesis of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Without couching it with careful phrasing it means dumb people are spared the ignominy of their stupidity because they can't see it. I on the other hand was spared nothing. I was fully aware of how pathetic my efforts were and at some level I was intrigued to see how this was going to pan out. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Masakala - time to regroup.

According to Gawie, Tim was having a nap in an outside room. Andrew was still behind us but arrived 40 minutes later. In the interim I took up position in front a a bowl of vetkoek and made an Olympian effort in tucking as many as I could into my belly. By the time I threw in the vetkoek towel I had at the very least put myself in line for podium consideration. It then occurred to me that perhaps some of the other riders might have wanted some. Oops, too late - no point crying over gobbled dough!

While sitting there feeling exhausted and vetkoek bloated it did occur to me that 38 hours into the race, in spite of my obvious sloppy physical condition due to a lack of quality training I was still in the company of the two strongest riders in the race. The irony of it made me smile for the first time that day. 

I had a shower then sat down for dinner and listened to the latest Tim vs Andrew episode. Andrew turned to Tim and asked him straight out what his plans were. I nearly choked on a chicken bone. There is no way that Tim was going to let his nearest rival into his plans. Tim was predictably vague and offered a few umm's and ahh's with the odd word which effectively said nothing. Unperturbed, Andrew announced that he would be getting up at 5 am to leave at 6 am. Tim mumbled something incoherent in reply. 

A few minutes later Andrew drifted off to bed. As soon as he closed the door behind him Tim got to business and started preparing to leave. Janine made some comment about it and Tim silenced her by putting his index finger to his lips. It was very amusing. Even if Andrew knew Tim was about to leave it would have made no difference to his plans. He planned to sleep until 5 am and that was exactly what he did. He must have known Tim was leaving as the main hut of Masakala in probably the least soundproof dwelling in the world. You couldn't pick your nose without the people in the adjoining room hearing it. Tim finished his preparations and slunk off into the night. 

This lack of sound proofing was going to be a problem for a few of the late arrivals. I had developed a bad cough and hacked all night. I heard later that the other riders weren't that amused. I have no idea who they were because I was tucked up in bed by the time they arrived and was long gone in the morning when they got up. I set my alarm for 03:30 and settled down for a cough interrupted night. 

By 4 am Janine and I were up and eating a freshly prepared breakfast while the rest of the riders were still snuggled up in bed. The hosts really do go to the ends of the world to meet the demands of riders who arrive and depart at all hours of the day and night. It's humbling. 

Wiping the crumbs from our mouths and replenishing our water bottles we walked out into a cold but windless  night. Things were looking up! 

Dribbling to Masakala

Mercifully the ploughed road only persisted for a few hundred metres before yielding to the standard hard packed farm track I was expecting. 

Walking through the snow as we had done intermittently for the last few hours had ice packing into our cleats making it impossible to clip into our pedals. It also built up slowly and every now and then we would have to scrap the ice off our shoes to make it easier to walk. Hopefully cleat management was a thing of the past. 
The snow was still present in patches but was largely avoidable.

We moved along at a reasonable pace opening and closing the farm gates as we went long. When I ride with Tim it is our usual practice to alternate gate handling. The front rider would open a gate and wait while the others ride through before closing it. The new front rider would return the compliment at the next gate. However, when it is cold it usually takes two people to close a gate. Most gates are not the hinged sort but rather a collection of horizontal strands of barbed wire fixed with vertical wooden stays. The 'gate' is then tensioned between two fence stays. The cold shrinks the fencing and makes it very hard to open and close a gate. Sometimes you forgo the option of opening a gate and rather climb over because you know you will not be able to secure it afterwards. There is a simple test. If you twang the securing loop and it resonates audibly like a bass guitar string then don't bother opening it, rather climb over. Although we had no twangers there were one or two gates that required our joint efforts. 

Clearing the last gate the other two left me lagging. Once again I was struggling. They waited for me to catch up just after the farmhouse and Tim suggested a sneak through a cultivated field. It was horrible. I made a note of committing the sneak to memory, cutting off my head and then throwing it away. I shan't be using that route again. It saved exactly zero seconds and had us riding over ploughed lands. 

Once across the Underberg-Swartberg tar road we had a relatively easy stretch of 8-10 kilometres that would take us to the intermediate support station of Glen Edward where a good breakfast was sure to be had. It was just after 9 am and I was already battling with sleep monsters - I was falling asleep on my bike. I stopped and took my outer layer off so I wouldn't be too toasty. I figured I would cope better if a little cold. The other two were many kilometres up the road by the time I was back in the saddle and soon they disappeared from view. I struggled through to Glen Edward arriving 10 to 15 minutes behind the others. 

Our host did not disappoint and a scrumptious meal was presented and duly dispatched. While we were busy Gawie arrived looking like he had just cycled around the block. We were clear of the snow but the biting wind persisted. It had drained me physically and mentally but seemed to have no ill effect on Gawie who had ridden in from Ntsikeni way ahead of the other riders who he had overnighted with. 

Any thought of running out the door and charging off over the horizon fell on fallow ground. Tim left and pressed on while I shuffled into the warm sunroom. I muted the radio, set my alarm for 20 minutes and settled into a comfortable armchair and fell asleep. 

All too soon my alarm sounded. I killed it and through foggy eyes saw that Janine had followed my lead and was asleep in a chair on the far side of the room. After a minute she stirred and we began our preparations to leave even though neither one of us thought it was a good idea. In fact, the only good idea at that moment would have been to flop back into the chair and press reset on more sleep. 

We left with Gawie and began the slow uphill slog into the cold headwind. It was horrible. Gawie, even though he was riding a single speed, dropped us early on and we didn't see him again until we arrived at Masakala later that evening. 

There rest of the day pretty much past in slow motion. We trickled along. We had our sights set on getting to Masakala and no further. We stopped briefly among the wattles near Tailorville hoping that the forest would give us some relief from the wind but it didn't. After a few minutes of inactivity we were shivering from the cold and got back on our bikes. To counter the cold we just kept moving, albeit slowly. 

At 18:18 we arrived at Masakala to be reunited with cheerful as always Gawie. 

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Ntsikeni Exit

Out of Ntsikeni in the snow - fun.... for the first minute perhaps!

The virgin snow ahead of me a bejewelled spectacle under the glare of my lights - the blades of grass delicately dusted with millions of tiny diamonds. The wind had them dancing showing off their rich splendour. 

The biggest benefit of the freezing weather is that the wetlands we had to cross near the lodge were frozen. It had also been a dry season so we had little difficulty in getting through without getting our feet wet. The snow, thick in places, had me dabbing with my feet at regular intervals as I navigated through some blanketed rocky sections. A nice surprise lay ahead, the road had seen recent upgrades making it easy to ride in spite of the snow that covered the ground. The previously challenging water crossings had been upgraded with raised pebble beds. This enabled us to keep a good pace which in turn kept the cold at bay. 

The start of the jeep track that would take us over the mountain loomed in the glow of our lights. I knew we would have to walk some of the early sections and I wasn't looking forward to getting my feet wet from walking through the frosted grass. As it turned out it was so cold that the ice crystals didn't melt and were merely swept aside as we walked through the grass. 

At some point I reached for my water bottle and found it frozen solid. We had been outside for less than an hour. It takes longer than that to freeze a bottle in my freezer at home. It was a stark reminder of just how cold it was. 

The predawn sky showing the first signs of the looming day was still peppered with stars - the snow storm had passed. Looking behind I could see Tim and Janine's lights piercing the gloom as they made their way up the ridge behind. The Ntsikeni peak now silhouetted against the eastern sky gave me an idea of how far we had already ridden. I as stood there I became aware that my hands were aching from the cold. I opened my pack to retrieve some glove inners. As I fiddled with my kit Tim and Janine glided past with the hiss and squeak of tyres on fresh snow. In no time at all they looked far ahead. It's difficult to judge distance at night particularly as neither one of them had tail lights. 

We continued climbing up the ridge alternating from one track to the other trying to find the best line through the snow covered jeep tracks. As we climbed higher we encountered older snow that had iced over which meant we had to be particularly careful with our lines. The dainty bejewelled grass ice 'sculptures' had given way to thicker rope like structures resembling Rasta braids. The older snow showed signs of the persistent wind with uniform erosion lines scribed around the shrubs. 

We reached the forest that marked the top of the climb and after riding parallel with the tree line for a kilometre or two we dropped down on a spur toward our exit point from the Ntsikeni Reserve. By the time we had reached the bottom of the valley it was light enough to ride without lights. The wind at the bottom, super cooled by moving over kilometre upon kilometre of snow laden fields, chilled us to the bone. It wasn't fun. 

We picked our way along the cattle tracks, walking occasionally and hopping over a few fences before eventually dribbling down to a stream crossing where we slung our bikes across our shoulders and climbed up the steep cattle track that led to a farm road that would see us clear of this frozen valley. 

Imagine my horror when I found the road freshly ploughed! I dropped into a roadside donga in an attempt to get out of the wind while I waited for the other two to finish scrambling up the ridge. The swirling wind mocked my effort. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Gladiators of the Night - Ntsikeni

Racing snakes arrive in the dead of night when the average rider is asleep and they are gone before that self same average rider wakes up. Ever wonder what takes place in those witching hours? 

Is this case, nothing amazing. 
Under the dull glow of a paraffin lamp I slumped at the table nursing a cup of tea waiting while our host, Mr Ncgobo, heated some food. Janine mooched around wordlessly. Tim on the other hand got straight to business. His nausea had won over. He upturned his ice-cream tub on the table and spent the next 10 minutes doubled over heaving into the container. Whether it was productive or just dry heaves I couldn't tell and quite frankly didn't care - I was stuffed. 

A few metres away two woman, Mr Ncgobo's wife and a friend I guessed, sat in front of the fireplace. To my shame I have to admit I didn't bother introducing myself or get to ask their names. Fresh logs had flames dancing in the hearth. The light played on the faces of the woman who sat dead still, blankets pulled around their shoulders. Their eyes tracking our every move. In contrast, their silhouettes cast against the far wall of the cabin swayed from side to side as if in a voodoo trance. The wind outside made its presence felt with a soft yet eerie moan.  

Soon the food was ready. I wasn't feeling hungry. Even so, I rolled two chicken legs onto my plate and returned to the table and spent the best part of 15 minutes sucking the meat off the bone. Halfway through I realised I still had all four layers on and removed my storm jacket and rain pants. The room was warm but I still felt cold - once again the internal furnace had faltered. 

Tim had recovered sufficiently that he had managed to put some food on a plate and proceeded to push it around his plate with a fork. Eventually the talk turned to 'next action'. The first part was easy - sleep! It was almost 2 am. We decided to bed down until 3:30 and then eat and resume our cross country plod. 

We told Mr Ncgobo of our plans and simply asked how we could heat some water to make ourselves some breakfast. He would have none of it. He said he would have a warm breakfast ready and waiting at 03:30. Such is the generosity of this man. For years he has been an amazing host and has been waiting in the wee hours every year for my arrival. It is people like him who keep people like me coming back year after year. I realised in that moment that this race is about the people of the race, both riders and non-riders alike. 

After putting our bikes inside out of the freezing conditions, we scuttled through the cold night to an unoccupied chalet - other riders were fast asleep in the others. Janine took the double bed near the door and Tim and I wobbled up the stairs to the loft that had two beds tucked under the thatched roof. Removing only our shoes we flopped into bed. I set my alarm, pulled the blankets up high and listened to the wind whistling through the eaves. Sleep came easily. 

I muted the alarm. The wind still whistled through the eaves - just louder. It did little to raise my spirits. We all lay awake for a number of minutes before I eventually decided that laying there wasn't going to put any distance between us and this lodge. It flipped the blankets off and felt instantly cold - the food and short nap hadn't done anything to revive my flagging reserves. Oh well, nothing to be done. I opened the door, stuck my head out, retrieved it from the chilly blast just as quickly and closed the door emitting a very obvious sigh. 

  "What's wrong?" asked Tim from his  warm bed. 
  "It's raining!" I declared. 
  "No it isn't" came a soft voice from the double bed. "I saw snow flakes!"
Once again I opened the door and poked my head out - everything was covered in an inch of fresh snow. Sounds nice, it wasn't. Don't for a second imagine it was the soft feathery snow of fairytales. It was icy slushy snow driven by a howling wind. By the time I had hobbled the 20 metres over to the main cabin I was trembling from the cold. 

Mr Ncgobo had done himself proud. A breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, toast and porridge awaited us. 
I would like to say we wolfed it down, threw our gear on, joined together in a rousing marching song and sprang out the door before charging off into the raging snow storm. That's what real gladiators would have done. Truth is, we aren't gladiators but merely faux-gladiators. The prospect of riding in those conditions does not excite us any more than it does the next person. So what makes us do it? Momentum. Once your mind is set on a goal, a purpose, the rest plays out automatically. It is as if you are a rail carriage set on a downhill track - going forward is what you do. 

We ate what we could, retrieved our rain gear from where we had dumped it a few hours before and dressed up against the elements that taunted us from without, all the while under the gaze of the two woman who still sat by the fireplace. Who knows what went through their minds. I am sure it wasn't "Now here are three really smart people, dressing up nice and warm to go play outside."

It was already 04:30. I retrieved my bike, headed out onto the snow covered deck and shone my headlight over the ground around the lodge. Removing all thoughts of riding through the snow for a second I had to admit it looked amazing. 

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ntsikeni or bust! Part 2

The last trudge between us and Ntsikeni generally referred to as The Wall lay 6 or 7 km's ahead down an undulating road. Janine rode some distance ahead, her light 'cocoon' visible every time the road kicked up. The cold headwind made the chase even harder. I finally caught up to her at the last low level bridge that signalled the start of the slow walk up The Wall. I am better suited to portaging than Janine, probably because I tend to walk more than her or maybe she pedals more because she prefers it to walking. In any event, the gnarly climb ahead of us was largely unridable. I put my head down against the strengthening and ice cold headwind and began the mindless slog up the mountain with Janine trailing behind.

An hour later we hit the final plateau before entering the Nature reserve. It was nice to be back on the bike and rolling along at speed. Once again I settled into chasing down Janine. 

I saw she had stopped up ahead - her headlight was shining back toward me. As I got closer I saw something next to the road had her attention. It was Tim's bike. 

We will pause briefly to explain the etiquette of extreme biking. If your intention is to get a fixed period of sleep you remove your bike from view  and snuggle down in the bush. If however you want the riders behind you to wake you up you leave your bike in view. In both cases always making sure your bike is facing the direction you wish to travel when you wake up. Many a sleep deprived rider has pedalled off in the wrong direction. 

Tim's bike was in view. I shone my headlamp into the road side foliage and was rewarded with the sight of Tim, looking every bit like a giant mole, crawling out from between the bushes. 

Janine and I continued up the road and were joined by Tim as we reached the 10 foot high game fence around the reserve. Tim had timed it perfectly. All his kit was attached to his bike which made it cumbersome to man handle over the stye particularly as the stye is a bit rickety and the wind had started to gust. He did say that he had seen our lights in the distance and decided to have a power nap while he waited for us to catch up. 

Getting the bikes over the fence took some effort but soon we were inside the reserve following a new and well used jeep track which I was grateful for as I was running low on energy and struggled to keep up with Tim and Janine. The wind had sucked the last remnants of energy out of my legs. It was probably my now tired and over active imagination but I was so tired that It felt like every time I blinked it sucked a little more power out of my legs. 

Just as I had given up any hope of maintaining the pace required to keep up with the other two Tim started walking and I was more than happy to follow suit. He was in a bad way. Every now and then he would stop and flop over his bike. For my part, I was happy to wait with him. Janine in the meantime rode ahead stopping regularly to wait for us. 

I was desperate to see the lights of the lodge. I became obsessed with one thought - get off this bike and get somewhere warm. Eventually I saw the lodge lights up ahead. And not a moment too soon. Janine had slowed and waited for me while Tim went ahead. She still had some fight left in her, I was envious. A few minutes later I stumbled up onto the wooden deck, leant my bike against the railing and went inside the fire warmed lodge. It was 01:20. Over 19 hours on the trail.  It had been a very long day - but we had made it. 

Ntsikeni or bust! Part 1

As we entered Centocow we found Andrew Barnes, freshly showered, sitting at the table enjoying a hot cup of something while he waited for his dinner to be heated. He said Tim had gone on and he was going to catch some sleep before heading out. 
I sat down and alternated between glugging down cups of hot tea and tipping spoonfuls of good hearty soup down my throat. Things were looking up after my rather pathetic feeding attempts at Allendale and Donnybrook. 

Andrew commented that he had a hard job keeping up with Tim. I smiled. Clearly Tim was trying to get inside Andrews head as there is no way Tim would normally ride that hard. The other problem is that if Tim rides too hard, particularly on the first day, he ends up suffering from nausea. This is how I managed to beat him on the Cradock race three months before. 

I could have easily settled in for a snooze except that pushing through to Ntsikeni had become my staple first day effort in recent years. Added to that was the fact that Janine had never accomplished this feat and I was keen for her to have that experience. I still remember my first 'Ntsikeni in One' ride - arriving at the lodge I parked my bike, took a big breath and thought 'Wow, I did it!'  It's still a big deal. Fewer than 10 people have achieved that goal in the 11 years of the race. 

Without undue haste, owing to a still tired body on my part, we layered up against the cold and by 18:40 were grinding up the first climb away from the mission. The lengthy stop (40 mins) and some good food had the riding coming easier than I expected. So much so that we overshot the first crucial turn. Fortunately, I picked it up within 20 metres. Even so, I wasn't entirely convinced. It seemed too easy and too fast. I checked my watch. We had been moving for just over 40 mins which is what I had expected that stretch to take. We had been riding together for the first time that day and the banter had made the time pass quickly. 

Another 45 minutes of mostly walking had us at the top of the watershed. The night was clear, windless and very cold. Dropping off the mountain we cranked our way through the last village before turning off the district road and followed cattle tracks toward the river crossing just before the Boshelweni forest - the scene of countless navigational 'skirmishes' over the years. The icy river water, mid-calf deep, numbed my feet within seconds. A few seconds after that the numbness gave way to a throbbing ache - never fun. I didn't expect it to be easy but neither did I recall the discomfort of a river crossing being so bad. Suddenly the river seemed very wide, too wide. In practice it took less than a minute but that minute dragged on and felt many times longer. I scrambled up the other side eager to get away from the water to the start of the forest some 500 metres further on where I would change my socks and replace them with knee high Seal Skinz that were sure to drive the cold out. 

Sitting on the edge of the forest fumbling through my pack I felt the weariness of the day taking a firm grip. It seemed like a good idea to brew a cup of coffee and we did just that. We sat there in darkness under a moonless sky. Yes it was cold, but it was also peaceful. The black canvas of the night sky pinpricked with a myriad stars was majestic beyond description. In spite of being cold and tired I felt privileged to be out there. 

Packs heft onto backs we righted our bikes and pedalled into the forest. Occasionally the garrison of trees would give way to small grassy valleys before we once again plunged into the dark grasp of a other stand. The sound of tyres on gravel deepening each time we rode through the tight packed trees. We emerged from the forest at the crest of the mountain into slight headwind and wound our way down a track to the district road beyond.