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. 

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