Saturday, 4 July 2015

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. 

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