Sunday, 17 April 2016

Race to Cradock - Hofmeyr to Elandsburg

The ride from Hofmeyr to the Elandsberg support station is only 33 kilometres. Most of it is flat and doesn't take more than 3 hours - which is about how long it has taken me to write this account of those 3 hours! The tricky bit is the last 7 or 8 kilometres. The first section of that is best tackled in daylight. With a little over 2 hours of daylight left we headed out of town. The pesky headwind was still at it. The easiest way to get through the early parts of this section is to get your head down, stop thinking, and simply turn the pedals over as quick as you can.

Our 'quick as you can' was no match for Anthony's effort. He caught us quickly, rode alongside for a brief natter, and took off at speed. I focused on the road just ahead and got into a steady rhythm. If there's one chink in Casper's armour it was this - flat road riding, particularly when tired. It is the only time he grumbles about riding. He whinged about it the previous year on the same stretch of road. I wouldn't say he sucks at it, he just doesn't like it. I slowed up and waited for him to catch up. The road ahead was straight as an arrow for a few kilometres. As Casper drew up beside me I looked ahead and couldn't see Anthony. I turned to Casper, "Tell me Anthony has fallen off his bike. There's no way he can be that far ahead."
"He's £&@%#¥ gone!" was Casper's terse reply.
Anthony was indeed gone. That guy can put the hammer down. I figured we had seen the last of him.

I was watching the sun and doing the maths. It was going to be tight. At the very least I wanted to be on the jeep track on the second half of the portage before it got dark. Casper was tired and wasn't having much fun trying to coax more speed out of his bike. I was also tired but the fear of getting stuck on Elandsberg for the second year running was enough to galvanise my legs into action. I got a little tense. My eyes constantly switched between the road, Casper, and the sun.

The sun was touching the horizon as we left the dirt road to find the old wagon trail through the mountains. As tired as I was, I mashed at the pedals forcing the bike through the sandy patches and over the rocks. We had a few kilometres to 'safety' and not a lot of light left.

As I wound my way up the gnarly track I kept looking back to make sure Casper was still in touch. After pushing my bike up a rocky section I heard someone right behind me. It wasn't Casper. It was Anthony. It was rather surprising as I expected him to be through the portage and almost at the next support station. I asked him what went wrong. He was short on details but mentioned that he had gone left at the top instead of right. I had no idea what top he was talking about. He was also aware of the light constraint and pushed on. I was keen to see what line he took across the veld. I knew where to go but want to see if Anthony had a clean line that I could stash in my memory bank in case I had a future need to do the route at night. He assured me that it was straight forward. I wanted to see this straight forward line. Years back it was quite simple to cross the bush and find the jeep track that headed out of the valley. I had come through here years ago at night and had no problems. A few seasons back a series of heavy downpours changed all that. The valley floor is now scarred with dozens of dongas that you need to navigate through and around.

I was now playing piggy in the middle. I had Casper lagging behind and Anthony scampering off ahead of me. I wanted to keep both in sight. The problem being that Anthony showed more determination in getting ahead than exhausted Casper was in keeping up. At one point I could see neither Anthony not Casper.

The critical moment of the portage occurs as you cross a particular fence. If you stand with your back to the fence and look directly south there is a jeep track heading up a ridge just over a kilometre away - it shows as a red scar running up the face of the ridge. All you have to do is get to that scar and the rest is fairly straight forward. As I crossed the fence I looked up and could still see the scar in the failing light. I could also see Anthony picking his was across the veld. What I couldn't see was Casper. In my head I was screaming, "Casper move your backside unless you want to camp out here by yourself all night!" Hopefully my face and demeanour gave none of that away.

When I saw Casper riding down the ridge toward the fence I continued following Anthony. The first part of Anthony's line was no different to the line I normally take. I was keen to see what he did once he got to the first dongas. He disappeared from view as I slowed up to make sure I didn't disappear off Casper's radar. As soon as I was sure Casper had a good bead on me I followed after Anthony only to find him doubling back. He crossed another donga explaining that he was looking for the track. He found what he thought was a track but it wasn't and then he crossed yet another donga and found yet another track. All this time I was zigging and zagging desperately hoping that Casper had me in sight.

The upshot of all he uncertainty is that Casper closed the gap on us. Anthony found what he assured me was the right track and he pedalled off. I followed him for 100 metres before deciding that I would rather go the right way. Anthony was heading toward the wrong ridge. I tried shouting after him but he was already out of range. The scar heading up the correct ridge, now barely visible in the dull light, was a few hundred metres to my right. I got off my bike and walked a straight line across the bush. I shouted back to Casper to follow me. He looked a little perplexed but dutifully walked in my direction.

Once we were on the right track we took a minute to get our night lights sorted out. I couldn't see Anthony anywhere. I set my headlight to strobe and pointed it in the direction I saw Anthony heading. After a couple of minutes I gave up any hope of getting his attention and we set off up the track. I expected he was going to spend a miserable night on the mountain.

The track around Elandsberg mountain has deteriorated over the years. In places it barely looks like a track. Our navigation was spot on and 45 minutes later we arrived at the support station at Elandsberg farm. We were now 12 hours ahead of our time from the previous year. A sub 56 hour finish was still on the cards.

No comments: