Tankwa River Lodge is tucked away in the nicest part of the Tankwa Karoo. There are other parts that are overtly hostile. I'll be visiting those parts shortly. But before I do I get to enjoy the hospitality of WP9. It's a gorgeous evening with a slight breeze that looks like it might assist me in getting to the next water point. If it turns out to be of no help that's okay because at the very least it seems unlikely to be a hinderance.
The ambience is relaxed, mostly because there is no electricity, and I'm efficiently assisted in filling bottles and getting something to eat. A small generator is fired up to make a cup of coffee. I ask about the rider behind me. I'm told that the last time they had an internet connection there wasn't a rider close to me. I mention the lights I saw at the top of the pass and they assure me it was unlikely to be another rider. Even so I'm expecting to see someone roll down the driveway any minute.
In spite of not getting any sleep in Sutherland I feel okay and I'm looking forward to the next section. That's only because I'm going through at night. It's 165km to the next Race Village in Ceres with 115km of that being the most desolate part of the country you're likely to find. There is a water point situated at the Tankwa Padstal which is 70 km away. During the day this section is brutally hot and there's normally a demoralising headwind. But during the hours of darkness you've a better chance of it being cool with little chance of a headwind. Over the years I've tackled it in daylight and at night and it's a proper Jekyll and Hyde. My daytime excursions have been traumatic while my nighttime sorties have been okay apart from rampaging sleep monsters.
Time to head out. In spite of my concerns no other riders have arrived. At the top of the driveway I look back down the trail and there are no lights to be seen. The Tankwa River Lodge is located in the Northern Cape. It's 20 kilometres to the provincial border of the Western Cape. My rear tyre is a bit flat and I make a note to pump it up when I get to the next gate.
The first gate comes up as I leave the district road to start cutting across farmland. I prop my bike against the fence and close the gate. I pop the end of my pump over the tyre valve and seconds later my tyre is completely flat. Now I understand what Martin meant when he said the pump was useless. It seems the one way valve in the pump head isn't doing it's job. After fishing out an inflator cartridge and getting the tyre back to operating pressure I stow the dysfunctional pump and hop back on my steed.
Access to the Western Cape is via a gnarly jeep track that is the hardest climb of the race. It's only 2km and on fresh legs it's a rideable albeit tough pedal. I haven't had fresh legs for days so I ride up about a quarter of the way and push the rest. I'm wearing carbon soled shoes and I'm reminded afresh why I use flexible soled shoes for the Freedom Challenge. These carbon shoes really are rubbish for walking in. Fortunately there's very little walking required on this race and some riders don't walk at all. As I stomp up the track I'm constantly looking back to see if I can see any chasing lights. In spite of being 99% certain of getting a top 10 finish I've started to consider that I might be able to finish well inside the top 10 so the last thing I want to see is a bunch of guys chasing me down. It's a moonless night and there are no lights to be seen, bike or otherwise. I reckon that from up on the mountain I'm able to see a bike light as far away as 10 km's if not more.
Satisfied that I've got a decent gap I mount my bike and pick my way down the rock strewn jeep track. As it flattens out I know I've only got another 45 km to get to the Padstal. From memory I know the track all the way there is in good condition with few climbs or challenging bits. I pop my earphones in, get music playing and drop onto my aero bars. I turn my bike light up a notch and scan ahead constantly on the lookout for sandy patches. At night sand is all but impossible to see. However, I can see the tyre tracks left by the riders ahead of me. Running into a sand trap at speed while crouched over your aero bars can dampen euphoria in the blink of an eye.
It's windless and I'm enjoying the cool night. Having done this section many times I'm able to tick off the various landmarks as they rush through the bubble cast by my bike light.
As I pass a small steel shed I smile at the memory of my time here last year. I got here 10 hours quicker which meant I caught it at its worst. The temps were in the high 40's. I was low on water and what water I had was so hot it was undrinkable. This is where I hatched the plan to cool my bottles with a wet buff which was the precursor to my BottleSox. The wind was blowing something fierce whipping up the sand and stinging my legs, arms and face. It was blowing slightly across and I battled to keep my bike on the track. I was crawling along at around 10 km/h as I drew level with the shed. I saw 2 dogs asleep in the shade of the shed and it looked like the best idea ever. I stopped, propped my bike against the shed and lay down next to the dogs on a pile of what I assume were sheep dropping. It didn't matter what they were because they were comfortable. In no time at all the three of us were fast asleep in the narrow ribbon of shadow cast by the shed. I woke up a while later crisping in the full glare of the sun. My sleeping buddies had abandoned me. I found them in the shade on the other side of the shed. It's then that I knew we'd never be friends. What a difference 10 hours can make. This time I breezed past the shed feeling content which passes for absolute joy in these events.
A distant farm light peeps over the horizon which means I'm getting close to the district road that'll take me to the Tankwa Padstal.
I'm through the last gate and onto the road and a sign indicates that it's only 3 km to the shop. The water point is hosted in the adjacent community hall. As I make my way along the road I notice bright red lights up ahead to my left. I can't figure out what they are or even how far away they are. I know I've still got almost 3km to get to the hall but the lights seem a lot closer. I've no idea what I'm looking at and am further confused when as I pedal they dont appear to get any closer. I've ridden 2.5km from the gate when I see smaller flashing red lights that indicate the turnoff to the water point. Now I can see what the bright red lights are. They are the lights of an ambulance that's parked outside the hall. They've obviously left them on as a beacon for us night stalkers.
Michael and Carol-Ann Jeffrey are once again on duty at WP10. This has to be the toughest water point to look after on the entire route. Firstly it's the last one (Ceres is the last Race Village) and it's located is the harshest place imaginable. Day time temperatures get into the high 40's and it's deep into the night before the temperature in the tin roofed structure drops to anything one could call comfortable. As a consequence you'll find them sitting outside until late at night. The first riders come through around the 48 hour mark and the last limp in approaching the 120 hour race cut-off. They are essentially on duty for 70 hours. There's no time off. In spite of this Michael and Carol-Ann are welcoming and friendly.
As I pull up Michael comes out to meet me and says, "Aren't you cold?" I hadn't even thought about that. I look at my watch and it's just after 2am. That's a good enough reason for it to have cooled down. It's 20°C but compared to the heat we've been through it does feel delightfully nippy.