As I left the Lodge at Ntsikeni I scanned the distant horizon to see if I could see Tim's light. The southern horizon like every other direction was pitch black thanks to the overcast sky that obliterated the moon. Good, when Tim got to the Lodge he'd see that I left well ahead of his arrival. That should give me a huge mental advantage. I figured it would take me no more than 7 or 8 hours to get to the finish. If I could hang on to the 2 to 3 hour lead I'd maintained over the last few days it would be a simple matter to finish ahead of Tim and claim second place behind Kevin Benkenstein who had already stormed to a well deserved win.
There'd just been a huge thunderstorm that left the ground sodden and soft underfoot. I'd gone no more than 100 metres from the lodge and I was tossed off my bike. I had no idea what I'd ridden over or in to cause my front wheel to wash out. Rain streaked glasses made for poor visibility.
I have a riding Achilles heel - I can't ride in the rain. It's not a mental problem. I wear prescription glasses and without them I can't see well enough to ride at any pace more than a jog. Particularly at night. On a smooth open road I can take a chance but if it's even slightly rough with a chance of me putting my front wheel where I shouldn't it's a big problem. On technical tracks or even single track I'm reduced to a crawl.
I remounted my bike and tentatively made my way from the lodge stopping often to assess difficult looking bits of track.
By the time I exited the reserve it had started to rain again. The ground turned to sludge. I crossed a patch of rock and mud so slippery that I had to use my bike to support myself as I inched my way across. I tried to convince myself that it was a passing shower and that if I could get to lower ground it would ease. That was wishful thinking. Soon it was hosing down. I was getting soaked and visibility was now only good enough for me to walk. That meant I couldn't generate sufficient heat to counter the chilling effect of the rain. I needed to get out of the rain. I knew there were some huts nearby but it was 11:45pm and that's not the time to be knocking on someone's door. I couldn't do it. I did the next best thing. I hauled out my emergency bivy bag. I set it under some wattle trees next to the path and slipped inside. I dragged my backpack inside after me and did the best I could to keep the opening closed sufficiently to keep the rain out.
An emergency bivy bag is essentially a foil bag that looks like a giant chip packet. By the time I'd wiggled in carefully so that I didn't puncture it by pushing my cycling shoes through it I was soaking wet. Adding my backpack made for little wiggle room.
I lay there with the rain noisily hammering down on the foil bag mere inches from my ear. I pulled the opening over my head doing the best I could to make sure the top flap overlapped the bottom flap so that it wasn't acting as a gutter which would fill the bag with water.
The bivy was in contact with me on the inside and icy rain on the outside. There's no insulation. Eventually I started shivering. Shivering is the body's way of generating warmth. That being the case I embraced the shivering and got my whole body to quiver. After 20 to 30 seconds I would stop and felt a lot warmer. This would be repeated every few minutes.
I decided I should let the race office know I was okay. It took me a solid 5 minutes to locate the backpack pouch I store my phone in and retrieve my phone. It'd help to be a contortionist in the confined space of the chip packet. It would have been easier if I had arms like the stubby front legs of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It turned out that I had no signal so used the torch on the phone to locate the OK button on the tracking device. That would hopefully let the race office know I was fine. But I wasn't fine. I was wet, cold and my legs were cramping. I was miserable.
I checked my phone. Had only 5 minutes elapsed since I last looked? This was going to be a long night. I was too cold and uncomfortable to sleep. Besides, if I didn't keep control of the opening flaps the rain and wind would make sure I was awake.
I decided that I had to do something to distract myself from my misery. What better way than to update the race blog on my previous race. Easier said than done. My fingers and phone screen were wet so I couldn't type. I needed to dry both. I managed to get a tissue pack out my backpack but it was a soggy mess. Then I remembered that I had a roll of toilet paper in a ziplock bag. 5 minutes later I dried the screen and my fingers sufficiently to type. Every now and then a drop of water from the condensation in my chip packet would fall on the screen requiring me to go through the whole palaver of drying both screen and fingers.
The rain eased for a few minutes before resuming with not only the previous vigour but this time accompanied by a howling wind that had me trying even harder to keep the rain out of my flimsy foil fortress.
I'd been typing away for an hour before I had a brainwave. I had no cell signal but I was in a foil bag. What would happen if I held the phone outside the bag. I tried it. Sure enough I got a 3G signal.
I typed up a message and pressing send extended my arm out the bivy; It's raining and windy. In my bivy in a wattle forest waiting to see if it stops. Ground is slippery as snot. Can't see without my glasses with the rain so can't ride like this .
I retracted my arm and checked my phone. It had worked. At least someone else knew I was miserable.
Time crawled, agonising minute by agonising minute. I had ample time to reflect on how I came to be laying on the ground in a crinkly chip packet getting lashed by rain and wind instead of being in a nice warm bed 9 kilometres back at Ntsikeni. We were racing. The "We" being Tim Calitz, who I'd never met, and myself. The race had already been won by Kevin Benkenstein - there was no one in the race who could match him. That left the race for second place the one to play for. I had passed Tim as he lay on the floor nursing an aching back at Flitwick 450 kilometres back. Since then I'd kept my eye on him. The gap between us has fluctuated between 1h40 and 3h30. Tim had spent more time at support stations so I imagine he'd got some sleep. As for me, by the time I'd left Ntsikeni I was almost 62 hours into the race and had only slept for 90 minutes in total. It was woefully inadequate. My plan was to get on the road well ahead of Tim and have a few power naps along the way.
(Post race I see that I left Ntsikeni 6 hours ahead of Tim. In hindsight I would have done better to sleep at Ntsikeni for a few hours. The clarity of hindsight.)
I had contemplated sleeping at Ntsikeni but the weather forecast was for the prospect of rain to get worse not better. I thought I may as well head out while there was a break in the rain. I'd done just that and now I was enwrapped in my foil wrapper.
At around 03:30 the sound of rain falling on the bivy lessened. I poked my head out and although misty there was only a light drizzle. I wormed out of my cocoon, added a dry base layer and headed off hoping desperately that once I had dropped off the mountain the rain would have stopped.
Over the next 90 minutes I had only covered 9km as the rain had resumed. Once again I needed to get out of the rain. Getting back in my bivy wasn't an option as the ground was sodden. I looked to see if there was a house close to the road that had an overhang where I could sit or stand out of the rain. I saw a house with an open gate and a small stoep. I guided my bike into the yard and stood under the overhang. It was still cold but at least the rain wasn't pelting me.
The stoep I was standing in was no more than 1 metre deep. Leading off it were 3 doors which I assumed were bedrooms. I couldn't just stand there unannounced. I was happy enough to wait out the rain on the stoep but wanted to do so with permission. It was 05:10 which while still early was better than midnight. I knocked on the door in front of me and got no response. I knocked again. A door to my right opened a crack. I asked the person inside if it was okay to wait on the stoep. I was told to knock on the door I had already tried. I knocked and
Still got no reply. At least I had made my presence known.
I sat down with my back against a pillar and draped the bivy over my shoulders. The man I had spoken to earlier emerged from his room and walked away leaving me squatting on the dry strip of concrete. 10 minutes later he returned. He went into his room and retrieved a thick woollen jacket which he handed to me. He then indicated that I should follow him.
I followed him across the yard and into a corrugated shelter in which a fire had been started. I gathered that it was where he prepared his food. He pushed a 20 litre plastic drum in my direction and I sat across the fire from him. The warmth of the fire combined with that of the jacket did wonders for how I felt. With steam rising from my clothing I watched as the man stoked the fire with wood.
I asked his name. Papelo. I sat mesmerised by the warmth giving fire. Papelo's shadow played on the corrugated iron behind him—a manic dance in contrast to the man who sat still and silent before me.
When the fire had settled into a good mix of flame and hot coals Papelo held out a bucket containing cobs of maize. I took one.
"Another?" asked Papelo. I declined thanking him for the one I already had. Not sure of how to proceed I mimicked Papelo as he stripped the green outer leaves, snapped of the end and removed the silk before placing it close to the glowing embers. We sat there silently, the only sounds the rain drumming on the tin roof and the crackle of the fire, occasionally rotating the maize as the fire worked its magic. Once the cobs were uniformly auburn we popped the warm kernels off and ate.
Papelo asked where I was from before offering that he was from Maseru in Lesotho. He works for a local man who deals in sheep and cattle for which he is paid a pitiful wage.
With the thrum of rain on tin and the mesmerising dance of flames the accumulated exhaustion caught up with me. I fell asleep. I woke suddenly falling toward the fire. I spread my arms and managed to arrest my fall before disaster played a hand. Papelo reached forward and steadied me. The concern writ large on his face.
We continued sitting there in silence. Two men, one from a world of privilege the other from a life of need. In that place our roles were reversed, albeit temporarily. I had need of warmth and shelter and Papelo met that need without hesitation or question from the little that he had. We sat around the fire as two men sharing the simple yet vital comfort of the fire as well as the presence of each other's company.
The rain slowed and then stopped. The clouds lifted revealing the light of dawn. It was time to go.
Returning to the road I could see fresh bike tracks. Tim had passed me. I pushed hard and judging from the way passing cars had obliterated his tyre tracks he was no more than 20 minutes ahead of me. Using this method I established that I had closed the gap to within 10 or 12 minutes when I could no longer stay awake. The lack of sleep had finally caught up with me. I had a 10 minute nap and remounted my bike moving ahead at a much slowed pace. The chase was over.
By the time I got outside Colford Lodge I needed to sleep again. I propped my bike against the stone wall and sat next to it.
I heard a voice, "Hello? Are you okay?"
I opened my eyes. A lady with child in arms stood 20 metres away. She looked worried. I assured her that I was okay and her relief was palpable.
I continued on until I got to the tar road crossing which left 23km to the finish. It was a simple ride to the finish but simple is not ideal when having to deal with sleep monsters. As expected they ravaged me. A few times I woke up having turned 90° and heading directly into the ditch. I was so discombobulated that a few times I had to check for my tyre tracks so I knew which way I was supposed to be heading.
I saw Benky who was driving on his way home. He stopped and we chatted for about 10 minutes. I didn't mind the distraction or the wasted time. A couple of riders doing the 400km race came up the road and I fell in with them. It kept me from falling asleep. Once they got 50 metres ahead and I started nodding off. I then made a point of sticking with them. Bizarrely, as we got to within 250 metres of the main gate of Bushman's Nek I nearly fell asleep twice. It was a struggle to the very last pedal stroke.
I completed the race in 76 hours 4 minutes a far cry from my pre-race prediction of 60 hours and 1 hour 43 minutes adrift of Tim Calitz.