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Racing the Freedom Trail
By Stuart Brew
It was day five of the the 2011 edition of the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa- a 2300km mountain bike race, unsupported-you receive no outside assistance, and navigate using traditional methods along the route.
En route are 26 ‘support’ stations providing food and a bed that you can victual with a two litre container each of goodies. Otherwise you carry what you need yourself. Your total time is what counts- you command your strategy.
Overhead clouds built slowly and winds gently increased in strength throughout the day, signs of an approaching front as I journeyed up the valleys lying between ridgelines, formed like giant fingers falling east off the Drakensburg.
The support station above the head of one of these valleys is Vuvu. At the school we eat our meals, wash in a basic manner and store our gear. For sleeping arrangements we were billeted to a villager’s hut- the classic mud rondavel. The school has electricity unlike our billets, or indeed our previous support station- the community run lodge, Malekholonyane.
My hosts’ leisurely breakfast delayed my plans to get to the beginning of the Lehana’s Pass portage as dawn broke. I wanted to climb it and be off the tops before the storms fury broke out catching me in it. I lost almost 2hrs that I could only substitute with broken sleep- missing a meal was not an option.
Climbing in the lee of the ridgeline provided some shelter from the full force of the gusty icy wind. Progress carrying the mountain bike was difficult. Dropping to my knees at times giving me the only respite from being blown off the mountain.
My strategy although delayed, worked. I had beaten the worst of the weather with good conditions under foot with the snow proper yet to fall.
I arrived at the support station in the sleepy hamlet of Rhodes mid afternoon and with a desire to push on as far as I could to try and push through the impending snowfall. I victualled from my pre race dropped two litre container and refuelled with offerings of hearty bowls of soup, bread and cups of tea.
Heading towards darker clouds it was a matter of time before the fluffy flakes of snow would come. I felt good as the rest of my start group would have the extra effort of riding in the snow tomorrow. As darkness fell and the fatigue of the day chipped away at my spirits, the snow began to fall.
I decided to buoy my spirits and made a quick call into farm house. Warmed by the fire, I ate my chocolate and headed back into the night. The stop did the trick and with a fair wind following me for the next thirty km’s, my spirits carried me into the night. As the snow got thicker, my legs got heavier and the clock ticked towards an 18 hour day.
Descending into the next valley metered the importance of caution to me. My speed increased the light reflecting off the falling snow made visibility in the direction of travel impossible. I slowed drastically, wary of the consequences to find myself cm’s away from the edge of a large drop to valley below.
I felt like I was watching a tennis match- my eyes constantly using the ditches on either side for reference to ensure I stayed on the road. Ten km’s from my destination car lights appeared out of the darkness.
A concerned Christo from Chesneywold support station had come to check on my wellbeing. He kept his distance so it could not be said I received assistance- I wished he’d followed closer so I could use his lights and stop the tennis thing. I arrived at his families fifth generation farm at 2215hrs for some welcome warmth, food and rest.
When dawn broke dark clouds trailing the main front began to thin. I met my goal and missed the worst of it. Today I had the possibility of three portages but conditions would be assessed as I went, ground conditions would be key. I also had to think of my energy reserves.
A visit at the end of the first portage to a ruined homestead the route passed by was a personal highlight this day. In 2008 I learnt this homestead had friese’s painted on the walls of the lounge to remind the previous occupants of a Europe they had left behind. Pleased to find them, it was a reminder of how quickly life changes, seeing them now open to the elements with small snow drifts piled beneath them.
I finished my day early at 1400 as I stopped for lunch at the next support station of Slaapkrantz. I found out that ground conditions for the next two more portages were tough going with many instances of people been caught out, falling well short of the next support station and having to make a plan for the night.
I decided over lunch to carry on the following day and use the time to fuel and recover my body, looking to the end of the race. These called for some big days to get my strategy back on track and catch my initial riding partner Ben.
Day eight began with a short sharp steep portage luckily in snow to dismiss the effort of the mud. We weren’t so lucky for the next one though as the snow had mostly melted leaving the ground soggy for the long gradual ascent and steep descent. After these portages we then journeyed forth on ‘district’ (dirt) roads in various states of repair.
The slow progress of the last two days picked up and the miles flowed freely under the wheels as we entered the Eastern Cape’s Karoo. We passed through Rossouw a ‘town’ destined at one point for greater things- perfectly planned and yet to grow into its grand street plan, and over the hill to the farm of Mordenaars Poort, the scene of a lucky escape by Boer Commando and later South African Union Prime Minister Jan Smuts, whose four strong scouting party was ambushed leaving him the sole survivor of the skirmish.
Journeying on into the night, the day had turned into a long one as the advice had suggested. Thoughts turned to the days ahead and how to string a workable plan together. I had just left my riding partner for the day, Liehann as I wanted to finish the day quicker and maximise my rest.
Riding at increased pace it was in only minutes of leaving Liehann and in the flat light of the head torch, that I caught an indistinct shallow rut and went down. All thoughts of plans instantly changed to the here and now.
Adrenalin coursed through my body as it does when trauma hits. At the site of pain, my elbow was immobile and the joint felt mis-shapen. I judged a dislocation and when Liehann an attempt to relocate it failed. Plans changed again as options were considered. The immediate need was to deal with the shock that had begun to take hold.
Moving to the side of the road I stood up slowly and in doing so my arm straightened and ‘popped’ back in. As the shock began to subside and with Liehann at my side I started to walk towards our destination for the night still 15kms away.
Noticing the road gently descending I tried ‘scooting’ and decided I could mount the bike. Progress increased significantly and hope buoyed as the prospect of a very late night disappeared. Not without another scare though, as I caught another rut and had to step of the bike. This time without any further trauma.
As the cold night starting to bite we called in on a remote farmhouse to rug up in the warmth it offered. Only two small hills remained that I had to walk up before rolling into Kranskop support station at 2100hrs to enjoy the welcome hospitality of Sandra and Diederek and to make a plan.
Here my 2011 Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa ended. The only disappointment came from the possibilities that I was now unable to try. I had begun to hit my stride, I gained confidence from the earlier hurdles and was formulating a plan to catch Ben and push hard onto the finish, testing myself further. Another day perhaps.
Image: Stuart on the last steep climb of the day to the Nsitkeni Nature Reserve
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