Race Report. Cullinan 2 Tonteldoos 2019

Background. In August 2014 a couple of us rode our bikes from Pretoria East to Dullstroom to see if we could cycle 300km off-road on a mountain bike, our biggest ever ride at that time. Unknown to us, a few days earlier another group under guidance of Rob van den Berg, had done a similar ride from Cullinan to Tonteldoos (C2T). They went after a whiskey festival, we went for Harries Pancakes. They decided it was worthy of a  full blown race and so C2T was born. A 255km/3000m gravel race to the largely unknown village of Tonteldoos, near Dullstroom. So since inception C2T has been on my radar, the format just never appealed to me, nor was it practical from a support perspective. Until 2018 it was compulsory to have a support team that needed to also check in at water points. I did not need this and nor did I feel like having my poor family dash around at night around dodgy roads to find check points. They have followed me into the night in remote parts of our country on many occasions and I did not feel this was necessary. To my delight the rules were changed for 2019 and I could ride unsupported without the need to inconvenience my family support team. Preparations had gone as well as they could, I was comfortable with the distance and I enjoyed riding alone and also so at night. It was race on!

Reader Alert! Fortunately C2T was a rather uneventful race for me but I still feel I have to blog the experience to remind me of this day when I’m at an advanced age :-). In a way it’s a bit of a collection of short stories of what went down in my mind and body on 29 March 2019. Maybe there’s a little something in here to take along on your journey.

Inspiration. The race started at 17h00 on a Friday and we had spent most of the morning at the local hospital for various tests and appointments and by 14h00 I was starting to have visions of, and had made my peace with, a late start. My wife has been my greatest supporter on many an adventure over the years and for various reasons I wanted her to drop me off at the start this time, she is “my team” after all and I wanted her to again have a part in the journey. In my heart I was dedicating this ride to her. We eventually got away and made it to Cullinan just in time.

Fitting in or not. Riding unsupported and knowing roughly what to expect at the water points, I had kitted up with my regular bulky adventure back pack, it belongs more with an adventure race or a Freedom Challenge trip but it was light and with plenty of space for extra food and spares for the night. My “goto” adventure helmet has long fallen out of favor with family and friends but it has served me so well over the years, I feel obliged to use it for out of the ordinary trips. So I stood out a bit from the other 300 riders who looked seriously professional and fast but I’m known for and comfortable looking a bit different. With this in mind, it was a bit odd for me to be introduced over the PA system as one of the “celeb” riders, due to my founding the 7000 member Pembi Facebook group, together with others who are world champions and well known for their sporting achievements. I just kept my head down as if I wasn’t around. Apologies to Rob & Erik but I prefer the low profile ordinary persona, others can have the limelight, I just want to ride my bicycle.

Fast and smart start. I had a soft target of 15 hours in my head, what I would have taken if it had been offered to me beforehand. The winning time the previous year was around 10 hours and I am normally 50% slower than the top dogs. It gave me a 8h00 finish the next morning and my kids were already en route to Dullstroom for a relaxed evening and would pick me up at the finish Saturday morning. From experience I know my own abilities quite well and know how to pace myself optimally so as we left Cullinan I positioned myself a bit mid-pack to avoid being pulled along out of my comfort zone. I allow myself some first hour hype fun around or slightly above threshold heart rate but strictly gear back after that fun hour back to below threshold level. I have done this before, it works for me. It was no different this time and I rather enjoyed the bunch riding till shortly after dark and once we had cleared the first and only single track on the route, I sat back and dialed into my preferred and sustainable pace. From experience I know that the too enthusiastic starters will eventually come back to me and the legitimate fast riders will disappear anyway. In reflection it turned out this way. Soon enough we were at the first water point around 50km where the ever friendly Rocky Chicks were doing duty. It was good to see a few familiar faces. I ride with a tank bag and a zip lock that I top up with my preferred food at the water tables, I don’t enjoy the water point rush much so I follow a grab & go approach and then eat from the zip lock as and when it suits me.

Settling in. Despite the first hour fun, I was still feeling fine and by this time the riders were starting to stretch out a bit, a few red tail lights ahead and a few whites at the rear. It was time to start settling into a rhythm. I knew most of the route off heart as I had been down all of it before so I had my Garmin 810 on minimal display duties, including navigation OFF to try and keep it alive for the anticipated 15 hours. It was handy to have other riders around to follow, albeit with a quick check here and there (have seen people too often go wrong even with GPS). As the rolling hills started, I was slowly gaining on a few riders, it’s really like slow motion, sometimes it takes several kilometers from when I see a light until I eventually catch up. All along I was nibbling from the zip lock and enjoying the unsurprising surprise to feel what was left inside. Marsh mellows, half bananas, fruit cake, dried fruit pieces, droewors, jelly babies … it gets really interesting in there. The next water point came up at around 90km, a quick grab & go again.

“Halfway”. There was one long drag and then a 30km downhill to Loskopdam left to take us to the “halfway stop” at  140km/1200m. I rode with 2 other riders on this stretch and it was good having some company and a few chats. On the dangerous rutted downhill we lost contact, I stuck with a chap who knew the road and safe lines. We eventually got to Loskop around 23h25 (6:25 hours race time). It was around what I had expected would be a sensible effort, riding within my abilities, given the hilly half was still ahead. The Loskop stop was a bit confusing and I fumbled around a bit in the dark trying to work out where to go and where to get the halfway burger and some fresh nutrition. I eventually found the burger and a bottle of water but I couldn’t find any top up snacks. Given that I wanted to repeat my grab & go strategy, I found this a bit frustrating, especially as the next leg to water point 4 was the longest and most challenging of the race. I also had only a single 750ml water bottle and needed a bit extra for this leg. Fortunately I had packed extra food in my back pack and after all the confusion, a quick chain lube and a treat of anti-chafing cream, I was ready to roll. On a previous occasion a couple of us had ridden from Pretoria to Loskop overnight to join an early morning group training ride from Loskop to Tonteldoos and from memory I remember how I struggled to get going after a prolonged stop so was keen to get going before my body and mind had time to cool down. Strava says I spent 10 minutes faffing there, it felt forever! I left at 23h35.

The second “half”. The second “half” of C2T accounts for 120km/1800m of riding. A good effort on fresh legs but now with almost 7 hours of riding in the legs. My 15 hour plan, based on what other 15 hour finishers had done in previous years, comprised a 6.5hr/8.5hr split. I was therefore still roughly on track for 15 hours.

Resetting into fourth gear. Leaving Loskopdam, the next 70km on the route profile shows one long uphill drag made up of several ups and downs. From memory and reminders by previous finishers, there were a couple of long climbs/drags waiting to test the legs and the mind. The first 15km out of Loskop is a sandy, corrugated drag, it feels like it takes forever and it felt like my legs were stuck in third gear, I just couldn’t find my rhythm. I had put on some music for this midnight shift, which I had anticipated would be the hardest stretch of the race mentally and to my surprise the music bothered me more than it provided distraction and entertainment. I was just uncomfortable. So after about an hour of slogging, as the route turned right into the first climb of the leg, I pulled over to try and reset my body and mind. I took off my back pack, relieved my full bodily bladder (good sign), moved food from my back pack to the tank bag and put away the music. A few riders passed me during this time but I wasn’t bothered, I needed to find fourth gear! All of three minutes later I got going again. Somehow this break had done the trick and even as we rode up the first steep climb, I was already feeling better and started catching some riders. In daytime this is a beautiful section tracking the Selons River past bushveld type game farms, at night it gets dark and lonely as riders spread out more and the gaps open up. I had found a good rhythm and was starting to lose sight of the lights behind me and started seeing new red tail lights in the distance, all the while riding within my HR threshold zone and pedaling light gears, this was great for my morale.

Dark and lonely. At one point, for several minutes, I saw no-one ahead or behind and I started wondering if I was still on the correct route. To save GPS I didn’t want to unnecessary use the back light or turn on maps but the penalty for going off route is more severe than losing GPS near the finish, where I knew the roads anyway. Soon enough a route marker popped up to confirm 90km to go. Seeing something familiar and route related in the dark of the night and already less than 100km to go was as good as having a friend shouting encouragement. I love riding at night and was really in my element. In my mind I had worked out 5 big climbs on the second half, the first one was where I took my reset, the second one was a long climb that gets really steep and is probably the hardest of the whole race. I kept on expecting it around the next corner but every time the road tilted up it was a false alarm. Then at one point the route opens up a bit and one sees the red lights ahead rise up above the riding plane. It was a good climb for me, I was still comfortable in fourth gear, caught several riders going up and rode all the way up as some others grabbed the opportunity to push their bikes a bit and get some relief from aching back sides. Near the top I almost rode over a small snake, got a huge fright and pumped the pedals a few times to get clear … I still don’t know if it was alive or dead but it left an imprint in my mind that would make a comeback a bit later. Near the top Heinrich Kemp caught me from behind and we rode together over the crest and down to water point 5. He was feeling a bit nauseous and declined when I produced the remaining chewed half of my Loskop burger from my ziplock. My water bottle also ran out about 30 minutes before the water point but I was well hydrated so no panic. Heinrich is a strong rider and it was good to have some company as we rode quietly along, few words yet great company. Solo ultra rides will understand this.

A clean bottle. We arrived at water point 4 (188km) around 2h30 (race time 9:30). It was great to see some familiar faces and hear familiar voices. Chantal Wooding and Sylvia Du Raan were manning the water point. Both of them had done ultra events and know what to say to tired, dirty riders. My bottle had become sticky and dirty and stuck to my glove every time I used it. Chantal spotted this and offered to clean it for me. Water table volunteers mostly just make sure everything is topped up and play an arm’s length observer role as the headlights appear and disappear. I was overwhelmed that someone actually offered to clean my bottle. Chantal explained afterwards that there was logic behind the cleaning but in that moment it meant a huge amount to me. I guess when your’e grinding your way around a 255km course unsupported you become so reliant on your own ability and means that any intervention or kindness from the outside is amplified. Sylvia has done multiple 36Ones and many other ultra rides so hearing her voice say “Hi Carl” was energizing to the extent that one knows they know exactly what your mind and body feels and is going to feel the next few hours. I enjoyed these little moments, little yet significant for the mind. I completed my grab & go … with a clean bottle this time, and set off for climbs three and four en route to Stoffberg and water point 5.

Snakes in the mist. I knew climb three from before but my friend Wilhelm reminded me before the race of climb four that comes unexpectedly on top of the mountain just as one starts thinking its all downhill to Stoffberg. So I was prepared and rode up the drag directly after the water point cautiously. I could see some lights in the distance but somehow I couldn’t get any closer and it wasn’t long before a fellow rider came past me, we were out of sync. I had interaction with only two other riders on this leg, so no company, like a solo ride. I passed him again on the next downhill, maybe he was being cautious, somewhere he passed me again on a hill and then I passed him again and never saw him again. Our one interaction came as the road was strewn with logs or branches which all looked like snakes to me, every one of them. Trying to make conversation I mentioned this to him the one time we rode alongside for a short bit, he had seen the snake on the big climb as well, affirming it was probably stationary and dead. As I rode up climb four after halfway, the mist appeared. It got so bad I couldn’t see 10 meters ahead of me, so it was cautious going and I had to stop on two occasions to clear my glasses that had become misted up. A light started to creep up from behind and caught up just as we started descending down to Stoffberg, it was Heinrich again, he had taken a bit longer at water point 4 to clear his nausea but was going strong again. We rode into water point 5 Stoffberg (219km) at 4h35 (11:35 race time).

Ahead of schedule. During the “snakes in the mist leg” I started realizing that I may be a bit ahead of my 15 hour schedule so arriving at 4h35 with about 2 hours remaining for the last 35km, I let my family know that I may be a bit head of my estimated 8h00 arrival. Good for me I guess but bad for them, quick out of bed rushed breakfast kind of morning. Why supporters are special! It was getting a bit chilly so on came the arm warmers and after another grab & go, I was off.

Sub-14 is on. The final leg from Stoffberg to Tonteldoos at 37km is a bit of a victory lap. You know you are going to finish unless there is a serious issue and you also get a feel of the ballpark of a potential finishing time. I left water point 5 at 4h40 and realized there was a chance I could even go below 14 hours, never mind 15 hours. A finish time with a “13” in it sounded rather appealing having started with a “15” expectation. After 219km of riding, I was definitely going to give it a go for the last 2 hours!

Korfnek at dawn. A change in nutrition strategy. With only 2 hours of riding remaining, eating solid food, which had been the main stay of my nutrition so far, would be of little help for the last two hours so out came an energy bar and a gel. The first 9km after Stoffberg is a tar road until one turns onto the gravel road that leads to the much dreaded Korfnek pass. I fell in with a two person team for this section, it was nice, smooth & fast but my legs were starting to feel the effort, they felt dead and I had to get out the saddle often to leverage body weight into the pedals, also to provide relief for an aching backside. It was at least nice to have some company. One of the riders, following his partner’s back wheel was fighting the sleep monsters, his wheel flirting with the sharp edge of the tar road, on occasion dropping off and screeching back. I left some space just in case but fortunately all ended well. It wasn’t long before we turned left onto the gravel, the rutted jeep track over rolling hills heading towards Korfnek still in the dark required awake open eyes to avoid an untimely crash. My 2x front derailleur was stuck in big blade and required a shoe to help shift and on some of these steep little bumps I just couldn’t get the change so it was out of the saddle big gear grinds to get over them. The Korfnek section is a 10km/400m uphill grind which tops out with Korfnek pass itself. By this time I had one eye on the clock for the sub-14 and with no idea on how much time I required to get up and over this section I just put my head down and took a “shut up and pedal” approach. By this time dawn was breaking and the horizon with Korfnek ahead started lighting up. It was a beautiful sight in a testing moment. I reached the bottom of Korfnek with a few riders ahead of me which helped to pull me up like virtual elastic, it helped distract from the grind and in the end I felt comfortable riding up and reached the top with the other riders, all of us in good spirit at that moment, knowing it was all downhill into Tonteldoos.

Hello Tonteldoos! It was quite a thrill racing flat out towards the finish at Tonteldoos. I had no idea of position but I knew by then I was going to go sub-14. Having had 15 hours as a soft target, sub-14 was very satisfying. Based on other 15 hour results, I had budgeted 8.5 hours for the last half. I was tracking around 7 hours, way below expectation. We flew into Tonteldoos with one or two supporter vehicles in tow giving us the road, I could still drive the pedals and was feeling great. I eventually crossed the line in 13:45 for a surprising position 25 out of around 300 starters (8th in masters). In truth neither time nor position numbers really matter to me, it only feels good afterwards when you want to compare yourself with others. I ride for myself, to make my family proud and to hopefully inspire others along the way. I ended feeling really good both physically and mentally, my pacing, nutrition and hydration strategy had worked perfectly, my bike had worked a dream, I never had a bonk or a dark mental moment, I had actually enjoyed all of the race without incident and finished fresh without feeling like I was dying. For me this is as good as it gets. It was mission accomplished.

Thank you organizers. Firstly organizers and support crew. Without them us riders won’t have opportunities to measure ourselves again ourselves and make special memories for our life stories. Thank you very much, we appreciate your efforts.

Thank you to my family. They have been at my side for all of my adventures, following me in the middle of the night in the mountains of the Drakensberg with sketchy hand drawn maps, my wife got lost in the Natal midlands looking for me on a remote farm, she once raced through the Karoo to meet me in time in Willowmore, my kids have dropped me off and picked me up in distant places. On this occasion they drove to Dullstroom/Tonteldoos, a 500km round trip just to pick me up. They are part of my team, without them, I would not have a blog full of memories to tell and remember. I enjoy it when they tell their stories of these adventures from their perspective, of times chasing adventure racers around Swaziland, waiting for me in the Drakensberg or trying to stay awake supporting us on ultra ride quests. Hopefully these experiences become part of their life stories and inspire them to chase their dreams and push their personal boundaries, whether in sport, work or family. I am forever grateful for their support which they give without question or expecting a return.

Ronel, Werner, Heide, Erika, Raymond … love julle to the moon and back. Baie dankie! Die een is vir julle!

Kamonande – Weekend Observations(24/25 November 2018)

1. Basboontjie (Elephantorrhiza Burkei) flowers have turned into very noticable bright green pods.
2. Stamvrugte have fruit now. They are a bit scarce but are there. Skin a bit bitter with sweeter flesh inside. Baboons love them, suck them off & spit the seeds out.
3. Koedoebessie also have fruit, about 20mm in size. Don’t see lots of them, maybe you can help spot a few more.
4. Fluweelboswilg has flowers starting, should be in full bloom soon. Going to be a sight!
5. Beautiful specimen of a Lekkerbreek (Ochna pulchra) AKA Peeling-bark Ochna, bark stripped curvy white branches. Look out for them going up the cement road at Kamonande 2.

Apart from the usual, also saw 3 snakes, a beautiful big porcupine (ystervark), a few new bird sightings & id’d a few new trees.
Another rewarding weekend at Kamonande!

Watching Dots

All my life I have been drawn to endurance sport, all of it, from when I can remember. Mostly to the challenge and participation side of it and more recently, since the increased availability of information on the Internet, as an enthusiastic spectator or as it’s called in the digital age, a dot watcher. Yes, I am a self-confessed dot watcher.

I have always enjoyed tracking, capturing and drawing tracks of routes. Even before Strava and Garmin Connect I had always a GPS with me that I used to plan routes and then go ride or hike them, all around the world. I have folders and folders of GPS files and folders and folders of Google Earth tracks or all kinds of routes, mostly of endurance races.  My own participation has taken me to many of these places over the past few decades and there’s just something about plotting a route and then going on it. Maybe it’s just me.

Races like the Freedom Challenge, Expedition Africa and long distance mountain biking races have become favourites. As dot watcher I am often more interested in the route than the athletes (sorry), I draw the tracks in detail on Google Earth, in the process developing an interest in the areas and surrounds of the route. Google is a handy aid to go and look at images along the route the athletes are travelling and I’m a sucker and a sponge for absorbing these interesting titbits of information.

More recently, especially with Freedom Challenge and Munga, I have unwittingly found myself in the role of “race statistician”, I have folders with progress reports from previous years and knowing most of the routes from personal racing or travelling, I can see in my mind exactly where and what the racers are experiencing in terms of visual scenery, people, nature, terrain and even weather. Every year when these events appear on the calendar I get inexplicably drawn to the spreadsheets and tables of comparison to report how riders/runners are tracking against leaders, records and previous years. I admit I am a bit of a data analysis geek and when the race starts, my desk looks much like that of a stock exchange trader with multiple screens showing maps, tables and twitter feeds, sucking up every bit of information.

What does it take to be a dot watcher? A keen interest in the what, where and who of what you are watching helps. Having been there makes even following dots very real, even elevated heart rate, it’s just the sore muscles that are missing. If you go next level dot watching, you need the full hog, live tracking, twitter feeds for news and photos, Googling interesting information about the location, Google Earth and spreadsheets to capture progress, splits and notes. I strongly recommend avoiding this stage of enthusiasm, there may even be a mental condition for this.

Every now and then I am fortunate enough to find myself participating and no dot watching can make up for the thrill of being out there on the trails rather than stuck behind the desk but watching dots as a consolation still beats mowing the lawn or watching television. In the final analysis, there’s a part to dot watching that is seriously geek but in the end it will most likely leave you enriched with new knowledge and hopefully inspired to get out-there to undertake your own adventures.

Here’s to the dot watchers, the racers out there drawing the lines for us and most importantly, the inspiration we draw from the dots!

Race Report. Full Moon Drakensberg Adventure Race

Suckers4Adventure is a social team. We do adventure races because we love being outdoors, discovering new places and challenging ourselves physically against ourselves and the course. Make no mistake, social doesn’t equate to stuffing around and sipping cappuccinos at every opportunity, we do our very best … it just doesn’t happen at the same speed as the front teams. Our team consisted of Hanlie Meyer (Team Founder and Captain), Inke van Wyk (newbie with no fear), Brian Bear (experienced mountain biker and vasbyter) and myself Carl Scholtz (navigator and en-route conversation maker).


Carl, Hanlie, Inke, Brian

Our goals. At Full Moon Swaziland we ended upon the wrong mountain at night and missed that one CP so coming into Full Moon Drakensberg, our goals were simple. We wanted to get all the CP’s, we wanted to finish with our whole team and we wanted to finish before sunrise (just because no good reason, just feels like you fast if you finish in the dark). Position and speed are really inconsequential.

For me the race was divided into 3 phases. First to get the kayak legs out the way as we are not very good at them, second the 61km cycle leg which is our regular sport and third the big 30km night hike which would be a big test of our navigation.

We got off to a great start … we weren’t last under the Start banner, nor were we last at the start of the kayak leg! Unfamiliar territory to us, we have learnt to be comfortable with no-one behind us. We managed to keep pace with those around us to the end of the first kayak leg, even managing to have a few boats behind us but our transition strategy was a bit involved so by the time we started the 1st hike we were almost in our regular spot at the sweeping end. The hike went fine at walking speed with easy CP’s and some lovely views over Sterkfontein Dam but on the 2nd kayak I really struggled, feeling nauseous and really weak. We somehow reached T3 and whilst Brian was off on the SUP, the rest of us started to get ready for the cycling leg. It seemed to take forever to delve through our well packed boxes, change clothes, eat food and get ready. Other teams came and left whilst we enjoyed the hot sun and faffed around, all of 30 minutes in transition … we do seem to love our transitions. I still felt crappy and whilst busy preparing the maps, offered a R1000 for an ice cold Coke … to my surprise one of the lovely and friendly transition ladies (Cherise?) opened her cooler box and poured me an ice cold Coke with ice (she thankfully declined the reward). She was elevated to hero status instantly! Can’t thank her enough, thank you again :-).

We were on the bikes, familiar territory at last. We weren’t last at this point … but pretty close to it. I was the strongest and most experienced cyclist in the team but as we reached the first hill, I had no legs and felt like death, I couldn’t keep up, it was rather frustrating but fortunately after about an hour my body started working again. I had become dehydrated and the heat got to me, school boy error really. Frustrating, never too old to learn again. Inke as a newbie cyclist manage to buy a piece of pristine Drakensberg property around a fast downhill corner but she’s tough as a nail and was up and going in a flash. The rest of our cycle was uneventful as we collected the CP’s along the way. The sun eventually set as we reached the last 15km of the cycle leg but the navigation was straight forward. As we approached T4, we could see lights up at the top of the mountain, it was pretty clear that is where we would be heading after the cycle leg, rather intimidating, those mountains are high! We reached T4 at around 19h30, 4.5 hours for a 61km cycle, way slower than even a relaxed weekend ride but at least we were still all together and with our estimate of 8 hours for the hike, still on track for a pre-sunrise finish. The wind had picked up after sunset and it was getting a bit chilly in transition as we went through our preparation for the night. We had passed a few teams on the cycle and others were taking a break so at least we were not last and even had others around that looked hardcore and very professional. We had somehow “rushed” through T4 in about 50 minutes, we really do love transitions :-).

For us the night trek leg was where the race really “started”, we felt fine physically but navigating through these mountains at night was very intimidating. Our previous team navigator had relocated to the Netherlands and I was tapped for navigational duties, which I enjoy as a mapping and tracking enthusiast but reading maps, estimating distance and keeping direction in the dark are next level compared to playing around on Google Earth. We had a few teams just ahead of us and that helped a lot as we could see their lights following the fence line and scrambling up the gully. Whilst finding CP8 up against the cliff face was probably a routine step for the top navigators, for us finding it and then finding our way up the gully was like winning an Olympic medal, it was a big thing! We were really proud of our team effort and reaching the top it was high fives and big smiles all round. It was also roughly about the same time that Jabberwock crossed the finish line to win the race. Perspective. It was just a pity the hike was in the dark as the views, some of which the rising full moon gave glimpses of, must have been spectacular. We made good progress to the vicinity of CP9, a height beacon about 200m to the right of the ridge path. In daylight the beacon would be visible from far, at night it’s almost impossible to know when one is opposite it and to start looking for it. We overshot it, relooked the map, walked around and eventually Brian spotted the rising contour towards the beacon and caught light on it with the handheld game spotting lamp. Another big victory for us, we were still on track to find all the CP’s!

Navigation was uncomplicated towards CP10 at the top of the massive Babanginoni Peak. We even saw some lights of teams in the distance behind us, clearly we were racing next level and acing the course :-), we felt like real adventure racers. The slope up to CP10 was ridiculous, it was like climbing steps, so we contoured a curve a bit to the right and to our surprise, the next thing we were at the top and claimed CP10! It felt fantastic! All downhill from here! CP11 was the CP that concerned us the most, the map did not show any simple landmarks to help us, no paths, no fence lines, no daylight to help see contours .. we were going to need some luck, actually a lot of luck. We struggled to find our bearings going down but eventually luck arrived in the form of the “boertjies” or Team Seuns of Donder. The first team we had intersected with since we left T4, they had caught up from behind. We were not sure where exactly we were on the map so I asked them if they could point on their map where they thought we were, they looked at me a bit perplexed, opened their map, which had only the CP’s marked with no route choices, looked back at me again and said they’re don’t really know but the direction of travel feels about right and in the general direction of CP11. That was about as scientific and expert as navigation was going to get and was good enough for us so we hooked onto them. It was a bit of a stop-go affair as we tried to work out how far we were from the CP and with 8 lights shining around like search and rescue lights, one of The Seuns eventually spotted it. We had found CP11 in the pitch dark night. It was another little celebration with lots of smiles, clearly we had arrived as a proper adventure racing team, I mean seriously, finding difficult CP’s at night in the mountains, we felt worthy! In typical world class good navigational practice style … we decided to just follow The Seuns, after all they seemed to know where they were going. It worked out fine and even though we took a bit of a wide route it eventually got us to near the Qwantani game fence. The sun had risen as we descended the mountain and we noticed several other teams just ahead of us, all chirpy and excited, pointing at landmarks around us and walking confidently in a Northerly direction. I was in navigational nightmare, I couldn’t plot our location on the map and was tempted to follow the group of chirpy teams that seemed to know. We hung back a bit, checked maps, looking as uncertain as we were, both about our own location as much as about the direction of the group ahead. We walked to a bit of high ground to check and got sight of Sterkfontein Dam and a clear view of the bay we paddled in the previous day and to our amazement we saw the game fence and the CP12 dam right ahead of us, the rest of the navigation was straightforward from here and it was like navigational stress vanished in an instant. We could see CP12 and the path leading us to CP13 and the finish. The race was over, it was just a short walk home, a massive release of mental pressure. We noticed our tired bodies for the first time after about 19 hours on the go, adrenaline and engaged minds had kept our attention all the time.

Heidi from Kinetic (and others) was waiting for us at the finish line, like she does with every single team that finishes the race. We are ok with a low key finish, we celebrate our victories internally and with one another as we approach the finish line, our pride of finishing doesn’t require a fanfare or a big party, we understand the top teams finished the previous night already and don’t expect people to stay up through the night and into the morning to receive us … yet, they do! Heidi does! We are tired, we don’t show much emotion, our minds and bodies are a bit dead but that reception makes us feel like we are winners! It’s an acknowledgement. It shows respect to individual and team accomplishments that is deserving to every individual and team that conquers its own shortcomings, doubts and fears during an adventure race. Only someone who has experienced that will understand. Heidi understands. Thank you.

We had finished Full Moon Drakensberg with our full team, we had found all the CP’s and only missed finishing before sunrise by 2 hours. We were satisfied, We were not last. We felt like we belonged. We are Suckers4 Adventure. We are adventure racers!

Kamonande notes (13/14 Okt)

1. The Red sesbania (Sesbania punicea) is very prominent on the first dam wall and as one drives across the first vlei stream. Very pretty red flowers at the moment but unfortunately its a Category 1 invasive species. Will require destruction or removal to prevent distribution (hope it makes it onto the agenda for the reserve maintenance teams).

2. The Raasblaar (Combretum zeyheri) fruit pods are currently strewn on the ground and most already have little holes (see photo) as the larvae of the The Apricot Playboy butterfly (Deudorix dinochares) eats a small hole to get to the soft seed kernel inside. If broken open one can see the little dark colored larvae feeding.


3. The Cape gray mongoose (Galerella pulverulenta) were also out to play. Ben van den Berg told me they are a common sight around Kamonande and enjoy a good encounter with snakes.


4. Hammerkop nests. We have now listed 4 of them (outlet of 1st dam, near Yiwarra gate, between chalets 41/43, at last dam on Serengeti road). The one at the first dam had an occupant, not sure about the others. Anyone know of other nests?


5. Lastly, the Basboontjjie/Elephant root (Elephantorrhiza burkei) has some bright yellow flowers busy developing and its a good time of the year to identify and mark this species around your chalet. Hopefully there’s good pollination to we can get many big fat fruit/pods early next year.


36One Race Report

I flew into George the morning of the start. I arrived at 10h00, the race started at 18h00. It worked out well. I had enough time to do registration, put my needed items into the 3 check point boxes, have lunch and catch an afternoon nap before we rode over to the start at Kleinplaas. It was good to bump into many familiar faces, all of them tough as nails, with endurance pedigree and firmly in the hard core category. I was amongst a very special crowd and no-one around me was guaranteed a finish.

I made my riding strategy clear to Willem up front. I knew how to get myself to the finish and I was going to ride my own pace, he had no obligation to stay with me and I felt none to stay with him. We had ridden many ultra rides together and both of us had the ability to reach the finish, Willem had completed 36One before. He is a stronger rider than me but we have always found common ground in pace and companionship over such a long distance is a significant advantage. As it turned out, we rode together all the way to the finish. Yes, we finished :-).

The start was, as expected a fast affair and my heart rate monitor was playing up, showing me at 115% of max HR, it had done so before. I ignored it and settled into a sustainable rhythm. I wasn’t paying very good attention to the times and splits but have the detail, I had decided beforehand to pretty much ride it as it happens no matter what time or distance. I had 4x 6 hour legs in my head and wanted to finish before sunset on Saturday. Very unprecise but it was how I had decided to manage the mental part of the race. We reached CP 1 at 81km just after 10pm which was a reasonable but not very fast pace, our position for this split was in the 250s, around midfield. The first leg up to 81km had a few good hills in but I had spun them out in easy gears to protect my legs. I am also used to riding at night and my lights had been tested many times so had no issues in this regard throughout the race. The locals around Dysselsdorp provided wonderful spectator support late at night to encourage the riders, a few special moments as the race is largely rather isolated and lonely. One girl shouted as we rode past “Vat my naam en vat my saam”, among many other very sharp chirps from others. Biggest incident of the leg was when Willem discovered he had by accident swapped his CP 1 and CP 3 boxes, meaning he had suntan lotion packed for the midnight shift and his cold weather gear was waiting in Calitzdorp, 200km down the route. He had to endure a few very cold sections up to CP 2 at halfway. I felt sorry for him on occasion but he’s a tough nut, never complained once.

So after eating a few boeries, filling up water bottles and adding a wind shell, we were off for the graveyard shift. It was pretty much 100kms of rolling hills, some more steep than others with the only interesting visual stimulants the very bright stars and the red lights of a tower on our right that we somehow never reached. I stuck to my pace albeit very frustrating at times as other groups came past, resisting the temptation to jump onto their wheels was difficult but proved smart in the end. The most difficult part of the race mentally for me was between 100 and 150km. It felt like it was never going to pass and my head was playing all kind of games with me about why riding this far was a really silly idea and stopping at 180km was not a bad idea. My mind playing tough and weak with me. Somehow once we passed 150km and only had 30km to CP2 at 180km these mind games settled and we rode comfortably to halfway. Here I bumped into an old friend Guy Pitman. He is a superb bike rider and we had raced against one another at X-Berg a few years ago (May 2015 on the blogs). Guy is a much better cyclist than me but his sense of adventure probably lured him into this race with very little preparation, hence we shared the same space. It was nice seeing some familiar faces, it brought energy. We did the support station thing and headed off into the night around 4h30, I knew by then that we were going to make it to the finish, it was just a matter of hanging in there and with the sunrise looming, new and free energy was about to engulf us. Our position split for the second leg was around the 170s, we had ridden better than over the first leg, a trend that was to continue.

It wasn’t long till the horizon started coloring, my favorite time of day, it always lifts my spirits. The drag and climb away from halfway keeps one in check even though the spirits are lifted, it was to become a pattern of this race. One is never in control of this race, it humbles you around every corner and after every down hill, you never feel like you have it nailed but yet I remained confident of my ability to see it through. I had great difficulty staying awake the hour around sunrise and gulped down a few cups of coffee and sandwiches at the first water point after halfway, first light had just arrived. It did the trick. The scenery had become visible for the first time since the previous night and it lit up our amazing surroundings, I was in awe of the landscape, it was a combination of moon crater (not that I’ve been there) meets desert meets cowboy movie canyons, rather spectacular yet devastated. It brought new energy and food to feed a tired mind and I embraced its welcome distraction, my mind was in a good place and my body was still comfortable with the pace. Interestingly we had started catching up to other riders and passing them. Before we knew it the much feared climb of Rooiberg was upon us. I settled into a pace that I would in the end maintain all the way to the top, it wasn’t very fast but it left me with usable legs for the remaining 100kms after Rooiberg. The descent down the Calitzdorp side was horrible, the road surface was fine but very rocky and my problem back (bulged disc) does not enjoy rough descents. Quickly the familiar pain in my back made itself felt, it feels like a hot iron poked into my lower back, its excruciating! I groaned my way down to the bottom where Willem was waiting for me. The back pain fortunately goes away soon after the rough shaking stops but it leaves a mental scar every time. I was very happy that was over. We settled into a rolling rhythm through the ostrich infested farm lands and soon rode into CP3 at Calitzdorp. I felt good for the last 80km, I was tired but had something left in the tank and mentally I was fine. We had 80km with 1200m of ascent left, that baffled me a bit as the route was pretty much downhill from 40km to go which meant that the 1200m climbing had to be done over the first 40km of the last leg, I quietly hoped the ascent was incorrect. We took our time a bit at this check point, Willem for the first time looked a bit worn, maybe it was the sight of his warm clothing when he opened his CP1 box at CP3. The food at all the stops are superb but the Ostrich sosaties and pancakes at CP3 were a winner. Soon enough we were on the bikes again and rolled off, extra sunscreen applied, earphones loaded with seventies music and my spare bottle filed with cold water to cool me down. With the bad memory of my 42C day at Race to Willowmore only three weeks earlier still fresh in my memory, I needed to keep myself cool. Our position split for leg 3 was around the 90s, we had ridden a bit faster than most in leg 3. For the record, we off course only knew this afterwards when looking at the results.

We met up with a few riders who we shared the road with for the next 40km, not that we ever spoke a word, we were all too tired but the quiet companionship filled a social and mental hole. Funny dynamic that. I remained a bit nerved about the 1200m ascent that remained as we were only doing some rolling hills and no real big climbs. The road out of Calitzdorp is stunning, it snakes along a river with some spectacular scenery and some very remote little villages, I remembered sections of this from Cape Epic 2006 I think, except this time the drag was uphill. I kept wondering where the ascent was going to be made up until one corner when the road tilts upwards and the eye catches a glimpse of a road way up in the mountain. Its probably around the 300km mark and I guess no-one particularly enjoys the series of steep climbs that follows. There were several of them, they kept coming, one after the other, the one as steep as the next. I had some legs left so enjoyed the challenge of keeping the wheels going but it was a belabored effort. Our little silent group maintained proximity with the elastic snapping every know and then and then restoring itself. At some point, with another climb road showing itself in the distance a marshal with a flag appears like an angel from heaven and directs the route away from the looming climb and onto a road that signals the start of the last 40km, which is tilted mostly downwards. It a huge relief and almost overwhelming. The remaining 40km all of a sudden feels like the last kilometer to ones house on a weekend ride. Off course by this time one knows one will finish the race, the fear of not finishing had settled by this time. It now becomes a matter of getting the last 2 hours of “admin pedaling” done and give the wary body some relief. The road from here to the last water point at 20km to go is very pretty, very fast and much fun as it winds its way through various kloofs and farms and the time passes conveniently quickly.

With about an hour to go  I highlighted to Willem that we could still make a sub-22 hour finish if we rode strongly, not necessarily hard. He had picked this up as well. So we quietly turned the dial up and tightened the chains. I had started feeling nauseousness from around the 310km mark and wasn’t feeling great so suggested we tap down and just ride through to the finish gently and so we started the last 20 km gently. Our best intentions unfortunately didn’t last long, there were 2 riders in the distance who didn’t play to the script, they didn’t allow us to catch them easily and as everyone knows, the race for positions really only starts in the final moments of a race and it was no different. Position 127 was up for grabs and a sub-22 hour was calling. I really don’t understand this dynamic but I have quite frankly given up trying to understand it so I just go with the flow. The flow in this instance had us pick up the pace ever so gently to catch the non-script-adhering riders. As everyone knows catching is just one half of the game, the other half starts once you pass and have to stay ahead. Turning onto the last section of tar leading into Oudtshoorn town I was already riding way too hard for almost 22 hours of effort and Willem took his turn at the front, I couldn’t help at first. In the mean time we had just about secured our gap and at some point i looked down and saw 21:53 on my Garmin, sub-22 was still a possibility. So I went to the front and started pushing the pace up the hill past the lonely tree, we flew past another rider in a flash and before we knew it we were onto the last 2km to the finish, I looked down, 21:57. I got out the saddle and punched! WTF! Who in his right mind punches after 22 hours and 360km of riding? Willem was off my wheel (never happens) so I waited up and then we klapped it again, pretty much sprinting over the finish line with my HR bordering on 90% of max. I looked down and saw 22:00:07, Willem had us just under 22 hours The official results had us at 21:52. Our split position on the final legs was in the 70s. We had rode a sensible pace and whilst frustratingly moderate at times had paid us back dividends on the final leg.

It had been a very hard day out, I had just ridden 361km on my mountain bike in 22 hours with 5100m of ascent over some big mountains and over very rough gravel roads. Its a hard day out by any measure and whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment, I was also very humbled and grateful. Anyone that finishes this race is pretty special. Respect to all!

An unexpected 36One

Two weeks before 36One I told 3 people that the 361km/5100m ascent race just isn’t my kind of thing and I meant what I had said. It had after all only been a week since I had completed Race to Willowmore, a 550km race on the Freedom Trail from Cradock to Willowmore which just feels more like an adventure than a long 361km boring old slog on district roads. I had not ridden my bike for a week and didn’t have much intention to, my body and mind was still in recovery mode. You can tell by this opening that there’s a story brewing and you are right.

On an innocent Saturday evening after a braai with a few mountain biking friends, Willem very innocently asked why I don’t come down for 36One, he had a lift for me and accommodation. I repeated my line “It’s not really my kind of thing”. The next morning I harmlessly browsed the interwebs and came across and available solo entry. One SMS later and it was still available. I checked flights and low and behold there weer flights available at the right time a price to suit my likely schedule. Within a morning all the logistical pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place.

I had done no specific training for the hilly challenges of the tough 361 route but my physical condition was sufficient to get me to the finish. I had done a few 10-15 hour days on the bike recently so my base was solid. My biggest challenge may end up being getting my mind prepared. Riding 361km on gravel roads could be compared to doing 5-6 laps of the Cycle Tour of Cycle Challenge in 24 hours. Its a very long day out. I studied the route as I like to be know what to expect. It was daunting to say the least.

I made the call, pulled the trigger and 36One was a on! I honestly never saw this coming but I knew it was doable and I had 2 weeks to get my head in the game.

36One here we come!

36One Route

Race to Willowmore Day 4

Damsedrif – Willowmore

88km / 1170m ascent / 5 hours

My SMS to Meryl at the Race Office says “Carl in damse 20h50, out 4h00”. My plan to sleep till 5h00 took a turn for the worse when the wooden floors announced the movements of the early risers. I wasn’t going to fall asleep again so I got up and put myself onto auto-pilot. I ate well, again a good sign, got myself a nice cheese and tomato sarmie packed, filled the water bottles and saddled up. Leon and Dave had left just after 3h00 and Ingrid about 15 mins before me.

The hard work on the previous 3 days had left a relatively “short” 88km into Willowmore for the last day. I was in good spirits and had worked out that the 88km was going to take me around 6 hours, 3 blocks of 2 hours each. The first two hours I’ll just enjoy the darkness until the sunrise around 6h00, the next 2 hours I’ll ride with some music, a two hour mix of seventies and eighties hits and the last 2 hours I’ll just enjoy the sights & surrounds of the Nuwekloof Pass as I head for home. Plan sorted.

It wasn’t long before I saw Ingrid’s flashing red light in the distance and as I caught up to her, she promptly turned left down a reasonably prominent road but a decided turnoff. The road from Damse Drift to Willowmore is pretty much straight with not a single turnoff. I called her and we checked the narratives and map to be sure. We continued along the correct straight ahead road and made some small talk before we the distance between us opened up every so gently and eventually her lights disappeared behind me. Now this little dynamic may come across as rather ungentleman like. The Freedom Trail and its races have some unspoken arrangements which follow from the nature of the personalities that venture along the trail. Whilst most enjoy the company of others, most also are very comfortable riding and venturing out solo at odd hours. There is an acceptance that paths will intersect and that group will form for convenience and then will split up in an instant without discussion or deep consideration, feelings of guilt. Ingrid is one tough lady, she has a RASA blanket, has done several of the Freedom Series races solo and has got lost in forests on occasion. Her gentle demeanor and friendly smile hides a lean mean self-sufficient riding machine. She was content to ride at her pace and in her world as much as I was mine.

It wasn’t too long until the dark sky started developing some coloring, first gentle and then increasingly pastel filled color until the sun bursts out and illuminates the world as much as starts heating it up. I love this experience and it always fills me with energy and lifts my spirits. I had planned to find some water along the way but the cooler night temperature meant my water was good to last the way. The morning light was the first light of the Baviaans since we had left the reserve gate the previous evening. I had ridden almost all the way through the Baviaanskloof without seeing any of its beauty. Luckily I had a bit left and the rising light lit up the the Kloof around me with its red rock formations forming a stunning backdrop. I reached the site of a tree house site just as the light came through, we had been the first guests to stay here many years ago. Around the next corner was Makadaat Caves and Info centre, it seemed quiet at 7h00 so I rode past. In the mean time the iPod music was superb, I was singing Alice and Major Tom at the top of my voice, it was like a very enjoyable Saturday morning ride, it was in fact Saturday.

I still had no signal and was ahead of schedule so wanted to let my wife know that I would be in Willowmore around 10h00, a few hours ahead of schedule. They wanted to be at the finish to welcome me but were en route the Langkloof from St Francis. I thought maybe I’ll get a signal at the top of the Nuwekloof Pass, the last sting in the tail of the this riding section before Willowmore. It was around 8h00 cause Alice and Major Tom repeated for the second time in my ears (2 hours from 6h00 when I started the iPod as per my schedule). There’s a lesson in here for myself and other long distance riders. Progress is slow and looking at the odo meter and time can be mentally and emotionally draining. Any distractions for the mind are most welcome and can make long boring stretches a bit more interesting and tolerable.

After a really breathtaking ride through the Nuwekloof Pass I eventually reached the top of a high mountain where I could call my wife and inform her of my estimated arrival time. They were a bit tight for time but were already on the way. I was looking forward to seeing the very underwhelming welcoming party in the street in Willowmore. It would probably be the very recognizable figures of Meryl and Glenn and my wife and her sister, who had kept her company while I was out on my adventure. I was no there yet and after a little picnic of cold water and a cheese sarmie I saddled up for the last 30km. It was an enjoyable ride and Alice and Major Tom had not repeated for a third time yet. For the first time in days the scenery changed from mountains to more Karoo flat land again and presented some very pretty photo opportunities.

In an amazing coincidence I reached the last 3km tar road at the exact moment my wife and her sister cam speeding by towards Willowmore. When I noticed them, I naturally got out the saddle, pumped the pedals and rode like I was time trailing the Tour de France. They raced off the prepare the finish line procedures whilst I could sit up again and slow down to a more responsible riding speed and take in the scenes of Willowmore ahead in the distance. I generally find the final hour before the finish of these ultra rides an emotional period as I take time to reflect on the highs and the lows of the journey and this time it has been no different. During my incredibly hard second day there were times that I did not think I would be able to finish the race but the fear of failure and knowing that it was within my abilities no matter how hard kept me going and from that moment on I never had negative thought again and my riding became more enjoyable. I had made new friends, some amazing and special new memories and I was going to finish. I had been blessed beyond my wildest dreams.
I rode into Willowmore feeling like a champion. I double checked my right turn and rode up to the Willows. In the distance I saw the expected underwhelming reception party, the familiar figures and the finish line of Race to Willowmore. There is no finish setting that would be appropriate and deserving to celebrate the special experience of this race and it ends as low key as it starts and we prefer it this way. The real riding experiences and trail and tribulations are had out on the trail but what makes this reception party special is that these are the people who accompany us in the background as they watch over and support us kilometer for kilometer of our journey. Its a special moment when we see each other again and the hugs, smiles and chirps complete a perfect ending.

Thank you to everyone who made this adventure possible, I have been truly blessed.

Race to Willowmore Day 3

Hadley – Cambria – Damsedrif

130km / 2810m ascent / 18 hours

The alarm went off after 4 hours of sleep at 2h00. It was day 3 of Race to Willowmore. Auto pilot kicked in. I still felt the previous day in my body and I quietly hoped everyone else did as well. I managed to have a healthy breakfast which was a good sign and our group of four were ready to go at 3h00.

We had caught up with the batch that started the day ahead of us and they had left a few minutes before us. I knew a few people in that group from previous races. They were accomplished long distance riders with very good route knowledge so we could all benefit from teaming up. We could see their lights ahead of us but we were not catching them at any rate of speed. The ride from Hadley to the start of the descent to Grootrivierpoort is a surprisingly hilly affair and I was just happy to be able to keep up with the group. My first objective was to be able to stay with the group up to the turn-off into Osseberg jeep track. I had been told to not even think about attempting the Osseberg in the dark so we had timed our 3h00 departure to get to the start of the tricky sections at first light. I had prepared the Osseberg in detail from a navigation perspective and had received a few handy tips from Tim James and Glenn Harrison the day before. If I could get there with the group I thought I would be good struggling along on my own. I am generally solid on the navigation side and trusted myself. The descent down to Grootrivierpoort was a white knuckle affair, its pretty steep and I just hoped my brakes would hold. They did. Phew!

Once at the bottom we caught up with the group containing our old friends. Dawn Bell, Colleen, Doug, Ray and others. Dawn is always a treat, a very strong rider with a wonderful laugh and a never ending conversationalist. They were nice people and I enjoyed sharing space albeit a bit puffy space as we pushed and nudged our bikes up the infamous Grootrivierpoort Pass, an almost 600m ascent. It was way steeper than I had expected and the rough surface made it unrideable in many places. I could never understand why even strong riders took so long to cover this section, I do now. We reached the top of the Osseberg turnoff at 5h45 according to plan. Importantly for me, I was feeling human after the previous day and I had managed to keep up with the group. Our goal was to make it through the Osseberg in 6-7 hours to leave enough time to make the Baviaans gate 14h00 cut-off.

The 600m descent back down to the Grootrivier was a tripple white knuckle affair. The group split up a bit as everyone had different levels of comfort with the technical riding, especially the early sections in the dark. The track is worse for wear and rather rutted as it is not being used on a regular basis any longer. Leon, Dave and I were however able to ride pretty much all of it down to the river, it turned out more ridable than we had expected. The pointers from the evening before paid dividends almost immediately even before we reached the river when I stopped to examine the crossings down below. I could see exactly where we needed to go, it felt like a win! Many riders have struggled to find the first crossing across the Grootrivier. I rode down and whilst the others took a quick break, I found the crossing exactly where the map showed it and where I had expected it. I was on the opposite bank within a minute. The jeep track through the Grootrivierpoort has sadly fallen into disuse and has become mostly overgrown. It however remains a pristine and beautiful section to traverse. It was the only section of the Ride to Wilowmore route where I needed to pull out the maps, the rest was done using narratives only. Our group of Leon, Dave, Ingrid and myself worked together perfectly to pretty much nail this much feared portage in around 5 hours and to the exit onto the Baviaans road at 11h00. The portage had even been enjoyable with some adventure and our spirits had been lifted. We teamed up to get over the last double height gate on the route and rode into Kudu Kaya at Cambria in time for a very welcome lunch with plenty of time to spare to make the Baviaans Gate.

Doug, Dawn and Colleen joined the four of us for the Baviaans section to Damse Drift, 82km further up the Kloof. I was in a happy place, I had managed to keep up with the group after my difficult previous day, we had nailed the Grootrivier reportage and were on schedule. The vibe was good.
The Baviaanskloof from a cycling perspective is better known for the Transbaviaans race that traverses the Kloof from Willowmore towards St Francis, we rode it in the opposite direction, a 180km long uphill drag. The presence of Buffalo and Rhino in the Baviaanskloof requires the groups to start the journey between the 6h00 and 14h00 gate, stay together and be escorted by a vehicle. Johann Rissik, Race Director and multiple RASA finisher, was our escort and patiently followed us whist we huffed, puffed and pushed our way over the big climbs. We stopped on occasion for a coffee treat and at another of these breaks I declared my craving for sardines. To our amazement Johann produced a cooler bag with a tin of sardines, a block of cheese and a tomato. Dave and myself indulged ourselves in this feast. At the finish in Willowmore it came to our attention that this meal had been Johann’s rations for the day. He had spent his day from before sunrise to after sunset escorting 2 batches of riders at walking speed over 50km of road and back, almost 200km of slow difficult driving and we had eaten his padkos. Thank you again Johann, one day I will make this up to you.

The sun was getting lower as we rode through the Baviaanskloof Reserve, all the time looking out for Buffalo, that had been spotted frequently before. It is truly a beautiful place. As the afternoon grew the animals started moving around more and at one point, while riding down a typical lane of overhanging trees, crossing one dry riverbed after the other, a lone Bosbok ran across the road only meters in front of our group. It got a huge fright, tried to turn in its tracks and before it could complete the sliding maneuver, Leon hit it solidly, flying over the handle bars. An almost surreal experience that happened right in front of our eyes. Leon is as tough as nails and apart from a few bruises was good to go. We suspect the Bosbok got the worse of the encounter.

With frequent Kudu, Impala and other wildlife sightings it wasn’t long before we spotted a small group of three Buffalo. They were fortunately about 100m away and we rode on inconspicuously.  After seeing us on our way at the exit gate, about 50km in, Johann turned back to Kudu Kaya he afterwards told us that he encountered Buffalo not 500m from the gate, we had not seen them. The night had set in at this time and we had a further 30km or so to cover to Damse Drift where Hestelle’s legendary hospitality was waiting. The road condition over this section was terrible to say the least, sandy, corrugated and bumpy. It was a hard slog for us all and at 21h00 we arrived at Damse Drift. The day has started at 3h00, a 18 hour riding day.

Hestelle’s hospitality was welcome, surperb and on the mark. She somehow understand exactly what the riders need and does all the thinking. One can kind of just sit back, relax, recover and let the process guide towards a comfy bed. Her young daughters on hand to help with food, washing and see to riders’ needs. We had caught up with the grup that had started 2 days before us. There were 10 of them, We were 17 guests that night. She took it all in her stride.

A special little story from that night that deserves telling. Hestelle informed us that they had just run out of water and the showers and toilets were dry but that she had arranged with the neighbors that we could go shower there and she was to drive us there with her bakkie, a red Baviaans corrugated roads abused Nissan 1400 bakkie. Doug got the front seat cause he had cracked ribs, Leon, Dave and myself jumped on the back. The bakkie is small and low, so its more like we stepped onto the back. Dave sat down, Leon and I sat on the edge of the load bay. Hestelle started the bakkie from the shed without lights and it rolled back, then the motor died. She pushed in the clutch without applying brakes, let it run backwards and dropped the clutch.The bakkie stuttered, took briefly and then died again. Leon grabbed at the paraffin lamp to avoid spilling fuel only to realize it was an LED version and I without consulting we both dropped straight down into the bottom of the load bay. Hestelle performed this maneuver three more times until the engine started, it had rolled back a bit already by then. It was a rude and violent awakening from the peaceful previous 18 hours. We all three instantly burst into loud laugh. It didn’t stop there though. Hestlle is a farmer, she drives bakkies over bad road for a living, bad a quiet roads. So she hit the accelerator and we sped towards the farm gate exiting onto the main Baviaans road, the one we had just come up. She never needed brakes to sow down, she just used the bump at the gate to slightly reduce speed and turned into the road confidently. The same with the turn into the neighbors driveway a few hundred meters up the road. The red Nissan bakkie and Hestelle operating in perfect harmony, the accelerator pedal playing the lead role with the brakes a distant supporting cast. We got ourselves cleaned up and mentally prepared for the return trip which followed a similar script. It was a wonderful little distraction to our tired minds and we relived this episode all over again after the race at Willows when we recounted the special moments of our adventure.

Another Hestelle kudo. She asked if there was washing as her teenage daughter could assist in this regard. A couple of us put our hands up. Whilst we were eating, hydrating and getting ourselves settled I noticed Hestelle hand washing the load in a small tub, she couldn’t find her daughter and just got the job done herself. We left again early the next morning but this short encounter with Hestelle and her ability to get more things done than should be reasonable for such a large group of people left me with a lasting impression. What a wonderful experience and family literally in the middle of nowhere.

Leon and Dave planned to head out at 3h00 to secure a third place finish. After my rough previous day and a better than expected current day, I was content to sleep till 5h00 and then gently ride the last 90km into Willowmore on my own to soak in what had been another special Freedom Trail experience.

I fell asleep before I could spell Buffalo.

Race to Willowmore Day 2

Koedoeskop – Bucklands- Hadley

171km / 1850m ascent / 17 hours

Day 2. We had agreed the previous evening to leave at 4h00 to be able to start the Gwaas Valley traverse just after daybreak around 6h00. The alarm went off at 3h00, we had some breakfast, packed, faffed and got away pretty much on time. It always takes a few kilometers after a long previous day to get the legs and body into rhythm. The four of us were nicely matched and kept a steady pace. The button to open the gate to the Darlington Reserve didn’t work at first, nor at second. It’s a big structure and there is no obvious way to get over or under or around it. Fortunately Dave kept pressing and the gate eventually slid open. Huge relief! Strangely, the same procedure repeated itself at the exit gate. The ride through the reserve was easy going and as always the developing light of the sunrise on the horizon fed our souls, it was a very enjoyable stretch. I had brought enough water to last me to Kleinpoort and when we others stopped at the Darlington Dam wall to fill up, I rode on and into the Gwaas Valley.

I had heard quite a bit about the Gwaas Valley and was a bit nervous about it. Some tricky navigation in the beginning but I had marked it well and the pretty much continuous drag to get out the other side proved more of a challenge than the navigation. There are several gates to get through along this stretch with the biggest test being a double height.gate. I had seen pictures of double gates but this was the first one I had encountered on the Freedom Trail all the way from Pietermaritzburg. I hooked my handle bar and pedal into the top gate, climbed up and swung my bike over, it was more tricky than expected but both bike and I got over with both our grace and our respective bodies intact. The sunrise had brought a rise in temperature, something the Gwaas Valley was famous for. I ran out of water near the farm Goede Hoop towards the end of the valley and found relief on a local farm with the friendly workers showing me to their water tank for a refill. The people along the trail never fail to show kindness and willingness to assist, its about being human, no pretense, no politics, no prejudice, just about being fellow humans. Very precious.
The traverse along the Gwaas Valley had gone fine, its a bit of a drag but quite manageable. The drop through the Sundays River Poort was a thrill from a riding perspective but my bad lower back always prevents me from enjoying rocky technical downhills and it was no different this time (hot iron poke into back kind of pain). From the bottom of the Poort the road rolls over hilly terrain all the way to Kleinpoort. Fortunately the many gates along the way were mostly unlocked, quite a relief when one approaches a double height gate you expect to have to scale and then it swigs open, feels like a win every time! At this time the sun had started making itself felt and my sunscreen spray had stopped working in the morning. I was more desperate for sunscreen than food and water. I texted Meryl at the Race Office and asked if the support station could possibly assist, even offering to take a time penalty just to prevent sunburn. (For context I had spots of skin cancer cut from around the cycling tan line area on my legs earlier this year so I was a bit pedantic about the sun).

I arrived in Kleinpoort at 10h45, a 100km ride since we had left Koedoeskop at 4h00. My first stop was the local shop to try and find sunscreen. They had none so I asked if there was another shop in town that may have some, perhaps a pharmacy. The shopkeeper responded that they were the only shop. So much for that then so I popped around the corner to the famous Kleinpoort Padstal. The pie, cream soda and packet of Mexican Simba chips went down in a flash. I was ahead of schedule so I took my time getting going. Leon, Dave and Ingrid arrived just as I rolled out. The heat was now getting a bit uncomfortable and the mostly even roads leading to Bucklands took some effort and I stopped two or three times to get some into shade and out of the sun.

I rolled into Bucklands at 13h10 with the temperature touching 37C. The heat had become uncomfortable. I estimated that I needed 3 hours to cover the remaining 40km to Hadley so I was still ahead of schedule. I spent some time chatting to the helpful support station hosts who had received my sunscreen call for help from Meryl and had a bottle of sun cream to spare. I decided to catch a quick sleep and then head out at 16h00 to try and avoid the building heat. The exit from Bucklands was divided into three sections of 6km each. The first two of these (12km) required a due West heading into the setting sun with the last 6km being on jeep track running down to the district road. From a navigation perspective I only needed light to get onto the district road and from there it was 20km in the dark with only one turn-off. The other three rolled in and out of Bucklands whilst I caught my nap. I left Bucklands a bit before 16h00 and whilst the navigation proved simple, I soon ran into difficulty with the heat and a pressing head wind. My Polar showed 42C and my body started slowing down. I was overheating and was in trouble. I kept drinking to try and cool my core down and keep myself hydrated but my progressed slowed down dramatically. I ended pushing my bike, needing to stop every now and then to lie in the shade to make the stars go away. My mind closed in completely and I became so self absorbed in my struggle that I missed opportunities along the way to jump into dams or use animal drinking water to cool my core down. My mind was in a very dark place and my body was in serious trouble. I had thoughts of throwing it in at Hadley once I got there but there was no mobile phone signal to even ask for help so there is no option but to keep crawling along. Just as well.

I eventually reached the end of the valley near Tretyre as the sun was setting. It had taken me 2 hours to cover 12 km. I had another 28km left with very little strength left to pedal a bicycle. My water had also run out. Shortly after joining the district road, I came across a woman and her young boy standing next to the road at their gate waiting for her husband. He was a laborer and was en route from the Hadley area on his bicycle. They walked me to their water tank where I filled up my bottle. I headed off into what was by now a pitch dark night expecting to see their man come down the road at any moment. I stopped and walked along until I heard the rattle of his bicycle approaching, he had no light to see his way but this must have been his regular commute and a familiar road. The contrast of me struggling with all the fancy gear and training and him rattling along in his daily routine did not get lost on me. The head wind coming out of Bucklands had made a 180 degree turn and was still a head wind now heading East towards Hadley. With 10km to go to Hadley I managed to get a signal. What followed was a SMS exchange I won’t forget anytime soon.
Carl to Meryl “Really struggling & strong headwind. Walking mostly to Hadley”.

Meryl: “Will you be ok to keep going slowly?”

Carl: “10km to go, Will take me another 1.5 hrs”

Carl 3mins later: “Truth is I’m stuffed but plse don’t tell Ronel. Make that 2hrs for the 10km. (My wife Ronel had become concerned as they had seen my progress slow and me miss my indicated 18h00 estimated time of arrival at Hadley, they had been tracking me all along. I could not emotionally carry the burden of concerned family, it made me feel guilty and I was too absorbed in my own struggle)

It was around 20h00 by now. I had left Bucklands almost 4.5 hours earlier and was still not at Hadley. I continued to struggle along, all the time eating and drinking bits to try and get my body going again. In my mind I was in quitting territory. A few drops of rain fell and I started looking for a shed or some kind of shelter to perhaps catch a bit of a sleep and calm my body and mind down. The group had planned to leave Hadley at 3h00 to try and make the difficult Osseberh jeep track and Baviaans cutoff by 14h00 the next day. I could not see myself in this condition getting little sleep and still keeping up with the group the next day. I stopped and lie down several times to try and recover.

Soon after I started feeling better again and at 20h16 I sent Meryl a SMS again.

Carl: “Riding uphill again going to be ok. 42C through Tretyre killed me. Had to lie in shade severla times to void falling over. Unpleasant but going to finish this day no matter what!” I added a Thumbs Up emoji.

Meryl: “Go carefully. Well done”

After taking 5.5 hours to cover 40km I eventually rolled into Hadley. Bennie, his wife and his mother were still awake. They had been worried and considered coming to look for me with the bakkie, I would have got in and quit the race. I am grateful they didn’t. Bennie is a kind soul and quite the conversationalist, I was just very hungry. Bennie warmed up a very welcome plate of food while I collapsed on the couch watching tennis at after 21h00 with his elderly but chatty mother. It had been a day to both remember and forget. I told Bennie that I was too tired to join the group at 3h00 and wanted to sleep till 5h00 and then make my way through to Cambria where I planned to rest and regather some strength. He felt strongly that I should not attempt the Osseberg on my own if I had not done it before. I was too tired to argue so I just accepted his advice.

He showed me to my room and explained something about the shower. I missed the shower bit and ended up splashing down in cold water as the hot water tap didn’t heat up. His earlier instruction was apparently that the hot and cold taps were reversed. The splash was good enough to get the worst of the dirt off me and I was out before I knew it.

It had been an eventful day. Some very good and memorable bits and a very forgettable end to the day. I had been to a very dark place but had managed to pull through. The next day was going to be challenging in many ways and I had 4 hours sleep to try and recover.