36One Race Report

I flew into George the morning of the start. I arrived 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 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 superb. Soon enough we were on the bikes again and rolled off, extra sunscreen applied and my spare bottle filed with cold water to cool me down. The bad memory of my 42C day at Race to Willowmore 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 yet 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, somehow the feeling on conquering 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 stunning, winding 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 me going to the front and start pushing the pace 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. Turing onto the last section of tar into 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

RTW Race Briefing

It’s Tuesday 28 March 2017. Race to Willowmore (RTW) starts tomorrow! On Monday my nerves were a little bit tense, today it’s settled, I now just want to get riding, even considered calling Meryl to ask if I could maybe start a day earlier just to get going. En route to Cradock we got distracted by some Roosterkoek in Steynsburg and then by the famous pies at Karoobos in Hofmeyr, a wonderful stop whether during a race or driving by in a car. Thoroughly enjoyed that and took my mind off the approaching race.

Race briefing is always a special occasion to meet up with old friends, make some new ones and try to gain some tips by looking at how everyone has approached equipment choices. This evening was no different. Our batch, the fourth and final batch of the inaugural RTW contained the “racing snakes”. These are riders who have indicated race strategies faster and further than a par pace. You need not be going for a win to be called a racing snake in this context, nice for the ego though. Our group of 6 had 4 RASA veterans, Tim James 3 time winner, Mike Potgieter, Leon Kruger and Ingrid Avidon, all have earned their racing stripes and it was very helpful hearing their insights. The other 2 of us, Dave Kruger and myself were “short course” specialists preferring the 600km “sprint” events. Funny that.

It was the standard Freedom Challenge race briefing kind of thing. Don’t lose your tracker, leave the gates as you find them, remember to sign in and out of support stations and have fun. I have grown very fond of this race and its people, they are non-assuming, down to earth, humble and yet tough as nails. It’s a very special crowd and it felt like I was home being amongst them.

Chapter3. Welcome Race to Willowmore (RTW)

The Freedom Trail is a 2400km trail from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl and was originally raced under the event named the Freedom Challenge. In subsequent years the trail and the races have grown in popularity and the original 2400km race has become Race Across South Africa (RASA) with the Freedom Challenge now a portfolio of multiple events. In recent years 3 further race events have spawned from RASA each covering around 600km or a quarter of the total trail on their own. These events are raced on the exact same route and under the same rules as the original RASA. Race to Rhodes (RTR) is from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes. Race to Cradock (RTC) is from Rhodes to Cradock. In March 2017 Race to Willowmore (RTW) will have its inaugural event from Cradock to Willowmore. The relatively shorter 600km distances lend themselves to different race strategies than those employed during the long RASA and are fast becoming must do events. They have so far attracted an expanded following and are fast establishing themselves with their own personality, legends and stories.

On Wednesday 29 March 2017 I will line up at the start line with 5 other riders in Batch 4, all of them stalwarts of the trail but all new challengers for the inaugural RTW. These are riders not afraid of navigating their way around the Karoo expanse using maps and compass and riding extended hours every day so new strategies wil be tested and new benchmarks established. It’s my first excursion on this section of the trail and several previous riders have told me it’s their favourite part of the Freedom Trail. I cannot wait to start.

Welcome to the family Race to Willowmore.

Goodbye Vic

The day started out like most Saturdays. The alarm signalling time to get ready for our regular Saturday ride. Our group has been riding together for many years now, we know each other well. We have suffered together many times, we have chased other cyclists and trucks many times, we have huffed and puffed, we have had many laughs and there is always something to chat about. We enjoy spending time together. This morning was no different. We met up at the new Burger King or BK as per our Whatsapp group. Vic and Arno were already there, early as always. After doing the traditional greeting by hand, we left on our journey. The Transbaviaans guys had a big ride planned while some of us had to turn back early for other commitments. I had to turn back at Tierpoort, so the group stopped to greet me.

It was to be the last time I would see Vic. Later that morning Vic tragically lost his life at the end of his ride within sight of his house gate. The message on Whatsapp was surreal, as beyond belief then as it still is now. I am still in shock.

Vic was a fit and strong rider, both physically and mentally. He never complained, was always friendly and chirpy and with a great sense of humor. Someone remarked how he always had a banana to offer at one of our stops. He always asked about “Willem en die chick”, some of our other friends. Vic worked at BMW and I liked to chirp him about BMW’s not having flicker lights, being Vic, he always played along. His parting words to me when I greeted him by hand as I turned back was “Onthou BMW’s met flikker ligte op special hierdie week”. He had a big smile on his face, clearly enjoying the moment. That’s how I’ll remember Vic.

The day ended so different to what it had started. No-one saw this coming. It’s a terrible loss. We have lost a friend but Vic was also a caring husband and father. He was a special man and will be missed by all.

Goodbye Vic. Rus in vrede my vriend.

A Disappointing End

The iPhone alarm woke me at 5h00. It was time to go. I had done the big miles yesterday to open up support station options for this day and I had Malekholonyane in mind. The big climbing was over and I was confident in the navigation that lay ahead for the day. The generator was silent, so no electricity. I got out of a warm and cozy bed and it took forever to get dressed in all the layers, it was pretty cold (-7C). My spirit was good and I felt up to the challenge of this day.

Mr Ngcobo was in a deep sleep on top of a double mattress in front of the fire but his crew were ready for me, busy preparing breakfast, bacon and eggs. My appetite wasn’t there and I felt terrible having to leave the crispy bacon on the plate. It took me forever to get myself sorted out, maps, eating, food for the day, filling bottles, organizing my back pack. I am still a bit perplexed to this as I am generally quite well organized but I was just fumbling all over. Some lessons in here for future attempts.

I left around 6h00 into the cold dark, fortunately no wind. I struggled to get my body working so I just turned the pedals over and kept moving forward. About 20 minutes in my hands were just too cold and I stopped to put my crab finger Sealskinz gloves on, they were superb, hands warmed up quickly and I was rolling again. I had noticed that some riders on previous days had taken a shortcut at the sharp right turn and I decided to try the same as it would intersect with the jeep track. I had decided before the race to try some new route options this year and this was one. What appeared to be a nice track ran out very quickly and I was bouncing across the open veld soon enough. A lone Wildebeest was observing my quest. About half way down the valley I lost confidence in the plan and turned back to the known route. About 10 minutes later I could see where I would have joined. Now know what to expect, will use it in 2017.

The jeep track through Ntsikeni Reserve was terrible, I couldn’t find a rhythm and was pushing my bike up pretty much every grassy hill. The pushing over the rough terrain was taking its toll on my body and I started feeling strain on my back. On bad days it feels like a knife stabbing into my back, on most days it’s just fine. I chose to ignore my back, there is no room for such thoughts in a race like this. Even thought the jeep track was pretty clear I was trying to track myself closely on the map and at one point I turned back to retrace and recheck my route. It cost me about 10 minutes just to realize I was correct in the first instance which was rather irritating but I knew this was the right way of doing things. I was looking for the turn to the right to drop down to Politique Kraal but simply just did not see it and ended up against the reserve fence high above the optimal route. Another irritation which cost me probably another 10 minutes as I had to scramble down the ridge to get to the well ridden cattle track. I eventually popped out at Politique after a highly frustrating traverse of the reserve. I had easily wasted 30 minutes being inefficient with the route and it wasn’t helpful if I wanted to get a big day in. From there all went fast down to the gorge crossing. I was caught in two minds at this point. Either drop to the gorge and try and carry my bike out or take the jeep track around and avoid portaging. I decided on the gorge, it was to be a poor decision.

I picked up my bike to carry it across the stream. My back hurt so I pushed it over the rocks. The exit is a steep loose rocky path which really requires the bike to be carried on the back. I lifted my bike onto my back and instantly felt discomfort, to the extent that my hips felt numb. It was a known pain, I feel this every morning when I wake up but it goes away as soon as I get moving. I had felt it before going down Breedtsnek, so bad that I felt like I was going to pass out. I decided to drag pull my bike up the path and took twice as long to get to the path at the top. My back was in trouble and my mind wasn’t strong enough to convince it that it was nothing. I was in a very dark place and there was no obvious way to get myself out of it. A MRI in March had shown a bulging disc on L4/5 to be the cause of this back pain. I had filed this behind a closed door in my mind, it is not helpful nor healthy to keep such doors open when participating in endurance events. I cast my mind ahead and wondered how I would get my bike up the VuVu climb or Lehanas, many thoughts played through my mind. I sat down on the top of the hill to calm myself and allow my thoughts to slow down so I could recompose and re-calibrate. I picked up my bike to check if maybe some rest had helped. It made no difference. My hips and legs went numb with the weight on my back. I had burst a disc in my neck a few years ago on C6/7 which resulted in a most horrific and painful month up to the point where I had a double fusion of the C5/6 and C6/7 vertebrae. I have had no discomfort of my neck since then but having had first hand experience of a burst disc, I did not want to knowingly head down that track again.

I had been on the hill for about 15 minutes wrestling with my thoughts. It was not smart to continue and risk worsening an already problematic and lingering injury. My 2016 Race to Rhodes was over. I had prepared well for this race and for every possible eventuality but I was not prepared for the emotions of such a dramatic decision.

I was overcome with emotions.

The disappointment was overwhelming.

I got on my bike and started crawling towards the tar road to get to a place with a good cell signal so I could inform the race office and my wife. Riding to the road I was overcome with emotions every so often, having put is such a super effort the previous day I was going to have very little to show in the end. I was also quite worried about my back and wondered if I would ever be able to return to this event. Once one allows emotions in during endurance events, there is plenty for them to feed on. I allowed it all to empty out, I’m not one for lingering over disappointment and wanted to get this emotionally painful experience behind me as quickly as possible.

I eventually rolled through to Glenn Edward where I settled in to wait for my wife to pick me up. It was to prove a very special experience in own right.

Post Mortem. I delayed writing this blog for a while. It is today exactly 4 weeks since the Sunday I had to withdraw from Race to Rhodes. The emotions have settled. My back unfortunately hasn’t. I will need a treatment and strengthening regime over the coming months to improve my back issues. I am not worried, we’ll get it fixed.

One thing is guaranteed. I will be back!

Double To Ntsikeni – Allendale to Ntsikeni

I left Allendale at 15h00. I was heading for Centacow, a mission station and normally a soup stop on the morning of the second day. I texted Meryl that I was planning for dinner and sleep at Centacow. That was my plan at that stage.

I was chasing the sunset. I knew beforehand I would run out of daylight on this leg and I had prepared my navigation accordingly. I had pretty much memorized every turn and section of road and scanned it many times over on Google Earth. The exit out of Allendale went smoothly in daylight and I targeted to get to Donnybrook before dark. I made good time into Donnybrook and passed through the town at 16h20 with plenty of daylight to spare, it went a bit faster than I had expected and I was onto the forest roads with light to spare. I was feeling pretty good and was riding my bike like it was a regular weekly night ride. I had around 120km in my legs with over 3000m of ascent and I was feeling really good and enjoying riding my bike. I was very surprised and even caught off guard by this and for the first time the thought of pushing on to Ntsikeni entered my mind.

It was a bit of a surreal moment. I am a solid cyclist but I am not in the league of the big boys and racing snakes, nor do I have their racing ambitions. The Double is their territory, privilege and honor, it’s not where I usually find myself nor had I really prepared my mind for such mentally. Many thoughts played through my mind as I made my way through the forest down towards Centacow. My conservative riding had protected my legs and I was physically feeling great, my mind was therefore also in a pretty good place, I enjoy riding at night so that did not phase me much, getting to Ntsikeni would give me several and very doable options to get to Rhodes under 4 days, my maps were well marked and I was comfortable with the night navigation. I could find no good reason not to push to Ntsikeni. I decided not to get ahead of myself and to first get to Centacow before I made a final decision but the seed had been planted.

I was accurate with the night navigation up to the last left turn to drop into Centacow. It was dark by then and one’s world narrows down to what is visible in the beam of a bicycle light, the stars and lights of village huts, there is however no depth perception and no macro visual clues to assist. Not knowing the visual clues from experience, I depend strictly on distance clues. My distance split showed I was 0.2km short of the turn but there were two clear tracks off to the left. I decided to try the first one, it led down a very rideable single track, almost like it had been cut for purpose. As always, a wrong track heads downhill to ensure the uphill correction punishes mistakes. The track ran out and it was clearly wrong, I tried right and left and nothing led to an open track. I found myself on a fire break that was marked on the map so at least I knew where I was and followed it up a steep hill to arrive at a steep drop, out of options I took a track back towards the road I had dropped from. My direction is generally good even in the dark so I knew roughly where I was all along, it was just a bit frustrating, having Ntsikeni in the back of my head and now wasting time faffing around a dark forest. I had bigger fish to fry. I knew the road ran down to a tar road which would lead to Centacow but it was a 20 min detour. I called Glenn at the race office to check i I would incur a route deviation penalty for taking the gravel road. He checked my position on the Spot tracker and saw I was 0.2km from the turn, I should have trusted my original trip distance. I was in Centacow shortly after. I still had to make the pushing on decision.

Centacow mission is a very comfy place inside, its nice and warm, lots of delicious food and warm beds. Everything about it begs one to stay. I sat down to eat and settle, the eating went well, the settling didn’t. I was caught in two minds but the weight of my thoughts were back out in the dark, I was uncomfortable with the thought of staying over whilst still feeling so good.

I texted Meryl and my wife … “Screw this, I’m going to Ntsikeni. Sorry Meryl”. Meryl responded “Great. Will let Mr Ngcobo know”. I said I’ll be in there at 2am Sunday morning. My wife texted me “Great! Genet dit. Gedink jy gaan dit doen”. It sounds like it was all very romantic … only as far as heading into a cold dark night over two very big mountains can be considered romantic. Dramatic yes, romantic no.

The trail from Centacow to Ntsikeni is challenging, even in daytime. There are two big mountains to be conquered, I was going to have to push my bike quite a bit to get up these and that means progress is slow, it requires large doses of patience. I headed off into the dark and made my way up the first mountain, I remembered it from 2014, it was a slog to get to the top, I pushed my bike a lot and worst of all is I started to feel tired for the first time that day. I stopped near the top to eat an energy bar and try and gather some composure. I cooled down quickly and had to layer up. I had entered the territory of vasbyt, it was not romantic any longer and I was only an hour into this 6 hour stretch. The plateau on top brought welcome relief and some positive feelings, I was surprised to encounter several pedestrians and even vehicles in such a remote place at that time of night. I had divided the stretch into 4 main sections. The next one was the infamous Boshelweni forest, every year riders get lost here and have to sleep out. I had prepared for this so was looking forward to it, my mind was fresh again and sharp, I could not afford to miss the turn down to the river crossing. In 2014 I followed our group down here without paying any attention and it was daytime, now it was dark with no visual clues to guide the way. My trip meter was precise again and I crossed the river and found the entrance into the forest perfectly. I had discussed this section with Mike Woolnough before and he told me his habit was to celebrate this little navigational victory with a sit down at the forest entrance and a cuppa. I followed suit, put on my Sealskinz socks, had a drink and a bite and headed off towards the Ntsikeni climbs. Unbeknown to me, three other riders were camping in Boshelweni that night and I must have passed them.

Mike and Kevin Davie had told stories of the presence of a “second person” during endurance rides. It was too early in the ride for such but I got scared witless at one point in the forest when my eye caught a movement to my left and I almost fell off my bike from the fright. Turned out it was my moon shadow jumping long the brush and trees as a half moon provided some welcome light.

I hit the gravel road other side of the forest without issues but I found myself weaving across the road as fatigue was setting in. It was just after midnight, the moon had just set so it was pitch dark, it was getting cold and it had become very quiet. The trail had become a very lonely place. I turned left to start the climb up to Ntsikeni and as if on cue, a very strong wind started blowing and both my headlamp as well as my bike light started indicating low batter power. It shook me a bit, both lights should be able to last the night and the thought of being without lights with another 2 hours to had me in a bit of a panic, it was pitch dark without lights and very remote. No way of even moving without light. I decided to use the last bit of bike light to change the batteries in my headlamp. You see, once I take the batteries out of the headlamp, there is only the bike light … which was running low. I had to cut the cable ties off the helmet mounted lamp to get the batteries replaced, I was lethargic and moving slowly, sitting flat on my bum in the middle of the road. At first try, the headlamp didn’t work, the possibility of being caught without light was becoming awfully real. My guardian angel kicked into action and I redid the battery fitment, the headlamp flashed on. I had wasted 15 minutes but it felt like a major victory and my spirits had lifted. I started pushing my bike up the mountain into the dark, the wind was howling and it had become a very uncomfortable place.

I tried riding my bike to keep momentum but the wind kept blowing me towards the steep drop on the left, I was leaning into it to keep going. My balance was tired and I had to jump off every now and then when the wind was too strong, most importantly I kept going forward. I eventually reached he stile crossing the fence into the reserve and carried my bike over. The trail gods smiled on me as the jeep track from the fence led all the way to the lodge, I didn’t remember it to be this clear, maybe it wasn’t, but it was not as difficult as I had expected. Frost had begun to form and it was like riding on a white carpet, my wheels were white all around and the frost was falling onto my shoes and cooling my feet down. Crossing the neck above the reserve one gets a first sight of the lodge, at night this beacon comes in the form of a very faint light. As I made my way along the frozen jeep track, the faint light eventually became brighter and then it starts becoming a shape, first a square and then at last a square with frames in it. That’s when I knew, I had made it to Ntsikeni.

Mr Ngcobo was up and waiting for me, it was just after 2 in the morning, it had been a 20 hour day and it was bitterly cold. He had soup ready, fresh bread and hot chocolate and rusks. The fireplace provided welcome heat and the lodge had the making of a sanctuary. I told him I’ll have breakfast at 5h30 and head out at 6h00, it was no effort for him and his crew. They really are amazing people. I took a shower and hit the bed for a short sleep.

I was in a happy place. I had doubled to Ntsikeni. It had been quite a day.