Romansfontein to Stuttgart (172km, 1965m ascent).
No problem with falling asleep at Romansfontein. I heard a dog bark for a while the previous evening and then I faded away fast until the 4h00 alarm. We had caught up with Batch A, led by Dave Bell, a top navigator, and planned to join them over Aasvoelberg Portage as their pace was very similar to ours and to benefit from having 5 RASA finishers in the group to assist with navigation. I rode with several of the Batch A riders at Race to Rhodes in 2014, a super group, strong riders and great attitude. If Dave says he leaves at 5h00, he leaves at 5h00 so everyone was ready by 4h58.
We took the short cut through the farm to get to the district road, no glitches, perfect exit. Coen and I dropped down to the farm Gunsteling to start the portage a few minutes ahead of Batch A, they soon caught us as we stood wondering to go through a gate or not. My detail notes were not as exact as I had hoped and a Google Earth print on flat paper, whilst very helpful, is just different to the 3D real world landscape, this was to become an issue soon. Aasvoelberg was covered in mist so the mountain itself and critical landmarks were not visible. I was not comfortable when the group, as one, headed off to the left to scale a small ridge onto a plateau, my notes were very clear we should head right. Having 5 RASA finishers who had been through this section and a fear of being left alone had me follow the group. It was a mistake. We had cut left too early and dropped to a fence line which, whilst looking familiar, was not the correct one. After looking around, riding ahead, back tracking and consulting maps techniques were executed the group quickly realized the mistake and we pushed up a steep switch back to rejoin the correct trail higher up. I am not oblivious to the logic of staying with what you believe is correct rather than follow a group but its very cold and lonely up in Aasvoelberg and the comfort of being with a group, even if not on the perfect route, had merit in a strange way. By reckoning we lost about 30 minutes with this detour, in the bigger scheme of things it was not significant and the group dynamic and spirit had remained intact.
Dropping down Aasvoelberg to Magdala farm is quite a ride, steep, fast, fun, the kind of descent where you smell your brakes. Coen and I took a welcome breather at the bottom, shedding wind shells, refueling and changing maps and narrative for ride into Hofmeyer. The drop down the back of Aasvoelberg to the basin of the Karoo is a defining moment of the Freedom Trail as a whole. I had heard David Waddilove and Glenn Harrison talk about this moment where one transitions from one geological and climatic region to the next. It was breathtaking to say the least, a fast downhill accompanied by panoramic views over the Karoo landscape. A very special moment.
A tail wind blew us into Hofmeyer over smooth district roads at 10h00 with more than enough time to reach Karoosbos pie shop before the 13h00 closing time. Karoobos has become an oasis for many a Freedom rider, perhaps as it is the first proper town since having left Rhodes, 400 kms earlier. The pure meat pies (lamb, venison, chicken) are like manna from heaven. We spoiled ourselves like kids and grabbed seconds for padkos. Batch A arrived at pace just as we left, also having enjoyed the tail wind into Hofmeyer. It’s a pretty little town and one almost feels sad riding out, knowing the next town stop is Cradock, 200km further on.
Leaving Hofmeyer 30 mins later the heat had appeared from nowhere. My Polar showing 36C as we headed towards the Elandberg Portage, we sipped water to stay hydrated but the heat was pretty overwhelming, not sure if it was humidity, but is was significant. With enough daylight, the portage was going to be fine navigation wise and we hit all the key landmarks without any problems. Whilst crossing from the fence to the wind pomp, Coen crossed a jeep track and promptly got on his bike and rode off left up towards the Elandsberg in stead of remaining straight towards the nek as per the notes and maps. I again followed loyally as Coen was adamant this was correct, in the end this worked rather well as we were able to ride about 500m onto a plateau and then followed a fast jeep track around to join the intended trail at the ruins. It wasn’t exactly as per the map but I don’t think it took much longer, if at all. The Elandsberg has claimed many a victim at night and it was to do so again this year when Mike Woolnough and Casper Venter struggled to find the trials in a dark and rainy night. Mike knows this section like no other and had recce’d the route less than 2 weeks prior. It just showed me again how the trail has to be respected and attempted with great care and planning by novices and even experienced riders. The contrast between day and night cannot be more significant when it comes to navigation.
We arrived at Elandsberg farm at 13h15, about 2 hours ahead of our riding schedule and were again treated to a super meal, this time proper boerewors and proper mash potatoes. The boerboel Jasper deserves a mention, everyone knows him, to the dismay of many he drewls like a boerboel and chews loudly on bones like a boerboel, yet he is as friendly as a boerboel. I read Jasper books when I was a boy, he reminded me of that adventurous boerseun in the books. We left Elandsberg in the heat and strangely struggled all the way down to the Fish River, I still can’t understand that heat, maybe it was just the accumulation of exhaustion over days that made us battle. Eventually in the Spekboomberg section we succumbed to some shade and a green lawn, finished our remaining Hofmeyer chicken pies, did social media updates and hid from the heat. The ride into Stuttgart farm was uneventful other than some very dark clouds and a very electric storm performing its spectacle for us. It got rather intimidating and the rain started just as we parked our bikes at 18h00. Amanda’s hospitality took over and kept us in its grips until we left the next morning.
I must note that I felt really good on this third day and considered pushing through the night to Cradock over the Schurfteberg. The thought of going sub-3 days was very attractive but perhaps for the wrong reasons. The bad storm and Coen’s sound advice put paid to this idea. It would have been a mistake and I would have missed out on a special support station stay. I would have lost more than what I would have gained.
I cannot say enough about the amazing support station farmers who open up their homes to our dirty bodies and bikes, they put their best forward and treat us like royalty. This has been a common theme from Pietermaritzburg through to Cradock, all 1200km of the trail, these people are amazing. Highlight was having dinner with Francois, Amanda and their twin daughters who were visiting from varsity, what a lovely family and what a privilege to have been able to share 12 hours with them.
Another perfect day.