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.

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