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.

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Race to Willowmore Day 1

Cradock – Gegun – Koedoeskop

162km / 2304m ascent / 12 hours

The day started like most days do before the start of any exciting adventure … sleep doesn’t come easy but the 5h00 alarm does. It starts the count down to the 6h00 start. We lined up for the traditional group picture and then at 6h00 the most uneventful start of any race one will ever do … “Off you go, have a good ride”. No-one sprints away, in fact, it’s almost tradition to ride a bit of a neutral zone together and then, without prior agreement, everyone starts settling into their own rhythm and space starts opening up.

RTW Batch 4 Start (Pic Credit. Freedom Challenge Race Office)

First incident occurred after 1km, I had forgotten my mobile phone on the charger and fortunately realized it when we wanted to take the first picture of the day. School boy error quickly rectified by the ever helpful Race Office.
The first 20km out of Cradock is a bit of a mental tester. The road up the Swaershoek Pass meanders very innocently through a beautiful valley until the last 5km to the top when it suddenly tilts upwards at an average gradient of almost 9% to the top of the pass. Soon everyone had settled into their own rhythm to try and get to the top with good legs. I had planned 2 hours for the 850m of ascent but reached the top a bit ahead of schedule. Tim James, 3 times winner of RASA, had reached the top 2 minutes ahead of me and was taking pics to show the breathtaking view from the top. We joined up soon after the top and rode the 44km mostly down sloped stretch to Tollie’s Safaris together. Tim and I have known one another for quite a few years but have never ridden together so it was a special little moment for us both.

We reached Tollie’s just before 9h00, I was already about an hour ahead of my planned schedule and despite making sure I kept my enthusiasm in check, I was worried I had gone too hard with Tim. We filled up with water and started the jeep track climb up Struishoek, it was a proper sweat affair with a few stretches of pushing to get to the top but once on top the road evened out and we could ride comfortably all the way to the top of Struishoek descent. Tim and I worked well as a team alternating gate duties with the navigation being straight forward. The descent down Struishoek was a challenge to say the least. The white painted rocks, a legacy of the helpful farmer not wanting to look for lost souls at night, made navigating down the rocky river bed simple but the loose rocks were a danger begging an injury. It took an hour to get down to the Struishoek farm house but Tim hopped down the rocks like a Klipspringer and had made up more than 10minutes on me by the time I reached the house. A note on the gate invited the riders to a cool box on the patio with the residents being in town. It took great discipline not to finish the packet of Lemon Cream biscuits, an unexpected treat!

The road from Struishoek to Gegun is pretty much flat with traditional Karoo landscape. I took it easy on this stretch to save some energy for the afternoon push through to Koedoeskop and was caught by Mike Potgieter and we rode together into Gegun at 13h52. I had allowed 10 hours and got in at 8 hours, a solid start to the ride.
The stretch from Gegun to Koedoeskop is over several game farms and offers some very enjoyable riding. I wasn’t feeling all that great and pretty much just rolled along, until I was surprised to find Tim and Mike at Karoopoort Farm taking a quick break. Tim wasn’t feeling too great an took it slowly while Mike and I continued through the beautiful Koedoeskop Game Reserve to reach the support station at the lodge at 17h30.

It had been a solid 162km day in 12 hours, a few hours ahead of schedule and I had enough time to recover properly for the big next day through to Hadley. Last minute hosts Richard and Roslynne and the French reserve owners were superb and catered for our every need. Tim and Mike left a bit later for Kleinpoort while Leon, Dave and Ingrid also elected to get some sleep in. The four of us were to ride together quite a bit over the next few days.

Note: The support station had moved from Toekomst to Koedoeskop just days before due the tragic and untimely passing of Phillip Henderson from the farm Toekomst. I had his name written into my notes to be able to greet him in person. May he rest in peace.

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.