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.

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.

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.