2300km, but where to start?

As you can imagine, a 19day epic generates a fair amount of copy.

You can go right to the beginning of the whole ordeal, or the startline/day 1.

I'm looking at moving from a general ride report to a more up to date what's happening site. Yes, Freedom Challenge doesn't just finish in Paarl! When i get round to it, there'll be a PDF of the 19days reports.

Send some feedback (I'm aware that the whole layout is just, well kinda rubbish!)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Day 19

I need an alarm to get up at the hours we've been waking. I've had a song from a local Cape Town band jacSharp to wake up to everyday. It's a beautiful melody called 'tonight' that puts a smile on my tired face everymorning, but it's an irony too hard to miss - you know your body clock has been hit for six when you smile to 'tonight' when waking up.

On the fridge is a map of the farm, and I really don't know where the guys have been bunked, as we seemed to have found them all. I quietly make myself some toast for a hasty breakfast and don my damp gear. Clearly not quiet enough I get a quick goodbye to my guardian angels. It's rained a lot last night and hasn't stopped either.

I stop in at the locked cottage on the way, and the big mystery is solved. The guys got in two hours ahead of me and went to bed early leaving a light outside. Unfortunately the door got locked somehow and didn't knock loud enough to wake them. I could justifiably get really hacked off with them right now, but that's no way to start a day that is hard enough without pre sunrise temper tantrums. Plus I'll really need friends today, and the lucky buggers are getting a tour guide for the kloof too.

There's no time to mess around but I hastily get my box emptied of all the final day treats I sent and have my maps inplace. I've put a pair of really old throwaway jeans in for the bundu bashing. Not sure if I'll be wearing them in the wet, you can't plan for everything.

We get to the dam manager's house in time, but late enough to knock on the door. He comments that a LOT of rain has fallen overnight. Us bikers are crazy, but to go through the kloof today is just insane. He doubts we'll make it over the first river crossing, and will have to bundu on the eastern bank till the path rejoins. We leave with his wishes and a still shaking head.

There's a longrunning debate on how to get your bike up this kloof. Some dismantle it into various parts and attach to your backpack. None of us have ever practised it, and we all decide instead to keep the bike in one piece and carry just like in any other portage. I get some raised eyebrows when we get to the path entrance. It's an eroded jeeptrack that has deterioated to a big donga, but I assure them its right. It's mostly walking from here, with a few spots of riding thrown in. Oom Danie is full of beans today and goes on like a chatterbox. It's wonderful to listen too.
The troops hit the trail
We get up to the first major nek and look around at this awesome valley. The water level has risen a good 5 metres since I was last here, maybe some of it last night. It's amazing to think that we're probably only 15km from Paarl mainstreet, yet this is as isolated as it comes. Before the freedom trail was started, we would have been in a solid bundu already. Maybe only a handful of people would venture here each year. In the inaugral trip, David had banked 2 hours for this unscouted section. During the trying day in this jungle with his two companions he 'struggled to look them in the eye'! I've spoken to Andrew King about it over the time we've ridden together, and its a memory he'll never forget.

Waterflow on the main river

We even manage to ride some of the path down to the river. It's hairy stuff as it winds through the bushes, handle bars reaching out to grab holds the whole time with spectacular results. Sure enough the river crossing is not an option in any way. For the last six weeks I'd been thinking of a way to cross here with a bike without getting feet wet! The video explains it all, Andrew Pollock the cameraman is an ace whitewater kayaker, he must be turning inside today wanting to 'break out the plastics' and play in all this cape wild water.

stu in the undergrowth

still there

So we bundu through the impenetrable bush. Attempt one has Stu making a good 20m in 15 minutes, so we send scouts for another route. It's a case of finding the least impossible path, and the vegetation is the limiting factor. Close to the river and it's thick, further up its not that better. Being The largest specimen of our group Andrew Barnes makes a nice big path for us to follow, but all to soon we reach a tributary that is coming down the mountain to join the main stream. The water isn't the main problem here, more that the vegetation is insanely thick. Some tree surgery creates a passage and its through to the next section where thankfully we can head up. Altitude and contours mean nothing here, it's all about the path of least resistance. The last kilometer has probably taken an hour.
waterflow on the tributary

We drop down the little ridge to join back up with the path that has crossed to the eastern side again. The push continues but its slow progress in the pouring rain. The next tributary we come to is much bigger than the last. One would probably get washed away in this. We have a look around for another way over it, as we have to cross it somehow. Looking at the map it drains a much larger area, but it's burst it's banks by a long way.
sit down and contemplate
We have to sit down and make some big decisions here. We could risk crossing it at another point higher up that seems to be narrower and steeper. Its reckless for sure without any equipment(but so is riding from maritzburg to paarl). Even if we make it to the head of the kloof, there's no guarantees we can cross the main stream there either. If we can't cross there, then we have no option but to come back out. The time frame on that would maybe end up with a wet night in the kloof.

We chose instead to turn around and cycle through to Rawsonville and up the N1. This option of a hasty retreat and backtrack from a difficult situation is definitely the soft one. We hadn't even got to the rocky scree that signals the start of the really insane stettyns circus. What would the race director say? What would the alumni who battled through the kloof and soldiered on when the going got rough say? At that point it didn't matter, to go on would be irresponsible. The clever BASE jumpers and big wave surfers woose out when it goes from crazy to just plain stupid.

So the 'easy' option started and the smiles had disappeared. The guys pulled my leg by suggesting we reconsider the decision, I fell for it hook, line and sinker. They knew I was disappointed by the retreat. The current score stands at Stettynskloof 2- 0 Me. We still had to bundu our way back through all the rough stuff we'd done earlier and it wasn't easier the second time.

We considered a short stop at Trouthaven, as Danie was getting really cold but chose to find somewhere in Rawsonville instead. We still had the small matter of a 60km plus ride in atrocious weather. And that sting in the tail, Du Toitskloofpas.

In Rawsonville we find a cafe and Andrew takes over clearing out the stock of pies, fish, chips, coffee, droewors and anything else considered essential. We get some locals giving us a hard time, we're not a common sight and who doesn't want to start an argument after a morning of Autumn Harvest? I reluctantly tell Kiwi Stu that Rawsonville is in the Guiness book of Records – for alchohlism and it shows.

Some of the guys go off ahead as its cold, but I wait for Andrew to finish his coffee, and we head off for our final ride together. We've inform race control of our movements and have been told to be careful on the N1 section. It's a busy road and exactly what we've been avoiding for three weeks. We take turns pacing, but its soon obvious that he'll be dragging me all the way home. My body really is finished, and I urge him to go on and i'll finish at my own pace. He's having none of that and promises to ride with me to the end. Even the pace slows down, but I don't get much in the way of breaks. I've been through the Molenaars river valley on the N1 countless times in my life, normally coming back from a holiday somewhere. Never have I seen so much water coming off the rocks, waterfalls have just started where they shouldn't be.

view from N1

We make it to the old road, that is now the 'alternate' to the Hugenout tunnel. It's a long hike to the top, but I've forgotten how long and it takes forever today. Andrew literally drags me up, even offering to take my bag (I stubbornly refuse, of course!). I smile for the cameramen, good to see Andrew King smiling(who finished yesterday). We catch up to Danie who's on the phone at the summit. The view is a murky 5m viz cloud, no table mounain sunset today. Danie knows the way down to Ashanti through the forest roads.
looking back at the old tunnel
try crack a smile

Near the bottom, we are greeted by the sight of David, diverting us onto the dam wall as the other road is apparently too muddy. Danie promptly falls over into a pile of mud on the dam wall, far too funny.

Halfway round the dam we can hear cheering, clearly our lights have been spotted, but it sounds like a thousand people have turned up as the sound carries over the water. We get closer and all the farmkids have arrived, for some reason I am ahead of the rest and get 20 kids running next to me, shouting the immortal words:”hou bene, hou”. The one guy asks if I can slow down a bit as I'm losing them!

Then we round the corner and I almost choke up over the final 100m on seeing the line. There's a whole crowd to see me after waiting all afternoon. We move onto the restaurant and theres so much to tell. Pizza arrives and is duly despatched. Andrew and Sirk have come back after finishing yesterday. Tim is there, as is Maarten van Dalsen (2007 winner).
say cheese
done, finished, klaar, kaput

with mom and dad
mmm, pizza
debating that some green line issue
the blanket saga support crew

There are a few photos and speeches, and we get our blankets; and just like that its all over. My bike is loaded into my parents' car and I'm driven home. It's said that as each journey ends, another begins.

showing off my blanket to my legend grandfather

Trouthaven to Paarl via Rawsonville- ~2300m of climbing
110km 14 hours door to door

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Day 18

2300km, are we there yet?!
I wake up to the real thought that today could be my last real day of riding. I should be able to do the triple up stage without too much drama as it's all shorter than normal and I know where to go too. From there it's the hike up stettyns and we're home free. It's been an underlying thought for the last few days and is now very much a more real prospect, what happens once you're done? The daily routine has become wake up, get ready and ride. As much as the bike has travelled, how much have I grown and changed as a person over the last three weeks? Is it for the better?

I can't dwell totally on this as I still have the small task of riding through some serious distance and there's a nasty storm brewing overhead. Having my very own TV with satellite in the cottage I know there's an even bigger one hitting cape town too.

Busiest road on the trail is Cogmanskloof which is the road that connects Montagu with the outside world through the Langeberg. I have rain falling and trucks splashing me with each pass, good way to start fast and get the kilometers ticking.

Ashton and the canning factory are familiar to me as I've driven the R60 countless times, but the route through the town is totally different to how I thought we crossed the Breede River towards McGregor. I find myself doubting the options in what was a confident section as we travel eastwards for a section(I'd ridden from McGregor before). After crossing the river on the red iron bridge we do indeed turn west and homewards again. I find my self crossing to the right hand side of the road to avoid some corrugated sections. Not ten seconds later a bakkie tears past without me even hearing him come. The pleasant habit of assuming you are the only road user will have to be kicked soon!

looking down into McGregor

With little fuss I am in McGregor and sit down to a muffin at the coffee shop. The other boys have two hours on me, will I catch them on the route today?Do I really need to? I'm again reminded of the impending rough weather from the locals and make a hasty retreat back into the cold outside. The 24km stage to Kasra is done in just under 2 hours and its a different feeling riding knowing exactly what's coming up and where to go. My maps stay in the bag (is this how Tim rides?!) as my eyes are on the grey clouds in the distance.

a porky welcome

Been here before in MAY

The Oestervanger guesthouse is an unexpected highlight of the trip. The ladies run what you could call a boutique restaurant with a single large diningroom table for guests by appointment only. I plonk down in the kitchen and am presented with a hearty butternut soup (ginger being the secret ingredient) and a juicy lambshank that falls off the bone. You eat three meals a day over a lifetime, but I'd squeeze this one into my top ten all time list. I'm still feeling rather queasy and those who know me will agree that all is not well if I turn down dessert. I turn down the very attractive offer of even just an hours shut eye.
go up there
on this stuff

Belly full to bursting, it's time to move on and do the Trappieskraal jeep track. It's been on the Cape Epic a few times, could be recognised as the really rocky hill that goes on forever under the powerlines. Six weeks ago I mostly rode up it, today I push almost the whole way.

its raining where i have to go

The day passes by slowly, and constantly I see wet grass and clouds up ahead yet only confront slight drizzle. I scream down the Jonaskop road and am very happy to see that the Doornrivier algemene handelaar is open today. I make the obligatory coke purchase (and have now spent almost R100 over the last three weeks) from the tannie who knows me as one of the basutho blanket riders (sounds like Steve and Kevin spent some time there last year). Back on the road, I'm reminded that I'm definitely close to home as I dodge a motionless plaaswerker who has started his friday night at noon. Who cares if papsak is banned if you still have a dop system?
gesuip so 'n demoon-couldn't wake him

The familiar sections roll by without much hassle, I'm even involved in now answering all the messages from friends and family who want to know to the hour when I'll be arriving. The straight reply is 'saturday sometime' and I appoint a PR agent on the spot to handle my social affairs. Before the race I had thumbsucked 20 days as a goal which would be a Sunday finish. A day earlier and i won't even get in the way of the wimbledon mens final!

spot the engineer - brandvlei distribution

For the second time in recent history I roll straight through Brandvlei prison without seeing a warden or prisoner on the grounds (we come in through the very unmanned and totally unfenced back entrance). It really does look like a country club with its sports amenities and clubhouse on the dam, the only reminder of its penitentiary function is trying to get past security as I leave(or is it escape?).
Brandvlei entrance on MAY training ride

Night falls and the mercury follows suit. Friday night round here means dodging pedestrians who stumble on the side of the road with the randomness of final round boxers. I start to celebrate my dry luck too early as it starts raining when I have about three kms to the farm and tonight's bed. And it starts pouring like never before. At least I know where reception is at this place.

Cats and dogs are flying around me as I get to an unmanned reception and owners house (it is friday night). We're out of cellphone range so I rush to the closest chalet to see if its ours. Unfortunately the couple can't help me with any info, but I know there are other cottages further up the road. By now I'm totally sopping, miserable and starting to lose it as the frustration level rises. I should be inside, eating and warm but instead I am looking for the damn house after 13 hours of riding. I follow a MTB sign up a hill to some lights only to realise that I'm at the workers housing and have gone up the farm's MTB route. Finally I find a paper sign with 'freedom challenge' and an arrow on it. The arrow points up a hill, with three route options. Half an hour's searching reveals an empty locked cottage with only the outside lights on, and some wet orchards.

Feeling like a drowned rat I have no option but to return to the only people that seem to be on this farm, the occupants of the first cottage. 'Boy' is a coloured contractor from Piketberg, and opens the door with disbelief that I'm still pedaling outside in this storm. I can't get over how foreign this scene would be just 15 years ago and have trouble addressing my good samaritan with what I thought would be a derogatory term. I get given a drink(whiskey) and food(left over braai) and we jump in the car to see if we can find the designated house. Some really scary driving in a 4x4 on muddy roads follows. Still no luck with the search and the only option is to bunk in one of their spare beds. I'll have to be up in a few hours anyway and can do Stettyns without my maps (maybe?!).

my lucky warm bed

So much for local knowledge, maybe I'll see the other four tomorrow in the valley. For now it's imperative to rest as the hike up the kloof is going to be even harder with all the rain. You can add an extra three kilograms with everything drenched. I don't even bother drying stuff as the deluge will continue for a few days.

Montagu to Trouthaven via Mcgregor and Kasra- ~2518m of climbing
170km 15 hours door to door