DAY 1 – PIETERMARITZBURG TO ALLENDALE – 103KM
With the race debrief still fresh in one’s mind from the night before with all the rules and regulations explained and politely enforced by the race director along with a surprisingly restful night’s sleep, the day opened with much excitement, vision, goals and motivation. Breakfast was a sort of quiet affair wondering if it was just nerves or people not really orientated for early morning rise and shine seeing it was 5am and we were to leave the guest house and be at the Pietermaritzburg town hall before 6am as per tradition.
With all equipment and bike prepped the night before and last minute checks done, permits packed for some restricted areas to transverse, tracker active, it was riding gear on, backpack slung over shoulders, bike mounted, helmet buckled, lights on and it was all go!
With nervous banter and chatter once the batch of 6 Race to Rhodes and 3 Race across South Africa participants assembled at the Town Hall, it was just the clock chime to wait for and we were off!
The day, 10 June 2016, also my birthday, had finally arrived! All the training, gear selection and mind prep was about to begin and undergo its ultimate test. This is what we had trained for!
The last chime at 6am and the final goodbyes, kisses and handshakes were dished out and we were off!
The pace was fairly fast through the city and onto Bisley Nature reserve on the outskirt of Pietermaritzburg, the almost official entrance and start of our epic journey, all 2300km of it. The weather was looking good with a fairly warm feel considering we were in winter.
Rider Neville Higgs and I almost immediately hooked up. Neville had indicated the night before that he really didn’t fancy doing the journey alone even though it was an individual event. At this early point it seemed our riding pace and style almost complimented each other and we stuck together pretty much most of the first day that would become eventual agony for me.
10km into the start, I sensed there was something wrong. My body was not responding to the activity and my recovery phases seemed to be lacking. My legs were heavy and I couldn’t make sense of it. 20km in I knew I was in some sort of trouble. This would plague me for at least the first 80km of the 103km en-route to Allendale, the first support station along the route.
I started to cramp real badly in the forests finding myself on my own and at a later stage nausea set in after the Umko river valley traverse. I didn’t know what was happening and started fearing the worse. Standing next to my bike in the cool shade of dense forest and watching my thigh muscles literally twitching in agony, I didn’t know if I should scream or cry. I started to go into a blind panic wondering if this was the start of some swift ending to my race! I kept wondering if I had a viral infection of sort or maybe I had over trained for the event. (I would later put it down to nerves and just being tense on the 1st day)
Having been on this section of the route in 2014 I found the navigation easier than back then and this in itself was calming on the nerves worrying about getting lost.
After composing myself and riding through the cramps and discomfort, I rejoined Neville. After descending the steep concrete track into the rather warm and humid Umkomaas river valley and trekking up the river, we picked up and started riding single track all the way along the Umkomaas river and with opting not to cross the river as a shortcut we eventually exited out at the infamous HelaHela bridge and a brutal 7km climb out the valley. It was at around this point that I was fading fast and my energy levels and physique felt like it was collapsing feeling lethargic, nausea and weak. I instructed Neville to leave me and go it alone as I was not doing well in a physical state. Hesitantly he obliged but set along on his way.
I was all alone at around 17h00 on this mother of a climb. Running out of water, nausea taking hold and inducing vomiting, it would take me another four and a half hours to cover around 18km to the support station Allendale. In this time I had people in three different vehicles, I assumed locals of the area, stopping whilst finding me lying on the side of the road resting as I plodded along in stages in my attempt to get to Allendale, offering assistance of which is against Freedom Challenge rules and of which I had to decline but appreciated immensely but at the same time found it a little overwhelming somewhat. I was low on water and any liquid sustenance and eventually ran out.
Once summiting HelaHela in the dark I managed to get into a consistent rhythm and ride the undulating district roadway and eventually arrived at Allendale shattered and broken at just before 21h30. 103km day in 15.5hours!
What a day!
Neville was awake and welcomed me in. I appreciated that! I had something to eat that was provided by the support station, a quick shower and some meds and just flopped into bed exhausted without really worrying about prepping for the next day, falling into a deep sleep praying Day 2 was going to be a whole lot better…..
DAY 2 ALLENDALE TO BOSHOLWENI FOREST – 80KM
I woke from my doze at around 3am with the wind blowing outside and sporadic drizzle coming down patting the roof along with one of the Race to Rhodes participants tiptoeing around the cabin we were sleeping in preparing for his exit out Allendale.
Earlier, after Day one’s bewildered entrance onto the Freedom trail, and my later than expected arrival at Allendale, I had fallen into a deep sleep for just over an hour and it felt like I had slept for eight hours! For the rest, I slept on and off the passing few hours through the night and one would regard it as restless sleep. I was conscious of my heart rate beating faster than normal throughout the night in my fleeting awaking moments and it generally spiked my concern again that something was up. I knew deep down in my desire, whatever it was, I would have to work through it. Maybe foolish thinking without getting a medical opinion, but I hadn’t come on this ‘expedition to quit. I also wasn’t prepared to engage in any negative talk or thought about it.
After a quick pre-dawn discussion, Neville and I decided to leave Allendale before 6am. I set about repacking and quick prepping for the day ahead. It was then into the outside cabin kitchen for a quick breakfast of oats, eggs, toast and coffee and then so entered another rider, Gerald vd Merwe! (Gerald had started the day before us and had got lost in the Umkomaas valley, even sleeping there for a night after falling into the river in the dark). The request was whether he could join us when we departed Allendale. We agreed.
Unbeknown to me at this time, this was a threesome partnership that was going to gel together. It would be a partnership that would bind and display a friendship formed between three strangers who experienced the boundaries and challenges, the highs and lows, together throughout the length and breadth of the Freedom Challenge journey and even though we were three, we practically would become a nucleus of one.
Leaving Allendale still engulfed in darkness, we negotiated the outskirts of farmland to the south, taking us around a gradual slope and up to a fence line on the other side. I recognized the area immediately and the surroundings from my previous stint on the trail and was quite chuffed to add to the navigation discussions without using maps. This part of the navigation was known to be tricky as it took you through vast forest plantations with all its forestry main roads and network of subsidiary tracks. Our first target destination spot was the small town of Donnybrook when exiting the first stage of forest to negotiate, and then it was back into the forests and aim for Centacow Mission and then the final onslaught and climbs to Ntsikeni Lodge our indicated support station and stop for the day.
The weather was very overcast with drizzle in places and it had me wondering if we were in for the first taste of bad weather as there was a massive known cold front sweeping the country side from the south. I was still feeling the after effect of the previous day and it also had my leg muscles twitching at times, threatening to pull a cramp or two. This did happen just outside Allendale, but only once and I managed to ease it out.
The first stage of the forests, through its maze went without incident and it felt good not getting lost and popping out onto the tar road just outside Donnybrook to lead us in. The tracks through the forest were good yet a little wet and some mud in places, obviously from probable rainfall during the night. We did a quick pit stop at the local Spar Supermarket in Donnybrook and tucked into some Chelsea buns, bananas, energy drinks and packing some extra supplies into our backpacks. The air was noticeably icy cold, especially standing in the wind.
Donnybrook Spar – Nev & Gerald packing in the energy
Feeling perkier and allowing the memory of the previous day’s affair to subside, we moved through Donnybrook, found the railway track we were to cross and in no time the three of us were engulfed by the next stage of forests to work our way through, the Xumeni forests. By now, broken sunlight was starting to stream through the clouds and forest canopy as we made our way through. The forest environment had the ability to instill such peace with its quietness and natural vegetation. It was just the sound of mountain bike tyres treading along, squishing some mud puddles now and then and the odd gear clicking along with quick chats about the navigation that could be heard.
At some stage through the forest mid morning we started to descend and in some way, even though we had scrutinized the maps and narratives, we missed a crucial turnoff to our right near the top of the descent within the vast forest and plantation we were in. This would have taken us on the final stretch to Centacow. We committed the blunder and descended away and way down into the valley below where we eventually left the plantation behind and ended up in an open, slightly populated village area with houses and huts dotted around us. We stopped and chatted to the friendly locals and discussed the maps with them.
By the local known names printed on the map as indicated by the locals, it was clear we would have to ascend all the way back from where we came, which we knew was going to cost us some precious time and energy. We decided after looking at the maps and wasting more precious time that we would continue on the district road we were on which would eventually take us to a main road and then would eventually take us on to Centacow. We calculated that even though a longer way around to Centacow, it might require less energy to do so. We also realized that we were not gaining any distance or time advantage by doing this and we couldn’t be penalized because of our decision according to race rules. The day started to heat up nicely and just before around midday we rode into Centacow after fighting a steady headwind that slowed things down for us a little.
I was starting to feel way better than the previous day but lack of proper sleep which equals recovery was lacking. We still had two big climbs to tackle en-route to Ntsikeni. The ascent would be something like 3500m over 45km if not mistaken. The first climb was the moment we set our foot out of Centacow.
For interest sake, the calculated ascent from Pietermarizburg to Ntsikeni over the 200km distance is somewhere around 6500m!
After an awesome meal of soup, bread, muffins, vegetables and chicken, we topped up our bottles and hydration packs, thanked the Sisters of Centacow mission for their awesome support and we were on our way. We covered between average to rough district roads that just seemed to head for the heavens! Myself, Neville and Gerald were working well together and even though at times we were spread out on the climbs we always ended up back together. We passed a few children who ran alongside us for what seemed like miles. Common questions asked by them was what our names are and where we were going. Some even begged for sweets. Being in the most rural of places it became thought provoking on how these people lived and survived out in the most isolated of areas as we were in.
After dropping off after the climb out of Centacow we start descending down into a long valley over a couple of quick short hills in succession, also on district road. We started looking for a path to our left as per maps, which would take us to a river that we would have to cross. I didn’t want to make the same mistake we made back in 2014 where we took the wrong path and this time made sure we were spot on.
Riding single track we eventually arrived at the shallow river. We had an audience of three young African boys sitting on the other side on the banks watching in curiosity as we started to cross over. Neville and Gerald opted to go left of the crossing point choosing to clamber over some stones jutting out the water. I opted to take my water proof boots off and took the tiger line approach and cut straight through the middle. The water was freezing but at most knee deep in places while nuzzling my way across over slimy boulders submerged under the flowing but light current using my bike as a crutch. Neville and Gerald ended up with wet shoes and socks unfortunately but nevertheless crossed over.
Once over, we were now on the verge and entrance to the Bosholweni forest.
The sun was setting low and we still had about 30km to go with a big ascent to get to Ntsikeni Lodge. With fading light and after the navigation botch earlier in the day we decided mutually we would bunk down in the forest for the night. Even though I was pretty sure about the navigation and way to Ntsikeni, the general feel was to play it safe somewhat instead of maybe going wrong in the dark.
We rode into the forest which looked a little eerie with darkness setting in. The wind was blowing and the rustles of leaves echoed through the mass of this plantation. We then ended up on the outskirts of the forest halfway in and decided to take a subsidiary road a short way back into the forest and find a spot to settle down. We wanted to get out the wind which unfortunately still cut through the masses of trees around us. We found our spot and Gerald went into almost boy scout mode clearing a rather larger area so we could make a fire without burning the forest down. It was 18h00.
Home for the night – Bosholweni forest
We gathered wood and donned all the thermal clothing we had which meant practically we emptied our backpacks with the extra gear within. The next thing was the emergency space blankets and determining a place to sleep close to the fire without burning too many holes in the blanket itself. We dined on whatever we had in our backpacks. I had beef biltong, FutureLife supplement, self-made sandwiches made in Centacow and 32GI supplement mix in my bottles. Neville and Gerald had their own preferences and we shared alike.
This was also the beginning of the nickname calling. Neville and I were intrigued by Gerald’s massive backpack that resembled an old army pack that one used in the bush wars decades ago. Man! He had everything in that pack, all 15kgs of it! Pans, cups, tools and and! Neville and I saw fit to nickname him A.K.A – Reccie (After the elite special force soldiers once prominent in the yester years of South African border wars) Gerald seemed to take this to heart and a good laugh was had!
We settled down for the night with the icy wind consistently trying to weave its way through the forest and find us. I got into my space blanket bag and so a violent night of shivering started. I almost became like an out of control rattlesnake, tail going wild!
It was cold! Bitterly cold! And I am sure we were all praying for dawn to come quickly. We all woke at times separately and gathered wood to feed the fire throughout the night.
The night was long. The night was uncomfortable. Yet! Only two days into the Freedom Challenge and in a perverse kind of way, I felt a sense of gratitude for where I was and feeling privileged I was experiencing something few would get the opportunity to experience……