Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part eight

I was tired of being frightened of things that didn't exist, of things that hadn't even happened. My fear of being lost in the dark was not based in reality, and I knew that. "What's the worst that will really happen?" I reminded myself. As Liehann snoozed in Hadley, I studied the map by headlamp beneath my covers, tracing the dotted line as it contoured down a ridge, crossed the wide blue shading of a river, sliced across a spur, and then continued down the valley. The dotted line hugged the river around Osseberg mountain, which was lower than points on the ridge up canyon — possibly not visible from certain vantage points? I tried to imagine what this landscape would look like — the tight contour lines of cliffs, the steep side canyons ... should I count them? Could I count them? What looked like a trail on the map would look like nothing at all from the ground. I knew if I carried my bike, the odometer would be useless in tracking distance. I was tired of being frightened, so I just put the map away. 

We set out in the morning to cut through a wall of mountains we spent the previous day approaching, the Bavianskloof. It was incredible bike touring terrain — 400 meter drop followed by an "equally ridiculous" 400 meter ascent along the rippled sedimentary layers of redrock cliffs. The previous day, Anine showed me a tourism map that revealed a route to Cambria going the long way around on this scenic and fun road, but of course that is not the Freedom Challenge Way. I told Liehann I was getting to a point where I was questioning my life choices regarding doing things I really did not want to do because I'm in a race. Of course I do it because of the enduring rewards of overcoming my fears and weaknesses — but the fears and weaknesses of the Freedom Challenge were not relinquishing their grip, and I was becoming tired. 

 The long closed and technically prohibited Osseberg jeep track was about forty percent into the process of being entirely reclaimed by nature. Short sections were rideable, but much of it was not — at least not without taking a serious beating from high brush, thorns, deep erosion ruts, and hidden rocks. Liehann and I were always in agreement about playing it safe and hiked, hiked, hiked. The day began to heat up. I inadvertently chose a terrible bush to squat behind and ended up with seemingly hundreds of damn near microscopic (and yet oh so prickly) thorns inside my tights.

 Grumpy, I was. We arrived at an abandoned camp site and I sat down to eat a sandwich that Anine had packed for me — salami and cheese, and it was amazing. "I miss Hadley," I thought. "I should go live there." The track disappeared and the route across the river was far from obvious. The map directed us to "continue on to easier river crossing." The campsite sat about fifteen meters above the river on a vertical bluff. I wasn't sure exactly where we were on the map, but I thought we needed to continue up river before finding a lower crossing and looping back around. Liehann argued that the crossing must be somewhere below the campsite. I insisted we needed to go up river. Liehann conceded this time, even though he was certain of his assessment — and also right.

We hacked through thorns along a faint animal track. Tiny prickly pear-like cactus lodged in my shoes and lower leg. I scanned the other side of the river for the supposed old wagon trail that was supposed to climb over the spur, but saw nothing. Features that I thought would seem obvious from the map were anything but on the ground. Every peak looked like the one we needed to go around, every side canyon like the possible main river valley. It wasn't just that I lacked adequate orientation skills — although, alas, this was partially to blame. I did have a map and compass and the rational capability to use deduction to assess my position. But my creeping fear created an irrational but debilitating disorientation. The canyon might as well have started spinning.

I continued dragging Liehann through the brush. The sandy river bluff only became steeper, the main river channel wider. We started arguing. "Fine, we'll go back to the campsite," I huffed. We picked our way back until we saw a steep gully beneath the trees. "That's possibly a way down." It involved lowering our bikes off a six-foot dropoff and picking our way down smaller boulders, but we did at least arrive at river level. Would there be any track to pick up on the other side? How would we find it? If not, could we hack our way down this valley? Just schwacking through no more than 300 meters of brush had taken a half hour and left us thorn-pricked and exhausted. There was no way that 15 kilometers of this was possible, let alone plausible. And even if it was, how would we keep track of the exact location where we needed to leave the river and hack our way toward civilization? Liehann remained optimistic, but I could only see the world spinning.

"I'm thinking about just going back to Hadley," I announced to Liehann. He thought I was joking. I was not.

It was there, standing bewildered on a gravel bed in the middle of the Groot Rivier, that we heard a loud, "Oi!"

We turned around to see a solo cyclist with a bike on his back. We hadn't seen another rider in the Freedom Challenge since we left Richard in Elandsberg five days earlier, and suddenly, here one was, at the exact moment I was feeling most bewildered and lost. A knight in dirty bicycle kit — Marnitz Nienaber.

Marnitz is a hardened Freedom Challenge veteran, having completed the route across South Africa five times before this year. He started the race on June 15 — five days after us. He looked surprisingly fresh, although his legs were painted with fresh blood — hinting that he probably rode most the way down the Osseberg track through the punishing brush.

"We wondered when you'd catch us," Liehann called to him, referring to the fast guys who were racing this course for time, not just a finisher's blanket.

"Do you know where the track goes, from here?" I called out a little more timidly. I was surely happy to see Marnitz, but at the same time, strangely embarrassed.

"I will show you," Marnitz called back. "Wait there."

 Marnitz hoisted his bike and crossed the first channel, then took the lead through thick reeds at the edge of the river, arriving precisely at the head of a faint double track. I thought that would be the extent of Marnitz's guidance, and now he would race on ahead. But it was a major help. At least we found the track, for now.

"Follow me, I will show you where to go," he said. We mounted our bikes and raced after him up the steep track, with no more regard for the thorn bushes or cactus spikes. If I got an unsealable puncture I was just going to ride the flat. I did not want to lose Marnitz.

At the crest of the climb we looked down the river valley. "That is where you need to go, around there," Marnitz said, pointing at a peak that I presumed was the Osseberg.

I thought that was it, but we still raced after him down to the river bank, where he ducked through the branches of a fallen tree and stopped at a wall of reeds. I could just barely see over the river, but there was nothing there — just more walls of reeds, and more toppled trees. "Look for the breaks in the reeds? See them? It is here," Martinez said.

"No," I thought. I didn't see anything remotely resembling a break in the thick vegetation that stretched about two feet over my head. But I hoisted my bicycle and thrashed through the green confusion, waded across the knee-deep water that was so murky it was difficult discern which way it was flowing, and bashed through more reeds to the other side — where we arrived at a faint jeep track.

I was beside myself. How did he find that? What did he see? "Do you even need a map anymore?" Liehann asked him.

"Not so much," Marnitz replied.

 I kept waiting for Marnitz to ditch us, but he would wait at crossings, and hiked behind us up the steep brushy slopes where the abandoned track cut across river bends. He would pick what to me appeared to be a random spot to cross the river, bulldoze through the reeds, and still find the exact spot where the track met the other side. The barely-there track was surrounded by thick thorn bushes and tangles of fallen trees, revealing what would be a painful, if not impossible, bushwhack, for anyone who couldn't locate the track. "Thank you for helping us," I said several times. "Really, thank you."

Later, I learned that last year, Marnitz encountered another group in the Osseberg, including a woman named Avril. He thought Avril was traveling with the two guys, but actually she was alone — she had ridden alone for most of the race. Marnitz went on ahead, and the guys also made their way forward without Avril. She found her way to the sixth river crossing, and then sent a text message to the race office that they didn't receive until the following day: “Now I’m scared. Alone in Baviaans valley and don’t know which way to go, please can you help..?”

Avril ended up spending the night near that crossing. She built a fire and waited patiently. Later the following day, she heard the sound of voices — and tearfully met up with a group of riders who started several days after she did. Despite their fast pace, she resolved to stay with them through the remainder of the race, and finished with her group of "rescuers." Avril is no doubt a tenacious woman, but I got the sense that Marnitz felt a little bad about leaving her behind in 2013. Her ordeal became our good fortune. Liehann believes that we would have eventually found the way on our own, but I'm not so optimistic. We're both grateful for Marnitz's help on that day.

Though catered to us, the pace was fierce. We didn't eat, we ran out of water, hours went by ... it didn't matter. As we worked our way down the valley, the track became progressively worse, until it was almost entirely overgrown everywhere, and we had to find our way around enormous tree tangles brought down by floods. Give this valley few more years of growth and flooding, and it's hard to imagine how this route would even be passable by seasoned veterans, let alone clueless rookies. Marnitz seems to share this belief. He snapped a photo of one of the downed trees.

"I want to show David his highway to Hell," Marnitz said. He put his camera away and turned to me. "What do you think of the Osseberg?"

"Well," I stammered, looking up at the sculpted cliffs. "It is a beautiful canyon."

"There is nothing beautiful about this place," Marnitz said.

Picking our way out of the canyon, we learned how strong solo racers like Marnitz climb game fences — he hooked his bike on the bar across the top, climbed over, straddled the bar, swung his whole bike around, and dropped it on the other side. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be that confident and strong. We arrived at Cambria before dark, but only just — 54 kilometers in ten and a half hours. Although we had seen him on the road just a mile back, Marnitz did not arrive until a half hour later. His rear derailleur was busted, and the chain broke. He went to a farmer to ask for makeshift parts he could use to fix the damage. "If he doesn't have it, then it was not to be," Marnitz said.

I felt a sinking guilt — that perhaps the extra effort and bashing to help Liehann and me might just cost Marnitz his race. Although his plan had been to shower and go, Marnitz stayed to fix his bike and had dinner with us. He told us about his sleeping system — in order to make the race more challenging this year, Marnitz was spending most every night sleeping outside. I told him about my experiences in the Iditarod.

"That sounds like a real adventure race," Marnitz said, which I admit sparked a bit of pride. I respected the hell out of this guy.

Marnitz was able to fix his broken bike and was off in the night, like a phantom. Liehann went to bed, and about a half hour later, the peloton arrived — Steve, Di, Richard, and two others named Con and Coen. The were all buzzing from their successful portage through the Groot Rivier gorge after starting in Bucklands early that morning.

I joined in the joyful recounting of the day, but I admit that anger lurked in there as well. We had been incredibly lucky with Marnitz's timing and willingness to help, but what if we hadn't? You wouldn't have to venture very far off the track to not hear others go by; no one else goes down there anymore; they might never find our bodies. This was, again, echoes of that irrational fear calling out from the confines of grateful retrospect. But after two weeks of Freedom Challenge I was beginning to wonder what I had *really* gotten myself into. That valley was ridiculous, it really was. Which I guess is the point — to learn the way, to graciously embrace the help of others, to accept that maybe you couldn't have done this on your own the first time around, but now you're older and wiser.

But still ... what had I gotten myself into?