Thursday, July 10, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part four

Pulling into the Vuvu school, we saw another five bicycles parked outside. Still reeling from my glycogen crash, I just blinked in confusion as Di laughed. "What's this? Looks like a party!"

Four riders from the Monday start group were there, as was Ingrid, the woman racing to Rhodes who started on Tuesday with us, and who I thought was far ahead. A man directed us into a darkened room in the school — like most rural villages, Vuvu had no electricity or running water — where the group was gathered around a small table, telling war stories. The lively conversation was a little too much for me; I had to step outside for some air. Nightfall came fast, like a cold fist over the plateau, plunging the little village into total darkness. Tonight, more than any night yet, I wanted to be alone. It's difficult to explain. I did enjoy the social aspect and camaraderie of the Freedom Challenge, very much so, but my introvert reserve was drained. I had no energy left to invest in this evening, and yet there I was, stuck in a small room with ten other people. 

I probably seemed antisocial that evening. I apologize for that. Eventually the outside chill set in and I returned to the school. I took up a quiet spot in the corner of the room, and treated my wet and chaffed feet while the group told their own stories of the Vuvu Valley, of getting lost on Black Fountain, of spending the night in a hut after being warned by a 12-year-old girl that "you can't be out here after dark. People get murdered here." Eventually my stomach settled enough that I was able to eat some nuts from my supply box, and then dinner came out. For eleven hungry bikers it was a relatively small portion, and by the time I made my way to the table, the chicken pieces and potatoes were gone. I took a heap of rice with thin gravy and felt grateful for that. First world cliches aside, it's hard to ask for more in a place where you see so little. 

After dinner, a woman directed Liehann and me to a circular hut down the street where we would spend the night — somebody's home, temporarily vacated. I asked Liehann where the residents went, but he didn't know, either. The hut had two neatly made single beds and an oil lamp. I asked a little boy about the toilet, and he walked me the rest of the way down the street to a crudely constructed outhouse — basically, a pile of logs that I couldn't quite discern how to sit on or squat over. We had traveled through many villages over the past five days, and it was interesting to actually step inside of one. I had a similar impression to the villages I visited in Nepal three years ago — lifestyles are simple, and hard, but fulfilling, too. But of course I don't know. I can't really know. 

We set our phone alarms and joined the group for breakfast at 5 a.m. The light dinner didn't exactly restock my empty furnace, and I awoke feeling lousy — throbbing headache, raw stomach, still no energy. Breakfast was very thin porridge and a boiled egg, but there was lots of steam bread, and I tried to cram down what I could. The group all took off while we were still packing up, but I was happy to let them go. I already told Liehann that I didn't want to chase anyone up a mountain today. I could do Lehana's Pass, but it would have to be at my own pace. 

The haul over Lehana's Pass ascends more than 1,000 meters in five kilometers — 3,500 feet in three miles. It sounded like a steep hike before I realized how difficult it would be to haul a bike, and the climb out of the Vuvu Valley ushered home the daunting reality of the task. Di and Steve planned to take a race-sanctioned long way around Lehana's Pass on roads, and based on how poorly I'd fared on the bike-carrying portage the day before, Di recommended I consider this as well. But Lehana's is an iconic part of the Freedom Challenge, and I had this sense that Beat would not forgive me if I opted out of the hike.

It was a stunning morning, with rich winter light saturating the dry slopes of the Drakensberg. These are the "dragon mountains," sleeping peacefully with lungs full of fire.

The climb started out not so bad. It was steep, but "wheeling" the bike was doable, and we kept a steady enough pace that we actually caught up to the group of five — John and Richard, Annie and Stewart, and Ingrid. Just as I started to feel comfortable, a heavy breeze picked up strength. By the time we reached the ridge, the wind had increased to gale force. It blasted along the spine with a deafening and ominous roar. Two shepherds were huddled in a squat stone hut, their fire nearly extinguished, and we kept on climbing. 

As the ridge narrowed, the battle become fierce. Rocky outcroppings provided temporary wind respite to balance the physical challenge of bike-hoisting repetitions. But saddles between the rocks were wide open to an intense crosswind. The persistent roar was so loud that shouting was useless even standing within five feet of Liehann. Gusts sounded like a freight train approaching in a tunnel — and ignited a similar fear. Wind speeds are always difficult to gauge and often exaggerated. Indeed, Richard guessed the gusts exceeded 130 kilometers per hour. I don't think quite that, but I base my guesses on past experience with winds in Juneau. There were plenty of times back then when I ventured out in winds that were measured and documented by a nearby weather station, and I began to detect noticeable differences in my ability to stay upright in a 50 mph versus a 60 mph wind. Based on those experiences, my guess for Lehana's Pass would be steady winds of 50-plus miles per hour, gusting to as high as 70 mph at times. Hurricane force.

Photo by Liehann Loots
It was all I could do to stay upright. I eventually decided it was better to walk windward of my bike rather than leeward, to prevent a gust from sweeping the bike into me and knocking me over. As I trudged upward, a particularly strong gust blasted both wheels off the ground, lifting the entire bike into the air like a sail, and knocking me off my feet. The wind continued to hold me down like an invisible board as I thrashed beside the overturned bike, struggling to stand up. 

As we got closer to the pass, I could see the "line" to the summit — a steep slope cut by only a thin ribbon of a sheep trail — hardly a platform at all across the intimidating grade. It looked like one mis-step thrown by the wind could start a long tumble down the mountain, and my knees went weak.

"I'm thinking about turning back," I told Ingrid. "Not to quit, just to take Steve and Di's route. This seems exposed. Dangerous." 

Ingrid shook her head. "It's not dangerous. Just walk with your bike on the outside. If you lose your bike ... then just walk." 

Near the pass, the sideslope wasn't as steep as it had looked from below, but the wind was more fierce than ever. Gusts were so strong that each time one hit, all of us simply crouched down with our bikes turned over, waiting for the blast to pass. John and Richard appeared to be having the time of their lives, howling into the gusts and crouching down to film the action as Annie and I fought our way toward the camera like television weathermen in a hurricane.

At the pass, our work was far from through. We still had two kilometers to push into the wind along the narrow ridge, a farm road to find, another pass to reach, and then a thirty-kilometer ride into Rhodes. Still, the mood was jovial at the top. "I've never experienced wind like that in all my life," Richard said.

We worked our way along a stream with snow clinging to the banks and thick ice in the waterfalls. It was a reminder that there's often snow up here, and I pondered how much tougher that climb would have been in snow. However, if given a choice between a foot of snow and a 60 mph wind, I'd be torn — and probably pick snow.

Liehann made me walk fifty meters up the road on this wind-blasted pass to take this photo. I was quite annoyed about
it at the time, because I just wanted to get the hell out of there. But it is a fun photo, with his puffed-up coat. 
The worst part about the wind is that it didn't even begin to let up when we finally reached the gravel road. It was blowing from the direction we were riding, and the headwind was so fierce that even long descents felt like climbs, and many of the climbs we had to walk. As we neared a plateau that was the highest point on the Freedom Trail — 2,600 meters — the unobstructed wind pummeled us from the side. I was so fed up with pushing that I experimented with leaning as far as I could into the wind and riding at an unnerving angle, just for the privilege of staying on my bike. A gust grabbed the front wheel and sent the whole bike — and me — careening toward a steep drop-off to the left. I corrected at the last second — with the wheels scraping that precarious edge, and heart racing as fast as it had all day. Who knew road riding could be so treacherous? How many of these last thirty kilometers would I have I to walk?

Finally, a reasonably long descent put us at a low enough elevation that the wind became at least manageable. We rolled into Rhodes in the mid-afternoon, and certainly could have done worse. It was a tough day, charged with adrenaline, and it took a few hours of recovery to realize that my arms felt completely dead. Like two over-tenderized lumps of meat, dangling uselessly at my side. Even reaching over a counter in the kitchen to grasp of mug of soup caused a near-failure in the forearm muscles, and I almost dropped the mug.

This seemed like a potentially major physical set-back, but what did I know about it?


  1. Your story is gripping. I can't wait to hear more. You guys are tough. I like to think I'm a little tough but I'm not sure I could do this race. It must have helped to be around people with positive attitudes.
    And I just finished reading a great book about the Donner expedition. It's amazing what humans can endure and keep moving and surviving.

  2. Yes Jill, your story is gripping. I sincerely hope the 'trail' doesn't worsen!
    I recall the 'stress' of Be Brave Be Strong, the Tour Divide, Nepal[!!!] ………….. you certainly know how to endure and bounce back for more.

  3. wow! keep posting. I have been a follower for years

  4. Quite a memorable ordeal! I'm glad you found the time to take some nice photos. The landscape is much more interesting than i would have imagined.

  5. I'm afraid that the comment about tigers is not quite right. See for instance this stunning video about a photography trip in South Africa:


Feedback is always appreciated!