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 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.
|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."
|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.
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?