Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part nine

Beat warned me that my Freedom Challenge report is delving too far into the negative aspects of my experience. I didn't mean for it to come across that way — to sound as though I spent the entire trip stressed and frightened. There were many relaxing and enjoyable moments that tend to fade in the wash of memory, while the sharp edges of the more intense experiences stick out. Those sharp edges are why I pursue endurance racing. I seek to not only learn more about what lies beneath my perception of the world and myself, but also to gain more control over these perceptions. I'm a fearful person. Maybe more so than others, and maybe not, but fear has always lurked around the edges of joy. I'm not brave, and I'm not strong ... but I'd like to be. So what do I do about it? I face my fears. I push my limits. This process is always hard and sometimes painful, and many, many mistakes are made ... but ultimately, I emerge with a richer perception of the world, which is useful in smothering fear.

 I knew, going into the Freedom Challenge, that I had a deep fear of being lost. I came here to face that fear. I did what I thought would help me in preparation — reading orienteering books, studying the race maps, practicing with trail maps at home. But in practice, facing this fear was much harder than I expected it to be. I was in a foreign, unfamiliar land. Trails weren't laid out in familiar ways; roads were devoid of signs. The phantom night would haunt me. Panics would seep through my determination, shutting out rational thought. This internal difficulty is what I am trying to convey in these writings. Conveying the emotion of an experience is different than conveying its objective reality. In reality, Liehann and I were having a nearly flawless race. Yes, there were some mechanicals, some minor injuries, a wrong turn here and there. But the weather was almost perfect — except for a few days of harsh wind — and we made good time on the move. We worked well as a team. Although luck played a part, there were no major navigational mistakes. Most of our gear was working well for us. There was no rational reason for me to be so upset; when I was, it was because of fear.

Now I'm going to post about three days when I succeeded in banishing my fear, at least most of the time. These were "easy nav" days, it's true. They were also long, physically demanding, occasionally tedious, energy draining days — all things that are much easier for me than facing fear. In many ways, they were the most relaxing days of the journey. They were also some of the most beautiful. I took a lot of photos that were — as photos often are — incredibly disappointing. They didn't begin to convey the stunning colors, the sweeping expanses, the sweet air and strange sounds of the landscape.

We left Cambria at 5 a.m., and I was buzzing with excitement. Some of that energy sparked from relief that we'd survived the Osseberg, and some was anticipation for the day we had planned — 106 miles with 13,000 feet of climbing across the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve.

I've never been to a place quite like the Baviaanskloof. The closest parallel I can think of is Zion National Park in Utah. There were intriguing new geologic phenomenons around every turn, kudu wading through the streams across the road, baboons peering out from the bushes, a warm breeze (that developed into a more fierce wind later in the day) and climb after wonderfully long climb. My energy felt almost boundless, and riding my bicycle was a gift. "Every day is a gift," I reminded myself. This was becoming my personal mantra for the Freedom Challenge — "Every day is a gift." After 81 kilometers, we stopped for lunch in Damsedrif — and I couldn't wait to get back out there.

The riding was still difficult, and this day extended well into the hours after dark. We climbed another game fence and rolled along tall brush with all manner of unseen animals rustling branches. I was nervous about buffalo. Rabbits darted across the road, and then I saw a small cat with dark, pointy ears. We weren't all that close to town yet. "Is that a regular cat, or a wild cat?" I asked Liehann. He guessed it was an African Wildcat.

We spent the night in Willowmore at a historic hotel. Thirty minutes after we arrived, it started to rain — our timing was impeccable.  We enjoyed a gourmet dinner of lamb curry in an ornate dining room. It was a far, far cry from the Osseberg. Marnitz was sleeping there still, and the race leader, Graham Bird, had arrived as well. Graham was going through the following day's maps, of which there were a lot. It was another 162 kilometers to Prince Albert. I couldn't wait.

This day would take us back into the high desert of the Karoo, wide-open spaces of rolling terrain that look flat on maps and from afar, but on the ground are anything but.

This day, we would greet our old friend, the West Wind. It rushed across the open expanses without mercy, pummeling us in the face with cold air and abrasive sand. By afternoon the wind was easily blowing a steady 25 mph with gusts to 35 mph, and we were lucky if we could hold an 5 mph pace against it. The problem wasn't just the wind, but the road surfaces — swept with soft sand, we'd swerve and stall as we churned forward. Liehann asked if I wanted him to pull, but I was having a difficult time holding my line as it was. "It's not the wind as much as the sand," I said. "I don't think pacing will help much."

The constant roar of the wind started to get to me. I put in my earphones and listened to my favorite mix from the Iditarod, which seemed fitting and made me happy. Liehann would ask if I was okay. "This isn't that bad," I said. "This is just tedious. I'm good at tedious." We churned and churned. The wind sapped the energy right out of our legs. Swerving in the sand threw me off my pedals more than once, and my shins were bleeding. Once I nearly pitched over the handlebars at five kilometers per hour.

Night fell. For the first time in the entire Freedom Challenge, I welcomed it, because I believed darkness had the power to quiet the West Wind. Rolling in a sea of blackness, we caught a glimpse of an island of lights. Prince Albert was still 25 kilometers away, and only about 200 meters lower than our current elevation. Liehann didn't think we could possibly see town from that far away, but I didn't think it could be anything else. We rode toward those lights for what seemed like hours; visually, it looked like a descent, but we always had to pedal. As long as we were riding we never stopped pedaling, all day. We reached the fancy hotel in Price Albert at nearly the exact same time we'd reached Willowmore — 9:15 p.m.

Marnitz was there, sitting on a couch and drinking red wine. His hair was substantially shorter than it had been last we saw him — a little girl at a farm house offered to cut it. He asked how long it took us to ride into town. Liehann thought about it — not counting the lunch stop, 14 hours. "How long did it take you and Graham?

"Fourteen hours."

Later, Di would tell us that Graham said that day across the wind-blasted Karoo was one of his hardest on a bike. Whether or not he actually said this, I'm not sure. I didn't think it was too hard. Just tedious. I'm good at tedious.

Prince Albert was another nice stop, and our reward the next day was another long climb to Swartberg Pass.

The road was narrow, muddy, and empty. If this place were located in California, it would be a National Park as crowded as Yosemite. But instead it's here — isolated, quiet in the winter, sublime.

You're probably detecting a pattern here. I did love the dirt road touring, especially when it was both scenic and physically demanding. 

Here, again, is where I have more pictures than story.

We turned off Swartberg Pass onto the road into Gamkaskloof. Gamkaskloof is a deep, isolated valley protected by cliffs and an impassable gorge. The only way in is a rugged, 37-kilometer dirt road that residents petitioned for in 1962, and that led to the depopulation of the valley. This road is the only way out as well. Well, technically, there is one more way out.

This was a fun ride. Lots of steep rollers lined by these imposing mountains. The weather looked threatening, but we only got a few short rain showers.

Legend has it that Gamkaskloof was discovered when farmers lost their cattle and followed their tracks into the valley. There was no easy way to get their cattle out, so they decided to settle there.

Today Gamkaskloof is a nature preserve and still occupied by a lucky few. Sure, they have a long way to drive to the grocery store — but what a location.

Gamkaskloof is also referred to as "Die Hel" — "The Hell." No one really knows why, although legend has it that an animal inspector went into the valley in the 1940s, before the road was built, using a route known as "Die Leer" — "The Ladder." He described the experience as "Hell." This would be our way out.

Really, what I have here again is more pictures than story.

There are only so many ways you can say "this section was beautiful and fun."

But I couldn't easily pick which photos to cull.

Liehann looking into "The Hell." Yeah, I know. Quite hellish.

We had a quick lunch in the tiny village and set out to find The Ladder. A steep climb brought us to the corner of this isolated valley. In front of us was a wall, and it looked insurmountable. I mean, it really did look like a cliff. "That looks super technical," I said nervously. "I don't know about this." Fear started to creep back in. Liehann assured me all would be fine. We picked out the poplar trees listed in our cues. "As you go behind the trees you will experience a moment of magic. In the metre-wide gap between the poplar trees and the face of the mountain there is a a foot path. You are now on The Ladder."

And indeed, behind the poplar trees, we caught our first glimpse of the zig-zagging path up the face of the cliff. It wasn't quite a moment of magic — but it was reassuring. The Ladder is in fact a well-built trail, although very steep, with stair-like boulders lined by thick brush. My arms still weren't well-recovered, and my muscles balked at even meager efforts. I tried to hoist the bike on my back, but I couldn't quite position it correctly. My method of walking with the saddle hooked over my shoulder didn't work on a trail this steep. I resorted to lifting the bike up and placing it down on a ledge, crawling up myself, repeat. It was extremely slow. My arm muscles started to fail again. I dropped the bike once, and teetered enough to feel unnerved. I made more efforts to hoist the bike on my back. "It really shouldn't be that hard," I thought to myself. "What's the deal?" 

I looked up to see Liehann far ahead. Eventually he came back down to help me. "I'm sorry I'm so slow," I apologized. "I really don't know what's wrong with me." I thanked him repeatedly as he carried my anchor part way up the mountain after hauling his own.

"It's for my benefit as well," Liehann said. 

I agreed. "Yeah, it would probably take me all night to scale this wall alone. And you'd have to wait for me." 

As it was, the sun was setting by the time both bikes reached the top. We still had ten more kilometers on a faint track overgrown with tall brush — and just steep and rocky enough that we could only intermittently ride. At the end of that track, there were still 40 more kilometers of often steep, rolling roads into our destination, for another 130-kilometer day that included this two-hour hike.

Long days. And I admit I was feeling deflated by my inability to conquer The Ladder on my own. Still, the beauty of this place eclipsed the hard efforts, making every hour worth it.