Monday, July 07, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part one

This has happened to me a few times in my life: A moment — on a bridge over the Colorado River, or a curb in front of my house in Salt Lake City, or the edge of a frozen lake in Alaska, or a trailhead in the Canadian Rockies — when I straddle my bicycle and realize that I really have no idea where this is going to take me for the next week or three or nine. I made some plans, I did some preparations, I studied some maps, but really ... I have no clue. It's a gut-sinking moment, a wide-eyed gaze across a bewildering horizon, when the scope into a vast unknown opens as wide as it's ever been. I feel that quiver in my lower spine, a weakness in my limbs, a gurgle in my throat that ignites an urge to sit down, to not venture any farther into an unfamiliar world where there is so little that I control. Every time, that's my gut reaction — don't move. Stay here. Crossing that threshold in a swirl of excitement and dread is like stepping out of a warm house into a blizzard — and it's one of my favorite moments in bike touring. 

 Straddling my bike in the predawn fog next to town hall in Pietermaritzburg, that urge to not start carried a lot of compelling arguments: "You're not just striking out into middle America or even Alaska, you're in Africa, really far from home, with all of its unfamiliar customs and language barriers and big scary animals and no signs on anything, and all you have is this map, and although you thought you got a sense of it earlier, right now it just seems like a bunch of squiggly lines. Don't go. Don't go."

I looked toward Liehann, who was passing his camera to someone else for the round of obligatory pre-race photos. Ever other person in our starting group of four men and four women seemed to be nervously fidgeting with lights and gear. Over our heads was the bright red banner for Comrades Marathon, and I thought about the 18,000 runners that stood in this same spot just over a week earlier. "How weird would it be to start a race that you knew was going to end on the same day?" I wondered. Comrades simply follows a main highway on a marked course 56 miles to Durban. I'm not saying that makes it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but there was comfort in pondering something so straightforward.

 Somebody called out "Go!" and the eight of us took off, following our pilot car — driven by race director David — as it guided us out of the one big city we would need to navigate in 1,500 miles. With a population of about 220,000, Pietermaritzburg is massive by any other standard we'd see. David worries about riders dealing with early morning taxis and other road hazards in the city, so he gives a neutral-start escort for the first six kilometers from town hall to the entrance of Bisley Nature Reserve. After he turned us loose at the gate, someone called out, "Okay, where do we go from here?" The group laughed. Pietermaritzburg is the one freebie you get in the Race Across South Africa. After that, you better have the mental capacity and daylight to pay a lot of attention to both maps and surroundings. Barring attention span and daylight, only luck and experience will help.

Liehann and I kept a slightly fast, somewhat nervous pace out of the city and into the mist-shrouded hills. The landscape was a rolling patchwork quilt of golden grass and tree farms — blocks of forest nestled amid the natural grasslands. I stopped at the first intersection to consult the map, and realized Liehann was no longer behind me. Several minutes later, he still wasn't there. "Did we already get lost in the first six kilometers of the Freedom Challenge?" I wondered. "That doesn't bode well." I pedaled back up the hill and found him hunched over his bike, giving off frustrated grunts as he tried to remove a pin in his chain. A broken chain at kilometer six — as it turned out, this would be a harbinger for poor Liehann's curse of mechanicals throughout the race.

 The rest of the morning passed without incident. Weather remained misty and cool, and the others in our group commented on the fact I was still wearing shorts and short-fingered gloves. "I'm from Alaska," I'd often reply. "Well, not really." But that and the fact this race is tracked on Twitter, where my handle is "AlaskaJill," gave me a reputation for being impervious to cold. That was far from the case — and at times even I was shocked at the depth of cold in this supposedly subtropical region — but cool temperatures were certainly one of the more easily manageable challenges in the Race Across South Africa, for me at least. We climbed over a divide to Minerva Tractor Museum for hot soup. The tractor museum has all manner of old vehicles and even a jet engine on display in the most unlikely location. We climbed overgrown track near powerlines to get there, but even the main route that we took out of the museum is a steep and rugged dirt road descending into another nowhereland. Lunch on the first day was the place where I started to grasp the reality that we were probably going to spend the entire race far away from anything.

 We pressed further away from civilization on a deteriorating track overrun by cattle and goats, and dropped into the Umkomass River Gorge on steep concrete slabs littered with small, round rocks. The effect of these rocks was like roller skates on a slide, and Liehann and I opted to walk down the slabs rather than risk crashing. Indeed, these slabs have forced more than one person out of the Freedom Challenge on the first day. This year, one competitor broke six ribs and punctured a lung in a crash on the slabs. The people who found him saw a bicycle lodged fairly high up in a tree, which is how they knew something was wrong.

At the bottom of the gorge, we followed a narrow and surprisingly rideable cattle trail through the thick willow-like trees. Where the cliffs came down to the river, we simply had to hike. The rocks were slippery and at times more treacherous than it looks.

 During this section we were caught by Tracy, Di, and Steve, and made an effort to keep up with them on the technical riding along the river. Di and Steve, a married couple in their fifties with grown children, run a bicycle touring company near Cape Town called DayTrippers. Both have both been involved with the Freedom Challenge since the early days. Di completed her first Race Across South Africa in 2007, and 2014 would be her third. Steve had also completed it before, though I was never quite clear on the number. These two would prove to be a fountain of knowledge, and they were always full of good humor even when things got tough. Di is a petite woman — probably 100 pounds tops — but incredibly strong, amazingly strong. We'd sometimes see them towing some of the longer climbs, meaning both bikes were attached to a rope with the stronger partner towing the person who was struggling. In every case, it was Di towing Steve, which was impressive for me — as a woman who understands my own level of strength — to witness. Steve was self-professed out of shape but always seemed to be in a good mood, even when he was, in his words, "shattered."

 Late afternoon brought a long climb from a village called Hella Hella, which I enjoyed immensely. My bike computer also gauged grades, and this climb often topped 14 percent, on loose gravel, over nearly 3,000 feet of climbing. Liehann was determined to pedal the whole climb without walking, and I aimed for this as well, although admittedly faltered near the top. The first day clocked in at 114 kilometers with 2,600 meters of climbing. Although there was some tough technical terrain on the grassy powerline trails, deteriorating jeep tracks and cattle trails, most of it was rideable. As it turned out, it was one of the easier full days on the route, although I'm not sure I would have believed it if someone told me this at the time. I was pretty spent as we rolled into Allendale farm, our first support station. In past multiday events, I've become accustomed to either complete self support, or else the bare-bones services you receive in the Iditarod Trail Invitational or Racing the Planet stage events. Freedom Challenge is comparatively luxurious. The woman at Allendale set us up in cabins, did some laundry for us, and prepared a big meal of what would become standard fare out on the trail — chicken pieces, mashed potatoes, rice, mashed pumpkin, peas, and bread. Carby and wonderful. This is one thing I will say about the Freedom Challenge — the food is so good and abundant that it's actually hard to lose weight out there. I lost 15 pounds during the Tour Divide and none in the Freedom Challenge.

 The following morning we were raring to go and set off in the frosty darkness about an hour before sunrise. This would be our introduction to "portages" — making our way across a section of land with no real trail. In our early-race excitement to get moving, we messed up the entry and spent more than an hour trying to find our way out of the farm. We could see Steve, Di, and Tracy's headlamps working their way up a hill off to the side and suspected they were just as lost. I had already accepted that a few hours of going nowhere were simply going to be part of this race, so I wasn't too frustrated about it ... yet. But I was nauseated. I had yet to adapt to the long days in the saddle followed by 4 a.m. wakeup calls, and my body was rebelling. I remedied my nausea by stripping off layers and letting my core become chilled. The temperature was a few degrees below freezing and I was in shorts and a single top again, much to the amazement of the South Africans.

Finally, with my headlamp on high beam, I was able to spot a depression in the grass that proved to be the singletrack cattle trail we were looking for. From there, we worked our way along the contour and into the next valley, climbing over several barbed-wire fences. I struggled to lift my bike, hooked my shorts, and made a joke about my natural awkwardness and terrible climbing skills. These fences were only four feet high. As I laughed at myself, Steve had a smirk on his face that seemed to express a belief that this newbie American had no idea what she was in for. "These fences are nothing," Di said. "Wait until the game gates. They're just as bad and three meters high." I remember her saying this, but I'm not sure I believed her at the time. Who would expect people with loaded mountain bikes to climb three-meter-high fences?

 Lunch on day two brought us into a rural mission, where a nun served barley soup and tasty cupcakes. The early days of the race through the Kwazulu-Natal province took us through one village after the next — never densely populated, but there was a sense of always being around people. These villages were populated by Native South Africans —in this area, the Zulu people. Infrastructure was minimal, and there was no running water or electricity in the villages. Subsistence farming appeared to be the main occupation, and it was rare to meet someone in these villages who spoke more than a few words of English or Afrikaans. But everyone was very nice, and the children in school uniforms were well-behaved — we were only bombarded for "money and sweets" a couple of times. I learned the Zulu greeting "sawubona" (I see you) and "unjani" (how are you?) Boys especially were fascinated the gadgets on my handlebars — often when we stopped in a village to look at our maps, that's what they would examine.

 We wove through a forest road maze and embarked on a long climb toward Bosholweni Peak on a track that can only be described as a river of babyhead rocks. Not so rideable, really.

This was also the section where Liehann realized his fork was busted. Oil was leaking out in several places, and the shock would bottom out and not rebound. He hoped that finding a shock pump and putting more air in it would remedy this, but he suspected he needed a new fork. Making arrangements to have one delivered to a town further down the trail proved to be a big production. Cell phone reception was minimal at best, and he had a difficult time conveying necessary information to all the people we needed to involve. At one point I sent Beat a 160-character message from my Delorme tracker that he relayed to Liehann's dad, who relayed it to a bike shop in Pietermaritzburg, who arranged something with the other race director, Meryl, to pick up and take with her to Rhodes. It will probably surprise no one that vital information was misplaced in this process.

Navigation was tricky through this section, and I was feeling anxious with all the time we were spending making fork arrangements. Each passing afternoon minute brought us closer to the claustrophobic darkness of night, when long-ranging sightlines and landscape features disappeared, and our world was reduced to the weak beam of our headlights amid bewildering black emptiness. During the day we could look toward the horizon and see the mountains we needed to approach, the villages we needed to pass by, the valleys we needed to cross. We could use our compasses to capture a bearing and at least feel confident that we were moving in the right direction, if not on the exact right line. At night, we could only see our immediate path with no real certainty that it was taking us where we needed to go, and I found this reality terrifying. As the race progressed, the coming of night would fill me with a heavy anxiety that is difficult to describe. Stress levels would far surpass any fatigue or aches I'd accumulated during the day. I feared night perhaps more than anything else. I would put up large walls of resistance at the prospect of navigating anything at night. The twilight hour was a desperate hour. Nightfall was a sinister force, a promise of doom.

But as long as the sun was up or at least was going to come up soon, as was the case in our always-predawn starts, I was happy. The landscape itself was more stunning than I'd imagined it would be. Some of the locals we spoke with told us, "It's sad that you had to come here in the winter. It is brown and ugly right now, not beautiful like it is in the summer."

 Approaching the nature reserve of Ntsikeni was the first place my intense "Night Is Coming" fear sparked. Liehann had lost his sense of where we were on the maps, and although I wasn't sure of this either, I was following the cues supplemented by Beat's intersection gadget to wind our way through a maze of faint tracks. Stress swirled around in my gut, and I was extremely happy when we caught up to Steve and Di at the border of the reserve, which meant we were at least on the right track, even if night was coming. We scaled the game gate on a ladder that I presume villagers put up to access a nearby stream. "It's a good thing this ladder is here," I said. "Otherwise we'd never get over this fence." Again, Steve just smiled knowingly.

The track into the lodge at Ntsikeni was almost entirely overgrown, but there didn't seem to be any offshoots to the trail so I was relatively thrilled, even if the riding was slow and prickly. We arrived about 45 minutes after dark to a warm welcome. I forget the name of the man running the lodge, a big Zulu man, but he had made a big spread of chicken and pumpkin, and put us up in our own cabins. It was gratifying to experience such kindness after every tough day. Anxiety and gratitude. For me, these would be the dominant two emotions on the Freedom Trail. 


  1. Oh this is going to be a good read. And as always beautiful photos. Thanks Jill for all the adventures you share with us.

  2. Ncobo (the 'c' is a click sound, pronounced like an inwards breathing 'ts') runs Ntsikeni lodge and is one of the many support station people I look forward to seeing. On my first and horribly misguided attempt at touring the route I lost my cell phone on the ride into Ntsikeni and Ncobo set off in the morning on a 4-wheeler to find it. The other fun thing about Ntsikeni is there's only one place that gets cell phone reception - up against the wall of the lodge, and if you want to talk to anyone you have to awkwardly put your head up against the wall or you lose reception. In our case we just didn't get any reception.

    You description of night time approaching is spot on. Usually at about 3pm I could start feeling the stress of night fall, especially when there was a tricky section ahead. The hour of dusk was the worst - a last chance to reach some important waypoint before getting completely lost in the dark. Once night fell the stress would mostly lift as you had no choice but become resigned to your fate.

    We did well on these two days though and I saw more of Ntsikeni in the light that ever before. It's really a gorgeous place. I'd love to return and spend more time there.

  3. So glad you are writing about your adventure already. Can't wait to hear me. It sounds beautiful and hard and stressful. And Liehann, keep up with your comments, too. We want to hear your thoughts along with Jill's.

  4. love your writing, beautiful pictures. I can't wait to read more!

  5. I totally agree with Karen's statement - you have such a powerful, evocative writing style. Thanks.

  6. Having done Freedom Trail and Ride to Rhodes a few times, I'm loving seeing it through your eyes and perspective. Write on!

    Congrats on finishing - both of you. Quite an epic with all the navigational challenges of which there are many and the mechanicals.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Mind. Blown.

    The pictures. The adventure. The experience. I'm anxiously looking forward to reading more!

  9. Great read and amazing tales. I ran comrades this year. What you are describing makes it sounds easy. Can't wait to read more.

  10. Wonderful account. Can't wait to read more.

  11. Jill, great to read the detail of your days and see the pics! Well done again to both you and Liehann!

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. That's just the first two days and I'm thoroughly engrossed. Hope the next nineteen are as full of emotion and adventure, especially because the going only gets tougher. I feel I'm back on the trail, but experiencing it again through your eyes is fascinating. A great tale.

  14. I still don't understand what this race/event is. When I Googled it I got some Jesus camp thing.


Feedback is always appreciated!