Saturday, June 21. Winter solstice — the darkest day of the year. Grootdam was one of my more restful stops on the Freedom Trail — multi-course meal, a high-pressure hot shower, and rare success in sleeping through most of the night without any nightmares about losing the track. We even slept in — the proprietor told us the farm gate didn't open until 6 a.m., so we opted for a 6 a.m. start rather than climbing a gate first thing in the morning. Still, when I woke up in the morning, my right ankle was stiff and mildly swollen, with purple bruising appearing near the edges. Definitely sprained, but at least it was just sprained.
I mounted a protest. Our hike down Struishoek portage was much slower than it should have been, and after the detour into town, it was already 1:30 in the afternoon. At best it would be 3:30 by the time we covered the 30 kilometers into Gegun, and after that we only had about two hours of good daylight left. The next 52-kilometer leg included four kilometers of portaging and 30 kilometers of intermediate technical riding, through an area where navigation looked like it might get tricky. "We're going to ride most of that after dark," I argued. "If we're going to do that we might as well just start planning now for spending the night out. We should at least pick up some extra supplies here in town."
Liehann thought I was being too alarmist on the matter, but he also seemed concerned about even a remote possibility of spending the night outdoors. Although I didn't feel fully prepared for a night out, camping was not my main concern. I had a good bivy sack and warm layers, as well as firestarters, and I've spent a few cold nights sleeping outside with less than adequate gear, so I felt I had the past experience to mentally deal with a night out in the frigid South African bush. My main concern was feeling horribly lost for an entire night, a mental blow that I wasn't sure I could handle. I no longer cared about our twenty-day race plan — only about managing my fear-of-being-lost issues. "I don't mind doing the work," I said. "I'll ride all day and all night when we get to the longer road sections. I could go through the rest of this race perfectly happy if we don't have to do any more night navigation."
Liehann pointed out that we'd have to make a new plan if we stopped early. Although the Freedom Challenge is a nonstop race, most participants treat it as something of a stage race with stops at specific full support stations. Intermediate stops didn't usually accommodate overnight stays. Changing the schedule might mean reshuffling plans for more people than just us, but my concerns about sleeping out eventually swayed the argument in my favor. Liehann called the race director and worked out a schedule that would put us at intermediate stops for the next three days before a really tough portage into the Baavianskloof.
When Liehann arrived, he was convinced we should go right. He and I occasionally had debates about directions, and I usually conceded. But this time I was certain my way was correct. "I knew you were going to argue with me," I pouted, then pointed to my map. "See, here, this side trail goes straight up these contour lines, while the correct trail wraps around the hill. Here is where I think Bugs and Allen came back down; see their tracks curve like they turned right on this road, not left from behind."
Liehann was still skeptical, so I requested we just ride down the hill and look for another intersection. I careened down the steep slope until I came to a Y junction, which was marked by a rare "bokkie" — a Freedom Challenge trail marker, of which there were a few dozen on the entire 2,400-kilometer course, always at random intervals and never in the most confusing spots. But this one mattered. "It's here! It's here!" I called out. A minute went by, and still no Liehann. Finally, I started yelling louder. "Bokkie!" I screamed. "There's a bokkie down here!"
Finally he rolled down the hill. I was offended. "You weren't going to come down," I teased him. "You didn't believe me."
The following day, I think Liehann still had ambitions to make up our lost half day. We made quick work of the thirty kilometers into Bucklands, and even after enjoying a leisurely breakfast of lamb shepherd's pie that was supposed to be our dinner the previous night (they actually had been expecting us), and despite a harsh headwind and plenty of climbing, we made also made quick work of the next 42 kilometers to the intermediate stop in Hadley.
I came up with a plan to convince Liehann to stay in Hadley. We'd get a super early start — 4 a.m. if necessary, to get through the first twenty kilometers before sunrise. Then, if the river bushwhack went well, we could ride late into the day to click off 130 total kilometers into Damsedrif. And if it didn't go well, we'd at least have an entire day to hack away at the 50 kilometers into Cambria.
The family at Hadley also hadn't expected us — despite filing our plan two days earlier, no one had been forewarned. But Anine and Bennie welcomed us with open arms anyway, and we enjoyed a long afternoon rest getting to know them better. I had tea with Anine, called Beat, took a hot shower, actually shaved my legs, and almost felt like a regular person again. I watched the sun set over the beautiful sandstone cliffs behind the house, and realized I needed to relish this sanctuary of warmth and kindness. Tomorrow, we would descend into Mordor.