Saturday, July 12, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part six

Ten days into the trip, it was already becoming difficult to remember any other way of living. Events that occurred just days before would slip into corners of my memory that already seemed dusty; Pietermaritzburg was another lifetime. It's interesting, the way these kinds of journeys slow time down. You step outside your comfort zone, and suddenly every minute has meaning. New sights, sounds, physical sensations and emotions are bombarding you with such ferocity that the only way your brain can process it all is to narrow your perception to a single moment, and then another. I'm accustomed to passing time in large chunks; I work a project, click on Facebook, and suddenly an hour is gone. Days pass in comfortable routine, weeks go by, years stack up, and suddenly events that happened a decade ago seem like yesterday. The Freedom Trail has the opposite effect; I arrive as a child, gut my way through adolescence, and grow old and weary but wiser, all in the span of three weeks. It's a compelling — and enduring — extension of life. Intensive bicycle touring and endurance racing are not something I could do with every moment of my existence, but I cherish each opportunity for these concentrated life experiences. 

 After arriving late in the evening in Romansfontein, Steve and Di elected to sleep in the following morning and aim for a halfway point during the day. Liehann and I left with Richard just before dawn, and made it about two miles when Richard's rear derailleur lodged in the spokes. He whipped out his emergency tool kit to replace the bent hanger. The derailleur was also bent, causing the chain to skip off the pulleys. He used zip ties to try to squeeze the cage back together. I watched this crude field repair and wondered how it would fare for another ten-plus days and over a thousand kilometers of rough terrain. But that's just what you have to do out on the Freedom Trail; there are no bike shops out here, no overnight deliveries. Some people, like me, get really lucky with their gear and make it through most of the race with only a broken valve stem and self-sealing tire punctures. Some people, like Liehann, have to ride the entire Freedom Challenge with a locked-out fork and a bad front position, among other mechanicals. Like any endeavor this long, luck plays a large — I would argue leading — role in whether or not you make it to the finish.

 The light was beautiful this morning. I took a lot of photos that don't have much story to go with them. What I remember is being quite cold. This morning wasn't even as cold as most; I had seen temperatures as low as -10C on my thermometer, after sunrise, in past mornings.

 This morning was probably closer to freezing or even above. But bodies don't regulate temperature consistently in the midst of hard efforts. Even though we were resting adequately, each day was very taxing, and less energy was dedicated to thermoregulation and healing. Cuts and bruises I'd sustained a week or more earlier hadn't even begun to clear. My arms still felt numb and sore; I wondered how much muscle repair was even happening. But it's interesting that bodies just know what to do, instinctively, with a finite amount of processed energy. I didn't need to heal bruises; I needed to turn pedals.

 We began the long climb toward the Aasvoelsberg, where the land owner appeared to have a sense of humor. (And a certain disregard for accuracy. I am aware that there are no tigers in Africa.)

 Our cues gave us an option of either going cross-country across a flat veldt around an outcropping, or following a track a hundred meters up and over the top. I somehow talked Richard and Liehann into climbing the track. My nightly reoccurring dream had shifted to nightmares about "losing the track." In my dream, we'd be riding along a faint track in the dark, and suddenly it would disappear. I'd frantically look around, but the track would be gone, and I'd be hopelessly lost. My fears of being lost were becoming more pronounced every day, and I'd gotten to the point where I the prospect of losing my bearings ignited irrational terror. I'd complain to Liehann about how stressed out I was, and he'd remind me that I had no reason to be stressed out. Getting lost actually isn't the end of the world. "I know, I know," I'd agree. "I need to reel this in." But how?

 Did I mention the light was beautiful on this day? We arrived at a saddle and I traced my beloved track where it stretched across a spine and disappeared into a hidden valley.

 We launched into an exhilarating descent off the face of the world, 700 meters of elevation loss on a rugged and rocky trail.

 We landed in a particularly remote-seeming part of the country, and connected with a dirt road where the bicycle tracks of the two Freedom Challenge racers who rode through one day earlier were still perfectly defined in the sand. No one had traveled this way since. "It's very isolated here," Richard said.

 We climbed up a long, isolated valley. Just went I thought we had reached the edge of the known world, we crested a saddle to our first view of the Karoo.

The high deserts of the Karoo are sometimes referred to as the cradle of humankind. It was here, near a town called Hofmeyr, that one of the oldest known skulls of a modern homo sapien was unearthed — 37,000 years old. The skull's features suggested that the ancient man looked more like a modern Eurasian than a modern African, supporting the theory the modern people started here and branched out, eventually edging out other hominid species of the north.

 We appropriately stopped for sandwich snack at an overlook to take in this desolate and enchanting landscape.

 We reached Hofmeyr around 2 p.m. and stopped at a pie shop that Liehann had been raving about. I'd couldn't get too excited about a meat pie because I was already fighting daily indigestion from consuming more mutton in one week than I had in my entire life before Freedom Challenge. I ordered lasagna, as it seemed to be one of the more carby items on the menu, but what arrived was a single pasta strip draped over a pile of ground meat. Either way, it was difficult to enjoy my lunch because it was late in the afternoon, Night Was Coming, and we had a tricky portage to contend with right at the end of the day.

 The uphill side of this portage was a cross-country bushwhack, and the directions one receives is to "head up between the nek (saddle) on the left and three koppies (a word that effectively means "hill" and is just as generic) on the right." Really, it could mean anything. Daylight was fading fast as we pushed our bikes through shrubs and thorn bushes toward random points on a ridge that Liehann recognized from his 2011 ride. He seemed confident in our direction but I was skeptical and nervous. Skies faded from pink to maroon to dark purple as we crested a broad saddle and found the ruins noted in our cues (relief!) and a track (oh joy!)

Richard was leading and quickly left the track — I'm not sure he noticed, but I was watching the faint indentations in the grass like a hawk. I called out and reeled the boys back to the ruins, where we followed the track in the opposite direction. It was almost completely dark, but we were beginning to climb more steeply when we should have been descending. I checked Ingrid's compass, and sure enough, we were marching in the wrong direction. I called out again.

Liehann and Richard were reluctant to go back at first. Liehann thought the track might loop back around; we hadn't seen an arm going off this trail anywhere since we passed the ruins. My irrational fear was beginning to take hold, and a cold chill replaced my blood. It was just like in my dream — Night Was Coming, the track was disappearing, we were hopelessly lost. I started shivering. "Let's go back to the ruins," I pleaded. Even if we didn't know where to go, I just wanted to know where we were.

"We must get this right," Liehann said tersely. "Otherwise we'll spend the whole night bumbling around out up here, which people in this race have done."

As we traced the track back, Liehann noticed a narrow singletrack dropping off a stream embankment, which we followed downward as it slowly became more defined. My compass confirmed a correct direction, and Richard and Liehann had become confident enough to start riding their bikes. But the damage to my morale had been done. It's tough to explain. I knew we'd be fine, but the phobia of being lost had taken hold, and I couldn't stop shivering. This was always one of my major fears as a child; I'm one of those who held onto traumatizing memories of screaming in a grocery store after losing my parents. Fear of being lost continued to haunt me as an adult, and I developed my outdoor lifestyle with an emphasis on knowing the way — signed trails, races with marked courses, explorations with a GPS making a digital bread-crumb trail, GPS tracks, and trusting others. With apologies to Liehann and Richard, I didn't have any of that in the Freedom Challenge. This forced me to face this fear in ways I never had before. Even when I was alone in the frozen wilderness of Interior Alaska, I always had this sense that I could find my way. Staring out into the stark, unbroken darkness of the Karoo, I couldn't simply put faith in my maps and compass and companions, which were all perfectly capable of showing the way. No, I could only stew in this frantic phobia that I might just wander forever and never find a light.

Of course, we found the farm house of Elandsberg with no troubles. I'd let stress drain all of my energy reserves, and had a difficult time going about my daily chores. Like most rural farm houses, Elandsberg was a large, early-twentieth-century building with high ceilings and no heat. Actually, just about nobody in South Africa heats their homes, even in regions where nighttime temperatures drop to -10C and below. We'd always arrive warm from our efforts, but then a slow chill would begin to set in that never went away. I'd shiver through dinner, take a blissful warm shower whose effects faded all too quickly, occasionally steal extra blankets if there was an empty bed in the room, and still feel chilled in the night. I'd look forward to riding my bike, to feel warm again.

But the family at Elandsberg was very nice. My tights were accumulating a large number of holes, including a gaping tear beneath my right butt cheek. The woman offered to sew it closed for me, and her husband offered Richard a beer, of which he enjoyed a few rounds while they watched soccer on television. Richard was also fighting a cold, and announced he planned to sleep in, rest during the day, and wait for Steve and Di to catch up. Liehann and I were down to a group of two.

 The first leg of the following day was 67 kilometers that we bashed out in almost no time. We made one mistake that cost us about 45 minutes, when we crossed the wrong river. Temperatures were still below freezing, so we opted to take off our shoes before wading into the icy stream. After about ten minutes of riding on the other side, things were not looking right. We located the correct track on the other side of the river, across a gorge where it was impossible to cross. Argh. Back to the first crossing, off again with the shoes. This is the kind of lost I don't mind — it's just inconvenient, it's not terrifying. Daytime mistakes never bothered me much. Maybe I really was simply scared of the dark.

 We were beginning to cross into wildlife preserve country, and the four-foot-high sheep fences were replaced with ten-foot-high game fences. We had to cross many of these, and while some gates were open, many were locked. This one swung open, but it did contain an unnerving sign — beware dangerous buffalo and rhino. Our cues confirmed this warning — "Beware rhino." Happily we saw no rhino. Rhino sightings are a lot like grizzlies — amazing animals, but I'd rather not see one from the seat of a bicycle.

 Quick lunch at Stuttgart, and we tried to keep it short because the second half of the day was 62 kilometers into Grootdam. Liehann seemed confident we'd bash this out quickly as well, but as I studied the maps I saw a saddle crossing at 1,800 meters — about 900 meters higher than where we were. Almost all of those 62 kilometers were labeled as intermediate or advanced technical riding (in Freedom Challenge, for us, advanced always meant walking.) And there was a very tricky seeming portage late in the day. I *really* didn't want to go for it, but we were both far too healthy to call it a day at 12:30 p.m.

As I walked down the stairs outside Stuttgart, a piece of concrete broke underneath my right foot, rolling the ankle badly as I topped over on the grass. A sharp, intense pain gripped the joint, followed by that sinking feeling of dread ... I sprained my ankle. I'd traveled well over a thousand kilometers in Freedom Challenge, riding technical terrain and scaling steep mountains and rocky cliffs with my bike, and this is where I injure myself — the steps of a lunch stop. I crouched on the ground for several minutes as the pain rippled through, and then stood up to assess the damage. The ankle was very sore and starting to swell, but I could move it without issue. "I can still walk," I announced to Liehann.

 We followed a gradually deteriorating track up the kloof (canyon) until it was too steep and overgrown to ride anymore. Liehann was grappling with a leg injury as well — his lower leg between his shin and his ankle was red and swollen. He called it a shin splint, but it was lower on the shin than the overuse-related shin splints I've had in the past. We speculated it might have been caused when he bashed his leg with a chainring while lifting a bike over a fence, but either way, it made walking painful for Liehann. And over the past few days, it had gotten worse. We were both quite gimpy and slow, hobbling painfully 3,000 feet up this steep track. But what a view ...

The descent on the other side was an awesome reward — loose but nicely graded, plummeting into the tear-inducing chill of a shaded valley.

It was a beautiful evening of riding, but Night Had Come by the time we arrived at the start of the day's final portage. This ten kilometers through the Grootdam Game Farm included nine gate crossings, and a number of spur trails jutting off in all directions. I was convinced it was going to be super tricky and that buffalo would probably trample us in there, but as we stood at the entrance, a man drove up. He told us Grootdam was his brother's farm, that he'd call to let them know we were on our way, and that all we had to do was keep going straight through all of the fences. "You can't get lost up there," he assured us, which actually did make me feel a whole lot better.

We still took our time with it, stopping at every intersection to scrutinize the cues. When we reached the first tall fence, it was locked. I was bewildered. "How, how do they expect us to get over this?"

This would be the beginning of our development of techniques for scaling ten-foot fences with bicycles. For this fence, Liehann climbed to the top and straddled a thin mental pole. I handed my bike up to him, which he balanced as I climbed up and over the fence to grab the bike from the other side. He tried to muscle it over the top, but with little to leverage on, he had to engage brute shoulder strength to swing it over the bar and lower it to me. He was out of breath and seemed rattled after that effort, and we still had to do his bike. As I prepared to climb back over the fence, we both noticed a spring connected to the lower part of the gate. I jiggled the attachment, and sure enough, a small door had been installed in the gate, and it was open. We both laughed at our unnecessary effort.

"Well at least we know we can do that if we have to again," I said.

"We need to figure out a better technique," Liehann said. But at least we knew to *always* check to see if a gate had an opening before climbing it. 


  1. Another awesome read. Can't wait for Chapter 7.

  2. Tomorrow Jill is hiking in Yosemite - sorry no blog post :)

  3. Sitting in a hot and distant land, I can smell the dust of the Karoo trails I love and feel the hastening chill of evening, the sky burning in at the horizon and the drop into the day's last valley. All of which has me seriously questioning my life decisions.

  4. Brilliant writing Jill! I don't know how you write so insightfully and accurately after a hard days ride. You are bringing back rich memories for me and articulating thoughts that I have been unable to express.

  5. My brother all ways says that hindsight is the best sight, I am very glad that I could assist you through Modor and keep the dreadful dream Night was Coming and you're lost forever at bay.

  6. I have to admit that Andy Masters and I also unnecessarily climbed that Grootdam double gate in 2013 and had our overnight companions poke fun at us when we admitted to our faux pas.

  7. Jill, for the curiouser do you take notes or are you one of those folks with incredible recall? I'm always so impressed with your descriptive, inspiring and "yes you are there" tales.

  8. Wow, Jill! This story is incredible! I'm still loving your words after all these (6?) years since I started reading. You continue to inspire me, especially in the darkest of times. Thank you for sharing!
    Katie Monaco


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