Saturday, July 19, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part ten

As the schwack around the Osseberg slipped farther into the past, our days on the Freedom Challenge route started to become more friendly ... dare I say civilized? After we exited the rough doubletrack leading away from The Ladder, our cues prompted us to "turn left ... and now you start the run into Cape Town. Most of the difficult navigation is behind you. You only have three more portages, you have a fair amount of easy riding, and you have a few glorious downhills and the first one starts now."

Even though we arrived very late for the couple at the farm house of Rouxpos — 10:20 p.m. — they still prepared a fresh pot of tea and heated up a hearty dinner for us. There was a lovingly personalized lunch for the next day — homemade fudge and fruit roll marked with the stamp of Rouxpos. And, as a special surprise, dessert was a hot waffle topped with ice cream. Liehann was especially thrilled about the waffle, and raved about it as one of the highlights to look forward to when he returns next year (which he's planning to.) The support stations are one aspect of the Freedom Challenge that make it a truly unique long-distance event. On one hand, you do travel unsupported throughout the day, and in many ways have to be even more self-reliant than the self-supported bikepacking races in North America, which take place on routes that offer a wider array of outside services. But on the other hand, it's warm and reassuring to have someone leave a light on for you to come in late from the cold, and enjoy a waffle.

I advocated for leaving Rouxpos after sunrise so we could take on the first of the final portages in daylight. It turned out to be a very easy portage, so much so that I repeatedly checked my compass and map just to ensure we were moving in the right direction. The track was sandy and rough, but it was a track, which I wasn't expecting. This day was off to a good start.

Liehann and I rolled through "Grand Canyon" and had a good laugh about it. We had ridden through a number of deep and rugged gorges across South Africa, and although none quite reach the scale of the Colorado River gorge, they were more deserving of the name "Grand." Here ... well ... between this and the lush and scenic valley called "The Hell," I was beginning to see a trend of places being drastically misnamed.

The road into Anysberg started out smooth and fast, but quickly deteriorated into a mire of rocks and sand along a narrow, overgrown doubletrack. We slowed to a 9-kilometer-per-hour pace, chundering along into a stiff headwind. After 18 kilometers of tedium, it took us a half hour to locate the correct building for the lunch stop. Liehann was frustrated and adamant about just grabbing our boxes and leaving. I talked him into staying for reheated chicken stew because I always did a lot better with a lunch stop — regardless of what I ate, the hour-long break in the middle of the day was always good for a big energy boost.

There was another 18 kilometers of chunder track after Anysberg, and Liehann's rear tire continued to deflate even after he stopped multiple times to spin sealant into the puncture and top off the air. I suggested putting more sealant into the tire; since I had two containers and Liehann had one, we had plenty to spare. For reasons I'm not quite sure about — possibly because pouring sealant through the valve stem can be problematic — he decided to open up the tire. Inside, he found an impressive number of thorns, which would have made switching to tubes difficult, as it's tricky if not impossible to find and remove all of the thorns. But when he added sealant and started pumping it back up, he couldn't get the tire bead to seal to the rim. The air pressure from the hand pump wasn't enough.

What followed was twenty minutes of Liehann being the most stressed I had seen him in the entire Freedom Challenge. There wasn't much I could do besides offer him my slightly-larger-volume hand pump, but my arms were much too weak for the amount of pressure needed. He admitted that both of his spare tubes — which were taped to the outside of his frame — had holes in them from the bushwhacks. I had two good tubes and a patch kit stowed away, but the thorn problem made their usefulness questionable. I was not nearly as stressed as Liehann because at least we weren't lost ... and as long as you're not lost, you can pretty much walk anywhere that you need to be, eventually. But he was getting angry, and pumped furiously until suddenly we both heard that joyous "pop." The tire inflated and Liehann held the wheel up in the air triumphantly. "Yes! Yes!"

From there, we finally dropped off the Anysberg road and enjoyed an afternoon of pleasant climbing. We were high on a plateau free of traffic, the air was warm and the evening light rich, and we were both relaxed enough to just ride side by side and chatter away, which we actually hadn't yet done in the seventeen days of the race thus far. We were either too focused on navigation, tired from physically taxing sections, or managing difficult terrain — we could never just ride along like two friends out for a pleasant tour. But this evening ride was well-earned, and it was gratifying to just sit back and enjoy it.

After Ouberg Pass, there was supposedly 25 kilometers of descending, but I refused to believe it. A 25-kilometer downhill? There is no such thing in the Freedom Challenge. But then we launched into a free-wheeling plunge that was nothing short of amazing. Rolling along a river, it was just gradual enough to keep the downhill trend going to entire way. Montagu was the largest town we had seen since Pietermaritzburg, and we arrived at the Montagu Country Hotel at the civilized hour of 7 p.m. This hotel was one of my favorite stops on the tour — sitting in a fancy dining hall in our dirty bike clothes, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner that, while portions were more on the "normal" side, included lots of fresh vegetables. We chatted with people who knew nothing about the bike race and likely didn't care, which I admit was refreshing after spending so many days in an artificial bubble where everything was all about the race, all of the time. I had a delicious chocolate pie for dessert, and had my own quiet room where I could rinse and spread out my clothes, and just lay in bed and read a magazine like a civilized person. Liehann admitted that Montagu was one of his least favorite stops — for many of the same reasons that it was my favorite. I agreed that after a day of hard pedaling through remote country, it can be difficult to flip back to civilization mode.

The following morning, we rode 51 kilometers into McGregor that were just wonderful. Cold, misty air. Quiet roads. Lush valleys surrounded by craggy mountains.

Liehann was feeling rough on this morning, so we kept the pace fairly mellow.

I thought I was having a great morning, so I took my second and final selfie of the tour. Selfies are an interesting way to document long trips like this, and I wish I had taken more. Because although in my mind I was strong and healthy, this photo shows the swollen face, drooping eyelids, and chapped lips that betray the reality of my physical state.

The scenery was starting to look more like the region surrounding Cape Town that we'd left behind weeks earlier. This is one of my favorite aspects of bicycle touring — watching the landscape change over time. Even though you're propelling yourself under your own power, and sometimes moving quite slowly, you can still cover meaningful amounts of distance. It had been a seeming lifetime, and at the same time quite sudden — and now we were nearing "home," the Western Cape.

On our original race plan that we were already one day behind, Liehann had us covering the stretch from Montagu to the final support station in Trouthaven in one day. It was nearly 160 kilometers with two portages and lots of potentially tricky terrain in between, which would almost certainly take sixteen hours or more to traverse. It would then be followed by the final stage, the Stettynskloof, a name I couldn't bring myself to say out loud, like Voldemort. Back in Cambria, I asked Di if Stettynskloof was worse than the Osseberg or the Vuvu Valley, or if it was more like Lehana's Pass or The Ladder. She said, "It's so much worse, it's like everything wrapped into one. We won't talk about it just yet."

There may have been a few weak moments when I advocated just skipping the Valley-That-Must-Not-Be-Named altogether. Liehann could go on, but I would just ride right up until the final support station, and then ride on roads back to Somerset West if needed. It's true, I wouldn't have finished the Race Across South Africa, wouldn't have received the finisher's blanket ... but I wondered if this final portage might just be my complete undoing. "It would be like telling someone like me that everyone had to bench press 150 pounds to finish their race. Many could do it, but me? Well, thanks, it's been fun, but ..."

These were weak moments, and I was mostly joking. I did want to finish the Freedom Challenge. But I was nervous. Extremely nervous. I advocated for breaking this grueling penultimate day into two days, to shore up needed strength for the Stettynskloof, and also to enjoy the last remnants of civilized living.

We arrived at the Good Hope farm in the early afternoon. While Liehann took a nap, I worked on a system to more effectively carry my bike on my back. I didn't necessarily want to take it apart, like they do in during the Grand Canyon crossing of the Arizona Trail Race, because I knew there would be thick bushwhacking that would require more maneuvering than a static position on a backpack would allow. But I wanted to keep my weak little arms free when possible, so I worked up a strap system to hook the frame around the shoulder straps of my backpack. That way, the backpack would support the weight of the bike on my back, but it could also just dangle from the frame when I needed to nudge the bike through thick vegetation. For the better part of an hour I practiced with my system, walking around the yard with the bike hanging off my backpack, attempting to step up onto higher ledges with only the strength in my legs, jumping up and down to test my balance and stability. It seemed like a good system, and I was feeling more optimistic at the end of the day.

The long break also gave me time to perform some much-needed surgeries on my fingers. A number of thorns and other debris had become lodged in my skin and then ignored, and some of my fingers had become badly infected. I had to dig through the red and swollen skin and mostly just extracted puss, but at least they were finally properly disinfected and bandaged. My fingers were in bad shape, and I also had a single — but painful — saddle sore that I was treating. Still, those were my only physical maladies at the time, so I had little to complain about.

We rode 76 kilometers into Trouthaven. There was one steep hike-a-bike first thing in the morning, but the rest of the ride was just fun and relaxing, with the exception of five kilometers on a busy paved road that seemed frenetic and out-of-place on this route. It was a reminder of just how little time we'd spent on pavement in the past three weeks.

Trouthaven was another early afternoon stop. Although our times into both Good Hope and Trouthaven indicated it would have taken us upwards of 18 hours to ride the distance in one day, doing these segments in two felt almost like cheating. These afternoons were far too relaxing, sitting with my feet up next to a fire and reading fishing magazines. I was still extremely stressed out, and nothing Liehann said made me feel better. Later in the evening, Coen and Con arrived at Trouthaven — the men had surged ahead of Steve, Di, and Richard, and would now take on the Stettynskloof on the same day as us. Coen had ridden the route twice before, and did not sugarcoat his previous experiences at all. He talked about taking the "tiger line" out of the valley, with his legs about to buckle underneath him, but it was too steep to slow down.

"No tiger line," I said to Liehann. "I'm not strong enough for the tiger line." Our cues described a route that was farther up the valley, and longer, but less steep.

I didn't really think I was strong enough for any of it, but I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try. 


  1. I can't wait to hear about the "valley that must not be named". Hurry up and write the next post. Great story, Jill. Absolutely loving it.

  2. Me too, hanging out waiting for each instalment...

  3. With your story telling you might motivate me in coming back next year for another perfect race....

  4. Excellent tale well told. Am glad you didn't cram Stettyn's into the bottom of Part 10. That it has its own episode tells me lots happened between 5:30 and 22:00 in the Devil's Playground. Stettynskloof is a monster, can't wait!


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