Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Race Across South Africa, part two

On the third day, we were still trying to develop our morning routine. Phone alarms went off with their upbeat tunes that were both infuriating and oddly comforting. We'd push aside a crush of blankets in always unheated rooms and rush to pull on clothing layers as quickly as possible — sometimes laundered, sometimes still damp from the day before — and shiver as our warm bodies slowly heated the chilled fabric. Most breakfasts were a quick food-shoveling affair — granola, instant oats, boiled eggs, and instant coffee left out on a table. But at Ntsikeni Lodge, Ncobo (thanks to Liehann for remembering the manager's name) made us a big breakfast spread with eggs, bacon, and a dark porridge. I tried to stuff down as much as possible. 

I refilled my frame bag with supplies from the boxes that Liehann's parents lovingly packed for each support station. Having not understood the extent of the provided meals in the Freedom Challenge, I requested a larger-than-needed amount of supplies. The drop boxes were small — the size of a two-liter ice cream container — but Liehann's parents did everything they could to stuff them full, including opening up packages of electrolyte chews and cramming individual candies in every spare nook. Early in the race, when I still cared, I also spent a few minutes each morning readying the bike — wiping off dirt clumps, cables and chain, applying fresh lube, checking tire pressure and brakes, resetting the devices, readjusting the bags. We had yet to streamline this routine, and on the third morning we were particularly slow to get going. Dawn had already cracked by the time we stepped out the door, and Steve and Di were long gone. 

Liehann was bummed out because his warm pair of socks had been placed too close to the wood stove inside the lodge to dry overnight, and had large holes burned in the heals. Temperatures were again several degrees below freezing; thick ice had formed on the streams and frost coated the grass. We had, by my calculations, about five kilometers of doubletrack before we were supposed to find some manner of offshoot followed by ten kilometers of portaging. Liehann remembered from his 2011 race that this section was tricky, but couldn't recall many specifics. "Those ten kilometers could take five hours," he warned.

I'm not sure I believed him at the time — two kilometers per hour is what I think of as "PTL speed," or about the slowest I'm capable of moving in the outdoors while still retaining forward motion. I had yet to take into full account the reality of fifty-some pounds of food, water, gear, and an awkward mountain bike that's impossible to carry in any efficient manner — especially when such things were never practiced — so it's safe to say I did not yet understand there is a speed slower than PTL speed. Freedom Challenge speed. But ignorance is bliss, and I relished the five wonderful kilometers of doubletrack through the nature preserve in the chilled dawn air.

Kudu ran along the hillsides and wildebeest called out from long distances. The best I can describe a wildebeest call is something like an angry duck — guttural moans that echoed through the still air. I was enthralled by these animal sightings — strange, hulking beasts I recognized from childhood cartoons, that suddenly became real in this radiant wilderness. It was like a fairytale brought to life, and I pedaled along the periphery, fully absorbed.

We hit the point where our cues informed us to pick up "a management track that heads into the hills." We rode back and forth along a kilometer-long stretch looking for a track, but only saw faint impressions in the grass farther up the hill. "This part is mostly bundu bashing," Liehann said confidently. "We just have to head off that way." Anytime the cues called for a track that we couldn't find, my internal alarm sounded, but I admit I saw no better solution. We started hacking up the hill, cutting zig-zagging lines southwest, then south, then northeast. I scrutinized the maps but, as was many times the case, found without a solid reference point I couldn't quite interpret the correlation of topographic features. Yes, my map skills were lacking, and maps were pretty much useless to me unless I already knew exactly where we were on them. "Do you even know if we're going in the right direction?" I called out to Liehann.

"No," he replied.

We stopped to assess the map and he determined that in fact we were walking in the wrong direction, and Liehann traced the right direction to a game gate that ran up the spine of a steep hill. The surface had burned, and what remained was a crunchy surface of charcoaled grass and fine black dust. It was volcanic in appearance, and combined with the barren mountains surrounding us, reminded me very much of Iceland — although brown instead of green. As we walked, clouds of smokey dust swirled around my face and settled in my throat, causing me to cough. The hill was so steep that even pushing a bike, I had to stop every twenty steps or so to catch my breath. "How long are we going to flounder around like this before we just go back to Ntsikeni?" I asked Liehann. "Six hours? Eight?" You can be determined as possible to finish something, but when you're lost — you're just lost. My predominant fear was being lost forever. I made mental bread-crumb markers of landscape features we passed, so at least I could find my way back.

At the top of the hill, we finally had a good view of the land, and were able to draw a more accurate picture from the abstract lines on the map. We also caught sight of the track we were supposed to be following, veering up from a completely different valley. We'd been pushing our bikes on very difficult terrain for nearly two hours for a net loss of forward progress, but at least we landed in the correct place. We sat down for a snack and I told Liehann stories about my running trip to Iceland. "I would love to come back and explore Ntsikeni someday, but without the bike," I said. "On foot. With a GPS."

As we worked our way around the contour of a plateau above steep canyons, we were caught by two Race to Rhodes riders who started one day after us, as well as Steve and Di. Apparently they'd tried one of Steve's characteristic "sneaks" that didn't quite take, and came back to catch the main route where we'd missed it. Despite his experience, Steve's propensity for sneaks as well as winging it on portages made me reluctant to stick with them in the early days in the race. Later, I would realize the wisdom in his thinking and make more of an effort to absorb his sage advice.

The group of four opted to take the "high road" when I was certain the cues directed us to stay in the valley, so I threw a bit of a temper tantrum about following their route, but Liehann and I made an effort to stick with them. Steve and Di, as well as others we rode with, were strong technical riders and much more adept at the on-off finessing of carrying and pushing a bike, and thus were always faster than us on portages. At the time, my bike-portaging strategy was still all pushing, and actually this is much less efficient and more strenuous than carrying much of the time. We lost the group at a saddle, where I was pretty sure they'd disappeared into the next canyon to take the direct route to the other side. I looked across the gorge and announced that I wanted to take the long way around.

"It looks like a scramble," I said. "I don't want to scramble anything with my bike." (Again, I just had no idea what was coming.) "The contour looks short enough and there's even a cattle trail." The trail was worn too deep into the soft ground to be rideable — pedals just hit the side. By the time we made it to the end of an eroded jeep track, it was well after noon.

"Wow, that really did take us more than five hours," I said to Liehann. "You were right."

"I know this place is beautiful and all, but f*** Ntsikeni," Liehann replied. He was joking, mostly.

Still, where Liehann and I faltered on technical portages (I will say this was me more than him — his fork trouble made descending difficult, but I was the weaker uphill pusher), we were often able to make up with our strong gravel road riding. We arrived at the lunch stop in Glen Edward just a few minutes after Steve and Di, just as the Race to Rhodes riders were leaving. "You guys made good time but you don't want to spend too much time here," they told us. "You don't want to get stuck in that valley after dark."

"That valley," in the Freedom Challenge, could translate to "any valley." Valleys were the worst. On top of hills and ridges, the world almost made sense, but quickly descended into a web of confusion and misinterpreted lines in a valley. The cues directed us to do things like "keep the slope on your right" (which slope?) and "head toward the wattle stand" (to which Di joked, "wattles here, wattles there, there are wattle trees everywhere.") We opted to stick with Steve and Di that afternoon, wending our way through a tree plantation maze, into one river valley, up to a spur, and on a faint cattle track into the next valley. "Is this the right trail?" I asked Steve after scrutinizing the cues.

"Doesn't matter. It's a cattle track," he said. "They're everywhere, one is the same as the next. Now, what we must do is go over there." (South Africans have this particular accent on the words "here" and "there," which sounds a bit like "they-air," that I will never forget. These words were said to me so many times, and never seemed to provide any comfort.)

Night fell as we fumbled through the tall grass of the valley. Liehann was pointing to a saddle in a far distance off to the right and speculating that the district road was up "there," and I thought, based on cues, that access must be all the way around a peak and off to the left. Soon we could see nothing except tall grass, hacking through low-lying marshes as Di fretted about getting her feet wet as temperatures plummeted.

Per the cues, we were looking for "two old farm houses" of which we were supposed to turn right and head up the valley "at the top house." A spur blocked our view to what I presumed had to be the saddle we needed to climb toward, but Di wanted to stay out of the marsh so we were further veering away from it. Finally, I just took a hard right and stomped across the marsh, where my headlamp beam just happened to pick up the ruins of two buildings. "The old farm house!" I called out. "Not sure if it's the bottom or top, but it's definitely a farm house."

Di approached to shine her light at the circular building and corrected me. "That's not a farm house, that's a hut."

Her statement bristled a bit. Was she really going to argue semantics right now? We hadn't seen a single other building since we dropped into this valley, and here one was. Hut, house, who cares? We finally interpreted it as the bottom house and cut left along the low-lying ridge, where we came to another, occupied house at the end of the spur. Far above that, I saw a spark of lights that I was pretty sure were the two Rhodes riders nearing the crest of the saddle.

Darkness wore on as we picked our way up to the bench and then down into maze of village roads dropping into the next valley — this one sparkling with lights and civilization. By the time we reached our support station in the village of Masakala, I was spent. My legs felt fine, actually — there had been a lot of walking that day, and a lot of stopping to make map assessments. But mentally, I was shattered. We'd spent upwards of fourteen hours covering about ninety kilometers, and I'd been a tightly wound ball of stress for a lot of it. "Navigation," I thought. "That's the part of this race I can't cope with; I can't just use mind games to shut it out. And the worst part is, I can't just quit because of navigation. Damn it."

The following morning, I had no idea what to expect — only that we should stick with Steve and Di, who joyfully took on all of the navigational challenges. Steve especially. He seemed to love solving the puzzle. I was upset with myself for having such a bad attitude, but I had yet to accept the true mission of the Freedom Challenge: I was not here to ride my bike. I was here to find my way. Day four involved crossing from one hillside village to the next across frosty river valleys. I picked a bad day to wear my shorts, and my legs were bright red and feet numb by the time the morning sun finally started cranking out heat. Steve would stand up on the ridge and point to the village on the horizon, and say, "Imagine a man going to visit his girlfriend in that village. Which path would he take?" For Steve, the simplest route was the right route.

The day was characterized by fumbling through mazes of village streets while interacting with locals — again, all very friendly, but it became tiring to be such spectacles for so many people going about their day-to-day lives. We passed by a school and were quickly mobbed by children. The situation became a bit uncomfortable as they crowded around asking for things and grabbing parts of our bikes, but Steve turned it around by asking the kids to sing the national anthem, which they gleefully obliged.

We worked our way out of the village to a high ridge, where I was introduced to another favorite of Steve's — the "tiger line." Rather than take the contouring track that wrapped around a hill, he opted for a direct push up the steep face, complete with a rock scramble at the top. Beyond the radio towers, we had about five kilometers of blissful ridge riding before we reached the point where we were instructed by the cues to take a left turn. We failed to locate any track, and so we took the tiger line down — more scrambling, which made me nervous. There was actually a fun bit of singletrack through a thickly wooded gully that we had an opportunity to ride. But once at the bottom, we were definitely no longer on route.

Steve kept pointing to a far hill and saying, "Now, we must go over there (they-air.)" How to get there was the question, and Di, who had advocated the loudest for staying on the ridge when she didn't recognize the drop-off point, was also not a fan of "bumbling around." But we had left ourselves few other options. We knew we needed to pass by the Gladstone Farm House, so we would ask locals as we worked our way along the dirt roads about "Gladstone." Predictably, every direction they pointed to was slightly different. Steve, still aiming for the far hill, guided us through a network of farm tracks before we actually did find the Gladstone Farm House, leading to a foot path at the top of the ridge. The whole thing seemed to be quite the hack — foot paths, downhill hike-a-bike, stream crossings — and I was close to cementing an opinion that the Freedom Challenge would be better as a foot race before we even reached the first major portage. At least on foot, it would be easier to pay constant attention to the maps. Bikes require you to pay attention to steering and all that.

We arrived at Ongelusknek with only 61 kilometers on the day — a day that was nearly ten hours long. Night was coming, and it was too late to even consider taking on what promised to be a very long and complicated day five. "Short day," I tweeted. "Spent more time bumbling around and looking at maps than riding bikes. Frustrated, but what a beautiful spot to stop."

Indeed, the nature preserve sat at the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment, with wide-spanning views of the sculpted uplift. I sat on the porch with a cup of rooibos tea and let the day's frustration dissolve in the quiet serenity of the landscape. I was happy to be there, I was. Managing the draining navigation angst — well, that was just going to have to be my hurdle to clear. 


  1. OMG! all this and the race is only just begun. Awesome that you were still able to take all these wonderful photos.

  2. Another great read. Always love your photos of the lone one or two people in the landscape that give such a sense of the grand scale of a place.

  3. Jill! I'm loving your proper race report, transports me right back to that landscape and experience. For my part, there was a massive contrast between those times when I was navigating by myself and when I was collaborating/debating with others. Neither was better, but they sure were different experiences.

    Thanks, as always, for the brilliant writing and photos.


  4. Great race reports and pictures, thanks Jill!

  5. As always, your story telling is often as good or better than the ride. Brings back many memories....all good of Afrique du Sud.


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