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.
"No," he replied.
"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.
"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.