The days before
So what exactly is the Freedom Trail? It's an off-road route across South Africa conceptualized by a former environmental lawyer named David Waddilove, traversing roughly 1,500 miles from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl, near Cape Town. The route follows foot paths, cattle trails, jeep tracks, disused old wagon routes, seldom-traveled dirt roads, farm tracks, cross-country "portages," and the very infrequent tar road connector. There is reportedly somewhere between 140,000 and 150,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain on the route. But when it comes to weighing the difficulty of any section, distance and climbing are almost nonentities — terrain is what matters.
Each year in June, David organizes a Freedom Challenge, inviting mountain bikers to take on the route within a 26-day time limit. The race is held in the austral winter, with long nights, more frequent storms, occasional flooding and snow, and consistently cold temperatures. If terrain and weather didn't make the challenge difficult enough, David throws in a rule that all participants must navigate the non-marked route without the aid of GPS — old-fashioned maps, compass, odometers, and cue sheets are used to discern the frequently implausible passages over rugged ripples of land. The Freedom Challenge first launched in 2004, and in that time roughly 170 individual men and 20 women have finished within the time limit. Almost all have been South Africans — only a handful of foreigners have completed the Freedom Challenge, and as far as I know, no other Americans.
My friend Liehann planted the seed just over a year ago. He participated in the 2011 Freedom Challenge, riding for ten days before mechanicals forced him out of the race. Shortly after that, he took a job at Google and moved from South Africa to California, where he joined Beat's team at work. It was just pure coincidence that the huge world of software engineering brought together two ultra-endurance enthusiasts, but Beat and Liehann became good friends, and we all started riding together on a regular basis. Liehann and I often compared Tour Divide/Freedom Challenge notes, and he's long been anxious to return to Pietermaritzburg and wrap up unfinished business. He worked on several angles to convince me to join him, and I dragged my feet on making any commitments for a long time. You think I'd be an easy sale for something like this, but I was extremely reluctant to enter a race with such a strict navigation rule. I hate feeling lost, and knew the uncertainty of map navigation — no matter how much I worked on improving my orienteering skills — would be a constant source of stress. Although Liehann and I planned to ride the route as a team, I was terrified of the notion of hacking through the bush in some remote part of Africa all alone, with no idea where I was going, and rhino and leopards lurking. Still, predictably, adventure lust eventually won out and I was on a plane to Cape Town.
Cape Town is near where Liehann's parents live as well as the finish of the Freedom Challenge, but it's more than a thousand miles away from Pietermaritzburg. We opted to manage this leg of travel by renting a car and driving one way along the coast. The South Africa road system isn't as well-established as the United States or Europe; even the major routes are usually just two-lane strips with no shoulder, often in poor condition, and see heavy use from pedestrians in some areas. Still, I was excited to get a sense of the land before the race started, even if it meant two days in a car on rough roads.
We spent the first night near Port Elizabeth and the next morning driving across Addo Elephant National Park to gawk at animals.
Zebras and kudu. We spent a lot of time in the park and didn't arrive in Pietermaritzburg until late that night.