Friday, July 04, 2014

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. 

 Warthogs!

 Lots of elephants.

 This jackal curled up next to an elephant carcass like it owned the thing.

 Buffalo. Mean and scary.

Zebras and kudu. We spent a lot of time in the park and didn't arrive in Pietermaritzburg until late that night. 

 The Freedom Challenge begins in downtown Pietermaritzburg under the same starting gate as the Comrades Marathon, which is the world's largest and oldest ultramarathon. David told us he conceptualized the route back when he was regularly training for Comrades. He read somewhere that one needed to run 1,800 kilometers in a season in order to do well at Comrades, and he started venturing further on trails from his home near Pietermaritzburg. This expanded into an idea to create a roughly 2,000-kilometer, all-dirt route across South Africa, and David began connecting a lot of far-flung dots. He picked spots he could run to in a day, and looked to local farm houses and villages to find places to sleep. It's notable that the Freedom Trail started as a trail-running route and only later developed into a mountain biking challenge. During the first days of the race, I had frequent dreams that I was explaining to Beat why the Freedom Challenge would be better on foot.

 We were slated to start with group "B" on Tuesday, June 10. The Freedom Challenge still utilizes farm houses and other tiny places as support stations, so participants start in waves of eight or nine over the course of a week. Of the eighty or so starters, 35 were signed up for the full Race Across South Africa, and the rest were participating in the Race to Rhodes, which covers the first 500 kilometers of the course. Our wave had five RASA aspirants and three Rhodes riders. I forget the names of the first two Rhodes riders in our group (one not pictured), but after me and Liehann is Ingrid, a Rhodes rider who graciously gave me her compass in Rhodes after mine was rattled to death on day four. Then there's Tracy, Di, and Steve. Steve and Di were a married couple who we spent quite a bit of time riding with during the race. They were a valuable source of knowledge and entertainment on a regular basis, and Di ended up being the only other female finisher in this year's Race Across South Africa. Di always left her headlamp turned on long after the sun came up, so this photo makes me laugh.

Team California at the race start, so bright-eyed and innocent. We had a long, long road in front of us, that we hadn't even begun to fully realize.