Race to Rhodes - an Ordeal of Unprecedented Beauty
I took a gamble after much deliberation to enter the 2022 Summer Race to Rhodes. The 582-kilometer endurance cycling race from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes makes up the first challenging stage of the 2150-kilometer Freedom Challenge/Race Across South Africa. After my humbling reconnaissance experience a month earlier, I had doubts about my abilities and confirmation of the challenges of the trail. Navigation had me particularly worried since a map, compass, and a written narrative guide the cyclists. The use of GPS devices is immediate grounds for disqualification.
Having been invited to the wedding of my dear friends, Sebastiaan and Madison in New Mexico and unable to make it to America for the festivities, I decided to dedicate my Race to Rhodes to their marriage. Marriage, like the race, is an initiation. Marriage requires strength, determination, humility, humor, endurance, presence, surrender, forgiveness, and grace. Little did I know that I would be traveling with a couple (Lucy and Richard) that reinforced and exemplified these marital qualities.
Cyclists have seven days to complete the Race to Rhodes, the first of four segments that make up the entire Race Across South Africa/Freedom Challenge. Cyclists start in batches over a period of days as support stations along the way can only accommodate small groups. Support stations range from homestays to hotels to working farms. Local involvement by hosts anchors the race experience. Hosts track the cyclists’ progress online by watching their dots move across the landscape. Hosts worry when cyclists go off track and many of the hosts know the route and pitfalls through years of tracking. Hosts welcome the riders with abundant hospitality that offers succor and support to the weary.
On Monday night before my Tuesday start, I attended the mandatory race meeting hosted by the race director, Chris Fischer. Five of us sat in the dining room of the hotel for our briefing. I looked around the room, wondering what alliances could be made, knowing that I would need to connect with others in order to make it through a single day. Andy and Sean, previous RASA finishers planned to do the whole 2150-kilometer RASA with racing speed. Lucy and Richard, a married couple from Durban, looked a bit more my speed. Richard had completed the Race to Rhodes sections multiple times along with finishing RASA. Lucy and Richard are currently doing each of the four RASA segments as a preview and to give Lucy an opportunity to hone her already significant navigation skills.
Early Tuesday morning, we progressed from the hotel to the starting line in Pietermaritzburg where we were unleashed to begin our adventure. Sean and Andy started fast. Lucy, Richard, and I started steady, a pace that would serve us well over the next 6 days.
We crossed the main road to enter a game reserve and the first of many gates. A fellow in a bakkie drove up and greeted us and wished us well. He has ridden some of the events and was filled with emotion and delighted to have spotted us as we began our journey. It felt like a blessing. We cycled through a game reserve accompanied for a bit by giraffes. At each juncture, I felt more and more reassured by Richard and Lucy’s navigation. A quick spot check with the map and, “BOOM” we were on track. My biggest worry was alleviated through their competence.
On our first day, we planned to travel 105 kilometers and climb 2775 meters to get to Allendale, for the night. Allendale is a farm owned by the brother of the original RASA founder, Dave Waddilove. Getting there meant overcoming numerous challenges, including crossing the Umkomaz River and climbing up Hella Hella Pass. We traveled up through a forest service area and Lucy caught a discrepancy in the narrative versus the image on the map and kept us en route. This little glitch cost racers, Andy and Sean twenty extra kilometers. We passed iconic checkpoints along the way. We progressed. We stopped for lunch at an interim support station where I learned that stops are simply pauses to refuel, take care of essentials and then get back on the bicycles. Early evening, the rain came and broke the stifling heat of the day. We arrived at Allendale soaking wet, the first of many wet arrivals. We ate toasted cheese sandwiches followed by shepherd’s pie and I collapsed into bed
The next morning, we set out early, heading for the Ntsikeni, a lodge surrounded by a stunning nature reserve in the mountains. Our day’s journey involved traveling 93 kilometers while climbing 2480 meters. As we entered the town of Donnybrook, Richard careened down the tar road at high speed, unseen by the taxi driver coming in the opposite direction and turning right. From my perspective, I could see tragedy unfolding and shouted an alarm cry that got the attention of Richard and the taxi driver. They both braked hard and skidded away from each other to avoid a collision. Richard, fluent in Zulu, let out an invective of perfect Zulu curses that momentarily stunned all of the onlookers, who then erupted into raucous, appreciative laughter.
We stopped for lunch at the lovely Centocow Mission along the way, where the nuns set out our meal. The church of the Sacred Heart at Centocow was founded by Trappist monks in the 1800s and features a replica of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. I experienced a sense of homecoming at the mission. Perhaps an inherited recognition, given that my mother, before my birth, was a Sacred Heart nun in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The overwhelming heat of the day opened the atmospheric pressure system for the storm clouds to arrive late afternoon. We found ourselves in a deluge of rain. Thunder’s sonic booms resonated like war drums through our bodies. Lightning electrified the landscape, permeating the air with the strong scent of ozone. We cycled faster. River crossings became increasingly treacherous, stranding vehicles on either side. Carrying our bikes, we crossed quickly and continued on. We hiked our bikes up a slippery slope, going higher and higher into the mountains. The storm abated. We arrived at the fence line for Nstikeni Nature Reserve as the sun dipped down. We cycled the sodden marsh in the dark of night, heading towards the lights of the lodge. We arrived wet and tired. Mr. Ngcobo, the host, and his support team offered us a traditional meal and hung our wet clothes in front of the fire to dry.
Morning arrived too quickly. Time to check gear, then drink a cup of tea, have a swallow of coffee, and eat breakfast in haste before heading out for the day. The morning ride through the grassland nature reserve offered us stunning vistas dotted with herds of wildebeest and wild antelope species. Unfortunately, the nature reserve is also grazing land for many illegal cattle. We found the turn-off at the lone tree and made good progress. We got a little disoriented coming into our lunch stop at Two Springs, but left filled with beef stew and goodwill.
Our destination, Malakal, a village in Kwa Zulu Natal, was 102 kilometers away from Ntsikeni, with 1750 meters of climbing. We would go through a series of villages and alien wattle tree clusters, no man's land, over mountains and valleys. The rains came in the afternoon and made cycling (for us) impossible. We pushed our increasingly heavy bicycles through heavy, sticky mud. We trudged. We kept going. Race icons, Mike and Janine caught and passed us, cycling, in a particularly desperate section. Mike was full of energy. Janine kept her head down and pedaled with focused determination. Mike estimated that we had three hours to go before arriving at Masakala. In fact, it would take us six hours. After three hours of direct travel and three hours going back and forth in the pouring down rain, disoriented and lost within a few kilometers of our destination.
At one point, as we pushed our bicycles for over an hour in a storm on the contour line of the mountain, I battled internally with the hardship. Then, my thought pattern shifted and I realized that I was having an incredible experience in a remote part of South Africa that would be entirely inaccessible to me otherwise. What a privilege to walk in the dark of night through this landscape with people that I care about. Best of all, I realized, “I never have to do this again!” (Unless, I choose to… but that is another story.) We cycled down off the mountain to the flooded plain where we followed the siren’s beacon of lights rather than our compass bearing. We lost confidence. We wandered door to door, hoping to get directions. No one answered our knocks. We found a fellow walking in the dark with an umbrella who pointed towards Masakala. The EMS driver’s directions matched those of the drunk guy at the shebeen. We rolled into the support station drenched to the bone, exhausted and grateful. As I slipped into bed, I realized that my body, including my skin, ached. My toenails hurt. I wondered if I would need knee replacements after the race. I was too tired to cry.
Once again, morning came too soon. Up at daybreak. Check gear. Eat. Leave. Lucy and Richard waste no time when it comes to leaving. I rushed in the mornings to keep pace. I noticed Richard’s pack near the door and let that be my cue to have a cup of tea. Minutes ticked by without seeing either Lucy or Richard. Strange. I walked outside to see them at the gate, ready to go, having waited precious minutes for me. I brought Richard his backpack and our day’s journey began. It is unusual in the course of the event for someone to forget their pack or phone and have to backtrack unforgiving kilometers.
We left for Malekholonyane, another village in the mountains, a short day by comparison, with just 56 kilometers and 860 meters of climbing to go. We crossed through floodplains and villages. We stopped at Queen’s Mercy store for a cold Coca-Cola. We climbed up to Maparane Ridge and found the track down to the weatherworn and somewhat derelict Gladstone Farm. On the rocky descent, Andy, who had started with us on our first day, came past us. Sean had gotten sick with Covid in Queen’s Mercy. Since they had gotten a lift in a vehicle, Andy had to redo the section by bicycle in order to stay in the race.
We arrived in Malekholonyane in an afternoon downpour, just as Sean was being transported off the mountain in the back of bakkie in a rainstorm. He was given a thin mattress to soften the bumps on the rutted road. Support stations offer laundry for a fee and we had our clothes washed and hung on the line in the rain. We weren’t particularly optimistic about them drying in the night. Sleeping arrangements were limited by Covid. Sean’s Covid room was off-limits. Andy, having been exposed had a room to himself. That left one room with single and bunk beds for me, Lucy, Richard, and extreme racers Alex and Jacques. We had a few moments of laughter and exhausted hilarity before lights out.
On Saturday morning, we donned our sopping wet clothes and set out in the mud for another day on the trail. Lucy, Richard, and I decided to aim for the interim support station at Tinana, rather than pushing on up through the Vuvu Valley, which we were concerned would be treacherous in the rain. We only had 45 kilometers and 820 meters of climbing for the day. We pushed through mud, climbed up a pass, hiked and cycled the contour of a koppie, poked our way down a rocky mountain, then up the other side before traversing a pastoral wonderland. High up in the mountains in the springtime, we encountered herds of sheep and goats and the occasional Basotho herder wearing a traditional blanket against the inclement weather. We passed the tiny outpost of Black Fountain and dropped down off the ridge to a village network that led us to the Tinana River.
With the extreme rain, race headquarters recommended that we take an alternate, longer route across a vehicular bridge, rather than wading the Tinana. The previous night, Mike and Janine had been unable to cross the river, even at the bridge, due to flooding and were lucky to find a local family who took them in. We ended up through a series of miscommunications at the river crossing, rather than the bridge. Having swum the river on the reconnaissance ride, I was not very hopeful about the outcome. However, Richard proved a star and charged, successfully, across the river and made certain to get Lucy, me, our bikes, and our gear across. From there we climbed the hill to the formidable hospitality of Mrs. Kibi.
The next day, we took the alternate route on the road to the stunning village of Vuvu. This was my second failed attempt at the Vuvu Valley, having missed it entirely on the reconnaissance ride. Vuvu, located high in the Drakensberg Mountains bordering the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho has a stunning beauty and a feeling of timelessness. The local school is the hub of support. Racers can choose between sleeping on mattresses on the floor at the school, or staying in the homes of locals who vacate their beds for the night to make space. Although I would relish the opportunity for the local hospitality, we opted to stay at the school. We arrived at Vuvu early afternoon, before the storms. It rained all night and I was happy to be safely tucked up and dry.
Sunday morning, we started early and made our way to the next big challenge. Lehanas. A mountain pass of note, Lehanas demands respect. Wind, storms, and fog can make Lehanas treacherous. Two previous riders were forced to retreat as a lightning storm caused the mountainside to erupt in flames. We aimed to get through the ordeal in the still weather of morning. Riders have two options for climbing the ridge line, traversing the bowl, and ascending to the top Lehanas. Carry or push the bike. My bike, made of steel, is particularly heavy. I pushed, dragged, and pulled my bike up the mountain. We watched as storm clouds massed on the periphery of the range. We kept moving hour after hour, scouting the track and finding our way. In the final hour, mist swirled in and out of the bowl, obscuring then revealing the blue shipping container that marks the top. When we hit the fence line, I felt a quiet euphoria. Although there were many kilometers to the finish line, it seemed probable that we would complete our Race to Rhodes. The narrative, cautioning against unbridled optimism has a tiny reference stating that the remaining 32 kilometers are “not all downhill.”
We popped out of the stark wilderness area to find ourselves at the upscale, 5-star, Tenahead Lodge. We were met by a support team of Buffalo Herders and a cameraman. My tires slid out on a slippery water crossing, dousing me in cold water just before getting to Tenahead. I arrived soaking wet and had to sit on a concrete stair, rather than a plush sofa while we enjoyed cappuccinos and toasted cheese sandwiches.
Fortified by the lovely food, we got back on our bicycles and made our way across the top of the plain and then dropped precipitously and gloriously into the historic hamlet of Rhodes. Lucy, Richard, and I finished strong. We arrived at the Rhodes Hotel to meet up with Chris Fisher - Race Director, Elton - Buffalo Herder, a defeated racer who surrendered his RASA after a series of misfortunes, including being swept downstream in a river, and two racers headed to Cape Town for whom this was just another night on the trail.
That evening, we were awarded traditional Basotho herder’s whips to honor our successful completion of the course in the allotted time. The leather of the whip is cured with urine and stinks to the heavens. The handles are beaded exquisitely. I think it is unlikely that mine will make it through customs should I try and take it to America. The whip matches the beauty and the rawness of being on the trail. Whether or not the whip comes with me, the experience is seared