After years of either avoiding or skirting the edges of the Race Across South Africa, I finally committed to participating in the Race to Rhodes portion of the Summer 2022 Freedom Challenge/Race Across South Africa (RASA). This iconic, off-road, unsupported endurance cycling race attracts a dedicated, loyal group of participants and followers. And, in a not so coincidental fluke, many of my friends in South Africa are part of this community.
The Race to Rhodes portion of RASA includes the first 482km of the 2150km trail. The course takes participants on a wild adventure with 10,745 meters of climbing, high up in the mountains bordering the Kingdom of Lesotho
In preparation for my Race to Rhodes, I joined a reconnaissance trip to familiarize myself with portions of the course. Navigation is a critical aspect of the race and is done using paper maps and a compass, along with a sometimes cryptic, written narrative. Use of a gps device during the race is grounds for immediate disqualification. Navigation is not my strength.
I joined up with Elton, Ron and Craig for a reconnaissance trip that made me question my upcoming participation in the Race to Rhodes. As far as characters go, I found myself in good company. Elton is a stalwart participant and supporter of the Freedom Challenge events. Elton’s role as one of the chief Buffalo Herders, requires him to escort riders through the restricted Baviaans Nature Reserve section of the course. In the event of aggressive Cape Buffalo in the area threatening riders, Elton is meant to intervene. He also helps with technical rescues on the course as well as providing skilled mechanical support. “Rocket Ron”, a true gentleman and former Comrades Marathon runner, has participated in a number of Freedom Challenge events. Ron has had his share of trials and tribulations that have kept him from finishing. Craig is a recently retired helicopter pilot and 2011 Freedom Challenge Finisher who lives in Kwa Zulu Natal and has started a cycle touring business called Berg Bikepacker.
Elton, Ron and I drove to KZN to meet up with Craig and Hilary at their home and lodge in Himeville. The next day we loaded up our bicycles into Craig’s VW kombi and drove to the first support station in Allendale to practice the exit from the farmhouse to the town of Donnybrook. Riders leaving in the predawn hours have been known to accidentally circle around the property for an hour or two and end up back at the farmhouse for a second breakfast.
Elton, Ron and I set off in the daylight with our maps visible on special map boards mounted on our handlebars and compasses at hand. We debated our direction and the narrative. We wondered which dam in the narrative matched which dam on the map. We went through an opening in a fence and backtracked. We climbed over barbed wire fences with our bicycles. We bounced along through a clumpy, harvested field. We hit gloopy, sticky, mud and pushed our way through a marshy area. We got to the tar road to find Craig waiting for us, having tracked our tedious progress. This began an imprint of a not entirely healthy dependency for me with Craig. I would discover that Craig is synonymous with safety and rescue. These first few kilometers were a preview of what was to come with fences to climb, mud, pushing and having doubts about navigation.
We made our way to the town of Donnybrook without incident and set off in the vehicle to the next lodge in the village of Masakala. We arrived late afternoon and enjoyed a traditional meal of chicken, rice, pap (corn porridge) and vegetables. The neighboring house had a kraal filled with sheep and goats. Neighborhood children wandered past and entertained us with their playing, singing and dancing.
We got up in the morning and set out for Queen’s Mercy. All these names and locations that brought recognition to the others, fell on deaf ears for me. I had no reference point for the landmarks. We made our way through rural areas and across a series of floodplains separating villages. We cycled, we pushed.
We passed cemeteries on the outskirts of the villages. We encountered herds of goats and flocks of sheep tended by herders wearing Basotho blankets. Wiry men on spirited, sure footed ponies gave us wide berth as the ponies often spooked in the presence of our unfamiliar human/mechanical forms.
Crossing the last floodplain, there was much excitement as we approached the Queen’s Mercy shop. Shops = Coca
Cola, snacks and a reprieve from the monotony of whatever one has packed for food. And Craig was there, assuring the obvious, that we were on the right track.
Ron and I continued on, planning to make our way to the next support station at Malekholonyane. As we passed a primary school, we noticed that the children were wearing traditional clothing in celebration of South Africa’s Heritage Day. The headmaster, familiar with the Freedom Challenge, invited us in as special guests to witness the singing and dancing. Ron and I found ourselves escorted to the festivities by mobs of excited children. After 45 minutes of much joy we extricated ourselves and continued on.
Craig and Elton met us at key junctures along the way, reminding us to look at our maps and establish location before going the wrong way. I noticed a tendency on my part to want to go the wrong way. Consistently.
Ron and I made our way up to the Maparane Ridge. The cycling on
the ridge was stunning. I enjoyed the smooth tracks and expansive views. However, Ron and i struggled to understand the terrain. We over-thought the narrative to the point of frustration. We made the landscape fit the map. We were meant to drop off the ridge to Gladstone Farm. I imagined an obvious, visible farm.
In reality, the farm is a collection of buildings in disrepair. We went back and forth along the ridge for hours. We followed narrow trails through dense stands of wattle trees. I climbed a koppie/hill to get a better view and cellphone reception. I saw a herders’ shack and we made our way there and asked directions. The herders pointed down the steep, cliff face directly below their kraal to the zinc rooftops of Gladstone Farm. Fearless Ron wanted to take the direct route down, known as a “Tiger Line” to the farm. With reception Elton was able to get hold of us and advise us to return to a known spot where he and Craig would collect us.
We spent the night at Malekholonyane lodge and ate a similar, traditional meal to the night before and slept in rondavels. We got up the next morning and made our way through sticky, heavy mud that coated our wheels and made pushing hard. We hit a gravel road that allowed the kilometers to click away with relative ease. We skirted a mountain on the contour, cycling and walking. Then down to a valley and up again through a village and another ridge. High in the mountains we encountered the occasional herder and more sheep, goats and cows. We made our way to a steep descent into a village that required lowering our bicycles down through rocky outcroppings. We hit a road and cycled to the river crossing at Tinana. All we had to do was cross the river and climb a little ways to our next support station where Mrs. Kibi would have a hot meal and dry beds waiting for us.
The suspension bridge across the Tinana River washed away in floods years ago. Now the river must be crossed by foot. The rains have been heavy this year.
We got to the river and scouted for a place to cross. Craig was waiting for us on the other side. I volunteered to test the depths and current and crossed the river. The spot I found had me swimming. I returned to Ron and Elton and we made the collective decision to not risk crossing with our bikes. We would cycle back to the road and wait for Craig to collect us.
We waited by the roadside as the sun went down and the rural area was cast into darkness with the rolling electrical blackouts known in South Africa as loadshedding. Loadshedding also means that the cell towers go down,
making cell communication impossible. We could not communicate with Craig. Meanwhile a couple of local guys walking past us with liters of Black Label beer in hand offered to house us for the night in their homes. And then we saw headlights. Craig. Rescue.
We got to Mrs. Kibi’s house. She had a full spread of sandwiches and hot drinks for us, followed by a pitcher of hot water and a basin for washing. Then a delicious, traditional meal.
We had arrived late in the evening. I felt entirely spent and overwhelmed. We had one more day allocated for the recce ride. The Vuvu Valley was the obvious next stage. I was worried. Ron’s and my navigational skills were proving subpar. I was tired and feeling vulnerable. We came up with a plan to be dropped off at the furthest point along the road so that we only had to get into the right valley and then push our bikes up. Three hours maximum.
I was reminded of “Gilligan’s Island”, a tv show from my childhood. A group of people set off on a “three hour cruise” on a boat in the South Pacific. They get caught in a storm, tossed around in the ocean and are stranded indefinitely on an island. I had the distinct fear that the Vuvu Valley would be our “three hour cruise.”
We went wrong nearly immediately. Without any cell service, we were unable to receive Craig and Elton’s calls advising us to turn back. We crossed a river multiple times. We clambered through massive gullies. We climbed steep cliffs, first on one side of the river and then the other. Bushes and trees snagged our already mud laden, heavy bicycles. I knew we were not on track. Exhaustion, frustration and fear got the best of me. I melted down with tears and anger. Ron, in his relational wisdom gave me space then offered to carry my bicycle for a bit. We had only known each other for a few days but through the challenges, we developed a particular closeness. I accepted his offer of help. I wanted to go back to where we started. Ron was determined to press on. We compromised and agreed to make our way to a footpath where we had seen people, assuming that it would take us to a road.
We pushed and dragged our bicycles up the steep, muddy, rocky, bushy terrain and got to the road. We were wet, bleeding from scratches and covered in mud.
My shoe broke on the climb and I had zip tied it together. I felt defeated, but grateful to be in a place where Craig and Ron could find us.
We drove to the town of Matatiele and booked into a beautiful guesthouse where I had a bathtub in my room. I showered and scrubbed before getting into the bath with a glass of wine. We met up as a group for a steak dinner and a debrief filled with stories, relief and laughter.
As I reflected on the recce ride that night, I strongly considered donating my entry fee for the Race to Rhodes to another rider or the the Freedom Challenge school scholarship fund. I recognized that as a solo rider in the upcoming race, I would not manage the navigation on my own. I worried about the physical and emotional stresses of the event. I made the case that I had experienced some highlights and maybe that was enough. Wisdom shared by the most experienced riders is to never quit at night. They recommend, from experience, (everyone considers quitting) to get some sleep and see what happens in the morning.
I didn’t have to make an immediate decision. We went back to Johannesburg and I had the luxury of time to integrate the experience. I connected with others who have done RASA and/or portions of it. The gleam in their eyes, the passion and the sense of accomplishment that they shared re-inspired me. With trepidation, I kept my race registration valid. In all honesty, I couldn’t imagine passing up the opportunity to experience a portion of the Freedom Trail.