Sunday, July 31, 2016

DAY 7 FREEDOM CHALLENGE RACE ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA - 2016 DAY 7

Day 7 VUVU TO RHODES 54KM 




This is where my day 7 started, typing out a message to inform followers of how things were going early hours of the morning. Here is the extract posted out through Whatssup app to family:

“It's half hour past midnight and I had put my head down to sleep around 8pm. It feels like I have slept for eternity. As I lie here in bed in Vuvu, courtesy of one of the village locals giving up a bed, I listen how the weather evolves outside. It changes within seconds. Wind then absolute quietness. Rain and then that quietness again and so it repeats. We are fairly high up with part of the Drakensberg and Maluti mountains flanking Vuvu. In a few hours we go even higher when we move to get over Lehana mountain pass, a non road, +5hr portage or alternatively via Naudes Nek pass, the longer route if the weather risk is too high. Yesterday's effort from Malekhonyane to Vuvu was brutal to say the least, more so from the amount of climbing involved, clearing ridge lines off sheer drops, and the continuous headwinds bearing in mind you pushing your combined body weight and around 15 to 20kgs of bike, bike spares and backpack. We got slightly disorientated in the dark en-route to Black Fountain but we recovered quickly. All had a day of crashes with me engaging in a classic head over heel, handlebar and bike roll on a steep single track descent. Other than breaking my map board properly and seriously bruised left shoulder and breast bone along with right knee, my guardian angels are looking out for me. Neville, my ‘adopted’ riding partner, while negotiating a single track piece over an overgrown ledge slipped off a sheer boulder face and fell a few metres with the branches from trees catching him but also stopping his bike. He survived to tell that tale, bike included. Gerard also took his tumble on single track with slowed momentum being the cause in the Vuvu Valley. It's his 1st time on the Freedom Trail and he reckons when done with Freedom he could easily sign up for the SA Military Special Forces, the Recces. We had some special moments during the day too. Meeting 'mama Gugu ' at the post office and spaza shop, the last standing post before the beautiful but desolate Vuvu Valley, (I met her in 2014), I introduced her to my new friends and riding comrades. She remembered me and proudly produced a photo I sent her 2 years back. We bought cokes and biscuits from her and we were invited to sit in her lounge. She then also produced x3 500g bottles of homemade peaches for each of us. We felt rather bad as we declined due to the extra weight to carry. Instead we all shared a peach meal sprinkled with coconut with her. Photos were taken; water bottles filled and revived somewhat we said our hesitant goodbyes. Its experiences like this that one can savor for a long time to come. There ARE incredible people in this country of ours! Believe it! Unfortunately the race snakes and serious contenders don't get to see or experience some of this. The 3 of us riding together are united in that it is a journey for us all across South Africa in some of the most remote places one can go. Why not savor it as hard as it can get! In a few hours with lots of grit and determination we break the back of this race going over the highest point and arguably the hardest 550km distance covered! Even when we have bad days, the resolves are still strong and very committed. After all, how many can say they have done and experienced what we have so far? This is an adventure of ordinary guys, ordinary South Africans, at its best!”

We are up at 5am and make our way back to the Vuvu school where we left our bikes and back packs for the night. We rig up after the normal routines applied and ride out the school grounds at 06h00 and onto a 9km stretch of road to take us to the base of the Lehana portage. It is still very dark and we stop enroute on the narrow road to allow a bus to pass us. We arrived at the base of Lehana at 7am whereby we turn off right onto a track. First light is appearing. I point out to Gerald where we are headed in the very far distance and point of exit on the mountain before us.
Base camp Lehana Portage - We've got this!

Heading over the top in the far distance


So the long 4.5 hours of back breaking climbing started. First it was to negotiate the first section onto the ridgeline that then this formed the spine that would take us all the way to the top to the blue shipping container, a landmark well known to all Freedom Challengers. There was no secret and one needed to find and pick the best line from the the base up to the spine so to get on with the real aspect of the portage. Wind, a little dense vegetation in places depending the line you were taking and rock formations with sheer faces on either side of you in one or two places would be the norm as you navigate your way up Lehana.
A quarter way up from the bottom. Still climbing


The climb of Lehana is one endless slog. Amazingly you also get to pass hand built shepard kraals and shelters on the climb and to think that humans would stay up there in isolation for periods at times boggles the mind. The climb up is just that, a climb! 
When one is that high up, one can be forgiven when feeling a little shaky in the legs, bike over your shoulders crossing a "table top" on the ridgeline with valleys deep below on either side and the cross wind blowing while you're exposed. I did one of those with a white knuckle shuffle!
A break. Lying low out the wind


 

We decided on a plan that we would climb for an hour then take a five minute break, then repeat. It seemed to work well. Gerald was exceptionally strong and kept moving like a mountain goat up this mountain. He was always ahead of Neville and I and by doing so almost created a pre-navigated tracking path for us to use and follow. I gained much respect for this 50 something rookie the way he made it look so easy and graceful. With incredible display of grit and determination, Gerald was the first to summit in just over 4hrs! Neville had taken a slightly different line to me towards the summit and got in just before me. The wind was not as bad as two years prior and for most Freedom Challengers it is sometimes customary to take a little time out at the summit and replenish lost energy and maybe also to reflect on the journey so far. The views are incredible and a must to savour! Every step taken to the top was earned! You feel like you are literally sitting on top of Africa and at 2900m, you have the best views!
Summit of Lehana




 
After the joyous celebration and photo shoots at the summit we made our way around the crag of where the blue container was and after climbing over a slight path way of rocky scree we dropped down to the mountain resort of Tenahead on a jeep track. 
Tenahead

 


Gerald modeling for us!


Trio in good spirit!
As always, we were warmly received and settled down for some coffee to warm us up and some awesome toasted sandwiches ordered! It was so easy to be tied in and spend the rest of the afternoon in this warm establishment but this was not our official checkpoint and after paying the bill and thanking our host, so we high tailed out of there at 13h30pm and gunned it for Rhodes! The descent off the Naudes Nek pass en-route to Rhodes, I started to wobble a bit from pure cold and body shaking from shivering on the bike. It was incredible! With a continuous endless drop for 10kms at speed the wind chill was prominent! I didn't stop to put another jacket on as I was enjoying the free fall immensely! Maybe foolish as one could run the risk of eventually getting sick with the normal winter illnesses later. At the bottom I did eventually stop and pull out my 2 in 1 jacket. The ride to Rhodes was very undulating over district road but one could feel the ache from the cold ever present, especially with the sun slipping lower and lower into the afternoon. After all we were in one of the coldest places in the Eastern Cape. 
Before dropping off Naudes Nek pass - Photo: courtesy Neville



10km of pure descent!

Arriving in Rhodes just after 16h00 and after this first section of 550km of brutal terrain was a special affair for me as the journey had gone nearly according to plan in relation to all the mishaps in 2014! I will be honest and say I was feeling a little inner emotions welling up inside as we we rode into the establishment of Rubicon where we met and were welcomed by race director Johann and Meryl. What an awesome day it had been! A little exhausted but elated!!

Then there was Gerald! who we managed to get into Rhodes before his 8 day and 6pm curfew cutoff! Celebrations all round!

Johann, a seasoned bike mechanic, I reckon and never shies away from the mechanical workings of a bike summoned Neville to bring his bike over so they could immediately start with maintenance and run repairs and replace his faulty back brake unit with a new one which was ordered. This is the spirit of Freedom! Those sitting, watching, tracking and monitoring from race office will always assist where they can within the framework of the rules because setting aside the extreme nature of this race, they want to see you succeed!

The evening was freezing but also a blur. It was the normal bike checks, washing kits, map reading, shower, packing, repacking, reading messages of support from friends and loved ones and all not necessary in that order. I also realized that from this day onward was the start of new uncharted territory for me and my navigation was going to be tested and would be crucial to my mindset and success to the finish.


Repacking...again
When we leave in the morning; 105km would lie ahead to Slaapkranz and then we would see from there. 

It is sub zero degrees outside in Rhodes! ....But again! the experience and the privilege of being able to do what we do outweighs the discomfort....

Thursday, July 28, 2016

DAY 6 FREEDOM CHALLENGE RACE ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA - 2016 DAY 6


Day 6 MALEKHOLONYANE TO VUVU 70KM

By now the normal rituals and routines of getting up, having breakfast, packing packs, signing out, sms’ing race office of our departure and plans had kicked into an automated process every morning.

We leave Malekholonyane at 4.40am and make our way along the entrance road from the day before in reverse. I think to myself how grateful I am, not having to do the “new exit” out of Malekholonyane in the dark.

We are headed out on a district road taking us over a steep but short hill at a place called Ongeluknek and then undulating road until we drop down and cross over a river bridge and then swing right onto a single track. Gerald’s light or something wasn’t secure on his bike after we departed and fell back a while so sort it out but eventually caught up to Neville and I. After passing what seemed like a number of sparsely placed houses around us and on the hills in the pitch dark, we trace our way with the bubble of light flowing from our bikes leading the way as our guide. In a very short while we are slightly lost. I could play out in my head where we had to go on memory but for some reason I was disorientated and frantically looking for beacons. We saw bike lights coming from where we had come in the far distance which eventually turned out to be Tony and Caren. We watched their lights to see them float a little way up to our left on a small hill heading in the direction we were suppose to go.

The three of us instinctively take a tiger line approach and start trashing our way in the same direction eventually picking up the track we were looking for all along. We lost around an hour trying to figure this lot out. I even lost a glove! Damn!

The day would consist of a 70km stretch from Malekholonyane to Koaring ridge. Then drop off steeply and start the climb to Black Fountain. From here it was riding ridgelines for some distance to Tinana on jeep track as well as single tracks. Here we would drop off down to Tinana village and cross over another section of single track making our way to the Vuvu valley portage and then onto the village of Vuvu.



We met up with Tony and Caren at Koaring ridge and rode together somewhat until the climb started to Black Fountain. I knew the way from here and so the real trek of the day started. On Koaring ridge daybreak was forming. 


Koaring Ridge - Neville & Gerald

Sunrise before the descent
Single track riding as well as climbing down rocky sections formed the basis of this first exercise. Once off the second last rocky crop, still descending off the ridge we managed to find a track to ride along through a few wattle bushes. Neville and Gerald had pushed ahead slightly and I lost sight of them. As I cleared out of a section of the track and came out into a clear opening I did not see them but caught sight of something lower down to my right while moving and on looking saw them down below just off another section of single track. I immediately turned to pick up the single track descent and follow the line down. It was pretty straight forward. My backside out the saddle, standing on my pedals, hands gripped to the handle bars, arms bent to absorb the flow of the motion, I started making my way down picking up speed.

Rocky screes to descend off
It happened fast! Picking up speed I froze! In a split second I saw a flat piece of rock, the best way to describe, the size of two large pizza boxes on the track. There was a straight drop off of around just short of a metre from that and the single track carried on from there. In a split second I was too focused on where Neville and Gerald were and not concentrating and picking my lines constructively and what seemed like slow motion my front wheel drops off the ledge. In a split second I try to respond to what’s happening but end up reacting. I am too late to get my weight shifted to the back. As the front wheel hits the bottom of the drop so the rear wheel decides to fly. I see the whole incident play out before it happens, again in slow motion. It happened in 2014! The front wheel rolls, my body weight, back pack and inertia starts pushing me ahead of my bike and I go into a cartwheel with the bike being pulled with me because my feet are still clipped into my pedals. I hit the ground hard in a curled position with my left shoulder and the sound of stretching muscles and bones along with the bike and components creaking and smashing against the hard ground, made for a sickening sound that was nauseating!

I came round quickly. I lay on the ground and took stock of my body register. Other than my left breast bone and right knee feeling like they had slammed something, I realize I am ok. Nothing is broken. Just shocked! I stand up and a brief panic set in wondering if my bike is damaged. My map board had snapped clean off my handlebars and lying in pieces around me. Neville and Gerald are oblivious to what had just happened. They were already negotiating the next drop off portage. A quick scan of the bike and mercifully everything was intact, nothing broken, I remember offering a quick prayer; Thank you Lord!

I gathered up the debris of my broken map board equipment and stashed them into my backpack. Got onto my bike and started the rest of the descent. After a fall like that, it is the only way to overcome the shock. All this happened from start to finish and getting going, in around five minutes which felt like an eternity. I learnt from my previous stint on the trail, there are no guarantees when you are out there. You have to be on the ball, be wide awake and keep it together.

I eventually catch up to Neville and Gerald and a nervous chuckle is had on explaining what had happened. We do not talk about it again thereafter.

Tony and Caren are ahead of us as we climb up a steep hill through a small sparsely populated village.

Beyond this we go higher up and we pick up a fairly decent track and start making our way to Black Fountain. We lose Tony and Caren and after negotiating jeep track and finding the white markers as stipulated on the narratives we make it to Black Fountain fairly quickly with no hassles. Here we have a quick break and take off some layers of clothing. Tony and Caren eventually arrive and we hear they took a different line which obviously didn’t work out. All along we had thought they were ahead of us. We all stick together pretty much all the way to Tinana.
Heading for Black Fountain



Again, I remembered the route fairly well. About five kilometers from Tinana, Tony and Caren negotiate a small rocky outcrop with bush over hanging on it. This is a massive round boulder with a fair drop to the left with trees at the bottom and the bush on the top to the right. After Tony and Caren squeezed through and around the bush on this ledge, Neville and Gerald decide to follow their lead too. I had been following from a short distance behind and decided to go down left before the boulder and around the trees onto the lower level of grassy plain at the bottom.
Heading for Tinana


It was Neville’s turn to embrace what could go wrong on the Freedom Trail! Neville slipped and slid some way down the side of this boulder with the trees breaking his fall as well as catching his bike. I was already down the bottom but Gerald was on hand to offer assistance and get Neville and bike back up on the ledge. A close call for Neville who sustained no injury but again showing what could go wrong on an adventure race like this.

We eventually make our way to Tinana with an African man on horseback giving us some advice on the best possible track to take. We descend off the mountain surrounding Tinana, cross the high swinging bridge over the river, ride past the Tinana Mission and village and we are on our way to Vuvu.
Tinana swinging bridge crossing

It is heading for around midday and there is as stiff breeze blowing from the front. Tony and Caren have pushed ahead again and take the high route to enter the district road that would take us to Vuvu. We opted for the lower route. It wasn’t long and we had crossed the known river I remembered and were on our way to the Vuvu valley.

I told Neville and Gerald about my experience meeting a lady at a stop in 2014 before entering the Vuvu valley and suggested we stop and see if she is there. The area is called Setabalaba and she runs the post office from her establishment as well as we can buy cooldrink from her. I find the place to the right at the top of the hill and we ride onto her premises. Mama Gugu as fondly known was excited to see us and even produced a photo I had sent her in 2014. We bought cans of coco cola and some biscuits and we were invited to sit in her living room area. Mama Gugu then disappeared and re-appeared with three 500g glass jars of home-made peaches in syrup which she wanted to give to us. We felt quite bad because we realized as much as we would have liked to have taken the gift we couldn’t. More weight on the back wasn’t something we had in mind going into the Vuvu valley portage. Out of respect, Gerald said we would buy a bottle from her and we would each have some of it to eat right away and we wanted her to join us. Four bowls, some coconut sprinkle and we had a feast! Absolutely delicious! When one reflects, it is moments like this that restore my faith in humanity! Its moments like this that can make the Freedom Challenge experience feel that much more special. We took some photos and were given water to fill our bottles and then we were off with the promise that I would send her the photos.




Mama Gugu
The Vuvu valley with its trails of rivers and yellow grasslands covering the expanse of surrounding mountains beholds its own beauty. Yet, this time of the year one does not really want to get stuck out in the valley after dark. It can get pretty miserable, cold and uncomfortable. The afternoon was quickly turning over and daylight fading as wind and cloud started forming all around us. We followed the river from the start and crossing over four times before we started the ascent out the valley. Neville was pretty strong and once over the first ridge and onto a rugged section of road, we could see the Vuvu tower a little way ahead up on the top of the mountain. Neville was the first to summit, then Gerald and then I. From here I met up with Gerald as the wind was picking up and the signs of light rain tingling against my face. We raced the last short section of rugged road to the Vuvu school and rode into our checkpoint for the night and arrived at 17h00.

Part of the Vuvu Valley


With the generators going at the school grounds as darkness fell, so the temperatures started to drop. I opted for a bucket bath outside in the makeshift showers that had been erected for us. Even though freezing but with hot water provided in buckets and the steam coming off my body, enough to start a sauna, I felt fabulous after that! Once again, enjoying the unique experience that rural South Africa has to offer was always going to be part of my journey. It’s humbling to be exposed to this form of living as it makes you realize how much you have to be grateful for!

After dinner in the “principal’s office” and when ready, Neville and I followed a family of a women and her three boys from the area through the village and taken to their home where we were both given our own beds in one of the rooms of the two roomed house. Again, a very humbling experience where total strangers welcome you as a stranger into their own homes and hearts without questions asked. 
Bed for the night in Vuvu
With the wind howling outside, I settled down to a restless night’s sleep, more so that my body was bruised and uncomfortable from the events of the day. Reflecting on the day, it was more about the journey and concentrating on how far we had come vs how far to go.....

Feeling exhausted, I think I drifted off to a sleep with a smile on my face...


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

DAY 5 FREEDOM CHALLENGE RACE ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA - 2016 DAY 5

Day 5   MASAKALA TO MALEKHOLONYANE 70KM

Myself, Gerald, Tony, Caren, Liehann are up after 4am already. Werner still asleep and Neville struggling as he is overcome with dizziness and slight nausea. Liehann is gone way before us and the rest of us settle down for a quick breakfast. Two other riders also join us who arrived in the early hours. Their names escape me.

We had the idea in our head about pushing through to Vuvu from Masakala which would make for around 140km. We are the last to leave, leaving Werner behind who went back to sleep as we exit Masakala at 5.30am. 


In the dark, finding our way out the village, looking for the school on the outskirts as our beacon, I managed to salvage our exit from Masakala after a tricky brief run around. Dropping off and away from Masakala we enter a long river bed section with loads of loose sand which makes for tricky riding. We see plenty bike tracks left behind by other riders before us. Up ahead in the far distance we can see the rear red lights of two riders which would be the two that left just before us we gauged. Once off the river bed track of white river sand and its matted reeds and long grass in places we are on a main tar road and it is busy this time of the morning with commuters obviously travelling to the nearby town of Matatiele. 

Heading for the mountains

The pace was rather brisk considering the slow speeds we have reflected in the past few days. We were headed for the flood plains. After one or two turns and riding once again on dirt roads through settlements of rural houses, dawn breaking, we found our way to the outskirts with the Knira yellow grassy floodplains lying before us. From here we would ride and trek west and gun it to Queen Mercy on the other side, our first target.

Start of Knira Floodplain



 Now and then we lost the track but we knew we had no mist and all we had to do was keep the rising sun behind us and hook westward. The plain is dry but majestic and it stretched for close to 13km. With its network of tracks, deep river troughs and deep soil erosions in places the going was rough when running out of track. Passing through the villages Malota, Sprinkana and Pontseng it was around the last village where Gerald took a right and Neville and I kept going straight. I could see Queen Mercy, a trading store about 2km aways from where we were and made a bee line for it over a slightly muddy wetland area. Gerald eventually joined us from the right on a dirt road. It was here as we popped out the plain that the weather started to turn. A quick stop at a local spaza shop for coco cola, and with the wind picking up we were off. For the rest of the ride it was into an icy headwind all along. 

Spaza shop


We now made our way through more rural settlements as per navigation instructions through streets and tracks. This was rural countryside at its best. We were headed for Mpharane ridge which was a ridgeline to negotiate before we would get to Malekholonyane. We were now close to the magnificent mountain range of the Maluti and Drakensberg, we could almost touch it.

Mpharane Ridge

Checking maps





Tiger lines
Again, we stopped on occasion to have a bite to eat as it is crucial to keep your energy levels up and going. Neville seemed to be coping fine after his shaky start from the morning. We even came across Tony and Caren who had just finished a snack break and were on their way again.

We climbed the ridge and after some riding eventually found our exit point off the mountain to our left and started our descent on some short but steep goat tracks and then down into the valley through clumps of trees and bush where we picked up a track to start riding again. We took a wrong turn and instead of going left continued straight which resulted in us being on top of a hill and adopting the tiger line approach quickly to correct our mistake. This we did and in no time we were crossing the last narrow river stream and on our ride up and down some short hills to get to the Malekholonyane checkpoint.

Up the last bit of hill into searing winds on a concrete track we arrived in Malekholonyane at 13h30 on the outskirts of the Maluti mountain ranges to our right. Tony and Caren had arrived a short while before us. We decided we would not push on to Tinana and run the risk of being slowed down by the wind and the terrain and being caught out in the dark. We are not concerned about time right now and know we will make Rhodes before the eight day cutoff. 


Malekholoyane

Arriving at Malekholonyane I would be honest and say I was feeling a little broken. That wind! Also, stupid mistake that cost wasted energy. However, in my tired state I was still motivated because my state of mind would tell me I am still ‘in and living the dream and the morning hadn't been bad at all. I remember posting a comment on my Facebook page and because of my initiative of raising funds for hearing impaired kids while I was chasing my Freedom Challenge dream, and myself being hearing impaired from birth, my message was to those with disabilities and who still had the means to follow their dream, was that you can overcome the challenges if the desires are strong enough to do so. When I reach a certain level of fatigue my balance relating from deafness in both ears becomes unstable slightly and this becomes a challenge in itself when riding single track and keeping it together. Yes, I had a couple of close calls during the day but pulled through it. If I can overcome, why can others not? I believe it’s all up to you and how determined you are!

Our exit from Malekholonyane is a new totally bushwhack affair and if you get to the checkpoint early and decided to stay for the night, one could do the round trip exit of around 12km straight away and then in the morning when leaving, exit on the district road and bypass this bushwhacking affair than doing it in the dark. This bushwhacked bypass takes you on goat tracks, no tracks, through dongas, over rivers and rutted single tracks. You ride, carry, and push your bike ...that’s the extent of it. We left Malekholonyane at 13h50 with full kit, as is the rule, to do this detour and were back again before 16h00.

The wind had not let up and the air was constantly chilled. A quick recovery supplement shake from my own supply stash and some Malekholonyane’s vetkoek and jam, coffee and a ‘trickle shower, I was feeling somewhat revived again and ready for the next round. Do not get me wrong, my body hurt, my backside cheeks abused but my mind refused to be buckled. The past few days had been hard on the body and it is noticeable such as where slight scratches attained start taking longer to heal because your whole body is trying to balance the act of recovering and repair. Yet, it's also all about sucking it up and getting on with it.

In a perverse way, I am having a blast. In the short time on the trail, there has been amazing people, amazing scenery and been amazing experience so far. Tony and Caren were also staying over at Malekholonyane and had indicated what their plan was over dinner. They were taking it day by day until past Rhodes and then they were going to start upping their tempo to make up time and days on the trail.

Malekholonyane was generator powered and so silence fell around us after 21h00 when they shut down. Under candle light the Trio of myself, Neville and Gerald settled down for the night, sharing a large room, prepping for the next day’s riding.



Even though only five days in, a team like bond was forming between the three of us. We got on well, were sharing the navigation and just generally rode well together. We all had one ultimate goal and that was to finish this incredible race. Ultimately we would go on together, to the end and help each other to achieve just that!

Day six would be the run through to Tinana and gun it for Vuvu. The focus and getting the navigation right would be crucial! With a few drop off of some mountains, climbs and portages, it's a big day! All we wanted was to get to Vuvu before nightfall. That was the plan!

With the wrap for the day and with the wind howling outside, through the valleys and mountains, the village of Vuvu was waiting...

Monday, July 25, 2016

DAY 4 FREEDOM CHALLENGE RACE ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA - 2016 DAY 4

Day 4 GLEN EDWARD TO MASAKALA 60KM

After a restful night sleep, I was up at around 3.45am with Gary already leaving Glen Edward on his next leg of his journey. The rest of the trio of Gerald and Neville were also dragging themselves out of bed too. The backpack repacking ritual in place in-between getting kitted up and being served coffee by Carl making himself useful which we really appreciated, as well as the Ravens already in the kitchen slapping breakfast of egg and bacon together as well as the arrival of Freedom Challengers and race snakes, Tim James and Mike Woolnough, made for much of a buzz around the farmhouse!

While we tucked into breakfast, the two new arrivals settled down for what they termed would be a quick cat nap!

At 5.30am we said our heartfelt goodbyes to the Ravens and we were out the door, through the farm gate, down the short farm entrance and swung a left, heading south for Masakala 60km away.

In the pre-dawn darkness, the air was crisp and chilled but warmer than expected. The morning riding went with no real incidents and went well relating to navigation until a little later. The normal chitchats, stops to remove layers, having a snack and taking a photo or too was pretty much it. There was a fair amount of climbing again, done on moderate to rocky district road. At around 12km out of Glen Edward we crossed the Mngweni River leaving the Kwa Zulu Natal province and marking the entrance into the rural landscapes of the Eastern Cape province.






About 20km into our morning ride; we then turned off the district road just past a big school and had an all in all 12km track to follow which would take us through some villages and massive wattle bush plantations and more. It was still relatively early and the school was abuzz with curious school kids either on the school premises hanging onto the fence watching us pass by with much cheers and talking as well as more kids making their way up the footpaths we were on, making their way from the village to school. All around us, the area known as the Mbombo were dots of rondawels, huts or small houses littered around the landscape and hills. We were definitely in rural Eastern Cape!

We left the village area and on the outskirt stopped to orientate ourselves as we were about to enter the wattle plantation we spoke of earlier. There were two routes but if you got it wrong you could lose valuable time trying to find your way out. We decided to take the route that I knew from 2014 but had to be careful popping out the other side as there was a turn to take down to a river to cross and not finding it could be a problem. I lost 3 hours here in 2014. The descent through the plantation went with no problems, being cautious not to get wattle tree branches that were lying around wrapped into your wheels as this would surely rip a spoke or few! Then the uncertainty came when popping out. With much debating and riding up and down for around 15 minutes, along came our ‘guide, in the form of veteran Mike Woolnough who had obviously had enough of his short catnap and high tailed out of Glen Edward not long after we left. Mike knew the way and so we just followed his lead. We descended further and crossed the river together. A quick sit down above the river bank to remove some leggings and more layers and a quick chat with Mike, we were off. Mike had decided to try a new route to see if it was faster but also in the vicinity of the map directions. He took a tiger line approach over a massive hill in front of us of which we went around the right side as per the map directions given. This took us up a path which became noticeably steeper as we ascended the valley. We were soon on a short piece of district road taking us higher up and over the other side.

Once over, we pulled into a Spaza shop off the left of the village we were passing through before we re-entered more tracks and footpaths that we were to take. There was no sign of Mike during our ascent. More coca cola and biscuits bought and while sitting perched on the Spaza shop stairs, Mike came riding past with a wave and as though he was in a real hurry. Mike had made it known to others prior to his start , he was looking at going faster this year!

The Spaza Shop


In the far distance before us the mountains displayed snow caps, reminiscence of the cold front that had passed through the past 72 hours.





It wasn’t long, it was backpack on, bikes mounted and we were off again. We eventually left all traces of any village and made our way across a dry grassy water shed within a wide valley headed for an old abandoned farm house. I knew where we were headed and grateful it was mid morning. The darkness of 2014 made it very tricky! Once at the abandoned farmhouse, the valley became narrower and slightly steeper as we tracked down the path through dense wattle bush behind the farmhouse that would take us up to a saddle that we had to cross much higher up. The rustic, rough lay of the land and scenery I could not help notice. It held its own form of beauty and hardship for the people that lived here. All was good and done making our way up with some effort, concentrating, riding, a little walking in places where one couldn’t place a wheel or turn the pedal and then we crossed another small dried out river which resembled a stream and a final pump up to a district road that would take us to Masakala. The ride to Masakala from here was pleasant in that there was a worthwhile long decent through another settlement and a relatively flat ride after this before riding up the last steep climb into Masakala.


We had been talking while riding that we needed to run some bike maintenance as our bikes were starting to creak and groan with all the mud, dust and water having filtered their way into every nook and cranny. Brakes were feeling spongy and I was concerned about my front suspension that didn’t seem engaging. The next stop was Malekholonyane which was another 60km away which would require us to cross a flood plain, negotiate the Mpharane mountain ridge line as well as descend off it.

We arrived at Masakala guest house in the village at 13h30. This consist of two large rondawels that house some bunk beds, kitchen as well as ablution facility. We decided to stay. (We would take 8hrs the next day just to get to Malekholonyane. In hindsight, a good call considering we would have arrived at 21h30 but probably not, getting lost in the dark and freezing cold instead)
Masakala Guest house



Bikes were cleaned and lightly serviced in freezing temperatures as the afternoon progressed. In the time spent at Masakala, we met incoming Freedom Challengers during the afternoon. Tim who popped in and left, Caren & Tony, Liehann & Werner arrived and all slept in. Werner was to serve a six hour time penalty for obtaining a replacement bike frame after he broke his riding into the Ntsikeni Reserve the night before.

A mention needed to go to the African ladies that looked after us at Masakala and hats went off to them for being available at all hours of the day and night to feed us, do washing for those that required done and doing all this without any inkling or feeling that they were doing us a favour.
Masakala Guardians
These were just some of the people that made up the heart and soul of this biking adventure.

We set about studying maps for the next stage to come and decided on a 5.30am exit in the morning for Malekholonyane….

THE STORY OF 2016 RACE ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA

The full 2016 Freedom Challenge race across South Africa race report https://view.publitas.com/private-18/2016-freedom-challenge-rac...