Herewith is an account at best of my 2016 Freedom Challenge race across South Africa.
Read from the 'Forewords - this post will be updated from the bottom of the last entry until the story is complete. I hope you will be able to relive this incredible journey with me....
The 2016 Freedom Challenge race across South Africa, an epic journey of discovery, self awareness and adventure.
I had started following the Freedom Challenge race across South Africa every year since 2009 when I first came to hear about it. I had been a road cyclist since 1991 and only just entered the mountain biking arena around the time of discovering this incredible race which had been on the go from a few years earlier since the start of 2000.
I knew deep down from the moment of discovery it was something I wanted to attempt! I had many critics when I started sharing my enthusiasm about my dream.
The Freedom Challenge race across South Africa, a 2300km journey from one end of Southern Africa to the other, unsupported is not every ones cup of tea. In actual fact this race is so extreme that not even ‘normal people can wrap their heads around the nature of it. Riding unsupported on a bicycle 2300km on roads less traveled, crossing snow capped mountains, negotiating miles of tracks and desolate places with only a bike, backpack, maps and compass (no GPS devices allowed) is something not many can fathomed unless you are actually taking part and entering the realism of what this adventure is all about.
This race surely does test your resolves, defines your character and allows you to engage in sometimes superhuman feats that you never believed possible, yet ultimately it is a race that can take you to your limits, test your faith, self belief and if seen through to the end, will humble you in ways you never knew.
In August 2013 I took the plunge and nervously pushed the enter button on my laptop and entered the 2014 Freedom Challenge race across South Africa for the 1st time. I threw myself into training, researching gear and nutrition, as well as soaking up every bit of advice I could from research to people who had done this crazy race. On top of this I also moved to start my own charity awareness initiative for a deaf school called the Carel du Toit Centre and raise funds for them. Myself, being hearing impaired from birth and growing up with the challenges that presented themselves, this was something very close to my heart. I felt the need to try and make a difference in some hearing impaired kid’s lives that would probably go through some of those challenges.
The Freedom Challenge race across South Africa 2014 was a blur. I lasted 11 days on the trail when an agonizing torn knee attained from an accident 8 days earlier put paid to my hopes and dreams of completing the race. The time that followed was a serious time of reflection for me and trying to get over the disappointment. I even found it hard to get going on a bike again.
In September 2015 after the passing and loss of a very close family member and always an avid supporter of my biking antics, it made me realize that life is so short and if you have dreams, you need to go after them whenever you can. You cannot get to the end of your life with regrets when the opportunities were all there for you to take.
I signed up to go back to Freedom race across South Africa 2016...
October 2015, I weighed in at 97 kilograms off my 1.86m frame. It was the heaviest I had ever been. I set out with one goal in mind, to get my body into the best possible shape I could for an adventure race of this magnitude. I also set out to get my mind tuned into what it would have to endure. My favorite mantra was; “My desire to succeed is stronger than my desire to fail”
I also put into motion my initiative to once again raise funds for Carel du Toit Centre in Cape Town.
By the time I got to end of April 2016, I weighed in at 88 kilograms. I then proceeded to up my nutrition program in May month running up to my 10 June start date. My body weight went up to 92 kilograms. My bike and gear selection was lighter than when I attempted the race in 2014. My backpack alone was 7 kilograms lighter.
I started my epic journey from Pietermaritzburg at 6am on the 10 June 2016 and with a target of 21 days, rode into the finish at Wellington, Diemmersfontein Wine farm on 4 July at 17h00 in 24 days and 11 hours making it in before the official cutoff of 26 days.
The 2300km non-stop Freedom Challenge race across South Africa was everything I had dreamed about and a way lot more. This race took me to places I had never been both physically and mentally. I was humbled to have met so many incredible people across the South African rainbow nation spectrum that even though you signed an indemnity over your life and well being during the course of your unsupported race, these people restored some of my faith in humanity choosing to offer friendship, assistance, shelter and any other form of indirect help to get you to succeed in your quest to make it to the finish.
Physically, I did things that I only dreamt of or merely thought of ever doing. In some cases I did things I never would have thought I would ever do! I never even did some of the things I did in training! The demand on your body day in and day out on a mountain bike through some of the harshest terrain I have ever covered cannot be actively explained. I almost believe I have become a better mountain biker somewhat. When pushing your bike, your body and mind through places like descending off a 6km mountain drop in fading light, riding tracks not even fit for a truck and coming off unscathed puts you on an absolute high, shaking hands from adrenalin coursing through your body and a super sense of alertness and focus making you believe you can do the impossible. Long stretches in constant headwinds and you get to realize and believe your mind is way stronger than your body and it pulls you through. When you pulling 12 to 15 hour days on the bike you get to understand that your body can withstand a lot more than you think it can handle. With freezing cold temperatures and developing the ability to physically control your core body temperature by relaxing and not tensing eliminating the shakes is a physical as well as mind feat that is possible if you let it.
Mentally yes! I learnt that the mind is way stronger than you think it is. It has the ability to transcend over everything else and many things.
My personal challenges being hearing impaired is that it affects my balance somewhat. Riding single track took much concentration and the odd slip here and there. Mountaineering up mountain faces with bike and backpack hooked over your shoulders and a fear of falling backwards on steep incline was something I had to work through and get over the fear very quickly. "Mine shaft" drop off mountains riding off the rear wheel and keeping one’s wits about you was also a mind blowing achievement at times!
The Freedom Challenge race across South Africa is also best described as an epic adventure. However, going into a race such as this and thinking you will tame everything about it, is fools thinking.
I always say this as it is the first thing that springs to mind; You cannot tame the Freedom Challenge but at best the Freedom Challenge will tame you!
DAY 1 - PIETERMARITZBURG TO ALLENDALE - 103KM
With the race debrief still fresh in one’s mind from the night before with all the rules and regulations explained and politely enforced by the race director along with a surprisingly restful night’s sleep, the day opened with much excitement, vision, goals and motivation. Breakfast was a sort of quiet affair wondering if it was just nerves or people not really orientated for early morning rise and shine seeing it was 5am and we were to leave the guest house and be at the Pietermaritzburg town hall before 6am as per tradition.
With all equipment and bike prepped the night before and last minute checks done, permits packed for some restricted areas to transverse, tracker active, it was riding gear on, backpack slung over shoulders, bike mounted, helmet buckled, lights on and it was all go!
With nervous banter and chatter once the batch of 6 Race to Rhodes and 3 Race across South Africa participants assembled at the Town Hall, it was just the clock chime to wait for and we were off!
The Start. Me, Neville & Scott
The day, 10 June 2016, also my birthday, had finally arrived! All the training, gear selection and mind prep was about to begin and undergo its ultimate test. This is what we had trained for!
The last chime at 6am and the final goodbyes, kisses and handshakes were dished out and we were off!
The pace was fairly fast through the city and onto Bisley Nature reserve on the outskirt of Pietermaritzburg, the almost official entrance and start of our epic journey, all 2300km of it. The weather was looking good with a fairly warm feel considering we were in winter.
Coming out of Bisley
Rider Neville Higgs and I almost immediately hooked up. Neville had indicated the night before that he really didn’t fancy doing the journey alone even though it was an individual event. At this early point it seemed our riding pace and style almost complimented each other and we stuck together pretty much most of the first day that would become eventual agony for me.
Neville feeling strong. Heading for the forests10km into the start, I sensed there was something wrong. My body was not responding to the activity and my recovery phases seemed to be lacking. My legs were heavy and I couldn’t make sense of it. 20km in I knew I was in some sort of trouble. This would plague me for at least the first 80km of the 103km en-route to Allendale, the first support station along the route.
A rare pic taken by Bruce Koller while enroute
I started to cramp real badly in the forests finding myself on my own and at a later stage nausea set in after the Umko river valley traverse. I didn’t know what was happening and started fearing the worse. Standing next to my bike in the cool shade of dense forest and watching my thigh muscles literally twitching in agony, I didn't know if I should scream or cry. I started to go into a blind panic wondering if this was the start of some swift ending to my race! I kept wondering if I had a viral infection of sort or maybe I had over trained for the event. (I would later put it down to nerves and just being tense on the 1st day)
Having been on this section of the route in 2014 I found the navigation easier than back then and this in itself was calming on the nerves worrying about getting lost.
After composing myself and riding through the cramps and discomfort, I rejoined Neville. After descending the steep concrete track into the rather warm and humid Umkomaas river valley and trekking up the river, we picked up and started riding single track all the way along the Umkomaas river and with opting not to cross the river as a shortcut we eventually exited out at the infamous HelaHela bridge and a brutal 7km climb out the valley. It was at around this point that I was fading fast and my energy levels and physique felt like it was collapsing feeling lethargic, nausea and weak. I instructed Neville to leave me and go it alone as I was not doing well in a physical state. Hesitantly he obliged but set along on his way.
Heading that away....
Umko Valley and going over the mountain on the horizon
Feeling the heat
The flowing Umko river
I was all alone at around 17h00 on this mother of a climb. Running out of water, nausea taking hold and inducing vomiting, it would take me another four and a half hours to cover around 18km to the support station Allendale. In this time I had people in three different vehicles, I assumed locals of the area, stopping whilst finding me lying on the side of the road resting as I plodded along in stages in my attempt to get to Allendale, offering assistance of which is against Freedom Challenge rules and of which I had to decline but appreciated immensely but at the same time found it a little overwhelming somewhat. I was low on water and any liquid sustenance and eventually ran out.
On HelaHela just before dark..
Once summiting HelaHela in the dark I managed to get into a consistent rhythm and ride the undulating district roadway and eventually arrived at Allendale shattered and broken at just before 21h30. 103km day in 15.5hours!
What a day!
Lone dinner - Meat and mash potatoes @ Allendale
Neville was awake and welcomed me in. I appreciated that! I had something to eat that was provided by the support station, a quick shower and some meds and just flopped into bed exhausted without really worrying about prepping for the next day, falling into a deep sleep praying Day 2 was going to be a whole lot better…..
DAY 2 ALLENDALE TO BOSHOLWENI FOREST - 80KM
I woke from my doze at around 3am with the wind blowing outside and sporadic drizzle coming down patting the roof along with one of the Race to Rhodes participants tiptoeing around the cabin we were sleeping in preparing for his exit out Allendale.
Overnight cabin @ Allendale
Earlier, after Day one’s bewildered entrance onto the Freedom trail, and my later than expected arrival at Allendale, I had fallen into a deep sleep for just over an hour and it felt like I had slept for eight hours! For the rest, I slept on and off the passing few hours through the night and one would regard it as restless sleep. I was conscious of my heart rate beating faster than normal throughout the night in my fleeting awaking moments and it generally spiked my concern again that something was up. I knew deep down in my desire, whatever it was, I would have to work through it. Maybe foolish thinking without getting a medical opinion, but I hadn’t come on this ‘expedition to quit. I also wasn’t prepared to engage in any negative talk or thought about it.
After a quick pre-dawn discussion, Neville and I decided to leave Allendale before 6am. I set about repacking and quick prepping for the day ahead. It was then into the outside cabin kitchen for a quick breakfast of oats, eggs, toast and coffee and then so entered another rider, Gerald vd Merwe! (Gerald had started the day before us and had got lost in the Umkomaas valley, even sleeping there for a night after falling into the river in the dark). The request was whether he could join us when we departed Allendale. We agreed.
Gerald & Neville in the kitchen - breakfast - Allendale
Unbeknown to me at this time, this was a threesome partnership that was going to gel together. It would be a partnership that would bind and display a friendship formed between three strangers who experienced the boundaries and challenges, the highs and lows, together throughout the length and breadth of the Freedom Challenge journey and even though we were three, we practically would become a nucleus of one.
Leaving Allendale still engulfed in darkness, we negotiated the outskirts of farmland to the south, taking us around a gradual slope and up to a fence line on the other side. I recognized the area immediately and the surroundings from my previous stint on the trail and was quite chuffed to add to the navigation discussions without using maps. This part of the navigation was known to be tricky as it took you through vast forest plantations with all its forestry main roads and network of subsidiary tracks. Our first target destination spot was the small town of Donnybrook when exiting the first stage of forest to negotiate, and then it was back into the forests and aim for Centacow Mission and then the final onslaught and climbs to Ntsikeni Lodge our indicated support station and stop for the day.
Heading for Donnybrook
The weather was very overcast with drizzle in places and it had me wondering if we were in for the first taste of bad weather as there was a massive known cold front sweeping the country side from the south. I was still feeling the after effect of the previous day and it also had my leg muscles twitching at times, threatening to pull a cramp or two. This did happen just outside Allendale, but only once and I managed to ease it out.
The first stage of the forests, through its maze went without incident and it felt good not getting lost and popping out onto the tar road just outside Donnybrook to lead us in. The tracks through the forest were good yet a little wet and some mud in places, obviously from probable rainfall during the night. We did a quick pit stop at the local Spar Supermarket in Donnybrook and tucked into some Chelsea buns, bananas, energy drinks and packing some extra supplies into our backpacks. The air was noticeably icy cold, especially standing in the wind.
Donnybrook Spar - Nev & Gerald packing in the energy
Feeling perkier and allowing the memory of the previous day’s affair to subside, we moved through Donnybrook, found the railway track we were to cross and in no time the three of us were engulfed by the next stage of forests to work our way through, the Xumeni forests. By now, broken sunlight was starting to stream through the clouds and forest canopy as we made our way through. The forest environment had the ability to instill such peace with its quietness and natural vegetation. It was just the sound of mountain bike tyres treading along, squishing some mud puddles now and then and the odd gear clicking along with quick chats about the navigation that could be heard.
At some stage through the forest mid morning we started to descend and in some way, even though we had scrutinized the maps and narratives, we missed a crucial turnoff to our right near the top of the descent within the vast forest and plantation we were in. This would have taken us on the final stretch to Centacow. We committed the blunder and descended away and way down into the valley below where we eventually left the plantation behind and ended up in an open, slightly populated village area with houses and huts dotted around us. We stopped and chatted to the friendly locals and discussed the maps with them.
By the local known names printed on the map as indicated by the locals, it was clear we would have to ascend all the way back from where we came, which we knew was going to cost us some precious time and energy. We decided after looking at the maps and wasting more precious time that we would continue on the district road we were on which would eventually take us to a main road and then would eventually take us on to Centacow. We calculated that even though a longer way around to Centacow, it might require less energy to do so. We also realized that we were not gaining any distance or time advantage by doing this and we couldn’t be penalized because of our decision according to race rules. The day started to heat up nicely and just before around midday we rode into Centacow after fighting a steady headwind that slowed things down for us a little.
I was starting to feel way better than the previous day but lack of proper sleep which equals recovery was lacking. We still had two big climbs to tackle en-route to Ntsikeni. The ascent would be something like 3500m over 45km if not mistaken. The first climb was the moment we set our foot out of Centacow.
For interest sake, the calculated ascent from Pietermarizburg to Ntsikeni over the 200km distance is somewhere around 6500m!
After an awesome meal of soup, bread, muffins, vegetables and chicken, we topped up our bottles and hydration packs, thanked the Sisters of Centacow mission for their awesome support and we were on our way. We covered between average to rough district roads that just seemed to head for the heavens! Myself, Neville and Gerald were working well together and even though at times we were spread out on the climbs we always ended up back together. We passed a few children who ran alongside us for what seemed like miles. Common questions asked by them was what our names are and where we were going. Some even begged for sweets. Being in the most rural of places it became thought provoking on how these people lived and survived out in the most isolated of areas as we were in.
Still climbing away from Centacow
After dropping off after the climb out of Centacow we start descending down into a long valley over a couple of quick short hills in succession, also on district road. We started looking for a path to our left as per maps, which would take us to a river that we would have to cross. I didn’t want to make the same mistake we made back in 2014 where we took the wrong path and this time made sure we were spot on.
Riding single track we eventually arrived at the shallow river. We had an audience of three young African boys sitting on the other side on the banks watching in curiosity as we started to cross over. Neville and Gerald opted to go left of the crossing point choosing to clamber over some stones jutting out the water. I opted to take my water proof boots off and took the tiger line approach and cut straight through the middle. The water was freezing but at most knee deep in places while nuzzling my way across over slimy boulders submerged under the flowing but light current using my bike as a crutch. Neville and Gerald ended up with wet shoes and socks unfortunately but nevertheless crossed over.
Once over, we were now on the verge and entrance to the Bosholweni forest.
The sun was setting low and we still had about 30km to go with a big ascent to get to Ntsikeni Lodge. With fading light and after the navigation botch earlier in the day we decided mutually we would bunk down in the forest for the night. Even though I was pretty sure about the navigation and way to Ntsikeni, the general feel was to play it safe somewhat instead of maybe going wrong in the dark.
We rode into the forest which looked a little eerie with darkness setting in. The wind was blowing and the rustles of leaves echoed through the mass of this plantation. We then ended up on the outskirts of the forest halfway in and decided to take a subsidiary road a short way back into the forest and find a spot to settle down. We wanted to get out the wind which unfortunately still cut through the masses of trees around us. We found our spot and Gerald went into almost boy scout mode clearing a rather larger area so we could make a fire without burning the forest down. It was 18h00.
Home for the night - Bosholweni forest
We gathered wood and donned all the thermal clothing we had which meant practically we emptied our backpacks with the extra gear within. The next thing was the emergency space blankets and determining a place to sleep close to the fire without burning too many holes in the blanket itself. We dined on whatever we had in our backpacks. I had beef biltong, FutureLife supplement, self-made sandwiches made in Centacow and 32GI supplement mix in my bottles. Neville and Gerald had their own preferences and we shared alike.
Keeping the home fire burning
This was also the beginning of the nickname calling. Neville and I were intrigued by Gerald’s massive backpack that resembled an old army pack that one used in the bush wars decades ago. Man! He had everything in that pack, all 15kgs of it! Pans, cups, tools and and! Neville and I saw fit to nickname him A.K.A - Reccie (After the elite special force soldiers once prominent in the yester years of South African border wars) Gerald seemed to take this to heart and a good laugh was had!
We settled down for the night with the icy wind consistently trying to weave its way through the forest and find us. I got into my space blanket bag and so a violent night of shivering started. I almost became like an out of control rattlesnake, tail going wild!
A blurred pic. Too much exposure from the silver glare of space blankets
It was cold! Bitterly cold! And I am sure we were all praying for dawn to come quickly. We all woke at times separately and gathered wood to feed the fire throughout the night.
The night was long. The night was uncomfortable. Yet! Only two days into the Freedom Challenge and in a perverse kind of way, I felt a sense of gratitude for where I was and feeling privileged I was experiencing something few would get the opportunity to experience……