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Race report #11 12:00 Wednesday 21 October 2020

Cambria

 

Mike Roy

 

Yesterday’s report was held back until today in anticipation of Alex Harris getting to Diemersfontein last night. Get there he did, in the early hours of this morning, albeit there were some late scares in Stettynskloof and on the descent into Diemersfontein. Suffice to say the route into Diemersfontein was interesting, to say the least. Not many people cross the finish line from the wrong direction. Robbie McIntosh is apparently the only other rider to manage this. 

I’ve just watched a video of Alex’s interview at the finish line, “I’ve been planning this for ten years” and “this year’s race went perfectly until 5pm yesterday”. The man operated on the extremes of sleep deprivation during the entire event and especially during the last four days or so. 

In summary Alex achieved everything he had targeted. The win, the record and the first person under 10 days with a final time of 9 days, 22 hours and 10 minutes or so. Regardless of the many discussions on winter versus summer RASAs, this is a phenomenal achievement and deserves our collective utmost respect.

Elsewhere the next seven contenders are bunching up thick and fast in the run in to the finish. The race for other two spots in the podium is between Mike Woolnough (who surely has second place locked up), Tim James and Bruce Biccard. Tim is, as we speak, behind Bruce but he did start a day later so is ahead on elapsed time. The two Matthews brothers should easily come in under 15 days and Grant Hill and Trever Maarschalk are still in with an outside chance of doing the same.

Here at Cambria we are escorting The Honeymoon Couple, Brad and Nick, together with Ernst Behrens, through the Baviaans. At least John the Geologist is doing the escorting today, I’m busy with the report. This trio are going well and aim to get in around 20 days. The Payne brothers, who have been experiencing some mechanical issues, in particular a properly shredded (split beading) tyre, are due in later this morning for the 13:00 bus. They seem to be on target for 17 or 18 days or thereabouts. Actually I’ve just looked at the tracker and I’m not entirely convinced that the Paynes will make the 13:00 bus, we may only be leaving tomorrow. Slow progress through the Osseberg.

At the back of the field father and son team Ted and Shaun Adams and Mr and Mrs Scoular are still very much on target for their blankets. Unfortunately the Buffalo Herders will not be escorting them through the Baviaans as we are moving on to catch up with the rest of the field. Nigel and Adrian Payne will be the last pair we escort in this year’s Baviaans. Temporary buffalo herders (lower case as they are only temporary) will be escorting the last four riders.

I haven’t referred yet to the concurrent Race to Paarl that started late last week. This is the first edition of that race, and it is now possible to do the entire Freedom Challenge route in sections, Race to Rhodes, Race to Cradock, Race to Willowmore and now the Race to Paarl. There are many hardened FC old hands who are riding this year’s inaugral vent, including Chris Morris and the Fat Farmers, who look anything but fat to me. Their moniker has changed to “the Fantastic Farmers” in recognition of this.

In addition to the “segment “ FC events Chris Fisher has put together another inaugural event, the Freedom Circuit. This is a KZN based ride, a circular route that incorporates much of the Race to Rhodes route, starting and finishing at the same place. This will be the first Freedom Event that allows the use of GPS units. This event takes place in April next year for the first time and a full field is anticipated.

The use of GPS marks an interesting deviation. I’ve had some conversations on this with a number of the seasoned riders as they have come through Cambria, and the topic begs a wider discussion on the future of events such as the Freedom Challenge. There is little doubt that there is a global surge in the number of Freedom Challenge style events, unsupported extreme endurance cycling races. The Tour Divide event on the west coast of the US has been around for many years, as has the Transcontinental Race across Europe. 

The recent establishment of the Atlas Mountain Race event in Morocco (completed by Mike Woolnough last year) and the Silk Road Mountain Race in Central Asia (also a number of South African finishers including blanket holder Tim van Coller) illustrates the significant growth in events of this nature. We will see more and more cyclists showing an interest, that is clearly the global trend. Nelson Trees, a world class endurance cyclist, is one of the drivers behind this growth (the Silk Road event is his). He comments as follows:

“I’ve definitely seen rapid growth in the unsupported racing scene, and there are more and more races appearing all the time. From a racer’s perspective, it’s also definitely more competitive, as races are attracting stronger riders, people have more experience, and train harder. There’s also less variation in the equipment used by racers as the best solutions are becoming more universally adopted, and there’s generally more information on how to prepare for events.

I think we’re at the beginning of the evolution of this scene. I hope that the grassroots growth that we’ve seen so far continues, but I feel that it’s inevitable that it will become more commercial. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’ll mean more events, and in some cases better organised events, but there’s a real risk that as this happens it’ll lose much of the appeal that these races had in their original simplicity’

What does this mean for the Freedom Challenge? The good news is that demand for this type of event is clearly on the up. The question is whether or not the Freedom Challenge wishes to hold its own with other similar global events on the global circuit. Although we have had some overseas competitors I can’t recall anyone who was even remotely contending for line honors. What would FC need to do to hold its place on the global circuit? Does it actually want to?

Of interest is that the other events are all GPS enabled, obviously unlike the Freedom Challenge as it currently stands, barring this new Freedom Circuit event. One other potential difference is that of prize money, if any, for the Silk Road and Atlas Mountain Race. My guess is probably nothing, similar to the Freedom Challenge, but I’ll confirm this one way or the other.

I am well aware that the majority of the current FC community, myself included, would not be in favour of GPSs being used in the Freedom Challenge. Much of the mystique and appeal of the event lies in the legendary mishaps that lost competitors endure whilst paying their school fees on (or off!) the route. However, the reality is that for the Freedom Challenge to be sustainable on a commercial basis for decades to come, these matters (e.g. GPS, sponsorship, prize money) cannot just be wished away without careful consideration.. I suspect the thinking in the establishment of the Freedom Circuit is to cater for some of these pressures by providing an alternative that is more aligned to the GPS enabled events overseas.

I must point out that the above ramblings are my personal views or observations, from a privileged position as a volunteer scribe and Buffalo Herder through which I have been privy to some of the realities of putting on an event like this. Personally I would be mortified if the event moved away from its current format, a blanket for finishing and no GPS, just to mention two of the many “holy grails” of the Freedom Challenge. As Nelson Trees said, we would risk losing much of the appeal the race had in its original simplicity. Food for thought going forward though.

John the Geologist has just returned from a stint of buffalo herding (not that we have seen a single one yet) and he looks a happy man. We have one more voyage over the mountains and 2020 buffalo herding will be done for the two of us. This is always sad, Cambria is a very special place. We have enjoyed trying to make this support station a pleasant stop for riders and will give it horns to get the volunteer Buffalo Herder wider fraternity (as discussed in a previous report) to make this stop an even more memorable one in future years.

The support stations further back in the trail are closing thick and fast, only four people left on the other side of the Osseberg. We say goodbye to Hofmeyer and Elandsberg. Thank you for your service. The menagerie at Elandsberg continues to grow exponentially. We popped in there to pick up Luke Matthew’s bike and can report that the current African Grey Parrot population is over 100 birds. Fledgling African Greys are not very attractive, just saying.

 

 


 

Race report #10 15:00 Monday 19 October 2020

Cambria

 

Mike Roy

 

The farm dogs at Kudu Kaya (SS14) are an endearing collective. The chocolate lab, the Australian cattle dog, a Jack Russel and a border collie visit us at various times of the day. I cannot explain why one of those breeds is capitalized and the rest are not. It seems unfair but there again Jack Russels are a breed apart. The farm dogs do have names but I’ve forgotten them. Buffalo Herders get lonely at times and they provide us with some welcome company. The cattle dog bites a bit, in a friendly way, but blood is drawn nevertheless. We don’t really mind and you don’t want to get into an argument with a cattle dog, so we let him nibble. Yesterday he ate the leather sheath of a vintage Masai machete I lug around with me. How he didn’t cut himself to pieces on the razor sharp blade I have no idea.

Bruce and Arno have just arrived after a traumatic night in the Osseberg, both absolutely shattered. They have that thousand yard stare that only those who have just been through a properly traumatic experience can have. Arno’s neck is unplayable, he is trying everything he can to prop his neck up and alleviate the pain. He is unsure whether he will make it to Diemersfontein. This is not a man who easily accepts a DNF. In a lifetime of endurance sports he has only one DNF, the 2016 Attakwas which he left in an ambulance after a high speed downhill crash. His decision at Cambria is to leave tomorrow morning, thereby giving himself a day to try and recover. In the meantime Race Office is trying to organize some sort of support mechanism to prop up his neck. Pool noodles are currently under consideration.

Bruce was most apologetic when he arrived, worried that he has inconvenienced everyone. He was even concerned as to whether he will be allowed to continue, fearing that he may have triggered a disqualification. Chris Fisher, who has joined us at Cambria for the night, assured him that everything is fine and he is still a contender for the podium. Bruce cheered up a bit at that news and decided to catch today’s 13:00 bus. Once he does that his nightmare day and night in the Osseberg will be pushed to the recesses of his memory, only to re-emerge in the wee hours of the morning in years to come, “the horror, the horror”. Both Arno and Bruce are quiet and considerate fellows, clearly each with a resoluteness and discipline that is characteristic of all the front-runners that we have seen come through.

Alex Harris and Mike Woolnough are the two riders that have come and gone through Cambria. Mike was exactly one day behind Alex when he left the gate into the Baviaans. In normal Mike style he was calmness personified in his brief stay at Kudu Kaya, cracking jokes and quite happy to chat away with the Buffalo Herders. He had found one of Alex Harris’s water bottles in the reeds, noting with interest that Alex has taken on board Mike’s idea of wrapping water bottles in canvas. Those of us of a certain age will remember our fathers hanging wet canvas water containers off their car radiators before setting off on a long car trip. The pleasure of that ice cold water in the burning Karoo is etched in our memories.

The Baviaanskloof is a World Heritage Site. John the Geologist, before we set off on our first Buffalo herding trip escorting Alex Harris, was a bit puzzled as to why this was so but once we had finished our first trip he was convinced. The majesty of the remote beauty of the Baviaanskloof is difficult to describe so I am not even going to attempt to put into words what should, at least once in our lives, be personally experienced. If you are leery of narrow “roads” hanging over yawning 200m vertical drops then this isn’t the place for you. Buffalo Herders are fearless except for one thing. Buffalos. Actually, we are ok with buffalos. What we fear is oncoming traffic and the possibility that one has to be the vehicle passing on the side of the vertical drop. This happens every now and then.

The access that we have to cycle through the Baviaanskloof is a privilege, not a right. A Freedom Challenge without the Baviaanskloof is as unthinkable as losing the stretch through the tribal lands of KZN and East Griqualand. Our Freedom Challenge community understands this and every participant and others around the event, including Buffalo Herders, need to ensure our relationships with Park representatives are optimal. Our main interface is with the officials at the two ends of the park, the boom on the Cambria side and the boom on the Dam se Drif side. Over the next couple of days we will get to know these people a bit better and will share this with you. They are after all part of the Freedom Challenge family.

The Buffalo Herders this year are volunteers. We do this because we, like many others, have a deep love of this event. This is one small way we can contribute to the sustainability of the Freedom Challenge. We have had a blast and wonder whether we couldn’t perhaps build on this model, expanding this opportunity to other volunteers, most likely (but not necessarily) blanket holders that perhaps cannot ride that year or any year, for whatever reason. We could turn Cambria into an “Order of the Buffalo Herders” highlight for riders, putting on a lekker braai for them as they come out of the grip of Mordor. It would be a great opportunity for the Freedom Challenge community to put something back into the event, other than hard cash, and have fun in so doing. I’d welcome comments on this idea.

WiFi and mobile communications are a constant challenge. At Kudu Kaya we hover on the outer range limit of the connectivity provided by our hosts. There is a large tree down the hill where there is a better signal. We can choose from five or six different WiFi connections. The best one is “Huis na Pomp”. I haven’t dared ask as to the origins of this name but it does make sense that it works the best.

John the Geologist and I have some time to kill during the day, in between herding buffalo. John has a Kindle and has endless choice as to what he can read. I have a box of van Riebeeck Society reprints of original journals and writings of early South African travelers, guys like Bains and Burchell. For some obscure reason I am reading about the Norwegian Missionaries in Natal and Zululand between 1844 and 1900. Reminds me that throughout the Freedom Challenge we see evidence of missionaries from various faiths, stunning monasteries that in most cases are still operating, many having been around for 150 years or more. Tinana, Mariazell, St Augustine at Centacow and the Maria Linden mission at Malekgolonyane are examples. There are many more. One could debate the impact these missions have had, but there is little doubt that they have made a positive contribution to the education of the people that they have endeavored to convert.

Janine left us this morning, thereby ending her short stint as a Buffalo Herder. She heads back to Durban to join her family in mourning the loss of her father. In a way she is mourning the loss of her Freedom Challenge family as well, as she is shortly moving to London. I could see what this event means to her and it was great having with us for a few days, time in which she could say goodbye. 

From a race perspective Alex Harris is still on track for all three of his objectives, the win, the record and the first under 10 days. Mike Woolnough is having a superb ride and has second place and a personal PB pretty much locked up. I’ll update on the rest tomorrow, other than Eddie Stafford, who I failed to mention yesterday, my humblest apologies. It is Eddie’s birthday today and he is due any moment in at Cambria where he will join his buddy Arno Crous. They will ride through the Baviaanskloof together at 06:00 tomorrow morning. We are expecting a relatively full house at Cambria tonight with Tim James, Grant Hill and Trevor Maarschalk expected later tonight. They will be joining Arno and Eddie tomorrow.

The support station of Romansfontein is closed for 2020. Many thanks, once again.

 

 


 

Race report #9 12:00 Sunday 18 October 2020

Cambria

 

Mike Roy

 

The Buffalo Herders are doing what Buffalo Herders do best, herding buffalo. Which means we are finally in Cambria. The race report has taken a bit of a back seat the last two days. We have had to leap forward from Slaapkrantz to Cambria, picking up Janine Stewart (who has withdrawn, more of that later) and fetching a new rear wheel for Luke Matthews along the way. All this whilst trying to make sure that we got to the gate at Cambria in time for Alex Harris to make the 13:00 bus (single seater) for the Baviaanskloof. No time for report writing but we are back in the saddle, so to speak.

The history stuff can wait until later. It’s time to take stock of the bigger picture, what is happening with the riders and what is at stake in this year’s race. Let’s start with the front end of the field. Alex Harris is on course to firstly win the race, secondly to break Martin Dreyer’s record and thirdly to become the first person to break 10 days for the event. The win, barring catastrophe is almost certain, Martin’s record is under threat, Alex is behind but not by much as he left Willowmore this morning. Under 10 days? This is the one to watch. 

This begs the question about records being set in a year when RASA is held in the summer as opposed to winter. We had this debate in an earlier report. From where I sit this debate, albeit very interesting, is moot. If records are broken, then they are broken. It is 2150km regardless, there are advantages and disadvantages (watching Alex go through the Baviaans in 35 degrees plus yesterday was sobering) and if new times are set then bring it on for those to be challenged in 2021. Queue heated discussion on the various WhatsApp groups, that’s ok, nothing will change that! Mike Woolnough has just arrived here at Cambria and his comment is that the pros and cons just about even themselves out, barring perhaps Steteynskloof, where the extra daylight hours could be a distinct advantage.

The rest of the podium seems to be sewn up between Mike Woolnough and Bruce Biccard, in that order. Mike’s best time in RASA is 12 days and 16 hours. He is surely on track to better that given that he is a day ahead of his 12 day race schedule. This is Bruce’s first RASA and a podium finish would be a wonderful achievement, as will membership of the sub-15 day club. I do note however, that as I write Bruce seems to be getting full value out in the Osseberg. He better get a move-on if he wants that podium finish. 

Which brings me to other riders who are aiming to join the sub-15 day club. Nigel and Adrian Payne, Luke Matthews (brother Rowan is already a member) and possibly Grant Hill and Trevor Maarschalk, although the latter two will have to really push on to make it. Grant will certainly better his best time of last year.

The other riders to watch are at the opposite end of the field. Father and son combination Ted and Shaun Adams are riding consistently but are a day behind a 26 day schedule. I’ll remind you that if Ted gets his blanket he will become the oldest RASA finisher at 71 years. The heat wave we are experiencing the last few days will not be helping matters but it is still game on for Ted and Shaun.

I haven’t mentioned the Honeymoon couple, Brad and Nix. They still look very happy, at least they did at Elandsberg where we had to pick up Luke Matthew’s bike and take it through to the new (old) stop at Fietskraal. They are still together with Ernst Behrens. Ernst is from Kroondal, a little place near Rustenburg. I know all about Kroondal because I have a 1905 postcard with a Kroondal cancellation on it. Turns out that this postcard was cancelled in the post office that sits inside the trading store that was (and still is) run by Ernst’s family. Ernst comes from German stock and the original Behrens established the trading store in Kroondal in the 1860s. Ernst is the fifth or sixth generation to own and run the business. There is still a thriving German community at Kroondal, although Ernst wistfully commented that there will come a day when that will no longer be the case.

Gary and Jeanette Scoular are exactly on a 26 day schedule, in fact they were ahead of schedule, but Mrs Scoular is riding in extreme discomfort and each day, for her, is survival. Joyce and Andre Buys, the gracious hosts of Slaapkrantz, fashioned a stylish new sheepskin saddle cover for Jeanette so we can only hope this helps ease the pain. If anyone can get their hands on some Lucas pawpaw ointment (helping sore backsides since 1911) please let me know. If it worked for The Man Who Cycled The World, Mark Beaumont from Scotland, it should work for Jeanette.

I guess that is it for the race situation, other than for Arno Crous and Tim James. Tim seems to be having a slightly more sociable RASA this year. I have seen images of him swimming in local dams and kuiering with old friends along the route, but I have little doubt that he will nevertheless still finish in 14 days or so. Actually he has earned the right to do what he wants, five wins and this being his ninth blanket ride. He is on a single speed, a 34x16 ratio (madness according to Mike Woolnough, the ratio that is, not the fact that it is single speed).

Arno is battling with Shermer’s Neck, a condition that we seem to be experiencing more in endurance cycling. One no longer is able to hold one’s head up (two’s head isn’t affected), so riders have to resort to duct-taping their helmets (and therefore their heads) to their backpacks, just to hold the head up. It’s horrible, but Arno has kept going, seemingly and admirably determined to get his blanket, even although his aspirations for a podium or even a win are dashed.

There we have it. 19 riders left out the original 22 RASA riders that started in Pietermaritzburg. The withdrawals are John Bowen, Charles Mansfield and Janine Stewart. John we have reported on in earlier reports. Charles had to unfortunately withdraw at Moordenaarspoort due to chronic neck pain. Very sad as he was well on for a sub 15 day ride. Similarly Janine withdrew at Romansfontein with very bad tendonitis. She has been made an honorary member of the Buffalo Herders and is here with us in Cambria helping with our duties. As she is a geologist with Rio Tinto (and about to move with them to London) she and John the Geologist have hit it off and have spent the entire day talking about whatever it is geologists talk about. This afternoon the two of them will be herding buffalo together, escorting Mike Woolnough as he goes through the Baviaans. He is due here shortly and will be leaving in today’s 13:00 bus (again a single seater). The weather is much kinder today, overcast and no longer the furnace of yesterday.

We (the Buffalo Herders) had a lovely stay at Slaapkranz (SS7), one of the longest standing support stations on Freedom Challenge. Right from the first race I think. This is the farm of Joyce and Andre Buys and their two children, one of whom, Michelle, is currently at home busy with her remote learning (not by choice) 2nd year of an industrial psychology degree at Stellenbosch University. We do indeed live in a very different world these days, what price studying up in the exquisite valley where Slaapkrantz sits? Andre teaches in Aliwal North during the week and Joyce is a lawyer in Barkley East, commuting the 42km drive each day, there and back. A beautiful river flows through their property and one fingerling trout is recovering from having been subjected to an out-of-water experience from me. 

Joyce is and always has been a wonderful hostess. I’m sure many riders have enjoyed chatting with her, she is open, curious and welcoming and a stay at Slaapkranz is always a highlight of any Freedom Challenge ride. One topic of discussion was the mystery of two British soldiers that lie somewhere on the farm where the Italian artist’s farmhouse is. Actually it’s the van der Merwe’s farm, always has been, the Italian artist’s role was to paint mural scenes in many of the rooms of the long abandoned farmhouse. Quite beautiful, as is the old ox-wagon that sit in a forlorn shed outside. The shed was built around the ox-wagon, so I am told.

Gavin Robinson, blanket holder, informed us of two graves that he saw whilst descending from Kappokkraal. Chatting to Joyce and her neighbor Charmaine, it is common knowledge that there are indeed two British soldier graves. The legend goes that they were buried next to the river, an unwise choice as years ago, hopefully shortly after they were buried, the farmer noted that one of the farm workers was proudly sporting a new pair of boots. When questioned as to where he got the boots from, he pointed out the graves, which recent rains and a rising river had exposed. The soldiers were reburied (according to legend) next to the van der Merwe family graves, although there is uncertainty about this) and that is where we currently stand. Where exactly are they buried? It would be wonderful if Gavin Robinson has discovered some long lost graves. We are due to return to Slaapkrantz in time and go and have a look. 

There is a new support station, Fietskraal. Actually Fietskraal is the old De Doorns, years ago a support station that was run by the mother of the current owner. The Buffalo Herders stayed there last night after delivering the replacement wheel to Luke Matthews. The young couple that run the support station, Michael and his wife Charne have pulled out all stops. Michael is a qualified Chartered Accountant, has ticked that box and is now doing what he actually wants to do, and Charne is busy with her Master’s in Medical Law. Talented young couple and we look forward to a long relationship with Fietskraal in coming years. 

The support stations of Slaapkrantz, Moordenaarspoort, Kranzkop and Brosterlea are now closed for RASA 2020. Once again, thank you for your service.

 

 


 

Race report #8 10:00 Thursday 15 October 2020

Alpine Swift, Rhodes

 

Mike Roy

 

The Buffalo Herders moved on from Vrederus of the Naude’s and spent some of the morning on the verandah of the somewhat bizarre Tenahead Hotel, after having climbed the magnificent Naude’s Pass. Bizarre in the sense that when one rounds the corner after passing the derelict houses (apparently once a holiday resort itself) after the Lehana portage, one doesn’t expect an imposing stone hotel right up in the Drakensberg. 

There we met up with Mr and Mrs Scoular and father and son duo Ted and Shaun Adams, who we found sunning themselves, looking for all the world like they were skiers after a chilled morning run down the slopes. They told us they had a fabulous climb up Lehana’s Pass, perfect weather, right lines and no wind. They will be stopping at Rhodes which means a rather pleasant afternoon for them, one little bump to negotiate and then downhill all the way to Alpine Swift.

Whilst at Tenahead we bumped into two of the Trail Wives, Sally Wesson and Letitia Purchase who had gathered to greet their darling husbands as they crested Lehana to make their way the last 30 km or so to the finish at Alpine Swift. Joining them was the father of Dean, Rob Barclay. There was much discussion about taking hamburgers up to the ruins for the runners and greeting them with ululations, until it dawned on all of us, myself included, that so doing would break one of the golden rules, outside assistance from family and friends, and disqualification. The family support hastened back to Rhodes el pronto, the problem luckily averted. Brave be the man who would disqualify these incredible runners. 

As we sit here at Alpine Swift they are about 10km out from the finish line with a finish due before I end this report. Their four whips lie in front of me. Once we see their lights from afar and they have finished I’ll relay to you later in this report what I sure will be an emotional occasion.

John and I had a very pleasant stay at Vrederus, well worth a repeat visit. I’m afraid to say the fishing was not successful, although certainly not a waste of time. Juan-Marie sent me a photo yesterday evening of a 2.8kg fish caught by a youngster on his honeymoon after we left. I do hope this feat doesn’t inspire him to spend rest of his honeymoon fishing. Reminds of the time I bought my then girlfriend a fishing rod for her 21st birthday. An awkward silence. 

The Naudes of Naude’s Nek are an interesting family. Not only did their ancestors build the Naude’s Pass, but they were also responsible for the human figures in the current coat-of-arms of South Africa. The same oupa grootjie who built the pass also extracted a rock panel covered with bushman art from his farm. One could debate whether he should have done this 103 years ago but perhaps if he hadn’t the art would have been lost forever. To quote:

“the figure (in the coat of arms) comes from the Linton panel, a famous panel of rock art now housed and displayed in the South African Museum in Cape Town. In 1917, this panel was removed from the farm of Linton in the Maclear district in the Eastern Cape.

…. (many) years in museum care, protected from the elements, has made the Linton panel one of the best preserved of all pieces of South African rock art. In 1995, the panel featured as one of the premiere attractions in the international exhibition, Africa the Art of a Continent.

........ San rock art is one of the great archaeological wonders of the world - it is a mirror in which reflects the glories of the African past”

There you have it, a bonus nugget in today’s report. Of more intrigue is that the Bokkie (the eland) that represents the Freedom Challenge emblem is also meant to come from the Lipton Panel. This has been the legend according to Dave Waddilove, the founder of the race, but there seems to be uncertainty about this. Don’t worry, the beloved Bokkie isn’t going anywhere, but our research team will dig deeper and report back.

The Naudes were gracious hosts, perfectly happy taking us through their family albums and history, including the original title deeds for their farms, a reminder from the attached Queen Victoria revenue stamps that Rhodes was very much part of the Cape Colony back in the late 19th century. Juan-Marie told us about an old post office that used to sit on their property, long since derelict. The old mailboxes from now sit in her lounge at Vrederus. 

Alpine Swift is in its second year as a Freedom Challenge support station. Hilton, the owner, has developed a hugely impressive sporting facility which targets both trail running and mountain biking events (such as the Heaven and Hell trail 100 miler) and hosts elite athletes for high altitude training, similar to the facility at Dullstroom. Casual visitors are also welcome.

Hilton also enjoys his history and we compared notes. He has pointed me in the direction of Stephanus Naude of Dunley Farm, this is after all Naude world, and world class fly fisherman and the original developer of Tenahead, Fred Steinberg. They are both locals who will have plenty to share about the fascinating history of this rugged and beautiful area. 

I don’t think we will manage all of this before we head down the trail but ammo perhaps for a return trip when Race to Cradock starts in a few weeks in November. Likewise for the visit to the Naude family graves which lie 8km back up the valley.

The runners have finally made it to the finish line. It was very special to be part of the welcoming group to a team of four that can be very proud of themselves. FC Facebook and other feeds will do better justice to the emotion of the occasion. 480km in 6 days and 16 hours or so, a better time than many riders who have completed Race to Rhodes. Let that sink in for a while. John the geologist and I quickly left the runners and their families to their own celebrations, very much a time for private and I am sure emotional reunions and trail recollections. We will catch up with them this morning before finally issuing yesterday’s report. 

On that note my belated apologies for getting the dates and days a tad mixed up in my previous reports. I’ve consistently (at least it was that) had the right day but the wrong date. Today this all changes, it is indeed Thursday 15 October 2020. My thanks to Ray Sephton (blanket holder) of Barclay East for gently helping me out here. I have an FC cap for Ray which I will be dropping off, probably today, we aren’t far from Barclay East.

Another task of some intrigue has been suggested by blanket holder Gavin Robinson. On a previous FC journey he spotted two lone graves on the portage down from Kappokkraal to the Italian artist’s house on the way to Slaapkranz. Rumor has it these graves could belong to two British soldiers from the Boer war, such graves having been lost in the mists of time. If we manage to speak to Gavin today and get some idea of where he saw these graves, John the geologist and I might well go an adventure, like Paddington Bear from Peru.

Yesterday we met the official FC videographer, Andrew Muckart, who has been filming the event for the last week. The idea is for a short but poignant film to be made that captures the essence of the event. I understand Mike Woolnough and Tim James are the stars (“through the eyes of’), which makes sense given their history with the race. Of interest is that Andrew the videographer is the nephew of Dave Waddilove, the founder of the race. 

The runners have just arrived for breakfast. Andy walked in first, chirpy as always “I feel fabulous”. The others are ambling in, clearly and justifiably very pleased with themselves. All the runners are chilling here at Alpine Swift for a day, most only leaving tomorrow. Andy and his wife Sally are moving on to Prince Albert, where they will no doubt encounter the riders of the both RASA and the about-to-start and inaugural Race to Paarl. Which begs a thought. I wonder if the runners have considered running other FC segments. Race to Cradock? Perhaps the whole of RASA? 

I’ve just bounced this off them and they don’t look too happy with me, although I can see Andy is looking thoughtful. I wonder where Chris Fisher’s thoughts are, perhaps this achievement heralds a whole new facet of the Freedom Challenge. Personally I hope it does. Freedom Riders and Freedom Runners, tastes just right, as Goldilocks once said.

Orchid Man Andy and John the geologist have just connected. Our imminent departure is no longer imminent, they are yacking away and I sense this could be a long day. I’m very impressed by the quality of their discourse, so much so I am seriously considering promoting John the geologist to John the Geologist, inspired by John the Baptist’s promotion of yesteryear.

The stations of Vuvu and Rhodes are now closed for 2020. Once again, thank you for your service.

 

 


 

Race report #7 12:00 Tuesday 12 October 2020

Malekgolonyane

 

Mike Roy

 

The Buffalo Herders left Masakala an hour or two ago. The chickens crowed very early this morning so we were two cups of tea down by 7am. Tim James came in around 8pm last night, we watched him take the short cut across the veld into Masakala, cutting out the extra loop. I have a feeling he didn’t need to look at his maps. Charles Mansfield arrived later, around 10pm, not that we knew it as we were asleep. 

I got to know Charles a bit this morning before he left at 6am (Tim left early at 2am). He is a good man, a reflective soul which isn’t that surprising given that a few years back he had to fight and overcome some serious health challenges. Not many survive cancer of the heart. His doctor suggested a life of gentle walks might be in order. Charles suggested otherwise and here he is on his second RASA, trying to beat his time of fifteen days and a bit of 2013, and hopefully joining the elusive sub fifteen day club. So far he is ten hours ahead of his time in that year. A few years back he moved from Johannesburg to Ladybrand in the Free State, where he practices as a wealth manager. 

Perhaps he was a forerunner for many of us who are now reevaluating our lives in these strange COVID ridden times. Are we really happy with our lot in life? Is there not perhaps a different model? This Freedom journey gives riders and runners (and Buffalo Herders for that matter) ample time to think about a few things. There is nowhere to hide here, one is looking into the mirror all the time. Who am I? 

Small detail that we noticed on a very pleasant stroll around the settlement of Masakala last night (we managed ok, weren’t tired at all, thanks for asking). No public cemeteries in this part of the world. Family members are buried in graves at the bottom of the garden. There were more than a couple of properties which are starting to strain at the seams a bit, might be a problem in future generations. 

John the geologist and I practiced our Xhosa salutations – “Mohlo!” to one person and “Mohlwene!” to more than one person. It felt good, we will endeavor to expand our Xhosa vocabulary over the next few days.

The leg from Masakala to Malekgolonyane has some fascinating place names. “Qacha’s Nek”, “Donald’s Drift”, “Jabulani”, “Klein Jonas”, “Springkana”, “Pontseng”, “Gladstone Farm” and lastly the legendary “Queens Mercy”. Each of these names will evoke bitter/sweet memories for cyclists and runners but I wonder what gave rise to those names? I have no doubt this issue has vexed all of you and our research team has been tasked to come up with as many answers as we can. Watch this space.

A quick initial internet scan hasn’t been of much help other than the discovery of a meteorite that fell somewhere near or perhaps even right on Queen’s Mercy. The latter possibility isn’t as scary as it might seem as the order of events was meteorite first, then Queen’s Mercy, thankfully. This meteorite is described as having an “olivine composition”, which personally I find very attractive. 

On our drive to Malekgolonyane we passed Gladstone Farm, infamous for some very lost riders over the years, including Mr and Mrs Scoular who only got in at 10:30 last night. I can only imagine that the “for better or worse” vow is getting properly tested. This ride is Jeanette’s 50th birthday present from her husband Gary. Hopefully it isn’t the last.

We met the current owner of Gladstone, Everest, a Xhosa gentleman who has lived for all of his 37 years in the beautiful Gladstone Farm. Everest was locally schooled at the Mariazell mission school and got a degree in politics from the University of the North. His comments on the world of politics were disparaging to say the least, hence his life as a farmer now. Agri Eastern Cape are visiting him tomorrow to help with improving the genetic quality of his herd of sheep. Farming isn’t easy, the Land Bank has been robbed blind so finance is limited. Gladstone Farm is a decent size, 470 hectares. Everest is very familiar with the Freedom Challenge and expressed concern and empathy for some of the challenges that this year’s event has faced. 

The wind is absolutely howling. Lehana will be almost unplayable today. I’m sure when we get reception again we will read of all the difficulties everyone surely must be experiencing. We passed Charles Mansfield today just after Queens Mercy and he was virtually crawling, not through lack of effort.

Tim James has just woken up from a power nap and is chatting to us before he sets off. He spoke of a number of new routes that he explored today on his journey from Masakala. I’ll have a good look on the tracker to see what he was talking about but one route involved keeping far right after Queens Mercy, apparently a beautiful ride through a vlei which was full of spoonbills and sacred ibis. John the geologist spoilt this image a bit by mentioning that sacred ibis tastes horrible. I didn’t ask as to how he knows that.

Tim James was messed around at 2 am this morning with a somewhat interesting hide-and-seek with some local cops who spotted his bike lights from afar. There is after all a curfew and even although Tim is carrying an “explanation” letter, a night behind bars would have some impact on his target finishing time of twelve to thirteen days. Fortunately the police searchlights found nothing and Tim survived.

My thoughts today are with the runners. They had a decent night’s sleep last night, which hopefully will see them through to Rhodes. They are still on the right side of the equation, enough time available to do the remaining distance. On Thursday morning John the geologist and I will be waiting at the ruins beyond Tennahead (after perhaps a lekker breakfast) for them to appear at the top of Lehana. That will be a very special moment indeed.

Cindy (Xhosa) and Lerata (Sotho) greeted us at Malekgolonyane. They have hosted the support station for many years. After Charles Mansfield arrives a little later and presumably moves on to Vuvu, this station too will be closed for 2020. Thank you for your service.

On our way through to Mount Fletcher we stopped for a sarmie on the verandah of a very old trading station, Mangoloaneng. To my great delight we discovered there used to be an old postal agency there and the new trading store operator, a delightful fellow from Bangladesh, pointed to the corner where the remnants of the old agency still stood. “Help yourself” he said, so I did. After thanking him and a wistful chat about his difficulties in getting any interest from the locals to play cricket, we moved on.

We took the Rhodes turn 10km or so after Mount Fletcher and are staying for the night at Vrederus, a farm owned by the Naude family, the very same family whose ancestors built Naude’s pass up to and over into Rhodes many years back. Tim James very kindly recommended Vrederus to us when we saw him at Malekgolonyane. Tomorrow morning we will go over this pass, drop into Rhodes and meet up with Chris Fisher. Beyond that I think we will leapfrog ahead to make sure we get to Cambria in time for our Buffalo Herding duties. 

Before we leave there are fish to be caught in the large dam here at Vrederus or in the nearby Bell and Luzi rivers. I’m eyeing photos of 4-5kg browns and rainbows and I happened to bring a rod and reel with me, just in case. Pity about the howling wind.

 

 


 

Race report #6 14:00 Monday 11 October 2020

Masakala

 

Mike Roy

 

The Buffalo Herders overnighted in Matatiele. We are now in the village of Masakala, a few kilometers north, the third of a string of support stations that sit in the so-called tribal lands. Centacow, Ntsikeni, Masakala, Malekgolonyane, Tinana Mission and Vuvu are etched up in the shadows of the Drakensberg. When our domestic workers back in the leafy suburbs of the cities say “I am going home for Xmas”, this is where they go to. 

It is difficult to convey in words how special the days are before the climb over Lehana and the drop into Rhodes and the Eastern Cape. It is very different over on that side of the mountain. Here the conversations are frequent, the greetings generous (“where are you going?”). Life at the pace of a bicycle encourages kinship, as opposed to at the pace of a 4X4, which in itself is a stark reminder of different worlds. 

I think of the smell of the African evening fire, pungent and unmistakable, you know exactly where you are. The routines of life, the water carriers (either very old, very young or a woman), the taxis, the neatness of the dwellings, the dogs who eye us with us much suspicion as our dogs might react to strangers in the cities, the spaza shops and the shebeens, the soccer fields with excited spectators and impeccably kitted players, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep and goats, seemingly random chickens (who do they belong to?). 

I am sure that life here falls in the “difficult” category when measured by traditional quality-of-life indicators, but all I see are thriving communities and a style and pace of life that makes me think whether us city types actually might have it wrong. The Freedom Challenge without this stretch is unthinkable. 

Perhaps a little insight into the purpose of the race scribe, the production of the daily report. It is a privilege having the opportunity to do it. These days Freedom Challenge has any number of Facebook, website, Live Tracking and WhatsApp feeds so I need to be careful as to what the relevance of this report is. How can it add to the experience rather than being a mundane repetition? The visual richness is catered for elsewhere, increasingly so given the exquisite photographs that riders and runners (especially) are sending to the Facebook Dot-Watchers page. The intensity of the actual competitiveness of the race is best handled through the live tracking. 

My job, and it is evolving as I write and report is to try and offer some insight into the people (riders and runners, support station hosts and the communities around them) and the geography, history and anything else that helps make the overall experience richer for everyone. The Freedom Challenge is way more than just a sporting event and is constantly evolving. From what I observe it is drawing more and more people into its orbit, through a fascination by “watchers” of the extraordinary physical and mental feats by the competitors and an equal interest in everything else that goes around the journey.

I’m looking at the Masakala sign-in/out sheet as I write. Only four riders have yet to go through this support station. The Scoulars, who should be here shortly and who I suspect will move straight on to Malekgolonyane, and Charles Mansfield and Tim James, the latter both starting yesterday and who will not be here by the time we leave. The front three riders were through here earlier this morning. Alex Harris was out by 8:50, Mike Woolnough by 9:06 and Arno Crous by 11:10. It seems that the podium is likely to be made up of those three, but early days yet. 

Lots of discussion on one of the WhatsApp groups about sleep strategies, or rather lack-of-sleep strategies. The Munga riders think that seventy two hours without sleep is doable, they should know. General consensus is that at some point a two hour sleep will be required, as much for mental as physical rejuvenation. All I do know is that the boundaries of what we thought possible are being pushed every year. What seemed madness five years ago is now the new norm.

I said yesterday I would briefly introduce the last batch. Alex Harris has three blankets and is a two time winner of the race, and currently holds the fourth fastest time, one of which he achieved during his epic battle with eventual winner Martin Dreyer in 2017. Only Martin has achieved faster times than Alex, something he has done on three occasions. Tim James is a five times winner of the event and is going for his ninth blanket, a record. Mike Woolnough is after his sixth blanket and has been a podium finisher in endurance for quite a number of years. He has a particularly insightful contribution to endurance sport and writes frequently and eloquently on this fabulous sport of ours. Arno Crous is going for his second blanket and is the dark horse of the race, apparently he is in great shape. Charles Mansfield is also after his second blanket.

Many of this year’s riders will be going for noteworthy achievements. Firstly a blanket, which in itself is a massive achievement. Then there are other FC “clubs”, such as the sub 15 days club. I suspect there are a number of riders who are desire membership of that club, including the Payne brothers and Janine Stewart and her two riding companions

Masakala. Two very kind hostesses, Nobulhe (37) and Fundiswa (29) look after the riders. Nobulhe is in her fifth year of Masakala duties, Fundiswa her second. We chatted a bit about their experiences, Nobulhe told me about all the questions from local youth – “who are these people, where are they from?” “how can I also do this thing?” We all have dreams. The two hosts are both single. Nobulhe’s husband is late and she has two young children, a nine year old boy and a six year old daughter. Fundiswa’s five year old son was from a previous relationship. Perhaps one day these youngsters will be in a position to take part in the Freedom Challenge. Our hosts are both Xhosa and they tell me that this area is now only Xhosa and Sotho, we are out of Zulu country by now.

The runners are making good progress. The endless stream of photos they send show them as a very happy bunch, like they have just started. I am sure the truth is that they are hurting like all hell. Their progress is best measured by comparing the percentage of the total distance they have done to the percentage of total time available to them that they have used. Earlier today they had completed 65% of the distance and had only used 57% of the time available. They are on the right side of the equation and looking for finishing inside the seven day limit. Andy has started a new photographic theme “bovine creatures” and has forwarded some classic images for consideration and potential publishing. I am glad he has found something to keep his mind off the pain. Update: as of now the runners have an 8.9% gap, widening the gap from 8 to 8.9%. It’s been a good day (at least it seems so to us). 140kms left in 64 hours, including a little climb up Lehana. 

Batch 3 are doing just fine. The Matthews brothers are motoring and on course to be in Rhodes inside three days. Grant Hill and Trevor Maarschalk are doing great as well, probably Vuvu tonight and perhaps through past Rhodes to Courtney World tomorrow, exactly what Grant did last year.
Father and son duo Ted and Shaun Adams are looking solid. They are a day behind the 26 day schedule and are looking at Rhodes in seven days, which will leave them ideally placed. We will catch up with them over the next few days.

Gary and Jeannette have just arrived here at Masakala. A quick lunch and then they are off to Malekgolonyane. Jeanette is battling with feet issues but she seems to be managing ok. They tried the new Tim James route into Masakala and thoroughly enjoyed it, the only problem being it cuts out the old Coke stop.

Quick update from the postal history side. Stafford’s Post does indeed have a post office, in fact it still functions. Fabulous news. Aside from post offices we are also keeping an eye out for small town rugby clubs, a barometer perhaps of the state of that sport in our country. Today we popped in to Matatiele Rugby Club. Actually it looked ok, I’ll post some pictures, but it’s heyday of being part of the premier Natal rugby league and playing against Rovers and Collegians are long gone. 

Aside from the wildflowers there are other various flora and fauna that riders and runners come across during their journey. Yesterday whilst chatting to the Payne bothers before they left Ntsikeni, we saw a pair of highly endangered wattle cranes fly overhead, the first time I have seen them airborne. Ntsikeni has numerous buck species, including three types of rhebuck (grey, mountain and southern). John the geologist and I saw one of these, a mountain rhebuck on our drive out of Ntsikeni. Gary and Jeanette spotted a porcupine at Politiq Kraal at sunrise this morning.

The support stations of The Oaks, Allandale, Centacow, Ntsikeni, Glen Edward and shortly Masakala are now closed for 2020. Thank you for your support, as always, part of the Freedom Challenge family.

 

 


 

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