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A ROOKIE AND HIS WIFE

Our Freedom Challenge story goes back to when Angela entered RASA 2018 with little or no

navigation experience other than going to the shops. I anxiously dot-watched Angela’s 2018

RASA attempt, praying that she would work out the route. Unfortunately, Angela withdrew

on day 5 but had an amazing dot-watching support team that she wasn’t aware of from all

over the world while she valiantly attempted to overcome the challenge.


I continued dot-watching ever since, seeing experienced riders completing their respective

events, or getting lost, bewildered, withdrawing. It, the Freedom Challenge, gripped me in a

way that cannot be explained, and I allowed my curiosity to give way to a bit of insanity.

Angela and I entered the Race to Paarl leg with a departure date of October 29 2022.


Unfortunately, I fell ill, and my doctor told me to stop physical exercise immediately in

August of 22. I let Chris know and postponed our entries for the ’23 winter race. We

changed our entries for the Race to Rhodes leg. By December, I had undergone treatment,

and could start riding again. At 600am on 16 June 2023, Angela and I departed

Pietermaritzburg City Hall for the 480km leg with 7 other riders, three of us entered in the

Rhodes leg. Being slower riders, we assumed our position at the rear of the field, and within

2 hours, all other riders in our batch were out of our sight. We didn’t see them for the rest

of our event.


As a rookie, I thought we made relatively good time to the first intermediate station at

Byrne and were ahead of our personal target time on descending into the Umko Valley. In

our excitement, we missed a vital navigation cue, the high and low “Bokkie” signs that

would have led us along the prescribed route and river crossing. Unfortunately, we spent

the next couple of hours scribbling for the dot watchers to their amusement, and eventually

had to settle down to sleep out in the valley. We layered up in our wooly base and mid tops,

down and rain jackets, thermal underwear, leg warmers and three pairs of socks and

wrapped ourselves into survival bivvy bags. After a cold almost sleepless night, we finally got

going at 7h45 to find our way to a safe crossing at shallow rapids and proceeded up the pass

and onto our planned first overnight stop at Allendale farm on the afternoon of our second

day. We wolfed down our first cooked meal since leaving Pietermaritzburg the previous

morning, filled up with fresh water, our new maps, and proceeded to Donnybrook where we

overnighted in Belmont B&B to pamper ourselves a little. After a solid rest, we departed at

5h45 for Centocow and Ntsikeni.


In the forests above Centocow, the batch that started a day behind us had caught up with

our slow progress. One of the riders, Shaun Knowles suggested we join them. Being much

faster riders, Angela and I continued at our more relaxed pace and they pulled away. We

caught them at Centocow mission, where we had another hearty meal, and decided to try

keep up with the group.


Fortunately, the steep climb out of Centocow was fueled by whatever the missionaries put

in our food, and Angela and I managed to keep in touch with our new cycling buddies. From

Centocow, the character of the villages and villagers changes the further west you travel.


Children are curious and we’re asked “How are you?” and “What’s your name?”, the boys

chase after the bicycles and some, surprisingly, keep up on the downhills.


On a long district road downhill, my front wheel hit a huge stone and damaged the rim. I

continued without stopping and finally looked at it properly on our arrival many hours later

at Ntsikeni. Throughout the day, slime seeped onto the tyre sidewall. I topped the slime up,

and inflated the deformed rim with a bomb as my hand pump didn’t have the capacity to

inflate the tyre. Still a day behind our schedule, I was worried we weren’t going to make the

seven-day cutoff for the Rhodes race. Before a delicious dinner, we handed our three days

laundry in with the ladies, which when washed, is hung from lines in the main area lounge

fire. The staff keep the fires burning the whole night to ensure that all our clothes were dry.

The hospitality is next level at the support stations.


We left Ntsikeni at about 520am for Masakala via Two Springs farm, a 98km leg with over

2000m of ascent. The tough going burns calories at an alarming rate, and by the time we

arrived at Two Springs farm, we were all very hungry. Our host Caela had a hearty lamb

soup with farm bread which hit the spot and prepared us for the onslaught of an arriving

cold front. Headwinds were gusting up to 50kmh as we battled on throughout the day.

Downhills are normally a rest period for cyclist’s legs, but to maintain speed and beat the

sunset, we had to pedal on the downhills. Angela had a low-speed soft-landing tumble near

Politique Kraal in the tufted grass which bent the derailleur and she struggled on for the rest

of the day with a chain that was jumping off its jockey wheel. Angela’s riding companions all

helped every time she stopped, and in the end, Angela had it sussed and had the chain

hooked up quicker than anyone! Winds continued throughout the day, and we finally

arrived after 14½ hours. Once at Masakala, I attended to her bike, which restored reliability

with a new derailleur hanger.


The leg to Malekgolonyane is a shorter stretch, a reprieve from the brutal first four days in

the saddle. The weather was kinder, the winds not as strong, and we arrived after about 8

hours in the saddle. Resting in the warmth of the afternoon sun, we attended to our bikes,

washing laundry, and preparing for the next big day to Vuvu, including a stop at Tinana.

These two sections were meant to take about 10 hours, but it did not happen that way. We

were up at 145am for a 300am departure. At this point we were joined by John Bowden, a

RASA contestant who had taken a rest day as he was not feeling great. We headed off

towards Mariazell Mission in the valley on the moonless morning. Shaun was a little way

ahead of me and started heading up a huge hill, and he stopped. Being so dark, one cannot

see the shapes of the hills and mountains. Somehow he knew we needed to go more left

and found our way around the hill avoiding a steep climb. We proceeded onto Ongeluksnek

pass, another steep climb followed by a good downhill to the villages below. Cindy led the

way, and I recognized a turnoff to the right which she had passed. Angela shouted from

behind that we needed to go right. Testament of her greatly improved navigation skills. I’m

a super proud hubby at this point. A few hundred metres after taking the right turn, she

corrected us all again where we rode past a left turn. Even prouder moment. We climbed

the ascent and traversed Thaba Chitja to follow the trail to Black Fountain. Our new riding

companion John was struggling with low energy levels, and we waited at regular intervals to

encourage him and get him to the next support station. Shaun decided to speed things up as


much as possible by choosing a “tiger line” off the mountain to descend into Tinana Village

and Mrs Kibi’s home. We polished off a tray of sandwiches, her excellent farm chicken and

veggies, and ordered another round of take away sandwiches. At 215pm on the shortest

day of the year, we departed Tinana for the Vuvu valley. Generally, riders don’t leave Tinana

after 11am for fear of getting lost after dark in the valley. Shaun led us through the valley

like an express train and we managed to navigate past the dead-end Tina valley before last

light. We soldiered on keeping low in the valley until approaching the ascent to Vuvu village.

Although an easier climb, we pushed on until we met the jeep track leading up to Vuvu

School, a seemingly endless climb. Eventually we summitted to enter the village and parked

our bicycles after over 16 hours to end another tough day!


The final leg from Vuvu to Rhodes is relatively short in distance, but by no means easy. We

opted for the technically challenging and shorter Lehana’s Pass route. Load shedding and

lack of power meant we couldn’t charge our batteries and lights, which left us with no

option but to leave Vuvu School at about 640. Shortly after turning off the road below

Lehana’s, Quinton found a very cold and distressed lamb on the bank opposite our route to

Lehana’s. After Quinton found the relieved shepherd, we continued with our ascent up the

pass. On the way up, two local ladies watched in interest as we proceeded past them

straight up a very steep climb. When we summited the climb, we found them picking plants

on top of the hill we had just ascended. Their route around the left side of the ridge is

obviously the locals’ preferred route. Maybe next time!


Following the ridge line, Shaun showed us the tiger line to the blue container. Bringing up

the rear, I fell behind when the path kicked my fear of heights into reality. I could barely

move. Angela came back down the mountain to find me clinging to the rocks. Exhausted as

she was, she took my bike up the mountain whilst I crawled to a point where I felt safe

again. By this time, I had slowed the group’s progress so much, that they sent Iain down to

see if we were ok. We were, as I had passed my most challenging section of the event. He

offered to show Angela and I the alternate, slower route to the blue container. Once on top,

we rode to Tenahead for toasted sarmies and chips where we met up with the rest of the

group as they were finishing theirs. Iain, Angela and I left Tenahead for the final “downhill”

to Rhodes. Buffalo herder and friend Elton met us on the way to encourage us for the final

35km into Rhodes. It is not a downhill!


Overcome with emotion, I was fighting the tears as we rode towards Rhodes, having

covered most of the trail I thought impossible a few months ago. This last section includes

the reputedly longest downhill in South Africa. The ice-covered rocks in the late afternoon

chilled us so much that we rode the downhills a little slower than normal to reduce the chill

factor. I think we all preferred the tiresome but body warming climbs. With Angela’s head

light flashing warning that the battery was dying, the three of us arrived at the Rhodes Hotel

welcomed by Steve, Di and Elton. We had our whips. Yeeah!


The Freedom Challenge has a special place in our hearts and is an event where all

participants love to see their fellow riders succeed. To win or finish carries the same reward.

To finish is a personal victory. A reward that cannot be shared other than in the experience

of having ridden, pushed, portaged, slithered, waded or any other action needed to move

forward to the finish.

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