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Becoming a dot | Part One | Gill Graaf

I started this journey a bit late in life. I was never very sporty at school and my twenties were caught up with other life dramas. One day that path changed and I found myself, quite unexpectedly, amongst a group of friends who did do all these crazy things. Eventually I got tired of being the super second on the sidelines, while they had all the fun, and decided that “to hell with that” I’m joining in.

I started with the paddling, met John, paddled some Dusi’s, bought a bike, rode my bike, bought a better bike. We bought a trading store by mistake. We eloped and got married on a bike tour on the Wild Coast (a story for another day). Nothing quite prepared me for our first freedom ride and becoming a dot. I blame lockdown entirely for this state of affairs.

I have been a dot watcher for many years. Sitting up late at night following friends and riders along that thin red line, muttering at the screen when that line starts looking like a toddlers scribbles across the landscape.

Sitting around during lockdown with nowhere to go and nothing to do, we decided that we needed an exciting, new adventure. We entered the Freedom Circuit, 400km option. It sounded like a good introduction to the Freedom trail. We had lovely visions of riding about 80km a day, all during daylight hours, definitely no night riding, and finding a nice B & B at the end to have a relaxing and restful night before continuing refreshed the next day. How hard could it be? I can see all you other dots rolling around on the floor laughing. It is nothing remotely like that.

We went away to Flitwick for a weekend, and up the hill to Nsikeni to find the route. It was very hard. I nearly died from heat and exhaustion and endless hills. I sat in a ditch and cried and we only rode 60km. It made us very very scared.

Every month we tried to ride what we could of the route, plus in a whole lot of other places. Our illusions of what we imagined it would be like were very quickly shattered and reality gave us a big fat life lesson, which made us even more scared, and we started training even more. Spending hours going over the route on google earth and looking for non-existent B & B’s and plan B, then C, then D... We rode, we ran, we spent hours in the gym and on the trainer. We lost weight and started getting fitter. We met new people and saw new places. It started getting easier once we started understanding how this freedom thing worked. We had lots of adventures and a huge amount of fun and we hadn’t even got to race day yet. We learnt many many lessons along the way.

Getting up in the dark, out on your bike before the sun comes up, watching the world wake, twinkling lights of villages in the distance, big dark expanses of nothing, riding for miles along dusty back roads in the sunshine until the sun sets and the moon comes out. Sheep road blocks, brand new baby goats, cowbells, wild flowers, spaza shops, picnics on the side of the road, friendly, happy communities. It is truly beautiful out there.

It’s a surreal experience riding in the dark. There is sometimes no road, just a faint track through the veld; you can only see a few metres in front of you because it’s very cloudy, raining and pitch black. Rocks, shadows, holes all look the same. You just ride and pray that you won’t make a mistake and follow the faint light of the bike in front of you. Weird noises that you can’t identify, an owl flew over us, a wildebeest snorted, a jackal cried, there is no one there. It was wonderful.

Those scribbles on the map when you go off route. Your personal army of dot-watchers will leap into action. Are you ok? Masakala is the other way, did you miss the turn? Warm, fuzzy feelings all around.

There is nothing fancy about any of the support stations but they are such an integral part of the event. Welcoming hospitality, humble hosts, simple nourishing food, a hot shower and warm bed is all you really need. Chatter around the dinner table with new friends comparing notes of the day. The simple things in life. I don’t ever want to go and stay in a B & B all by ourselves, somewhere else again.

Spookies, amagwinya, spicy soya Russians on white bread all washed down with a Twizza have become standard, nutritious race food, devoured on the roadside and outside the myriad spaza shops and trading stores scattered around the country. The obligatory crowd of giggling local kids as an audience. That cold, squashed toasted sandwich, made the night before, is delicious.

I am a plodding rider. On day one I start going at 10km an hour. It takes me at least 20km before I even start warming up. My, “I can go all day legs” will kick in around 60km. I walk up lots of hills. I am not very brave on technical single track and steep rocky downhills. I overuse my brakes. I am definitely not fast. My team spend quite a lot of time waiting for me at the top of hills.

On day four I was still going 10km an hour, but so was everyone else. Hundred plus km day, no problem. I was getting stronger and stronger as we went. The further down the trail we got, the better I rode, the more I smiled and the happier I became.

On the last day the heavens opened, it poured with rain, I think it almost sleeted, it was freezing cold and I couldn’t feel my fingers and toes. My waterproof socks couldn’t waterproof any more. My shifter packed up in the mud and I became a single speed rider for the last 25km. The puddles had puddles and we had mud up to our eyeballs. I had to ask a friend to take off my helmet and gloves because I was shaking so much from the cold. I smiled even more and became even happier.

I had a great great grandfather who packed up his family and sailed to this country on a small wooden ship. Another great great something was a transport rider, trekking his ox wagon to the goldfields. I would like to think that somewhere in my genes is this pioneering spirit. I can’t sail away or trek with my oxen but riding my bike from one side of this beautiful country to the other, searching for that happy place and freedom comes a close second.

I have found my happy place and can’t wait to do more.

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Awesome Gill, a lovely storey!

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