In early 2020, as the COVID pandemic began to grip the world, I was on a medical school class reunion Whatsapp and one of my old friends from University mentioned that he was doing a bike race across South Africa. This looked interesting and after “watching” him traverse the country as a “dot” on a computer screen, I thought that this event, the Freedom Challenge, would be something Id like to do someday. I pencilled it in to my “post retirement” bucket list.
Fast forward 18 months of COVID and I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the “sterile” life I had been living thanks to lockdowns and mask mandates. A lack of events had meant that my fitness had declined and I had put on weight. I needed a project and something to train and look forward to. I floated the idea of taking on the Freedom Challenge with my wife and she supported me. I then fortuitously stumbled into a situation at work where I was able to take a year off from my regular long hour and high stress job to focus on training for the event. The stars were aligning. When I finally floated the idea to an old friend of mine from University who now lived in New Zealand and he unexpectedly immediately jumped at joining me on the adventure, the die was cast and I entered.
After 9 months of fairly single minded prep, training and research, I lined up on 17th October at 6am at the city hall in Pietermaritzburg ready for the challenge.
I entered hoping to traverse the country of my youth on my bike. I knew the trail would take me through some of the most beautiful parts and I was looking forward to this.. I wanted to challenge myself physically and mentally and I knew the event should provide this. More importantly though, I wanted to have an adventure. After 2 years of COVID restrictions, I wanted to feel alive again.
What I got fulfilled these ambitions, but so much more and in a more profound way. I have been off the trail now for over 2 weeks and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the experience. Many have described this journey far more eloquently than I will ever be able to, but what follows is my feeble attempt at putting in words my own personal journey.
The Freedom Challenge is a truly unique MTB adventure which follows the Freedom Trail. This is a route devised by Dave Waddilove through some of the most remote Wilderness areas, private and public lands of South Africa, from East to West showcasing the diverse Flora and Fauna of South Africa as well as her people.
Technically it is a “self supported” MTB “Race” with the aim being to finish in the shortest possible time. Various time Cut offs ensure that one has to keep moving down the trail. The race record is 10 days, the final cut off is 26 days.
Somewhat interestingly, one may not use GPS and navigation is with 1:50000 maps and a compass. The maps are provided before hand and most participants spend a considerable amount of time studying them and comparing them to images of google earth before the race.
Whilst one is expected to be fully self sufficient and able to repair and maintain one’s own bicycle and carry one’s own gear, the race is unique in that there are “support Stations” which are places every 50-100kms along the trail. These support stations are places where the people living there have agreed to provide a bed, a shower and food to any cyclist arriving there should they need it. These support stations range from a few hotels/ B and Bs to Farms where the private farmers have agreed to provide this service and a village where the villagers give up their own beds to the cyclists (and also a couple of “Self serve” support stations where there are beds and food, but one is left to one’s own devices.) These supports stations are integral to the event.
In addition, one can send 20 2litre “ice cream” containers to a number of these support stations before hand with supplies which one can collect along the way. Most participants use these containers to store their maps for the next leg, as well as snacks and energy bars. Occasional bike spares and first aid paraphernalia are also placed in strategic containers. Interestingly, the event has a fairly high attrition rate and one of the “Rules” is that if one leaves the event, the contents of one’s ice cream containers is available to anyone who is still on the course. This means that later support stations, for those still riding, are highly anticipated not just for the station support, but also for the treats one might find in one of scratched rider’s containers.
Finally, during the race, one is tracked with a “Spot” tracker and one’s progress is followed by a dedicated group of “dot watchers” from previous challenges and one’s own family and friends. The tracker is supposed to update every few minutes, but is somewhat temperamental and this , together with watching “dots” leaving the route inadvertently, leads to a surprising amount of tension and excitement for those watching the event from home. A facebook page also provides an avenue for those participating to upload pictures from the trail which adds the engagement.
A dedicated group of supporters of the trail also follow the riders along the trail in the background. This group are called “Buffalo herders” and are only meant to be used for the compulsory escort through the Baviaanskloof. They are a reassuring anonymous presence that can, and have been called in in emergencies, to help stricken riders. On two occasions in the last Winter Freedom Challenge they very likely saved lives and, in my case, were instrumental in allowing me to continue on in the race.
All finishers receive a Sotho Blanket.
The trail starts in Pietermaritzburg in the Natal Midlands area of South Africa and finishes at Diemersfontein in the Western Cape. In total, it traverses over 2100km and 33000m of climbing. The highest elevation reached is over 2700m.
Almost the entire route is offroad with less than 50km on tar roads. The remainder of the route entails gravel and farm roads, jeep tracks, cattle and game tracks, single track and hiking paths and some areas with no obvious path but a general direction through the bush/ veld.
There are a number of mandatory “hike a bikes” over mountainous terrain.
The route goes through private farms, wilderness areas, game parks and nature reserves as well as a few towns and passes many historic sites along the way. It passes through some of the most remote and most beautiful parts of the country. Outside of the first few days and the last 2, one sees very few people along the way.
The route is insanely beautiful as it passes through one stupendous landscape after another. From the rolling hills and mountains of Kwazulu Natal to the Streams and valleys of the Swartberg to the planes of the Klein Karoo, to the stunningly beautiful World heritage Baviaanskloof and onto the Western cape, not a single day goes by where one is not surprised by yet another breathtaking Vista. Words and Pictures do not do the scenery justice. Its is truly spectacular.
The Flora and Fauna is also diverse and spectacular. Im not sure there is a Southern African antelope species I did not see on the trail, from the smallest Reedbuck to Eland, Kudu to Giraffe and Buffalo. The birds were also incredible. Owls, Storks and cranes were common as were Weavers and other colourful birds. From the green, lush grasslands of Natal to the arid Karoo, the Flora was incredible.
The designers of the route very seldom take one on the easy route and each day poses different challenges. There are very few straightforward days without some sort of new and unique challenge ranging from river crossings, 7hr portages up the side of mountains, to steep mountain passes and long flat days in the saddle where one is wishing for hills so that one can get off ones bike to give ones legs and butt a break. There are also some unique navigational challenges including the Vuvu/ Lehanas, Bontebok,Elandsberg, Osseberg, Struishoek and Stetyns kloof portages.
The is at once, insane, but also perfect.
One of the richest parts of the Freedom Challenge is the people:
Fellow riders are all, like oneself, just a little crazy to have even contemplated the event, let alone lined up to start it. Every one has there own story, and all are a unique. Its a treat and privilege to get to know them. It feels great to be around people who have the same crazy approach to adventure as oneself and to hear all their unique stories. Some, one only meets fleetingly on the trail, and others one spends many days with, getting to know them and cementing friendships which one has little doubt would last well past the end of the event. My race would have ended had one rider, who was forced to retire, not lent me her seat post. On another occasion, another rider literally saved my life as he pulled me from a flooded river. Everyone looks out for one another. A truly special band of people.
Support station hosts: Its hard to put into words how grateful one is to these folk who open their homes to wet, smelly, muddy strangers and feed them and put them up in their houses for the night (and sometimes more). Often the strangers only arrive for 30 minutes before moving on. It is huge privilege to stay in these places and to briefly get to know these folk. I loved hearing their stories and perspectives and immersing myself once more in the history of the South African diaspora. It was a hugely positive experience. On the trail one stays in many different accommodations from rooms in farmers houses, to huts in villages to suites in hotels. ALL help create the rich experience of the race. All the hosts and stays are special and stories such that one does not want to leave. The food is delicious.
Buffalo herders and Race Directors: It is hugely reassuring to know these angels are out there, keeping track of ones progress and being available in a crisis. The Buffalo herders also have unique stories and it was great getting to know them as well on the rare occasions when our paths crossed. Their advice was invaluable. I have no idea how Chris got a seat post to me in the middle of the Klein Karoo, but he saved my ride and for that I am truly grateful. I have no idea how Chris and Julia are able to manage the logistics of this event, but Im grateful they do. It’s a truly amazing event.
The People of South Africa: It was so inspiring to ride through the country to see and meet so many positive people. It’s the antidote to the negative press and stories that grace the front pages every day. The joy of the kids as one rides past them, high fiving on the route, or as they run next to you up the hills through the villages was energizing. The helpfulness and positivity of the villagers and farmers as one asked for directions and assistance was a joy. I stopped on more than a few occasions to chat to people along the way as they engaged me on my ride and am richer for it.
One of the unique features of this event is the fact that GPS navigation is forbidden. All navigation is done with a map, a narrative and a compass. The compass is extremely accurate. The map is more or less accurate, but, on occasion is slightly outdated and the narrative is largely accurate, but has some glaring ambiguities which sometimes cause one to make wrong turns if one isn’t careful.
This aspect of the race was the aspect that made me the most nervous going in. I am used to following GPS enabled devices when riding on my own and I wondered if Id be able to follow a map sufficiently well to complete the event. In addition, there are many instances where racers have become severely lost and spent the night sleeping “rough” or had to abandon the race completely.
Before the event, I therefore studied this aspect fairly carefully and read a book on orienteering. I still lined up fairly anxious that I would find this challenging.
Fortunately, I started with a couple of folks who had done a few freedom challenge events before and got some tips in the early stages from them. This set me up for the rest of the race as I gained confidence in my ability to navigate.
I learned to follow a few important principles:
1) Always know exactly where one is on the map
2) Never go down a hill unless one is completely confident one is heading in the right direction
3) If one makes a mistake backtrack to the point where one last knew one was right.
4) I always tried to start difficult sections early and tried to avoid ever heading into one in the dark. My reasoning was that if I got lost, I would have lots of time to find my way and if it was dark, the sunrise would help.
5) Try, as much as possible, to navigate the really tough sections with buddies.
The interesting thing for me about the navigation was that, as opposed to GPS, it forces one to be present in ones environment and to really take note of it and all aspects of it. One has to study the contours of the hills, the streams one crosses and the far off vistas. Everything is a clue. Everything matters.
I found this mind shift quite profound and it added to my enjoyment of the trail. For sure, progress was slow at times as I was very careful not to screw up.Those who have done the event before have an enormous advantage for those who are competitive in nature, but the pluses of the “forced” engagement with my surroundings was immeasurable. I “get” the reliance on maps and compasses now and would be a strong advocate for keeping this feature, even though, when I lined up for the start, I found this one of the most intimidating and annoying features of the race.
By taking on the Freedom Challenge one takes on an element of risk which one does not experience in every day life. This risk can potentially be life threatening and includes:
1) Weather- thunder and lightning storms and floods as well as heat:
a. My riding mate and I were stuck in a lightning storm on the top of a mountain on one occasion when a lightning strike occurred right above us. Both of us quite seriously told the other to tell our loved ones we loved them if the next strike hit either of us.
b. I was swept under bridge after a freak incident when I stepped into a fast flowing stream. I was lucky in that the person I was riding with at the time was standing next to me and was able to assist me in getting out of the river before I got washed under. If Id been washed under the bridge, I hate to think what might have happened.
c. Many of the rivers we crossed became flooded due to storms and this necessitated the route to be altered in some instances.
d. We ran out of water on one day when the temperature reached the high 30s in the valley. This led to a very uncomfortable hour of riding. Much more and we could have run into trouble.
2) Animals- There are a number of potentially deadly animals whose paths we cross
a. Snakes- Black mambas and Puff Adders both live in areas we traversed. A bite from the former would likely be lethal, the latter would mean a prolonged stay in hospital if help arrived in time
b. Predators- fortunately there are no areas where one cycles together with large predators other than Leopards that aren’t known to attack humans. The one area where leopards are extremely prevalent is the Baviaanskloof and this is probably the area where one is almost guaranteed to be riding with someone.
c. Large game- Buffalo and Rhino are present in some of the parks and reserves one rides through. We saw Buffalo in the Baviaanskloof.
a. Remoteness- for the vast majority of the adventure, one is many hours from help. Even if one were to hit ones Spot tracker, the most rapid response might take hours.
b. Terrain- there are many unrideable parts of the trail and many High consequence parts. In addition, some of the hike a bike sections are over fairly steep cliffs and rock scrambles. A poor choice or moment of inattention could easily lead to a severe injury.
c. I had three crashes / incidents on the trip, all in innocuous parts of the trail:
i. I was coming down a trail and crossed a stream in about an inch of water. The rocks were slippery and my tire slid out. I fell down and hit my head and shoulder. Fortunately not severely.
ii. The previously mentioned bridge incident of being swept under the bridge left me with a knee injury that meant I was practically unable to pedal or walk on my left leg for 12 kms. Fortunately this resolved, otherwise my race would have been over
iii. I was riding through a field and failed to see a hole. I hit it and went over the handlebars. I was lucky not to injure my wrist or shoulder which were both bruised. It would have been a long wait had I fractured anything
4) People- South Africa is known for its high crime rate and violent crime statistics.
a. Most of the trail is through extremely remote areas
b. Absolutely everyone I interacted with on the trail was extremely positive.
One of the most profound insights from the trail for me was how risk averse the world has become. How perspective is important in assessing risk and how damaging living in a risk free, cocooned environment being fed sensational stories designed to increase ones anxiety by social media is destructive.
Coming out of COVID, where breathing the same air as someone else, or standing within 6 feet of them was considered risky, it was life affirming to be able to “live” again free of the constraints of social media.
Life isn’t risk free and whilst some might consider the Freedom Challenge a little too risky, there is little doubt that, for me, it helped give me perspective on how assuming some risk in ones daily life, enhances it and allows one to have experience and grow. The risk one assumes is most often far less than the media has driven us to believe.
Opportunities for growth are often not available without an assumption of some risk.
I rode conservatively and walked many sections that I felt carried some risk of injury. Sections I would ride easily in my normal riding routes in Victoria. I tried to manage my risk as best I could. Despite this, the serious incidents happened in the most innocuous areas of trail. I wouldn’t have been able to avoid these even riding in my back yard.
For sure, I had some anxiety travelling through areas where large game were known to exist alone. BUT, after riding for 10kms through one such area , I turned a corner into a small collection of laborers cottages- a group of 5- 6 year olds were playing in the field next to me as rode through. So whilst the risk I perceived was high, the actual risk was obviously extremely remote as these kids clearly had no concerns and neither did their parents. Everything is relative.
Similarly, upon arriving in Macrgegor, I took a wrong turn and ended up in the “wrong” part of town. Gangsters were clearly part of the fabric of the area I found myself in. After realising I was lost, I approached a couple of men who were obviously past or present gang members given their prison tattoos and general demeanour. I asked them if they could tell me where a certain street was. They couldn’t have been more helpful.
Again, Im sure that in a different environment, these men might not have been so helpful, but treated with respect, a smile, and a crazy looking dude on a bike,they couldn’t do enough to help me.
Its easy to believe and listen to narratives which might not be very flattering, but its also important to realise that the vast majority of people have good hearts and are willing to help when given the opportunity and respected. This may be naïve, but I suspect that, this is far more true than many of the negative narratives fueling our modern society.
The Freedom challenge is an incredible challenge. It requires one to ride/ hike around 12 hours/ day, sometimes longer, for close to 3 weeks. TO be successful, one has to manage eating and fueling. One has to maintain ones bike and prevent it breaking down. One has to manage all the aches and pains that arise and wounds that are inflicted. Despite prodigious amounts of food and calories, I lost 10kgs during my ride.
There is a certain amount of luck required to finish the race and I certainly had my share.
One spends a lot of time outside ones comfort zone, but that’s the point.
It is by far the hardest physical challenge most who take it on will ever experience. BUT the beauty of it is that its actually very accessible and completing it is within reach of almost anyone who can ride a MTB, with a sense of adventure , the right attitude, some determination and some fitness.
This is the beauty of the Freedom Challenge.
The “racers” don’t go a hell of a lot faster than everyone else, they just do it longer and are able to survive on less sleep.
Arriving at many of the portages, one cannot help but wonder how one will ever manage to get to the top, and yet one just puts one foot in front of the other and eventually one is there. It doesn’t matter how steep or insane the portage, eventually one overcomes it, even if one feels like, at times, one is hardly moving.
By far the most profound part of the Freedom Challenge is the “journey” it forces you to take.
Many describe the event as life changing or life affirming and its easy to see why.
For me personally, the event exceeded my expectations and was far more profound an experience than I ever anticipated:
I started the event with certain goals and schedules in mind. Some of these were forced because of the window I had to complete the event before returning home, but some were self inflicted. I had come to start conservatively, but then also to push myself.
The first week went by in a blur of excitement and felt like any multi day event Id done previously. Challenges were addressed and overcome and I arrived in Rhodes “on target”. Shortly after Rhodes, I experienced my fall under the bridge and injured my leg and a few days after that, my seat post broke. Both of these resulted in me feeling like my race was over. Had it not been for some extraordinary luck, it would have been. At these points in the race, I felt extremely pessimistic and “down”.
Interestingly , the injury meant that I lost the group I was travelling with at the time as they moved on. This meant that when my knee felt better, I needed to take on a significant portage alone and in the dark. I did this without too much trouble and this gave me the confidence that I could do the race alone if need be.
When my seat post broke, I gave myself up to the trail, as by then I knew I could do it, but would need to be lucky to get my blanket.
This shift meant that from then on, I rode with a less goal orientated approach and rode just to enjoy the trail: For sure, I wanted to get to Diemersfontein within a certain time to get my plane, but my riding become much more mindful. Together with the nav, this meant that my daily experience became far more “pure”. I tried to focus just on being in the moment, in that place. Riding my bike, enjoying the scenery and taking in the experience. Ride, Eat, sleep repeat.
By the end, I enjoyed riding in my own company. I enjoyed the challenge of Stetyns on my own, but most importantly, I just enjoyed “being”.
The Freedom Challenge fed my soul.
Getting to the end was bitter sweet as it was great to be finished and have accomplished my goal. It was great to know I would be seeing my family again soon and to chat to my wife and kids. It was a relief that I wouldn’t have to ride my bike the following day….
BUT it also meant that the adventure was over and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it to end just yet.
Would I do it again someone asked: “ in a heart beat……..”