Eastern Cape, hosted by the Buffalo Herders
Main tour 500km (seven days): Klipfontein (Stormberg) – Rietfontein (nr Hofmeyer) – Elandsberg – Groenfontein – Tollies African Safaris - Pearston - Toekomst – Bucklands. Racontour add-on 320km (four days): Steytlerville – Willowmore – Uniondale – Plettenberg Bay
Twenty four seconds to go to the final whistle in the 2023 Rugby World Cup final. The Springboks lead 12-11 and have won a scrum on the ten meter line. Our touring group is at Bucklands in the Baviaans and we are watching the match with our hosts Hannes Horn and his lovely family in the big barn that Freedom riders know so well. All the Boks have to do is win the scrum and kick the ball out. At that point the power goes out and we are literally and figuratively in the dark. Can you bloody believe it! Ten minutes pass agonizingly by before we find out that we have won the World Cup for the fourth time. Later on Hannes reckons that it might well be that one of the All Black supporters in Steytlerville may have, in a fit of pique, switched off the power. It didn’t matter. What a tournament for the Boks! What a lekker tour! What better than to share such a special occasion with our wonderful hosts at Bucklands. We will always remember where we were the day the Springboks won their fourth Rugby World Cup.
Nine riders (Tim Lotz from Knysna, Tania Pfaff from Plettenberg Bay, Guy Miles from Wartburg, Tilla Uys from PMB, Jan Luddolph, Aileen Kennaugh, Ron Smythe, Cathy Hanauer (all JHB) and Mike Roy (Traveling Wilbury, Maastricht) were joined by Buffalo Herder Eddie Roller (JHB) for a seven day supported ride on the Freedom trail. We chose a stretch that made for a “gentler” introduction to the Freedom Trail. Some harder sections (Aasvogelberg, Elandsberg, Schurfteberg and Struishoek in particular come to mind) but the combination of the second half of the Race to Cradock and the first half of the Race to Willowmore proved ideal for a relatively relaxed introduction to the trail and a rare opportunity to experience the beauty of the Eastern Cape in all its recent well-watered magnificence.
Although none of us on the tour were blanket holders there was enough FC experience amongst us to share trail knowledge. Tim Lotz was effectively our tour leader on the bike. And how kind and generous he was, patiently showing us all how to navigate, pack smartly, start each day on time and other useful tips he has acquired from his years of riding and leading groups on similar trips. Buffalo Herder (a rider on this trip) Roy was usually too stuffed to offer any useful advice so thank God we had Tim with us. Tim’s vehicle and custom built bike trailer served as our backup vehicle, and I’d recommend having something similar for any future tours. It makes the world of difference, in addition to having a Buffalo Herder driving the support vehicle. Eddie Roller played this role for us, doing so well he has immediately been elevated to official Buffalo Herder status for the main Freedom challenge events.
It was a great idea to build the tour around the rugby. We experienced first-hand the unifying impact that the success of the Springboks had (and continue to have) on the peoples of the trail. English, Afrikaans or Xhosa, black, white or colored – reverberating salutations of “bokke’. Fist pumps, high-fives. Eye to eye, yet another reminder of how great this tortured country of ours can be, together. When we are good we are so damn good. Steytlertville and Willowmore (literally everyone) partied until daylight on the Sunday morning after the final. I read Rassie and Siya are continuing with the Boks in 2024. Therein lies our future, on far wider playing fields than just rugby.
We experimented with two non-traditional FC stayovers. Klipfontein (Madelene) near Stormberg Junction, right on the Freedom Trail (just after the sharp left to Vegkoppies) was our starting point. Rietfontein (25k before Hofmeyer, Hennie and Rachelle Vermaak). Both were fabulous choices and potentially options for riders who may wish to have an alternative sleeping strategy on RASA or RTC. We had two nights (one day at leisure before the official start, also a good idea) at Klipfontein, the venue for yet another narrow win for the Boks just beating England. Incidentally the previously derelict farmhouse at Gunstelling (just before Aasvogelberg) has been refurbished and is now open to bookings. Gunstelling was, way back on the inaugural RASA in 2004, a support station.
We can happily report back that this 500km section (bar perhaps Struishoek where there is luckily an alternative route to Pearston) is eBike friendly. Cathy successively used her eBike for the first three days, proof of concept and we have no hesitation in recommending this section of the route for eBikes. We might have to make a plan with a few of the locked 2m gates but that is easily resolvable. This would open up some of the trail to a far wider potential audience which is a good thing. The support stations are all open to more people riding the trail and more tours like ours would benefit all.
As tour hosts Tim and I compared notes before the farewell last supper, which we held at Toekomst (Aimee and Dean hosting us par exellence yet again). We reflected on a group that had varying expectations at the start of the ride and that by the conclusion of the ride were all entertaining thoughts of entering the more formal FC events, including RASA. It was so lekker seeing this self-belief emerge, “I can do this thing”. Watch this space. This group will earn blankets, in time. Confirmation that these FC trail tours serve a very useful purpose in providing a funnel of riders for the future of FC.
Rocket Ron, the beloved gentleman of the Trail, is ready. Entries for RTR, RTW, FCirc 400 and RTR are already in. Tilla Uys who seriously underplays her ability in everything, is pumped and feeling the warmth of that heavy Basuto blanket already. Jan and Aileen, bring it on, more than capable. Tania dreams of entering every possible 2024 FC event. Cathy is talking about RTC (an amazing turnaround, from believing she could only manage on an eBike. Huh. Could have fooled us, riding away from us all on her normal bike). Tim has 2025 RASA with his son in his sights. Guy is more than capable of a blanket ride. Buffalo Herder Mike still believes he has a blanket in him. Why not.
The Trail continues to teach us. The excellent rains of the last few years have resulted in as lush a landscape as I have seen. We all think that these must surely be prosperous times for farmers. We learned that appearances can be deceiving, wool and meat prices are severely depressed and farmers are having to be innovative in diversifying their income streams, one of which is the revenue generated by the Freedom Challenge.
We feasted as normal at the famous “The Farmhouse” in Hofmeyer, owned by local farmer Dave Lord. Dave is a friend of the Freedom Challenge and he kuiered with us during our pie orgy. Always good to meet up with you Dave, thanks for all your support.
Dave and Verity Hobson weren’t at home at their oasis of a farm at the end of the Struishoek portage. Needless to say we enjoyed the coolness of their green lawns having barely survived a 38 degree day on Struishoek.
As a footnote although the tour ended officially at Bucklands a few of us continued for another 350km on gravel district roads through Steytlerrville, Willowmore, Uniondale and up and over the Prince Alfred Pass to Plettenberg Bay. Glorious riding on hardback roads swept onwards by a thumping following wind in cool weather. An unexpected reward to finish everything off. A highly recommended finishing option given the airport at Plett. In Steytlerville we caught wind of a box of letters dating from the 1920s, letters and documents relating to the old motor dealership in Steytlerville. Imagine the stories and trail connections that could lie therein. Perhaps a vehicle that was bought by Hannes’s family 100 years ago, the wreck of which may still be lying somewhere on the farm.
We (the Buffalo Herders) look forward to repeating this tour in 2024, perhaps timing the dates to coincide with the European Autumn rugby tours by the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe we could even run a few tours each year on this stretch, if the demand is there. I have a feeling we will have no problem finding interested participants.
Every morning on the tour we gathered at the gate of our hosts before staring the day’s riding. I would ask everyone:
“Good morning! How are we today?”
The chorused response, without missing a beat was always:
“Never better! It’s a privilege to be here Sir! Thank you for asking.”
Always a privilege indeed to be on the Freedom Trail. We leave with new friends and awesome memories. Trail bonds.
Until the next time.