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My love affair with The Freedom Challenge

My love affair with the Freedom Challenge started sometime before 2010 when I bumped into this article about a race called The Freedom Challenge. I could not believe that anybody in their right mind would ride a bicycle, offroad, from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington. The more I read about this amazing race, the more intrigued I became. I only got my first mountain bike in October 2008, so doing 2,200 kilometers on a mountain bike seemed to be a bridge too far, but the idea kept nagging me. After a while I decided that this is a challenge I would like to tackle. After I received permission on the home front to do this, I entered for the 2011 RASA. At that time David Waddilove was still living in Newlands running the show from his home. He also organized some training rides in the Wellington area one Saturday per month in the runup to the start of the race. In April 2010 I visited my brother-in-law in Kirkwood and got my brother to drop me off at Kleinpoort and I cycled from there to Montagu to get some firsthand experience of what I was letting myself into. In June I got my friend Mike Smit to join me and we cycled from Ashton to Rawsonville.

I have always considered myself to be mentally strong, so all I had to do was to get the body in shape and get on top of the navigation. I spent days going through the old maps with pink lines and narratives, following the route all the way from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington on Google Earth. I had dinner with Justin Bouwer, who did RASA in 2010, to get some firsthand knowledge of what I will be up to. I read every word of Marnits Nienaber’s blog “Die Omswerwings en Ervarings van ‘n Freedom Challenger” and I started my own blog “One Giant Challenge”! I reasearched what Alex Harris wore to stay warm and went out and bought the same stuff. By May 2011, I was ready! I was excited about completing this race and looking forward to ride past Doringrivier, the farm before the Support Station of Stuttgart, which has now been replaced by Groenfontein. My dad grew up on Doringrivier during the early 1900’s!

We left Pietermaritzburg on a not too cold June morning. Our group split up fairly quickly and by the time I was riding past Baynesfield, I was on my own. A while later, George Schutte, who was from George and did some of the training rides with David, joined up with me. We rode the rest of the day together and got into Allendale at about 17:00.

The next morning we left early with all the other guys. The group stayed together up to Donnybrook, but then the other guys decided that that we were to slow and left us. We got to Centocow at about lunch time and then tacked to road to Ntsikeni. We managed to get through the wattles after the Ntsikeni fence just as the sun was setting. At this stage George was really struggling and I decided to push on. That year we did not stay at the Ntsikeni Lodge but further along at May Lodge. On the way there the road was a bit of a marshland, the battery of my light had gone flat and I only had a fairly useless headlight, with the result that I ended up quite a number of times in the water. I finally got to Mays, fairly well drenched, at about 21:00. George arrived at about 23:00.

The next morning we once again left with the other guys. That help with the navigation. At about Politique kraal the other guys left us again. So it was me and George on our own again. We did find our way through to Glen Edward without too much of a problem and left there in the early afternoon. We made good progress right up to the turn off to go left of Gudlintaba. By now it was dark and we did not really know where we were going. There was a cellphone signal so I phoned for help, but we were so far off the right track, that nobody had an idea where we were. I still remember I told Mike Woolnough that we are at the edge of a donga, but he said he did not know about any dongas in that area! We decided to wait the night out. At about 22:30 we saw a light. It was one of the racing snacks coming through. We got our things together and tagged along with him up to Mademong, where he left us. After getting lost again in Hillbron, we finally reached Masakala just after midnight.

As the distance to Makelkonyane is only 58 kilometers, we decided that we would only leave at about 08:30 in the morning. We did pretty well that day, but progress was slow, with the result that the sun was setting when we reached Gladstone. We could not find the track and ended up going down the road and got into Malekoyane at about 22:00. We were both pretty despondent and suffer from a lack of energy, so we decided on a rest day. Mike Woolnough was there at the time, also struggling with a knee problem. When he felt the weight of my backpack, he was not surprised that I was struggling. It was about 13 kilograms! I even had a spare chain in there! I got rid of some of the stuff and we lounged around in the sun the next day. That evening the “Fat Farmers” from the Natal Midlands arrived. There also was doctor form Cape Town. I told him about my lack of energy and that my heart rate is very low. He checked me out. But felt that all was OK.

We once again left early the next morning with all the other people. A kilometer down the road I realized that I left my water bottle on the dinning room table. Fortunately everybody waited for me while I retrieved it. We found our way onto the Ongelukneks road, but had to push our bikes up the hill into a howling wind. We all stayed together right up to Black Fountain. There the doctor checked my heart rate again and immediately recommended that I stop and that somebody should come and fetch me! That was a bit of an impossibility and I felt that I would be able to find my way to Tinana Mission, where I can then be picked up. They left me and I continued on my own, in tears, because my dream was shattered! I did find my way down to Tinana, using the road around the koppie and arrived at the mission at 16:00. From there I was directed to Mrs Zibi, where I spent the night. The next morning the Bells came to pick me up and dropped me in Matatiele form where I found my way home. On arriving home I was diagnosed with a mind form of kidney infection! That may have made it easier to accept the disappointment, but I still felt it was more of a mind problem. In the end mu ego took the biggest knock.

After some soul searching and no small effort to get my wife to buy in again, I entered Race to Rhodes in 2013. In the group I started with was Gavin Robertson and a friend of his. They were doing RASA. We somehow stuck together and had a wonderful ride, getting to Rhodes in 5 days and 3 hours. Unfortunately we did pick up a 12 hour penalty due to some miscommunication, but that is a story for another day.

After this success, I had to tackle RASA again and did this in 2014. Once again I was fortunate enough to team up with a wonderful group of guys and we rode together right up to Slaapkratz. On the way into Slaapkrantz, George Wienekus picked up a puncture. It got fixed that evening, but as we progressed the next day, we realized that there was slow leak and had to stop every now and then. This resulted in the group splitting up and I stuck with George. We eventually got the problem sorted out at Bucklands after a couple of very frustrating days and eventually completed the ride is 21.5 days. The only other mishap was a night in Mordor, but we were very fortunate in that it was over casted with the result that it was not too cold.

Being in love with the event, another try had to come. Once again I started working on my wife, and received her permission to ride again. I decided that this had to be special, so I waited until 2019 so that I can be the first 70-year-old to complete RASA. In November 2018 I had a motor cycle accident and spent 8 days in ICU. By the grace of the Lord above, I was back on a bicycle, with two rods and eight screws in my back, in February 2018. The recovery was perfect and I lined up in Pietermaritzburg on 18 June 2019. This time there was no mishaps and again I was lucky enough to get somebody to stick with me. Johan Ratcliffe and I completed the race in 19 days 15 hours. Leon Erasmus, my brother’s son started 5 five days after us and caught up with us at Trouthaven. It really was a great honour for two of the Erasmus family to cross the finish line together. Richard Erasmus also finished that day, but we are not family.

What now? The legs still feel good and the plan is to be the first 75-year-old to complete RASA and my aim is to do that in 2024.

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