Updated: Jun 27
At 6am on 1st July I will be on the steps of Pietermaritzburg city hall. No, I will not be starting the Comrades marathon. That would be too short. Instead, I’ll be pedalling my overweight bicycle to Wellington in the Western Cape. Given that I am not in an F16 nor in anything that requires the sweet nectar that is 95 unleaded, it will take me around 16 days to pedal the roughly 2150km.
The word “roughly” is significant. When you sign up for the Race Across South Africa (RASA) you don’t get emailed a GPS file. A courier drops off 83 (yup, eighty three) A3 size, paper topographical maps. If you lay these maps end-to-end they stretch most of a tennis court. (Someone has actually done this, so we know for sure).
On the aforementioned maps someone has, likely after six beers, taken a marking pen and drawn a squiggly line from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington. You’d think, at least, this followed roads. It certainly attempts to but fails rather dismally. The result is that you are required to follow this marked line, using nothing but these maps, a compass, and your now blunted recollection of how to navigate by the stars, sun and moon. No GPS’s are allowed, including your smart smartphone. So, its “roughly 2150km. Never less, likely more. Getting lost is a feature of this race, not a bug.
The route follows cattle tracks & district roads; too little tar & too many mountains. The surface is mostly unsatisfactory, and the weather could definitely be better. Camelbacks have frozen. Riders have had to defrost shifter cables by peeing on them. Riding speed is underwhelming. The record for the race is just under 10 days. Excluding sleep of 4hours a day that’s 10 kays an hour average. Definitely not a spectator sport in the same way Downhill Racing is.
Yet, here we are. Some 80 folks will be lining up at 6am at the City Hall. There will be no big send off. Probably some Johnny Clegg playing through a portable speaker. Race organisers Chris and Julia Fisher eliciting nervous commentary from each rider. Last words, so to speak. It’s fitting, mind you.
This race really does fall into the adventure category. It is a test of fortitude, grit, and your sense of humour. Those riders taking the touring option of around 20 days will ride for 12 hours a day. Those trying for around 15 days will ride for 14 hours every day. Faster than that and it’s a war of attrition between your mind and your body.
The race is self-supported in that no assistance outside of race organised assistance is allowed. Given the remoteness of the route, farmers on route graciously open their houses and B&B’s, offering a soft bed, a cold beer and a warm meal, 24/7 for three weeks. This does not mean there are no spectators. Riders carry a GPS tracking device, and our location is updated to a website where an enormous community of “dot watchers” (a reference to each dot indicating a riders location) stitch together individual dramas as they unfold through photos, videos, and voice messages that find their way back from the trail onto social media.
I depart 1 July. Wish me luck. Goodness know I’ll need a lot of it.
I’ll be posting updates to the Freedom Dot Watchers group on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/groups/387713945559896.
You can track the race through this link https://freedomchallenge2021.maprogress.com/ .
You will see riders already on the course. They’re not trying to get a head start. Due to accommodation limitations groups of roughly ten people depart each day, with the last group on 1 July.