2020 RASA - Race Reports by Mike Roy
Updated: May 18, 2021
Race report #1, 4.30am 7 October 2020
By: Mike Roy
The 2020 Freedom Challenge, originally scheduled for June, finally kicks off this morning, Wednesday 7 October here in Pietermaritzburg. The first batch of RASA (“the Race Across South Africa”, for the uninitiated) starts at the City Hall at the normal starting time of 6am. It is a minor miracle that Chris and Julia Fisher have managed to get a 2020 FC off the ground, given the bizarre consequences of a COVID riddled year.
This is the 17th edition of the marque event of the Freedom Challenge, an unbroken sequence that started in 2004 with three riders, the founder of the race Dave Waddilove, Dave’s brother Rob and Andrew King. Little could this trio have imagined back then the place this event would take amongst the elite endurance events of any sport. They were the pioneers, the equivalent of the first guys to run the Comrades or Ian Player when he did the first Dusi. Hall of Fame material.
To date 275 people have earned themselves a coveted Basutho blanket (there is no prize money whatsoever) by finishing the 2150km race within the 26 day limit. Many more have failed. The race is challenging, particularly when held in the middle of winter, as is the norm. This year’s event is being held in early summer and the jury is out as to whether conditions will be easier or more difficult. More of that later.
RASA normally has a field of 40 to 50 riders. Last year 47 started, with 42 finishers. It is understandably a smaller field this year, given the uncertainty over whether any event was going to be held at all because of COVID. Over the next five days 23 riders will start RASA. Our thoughts are with the many riders (I think in particular of my brother Gordon in the UK) who wanted to ride FC 2020 but cannot because of COVID consequences. Hopefully there will be future opportunities for all of you.
In amongst the 2020 starters are some multiple blanket wearers, including Tim James who will be aiming for his 9th blanket. I’ll have a more detailed look at the race podium contenders in a few days, the anticipated front runners are only starting on Sunday. Suffice to say the names of Tim James, Alex Harris (both multiple winners of the event), Mike Woolnough and Arno Crouse are all in contention. Former winner Janine Stewart is surely the favorite to win the women’s race. As always will Martin Dreyer’s phenomenal record of 10 days, 6 hours and 40 minutes be broken?
Last year the daily race report duties were shared by Ingrid Avidon, Steve Burnett and myself, albeit we were compiling our reports remotely, which had some limitations. This year Ingrid is riding the shorter Race to Rhodes event with her husband Anthony, and I will be doing the race report on route as part of the Race Office. Hopefully I can rope in one or two guest scribes along the way to take charge of a day or two. I’m thinking of Kevin Davie in particular.
Back to the summer versus winter debate. The pros seem fairly obvious. More daylight (around two and a half hours every day) and warmer temperatures, thereby avoiding the bitter cold that is normally part of every FC. The cons also include warmer temperatures (too warm) (the Umkomaas Valley on Thursday could be interesting at the predicted 33 deg C, as could the Groot Karoo later in the race) and the presence of snakes, ticks and other creatures that are absent in winter. Black mambas apparently rule the trails of the Umkomaas valley during the summer, thereby potentially offering additional standoff opportunities to the buffalo of the Baviaanskloof. However, chatting to 7 blankets holder Marnitz Nienaber earlier today, the biggest “new” summer problem will the wind. It’s October, the wind traditionally howls at this time of the year and it unfortunately howls in the wrong direction. Over the next month we will see how it all pans out. Marnitz did also comment that it is a lot greener and therefor more scenic at this time of the year, so something to look forward to for those who can raise their eyes above the handlebars.
Scanning through the RASA batch starting today I note the name of John Bowen. John is searching for his first blanket, after two valiant but unsuccessful previous attempts in 2015 and I think 2017. Having ridden with John in 2015 (equally unsuccessful), I know firsthand how much that blanket will mean to him and to others like him who will be battling to beat the 26 day challenge. John will not be “touring”. He will be drawing on everything he has and I look forward to seeing him don his blanket in Wellington. I might just shed a tear. It is that kind of race, emotions are never far away. Those who have done it will know what I am referring to.
John’s bother-in-law was the late Johan Rissik, former race director and legendary good Samaritan with his coffee and treats stand 10km or so before Prince Albert, which was a fabulous service for us, especially after a 150km ride from Willowmore. John is carrying a token or two with him on this year’s ride in memory of Johan, a poignant moment coming up I suspect when he reaches that coffee spot in a couple of weeks.
Three other RASA riders start today, Brad vd Westhuizen and his wife Nicki Nairn. Brad and Nicki got married a week ago, and this is their honeymoon ride. Brad will be going for his fourth blanket, Nicki her first, although she has done many of the shorter versions of FC events. Making up the batch is Ernst Behrens, who is riding his first FC. Ernst was the quietest guy at the race briefing last night, a very wise policy. Let the bike do the talking tomorrow.
The race briefing last night was also the first time I have met Chris and Julia Fisher, in whose hands the race now rests. Each of the race directors I seen in action have had their different style. Dave Waddilove, Glenn Harrison and Johan Rissik are the others, each stamping or weaving their own personality on the event. Chris is more in the Dave Waddilove camp, a lighter approach, although in line with the original ethos of FC, rightly protective of the integrity of the event, which to me is all about exceptionally high ethical standards, in particular towards fellow competitors, the support station hosts and the communities and environment through which one rides. The golden rules were once again outlined at last night’s race briefing. When “no fires” came up I felt a twinge of guilt, memories of the 2015 ride surfacing. That’s a story for later perhaps. Simple rules: “if you are unsure, close the gates” (this is mainly farming country), “don’t abuse the hosts” (there have been one or two unpleasant incidents in the past, hosts are like hen’s teeth, look after them), “no GPS”, “get into a car and that’s your race over”.
I had a lekker chat with Ian Waddilove yesterday, Ian and his wife Dana own Allandale, the farm where the first support station is situated. They are legendary hosts, and Allandale is heaven after a brutal first day. Ian tells me the Umkomaas is very low so the river crossing option is definitely on for the next few days. This may not be the case by the weekend given the predicted heavy rains later this week. This could be another issue in the summertime, particularly in KZN, rain and muddy roads, not a MTBiker’s friend.
One thing has puzzled me for years. The exit from Allandale on the second day (if one overnights). The traditional route skirts a smallish (?) koppie and, on the other side joins a path that lines up directly with where one started at the farm. Begs the question, has anyone taken the tiger line up and over the koppie? I’d love to hear about it.
Joining the four RASA riders today are four cyclists who are doing the race to Rhodes, including Ingrid and Anthony Avidon, who we mentioned early. Ingrid has three FC blankets and I’ve heard she wants to make Rhodes in four days, which means I may need to get to Rhodes before she does in some haste. The other two RTR entrants are blanket holder Ben de Lange and Laura de Lange, his daughter. This will be Laura’s first FC event, she is a teacher at St Andrews in Grahamstown. She seems very chilled, “slowly up the hills and all will be right”. Laura’s sister was also scheduled to ride but had to pull out, the small matter of a doctorate thesis to attend to. Very special to see a father and child ride together, to the best of my knowledge this is the first father/daughter combo any FC event has seen.
The RASA race narrative (remember GPSs are forbidden, maps and compasses only) traditionally include some interesting snippets on local history, the product of Dave Waddilove’s research all those years back. I suspect these inserts haven’t been updated for a very long time, so while I amble across South Africa I’m going to do my level best to colour the daily report with vignettes, as and when they occur, of our experiences of this magnificent country of ours.
Actually it is “we”, not “I”. I have a wingman, an old school buddy John Deane, from Winterskloof who is accompanying me in my clapped out old 4X4. John is a geologist and cannot wait to share his observations of geological minutia as we bumble southwest towards Wellington. The current narrative, page 13 of 32, speaks as follows: “as you start dropping down into the Naudesnek switchbacks, stop to look at the rock in the road cuttings. It is black basalt with white quartz flecks in it…”. John will be checking and expanding on this. With a bit of luck he will spot some anomaly which may lead to a feasible mining opportunity, thereby boosting the Freedom Challenge endowment fund.
It is time. Dot-watchers are emerging from a long hiatus. Let the games begin
Race report #2 10:00 Thursday 7 October 2020
The first two batches are on the road. Batch 2, seven in total, started a few hours back and I’m still trying to come with terms with the fact that four of them are running all the way to Rhodes. They checked the rules which didn’t mention anything about having to have a bike so here they are. Same conditions, same time limits as the cyclists. 480km in 7 days, 10750m of ascent. Give me a few paragraphs to digest this.
The eight riders that set off yesterday morning, Batch 1, four heading for Rhodes and four to Wellington, had varying fortunes during the day (and night for that matter). In this group are effectively three “couples” and two singles. Two husband and wife teams and one father and daughter team, Ben and Laura. I’ll start with the latter pair, seems like they had a decent enough day and made Allandale comfortably before dark.
We (John Deane and I) took a speculative drive down to the south side of the Umkomaas to the point where the easiest place is to swim your bike, hoping to get a glimpse of some of the riders. It is truly a very special place to park a car and switch off the engine. No sooner had we parked when the de Langes appeared on the opposite bank and started to wade over. There was plenty of spectator value when Laura’s water bottle went for a swim, a problem which she only realized when it was 50m downstream and heading towards the faster water through the gnarly rocky section further on. All bets were on in her efforts to retrieve the bottle before it was too late. Thankfully she managed just fine and we had a pleasant chat with the two of them before they headed up Hella Hella. Laura is well suited to this event, happy and not the slightest bit phased in the heat of the Umkomaas valley. A bit like her father.
The honeymoon couple, Brad and Nix, by all accounts had a decent day, rolling early into Allandale at 16:30 and electing to stay there for the night, a decision which makes a lot of sense in the circumstances. Ingrid and Anthony went through to Centacow, which was expected, but their day was not without challenges. Anthony, in his own words was stuffed earlier on, down at the Umkomaas I think. “I’m cramping badly. Can’t ride, can’t walk, can’t crawl” was his comment.
The couple dynamics at sharp end of the field are very different to those at the opposite end, the latter couples sharing one tracker per couple and clearly with no intention to ride apart. Ingrid and Anthony each have a tracker, so if one hesitates it is goodbye nurse, see you later, you are on your own. Thankfully Anthony got over his challenges and reunited with Ingrid for the ride to Centacow from Allandale.
The two singles of Batch 1, Ernst Behrens and John Bowen, had differing fortunes. Ernst had a very safe day, also getting to Allandale at 16:00, an excellent beginning for a RASA newcomer. John had a tough day, battling with tummy troubles after the soup at the Oaks in Byrne and cutting himself badly on his foot. With traditional John grit he limped through and made it to Allandale just before midnight. He has some interesting decisions to make today and a half day recovery ride to Centacow might be the wiser option. The days to Rhodes are particularly tough, and it is not impossible to make up lost days later in the race beyond Rhodes.
Which brings me to post offices. I have a number of, shall we say, eclectic interests, one of which is an obsession with South African postal history. To my astonishment I discovered what I think is a postal agency right down in the Umkomaas Valley, on the south side close to the point where riders wade across the river. To say this is an isolated place is an understatement, but there it was, well kept and doing what post offices do best. In fact I think it could be of interest to keep tabs on this theme during this trip across South Africa, vignettes of our postal history. After all, letters also take journeys. I’ll keep you posted (hahaha, I can hear my wife killing herself laughing (not)).
Mike Woolnough (starting Sunday) offered some insights into the physical conditions for this summer event, which made for interesting reading. “10 degrees warmer will get quite interesting. 18 degrees is a nice riding temp, 28 degrees not so nice. Performance drops as you go above 22 degrees. At 28 degrees your performance can drop off by almost 5%, more if you are prone to heat induced cramp (witness Anthony Avidon yesterday)”. Today the temperature is well above 30 degrees in the valley, should be fun.
Let’s have a look at the Batch 2 riders and runners, who are now well on their way as I write. Father and son team Ted Adams (71, the father) and Shaun Adams (38, the son, in case there is any confusion) are going all the way to Wellington. This combination have nailed this event before back in 2013, completing that RASA in just over 21 days. Sean is a doctor and almost there in becoming an ENT specialist. He has admitted to being a bit underdone for this event, but looks strong enough and in any event he has his Dad with him to pull him through. Incidentally Ted, if he gets his blanket, will become the oldest finisher, just pipping the current holder Philip Erasmus.
The other cyclist that left today is Andy Stuart, who is riding to Rhodes, twelve years after doing some recce rides on the trail. He understandably, and not unusually, looked a bit apprehensive last night and at the start. So far today he seems to be staying very close to Ted and Shaun, a pretty decent strategy.
I’ve had enough paragraphs to come to terms with the runners. There are four of them, three guys, one girl. Or is it three boys and one girl? They aren’t young so that doesn’t sound right. What is the “guys” word for “girl”, if any? “Woman” doesn’t sound right either. This is almost as confusing as the “oom” and “tannie” conundrum (do you? don’t you?) that riders (and runners) are going to face further down the trail, a dilemma that we can discuss in a week or so when the landscape and culture changes.
This same foursome tried the same event earlier this year in the March Race to Rhodes. Their effort came up short after an astonishing effort, they called it quits just after Malekgolanye, 110 km short of Rhodes. They learned plenty from that effort and are back to nail the beast. I gave one of them, Andy, a lift down to the start today (fair enough that the runners don’t have to run to the start from the B&B we all stay in the night before, like the riders have to do).
Andy shed some light on their strategy. For starters they will only have one hour sleep per day for the next 7 days. Think about that. Andy says day one is normally a bit rough, “smoothing the edges’. By day two the body and mind start to realise what their job is for the day (and night). By day three the sleep depravity kicks in and it is pure survival until the end. He described the feeling from day three onwards as being similar to a day after a heavy night out, trying valiantly to convince your spouse that you are 100% with the programme, whilst feeling anything but (just for the record, spouses, normally wives, don’t fall for one second for this, but they do applaud the effort). Falling asleep whilst on your feet (running, walking, whatever) is nothing unusual (actually it’s the same for riders).
Andy is an insurance guy, Pete is a civil engineer and knows intimately what the inside of a cardiologist’s consulting room looks like, healthy respect for what he has overcome. Dean is into banking, Nicky was with Telkom, now with some time on her hands to train. I guess we have all had varying experiences with teams in different facets of our personal lives. Some great, some awful. This R2R running team, that is what a team should look like, stands out a mile. Nobody will get left behind with these guys.
Quite how we got onto the topic I am not quite sure but I learned that Andy is obsessed with orchids. I know pretty well what “obsessed with something” means and believe me Andy is obsessed, so much so that he tested the team concept somewhat on their R2R attempt in March when he personally found 12 new orchids (for him) on their run. Given the need to photograph each one I suspect he may not have this latitude this time around. I hope he does, as I think “Orchids of South Africa”, along with “Postal History of South Africa” could make very complementary sub-themes in my daily reports.
The route on Freedom Challenge has evolved over the seventeen years of the race’s history. Makes me wonder if there is a record somewhere of the official routes, support stations and hosts from each of these years. This stuff needs to be preserved and celebrated. I’ll ask around and will report back, helping out if necessary if stuff needs to collected and archived. This is all in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Challenge in three years, a wonderful opportunity to bring the Freedom Challenge community, past and present, together. Make sure to book early.
In subsequent reports I’ll go into a little detail on route changes for this year. It is absolutely fascinating to see the various routes or sneaks that have been explored, accepted or rejected over the years. Also interesting to see how the runners view it. What seems a poor choice for a cyclist (a steep portage) might be perfect for a runner? Think Hella Hella after swimming the river. Straight up to intersect the Hella Hella road looks a lot more doable without a bike on your shoulders.
That’s about enough to digest for today I think. Three more batches to go, the last starting on Sunday, the pointy end of the race.
Race report #3 15:00 Friday 8 October 2020
The Oaks, Byrne
By: Mike Roy
Day 3 of 2020 RASA and R2R, just the Saturday and Sunday batches to start. Nineteen competitors are out there so far, fifteen riders and four runners. Make that eighteen competitors. I’ve heard that Andy Stuart has had to withdraw from R2R somewhere between Allandale and Centacow, apparently his foot is buggered. Tough luck mate, please don’t take another twelve years before you come back again. Next year maybe.
John and I have left the FC race B&B in Pietermaritzburg and are sitting on the verandah at The Oaks Hotel, just outside the quirky settlement of Byrne. The Oaks serves as the halfway stop on the first day of FC. In the few years that they have been part of FC only one rider has slept over. I’ll try and find out what happened to whoever it was, a tough race ahead for anyone who only gets this far on the first day.
For many years the Minerva Tractor Museum up at the top of the mountain that drops down into Byrne, served as the first halfway stop. Minerva was named after a sailing ship of the same name that brought the original settlers from England on the infamous Byrne settlement scheme which ultimately led to the settlement of Byrne. The ship Minerva was wrecked off the Bluff outside Durban. An excerpt from a letter by Ellen McLeod, one of the survivors, reads as follows:
“scarcely anything will be saved… every box or trunk that has been washed up on the beach had been broken up by drunken sailors, and the contents ransacked – most awful work. The boat by the “Minerva” was the means of saving the majority of lives, as all that were landed by her must have been lost”
Minerva Tractor Museum was, to put it mildly, an eclectic place. Malcolm Anderson, the owner, accumulated a world class collection of old tractors, farming equipment, engines of every shape and size. Basically anything with an engine, preferably a diesel engine. Every so often Malcom would hold an open day during which he would fire up many of those old relics. I was lucky enough to be at one of those days. Twenty Lister pumps running at the same time sounds pretty cool, but when he fired up an old WWII Sherman tank engine the surrounding mountains would shudder. Terrific experience.
Sadly it all came to an end a few years back. Vossie, a chap who Malcolm had taken in off the streets many years back, who used to help his wife Vera serve toasted sandwiches and tea to years of FC riders as they came through, shot Malcolm morsdood and then took his own life. I have no idea why that happened, but Minerva closed, the contents have apparently all been shipped off to a similar museum at Baynesfield which riders would have passed very early on in the race on the same day. Very sad, it was a special place.
Batch 1 seem to be doing just fine. The Avidons are well placed to be in Rhodes in three days and some change, at this rate not very much change at all. There seems every likelihood that they will steam through Tinana and get to Vuvu later tonight. I wonder if they might look towards Lehana and give Rhodes a bash overnight, perhaps a sub three day R2R is on the cards? I’m sure they have an eye on an impending storm that is forecast. The top of the Drakensberg is no place to be when electric storms are about, and at this time of the year this is not uncommon.
The newlyweds, Brad and Nix, together with Ernst are having a blast. Early departures and early arrivals at each of the stations, just how it should be done if you are doing a day in a day. Ben and his daughter Laura are taking a bit longer each day but are on schedule for a six day R2R. John Bowen sliced his foot open on the first day and wisely has elected to take two days to get from Allandale to Ntsikeni. As I write he seems to be on track to achieve this. It has been interesting observing the race doctor guide John over WhatsApp in sorting out a pretty scary looking wound.
Batch 2 consists of cyclists and runners. As mentioned one cyclist, Andy Stuart, has withdrawn. The other two, father and son duo Ted and Shaun, made it to Allandale late last night and Ntsikeni seems doable, although again very late, for them tonight. Ted unfortunately lost his hearing aid when crossing the Umkomaas yesterday. Plans are afoot for a replacement. Chris Fisher says there is no race penalty for this.
The runners made Allandale in less than twenty four hours, an hour quicker than their time in March. At that point they were lying equal with the cyclists who had started with them early the previous day. Impressive to say the least. As we came in to The Oaks this afternoon we met an angular fellow who turned out to be another ultra trail runner, Niel Thiart. If it wasn’t for the fact that he had to be at a wedding at the Oaks he would have been running with the four runners doing R2R. Apparently he is buddy of Peter Purchase. Niel is shortly starting a run from Pretoria to Durban, 620km in ten days. Endurance boundaries are getting pushed harder and harder.
This morning four riders set off. The two brothers Rowan and Luke Matthews look like racing machines and so far today have lived up to that impression with a sub 24 hour Ntsikeni looking good. The only thing stopping that might be some trepidation in skirting the Friday night shebeens on the climb outside Centacow that can get a bit rowdy. Not far behind them are two equally strong riders, Grant Hill and Trevor Maarschalk. Grant is going for his third consecutive blanket and I have a feeling sub fifteen days is possible for Grant. Trevor is a lean looking fellow from the canoeing world (think Martin Dreyer) and is going for his first blanket.
Joining Grant Hill at the start today was his buddy (another) Grant Adams. Grant has been ravaged by Multiple Sclerosis, a proper disease that exposes every nerve to a world of excruciating pain, from which there is no recovery and very little escape. Grant Hill (well done bud) is riding to raise funds for his buddy, the medical expenses are through the roof. If any of you see fit to help out the banking details are as follows:
FNB 62743447311 MS Comrades Challenge Ref: name/RASA
Grant Adams joined today’s batch at the start in his electric wheelchair (basically an eBike) and the two Grants did the first km or two together, a pretty special moment.
I’m afraid to say I have zero to report on the postal history of the area we are in. I was banking on there being a post office or agency, past or present, in the tiny hamlet of Byrne but I couldn’t find anything, either physically or on the internet. I know this is going to disappoint many of you and I will do my level best to up my game in the weeks ahead. Please accept my humblest apologies. On a more encouraging note my wife tells me she did smile at my little postal joke yesterday, which made me feel a lot better.
Similarly I have nothing to report on the orchid front, but my news is dependent on any feedback from Orchid Man runner Andy, so feel free to shit on him for his slackness. I’ll also have a meaningful chat with him.
John Dean, my geologist wingman, has warmed up to his task and has brought along a reference book entitled “The Story of Earth & Life, a Southern African perspective on a 4.6 billion year journey”. I’m looking forward to John taking us through a geological master lesson as we journey south westwards. His only comment in the first 50km is “there is buggar all so far, other than some Drakensberg basalt cliffs down in the Umkomaas Valley, marking the breakup of Gondwanaland a few years back”. I’ll also put pressure on John to up his game, although in other aspects he has been an excellent wingman so far.
Once this report is done John and I are going up the hill to Minerva, where we are camping tonight and hoping to see tomorrow’s cyclists, including the Payne brothers, coming through. If we survive the ghosts of memories past and the echoes from long silent diesel engines, we will chat again tomorrow.
Race report #4 12:00 Saturday 9 October 2020
Cloud Mountain Backpackers near Byrne
Minerva is no longer, the new owner Michael Laws has changed the name to Cloud Mountain Backpackers after buying the seventy hectare estate earlier this year. Michael and his family picked the estate up for a song after it had lain derelict for four years following the tragedy involving the previous owner Malcom Anderson. I walked around in the old sheds in the mist very early this morning. There is absolutely nothing left of the old museum. Even the old train coaches are gone. Not quite everything. In a pile of rubble in the corner I did spot three battered old reel-to-reel tape decks from the 1960s, which must be fate intervening because I collect (amongst a few other things) reel-to-reel decks. Michael and I have come to an arrangement and my car will be a bit heavier when we leave. I couldn’t be happier.
Minerva/Cloud Mountain is still beautiful, very rustic and I do wonder whether in future years it might once again serve as the first interim support station, and I say this with no disrespect to The Oaks, where John and I (the Buffalo Herders, from now on) spent a very pleasant afternoon yesterday. Michael and his family have big plans for developing a hemp business in addition to the existing backpackers, so perhaps the allure of a tempting hemp cigar might be too much to resist for passing Freedom Challenge riders and runners. As an aside Michael is hoping to cultivate and market hemp microgreens, of which 20mg a day (fresh) will apparently give you your full 20 amino acids and all your Omega 3s and 6s. I bet you weren’t expecting that useful titbit today.
This morning Batch 4 started in PMB. We drove up to Cunningham Castle (the road is passable, albeit sketchy, confirming my memories are of a pretty ropey section) to watch them crest and then drop down to Cloud Mountain. The stretch they rode on the plateau above is spectacular, most of it forming part of the ground owned by Michael Laws. This morning it was cold and misty, ideal cycling weather.
Batch 4 consists of the Payne bothers, Nigel (3 RASAs) and Adrian (2 RASAs), Gary (3 RASAs) and Jeanette Scoular, Bruce Biccard and Jeanine Stewart (1 RASA) and Eddie Stafford. I assume Gary and Jeanette are a husband and wife team. I have no idea if Bruce and Jeanine are a couple or not but I did see them together earlier this morning looking as happy as Larry up on the plateau. Nigel and Adrian are doing their third RASA together and as I write they are the oldest brother pairing to finish both RASA and the Cape Epic. Nigel has racked up a pretty impressive endurance sport CV over the years, with numerous Dusi Canoe Marathons also under the belt. I assume Adrian has done stuff as well, I’ll ask him.
Feedback from the Orchid Man Andy is a pretty emphatic “zero orchids, repeat, zero orchids”, so we are hoping that he expands his interest to other wild flowers. I have sent him some photos that we took this morning to act as a useful guideline. Speaking of which we will be treated to a bank of Hilton daisies when we leave Cloud Mountain around lunch time today so I’ll take a photo or two. The Hilton daisy is a threatened species, Gerbera aurantiaca, and is apparently one of our beautiful but rare and endangered perennial herb species. It flowers from August so our timing is good. I’ve been told they help with hearing so I’ll pick a bunch in case Ted Adam hasn’t received his replacement hearing aid yet. At the very least they will look good sticking out of his helmet. Speaking of Ted, he and his son Shaun are having measured and successful days and so far are doing a day in a day, perfectly in control.
Elsewhere the field has thinned somewhat. The Avidons have had to pull out, Ingrid had a bad fall and her knee is unplayable. Husband Anthony is keeping her company, good man, their two tracker units are no longer necessary. Father and daughter team Ben and Laura de Lange have also called it a day at Masakala, but I am sure they will both be back in future years. The upshot of all these withdrawals is that that there aren’t any R2R riders left in the field, only the runners, so the old fable of the tortoise and hare rears its head again.
The runners, aside from their fruitless search for orchids, are doing just fine and are approaching the 190 km mark, still well on target to make Rhodes in under seven days. They are sending a steady stream of really great photographs along the way and Race Office will publish these in due course.
The honeymoon couple are already in Malegolonyane and I’ll quote Nix here: “we have decided to have a romantic stay (sleeping for the night), at the exotic Malegolonyane”. The more astute readers amongst you would have noted that they seem to be getting to their daily destination quicker and quicker and, once there, are not showing the slightest interest in moving on to the next SS. The universe nods its head in approval. The only thing puzzling me is Ernst Behrens, who has so far stuck with the honeymoon couple. I think I’ll have a quiet chat with him.
John Bowen, foot wound and all, is solidly back on track and well on his way to Masakala. If he manages Rhodes in seven days he will be still be very well placed to move on to his blanket in Wellington.
I’ve had some useful feedback from readers identifying riders who have slept over for the first night at Minerva/The Oaks. Steve Kellerman was one of them, and I’ve forgotten the other (please remind me?), but whoever it was got lost up in the mountains. Steve went on to get his blanket that year. Coincidentally I bumped into Steve down in the Eastern Free State a month back, and I know it will come as a relief to beard admirers worldwide that his splendid red beard is still intact.
Batch 4, who started yesterday, are motoring and enjoying today’s cooler conditions. Looks like they will jump ahead to Masakala by the end of the day. The only thing holding them back is Grant Hill’s wife Saskia who insists on hourly personal updates from her husband. The only solution I can see to this vexing problem is for Saskia to do RASA with Grant next year. I seem to recall suggesting this last year but I’ll keep trying.
From the postal history perspective great excitement in that I think we have found some evidence of a Byrne agency that used to be in an old trading store just outside Byrne. The Buffalo Herders will scout this lead out on our way back through Byrne.
The last batch starts tomorrow, and from then on the FC circus rolls its way across South Africa. It is a privilege to be part of this event and I look forward to sharing it all with you over the next couple of weeks.
Race report #5 10:00 Sunday 10 October 2020
Ntsikeni Nature Reserve
The Buffalo Herders have relocated to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve, arriving around 8pm last night, completing another leg of our armchair version of the Freedom Challenge. It’s a lot different getting here by car, in some (but not many) ways it is a lot easier on a bike, perhaps mainly because one knows the way by bike. Mr Dalu Ngcobo, the caretaker of Ntsikeni Lodge, his wife Gladys and Sibonile Mabuntane the booking officer, greeted us with the usual warm welcome that has meant so much to decades of Freedom Challenge riders.
It is still very cold up here, 3 degrees last night, and wet due to the fine mist. Don’t be fooled into believing this summer’s RASA is all warm weather. There is snow on the top of the Drakensberg. We can report that the food (chicken stew, rice and pumpkin) is still as good as always, as is the fire. Mr Ngobo has been greetings riders since 2006, missing out only on the first two RASAs. A legend of the trail.
We learned last night that we are now in an area that is somewhat of a cultural melting pot of South Africa, where Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho identities are all present. Ntsikeni used to be part of the Eastern Cape but in 2006 they switched back to KZN. Matatiele switched the other way, from KZN to the Eastern Cape, a move that was, to put it mildly, not received with much enthusiasm. Mr Ngcobo and his wife are Zulu, Sibonile is also a Zulu but his ancestors are Swazi, moving here many generations ago.
We also spoke about the reserve itself, which formerly served as communal grazing land until 1978 when it was proclaimed as a reserve by the Department of Forestry and Fisheries. One can only imagine this may not have gone that well with the local community. Forty two years on it is now well established although it took a hammering during the lockdown.
We are amongst the first visitors that have returned since the start of the COVID crisis. There were issues with poaching (bored youngsters with nothing to do) and fences being cut in places to gain access to the grazing. A not inconsiderable herd of cattle is grazing right in front of me as I write this. Notwithstanding this is still a phenomenally beautiful place.
To us the most relevant discussion was the around the importance of this event, the Freedom Challenge, to the local community. We were left in no doubt over the reverence in which this event is held, there being a very clear understanding and appreciation of the link to tourism and local business. Mr Ngcobo explained how it works. As riders leave Centacow and eventually turn left at the stream to start the long climb to the fence at Ntsikeni, word will reach him from people along the way - “there are two coming”, “a mafutha (a big fat guy, like me) is coming” – so that they are ready for us when we arrive. We are in good hands.
Three riders (Janine, Bruce and Eddie) came in last night (actually this morning at 1am) from Batch 4, having started early on Saturday morning in Pietermaritzburg. John and I were awake at that time, and we watched their flickering lights gradually come over the crest before their pinprick headlights showed they had finally crested. It seemed an age before they finally arrived. It was quite special to lie there and watch this, appreciating what they had just been through, 210km in eighteen and a half hours, a proper effort.
Janine, Bruce and Eddie are aiming for Masakala tonight, a much easier day ahead. Janine is aiming to do a 15 day RASA, which would put her in second place on the all-time women’s list, ahead of Ingrid Avidon with only Jennie Dreyer ahead of her, her 2013 time of twelve days six minutes increasingly untouchable. Bruce tells me he started out with aiming just to finish this year. He has one RTW under the belt and he is a little surprised to find himself at Ntsikeni on day one. Perhaps a fifteen day RASA for him as well? Eddie, the last of today’s threesome at Ntsikeni, is a legal guy who has lived in Mauritius for the last ten years. Four years as a parabat have clearly prepared him, together with four RTRs. Another strong rider. Janine and John discovered they are both geologists so they will something to chat about over the next two weeks.
Before I carry on I have some damage control to do. Bruce and Janine are NOT, I repeat NOT a couple. Apparently my uncertainty over their status has had a ripple effect out there. I can only blame my carelessness on the high number of couples (the Avidons, the Honeymooners, Brad and Nix, and the Scoulars) doing this year’s event, eventually everyone starts looking like a couple. I’m even starting to look quite fondly at my wingman John the geologist.
Batch 1 has been decimated. Of eight starters only three are left. Unfortunately John Bowen has withdrawn, his first days have not gone well, in particular the cut on his foot. This event is brutal, that elusive blanket lies tantalizingly beyond the horizon for some of us. The anguished nights after withdrawing, “should I have, shouldn’t I have?” No judgement brother, that is a very nasty looking cut, we have all been there, we choose to put ourselves in the mouth of the dragon and sometimes it spits us out. At least we felt the heat. Respect.
Batch 2 (the Honeymooners and Ernst) were covered in yesterday’s report, they finished so early. I have no idea how they are faring so far today, there are zero communication here at Ntsikeni. I assume Batch 3 made it through to Masakala?
The Payne brothers came through here at Ntsikeni an hour or so back, having set out from Centacow at 3:15 am this morning. They are also aiming for Masakala tonight. I’ve known Nigel for over thirty years, and true to form he can still talk the hind leg off a donkey, even after the tough ride into Ntsikeni. I got to know his brother Adrian a bit better, and not surprisingly he has a similar sporting pedigree to Nigel, filled with multiple Comrades, Dusi, FC, Epic and similar events.
Really nice seeing the affection the two brothers have for each, a gentle reminder to me of how good it would have been to ride this year’s RASA with my brother Gordon. Nigel’s emotional response to hearing of Ingrid’s withdrawal was poignant, and I saw something similar from Adrian when we were remembering an old mutual friend of both brothers who died of a heart attack some years back. Adrian and Nigel will be riding in memory of Garth Naude of Queenstown today.
The last two riders from Batch 4, Mr and Mrs Scoular, arrived here at Ntsikeni shortly before we left. The community back down the hill phoned earlier- “they are on their way”. We saw them yesterday afternoon at Allandale where they were looking good. As we left they were about to eat and take a shower, so the fact that they made it to Centacow is impressive, not many get back on the road after taking a shower at Allandale. It was lovely to briefly catch up with Ian and Dana Waddilove, hosts at Allandale, and reassuring to know that my binoculars and bird book that I left there after 2009 RASA are still being used.
The sharp end of the field started earlier this morning. Six riders, Mike Woolnough, Alex Harris, Arno Crous, Tim James, Charles Mansfield, and Gareth Dewey. I will give them a proper introduction tomorrow. I imagine they will all be aiming for Ntsikeni in a day, if not they probably have erred in starting in the last batch! I am sure Martin Dreyer is keeping a beady eye on their progress, that record of his always eyed as a target. The bonus if it is broken is that Martin will be back next year.
The Byrne postal history foray was indeed successful. We not only found the old trading store where the agency used to be, but also the former postmaster, Roy Fraser, who happened to be standing outside his shuttered trading store. The agency was only open for a few years (early 1990s) so I am hoping to get my hands on a postal cancellation from that period. Philatelists love that kind of stuff.
Of even more interest is the discovery of a family connection that one of this year’s riders, Eddie Stafford (the parabat), has with the area. His ancestors were aboard the ill-fated Minerva ship and eventually settled in the area, at a small outpost called Stafford’s Post. I can almost hear you all shouting “was there a post office at Stafford’s Post?” The answer is I have no idea but we will do whatever we can to find out.
The Orchid Man has responded to the wild flower idea and I have been inundated with exquisite photographs from him. John the geologist has been busy trying to identify these flowers, so far unsuccessfully. Thankfully Mr Ngcobo came to the rescue with his local knowledge and flower book and we have a positive ID for “Ledebouria ovatifolia”. Porcupines eat it and it is also used in traditional medicine to cure diarrhea, flu and backache. Sounds like a rider’s dream drug.
John the geologist has added the flower duties to his geology responsibilities which is not a bad thing given the limited feedback on the geological front. He did mutter something about unique fossilized lizards being found only in Brasil and South Africa, thereby proving the theory of continental drift, but I could be wrong.
I’ve also had a message from Gavin “lays an egg” Horton who reminded me that his 2016 RASA ended in Minerva after tearing a muscle climbing a fence earlier that day. So Steve Kellerman remains the only person so far who has slept there or at the Oaks and still managed to get a blanket.
That’s about enough, the Scoulars are sounding chirpy although they said the mist from Donnybrook to Centacow was hectic, quite a bizarre ride for them. They got in around ten last night. They have decided to stop for the day at Ntsikeni, who can blame them, they have earned the right after their ride of yesterday. Interesting couple, Gary and Jeanette. Three kids, Savannah, Skye and Raine, otherwise referred by them as “the Elements”. Makes sense. Gary was a commercial diver for many years, seems to be a serial entrepreneur these days, currently into simulated sport technology. Jeanette is a graphic designer and also commands the Elements. She goes by the name of “God”.
I don’t think this forum is an appropriate place to bring up sensitive political topics like “Donald Trump is a complete knob” or “sleepy Joe” or anything along those lines. So I won’t be referring to it at all in these reports.
The Buffalo Herders need to set off now, very glad that we have had the privilege of a night at the incomparable Ntsikeni. Thank you to Mr Ngcobo and his team.
Race report #6 14:00 Monday 11 October 2020
The Buffalo Herders overnighted in Matatiele. We are now in the village of Masakala, a few kilometers north, the third of a string of support stations that sit in the so-called tribal lands. Centacow, Ntsikeni, Masakala, Malekgolonyane, Tinana Mission and Vuvu are etched up in the shadows of the Drakensberg. When our domestic workers back in the leafy suburbs of the cities say “I am going home for Xmas”, this is where they go to.
It is difficult to convey in words how special the days are before the climb over Lehana and the drop into Rhodes and the Eastern Cape. It is very different over on that side of the mountain. Here the conversations are frequent, the greetings generous (“where are you going?”). Life at the pace of a bicycle encourages kinship, as opposed to at the pace of a 4X4, which in itself is a stark reminder of different worlds.
I think of the smell of the African evening fire, pungent and unmistakable, you know exactly where you are. The routines of life, the water carriers (either very old, very young or a woman), the taxis, the neatness of the dwellings, the dogs who eye us with us much suspicion as our dogs might react to strangers in the cities, the spaza shops and the shebeens, the soccer fields with excited spectators and impeccably kitted players, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep and goats, seemingly random chickens (who do they belong to?).
I am sure that life here falls in the “difficult” category when measured by traditional quality-of-life indicators, but all I see are thriving communities and a style and pace of life that makes me think whether us city types actually might have it wrong. The Freedom Challenge without this stretch is unthinkable.
Perhaps a little insight into the purpose of the race scribe, the production of the daily report. It is a privilege having the opportunity to do it. These days Freedom Challenge has any number of Facebook, website, Live Tracking and WhatsApp feeds so I need to be careful as to what the relevance of this report is. How can it add to the experience rather than being a mundane repetition? The visual richness is catered for elsewhere, increasingly so given the exquisite photographs that riders and runners (especially) are sending to the Facebook Dot-Watchers page. The intensity of the actual competitiveness of the race is best handled through the live tracking.
My job, and it is evolving as I write and report is to try and offer some insight into the people (riders and runners, support station hosts and the communities around them) and the geography, history and anything else that helps make the overall experience richer for everyone. The Freedom Challenge is way more than just a sporting event and is constantly evolving. From what I observe it is drawing more and more people into its orbit, through a fascination by “watchers” of the extraordinary physical and mental feats by the competitors and an equal interest in everything else that goes around the journey.
I’m looking at the Masakala sign-in/out sheet as I write. Only four riders have yet to go through this support station. The Scoulars, who should be here shortly and who I suspect will move straight on to Malekgolonyane, and Charles Mansfield and Tim James, the latter both starting yesterday and who will not be here by the time we leave. The front three riders were through here earlier this morning. Alex Harris was out by 8:50, Mike Woolnough by 9:06 and Arno Crous by 11:10. It seems that the podium is likely to be made up of those three, but early days yet.
Lots of discussion on one of the WhatsApp groups about sleep strategies, or rather lack-of-sleep strategies. The Munga riders think that seventy two hours without sleep is doable, they should know. General consensus is that at some point a two hour sleep will be required, as much for mental as physical rejuvenation. All I do know is that the boundaries of what we thought possible are being pushed every year. What seemed madness five years ago is now the new norm.
I said yesterday I would briefly introduce the last batch. Alex Harris has three blankets and is a two time winner of the race, and currently holds the fourth fastest time, one of which he achieved during his epic battle with eventual winner Martin Dreyer in 2017. Only Martin has achieved faster times than Alex, something he has done on three occasions. Tim James is a five times winner of the event and is going for his ninth blanket, a record. Mike Woolnough is after his sixth blanket and has been a podium finisher in endurance for quite a number of years. He has a particularly insightful contribution to endurance sport and writes frequently and eloquently on this fabulous sport of ours. Arno Crous is going for his second blanket and is the dark horse of the race, apparently he is in great shape. Charles Mansfield is also after his second blanket.
Many of this year’s riders will be going for noteworthy achievements. Firstly a blanket, which in itself is a massive achievement. Then there are other FC “clubs”, such as the sub 15 days club. I suspect there are a number of riders who are desire membership of that club, including the Payne brothers and Janine Stewart and her two riding companions
Masakala. Two very kind hostesses, Nobulhe (37) and Fundiswa (29) look after the riders. Nobulhe is in her fifth year of Masakala duties, Fundiswa her second. We chatted a bit about their experiences, Nobulhe told me about all the questions from local youth – “who are these people, where are they from?” “how can I also do this thing?” We all have dreams. The two hosts are both single. Nobulhe’s husband is late and she has two young children, a nine year old boy and a six year old daughter. Fundiswa’s five year old son was from a previous relationship. Perhaps one day these youngsters will be in a position to take part in the Freedom Challenge. Our hosts are both Xhosa and they tell me that this area is now only Xhosa and Sotho, we are out of Zulu country by now.
The runners are making good progress. The endless stream of photos they send show them as a very happy bunch, like they have just started. I am sure the truth is that they are hurting like all hell. Their progress is best measured by comparing the percentage of the total distance they have done to the percentage of total time available to them that they have used. Earlier today they had completed 65% of the distance and had only used 57% of the time available. They are on the right side of the equation and looking for finishing inside the seven day limit. Andy has started a new photographic theme “bovine creatures” and has forwarded some classic images for consideration and potential publishing. I am glad he has found something to keep his mind off the pain. Update: as of now the runners have an 8.9% gap, widening the gap from 8 to 8.9%. It’s been a good day (at least it seems so to us). 140kms left in 64 hours, including a little climb up Lehana.
Batch 3 are doing just fine. The Matthews brothers are motoring and on course to be in Rhodes inside three days. Grant Hill and Trevor Maarschalk are doing great as well, probably Vuvu tonight and perhaps through past Rhodes to Courtney World tomorrow, exactly what Grant did last year. Father and son duo Ted and Shaun Adams are looking solid. They are a day behind the 26 day schedule and are looking at Rhodes in seven days, which will leave them ideally placed. We will catch up with them over the next few days.
Gary and Jeannette have just arrived here at Masakala. A quick lunch and then they are off to Malekgolonyane. Jeanette is battling with feet issues but she seems to be managing ok. They tried the new Tim James route into Masakala and thoroughly enjoyed it, the only problem being it cuts out the old Coke stop.
Quick update from the postal history side. Stafford’s Post does indeed have a post office, in fact it still functions. Fabulous news. Aside from post offices we are also keeping an eye out for small town rugby clubs, a barometer perhaps of the state of that sport in our country. Today we popped in to Matatiele Rugby Club. Actually it looked ok, I’ll post some pictures, but it’s heyday of being part of the premier Natal rugby league and playing against Rovers and Collegians are long gone.
Aside from the wildflowers there are other various flora and fauna that riders and runners come across during their journey. Yesterday whilst chatting to the Payne bothers before they left Ntsikeni, we saw a pair of highly endangered wattle cranes fly overhead, the first time I have seen them airborne. Ntsikeni has numerous buck species, including three types of rhebuck (grey, mountain and southern). John the geologist and I saw one of these, a mountain rhebuck on our drive out of Ntsikeni. Gary and Jeanette spotted a porcupine at Politiq Kraal at sunrise this morning.
The support stations of The Oaks, Allandale, Centacow, Ntsikeni, Glen Edward and shortly Masakala are now closed for 2020. Thank you for your support, as always, part of the Freedom Challenge family.
Race report #7 12:00 Tuesday 12 October 2020
The Buffalo Herders left Masakala an hour or two ago. The chickens crowed very early this morning so we were two cups of tea down by 7am. Tim James came in around 8pm last night, we watched him take the short cut across the veld into Masakala, cutting out the extra loop. I have a feeling he didn’t need to look at his maps. Charles Mansfield arrived later, around 10pm, not that we knew it as we were asleep.
I got to know Charles a bit this morning before he left at 6am (Tim left early at 2am). He is a good man, a reflective soul which isn’t that surprising given that a few years back he had to fight and overcome some serious health challenges. Not many survive cancer of the heart. His doctor suggested a life of gentle walks might be in order. Charles suggested otherwise and here he is on his second RASA, trying to beat his time of fifteen days and a bit of 20