Updated: Jul 3, 2021
Timeline: 2 July 06:00am
It’s 24 hours since the racing batch set off from outside Pietermaritzburg Town Hall. The entertainment from that quarter only came once the sun had gone down. Riding in the dark has its own challenges but it wasn’t only the racing batch who found themselves floundering in the dark.
Nighttime navigation is both intimidating and exhilarating. It’s great when it goes to plan but when you get to the point of having to admit to yourself that you don’t know where you are or in what direction you should be heading the excitement evaporates faster than you can say, ‘oh hell!’ And there were a number of ‘oh hell!’ moments last night.
Andrew Pearson set off from Masakala at 5am yesterday morning with his eyes set on Malekgalonyane 56 kilometres up the trail. While it’s not without its navigational challenges it is generally seen as an easy day where arriving early afternoon you get some laundry done and chill out and enjoy the sun setting over the majestic mountains that frame the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Andrew, a newcomer to this section of the Freedom Trail chugged along making the occasional squiggle as to be expected in a section where the line on the map is often merely a suggestion. At 14:30 he had covered 41 km leaving him 15km to get to the Malekgalonyane Chalet. The nav is a tad tricksy, requiring a clamber onto the ridge of the mountain that rises above the village of Mparane. Once on the ridge it’s a case of making your way along drag paths—wide paths created by oxen, more recently tractors, dragging massive bundles of wattle firewood off the mountain to the village below. These paths, while posing an erosion nightmare, make for magnificent riding not unlike a toboggan run in places. While it’s good fun the point at which you need exit the drag paths is not that obvious. Night fell just as Andrew was at the point of exit. Remarkably he managed to navigate through the wattles that litter the southern slopes and slowly made his way to the old Gladstone farmhouse where some young lads helped guide him off the mountain and on to Malekgalonyane. He arrived at 21:45 having taken almost 17 hours to transition the 56km from Masakala. As I’ve said before, there are. I easy days in the Freedom Trail.
Further back Martin Victor was having navigational challenges. I’m impressed by Freedom rookies who opt to ride on their own. It comes with its own challenges but the stories woven along the way can be written in bold text, underlined and then scribbled through with a highlighter pen. Talking of scribbling, there were a few sketchy sections getting out of Ntsikeni but we are used to that as it is hard to find the line. Once in the road he went along nicely before the first of the Taylorville single tracks. There are 2 sections that link up district roads. Both are very tricky to navigate. An experienced rider can get through each in just over an hour, in daylight. At night it takes a bit longer. Martin managed to get through the first section in almost 3 hours and got to the start of the second as it got dark. He made good time covering half the distance in an hour and was perfectly on track. Then, inexplicably, he turned the wrong way. He rounded a stand of wattles and made a 180° turn heading back toward the direction he had come from, albeit on a parallel path. That was at 7pm. He wandered all over the place for the next hour. Remarkably he didn’t give up. Although at one point it looked like he had shuffled into the wattles to settle down for the night. He stuck to it and eventually made it to Masakala just before 1:30am. A remarkable effort.
Now for the race batch. A few of them missed a turnoff that leads down to Centocow but it’s more of an irritation than a critical blunder. Alex was the first through Centocow and as expected he rode on to Ntsikeni without fault. He arrived at the lodge around 90 mins slower than last year. He then pushed on getting to Glen Edward at 02:30 putting him 2 hours behind. This time he didn’t stop to sleep and was back on the road before 3am meaning he was now 75 mins ahead of his 2020 time. Will the forgone sleep be a factor later today? We will find out. Alex has said that rather than the clinical calculated race he rode last year this year he’s willing to let it all hang out and is willing to go ‘til he blows.
Casper, Axel, Ingrid and brothers Payne settled into Centocow and offered no eventide excitement. They were back on the road soon after midnight but being antic free they provided no entertainment.
Carlo, Chris, Fjord and Gavin were all gung-ho blasting out of Centocow at 6pm. It was band of merry men until they crossed the river and entered the Boshelweni forest. They were perfectly on track when they stopped in their tracks and backtracked and started scribbling all over my screen. It took them 2 hours to finally make progress resulting in them only getting to Ntsikeni after 1am where they settled.