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RTP Impressions from a Namibian Novice

During the RTP one’s mind and thoughts are clouded by doubt and by incisive and nagging questions you ask yourself about the kinds of life decisions you made to end up on a bicycle saddle for 16 hours (or whatever), in the mud, against the wind, in the dark, with sore bum, with fogged over glasses, etc. And when you finish, it is about the relief of not having to get back onto that damn saddle at some ungodly hour in the cold morning, you can sleep in if you want to! But in the intervening period we had some time to reflect more objectively, we had some time for the story to become a more coherent whole.

I will unequivocally say that the Freedom Challenge RTP was the best bicycle event I have ever done. We have done our share of the 3-day events and have done the Desert Dash and this and that. But nothing comes close to the experience of the RTP.

Here is our story, told in impressions, I hope this provides some context for our gratitude, expressed further below.

Early morning sheer panic to be at the starting line on time, the dread of potentially riding into cold wet days (we are Namibians, we do not do wet and cold easily!).

The grinding monotony of the pernicious and soul-sucking muddy drag of the first day warring with the delight of riding to a wide-open horizon and under truly big Karoo skies.

The constant swish as we battled soft sand, soft mud, soft loam, just emphasising the beauty of the crisp, clear air in a never-ending sky.

The scratching sound of the chain as it emerges from mud and water. Falling in a large puddle in the road.

The depression that set in when leaving the safety of Rondawel and realizing that we are not going to be home safe in Prince Albert at a nice early hour; this ride is going to ask serious vasbyt from us.

The deliciously ominous clouds against a darkening afternoon sky teasing us with the potential of making us wetter but never really turning angry, then an easy riding peace settling in as the dark strikes and we move to acceptance of our fate – we are in this, no way back, just keep pedaling, three of us, the sound of the wheels on wet gravel roads, only what you can see in the light of the bike’s torch, we are in this together.

The terrible yellow mud in the manga through the Sleutelfontein reserve, in the pitch-black night (we noticed some funny cattle-like droppings, wondered about them briefly and only figured out what these were when we heard about the “buffalo incident” when we arrived at Yellow House).

The constant juggling of flipping on the helmet light and flipping down riding glasses to focus on the tiny numbers of my bike computer whose clumsy backlight switching sequence prevented anything to be seen without these double contortions.

An allegedly fast downhill on the last 20km to Prince Albert, that turned out to have been transformed into several successive riverbeds, sandy, wet and treacherous. The mind-numbingly slow rate at which the town approached us in the dark, the relief and elation of finally riding up to the church in Prince Albert to be welcomed by the 10pm bell.

A lovely meal served by wonderful hosts. The overwhelming winding climb of Swartbergpas, before barreling down the other side into a freezing wind, a roosterkoek lunch at a place called Kobus (or someone) se gat where we found some shelter against the wind.

Long and many climbs and descents into successive small valleys until we finally dropped into the stunning beauty of the Groenfontein valley.

Arriving shattered in Caltzdorp, the slowly dawning realization that this race might be too big for us, our kids’ messages that evening expressing belief in our alleged abilities and spurring us on nevertheless.

A less than welcome surprise when we discovered, in the dark the next morning, a whole Huisrivier pass between us and Zoar and the turnoff from the tar towards the magnificence of Seweweekspoort, the slow reveal of the majestic folded cliffs in the Poort, then a left turn in the high valley onto the original FC route and into a gusty westwind at the top of the poort, slowing us to below 8km/h on level road as we crawled through the green beauty of the valley towards Rouxpos (before which, at some scenic spot, Rowan Matthews came flying past us on his way to Anysberg, but not before stopping for a chat and some words of encouragement).

Eating ourselves trommeldik at Gerhard and Ronel’s place.

Wading through the Buffelsrivier and hunting for bike tracks in the dark, the sun coming up on the road past the Krompoort in Anysberg reserve, the Anysberg itself, bursting with biodiversity.

Wading through a fast-flowing Touwsrivier after a lunch of a witbrood toebroodjie met kaas en marmite eaten under the signboards next to the river, me watching that angry stream with a skew eye and anxious mood.

The monotony of the exasperatingly long and flat bit towards Hoek van die Berg.

The top of Oubergpas on the way to which we passed some kids playing soccer in the road, they respectfully standing aside to allow us to pass but shouting enthusiastic greetings, then dropping down the other side fast enough that my brakes almost ceased up going into a shar corner.

Arriving in Montagu after dark and finding the charmingly old-fashioned Royal Hotel and a civilized meal despite loadshedding. Passing through Kogmanskloof in the silent, traffic-free darkness.

An oldish Muslim man in Ashton on his way to morning prayers, his jaw missing some teeth and skewed probably by a life lived interestingly, explaining to us that Fruitpackers “is da by die kjeller”.

The vineyards after Ashton on a pitch dark and foggy morning before sunrise, everything so quiet, so spooky, people on their way to work appearing as if ghosts from the mist, a dog barking somewhere, sounding as if it is all around, probably confusing some real ghosts as well.

Ingrid Avidon flying past us at about twice our speed as the sun came up on the gravel road to McGregor, but not before stopping for a chat and a few words of encouragement (her to us, not us to her).

The surprisingly diverse bit of veld through which the singletrack takes you under the powerline reserve after McGregor, where we wasted a lot of riding time looking at and photographing flowers. I’m a bit vague after this, which came before what, but I remember more kids in the road near the Maine Stud sticking out their hands for a greeting slap as we rode past, then cresting Gannabergpas somewhere after that, having had to push the bikes for 2km up the steepest part.

Dropping into the chaos of farms and vineyards, on wet gravel and crumbly tar roads, briefly stopping at the prison to put on our jerseys against the cold and with a background soundtrack of the prisoners settling down for the night, one of them shouting over and over “hey, wat maak djulle da?” like a record stuck in its groove.

Passing through the immaculately kept prison grounds and then onto the road around the Tierkloof Reserve as the sun set on Brandvlei dam with staggered, darkening mountain ranges disappearing in the western dusk. Up the last steep bit to Trouthaven in the dark, a cold mountain stream flowing somewhere below us, the relief of walking into a cottage warmed by fire.

The difficult decision (made a day earlier already) not to attempt Stettyns with clearly overweight bikes and an Achilles tendon which had by then become my Achilles heel, but the relief of being able to start the last morning a bit later with a solid rest behind us.

A last day full of pleasant surprises - a stunning sunrise over the vineyards, followed by Rawsonville in thick mist, then past the flooded vineyards before and along the Badsberg, where Talitha almost disappeared in some quicksand, the kids running along with us past the workers’ village at Hugo’s Kraal with that short-gaited pace that toddlers do when they are self-conscious and excited at the same time.

Getting confused amongst the jumble of vineyards because reality did not match the map, but nevermind, we just headed for the Bree Rivier and found the Slanghoek road anyway. Then the expected massive climb up a traffic-congested Baineskloof turned into a long smooth ride with a gentle gradient in crisp sunlight, almost no cars and stunning views.

A fast drop to Wellington, before a last, unloved climb up the Olyvenbosch road, turning through the gate, where we found our second bokkie!, towards the Diemersfontein back gate with Julia and sidekick welcoming us to the estate.

Getting some airtime over every speed bump on the way down to the dam, momentarily being confused after the dam, which of the two left-turn options to take or should we go straight (??!!), the last few metres to the finish line where we expected that maybe Chris and Julia would say hi and well done and give us a protea, instead riding into an enthusiastic crowd of 20 plus people, taking pictures, shouting and generally making us feel we achieved something.

I have a short GoPro video of Talitha riding in front of me through the valley towards Calitzdorp, maybe even still on the tarred section, mid-afternoon, clouds on the Swartberg, green valley around us. When I think back to RTP, for some reason that is the image that jumps to mind. It captures the simple joy of being free and on your bike, in the atmosphere, on the ground, covering a significant part of the country under your own steam. What a joy, what a privilege. For me especially so since I got to do it with Talitha.

I hope and trust that Freedom Challenge will carry on with all strength. For a long time. Because we want another chance. We want to do RTP again, this time better prepared for Stettyns, and hopefully also getting the chance to do the Gamkaskloof and climb out at Die Leer (although I am really not sorry that we did the Calitzdorp diversion - it was a beautiful ride - I was also really looking forward to get back into die Hel, which I last visited on a motorbike in the early 1980s). But we also want to try some of the other shorter events, and one day, when the pressures of work are less and we can afford to focus on cycling for 22 days or so at a trot, maybe even RASA.

Who knows.

So, Chris and Julia, may I formally and copiously thank you once again for organizing this event. I had sort of dreamed about doing FC ever since Pierre (Le Roux) did it the first time and came back with awesome stories, and I am SO glad he convinced us to do RTP this year. It was a unique experience, a special culture of individual challenge mixed with hospitality and camaraderie on a dramatic backdrop of South African landscapes.

Best wishes in cycling, Theo and Talitha Wassenaar

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