Sleeping out on the Freedom Trail elicits one of the biggest responses across a broad spectrum when spoken about. It typically sends the dot watchers into a frenzy, makes the family of the wanderer anxious and the rider uncomfortable. I’ll try in this post to quash some of the myths and offer some facts about something I think is more feared than it should be.
Let me start out by saying that it really is not necessary to sleep out on the Freedom Trail if you adopt a sensible strategy and prepare your daily route well. On the other hand, if you do have to sleep out, it really isn’t the end of the world.
A few years ago, corporate South Africa decided to raise funds by having sponsored executives sleep out for a night on the streets of Johannesburg. It was a good idea to redistribute some corporate executive pay to charities, but it was neither life threatening nor particularly uncomfortable , such was the level of preparation and expense incurred to ensure the best in outdoor gear was donned.
On the Freedom Trail you will have none of that comfort, but you can ensure that it won’t require you to push the SOS button.
Very few riders plan to sleep out (there are a few that do, but then it is more of a catnap during a night ride). The main reason most people get to spend the night under the stars is that they get lost and then cannot find the next support station. What follows is the inevitable wait until daylight to establish where they are and push to the nearby support station for a hot breakfast and to tell some war stories.
So to avoid this, one has to make a call late morning whether you think you will be able to get to the next support station before dark (when navigation becomes an order of magnitude more difficult) or whether you should play it safe and make sure you are in a support station before nightfall.
Keep in mind that in certain parts of the trail it is almost dark by 17:30. So if you leave a support station after lunch, at say 1:30pm, and your average speed over the next 50km is 10km/hr, that leaves you 10km short of the next support station at 17:30 when it is getting dark. While it seems silly to pull up the handbrake at 1:30pm and stay at a support station, it makes more sense to me to do some bike admin, have an early night and leave at 3am.
That way, if you can't find the route in the early morning, you only have to wait until 7am when the dawn starts breaking. The general rule followed in planning, is that it is far better to spend the late afternoon/ night in a support station and plan for the next day, than it is to ride into the night in the hope of finding the next support station in the dark.
If you do realise you are lost at night and you make the decision you are not going to find the next support station – what can you do and what can you expect?
Firstly, you should make peace with the fact that you are going to need to settle down and calm yourself down. The most uncomfortable part for many people is not the cold and discomfort, it's their mind which can torture them for the next few hours. If you have reception call, the Race Director, because besides the support stations and the interim stops, he has a wealth of contacts down the trail where he can direct you to. When I called him on one occasion, we just happened to be a few hundred meters from one of the Freedom Circuit community lodges and it was open. Just like that we had a bed and a mattress. If you don’t have reception, you can push the OK button and Chris will know that you are fine. He can communicate this to your family if needs be.
If you are in a populated area or can see a sign of life, then you can knock on a door and try and seek shelter from the owner of the premises. Often you'll be welcomed in and you'll experience true warm South African hospitality. If it's in a tribal area, verbal communication may be limited, but don’t worry, your needs are pretty basic at that stage, i.e. a roof over your head and perhaps some warmth. Alternatively, if you find an uninhabited shelter, this can go a long way to making your overnight wait a lot more comfortable.
If you are truly lost in the veld or in a wilderness area such as Baviaanskloof or Stettynskloof – the first thing you should know is that the chances of you being visited by any sort of predator or nasty creature is just about zero, so relax. Your biggest worry is going to be your discomfort. Here too, is where you can be prepared, ie leave the minimal gear approach for those people at the front of the race who know where they are at all times. For the rest, get out all your warm, dry clothes and put them on as soon as possible. You want to keep the heat you have. Items of clothing that are useful are a balaclava, a down jacket and some of those hand warmers (Little Hotties) that activate and radiate heat.
Then you need to find yourself a suitable place to sit and sleep, preferably near the trail so you can start off where you left off that night. Look for a grassy spot or leafy branches. You want to put something soft and insulating between your bony butt and the cold earth. Build yourself a ‘mattress’ of sorts. Don’t consider making a fire – that’s as good as getting into a vehicle – you will probably be disqualified if found out. Have something to eat and drink (eat your emergency meal you are carrying) – this makes you feel better even if you don’t need the sustenance.
It's compulsory to have a bivvy bag, so make sure you have a good one. It must be bag you can crawl into and it should have a cowl with a drawstring. Use it, they really do work. Not to belabour the point, but the tiniest protrusion of yourself to the cold air will be unpleasant, so make sure you can be like a mummy in that bag.
Now the trick is to try and get some rest and recovery – you don’t want to lose both a night’s sleep and then the next day have another bad day because you got no rest. Its hard, but if you can calm yourself, you can probably get a few hours rest and maybe some sleep. Keep in mind that by now your family already know where you are on the tracker and will have been told that you are fine.
Something folk often do is sleep for a few hours, get woken by the cold and then decide in the early hours of the morning that suddenly they think they know where they are and are now going to find the route. So they leave their comfortable spot and go bashing again for a few hours. This is energy wasting folly and serves only to entertain dot watchers. So unless you have a route or position epiphany – rather stay where you are, conserve energy and wait it out until daylight. Then just like that you have survived your first sleep out on the trail and hopefully you can get to the next support station quickly.
Photo credit: www.radbag.co.za