We weren’t supposed to be doing the Race to Rhodes this year. Race to Willowmore was next on the list. A random WhatsApp from Hughes senior saying that they were coming to visit from New Zealand and would we please come and be his friends on the ride, and plans changed.
Then Rocket Ron got involved and invited us to join someone else’s recce from Matatiele to Naude’s Nek. Chief Buffalo Herder Mike heard about it and wasn’t about to be left out. John the Geologist was playing hookie from work, mumbling about avoiding terrorists in Mozambique. We all immediately gate-crashed the party.
Our final party of 9 made it to Masakala in one piece. I think that was the last time we all rode as a group. John promptly dived head first into the mud swamp on the exit from Masakala. John the Geologist took one look at this apparition, did a quick short left and sped off down to the flood plain in the support vehicle. The Lone Ranger and his sidekick were a dust cloud disappearing over the horizon. Rocket Ron had rocketed off. I think the map only navigators were somewhere behind us and we were alone.
Buffalo Herder Roy and Rocket Ron caught up with us and expertly guided us across the flood plains to Queens Mercy (Garmin did help a bit). I have no idea where anyone else was, they all eventually appeared about 40 minutes later. None of us seemed to have followed the same route. A quick get together and chat at Queens Mercy to compare notes, we gave the resident hounds a pat and half a peanut butter sandwich, and were off again.
At the top of Mparane Ridge everyone was in sight of one another. Mike had elected to jump in the vehicle and be the welcoming party at Malekgolonyane. There was thunder and lightning, a high probability of hail, we were getting wet. Five minutes later it was all gone and the sun was shining again. A typical summer thunder storm. Rocket Ron was “sure” that this was the path down. It wasn’t. With some help from Garmin we found the turn, took some notes of the landscape and followed the track. We immediately had some déjà vu feeling of the descent off Bontehoek. John and I found our way, chatted to the locals at Gladstone, who directed us up the hill, found the non-existent track down the fence line and over the river and arrived at Malek before the sun had set to be warmly greeted by our hosts and the Buffalo Herders. Everyone who was at the top of the ridge with us earlier were not at Malek. We showered, drank tea, did our laundry and admin, still no one. Finally, as the sun was setting and the rain was starting again they started to wander in one by one, led by Rocket Ron. They still can’t tell us where they went, it definitely wasn’t via Garmin or the maps.
By the next morning, the Lone Rangers sidekick decided that he had had enough of this “exploring” and broke out his Garmin. He and the Lone Ranger shot off down the district road while the rest of us were still finishing our morning coffee. Five minutes later they were back. Garmin was telling them they were somewhere near nowhere, not where they needed to be and would they like to navigate to the start at Masakala. They left again and we all followed shortly afterwards, down the correct path this time. Half way down the hill, the realisation came that the gps function must be off when our Garmin started shouting that we were off course and would we also like to navigate to the start. Problem fixed.
We all set off for the rest of the day with most of the group. We had the Lone Ranger out front and the two navigators were still somewhere behind. Ongeluksnek, Stations of the Cross and Black Fountain were neatly navigated. At the descent off Black Fountain, Rocket Ron bailed straight over the edge and straight down closely followed by John. The rest of us took a slightly more careful route. A local girl started at the top with us, took the recommended route and sat at the bottom and watched with bemusement as we stumbled and bumbled our way down the very not recommended route.
Around the corner we found the Lone Ranger riding back towards us shaking his head. A very concerned local taxi driver had stopped and was trying to tell us that it was far too dangerous to go that way, the road was too rough and the bridge had washed away and we could not cross to Tinana. We should rather take the very long route down the valley to the next bridge. We declined the offer, assured him we would be fine when he confirmed that the local villagers and the cattle were able to safely walk across the river. Most of our eyes got very big around the corner when the local kids directed us to the very rocky and steep descent that is the route down to the flood plain of the Tinana River. We now fully understood the taxi drivers concern. I don’t think any of us can be considered normal for willingly taking a bicycle down that path.
There had been quite a bit of rain over the past week, so the river was slightly fuller than normal and was flowing quite strongly in places. We found a suitable spot to cross, helped each other, handed bikes and backpacks along and were soon all enjoying the fantastic hospitality of the Kibi family, except for the navigators, they were still missing in action. We hadn’t seen the two of them all day.
By this point the sun was starting to set and we were all feeling like a cold beer would be a great way to end a fantastic day. Mrs Kibi’s son, Siya, very willingly put up his hand to quickly pop down to the local shebeen and arrange a delivery for us. An agreed upon price, a fist full of cash and he shot off like a bat out of hell. The agreed upon price was exactly the number of beers we asked for, plus one extra. The big beers. The one extra did not make it out the shebeen door. Another one beer of the delivery was the delivery fee. The rest of us shared what was left between us. This process repeated itself at least 3 times. By this stage Siya had decided that we were all friends for life. I think his eyeballs were floating. The sun had set, dinner was ready, the navigators were still missing.
At this point we were all starting to get a bit concerned about the missing members of our party. They had been quite happy being on their own, practicing and learning the navigation and making their way to the end of each day in their own time, but all in daylight. The section to Tinana is rough, especially off Black Fountain and down to Tinana and the river crossing, all in the dark. We decided to try and phone them and hope to get an answer. They answered but the phone battery was on the low side. They were thankfully following the Garmin and were on the last rocky descent and then just the river to cross. Mike and John decided that it would be a good idea to drive down to the river to show them the way and help with the crossing. Siya volunteered to assist and off the three of them went. Another phone call to see if they could see the vehicle lights. Unfortunately, as they were down close to the river the lights were not shining high enough to be seen across the flood plain. Siya very quickly fixed this problem. He started what I can only describe as a yodel, very loudly. We could hear it up at the house. Three villages over the hill could probably hear it. Our lost navigators could definitely hear it. Another quick phone call and instructions to not flee into the night and to come towards the sound and they found our party at the crossing. Siya promptly launched himself into the river, gumboots and all, to help them across under the watchful eyes of Mike and John. We could hear him singing and yodelling all the way back up the hill to the house, arriving back swaying and soaking wet, but grinning from ear to ear. Another beer for a job well done.
The lone ranger, unfortunately, had picked up a tummy bug along the way and left us to finish the last two days without him. We all spent the day to Vuvu together, including the navigators. Vuvu Valley is about as remote as you can get. We didn’t see a single person through there. We laughed and chatted and stopped to picnic and to swim in the river in the sunshine. I didn’t know that Vuvu village is on top of a mountain and that I had to first climb a cliff to get there. The donkey calmly going up the path at the end made it look easy, it wasn’t. We arrived at Vuvu well before sunset this time, all together, no one missing.
The final day arrived and we all rode together again, stopped to check the entrance to Lehanas Pass and continued on to Macambala. It’s also quite a hike to get up there. Lots of tea breaks and photos along the way. We played spot the blue container before riding down the other side to meet our support vehicles and eventually headed off home.
I can highly recommend doing the Freedom Tours. They’re fun, can be a laugh a minute and a great way to see the trail for everyone. We went on over the next few months to help at a support station for the Freedom Circuit and ride the section from Two Springs to Masakala. We spent a weekend at Centocow with Nonhlanhla and rode to Ntsikeni and back one day and up to Allendale and back the next. A very chilly weekend at Cedarville to test our cold weather gear. My Lays foot was warmer than my Woollies foot. We spent this past Sunday gardening in the Umkomaas Valley.
There is nothing quite like riding on the trail to understand the trail. Our riding friends can’t understand how it took us 8 hours to do a 50km ride and why we would want to do that. I can’t quite explain it. I’ve invited them all to come and ride the Circuit next year, they are keen.
On Monday we set off for Rhodes. Hughes Senior, Rocket Ron and Mrs Uys are joining us. It’s going to be a great big adventure. Watch our dots. I will let you know how we go.