Freedom has been my mistress for 14 years now. Keven Davie, RASA 2007 (race # 13) and my Dabulamanzi Dusi canoeing partner, suggested the event to me early in 2009. I am sure he did so because he thought it would knock the crap out of me. At the time life had presented a few hurdles for me to deal with. Divorce. Work. All of my own making.
I’m a big guy and not an obvious candidate for endurance sport. When I am in peak shape I weigh around 90-95kg. Roger Nicholson size. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened for a very long time. I was last under 100kg twenty five years ago. My fighting weight for two decades has been more like 115-120kg. I am a typical 1960s born South African. Golf. Rugby. Comrades. Dusi. Club level. Bill Rowan level. Good enough for K2 (in the back), not K1 (in any position).
I, like many of my era, thought I was bullet proof. I started 2009 RASA (Dave Waddilove was still the Race Director) with a heavy pair of 10x42 binoculars and a Sasol bird book. “What a superb way to spend nearly a month, birding across South Africa”
I went on a five day training ride with Kevin and Lynne Morris. I discovered I was by some margin the third fastest. Nevertheless it seemed ok. That was my training.
In 2009 I got my arse properly kicked. The book and binoculars remain to this day at Allendale, after my first night was spent in the Umko Valley. The rear swing arm on my Gary Fisher was twice smashed to pieces. In those days you sorted yourself out, no kind Buffalo Herders around. First time I eventually caught a taxi from Somerset East to Port Elizabeth to try fix it at a bike shop. That took three days. Another trip to Oudtshoorn took a full day.
I was eventually on the trail for 35 days (surely a record) before finally calling it a day on my way to Trouthaven when the swing arm smashed again. The race had long since packed up, and I had started in the last batch. Support stations were very surprised when I arrived two weeks after they had last seen a rider. Dave Waddilove was very kind though. He let me ride. Things are different now, the race is much bigger and the flexibility, shall we say, of the past wouldn’t work now.
I had the time of my life, accepting about half way (after Stuttgart support station) that there wouldn’t be a blanket but there sure as hell was an opportunity. I talked to everyone, visited every abandoned farmhouse and old car wreck. I took thousands of photos. Later that year my photos were exhibited. 400 people came to the opening night. Bizarre, and the start of a creative journey for me. I actually got bloody fit and strong. It was wonderful.
I hadn’t learned the lessons though. 2010 I had my first heart attack. 2015 I figured RASA was worth another bash. During the race John Bowen and I found each other at Glen Edward. We stuck together for the rest of the race, only splitting in the confusion of the last day before Stettyns. We just missed our blanket. John withdrew at Trouthaven, I withdrew on the Cape Town side of the du Toit’s Kloof tunnel, a few kms from the end. In retrospect I should bave ridden the last few kilometers right to the end. I think my logic was that bit only deserved to be ridden if a blanket was waiting at the end.
Four days later I had my second heart attack and we found out that I had ridden RASA with two blocked arteries. No wonder the race had been living hell for me, compounded by the fact I was riding a steel Surly bike with no suspension, front or back. No smashed swing arms for me again. I was very lucky to be alive.
The Ferryman had taken his toll though. I have lived with a debilitating heart arrhythmia for eight years now as a consequence of 2015 RASA. My fault. I’ve had more ablations than is socially acceptable, no longer an option. So I live with it, there have been consequences but I’m happy to be alive. Sometimes I’m just fine. I ride my bike. Often I am a basket case. No riding.
I still dream about Freedom. I found a way to remain involved through the Buffalo Herding. Without that connection (three to four months every year) with the event I’m not sure I’d be such a happy camper. It’s given me purpose. I am an extrovert (not always) and Freedom has given me a voice and a chance to give back.
I never stopped dreaming about getting my blanket though. Whilst herding we get the chance to do some riding on the trail when things are quiet. This last year I found I could actually do some of the portage sections . The Slaapkrantz portage for example. I lost weight. We moved to Maastricht in the Netherlands in 2022 and I cycled all the time. The only hills in the Netherlands are in the Limburg area where we live.
Chris Fisher said to me “have you considered giving it a go again?” - it being RASA. I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I would like to. But how can I? I have a serious heart condition. What about my family? Would I get their support? Should I even ask?
There are others in my position in the Freedom Communuty. I spoke to them, asking their opinion. “Would you ride again if given the chance?” One said no. The other said yes.
I set myself some preconditions I had to meet before riding:
- do the training (I’ve done around 3000km YTD)
- lose more weight (I’ll be around 105kg at the start)
- compulsory to ride with someone (Pierre Singery, 2 blankets, kindly offered to ride with me. He is a vet and I am a mammal)
- Obey Dr Lindsay if he says “enough”
- Stay away from Lehana (do the alternative)
Chris Fisher and Dr Grant Lindsay (race doctor) have been very supportive. I cannot express sufficiently how grateful I am for this.
I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. I am very aware that there is an element of selfishness in what I am doing.
What I do know however is that whilst I may not have full support from those that mean something to me, I do have their understanding. They know how much this Freedom Challenge thing means to me. Riding the trail in my mind, most nights. Unfinished business. Playing the movie of riding into Diemersfontein, over and over. Overwhelming emotions.
Chris awarded a few of the Buffalo Herders a Buffalo Herder blanket last year. It meant the world to me, an extremely thoughtful gift.
I want the rider’s blanket though. How can such a thing consume me as much as it does? I am 61 years old. Surely it can’t be that important.
Only those that have been there will understand.
As I ride my thoughts and love will be with my friend John Bowen, who starts his fifth attempt at getting his blanket. We helped each other get as far as we did in 2015. Broken men, drawing on everything we had to get there in time. So close.
John and I talk often. We talk about one thing. Blankets. Wish us well, we will try our best.