Why do we keep coming back | Mike Woolnough



RASA and RTR 2021 is upon us. The race has already kicked off for more than half the field and a legion of dot watchers. This year I get to be a dot watcher for the first 10 days before slipping on my riding shoes and entering the fray as a dot to be watched.


Opening the tracking site my eyes scan the familiar route from Pietermaritzburg to Diemersfontein. Zooming in, the granularity of memories born of traipsing down the trail over the last 14 years are brought into focus.


Leaving Byrne the route passes a forestry station before snaking through a small village. As you pass the final house and remnants of a school long abandoned an imposing valley opens up. In the distance the thread of road that leads to the first support station winds it’s way up from the Umkomaas river 500 metres below. After a few hours of making your way down to the river, thrashing through the untamed riparian vegetation and then slogging up the Hela Hela you’ll be reminded you that you have entered a race that demands respect.


Tracing the route forward familiar place names evoke images from the deepest folds. Ntsikeni, both a moody frozen wasteland and a dazzling jewel encrusted snow dusted wonderland. The Vuvu valley, sun drenched and ominously dark. Different years, different experiences. Then there are places like Lehana, Bonthoek, Stormberg, Elandsberg, and so the list goes all the way to the ultimate challenge of Stettynskloof about which much has been said, often in hushed and always in reverent tones.


To the uninitiated these are simply places names on a map. To those of us who have walked that way they are places that live and breath every bit as do the people who inhabit them. Places names have become synonymous with the people who live there. Often their names supplanting the names of their farms as we speak of them. We go to Minky’s, Andre and Joyce’s, Sandra’s, Stephanie’s etc. The route heaves with life.




Packing away my Garmin and attaching a magnet to my wheel reminds me that this is so much more than riding down a predetermined line. The very nature of the Freedom Challenge is the opportunity to scribble outside the lines. To stand at the beginning of the Vuvu valley and chart your own way to the school. To leave the road at the stream where you can see the container atop the mountain 7 kilometres away and decide how you’d like to tackle Lehana’s Pass gives the adventure even more texture. Every year a new adventure awaits. It might be the same picture but you can colour it differently every time.

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