Sometimes in the hushed tones of an eavesdropped conversation, a whisper sounds like a bellow, and a name mentioned casually takes root in your soul. Like a mustard seed on acid, before you know it there’s an oak tree in your core. Such was the introduction of the Freedom Challenge into my life. I had heard a friend and FC veteran Fiona Coward talking about it one day. Subtly the conversation was shifted and focused on me. Come on she said, you’ve walked to the South Pole, this is right up your alley. There it was. What began as a nibble and an interesting idea quickly grew into an overwhelming feast.
Six months later my body and bike were ready, but my mind was unprepared for the haphazard flash of 2300kms of our land. The Freedom challenge is the brain child and unsettling inspiration of David Waddilove. It’s pointless to ask why? Such questions are lost in the dirt on a lonely road. Eight years ago David, for better or worse, ran and cycled from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl. When the aches had eased and the wine had run its course, it seemed a good idea to convince others to follow in his footsteps. I suppose in isolation, certain feats seem foolish, but once the hoards have been there, the foolish becomes the insane, the insane the tangible, and the tangible the sublime. Make no mistake; the FC is not for the hoards. For there lies in it’s nature one of the deepest risks humans face, and that is the unlocking of our potential and a world of unknown. For some, it’s the unsettling realisation that we are not cut out for it. For others it’s the glimpse of a whole new vista.
My plan was simple. Ride 150kms a day and don’t get lost. The challenge of course, was in the terrain. You see, the FC is an unsupported mountain bike race taking in as much of the rugged mountain ranges as is possible, and in the middle of winter, from district roads, to single track, to the scant remnants of an old ox wagon trail, there is no section of dirt across the southern aspect of our country that is missed. On the 15th of June, six of us started at 6am at the Maritzburg town hall. In total, a field of about forty racers would be staggered over a week, roughly ten per day. Within twenty minutes we were on dirt and already split apart. I ground a steady gear through the Bisley nature reserve, thinking about the coming day. My plan was to get to Centacow, about 157kms, and almost 3500m of climbing. It was semi-ambitious. I say semi because the race record holder Tim James had gone all the way to Ntsikeni on day 1, about 200km. But the stories of hardship and mechanical mishap of this race are legion. I figured if I could get to Rhodes, about 500kms in, without too much mayhem, I stood a reasonable chance of going all the way in a decent time.
The 15th of June also marked the day a cold front swept across KZN. Within an hour of starting I pulled up on the side and put on my warm top. It would stay on for the next two weeks. A grey gloom filled the sky while a biting headwind swept across the peaks. From Bisley the route wound up through forests, over Cunninghams castle, and steeply down into the Byrne valley. Then it dropped down precipitous concrete tracks into the Umkomaas valley. Once across the bridge, I slipped into granny gear and gnawed away at the Hella Hella. The Hella is a notoriously steep climb where the road shoves rudely up into your face. 7 that night I rolled into the mission station at Centacow. I was tired but feeling good. I was also alone. Ahead of me were riders strung out all over the land, and behind me the same story was unfolding.
Day 2 wasn’t to go as well. A five am start and sub zero temps saw me grinding up another endless pass and over the watershed. Somewhere on a river crossing in the next valley I lost my maps. Ahead of me lay about 100kms of unknown trail and the only hint as to where to go, was a backed up set of narratives on my cell phone. The rules of the FC regarding the route are simple. Stay on the race route or be penalised! For the rest of the day I nervously advanced while constantly glancing at my phone. I was disappointed and frustrated, and I knew I simply would not get to my intended station that day. I would have to settle for about 50kms less. But, as my coach always said, think of this race as a pursuit, it’s not won in the first two laps. I knew I was still in it but would have to be more diligent with the basics.
Day 3 and 4 saw me off at 4am with temperatures around -7, cutting trail across the plains of Queen’s mercy and the Transkei. High up near Black Fountain I blitzed along sublime single track that seemed to be suspended in the sky and reserved for Hans Rey. Distracted by the anomaly of having to figure out the way down and why I was having so much fun, I tumbled. With gashed knees and a twisted ankle I pressed on and only managed 77kms that day. Ahead of me lay Lehana pass and the infamous berg portage. I wasn’t too keen to tackle it in the dark as a first timer and figured an early start would get me into the town of Rhodes by lunch time. And so, within an hour out of Vuvu the next day I was off my bike, pushing it up a steepening berg ridge, up towards the snow covered and windswept escarpment. For hours I pushed and carried my bike until I topped out on the high berg. It was bitterly cold, and any desire to look back at the deep valleys of the transkei was quickly robbed by the wind and the prospect of what lay ahead. From about 2700m, the road drops in a frenzied zig-zag of twisting turns before rolling into Rhodes. It had taken me 6hours. I sat scoffing down lunch as quick as I could, reflecting on how thrilled I was to have the mad valleys behind me. Little did I suspect it was all a lie. This talk of getting to Rhodes and your troubles are over couldn’t be farther from the truth. For ahead lay about 1700kms of broken and twisting country, more thorns than you could care to imagine, and the almost certain prospect of being pummelled by yet another cold front. For now though, I sat in the warmth of the high sun with no more urge than a lazy lizard to do anything but be still and rest.
But such is the call of the unknown, for mixed in with the tired apprehension of another long road, was the whispered thrill of seeing it for the first time. I said goodbye to some of the race staff and was back on my bike. In the setting sun, later that day, I dropped once again in sub-zero temperatures, into the valley of ChesneyWold. I had done 122kms, not bad considering I had carried my bike over the top of the high berg.
Day 6 slipped me deeper into the heart of an unknown and wild country. Three times I hiked over portage sections before dropping down into the middle of nowhere. The town of Rossouw slipped quietly past like a vapour. But my tires were itching for the long expanses of the Karoo, and what I believed would finally be flat roads. That night I bunked down in the Vaalbank farm, hoping that the following morning would be the last of the cold ones. At 5am I was off. I caught up to Chris and Dave and we exchanged quick smiles and short stories before I pressed on. Company was a bitter sweet friend. Seeing someone else out in the gramadoelas made it seem a little less frightening, more doable if you catch my drift. But I also knew that to cover the ground I needed to and ride at the required speed, was I game I best played alone.
9 pm that night I rolled into Hofmeyr, a town more or less lost to the known world, but somewhere in the karoo. It was the end of Day 7 and I had cycled 206km in 15 hours. it was a big day. Not just physically, but mentally. I had pushed through another barrier and now knew that 200 was on the cards. Maybe not every day, but certainly every second. There was also a noticeable increase in temperature as I dropped off the plateau and down into start of the Karoo. Day 8 and 9 were mixed bags, and I suppose in retrospect were resting me up for what was to come. Towards the end of the 8th day I caught up to Gawie, Scott and Ray, thrashing through Coetzers Kloof, and so the next day, Gawie and I pieced together mixed bits of road and single track, from forgotten farms to Koedoespoort (which we named ‘Dead mans gulch” because it was so barren and spooky). I had long since lost track of just how many times I had crossed a fence or climbed a gate, or shouldered my bike down some steep trail, but I kept promising myself things would get better. Isn’t that what they said…things would get better, and flatter?
Gawie’s gang and I soon parted on the morning of my 9th day. We were crossing the flats of Darlington dam and Ray had punctured. They bid me farewell knowing I was trying to push all the way to BaviaansKloof. It was the last company I would have for the remainder of the race. As fast as I could, I pushed to Bucklands farm and then onwards. In retrospect, I had totally underestimated this particular stretch. For once on the other side of Bucklands farm, the word ‘flat’ became a distant memory and as foreign as the Rosetta stone! At about 3pm I climbed up the Perdeberg, bike on shoulders. To my left loomed the Cockscomb, rising steeply into a clear sky. To the right lay the Groot Winterhoek mountains blocking off Baviaans kloof. It was intimidating knowing I was headed slap bang for the middle of that lot. On the far side I paced up and down giant rollers, wondering when the hills would end. I was now chasing the light and keen to get to the ‘entrance’ to Baviaans in the day. But it wasn’t to be. Soon the rollers plummeted down a pass to the Groot Rivier. My brakes squealed and even locked at one point so steep was the drop. But I gulped, for around me steep peaks rose in a maze, and I knew with a sickening feeling in my heart that I would be climbing again.
For the next two hours I climbed up and out of the Groot Rivier, sometimes pedalling at pathetic speeds, sometimes walking just as fast. The light had long since gone and an eerie silence had slipped down the peaks. It was hard to tell just how steep things were in the gloom of the night and glare of my light. But I got the fright of my life when two mopeds sped past with youngsters on the back from nowhere. They vanished just as fast as they had snuck up on me, and when the dust had settled, I found myself questioning whether they had passed me in the first place. I was starting to get a glimpse of the places my mind wanted to go when left unchecked. At last I found the ‘entrance’ to the kloof, the Osberg 4x4 jeep track. I had just fixed a sidewall puncture and was keen to get this kloof section behind me. Foolish thought, for the track dropped and rose and swung round for 10 kms in the dark. Some sections were rideable, others not. When at last I got down to the river and Kloof proper, I was chased by two enraged Giant Porcupines, no doubt because I had dropped unannounced in some sly, sinister fashion into their silent world. I backed off and chose discretion, wandering just how far they could shoot their quills. A thick cold lay now still, in the kloof, and I was the only sound. What followed were fourteen river crossings, sometimes up to my waist, pulling and clawing through reeds, and trying vainly to get a sense of what the terrain was doing. But my senses were heightened, and so the stillness and the shifting sounds of my bike worked in unison.
Finally I climbed up and out of the lower section of the kloof, and over a 3m high gate. Respite lay but 5kms away. The map was sketchy at this point, and the narratives even more so. It spoke of 11 river crossings, but I lost count somewhere around 13 or 14. But it mentioned the 3m gate, and a quick 5km descent down to the junction. So, blissfully unaware of what danger lay ahead of me, I bombed down the road with a fading head light, content that I was moments away from rest. Halfway down I turned a bend at about 30kms/hr and instantly saw a small, closed gate in front of me. The conscious sums and machinations of risk assessment count for nothing when time is reduced to a spilt second. And so naturally, you do what comes naturally. I slammed both brakes with a vice grip and my bike came to a sudden but bone crushing halt. Three fractions of a second later, about the time it takes to say…ow, I was laying in the dirt just before the gate. I was a mess. My left knee, right elbow and left ankle had taken a bashing, but I was ok. And more importantly, so was my bike. It took me a long while to look at my bike, but when at last I did, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I was still in the game. Somehow, my Tank T-works was intact. You beauty I thought. At 1 am I limped into the station, 20 hours and 197kms later. I was tired and sore.
By 8 in the morning I had recovered enough to press on. I was slow but the kloof was spectacular. For two days I climbed up and out of the kloof, and then through Willomore and on to Prince Albert. Hours were spent on what must be the most corrugated piece of earth, and by the time I got to PA I felt like a pogo stick test pilot. I was hurting and wanted nothing more than to rest. But I also knew now was the time to push. And so, by sundown i was just pushing my bike up the last steep bit of the Swartberg pass, in a stiff and icy headwind. I’d been told another front had just hit the coast and so the inevitable had come to pass. It was now time to dig deep and grind. Hour after hour the road wound a hilly maze towards Gamkaskloof. Die Hell as its known, must be ominous for someone, or maybe everyone in a different way. By the time I hit the last 3km hill to the top, I was cursing. Finally I topped out, and in the bright light of a full moon, I stood in awe.
Gamkaskloof dropped below me like a gaping maw. Like the big hole of Kimberley only bigger. And somewhere, deep and far below, a slippery silver thread tied it all together. It was the road, and the only thing I could make out in the valley below. I stood dumbstruck. Nowhere else had I seen so much by catching a glimpse of so little. It was 10 oclock at night, and just for a moment, the world seemed to stop so I could catch my breath. I slipped back on the saddle and took the plunge.
Two days later I pulled up on the side of a road in the Breede Valley. The sun was setting for the last time in my race, for the following day would see me climb up the final slopes of Du Toits pass and roll down into the winelands of Paarl and the finish. But for now, I wanted some ‘me’ time. Time not pressed by the chasing racers behind, or those that had finished in front. Time just to reflect and think and nibble on the last few snacks in my pack. Behind me id left a long, single line of tire marks, almost 2300kms. I’d met honest folk and farmers, but fleetingly. Id stayed in houses steeped in centuries of quiet history, that each told their own part of a long story. Like the land I had seen, the voice I now heard was familiar. For that same voice that had called out quietly to do this race, now sounded like a clarion. It pulled and it pushed, and it whispered in the shadows to go on, and not just to the finish, but onwards, to other trails and other times. You see, the mark in the trail behind was countered only by the mark left in my soul. Its the same mark that wakes us up in the dark of the night and has us dreaming of some far off mystical piece of trail. And its that trail that we live and we die for. Thankyou David, for going where few souls dare!