A Final Word
The 2016 Freedom Challenge has come and gone. For riders in the Race to Rhodes and Race Across South Africa, some of the signs of their efforts are still fresh in mind, the vivid memories of places seen and people encountered along the way, the still familiar aches and pains for those that finished not too long ago. But as time slowly takes the edge off the hardships they experienced and bodies slowly heal and come back stronger, something more permanent comes to the fore.
After the blur of the finish and the sometimes rude awakening of getting back to normal life, the realisation of what they have been through slowly dawns on them and the overwhelming sense of achievement brings with it a new sense of pride. For some there will be unbridled excitement and wanting to share their stories with friends and family, for others it will be more of a sense of knowing, an inner smile that they carry forward with them. Either way, few are left unaffected by overcoming a great challenge and so to with the Freedom Challenge.
We would like to thank all the riders who set off along the trail this year, each facing their own particular challenge and overcoming it in their own special way. The Freedom Challenge leaves room for a person to test their own limits and to overcome many obstacles along the way - and long may it remain so. For all those new Whip Bearers and Blanket Wearers, welcome to the clan and well done for taking up the challenge and succeeding.
From the Race Office.
And in the end there were three - the trio of Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe, who after a night out in Stettynskloof managed to regroup and get it done, crossing the finish line at 5pm this afternoon to a warm welcome from friends and family. For Gerald, the final cutoff had been beaten and he received his Blanket after finishing in 25d 11h. For Clint and Neville who started a day later, their finishing time was 24d 11h. The three of them have stuck together through thick and thin and will surely have many shared memories and stories to tell - for now though, all that matters is that they have finished and can wear their Blankets with pride.
As the sun sets on yet another day on the trail, the Race Office waits for the last three riders to arrive. The trio of Clint le Roux, Neville Higgs and Gerald vd Merwe left Trouthaven this morning to take on Stettynskloof, the final stage in their journey to Diemersfontien.
As first timers to Stettynskloof, they would only have known what to expect by the reputation of the place and the stories of those who have gone before. Any Blanket Wearer will confirm that it is a place not to be underestimated. Judging by the time they got going this morning, they may have underestimated it..
Having made fairly slow progress through the kloof all day, they found themselves about halfway with the light beginning to fade. It seems they have taken the decision to camp out for the night and are in for a cold and uncomfortable night in the kloof, waiting for daylight before they proceed further. If they get going at first light, they should get to the finish at Diemersfontein by late morning - where the Race Office will be waiting to welcome them home.
Brad vd Westhuizen set off from Trouthaven before sunrise this morning - a man on a mission. Having rested there yesterday, his first task was to locate his bike and then finish off what he had started by getting through Stettynskloof. His progress was hampered by swollen rivers after all the rain and the ubiquitous thick bush in his path but he steadily made his way up the valley, making it out just after dark. From there it was a slow ride through to the finish at Diemersfontein and he arrived at 22h30 to be greeted by the biggest crowd so far - all the riders and supporters at the FC Finisher’s Dinner. A fitting welcome from the many fellow Blanket Wearers and congratulations all around - well done Brad.
That leaves only the trio still out on the trail - Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe are spending the night at Trouthaven, having arrived by lunch time from McGregor today. There will be a nervous anticipation in the air, the task is almost complete but the final obstacle still has to be conquered tomorrow. They should be well rested and up to the challenge - not much will stop them now.
In the early hours of this morning, Caren Henschel and Tony Wright crossed the finish line at Diemersfontein - after a very long day out for them which ended in the pouring rain - but nothing could dampen their spirits by then, they had persevered and finally earned their Blankets. Having ridden together from the start, they finished in 19d19h20min, a very good effort by both of them.
Catching up with the rest of the field today was a bit like watching a game of chess - one rider maintained his position while the others made a strategic move before their final assault.
Brad vd Westhuizen spent the day at Trouthaven, resting up and giving his injured back a chance to recover before his second attempt on Stettynskloof in the morning. He has used the time well, staying positive and is confident about his chances tomorrow.
The trio of Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe completed the short hop to McGregor today, despite the wet weather. They arrived in time for lunch which meant they had the whole afternoon to rest and recover. Tomorrow they will move forward to Trouthaven and with the weather set to clear over the weekend, they look to have timed it well for a possible trip up Stettynskloof on Sunday.
For these four riders the end may be near but a finish is still not guaranteed - they still need to focus on the task at hand and continue in the same determined manner that has gotten them to this point - their Blankets await them.
The onslaught on Stettynskloof got underway early this morning as nine riders entered the valley at dawn. They worked their way steadily up towards the steep exit slope, beyond which lay a short ride to a warm Blanket. For the group of Hughes Clauser, Greg Perrett, Richard Cole and Gary Scoular, it was business as usual as they forged their way up the kloof and emerged by mid afternoon, then continued to the finish at Diemersfontein, arriving before dark. Apart from Gary, the other three have ridden together since before Rhodes, now their adventure has finally come to an end. For Frenchman Hughes, there will no doubt be many stories to tell back home. Well done to all of them for getting to the finish.
The next rider to emerge from the kloof was Fanus Vorster, who then continued to cross the finish line and receive his well deserved Blanket. His ride has been full of ups and downs and he went from the brink of withdrawing to completing a determined, mostly solo effort - well done for seeing it through.
Pierre Oosthuizen is another rider who had a tough ride - that was last year, when he got as far as Cambria. This time around, he was more determined than ever to get the Blanket and went out everyday, focussed and resolute, steadily making his way down the trail on his single speed. A few late night arrivals and early morning starts couldn’t break his rhythm and today the hard work paid off when he finally arrived at Diemersfontein and wrapped himself in his Blanket - well done Pierre.
Among the nine riders leaving Trouthaven this morning were Brad vd Westhuizen and Caren Henschel together with Tony Wright. Brad made it halfway up the kloof and then his tracker showed him making a u-turn and heading back. It turns out, he took a fall on the way up and hurt his back, badly enough to make it very painful to carry his bike - so he went back down, leaving his bike near the dam and seeking assistance from the manager there, who helped him back to Trouthaven. He’s not done yet as he will rest up tomorrow and try again. Tony and Caren have had a very long day in Stettynskloof but have made it out and are on their way to Diemersfontein, where the are expected later tonight.
The sweeps, Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux and Gerald vd Merwe, are in Montagu tonight, after a double stage from Rouxpos today. Neville had to take a detour to the local clinic to have his hand stitched up after he cut it coming out of Anysberg but he is on the mend and will continue with the others tomorrow. They are still hoping to finish over the weekend.
Clear, sunny skies have returned to the trail for the meantime and the riders have been making the most of it while it lasts. A bonus for both riders and racers, the good trail conditions are evident in the quick times being posted between the various support stations. Despite some earlier rain and light snow in the first week of the race, conditions are generally dry and fast - thanks in large part to the prolonged drought. Roads are firm and hard, with minimal storm damage and erosion, grassy sections have very little grass to show and tracks and trails are more clearly defined and easier to follow - ideal conditions for swift passage along the trail.
Our sweeps are currently Clint le Roux, Neville Higgs and Gerald vd Merwe who have made their way to Romansfontein today, accompanied by Caren Henschel and Tony Wright for much of the day. The group had a long day yesterday, only arriving at Kranskop well after dark but managed to get going early again this morning to take on the long 130km stage to Romanfontein - one of the tougher single stages on the trail. It was imperative for Gerald to get to Romansfontein today, which he did - so now he has every chance of making it to Hofmeyr tomorrow and so avoiding the 12-day cut-off there. Caren, who struggled with the portages yesterday, seems to have bounced back strongly and her and Tony didn’t put a foot wrong today.
Romansfontein had a few surprising departures and arrivals today - first it was Jaques Tattersall, Leon Erasmus, Werner Nienaber and Gary Scoular who left early to take on the Aasvoelberg portage at first light. Gary returned a short while later, after struggling with stomach issues last night, he was feeling weak when he left earlier, so made a good call to go back and rest. But rest gave way to restlessness and he set off again a few hours later for a second attempt - only to return soon afterwards because he forgot his helmet! Third time lucky though, his last departure saw him getting a bit lost before the start of the portage but eventually linking up with the route and managing to get over the mountain and on his way to Hofmeyr. His ‘easy day to recover’ may have turned out otherwise but at least he sleeps further down the trail tonight. Meanwhile Jacques, Leon and Werner got over the mountain first time and were in Hofmeyr by late morning, then pushed on to Elandsberg for lunch. The fun continued all the way to Newlands for supper and then they decided to pull up the handbrake and enjoy the company of the hosts Pierre-Martin and Azelia. A pre-dawn assault on the Schurfteberg is likely to be on the cards for them, after which they can look forward to breakfast at Grootdam.
On the other side of the Schurfteberg, sleeping at Grootdam tonight are Richard Cole, Greg Perrett and Hughes Clauser, together with Brad vd Westhuizen, Scott Rutherfoord and late arrival Pierre Oosthuizen. Most of them had a short day, coming from Newlands but Pierre’s day started at Elandsberg, his first double stage so far. Tim Deane blitzed through Grootdam just before dark, he had to wait for a new derailleur at Newlands, which meant he only got away at midday - but hard riding and favourable tailwinds allowed him to cover ground quickly today and he is headed to Gegun for the night.
Grant Cowen and Ann Harrison are also at Gegun tonight - they doubled up from Newlands today - a big push that meant an after dark arrival but a good day’s riding from them. They will be aiming to double up again tomorrow in the hopes of reaching Bucklands, so will most likely head out early onto the straightforward dirt roads from Gegun before first light in the morning.
Up the road at Toekomst tonight are Liehann Loots and Fanus Vorster - both of whom came through from Grootdam today - good riding from them both. With the slightly shorter stages interspersed between the long ones, opportunities for 'doubling up’ are becoming more common and the riders are taking the gap and making the most of the good riding conditions.
The racers are on the move tonight, jockeying for position before they enter the Baviaanskloof just after Cambria. Tim James left Bucklands after dinner and will most likely head straight to the Osseberg/Grootrivierpoort portage, with a possible snooze along the way. Mike Woolnough and Theo van Dyk also left Bucklands later, with the intention to push on to Hadley tonight, which would enable them to take on the Grootrivierpoort at first light tomorrow and get through Cambria before the 6am-2pm gate closes - after 2pm no riders are allowed to proceed through the Baviaanskloof due to the high density of buffalo in the reserve and the increased likelihood of an after dark encounter - (this is a safety requirement enforced by Eastern Cape Parks who manage the reserve). Bruce Hughes will be well aware of this - he sleeps at Bucklands tonight and will time his departure put him be at the start of the Osseberg and into the Grootrivierpoort around first light.
The first riders are in Cambria tonight, the Kudu Kaya guest house hosts Chris Morris, Gerrit vd Merwe and Willie Esterhuizen. Riding with them earlier in the day was Hayden Green but he was delayed but tyre problems on the approach to Osseberg - a cut sidewall forcing him to stop. The others went on, not wanting to risk being caught in the Grootrivierpoort after dark. Hayden got going again but ran out of light before the last river crossing - a few hours later he was still not back on track but reports are that the weather is warm and the night clear, so he has a comfortable night of exploring ahead of him - he may still sleep in a bed tonight.
When one looks at the Freedom Challenge it comprises three distinct rider groups: Pacers, Chasers and Racers.
The majority of the riders fall into the steady Pacer category. Although they may not be as ambitious or fast as Chasers or Racers, each one has a firm and resolute race plan. These tenacious soldiers form the grist of RASA, and although their plans might not include all night riding or hauling at a blistering pace, they’ve all got their sights set on a prized blanket that they are determined to fetch at Diemersfontein.
This year’s race is well and truly into the business stage now, with all but the pair of Caren and Tony and the trio of Neville, Gerald and Clint having dropped off the escarpment and onto the plains of the Karoo. These five Pacers all set off from Slaapkrans this morning but seemed to be lethargic today and struggled over the Bontehoek portages. Moordenaarspoort seemed to be where they would take refuge for the night, but they’ve all set off for some night riding to Kranskop.
After a packed house last night, Romansfontein will be relatively quiet tonight. It will host Werner, Gary and Leon. No doubt there was biltong to go with the rugby. Jacques Tatersall will get there later, but won’t make it there for the live ball game and will have to make do with the highlights package before hitting the hay.
Further up the road, in various places on the trail, the broom wagon still looms large for Pierre, Scott and Fanus. Having said that, Fanus seems to have found his feet and is steadily clawing back lost ground over his A Group compatriots. He’s had a courageous ride thus far, having done a lot of solo work along the way. He’s in at Grootdam tonight.
Pierre Oosthuizen has been very quiet for a few days now, just going about his business of moving slowly forward on that single speed. The endearing oom Schalk Louwrens persona of last year has been replaced by a more focused and navi savvy Pierre this year. He’ll be spending the night on his own at Elandsberg.
There has been a bit of a scramble for Newlands this afternoon with Hughes, Richard and Greg getting in early to book good seats for the rugby. Also in at Newlands are Scott, Brad and Tim Deane. Tim was assisted today by a Good Samaritan rider who provided him with a spare rear derailleur. This fortuitously keeps Tim in the Chaser category for a bit longer. After another measured ride today Ann and Grant turn Newlands into a packed stadium for this evening’s game.
The Pied Piper A Group of Pacers comprising Gerrit van der Merwe, Willie Esterhuizen, Hayden Green and Chris Morris eased off the pedal today following two successive double-ups over the last two days. They got to Bucklands by mid-afternoon and will be resting ahead of a big day tomorrow, when they take on the climb up to start of the Osseberg and then down into the Groot Rivier to tackle the eleven river crossings to enter the Baviaanskloof via the back door. There have been good rains in the Patensie area recently, so it’s going to be interesting to see what mood Mordor is in this year.
Now, onto the Chasers, this group has been whittled away through retirements to just two remaining riders, Tim Deane and Jacques Tatersall. Jacques seems to have recovered from his first day fall and is clipping along well, as is Tim Deane. However, both riders will know that realistically they aren’t going to take line honours this year, but will be looking to finish strongly in the top 10 finishers.
Finally, let’s talk about Racers. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen five Racers still going toe to toe at this stage of the race. Tim James seems to have shaken off Mike Woolnough, with Mike going to ground this afternoon at Grootdam while a relentless Tim forges on.
Liehann Loots finally caught up with Mike at Grootdam this evening for the first time since they left Maritzburg. Liehann seems to be riding to a sensible race plan and appears to be getting stronger as the race progresses.
The incredibly well organized and gritty Theo van Wyk has parted with Liehann. Mike Woolnough has latched onto Theo and the pair of them is on the move to chase down Tim James, who’s down the road towards Gegun. Theo has been a revelation this year. He’s on track to beat the time of 15 days and 9 hours that he posted last year by a substantial margin this time around. At this point he’s the virtual leader and just off record pace.
The last of the Big Five Racers this year is Bruce Hughes. After sitting out another time penalty yesterday he’s scorching along today. Can he overcome the self-inflicted handicaps and challenge Theo and Tim later in the race? He’s got the speed, he’s got the endurance, but does he have the race nous and tenacity to put the penalties behind him and be a contender for line honours? After leaving Romansfontein at 3am he got back to within a couple of hours of Theo before stopping at Grootdam. Bruce is on fire, but time will tell whether he can hold it all together. What is certain is that this year’s race is a very intriguing one with many twists still to be played out.
By Peter Stephens
If one were to zoom out of the tracking map, one would be struck by the gap between Batch A forging along at a steady pace, now ensconced at Toekomst and a cluster of coloured flags signalling their chasers. Steady is good, steady gets one to the finish. But as the race wears on, expect the flags to close the gap - steadily.
The race leaders have loftier goals than a support station a day. In their minds they will have fixed goals, distances to be covered and advantages to be taken from the stable weather while it lasts.
So let's take a look at the race as it enters the middle third. Forging the way are Chris Morris, Hayden Green, Willie Esterhuizen and Gerrit van der Merwe. They're back at the main house at Toekomst instead of the tented camp - a last minute change due to water problems at the camp.They don't seem to pushing it, leaving at reasonable hours and enjoying the journey. Today was their second double-up day as they skipped Gegun, a slightly longer one than yesterday which meant that they arrived after dark - not normal for them.
Three support stations back is a gathering at Elandsberg. The portage just before here has caught many a rider in both daylight and night navigation. Dot watchers would have been disappointed as six riders have arrived. Some won't stay with the prospect of an easy three hour ride to Newlands, the newest of the support stations on the trail. Richard Cole, Hugues Clauser, Greg Perret and Fanus Vorster will be happy to be there after wandering around Aaasvoelberg earlier this morning in search of the trail off the mountain. They provided entertainment for the couch watchers with never-before-seen routes pioneered before getting themselve back on track and reaching Elandsberg, just managing to get in before dark.
Mike Woolnough and Tim James (both multi-blanket holders) are unlikely to hang around for long. They are engaged in a titanic battle and have as yet, been unable to establish a significant lead over the other, or the chasing pack. They will push through to Newlands an probably sleep a bit there.
Virtual race leader Theo van Dyk is about a half day ahead as he heads to Hofmeyer in the company of Liehann Loots. Theo started a day behind Mike and Tim but has gained some distance on them. Liehann started in the same batch as the duo and has had a steady ride so far with extra sleep banked. He may decide to tag onto Theo tomorrow for a bit of company, they have ridden well together for much of the afternoon and evening.
Romansfontein is pretty busy. Pierre Oosthuizen has had a long afternoon to get himself organised and was joined by Brad van der Westhuizen, Scott Rutherfoord, Grant Cowen and Anne Harrison (who is currently the leading lady). Making a good showing is rookie Tim Deane who started in the last batch. Also, taking up bed space is Bruce Hughes who has been riding very strongly up to now. He managed to catch up to Theo again today just before Romansfontein but then had to stop and serve out a time penalty of 3h for lack of race comms with Race Office and due to complaints from other riders about the way in which his spare wheel/support was taken earlier in the race. This effectively ended his day’s riding unless he was prepared to take on the Aasvoelberg portage at night - which he chose not to. All is not lost though, as Theo sleeps in Hofmeyr with only about a 5-6h advantage at this point.
Zooming out the map, there is a gap to the last groupings of riders. Jacques Tattersall seems to have recovered somewhat and is starting to regain some lost ground down. He's aiming for Moordenaarspoort. He won't catch the three riders sleeping at Kranskop, Gary Scoular, Leon Erasmus and Werner Nienaber. However, give him another day or so and he might find some company with them.
Slaapkrantz will be closing for the year after. It hosts Caren Henschel, Neville Higgs, Clint le Roux, Tony Wright and Gerald van der Merwe. Gerald made the cut-off at Rhodes and can now focus on getting through each day without hiccups - although he shouldn’t lose sight of the next cut-off at Hofmeyr - once beyond that, he will have more opportunity to make up time by doubling up on some of the shorter stages that lie ahead.
As always, the trail offers up mysteries, challenges and sublime experiences. If the weather turns foul again, well, that will be another story.
By Fiona Coward
|13||Coen||de Bruin||4d 07h40|
|24||Jan||van de Putte||5d 07h30|
|34||Charl||van der Spuy||5d 07h45|
|52||August||van Heerden||5d 08h30|
|63||Chiara||De Siena||6d 05h15|
|68||Derik||de Jager||6d 13h15|
Conditions on the trail remained trying after overnight rains between Rhodes and Rossouw, affecting the next two stages of riding after Rhodes. This and reports of stiff headwinds in the Stormberg area again today are not making things easy for this year’s riders.
The first group of riders seem to have stayed ahead of the worst of this bad weather and are already well into the Karoo. Chris Morris, Hayden Green, Willie Esterhuizen and Gerrit vd Merwe all arrived safely at Grootdam before dark which makes them the first riders to reach halfway - today’s ride was also their first 'double’ - a term to doing two stages back to back in one day and effectively having a day in the bag incase of bad weather. Their double was a combination of the two shorter stages from Elandsberg to Newlands and then Newlands to Grootdam - this is usually the first real opportunity for riders to try a double due to the shorter distances involved.
A few support stations back at Romansfontein we have Greg Perrett, Richard Cole and Hughes Clauser, who caught up to Fanus Vorster there. Fanus has been riding on his own since Rhodes, so he may enjoy some company tomorrow. Making steady progress now, these riders are all well versed with the daily rituals of early starts, long days on the bike and arriving around dusk - right now there’s not much that can halt their steady progress.
At Brosterlea tonight is Pierre Oosthuizen, the only single speed rider doing RASA this year. Nursing a twisted ankle, he’s wary of trying to do too much in a day and has paced himself well since the injury, in the hopes that it can recover - as long as he keeps moving forward in the same manner, he has every chance of overcoming this recent setback.
Heading to Brosterlea are Mike Woolnough and Tim James - having ridden through from Slaapkranz. Tim slept out just beyond Slaapkranz last night but Mike slept in a bed. He caught Tim on the way to Moordenaarspoort and they rode together from there. passing through Kranskop, it’s likely that Mike will sleep at Brosterlea but Tim could well move on.
Kranskop is busy tonight, with Grant Cowen, Ann Harrison, Brad vd Westhuizen and Scott Rutherfoord being the first arrivals. They were joined by Liehann Loots, who started his day from Chesneywold, a good push for him. His consistency has kept him within reach of Mike and Tim ahead of him without having sacrificed any sleep - smart riding from him. Still on the way to Kranskop is Theo van Dyk - he’s had a good day, riding all the way from Rhodes today, an impressive double from him. He’s been chased the whole day by Bruce Hughes and Tim Deane, both of whom are likely to sleep at Moordenaarspoort tonight. Has Theo done enough to finally shake them off?
Staying at Slaapkranz tonight are Leon, Werner and Gary - they road through after an early breakfast in Rhodes. Stopping off to sample the treats at Chesneywold, they had a fairly comfortable day’s riding, so will be fresh in the morning to take on the Slaapkranz and Bontehoek portages that await.
All the way back in Rhodes tonight are the last group of RASA riders, who all came through from Vuvu today. Clint le Roux, Neville Higgs and Gerald van der Merwe have ridden together since Allendale and look set to go that way right to the end. Tony Wright and Caren Henschel successfully made the trip over Lehanas today, arriving by mid afternoon. Jacques Tattersall opted to ride around Lehanas via the Mcambalala route - he is still sore from his crash on day one and wasn’t keen to strain his upper body any more than necessary by going over the portage. Already feeling slightly better than two days ago, he’s hoping to get going as soon as he has some of his strength back.
With a spate of recent withdrawals, the number of riders left in the field has shrunk dramatically in the last few days. Injuries and health issues, compounded by some bad weather, have all taken their toll. For the remaining riders it is now a case of getting on the with the job of riding from A to B every day in their quest to get to the finish in Diemersfontein.