Reflecting on RASA 2017
How does anyone do justice to the three week orgy of pain, suffering and celebration. The ability for non-riders to watch friends, family and legends struggle, endure and enjoy makes this a parallel train track. Those on the trail and those on the website. Some have been there and re-live every twist and turn all over again, while others watch the colour streams inching their way from support station to the next and shake their heads. As Whip Bearer, Rob Collier said, “There were two extremes for me. Watching Martin Dreyer hit Rhodes in under 48 hours and watching Floris Botha struggling on a daily basis. Both extreme athletes in their own right.” And that, friends, is the RASA in a nutshell. It's not about genetics. It's about endurance, determination, bloody-mindedness and a will to get to the end.
However, even the best and most prepared fall prey to the whims of the trail and body. Heartbreak stories abound. John Meterlekamp reached Glen Edward only to hear he had lost his house in the Knysna fires. John Bowen put it all on the line to reach Hofmeyer before the cut-off only to withdraw because of his damaged ribs from an earlier fall. Philippa Crocker, all the way from England, won our hearts with her tenacity but in the end, withdrew as she struggled to make each day. The cumulative fatigue, the cold and the stresses around navigating make it tough on even the most experienced. Novice, Floris Botha, also made it to Hofmeyer before calling it a day. His own nemesis was navigation which made for long days but he hung on and hung on earning the dot watchers respect.
Leon van der Nest, one time RASA finisher, was also unable to collect his second blanket, leaving the race at Tenahead, just outside of Rhodes. Stewart Lombard and Annie Labuschagne, both experienced riders and Windmill and Whip owners, were also forced to withdraw at Chesneywold for injuries. Father and son combo from East London, Leon and David Kruger cruised their way down the trail until David (the son) had to return to work. He left the trail at Toekomst. One of the toughest calls was Derrick Bingham who reached Montagu, so close to the end, before withdrawing with a blown achilles tendon. And in the last start batch, where the rivalry between Alex Harris (two time winner) and Martin Dreyer (record holder) promised an extraordinary race but fizzled when Alex withdrew at Glen Edward with a chest infection.
So perhaps the rivalry fizzled, but riders and supporters were treated to some of the most remarkable efforts in the history of the race. Martin Dreyer scorched through the route, reaching Rhodes in an incredible sub-48 hours. This set him up for a record breaking ride despite many kilometres still to go. He did not disappoint. He charged through the field reaching Trouthaven (the last support station) with about 24 hours in hand to beat his record and about 12 hours to lower it to below 10 days. As the only rider to attempt Stettynskloof in the dark this year, he and all of us were reminded how there are always stings in the tail. Yet, his indefatigable attitude got him over the finish line, still lowering the record by 10 hours. A true champion.
Rounding out the podium places were Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus. Apart from a short-lived separation in the Baviaanskloof due to a mechanical, these two pushed each other relentlessly in search of a good finish. For a while, they looked good for coming in under the old record as well, but tough riding conditions and a head wind from hell put paid to that. Their 11 days 14 hours still ranks among the top rides of all time.
This year also saw the awarding of a 7th blanket to Marnitz Nienaber, and also to the most decorated RASA rider, Tim James. That's quite incredible and we can expect to see them back again. Mention must be made of Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter who were also challengers for a top five finish. They rode together until Willowmore when the bad weather hit. Fjord forged through it gaining time on his riding companion and finished in 13 days, one day ahead of Mike.
This year was also characterised by large groups sticking together. The last two days in Stettynskloof had twelve and thirteen riders respectively forging a path up it's gnarly banks. Strength in numbers perhaps? The race wouldn't be complete without someone sleeping rough. This year, that honour goes to Estelle Labuschagne, who slept out not once, but twice. (The third time was at a farm near Seweweekspoort) Accepting her third blanket, we get the feeling that she didn't think twice about it. It simply had to be done.
Collecting a second blanket is Ingrid Talbot who took line honours for the women this year. She and husband Michael (known as team Minky), crossed the line in under 18 days. Five women lined up at the start with three finishing. The other woman to finish was Ingrid Avidon who set about raising money for the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund. As she tweeted her way down the trail, she was also strongly motivated to collect her second blanket and support scholars at the Mariazell Secondary School near Malekgolonyane.
Most groups combined experience with newcomers. Novices receiving their blankets this year are: Shane Little, Johnny Anderton, Kevin Meier, Jan van der Putte, Greg Simmons, Gary Preston, Alex March, Trevor Elliot, Gerhard Dreyer, Shaun Tischendorf, Andrew Ryan, George Oertel, Nigel Payne, Adrian Payne, , Adam Wood, Bruce McQueen, Mike Nixon and Dirk Botha. Congratulations on your achievement and may your blanket bring you many happy memories.
Having done the trail once before helps in the mental and physical preparation. Yet, riders never know what will be thrown at them, testing their mettle. Even the most battle hardened, will have to dig deep. To those who have achieved blankets a second time around or more, we salute your tenacity. Congratulations to Bugs du Toit, Gavin Robinson, Anton Wood, Leon Kruger (oldest man in the race at 64), Sean Privett, Andy Wonnacott, Francois du Toit and Brad van der Westhuizen.
You may think that's a wrap but it's not over, there are still the shorter versions of RASA to look forward to such as Spring Ride to Rhodes, Race to Cradock and Race to Willowmore. Plan your diaries and sign up for an adventure of your own.
Fiona Coward (Blanket Wearer)
RASA 2017 Finishing times:
Martin Dreyer - 10d6h40min
Jacques Tattersall & Leon Erasmus - 11d15h5min
Tim James - 13d9h15min
Fjord Jordaan - 13h11h17min
Mike Potgieter - 14d9h45min
Marnitz Nienaber - 14d10h22min
Bugs du Toit & Andrew Ryan - 17d8h15min
Michael & Ingrid Talbot - 17d9h46min
Gavin Robinson - 17d10h9min
Francois du Toit & Dirk Botha - 17d11h26min
Leon Kruger - 17d12h36min
Ingrid Avidon - 17d12h36min
Andy Wonnacott & Sean Privett - 18d7h38min
Anton Wood, Adam Wood & Bruce McQueen - 18d8h
Mike Nixon - 18d12h36min
Gerhard Dreyer - 19d8h15min
Adrian Payne, Nigel Payne & George Oertel - 19d12h38min
Kevin Meier - 20d11h26min
Gary Preston & Alex March - 20d12h25min
Ray Sephton, Shaun Tischendorf & Jan vd Putte - 21d10h20min
Brad vd Westhuizen - 21d11h
Trevor Elliot & Greg Simmons - 21d11h
Estelle Labuschagne - 22d4h30min
Johnny Anderton - 22d12h2min
Shane Little - 23d12h2min
The Final Race Report for RASA 2017, but wait there’ll be more…
The final curtain comes down on RASA 2017 today and it was fitting that the weather was fine with clear blue skies for the final batch of 13 diverse and colourful riders who set out from Trouthaven to tackle Stettynskloof this morning.
In total, 14 riders are expected across the finish line into Diemersfontein today to claim their deserved blankets. Estelle Labushagne failed to complete her journey yesterday and was forced to spend her second night out rough during her adventure this year. Estelle was agonizingly no more than a hundred or so meters from the jeep track at the top of Stettyns gorge last night when she stopped and hunkered down for the night. Had she found the jeep track she would’ve been able to complete her journey last night, albeit that it would’ve been a late finish. However, she couldn’t quite make the connection to the track at the top of the final scramble at the top of Stettyns and had to endure another night out in the cold. Ben de Lange quipped that she didn’t want to inconvenience the reception party by keeping them up unduly late. But, true to Estelle’s indomitable spirit, she merely picked up the pieces at first light this morning and simply got back on with the job on hand. Once Estelle got her early morning bearings, she made good progress and rolled into Diemersfontein, without any further ado, to a warm welcome at 10:30, having spent 30 hours on the mountain.
Setting out from Trouthaven sensibly at 5:00 this morning was Batch 3 brigade, comprising Trevor Elliot, Shaun Tischendorf, Greg Simmons, Ray Sephton, Jan van de Putte and Brad van der Westhuizen.
Joining the Batch 3’s on an early start was the other trail alliance merger of ABA and Minky, comprising Mike and Inky Talbot, Adam and Anton Wood as well as Bruce McQueen.
Appropriately, starting off a little later than the rest were the recent hedonistic pairing of Johnny Anderton and Shane Little. They were still shrugging off trail indulgence lethargy and other pleasantries and got off to a leisurely start to their last day on the trail. They’ve eked out the gratifications of the trail, taking the philosophical approach that if you’re not racing, why make haste? The pair made heavy weather early on and only cleared the head of the dam at 8:00. They continued to lag just behind the pack throughout the day’s proceedings and rightfully laid claim this year’s RASA Lanterne Rouge jersey.
The early going up the valley was spearheaded by the ABA troika, followed by the Batch 3’ers with Minky in attendance in the mix just behind them. The full group made steady headway, with ABA arriving at the base of the steep exit climb out of Stettyns gorge around 10:45. At about the same time Shane and Johnny arrived at the Avatar like, surreal, floating, self-supporting vegetation obstacle. Whereas the rest of the pack had traversed the labyrinth up high, appropriately Shane and Johnny went low, skirting under Lady Stettyn’s petticoats.
ABA crested the climb, out of temptress Stettyn’s grasp in short shrift, and were onto the Jeep track home just before noon and got the finish at Diemersfontein at 14:00 for a pizza lunch. A very good day’s work.
Meanwhile, back in the valley of sin, Ingrid and Mike had edged ahead of the Farmers who collectively went into laager mode through the maze muddle, but everyone regrouped at the base of the steep climb out. Everyone, that is, barring Little Johnny who were still fighting the good fight a bit further back. Ingrid and Mike climbed out via the conventional route, but the Farmers went deeper into the kloof before scrambling up. The two groups emerged together just before the start of the Jeep track. The conclusion to be reached is that the better choice of line to take is inconclusive. Little Johnny crossed the river early, having stayed in touch with the two groups ahead, surreptitiously observing the good lines and discarding the minor blunders. They summited at 14:00 and, not being in a particular hurry, had a good rest before pressing on to the finish. What an adventure.
Ingrid and Mike stole away to cross the finish line at 15.46, putting Ingrid in first place in the women's race. The Batch 3 finally split with Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte and Shaun Tischendorf crossing the line at 16.20.
Trevor Elliot, Greg Simmons and Brad van der Westhuizen followed them in at 17.00. Brad will be relieved to only take one day to conquer Stettynskloof this year. The Lanterne Rouge pair of Shane and Johnny closed this year’s RASA an hour later and will do the traditional celebration with pizza and a bottle of Diemersfontein's finest.
I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night, that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night. There will be revelry, and no doubt Klein Khaki Shane won’t be a shrinking violet lurking in the background, but will be a prominent participant in the merriment. What a celebration it will be.
Peter Stephens (Blanket Wearer)
Spotlight on the finish line
With multiple riders getting to the finish in the last few days, lets take a look at the recent arrivals:
Kevin Meier arrived on Tuesday in a finishing time of 20d11h26min. As a novice, he rode a steady race and particularly enjoyed the navigation aspect of the challenge. Riding with Derrick Bingham for most of the way, he was disappointed when Derrick had to withdraw in Montagu but was happy to complete his own ride and earn his first FC blanket.
Francois du Toit and Dirk Botha finished with Kevin, although having started in a later batch, their elapsed time was 17d11h26min. For Francois it was his second blanket and for Dirk his first. They rode the whole way together and also shared a few days on the trail with Dirk’s brother, Floris Botha, who sadly withdrew at Hofmeyr.
Andy Wonnacott and Sean Privett arrived at the finish yesterday afternoon after an early start from Trouthaven. For both of them this ride earned them a second blanket in a finishing time of 18d7h38min.
Next to arrive were Gary Preston and Alex March in a time of 20d12h25min. This was Gary’s second blanket, in a slightly quicker tie than his first and for Alex, his first FC blanket.
Crossing the line soon after them were a group of riders: Ingrid Avidon, who earned her second blanket in a time of 17d12h36min and did so in fine style, keeping followers entertained along the way with her humorous messages and photo and video updates - all in aid of charity as she managed to raise nearly R60k for the FC Schorlarship Fund in the process.
With her were Leon Erasmus and Mike Nixon. Leon started out with his son David, who unfortunately had to withdraw at Toekomst. Leon, the oldest competitor in this year’s field (64) put in another solid effort and also improved on his previous time, crossing the line in 17d12h36min for his second blanket. Mike earned his first blanket in a finishing time of 18d12h36min.
The remaining three riders had ridden together from the start and made sure they crossed the finish line in the same fashion: Nigel Payne, his brother Adrian Payne and George Oertel completed their ride in 19d12h38min and earned themselves their first FC blankets. They rode steadily and comfortably and thoroughly enjoyed the whole adventure together.
And then it was the penultimate day
Today’s report is relatively easy to write from the perspective of trying to see who is moving where. In essence, the riders are either leaving Trouthaven for Diemersfontein or are headed to Trouthaven – hopefully, you get the picture – it's focus time for the riders. So lets chat about some of the other interesting stuff – the people finishing this journey in the next few hours. Today I will take the liberty of using their race numbers (some permanent and some prospective), this is significant because for today’s finishers as they will from here on out be known by their permanent numbers. Those resting up at Trouthaven will be very aware of not just getting their blanket, but also putting their name on that leaderboard tomorrow.
Setting out early this morning amid the odd freezing rainshower into Stettyns were riders 19 and 64, Andy Wonnacott and Shaun Privett, both finishing their second RASA today. They made short work of the valley and then took the direct line-of-sight route up and out of the valley. They clearly meant business and scooted into Diemersfontein for lunch. Shaun will be pleased to get his blanket on the lawn in front of the homestead. In 2012 he received it on the banks of the Berg River a week later – he being one of the last to do the Extreme Triathlon. Andy and Shaun are great mates and have deep reverence for what the trail offers, they both make great riding partners being knowledgeable and unflappable. Great ride, guys.
At the time of writing and just about to start the exit out of the valley to the farm Phisantekraal above the N1 was permanent number holder rider 161, being Leon Kruger. Leon had hoped to finish the ride with his son David who had to return home early. While these setbacks might seem minor, many have quit in the past when their riding partners have had to leave the trail. Leon got on with the task and by all accounts, his trail experience has been invaluable to those who have ridden with him at various times during the past few weeks.
Estelle Labuschagne, rider number 55 will be remembered for her night out on the trail. It was at a time when riders were complaining of bitterly cold nights that Estelle found herself alone and lost just short of Toekomst. She settled down and waited for the sun to come up which it did. She didn’t quit, she didn’t throw her toys. Later that morning she had thawed out and was pictured smiling next to Martin Dreyer at one of the mid-morning support stations – showing that she is made of the right stuff and should serve as an inspiration of what to do when the going gets tough. At the time of writing, Estelle was still exiting the Stettynskloof while all the men and Ingrid Avidon were well on their way to the N1. She should find the track before dark, but as we know, that should not concern her, she’ll just be in a bit later tonight.
Next up are the inseparable Adrian (252) and Nigel Payne (251) and their mate George Oertel (255). These three took a break from corporate life and immersed themselves in the trail for three weeks. By all accounts, they have been rewarded with an experience which has suggested they will be back. From the bleakness of the state of South African business, they have seen another side of the breadth of South Africa which gives us hope. They will be remembered for their politeness and manners, which in a world of riders increasingly demanding much from their race organisers is a refreshing approach and one which is consistent with the ethos of the trail where one is hosted as a guest, rather than served as a racer. Well done gents on the manner you have gone about your business.
Leading the aforementioned group out of the valley via the traditional exit is Gary Preston, rider number 211, he’s also set to finish his second RASA. Gary will be finishing alongside his fellow start group rider and mate Alex March (245). Alex has had a very solid outing for his first time on the trail, hardly putting a foot wrong. They will be joined by rider number 52, Ingrid Avidon who is also getting her second blanket. Ingrid has, with a great sense of humour, photoblogged her way down the trail, clearly also enjoying the free spirit experience.
Gary Preston was a joint recipient of the Stone Saddle award in 2015. His efforts to finish and conquer Stettyns were described by fellow blanket wearer Stu Brew as follows, “The final day of RASA requires extended qualities of resilience, tenacity and resolve. In 2015, Gary Preston displayed an awe inspiring depth and the extent to which these attributes can be held within an individual; demonstrating to the rest of us mere mortals that in fact, Stettyns is easy.” Well done Gary for another remarkable effort.
Mike Nixon (224) is one of those riders who has finished every Cape Epic stage ever! – today he finishes another of the big challenges he has taken on in life. The great thing about what he achieves today, is that it is so incomparable to anything else he has ever done. I am sure the last thing on his mind will be comparisons as today will be all about finishing an incredible three week journey where he has met so many different riding mates and different experiences on his mtb. Well done Mike.
So those are the finishers today, a big group and I have no doubt, a very big welcoming party, Diemersfontein is set to celebrate tonight.
Back to Trouthaven. Getting in early were Trevor Elliot (280), Shaun Tischendorf (246), Greg Simmons (197), Ray Sephton aka Barkley Boy (123) and Jan van de Putte. They will have booked early beds at the Trouthaven cottages. Joining them is Brad van der Westhuizen, rider number 170, who will be looking to show the rest of aforementioned, the route to their permanent numbers. My guess is that with the predicted weather being good tomorrow, this group will be headed for a lunchtime finish at Diemersfontein tomorrow. (They have had data signal all afternoon so they will be reading this, please don’t disappoint me, guys. PS. Brad the beer is cold at the end and the Cape rivers just look like beer).
Mike and Inky Talbot as riders number 196 and 195 respectively have lost their sweeper tag today as they prepare to get their second blanket tomorrow. They got into Trouthaven just after lunch with a very brisk rider through from Montagu where they had an early start. Behind them are Johnny Anderton (201) and Shane Little (223). These lads teamed up a day or two ago and appear to have agreed that the Cape winelands and the Breede River Valley are worth taking in. Tomorrow they will go about working off some of the calories they have consumed over the last two days. It wouldn’t surprise me if there is more than energy drinks in their packs for a little pre-celebration in Trouthaven tonight. Well done Johnny, you are nearly 2300km done. I remember our chat earlier this year on a casual ride and you told me all about a thing called the Freedom Challenge that you were going to do.
Bringing it home into Trouthaven by mid-afternoon were the brothers Wood, Anton rider number 135 and Adam (301) along with their riding partner Bruce McQueen (239). Like the Talbots, they too got going very early from Montagu and didn’t spend too much time and effort making their way across the Breede River Valley.
Tomorrow, the final 13 riders should all finish in Diemersfontein. What a celebration that will be.
Charl van der Spuy (Blanket Wearer)
The racing snakes have cleared the decks and our attention is now on the average rider. Although, there are riders out there who are far from average but have chosen to ride day by day and relish the experience of the race. The closing sections of the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa invokes all manner of emotions for the participants, not to mention the lives of the dot watchers. The racing snakes crunch the numbers factoring distance and speed that allows their average speed to spike up before Stettynskloof damps it down. They are focussed on the end goal which is measured in days and hours and how they will stack up in the top 5 or 10.
Others are getting to the end of a multi-week journey that has in many cases reshaped the way they feel about riding a bike. It matters little if you finish in 10 days + Vat per Martin Dreyer or you take full advantage of the 26 days you are allowed to finish the race. Everyone who finishes gets the same reward - a blanket, a pizza, and the respect of your family and friends. I can assure you that every blanket wrapped around the shoulders of a Freedom Challenge finisher feels as special as the next. At the end of the day, the blanket is not the actual reward, it is merely a symbol of a journey travelled, of a special life experience centered around a bike.
Some people get to Prince Albert and put their heads down and push hard for Diemersfontein because they have been on the trail for weeks and long for the normalcy of their everyday lives. Others have settled into a new normal which they find refreshing and are in no hurry to shed.
Kevin Meier, Francois du Toit and Dirk Botha overnighted at Trouthaven getting on their way at 05h30 to tackle the Beast. They were at the dam wall by 06h30 to start their 7 km trek. Steady progress had them out the Kloof at 14h00. It seems the Rocky Scree is now playing off-Broadway and is no longer the show it once was. Most Kloof visitors opting to take a line that passes north of what used to be a main attraction. As interesting an experience as Stettynskloof is, I think most visitors can't wait for the final act that seems them topping out near the jeep track at the far end with a magical view of the valley below.
They arrived in Diemersfontein just before 5.30pm where Francois received his second blanket while Dirk and Kevin were stripped of their novice titles and formally inducted into the FC Blanket Clan.
Ingrid Avidon left McGregor 04h30 with Gary Preston and Alex March close behind. All three were taken in by the dead end Brandvlei quarry road but corrected quickly without significant loss of time. Alex and Gary arrived at Trouthaven at 11h20 with Ingrid forty minutes adrift. They figured it was safer to call it a day than risk tackling the Kloof in fading light. So it's a short day on the bike (nearly 8 hours - short day in FC speak) with plenty of time to think about what faces them tomorrow. Gary and Ingrid have memories to draw on while Alex will probably get to hear the odd tale or two while they wait.
Andy Wonnacott, Sean Privett and Estelle Labuschagne opted for a later start, heading out at 07h00. They had a clean run into Trouthaven arriving early afternoon adding to the numbers that swelled over the course of the day.
Leon Kruger and Mike Nixon got an early start out of Montagu and were through Ashton around 05h00. At 05h30 they were passing Van Loveren Wine Estate. In spite of a claim by one wine lover that everyone stops there, they didn't; besides, the bistro only opens at 10h00. They pushed on, crossing the Breede river over the steel bridge arriving at McGregor at 07h45. A quick turn around had them back on the road toward Trouthaven. They arrived late afternoon where they will overnight before the final bushwack in the morning.
George Oertel, Nigel and Adrian Payne got away from Montagu at 06h40. By 10h35 they had taken care of business at Pony Cottage in McGregor and headed to Trouthaven arriving at 17h00.
Shane Little and Johnny Anderton opted for leisurely start from Montagu heading out at 08h00 indicating their intention of going "all the way to McGregor", a mere 3-hour ride away if you don't get distracted along the way. They were distracted and timed their arrival at the Van Loveren Bistro perfectly and settled into some good coffee. They rolled into McGregor at noon announcing that they had arrived at Beer o'clock.
On reaching Anysberg, Greg Simmons and Trevor Elliot faced the choice of sharing a double bed or riding on. They left Anysberg at 21h30 and pushed through the night getting to Montagu just before 4am. They stopped to freshen up and catch some Zzz's, presumably in separate beds, and were out the door just after 10h00. An hour later their tracker dots came to a halt outside the seductive bistro. On the road to McGregor they zagged where they should have zigged and took the wrong road to McGregor arriving there at 14h00.
Ray Sephton, Jan van de Putte, Shaun Tischendorf and Brad van der Westhuizen got underway just after 06h00 and made good time arriving in Montagu at 10h30. Less than an hour later they had saddled up and pointed their steeds toward McGregor with nary a glance at the tempting Bistro as they passed. They arrived at Pony Cottage in time for afternoon tea. They called it a day and make up the party of 8 who are calling McGregor home tonight.
Michael and Ingrid Talbot, brothers Adam and Anton Wood and Bruce McQueen left Rouxpos 05h00. The ABA trio surged ahead with Minky rolling up the race trail behind them. It must be stressed that rumours of ABA having a morning habit of singing a tuneless version of Dancing McQueen are thus far unsubstantiated. Besides, what happens on the trail...
With their departure from Rouxpos, Ronel and Gerrit Roux have a stack of empty ice cream tubs and a well-used waffle machine. Rouxpos is known for its waffles and ice cream as much as Damsedrif is known for its Death by Chocolate pudding.
ABA and Minky made short work of the section to Anysberg and were there at 09h15. Just after 10h00 they continued their charge to Montagu. Mike And Ingrid had the bit between their teeth and arrived in Montagu a good thirty minutes ahead of the alleged minstrels. They will rest up tonight and probably head to Trouthaven tomorrow.
The season of dot watching is slowly drawing to a close.
Mike Woolnough (Blanket Wearer)
The head of the race has crossed over the mighty Drakensberg and is now headed into the Stormberg region. The character and scenery of the race changes here. Rural villages give way to lonely farmland and the blue skies of Sisonke and the Malutis cloud over with rain and snow in the aptly named Stormberg.
After a lot of technical riding, hike-a-bike, and challenging navigation the race now becomes more of a riders race with long turns on dirt roads. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it gets easy though as there are many challenging portages still to come.
At the other end of the trail the first batch of racing snakes started. These are the riders who will push on late into the night pushing their limits on the trail. Even though they start a week after Batch 1, it is expected that they will be the first to reach Diemersfontein. More on Batch 7 later.
Batch 1 - Day 7
Shane Little continues to ride solo at the head of the race reaching Slaapkranz at 4pm. He’ll hope for dry weather tomorrow. This region is known for death mud - mud that stick to tires, bikes, and itself. After 100m of this stuff a bike is unrideable, hard to push, and too heavy to carry.
Philippa Crocker and John Bowen left Tinana Mission at 4am and pushed on through Vuvu to tackle Lehana’s and finish in Rhodes, catching up half a day. At 6.30pm they were nearing the top of the portage at the blue container and hopefully have no problems reaching the road.
Batch 2 - Day 6
A day behind the rest of the batch, Floris Botha joined riders from Batch 3 in an early start out of Malekgalonyane at 4h30 am. After solid nav with a small meander along the Tina river he stopped at Tinana for the night. Will he decide to push through to Rhodes tomorrow?
The rest of Batch 2 started together from Vuvu on what looked like a good day for Lehana’s with little wind.
Sadly Leon van der Nest decided to withdraw from the race at Tenahead Lodge citing saddle sores. For those watching the dots it is easy to romanticize the race and forget that for all riders, this race is challenging. For all riders there is a lot of physical discomfort and mental stress that can not be conveyed in a dot on a map. Congratulations to Leon on reaching Tenahead and enjoy the comfort there!
Derrick Bingham and Kevin Meier reached Rhodes as 14h30 for a late lunch. By 5pm they were joined by Johnny Anderton, Gerhard Dreyer and Estelle Labuschagne. Gerhard taking a slight detour past the blue container on top of Lehana’s. It acts as a lookout station and has provided shelter to riders in exceptionally bad weather.
Batch 3 - Day 5
Having ridden the Staions of the Cross loop the day before; Shaun Tischendorf, Ray Sephton, and Jan van der Putte took the road out of Malekgalonyane while Trevor Elliot, Greg Simmons, Alex March, Brad van der Westhuizen and Gary Preston had to ride the tricky loop in the dark. They did well all rejoining the road at the same time.
Alex March rode well reaching Vuvu by 14h30 and was joined by the rest of the batch around 5pm. The batch is building up great camaraderie having stayed together at every support station. One of the things that makes The Freedom Challenge great is swapping stories or navigation tips over dinner with the other riders.
Batch 4 - Day 4
After 3 days of riding together, Batch 4 finally split up. Andrew Ryan, Gavin Robinson, and Bugs du Toit were the first riders to push on past Malekgalonyane reaching Tinana at 16:35. This is regarded as the best strategy for reaching Rhodes in 5 days. While Malekgalonyane to Vuvu can be a long day, it's the perfect split between Masakala and Rhodes.
Nigel Payne, Adrian Payne, and George Oertel opted to take a well earned rest at Malekgalonyane arriving 13:40, no doubt enjoying the sensational views onto the snow-capped Drakensberg.
Batch 5 - Day 3
After some creative navigation getting them far out-of-bounds leaving Ntsikeni; Mike Nixon, Dirk Botha, Francois du Toit rode through to Masakala. They are joined there by Andy Wonnacott and Sean Privett, all arriving around 5pm.
After reaching Glen Edward at 12:35, Annie Labuschagne and Stewart Lombard decided to call it a day and allow Stewart to rest a niggle. They are not the first to fall victim to the sunny lawn at the front of the house and Sheila, the host, will be delighted to have overnight visitors.
Batch 6 - Day 2
Ingrid Avidon with David and Leon Kruger had an early start out of Allendale at 3:15 with the plan of pushing through Ntsikeni to Glen Edward. After no problems navigating the Donnybrook forests and reaching Nstikeni, they should have enough daylight to complete the tricky Politique Kraal section. They had a slight twitch in their navigation before the farm road but didn't lose too much time.
Anton and Adam Wood along with fellow farmer, Bruce McQueen had a more relaxed start from Allendale and reached Ntsikeni comfortably by 4pm.
Batch 7 - Day 1
The second last batch and the first group of racing snakes, is comprised of names well known to fans of the Race. Marnitz Nienaber, a.k.a. Nagapie and Hyena, returns for his 7th blanket, a record equalled only by Tim James (starting tomorrow). Fjord Jordaan, Mike Potgieter, and Michael and Ingrid Talbot all return for their second RASA.
The time Riders reach Byrne, the town containing the first lunch stop at Oaks Hotel, can be used as a barometer for how fast the group is. The prediction for this group was:
Crossing the Umko 12:00
After a solid day’s riding Michael and Ingrid stopped at Allendale at 16h15. After bringing up the rear up Hella Hella, Marnitz Nienaber pushed on through Allendale and as night falls is just about enter the Donnybrook forest section. This section can be tricky even in daylight but few have as much experience as Marnitz.
Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter were out of Allendale at 2h45 and have only a few turns left to Centocow before the light is completely gone. They are hoping to push on to Ntsikeni to achieve the opening double.
With several trackers still on the move, it promises to be an entertaining night for the dot watchers and will only become more so tomorrow when the entire field is on the trail.
Liehann Loots (Blanket Wearer)
The Adventures of Today
I thought it might be taxing to write today’s report. Most of what has needed to be said before we get to the racing end of this year’s RASA has already been said.
Five batches have set off from Pietermaritzburg, and they have all taken sensible, mechanical approaches to the task. After all, RASA isn’t won before Rhodes. So, they’ve all chosen to settle in, get into a rhythm and aim for Rhodes in six days. Batches 2 to 6 have been travelling like Bedouins, sticking together like glue, hardly separating, taking no chances, keeping energy in reserve and moving from support station to support station with nary an issue. That’s the tried and tested formula for most Freedom riders barring the racing snakes.
Of course the race proper begins tomorrow and then the awe begins. The ultimate winner of RASA 2017 will emerge from the two last batches. They will take the chances and engage in daring night riding in an effort to wrestle an advantage over their rivals.
Of those out on the trail so far, only Batch 1 have broken from the mould. John Metelerkamp was forced to withdraw due to his house burning down in Knysna. Philippa and John have struggled to complete each designated day, but they’ve exhibited some courageous riding to be effectively one and a half days behind schedule at this point. Sensibly they stopped proceedings today at Tinana Mission and this will allow them to tackle Vuvu valley in the morning. They can take solace in the knowledge that there are easier days down the track, and they will become more conditioned to life on the trail as the days pass. They don’t need to panic, it can still be done.
In contrast, the last member of Batch 1, the enigmatic Shane Little, is undoubtedly producing the performance of RASA 2017 so far. From the outset, he’s been riding solo and coping extremely well. His anecdotal Tweets underpin that he’s really enjoying himself and is undaunted when he finds himself off course. His banter and obvious thrill of being on the Freedom Trail is refreshing. It is uncanny how he manages to self correct and find his way again after he wanders off track. He never goes backwards or retraces his path; he just forges forward and finds a way out of trouble.
Shane’s antics today, in particular, are worth mentioning. He got underway good and early from Vuvu and as he put it, it was surreal to finally get to have his Lehana’s day after so many years of watching others do it. Shane covers ground quickly; it’s somewhat of a pity he isn’t riding with a group of fast riders. But I suspect he’s content to have the adventure and isn’t particularly interested in blitzing it to Diemersfontein. Having found his way early to the right hand turn off at the foothill of Lehanas it looked like he’d be in Rhodes for an early lunch. But then, inexplicably, he veered off sharp right and climbed a spur no one has ventured up before. At one point he was within a kilometer or so of the Lesotho border. Once he realized that his visa was expired, he made a route correction. Having already climbed to the height of the summit of Lehanas at 2600 meters, he held that height after turning south and met up with the designated track behind and beyond the summit of Lehana's. He must be a contender for the tough-guy award this year. Mike Woolnough described Shane’s route as unique and daubed it the Little Detour. Shane seems undaunted by adversity, it fact, he appears to relish and thrive on it. Can Shane hold off the racing snakes in a bid for line honours at Diemersfontein? If he does, it looks like he’ll have to do it all alone.
The Vuvu valley has a few riders poking around in the dark. Kevin Meier and Derrick Bingham exited the valley too early but had enough light to make their way to the school the long way round. Johnny Anderton and Gerhard Dreyer have made the same error and at the time of writing this report, were scratching around a hillside way off course. However, if they figure out where they are, they'll be able to get to school eventually. Estelle Labuschagne and Brad van der Westhuizen chose the low route and still look on track despite the dark.
Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte and Shaun Tischendorf raced through to Malekolonyane, then completed the next day's loop – all before 1pm. They enjoyed an afternoon of chilling and gazing at the spectacular views from the lodge. The rest of the group, Greg Simmons, Brad van der Westhuizen, Trevor Elliot, Gary Preston and including the indomitable Floris Botha decided to take on the route in the morning.
Sitting at Masakala and no doubt, looking forward to the shorter day tomorrow are George Oertel, Nigel and Adrian Payne, Bugs du Toit, Andrew Ryan and Gavin Robinson. Apart from a right turn on the approaches to the lodge, they all had an uneventful day and continue to ride within themselves.
There were a lot of tracks criss crossing the various forests on the way to Centacow today, thanks to Batch Four. There's a not so obvious split in one of the the forest roads and if you miss it, you have a long way down and around. And if you make a left turn, instead of right? Well, you suddenly find yourself at the very back of your group and time wasted. Andy Wonnocott, Sean Privett, Francois du Toit, Dirk Botha and Mike Nixon found themselves in the unenviable position of having to chase back up the hill. Stewart Lombard and Annie Labuschagne made no mistakes and were the first to reach Centacow. The mistake stung enough that Wonnocott and Privett arrived first in Ntsikeni first, just before 5pm, restoring their possibly bruised egos. They were followed by Du Toit, Nixon and Botha and finally, just after dark, the duo of Lombard and Labuschagne.
Allendale has a full complement of the riders of Batch Five tonight. Day One of RASA knocks aside many a plan of racing through Allendale for Centacow. There had been talk of riding on in this Batch but in the end, Allendale was just too enticing after a long and hot day. Mpumalanga's Bruce McQueen, Anton Wood (multiple RASA finisher) and his brother, Adam Wood were content to put their feet up. Leon Kruger and his son, David along with Ingrid Avidon had planned to ride on to Centacow but reconsidered. Hospitality or fatigue?
Tomorrow will bring a different tone to the race with the first group of competitive riders hitting the trail, the race proper is about to get underway.
By Peter Stephens (Blanket Wearer) and Fiona Coward (Blanket Wearer)
The Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund
Ask any rider who has ridden on the Freedom Trail - it takes you through some of the most beautiful and remote parts of the country. It also gives you an insight into the lives of the people living there. For some people out there, the beauty is tempered by the harsh realities of daily life and this becomes evident as you pass through and see it first hand. In 2009 a group of riders doing the Race to Rhodes were struck by the social underdevelopment along parts of the route and were so moved by an overwhelming sense of social responsibility, that it sparked an intense desire to give something back - after all these were the same communities that were allowing them to pass through unhindered and taking care of them at the end of each long day when they arrived at the support stations. They soon identified youth and education as priority needs and as a result, the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund (FCSF) was established in 2010 with the core objective of funding better educational experiences for kids from these impoverished communities.
Nicky McLeod, a local developmental worker based in Matatiele and Shaun Woolnough, who rode the Freedom Challenge in 2009, were instrumental in formalising and initiating the program. Through the existing relationship with the Mehloding Tourism Trust, who run the support stations in that area and the Mariazell Mission near the Malekhalonyane support station, it became a natural choice to begin the work in the Mehloding section of the Freedom Trail. In 2010 a number of generous riders donated sufficient funds to provide 5 students, from rural schools, a 3 year scholarship to attend the Mariazell private school.
In 2011, the FCSF kicked off the "Class of 2011" charity challenge via Backabuddy (an online fundraising portal), setting the fundraising benchmark for all future FC Challengers - a total of R270 000 was raised. This together with a number of direct donations enabled the FCSF to send 9 students to Mariazell at the beginning of 2012. They went on to complete their Grade 10, 11 and 12 as part of their Scholarship.
It is worth mentioning a special good news story regarding the student's academic success - the Matric Class of 2016 proved to be really strong academically and all 4 of them were able to enrol in tertiary education for 2017. Two students enrolled at Wits University where they were paired with on-campus mentors and two laptops were also donated to make their life at university more manageable. Being part of the program has not only helped them academically but has also been a wonderful life experience for them and given them greater exposure to the world at large.
The goal for 2018 is to raise R120k. This will provide 4 students an opportunity for a better education and donations will be allocated to the 2018-2020 group of students.
Over the years, various riders have used their participation in the events as a platform to raise funds for the FCSF and managing this was handled by riders who volunteered their time and energy for the cause. Today the Freedom Trail Foundation is the formal structure that oversees the process - it was created specifically to channel the riders’ collective contribution back into the communities. The broader vision is to extend the reach of the FCSF to other regions through which the Freedom Trail passes and partnerships with environmental, tourism and other social upliftment initiatives have been explored e.g. in 2015 a donation was made to the Cambria Farm School in the Baviaanskloof.
Any ride along the Freedom Trail, however challenging it may be, is taken on voluntarily. For those less fortunate, there is often no choice in the hardships of daily life. Thanks to the efforts of the riders and also the Freedom Trail Foundation, an initiative such as the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund has been established. Now those more fortunate can make a real and lasting difference in the lives of those in need and offer them hope for a brighter future.
To get involved or contribute to the FCSF, please contact one of the current trustees for more information:
Or kick things off by buying a ticket for the 2017 Freedom Challenge Event Raffle where your R500 donation to the FCSF will give you a chance to win an entry into one of next year’s shorter 6-day Freedom Challenge events - see the details on the Freedom Challenge Facebook page.
At some time tomorrow, there will be riders spread over the entire route between Pietermaritzburg and Rhodes. Now there's a thought.
Shane Little has led the field with aplomb. He is the sole member of Batch One, who is on schedule. Today was the tricky stage to Vuvu. He pretty much nailed it with only one or two meanders off route. He reached the small village at 16.30. There's no doubt, that as the only rider in Vuvu tonight, the ladies are going to spoil him.
The rest of Batch One have joined with members of Batch Two. There were some off-route moments for Leon van der Nest, Estelle Labuschagne, Philippa Crocker and John Bowen but they corrected without too much distance being added. Kevin Meier and Derrick Bingham made no such mistakes and forged ahead towards Queens Mercy. Johnny Anderton and Gerhard Dreyer were not too far behind. They all did the Stations of the Cross loop so as to miss the tricky navigation in the dark of the early morning.
(It's a strange little loophole in the rules. Technically, the race route exits Malekolonyane and cuts a corner to meet the main district road. There is a nasty little stream to be crossed and many a rider has suffered with frozen jockey wheels, frozen feet and frozen chains. But, by covering the route in the late afternoon, the navigation is easier, it's warmer and there's time to dry shoes. In the morning, the riders simply backtrack to the district road – no nav required – and pick up the route further on. It takes about an hour to do but is worth it).
Masakala Support Station is busy tonight. This Batch Three is cruising through these first couple of of days of a very long race. Their experience is showing as they comfortably reached the picturesque lodge in the late afternoon. Brad vd Westhuizen has three Race to Rhodes under his belt and one RASA finish. Jan van der Putte has done Race to Rhodes and Race to Cradock. Trevor Elliot has completed a Race to Cradock, Gary Preston is a Blanket Wearer, Shaun Tischendorf has done Race to Rhodes and Race to Cradock. Ray Sephton has a good collection of experience with his Race to Rhodes, Race to Cradock and Race to Willowmore. That leaves Alex March and Greg Simmons as the 'rookies'. Johan Floris Botha has joined this group from Batch Two. He is riding at a good steady pace each day as his navigational confidence grows.
Back at Ntsikeni Support Station is Batch Four, a group of strong riders biding their time. Brothers Nigel and Adrian Payne are together with George Oertel, Bugs du Toit, Gavin Robinson and Andrew Ryan. They made no mistakes between Allendale and the lodge and were rewarded with a daylight finish.
Batch Five all reached Allendale without incident. Mike Nixon, Dirk Botha, Francois du Toit, Sean Privet, Andy Wonnacott reached the farm in the late afternoon. Stewart Lombard and Annie Labuschagne got in after 7pm and they should all be tucking into a warm dinner. This is another group with loads of trail experience. Expect them to cruise through to Rhodes.
Fiona Coward (Blanket Wearer)
And then there were Four Batches
From a dot watchers viewpoint, this was a bit of a humdrum day. The riders on the other hand will be well pleased that they provided small entertainment for the armchair warriors.
Batch 1's Shane Little continued to strike out on his own at the front of the field. He reported that the wind had abated to be replaced with really cold conditions. He headed out of Masakala at 05h45 hoping to get in early at Malekgalonyane. He probed around a bit while crossing the Knira floodplain and managed the transition without stepping out of bounds. Some fun (dot watcher perspective) was had as he dropped off early from theMpharane ridge but he managed to shimmy across the foot of the mountain to get to Gladstone farm without too much trouble. He arrived at the support station at 14h55, a few hours later than expected and after a short break, he did the Stations of The Cross exit to the Ongeluks road to set himself up for an early, trouble-free exit in the morning. He arrived back at the support station at 16h35.
That raises an interesting point. Shane took 11 hours to advance 58kms down the trail. At face value, it looks ridiculous as you would imagine you could walk it in that time making a bicycle superfluous. When someone asks how far it is to any given point on the trail, the correct answer should be given in hours rather than kilometers. The distances bear no relation to the time it takes to cover them.
The balance of Batch 1 are riding together with Batch 2 into Masakala. Philippa Crocker and John Bowen got a 05h30 start out of Ntsikeni along with the rest of the riders who overnighted there. After passing through the Politique Kraal, the group shattered as if being charged down by a herd of buffalo. Some continued in a westerly direction (the right way to go) while others went north and Philippa and John headed south. After a kilometer, they retraced their steps and got back on track. It did, however, leave them as the caboose in the charge to Masakala. They ran out of daylight on the last single track into Mademong. Undeterred, they showed their creativity by forging a new high route out of the valley to rejoin the regular route. They are currently making their way through Hebron village and should reach Masakala within the next hour.
Batch 2, apart from a few individuals who were involved in the buffalo charge moment, moved along without too much difficulty. Kevin Meier and Derrick Bingham moved fast and efficiently, arriving in Masakala just after 17h00. They scribbled a little in the last single track section but it was a mere blip that was fixed without too much excitement.
They were followed in by Estelle Labuschagne and Leon van der Nest who moved steadily throughout the day. They managed to find their way through Hebron and over the floodplain in the dark to arrive in Masakala at 19h22. Johnny Anderton and Gerhard Dreyer are within striking distance of this support station as well, having successfully crossed the floodplain. They are both FC trail rookies and hopefully, they find the guesthouse without too much drama.
Batch 2 tail-ender, Floris Botha, left Centocow well before sunrise and had made it to Ntsikeni by 14h30 where he hitched his mule for the night.
Batch 3, apart from Trevor Elliot and Greg Simmons who opted for a later start, were up early and out the door of Allendale. This batch has a good dose of experience with a sprinkling of rookies. They have the measure of what it takes to tackle this race and moved well throughout the day.
Gary Preston and Alex March led the march (see what I did there) into Ntsikeni arriving early at 14h25 with plenty of time to settle in. Brad van der Westhuizen, Shaun Tischendorf, Jan van de Putte, Ray Sephton, arrived over the next few hours with Trevor Elliot and Greg Simmons locking the reserve gate behind them. Ntsikeni is a hive of activity tonight with no fewer than 9 riders being fed and entertained by Mr Ngcobo.
Batch 4 who started out from Pietermaritzburg this morning have one rookie in Andrew Ryan. That status didn't faze him and he was the first to arrive at Allendale followed shortly by farmer Bugs du Toit and later by the peloton of George Oertel and brothers Nigel and Adrian Payne accompanied by veteran Gavin Robertson who reported that it was a rather chilly day out.
Mike Woolnough (Blanket Wearer0