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 Trail can be Cruel
It’s been a day of drama out on the trail. The jovial snippets and interesting pictures surfacing on social media masked the cold and windy conditions but the headline today was dominated by the unfortunate and untimely mechanical of second-placed Leon Erasmus that resulted in him missing the 13h00 entry cut-off into the Baviaanskloof.
At the sharp end of the field, it’s been a testing 24 hours for Martin Dreyer. He arrived at Willowmore shortly before 3h00 this morning and left a few hours later after a shower and a brief rest, a ride he described as his toughest day ever on a bicycle. He arrived in Prince Albert (152km) around 18h00 this evening, still 22 hours ahead of record pace and left after supper for his final push to Diemersfontein.
Second-placed Leon Erasmus and Jacques Tattersall left Hadley at 5h15 this morning after a good rest, leaving a tight but doable schedule into Kudu Kaya to make the 13h00 Baviaans gate cut-off. They made quick work of the renowned Osseberg and Grootrivierpoort portage before disaster struck for Leon. He had suffered a side wall cut through Koedoeskop Reserve yesterday which came unstuck at the final river crossing out of the portage today. The two riding buddies were forced to split up as Leon pushed his bike for 2.5 hours over the last 9km into Kudu Kaya while Jacques rode on the make the cut-off.
Leon is joined at Kudu Kaya tonight by Shane Little, Fjord Jordaan, Mike Potgieter, Kevin Meier, Derrick Bingham, Gerhard Dreyer, Gavin Robinson, Bugs du Toit and Andrew Ryan. There will no doubt we some war stories to share between the ten of them but they would want to optimise their rest and line up at the Baviaans gate at 6h00 for their day up the beautiful Baviaanskloof.
Johnny Anderton and Estelle Labuschange pulled up the handbrake at Hadley this afternoon where they will enjoy the renowned hospitality of host Bennie who may well be the King of Kuier along the trail. They will be joined by Tim James and Marnitz Nienaber who continued their charge through the field today and were approaching Hadley early evening. Tim and Marnitz have spent many hours together on the trail and will likely enjoy a bit of a rest before they head off to cross the Osseberg in the dark. Their general disregard for sleep-related activity combined with their combined 12 blankets and night riding experience will probably get them to Cambria by early morning.
Batch 3’s ride as a unit came to an end yesterday as Brad van der Westhuizen remained at Gegun last night while the rest rode on to either Koedoeskop or Toekomst. Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte, Shaun Tischendorf, Greg Simmonds, Trevor Elliot, Alex March, Gary Preston regrouped at Bucklands tonight from where they will head for Cambria tomorrow.
Brad reached Kleinpoort early evening to join Sean Privett and Andy Wonnacot in time to enjoy the spoils of Kleinpoort Padstal. Dirk Botha and Francois du Toit are a few kilometres out and will probably also stay at Kleinpoort tonight. All five these riders left from Gegun this morning but rode different schedules and they may well decide to team up tomorrow for some trail company.
Adrian and Nigel Payne and George Oertel are strong and very experienced mountain bikers who have chosen to journey their way along the trail this year well within their abilities as opposed to racing it. They have enjoyed the support station hospitality, have ridden in daylight and have taken many pictures. Nigel’s positive and appreciating social media comments will no doubt inspire many arm chair supporters to start pencilling in a trip down the trail on their bucket list. They stopped at Toekomst tonight and will probably head for Bucklands tomorrow.
Leon and David Kruger, Ingrid Avidon and Mike Nixon seem to have completed their group bonding process and have been sharing space for a few days now. They left Newlands this morning, conquered the Schurfteberg and were on track to arrive at Gegun early evening. Leon at age 63 is the oldest rider in the race this year and has come very well prepared both physically and with regard to navigation. Strong as an ox, he’ll be the one keeping the group together and showing them the way.
Brothers Anton and Adam Wood and Bruce McQueen left from Elandsberg this morning and rode through to the new support station at Jakkalsfontein. They are joined there tonight by Michael and Ingrid Talbot who left from Hofmeyr in the early hours this morning and have caught up with the Mpumalanga farmers who started a day ahead of them. Their departure tomorrow will close this new support station which by all accounts has been a very popular addition to the Freedom Challenge family.
In the ladies’ race, three ladies remain. Ingrid Talbot has covered half a day more than Ingrid Avidon to date and is the virtual leader whilst Estelle Labuschagne (60) has covered the most distance ahead of the rest and occupies the final podium position. These positions may well have more significance to spectators and dot watchers than the ladies themselves who have ridden brave and strong races so far and will be taking their rides one day at a time focussed on a finish.
Carl Scholtz (Whip, Windmill and Gate Owner)
The Dots keep moving forward
Let's get up to speed with the race today – the most notable developments overnight were for totally different reasons, while Estelle Labuschagne hunkered down for the night, a mere 2km/ 10 min from Toekomst, as she got lost after dark. On the other end of the scale, one has Martin Dreyer entering and exiting the Osseberg track and completing the multiple river crossings en route to Cambria Support Station and the ‘gate’ spoken of earlier. What is remarkable about these two overnight endeavours, is the fact that Estelle seemed prepared for and unfazed by her predicament. I bet it was by no means comfortable to spend a night out in the veld, but she did it and survived and is making steady progress today. Martin, on the other hand, went into this wilderness area, alone, with very little moon, with no cell reception in an area frequented by leopards. He made short work of the Osseberg track and the river crossings and is storming through the Baviaanskloof towards Dam se Drif and then Willowmore.
Bringing up the rear, the Talbots didn’t make Romansfontein as they had hoped, they overnighted at Brosterlea and had a late breakfast at Romansfontein and have stopped at Hofmeyer.
A big group left Romansfontein this morning, comprising Bruce McQueen, Anton and Adam Wood, as well as the Krugers (David/Leon). They were joined by Mike Nixon and Ingrid Avidon. They have stayed together today through to Elandsberg where Bruce and the Wood's settled for the hospitality. Anton Wood bought steaks in Hofmeyer and carried them all the way to Elandsberg so that they could “braai” tonight.
The rest set off for Newlands and got there at about 6.30pm.
Further down the trail, the trio of George Oertel, Nigel and Adrian Payne had another regulation day to Jakkalsfontein with their now customary – ‘take it all in approach’.
Francois du Toit and Dirk Botha rode steadily today from Elandsberg and are pushing on all the way to Gegun – that will be a big day for them. Leaving Newlands today was Sean Privett and Andy Wonnacott – they are well on their way to Gegun – it's probably best to have safety in numbers in what some believe may be a ghost house.
In between those two groups is the indomitable Marnitz Nienaber. He is well known on this part of the trail and will be conflicted by his ‘race batch’ tag and his desire to kuier (linger longer), It matters not too much where he left or where he’s going to stop – he has the confidence and experience to make that up as he goes. Last seen, Marnitz overshot the turnoff before Pearston. A case of the sleep monsters?
Riding with Sean and Andy is the steadily gaining Tim James – another rider who is hard to pin down – although he notoriously makes limited demands and gets on with the business. He rides according to the conditions of the trail and you will seldom hear of him complaining of riding into the wind all day. Similarly he’s no stranger to leaving as soon as he thinks it’s the best time to do so. Few manage to ride with his schedule these days.
The big group of Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte, Brad van der Westhuizen, Greg Simmons, Trevor Elliot and Shaun Tischendorf have a late arrival into Toekomst, it’s a pity because the vista there is quite spectacular. Hopefully, Gary Preston, Alex March who got there earlier will have the fire going and they enjoy the luxury tented camp.
Between Toekomst and Kleinpoort are Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter. Being racers, they don’t have the luxury of stopping much before Bucklands or even Hadley. Their strategy will be determined by their expected arrival at the Cambria gate which is open from 6am to 1pm.
Already passed Kleinpoort, are Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus. They too will be drawn towards Cambria if they want to keep their sub-record attempt on track.
Estelle Labuschagne and Johnny Anderton have some way to go to Bucklands or perhaps Kleinpoort before that. If they push on into the night, they will later tonight join the early Bucklands arrivals of Derrick Bingham, Kevin Meier, Gerhard Dreyer, Bugs du Toit, Andrew Ryan and Gavin Robinson. These guys would have been plotting and planning their charge through the section of the Baviaanskloof named Mordor by Alex Harris in 2012.
Shane Little had a relatively easy day from Kleinpoort to Hadley. He has been regrouping and enjoying the support stations for a couple of days with a keen eye on getting through the Baviaanskloof and onward to Prince Albert, a town he knows well.
Martin Dreyer amazed the dot watchers overnight and throughout the day, he charged through the Baviaanskloof into Cambria in good time. He hardly spent much time there and is on and through Dam se Drif toward Willowmore. There are reports of bad weather headed his way, so perhaps he’s going hard while he can. At this rate, it might be a very early rise for the dikwiel commando to intercept him across the flats to Prince Albert.
Charl van der Spuy (Blanket Wearer)
Wheels keep on turning
And so they do, whether the riders are struggling to make each support station or racing through the night on superhuman endurance.
Sadly, today saw three withdrawals. Followers of the race agonised every kilometre of the way with John Bowen (struggling with rib injuries), Philippa Crocker (novice rider with long days) and Floris Botha (battling navigation). Making the cut-offs were in reach but it was not to be. These are the riders to which most of us relate. If you've ridden the trail, you'll appreciate their tenacity along with their vasbyt. We salute you.
The field is strung out as the riders wend their way ever closer to Diemersfontein. Longer stretches with double-up days are becoming the norm.
Still lurking in the Stormberg at Brosterlea are the Talbots, nicknamed Minky (Mike and Inky). They had a late night reaching Moordenaarspoort but left at 5.30am hoping to make it to Romansfontein. It was not to be but they will have to push on through to at least Hofmeyer tomorrow to keep their momentum.
Team BAA (Bruce/Anton/Adam) had a long day, leaving Moordenaarspoort at 4am reaching the comforts of Romansfontein at about 6pm. Impressive riding. Mike Nixon rode the full distance from Kranskop leaving at 4.15 and was in by 5.20pm. The fathers amongst the group were treated to chocolates for Father's Day.
The Krugers (David/Leon) had perhaps hoped to reach Hofmeyer with their late night dash yesterday to arrive at Brosterlea at midnight. After a leisurely 6.30am start this morning, it was not to be, as they stopped at Romansfontein today.
Ingrid Avidon continues to impress with her solo riding and enjoyment of the trail. She elected to stay at Romansfontein as well and sit out her 3 hour penalty for her shoe delivery. Having served it this afternoon, she is free to leave whenever she wishes in the morning.
Tim James arrived at Romansfontein at 5am and after a nap and some breakfast left again just after eight and is hoping to get to Newlands before he needs another break. At the time of writing, he'd taken a right turn too early on the Elandsberg portage but it should not have cost him major time.
Marnitz Nienaber left Brosterlea at 3.15am, reaching Romansfontein at 10.45. Thirty minutes later he was on the road again. He has passed Hofmeyer and is on his way to take on Elandsberg in the pitch dark.
George Oertel, Nigel and Adrian Payne, Dirk Botha and Francois du Toit cruised to Elandsberg today. They left Romansfontein at 6.30am and reached the next support station mid afternoon. Their other companions on the road, Andy Wonnacott and Sean Privett, left Romansfontein at about the same time but failed to find the route out the back, and settled for going around on the road. They have made up for their loss of time by heading on to Newlands instead of relaxing at Elandsberg.
The Schurfteberg pass had a lot of wheels grinding over it today. After a 5am start from Elandsberg, the big group of Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte, Brad van der Westhuizen, Gary Preston, Alex March, Greg Simmons, Trevor Elliot and Shaun Tischendorf arrived early afternoon at Jakkalsfontein. Unwilling to risk the Struishoek portage in the dark, they have opted to stay over.
Estelle Labuschagne, Johnny Anderton, Derrick Bingham, Kevin Meier and Gerhard Dreyer left Jakkalsfontein at 6am and have bypassed Gegun for Toekomst. They should get in to the tented camp at about 8.30pm. Departing half an hour later were Bugs du Toit, Andrew Ryan and Gavin Robinson, also headed for Toekomst and they arrived just after 7pm.
Shane Little left Gegun for Kleinpoort making it quite a long day. He is still riding on his own but may get company albeit briefly from the leader board riders.
Which brings us to the front runners.
Martin Dreyer continues to wow followers of the race with his unrelenting pace and continued good humour as he charges after the race record. He reached Gegun at 4.15 this morning after doing Struishoek in the dark. After a brief stop at Toekomst, he headed off to Bucklands, reaching it at about 6pm. The speculation is that he will keep pushing until Cambria where he will manage some sleep before the gate opens at 6am. He will be all on his own, probably in the dark, in the dreaded portage of Osseberg and the Groot Rivier.
Also pushing for the record are Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus who have ridden together from the beginning. They are through the Struishoek portage and should make good time on the district roads. Behind them, about to take on the portage are Mike Potgieter and Fjord Jordaan.
The virtual leaderboard at the moment is as follows:
1. Martin Dreyer
2. Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus
3. Tim James
4. Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter
Fiona Coward (Blanket Wearer)
One of the beauties of the Freedom Challenge is seeing the land and people change as you move across South Africa. Sometimes it’s gradual but crossing over Lehana’s pass and riding into Rhodes is one of those pivotal points where suddenly everything changes.
Before Rhodes, the weather is generally dry, sunny, and warm (during the day at least). After Rhodes, it is often wet, snowy, and muddy. Before Rhodes, as one meanders from village to village there is a constant chorus of excited school children greeting you. After Rhodes, it’s quiet (except the occasional sheep). Before Rhodes, there are constant navigational challenges and difficult terrain. While there are still many difficult portages after Rhodes there are also long turns on dirt roads where the mind can wander. The languages spoken change from Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho, to Afrikaans.
I love the solitude one finds here amongst these lonely mountains. It is punctuated by the warm reception one receives at the farmhouse support stations of Slaapkranz, Kranzkop, Romansfontein, and Elandsberg. Farmhouse kitchens with old time AGA stoves. Hearty meals and large portions of traditional Afrikaans cooking. Reis, vleis, aartapels, en tuisgemaakte beskuit ( rice, meat, potatoes, and homemade rusks).
Riders looking for a 20 to 22 day finish won’t have saved any days before Rhodes and won’t the 4 days after Rhodes either. While these days are very different in character from the days before they are still long and tough.
Spirits will be high heading out of Rhodes. The first major milestone has been accomplished and with riders usually reaching Rhodes in the early afternoon there has been a good opportunity for rest. The riding to the first lunch stop is easy. There are some climbs, but mostly the route meanders along good roads with only a few turns. It can be cold though. Of the four times I’ve ridden this section, I’ve been snowed on once and rained on twice. For those afraid of the cold, the rain is much worse. It makes arriving at Minky’s warm kitchen at Chesneywold all the more pleasant. She is an amazing woman who not only runs her sheep farm but has enough time to prepare copious amounts of food including very fancy cupcakes. If you have the time you may ask her to show you the bar with its ceiling covered in baseball caps. You can get one of the unofficial Freedom Challenge achievements here by getting bitten on the foot by their pet meerkat. I don’t think it’ll make you crazy, but then again I do keep coming back to this race.
Beware Minky’s kitchen. Many riders have a late arrival at Slaapkranz because they couldn’t pull themselves away. When you do, you follow the Rytjiesvlakte road deep into the mountains where you arrive at the start of the triple Stormberg portage - Kapokkraal, Slaapkranz, and Bontehoek. Comprising a total distance of ~30km these three portages can take more than a day to complete and many riders get lost on these mountains. After an entire day, one rider ended up 10km from where he started!
Riders with time on their hands can visit the farmhouse ruins after Kapokkraal where paintings from an Italian artist can be seen on the walls. We didn’t see that but did get thoroughly spooked by a sheep carcass in the tractor shed. This is an old wagon trail and keep your eyes open for tracks cut into the rock. Even on days with good weather the temperature drops quickly here and Andre and Joyce’s kitchen at Slaapkranz is inviting with generous helpings of stews, veggies, and dessert. You are now in sheep country and should not be surprised to find lamb on the table.
For night owls, the cold can bring an unexpected advantage. There is a very muddy hike out of Slaapkranz. For every two steps forwards you slide on step back. When the temperatures drop into the negatives this mud can freeze making the portage easier.
After many hours of hike-a-bike, after the Bontehoek portage the road opens up again and after passing through the tiny town of Rossouw you drop down a fantastic descent to Moordenaarspoort. This is where Jan Smuts and a scouting party from his commando were ambushed. Despite the ominous name, riders can stop here for wonderful soup. Most riders will carry on to Kranzkop as it is only 3 easy hours away.
This region is particularly spectacular during sunrise when grey grasslands glitter with icy frost. At night you may see little jeweled spiders reflecting off the pool of light cast by your headlamp.
The ride from Kranzkop to Brosterlea is mostly an easy one but the last 20km to Jenny’s Cottage are known for strong headwinds. This is where in 2011, after I complained about a particularly sore bum, the old farmer cut me a sheep skin cover for my saddle which worked wonders.
Carrying on towards Romansfontein, riders climb over the Stormberg. This area is the site of the Battle of Stormberg and is rich in Anglo-Boer War history. Riders pass old fortifications and the Stormberg blockhouse.
One more navigational challenge remains before riders can rest at support station 9, Romansfontein. A little valley, beautiful during daylight, becomes a navigational hazard at night. This section has become known as 'the pivots'. These are circular fields irrigated by sprayers on a central pivot. At night one pivot looks a lot like any other and riders can easily get disoriented and wander off in the wrong direction.
Romansfontein continues the rich hospitality in the region. Farmer Wil is also a keen mountain biker and has helped resolve many mechanical difficulties riders have had.
Leaving Romansfontein, riders must cross Aasvoelberg before dropping into the Karoo. After the obligatory photo at the “Lions and Tigers prefer Meals on Wheels” gate, riders are rewarded with an amazing descent down the back of Aasvoelberg. However, the real reward comes 11km later when after a slow grind uphill the mountains suddenly open up to reveal a vast vista of the Karoo ahead of you.
Dropping down to the Karoo, riders reach the town of Hofmeyer, location of “The Pie Shop”. There are two reasons to reach Homeyer early. 1. You don’t want to do the Elandsberg portage in the dark. 2. You want to stop at the pie shop before they close. Their pies are amazing although the hunger of 10 consecutive days on the bike do not make this an entirely objective review.
There are many amazing places on the Freedom Challenge route but the Elandsberg portage is a special place for me. A lonely wagon track takes you to a remote corner of the Karoo where you hop over a fence and stroll of into... well... nothing really. To me, it epitomizes the freedom part of the challenge. To leave behind roads and trails and wander out into the great unknown. The scenery helps too - the hues are red with sprinklings of green shrubs and sunsets cover the spectrum between blue, pink, and orange.
The Karoo also marks the start of thorn and game farm country. The large white thorns, often finger long, look imposing, but the ones that cause havoc on MTB tyres are the small brown ones. If you’re using tubes you’re going to have a bad time (I don’t even think David Waddilove does that anymore) and make sure you have some extra sealant with you. Three-meter high game fences become the norm. Some are unlocked but many will have to be climbed over. This is easier with two people as one can perch on top while the other passes bikes up, but check and double check the gate is really locked before doing acrobatics!
After ten tough days on the trail it may seem impossible to reach Diemersfontein in only 10 more, but from here doubling up gets easier and achieving a 20-day finish is very doable. After Elandsberg most riders will reach Newlands in time for a second breakfast and push on to Jakkalsfontein. From there Gegun, Toekomst, Bucklands, Cambria, Willowmore, Prince Albert, Rouxpos, Montagu and Trouthaven will get you home in ten.
Liehann Loots (Blanket Wearer)