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)
'A MEETING OF TWO MEN' & OTHER TALES FROM DAY 12 ON THE TRAIL
At some point tonight on the rolling district roads to the lonely station at Gegun, two men will meet, no doubt exchange a short but pleasant conversation before heading their own ways. In the midst of this conversation, a baton will change hands as the leader on the road becomes the race leader. Shane Little who has laid the first tracks from Pietermaritzburg will be passed by the record setter, Martin Dreyer, who continues his quest to beat the race organisation to Diemersfontein. Tonight he will take a brief nap at Gegun before making the run for Hadley tomorrow to ensure that he takes no chances with the now infamous gate opening times into the Baviaanskloof Reserve. His fellow racing snakes from batch 7 and 8 will also have the Baviaanskloof gate on the forefront of their mind. Timing one’s run to get through the gate before its 1PM closure is critical. Missing this amounts to a self-imposed 12-15hr penalty. Just ask the 2016 second placed rider (aka the writer).
Roughly 20hrs behind Martin, and still on a record-breaking pace of their own, Jacques Tattersall and Leon Erasmus will likely follow Theo Van Dyk’s strategy from last year. They will sleep at Hofmeyr tonight and aim for Gegun tomorrow night. It is a long and hard day but it will be necessary in order to stay in contact with Martin and set themselves up for the charge to Hadley on Monday. Now comes the racers true test of strategy and endurance. If they have burnt too many matches too soon, the road into and out of the Baviaans could be the end of their ambitions.
No longer sweeping the trail, stalwart Tim James is holding onto momentum.He shared some hot soup at Brosterlea with the race’s other solo pioneers, tied women’s race leader Ingrid Avidon and the moonlight Marauder himself, Marnitz Nienaber. At the time of writing, he's hit the trail again. Ingrid will serve a three hour time penalty at Hofmeyer for new shoes brought onto the trail to replace for old failing ones.
Making for Hofmeyer, are Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter. They had a long night and cold night last night, arriving in Brosterlea at 3AM this morning. Perhaps feeling the cold and fatigue they have slowed up slightly today. However, being caught by Jacques and Leon on the road to Hofmeyr, the fires of their competitiveness will be burning tonight. Expect them to ride with Leon and Jacques for at least tomorrow.
The remainder of batch 7, that is the Talbots, made it off Loutebron portage with minutes of daylight to spare. They will sleep in Moordenaarspoort tonight with the Wood brothers and Bruce McQueen. However, that warm bed will have to wait a bit longer with a missed right turn and a long climb to get back on track before Roussouw.
Another lone soldier, Mike Nixon, will have Kranzkop to himself tonight. He spent the morning hunting fence lines atop Slaapkranz portage before recovering well over Bontehoek. Just having left Kranzkop, the Kruger’s are in for a long night on the road to Brosterlea. They will hope to catch Ingrid by morning light. A brave move indeed on such a cold night.
The remainder of batch 5, comprised of Dirk, Francois, Sean and Andy, will be lapping up the famous hospitality at Romansfontein tonight. They have joined the Payne brothers and George Oertel of batch 4 who had another steady error-free day today. The final guest at Romansfontein is Phillipa. She has been fighting the Hofmeyr 12 day cut-off for days now with her erstwhile riding partner John Bowen. However, on different strategies, their destinies have become dis-entwined. John has had two massive days and having made it over the Assvoelberg portage this evening, he should make Hofmeyr before the 6AM cut-off tomorrow morning. Phillipa has time yet but unless she goes through the night, she will be hard-pressed to make it. A potentially sad day for all of her many supporters.
Our other cut-off castaway, Johan ‘Floris’ Botha, has recovered well. Bar incident he too will be in Romansfontein later tonight. Fingers crossed dot-watcher. Let the pivots not lead him astray.
Elandsberg has been flooded by the full complement of batch three. Tomorrow they will have to decide whether to double-up or not. The ride from Elandsberg to Newlands is a short and fast one generally accompanied by a tailwind. It is thus a perfect opportunity to gain a day, especially since the next checkpoint has been moved forward to Jakkalsfontein, making for two relatively short days or one decent day.
Speaking of Jakkalsfontein, the season opening party is happening there tonight as batch 2’s Estelle, Johnny, Kevin, Derrick and Gerard have been joined by Batch 4’s flying trio of Bugs, Gavin and Andrew who also doubled-up today. Don’t keep the neighbours up too late tonight ladies and gents, tomorrow is another tough day on the trail and there are important choices to be made!
Bruce Hughes OB (Order of the Blanket)
To the Stormberg and Beyond
All roads lead to Rhodes. Some just get there faster than others. There was Martin’s fantastic sub 48-hour achievement and there was the defiance of Philippa, John and Floris who managed to squeeze in under the 8-day cut off and live to fight another day. Now the battle has moved on to the Stormberg and the plains of the Karoo.
Martin’s dominance of the race so far is the major focus and talking point, he being almost 20 hours ahead of his record breaking ride in 2012 at Moordenaarspoort. Martin will make Elandsberg by midnight and that will be a good place for a catnap. Jacques and Leon have covered a lot of ground in the last 24 hours, and should Martin falter or have a mechanical, they are well placed to put in a real challenge. They are pushing for Moordenaars tonight where they will probably take refuge for a while. They are looking very strong. Tim James has been very chipper on WhatsApp and clearly has got over his early race sea sickness. So, it’ll be interesting to see how he forges ahead in the next few days. Tim seems to manage on very little or no sleep for days on end, and although he isn’t quite as fast as Martin, Jacques or Leon, his relentless solid pace keeps him in the hunt. It looks like Tim will stop at Slaapkranz tonight?
At this point, BAA - Bruce, Adam and Anton along with Inky and Michael are closing all the gates and will all hunker down at Chesneywold tonight.
Leon and David Kruger have been riding very steadily and have a day in hand at this stage. They will be overnighting at Slaapkranz along with Mike Nixon and the Hyena, Marnitz Nienaber. How long Marnitz will hang around for is anyone’s guess. He’s as comfortable out on the trail at midnight as he is at midday.
Moordenaarspoort will host Ingrid tonight. She’s done a lot of solo riding so far, and her spirits seem high. Jacques and Leon have just made guest appearances at Moordenaars, but they’re back out on the trail with Kranskop just over the horizon.
Floris is making a dash for Kranskop tonight in a bid to avoid the Grim Reaper. If he keeps up this work rate and keeps fighting, there’s no need to become despondent, it can be done. Mike and Fjord along with Nigel, Adrian & George likely to throw down anchor there. Dirk, Francois, Andy and Sean will also be at a crowded Kranskop tonight. They are cruising along incognito and doing very nicely, thank you.
Philippa seems to have succumbed to the warmth and comfort of Brosterlea and is now 2 days behind par. She’s going to have to fight the good fight from here on. Her riding partner to date, John looks to have shaken off the ill effects of his fall a few days ago. Now he’s parted from his riding partner and looks intent on reaching Romansfontein tonight. He’s going to keep the dot watchers up for a while this evening. When he gets to Romans he will join the Batch 3 gang of Brad, Trevor, Greg, Gary, Alex, Jan, Ray and Sean. They have gone from support station to support station without much fuss and are now well placed to consider a few 1-day rides soon while the weather holds.
Gavin, Bugs and Andrew are riding well and are 1 day ahead of par. They’ll be staying over in Pie town or perhaps even Elandsberg tonight.
The nucleus of Batch 2, Derrick, Kevin, Estelle, Gerhard and Johnny will be at Elandsberg tonight. They’ve been trucking along nicely and are also on par at this point.
Klein Khaki Shane is still the spoorsnyer and has been riding solo from Maritzburg. Mike Woolnough predicts that sometime tomorrow Shane will pass Martin the baton. There comes a time…
Peter Stephens (Blanket Wearer)
Day 10: Getting on with the business – riding day by day
The field is really quite settled now with some fairly predictable riding taking place, this is for good reason. After the relief of having made it over the Drakensberg and past Rhodes, the riders thoughts turn to crossing the Eastern Cape and getting beyond Willowmore. From there, few riders don’t complete the trail. So while some of those with racing ambitions will already be trying to double up at this stage, the bulk of the riders are looking to find a good rhythm and settle down to day by day riding.
Lets start at the back of the field today and work our way through.
Masakala/ Malekholonyane/ Tinana
Having spent some hours at Masakala, Tim James and the pair of Ingrid and Mike Talbot left there early this morning making good progress across the relatively flat portion of the trail to Malekholonyane. They paused there for some time and then the Talbots took off, leaving Tim behind. It seems he’s struggling with stomach issues and it was unusual to see him labouring to Tinana late this afternoon. At the same time, its equally good to see him continuing. Tim has had many bad days on the trail in the past, often going to ground for a bit, only to get going strongly again. We hope this is the case.
The Talbots have made a big call late this afternoon and it seems like their rest at Malekholonyane was to ready themselves for the Vuvu Valley tonight. That’s a brave move, sure to be watched with interest later on tonight. It seems they too have found a good pace now, resting well and then moving quickly when they are out on the trail- sensible riding.
More sensible riding from brothers Anton and Adam Wood and Bruce McQueen saw them through Tinana and pull up the handbrake early at Vuvu. Given the bucket shower system at Vuvu and the many kids around the schoolyard, it would have been a tough call, either shower in the schoolgrounds in broad daylight, or risk it after the sun has gone down in the dark. I'm not sure one ever recovers from that biting cold outside as soon as the sun disappears there – tough decisions.
Also leaving early from Malekholonyane were the racers Leon Erasmus and Jacques Tattersall, accompanied by ‘is he or isn’t he racing’ Marnitz Nienaber. They made steady progress past Vuvu and up and over Lehana’s – a very big day which they have done with relative ease – it seems that they will be in Rhodes for an early dinner.
Also skipping past Vuvu were Annie Labuchagne and Stewart Lombard. They began their day with an early exit from Tinana, had no problems through the Vuvu Valley and got to Rhodes about 6pm. With such a big day behind them, indications are that they are over any niggling injuries as previously reported.
Mike Nixon again teamed up with the flying Ingrid Avidon. Mike, a veteran of every Cape Epic and a seasoned mountaineer, was witness to just how quick some of the ladies of the trail are. They made Rhodes just after lunch. Mike decided to stay put there. Ingrid on the other hand, pushed off late afternoon and is currently matching the other racers, Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter, as they head off in the direction of Chesneywold.
Quite content to spend some time at the support station in Rhodes are David and Leon Kruger – they enjoyed getting to the civilisation of Rhodes and had a solid day all the way from Tinana – they deserve their hot bath and a cold beer.
Beyond Rhodes, the riding to Chesneywold Farm for lunch is relatively easy. It is district road and as long as you don’t fall asleep and take a wrong turn, it presents no problem. The challenges come later in that day with the Kapokkraal portage and finding the track down to Slaapkrantz. The fact that the farm at the top of the portage is called Kapokkraal (snow/ sleet camp) should give some indication that it gets cold here, so heading out here at night is not for the faint hearted. Currently, we have Floris Botha about to watch the sun set in that area – he rode through from Rhodes and Francois du Toit and Dirk Botha are some way behind him. These two got into Rhodes very late last night - this morning Francois received a replacement seatpost after his snapped off yesterday. The spare part cam with a standard 3 hour daylight time penalty, meaning he could only leave again at 10am. Dirk chose to wait with him and the late start means they find themselves facing some tricky navigation quite far from Slaapkrantz on a cold night.
George Oertel, Nigel Payne and Adrian Payne rode easily through from Rhodes to Slaapkrantz, their risk-averse strategy is characteristic of these serious professionals – they just don’t make mistakes – that’s not to say they aren’t having fun, they seem to be relishing the trail. This posse was joined today by Andy Wonnacott and Sean Privett – both blanket wearers and for whom today was an easy day through from Rhodes. This group was joined by Martin Dreyer for quite a large part of the day. It's hard to fit Martin into this report because he has covered such a great distance. I’ll make some comments on him at the end, at this stage he has already left Slaapkrantz.
John Bowen and Philippa Crocker took refuge at Geode Hoop farm last night, John needing to take some time out from a fall. They have ridden well today and arrived at Kranzkop at about 6.30pm. Jan van de Putte finally received a replacement wheel to relace his collapsing rear wheel, which also meant having to serve out a 3 hour daylight time penalty. This he did at Moordenaarspoort, from where he departed again at 4pm for the ride through to Kranzkop, arriving with John and Philippa.
Ray Sephton, Alex March, Greg Simmonds, Trevor Elliot, Gary Preston, Shaun Tischendorf and Brad van der Westhuizen cruised through Ray's neighbourhood today and are holed up for an early night at Krantzkop. Ray (‘Barkley Boy’) must have been a proud man riding through his part of the world over the past two days.
Bugs du Toit, Andrew Ryan and Gavin Robinson again teamed up with this group and it was probably one of the bigger groups ever seen out on the trail. But I see this trio have headed off late afternoon for Brostelea. Perhaps things were getting just a bit too crowded at Kranzkop with three late arrivals still anticipated.
Headed to Romansfontein from Krantzkop are Kevin Meier, Derrick Bingham, Gerhard Dreyer who arrived at 6.30pm. Johnny Anderton and Estelle Labuschagne, also from Batch 2 are someway behind. They seemed to lose a bit of pace around midday and now face the prospect of the pivots before Romansfontein at night. For those wondering what the pivots are, from the satellite pics they look like large crop circles, which they are, but they are formed by irrigation system which operate off a central pivot and a very long arm of irrigation pipe which moves slowly around an area of crops. This is not particularly significant normally, but as this area is invariably traversed at night it is a flattish floodplain bereft of any proper roads or distinguishing features and one ploughed land is like another – so it can result in tired riders wandering around trying to find a road or a river, anything other than another ploughed field.
Finally Shane Little succumbed to the lure of the pies and comforts of Hofmeyer. He had a half day from Romansfontein and by mid-afternoon was complaining of sore feet and knees. Withdrawn rider, John Metelerkamp, was quick to share the address of a recommended BnB. Shane’s dot stopped moving shortly after that.
In a world of overexposed, self-important, self-labelled sports people- characterised by gaudy sponsorships, desperately sought brand ambassadorships, ‘role-models’, models playing roles, attempts at labelling every effort to be that of a ‘legend’ - well its all a bit tiresome nowadays.
Then you have the utterly refreshing achievements of Martin Dreyer: understated, self-effacing, determined, kind, polite, helpful and one who just goes about his business in an exceptional way. We have heard a lot over the past two and half days about his physical attributes and achievements, but those are borne out of a man whose character epitomises the type of rider on the Freedom Trail. Every rider that Martin passes, will be treated as equally special. I would like to think that as Martin rode into Chesneywold today, his pace would have been considerate of Floris Botha tagging along with him. Hopefully like me, Floris will never forget the day that gentleman came past him on the trail, Cheers Martin – Godspeed to Diemersfontein.
Charl van der Spuy (Blanket Wearer)
The Day After
It’s Day 9 of RASA 2017. It’s the day after one of the most eagerly awaited departures in recent years and the dot watching enthusiasts were not left disappointed, in fact, they were treated to a day that will be remembered and talked about for a very long time. Enthusiasts and riders alike won’t be blamed for waking up this morning feeling a bit shell shocked. It has been a busy day on the trail and there have been some stellar performances and the unfortunate withdrawal of Alex Harris at Glen Edward due to illness. The highlight of the day without doubt, has been the incredible performance of Martin Dreyer that has blitzed the course breaking one record after the next and is well poised to break the sub-48 hour up to Rhodes.
The field is tonight spread out across the trail from Romansfontein all the way back to Masakala.
Shane Little continues to open the route out front. He left Kranztkop just before daybreak and rode well reaching Romansfontein at sunset, another solid day in the bag for the newcomer. His navigation was spot on and not even the infamous pivots could break his stride.
Kevin Meier, Derrick Bingham, Gerhard Dreyer, Johnny Anderton and Estelle Labuschagne, all from Batch 2, have been riding together for 7 days now. They left Slaapkrantz this morning and other than Gerhard who explored a few innovative route options, had no problems clearing the big portages over Slaapkrantz, Bonthoek and Loutebron. They are staying at Krantzkop tonight.
Philippa Crocker and John Bowen have had many very long days so far but they remain in the game. They left Chesneywold for Moordenaarspoort this morning but only made it over Slaapkrantz to the farm Goedehoop where they are hunkering down for the night. Progress has been hampered by the remnants of a bad fall by John yesterday. Fortunately after the Bonthoek portage tomorrow morning, the roads open up which should help them make up some lost time to avoid the 12-day cut-off at Hofmeyr.
All of Batch 3, Ray Sephton, Jan van der Putte, Alex March, Greg Simmonds, Trevor Elliot, Gary Preston, Shaun Tischendorf and Brad van der Westhuizen today combined with Bugs du Toit, Andrew Ryan and Gavin Robinson from Batch 4 and rode into Slaapkrantz this afternoon. Tomorrow is a tough day for them getting over the big three portages and then up the 7km Rossouw climb to reach some open roads.
Floris Botha reached Rhodes today in 7.5 days to make the cut-off. He is joined at Rhodes tonight by Adrian and Nigel Payne who with good friend George Oertel have been enjoying the fruits of their very good preparation for RASA. They took the Pyga route up Lehanas without issues. Andy Wonnacott, Sean Privett, Dirk Botha and Francois du Toit joined them this afternoon after riding through from Tinana this morning. Francois and Dirk opted for the Philipsrust alternative up Naudes Nek to bypass Lehanas but it took them a lot longer than the standard route.
First arrivals this afternoon were Mike Nixon and Ingrid Avidon who had ridden through from Malekholonyane. They appeared in good spirits with frequent photos and chirps making its way to their supporters. Ingrid at this stage leads the ladies’ field as she has made up a full day so far. They were followed by Fjord Jordaan and Mike Potgieter on their day 3 who left Masakala at 2h30 this morning and rode well to reach Vuvu at 18h00 this evening. At this time it appears they are staying over or at least getting some rest. Fjord and Mike are podium contenders and are riding the part.
All eyes were on Vuvu this evening when Martin Dreyer arrived at 18h45, 3 hours ahead of his own fastest ever time into Vuvu. He is on track for a sub-48 hour Rhodes and has opted to get a few hours of sleep before he tackles Lehanas in the dark. Martin is not new to this, having done the same in 2016 when he became confused at the top of the pass and lost some time. Martin rode through the night to arrive at Masakala at around 6h00 this morning, effectively a 300km first day, never seen before on the Freedom Trail. He kept that momentum going throughout the day up to Vuvu. The race enthusiasts, statisticians and historians have been filling the airwaves with commentary and praise. It has been a truly special performance so far.
Stewart Lombard and Annie Labuschagne rode through to Tinana today but were probably an hour short to be able to cross the Vuvu valley in daylight and opted to stay the night, as Annie is nursing a knee strain and wants to rest it before Lehanas. Leon and Dave Kruger rode through from Masakala and joins the Tinana clan tonight. An early start tomorrow could see the whole group get through Vuvu and over Lehanas before nightfall.
Brothers Anton and Adam Wood and Bruce McQueen arrived early afternoon to enjoy a good rest up and were later joined by Leon Eramus, Jacques Tattersall and Marnitz Nienaber who rode through from Ntsikeni and Glen Edward respectively. They will all be aiming for at least Vuvu tomorrow with Leon and Jacques possibly eyeing an early start and a push to Rhodes tomorrow night.
Michael and Ingrid Talbot left Ntsikeni this morning and rode to Masakala to remain on par. They are a solid couple and may well start riding longer days as their bodies complete the adaptation period. Tim James joined them later this evening for a quick rest after experiencing some problems with nausea. Tim won’t stay for long and will probably be gone by the time the Talbots wake up for breakfast. Expect his engine to kick in any day now and to start catching up on the riders in front of him.
Some Humour from Vuvu Tonight
Ingrid Avidon posted a picture on Twitter of Martin Dreyer arriving at Vuvu with the comment “Martin arrives at Vuvu 6:45pm. For me it was like meeting Elvis Presley. Can’t believe my eyes!”
Reply: “… has Elvis left the building?”
Ingrid: “No Elvis said he is tired and all shook up”
Reply: “Tell him It’s Now or Never”
Ingrid: “He ain’t gonna be your teddy bear. Sleep for 2-3 hrs then go”
Ingrid is clearly in good spirits and has packed her A-game sense of honour for her solo ride called “Ingrid in Adventureland”. She is using the ride to raise funds for the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund.
Carl Scholtz (Whip, Windmill and Gate Owner)
THE FIRST SIX DAYS - Getting to Rhodes
Rhodes is the 6th support station of the Freedom Challenge. To get there you need to traverse 475 kilometers of the Freedom Trail as it wends its way through captivating countryside and its people from Pietermaritzburg in Kwazulu Natal to the sleepy hamlet of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape. Along the way, it takes in the dairy country and forests of KZN before crossing the mountainous interior of the Transkei then climbing over the untamed mountains of Naudesnek and dropping into the sheep country of the Eastern Cape.
Getting to Rhodes takes 5 to 6 days for the average rider and a mere 3 days for race contenders. Although comprising a little over 20% of the total race distance it accounts for 25-30% of the overall time. At the time of writing this part of the trail is fully loaded. Let's unpack it support station by support station to give you a sense of what it's like. Times given are for average riders
Pietermaritzburg to Allendale 105 km. 10-11 hours.
Leaving the Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 6am riders have to contend with early morning traffic as they make their way out of the CBD. Within 15 minutes the bustle of the city is left behind as you enter the thornscrub of the Bisley Nature Reserve where you might be lucky enough to spot the occasional giraffe, zebra or impala. A short section of tar gets you back on dirt through mealie lands and on to the first big climb of the race. An 8 kilometre ride through commercial forests opens up into mountain top grass land. Before long the altitude you have gained in the previous hour is bled off in 5 minutes as you zigzag down the mountain to Byrne. An intermediate stop is available at The Oaks Hotel in Byrne, where they serve soup, toast, muffins and a selection of beverages. Fortified, the riders push on to face the next challenge in the form of the Umkomaas valley.
The Umkomaas river has scoured a steep steep-sidedy through the hills that are "lovely beyond any singing of it." The ride down to the banks of the river is exhilarating. However, there is one section that is steep and treacherously fast - a couple of riders have ended there Freedom Challenge dreams on this track.
The first "Huh!" moment of the race occurs as the jeep track leading down to the river ends abruptly and the first proper scramble of the race raises its hand. It's a proper bushwhack and you are unlikely to get away without at least a little blood being shed. The trip along the river bank is compounded by a rocky shelf that nudges up against the water. Depending on the height of the river it's either a simple side step to get around or a more determined scramble over the high side.
Once through the valley riders face a gruelling 8km climb up Hela Hela pass. It typically takes 2 to 3 hours to get up the pass and on to the support station at Allendale Farm. The challenge of this day is not so much the navigation as the difficulty of the day which confounds the rookie rider. It's only 105 km but it combines difficult terrain with over 2500 metres of ascent resulting in a very long first day on the trail. Riders who linger on the earlier parts or have navigational trouble will find the valley impossible to escape from once the sun goes down. It's not a great place to spend the night as many riders can attest to.
Allendale support station is based at the home of Ian and Dana Waddilove. They have constructed a small village of wooden structures that serve the needs of the race. The main cabin serves as the general gathering point where meals are served and people hang out. Smaller cabins do duty as bathrooms and sleeping quarters. It is a comfortable setup with a warming fireplace in the main cabin. A great place to end your first day on the trail.
Allendale to Ntsikeni 97 km. 10-11 hours.
The day starts with a simple exit out the back of the farm along a firebreak. Most riders face this challenge in predawn darkness and the result is often entertaining for the dot watchers. It's simple when the sun is up. Many riders have wandered around in the dark for hours within a few hundred metres of the farm house.
Once out the back of the farm it's back onto forestry roads that lead the riders to the small town of Donnybrook. The section between Donnybrook and Centocow seems simple enough on paper - only 8 or 9 district roads and jeep tracks to link together. The problem starts when they are busy logging along the route. Things change drastically as logging trucks redefine the obvious routes. Enough people have become discombobulated on this section for the collective antics to be labelled as Donnybrook manoeuvres. The combinations of lostness seem endless.
Once at Centocow riders get to enjoy the hospitality of the carpet weavers located in a building adjacent to the Centocow Trappist Mission Station which also houses the Gerard Bhengu Art Gallery. These ladies will wait in you hand and foot no matter what time of the day or night you arrive. It is also one of the official interim accommodation stops with great facilities.
Once at Centocow riders face a 50 km ride ( 6-7 hours) through to Ntsikeni. It starts with a slow grind up a district road through the villages that hug the mountain range that runs west from the mission station. As the road flattens out the relief is short lived as it's time to head south and tackle the first of many steep climbs on the route to Ntsikeni. A 45 minute walk/ride over the watershed drops you through a small village to a river crossing that leads into another forest where countless trees that stand guard over a myriad forestry roads. Find the right road through the forest and you'll be out the other side in no time at all. Any deviation from that can lead to hours of misery - stories to that effect are legion.
Once clear of the forest, it's over another watershed and through a string of villages that line the district road. It's easy riding until, crossing a large river, the road kicks up. A few hundred metres up the roads it time to get off your bike if you haven't already done so and start walking. This section is known among the riders as going up The Wall. It's a gnarly section that's hard to walk and even harder when you have to push a bike at the same time. It takes a good 45 minutes to get up onto the plateau where you are able to pedal again without busting a lung. The road dips and rises as it curves around a mountain finally emptying out at a small village located at the rear gate of the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. Passing through the village and weaving through a wattle forest one arrives at the gate. A 3 metre style adjacent to the locked gate provides rickety access to the reserve. Once over riders face a 45-60 minute ride through to the Lodge which serves as the second support station of the race.
Mr Ngcobo, ably assisted by his wife and sister, eagerly attend to riders as they arrive. It's the one support station that can expect arrivals at all times. Mr Ngcobo has devised a simple strategy to ensure he is awake to prepare food - he places his mattress across the doorway. Anyone arriving late wakes him up when they open the door. The lodge is fairly basic with a generator supplying power. Mr Ngcobo often spots riders many kilometres from the lodge as they make their way over the grasslands under torch light. It's not uncommon for riders to see the lodge blaze to life as Mr Ncgobo gets the generator running in anticipation of the riders arrival.
The accommodation is excellent with gas fed showers and comfortable beds. Devices requiring mains recharging can only do so while the generator is running. Cell phone access is limited to MTN and only when the device is pressed against a specific point of a particular window in the lodge; true story.
Ntsikeni to Masakala 99 km. 11-13 hours.
The Ntsikeni Reserve is grassland. Bumpy grassland. In June it's frozen bumpy grassland. An early exit from here entails layering up with everything in your bag as temperatures routinely drop well below zero. A short dash along a recently upgraded gravel road brings the riders to a barely discernible jeep track that bumps over the grassland for many a kilometre. It's a jarring ride over endless clumps of grass and rocks following the track as it climbs up one ridge after another. The jeep track splits a few times along the way and care must must be taken to stay on the main track which is tricky as the so called "main track" is not well defined at all. Every year a handful of riders drop off left and end up in the plantations where they have to busk it to get back on the route.
A couple of bike friendly rideable styles and a short hike a bike section has the riders back on a farm road that takes them to the Underburg-Kokstad road. The thrum of MTB tyres on tar is short lived as riders then head west to the interim support ration of Glen Edward.
Glen Edward is hosted by Sheila and Charles Raven. While it's initial purpose was to be a soup stop on the way to Masakala it has long since transformed into more than that. A couple of hard days on the trail has had a surprising number of riders pull up the handbrake and finish their races here. It is also an strategic overnight stop for riders who have some race in them or a rest and retry stay for riders who the race has taken a chunk out of.
Sheila has boundless energy and her and Charles are at hand to serve the riders as they arrive whether it be mid morning or midnight. Support station hosts come in all shapes and sizes but the common thread is their enthusiasm and commitment to the race and making the riders reel at home. Sheila and Charles are no exception.
Leaving Glen Edward riders cross the Mzimvubu river and enter the Eastern Cape. The landscape changes dramatically as you ride into the region called the Transkei. The trail running between villages before ducking down remote valleys before spilling out into more villages followed by yet more empty valleys. It's a vibrant section of the trail. Apart from two single track sections that require attention it's not too demanding. But take your eyes off the ball and it could lead to a late night out.
Masakala is a village a few kilometres north of Matatiele. Masakala Lodge is a traditional guest house that serves as the third official support station. It's a comfortable but compact arrangement. A large rondawel is pie sliced with the kitchen in one section, the bathroom in another and then three bedrooms. It's cozy. Sound proofing is non existent so it's impossible to sneak out without disturbing or alerting the other riders. The food is good, and the beds comfortable. Is also the first time you are likely to get some steamed pot bread and fresh vetkoek.
Masakala to Malekgalonyane 58 km. 7-8 hours.
Flat section of riding on this day with minimal ascent. The early part of the ride from the Guest House entails a ride across the grassland behind the Masakala school. Easier said than done. The previously open grassland has been divvied up into parcels of land that are in various stages of development. Some have houses, others have fences and some have both. Exit Masakala in daylight and you can easily pick your way around the houses but tackling it at night makes for a little excitement. The average rider has no need to start early if their intentions are to get stop at the next support station of Malekgalonyane. It is the first easy day of the trail and one that riders will appreciate after 3 brutal days.
Once across the grassland and over the river, riders have 5 minutes of busy tar road before heading done the next gravel road toward the Knira flood plains. Finding the right road off the main district road to access the flood plains is key as the main road to Queens Mercy beyond this point is Out Of Bounds in terms of the race rules. An infringement on this section will have riders twiddling their thumbs in Malekgalonyane while waiting for the penalty clock to count down. The knock on effect of a time penalty served there makes the next section challenging.
The route from the turnoff through to Queens Mercy is at the riders discretion, even though the narrative has a suggested route that works perfectly. The Knira river defines the southern extend while the Queens Mercy district road the northern extent of the playground.
Once at Queens Mercy, the riders thread through the village before getting back on a district road to get to the next significant village of Mparane. There is a perfectly good road that runs from Mparane to Malekgalonyane that used to be the official route. Someone decided that a simple 45 minute ride wasn't soulful enough so the route was changed to include a 2 hour scramble over the mountains above Mparane. A portage onto the ridge is followed by kilometres of magnificent riding over drag paths. At a certain point riders portage off the ridge to find a drag path that takes them to the old Gladstone farm house. A wiggle through some wattle and a ride over grassland drops the riders down to the entrance to Mariazell Mission Station which is the home of the school supported by the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund. From there is a simple matter of taking the road up to Makekgalonyane Guest House which is run by the same organisation that runs the Masakala equivalent.
The setting is secluded and quaint, overlooking the mountains of Lesotho. It is a memorable stay. There is no mains power available and all cooking is done using gas. A donkey boiler provides hot water for showers and if you're in luck someone has remembered to toss a few logs in the fire prior to your arrival. Cell phone reception has improved over the years and is now no problem provided you have sufficient battery power. Apart from the kitchen/dinning/bathroom building there, are 3 other outbuildings used as bedrooms.
The exit out of Malekgalonyane can be tricky in the dark, so the race office provides a pre-ride option that facilitates an easy start in the morning. Once riders have grabbed a cup of tea and wolfed down a few vetkoek they get back on their bikes with full kit and tackle the exit in daylight. Once they have reached the district road they can loop back to the Lodge via the road. In the morning they are able to ride on the road to rejoin the district route at the point where they reached it the previous day. If the pre-ride loop has not been done then the road option out of Makekgalonyane is considered out of bounds. It takes about 90 minutes to complete the pre-ride loop while an experienced rider can do the tricky part in the dark in about 45 minutes. If you know the exit route you'd be better served sitting with your feet up enjoying the hospitality and views. Tackling the tricky nav in the dark as a rookie could result in an hour or two of wasted time in the morning.
Malekgalonyane to Vuvu 65 km. 10-12 hours.
Just to be clear, there are no typos there. It is 65 km and it does say 10-12 hours. And often that is little optimistic.
Off the bat there, is a tricky section to get to the Ongeluks district road (assuming you didn't do the pre-ride). It's likely you will arrive at the road with wet shoes and at a ring of mud at least halfway up your calves. There are two river crossing frequented by cows and it's a horrible sloppy mess. It's another good reason to do this section the previous day. Wet shoes and freezing conditions are not good friends. A short climb over Ongeluksnek is followed by a fast road section toward the village Thabachitja. An off-road section gets the riders to the village where they must find a contour path that will take them to a cattle path to the village of Koebung.
From Koebung, a series of cattle tracks lead to the tiny village of Black Fountain. Nestled in the mountains no more than a dozen kilometres from the Lesotho border it's probably the most remote village in South Africa. The views from there are beyond description. For the next few hours riders are treated to majestic vistas as they ride over a string of peaks toward Tinana Mission in the south.
Tinana stands at the foot of a cluster of mountains. The route reaches a point where the riders are perched on those mountains looking at the Tinana mission station 300 metres below them.
Once again the narrative suggests a route off the mountains that is generally ignored. Once you accept that there is no pretty route off the mountain, you start looking to have the fastest route no matter how scruffy it is. And there have been loads of scruffy dismounts over the years. Fortunately enough none of them have proven fatal. Once at the mission station riders have a choice of taking a high line through the village of eMjikelweni or hacking it through the dongas at the base of the mountain. The jury is still out as to which is quicker.
Once over the Tina river riders head west along a road known as the Tina Line. Turning toward the village of Setabataba they get to an intimidating section of the trail known as the Vuvu Valley. It's another freestyle section that has the riders starting at the mouth of the valley with the final objective being the school perched on the mountains at the far end. If they ever make a movie about it they would call it, "A river runs through it" as the valley is dominated by the Vuvu river. Various routes have been used over the years, some that avoid crossing the Vuvu river and others that cross many times.
In order to reach the support station at the Vuvu school, you have to get up into the plateau that overlooks the valley. There are numerous options all of which require you to carry your bike at some point.
The Vuvu support Station is located at the school where you can eat and wash. Sleeping arrangements are unique in that riders are housed in the village. After dinner, a queue forms outside the school office and riders are whisked off, generally in pairs, to a house in the village where they are shown to a room for the night. It's a unique experience.
Vuvu to Rhodes 54 km 7-8 hours.
Leaving Vuvu one follows the district road to the beginning of the Lehana's Pass portage. Lehana's is an iconic section of the trail that climbs 900 metres over 7 kilometres. It typically takes 3 or 4 hours to get to the top. There is a police anti-rustling lookout point at the top, in the form of a blue steel container. It is this blue container that the riders head toward. There are basically two route choices although you can mix it up anyway you like as there is no mandatory route up the mountain. As you start the climb you leave the Transkei behind. It's a transformative section where the energy and bustle of daily life is left behind as you enter the largely depopulated interior of the Eastern Cape Highlands.
As riders pop over the top to commence the ride into Rhodes, they pass the exclusive upmarket Tenahead Lodge where they are able to grab a coffee and a sandwich. Leaving the lodge, the riders plummet down the mountain is a series of tight switchbacks to arrive in the village of Rhodes that is the home of the 6th support station at the Rubicon. The Rubicon is a converted sandstone building that used to be a school. There are still blackboards in some of the rooms.
An addition to the original sandstone buildings houses the kitchen, bar and dining room. Most riders look forward to this stop, as they get there early afternoon and have some time to recover from the arduous days.
Mike Woolnough (Blanket Wearer)