I don't know if it still says it, but the Freedom Challenge website used to claim that the completion of the trail would change your life. This is, of course, quite a big claim to make. While you are doing it you have the sense that the claim is probably true, but you can't help wondering what changes it will bring.
Will you start describing barely visible track through impenetrable parts as "scratchy" as Freedom founder David Waddilove does? Will you hold your wrist slanting downwards when you are really indicating a ferocious incline and the wrist should be pointing upwards (as I have seen him do)? Will you be able to tell your left from your right? Actually, none of us doubt that David knows his left from his right, it was just that his early narratives sometimes confused the two. It was part of the charm of the thing that the narratives, including descriptions such as "scratchy" were there as a guide. Get the fact that in cases David meant left but wrote right, and you were good to go.
Well, those were the grand days. Now we have trackers that work and, from some accounts, so many bits of ribbon strung along the trail that it resembles Dorothy's yellow brick road, not a fearsome wilderness experience. I wasn't there on day one, the first ride from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl. David had just two companions, his boet Rob and Andrew King, the latter who has returned to do the race at least once since. But the first ride was pre-dated by the first run. David, flush with a gushing rush of blood to the head, ran the Two Oceans and then ran to Pietermaritzburg to run the Comrades. The route was somewhat simpler and more straight-forward to that of today, but included many of the places that have become part of its firmament.
I remember on my blanket year arriving at Kapokraal after a devastating bout of diarrhea. The place is so high that the garage for the car is located well down the mountain lest it be snowed in. I was greeted by Christo, a young man who had been plucked from the good college life and sent to run the farm. He had been away for the weekend and so the coal stove was cold. We sat looking at it, he telling me that David had come through here the year he ran from Cape Town to Pmb. There was snow (they call it kapok) on the ground.
"He dried his wet socks on the coal stove," Christo said.
The consensus was that Christo would never convince a woman to come and live with him in such a cold place and that he would see his days out as a bachelor. But I heard later that such is Christo's charm that indeed his did not only find a woman who fancied him, but enough so that she moved in at Kapokraal.
There are untold stories here. One is David had two companions on his big run. One is a man named Pat who drove a back-up vehicle. The other was a woman who ran part of the route with him. I gather that there was a fair bit of tension between the two as she was aiming to get lost, the idea being that the resulting publicity would put the event on the map. I don't remember her name, but always thought she would make a good interview: "How David and I dried our socks on Christo's coal stove at Kapokraal."
It was the tantalising things just off the trail which brought me back. Our hosts, particularly in the area near Chesnywold, told of Bushman paintings just off the road. I wanted to show my wife Lucille the route and used this as an excuse to go looking for the paintings. We found so many sites, well-hidden places where we have lived for as long as people have been people. These sites are more than just paintings, the settings are spectacular with large horseshoe overhangs, sometimes including a waterfall for fresh water. One overhang had the water source gushing seemingly directly out of the mountain.
One farmer, an elderly fellow, told us that he had taken a younger man, a believer in things supernatural, to a large overhang. His visitor had smoked a zol there. Our farmer took a puff too, all kinds of out-of-body experiences resulting.
The trail made me realise how little I actually knew of the story of our country. Eschewing the history books I turned to first-hand material wherever I could find them, going as far back as such accounts are available. I was riding too, working out a route along the Drakensberg to connect with the Freedom, riding this range in a single go and then, over 30 days, the whole 3 500 kms from Beitbridge to the Cape. I came across William Burchell's 200-year-old map of his five-year journey in what was the Cape Colony and started riding sections of it, all the while getting more and more fascinated by his story, not least because of his exquisite prose. I have now ridden some 4 000 kms of his 5 000 km trek. I previously would see beauty, but William John (after 4 000 kms I feel I can call him this) continues to prod me to look deeper. Where I would see a pleasing vista, he would see 200 unique plants not yet in his collection. I continually thank him too for the beautiful places I would not have found but for the fact his map took me there.
The Freedom Trail is one long, beautiful place. It takes focus, fitness and fortitude. It tests and teases. It gives both the racing snake and back-of-field plodder no place to hide. Its beauty, showing itself as it does on a cumulative day-by-day basis, washes deep into the soul. It demands minimalism and shows that without our fellow humanity to guide and nurture us, we are both nowhere and no one.
It changes lives. I know it changed mine.
By Kevin Davie, Blanket Wearer #13