Sunday, July 31, 2016

DAY 7 FREEDOM CHALLENGE RACE ACROSS SOUTH AFRICA - 2016 DAY 7

Day 7 VUVU TO RHODES 54KM 




This is where my day 7 started, typing out a message to inform followers of how things were going early hours of the morning. Here is the extract posted out through Whatssup app to family:

“It's half hour past midnight and I had put my head down to sleep around 8pm. It feels like I have slept for eternity. As I lie here in bed in Vuvu, courtesy of one of the village locals giving up a bed, I listen how the weather evolves outside. It changes within seconds. Wind then absolute quietness. Rain and then that quietness again and so it repeats. We are fairly high up with part of the Drakensberg and Maluti mountains flanking Vuvu. In a few hours we go even higher when we move to get over Lehana mountain pass, a non road, +5hr portage or alternatively via Naudes Nek pass, the longer route if the weather risk is too high. Yesterday's effort from Malekhonyane to Vuvu was brutal to say the least, more so from the amount of climbing involved, clearing ridge lines off sheer drops, and the continuous headwinds bearing in mind you pushing your combined body weight and around 15 to 20kgs of bike, bike spares and backpack. We got slightly disorientated in the dark en-route to Black Fountain but we recovered quickly. All had a day of crashes with me engaging in a classic head over heel, handlebar and bike roll on a steep single track descent. Other than breaking my map board properly and seriously bruised left shoulder and breast bone along with right knee, my guardian angels are looking out for me. Neville, my ‘adopted’ riding partner, while negotiating a single track piece over an overgrown ledge slipped off a sheer boulder face and fell a few metres with the branches from trees catching him but also stopping his bike. He survived to tell that tale, bike included. Gerard also took his tumble on single track with slowed momentum being the cause in the Vuvu Valley. It's his 1st time on the Freedom Trail and he reckons when done with Freedom he could easily sign up for the SA Military Special Forces, the Recces. We had some special moments during the day too. Meeting 'mama Gugu ' at the post office and spaza shop, the last standing post before the beautiful but desolate Vuvu Valley, (I met her in 2014), I introduced her to my new friends and riding comrades. She remembered me and proudly produced a photo I sent her 2 years back. We bought cokes and biscuits from her and we were invited to sit in her lounge. She then also produced x3 500g bottles of homemade peaches for each of us. We felt rather bad as we declined due to the extra weight to carry. Instead we all shared a peach meal sprinkled with coconut with her. Photos were taken; water bottles filled and revived somewhat we said our hesitant goodbyes. Its experiences like this that one can savor for a long time to come. There ARE incredible people in this country of ours! Believe it! Unfortunately the race snakes and serious contenders don't get to see or experience some of this. The 3 of us riding together are united in that it is a journey for us all across South Africa in some of the most remote places one can go. Why not savor it as hard as it can get! In a few hours with lots of grit and determination we break the back of this race going over the highest point and arguably the hardest 550km distance covered! Even when we have bad days, the resolves are still strong and very committed. After all, how many can say they have done and experienced what we have so far? This is an adventure of ordinary guys, ordinary South Africans, at its best!”

We are up at 5am and make our way back to the Vuvu school where we left our bikes and back packs for the night. We rig up after the normal routines applied and ride out the school grounds at 06h00 and onto a 9km stretch of road to take us to the base of the Lehana portage. It is still very dark and we stop enroute on the narrow road to allow a bus to pass us. We arrived at the base of Lehana at 7am whereby we turn off right onto a track. First light is appearing. I point out to Gerald where we are headed in the very far distance and point of exit on the mountain before us.
Base camp Lehana Portage - We've got this!

Heading over the top in the far distance


So the long 4.5 hours of back breaking climbing started. First it was to negotiate the first section onto the ridgeline that then this formed the spine that would take us all the way to the top to the blue shipping container, a landmark well known to all Freedom Challengers. There was no secret and one needed to find and pick the best line from the the base up to the spine so to get on with the real aspect of the portage. Wind, a little dense vegetation in places depending the line you were taking and rock formations with sheer faces on either side of you in one or two places would be the norm as you navigate your way up Lehana.
A quarter way up from the bottom. Still climbing


The climb of Lehana is one endless slog. Amazingly you also get to pass hand built shepard kraals and shelters on the climb and to think that humans would stay up there in isolation for periods at times boggles the mind. The climb up is just that, a climb! 
When one is that high up, one can be forgiven when feeling a little shaky in the legs, bike over your shoulders crossing a "table top" on the ridgeline with valleys deep below on either side and the cross wind blowing while you're exposed. I did one of those with a white knuckle shuffle!
A break. Lying low out the wind


 

We decided on a plan that we would climb for an hour then take a five minute break, then repeat. It seemed to work well. Gerald was exceptionally strong and kept moving like a mountain goat up this mountain. He was always ahead of Neville and I and by doing so almost created a pre-navigated tracking path for us to use and follow. I gained much respect for this 50 something rookie the way he made it look so easy and graceful. With incredible display of grit and determination, Gerald was the first to summit in just over 4hrs! Neville had taken a slightly different line to me towards the summit and got in just before me. The wind was not as bad as two years prior and for most Freedom Challengers it is sometimes customary to take a little time out at the summit and replenish lost energy and maybe also to reflect on the journey so far. The views are incredible and a must to savour! Every step taken to the top was earned! You feel like you are literally sitting on top of Africa and at 2900m, you have the best views!
Summit of Lehana




 
After the joyous celebration and photo shoots at the summit we made our way around the crag of where the blue container was and after climbing over a slight path way of rocky scree we dropped down to the mountain resort of Tenahead on a jeep track. 
Tenahead

 


Gerald modeling for us!


Trio in good spirit!
As always, we were warmly received and settled down for some coffee to warm us up and some awesome toasted sandwiches ordered! It was so easy to be tied in and spend the rest of the afternoon in this warm establishment but this was not our official checkpoint and after paying the bill and thanking our host, so we high tailed out of there at 13h30pm and gunned it for Rhodes! The descent off the Naudes Nek pass en-route to Rhodes, I started to wobble a bit from pure cold and body shaking from shivering on the bike. It was incredible! With a continuous endless drop for 10kms at speed the wind chill was prominent! I didn't stop to put another jacket on as I was enjoying the free fall immensely! Maybe foolish as one could run the risk of eventually getting sick with the normal winter illnesses later. At the bottom I did eventually stop and pull out my 2 in 1 jacket. The ride to Rhodes was very undulating over district road but one could feel the ache from the cold ever present, especially with the sun slipping lower and lower into the afternoon. After all we were in one of the coldest places in the Eastern Cape. 
Before dropping off Naudes Nek pass - Photo: courtesy Neville



10km of pure descent!

Arriving in Rhodes just after 16h00 and after this first section of 550km of brutal terrain was a special affair for me as the journey had gone nearly according to plan in relation to all the mishaps in 2014! I will be honest and say I was feeling a little inner emotions welling up inside as we we rode into the establishment of Rubicon where we met and were welcomed by race director Johann and Meryl. What an awesome day it had been! A little exhausted but elated!!

Then there was Gerald! who we managed to get into Rhodes before his 8 day and 6pm curfew cutoff! Celebrations all round!

Johann, a seasoned bike mechanic, I reckon and never shies away from the mechanical workings of a bike summoned Neville to bring his bike over so they could immediately start with maintenance and run repairs and replace his faulty back brake unit with a new one which was ordered. This is the spirit of Freedom! Those sitting, watching, tracking and monitoring from race office will always assist where they can within the framework of the rules because setting aside the extreme nature of this race, they want to see you succeed!

The evening was freezing but also a blur. It was the normal bike checks, washing kits, map reading, shower, packing, repacking, reading messages of support from friends and loved ones and all not necessary in that order. I also realized that from this day onward was the start of new uncharted territory for me and my navigation was going to be tested and would be crucial to my mindset and success to the finish.


Repacking...again
When we leave in the morning; 105km would lie ahead to Slaapkranz and then we would see from there. 

It is sub zero degrees outside in Rhodes! ....But again! the experience and the privilege of being able to do what we do outweighs the discomfort....

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