Thursday, July 28, 2016



By now the normal rituals and routines of getting up, having breakfast, packing packs, signing out, sms’ing race office of our departure and plans had kicked into an automated process every morning.

We leave Malekholonyane at 4.40am and make our way along the entrance road from the day before in reverse. I think to myself how grateful I am, not having to do the “new exit” out of Malekholonyane in the dark.

We are headed out on a district road taking us over a steep but short hill at a place called Ongeluknek and then undulating road until we drop down and cross over a river bridge and then swing right onto a single track. Gerald’s light or something wasn’t secure on his bike after we departed and fell back a while so sort it out but eventually caught up to Neville and I. After passing what seemed like a number of sparsely placed houses around us and on the hills in the pitch dark, we trace our way with the bubble of light flowing from our bikes leading the way as our guide. In a very short while we are slightly lost. I could play out in my head where we had to go on memory but for some reason I was disorientated and frantically looking for beacons. We saw bike lights coming from where we had come in the far distance which eventually turned out to be Tony and Caren. We watched their lights to see them float a little way up to our left on a small hill heading in the direction we were suppose to go.

The three of us instinctively take a tiger line approach and start trashing our way in the same direction eventually picking up the track we were looking for all along. We lost around an hour trying to figure this lot out. I even lost a glove! Damn!

The day would consist of a 70km stretch from Malekholonyane to Koaring ridge. Then drop off steeply and start the climb to Black Fountain. From here it was riding ridgelines for some distance to Tinana on jeep track as well as single tracks. Here we would drop off down to Tinana village and cross over another section of single track making our way to the Vuvu valley portage and then onto the village of Vuvu.

We met up with Tony and Caren at Koaring ridge and rode together somewhat until the climb started to Black Fountain. I knew the way from here and so the real trek of the day started. On Koaring ridge daybreak was forming. 

Koaring Ridge - Neville & Gerald

Sunrise before the descent
Single track riding as well as climbing down rocky sections formed the basis of this first exercise. Once off the second last rocky crop, still descending off the ridge we managed to find a track to ride along through a few wattle bushes. Neville and Gerald had pushed ahead slightly and I lost sight of them. As I cleared out of a section of the track and came out into a clear opening I did not see them but caught sight of something lower down to my right while moving and on looking saw them down below just off another section of single track. I immediately turned to pick up the single track descent and follow the line down. It was pretty straight forward. My backside out the saddle, standing on my pedals, hands gripped to the handle bars, arms bent to absorb the flow of the motion, I started making my way down picking up speed.

Rocky screes to descend off
It happened fast! Picking up speed I froze! In a split second I saw a flat piece of rock, the best way to describe, the size of two large pizza boxes on the track. There was a straight drop off of around just short of a metre from that and the single track carried on from there. In a split second I was too focused on where Neville and Gerald were and not concentrating and picking my lines constructively and what seemed like slow motion my front wheel drops off the ledge. In a split second I try to respond to what’s happening but end up reacting. I am too late to get my weight shifted to the back. As the front wheel hits the bottom of the drop so the rear wheel decides to fly. I see the whole incident play out before it happens, again in slow motion. It happened in 2014! The front wheel rolls, my body weight, back pack and inertia starts pushing me ahead of my bike and I go into a cartwheel with the bike being pulled with me because my feet are still clipped into my pedals. I hit the ground hard in a curled position with my left shoulder and the sound of stretching muscles and bones along with the bike and components creaking and smashing against the hard ground, made for a sickening sound that was nauseating!

I came round quickly. I lay on the ground and took stock of my body register. Other than my left breast bone and right knee feeling like they had slammed something, I realize I am ok. Nothing is broken. Just shocked! I stand up and a brief panic set in wondering if my bike is damaged. My map board had snapped clean off my handlebars and lying in pieces around me. Neville and Gerald are oblivious to what had just happened. They were already negotiating the next drop off portage. A quick scan of the bike and mercifully everything was intact, nothing broken, I remember offering a quick prayer; Thank you Lord!

I gathered up the debris of my broken map board equipment and stashed them into my backpack. Got onto my bike and started the rest of the descent. After a fall like that, it is the only way to overcome the shock. All this happened from start to finish and getting going, in around five minutes which felt like an eternity. I learnt from my previous stint on the trail, there are no guarantees when you are out there. You have to be on the ball, be wide awake and keep it together.

I eventually catch up to Neville and Gerald and a nervous chuckle is had on explaining what had happened. We do not talk about it again thereafter.

Tony and Caren are ahead of us as we climb up a steep hill through a small sparsely populated village.

Beyond this we go higher up and we pick up a fairly decent track and start making our way to Black Fountain. We lose Tony and Caren and after negotiating jeep track and finding the white markers as stipulated on the narratives we make it to Black Fountain fairly quickly with no hassles. Here we have a quick break and take off some layers of clothing. Tony and Caren eventually arrive and we hear they took a different line which obviously didn’t work out. All along we had thought they were ahead of us. We all stick together pretty much all the way to Tinana.
Heading for Black Fountain

Again, I remembered the route fairly well. About five kilometers from Tinana, Tony and Caren negotiate a small rocky outcrop with bush over hanging on it. This is a massive round boulder with a fair drop to the left with trees at the bottom and the bush on the top to the right. After Tony and Caren squeezed through and around the bush on this ledge, Neville and Gerald decide to follow their lead too. I had been following from a short distance behind and decided to go down left before the boulder and around the trees onto the lower level of grassy plain at the bottom.
Heading for Tinana

It was Neville’s turn to embrace what could go wrong on the Freedom Trail! Neville slipped and slid some way down the side of this boulder with the trees breaking his fall as well as catching his bike. I was already down the bottom but Gerald was on hand to offer assistance and get Neville and bike back up on the ledge. A close call for Neville who sustained no injury but again showing what could go wrong on an adventure race like this.

We eventually make our way to Tinana with an African man on horseback giving us some advice on the best possible track to take. We descend off the mountain surrounding Tinana, cross the high swinging bridge over the river, ride past the Tinana Mission and village and we are on our way to Vuvu.
Tinana swinging bridge crossing

It is heading for around midday and there is as stiff breeze blowing from the front. Tony and Caren have pushed ahead again and take the high route to enter the district road that would take us to Vuvu. We opted for the lower route. It wasn’t long and we had crossed the known river I remembered and were on our way to the Vuvu valley.

I told Neville and Gerald about my experience meeting a lady at a stop in 2014 before entering the Vuvu valley and suggested we stop and see if she is there. The area is called Setabalaba and she runs the post office from her establishment as well as we can buy cooldrink from her. I find the place to the right at the top of the hill and we ride onto her premises. Mama Gugu as fondly known was excited to see us and even produced a photo I had sent her in 2014. We bought cans of coco cola and some biscuits and we were invited to sit in her living room area. Mama Gugu then disappeared and re-appeared with three 500g glass jars of home-made peaches in syrup which she wanted to give to us. We felt quite bad because we realized as much as we would have liked to have taken the gift we couldn’t. More weight on the back wasn’t something we had in mind going into the Vuvu valley portage. Out of respect, Gerald said we would buy a bottle from her and we would each have some of it to eat right away and we wanted her to join us. Four bowls, some coconut sprinkle and we had a feast! Absolutely delicious! When one reflects, it is moments like this that restore my faith in humanity! Its moments like this that can make the Freedom Challenge experience feel that much more special. We took some photos and were given water to fill our bottles and then we were off with the promise that I would send her the photos.

Mama Gugu
The Vuvu valley with its trails of rivers and yellow grasslands covering the expanse of surrounding mountains beholds its own beauty. Yet, this time of the year one does not really want to get stuck out in the valley after dark. It can get pretty miserable, cold and uncomfortable. The afternoon was quickly turning over and daylight fading as wind and cloud started forming all around us. We followed the river from the start and crossing over four times before we started the ascent out the valley. Neville was pretty strong and once over the first ridge and onto a rugged section of road, we could see the Vuvu tower a little way ahead up on the top of the mountain. Neville was the first to summit, then Gerald and then I. From here I met up with Gerald as the wind was picking up and the signs of light rain tingling against my face. We raced the last short section of rugged road to the Vuvu school and rode into our checkpoint for the night and arrived at 17h00.

Part of the Vuvu Valley

With the generators going at the school grounds as darkness fell, so the temperatures started to drop. I opted for a bucket bath outside in the makeshift showers that had been erected for us. Even though freezing but with hot water provided in buckets and the steam coming off my body, enough to start a sauna, I felt fabulous after that! Once again, enjoying the unique experience that rural South Africa has to offer was always going to be part of my journey. It’s humbling to be exposed to this form of living as it makes you realize how much you have to be grateful for!

After dinner in the “principal’s office” and when ready, Neville and I followed a family of a women and her three boys from the area through the village and taken to their home where we were both given our own beds in one of the rooms of the two roomed house. Again, a very humbling experience where total strangers welcome you as a stranger into their own homes and hearts without questions asked. 
Bed for the night in Vuvu
With the wind howling outside, I settled down to a restless night’s sleep, more so that my body was bruised and uncomfortable from the events of the day. Reflecting on the day, it was more about the journey and concentrating on how far we had come vs how far to go.....

Feeling exhausted, I think I drifted off to a sleep with a smile on my face...

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