Day 24 + 11 Hours TROUTHAVEN TO DIEMERSFONTEIN - FINISH 56km
Day 24 had arrived!
I would have been lying if I said I was perfectly fine walking out the door of our lodge... I think I was slightly numb, maybe slightly petrified of the unknown that lay ahead. The short ride up to the dam was strangely quiet and I was trying to picture the beast that would lay before us. I was also excited at the same time about finishing this epic race!
I wrote a short piece from my notes about the experience the day afterwards and the full version went like this....
Leaving 'battle station Trouthaven on Sunday morning at 6am, many before and many experienced, frowned upon this late advancement onto the 'battle ground which was to become the Kloof all known as Stettyns! Our strategy was to arrive at the gateway of this Kloof at 1st light for the simple reason being we were not going to mess around in the dark on foreign grounds we had no inclination of as had been the planning of the Trio throughout our journey together. It was not a late embarkment because of being naive of what was to come, it was just the way it was.
We had heard all the "horror stories" of those who went before us. Those who stumbled. Those who emerged victorious. Those who fought a gallant battle and lost. Those who fought a vicious battle with the 'Kloof and won. The 'Kloof was not to be underestimated and her magical beauty also harbored the ability to bring on unimaginable suffering!
The first of the river bed crossing. The start of Stettynskloof portage
The Trio had discussed at length 'battle plans and in the end opted to enter the Kloof and go up the middle as per map indications. That was plan A.
Having covered the first 10km in the dark, we opted to go around the dam wall and not over it. We picked up the single track path that would lead us onto the start of this incredible portage and the mouth of the Stettynskloof corridor.
On a clear lit sky, dawn breaking we started at the base at around 8am, standing at the mouth of the corridor staring in awe up the Kloof to a far off saddle silhouetted against the skyline we were to head for around 6-8km away. You could practically pick your own line or use the map as guidance. But one thing for sure, there was no way of finding an easier exit as they were all the same. Looking up the corridor, it looked pretty simple, yet we would later find out it was by no means by any standards.
A lone jet passed over high up in the sky and was almost a trigger the battle had begun! We started out as the instructions given according to map and plan. It was a matter of minutes and we found ourselves in thick vegetated growth. A couple of paths littered the way from those before us. We picked one and a few metres in we were deadlocked. It was like the vegetation swallowed us up! Nervous looks gave way to an almost synchronized thought process. We switched to our plan B almost instinctively! We were going 'high and right' on the eastern slope of the Stettynskloof corridor. We literally started laying our bikes down in the path we were on in thick vegetation, running and throwing body and limbs into what lay in front of us to clear a path for exit to the outside and light. We were not going to cover 1km in 4 hours like some of the previous 'warriors had done. We needed to try move faster as we knew we only had limited day light hours to contend with.
Its a bloody jungle!
We broke through this thick vegetation, pulling, throwing our bikes forward and started the clamber up the mountain to our right, away from the river and thick vegetated growth! The going was slow as we started to make our way up the 'field and climbing high up onto the side of the mountain, encountering a number of rocky ravines with thick growth one after another. Some of these were also feeding water from high up in the mountain to the main river below. The terrain was wet. The vegetation generally waist high but forever changing in among rocky crops. The mountain tops had sprinkles and dusting of snow in places. The air was constantly chilled in the shadows.
Around late 3pm, the battle having raged on all day, we had made half way. There had been stumbles and small falls as we fought forward. The saddle was closer but still yet so far. Neville trailing a short way behind, let out an agonizing scream just as he had slipped and landed in between some boulders, bearing in mind his injured hand that was continually throbbing with pain. I put my bike down and ran back, thrashing through the thick grass after him to pick him up and check he was ok. The sound of his 'scream didn't sound good and I was praying he hadn't broken anything otherwise we would be in some serious trouble. Relieved he was just bruised and in pain for a short moment. We picked out a dry river bed on the mountain higher up and a point we needed to cross over yet another ravine. We were heavily fatigued. Sitting down, Neville was trying to recuperate lying in the long grass nearly towering over him. We gauged at the time we had around 3 hours of day light left. At our current pace, we weren't going to make our exit point before then! We made a combined call that we were going to bunk down for the night. We had found a somewhat reasonable place to shelter and why not take it than start thrashing around at nightfall.
We made it to the river bed higher up in the ravine and set about getting ready for a long cold night. Wood stockpiled, a fire pit established we settled down in a somber mood making fire. We were so badly hoping for a Sunday finish! I myself fell into deep silence the rest of the evening feeling dejected. There was no way to notify anyone we were safe and those following the tracker would only see a non moving blip and have to draw their own conclusions.
Dinner coming up!!
The Stettynskloof fell into darkness quickly and so we sat huddled around the fire, sitting on ice cold rocks. There was no real place for a comfortable place to sleep but it was what it was. Between the Trio we shared a 'meal of cup a soup, a few biltong strips and nougat bites along with rationing our water. We were on a dry river bed. We were very far from the river below. We would gather more water in the morning. We donned all the clothes we possessed which wasn't much. Emergency blankets wrapped around our bodies and the fire constantly fed, we sat and tried to sleep in this position throughout the night. The night was long. The night was quiet. The night was dark and like an abyss before us. The sky was clear and one could see forever. A million more stars than you've seen before could be seen in that absolute blackness!
Surprisingly we were kept pretty warm with the fire going all night. There was no violent shivering like the many nights back when we slept out in the Bosholweni forest. We also put it down to choosing a fairly well sheltered spot high up against the mountain and far from the river edge at the bottom. Taking turns through the night, we fed the fire constantly.
Dawn broke as majestically as all the other mornings and with the fire allowed to burn right down, heat minimal, one could feel just how cold it was. 3 mini packets of instant coffee mixed and heated in a tin bowl became our breakfast. We were low on any form of nutrition keeping our packs light the day before and discarding items and much needed food that would weigh down progress....and for a Sunday finish that didn't happen. My energy now was reliant on eight energy gel sachets that I started sucking on every odd hour to keep us going once we started moving.
It would take us another 6 hours to get out the Kloof. Fighting one last mass of vegetation, more ravines and then also finding a literal clear tunnel of overgrown ferns leading us to the 'promised land' right next to the water edge and last river crossing. It was then a steep, I would have imagined 600m, straight line, back breaking portage out Stettynskoof!
We emerged at the summit exhausted and on low energy and being totally sapped from the night out lack of proper recovery. Yet! We felt victorious! a rejuvenated energy source from just that! We made it out!
Looking back from the summit, down the valley to where it had all started, I silently nodded at my thought process, looking down with a probable blank stare and in agreement of what a previous Freedom Challenge competitor had quoted when posting his analogy of the Stettynskloof... "How can so much beauty behold so much suffering!"
We made our way off the backside of the mountain, got onto some jeep track and started riding for the first time in nearly a day and half. We snaked through the mountains and eventually ended up on the main route to take us 'home'! The finish line - Diemmerfontein.
The last 6km on tar was a time for real reflection for me. I was exhausted, hungry, bruised. It didn't matter anymore! I had coupled and done this journey with 2 incredible guys, Neville Higgs and Gerald van der Merwe and together we did it our way!
All the pain and suffering gave way to an emotional elation that I had followed a dream, and more than one dream in that my fundraising for Carel du Toit centre was part of this. I had failed on the first Freedom Challenge attempt in 2014 but came back to complete unfinished business and finished it I did! As I found myself reflecting, I was sure that even my mother in-law who was one of those that supported my adventure endeavor and who was cruelly taken from us by the ravage of cancer 10 months earlier, was watching over me with a smile on those last few kilometres.
This journey was just that! An incredible journey of self discovery and learned experiences. Places been and incredible people met. I even lost 12kg in body weight! Stettynskloof broke me over and over but failed to destroy me. The Freedom Challenge race across South Africa had certainly humbled me.
Neville, Gerald and I, un-beknown to waiting family and friends stopped at the gate way before we entered Diemmerfontein after the forest descent exit. We shared a prayer of thanks and a hug. Yes, it was a personal emotional moment for us. A massive milestone. We had come so far together and the journey was about to end. Grown men cry? Embark on a journey like we have and we can talk again!
The power of 3 strangers that came together and became the power of one!
2300km, 33000m of ascent, 24 days, 11 hours, riding into the finish was a radical feeling! From a tearful wife, an in awe son, my own father telling me how proud he was, sisters, friends, it was fanfare all round!
Stettynskloof up the valley
The morning after my finish, I picked up a piece my twin sister had written and posted on her facebook page while we were stuck out in the Kloof on that Sunday night and very appropriately written which left a lump in my throat.
....."Friends, family, race followers and fellow cyclists who have already completed the race watch with us and each has their own opinion of how they have chosen to approach this challenge. There are those who see this race/challenge as a race to be won with the breaking of records, setting faster times and speeds. There are those that just hope to get as far as the next checkpoint and see what happens from there. Each one has paid their fee and planned as they have seen fit with their own personal goals in mind.
As I have followed Clint’s (and the Trio’s) journey I have been struck by many things. The Freedom Challenge means different things to different folk. To one it means being number one, to another it means testing oneself to see how far one can go, to yet another it is a journey to realizing a dream...
Clint set out to ride this challenge not only for himself but also to raise awareness and funds for Carel Du Toit Centre Cape Town because it is a cause very close to his heart. This was a dream he wanted to fulfill for a while now. As Clint’s twin, I saw first hand what it was like to grow up being hearing impaired and so while I do not know what it is like to be deaf, I understand his passion for this cause...
I have learnt…
- That you have to be brave when you “fall off a saddle” and that just because you may have failed before, does not mean you give up on your dreams.
- That for some; slow and steady wins the prize. Not everyone is built or wired the same. Knowing your strengths AND weaknesses and planning accordingly is wise.
- That being the fastest doesn’t necessarily mean you are the only winner, but that helping someone else reach their goal to make it to the end with you makes you a hero (all three of the Trio fit that bill)
As I wait for the sun to rise and think about the three guys out there in the cold, (the Sweepers as they are now known because they are the last cyclists to complete the 2300km race/challenge) I was reminded of days and how I felt in my own failures. I wish I knew then what I have learnt from my brother today. Being last is not failure – finishing the race is winning. I am so incredibly proud of Clint and what he has achieved. I am also proud of and grateful to Neville Higgs and Gerald Van Der Merwe for the support they offered him and each other." - Jackie Beavers
Before the last climb out - Monday morning