The Freedom Challenge

The Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa is an "unsupported" non-stage mountain bike race of approximately 2,300 km across South Africa. While recent winners have won in around 11 days, the race cut-off is 26 days. The race starts in Pietermaritzburg in early-to-mid-June, and ends in Paarl near Cape Town. Temperatures are known to drop as low as minus-10 deg. Celsius. While there are periodic "support stations" which will feed and accommodate riders should they require, the race is unsupported in the sense that riders must carry their own clothing and equipment, are responsible for their own maintenance and navigation (without the aid of GPS), and there are no marshalls or safety officials on the course (Race monitoring is done by satellite tracking). Estimates of cumulative ascent are around 37,000 metres, and the highest point on the route is approximately 2,700 metres above sea level. See the following link for an introductory slideshow by Mike Roy -

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Spring Ride to Rhodes

In theory, riding to Rhodes in September should be the ideal time of year to do so - mild weather and longer daylight hours guaranteed. In practice it was something quite different... We had cool morning temps but really hot days and just to keep everyone honest, a stiff headwind to pedal into from Ntsikeni onwards! As the guardian for the second batch, it was my job to escort Leon, Ingrid, Jeremy and Melita safely to each overnight stop.

Day 1 was as hard as it usually is but we all arrived at Allendale just after 5pm. (thanks to Ian Waddilove's new Hella Hella ride, we followed a path cleared through the Umko valley, so no mamba encounters for us.)

Not being particularly rushed, we left a bit late the next morning and after a 20min coffee stop at the Donnybrook Spar, met up with our support driver, none other than David Waddilove, at Centocow, where of course we had more coffee (and sandwiches). To prevent it turning into an eating tour, we headed off to Ntsikeni but the full belly / steep hill / hot weather combo meant we only reached May Lodge an hour after dark.

An earlier start to day 3 helped us get through the thick grass to Politque without too much trouble but by mid morning, the dreaded headwind had started blowing... A brief stop at Glen Edward offered some respite but it was hard work from then on. Melita was nursing a strained knee and eventually got a lift back to Masakala with David, the rest of us arriving there soon after dark.

Leaving Masakala the next morning, it was cold and misty for the first hour. Cruising through the Knira River floodplains in the cool morning air was one of the highlights of the day but by the time we got to Queens's Mercy, it was hot, the shop was closed and out support vehicle was having a tyre fixed in Matatiele... Forced to press on, we eventually found water at Maria Linden School and then found an open shop just down the road.

Suitably restocked, we headed off up Mpharane ridge and were pleasantly surprised to see our support vehicle waiting for us at the river as we came down off the final ridge - treated to a riverside picnic, we forgave David for deserting us earlier that morning. With no running water at Malekholonyane, we had cold showers at the Maria Zell mission instead and made plans to leave even earlier the next morning.

Riding the first hour in the dark, we were treated to cool morning temps and a stunning sunrise. With all the recent veld fires in the region, the tracks around Thaba Chita and Black Fountain were clearly visible, so the riding was fun. Our trusty support driver was waiting for us at Tinana Mission and we scoffed in the shade of the big oak trees next to the river.

We headed off towards the Vuvu valley, into the persistent headwind, secretly hoping that the deep valley would be more sheltered. Thankfully it was and the late afternoon trip up the valley was actually quite pleasant, although the climb out at the end is just as steep as I remember! That evening, the wind died down and Vuvu was a peaceful place to be. By 2am, the peace was shattered by howling winds, driving rain and the roof of the hut threatening to take off! Stepping outside, we were swept along to the school like ragdolls and once assembled, we considered out options. Going over Lehana's in that wind wasn't really an option, so the decision was made to rather head  down to Mount Fletcher, where we could meet up with our lift going back to Pietermaritzburg. This plan suited everyone except Leon, who was on his way home to East London and still had a week's riding to do - he had to get to Rhodes either way. Fortunately, by the time we eventually left Vuvu, the wind was dying down enough to attempt Lehana's and after a quick farewell at the start of the portage, the group split up, with Leon on his way to Rhodes and the rest of us still headed for Mt. Fletcher. (Leon eventually arrived just after dark and took the next day off in Rhodes, before cycling on to East London, arriving a week later.)

So we didn't quite make it to Rhodes and the weather wasn't quite 'Spring' but it was a good ride nonetheless - for Jeremy and Melita, their first taste of the Freedom Trail, for Ingrid and Leon, being able to ride without worrying about navigation or getting lost and for me, a chance to ride on a normal bike, with gears for a change!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Riding bikes and raising money

The Freedom Trail passes through some remote, rugged and spectacular parts of South Africa. Some of these areas are also home to some of the poorest communities, whose opportunities are limited by the remoteness of their location. Yet despite the sometimes insurmountable odds, people from these areas have risen above the challenges and gone on to achieve success. The common thread in these and similar stories is 'opportunity' and the will to work hard to make the most of it.

The Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund was established to provide such opportunity. It came about after riders on the Freedom Trail decided to do something to help those communities they were travelling through and the plan was to make a lasting difference by offering children a good education.

Maria Zell High School

The Fund raises money to send learners on a three year scholarship to Maria Zell High School, near Matatiele. Promising candidates are selected from within the area and awarded a full scholarship for Grades 10, 11 and 12, covering tuition, lodging, books, uniforms and a travel allowance.

Over the last 3 years, many riders taking part in the Freedom Challenge have taken the opportunity  to raise money for the Scholarship Fund. There have also been significant contributions from corporate donors and private individuals. Recently a fund raising evening was held in Johannesburg - organised by Andy Masters, with help from Ben de Lange and Allen Sharp, (both involved in the administration of the Scholarship Fund) and a host of other blanket wearers (it seems that being awarded a blanket for finishing the Freedom Challenge merely signals the beginning of a longer term involvement with the event and the communities it reaches). The draw-card for the evening was getting to hear the story of the 'Honeymooners,' Martin and Jeanie Dreyer, as they recounted their experiences from this year's race.

Jeanie and Martin with the autographed race jersey. (pic S. Kellerman)

They took us on a journey of 12 and a half days, during which they experienced many highs and lows: the pain of Jeanie's aching knees; sharing the moonlit nights riding together under the stars; the food and hospitality of the support stations; Martin getting sidetracked watching Saturday afternoon rugby; passing up on a champagne dinner at Toekomst; hypothermia in Die Hel; thawing out with waffles and ice cream at Rouxpos and nearly succumbing to the final hurdle of Stettynskloof... a remarkable journey that brought them closer together the further they rode.

The main fund raising event took the form of an auction of various items - autographed race jerseys, Freedom Challenge memorabilia and also a raffle. In the end, a total of over R35000 was raised on the night, enough for a full scholarship for another deserving learner!

Monday, 15 July 2013

The 2013 Race Dinner

Look how far we've come in 10 years! From a 3-legged, 3-man race across the country, to a clan of nearly 150 blanket wearers with a boat-load of adventures between them and countless stories to share. The place to share those stories is the 'Race Dinner,' which also serves  as the traditional wrap-up for the event.

About 50 clan members and their families, spouses and friends gathered at Diemersfontein in Wellington over the weekend to share some fine food and wine. Dressed in their bright red race tops, the riders were there to feed their still hungry race appetites and to relive the adventures with those who understood what they'd been through. The wine flowed freely and war stories were swopped until the early morning hours.

Looking back over 10 years

During a brief talk, race director, David Waddilove, highlighted some of the developments and personalities that have grown out of the Freedom Challenge over the last ten years. He also looked into his crystal ball, suggesting that the way to possibly grow in future would be to expand the online following of the event, rather than the actual number of riders taking part - a wise option for an event that relies on the hospitality and goodwill of others.

All riders who have have completed the Freedom Challenge get the same thing - a finishing time, a pizza and a blanket. A more recent tradition has been the introduction of the 'Stone Saddle' award. This floating trophy is awarded to the finisher who best embodies the spirit of the event each year and is decided on by a vote from fellow riders. This year it was awarded to Avril Metelerkamp - a truly deserving winner. (More about her ride here)

Avril and the Stone Saddle

A new award for this year was the 'Vasbyt' award - with a trophy supplied by sculptor Eric Tollner, one of this year's riders. The winner this year was Roy Mottram, who despite not finishing, showed incredible tenacity out on the trail. (More about his ride here)

And so, after welcoming some new members to their ranks, the clan of Blanket Wearers has dispersed once again - back to normal lives with fond memories of an amazing journey completed and truly enriched by the their experiences. Who knows what the next 10 years will hold for the Freedom Challenge... the race format may change, the route itself may evolve and the coverage of it could surely expand. No doubt, the Clan will continue to grow, both in number and in spirit and the future of this remarkable event looks as bright as the sunny winter skies under which they rode in 2013.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Sweepers are home

The last group of riders in this year's Freedom Challenge are finally at Diemersfontein - the Sweepers have been together since Willowmore and true to form, arrived together at the end.

Chris and Julia Fisher have had a wonderful honeymoon, making the most of their time out on the trail together and loving every minute of it - they rode well, navigated well, ate really well and slept well on their way to Wellington. They probably would have gone on for another week if it were an option but the adventure has finally come to an end after 20days 9hours 48min. Friends and family welcomed them home and there were smiles all around as they received their blankets - well done guys on a great ride.

Chris and Julia at the finish.

The other two members of the group were Leon van der Nest and Andries de Villiers, they also finished in 20days 9hours 48min. Although they also had a large group of supporters to welcome them home, there were no blankets for them, at least not yet... as the only two entrants in the Extreme Triathlon this year, Leon and Andries still have to paddle the Berg River Canoe Marathon to complete their challenge. With the trail run and mountain bike legs now complete, they were at least allowed to enjoy their pizzas with the others. Tomorrow its off to trip the river before they start their four days of paddling on Wednesday - and only then their blankets. Well done so far guys and all the best for the final stretch.

David gives Leon and Andries some encouragement for the final paddle.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Daily Report - 6th July

Only one group of riders remains out on the route - Leon, Andries, Chris and Julia have been riding together at the back of the field since Willowmore and tomorrow the four of them will take on the final stage, starting at Trouthaven and making their way up the infamous Stettynskloof portage. It's not a long stage, barely 50km in total but will still take most of the day to complete, with the bulk of it spent carrying bikes up the kloof (4-7hours). After that it's about a three hour ride to the finish and then its all over...

Two more arrivals

Eric Tollner and Gaeren Wilkinson arrived at Diemersfontein at 17h45 this afternoon. Eric started in batch D and claims a finishing time of 24days 11hours 45min while Gaeren started in batch F and finished in 22days 11hours 45min. They only joined up right near the end and hiked through Stettynskloof together but clearly they both enjoyed each other's company.

They both had their fair share of hardships along the way - Eric falling victim to a tummy bug which slowed him down for a few days and Gaeren struggling with knee issues and later sleeping out in Karoopoort - all of which made the going hard for them. But they both soldiered on and today they proudly wrapped themselves in their new blankets - well done!

Eric and Gaeren at the finish

Friday, 5 July 2013

Daily Report - 5th July

After the arrival of Robbie McIntosh at Diemersfontein this afternoon, there are six riders still out on the trail. All of them are currently in the Breede River section of the trail and if things go according to plan, they should all be home by the end of the weekend. The only thing that can really slow them down now is rain but Robbie left Trouthaven in the pouring rain this morning and still managed to get through Stettynskloof - so it seems the pull of the blanket is strong enough.

Thinking about that blanket tonight will be Eric and Gaeren, they are spending the night at Trouthaven. Eric should have a bit more spring in his legs after a short day today but his full Kasra belly may slow him down... That would be a good thing for Gaeren, who doubled up again, this time from Montagu and will no doubt be feeling the effects of three long doubles over the last few days. But the end is near now and only Stettynskloof stands between them and those blankets.

Not far behind them in Montagu are the sweepers, Leon, Andries, Chris and Julia. They completed a successful double from Rouxpos today and are probably getting ready for a big night out in Montagu tonight, it is Friday after all. If they don't go too big tonight, then tomorrow they'll head to Kasra for the now famous lunch on their way to Trouthaven.

Great pic of Julia by Chris - heading into Montagu

Robbie is home

Robbie McIntosh arrived at Diemersfontein at 16h30 today which gives him a finishing time of 20days 10hours 30min. He was all smiles and has clearly enjoyed himself out there on his bike for the last 3 weeks. Team Aramex were there to welcome him home and now its time to relax and enjoy his pizza and a well earned beer - well done Robbie.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Daily Report - 4th July

The race office didn't manage a ride today - no bikes. Also didn't manage a run today, too cold and dark when the alarm went off. And we really couldn't risk illness or injury when there are still riders out there on the trail, it would have been irresponsible. So after a successful day of loafing, it's time to catch up on the exploits of our intrepid cyclists:

As expected, the sweepers swept through Gamkaskloof, cleaning out Hell's Kitchen on the way and then continued to Rouxpos. Leon, Andries, Chris and Julia were rewarded with waffles and warm beds for their efforts. Tomorrow it's off to the bright lights of Montagu and back into civilisation.

Gaeren staying over in Montagu tonight after a successful double from Rouxpos. The strong winds didn't make things any easier for him but he'll be glad to be there because he's set himself up for a push through to Trouthaven tomorrow and a possible Saturday finish at Diemersfontein.

We thought Eric would try to join Robbie at Trouthaven tonight but it seems he's enjoying the solo gig too much - he left Montagu at a leisurely pace this morning and pulled up the handbrake at Kasra. Who can blame him when the food and hospitality there are so good.

Robbie obviously never got the memo that the race office was closed today - he phoned before 7am from somewhere in the vineyards around Ashton to ask for directions. Once back on track, he made quick work of the good roads to McGregor but then did a bit of exploring on the Kasra portage before arriving for lunch. He had no hassles getting over the next portage at Trappieskraal, possibly because he's been there before on the Epic. Tonight he's at Trouthaven trying to figure out how to turn his cycling legs into walking legs for tomorrow's big hike up Stettynskloof.

Looking at the weather report for the weekend, it seems Robbie will finish dry and the others might get a bit wet, with light rain predicted for late Saturday and Sunday - no real cause for concern though, the riders all know that this thing ain't over until that blanket's wrapped warmly around your shoulders.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Daily Report - 3rd July

The daily reports are getting easier to write because there aren't that many riders left out there and those that remain aren't doing anything exciting except riding their bikes everyday and eating too much. Now and again some of them try to get themselves lost, or take the scenic route between support stations but every evening they manage to find themselves a warm bed to sleep in.

Our sweeper bus hopped on their brooms today and swept across the flats to Prince Albert - the coffee bandit was at his post and the rusks were washed down with a steaming roadside brew. Leon, Andries, Chris and Julia all enjoyed the Karoo hospitality from Voorryer Rissik and soon afterwards they arrived at Dennehof. Tomorrow they're off to Gamkaskloof, The Ladder and maybe Rouxpos? Then again maybe not, Hell's Kitchen serves a mean burger that could derail those plans...

Gaeren rode solo through the Gamkaskloof today, stopping off the customary lunch at Hell's Kitchen. He was last seen heading for Rouxpos in the late afternoon, determined to complete another double up. He seems to be in a bit of a hurry to get finished now as he's done a few big doubles over the last few days - he will most likely aim for Montagu tomorrow - good for him.

Robbie rode that double today and seems to have finally cracked "this navigation thing." He made it through all the scratchy bits around Anysberg and cruised into Montagu by mid afternoon - probably didn't take him long to find the hotel bar for his customary post ride beer.

Eric did the same thing but at a slightly more sedate pace and with a few more photos and coffee brews along the way. He made up a day by doing so which he was quite pleased about. Tomorrow Trouthaven beckons.

Which means that tonight Trouthaven is empty and tomorrow there will be no riders bashing their way up Stettynskloof . It also means that the race office can take the day off, maybe watch Wimbledon or dare I say it, 'Le Tour'  or better yet, go for a ride!