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 - http://mg.co.za/multimedia/2010-02-04-extreme-endurance-the-freedom-challenge

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Two wheels and tummy bugs in Madagascar

Madagascar - ever been there? Crazy place actually - politically complex, culturally diverse and geographically bizarre. The ex-president was ousted by a younger candidate in a coup but technically neither of them is the official president until they sort it out with an election (some of the mountainous regions are still controlled by loyalist bandits!) The rural population is mostly poor and literacy rates are low but they are friendly, happy people who seem content with their lives as subsistence farmers. Cities are bustling, with entrepreneurs, foreign aid workers, tourists and expats all rubbing shoulders on crowded streets, fighting for space amongst the SUV's, old clapped out busses and zebu carts. The countryside has mountains, rivers, deep gorges, vast rain-forests teaming with exotic wildlife and sweeping beaches, all loosely connected by a skeleton of national roads that vary from decent tarmac to serious 4x4 tracks.

And that's what makes it such an interesting place - any journey can quickly turn into an expedition and adventure is never hard to find.

I was asked by Fiona Coward (of Sabie-X and Panarama Tour fame) to help investigate a route for a multi-day mountain bike event (for 2013) and we recently returned from an 11-day recce trip, during which we set about exploring the riding potential in Madagascar. We covered most of the 700km+ of the route by 4x4 but were able to spend a few days out exploring on the bikes.




One of these was in the mountainous central region, where roads are few, paths are many and distance is no indication of the potential challenge. After a leisurely cycle along a relatively good dirt road, we came to the village of Antoetre. And that's where the road ended and the paths began, except that according to the locals, they were not passable by bike and it would take at least 8 hours on foot to get to our intended destination, if we could get through at all! It was already mid afternoon, so the safe option was to retrace our steps along the dirt road and try to find a shortcut across to a tar road where we could meet up with the rest of the crew in the vehicle. We managed to link up again just after dark, much to the relief of our local guides Tovo and Daniel, who were worried about us being out in the mountains after dark... (something about bandits...)



Next day we drove on to the rain forests and promptly got rained on! Fishing for some useful info from locals about possible paths in the area, we were once again told that paths existed but not for bicycles. We decided to sniff around a bit ourselves and drove off to investigate a decent looking road indicated on one of our maps. At first it was just a narrow road through a village with a drooping canopy of green overhead, quite idyllic. Once out of the village, it turned into a rutted and muddy nightmare and before long, we were stuck in deep mud! (and this was the dry season) We jumped out to start digging but didn't have to, within minutes, a group of local men had assembled and they got stuck in, some even running home to fetch small shovels. It took a few attempts to get clear, turn the vehicle around and get clear again after getting bogged down on the return run. The men had told us that the road only gets worse, so we had no option but to return to the safety of the tar road. What we had seen though held good potential for  mountain bikes....




Another day of riding was along a stretch of coastal tar road, essentially an easy spin of a few hours with no chance of getting lost or stuck in mud!

When the tar roads eventually ran out, we continued south on the dirt, national road. This particular stretch took us from Vangaindrano to Fort Dauphin, a total distance of 239km in just over 16 hours! It was a 4x4 track through incredible countryside, lush forests at first, then sparse grasslands and later dune forests reminiscent of fynbos, all set against a backdrop of towering, jungle covered mountains. The route was interspersed with 10 riverboat ferry crossings, which provided a welcome relief from the bump and grind of the car. The car battery gave up the ghost somewhere along the way and we had to rope in the help of some locals again, this time to pull us up a steep bank (with one of the mooring ropes from the ferry) to where we could push start the car again! After several subsequent push starts, it eventually gave up for good, less than 10km from our destination - fortunately we were able to phone for a rescue and while we waited by the roadside, we watched the fireflies illuminate the pitch blackness surrounding us.




The local food is interesting... unless you stay and eat at a hotel, you but your food from street vendors, everything from rice, vegetables, fruit, meat and bottled water is available streetside together with an unbelievable variety of cheap biscuits! The quality of the food varies greatly and hygiene is not a top priority, so most food comes with an assortment of lurgies at no extra charge. My souvenir was a tummy bug near the end of the trip which spoiled the fun somewhat but it goes with the territory I guess.

In Madagascar they say "mora mora" (slowly, slowly) and that's how its done over there, no rush or stress, just take it easy and accept that the day may not go as planned. Life on the Big Red Island can be pretty laid back but always full of surprises. We'll be returning in October to continue exploring and no doubt get stuck in the mud a few more times.

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