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!
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