Freedom Trail – Hills of Sisonke

An account of four friends riding the Freedom Trail (or at least the first three days of it) early in 2009.

 

Pre-amble

Stumbling off the bike, The Chairman gains his footing, grabs the bike by its seat and bars and throws it into the grass. Following it down, he comes to rest on his back, staring blankly into the ashen skies. An eternity passes while he allows the throbbing of blood in his ears to be overcome by the minute sounds of the veld. “This is the s%$t, this is the s%$t” he thinks mantra-like as the clouds move overhead and the cold sets into fatigued muscles. Sisonke1

This event, on Day 4 of the Phat Buoys’ attack on the “Singing Hills of Sisonke” embodied the entire trip: A misplaced desire for adventure, a general lack of preparation, navigational ineptitude and unpredictable weather. All of this painted against an achingly beautiful backdrop of rolling hills and towering mountains.

 

It all started a month before when a crazy idea was hatched to ride a couple of clunkers on consecutive days in a rural setting. Dewald “The Chairman” Oppermann insisted on it being self-sustained, but Leon “Seer Kniegie” Smit packed a convincing argument: No McD within a 40km radius? Soft beds and warm meals it’ll be. Using propaganda techniques last seen in World War II times, Seer Kniegie quickly rallied two more unsuspecting victims: Craig “Mobile-1” Gurney and Paul “In-a-minute” Gurney. If only they knew…

Here’s the crew:

(FLTR: Leon Smit “Seer Kniegie”; Dewald Oppermann “The Chairman”; Paul Gurney “In-a-Minute”; Craig Gurney “Mobile-1”)

The plan was to ride the 1st part of the Freedom Challenge/Trail route for 5 days. Known as the “Singing Hills of Sisonke”, this trip puts riders smack-bang in the middle of “Cry the Beloved Country” country. 250-odd kays of hills, mountains, undulations, bumps and some flat roads in between to link it all up. Can you say “Granny Gear” with a mouth full of jelly babies and your heart on 198bpm?

 

After getting the “maps” and some route descriptions, The Chairman quickly realised that his general lack of navigational skills could cause some people to die. He prmptly started looking for technology to blame. That fate befell the much famed Garmin Edge 705. Like this:

GarminEdge705(Source: Averagejoecyclist blog – cool objective review)

Undoubtedly powerful in capable hands, our fumbling Chairman hashed the first loading of routes, rendering his unit as stable as an emerging market currency. Long live user manuals.

 

Day 1 (and how not to navigate)

Miraculously, In-a-Minute was on time for the start at 06:00…on the 1st of Jan 2009! The same could of course not be said for the resident route-mapper and over-packer. The Chairman and Seer Kniegie spend the previous night trying to get routes loaded and working ahead of the trip. Oh, and packing the final protein shakes. This naturally rendered them incapable of getting up early, which meant they only hit the trail head by 07:30. Project plans and epic journeys should not be allowed to meet over cocktails…

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And in a blur, they’re off! After some faffing and photo’ing, the scrounges were off riding machines feeling strange to their owners and looking even stranger to onlookers.

Having trusted the Garmin, our honourable Chairman came to a grinding halt at the 1st waypoint.

“Go right here” the device instructed.

“Don’t if you’re not in a fo-by-fo”, the puffy-eyed woman next to the road said, double-clutching a cigarette. Mobile-1 promptly lit one up himself and waited for events to sort themselves out…

“I don’t take advice from such creatures” our Chairman resolved and led the party onto a route of little-used and often-disappearing jeep track.

The road contoured some awesome grassy hillsides, briefly dipped through heaven and spat the riders out close to the main route…in time for face-distorting downhills.

After about 30km of minor undulations, a left turn dropped the speed to 5km/h and forced all into the granny. An 11km climb turned into a 13km monster when The Chairman fell victim to that most basic of GPS blunders: Not considering the elevation when orienteering. Leading the group down the mountainside to reach a waypoint, only to discover the waypoint was actually 200 meters to the East and, most agonizingly, 60 vertical meters up. The Honourable One had his work cut out saving some brittle friendships.

Some kept smiling though…

Luckily a support wagon pulled up, taking care of excess baggage and serving hot coffee. “One No1, medium with a Coke Light”, Seer Kniegie instructed. Old habits die hard…

In-a-Minute suffered severely, but showed excellent character throughout the climb. He astounded his companions even more when he announced about half-way up that he just cracked 100km. As in, 100km TOTAL cycling EVER. Incredible? Stupid? Incredibly stupid? Jury’s still out…

As reward, the climb was extended over exposed, grassy mountain-side, with thick mist thrown in for good measure.

Not being able to see the top of the climb (or the bottom for that matter), our riders soldiered on.

More than once, a rider would fall behind, take a brief moment to bawl his eyes out and rejoin the pack as if nothing happened. Like this:

Finally reaching the highpoint after several stream crossings and
bramble-bush-bashings, little time was spared to take in the views: Mist shrouded the entire mountain side and only revealed the valley one switch-back at a time…

The Oaks Hotel arrived with light rain, hot coffee and clean rooms. The end to a great day out riding.

 

Day 2 (of stopping on hills and 21% grades)

The day broke with promises of adventure and pain. A perfect day, thus.

With two riders left behind (one to recover and another to saddle up a Beemer), the two original Phat Buoys made a belated start and headed for the hills. The 1st bump in the road caused some expected moaning (Seer Kniegie) and inconsistent attacks (Chairman). Luckily, the road soon kicked up to the skies for real, following a forestry road connecting a depot with the outside world. In its semi-tarred state and with fallen trees every 100m, the road felt a 100 miles away from civilization.At 20km (1 hour into the day), our friends found themselves at the bottom of a 10km downhill and the foot of a 6km climb. The mighty Umkomaas coursed its way through some rapids.

Our honourable, the one, the only, Chairman decided early in the climb to stop every 1km. Rest, recover. Annoy. With characteristically inconsistency, attacks would fly off the front after every such rest. Exponential annoyance from Seer Kniegie (who likes to think of himself as a Southern Jens Voigt*).
Jens does not like interruptions. Jens does not like weakness in companions. “Photo Opportunities” The Chairman called it. Jens does not like photo opportunities.

The views were worth it though!

 * Jens Voigt is a famous Pro-Tour cyclist adored and admired by many for his formidable capacity to ignore pain. Phil and Paul [TdF commentators – Ed.] can be expected to become ecstatic about his every move, especially when he is seen pacing a team captain back to the peloton with a pitch fork still stuck in one leg from an unfortunate altercation with a farm labourer, animal or tractor. Incredible indeed.

1 hour 15 mins later, the duo reached the top of the climb, only to be treated to fabulously painful undulations. The wavering Chairman had his eyes set firstly on an Ad Hoc picnic spot (so considerate and genteel, Seer Kniegie) and then on to “The Soda Store” – an indicated rest stop and Coke point. Upon finding their doors closed (and windows out), he started whimpering, singing the old favourite: “What shall we do for an ice-cold beer and a Coke at R4.50”.

The Coke and beer eventually did materialise at Allendale farm, washing down home-made chicken pie and loads of ice cream. While looking at this awesome view:

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Someone needs to do the shitty jobs.

On the topic of ice cream, coke and whimpering, Allendale’s proprietor, Ian Waddilove, managed to casually slip into conversation a brief mention of his conquering of the Freedom
Challenge. Completing this event in 23 days, clocking up days in excess of 12 hours (100+kms), he certainly created an acute awareness of the capability of the human body (and more so, mind) to absorb pain and suffering. Yep, he looks normal, doesn’t talk funny and can apparently do a BBQ. Amazing and inspiring
stuff!

Some interested (or polite) readers might enquire as to the whereabouts of Mobile One and In-a-minute. These blokes appreciate your concern and manners – thanks!

Mobile One deserted the team for the time being, mumbling something about catching up on lost sleep.

Admired for his focus and determination on the 1st day, it was In-a-Minute’s dedication to the cause that really endeared him to his erstwhile companions. Offering to carry kit, supplies and computer equipment, he helped change the nature of the trip from a self-sustained cycle tour into a mobile weight loss programme and offroad training camp. Ad hoc racing (and inevitable tears) followed as a natural consequence. We will catch up with these two gentlemen in the next episode…

 

Day 3 (of mud, speed and missions)

Route planning is a tricky business on the best of days but can mostly be expected to result in navigation with surgical precision. Mostly. When The Chairman is not involved. As it turned out, a GPS can only do so much. After that, common sense is required. Day 3, kilometre 2 refers: Somewhere between the route instructions, Google Earth and MapSource, our self-appointed leader hashed the directions and decided to map a route that goes directly over a mini-Everest. Covered with ant hills.

CrazyGrades1

The route according to GoogleEarth. Yes, that’s a 40% grade.

The route according to #Reallife…

Following a generally exhausting trek through muddy marshlands on cattle paths, our conquerors emerged victorious, covered in mud, cow dung and with wheels refusing to turn.

Riding on the crest of the hill, the views were stunning…

Upon approaching a little creek ending in a dam, we decided the mud must go. A quick bike-was session was organised, complete with half-naked…people…

Definitely not pro-shop rated, but certainly effective.

Soldiering on, the track entered a forest for some shaded relief and spat us out just before the little village of Donnybrook.

Something happenned here. Something Seer-kniegie is not willing to talk about. Allow me to speculate. He went into the local shop to buy some lunch and came out BEWILDERED. I think a local dame flashed him some boob (and a marraige proposal). Who knows?

Forced to leave in a hurry, warm pies in hand, we found the track back into the forest and settled on a nice lunch-spot.

What followed was an incredible track through the forest. After some awesome downhills on fairly major forestry roads, the Garmins indicated a turn off onto a minor, evidently little-used road. This turned out to be an absolute gem, with overgrown jeep track, low canopies, incredible switchbacks and fantastic streams.

Of course, it was about riding too…here’s how you do it:

After about 5km of this, the road widened slightly and continued to journey down into the valley in which Centacow is located.

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Father Stanley and his team prepared an awesome meal and the rest of the crew joined our battle-weary riders for a lazy evening of bike maintenance, wine and protein shakes. What more could one ask for? Ok, 10 or more Swedish exchange students with blue ribbons in their hair would be nice…

The Chairman spent a happy evening sorting out the routing for the next day…

 

 

Day 4 (of broken bikes, bodies and minds)

Having decided to start early, The Chairman and Seer Kniegie set off into a grey and overcast morning. Naturally, the payback for a cool morning should be a torturous climb thrown the way of aching legs and such it turned out. Hitting 15%+ grades within 3kms from the start is wrong.

On this day, a pattern became evident: When wrong or uncertain, The Honourable One would act either with extreme confidence or with extreme interest in the surrounding countryside. Leading the troop(s) into unmapped ravines, missing turn-offs and attacking viciously when reprimanded, a full hour was added to the day. Friendships were lost. Found. Relost. Bought. Sewende Laan didn’t have a patch on these guys.

I think the track goes there…

Are you insane, this is like a highway compared to your option!

Much mountain, big orienteering. Wow.

Yes, that’s a MAN in there…

Still beats a good day of golf.

Looking back at the mountain, a general sense of relief filled the troops. They made it out!

Rural Africa, what’s not to like?

At last, Mobile One came into play again, this time on the motorised version of two-wheeled torture. For the record, let it be known that at the start of this day MO did not yet wear his title. Rather, he earned it by carrying Coke, sarmies and water. And cemented it (and his inclusion in future trips) when he salvaged a broken derailleur on Seer Kniegie’s bike. The latter was found on the side of the road, a token tool in hand (as if he can use an “Allan Key”?). Even The Chairman gave up hope [after stripping the head off – Ed.], but Mobile One rushed to the rescue, dissecting, reverse-engineering and reassembling the stricken part. Legend has it that a full-scale rock-and-wood model of an XT Groupset is now being held in reverence by local tribespeople. Years on, it is expected that tourists will bump into kids with strange names (“Coiled Spring”, “Retaining Pin”, “Rubber Grommet”). Of course, we believe this is just the figment of an over-active imagination.

Some twists and turns spat the group out at the bottom of one ungodly hill. By this time, the entire entourage was in attendance and, was it not for extreme self-restraint, a skottelbraai and boerewors would have been on the cards.

Skottelbraailaagte

After a slight diversion, and about halfway up, our Chairman took one glance at the top and unceremoniously dropped his bike (and himself) at the feet of adoring fans. His plan to fake a technical/medical incident (and hitch a ride to the top on the bakkie) failed miserably when Seer Kniegie attacked, lifted the speed by 1km/h and started singing “Hand in the cookie jar”. With new resolve (and a chain ring tattoo), The Honourable One followed, hell-bent on stopping Seer-kniegie from ruining the minds of young natives with such a cacophony.

Naturally, Seer-Kniegie made it to the top first, in time to snap each member of the crew fighting their way to the top.

The Chairman:

Mobile-1:

In-a-minute:

The jaw dropping view that greeted them all at the top:

And so the party made it to the northern entrance of the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. And a locked gate. After a couple of phone calls, it was established that the bicycles can get over ok, but the cars might cause some trouble with only 4 men and a wooden ladder available in the vicinity. Where’s a simple pulley system when you need it?

Luckily (unless you own the gate), 3 of these men were engineers and an impromptu “who-can-come-up-quickest-with-the-cleverest-idea-to-open-the-gate-without-breaking-it-forever” game ensued.

The gate sort of lost this battled:

The result: One opened (and closed) gate, and two vehicles painted into a tough mountain trail with no option to turn back. As luck would have it…

The track deteriorated and forced some interesting driving over marshlands and through rocky streams. Fun was had by all [non-vehicle owners]…cyclists having fun in the marshpit

Vehicle owners? Not so much…

The indicated 5kms to the lodge turned into 12 and rendered The Chairman a tired, pissed-off wreck. The cold, the wet and the muddy conditions combined to make the last couple of kilometers and absolute piece of hell.

Mobile-1 arrived first:

The Chairman was next, and headed for a warm shower. Things turn peachy again and a white towel could not hide the excitement induced by the prospect of warm soup…

In sunlight, the lodge revealed itself to be a gem of note, tucked away in a pretty secluded valley. Definitely worth a visit if you’re into adventure (or need to hide away from the police in some comfort).

The trip more or less ended here for Seer Kniegie and The Chairman, though In-a-Minute was resolute to ride the last day of the trip. A 25km jaunt through undulating country-side and extremely muddy stream-crossings, he came away from this with only one ruined set of cycling kit.

The rest of the crew could savour the beauty of the countryside from the comfort of a vehicle.

Africa, you cruel, beautiful thing.

 

 

Thanks etc.

As with most ambitious endeavours, some ill-fated people possessed a skill or tool required to make it work. They deserve lots of money and recognition for this – we can only offer the latter…

  • Ciska & Jason from Team Garmin SA: We really would have been lost without this GPS, and your collective ability to pull strings during silly season is not only remarkable, but also highly appreciated.  Check the details of their club here: http://www.teamgarmin.co.za/garmin/content.asp?p=th
  • Tom and Daniel at CycleLab Fourways:  In retrospect I should      not have attempted that build-over with less than a day to spare…thanks for remarkable engineering and spares-box-scrounging skills!
  • The Gurney parents…support when you need it – thanks!
  • Ian Waddilove: Thanks for seting the bar high…The full Freedom Challenge is now on the horizon!
  • All of the hosts at our various stop-overs: Dana/Ian Waddilove (Allendale Farm), Father Stanley at Centacow mission and the dude at Ntsikeni Lodge.

 

 

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