That epic 3 500km ride covered one-third of the journey in Freedom Ride: 10 000km by Mountain Bike Across South Africa. This is an edited extract.
Some years ago I read about The Great Dance, Craig and Damon Foster’s documentary, which filmed Karoha, a Kalahari Bushman, as he ran down his prey. I tried to track it down, and made enquiries on and off, but without success. Then I found it on YouTube and was fascinated by this exploration into another age. I have run 11 Comrades marathons and wondered whether I could claim to have run down that many kudus.
In the meantime, Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run popularised the idea that the ability to run, sometimes covering great distances over many hours of exertion, is one of the basic building blocks of humanity. McDougall writes that distance running gave us the ability to run down our prey; it ensured that we both survived and thrived. “We were born to run; we were born because we run.”
McDougall credits Louis Liebenberg, a South African who studied mathematics and physics at university, as one of the researchers who developed the persistence-hunting hypothesis. Frustrated by the inability of science to answer his questions, Liebenberg turned to the bush for his answers. In The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, Liebenberg wonders whether science had its origins in the tracking of animals. Tracking, he reasons, involves the interpretation of signs to make predictions. He theorised that tracking could be the basis of scientific reasoning as we know it and that the human mind and hunting had co-evolved.
During the course of his 20 years of close observation of Bushman trackers in the Kalahari, including persistence hunting, Liebenberg developed the idea that, before they hunted with spears, bows, arrows and dogs, our ancestors ran down their prey. He believed that this ability could stretch back as far as two million years. By comparison, our ancestors only hunted with dogs from as recently as 15 000 years ago, used bows and arrows from 60 000 years ago and spears or sharpened sticks from 400 000 years ago. Indeed, we have only been human for about 200 000 years.
At the peak of his fitness, aged about 30, Liebenberg tried persistence-hunting. He ran himself close to death’s door and had to be rescued by his fellow Bushman hunters, one of whom ran 10km to their camp to fetch water. When the hunter returned with the water, Liebenberg was not allowed to drink it as this would almost certainly have resulted in his death. It was instead used to bathe his head, which brought down his temperature. Eventually it was deemed safe for him to start taking the smallest sips of water.
Persistence hunting resonates in modern times in endurance sport. Our ability to run, paddle or cycle great distances comes from our runner-hunter ancestors. We can do these sports because of the way we evolved; when we do, we celebrate this aspect of our humanity.
This celebration is best pursued in wild, little-visited places. The choice of sport — running, cycling or paddling — matters little, but trail riding has the edge for me as it allows the athlete to cover greater distances, which is important in a country as large as South Africa. We also have much richer diets and more sedentary lifestyles these days, and we do not have the lightweight physiques of the Kalahari runner-hunter, so sitting down is the way to go.
Last year saw the kind of epic struggle that the trained athlete with a focused mind can endure. Martin Dreyer, a seven-time winner of the Dusi canoe marathon, and Alex Harris, an adventurer of high pedigree, slugged it out at the front of the annual Freedom Challenge, the most gruelling of expedition races. Such is its toughness that 40% of the 50 athletes who started the event pulled out along the way. Dreyer and Harris averaged more than 200km a day at the coldest time of the year, climbing a cumulative 37 000m each. For the first few days of the race they averaged three hours of sleep a night, then cut this back to two for the next few days and, in the last stretch, relied on intermittent cat naps to keep going. Coming down Ouberg Pass into Montagu, Harris fell asleep and woke up in a ravine.
Dreyer was the quicker of the two and covered the 2 300km between Pietermaritzburg and Wellington, where the race finishes, in just 10 days, 16 hours and 40 minutes. Harris, the previous winner and record-holder, completed the race in 10 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes. Dreyer’s winning time meant that he had averaged 8.47km an hour non-stop for 256 hours.
Liebenberg has made me want to understand my own limits better. These are distinctively modest, you will understand, compared to Dreyer and Harris.
My endurance journey first took me to the Comrades and Dusi marathons and later to the biking adventures during which I rode more than 10 000km on a set of off-road rides between Beitbridge and Cape Point. These included a 1 800km ride along the Drakensberg from end to end and a 3 500km ride between these two points on a ride inspired by the Great Divide ride along the Rockies in the United States.
Trails continue to be developed. Jaco Strydom completed a 66-day, 3 550km ride from the Cape to Beitbridge by following the Freedom Trail before turning his bike back towards the Cape and riding along the Limpopo River and the border with Botswana.
In March last year August Carstens rode from Kilimanjaro through Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique during his planned 7 000km ride to the Cape. He overcame a bout of malaria along the way, reaching Durban with about 2 400km still to go. From Durban, he ran the Dusi Trail Run to Pietermaritzburg. He was also planning to ride the Freedom Challenge, but he injured his knee on the run and was forced to rest. He reached the Cape in late September last year.
There is now also a supported version of the Beitbridge to Cape Point ride, during which riders are followed by a 4x4 vehicle.
Endurance sport can be experienced as part of a multitude, like when you line up at the start of the Comrades with thousands of other runners who have trained for months with the single goal of completing the race, or as a solo athlete such as the trail biker who will ride with not another soul around for a radius of 50km or more.
People do endurance sport for different reasons. For many it is about better understanding their own limits and challenging these. For some it is about being off the beaten track, an opportunity to break the pace of normal urban life. Some will chase records, whereas others will be happy just to soak up the experience.
The competitive athlete will barely have time to wave hello should they come across people, whereas others will stop for a chat. Many will enjoy the minimalism of bike travel — there is a big incentive to cut things down to the real basics, to enjoy a simple, uncluttered life, at least while you are on the trail.
My expedition riding has no greater goal than trying to understand my own limits better while taking in parts of the country that I would not normally visit. Above all, it is about enjoyment. I am not looking to find any particular meaning in the experience but, at its very best, trail riding is where I today celebrate the ancient capabilities of the runner-hunter.
Freedom Ride: 10 000km by Mountain Bike Across South Africa is published by Jacana.
For video on riding from Beitbridge to Cape Point, the Freedom Challenge and Louis Liebenberg on runner-hunters, see mg.co.za/freedomriderza.