It is Sunday evening on the banks of the Sterkfontein Dam. Not long ago a glorious orange sun set behind the snow-capped Drakensberg to the east. Mountain bikers sat in small groups, quietly taking it in as the air cooled.
Not far from their crisp evening sundowners, I lay in a heap on a mattress in the long grass, near-comatose, puffy-faced, begging my leg muscles to recover. That's more or less how I spend every day after lunch.
Since Friday, Nic Dawes and I have ridden about 335km, starting in Heidleberg, Gauteng, winding our way across the Free State and catching first sight of the Drakensberg today.
On Monday, day four of the Old Mutual JoBerg2C, we will pedal to the edge of the escarpment and bomb down narrow, fast tracks into KwaZulu-Natal, climb over Spioenkop – the halfway mark of the nine-day race – cross the Tugela and finish up in Winterton. Another 120km under the belt, I will no doubt again collapse onto a mattress and sing mantras to my thighs, butt and lower back.
I approached this race with huge dollops of apprehension. For a start, Nic is a machine on his bike, and as far as I can tell, all of his spare time – of which he, thankfully, does not have much – is dedicated to pedalling: With my hodge-podge lifestyle, I thought I would not be able to keep up.
Secondly, the only other big stage race I have ridden was the Cape Epic in 2011 – known among these riders as "some other big stage race" – where after months of preparation I was floored by a gut infection on day four.
But so far, so good. Nic and I have been able to ride the first three days briskly, hammering down about as hard as I think I ever have in a race on Sunday for 130km.
I'm still able to eat and hold down hearty meals, which is very good news.
We're sore, but we're feeling good. I haven't checked the results after today's stage, but we are probably sitting within the top 100 of a few hundred teams. Put it this way – we are finishing each stage early enough to get to the showers before the queues, and that feels good and unusual for me.
I want to go to bed now, and I'm in no state to construct beautiful prose, but here are a few isolated images that stand out for me:
A long line of cyclists bombing through a field not far south of Heidelberg, while a scores of what I think were wildebeest, bombed diagonally across the same field appearing to intersect with the bikers. I had a lot of dust in my eyes, and am still not sure what happened.
I need to buy some riding shades: it's 9pm and my eyes are still filled with dust.
Cosmos. Lots of beautiful pink and white cosmos.
Arriving in the Free State town of Frankfort where local school children cheered us into town and waved homemade banners, welcoming and encouraging us. In the food tent, one wall was adorned with pre-schooler paintings of bikes and bike scenes.
Another Wildebeest. I'm sure it thought we were part of its herd as was we flew down a dusty road, it charged down the fence next to us for a few hundred metres.
We rode down a seemingly endless single track beaten out along the side of a willow-lined river, chasing a strong Belgian as we weaved back and forth. In all, we rode with him and a team of two others for 30km at a pace that I regard a sprint. I will feel this tomorrow.
So I will return to my mattress to talk to my legs.