Racing to Rhodes and other deprivations
I was hardly into long-distance cycling when I read of riders like Mike Curiak who’d take his first sleep break hundreds of kilometres into a ride such as the 4 400km Tour Divide, which follows the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. This hardly seemed fair; he’d win simply by cycling without sleeping for several hundreds of kilometres further than the opposition would have thought was remotely possible.
South African riders were soon doing similar non-stop rides, taking short sleep breaks as they rode their bikes over vast distances.
In 2006 I entered the inaugural Ride2Rhodes (RTR), a 500km or so hop from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes, being the first part of David Waddilove’s 2 300km Freedom Trail, running from KwaZulu-Natal to the Cape.
That year Cornel van der Westhuisen, riding all the way to the Cape, doubled on the first day from Pietermaritzburg to Ntsikeni – a distance of about 200km – with punishing vertical ascents.
The rest of us could hardly believe such a thing was possible.
Our bodies were sore and tired just from making it to the first night stop of Allendale: here was a rider who was doing twice what we could manage.
The Allendale to Ntsikeni section in truth was easier then and Cornel did not quite make it. He got within a few kilometres of Ntiskeni and got lost in the dark, taking refuge in a cockroach – or some such – infested rondawel. An SMS he sent in the morning revealed a broken man. The descent from heroism to pathetic abjection was complete.
The elusive double
Few have since managed the double to Ntsikeni. Mike Woolnough, a historian of the Freedom Challenge, reckoned ahead of this year’s ride that fewer than 10 riders have achieved this double over the 10 years the race has been held.
I completed the R2R in 2006 (just six riders were going to the Cape and only four finished) and came back for the Full Monty, the Freedom Challenge, to give its full name, the following year. My bike adventures then took me further afield, including from Beit Bridge to Cape Point, but all the time was the nagging issue of just how far I could go on as little sleep as possible. By then this had become the norm, with Martin Dreyer cutting back drastically on normal sleeping time to establish the record of 10 days and some change for the Freedom Challenge in 2012.
With a group of friends I started riding on limited sleep. We followed much of the route of the Jameson Raid, riding from near Botswana to Magaliesburg, a 200km ride, starting at 11pm and ending the next day at 2pm.
Then a group of us rode the service road on the railway line from Heidelberg to Newcastle, taking 24 hours to ride 300km.
And, with friends riding sections in support, I rode 600km on dirt roads from Heidelberg to Sodwana Bay, taking 63 hours to complete the ride and on just two hours sleep. Short power naps of 10 to 20 minutes would leave me completely refreshed, ready to ride on as though I was just starting out.
I tried the same over 1 200km from Parys to Cape Town, also mainly on back roads, but found I could not get the sleep time right. This time my sleeps were an hour long, but I did not wake refreshed and a combination of corrugations and headwinds led me to call the ride at Sutherland, 1 000km from Parys, but about 300km short of Cape Town.
Extreme endurance companions
Riding solo this time, I noticed an odd thing. I never felt alone. I even found myself thinking of “us”. I got increasingly irritated with myself as the ride progressed and I continued to think I was part of some group rather than riding solo, but so real was the sense that I was not alone that I always thought of “we” rather than “I”.
Mike Woolnough experienced a similar thing on this year’s R2R. “How weird is that,” he said when I asked him about it. “I was thinking of ‘we’ the whole way. I was even making arrangements with myself. When we get [to a certain point] I will make you a fire.”
He then had to stop and remind himself that “you are you”. “It is like you are in a bubble,” he said, “on your own, with no sense of danger.”
Mike and I are in exalted company in noticing we are apparently not alone during our escapades in extreme endurance. Ernest Shackleton, writing in his book South, says: “When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant island from our landing-place on South Georgia.
“I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”
“Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”
Gerrit Pretorius, who rode the night watch with me on the 600, and I both had hallucinations that night. We were riding a track through open veld but to me it seemed I was riding through a continuous cowboy town, with neat houses, verandahs and pot plants extending to the edge of the trail. A couple of times I ventured slightly off the trail to take a closer look at the pot plants, so real were they. Afterwards I looked ahead and rode on.
On the 1 000km I drank a litre of Coke on one stretch, something I had not done since moving to Tim Noakes’s low-carb diet (more later), and felt ill. I ordered a steak at a pub I found but could not eat it, such was the nausea. Later, when I bedded down for an hour, I took a Valoid to combat the nausea. After the hour break I had even more vivid hallucinations as rocks, grass and trees changed continually into live animal forms and then back again.
Then – suddenly – the dirt road in front of me opened in a sharp, steep hole. The handlebars dropped and I corrected to go into the hole. This woke me up. I had actually been asleep. It was as though my brain said “Uh, oh, he’s asleep, better wake him up” and produced the hole illusion to do the trick. I pulled over to sleep on the side of the road.
Mike Woolnough, writing on his blog, has recalled his own hallucinations arising from sleep deprivation: “My experiences of sleep deprivation have resulted in hallucinations, both visual and auditory. I have seen Energizer bunnies stalking me during a 24-hour race event.
“I have seen people walking toward me offering me refreshments while I ‘mowed the lawn’ only to realise that the ‘person’ was in fact an approaching car. I have heard people calling me when I have been alone and many kilometres from anyone else.”
Adventure racers and long-distance cyclists speak of sleep monsters to explain the weird and wonderful world they have to contend with on little sleep. Some claim to be able to manage sleep deprivation so that they are able to continue indefinitely with little sleep, but this has not been my experience.
Gerrit and I took a short rest at Wakkerstroom at about midnight on the 600. He slept, I didn’t. We continued to Paulpietersburg. In the early light of morning we were riding downhill. My vision was then alternating on a one-second basis where I would have normal vision followed by a complete blackout. It was as though my brain was saying ‘I don’t know what is going on, but I don’t like it and I am now only going to give you half the visual stimuli I normally supply”.
The effect was so dangerous that we headed to a nearby farmhouse where we slept for 30 minutes on some chairs we found on the stoep. We thought no one was at home, but leaving half an hour later we knocked something over and the farmer opened the door. He was not at all unhappy to see us and invited us in for coffee, but we had bikes to ride …
I know I earlier referred to Mike as a freedom trail historian, but “junkie” would be more accurate, so addicted is he to the trail. In his blog he explains the difference between the need for sleep and that for rest, which makes sense: “One cannot underestimate the necessity of both sleep and rest. Firstly, they are not the same thing. The moment you stop exercising you are resting your body and muscle recovery begins.
“Sleep on the other hand has little to do with muscular recovery and everything to do with cognitive recuperation. I like to think of the relationship between sleep and the brain as a chunk of computer memory that gets loaded up and only sorted and downloaded to the hard drive once you power down the device. Without sleep the available memory fills up and chaos ensues with trying to load more data.”
I have since read of a recent study into sleeplessness that concluded it is dangerous to go without any sleep. We need to sleep to reset our being.
No sleep limit
I read too that Henri Desgrange – the father of modern cycling, organiser of the classic 1 200km Paris-Brest-Paris and founder of the 3 400km Tour de France – reckoned that cyclists could go for 60 hours with little or no rest.
Perhaps 1 000km was too far and 600km more suited to the 60-hour limit suggested by Desgrange?
I wanted to again experience the feeling of invincibility when you wake up from that short nap, completely invigorated, and ride again as though just starting out even though you may be 400km into the ride. This, I submit, is like a drug.
I looked around for a 60-hour, more or less nonstop ride, deciding that the Race2Rhodes, an unsupported version of the R2R, meaning you carry all your own gear, might fit the bill. I am sure that when I first did the R2R it was considered a 600km ride. Most riders I have spoken to about this say it is 500km. The narrative, which describes the route in great detail (but not always accurately), gives the total distance at 481km. But as much of the route is gnarly, rugged or non-existent – large sections being unrideable – it does present itself as a challenge for the limited-sleep rider.
I took a closer look. Since the first R2R, the route has become a lot more precise and has a lot less open riding, several technical sections having been added. It now calls for considerable route knowledge and/or navigational skill.
The Freedom Challenge may be the most precise long ride anywhere on the globe, riders being required to follow a complex prescribed route even though much easier options on perfectly good dirt roads are often available.
With friends again, I recced as many of the technical sections as possible, especially those I may have to ride at night, but in any event wanted to be in a position to just ride and not stop all the time to consult the maps and the narrative.
One section we recced was Blackfontein, which calls for you to come down a cliff-like face to Tinana Mission. Rory Field, who knows the route well, and I set off in the late afternoon to ride this section, arriving at the cliff in near pitch-black darkness. We only got off the mountain because he had a GPS track from a previous ride that we followed, scrambling down near vertical slopes to the abandoned Tinana Mission below.
But my available time was insufficient to recce the whole thing. I spent considerable time on Google Earth and reading the narrative to ensure I was as up to speed on the route as I could be.
I would ride as light as I could with no change of clothes (not even a toothbrush) and spent months honing my clothing and equipment options. I did as much training as I could, often starting in the dark in the mornings and riding into the light, and in the afternoons starting in light and riding into the dark. I had done lots of long rides, up to 200km, as well as teaching my body to ride longer, faster.
I had been on Noakes’s high-carb diet in the distant past and some months back already had switched to his low-carb, high-fat diet. My drink of choice while riding changed from Coke to milk and dried wors replaced energy bars as my trail food. I lost weight, improved my power output and felt in the best shape of my sporting life.
There was soon a competitive buzz around the Race2Rhodes. A common idea was that Martin Dreyer’s 2012 record, a blistering 53 hours to Rhodes, which includes 10 000m of ascent, was under threat. It was likely, some pundits said firmly, that a sub-48 hour ride was on the cards.
The race starts over a two-week period because the accommodation options at most of the overnight stops are limited. About a dozen riders go off each day. Forty would be going to Rhodes; 30 to the Cape.
I chose June 12 for my departure. It would be full moon, which would help me for night navigation. Most of our starting group of 11 would be going to Rhodes, but two, Leon Els and Johan Janse van Rensburg, were going all the way.
Riders spend the night at Aintree Lodge on the Dusi, about 6km from the start at the city hall in Pietermaritzburg. Riders are required to stay together in busy Pietermaritzburg but from the Bizley nature reserve 6km later can make their break. I did not know the first section too well, but in any event was not able to get away from about seven riders who were well-trained and strong.
Riding forestry track we made our way through the farmlands of the Baynesfield Estate and up Cunningham’s Castle, one of the two big climbs to Allendale. We stopped for a quick soup at the Minerva Tractor Museum, where someone’s fabulous obsession has put together everything from tractors to jet engines in a celebration of industrial innovation. I will be going back to drink a beer at its pub and to gaze at the view beyond while surrounded by all this redundant technology.
From the museum you drop down to Byrne and then take back roads towards the Umkomaas valley. A massive valley propels you into the vast Umko valley below. You then ride what the riders call a highway alongside the inviting Umkomaas river to the Hella Hella bridge. Allendale is only 20km from here, but the first 7km calls for a 700m ascent, one of the steepest and longest of the Freedom Trail.
I had hoped to complete the 100km to Allendale by 3pm. I arrived just after 3pm and left at 3.30pm, having consumed two toasted sandwiches and re-provisioned from my two-litre ice-cream boxes that had been sent ahead of the ride.
The Donnybrook manoeuvre
The route out of Allendale calls for you to follow a fence to a wooded section and then head to Donnybrook. So tricky is the section that it is known as the Donnybrook manoeuvre, coined by Mike and myself after we spent many hours lost here in 2007 while riding the Freedom.
What happened was that the leaders were making such a mess of the navigation that at Cunningham Castle we found ourselves in the lead. We celebrated by getting Mike’s cooker out and making tea and coffee.
When we got to Allendale the leaders were only 15km ahead in Donnybrook, so we hatched a plan to leave at 3am and pass them. We would lead, even if it was only temporary. But we got so lost for so long that near daybreak we again got out Mike’s cooker and made hot drinks as we watched the sun rise. We were soon overtaken by riders who had maximised their sleep while we made circles in the dark.
From my recce, though, I knew the route and waxed it, making short work of it. I bought a pie in Donnybrook and headed to Centacow, a mission station, in the dark. My route knowledge worked here too. I was riding easily when I reached Centacow 50km later at 7.30pm.
Over the years – particularly under the top-notch administration of Meryl Glaser, who runs the Freedom Challenge – there has been excellent support, so you can arrive at almost any time of the day or night and someone is waiting for you with a hot meal.
I ate well at Centacow, leaving at 8pm for Ntsikeni, 50km and 1 800m of ascent further along the trail. The route is not too difficult for someone who has recced it previously, as I had, but there are two long climbs of four or five kilometres each, which make for slow going, and there is a river crossing that sees you calf deep in freezing water. There is also a two-metre-high stile to cross the fence into Ntiskeni. Getting your bike over the stile solo is no easy matter.
Early morning meal
I got to the Ntiskeni Lodge after 3am. Ngcobo, who runs the place, was awake and waiting for me with a hot meal. Ngcobo is actually his surname, but he tells everybody to call him Ngcobo.
My plan was to sleep for 30 minutes but to do this sitting up rather than lying down, as I had had some success with the former on the 600 and no success with the latter on the 1 000. I made myself warm and having not set any alarm, went to sleep. Ten minutes later I was awake.
There were four or five riders asleep at Ntsikeni when I arrived. I left at 4.50am while they still slept, something I have always wanted to do.
The route out of Ntsikeni is tricky in the dark. Back in Pietermaritzburg David Waddilove had said one of the earlier riders managed to save 30 minutes by taking a direct line from the lodge to Politique, an abandoned kraal. He described some of the route as “scratchy”. From experience I know this means that it can be almost impossible to get through, but was seduced nonetheless at this potential time-saver.
I asked Ngcobo where the route started, which he explained in great detail. But we were at cross-purposes. Ngcobo’s route was a short cut to the track most of the wiser riders followed. I thought I was going to Politique. I had been there before in both 2006 and 2007 and could not reconcile what I knew with what I now saw before me. I was hopelessly lost, even though I was on the track that would take me to Politique. Six frustrating, demoralising hours followed before I was able to find landmarks that told me where I actually was.
My race – against myself – was over and I was ready to quit. I did not enter the ride to get a finish. I had one of these already. I entered to do the best time I could. I SMSed Meryl, who I reckoned would be in the area, to see if I could get a lift. Thankfully, she ignored me.
Keep on riding
This section to Glen Edward is just 40km, but night was falling as I limped in, being welcomed by hosts Sheila and Charles. By now I had realised that the only way to get from here to Rhodes was to ride. I would sleep and leave early for Rhodes.
At bedtime we heard that two women riders, Tracey and Lize, had left Ntsikeni at about 3pm for Glen Edward. Leaving a support station so late is not a good idea unless you really know the route and the pair of them didn’t. Both had already had to sleep out – Tracey in a rondawel and Lize next to a river – because their navigation skills had been found wanting.
As I got ready to leave at 4am, pushing my bike outside, I saw the pair coming towards me, finally arriving at Glen Edward and with the temperature at -10°C. They sat opposite me as I ate breakfast and told of their adventures.
Lize had spent a night with two men riders near the river. She was unimpressed with them as they sat there shaking from the cold and would not get up to find firewood, leaving this job to her.
“I work in an office,” said Tracey, who was notably calm next to the excitable Lize, “a road is road”. She explained that on the trail it could be no more than two strips of grass that had been pushed down by a car a long time ago.
Middle of nowhere
I rode dirt roads and then a technical section through the Umzimvubu River, not much more than a trickle. One sign of how remote you are is that the tracks become sleep-paaie, where oxen are used to drag felled wattle trees to homesteads for heating. I was on one such remote stretch when four or more blanketed men approached with their hunting dogs. One was talking on his BlackBerry.
From here there were more dirt roads on an easy stretch to Masakala, a guest house not far from Matatiele. Once again, a hot meal and my two-litre ice-cream box were waiting.
The navigation across the Knira floodplain is deceptively easy, so much so that I got it just a little bit wrong and spent more than an hour correcting my error. A strong headwind slowed me down on this section, this and the navigation error meaning that I would have to find my way on to the Mparane ridge in the dark, another section I had not done previously.
I checked the narrative carefully and spoke to as many locals as I could for help, but could not find the Molukong Lodge (the locals call it “Tourism” I was to find out later), which was the key landmark I would need to find to then locate a footpath that would get me on the ridge.
I phoned David, who gave me advice based on a tower and the orange rising moon – probably the most spectacular I have even seen. I was following this advice when below me loomed a 100-foot-deep quarry. Getting between the tower and the moon would probably mean death.
I was sitting in the dark contemplating my options when four shadowy figures appeared from between some large rocks in the near distance.
These were four sisters who had seen my lights. They live in a house next to the footpath I was supposed to be on and would show me the way. I followed them, the blasted elusive footpath being no more than 300m from where they had found me.
We chatted as we walked along. The eldest, Yoliswe, is 18. She studies accountancy but wants to be a doctor. She is now switching to studying tourism, though. She is Xhosa-speaking, she volunteered, but prefers Sotho-speaking men.
They were showing me the way off the ridge, well beyond what I had expected of them, when two of them darted backwards. A blanketed man came out of the darkness towards us. We greeted and he moved on.
Riding in granny gear
I left the girls and cranked into Ongeluksnek, arriving at 10.30pm. Warm food and generous hosts waited. Mike, who had started the day after me, was already in, having overtaken me earlier, I know not where, and was asleep. Four other riders – Con, Coen, Phillip and George – were also asleep. Mike, host Kholu told me, was leaving in the early hours, the others would leave just before daybreak.
I was briefly awake at about 1am and heard the wind howling outside. There was never really any doubt that I would be leaving with the second group. I went back to sleep.
There is only one word to describe the R2R: hard. Carl Scholtz who rode to Hella Hella with me blogged later that his group rode for nine to 11 hours each day and that was with expert navigators in the group.
He says he estimates that he pushed or carried his bike around 40% to 50% of the time: “The hills get too steep to ride, the surface is loose and rocky or cattle tracks too narrow to ride or you are simply just [too tired] to ride.” Most of the riding is in the small – granny – gear. Rarely do you get into the big ring.
The five of us made short work of the Blackfontein section and found a neat way down to Tinana. We stopped at a shop for milk and headed for Vuvu. The wind came up. Reports later put the speed at 100km/h. I cannot say how fast it was, but this was the strongest wind I have ever experienced. This was knock-you-off-your feet wind. This was steer-your-bicycle-wherever-it-wanted wind.
Up ahead of us on the mountain, riders were reduced to crawling and clinging on to their bikes as the wind threatened to tear them from their grip. Mike blogged his experience: “For readers unfamiliar with Lehana, it’s a mountain of some 1 000m of climbing.” There is no clearly marked path. To get up you make your way to a ridge and generally follow the ridgeline until reaching the last big nek before contouring around to get to a path that takes you up to the top.
Conditions got worse and worse the higher he got: “As I inched my way up the wind got to the point of flying my bike like a kite. I had to grab both the bars and the saddle and weigh it down as I made a metre or two of progress at a time. At the first nek I ended up being pinned to a bush by my bike. The wind was so strong that I couldn’t push off. After a few minutes the wind slowed enough that I was able to liberate myself and continue up.”
Further up, he was again pinned down by the wind: “As I started across the rocks between the cairn and kraal the wind won the battle, ripping the bike out my grip as I tried to hold it with one hand and keep myself in place by holding on to a rock with the other while seated. I crawled behind a small rock so I could at least sit up and take stock.
“I never panic when things get interesting. I am far more logical and calmly process options working on a plan forward. By then I had managed to drag my bike closer and wedge the tyres against rocky protrusions that anchored it against the wind. The first time I tried getting on my haunches and dragging the bike across the rocks ended badly with the bike once again being unceremoniously ripped from my grasp.
“One option was to abandon the bike and get myself to the shelter of a shepherd’s hut a few hundred metres further down the mountain. I also contemplated dismantling the bike and taking it bit by bit to the cattle kraal a mere 50m away. That option had little merit as it was hard enough for me to move forward without the added impediment of bike bits. I finally concluded that I was pinned down by a foe whose presence I was all too aware of but could not see. After 30 minutes of making no progress I decided on a final all or nothing effort to cross the 50m to the kraal.
“With the realisation that daylight was running low every minute I sat there I felt a momentary lessening of the wind intensity. I grabbed my bike with both hands and keeping low I dragged it over the rocks to the kraal.”
Mike made it down to Rhodes, completing his ride in just two days and 16 hours and raising R40 000 for the Freedom Challenge scholarship fund, which provides bursaries for local school children, in the process. Just a handful of riders have managed to get to Rhodes in less than three days. Mike has done this twice.
The next day was windless and perfect as our group crested Lehana’s and rode down to the finish. My time was a relatively slow four days and eight hours. I was chuffed that I had doubled to Ntsikeni, but was fixated on only one thing when I got to Rhodes: I just wanted to brush my teeth.
Kevin Davie is the author of Freedom Rider: 10 000km by Mountain Bike Across South Africa.