403km – 29th Nov, 18:58 – Britstown (arriving RV2)
After the obligatory sign in we wheel our bikes through to a charming little open air courtyard in the middle of the hotel. There are bikes and people everywhere, but on the right hand side there’s a large concrete planter with a tree in the middle that still has space to lean our bikes, and next to it an open table. T goes to sort a room key and I make for the restaurant. It’s bright, clean and homely inside – a few tables have people dining but the evening is still warm and most have opted to eat outside, or are already upstairs sleeping. The food is plentiful and near ideal – chicken pie especially catches my eye and I opt for a double helping, with rice, veg, and some gravy from a rich looking stew over the top. There’s plenty of coffee, but having decided we’d get a proper sleep here I politely hassle the staff to make some rooibos before heading back out to our table.
On the way the receptionist catches me with the room key and directions to our room at the back of the hotel. My food disappears even before the quaint little pot of tea has arrived. It’s obvious T is struggling though – his food remains largely untouched as he prods a fork unconvincingly at the plate. Only later on does he reveal that the small amount he did manage to eat didn’t stay down long. In a desperate effort not to throw up over other riders he buries his head in a nearby planter and feeds it’s occupying tree.
There’s a few familiar faces still here – Andrew from the first night leg, and Ryan is making to leave as we finish eating. Richard Baufeldt comes over to chat with us. Both of his Garmins have crashed and he’s battling to recover them. He wants to start the next leg with us rather than risk getting lost in the dark. We explain that we want to get a good 5 hours sleep but he’s fine with that, and we agree to set alarms for around 2am and message him when we are heading for breakfast. One of the mechanics comes over and wipes and lubes my chain as I remove the dry bag from my saddle harness, and take off one of my light batteries to recharge as we sleep.
The room has 3 beds, and the receptionist has asked that we leave the door unlocked in case of more arrivals, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be disturbed. After plugging in phone, extender battery and light battery I grab the quickest of showers, brush teeth and am in bed within minutes of getting to the room. T is still pottering whilst I lie there waiting for the inevitable onrush of pain. Sure enough, moments later it sears through my knees, back and other joints as I Iie there. Intense as it is though it’s no match for my level of exhaustion and a deep sleep washes over me in moments to dull the senses.
Predictably, I’m awake a few minutes ahead of the alarm actually going off. In fact I’m pretty much packed and ready to head out of the room by the time both phone and watch start to ring out in concert. True to their word, despite the horribly early hour, the hotel staff are up – a fabulous hot breakfast and coffee are waiting for the two or three tables of riders that are fueling up to ride out. Various rumours begin to circulate about the state of the next section – the consensus leaning worryingly towards technical jeep track with deep sand. It’s about my worst possible scenario – yet more sand, and in the dark. So much so that I’m fairly nervous by the time T, Richard, and I roll out into the deserted main street of the town.
403km – 30th Nov, 02:42 – Britstown (leaving RV2)
We’re on tar for a while as the yellow streetlights gradually fade behind us and we ride on into the overlapping blue-white halos of our three front light beams. It’s not long before the route turns us left onto a gravel district road again. A few hundred meters further on the road swings 90 degrees left and it’s a minute or so before I look down and notice that thin, lost, green line. Swinging back to the bend to pick up the purple route line which leads through a farm gate, it occurs to me Richard may be doubting his decision to buddy up with us for navigation. We agree that he’ll remind me to check the GPS on a regular basis – simple, but effective, it eliminates any further missed turns. The dark track does not prove quite so forgiving – regular patches of sand, occasionally deep, require absolute focus on the path ahead. Slowly though, I begin to find a rhythm – relax the body, light hands on the bar, no sudden movements, spin and roll straight. Much to my surprise I find myself smiling as the wheels start to float through rather than being grabbed and buried by each patch. The less I think about it and go with the flow, the easier it seems to get.
At some stage we notice we’re riding alongside a dam – it’s more a sensation of blank void to our left than something we actually can see in the dark, still, morning. After we loop around what is possibly the out or inflow we begin to gradually climb. The sandy track is behind us now and we’re on gravel road as a faint orange glow of dawn starts to fringe the low hills behind and left of us. The dim grey light reveals a long, albeit steady climb ahead of us. T is obviously keen to get it over with and pushes on ahead, followed by Richard. They’ve opened up a significant gap by the time I spot them pulled over, waiting for me to slowly grind my way to join them at the top. The view both ahead and behind is stunning – and impossibly vast. An endless expanse of Karoo stretches away to the horizon on all sides. Here and there we pass an occasional farmhouse, one of which is especially welcomed – it’s gently fluttering flags announcing the next water point.
448km – 30th Nov, 05:53 – (arriving WP5)
A couple of riders are heading out as we pull in, leaving the three of us and one cute, nosy, little lamb as the only signs of life at the water point. The table is strewn with a somewhat meagre spread of leftovers. Richard lucks out and finds one last Starbucks pod. T makes do with instant coffee, and I fall back to having tea which is in plentiful supply. The ashes of the braai are still warm, but there’s no sign of hot food. The muffins are still fresh though. Better still, while searching for milk we find a plate of water melon in the fridge stood beside the fire. I recall reading of a RAAM rider who used melon as a main part of his race fuel, and scoff down several slices in the hope they may work a similar miracle on me.
We’re sat under the covered roof of the braai area as a few other riders pull in – two of them are Cecil and Nicky. We’d seen them at breakfast, and would start to see them regularly from this point on. I find myself studying the adjacent farmhouse and wondering if they are just asleep, or if this is only a manned point during daytime and the buildings are no longer occupied. It looks too tidy to be vacant, but by the time we roll out again there’s still no sign of life other than Munga cyclists.
448km – 30th Nov, 06:33 – (leaving WP5)
We miss the gate left but are only a couple of bike lengths past when we spot the mistake. Once through the gate Richard decides to push on ahead – his GPS is working now and neither T nor I really have the enthusiasm or legs to match his pace. A long sequence of farm tracks follows. It would be wrong to call them featureless, or in fact similar. In the small details they are all very different – some are rutted, some deep sand, some loose and rocky. At times we even stray left or right onto older, disused parallel tracks for a smoother ride. Occasionally we rise up around a dam, or in one case ride down into and across the dry, cracked pan. Many of these little variations are still quite vivid in my mind, but none of them really connect into a remembered path that we traversed. The lasting memory I have is a discussion we hold for several kilometres as to whether the town of Fraserburg lies at the foot of the distant hillside that we are gradually hauling ourselves towards. It’s a complete mistake in my route understanding, but one that hasn’t yet become apparent. At one of the many gates along this stretch, T pauses and utters a phrase that will live with me forever
oor ver verlate vlaktes waar die fokkol blou in die blom staan
Afrikaans is such an expressive language, but although I understand all of the words, T has to give them proper meaning for me: “… in other words, our surroundings are bleak, full of a nothingness that stares at you …“. I could sit for hours and not be able to conjure a better, or more poetic way to describe the land we are crossing.
482km – 30th Nov, 08:50 – (arriving tap 2)
That hopeful prospect of being near Fraserburg collapses as we reach another, lone fluttering flag. But this one is different, a sponsors flag rather than an official Munga one. This is not a designated water point, but another ‘tap’. On this occasion though, the tap is a quaint and neat farmhouse with a friendly husband and wife team helping us to ice and cold water from one of several coolboxes. T crashes in the shade of the braai area around the coolboxes whilst I head to a deckchair on a lawn that is infeasibly green and lush given the harsh desert surrounds. A whole stack of mattresses for weary riders sits unused across from me, and the family dog is lying lazily chewing a ball just in front. Her head jerks up the moment she senses me paying attention and she trots over and drops the ball by my chair. I do my best to toss it far across the lawn, but it’s retrieved and deposited back by me in moments. After six or so repeats both of us reluctantly abandon the game – I need to eat something, and we need to keep moving to reach the water point proper. T shares half of one of the few remaining muesli bars from my backpack as we kit up and wend our way back around the farm dam and into the street. Despite the dry conditions it’s filled to overflowing, which clearly accounts for the beautiful garden. There’s even some impressively large Koi Carp swimming around on the surface. This little oasis is in stark contrast to the many abandoned farms we’ve passed so far. The farmer’s wife commented her belief that many farms had been bought up for the SKA (square kilometer array). T seems to agree with this as an explanation. Whether true or not, one other pearl of wisdom fully dispels my hopes – the nearest town is the next RV at Loxton, meaning we have just 1 water point and still a whole lot of distance to cover. It’s going to be another long, hot and tough day.
482km – 30th Nov, 09:18 – (leaving tap 2)
Soon after we set off again I see T swerve violently right and dismount in the bushes beside the trail. His wheel had found a deep patch of sand at just the moment his concentration was wandering, and he barely managed to rescue what would have been a nasty crash. The route swings more eastward and continues to alternate between easy track, and ruts of deep sand. Occasionally we’re into a full blown headwind, but more often than not it’s a welcome and refreshing crosswind. We zigzag left onto a district road, and then almost immediately right off it again beside another once grand but now deserted and crumbling farmhouse. The next farm we pass through though is inhabited and a group of barefoot children run out to meet us. They ask us if we want water, and explain that just up ahead we’ll turn onto a district road and then it’s a straight run to Pampoenpoort, around 20km away. Only after we’ve ridden away does it strike me that not once did they beg for sweets or money – it’s such a surprising and refreshing change that I almost want to turn back and give them something just for not asking.
Their description of the route ahead proves surprisingly accurate both in direction and distance. Even better, for the most part it’s cross or cross tail wind and our progress is rapid. In no time at all we start to twist through a collection of buildings, over a railway, and then finally swing right to the sight of those Munga flags – only now they are bent over on a strong wind rather than just fluttering. We’ve finally made it to Pampoenpoort – a name which we first heard this morning at 2am at breakfast, and several times since. The riding has been far from easy, but the sand really hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared.
525km – 30th Nov, 11:55 – (arriving WP6)
A short steep ramp leads off the district road down to a wide main gate, and then a more conventional security gate that stands open by the farm house. The usual handful of bikes are propped up or lying on the grass, and a teenage girl ushers us left into an adjacent building. Inside is a full blown kitchen and table overflowing with tasty food and drinks. At some point while we are there fresh pannekoek (pancakes) are brought in which I gratefully add to the plate of treats I am busy stuffing into my face. I forget exactly what I ate – I definitely remember something deliciously spicy though, perhaps sausage rolls with a curried filling. I also recall drinking an improbable number of glasses of coke and ice. The power goes out at some point whilst we are there which temporarily stalls a request for coffee from one of the other riders – possibly Cecil, who arrives with Nicky shortly after we pull in. The problem is soon overcome by one of the medics, who hooks up his bakkie (pickup truck) inverter to the coffee machine and the Starbucks begins to flow again. I’m already heavily caffeinated thanks to the Coke, but it seems rude to refuse such efforts so I also gratefully accept a cup. Sadly I didn’t catch the medics name, but we’ve spoken a few times already – he was the chap at WP2 who warned us of the enormous pothole. Fortune and events will cause our paths to cross several times more, although obviously I have no way of knowing that at this stage.
There’s maybe 6 or 8 mattresses on the floor inside the little house and at some stage T stretches out on one. One of the Audax riders from Gauteng, Tiaan, arrives whilst we are there although he quickly stocks up and heads out again almost immediately. Chatting about the race lead we learn that buddy Chris van Zyl is in third now that Marco Martens has retired. It turns out that the owners of the farmhouse know Chris well – he’s stayed there for a few days on two of his previous unsuccesful attempts. Pretty much everyone in the room seems to know Chris and is willing him on to the end this time. It’s a friendly and especially hospitable spot and extremely tough to leave – something which is not made any easier by the howling wind outside, or rumours of a possible long tough technical stretch ahead.
525km – 30th Nov, 12:50 – (leaving WP6)
There’s no let up in the wind as we finally do manage to drag ourselves away and kit up outside. My bike is almost blown from my hands as I try to lube the chain – T ends up coming across to hold it for me so I can spin the pedals easily. The wind whips across us as we head back up the ramping driveway onto the gravel. But the moment we turn right onto the road we’re instantly sailing effortlessly along. I remark to a lone rider alongside me that if only the rest of the riding to the RV could be this easy, but I can already see a right turn back into the wind just up ahead. I’m not sure if there was no reply, or the words were lost on the wind but I hear nothing back as the rider pulls off ahead. Cecil and Nicky also left the water point around the same time as us but at this stage they are behind still.
The right turn doesn’t take us onto the feared technical section, or in fact into the teeth of the wind either. There is a short but fairly easy grind up and over a low hill, but the wind is with us more than against. Cresting the top, dark brooding clouds are scudding across an endless rolling landscape. Here and there faint sheets of rain are visible in isolated patches, but it’s dry directly ahead and better still the road veers kindly left giving us an ever more favourable tail wind. The road pitches and rolls, but we make superb speed assisted by the strengthening storm at our backs.
We cross places with the lone rider but our attempts to strike up conversation seem to fall on lost ears – what seems like unfriendliness at first soon reveals itself as a greater problem, the guy is clearly in pain and battling hard. He obviously prefers to battle on alone though, so we push on – soon also passing Tiaan as well who’s not enjoying the undulating terrain much either. It’s odd how one’s mood colours the ride – both T and I are in great spirits and are enjoying the rapid pace. The scenery isn’t bad either. Some of the rises are followed by fast, swooping descents – occasionally looping through and around farmyards or lush green dongas (small streams) lined with trees. In what seems like no time at all we begin a final gradual descent to a clearly visible main road junction up ahead. Even the downpour which finally catches us and delivers a thorough drenching isn’t enough to dampen spirits at this clear sign we are homing in on Loxton and the RV.
A photopgrapher sits in the shelter of his bakkie and snaps both T and I as we ride out this last stretch of gravel and onto the tar. It occurs to me what a wonderful shot it will make with the heavy storm clouds and barren hills behind – sadly though, after the race I cannot find any hint of the images taken.
The tar section is all too brief – tantalising signs for Loxton are just ahead as we navigate our way down a steep bank and onto a sketchy gravel path. It’s the last few kilometres into Loxton, but it’s far from easy. Deeply rutted, with patches of sand, and short shrubby bushes with stiff branches that tear into your legs, but worse than any of these is the strong wind now directly at our faces. Progress is slow and difficult, and before long both of us are swearing at the cruel brilliance of this last short barrier between us and the RV. At some stage we notice that T’s tracker has fallen out of the cradle on his frame. We’ve begun to speculate that the near crash just after ‘tap2′ may have unseated it, when up ahead we spot the ER24 medics’ bakkie. I pull over to chat with them and explain the situation.
First and most important is to confirm with them that T is fine, and riding with me and ask if they can inform race HQ that we have a lost tracker but nothing more serious. They confirm that we can follow up at the RV just ahead, but also manage to locate the signal from his dropped unit – it seems to have fallen off back at WP6. I remark that I guess a tracker with working batteries can never really be lost, and they swing around to go back and see if they can locate it. A couple of turns later, we seem to be heading back to rejoin the main road. We’ve just passed through an extensive farmyard, and there are clear signs all-around of the town nearby, but nothing so lucky as an easy ride on tar into town. The route clearly stays on tracks, and judging by the deep ruts and dodgy surface in front – not especially good tracks at that. A little ahead a steep series of rocky switchbacks climbs the same hill which the tar road sweeps up in one long, graceful banked turn. I’m pretty sure I’ll be walking up our much uglier looking path. Having had no signal all day, and with it likely to be late by the time we reach the RV, I give Yoli a quick call.
It’s the first time we have spoken in days, and it’s great to hear her voice. Even better is that T and I are both in such (relatively good spirits), even with the nasty looking stretch of track in view ahead as we chat. Yoli has also picked up T’s tracking issue – it seems a storm of concern from friends has broken out on our WhatsApp group at T’s sudden halt and my solo dot moving on. Yoli has already suggested to them that it is likely a tracking malfunction via our friend Penny who called her earlier. Both T and I quickly post re-assuring messages to confirm that on the various groups. It’s incredible the level of encouragement we’ve seen in messages whenever we have had signal. At times a significant factor in not giving up is knowing how many fellow riders and friends are following your progress and cheering you on from afar. This incident underlines that perhaps more than any other during the ride itself.
The rocky track leading to the ugly climb starts out bad, but soon becomes ridable even for me. The climb does not look any better though as it gets closer. T asks me if we must go right and up at the dogleg onto the first ramp. Reluctantly I confirm and we follow the many tyre tracks also turning here. But almost immediately I spot the error. There is a sharp dogleg in the route, but it is not this one. Scanning ahead, we’re tracking the edge of a large and almost totally dried up dam. A handful of meters further I can see another turn in the much flatter trail ahead. With an enormous sigh of relief we spin the bikes around and start to freewheel downhill rather than slogging uphill. Things get even better once around the proper turn, the outskirts of town are just ahead and it’s all downhill to reach them. We roll down and into town. A large family group are gathered kuiering (partying) on the front stoep of one of the houses we pass, and a couple of other riders are emerging from a biltong shop nearby. They comment that it is about to close if we need anything. The RV is too close now though and we wind through largely empty streets until we see the Boys’ Hostel and it’s welcoming flags on our right. There was no Fraserburg (yet) nor an ugly 30km of technical track (yet)and we’ve arrived comfortably in daylight. All said, despite the heat, rain, and wind this was a considerably less challenging day than expected. The sobering thought though is that, although we are now at the halfway stage, the half we have done is the easier half. Two thirds of the climbing and much of the toughest terrain still lies waiting ahead.