1032km – 3rd Dec, 03:43 – Ceres (arriving RV5)
Our final RV on Munga, and it’s almost a carbon copy of Sutherland: I head straight inside to sign in, find food and scope out the chance of a bed for a quick nap; whilst T heads off to the mechanic. It’s a ridiculous hour of the morning, but the room is busy. Every scrap of floorspace seems to be occupied by mattresses and bodies, and the vagrant-astronaut-girls are here, readying to roll out albeit without their improvised space blanket clothing. As they prepare, they remark about my woefully inaccurate estimate of the riding time to here. They’re not wrong. I’ve no idea how long it took them, but T and I have been on the road close on 24 hours. I’m utterly shattered, and starving – but the kitchen is still lit and there are some basic provisions available.
I ask the cook if I can help myself to one of the bowls of muesli.
“Yes, go ahead, they’re for everyone – but thanks for checking first”, the cook replies. “It’s bircher muesli” he adds as I pick one up and head to a table.
It’s absolutely delicious, easy to eat, and packed with all the right stuff – cereal, milk, fruit. Perhaps it’s the tiredness or the crazy hour, but at that exact moment it seems like the tastiest thing I have eaten in days. So good in fact, I’m already on my second bowl before T appears. His face says everything – not at all good news. As with Sutherland, the mechanic does not have the right bearings for T’s Specialized wheel. A tall, helpful guy who I take to be the RV controller immediately begins working through possible options – going over what time the local bike shop opens, other places we might find bearings or a wheel. I didn’t really hear how or exactly when the miracle happens. It’s an act of such generosity which on the one hand seems amazing, but on the other hand is completely in line with the spirit of Munga. Dave Mitchell – the chap we spoke to sat on the verge a few hours back waiting for a medic – has a compatible wheel, and he’s insistent on loaning it to T so at least one of them can finish their ride. It’s an incredible outcome. I’m not sure if the tears in T’s eyes are still from the thought his ride may be over, or the new found hope that it isn’t . Either way, it signals to me that we need to go sleep so we’re in shape to cover the last handful of kilometers. T , Dave and the mechanic are still sorting out the details as the RV controller shows me to our chalet. It’s part occupied when we enter, but the riders have left before I’ve even dropped my kit on a bed and contemplated the shower. It will make so little difference now, aside from eating into an already minimal sleep stop, that it doesn’t even get any real consideration. T may have been rather more cleanly than I, and actually used it. I’m awake when he does get to the chalet, but out cold almost as soon as we’ve agreed a wake up time and set multiple forms of alarm.
Seriously, was that it?
I’ve slept the whole of our allotted hour when the room erupts in a cacophony of simultaneous alarms, although it feels no more than seconds . But, this morning, here and now, is the very last piece of our Munga. And it doesn’t take long for that realisation to sink in and drag me fully out of my slumber. Leaping up, my teeth are brushed and kit is packed in moments. Checking quickly on T, who’s still gathering gear up, I head back over to the RV building, our bikes, and the possibility of some breakfast.
The same cook is still there, busy, and fresh coffee is appearing on the counter. I thank him profusely, learning in the process that his name is Anwar. The whole ride we have had incredible service at almost every water point and village, but for some reason Anwar’s friendly smiling face is the one which is still freshest in my mind. Perhaps because it was the last RV, or perhaps because of his sudden decision to go the extra mile for us.
“You guys are literally the last riders I’ll be serving I think. If you have time to wait I can cook you up a proper breakfast.”
We do have time, and the breakfast is well worth the wait – enormous platefuls of sausages, patties, mushrooms, tomatoes, and eggs for the guys that like them. The RV building and kitchen is the smallest and most basic yet, but as the food and coffee flows, for the few of us there enjoying Anwar’s hospitality it is the perfect last stop on this incredible journey. I was so wrapped up in all of this, and also getting myself and the bike kitted up that I didn’t witness one last, rather sad interaction at this stop. But T did, and is such a moving story though, I’ve included his words below from a message he sent me later
I don’t know if you recall … and I’m not sure whether you noticed at the breakfast table as we had our last meal before departing from Ceres for Doolhof … that I was very emotional and just could not stop the tears rolling over my cheeks… (needed no salt for my scramble egg and bacon as my tears provided more salt than I needed 😅) If you recall.., I was sitting at the head of the table.. you were sitting on my left hand side… But straight ahead of me in the back corner of the room, was Dave Mitchell’s wife sitting upright on a mattress where they had been sleeping (Dave Mitchell was the guy who had to pull out because of serious muscular spasms +/- 40 km’s before Ceres and with whose front wheel I finished the Munga). So as we were sitting there having breakfast, Dave walks into the dining area and he proceeds towards his wife at the back, who was also a rider. She was the one that told us when we passed them huddled next to the road there before Ceres in the middle of the night and enquiring if all was ok…, yes.., all is fine thank you. Any case, she was sitting there on the mattress leaning with her back against the wall, crying as Dave was walking towards her. You didn’t see this cause you were facing the door. It was just such a profound sad moment for me and even now.., I tear up by just thinking back of that moment. I was sitting there I thought to myself .. so near and yet so far for them…, but more importantly.., or so it appeared to me.., there was nothing physically wrong with her. It was as if when he reached her back in the corner of the room again he tried for a last time to persuade her to finish the race on her own without him. But she just sat there, crying softly, wiping her tears, swaying her head from left to right as if she was saying to him, no, I will not finish without you, if you don’t finish, I won’t finish this without you. I thought to myself.., this must be one of the most saddest but also most beautiful and wonderful sights I have ever seen. Sitting there, I still wanted to go up to Dave to thank him for allowing me to finish the race with his front wheel, but just could not find the strength in myself to go and thank him, because of what I witnessed in front of me between him and his wife. I knew that if I walked up to them, I would have not even have been able to speak to them, I would have been too emotional to speak. It was truly sad and the tears just rolled uncontrollably out of my eyes. Any case, it of course also gave me further strength to ride over Bainskloof as if it was just a small short little uphill.
Back outside, the bike is sorted. The chain is freshly lubed – it’s not Smoove but is the closest wax lube which the mechanic had in his box. My Smoove had finally given up and coagulated completely in protest at the small Finish Line bottle I had transferred it into to save space. William and I had discussed this possibility, and clearly I had not done a good enough job of cleaning to prevent it happening. With a last look around, T and I wheel the bikes back up and over the bridge, mount up and ride out into a grey and somewhat chilly morning.
1032km – 3rd Dec, 06:25 – Ceres (leaving RV5)
It’s a very odd sensation to be back on such familiar roads but, as close as we are to home, I’m more nervous than ever. T’s front wheel may be sorted, but there’s still a ton of things that could go wrong in this last short stretch. We’re not quite close enough to be within walking distance of the finish if something catastrophic fails. It’s a thought I’m battling to banish from my mind as we haul up the short slope out of Ceres, and pick up speed into the long freewheeling downhill of Mitchell’s Pass – T inevitably stretching away from me as I cautiously descend behind, checking the railway line twice for trains before crossing. I’ve almost run out of the hill onto the flat land below when ahead of me on the road is a scary reminder of just how quickly things can go run. The road is now getting busy with commute traffic and up ahead, a troup of baboons are crossing the road. Suddenly brake lights flash on and cars begin to dive left and right. A delivery truck (or maybe a tanker) pulls up violently in a loud hiss of air brakes. I’m far enough back to have been in no immediate danger from the speeding vehicles, too busy with their journeys to worry about actually driving safely enough to get there. But watching it from afar just re-emphasizes how easily and quickly a good day can turn bad.
To my left, behind the crash barrier a young male baboon has spotted his opportunity while the alpha male is distracted ahead and is busy mounting one of the females from behind. His hips make no more than a handful of thrusts before he’s done and hops off, but not before staring me straight in the eye with an arrogant air. For some strange reason I imagine he’s saying to me “you’re not the only one who’s feeling fucked this morning“. He’s definitely not wrong. Able to relax now we’re closing in on the end, my whole body feels utterly worn down. Up ahead, T has stopped at the left fork onto the R43. We end up stopping a few minutes – I forget now exactly why. Dark, threatening clouds are rolling across the sky, so maybe we stopped to get rain jackets out. Either way, I very definitely remember giving each other a solid hug. We’re still not quite close enough to walk to the end if we had too – but not far down this road we will be.
As our wheels spin up on yet more fast downhill, I notice a slight creaking or grinding from somewhere under my backside. It doesn’t sound like saddle rails, and the troubling thought occurs to me that maybe my rear wheel bearings are also now failing. I stop briefly to check them, but there’s no wobble and the wheel spins freely and silently. I decide it must just be the cranks starting to creak after taking so much punishment from all of the angular, standing up pedalling. It doesn’t get any worse as we roll along chatting, side by side inside the wide yellow safety lane. In no time at all, we’re coming up on the right turn onto Bainskloof Pass itself. This really is now the very final stretch to the end – the long, winding, and extremely scenic 300 vertical meters of climb up and over the brooding, mist covered mountains. Ordinarily, this is one of my favourite sections of road – but busy with traffic, on a Monday morning commute it’s far less pleasant than normal. The regular rush of cars in either direction emphasizes the narrowness of the road and the inherent danger in its regular sequence of twisting, blind bends. Just before we start the climb proper though, we see a friendly face behind the wheel of a familiar looking Pajero. In a moment of near perfect symmetry, it’s Hendrik who drove us to the airport at the very start of things last Tuesday. At the turn off to the campsite we pull off to shake hands, and exchange backs slaps and hugs. The onset of the rain which has been threatening for the last couple of hours cuts us short, and T and I mount up to tackle the last of the climb. It’s a definite relief to know that there’s a friendly car back there somewhere to slow the mad rush of cars coming from behind. Bizarrely for such a familiar road, it was rapidly becoming the scariest of the ride.
T pulls further and further ahead – obviously eager to just get finished (and with that new found inspiration driving him on). My legs, and especially my ankle, need coaxing though as I slowly but steadily grind my way up and up, around bends that are so well known as to almost pass by unnoticed. It’s pouring now, and I’m getting thoroughly soaked, but it doesn’t matter. In fact it seems almost fitting given the nature of the race that the end will be a gritty, dogged, washed out grey rather than a blue, shining dawn. Well before the top comes into view, I know it’s coming, but it still seems to have taken an age to get there. Finally though, the wheels surge free, the pedals stop turning, and Munga is all but done – it is all downhill from the summit of the pass. I pull over briefly and scan the road ahead, but T is long gone – my teeth are chattering just stopping for a few minutes, so he clearly got cold from waiting far longer for my sluggish progress.
As I descend, I scan each hairpin for the exit right to Doolhof Farm – which turns out to be impossible to miss, festooned (of course) with the most welcome of all those fluttering flags. William, amongst others, has warned me about taking care over the loose, steep, descent. But in the pouring rain, it’s muddy, and slippery more than it is loose. It’s no less scary for a technical incompetent like me, and I crawl down it at a snail’s pace. The marshal at the gate has allowed Hendrik to follow down, and it occurs to me he’s probably laughing himself simple at how slow and cautious I’m being. By the time I reach a flapping barrier tape, and a sign right onto some ugly looking steep, single track, T has long since finished. In the dry I may have given it a go, but uncertain grip and an off-camber, there is no way I’m risking it. Only the sound of jeering from the bottom convinces me to mount up – I would always of course have done so and ridden over the line properly, but the voices of a gathering of friends shouting at me below forces the point home.
The next few minutes are a complete, unreal blur to me. I remember riding out onto the wet grass, crossing the line in the pouring rain, Alex handing me that oh so precious medal (#105 for me), and Yoli giving me the longest hug and kiss. An amazing gathering of friends came out to cheer T and I home (thanks Jill, Penny, Sue, Vernon, and of course Hendrik) and they’re crowded around as all this is going on, as is T. Eventually, sense prevails and we escape the downpour under one of the gazebos. In proper style, Vernon pops a champagne cork and Yoli produces a pack of beers so we can celebrate properly.
We’ve done it!