Up and Down

There’s doubt as to whether the expression “May you live in interesting times” is actually an ancient Chinese proverb, or a more recent, and possibly accidental mis-translation. Either way, it’s hard to imagine a more apt phrase to sum up the unusual times we find ourselves living through. As cyclists, it’s certainly been a challenging time, with many of our favourite events and races cancelled. And, depending on exactly where you live, also affecting how often and how far you can ride. In the early lockdown stages, here in England, we were allowed out just once a day, with an emphasis (although not an actual hard rule) that those rides should be close to home. Other parts of the UK and Europe were far stricter – limiting distances to as little as 2km from home in some cases. My riding buddies back in South Africa had it even tougher – for many weeks they weren’t allowed to ride at all. And when that restriction was lifted, riding was only allowed within a 5km radius from home between the hours of 6am and 9am.

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The Road Goes Ever On (Part 2)

As mentioned in Part 1 of this entry (which seems, and is in fact, months back now), our family’s relocation to the UK went surprisingly smoothly and pretty much according to our plan. So much so, that after a couple of days unpacking our new home was looking, well, homely. It’s not that there weren’t still a ton of jobs left to do, but they were mostly small, the sort of jobs that take longer in trips to the shed for tools than to actually do. I knew I’d get to them eventually, if not actually before Yoli got frustrated with me ignoring them. But my mind was craving a proper escape. For months we had been planning, decluttering, packing, unpacking, and realising that half the stuff we hadn’t decluttered was now either redundant, or just plain didn’t fit in our suddenly smaller spaces. I needed some alone time and lurking in the garage was the perfect answer in the shape of three of the boxes still to be unpacked. That shape being, of course, long and rectangular, and sort of bike sized.

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The Road Goes Ever On (Part 1)

Several life events have kept me off the bike, and this blog, for large periods of the past few months. Principal of these has been our family’s relocation back to the UK – a move that neither Yoli or I ever really anticipated, but which has happily worked out more smoothly than we could have wished for. As all consuming as that process has been though, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to blame the lack of cycling on that though. After The Munga, and the year of preparation leading up to it, it’s fair to say my enthusiasm to be on the bike ebbed a little. As a result, the occasional rides I did were entirely social. But now, having settled into a new house and new routines, it feels wrong to start blogging about the new rides and routes I’m beginning to explore without catching up on the last couple I took part in before we left South Africa. Quite fittingly, one of those rides was the ride that got the whole cycling bug rolling in the first place.

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Munga – RV5

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.

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Munga – RV4

806km – 1st Dec, 21:36 – Sutherland (arriving RV4)

Blasting down the last of the hill we roll out into brightly lit town streets. In front we see cyclists coming and going, and the tell-tale fluttering flags and blinking lights of the RV. My fatigued brain takes a few moments though to piece them all together and figure out the path into the checkpoint. As we approach it becomes clearer, a drop kerb leads to an entrance into a small courtyard at the back of the hotel which is hosting us. With differing needs, T and I head in opposite directions – I’m desperate for food and sleep, but first I need to find out if we took a wrong route in and will have to ride back. For T, it’s his bike which needs the most urgent attention so he lingers outside to seek out the mechanics.

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Munga – RV3

589km – 30th Nov, 17:10 – Loxton (arriving RV3)

We’re sat at one end of a stretch of long wooden tables in the dining room of the Boy’s Hostel (boarding dormitory for boy’s at the town school). We’ve completed the usual formalities – signing in, taking bikes to mechanics, and in this case getting batteries plugged into the shared charging station at the entrance to the hall. As we wait for food to arrive conversation is sparse – we’re both too wrecked for much in the way of words, albeit in differing ways. T’s backside is now by all accounts resembling steak tartare, his stomach is now on full protest and he’s struggling to eat. My neck, hands, and feet are all pretty battered but the most worrying development is a peach sized lump sprouting on the inside of my right ankle. My Achilles is swollen and sore – not an ideal scenario with one of the toughest legs in the race up next.

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Munga – RV2

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.

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Munga – RV1

222km – 29th Nov, 02:50 – Van der Kloof Dam (arriving RV1)

There’s a protocol at each RV. You sign in when you arrive, sign out when you leave, and tell the RV staff if you want food or sleep in between. This much I am prepared for because it has been explained in the manual and at the briefing. I’m also not surprised by the friendliness of the guys at the desk – it’s an hour when any normal person would be fast asleep, and anyone coerced into being awake could be forgiven for being thoroughly grumpy. But these aren’t normal people, they’re Munga volunteers. The chocolate milk is a surprise though, and a welcome one, especially as I’m offered two of them. My sign in position is in three figures – and judging by the box behind the table, they have considerably more bottles left than there are riders behind me. Unsure of whether I’ll sleep I take a food token with me and say I’ll come back if I do decide on a nap.


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Munga – The END

Wednesday 28th November

It’s often said that getting to the start of a race is half the battle. In the case of The Munga, that logic is somewhat reversed. Becasue the start is really The END. When you first notice it, it’s tempting to think some idiot has messed up and brought the wrong banners. But they haven’t, the wording in the small print explains the concept:

The end of the life you knew

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Munga – Prologue

Tuesday 27th November

There’s a strong sense as I start to write this blog that my words will fall short. Memories fogged by fatigue, and a lack of language craft will be wholly inadequate to conjure up the majesty of the landscapes we traveled through, the incredible people we met, and the inner depths we dug into for inspiration and strength. And yet, as with the race itself, the best we can do is to try.

The “we” in this case is myself and riding buddy Theunis Esterhuizen (T). And the race is The Munga, a 1076km gravel and offroad ride across the arid, semi-desert which occupies the very the heart of South Africa – The Karoo.  Driving with us to the airport is riding buddy Hendrik Vermaak, who has taken the place of T’s son as our chauffeur. You see this is no ordinary ride – it’s a one way journey from Bloemfontein to Wellington. Instead of flying back we will, as T puts it, “just be riding home”. A keen mountain biker himself, Hendrik hasn’t just come along to be driver – he’s keen to chat and learn about the ride itself. And a significant part of that conversation in the car and over breakfast at Mugg & Bean is what it might be that makes this ride so tough.

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