Here be… Gorillas?
What I assumed to be a minor hiccup of having one of my battery chargers imploding suddenly turned into a very serious problem. When I plugged my front light into the “charged” battery, I was met with a flashing red light, indicating I had less than fifteen minutes of battery left. My only alternative source of light was my Leroy Merlin checkout row sourced headlamp, which had an unknown amount of life left, and charging my primary battery with enough juice to last the night would take hours. Hours I didn’t have.
For those that have ridden with me in the dark you would know that my primary front light can fry an egg, stun small game, and blind airliners crossing overhead. It is brilliant in every sense of the word, and has allowed me on multiple occasions (like the night before) to bomb down technical descents with reckless abandon in what would otherwise be pitch black darkness. I was downgraded from that to the low setting on an el-cheapo headlamp that didn’t bash the night away pounding its chest with victory, but rather asked in a quivering voice whether the night would maybe, if it felt like it, just for a little while, scootch a teeny bit out of the way.
“Well, I guess that’s that then. Giddy on up old chap.” I thought to myself as I tried to cram down a cold, dry boerewors roll at WP3. This stop was a bit of an anomaly. I had by now become accustomed to Munga-grade feed stations. They reminded me of the inviting, cosy, stew bowl slurping and beer cup clanging Inns you’d see weary horseback travellers entering into in medieval films. The hospitality, the kind-heartedness, and genuine empathy expressed by every member of the feed station was a soothing balm the gravity of which you could feel pulling you closer as you approached. They were truly one of the highlights of this experience and were fully stocked, thoughtfully organized, and expertly manned. WP3 though, for some reason, was a cold, uninviting, sparse hovel by comparison to its brethren.
During my time at WP3, scavenging what I could to consume, I met up with a fellow rider that was busy fixing a major mechanical. He was unsure whether his fix would hold, and I was unsure whether my light would, so we decided to team up until the sun came up for safety’s sake.
We’ll call him Bob.
Now Bob had evidently had a very different preparation experience than I had. He had bags that contained more bags to keep his other bags full of tools and spares and batteries and watermelons (I’m assuming) dry. He rode a titanium and carbon riddled dual suspension house mortgage on wheels. He was the mountain biking equivalent of the inside of a nervous mother’s handbag. He was, for reasons I’m still to fully comprehend, out of breath the entire time we were at the waterpoint. And Bob, dear sweet Bob, dropped me like a sack of hot garbage within 10km of leaving the waterpoint. He was evidently a stronger rider than I was, and was driven to finish at all costs, so when I had pulled over to have a wee, the last I saw of Bob was his little red tail light bobbing away into the distance.
I was now alone, again, on an arrow-straight road, some time after nine in the evening, and I had another 85km to cover to WP4. At this stage I had covered more than 320km, I’d been awake for forty one hours save for a two-hour nap at WP2, and only had an uninspiring puddle of light to keep me company. As I started plugging away at the neverending road in front of me the hours and kilometers started to fade into a hazy blur. I could feel my speed slowing to a crawl, but I was helpless to do anything about it. I knew I needed to, in the immortal words of Dory, just keep swimming. It was here that the sleep deprivation started taking hold, and the crazy hallucinations started happening.
At first they were minor. I would become aware of something in my peripheral vision, but would ascribe it to the wind shaking a shrub or a bird flying out of a tree. As the hours dragged on though, these somethings started coming into my field of view, and started manifesting as objects I was convinced were really there. At one stage I “saw” a massive gorilla, with an arm span of probably seven meters, lying face down on the side of the road. That one made me do a double-take, only to realise it was a group of burnt bushes.
I saw an astronaut in an orange jumpsuit, I saw someone crawling on their hands and knees, I saw someone flashing a flashlight at me. All of which would appear and disappear in an instant. A slurred voice note to my wife at 01:17 on Sunday morning, that I have little recollection of recording, confirms that I decided to stop to have a nap, right there in the road. What I hadn’t realised was that the mercury had dropped to a nippy 2℃, and when my phone’s timer startled me awake 15 minutes later I was shivering so violently it took me a couple of attempts to get it to shut up. With my kit soaked in sweat, that 2℃ had penetrated into my core. In what I now consider a lucky turn of events, this forced me to get on my bike and start riding immediately, if for no other reason than to generate some desperately needed warmth.
I can’t recall the majority of the 50km of riding prior to WP4, with the exception of a few instances I was shaken awake by my front wheel riding into the berm at the side of the road, indicating that I had fallen asleep behind the bars again. I can remember trying to stop for a nap on the side of the road again at some point, but being met with dozens of R5-coin sized frogs along the road. I was sure these were also hallucinations, but when I had tapped two of them with my shoe and they boinged away I was mostly convinced they were real. The question of whether the “klein bruin paddatjies” were real, thanks to another slurred voice note I had sent upon encountering them, has already become a Labuschagne family legend.
The road was straight, flat, corrugated, sandy and uneventful. If it weren’t for the photos I had sent to the family WhatsApp group at 00:06 bragging that I’d also now completed a 36One, and at 04:18 that I’d finally crossed the 400km mark, I would have little evidence of what happened that night.
Had I had the presence of mind and the time this would be an entrancing photo of the milky way that I was seeing. A grimy Garmin illuminated by the aforementioned headlamp will have to do unfortunately.
The second dragon I had faced hadn’t snarled. It wasn’t obvious, or loud, or immediately present. It had gently enveloped me and had been steadily tightening its grip over the course of the nine hours it had taken me to travel 96km, slowly constricting that piddling little light until it was barely a spec.
I somehow managed to complete the journey to WP4, however unlikely it had seemed to me hours before, which was in the process of being treated to the first glimpses of a gorgeous sunrise as I rolled in at 05:30. This dragon had been vanquished with the first ray of sunlight striking me, and the promise of a meal and a bed.