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Race to Rhodes – the race that loses its young. More musings from a novice.


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Words Carlo Gonzaga. 

Photos: Carlo Gonzaga/Alex Harris/Nic Louw/Chris Fisher/Llewellyn lloyd 



“Are you joking?  Two hundred metres?  Is that all we missed it by?”  


In a bike race that’s 475km long, with 13’000 metres of vertical ascent that’s what it came down to.  Two. Hundred. Metres.  If I could, I would have cried.  But I couldn’t.  The tears would have frozen my eyelids shut.  Quite ridiculous really. 



‘Ridiculous’ is probably the appropriate description of the Freedom Challenge in general and the Race to Rhodes specifically.   The Freedom Challenge is a 2300km race across South Africa that takes place in South Africa’s winter months.  The Race to Rhodes follows the first 475km, which, in the scheme of things, doesn’t sound like a big deal.  But it is. 


The general format

This race is categorised as a mountain bike race.  Having now completed this event this categorisation feels a little like classifying both apples and tomatoes as fruits – technically correct but obviously wrong.  The race is unique in quite in a few ways.  It describes itself as a ‘non-stop, self-sufficient and, self-navigated’ mountain bike race.  Like much of life the devil is in the detail and facts do matter.


The race starts at the doors of the Pietermaritzburg city hall and ends in the tiny village of Rhodes, almost at the foot of South Africa’s highest peak, Ben Macdhui.  As the F16 flies it’s 287km and google tells me its about a seven-hour drive by car.  So far, so good.  Obviously, we are piloting neither and are told its 475km, minimum.  “Urm… what’s this minimum story” you ask, in the same tone as one of the “rights reserved” legal letters.  That would be a very good question to ask.  


The ‘mandatory’ (read: you must follow this line or be disqualified) route to Rhodes is hand drawn with a thin green marking pen across 18 A3-size paper contour maps.  I repeat: Eighteen. Paper. Maps.   Until March this year I couldn’t remember what was on a contour map and was surprised that there are two north arrows on such map, not pointing the same way.  I would try and explain the ‘two norths’ thing but really cannot.   

If we follow that thin green line diligently, we should clock up 475km.  That’s highly unlikely as the rules prohibit the use of any form of GPS device. No Google maps. No Garmin. Not even phone-a-friend to try and direct you left or right.  Getting lost is an absolute certainty.  Consequently, the 475km in the brochure is really just a guideline.


It would be reasonable to think that, as a consequence of this prohibition, the route would follow large, well-marked roads. This race is many things – but, as I’ve come to learn, ‘reasonable’ is not one of them. To add more weight to your map-filled in-tray there are 11 pages of written narratives that are meant to support these maps.  These narratives contain gems like “Put your bike down and follow one of these tracks for about 20 metres. You should find a jeep track in the bushes. Retrieve your bike and follow the jeep track across the base of the spur.”  I was fully expecting to find a mall with a Spur Steak Ranch at the end of this jeep track.  And my absolute favourite… “This is then followed by an equally ridiculous 400 metre climb”. Their words, not mine.  So… “No” to following large well-marked roads. 


When I received my 18 A3 maps and read the narratives for the first time I ‘kakked’ my chamois.  The green line follows cattle paths, an assortment of tracks, and some roads.  Often it simply asks you to follow geographical features like mountain ridges, dongas or rivers.   For enhanced entertainment the line crosses more than ten rivers (not where the bridges are) and goes up or down a handful of sheer cliffs.  (I’ve learned the closer the contour lines to each other, the steeper the cliff. Good to know.)  Often there is a track on the map but, rather disturbingly, no such thing on the ground.  Equally as often there is one track on the map and seventeen on the ground.   I asked a mate who had done the race for some info and he sent me 84 emails with over 200 attachments.  Asking for some in-person guidance you got pearlers like “Turn right at the apple tree.  What apple tree Dave?  Someone ate an apple & dropped the pips there last year, there should be an apple tree there this year.”   Turn left at the “blue house” or at the “edge of the plantation” occur frequently.  As it turns out people paint their houses and plantations get harvested, quite regularly.  And then, obviously if you think about it, cattle tend to be quite unconcerned with keeping to the same path the surveyor-general saw when he plotted the contour maps 15 years ago.   And that’s just the “self-navigated part”.


The race is also “self-supported”.  That means you carry everything you may need for about 5 days on your person or your bike.  You are expected to finish with the equipment your started.  Presumably, you are also expected to finish with the same body you started.  The rules are not specific in this regard. You may not receive any outside support while on route or you will face disqualification or a time penalty.  If your bike breaks in half you are expected to fix it with the tools at hand which are most commonly trees, cattle, and rivers.  If you break in half, you are expected to fix yourself.  There isn’t medical assistance on route.  Sure, you can call a doctor, but unless his advice is to cut your losses and beat yourself to death with your own phone you may have to do the stitching yourself.  Some participants actually carry suture kits.  In the longer, 2300km event, most carry antibiotics. Stories abound of broken bike frames splinted together with branches and saddles held in place with fence wire.  I was even taught that you can ‘weld’ with the foil cap of a wine bottle and a lighter.  After downing said bottle of wine, I suppose anything is possible.   While you may use “commercially available” resources this is a rather moot concession in the rules as the track is in rural, mountainous, South Africa for much of the time.   About the best you’ll get is a shepherd or herdsman.  He won’t speak your language, even if you speak his.  If you’re lucky he’ll have a horse.  If you’re unlucky he’ll have six and a half hungry dogs. 


Don’t expect water tables with cheering wives’ or children filling your water bottles.  Instead, expect community taps or streams to fill your bottles and the odd informal traders selling beer, warm coke or Chinese nik-naks.  There are five checkpoints on route that you must check into.  Ideally you should check out of them as well.  These are mostly community operated lodgings located in villages, or more often, in the sticks somewhere.  Some of them don’t have electricity and a couple don’t even have running water.  Lodgings are modest by normal standards, but seven-star when you’ve got 300km and 8000m of climbing in you.  At the last checkpoint, at a modest village labelled on the maps as ‘Vuvu’, you will sleep in the huts of the local residents, who will move out of their dwelling for the night.  Your dinner will be served in the office of the head of department at the local junior secondary school.  You will, as a rite of passage on the trail, freeze your saddle sores off if you attempt an evening bucket shower in Vuvu.  True story.


There is a passing reference to inclement weather in the rules.  The clue to look out for is in the mandatory clothing requirements of ‘base layers, other layers, waterproof layers and emergency blankets’.  The route tops out at about 2600m.  This is well into snow territory when the conditions are right.  Or wrong if you’re on a bike.  This year we recorded -8 degrees and it has been known to get well below -15 degrees.  Not Fahrenheit – the other one.  This year (and apparently in many years) the wind was gusting up to 80 kilometres an hour.  Snow in a gale becomes sleet.  Dust particles become birdshot.  Your sense of humour disappears quicker than a politicians’ promises after election day.  This year riders had to look out for steel roof sheeting that had become airborne.  I’ve seen videos of bicycles being lifted off the ground as riders grimly hold onto to the handlebar.  If you see men peeing on their shifter cables, its because they’ve become frozen.


If I were honestly marketing the race to newcomers, it would go something like: “Come and join our Race to Rhodes.  You’ll definitely get lost, most likely in the dark and probably in sub-zero temperatures.  We hope you’ll make it through all the river crossing and not fall down a cliff.  You will be wet.  It will be fun.  As a midfielder you’ll be riding about 8-12 hours between support stations so you should be able to carry that much food and water with you.  You must also carry all your own clothing, medical kits and bike spares for any eventuality.   Be mindful with baggage as you will have to pick your bike up and over fences and should be prepared to hike up cliffs with your bike on your back.  It will be fun.  As there is no way to get a motor vehicle to many parts of the route please ensure you have airborne medical evacuation as part of your medical insurance.  That will not be fun.”    


5:00am.  71 hrs since departure.  Top of Lehanas.  Middle Earth, so it seems. 

Knees tucked into my chest.  Lips pursed.  Breathing shallow to limit the cold air into my already chilled lungs.  I am lying on my right side directly on the ground, in what probably looks like the ‘foetal’ position.  I am shivering, almost uncontrollably, but not quite.   My eyes squint through foggy lenses into the moonlit night.   My ears are filled with the continuous crackle, pop, and hiss of three space blankets fluttering in the icy wind, anchored only by a hand, a foot, or some other bodily appendage of their owners.  It’s around five in the morning and my handlebar mounted temperature gauge looks like its reading minus-four-point-something Celsius.  I would try and get a better look but the batteries in my helmet mounted light seem to have lost their amps, like we have lost our bearings.


We’re at the top of Lehanas ‘Pass’.  That much we know.  We’re about 35km, or two-and-a half hours from the end.  This we also know.   What we don’t know is exactly where we are.  Therefore, we can’t be exactly sure of where we need to go.  Maddingly, we know the track we need to find is so close.  So. Damn. Close. 


It’s been seventy-one hours since we left Pietermaritzburg, and we’re around 440km down the official track.   Myself and my two travelling companions have had no more than four hours sleep in total since our city hall departure three days ago.  Our last water and food refill was twelve hours ago.  


Half an hour earlier we were walking around in circles looking for the track that would take us off this exposed icy plateau.  In one last gasp attempt to locate our exit, we each forge out a few hundred metres in opposite directions.  Our lights, batteries weakened by the cold, tentatively prod the darkness ahead.  The darkness gives no quarter, gives no inch.  We reconvene once again.  No good news.  None of us find the road we intuitively know is there.  Too tired and cold to think through the problem we abandon our joint quest to finish the race in under three days.   To achieve that we needed to find that road by 3:30am, latest.  Since we’re no longer cycling, our sweaty cycling kit starts to freeze in the increasingly stronger wind.  We don all our remaining clothing, four or five layers in total, including that damned space blanket, and decide to bunker down until the sun comes up.   Lying on the ground, I recall thinking to myself that this is probably how people die in the cold.  They just… well… they… just… lie there…. and, er, …. die.  No fanfare, no last wishes, no dramatic rushes to save yourself.  Just a very, very long sleep.


Lehanas Pass is legend on the trail.  The adventures birthed on Lehanas generally secure you a front row at the bar, drinks included.  Why it’s called a ‘pass’ is still somewhat lost on me.  There is no road.  Not even remnants of a road.  In fact, there could never have been a road as the route required to traverse the 8,4km from base to peak requires a careful balancing act on the spine of a mountain range.  It’s a venus fly trap.  It’s a con artist.  She is heart achingly beautiful in photos.  Gorgeously smooth from google earth.  I sound smitten.  She draws you in.  And then she’s Glenn Close and bunnies.  She’s Hannibal Lecter making dinner, for one.  It seems that Lehanas has a score to settle with almost all riders.  In those 8,4km you will ascend 1000 metres.  That’s nearly the same as the last push to the summit up Kilimanjaro.  Except you’re the porter with a bicycle.  Gradients exceed 40% and the upper reaches require scrambling up ledges that are head height.  On a particularly steep windswept section I could do no better than flatten myself against the grassy, rock strewn slope, face into the ground.  And sort of leopard crawl with two legs and one arm, the other securing my bike to my back.  On one steep section Pieter was throwing his bike up the hill and then stepping up.  The wind on Lehanas is something to behold.  It doesn’t ‘blow’.   It roars up its slopes like the death charge of a wounded lion – you hear the grunts but can’t see the lion until the last second.  It tears through shrubs and trees, branches snapping back like mortars above Normandy.  It clutches at your clothing and your bike.  It’s like getting in a boxing ring with Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime.  The punches come from nowhere but are everywhere.  I have had riders tell me of having their bikes ripped from their grip by the wind and having to crawl down to retrieve them.  A few riders have actually been trapped on the mountain, unable to crest the summit for the ferocity of the wind.  For a reason unknown to me there is a blue container at the summit.   One year riders had to break into it, seeking refuge.  When they wanted to leave, Lehanas had the last laugh.  They were locked inside for an hour or so, unable to open the door.  Did I mention that, through all this gradient, wind and weather, you have to carry your bike?  You do.  Unavoidable really.  How do you train to carry your bike up a 40% rocky incline; in -3 degrees centigrade, in a gusting, 100kph wind?  If you know, do tell.   


At about 6:30am the darkness finally begins to recede.  First, the ridgelines of the surrounding mountains show themselves in monochrome silhouette.  At this point the temperature always drops a few more digits. I am standing now, space blanket wrapped twice around my torso.  Still shivering.  Henry and Pieter are stoically holding onto their fluttering space blankets, still grounded.  As the light pushes the darkness away, I start to make out a straight-ish line in the distance.  Not too far – about two hundred metres.  A few minutes pass.  You must be joking?  That straight line is the road.  


That’s the thing with being lost.  One moment you are lost.  And, eventually, at some other moment you are instantly un-lost.  You don’t gradually un-lose yourself.   You either know where you are, or you don’t.   


10pm.  15hours from the start.  The Wall.

I am walking down a hill I’ve just pushed up.  I am shouting “Hello” at darkened rural houses.  I am hopeful that my waking someone up will somehow be forgiven because I have done so with a “Hello”.  Dogs bark, which I’m happy for.  I figure ‘barks’ plus ‘hello’ should get someone’s’ attention.  Finally, I see a light in a window of a small brick one-roomed building.  I start with “Hello” in conversational tone.  After escalating my conversational “Hello” to a rather hysterical ‘HAAALLOOOWW’, I advance toward the lit window.  Mercifully the dog doesn’t eat me, and the resident doesn’t think I’m an intruder.  As we try to bridge the language gap, he points frantically up the road I’ve just pushed down, and supports this gesturing with “Straaait, Straaait”.  At that point I see two lights walking up the road.   Ok… the lights aren’t really walking – they’re attached to the bikes of Peter and Henry.  We’ve been riding a few minutes apart for the last 15 hours.  I dash out the yard, thanking the local who is still gesturing and shouting “Straaait”.  Henry and Pieter have done this four times between them and they must know the route.  I ask if I can ride with them a bit.  Three navigators are better than one.  Or so you’d think. 


Two hours later we finally acknowledge we’re lost.  We cannot pinpoint where we are on the paper maps.  We’ve asked more local residents.  Language is a problem.  I must learn Zulu.  We have travelled about 5,3km on an incorrect road, most of which has been uphill.  We round a corner and Pieter correctly concludes that we are going in the exact opposite direction that we’re meant to be going in.  We round another corner, this time in the right direction, but facing a steep uphill.  The ‘protocol’ for getting un-lost is retracing your steps until you can pinpoint where you are on a map.  Not wanting to scale that climb, just to have to come down it, we sagely agree to do the adult thing and acknowledge our mistake and go back down the 5,3km we have just come up.  Given the now almost zero temperatures we stop to layer up for the descent.  I record a video on my phone.  20 minutes later, at the base of the climb we find our error:  just metres up from where I met Peter and Henry the good road breaks left, with a track continuing straight to a rock-infested section referred to as ‘The Wall’ by riders.  It is un-rideable which is the clue that tells us we are on the right track.  Days later, after the race, I review our GPS tracks that the race office gives me access to.  The point at which we turned around, after 2 hours and 5,3km of uphill, was just two hundred metres from the road that we were meant to be on.  We had taken the vehicular road that bypasses the un-rideable section we call The Wall.  If we had stayed on it, we would have re-joined above the un-rideable section and been hi-five-ing and back-slapping at our genius navigation.  This sounds made up.  It is not.  I have pictures.  Two hundred metres.  Again.   


Race office, we have a problem

Per the rules you are allowed seven days to complete the course.  Sounds like a long time for just 475km.  Until you consider that you continuously stop to check your maps; the path is largely on tracks and grassland; and has its fair share of un-rideable sections.  Compounding matters there’s the hills - by the time you’ve quaffed your first G&T in Rhodes you will have ascended the equivalent of Mt. Everest one and a half times.  Of the 49 starters in this year’s edition just two finished in under three days.  Only six finished in under five days.  Of the eight that never made it to Rhodes, one was washed down a river he was crossing.  And he wasn’t on a boat at the time.


At race briefing it became apparent there were three other riders with a sub three-day game plan, including myself.  This was my first time so my ambitious plan could be blamed on first-time stupidity.  Roger was on a single speed, rigid bike.  Think about that for a moment.  I subsequently learned he is a plastic surgeon, so I blame his crazy attempt on second-hand anaesthesia inhalation.  I don’t know if that’s physiologically possible, but I hope you get my point.  Peter and Henry had narrowly missed a sub three-day attempt previously and their plan was fuelled mostly by revenge. 



There is a sub two-day strategy, but that is currently reserved for just one rider.  Just five riders have ever managed under 2,5 days.  A veteran of The Trail, Mike Woolnough was on track for a sub-two this year until the sleep monsters and weather tightened their grip.    


To achieve under three days, you essentially must ride double the time of other riders, each day.   Conceptually not difficult to grasp, but there are a couple of critical pinch points to consider.  First, you probably need to ride the first 200km to the remote lodge in Nstekeni Nature Reserve in one go.  That comes with 6300m of climbing.  You should get that done in about 18 hours, leaving you with a couple hours to sleep, eat and consider other necessities before mounting your steed at around 4:30.  A warm up, so to speak.  Assuming you won’t get too lost during the day you’ll have the privilege of negotiating some tricky night-time navigation.  If that goes ok-ish you’ll have the morning to get to Vuvu.  Its highly desirable to get past Vuvu and to the foot of Lehanas in daylight so you can get your bearings on that little blue container 8,4km away.  If you get that right, you’ll get to Rhodes in about 2 days and 15 hours.  Like Roger did.  Be like Roger. 


Don’t be like us. 


Leaving Vuvu at 5pm already put us on the backfoot as we’d only get to Lehanas at around 6pm.  It’s darkest just after the sun is fully tucked away and the moon isn’t quite shiny yet, making it difficult to get bearing on aforementioned blue container. So, in what history will judge as a… mmm... err…. let’s just go with ‘crap' decision, we decided to try an alternate route up Lehanas.  This involves not actually going up Lehanas at all but finding an adjacent mountain to the west and scaling that instead.  Just writing that plan down sounds bad.  Trust me though, it was a good idea at the time.  No – beers were not involved.  


Roll forward four hours.  We’re back at the foot of Lehanas, around 10pm.  We found the mountain to the west.  We even found the track on the mountain to the west we were meant to be on.  For 4km.  Then we ran out of track, skill, experience, and humour.  We scribbled messages in the ground.  We found the southern cross.  We studied our maps and compasses.  Still only 4km progress in three hours.  At about 9pm we called the race office.   “We have a problem”.   To his credit and our good fortune Chris Fisher, race director, took our call.  He advised us, as he had previously, to try Lehanas instead.  I don’t even think he said “I told you so”.   Mountain 1 – Three Musketeers 0. 


16 hours 33 minutes.  That’s how long it took us to reach Rhodes from Vuvu.  51km according to the maps.  75 hours, 33 minutes since we had city hall in our rear-view mirrors.  Four hours sleep.  And we missed our plan by 3 hours 33 minutes.  Two hundred metres.  Twice.         


The thing

But here’s the thing:  I feel fulfilled.  Energised.  Richer for the experience.  Even taller.  I inhaled more just than a few beers and slept for a week after.   Sure, I got lost for some 9 hours of the 75 hours I was on the trail, without which I would have smashed my goal.  But that would be too easy.  I now value my first time on The Trail.  To grow physically you need to stress your body and then, during rest, the body adapts to a new expectation, becoming stronger through each cycle of rest.  It’s the rest after the physical activity that makes you stronger.   


The Trail under race conditions has more than its fair share of physical stresses.  These you will overcome, and be stronger for, with rest and few glasses of wine.  It’s the stresses The Trail places on your mind, your spirit, your self, that are uniquely valuable.  These don’t happen at the gym, a morning run, or in board meetings. 


Getting lost is part of life.  It happens all the time to us across multiple spheres.  In relationships, business, strategy.   With our families.   Most often we are in denial about being lost at all.  We convince ourselves we are on track.  On the trail you are either lost or not.  There is no ‘convincing’ yourself.  You are forced to face reality; admit to being lost; and start the process of finding your way back.  This is the stress.  When you find the track, as you will, you will be mentally and spiritually stronger for it.  You will be more appreciative of the need to pay attention next time. To be engaged with your surroundings.  To prepare better.  To be present.  You will be more willing to help others, for one day you may need the help of others.  These are my lessons from Lehanas. 


The Trail is filled with old-school adventure.  You will genuinely scramble down cliff faces.  You will drop your bike down 3m vertical dongas.  You may get washed down a river.  You will feel inspired and invincible when you successfully navigate your way at night through the three villages to Queen Mercy; or ride ‘flat-box’ down red-earth wattle strips on the Mpharane ridge on a crisp, cloudless, blue-sky day.  You will turn around and look down the section you have portaged up and resist patting yourself on the back.  You may even have the need to find the Southern Cross because you lost your compass.  You will humbly push your bike up, and down, hills.  You will crest the Umkomaas valley and get goose bumps from the view before you descend an impossibly steep track.  You will thrash your way through thorn trees, wattles and river debris.  All while pulling, pushing, and dragging your bike. 

Always forward. 

Always forward.


Most of all, the trail is filled with people.  Their aspirations. Their stories.  The giant Dalu Ncobo and his wife, Gladys, at Nstekeni.  He sleeps with “one eye open” and made us breakfast - or was it dinner - at 2am.   Sheila and Charles Raven, their daughter Kerry - hosting cyclists around the clock for three continuous weeks at their home in Glen Edward.  The never-ending stories from Dana and Ian Waddilove, whose brother, David, founded the Freedom Challenge in 2004.  The giant, syrupy vetkoek that Buhle makes at the modest Masakala support station.  The residents of Vuvu who actually give up their bed for cyclists.  The children who run next to you for kilometres, shouting “Where are you going? What is your name?”.  The spaza shop owners for whom the race represents a mid-year Christmas rush.   There's the lone horseman who points to where you should be going and sometimes, seeing the exhaustion written in, and on you, leads you to your path.     


This is The Race to Rhodes.   This is the Freedom Challenge.


'Gonzo, out'


The enormity of the navigational challenge becomes tangible when you unpack your maps and lay them side by side, for 475km.  Its about this point that you either start drinking or throw up.  Or the latter after the former.



I think I may have invested over 100hours over five months in the maps.  I rode the google earth version of the route multiple times.  Still not getting it right I rode the actual route on my bicycle in April.  Clearly I still have work to do.     



The end result of all my navigation preparation.  Alex Harris, once record Holder for the 2300km version, said reading them was like trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone.  I actually took that as a compliment but couldn’t help noticing he was carrying no maps at all.



One year, Ingrid Avidon had to navigate with just these remaining pieces of her maps.



That little blue section of road is 200m long. Not knowing where we were that is where we made a U turn and headed back down the red line to the missed turn.  We then went up the green line.  From a different perspective, we were merely doing hill repeats on the The Wall, which sounds far more heroic. 



This is what a section of The Wall looks like from the perspective of my knee in April.  During the race this was just black.  Kids relish the humour in being able to walk faster than riders up t hese steep, most ofetn un-rideable sections.    



Riders are allowed to send one 2L ice cream tub to certain checkpoints on route prior to the race starting.  You may put whatever you wish in these.  What you leave behind is considered a donation to the trail.  If you withdraw or have passed a checkpoint the contents of your box may be scavenged by following riders.  If I combined the contents of my five boxes I was almost able to build a new bike.  Next time I shall put a spare compass in one of those boxes and not use so much duct tape.  I needed Semtex to open those tub, which is ordinarily difficult to come by on the trail.



You may read the word ‘shop’ in the narratives or hear it from fellow riders.  Lower your expectation and then half that.  This “U-Save” was in fact well stocked in April, but closed on Sunday in June.  Notwithstanding, if you ask nicely, they’ve always got one cold coke in a fridge somewhere and there’s always a nik nak or two to share around.  



One thing you’re assured of is breath-taking, uncluttered views.  But that’s only half the time.  At night its just black and terrifying.  



Day one – you’ve already done 1500m of ascent in the first 50km.  You’ve thundered through the tiny village of Kwangeshe along its slightly downhill, undulating track.  This is your view.  The Umkomass Valley.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that road on the left is somehow for you.  No, your path goes does to rivers edge and will see you thrashing about for an hour or two in the riverine bush, until you cross the river.  Photo: REBLEX Photography/Llewellyn Lloyd 



Oliver Greaves crossing the mighty Umkomazi River.  Ollie is 17 and was one of two father-and-son teams to do this years Race to Rhodes.  Don’t be fooled by the calm.  This river can get angry.  In April it was impassable.  Photo: REBLEX Photography/Llewellyn Lloyd 



A lone rider crosses the Umko river.  One rider tried to cross near the rocks where the water flows faster.  He and his bike, were washed down, and over the rocks.  Finally making it to the other side he had to withdraw from the race.  Photo: REBLEX Photography/Llewellyn Lloyd 



Hela Hela.  7,5km on the steepest section.  741m ascent.  9,3% average gradient with maximum of 39%.  It’s a beast on a good day.  A monster in the heat. Gorgeous from above.    Photo: REBLEX Photography/Llewellyn Lloyd



There is not much tar or electricity on this part of the trail.  If you get into the lonely support station of Malekgolonyane after dark you will have a romantic paraffin lit dinner.  Photo: REBLEX Photography/Llewellyn Lloyd 



If the narratives say anything similar to ‘dongas’, don’t expect some technical riding.  Expect carrying, dirt and straight-up walls.  The only way in, and out, is through cattle paths.  If there are no cattle in that area you’d best consider alternate transport.    



When I crossed this river during the race (riders call it the Boshelweni, which is entirely incorrect) it was at night, but only half full.  I took my socks and inner soles out so that they wouldn’t be wet in the freezing temps.  Half-way across my feet were so cold that I contemplated turning back, or tip toing onto an exposed rock so my feet could warm up.   



The bottom reaches of Lehanas during my recce ride in April.  It’s a pity I didn’t get to see it again during the day.  But then I wouldn’t have the story or the free drinks at the bar. That's Alex Harris patiently waiting for me.  Again.



Lehanas in daylight from the base.  There is a faint line which indicates one of the ways to get up.  For clarity – the line is not actually there to help you in real life.  The arrow is pointing to the blue container that is on top of the mountain.  8,4km.  1000m ascent.  You just have to get on with it and “take your medicine” as Alex Harris would say.  Photo: Nic Louw



The view of Lehanas from the lens of photographer/rider Nic Louw.  When you get to the top this is the view down.  Can you see the rider – bottom middle of the photo.  That thing that looks like the spine of a dragon’s tail.  It is.  That is what you’ve hiked up.  No matter how much riders tippy-toe up this pass we always seem to wake the dragon.  Thanks to Nic for strapping a real camera to his chest for the whole 6 days.  The only thing strapped to my chest was a pretty useless heart rate monitor.   He was one of two father-and-son teams on this year’s Race to Rhodes.   



The Freedom Challenge will not go according to plan so it pays to have a glass-half-full attitude.  And if the going gets really tough, a peanut butter sandwich and coffee doesn’t hurt. 



Edited by Carlog
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Gonzo in.


Can't wait for that, you've instantly joined a group who understand the magic of this national treasure. Congrats on the ride and the write up. Both magic themselves

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Wonderfully written - thanks for sharing.


So often one see's the debate about, 'which event offers the best value' - with the premise being the more I pay, the more I expect the event to provide.


Then you get an experience like this where you find that its not what you paid for, but its within you and your willingness to dive in deep that you get what you are really looking for - seems like you hit the sweet spot.



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What a fantastic achievement and experience to have done The Race to Rhodes . Respect you and all others that not only finished it but just having the courage to start it . Before mountain biking started  i rode the Pietermaritzburg  Kokstad Pietermaritzburg   road race as a junior and saw the hills and valleys from the tar road perspective . Scary is one word comes to mind . In the 80's i rode the Rhodes Mtb race which climbs up Naudes Nek and towards Tivendales Ski Resort  . Yes the hills on gravel track are rough never mind were you guys had to ride . Our MTB in those years ( Bridgestone MB 5's ) had no suspension only wider wheels and stronger forks .I remember climbing one hill and the wind was so cold the icicles were hanging off the telephone lines .

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Great story, wonderfully told. But surely not for fun? What is it that drives Saffers to do these silly things? Is there a kind of "I grew up in a paper bag" mentality that cyclists need in order to enjoy respect in the pelaton?

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Great story, wonderfully told. But surely not for fun? What is it that drives Saffers to do these silly things? Is there a kind of "I grew up in a paper bag" mentality that cyclists need in order to enjoy respect in the pelaton?

If it was easy it woudn't be worth doing. replace with Epic/ironman/comrades etc..except this one has a human interaction that you can't recreate anywhere else.

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If  you leave the course on the Munga you have to backtrack and rejoin where you were last on it.


Does the same apply to the RASA ? Would it have been OK if you had crossed over the 200m and gotten back on track ? How is this regulated ?




Great writeup and congratulations on your finish.

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