Freedom Challenge

Giddy chaos that comes in to fill the vacuum of spent effort, racers milling about, bicycles haphazard on the ground. This, one of the overnight stops in the Freedom Challenge race from Pietermaritzburg to Cape Town as well as the endpoint for the riders doing the intense Race to Rhodes. Last night Jacques and Caren were the heroic two of their group still pedaling, others leveled by the flu, Flippie and I watched vigilantly from Naudes Nek into the dark for the telltale wobble of their beams. They red rim eye exhausted arrive with 30k to go to town. Coffee, sweets. Off. We’ll see them down below in a few hours, for tales and decompression.

The Freedom Trail was scouted and refined a dozen years ago to traverse South Africa across remarkable physical and cultural landscapes. The race on that trail is demanding, adventure style with map and compass navigational challenges, massive portages, unpredictable high desert winter weather, a rough track, big climbs. Rest stations—villages and traditional farms alike—provide a respite and incredible hospitality. In a cheery and evidently unusual coincidence of two Americans on the course, my pal and top adventurer Jill Homer is up ahead, locals call her “Alaska Jill.”

A tourist on part of the route near the back end of the race, I plug into the smooth running infrastructure. I get an enviable immersion into this beautiful place and enjoy the familiar speed zealous companionship of the competitors. I’m momentarily irrationally envious of Gawie’s titanium belt drive 650b single speed, just about the opposite of my Pugs.  I accept baffled astonishment at the weight of my load, it’s acknowledged that I am on a different sort of go in having everything with me.

Laughs boasts travails on the trail, everyone embraces an earnest grace before each shared meal, thankful for the food and the safety on the ride, shuffling noises and inevitable snoring in the bunk rooms. Sometimes I cheekily aim to keep up with the torrential pace, whirring the fat disapproving tires, but I’m more often alone, will see the gang later as I arrive at the next station hours after they do. We wake each other in darkness, suit up, murmur breakfast then bolt away edged freeze by headlamp. Once a flock is startled to flight from a lake by our light, once or twice I go full dark to gaze up at Andromeda and the Milky Way.