Alarm cracks 4am, tug the headlamp up from where it was around my neck like a necklace in sleep. From under blankets pull on tights, shell over base layer, on and off rain quieted. Kettle, pack a few last things. Leon is on the same drill, speak in low voices in the semi lit kitchen dining area of the main house, hosts are asleep but for the dogs and cats.
We scouted the first few k yesterday because we knew there were some turns coming out of the workers’ shacks area, now we’re steaming into darkness heads bent. We wait for the dawn light where it will warm touch first, on our shoulders as an encouragement to press west. There is mist and the wet desert smell, soft sand in the washes shushing wheels. We navigate quickly and smoothly, calling out and confirming features we expect, reporting some of our internal monologues, “okay, there should be a fork with a cattle guard left… .” A couple of places Leon takes out the compass, my style is more to memorize landscape markers from map detail so we’re a fine team. The trail swells and crests rhythmically, a section that we’ll remember as flat but that isn’t, really.
Gawie, Axel, Dani and Francois are behind us, they’ll have started later. We want to be sure that we are in contact when we enter the Baviaanskloof. A wilderness canyon, overgrown quiet, we’ll pick our way along the river bottom to the far end, hugged by the red blonde walls. This is a section of the Freedom Trail that I’ve been hearing about for days. Its beauty, its iconic serenity belying the geologic violence of the kloof cut, hardly spoilt backcountry. Jeep tracks that we’re linking together to enter the park have long since fallen into disuse. When we scale the do not pass sign, we’re gleeful in the knowledge that it’s not for us, nor even for a now, since the terrain has its own forbidding for anyone not under human power. There are buffalo, rhinos, and more. We’ve been advised to vigilance.
Just after dawn the boys catch us and we get on their hauling ass train. The sky tumbles and rolls into a rare grey day. We’ll still sweat and stutter while lifting bikes over deadfall or up small ravines. The once double track but now rickety barely single flumps down to the bottom—rutted, cracked orange gravel, prickly pears and harassing thorns. I’m on Dani’s wheel and we’re manic abandon, adrenaline and drunk, we circle around at the river bank enthusiastically baffled until Gawie figures out the crossing. Before then I step up to my hip into some creature’s den, it doesn’t seem to mind. Some wade barefoot, D and Axel put on shitty flip flops and Crocs, respectively, I take off my socks and put my shoes back on. Slip perilous muck under the fresh water flow, I’m tracking the colors of the jerseys and packs ahead of me through the seven foot high reeds. There is a footpath here and there, sometimes not. The sensation will be of remoteness and better not that something should go awry. It’s at times a proper bushwhack and cross the streamlets and the river itself multiple times, thigh deep without much current or drama.
Can’t tell if it’s shadows or the bottom of my hunger that I’ve dropped. I eat a body warm cream cheese and jam sandwich, a peach, and a juice box that is left over in the frame bag from days ago. I feel like a kid on a school field trip that hasn’t gone nearly the way the chaperones had imagined. G pointedly avoids using the word “lost” in spite of convincing appearances. I don’t reveal the substantial part of me that hopes we spend the night here for the entertainment of it; I perceive that there might be tension over my one man tent for the six of us if it rains as hard as the overcast suggests that it might.
A tunnel opens through the brush and we’re pushing through it, it spits us on to an open path and just like that we’re free. We pedal in the gathering drizzle, get to the last obstacle, a tall game fence. In near silence all the bikes are over, whisk ourselves to camp before dark.