Strong women in Africa

Strong women in Africa

Thursday, 09 July 2009

“Strong women in Africa” is the title of a song by South African singer/songwriter Edi Niederlander on her album Dreamland. It could as easily be given to the three women who completed the 2009 Freedom Challenge mountain bike race across South Africa.

Arriving in Diemersfontein on Sunday 5 July 2009, 21 days 13 hours and 30 minutes after starting her epic 2350km journey from Pietermaritzburg, was the first women rider home, Fiona Coward. She described her ride as a “huge experience”.

Riders who completed the 2009 Freedom Challenge have carried their bikes through the rivers of southern Kwa Zulu Natal and 1000 metres up the face of the Maluti Drakensberg on Lehana’s Pass before crossing a further five major mountain ranges. They have battled through snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures and ridden from before sunrise to after sunset day after day for three weeks. They have passed through passed through wilderness areas and national parks. They have experienced the diversity of South Africa and her people. They have been tested physically and emotionally.

Following Fiona into the Diemersfontein finish two days later were Esti du Plessis and Estelle Labuschagne, the other two women to finish the 2009 Freedom Challenge. Esti, who had left Pietermaritzburg a day after Estelle and Fiona, caught up with Estelle at the final support station at Trouthaven near Rawsonville. From there the two took on the testing Stettynskloof portage together. Arriving at Diemersfontein, where they too received the traditional Basutho blankets presented to all Freedom Challenge finishers, Esti was also presented with the Spirit of the Freedom Challenge stone saddle. In a race where there is no prize money or place prizes, the stone saddle, which is crafted from “’n klip van die Karoo”, is the only individual prize and is awarded to that participant who best manifests the appreciation of the country that the Freedom Challenge seeks to engender.

In an event where 25% of the starting field subsequently withdrew, it was notable that the three women who started all went on to finish. In so doing, they also doubled the number of women who have completed this demanding race. Discussing women’s participation in this event 2008 Freedom Challenge finisher, Di Thomas said “We may be built like gazelles, but we've got the hearts of lions and what better way to give vent to our roaring spirits, than to take on such an extreme challenge and emerge victorious”

With the women all home attention now turns to the progress of those riders who are still riding the Freedom Trail and battling to reach Diemersfontein before the 26 day cut-off. Included amongst them are GIANT rider Siceko Maraneni, at 25 the youngest participant in the field who has been riding alone since Prince Albert, 27 year old Gregg Donnagh who has been afflicted with nausea but seems to have pushed through and is also riding alone, not-so-fat Umzimkulu farmer Eric Egeland and riding partner Bruce Young, and, further back, crocodile fighter Tim van Coller who took a bad fall approaching the Ntsikeni Nature Reserve, on the second day of riding and has soldiered on largely alone for a further 20 days.

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