All Freedom Challengers have heard the horror stories of Stettynskloof – “the kloof that shall not be named”. The route to Diemers is only about 50km long, but takes the most part of the day – that is in normal weather. Generally the plan is to leave very early to do the climb to the dam wall and the first 3 km to the inlet of the dam in the dark (it takes about 2-3hours). When the other 3 woke us up at 4:30am, it was clear that the storm was still raging outside. Us 4 that were caught in the storm the previous day were very lethargic – everything happened slowly.
When the others left at 5:30am, we were still getting ready. We raided others boxes for as much food as we can get. We ate breakfast at 4:30, and are not going to get food again until we finish. Many riders make the mistake of not taking enough food for this day. As we walked out the door (around 6:30am) our Scotty stopped us. He wanted to say a prayer for us for this day – Leon started off this habit where we held hands and prayed at breakfast, lunch and dinner stops. This was the 1st time that Scotty asked to lead the prayer.
We made very good time to the inlet of the dam, where we got stuck. The narratives said that we had to cross the stream. The stream however was a raging river with all the rain that fell the night before. JT and I wanted to cross, Leon and Scott had more sense. They picked out a route higher up the right side of the valley. Because of the dense foliage, it’s impossible to try to follow the river up the valley. It was the right choice of route under the circumstances. However, it was slow going to get down the small cliffs and thru the washed away rocky streams (like big dongas).
We caught up to the other 3 near the Schakleton crash site – the plane crashed here in 1960, killing all people on board. Pieces of the plane wreck are spread over a very large area. It’s still there as if it just happened yesterday – a bit eerie. There is a small bronze plague erected in memory of those who died. The normal route goes around a rocky outcrop below this plague. The plague, however, were way below us. I noticed this and mentioned it to the others. They were reluctant to go down.
My mind work in pictures, once I’ve been at a place, I’ll remember it in fairly good detail. I’ve done Stettyns a year before. A few minutes later I spotted some green grey builders down near the river – where the path goes over. Because the route we followed was terribly slow, I announced that I’m going down to where the path is and started climbing down. I’m not sure if it was my confidence, the crap route we were trying to follow, or the cold numbness of the persistent driving rain, but everybody followed me.
When we eventually got to the builders, I found a stacked stone cairn. This was put there by previous year’s riders. This is the path that we had to follow. Scotty took control of the path finding – he had the amazing ability to spot these stacked stone cairns. Closer to the end of the valley we lost the path, but that is Stettyns. Sometimes you just had to barge thru the foliage. The last 300m, you’re crawling on all fours, grabbing hold of whatever you can, whilst balancing your bike on your back.
A the top you can admire the beauty of the kloof, the water falls, ridges, vegetation, everything. However, your body feels and looks like it’s been in the ring with Mike Tyson, armed with an axe and a hammer for 10 rounds. Blood is seeping out everywhere on your legs and your body feels properly battered. And you wonder how a place of such beauty can hold so much suffering.
The demand of this race on your body, day in and day out, never ceases. You have to continually manage your abilities, your mental state of mind, your energy levels and your general physical state of well being to keep going.
The rest of the route goes thru the picturesque Fisantekraal, up the Du Toits Kloof Pass and then it’s downhill to Diemersfontein. Du Toits Kloof Pass gives you time for reflection on this race. On what a great adventure you’ve been privileged to experience. On how great life is. And how important your family and friends are in life.
As we dropped down into the estate, Marnitz was waiting at the top gate. It was dark and my bike light stopped working – I didn’t recognise him until JT told me later. Earlier in the day Leon warned JT that he and I will get emotional at the finish. JT was having none of it, but mentioned that it would be ok to cry only if it rains. Well as we rode the last couple hundred meters, it started to rain softly.
But the raw emotions of relief, happiness and accomplishment never fully took over. The kids gathered just in front of the finish. As we rode past, Hanno (my youngest) screamed: “Pappa! Pappa!” Grabbed my hand off the handlebar and held on for dear life! The next moment Luann (my oldest) and Danielle (Marnitz’a daughter) were on the other side. I had my emotional moment for about 4 seconds, before I got doused with champagne and then it was just people and photos and hugs and questions and phone calls. It was overwhelming.
Apparently the very lively Brackenfellars (and everybody else) waited the whole afternoon for us, and made a big dent in the Diemersfontein red wine stock doing so. I was thankful for the reception I got. It was good to see so many happy people together. But, I would have like it, if the 4 of us, with our families could have sat around the table for one last time. We’ve been thru a lot together, it would have been fun. But there were so many people and everybody wanted their share of our (and their) experience. Leon’s and my family had breakfast together the next morning where we had some reminiscence.
The last funnies that happened later the evening.
Things were a bit hectic in the restaurant, and I was still dripping wet and cold. I told Elitza that I needed to go for a shower and off we went to our cottage. As we walked there I was feeling very miserable, with my body shivering and teeth clattering. I told Elitza that if I ever want to do this race again, she must shoot me. She just laughed at me, and said you’re a Nienaber, you will never change, we’ll talk again in the morning. After the hot shower and some food in the belly, I was already contemplating what I would do different for next year… I suppose, after living together for more than half our lives, she knows me way too well.
Marnitz and I were standing outside the restaurant having a chat, when one of Leon’s fellow Brakkenfellars came walking out on his way home. He said goodbye to me (calling me Werner), and mentioned that there were so many people that excitedly followed me with all my adventures. He then turned to Marnitz to say goodbye, but he forgot his name. He said: “You’re famous man, don’t tell me your name. Ag man, I know it. You’re Werner’s brother!” We both had a good chuckle about this, because throughout the whole race, everywhere I went, I was called you’re Marnitz’s bother.
What I’ve learned:
This race breaks you down to the raw fibres of who you really are. If you don’t pray already, it teaches you to pray. It teaches you to appreciate the very special moments you have in life.
South Africa is beautiful and it’s filled with incredible people. You just have to choose to see the beauty surrounding you. The journey was just that – an incredible journey of self-discovery and experiences, meeting incredible people and beautiful places.
As in life, you’re going to fall of your bike (or break it). You have to be brave enough to get up and get going again. Failure doesn’t mean you’ve given up on your dreams. You have to plan and prepare better to get it done. All the pain and suffering of the past failures, gave way to an emotional elation that I followed a dream (started off by Marnitz). I failed twice before, but came back and finished it.
And in Clint le Roux’s words: “This race is hard on your mind, your body and your soul. It’s uplifting at times. It’s frustrating too. It motivates you, but it also breaks you. This race teaches you things you have forgotten about yourself, as well as new things that need to be learned. Most of all it humbles you.”
A lot of the terrain covered is brutal to say the least. Spectators following our dots on Google Earth see a jeep track. We are seeing and riding a rock garden. Spectators see what they believe to be a flat district road. We ride a 20 km ascent, littered with drainage mounds, with no reprieve. There are many different variables and perceptions of what is actually being experienced vs what the spectators think is going on. I’ve been on both sides of this experience.
Weather changes everything in this race.
And I suppose that my race is pretty much the same struggle autistic kids experience every day. You need a proper support system around you to help you get thru life. You need a lot of prayers and a bit of luck. And with a bit of vasbyt, you’ll get to shine your light in life.
This was going to be my toughest day on a bike ever, not that I knew it at the begining. It’s about 230km to Trouthaven, with over 2,000m ascent. A long day in normal circumstances, starting it with sleep deprived and tired bodies, it’s going to be even more challenging. But we were up for it.
We started off a bit later than we wanted, due to the self-catering issue. Luckily the normal early morning banter got us quickly thru to a cold & misty Montagu. The support station was at a new venue called De Bos where we got breakfast. Leon and JT dropped a lot of kit there to lighten their bikes for the Stettynskloof portage. It is allowed by the race office. But Scotty and I stubbornly chose not to – call me old fashion.
The punishment of the Freedom route has started to take its toll on my bike. The big chainring was worn to a stage where I could no longer put any pressure whilst pedalling. I had to either resort to spinning in the small ring or pedalling very lightly in the big ring. This meant that I was mostly moving a lot slower than the others. They waited a lot for me, where after I changed my strategy to just keep pedalling non-stop, even when they had snack stops. This helped us all moving at a better pace.
We got to Pony’s Cottage in Mcgregor in good time, our 2nd last support station. Scotty promptly made us an awesome salad whilst we heated some Bobotie. Scotty’s other responsibility was to make us sandwiches at every interim stop, preferably with either cheese (rocket fuel) or peanut butter and jam – the joys of being the youngest! Just before we got rolling the mother of all storms kicked up, blowing all our bikes over. We nervously looked at each other, we still had some 110km to go in the day.
At the start the storm winds were manageable and it was strangely warm. I was riding only in my short sleeve cycling shirt. Not having the big blade to my disposal was detriment to fighting this wind. I had to resort to only the small blade and the 10 gears at the back. This obviously put a lot of strain on the chain and smaller cassettes. Leon put together a strategy of riding for 14km and then taking a break of 5min – this worked well.
As the fight went on during the afternoon, the wind just got stronger and stronger. At some stage as we climbed up Gannaberg pass, I was surprised to see that the others have fallen way behind. Watching them whilst taking a quick break, it dawned on me that they’re taking much more strain than me. Being over 90kg I kept my bike mostly on the road, only every now and then I got blown off the road. The light weights on the other hand were having a torrid time at it. They didn’t just get blown off the road, they got completely flattened a few times!
At the top of Gannaberg we took a break at the Amathunzi Lodge entrance to wait for our Scotty. As he neared we got onto our bikes and immediately something snapped on my frame. I couldn’t pedal at all, with the down pipe chaffing against the rear tyre. My top tube broke thru completely. I calmly informed Leon and JT about this and again said my good byes (Scotty only found out later). They had a storm to fight and I did not want to be the reason for them being out in the storm for any longer than needed – the last day is tremendously tough, they’re going to need all the energy they can spare.
When they rode off into the distance, I lost it a bit. I had my moment of propped up anger. I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. Just like the previous brake, the area that surrounded me, was devoid of trees. This is fynbos country, nothing higher than hip height grows here. My map indicated a farm house about 14km in front of me, and another about 9km behind me.
The lodge was out of bounds. Then I had my 2nd tiff…
I decided to walk back to the lodge entrance. There at least was a wall where I could hide from the wind and there was cell phone reception. I had to inform the race office and needed to eat something. I also informed Elitza about it. She and the kids had already booked the flights for the next day, to be at the finish. I assured her, that it doesn’t matter what it takes, I’ll be at the finish the next day.
Whilst having something to eat, I asked Marnitz what the weather forecast was going to be like for the next 2 days. His response: ”It’s going to blow for the next 2 days and rain is on the way. JJJ”. At the time he obviously did not know in what predicament I was, and did not understand the ferociousness of the storm. This however did not cross my mind, and his enjoyment about the storm really pissed me off. I was 70km away from Trouthaven, 120km from Diemersfontein – I would have walked the last bloody bit. But I did not want to do it that way, I wanted to enjoy the final moments of the race.
After the phone formalities, it was getting a bit cooler. So I fished my waterproof jacket out of the saddlebag, and discovered the forgotten Wrap-Tech packet. With a smile on my face about my good luck, I feverishly read through the instructions. Without being able to stuff something inside the top tube to keep it in place, I carefully lined the top tube up and then wrapped the Pratley Putty around the break. I poured my last water into the foil packet with the bandage inside. After a minute I started wrapping the bandage around the top tube and worked it as per the instructions.
The Wrap-Tech instructions say that the bandage fix should be done after 20min. Not wanting to loose time I got back onto the road pushing my bike. After 30min, I decided that I’ll give it some more time. I did not want to take any chances messing up the fix. I decided to walk for another 20min. I eventually found a sizable stick that I broke in 2 and duck taped it around the break. Just before I decided to get onto the bike, I prayed. Then started pedalling. It was nerve wracking! After a couple of meters I checked the fix. It held! I immediately send Leon an sms: “Please keep some dinner for me aside, I’m on my way, I’ll get there very late”
I was going downhill into the wind of Gannaberg. I was flying at 20 km/h and as I rode around a corner, I was presented with the most beautiful sunset I’ve witnessed during the race. To me it was the Lord letting me know that He’s looking after me, that He’ll carry me over the finish line. I must just stop worrying about it.
Earlier in the evening I got sand blasted a few times, but the sand storm at the Brandvlei kloof was just murderess. I had to pull my buff over my eyes and walked as fast as I could on this section. Whilst walking, I got almost blown over a couple of times. It was insane not being able to even walk the bike. I got really angry the last time it happened, something snapped. I screamed to no one in particular:
“IS THIS ALL YOU GOT? IS THIS YOUR BEST? F*** YOU! F*** YOU!” And I promptly got blown over the road into a ditch next to the road. I was lying there with my bike on top of me and started giggling. Well that showed me who’s the boss.
The giggle turned into an uncontrollable laugh, with tears rolling down my cheeks. I so much needed that. That laugh released the much needed feel good endorphins to get me thru to Trouthaven.
I continued thru to the Brandvlei prison where I got water. About 20min later when I got to the prison gate, I queried from the guards if the water is safe to drink. He told me that if it’s got a funny taste it’s no good. To a parched throat any water tastes awesome! Luckily it didn’t affect my stomach.
I dreaded the last 12km climb up the kloof to Trouthaven, because that was the direction the wind was blowing from. As I truned into the kloof, much to my relief the wind was blowing more over the right shoulder from behind. I literally flew up the climb. On this last climb it’s the last time that you have reception until you get to the finish.
My phone rang, it was Marnitz. He followed my slow progress during the evening – it was close to 11pm. He said: “Bliksem Boetie, I am so proud of you, well done” and then went on to discuss other details and what we had to do the next day. He is my older brother, watching out for me – he’s been there; stuck in snow storms, he understood the battle I was fighting. That was a very special moment.
When I eventually got into Trouthaven rain was bucketing down. I sent the following check-in message to the race office: “In Trouthaven 11pm Werner, horribly, horribly beaten, but not yet broken”. The race office only received the message when I dropped down to Diemersfontein the next day.
When I walked into the house, everybody just fell silent. There were 3 other riders as well, and they knew about my adventures with the frames. The stares on their face were of pure amazement. Leon called me to the table and put his dinner (that he just warmed up) in front of me, what a friend! He said that he just knew I was going to get it fixed. The riders just shook their heads when they saw the frame. JT was having a shower when he heard me speaking. He couldn’t believe that it was me, so he stopped mid shower to get out seeing if his ears were betraying him or not. The entire moment was priceless. After all the excitement of making it to Trouthaven and passing war stories, we all got to bed after midnight. I slept on a couch under a blanket. It was probably the happiest I slept all trip – I felt invincible.
This is a big day. Only about 180km, but close to 4,000m ascent. It also includes the Swartberg Pass, “Die Leer” and the Buffelspoort portage. After about 4 hours of sleep, we got riding at 2 am. The full moon was up and Leon had the novel idea that we need to switch all our lights off. It was surreal. We rode the full 14km of the Swartberg Pass with only the moon guiding us. We could see everything! The water falls, the streams, the mountains, everything. That experience will stay with me forever.
Turning off to “Die Hel”, people generally make the mistake thinking the road drops down into Gamkaskloof. Unfortunately you have to climb 2 more passes before the final drop down. We made very good time and dawn arrived just before we dropped down the new pass into the kloof. The new pass is something spectacular. The 3 boertjies have seen it before and have taken plenty photos, this time it was our Scotty’s turn.
There was a wet coldness in the air, it was bone chilling and flying down the pass didn’t help at all. When we got to Ouma Sannie se Winkel, our support station, we asked Pieter to make us a fire so that we can heat up a bit. He just brushed us off. 4 cups of steaming coffee could not heat me up. I eventually found a blanket, pulled it over my head and took a nap on an old couch. This did the trick.
Die Leer is the original route into and out of Gamkaskloof. The climb is about 1.5km long with a 600m vertical ascent. After you’ve crossed a stream at the bottom of the climb, you basically, chuck your bike on your back and hike up the side of the mountain. It takes about an hour. The views from the top are breath-taking.
The Prammetjie jeep track at the top of the mountain, could just as well be another portage. It’s very tough going. When you do eventually drop down into the Klein Swartberg River valley, it’s like riding into the different world. It’s warm fruit and grape growing country.
Rouxpos is a charming old Cape Dutch farm house, with a green lawn and a border collie in front of the house. Pretty as a picture. Aunt Ronel treated us to waffles and ice cream for dessert. Wow! I had a very pleasant stay over at Rouxpos the previous year and would have loved to stay over again, but Elitza and the kids would be waiting at the finish in 2 days’ time. So we had to get to Anysberg that night.
Leaving Rouxpos, our Scotty was in fine tourist form, shooting off into the distance without looking at any maps or narratives. He completely missed the turn-off to the Buffels River. Leon had to ride after him to fetch him. Our poor Scotty must have received a proper lecture from the Brackenfeller, because for the rest of the time he was riding at the back.
We flew thru the Kromkloof portage and eventually got into the Anysberg Nature Reserve in complete darkness. I was riding at the front when something suddenly attacked me from the right side of the dirt road. I almost fell of my bike trying to get away from the thing. It turned out to be a rabbit, to the detriment of me, and the entertainment of the others. The jokes kept us going for quite a while.
We got into Anysberg around 8:30pm. This is a self-catering support station. As the others took turns to shower, I prepared us a meal of canned sardines on biscuits, some pasta with canned meatballs and there were some chocolate bars in the raided ice-cream tubs. There were plenty steri-stumpies to get the food down. Not bad at all.
As we were having breakfast at 4:30 am, in walked Brad vd Westhuizen. He broke away from his group, he needed time alone. That’s the Freedom for you.
Prince Albert is about 170km away and it’s the only stretch in the Freedom that is flat (only 800m of ascent). As we rode out of Willowmore, Leon, riding at the back, got pulled over by the local police for suspicious behaviour… Brackenfellar! It was good to know that the police are very diligent in this part of the country.
We were making very good time early on and started thinking of maybe pushing thru to Gamkaskloof. We started off a bit too late in the morning, but the seeds were planted. There was no headwind in the day, so we motored, only stopping every now and then to lube our chains and eat something. I rode some time with Scotty and got all his background. It turns out that I’ve met quite a lot of his family and friends. Small world.
There are only 7 farm houses on this stretch. And to keep us from getting too bored, a bit of sand or corrugation is chucked in every now and then. At Rondawel we met the newest arrival of Karien, only 1 week old. The tame Black Backed Jackal was however nowhere to be seen.
The road after Rondawel is a little more up and down. At some stage I stopped to lube my chain. Because I was the stronger rider during that stretch, I told the other to keep going, I’ll catch up later. When I got to the top of the hill, I couldn’t see the other riders, so I gunned it. At the top of the next hill, I still couldn’t see them. So I decided that I’ll take it a bit easier – they’ll have to stop sometime. About 20 min later, I heard some giggling going on behind me, and there were the 3 buggers. They played hide and seek with me…
We kept the pace up a bit and took turns at the front. All to make up time to push thru to Gamkaskloof. The headwind picked up a bit, and made us work hard when up front. The people to take their turn at the front did not include our Scotty. With about 10km to go, we mentioned it to our Scotty. He promptly took his turn up front and sprinted off into the sunset… Bike ethics!
In the last part of section Leon got a rear tyre puncture. I took a nap whilst he was fixing it, and got woken up by a baboon, like the normal one walking on four legs. I’m not sure who got the biggest fright, but boy that baboon disappeared in a dust cloud. And obviously nobody saw it! More banter followed. A little later on I broke a spoke in the rear tyre. Were these omens for us having to stay over at Prince Albert?
We lost some time with the above mechanicals and only got in at 4pm. I still had to replace the spoke and needed some proper bike tools to remove the cassette. I had to do the fix at Dennehof, because there are no tools at Gamkaskloof. You sleep there in a caravan. In the end we decided to stay and enjoy the hospitality of Lindsey and Ria, and the 300g percale duvets…