Two local mountain bikers, Daniel Otto and Axel Poser, recently completed the Freedom Challenge race across South Africa.
The extreme endurance mountain bike stage race began on the last chime of 6am of the Pietermaritzburg town hall clock when 37 adventurous riders rode off into the winter morning.
Only 21 would complete the 2300km to the Cape, having crossed wild landscapes, high mountains and uninhabited wilderness.
Riders ride on cattle tracks, footpaths, farm roads, gravel roads and sometimes even where no tracks are visible at all.
To add to the challenge, no GPS is allowed and orientation needs to be done with the help of 1:50,000 maps, compass and route descriptions.
The route travels from Pietermaritzburg through rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, crossing the Umkomaas Valley past Underberg and along the high Maluti mountains.
Here, riders sleep in traditional huts and are fed by local people until reaching the town of Rhodes.
A couple of high passes need to be traversed, the most challenging of which is Lehana’s Pass, leading onto Naude’s Nek just before Rhodes.
This entails carrying your bike on your shoulders for hundreds of vertical metres, often through snow to the highest point of the race at around 3000m.
The route then crosses the Stormberg in the footsteps of Jan Smuts’ Boer commando, through the Karoo and the Addo Elephant Park, and along the length of the Baviaanskloof to Willowmore and Prince Albert.
It climbs the Swartberg Pass into “The Hell” and up “The Ladder”, a 800m portage which used to be the donkey path of old, used by the original settlers to access the valley in the 1900s.
On towards Anysberg Nature Reserve, Montagu and Stettynskloof, a ridiculously difficult portage along an overgrown valley, which needs to be completed on the last day before ending at Diemersfontein Wine Estate in Paarl.
Riders have 26 days to complete the route, but overnight stops are not compulsory and several stages can also be combined according to the riders’ discretion.
Otto and Poser completed the race in fourth position in 17 days nine hours, no mean feat for first-timers, though some of the big names of the Freedom Challenge like Glen Harrison and Tim James had to withdraw due to injury and illness.
The winner was Graham Bird, an experienced adventure racer who finished in 12 days 16 hours.
“Our strategy would be: you reach an overnight stop early afternoon, you feel strong and the weather’s good – you push on to the next stop.
“Who knows when you might be bogged down by the mud and rain of a passing cold front during the next few days,” said Otto.
It is essentially an unsupported race in that riders need to carry all their own equipment, clothes and spares.
Receiving outside help leads to time penalties or disqualification and riders carry satellite trackers to ensure they don’t take short cuts or lifts on the back of a bakkie.
That said, comfortable accommodation in huts and farmhouses, as well as hearty meals are provided.
Another luxury and morale-booster are the two-litre containers containing snacks, spares and maps that the riders can post to each support station before the race.
“One of the highlights of the day is to unpack your container and the treasures it may hold, from biltong to chocolate to notes of encouragement from your wife and kids.
“In the end, the Freedom Challenge takes you back to the basics of the sport: just you, your attitude, your bike and the trail – all in the glorious backdrop of Big Sky Country.
“No cheering crowds, no post-race recovery shakes, no massages, no batch starts. You notice that your water bottle can just as well hold Oros, if that’s what was available at the previous support station, and that a peanut butter sandwich tops a fancy sports bar every time when lunch comes around.
“You get to know your strengths and weaknesses and also those of your fellow riders – better than you would sometimes care to know.
“Did we fight? Yes, of course. Mostly about the route. We even sometimes rode our separate ways. Much can be accomplished by looking at the map together though.
“It is unbelievable what hammering our bikes took. From the suspensions to the wheel rims, hubs, gears and brakes, everything was subjected to extreme abuse but managed to get us through to the end.
“The key is to have your bike properly serviced beforehand. Our bike shop certainly did a sterling job, even sealing bearings with marine grease, which was very valuable for all the river crossings.
“We added more sealant to the tyres after countless thorns in the Karoo. A stripped brake pad screw led to drilling and much swearing at the guest house in Prince Albert, but apart from that we had no major mechanicals.”
Their worst moments?
“Getting up in the freezing cold and starting off the day in darkness with frostbitten fingers and toes,” said Poser.
“Apart from the cold we were very lucky with the weather – no snow or major rain episodes during our race.
“This year was definitely the year of the wind; struggling up Lehana’s Pass in extreme head winds made us summon up the last reserves of our strength.
“Another sense-of-humour failure was definitely the 8km portage up Stettynskloof that took us 10 hours in the end, bashing through dense man-high bush with our bikes, climbing steep mountain-sides, and Daniel losing his footing during a river-crossing, getting dunked with rucksack, bike and all in the freezing water.”
The best moments?
“The solitary enjoyment of the single track through wild country with no cell phone calls.
“Travelling the Freedom Trail, you almost get the impression that South Africa is a vast uninhabited country.
“The friendliness of total strangers, the hospitality of the Karoo farmers and the food were also among the highlights.
Would they do it again?
“Don’t ask me now. Perhaps in three months’ time I might give you a more objective answer.
“At this stage, I want to go on an island holiday and just lie on the beach.
“Hopefully they won’t have any bikes there!”
Distance travelled: 2300km
Average speed: 12-15km/h
Total vertical climbing: 43000m (5x Everest)
Fences crossed: 80, some of which were 3m high game fences
Push your bike: 50km
Temperature extremes: -8 to +30°C
Pack weight: 5.4 to 6.2kg
More information about the race can be found at www.freedomchallenge.org.za