UNTAMED ADVENTURE RACING
Words by Ronald Jessop, Photos by Christine Woods
The inaugural Quantum Leap 250 to 300 km Adventure Race was held in the northern Cederberg at the end of August 2012. Conceived by the diabolical Ugene Nel after years of brooding over it, nobody knew what to expect, but rumours of a very difficult course abounded.
Amongst the teams at the start was Team First Ascent PlacementPartner.com, which consisted of my old accomplice Kobus 'Steady' Steenkamp, podium-grade multi-sporter Christine 'Grizelda' Woods, paddler Murray 'Hurry' Crichton and myself, aka 'King Faf'. Having only ever raced as a male pair, it would be Kobus and my first race in a mixed-gender team of four, and Christine and Murray’s first multi-day adventure race ever. And so this 'soft and easy' race would be perfect for our new team to cut our teeth on.
We were injected into the experiment via a double-cab bakkie loaded to the max with RDP-house sized bike boxes, food fit for a banquet and plenty of premium grade First Ascent clothes and gear to make up for any experience that might be lacking.
A mutton pie at Kardoesie farm stall and a few hours of excited speculation later, we rolled through Vanrhynsdorp and on to Waterfall Resort, the start and finish venue, tucked away beneath a spectacular waterfall flowing over the rim of a plateau into a small valley. The weather was perfect, the area remote and beautiful, veld flowers flourished in various colours and a stream full of crystal clear water burbled alongside the road.
After packing our bike boxes and race crates, plot maps and route plans, we attended the race briefing, where the cunning Race Director, Ugene Nel, dropped clues and ambiguities that flew over our adrenalin-filled heads. Then suddenly it was klaargepraat, and time to catch the last bit of sleep for a few days to come!
Thursday 23 August, 5 a.m.
A vuvuzela sounded in the dark and like herd animals we set off by torchlight, at a light jog, up a hill in search of checkpoints (CP) at a cave and dam. The first 300 m of our race went according to plan. Then Kobus discovered his water bladder had a hole in it (that’s the bag of fluid that prevents one from dying of thirst in Namaqualand). Nevertheless, there would be plenty to drink in the Doring River and on we went, arriving shortly after sunrise. The water was fresh and we were properly awake after the crossing. Five hundred metres along the riverbank we found our paddle bags and boats for the trip downstream.
Murray, having paddled the Dusi and Fish, was nonplussed by the amount of froth on offer in the river and ferried Christine through without fanfare. To balance the universe, Kobus and I decided to fall out within 30 seconds and inspect the rapid from the inside.
The scenery along the riverbanks glided past serenely and the drone of rapids alternated with the tranquillity of the pools and stretches in-between. It was clear that the geology of the area was special, with some amazingly artistic rock formations and piles of stones scattered about. It’s an ancient landscape that has seen many hundreds of thousands of seasons, floods and droughts. At this time of year the Cederberg was showing us its softer side, almost like a ballad from a heavy metal band, with flowers carpeting the soil, mild day-time temperatures and water gurgling in what is usually a parched, thorny, scrubby desert. Beautiful!
At the rate the river was flowing, a good speed could be maintained while enjoying an avocado ritz (avo in one hand, John West sachet in the other) or lapping up water dog-like over the side of the boat. I exited the vehicle one more time at a minor rapid, just for good measure, before we glided up to the transition on the riverbank.
On yer bike
After unboxing and assembling our bikes, a stiff climb up 'Brand se Berg' with wet, overloaded backpacks ensured that we came to grips with the fact that this was, in fact, an adventure race and not a corporate team building event. Once on top, we cruised along on a good district road until Murray uttered the fatal words: “This is easy.” As if on cue, our route took us onto a sandy, virtually unrideable road up a long drag to the next CP. The rest of the afternoon was spent pushing our bikes through sand, eventually finding our CPs on a fence post and another in 'Bushman’s Cave', a natural amphitheatre, before mercifully free-wheeling down to T4, Old Mill Farm, at dusk. A windmill, having last seen lubrication in the 18th century, crooned a melancholic tune in the evening light.
An evening stroll
By the time we were ready to rock ‘n roll on this hike, it was dark but starry, with half a moon suspended in the sky, windless and not too cold. We set off in search of a fence corner guarded by 'aggressive emus', a Doring river crossing we were told was manned by a river guide and ferry, after which we would need to proceed to a 'tea shed'. The allure of a tea shed was misplaced though – it was not an establishment where one took tea and ate cucumber sandwiches on the lawn, but rather a steel-clad barn full of farming implements, perched on a windswept crag.
Before we could enjoy the relative luxury of this wonderful place we needed to navigate our way in the dark for some 25 km with mainly random fences, dry riverbeds and the occasional derelict farmhouse ruin as landmarks. After some minor mishaps we found the river crossing, complete with a full pack of river guides, who had passed out serenely in their sleeping bags alongside their fire, potatoes forgotten and crisping on the grill. We decided to rouse one of them and selected our victim. The chap acted as if he had just been exhumed from the grave and told us diplomatically to get stuffed.
Eventually we scrambled down to the river together with Team Tro, who kindly let us use the river guides’ abandoned boat first, as we were in pursuit of the abseil cut-off later that day. Then we set about climbing two scrambles on the other side that led up to a plateau. Murray’s super-bright torch came in handy for finding vulnerabilities in what at first seemed a daunting climb. After the scrambles, we found ourselves on a sort of sandy undulating plateau, with a track leading in more or less the right direction, until it didn’t anymore.
My nocturnal navigation is not award-winning and for this reason I consulted map, compass and altimeter religiously until after several hours and a bit of 'lateral exploration' we inevitably arrived at that place which is not shown on any map, but is always there if you look hard enough: LOST. This occurred somewhere in the twilight zone between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. I vaguely remember sand roads with numerous forks, a kraal full of alien sheep with eyes that glowed in our lights, fences that ran in different directions to any on the map, joining forces again with Team Tro who were equally as lost, seeing my teammates sleeping while standing, sitting, kneeling, walking, and aiming towards a tea-shed-like light on the hill until it rose in the form of Mars. At one point we switched off our lights and just stood admiring the Milky Way, spotting several spectacular shooting stars. It was a fine evening for a stroll with three friends and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. But all good things must come to an end and unfortunately dawn arrived, bringing with it the ability to see further than the range of our headlamps. Roads became visible, hills and ridges appeared, and before we knew it, The Way became clear.
Back to the bikes
A rather faffy transition ensued at the Tea Shed. Christine and I are expert faffers, but are nicely balanced out by Hurry Murray and Steady Steenkamp who don’t faff at all. Us fafferslike to wait for one faffer to finish before the next faffer starts faffing. In this way we manage to faff away a fair amount of time before setting off on what proved to be a very enjoyable ride under blue skies. Starting out on a district road with some uphills, we pushed and towed to ensure we all stuck together at a reasonable pace.
The CP at Dammetjie Farm turned out to be a rather memorable one. A tractor pulled up, driven by an aged farmer in a Stetson, whose leathery complexion indicated that he had spent his 80 years in the sun. He extended a vice-grip of a hand and told us that people had been visiting his farm all night without stopping to learn anything. This was clearly about to change. Kobus and Murray wisely headed down the road in search of the CP, while Christine and I were cornered: we were about to gain some insight into the life of a Rooibos tea farmer. He was somewhat disappointed to learn that the pretty girl spoke no Afrikaans, so he focused his excited efforts on me. First up was a tasting of Cancer Bush, and offering one of the flowers he said: “Hy’s bitter maar jy sal nie vrek nie,” (It’s bitter but you won’t die). Our scrunched-up faces met a chuckling farmer’s approval. Talking as he walked, our kind-hearted farmer then hobbled into the homestead and beckoned me in, his humble existence revealed by the meagre possessions placed around the room: a table sufficing as his pantry, a radio for company and a rickety bed to one side. No fluffy duvets here, just tough people in a tough country. Some Rooibos and Cancer Bush tea were exchanged for a ziplock of my dear wife’s homemade crunchies, after which we rejoined Kobus and Murray, who reported seeing the grave of his wife (born 1930, died 2001) and alongside that, an open grave.
Again our route turned into a sandy track, which eventually fizzled out into something one would not describe as a path anymore. Even if you came into this race not knowing how to ride sand, you would certainly leave it an expert. We had a continuous competition going amongst ourselves to see who could ride the furthest in the sand before falling over. Kobus did the best job of both riding and falling.
Hurry Murray, our bike navigator, expertly directed us to a CP at an old car wreck alongside the ruins of a stone farmstead. While Murray got behind the wheel for a test drive, we wondered about the people who once proudly drove their Chev along this track and why the car came to be parked here for the last time. We cranked on through the sand to Transition Five, a farmhouse.
We had missed the abseil cut-off, which meant that we would have to find our own way into Oorlogskloof (War Gorge). We later learnt from a smirking Ugene Nel that another possibility did exist, but after 36 sleepless hours of racing, what was left of my mind was fully occupied with tying my shoelaces. We gathered the maps, shouldered our packs and made haste to the mouth of the ravine that would lead us into the kloof, keen to scout it out in the fading daylight.
We found the overgrown entrance to the ravine just as dusk arrived, and decided to catch a quick snooze; our first in 38 hours. Our self-catering accommodation consisted of a rock, bush and cave. Two hours later I awoke with a jolt. The half moon was still up, but clouds were sweeping past its face at an alarming rate. Something about it said 'move!' Within minutes we were bashing our way down the ravine as fast as the dense foliage and large boulders allowed. Over the next hour and a half, we picked our way to the bottom, where a rather eerie scene met us.
With no moon and clouds obscuring the stars, we could only just make out the faint outline of the dark sides of the Gorge. A cold wind rustled the leaves of a large tree before weaving its way through a thick bank of reeds, and fast-flowing water could be heard. Welcome to Mordor. It was a fine spot for a picnic so we enjoyed tapas, while I cheerily explained the route we would be taking, pointing out the vague outline of entirely the wrong bit of mountain we would be rounding.
Setting off once more, it became apparent that this would be a wet walk, alternating between walking in the river, thrashing our way through reeds and boulder hopping. Christine voiced some concerns that perhaps we should consider our position more carefully. My tunnel vision initially prevented such considerations, but after some debate we decided to sleep the remaining few hours until first light. I was convinced that with a bit more sleep and all-revealing sunlight, everyone would be rejuvenated for the jaunt up the valley.
I was thus rather annoyed when it began to rain. First a few light drops, and then the heavy stuff came down. Since our little stretch of valley was neatly aligned with the prevailing wind direction it was serving as a perfect wind tunnel to test the aerodynamics of our equipment. Our sheltering bushes contorted as rain was delivered in sheets, and conditions were ideal if hypothermia is your thing. It became necessary to reposition some gear and bodies to overcome this challenge. Despite the bleak conditions, I fondly remember lying on my back with my headlight still on after rummaging for something in my pack, feeling warm under the circumstances and watching the raindrops as they fell onto my face, and the faint sting of sweat as it ran into my eyes. Those bizarre and memorable moments don’t come around very often and are what make this sport special.
At first light, there wasn’t much racing talk. Under the conditions, and from our position, it was clear the finishing cut-off had slipped out of reach. We trudged up the ravine and out of Mordor, stopping to glance back at what might have been our route. It had been a fun 50 hours of racing, but we were disappointed to have nothing to show for it. However, it was hard to be down when we were hiking our merry way to Papkuilsfontein Guest Farm, a few hours walk away, as we could already smell the coffee.
Later that night we welcomed winners Team Merrell (63 hours), followed by Cyanosis a few hours later, two world-class teams fully tested. All other teams were given an alternative, shorter route to complete, and six of them bravely fought on to the finish banner entirely under their own steam. Eight teams, including ours, had withdrawn at some point in the race. But despite the difficulties and disappointments, the race village buzzed excitedly with shared experiences over breakfast and prize-giving the next morning. There was great camaraderie all round, as this had been a very special race.
Thank you firstly to my teammates for following my lead into oblivion and enjoying the ride. A tough race like this quickly strips you of all your social veneer, to reveal the woodwork beneath. It was a privilege to spend a few days on the trail in the company of such inspirational and positive teammates, worrying only about the simple things in life. To our sponsors First Ascent for the top-quality gear you can trust to protect your butt when Mother Nature spanks you, and PlacementPartner.com for the financial support as this sport ain’t cheap. And of course the team members behind the scenes, who put up with our many days and peculiar hours away from home, training and racing; and household budget cuts to pay for race accessories and feeding our enormous appetites. Aniek, Craig, Renate and Murray’s secret admirer, you are as much a part of the team as us. Lastly, to the sadistic creator of this race, thanks Ugene and keep up the good work.
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