So, we’re doing it again! After our 2015 Freedom Challenge, almost any mountain bike event that has come across our path has seemed either too expensive or not adventurous enough. RASA always comes back up in conversation and we haven’t been able to shake the urge to go back. So, off we go!
What exactly is the Freedom Challenge?
- It is a mountain bike race from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington, following a trail through some of the most remote areas across KZN, Eastern and Western Cape.
- It is self-navigated. Armed with a map, route narrative and a compass, we need to make our way across the country. No GPS allowed – it has no place in the purpose or spirit of the event.
- It covers about 2300km with 37 000m ascent, providing we don’t get lost.
- It is broken down into 26 Stages with a Support Station marking the end of each stage. Each Support Station provides dinner and breakfast, along with a shower and bed for the night.There are also Emergency stops between some Support Stations.
- It is self-supported. We each carry all of our gear with us for the entire way, there are no tog bag services that meet us each evening. Backpacks add weight to the bike and the backside, so we have worked to keep these as light as possible.
- It involves a lot of ice cream tubs. Each person can send one 2litre ice cream tub to each Support Station, filled with maps, bike spares, toiletries and snacks. Whatever you leave behind in your tub you won’t see again, and riders arriving after you can raid your tub.
- It is in the middle of winter. Temperatures can apparently get down to -15 deg and swing up to over 30deg. The sun only shines for 10hrs in a day, but the day might see us out on the trail for 13hrs or more. It can rain, howl with wind, get muddy and possibly even snow.
- It is very remote. Groups of max 10 riders leave PMB each day from the end of May. This means that there are very few people out on the trail.
- It is rugged. At times the trail follows historic wagon routes that are no longer in use and will require hike-a-bike. Other sections follow footpaths and cow tracks, so aren’t necessarily ride-able. Some climbs are apparently very steep, so it’s best to just walk and save the knees.
- It is a non-stop race. When the gun goes off in ‘Maritzburg, the stopwatch is ticking all the way until you enter the gates at Diemersfontein. The Stages are there as markers along the route, not individual days, so you can choose which ones to stop at overnight. The guys that are really racing will take about 11 days to complete, with only a few hours of sleep a day. The maximum time allowed is 26 days.
Why would one do this?
The Freedom Trail is an opportunity to see South Africa in a way that not many people do. And to access parts of the country that you would not necessarily think of going to, or be allowed to. Seeing the world from a bicycle gives you the time to take it all in, and without a GPS or route markers, you are forced to look up and pay attention to what is around you.
Why do this again?
Because it is in our system.
We did this in 2015 as our Honeymoon, and it was quite an adventure. We had really harsh words to say on the last day through Stettynskloof, but you tend to eventually forget pain and discomfort, and all the romance of an event lingers on.
Watching the dots through June 2016, we realised the effect it had on us. Thoughts to plan other adventures through the Alps were tossed about, but as soon as we heard our friend Andy was packing for RASA 2017, we called Meryl...
The Official Website
For the full info on the all the events and the Freedom Trail, visit their website on: freedomchallenge.org.za
Our race goals
When you do an event again, you need to do it slightly differently. So while we still have the same goals from 2015 - to not get lost (too much), take in the scenery, enjoy the hospitality, sleep, have fun and experience something awesome - we would also like to do it a little faster.
Our intention is to do about 17 days - give or take a day. In 2015 we did 19.5 days, and every day was a big day. Now it needs to be even bigger, as we will need to double up on more days than before. It does also depend on the weather, how we are feeling and how our bikes are doing.
With a start date of 12th June, and all going well, we should arrive at Diemersfontein somewhere around the 28th or 29th of June.
What to expect
We are starting in the second last start batch and with only two other riders in the group. Both of them have done it before, and are likely to aim for slightly faster times than us. The racing snakes start the day after us, and will whizz past in the first couple of days. We may not even see them, if they come past at night.
So for the first few days we might be bringing up the rear of the race, and slowly catch up to riders further along the route. We may ride with others at times, but we expect that it will probably just be the two of us for the most part. Out in the bundu, sometimes in the dark.
To give you an idea of where we are headed, this is a simplified map of the route.
For the full detailed map you can have a look at the tracker on the Freedom Challenge website
I haven't yet been able to update the map, but there are a few changes to stations:
- SS 11 was Stuttgart, and is now Newlands
- SS 12 was Grootdam, now Jakhalsfontein
- SS 24 was Good Hope, now McGregor
Their locations are not too far off the previous stations, so it does not make a huge difference to this map, in the greater scheme of things.
(Clicking on images will give you a larger view)
To have a Race Plan, means that we need a proper idea of what we are hoping to do each day.
This shows an idea of what we hope to do, compared to what we actually did in 2015. It's not set in stone by any means. On the first day we might find we are not fit as we hope to be, and we may just stop at Allendale. Other days we may feel stronger, and we might push on further.
This planner gives us an idea, compared to what we already know, of what we aim to do.
Every day is a big day. And the colours help to show that. The Orange blocks are the biggest numbers, and the green is the easiest. But just because the distance is short, the climbing might be massive, or the estimated time may be long.
After some experience in riding with backpacks, we know that the best thing to do is to pack as light as possible.
Previously, on our trips through the Alps, we managed to keep our backpacks fairly light. But that was in summer conditions, with pastry shops and gelato cafes along the way. This is winter, in rural South Africa. We now also have the experience of a previous Freedom Challenge, and our packing list is almost exactly the same.
So, this is what we are carrying: *
- Buff x3
- SealSkinz skull cap
- Waterproof jacket with hood
- Windproof jacket
- Short sleeve base layer
- Long sleeve thermal base layer
- Cycling tops x2
- Arm warmers
- Cycling shorts x2
- Waterproof pants
- Knee warmers
- Heavy winter ski gloves
- Winter cycling gloves
- Long fingered cycling gloves
- Thermal glove liners
- SealSkinz waterproof socks (mid-weight, knee height)
- Thermal Sock liners
- Cycling socks x2
- Toe covers
Off Bike Clothing
- Fleece jersey
- Cargo pants
- Undies x2
(Note the lack of off-bike clothing variation. We're going to be smelly!)
Food & Sustenance
Snacks and packed lunches
- Map board
- Map for the day
- Polar watch
- Water bottles
- Waterproof inner bags
- Shower bag
- Headlight and red rear light
- Headlamp and Batteries
- Multi plug and chargers
- Cash & credit card
- Bike lock
- Toothpaste (1x 20ml between us)
- Toothpaste (1x 20ml between us)
- Toothbrush (cut in half)
- Toilet paper (packs of 10 tissues)
- Spare contact lenses and lense case
- Sunblock (1x 16ml tub between us per day)
- Lip ice
- Bum cream (1x 40ml tub between us per day)
- Bennets bum cream
Medical & Emergency Kit
- Vitamin C fizzys (one each every morning)
- Alcohol rubs
- Pain killers (Panado and Myprodol)
- Anti inflammatory (Voltaren)
- Stoppers (Immodium and Valoid)
- Anti infection cream (Savlon)
- General antibiotics
- Plasters (all sizes)
- Space blanket
- Hand warmer pads
- Hydration salts / Rehidrates
- Nail clippers + file
Bike Tools & Spare Parts
- Multi tool
- Mini Leatherman
- Mini hub tool
- Chain breaker
- Chain Links
- 2x chain lengths
- 3x spare tubes and tyre levers
- Sahmurai Sword tubeless plug kit
- Sidewall repair kit (needle and thread)
- Tube puncture repair kit
- 2x CO2 bombs & adapter
- Stan's sealant
- Hand pump
- Brake pads
- Squirt Chain Lube
- Jockey wheel
- Spokes and nipples
- Cables & housing
- Duct tape
- Zipp ties
- Velcro straps
- Spare cleat & bolts
- Valves & valve core removing tool
- Paintbrush for bike washing
- Shock oil in an eye-dropper bottle
*Subject to change by the time we leave
Ice Cream Tubs
Ice Cream Tubs
Ice Cream Tubs
While we have the opportunity to send to 25 Support Stations, we have only sent tubs to the ones where we will possibly stay overnight.
With the aim to finish in around 17 days, we have sent 19 tubs, which gives us spares and snacks almost every 115km.
In order to keep our backpacks light, we've done our best to decant as much as possible and to then collect from our tubs every day. A lot of planning has gone into this, and hopefully we've not overdone it, or missed anything either.
So this is what's in our tubs: *
Collect every 1-2 days
And narratives for the next day
Food & Sustenance
- 2x FIT drink sachets
- 5 snacks per person
- Pack of 2 Vitamin C fizzys
- Evening Chocolate
- Bum cream
- Sun cream
- Nitrile gloves (in the case of wet weather)
- Lappies for bike wash
Collect every 4 days+
Food & Sustenance
- Bennets bum cream
- Razors and shaving gel
- Washing liquid sachet
- Face Wash
- Hand cream
- Additional medical supplies
- Stans + CO2 Bomb
- Duct Tape
- Extra plugs
- Chain lengths
- Chain links
- Brake pads
- Jockey Wheel
- Cable Ties
- Shock Oil
- Super Glue
- Patch Kit
- Mini tub of grease
- Gear cables and housing
- Spare Tyre
We worked out that when we normally ride, we stop to eat something about every 90 minutes, and that each snack is 40-50gm per person. During the course of a 10-14 hour day out on the trail, we've made sure each set of snacks has a variety of sweet, salty and savoury; and a mixture of chewy and crunchy.
To ensure we retain some sanity over 3 weeks of eating the same stuff, we've tried to vary everything.
- Mini Ginger Bites biscuits
- Mini Eet-sum-more
- Small packs of Oreos
- Breakfast biscuits
Savoury and salty is made up of:
- Mini Cheddars and Mini Salticrax
- Stick chips from Woolies
- Peanuts & Raisins
- Date and Nougat bars from RaceFood
- Snacker bars
- Variety of muesli based bars
- Damascus Nougat
- Fruit rollProNutro Bars
- Maynards gums / jelly tots / liquorice allsorts
While there is a lot of food along the way, at lunches and dinners, and the odd pack lunch we may be given, we’d rather make sure we are covered for the time it takes to get between stations.
*Seeing as the tubs have already been delivered, this now cannot be changed
Ok, so actual 'following' as in seconding is not allowed, but we will probably be grateful for any moral support we get along the way.
If you want to keep track as to where we are and how we are doing, grab a copy of the route map and planner above and keep an eye out on our social platforms:
We won't necessarily send an update every day. But when we have the energy and 3G reception, we'll try to post something to one of these (most likely an Instagram pic pushed to both FB and Twitter).
Official Freedom Challenge News
Generally, Twitter is the place where most of the conversation happens.
WindGuru used to be our weather forecaster of choice, and there were custom spots for each stage, but haven't been able to locate them so far on their new website.
Thanks go to a number of people who have helped us out in various ways.
Ice Cream Tubs. We managed to collect about 57 tubs in 3 weeks - it's amazing how much ice cream people eat! Of that, we only supplied one ourselves. So thanks go to colleagues, friends and family who sacrificed their diets, for our survival.
Advice. This is always given eagerly by anyone who has done Freedom before. In the lead up to our first event we gained many insights from a handful of Blanket Wearers. It is fascinating how advice varies between riders, showing how much boils down to personal preference, and possibly the weather from each year. We now start the 2017 event with our own wisdom and experience from 2015, and the power of the spreadsheets we kept when planning back then.
Our Bosses. Who granted us the time off work, with relatively little warning.
Huge thanks once again go to Harald at Polar South Africa, for lending us the two RS800CX watches that we used in 2015. As our current Polar watches are GPS devices, we are not allowed to use them. These loan watches also have temperature, so we will know exactly how cold we're getting.
Squirt Lube is already a sponsor of the event and there will be some Squirt Lube and Barrier Balm at support stations. We wanted to be fully prepared, though, and they kindly helped supply us with enough samples of both products for our tubs.
Freedom Challenge 2015
Freedom Challenge 2015
Highlights from our first Freedom Challenge in 2015
We initially did the Freedom Challenge as our Honeymoon. It was a bucket list event, and at our wedding Mike had announced our intentions of doing this big and scary thing. After months of preparation and excel spreadsheets, we arrived in Pietermaritzburg feeling well enough prepared, having discovered that getting to the start line is 80% preparation and 20% training.
It was an amazing adventure, we generally had good luck with the weather and no major issues along the way. We came into the gates at Diemersfontein after 19d 11h 30m, with mixed emotions, having spent a tough day in Stettynskloof.
A few days before, we said to ourselves we might do it again one day, maybe in 10 years time, see how the country has changed. At the finish line, we said never again!! Not after those last 2 days. Not a chance! But then the 2016 event happened, and we became avid dot watchers. And as we followed the riders moving across the country, we remembered the details, that had been overridden by the trauma that was Stettynskloof...
- Dropping down the steep concrete strips into the Umkomaas, holding on for dear life, seeing our first Freedom Bokkie, and a very hot climb up the Hela Hela
- Leaving Allendale in the dark with new friends and eventually arriving at Ntsikeni, with a most spectacular view
- Our first morning navigating in the dark by ourselves on the way to Politiquekraal. Crossing the Provincial border into the Eastern Cape at midday
- Crossing floodplain to floodplain from Masakala, then not being able to find the way down off Mpharane ridge, until the others caught up
- Wasting an hour in the dark out of Malekgolonyane after one too many Zamaleks the night before, and the freezing gale force winds as we neared Vuvu
- Snowfall overnight resulting in the detour route up Naude's Nek, and not being able to do Lehana's Pass (one reason to go back). And Mike played in snow for the first time in his life!
- A muddy ride to an awesome meal at Chesney Wold, working out what layers of clothing to wear, then picking our way over Spitzkop at dusk to Slaapkranz
- Started with a frozen ground, which thawed early on, resulting in super slippery descents. Mike's front brakes failed. Two tricky hike-a-bikes and a time trial from Moordenaarspoort to Kranskop
- The coldest start at -8deg made our bottles into slush puppies. The dog at Brosterlea peeing on my backpack. The Stormberg ruins and Emdale Road. Feeling like it was post-apocalyptic South Africa, with so many abandoned farms
- Super descent over the Aasvoëlberg, then dropping down from Middelburg into the Karoo and passing the half way point at Hofmeyer. Arriving at Elandsberg to a delightful menagerie of animals
- Climbing over game fences at dawn, with the roars of Lions not far off. Superb Kudu pie at Stuttgart, followed by a challenging climb up Schurfteberg. Mike happy to have brakes again
- A long portage down Struishoek and windy conditions on the open road resulted in a grumpy pair. Fascinated to see and meet the racing snakes as they came past us. Super scenery in the game reserves and spoilt to stay at Toekomst
- Seeing a variety of game as we passed through Darlington Dam / Addo park early in the morning. Bright red aloes before going through Perdepoort, and a long windy ride to Bucklands
- A super challenging and exciting day. Zooming down a very overgrown road into the Osseberg and crossing the Grootrivier countless times. Nasty prickly cactuses, but the views were amazing
- Gorgeous morning ride through the Baviaanskloof, seeing Buffalo along the way. A long day to Willowmore, finishing in the dark at 7pm
- It seems like a boring day - long and flat to Prince Albert - but the scenery was spectacular, and being in familiar territory gave an exciting feeling of getting closer to home
- Swartberg Pass and Die Hel are always a sight to see, one cannot get enough of those views and rocks. Die Leer was a challenge, but ably overcome, with a haul in the dark to Rouxpos
- One of the most amazing days, going through Anysberg and having a Caracal come cuddle up. Montagu was the start of the end - tar, cars and too many people
- Some miscalculations meant the day was much longer than anticipated. Not excited to start through Ashton traffic in the dark. A late finish into Trouthaven after our longest day: 173kms
- Stettynskloof. It could be a swear word. There were tears, cursing, bikes thrown, some laughter, and very slow progress. Hours of bundu bashing eventually got us out of the kloof, onto Du Toits Kloof Pass, and saw us bombing down to Diemersfontein, where we were met by family and friends, pizza and, most importantly, our Blankets.