Saturday, July 11, 2009

Stettynskloof - a means to an end

Its been a week and my opinion on this last day of the race hasn't changed. The final day of the race is characterised by the legend of Stettynskloof which is a long hard portage up a valley. It is the most direct route to the finish but by all accounts was a final test of will and strength.

Just before we left for Pmb, the race director and Andrew Barnes recced the route and gave us an updated route description. Apparently it was somewhat easier as there was a more defined path created by the Waterwise workers.

I had looked at the valley on Google Earth and was curious to see it in reality. Mike W (Nutty Prof) went through the day before and gave us some final instructions and his last words were "Its not so bad."

To be blunt, Stettyns did nothing for me. It was simply something to be endured to get to the finish. If anything, it was a huge anticlimax to three weeks of riding.

Make no mistake, it was hard, very hard and physically, I took a hammering. There were times when I was desperate. Lifting, carrying and maneuvering my bike through the thick vegetation, massive boulders and hidden rocks in the undergrowth was extremely hard and I literally bled. There were tears of frustration at not being strong enough and there were many times, I wished for man's strength.

But I got no joy out this. Getting out was a relief in that it was over and done with. Perhaps it was beautiful. Perhaps with hiking shoes and a back pack, I might have revelled in the natural environment but not this day.

We left the final SS (Trouthaven) at 5.25 and rode the undulating gravel road towards the dam wall. It was spectacular to see the moon setting. Little did we know we would also see the moon rise later that day.

At about 6.45 we reached the path that would lead us into the valley. It was still dark. I had not bothered to put my headlamp on as I thought we would get to the path in the light. After fruitlessly scratching around, I realised I had lost it. Negotiating this semi hiking trail was going to be tricky with only a bike light!

But at least the path was pretty well defined here and although the heaving of the bike up some steep sections drained me early on, the going was reasonable. I bet the waterwise people had never had so many good vibes and grateful thanks sent their way.

We knew we had to cross over the river twice early on and I stopped to take shoes and socks off. Wet feet on a long portage weren't an option but it was time consuming. I also had a Transact (anti-inflam) plaster on my achilles which I had dosed with drugs the night before and in the morning to make sure it survived the day.

Looking up the valley, I could see where we would eventually exit and it seemed so very far away.

Doug was a champion at spotting the path as I was pretty useless trying to lug my bike over boulders, around bushes and trees. After a couple of hours we stopped for sandwiches and snacks and our spirits were still OK.

We had been warned not to lose our sense of humour in the valley but, to be honest, I never brought it with me in the first place. I didn't get angry or lose my temper as I knew patience would reward us eventually. Frankly, there wasn't much to laugh about, mostly it was using every available scrap of energy to keep body and bike moving forward.

There was a lot of muttering to myself and eventually there were tears of exhaustion. But I kept plodding. Eventually, we reached the rock scree. Mike had warned us to keep left and the latest updated route narrative confirmed this. Doug was moving faster than I and his long legs no doubt helped over the boulders.

I struggled here as well. Trying to hold and lift my bike (all 14.5kg) with one hand while trying to balance on the rocks and use my other hand to support me drained a lot of energy. I could see the cairn but despaired of getting there. It got worse when I reached the spot, couldn't see where Doug had gone and was faced with stepping into a river and boulder hopping upstream still dragging my bike with me.

I think I did more damage to my bike on this day than the entire three weeks. Sometimes it was precariously balancing on the chainrings as I simply couldn't lift it. The gear cable end eventually broke off and there were many more scratches than when I started.

To my relief, Doug's head popped up and he helped me lift my bike out the river. Where he found the extra energy, I don't know because it wasn't easy for him either.

We worked our way through the path cut through the thick brush before it disappeared totally. Now began an stumblefest of note. I lost count of how many times I fell or tripped. Each time, my bike would hook onto something on my pack and become unbalanced. When he could, Doug would adjust it for me but when we became separated, I expended huge amount of energy in trying to put my bike on my back after falling or losing balance for the umpteenth time.

We tried to stay high and at one point I thought we had reached a flat section before dropping down to the river for the final time.

I dropped down and found a faint path. Doug was too far away and upwind to hear me so I plodded on thankful to not be tripping on rocks and scrub. My angels were working overtime at this point scouting for a route!

Then I reached yet another gully. My heart sank at the effort it would take to go down and up but on the other side, I saw what looked like a path. Taking a chance, I went down and yes, it was. I even saw a shoe print and tire track. I had to throw my bike over the lip to get out but it was a path and immediate easier going.

A couple of hundred meters further on, the path disappeared into the thick protea scrub providing a proverbial "highway" through to the river. My gratitude knew no bounds as without this path, a tough job would have become 100% harder.

I crossed the river and dragged my bike to a large rock where I could try to spot Doug. Nothing.

I filled my water bladder, ate some tuna, snacked on whatever I had left. Still Nothing. What to do?

Shouting, blowing on whistles produced nothing and I wasn't sure if he was in front or behind. To my eternal relief I spotted the bright green jacket high on the hill and my mad waving caught his attention. I yelled to him about the path and he started heading down skirting the shrubbery of "death". Then he disappeared. I waited scanning the shrubbery for movement. Nothing.

I went back across the river shouting his name eventually to hear his voice somewhere in the river. Missing the path, he had taken the only other option and bundu bashed his way straight up the river.

He had spent time looking for me earlier on, worried that I had fallen and injured myself. We were both so relieved to have found each other intact and more importantly, we had a path out of the damned valley.

It was an extremely steep portage but the easiest section by far compared to what we had portaged already.

We summited at 16:00 and flopped down utterly grateful that we had done what we had to do. Knowing that we would finish no matter what, kept us ticking over but without urgency which might have made things more difficult. We picked our way through without resorting to forcing a route.

Hiking down to the jeep track and getting back on our bikes was quite strange. It took a couple of kms to feel easy on the bike again and my achilles was hurting but holding out well. A surprise downhill greeted us which was a bit of a balm to battered bodies but this was soon replaced by steep climbs out the valley which we were happy to walk. A smooth concrete surface, no bushes, no rocks...a pleasure.

Finally we hit the tar to our complete bemusement. Trucks, cars, hooting, traffic lanes, toll roads aaaarrrrgh. A complete assault on the senses.

It was an 11km climb to the top of Du Toits Kloof which is where we saw the moon rise. A tunnel which amplified the sound of cars was pretty scary as we didn't have our lights out yet.

The camera crew came past having missed us exiting the kloof and fed me another sandwich (thanks Andrew and Richard) and we proceeded to summit the climb with our own paparazzi recording the moment.

We were even happy to accede to their request to not beat them to the finish so they could film us passing the dam at Diemersfontein. The mantra - we'll get there when we get there" applied thoroughly to this day and we might as well enjoy the moment.

David Waddilove met us in the forest and gave us detailed instructions to the finish and so we finally rolled into Diemersfontein at 19:30.

To meet us were my sister, Jean, Aileen (Doug's wife) and Kayla (their daughter), David Waddilove and the camera crew. It was a completely low key finish and a fitting end to a three week saga.

A glass of good Diemersfontein pinotage later, I received my blanket.

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