Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Let's make it a stage to remember

And so the weather gods did.

We left Stuttgart upbeat and ready for the last 70km of which the last 18km were promised as "all downhill". Yeah right, heard that one before.

Typical Karoo scrub
I had been really worried about the Garstland Kloof because waaay back in 2009, we'd struggled through the clay mud and with all the rain, I was convinced it would be a replay of the same. It's a gradual climb up the narrow valley with a couple of farms along side the road. In front of us were mountains and it was difficult to identify which would be our Schurfteberg portage.

My legs were feeling better - not fast - but not as tight so I was happy. We had a tailwind which made the going pretty hot and we'd regroup under the shade of the odd tree that leaned over the road. We reached the bad memories of 09 (Yes, I still recognised it such was the trauma!) and rode comfortably over it. There was really no mud to speak of despite the downpours of the night before.
Mmm Yum

Tricky operation
You know you've reached the end of the valley when you practically ride into the last farmstead. As I pulled up to the others, Leon was attacking a prickly pear bush with a stick and a pen knife.He swat the fat fruit or poke at it until it dropped then stab it with the blade. Using both as tools, he slice off the prickly outer skin and hand us all slices of the insides. I wasn't sure about this but tasted some anyway. It was surprisingly sweet.

Thus fortified, we pedaled on to the gate in the fence. It's quite easy to make a mistake here and many have done so. Leon remembered his error clearly from the previous year and my maps read: Go through gate!"

So we did.

View from below
The track appeared and on we rode to the ruins at the base of the portage. As we got there, black clouds bulged over the ridge and the wind had a distinct chill and smell of rain. Undeterred, we rode onwards and I saw to my relief the ominous black cloud move off over the ridge and the sun come out exactly where we were going to ride. "Great timing," I thought.

I have two photos taken in 2009 which are framed. The one is from the bottom of the portage beside the small lake and the other from the top, looking back and over the ridge into the Karoo with a dusting of snow. I had looked forward to taking a repeat for months already. So I got my picture of the lake and the mountain looming above then pedaled off after the others.
Sheeting rain

As we hit the base of the mountain and began to climb, the black clouds rolled in and within minutes, a grey sheet of rain descended the mountain and dumped on our heads. Howling wind made it difficult to pull on rain jackets and to pack away phones and camera. Eventually, packs were on and we began the slow plod with rain driving in our faces one way, then pushing onto our backs another. Once again, I was reminded of the distinct lack of waterproofing that my seldom used jacket offered.

View from the top
We were probably half way up the climb when the clouds rolled away and the sun came out, blazing down on us in our jackets. In moments, it was hot and humid and the only one smiling was Jonathan who hadn't bothered to put on a waterproof shell at all.

Jackets on
This was my only low point of the race. For some reason, I struggled here. I felt exhausted, legs heavy again and I just wanted to put my head down on the handlebars and sleep. Of course, this is also when the negative demons come out to play and the old mantras of being useless, not up for this physicality and other rubbish roamed around my thoughts and dragged me into self pity.

I reached the gate barely able to speak but I was still determined to take my photo looking down the hill. So while the others moved onto the saddle where we would have a brief picnic. Jonathan and I messed around with photos. (I've combined the two pics from above at the bottom of this blog).

The tuna moment
Then I pushed my bike wearily to where the rest of the group lay sprawled in the warm sun, drying off kit and eating. Finally, I could eat my Pringles which I'd carried all the way from Elandsberg. Leon swopped me a spoon of tuna for some chips and we made a type of tortilla. OMG. If I hadn't been so tired, I would have mugged him on the spot and torn his tuna sachet from his grip. I had this intense craving for this magic food and yet stupidly, had never packed one for emergencies.

Jonathan to the rescue with an extra sachet. Using his spork, I inhaled the contents and my world was was intact again. I was really surprised at the lift it gave me as it wasn't that long ago that we'd eaten well at Stuttgart. Never mind, it was exactly what I needed to get going. Oh, that and the technical downhill that followed!

Karoo vistas - descent looming
It was magnificent riding all the way to bottom of the valley and we were in great spirits. It was a fast downhill that made your wrists and calves ache and our speed continued onto the dirt road from the farmhouse.

A strange recollection now was my Garmin which started beeping incessantly. Eventually I figured out there was some dirt or mud jammed in one of the buttons which eventually washed out with the next downpour which came on us with the same rapidity as the dissipation of the previous one.

We were helter skeltering down the road constantly looking over our shoulders at Schurfteberg and when the valley started to blot out, it was time to whip on the waterproofs. Except for Jonathan. It seemed that everyone was trying to beat the rain as three bareback horseman came galloping up the road clearly trying to get home before the rain started in earnest again.

Soggy roads
There is a tough little climb on this road which under normal circumstances, would slow your momentum. Today, we were going nowhere. The heavens opened again creating rivers of water that rushed down the road making its own gullies and forcing us to keep our heads down. If that were not enough, it began to hail.

In the small window that was created by my jacket hood and the angle of the road, I watched the white stones bounce crazily before being swept away by the torrent. As we reached the top of the climb, the entire road surface was covered by lakes of water around which there was no riding.

It was exhilarating despite the cold from the wind which drove the rain through our layers. I loved it.

We began the descent hoping that the ruts beneath the layer of water wouldn't be too bad when Leon broke his hangar. We managed to shout the word above the wind and saw a farmhouse not 300m away. Perfect.

It was the farm called Jakkalsfontein, one of the last surviving historical farmsteads. It had an old fashioned bell pull which summoned a rather surprised looking inhabitant. Too wet to go inside, we gratefully took his offer of coffee while Leon expertly replaced his hangar. Despite the hot coffee, we'd all chilled down with the wait and when we eventually set off, this time chasing the veil of rain, it was a teeth chattering affair until we reached the bottom of the hill.

Time to leave the RASA route and make our turn towards Cradock. Only the Swaershoek Pass awaited us along with the promised 18km of nirvana downhill.

The rain had softened up the surface of the road so it became a slog and when we reached the pass, only Leon and Craig rode it. For the rest of us, a headwind, the slope and general fatigue from the weather meant a push to the top.

Top of Swaershoek Pass
Once there, the wind howled through the gap so we didn't hang around long. In the distance we could see Cradock and the light was beginning to fade. A downhill can't be enjoyed in the dark so we put our heads down and sped down the hill. Yeah, yeah, it was all of 18kms of downhill. It began with a steep drop down to one level, then gradually became less steep but the descent never wavered. It was only as we hit the tar road that would take us across the Fish River to our lodge, that the road finally leveled out.

What an awesome way to finish any event. It was almost dark when we arrived but to a warm welcome from Glenn and Meryl of the race office and the other riders who had finished.

How does one end off a tale like this? I'm not sure what is fitting. Perhaps the real measure is whether I would do it again.

Hell yes!