Updated: Aug 7
By Nicky Booyens
“Watching you guys. Well done. But you do know you nuts right?”
A message received from the LegendaryMike Woolnoughduring the race. I LOVE being NUTS!
Soooo my Munga MaaitjieAndy Wessoncame up with this idea round about August last year… lets run the mountain biking event, The 480km Freedom Challenge RaceToRhodes. It did not take much to convince me, I am always up for any adventure and the tougher the better. With fellow Mungrals (anyone who has finished the Munga Trail earns “Mungral” status)Peter PurchaseandDean Barclayjoining us as well, it was going to be fun!
This race was going to be the big brother of the Munga Trail:
1. Longer in distance
2. More distance between the aid stations
3. MAP NAVIGATION, no GPS’s allowed
After numerous discussions with Chris Fisher(The organiser) on how to make it more doable for runners, we were like nope we are going to take this race on under the same conditions as the riders 🙈🙈🙈, to see if it is possible!
I received our maps and narratives early January, I spent some time going through them, but not enough it would turn out to be. Putting the narratives with the maps, the nav looked doable and everyone said, you can’t get that lost on RaceToRhodes… they lied!
With my “ice cream” containers of goodies sent end of February, all other stuff I needed would be carried by me the whole way. Once our packs were packed with the necessary goodies and then food and water for about 60km, we were shocked at the weight of our packs but expected it, mine was over 7.5kgs and the boys even heavier!
We stood merrily on the start line in front of the Pietermaritzburg Town Hall in drizzling rain and waited for GO! Once escorted out of PMB, we relaxed a bit more and started our adventure with map navigation!
We seemed to do pretty ok with the daylight navigation, but as we climbed higher into the forests, the rain and mist got worse and it got very cold. It was round about here that Andy got super excited about spotting the Dispersis fanninninae, and in the rain photos were taken (the first of many orchid pics). A few doubts of which way to go, we soon got to the masts on top of the misty mountains and started heading down towards Byrne. We got to our first aid station, The Oaks after about 9 hours of running and most of it in the rain and mud.
We were cold, wet and muddy but we were welcomed with open arms by our hosts, who even tumbled dried our wet and muddy clothes for us (this was where Deans white cap turned brown). Our feet had taken a proper beating on this first leg and were all pretty sore, so we knew we were in for a tough few days!
We left the Oakes in good spirits and in the rain and headed for the Umkomaas River. A lady drove past did a u-turn and came back to ask if could take us to her home for the night, we thought she just took a keen liking to Peter! Moving on, this was where we made our first of many nav errors. We missed the turn off to the Illovo Nek forest station, but soon realised our mistake and turned back. Back on track (you will hear this phrase often) we headed through the settlement of KwaGeneshe and down to the Umkomaas river. The concrete track down was super steep and super slippery even in trail shoes, serious respect to the mountain bikers on this section. We got down to river and realised after all the rain during the day, the river was a lot higher and flowing a lot faster. We managed the scramble against the rocks only slipping once or twice and were amazed how the riders went the same way as us with bikes – the river was WILD!!!
Heading towards the Hella Hella crossing, we once again made some nav mistakes but were soon back on track and crossed the river at the bridge and started the big climb up! We stopped at the Highover chalets looking for water but found none… by now the sleep monsters were un-expectantly getting to us, so we took a quick power nap in the bushes before continuing up the hill… this was a proper hill! As daylight broke, we were almost at the next aid station, Allendale. Our pace was a lot slower than we had anticipated.
We were super happy to get to Allendale so we could rest our feet a bit and have some proper chow! We were greeted by happy hosts who got us all sorted in no time with coffee, toasted samie’s, koeksisters and quiche! We have learnt that our feet need to rest and dry out properly else we are in for trouble. There are no medics on route, so foot care was our responsibility. All of us have done the Munga Trail so we have all learnt from the best foot medics, Johan Raath and his team at Bike And Trail Adventure Medics - PTY LTD, on how to look after our feet. Once rested we were on our way. The nav was ok here and we got to Donnybrook hassle free. A quick refuel at the Spar and we were on our way again heading through some proper muddy forests. Next stop would be Centocow. At the top of the mountain it was dark and the nav tricky… we eventually got off the mountain, not quite the desired race route, but were soon at the Centocow Mission, our next aid station. Greeted with load shedding, we ate something quick and headed to bed with the promises of a hot shower when we woke up. Here we took our first sleep in a bed for about 2 hours. We did our best to try lighten our packs, anything that would help speed up our average pace. After that hot shower and some more chow, we were heading early morning through the settlement of Centocow to the mountains. It was a beautiful sunrise! Once on top of the mountain it was spectacular scenery. We then dropped down towards the next big river crossing, and like the Umkomaas, it was pumping. Slowly we made it through the river and headed into the forests again and onto a big district road. From this road we took the sharp left turn up the steep hill to the northern entrance road to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve. This was a proper steep and rocky climb, once again respect to the mountain bikers. The last 5km’s to the Ntsikeni Lodge proved eventful. So close yet so far as we found ourselves on the wrong saddle, so after some more detouring we got back onto the right track and found the lodge.
We once again were treated like royalty and had some great chow!Thubalethu ShangeandCharles Mansfieldand his crew pulled in just after us and some war stories were shared before we jumped into bed for another quick 1h45min sleep before heading out round 10pm. It was round about now that I felt like I was doing an adventure race (me, 3 teammates and only a map to get us from A to B) with a very looooong trekking leg!
This was where the first real game of “I Spy with my little eye” came into play, it was later followed by “Noot vir Noot” with Dean going through his playlist, playing the first seconds of each song and us guessing it – anything to stay awake! This was a tricky nav section, not sure how Peter did it, but we magically appeared where we should have at sunrise – nice work Peter! Once on the track, it was a long downhill to the tar road passing Pleasant View farm which had much needed water for us. From here it was a long slog to Glen Edward in the heat of the day.
Glen Edward was a welcome relief where we were treated with a delicious soup, fresh fruit, home baked cookies and coke! Glen Edward was a milestone as it was the halfway mark in distance, but the clocks was ticking faster. Here again Charles Mansfield and his crew caught up to us again, always great to have chats with fellow racers, thanks for all the nav advice Charles! Thuba was doing some of his own sight seeing at this point but would soon catch us again.
Just after 2pm we left the comfort of the farmhouse and headed out in the midday heat towards our next stop, Masakala. The first section was lots of gravel road, our feet really took a beating on these gravel roads with the heavy packs when running. At the St Xavier Mission, the folks very kindly bought us jugs of water to replenish our stocks. As nightfall fell we were heading towards the Little Umzimvubu River but we had some proper fun in the wattle plantations first… “Find the middle of the plantation”, yes, not so easy in pitch darkness. With a thunderstorm stopping by we ran for cover in the plantations and waited the storm out. Once going again, we found our way (we always did) and crossed the river and continued forward, one foot after the other. Heading into a valley, we had no idea where we were and decided to bush nap until daylight. At first light, we saw where were and we were still pretty much on the route, bonus! We made hast to get to the farmhouse through some muddy marshes. At the farmhouse we were greeted by a local on his horse who kindly showed us the way to the main road to Mademong. Before heading down towards the cattle dip, we found a spaza shop (one that was actually open) and boy did we do some shopping – what a bargain. The highlight being the Flyers and Mama’s Puffed Corn, only R2.50 a bag!!
As we headed down to the flood plain of the Botsolo River, we were not paying attention and ended up on the wrong road which went way off to the right. Some friendly locals showed us the way to the road we needed to be on. Back on track, the last little bit to Masakala was a sting in the tail especially in the heat of the day. Going through the village of Masakala we were greeted by friendly locals, some wanting to organise a car for us. It was a welcome site to get to the colourful Masakala Lodge and to be greeted by the friendly ladies. Here, it was just a “quick” stop to dry the feet out and refuel.
Early afternoon, we headed out again with some big rain clouds looming. From here it was plain sailing getting to the settlement of Jabulani. After passing through Jabulani things started going pear shaped again with the night-time nav. There was a lot of walking around in circles but like always we eventually got on the right track. Heading through one of the villages we were higher up than what we thought and ended up slogging through bog for kilometres before meeting up with the river. Here we realised where we were on the map… and it wasn’t where we were supposed to be. This was where the first and only real nav disagreement between us happened, as to go left or right of the river. Left won… We backtracked following the river until we got to the river crossing, we needed to be on. Here I think I did some proper sleep walking as it is all a blur until we ended up at Queens Mercy sooner than expected and much to our surprise! Here we took some time to clean the feet and shoes out of all the bog before continuing. Some more Mama’s Popped Corn came out and we were in a happy place.
We passed some massive fields filled with cosmos, a pretty site as we made our way onwards towards Malekgolonyane Lodge. Andy did some spectacular sleep walking here, so we took a quick power nap to get him going again. Another Spaza shop stop and more puffed corn before we headed up the mountain. Here the track was a bit tricky, but some herdsmen showed us the way. After a climb, a drop down to a river crossing and then another climb we were greeted by smiling faces and a great stew at Malekgolonyane Lodge.
We tried to make this stop as quick as possible so as to make the most of daylight. Late afternoon we headed out. We by now had realised that we were not going to make the 7-day cut off but were pushing on to see how far we could get. As we head out, we made some silly nav errors and found ourselves off course again.
It was here, after 5 and a half days of racing and covering about 362km of the official race route and over 400km in total, the boys decided to stop as time was not on our side. Our race was over and I sheaded a tear or two as we headed back to Malekgolonyane Lodge to wait for our extraction crew. What an epic adventure and certainly one for the memory banks! This was 5 and half days I would not trade for anything in the world! We spent 5 and half days running (and well walking) through our beautiful country being cheered on by all the locals we passed, what a privilege ! We learnt a lot of lessons this time round and are extremely disappointed not to have finished the full route, but we will be back to give it another go#unfinishedbusiness
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” – Helen Keller.