Getting to know a different South Africa

Seasoned cyclist Kevin Davie’s new book, Freedom Rider, tells of his adventures on his mountain bike that led him to discover some of South Africa’s most beautiful hidden corners.

freedom-text2 Davie and his bike at Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal.

freedom-text3 The Bewaarkloof in the Strydpoort Mountains.
(Images: Jacana)

freedom-text4 The Freedom Challenge throws everything at you, including snow.
(Image: Freedomchallenge.org.za)

freedom-text5 Along the way he experienced the incredible hospitality, warmth and friendliness of ordinary South Africans.
(Image: Jacana)

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Endurance cyclist Kevin Davie’s new book, Freedom Rider, tells the story of the mountain bike adventures that led him to discover some of South Africa’s most beautiful hidden corners, understand more about the history that shaped the country, and experience genuine South African hospitality.

On his journey to discover more of South Africa, the seasoned cyclist completed many trails. One of the highlights was the Freedom Challenge, a gruelling 2 300km mountain bike route running across South Africa between Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town. He is the 24th finisher of the challenge.

Davie also finished a 1 800km ride along the length of the Drakensberg, and the Ganna, a 30-day ride following the mountains for about 3 500 km from Beitbridge to Cape Point.

For most of the distance he covered, 10 000 km in total, Davie was unsupported without any back-up vehicle, and two of the longest rides, together adding up to 5 000km, were ridden solo.

On many of the expeditions, some single-day rides and others multi-day trails, Davie had to cycle in extremely hot or cold temperatures, rain or even snow while navigating tough terrain. He also had to deal with the occasional dangerous animal. But, in the book he says the riding was mostly in bright, sunny South African weather.

Immersing yourself in South Africa, at bicycle pace

“Mountain biking is exploding in South Africa,” Davie says, but he says more people should be encouraged to get out into nature.

Wherever Davie finds himself, he always has his maps nearby. He is a Mail & Guardian newspaper journalist and he also teaches financial journalism at Wits University, but not a day goes by without thinking about and planning his next cycle expedition.

“When I get back from a trail, immediately the maps are out to look for the next place to go. Riding becomes part of your life,” he says.

He hopes his book will inspire more people to get on the saddle and explore South Africa and its history, and get to know its people from a different perspective.

Cycling through remote areas of the country far away from bustling tourist routes, with nothing more than a mere 10kg of belongings, makes it possible to do just this.

“If you travel at bike pace, you can observe so much more and can get a good sense of the development of a country’s history,” he says. “Bike speed is the next best thing to walking.”

Over the years Davie has travelled extensively in South Africa, and, he says, he thought he knew the country. But once he started cycling he realised there is so much more to see and learn. “I have discovered so many places.”

In the book he talks about many accidental discoveries – “One was a better understanding of how the country fitted together,” he says.

The most beautiful places

Although he picked up many stories along the way, Davie often didn’t have time to stop over for a long time. This is why he often returns to places of interest afterwards.

“A story put together, not from an armchair but from a bicycle saddle, gives one a much richer perspective,” he says in the book.

Davie enjoys history and he has a particular interest in rock art and the story of South Africa’s Bushmen and what happened to them.

He often saw beautiful, well-preserved rock art, some at some sites well hidden, others that were easy to find and even close to farmhouses. This interest caused him to spend a lot of time near the town of Dordrecht in the Rhodes area in the Eastern Cape where the highest density of caves containing rock art are found.

“It is completely remarkable how wonderful the places are,” he says.

And if you ask the locals they will tell you where to find rock art. On one occasion, while eating roosterkoek (traditional Afrikaans bread cooked on a grid over the coals) in a café in Cradock, a woman eavesdropped on a conversation and directed him to rock art in the area.

In Chapter 16, Riding with Baobabs, Davie recounts the adventure of discovering Bewaarkloof in the Strydpoort Mountains in Limpopo, an area characterised by remote, deep valleys.

Here he made his way along the riverbed, which was a trickle of water on a sandy bed, just enough to make it moist and difficult to navigate on a bicycle. This is one of the difficulties of trail cycling – at times you have to push the bike and even carry it for long distances.

But it was beautiful there, with no sign of human presence as he made his way through the gorge.

“It was mesmerising. A passage through time,” he recalls.

The Strydpoort Mountains are about three-billion years old, which is enough time for the elements to carve out the deep ravines and steep walls of the cliffs.

“The poort is so ancient that it was easy for me to imagine australopithecines sitting on the banks here, keeping an eye on their offspring as they frolicked in the wet sand,” he explains. “I have since come to wonder if English can really do justice to a place as wonderful as the Bewaarkloof.”

True local hospitality

Davie experienced the incredible hospitality, warmth and friendliness of ordinary South Africans. Farmers and village communities welcomed him into their homes, provided warm meals and lengthy directions and maps of the areas he was travelling through, without even knowing him.

“What struck me when riding was the rural old time hospitality,” he says. “Some of my best experiences are staying with locals in villages.”

Once he stayed overnight in a hut with schoolboys who were doing their homework by candlelight and on another occasion near Price Albert, a resident and supporter of the Freedom Challenge arrived along a dusty road with coffee, tea, sandwiches, oranges and information.

He says in 10 000km of riding around South Africa he never felt threatened, but rather overwhelmed by kindness of strangers along the way.

Solitude and freedom

Davie has always been a keen participant in endurance sport. Besides trail riding, he has also earned his green number, awarded after 10 successful finishes at the Comrades Marathon. He has also completed 23 Dusi canoe marathons, including four each with his wife Lucille and son Dillon.

But it is the solitude, freedom and minimalism of extreme riding that he enjoys most.

“It is good for the soul,” he says.

And while he’s out in the wilderness, he doesn’t miss any home comforts. He says cycling does a good job of changing one’s perceptions of luxury.

“Under such extreme conditions it is the small things that count – like eating a hot plate of food, having a shower and having a bed to sleep in,” he says.

This kind of cycling tests one’s physical and mental strength, and it gives you an opportunity to face your fears and find ways to manage them.

“It is a time for self-reflection,” he says, and there are some fear you only along the way.

People often ask him what he thinks about while out cycling. His answer is nothing. “There is nothing in your head. It is you in the wide open space. Moving across the landscape takes all your energy.”