26 June 2009
On Saturday, 20 June 2009, the town of Rhodes, located in the southern Drakensberg in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, welcomed a group of tired but exhilarated Freedom Challenge cyclists after a 500-kilometre ride that started in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal a week before.
The Ride to Rhodes is an annual six-day race that takes adrenalin-seekers on a rugged but awesomely beautiful mountain biking trail from Pietermaritzburg to Rhodes.
The day the cyclists arrived in Rhodes was wintry, with snow on the mountain; the local pub’s roaring fire was a happy welcome to the battered and bruised but happy group of men and women. All dressed in their bright red Freedom Challenge jerseys, they laughed together as they shared stories of their recent adventure.
Experience of a lifetime
Two of the older adventurers, Gavin Greig and Rodney Milford, had an experience of a lifetime.
At one point, on the ride from Centocow to Ntsikeni Nature Reserve, they fell far behind and by midnight, after 19 hours of cycling, with the temperature having dropped to minus-three, they just couldn’t go on.
A tiny mud hut presented itself, and they knocked on the door. It was opened warily by a nervous lady, but when she saw their plight she welcomed them into her tiny home.
Two children were sleeping in the kitchen and she in her bedroom. She immediately made them tea and went to sleep with her children in the kitchen, giving up her bed for the tired and weary men. They were overcome by her generosity, and collapsed into bed and slept until morning.
They woke to the smell of mealiepap (maize porridge) that she had made for their breakfast. It was an act of incredible kindness, and one has to wonder how many would, without question, allow two complete strangers into their home at midnight and give up their bed for them!
Chatting in the pub after finishing the ride, Milford said: “The fast pace of today’s city life means we don’t take enough time to be truly human. That old woman’s act of kindness really affected me, because I know how rarely such generosity occurs in our ‘normal’ lives.”
The Freedom Challenge trail takes the cyclists off-road through some of the most stunning scenery one can see anywhere, never mind in South Africa. The route includes a quick stop at the Centocow Mission Station.
Founded in 1892 by the Trappist monk Abbot Francis Pfanner, Centocow treated the famed watercolour artist Gerard Bhengu for tuberculosis when he was a young boy. Dr Max Kohler, who practiced at Centocow from 1925 to 1935, was responsible for discovering Bhengu and encouraging him to paint.
While the Ride to Rhodes route is 500 kilometres in distance, it is a particularly testing 500 kilometres, with many tortuous climbs that seem never-ending, winding up and up on slippery tracks and stony dirt roads. However, the fantastic views at the top of each mountain are more than reward for the huge effort and determination needed to ascend each challenging peak.
The highest pass in South Africa
Naude’s Nek, the final climb before Rhodes, is without doubt the ultimate mountain climb for cyclists. As the highest pass in South Africa, the ride up is precarious, as is speeding down the dirt road on the other side that winds its way into Rhodes.
The vast views are indescribably beautiful, but the riders must keep their eyes on the trail or face potentially disastrous consequences.
The challenge is, at times, enough to make cause many a gut check, but afterwards those who have conquered it speak about the “soul” of the ride. It’s more than just a race – it’s a journey into South Africa, its far-flung places and people, as well a unique personal challenge.
Carine Reyneke, a business analyst and first-time rider in the Ride to Rhodes, commented afterwards: “It’s the people, the craziness of us all, and coming together for a short period of time to experience something few cyclists ever have the opportunity to share. I will definitely be back again.”
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