Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Nav crazy

Everyone is terrified of Day Five - Malekonyane to Vuvu.  The final valley stretch has caught out many a rider and there are a zillion tales about lost riders and late arrivals to the little school on top of the mountain.

We were fairly confident in getting through and the challenge as per all the other days, was to get there in the light. Once again, the entire group was going to leave together and push on as one. A big group is very unwieldy and slow so the pressure was to keep moving at a reasonable pace.

That afternoon, Paul (rasa) and I went to recce the exit from the Lodge and thought we could navigate our way in the pitch dark at 5:30 the next morning. I had slept poorly and felt like a walking/riding zombie the next day but we hit the road on time and the posse headed off to the dongas ready to begin the slog to Vuvu.

We didn't quite get it right - too many navigators pulling in too many directions. Eventally Gadget Andries, Paul and I put our heads down and pushed steadily in the direction we believed to be correct. Soon there were lights scattered all over the hillside. At a particularly boggy section, we saw Alex Harris's tracks and knew we were correct. As I squelched through the mud, I regretted (and not for the first time) not having my seal skin socks on.

The was a small stream crossing between us and the road and I took a chance and rode it only to stop dead in the mud, wheel buried and my one foot properly stuck. Urgh - cold, wet and muddy. The sun was just coming up and the temperatures dropped significantly. My toes had disappeared and my bike parts froze. The jockey wheel refused to turn and the gear cables stuck. I wrung out my socks hoping it would help but by the time I had laced up my shoes again, the laces had frozen!

No matter, it was a push up Ongeluksnek anyway and a chance for things to defrost and to get the blood circulating. The small problem was the downhill on the other side. Bitter. As we turned off the road, the sun finally hit the fields in front of us and I had to push my bike towards it, not wanting to force any of the frozen bits.

Andries scratched around in his backpack and next minute, he's got a paper taper and match and he has lit a fire under my jockey wheel. it never stopped working after that. No one else would have thought of that.

Before long, we were enjoying some of the best natural single track ever. As Pawel said of one the well known multi day races "That is just a creche."

Then we lost him. He disappeared somewhere behind us and re-appeared somewhere in front of us! By now the large group was split into two making it much more manageable and Pawel was somewhere inbetween.

We searched for him all over and eventually cell phone technology came to the rescue and we were all reunited again. However, the time spent looking for him put us under pressure to get to the Vuvu valley. And I, in my rush made an amateurish blunder in the navigation and brought us all down several valleys too early. This mean't clambering down cliff faces, pushing through thick wattle and aiming for what I thought was the road. NOT!

We were in hysterics when we got to the bottom and looked back at the huge cliff we had descended and to their credit, the boys were very upbeat about the "adventure" I had taken them on. The road was actually a wattle drag track and when I finally studied the map properly, we were almost off the paper! Fortunately, I had used the same track in 2008 with Doug and Stu Brew and knew we would come out at a good spot. Wattle drag tracks are also incredible riding and we bolted along until we could see the bell at Tinana Mission where the bakkie was waiting for us with hot noodles and coke.

The other group had left about 15 minutes before us so despite the pioneering route we took, we were not that far behind.

We rode hard to the turnoff to the Vuvu valley taking in another spectacular wattle drag descent, and there Dave and Dawn loaded us up with fruit cake. Pawel elected to ride around on the road and Derek, Andries and I set off in our race against the sun.

Memory, maps and narrative are an excellent combination for finding one's way. I relied too much on memory and we did a 10 minute detour before getting back on track. As we entered the valley, Derek spotted the other group heading up the wrong river valley! Too far for us to call them back.

Nothing for it but to grind our way through. And we did. There was quite a bit of pushing and shoving of the bikes as I strove to remember the quick route of 2009. I needed to calm down and think but I was just too tired.

Eventually we got it together and it was really quick to the point where we started to ascend from the depths of the river bed. By now I had regained my equilibrium and we reached the newly graded road halfway out the valley as it got dark. Well satisfied with our effort, we sat down, added clothing and ate all of the fruitcake.

We were out the valley in three hours which was a bonus. Luckily the other group realised their mistake and came in an hour after us.

We were assigned an awesome home to sleep in and I was more than happy to pile in under the heavy blankets knowing that there was only one more day left.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

A New Experience

I'm not sure this would ever have appeared on my bucket list but today I went gliding. 

Gadget decided I needed a wake up call from the endless cycling and running so presented me with a gliding voucher for one of those birthday's that shall not be named.

I nearly forgot.  When it finally occurred to me that there was an expiry on this gift, I had wasted a whole summer and apparently the best gliding time. What do I know about thermals and best and worst seasons? So I duly presented myself at the Magaliesberg Gliding Club this fine wintry Sunday morning. I saw the windsock showing some activity but alas, wind doesn't seem to be a pre-requisite for getting the balsa wood and fibre glass contraption off the ground.

I must have looked like I knew what I was doing because I was asked if I was the Duty Officer as I arrived. It was my "pilot" who asked showing very poor judgement! For his sins, he got lumped with taking me up.

The group I approached knew nothing about my contact person there but took over the arrangements with aplomb and lots of enthusiasm.  It was all happening a bit too fast for me. The plane was tilted on the grassy runway looking very small and about two inches from the ground. 

I decided I wanted the real deal so opted for the winch launch (I don't know all the correct terminology) as opposed to being towed by a small plane. A very thin cable with a parachute lay partially concealed in the grass and I believe it tows at about 100km/hour.  A quick loading of a parachute and instructions on its use followed - that was really going to help! I could just see me extricating myself from a four point safety belt system, unlocking the canopy, hurling myself out and pulling the rip cord all in that order. But, Chris the pilot said, he had no plans to ditch the plane in mid air. He added later that he had ditched it into muddy fields several times in his flying career, joy of joys!

And of course there were the snide comments about the barf bag!  Unfortunately, there was an odour lurking from the previous week when the occupant had apparently ditched their breakfast.  Uh uh - no way. I was not going that route. 

Then there was a bit of waggling of the controls, some radio coms and the cable came to life and we were off.  it was noisier than I thought with the wind whistling past the canopy but we were airborne so quickly and steeply, it was freaky.  One is used to the rumbling of a jet engine down a tarmac strip building in crescendo before taking off - not here.

At about 1500 feet, the cable jettisoned itself and we were free and flying.  Chris kept a running commentary to what was going on which made me feel a lot more in control but it was a strange motion with lots of corkscrewing to keep on a thermal.  We stayed at that height for a while but then started to drop altitude a bit.  Chris manfully worked at the controls and used all of his 30 years of training to find us stronger thermals but we were circling the drain. Damn winter weather!

There comes a point where one has to call it quits and he had already decided that it was safer to go back and land.  We turned (again) and headed in a slightly different direction (yes, these things are very mobile as you'll read) and all of a sudden picked up a strong thermal and we climbed and climbed and climbed.  There was much less corkscrewing and just more lift. The buzzer that indicated ascent and descent was constant beeping instead of whining and all of a sudden, reaching the clouds was an option (literally).

We reached close to 10 000 feet which was incredible - the panorama of the region laid out for miles around. Then the fun and games started. Chris, having done the impossible, could relax and show off some of his skills and exactly what the plane could do.  He showed me how they chase thermals when racing cross country and we reached speeds of about 170km/hour. As you hit the next thermal, you start turning to gain height and all of this is done on feel and visual cues - amazing.

Good, kind pilot that he was, Chris kept asking me if I was ok. Silly me - I said yes and we launched into a complete loop. I briefly opened my eyes and saw the ground above me. Freaky with no engine to power out.  I had done that in a Harvard aerobatic plane (name dropper I know) but this was way cooler.

Then we sped off in a direct line to see how much speed we could get and I swear it was heading towards the 200kmk/hour mark. I felt as if I was in a fighter plane with the narrow cockpit, clear canopy and speed. We did a few slidey things (the name escapes me) where you do half turns and bank rather steeply and then, just for laughs, we did another 360 loop.  I kept my eyes open for this one.

Then it was all the pre-landing checks and we glided into land. Smoother than many a 747 landing I've had.

Chris, Martin, Peter (the other newbie) - thanks for a great morning. And to Gadget - that was an awesome gift, one I'll remember for a very long time.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Busy June

The year is almost over - I exaggerate not. It seemed just the other day I updated this blog with all the activities.

Now its months down the road.

I've found an editor for my Nanowrimo novels, @gardengodmother and I have started running more seriously even including track work, I entered Ride2Rhodes for some inspiration and I spent four days last weekend hiking in the magnificent Drakensberg.

Like I said....Busy, busy.

Ian had a drink to many last year when we were in the foothills of the Drakensberg and suggested we go and hike "that sucker".  He rustled up to other Capetonian mates, Simon and James and the date was set for early June.

The only problem was the discrepancy in the term - hike.

The Myth and I mission when we go, covering bigger distances than considered normal and we somehow failed to convey this to our coastal brethren.  The food list should have given us our first clue - brie cheese, cucumber, baby tomoatoes, humus, cos lettuce, exotic mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and olives.....you get the picture.  The Myth and I - well, Outback dried meals. lightweight crackers and snacks and some Jack Daniels for comfort. 

There was plainly a problem looming which was exacerbated by the taking of the espresso coffee pot and ground coffee.

The plan was to hike up Icidi Pass to the cave on top and work our way across the escarpment to Easter cave before descending back down via Ntonjelana Pass.  Hint: the best kept secret of the Mweni area of the Berg is the Mweni Cultural centre. What a fantastic base to begin from. Agrippa (head honcho) organised a taxi to get us to the end of the road which saved about 7km of walking and we organised with the driver to meet us four days later on another road with an aproximate time - saving another 5km of hard walking.

It was perfect weather - sunny and cool and before long we had stopped at the river to brew coffee!  Confusion between GPS routes (new school) and map routes (old school) had us split up before long and eventually we re-united with a very tired James finally arriving at the second river stop.  We'd lost time so we bashed our way further upstream before calling it a day and bivvying in the boulder strewn river bed.

Eish - the hike up the river to the looming exit and steep climb to the escarpment hung over us and the quads quailed at the prospect. But we made it and flopped down out the wind at the top. (This sentence does not do justice to the effort)

Re-arranging our route plans meant heading for Mbundini cave - which we missed, ending up at Rat Hole cave. Literally a long narrow passage with a slightly wider area at the back. Ian and James were offended at the name and its implications and decided to try and find Fangs cave. Nobody knows what they found but it was an overhang keeping out the worst of the cold.

The hike to Mponjawane cave was a big one with a howling wind which forced us to lean at crazy angles. while we walked. Many of the rivers were frozen solid on top of the escarpment.  It was a long day but oh, so worth it. It is one of the most spectacular outlooks in the Berg: Mponjwane Pinnacle (Rockeries Tower) is mysterious and the view extends for miles over the community lands far below.

As it got dark, it started to snow. The flakes grew larger and world grew silent.  It didn't last long but the morning still brought a white world and mist to five weary hikers.  The descent down Rockeries was misty but there was no wind so clothes were stripped off as we descended. The views were non existent but every now and then the mist would lift her skirts and we would see massive cliffs and deep river cracks.

Then it was over. Bongani met us as promised (my feet and hips were very grateful) and it was hot showers, spare ribs in Harrismith and home to icy cold weather.

And now its off to Pietermaritzburg for the Ride2Rhodes - the first 6 days of the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa (www.freedomchallenge.org.za)



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