Friday, November 27, 2009

The Swazi Frontier Factor

My story begins on Friday 09/10. I am in poor shape, having done little riding since relocating to Kenya, but I am home for a week, and want to get in as much as possible. Keen to maximise riding time as well as home time, Ismail and I opt for Slanghoek as well as Apple Blossom rather than heading for Eselsfontein; the latter being a much longer drive. I had also assisted Mitzi with the marketing and earned a complimentary entry for myself.

Of course neither Ish nor I are keen for a ridiculously early start and carefully calculate our time to set off from Claremont to make it just in time to Slanghoek Cellars, some distance beyond Goudini Spa. Predictably we get there “just in time” but are both still faffing with number boards and last minute bike preparations when the start gun goes. Now I have to battle my way past all the medium route riders who are already lining up. Finally I get going, having to ask which way the gaggle went. Ish is nowhere to be seen. Eventually I see the gaggle of about 80 riders about ½ km ahead, up the tar road, heading south. I try to catch them, but into wind and alone its hopeless. After a while, they turn onto a jeep track, westwards towards the mountains and I start catching back markers. Soon Ish catches up to me, having started after me obviously. Together we haul in several riders, some of whom I know. The route gets technical and difficult – and fun! Some muddy river crossings are followed by a steep and rocky ascent up the back of the main du Toits Kloof range. A rider goes down in a rocky river bed in front of Ismail, forcing him to dismount. I stop to check if the fallen rider is OK – he is. Ish gets ahead, climbing faster than I could, but as it flattens out a bit I catch him again. At the top, we are rewarded with a staggering view over the Slanghoek Valley. Gazing out over the fynbos, we take in the sea of vineyards, framed by towering mountains on all sides. But there is little time for this, we have catching up to do! On the rocky technical descent we fly down, catching many riders, this time I’m getting ahead a bit, but Ish is soon on my ass again. We rotate several times and Ish informs me that we have already caught up 43 riders – only quarter way into the race, and we are already in the front half! We feel good and are riding well, now heading in a North Easterly direction up the Slanghoek valley, along a fairly easy jeeptrack section.

Suddenly, I’m down hard. The rider in front of me dislodged a big rock; I hit it straight on with my front wheel and went straight over the bars. Unfortunately, right where I am about to plant my face is another big rock. It does not move, but my facial features get a tad rearranged. Concerned riders gather around, while I apparently lie still for a while. I eventually sit up bleeding profusely, knowing that I took a very big hit in the head. I am not concussed, but dazed and sore and immediately concerned about my ability to ride the Logico Swazi Frontier. I can see the right number of fingers and answer all the questions regarding what day it is etc correctly. Unfortunately, I don’t advance to the next round, being unable to walk in the desired direction. Ish applies pressure to the cut above my eye with his Cape Epic buff which I proceed to dye red.

Help soon arrives as riders report the wipe out to some marshals ahead. But I have to walk a few 100 m to their bakkie. A quad bike arrives and I get taken back to the start finish where the paramedics apply the necessary. After some faffing about and going back to the crash site to get my bike, I am taken to Worcester medi clinic – my first ride in an ambulance – woo hoo! Eventually, on a deserted section of road, the driver agrees to engage the siren. I blame the bump on my head for not thinking of recording it as a ringtone. The admin and waiting at the hospital takes much longer than the stitches and X-rays. All fine, but it takes a long time before its all done. No cracked skull. I took this pic with my phone while they are stitching up my eye:
A bit gross, I know.

Of course, no Appleblossom ride for me on Sunday as I am still a wreck, my left eye swollen closed completely. But by Monday my eye can open and although I still have a blinding headache, I know that I will be OK for Swazi! Woo Hoo!

Last year we had to withdraw because my partner Pete wiped out descending Bulwer mountain (on his bike, not glider) 6 weeks before the event and broke his foot. This year he pulled out due to the economic meltdown, and after an extensive search for a new partner, the inaugural Cape Epic 2004 partnership of Dick and Konrad was reborn; now featuring a leaner, meaner Dick and an older, lazier Conman who was dragged kicking and screaming out of retirement. Read: a much closer match this time round; we may even be within camera range of one another! We adopted the team name Afripex Tigers, having procured the distinctive Afripex kit to ride in. With all this exposure, we hope to get a much bigger deal next year! We had teamed up with William and Malcolm (team William’s Bike Shop) for travelling and gathered at OR Tambo airport on the morning of Wednesday 14/10, where Malcolm had arranged a Toyota Quantum to hire. We jam the 4 bike boxes in the back and set off for Swaziland. Sporting a shiner of note, and doped up on myprodol for the headache from hell that has become my companion since Slanghoek, I doss in the back most of the way.

Now we come to the part which I had serious reservations about spilling in public. Immediately upon arrival at the start location, Hawane resort, all comparisons to other multi day stage races go out the door. This is so very different. Firstly, it’s a small, intimate field of only 90 teams. Therefore everything is handled quickly and easily and informally. There are snacks and beverages available while you are efficiently registered and directed to your accommodation for the night. If you were quick off the mark with your payment, good on you – a chalet for you. Otherwise it is backpacker, dorm or tents. We paid beyond the bitter end and had to be satisfied with a tent – which was fine, it was dry and warm and spacious enough. Dinner was a great pasta meal with salads, desert and coffee etc, followed by our first proper introduction to ”Fossil”, the race director. It is now clear that we are in for a different kind of event. The camaraderie and familiar banter amongst previous participants, along with the informal yet professionally delivered briefing by Fossil gives insight to the spirit of the event ahead.

Day one dawns foggy and cold. After a hearty breakfast we proceed to the start area. We were lucky enough to have been seeded in the “B” group (out of A, B and C). I detect the hand of ROAG in this. But considering our status, we are satisfied. Of course, I am still sporting world championship shiner and have to deal with the barrage of sarky comments and questions. I am still on big doses of Myprodol to keep my headache under control.

The Conman and I at the start

Without much fanfare, on the stroke of 7 am (or thereabouts) A is discharged and we follow 5 minutes later. We make our way towards the front of the group on the initial flat section, and after a few k’s we hit the first big climb of the day – the baboon’s back. Oh man – it’s a doozy. Its not long before almost everyone’s out the saddle and walking. We soon catch the A group backmarkers. There is a section near the top where the climb levels off slightly and then gets really steep. During the briefing, prizes were promised for those who could make it all the way up there without dabbing. It looks no worse than Sani2C’s “work to be done” hill, so I have a go. But about 10 m before it starts levelling off I run out of steam, traction and direction and come to a huffing and panting stop. I don’t see anyone around me making it, but later at the evening’s prizegiving several riders are rewarded with chocolate bars and accolades for their worthy effort. Now at the top of the baboon’s back and traversing along the top, we are rewarded with a panorama that demands we forget racing and stop to take it in and shoot some pics.

Riders walking up the baboon's back

Then the start of the first of many descents that immediately distinguishes this ride from other stage races. We encounter the first of two casualties awaiting medical evacuation to Nelspruit Hospital on this section. One looks in a bad way. Some sections are technical and you hit them at high speed – I’m glad I brought the big hit bike. On the descent I get a little ahead of the conman, which is good because he will soon catch me on the climb! About a 10 km section follows; mostly level, along Malolotja plains nature reserve tracks follows. We spot some wildebeest and zebra.

The Conman descending into Malolotja

Let me take this opportunity to mention that the route is unmarked and largely unmarshalled. It is patrolled so that help will generally be available, but competitors are well briefed months in advance to be self sufficient in terms of nutrition, hydration and 1st aid. Navigation is by route cards which turn out to be very accurate. And easy to follow.

I am using a RavX cordless bike computer that I bought just for this ride; Polar being difficult for an adult to read and too unreliable (the dreaded big red button) and GPS being contraband. But the computer is defective and resets every time I scroll down – se we have to rely on the polars for tracking the race cards. The conman is carrying the cards as he can read. My job is to measure distances.

Along a short descent we overcook it and miss the turn off, climbing a small hill instead before we realise that we have gone wrong. In the distance we see some other riders take the correct route and backtrack for a while to a spot where we decide to traverse the hill, involving a bit of portage. Valuable time lost, but since we are not in the running, it does not phase us. Then we hit the next big descent for some reason called “red trailer” – moderately technical but again fast with some dodgy sections. We come across another rider down and alert the motorcycle marshal we encounter further along.

Finally we get to the day’s water point / refreshment station; about halfway for the day, in the Malanti Valley. It is stocked superbly. Ice cold water, Mountain Dew, bananas, boiled eggs, potatoes, donuts, …. We pig out and it’s 15 minutes before we tear ourselves away from there! Immediately after the water station is a dodgy suspension bridge which proves difficult for some, but both the Conman and I manage without dabbing, including the hop onto the concrete section at the end. We nearly manage the technical climb that follows, but have to dismount ultimately.

Shortly afterwards we hit the penultimate climb for the day, “Brutal”, now having to deal with the noonday heat. It seems to go on forever, and is mostly through felled forest with little shade. We take regular breaks to seek shelter where we can find a bit of shade. We look down into the valley, whence we have come, to see the backmarkers just starting on the climb, way below. Finally we crest. The view across the mountains ahead is reminiscent of the French alps.

The view back down Brutal

Now a long, fast doubletrack descent before the final climb. We fly down; I pass several teams and take some big air over the contours. At some stage the fine line between exhilaration and sensibility gets “Blurred”. I am invulnerable. I can still go faster. A slight bend; a flat soapstone; my front wheel washes out and I am down hard. Luckily there are no obstacles and apart from the risk of sliding over the edge, I know that I will be safe. But the instant I am down I know that I have broken a rib. The roasties on my arm and hip will be tender for a day or two, and might stick to the bedsheets, but the rib could be a problem. It takes a while before someone arrives, and in that time I get to my feet and make sure that the bike is at least off the track and not a hazard. They ask if I’m OK, I pretend I am just hunky dory, and they leave. Some others and eventually the Conman arrives. We have to loosen the stem in order to straighten the handlebar, but apart from that the bike’s OK and we’re off again, a bit more gingerly now. Down in the valley we take some time out to bathe in the cool stream. I clean my wounds; they are not bad. But we know what’s ahead and can’t keep ignoring it – the climb aptly named “Too Brutal”. A short interesting bit in the valley where we cross the river a few more times then we suddenly hit the climb. It’s murderous. Somehow it does not look that steep, and if you try ride, it’s doable, but it’s just too energy sapping and everyone walks. The Conman walks faster, but wants to rest longer at every hint of shade that we find. It goes on and on. It’s exposed and the midday sun beats down on us. We lament about how bad geography works, pointing out how rivers are wasted in valleys and should rather be on hills. I shall write to Slartibartfast and the planet designers.

X marks the spot where I wiped out

Finally we see the Mountain dew stop in the distance and that provides some motivation. There is another challenge with intermediate prizes for those that are able to ride a particularly steep section, but no-one around us bothers. A few mountain dews; an energy bar, and we are able to ride the final section of the climb. A total of 1 hour 25 minutes from the base to the top; Only 6 km and 500 vertical m. Now only 2.5 km to finish, we are already fantasising about beers and food. But misfortune strikes again. The Conman gets a flat. We inflate several times, to no avail – It’s a 3 mm tear in the tyre and the Stans sealant will not hold as soon as any load is put on the wheel. Finally we make the decision to change tube and we are back in business. 16 minutes lost while we faff – we’re convinced that we must now be amongst the very backmarkers. It’s only 1.5 km downhill on a sealed road to the finish, beers and lunch.. We finally roll into the tiny village of Bulungula; our time for the day over 7 hours. It’s a deserted mining town; in fact out tyre faff was next to a mine dump. The asbestos mine has long since been closed down and the town is now privately owned. The hostel is our race village. It’s a beautiful setting in a valley with sports fields and ravine below. Bikes are taken from us and properly and carefully washed. Lunch is great – hot dogs, salad; potatoes.

Getting our accommodation sorted is quick and efficient. Had we been prompt with payment, we could have had a 2 person room. Instead, we are in a 10 person dorm (one lady). She is quick to present a long list of rules to which she demands all other occupants adhere – e.g. no snoring, no farting, no getting up before 05:30; etc. Without delay, we hit the showers and the sack. Lying down with a broken rib is not easy. And once a comfortable position is found, getting up is impossible. I eventually develop a method of swinging my legs around and rolling out of bed and sitting up using the shape shift method. The Myprodol that I am still taking for my bashed head helps.

Later we gather in the town cinema for a presentation about the town, an intro to Swaziland, highlights of the day’s ride and tomorrow’s briefing. The town is used mainly as an HIV/AIDS clinic, but it is hoped to develop the tourist potential. Swaziland has a population of just above 900 000; has a 37 % HIV infection rate and is about the only country in the world with a shrinking population. Prizes are handed out for completing difficult sections, for blowing spectacularly and for other random reasons.

Delicious dinner; more beers and time for bed. The Conman has changed his tyre – we were advised to bring spares.

Early morning faffing at Bulungula

Day two dawns amid the usual flurry of activity of breakfast, last minute bike faffing, etc. Despite our misgivings about the previous day’s performance, we finished around 50th, good enough to maintain our B group start status. A short neutral section then a nice downhill after which we traverse the ravine below the town and start the first climb of the day – all jeep track so far. 1 km into the day I break a chain. A quick and easy repair job but we lose 5 minutes and are immediately amongst “C” group – affectionately named by Fossil as “The Captains of Industry”.


We regain places quickly as we climb up into the main part of the village, where friendly people and school kids line the streets to give us a hero’s send off. Then some of the most spectacular singletrack descents begin. It’s steep, amid forest, challenging. It is called “Vernon’s Steps”; blending into Nathi’s. This is Blur country and again I fly down, a little more careful now, but still overtaking wherever it is safe to do so. 400 m of descending later, we emerge into a clearing and a dry river bed crossing. I wait for a while for the Conman to catch up, then I receive a message from another rider that he has stopped with a puncture. I know he will catch up on the ensuing climb, so I decide to continue. Meanwhile I have been watching many a rider cross the dry river bed, all walking! It looks perfectly rideable to me so I set off across the rocky moonscape. Near the other end, I have to divert to avoid a walker and take a more rocky line. I hit a big protruding rock and go down! Mindful of my injuries, I pick my landing spot carefully and avoid further injury. I am up quickly, but realise immediately that I am face to face with the camera man! He caught everything and informs me to watch the day’s highlights package. I took a rather painful blow to the knee and now have to bravely walk out of view to go and cringe in pain privately.

The Conman catching up

Later that night, the clip is played over and over; forward and reversed, much to the mirth of all. Our Afripex Tiger kit really stands out, and we are distinguishable and well known to all. Of course, I am henceforth known not as Dick, the talented cyclist, nor Dick the fast downhill maniac, but Dick the riverbed crasher.

I take it easy up the ensuing 400 m ascent as the Conman catches up. We climb upwards steadily, temperature already soaring and its only 8:30 Then comes what can be regarded as the “signature” section of this event – a 900 vertical m descent, spread over 25 km including 20 river crossings through the Mganda Valley! The section following the river is obviously not a steep descent but all single track and challenging nonetheless. One particularly long river crossing is allocated for prizes for anyone who can manage without dabbing. I take a poor line which takes me too deep, and I’m off. Konrad gets through. I carry my bike back and have another go. This time I loose balance and have to veer across into the path of another rider who exchanges some choice words with me. I don’t make it anyway, but he does! I later discover that it is the dude from Logico himself, and the main sponsor of the event! This action earns me a fine at the Gala Function at the end, and tequila shooter Penalty, busted by Logico dude.

This is not the time that I cut off the Logico dude, but note how I am taking pics while riding while the Conman is dismounted!

Finally we reach the day’s water station. Once again superbly stocked and this time in a spectacular setting amongst trees. We scarf ourselves dik on potatoes, eggs, fruit, confectionary, ice cream(!) and cooldrinks. It takes 16 minutes before we can tear ourselves away from there, but we perform some essential bike maintenance too – new disk pads for me. A short, manageable climb follows, but the heat is talking its toll. All around riders are starting to flake, some taking long rests under trees. Another breathtaking descent and we hit the final climb of the day that will take us to Piggs Peak hotel and Casino. Only 6 k’s; only 350 m of climbing – we have visions of a time of less than 4:30 for the day. But the temperature is now 39° and we have no energy left. We resolve to just plod at whatever speed we can muster, but the Conman needs to rest, unused to the heat and altitude as I am from living in Kenya. Onwards we plod. At one stage, through a beautiful nature reserve, along a section called “the Phopha”, we cover only 800 m in 25 minutes! Included in that is one spot where there is a spring next to the road; and we immerse our head in the little waterfall over and over. Several other teams stop to do that too. One final plod remains, then a level section and Voila! Piggs Peak Hotel and Casino! What a venue for a stage overnight venue! Just over 5 hours for the day, so we have plenty of time to enjoy it.

A rare pic of me

Conman dunking his head in the fountain

Our bikes are taken from us for cleaning, we walk to the pool, shedding gear as we approach and simply fall into the huge, sparkling pool. After cooling off a bit, we slowly swim over to the pool bar, crawl onto a bar stool immersed in water and order a beer. Meanwhile, the braai is on the go, and we can help ourselves to the magnificent spread whenever we feel like it. Life is good on the Swazi Frontier. Reluctantly we tear ourselves from the bar. Some don’t manage and are stuck there till the evening – The average participant at this event is a little different to what we have come to know at other stage races!

The pool bar

View out of our bedroom

The room is superb and we have a large stoep which serves as a drying area for kit ad workshop area – the conman again has to do some tyre repairs. The view over the Komati valley is breathtaking. We have a killer nap and then later a lazy walk around the area. Somehow the legs are not keen for much walking and instead we choose a route to the Casino bar area. We meet Paul Cordes and Yolande Speedy here and have a few beers with them. They were the leaders yesterday but had some misfortune today and came in 3rd. Cool people, and one of the landmarks of this event is that top finishers and “Captains of Industry” socialise together. Dinner, as you can imagine, is brilliant. A highlight of the evening was when Fossil tells the story of the security, that morning at Bulungula, spotting a shady character jumping over the fence and disappearing into the bush. They set after him and soon enough returned him. It turned out to be one of the riders, sheepishly explaining that he just went into the bush to smoke a spliff! Henceforth, he becomes known as “Narcotics” and is the subject of many awards and forfeits. He is a strong rider and one of the top 10 finishers, but unsurprisingly, was the very same fellow awarded the previous night when he and his team mate took a wrong turn 400 m from the end and added a few extra km of punishment to their day. Accumulated fatigue, too many beers, a big meal, some excellent red wine and a really comfy hotel bed combine to overcome the headache and broken rib and I have great night’s sleep.

The Fossil preparing for the day's briefing

An early; 6:00 am start is called by Fossil for day 3. Its much cooler today, even some drizzle. Once again we have maintained our B group start seeding. Once again, within a km from the start, along a steep concrete strip climb, I have a chain break. As I come to stop, I hear the one of the guys riding a KTM bike yell about picking up a saddle bag, but I am too preoccupied with my chain to take notice. It later turns out that it’s my top tube bag containing my camera! Hence no photos of day 3. I get reunited with the bag and its contents at the finish, but in the confusion I neglect to get their names and subsequent attempts to track them down via Fossil fail.

Anyway, herewith cheers and thanks to the KTM dude! I have made a small donation to Fossil’s charity to clear my conscience. The KTM bikes are beautiful BTW. One is a full susser, full carbon, the other a hard tail – both in the distinctive KTM burned orange and black colour scheme. There was also a BMW – it looked heavy and a bit ugly – much like a BMW Z3 is fugly. Anyway, back to the race: Now down to a 3 minute turnaround to mend the chain, but we are once again firmly ensconced with the “captains of industry” C group.

From the top of the climb, we hit more singletrack descent through bushveld – but soon get to an immensely long queue. Of course, we are now right at the back of the field and face the worst of the congestion – caused by a very tall stile we have to climb over. The up side is that we have lots of space once over and can eventually fly down the other side at Vmax. The Konman is on top of his game today and together we overtake a few teams on the descent. Another stile, but not so much congestion now because of the splits created by the first one. More descending; then we hit the first long climb of the day. It’s a meanie, and on top of it, for the first time in the event, there is an inaccuracy between the race cards and the actual route. Fortunately, by the time we get there, there is a marshal that points the correct way. Another fast descent and we find ourselves meandering along the marshy valley. We encounter another casualty and alert a motorcycle marshal further on about the location. Another mean climb which involves some walking and we reach the water point for the day. It’s magnificent as before. Another fast, long downhill, starting in a village on top, getting progressively narrower and more challenging. I misjudge the height of a hump and get far more air than I anticipated, but luckily I nail the landing. A technical suspension bridge crossing at the bottom, some technical climbing out of the bottom of the valley, a few ups and downs, then we hit the last climb of the day. Its long and one of those where you never get to see the top, always thinking its just around the corner.

By now the Konman has hit his straps and I am flagging. But we finally get there and hit the defining section of this race – OMG!!! It’s a full on downhill course! Some sections are fast and rideable and we have a great descent. Other sections are desperately technical, but we are intent on riding them and do manage. We make up many places here because several teams opt to walk it. One section is totally crazy and I remember commenting that even Greg would not ride this. But several people did ride “Mickey’s Madness”, (not us) and were given man size chocolate bars as a reward!

A short climb; a tar descent and all to soon the event comes to an end as we ride through the gates of Maguga lodge on the shores of the spectacular Maguga dam. Or does it? No, there is still the gala dinner evening, the night at the lodge and breakfast the next morning! The prize giving is a hoot – lots of forfeits and awards (I have mentioned the incident with the Logico Dude) and a meal and desert table beyond compare. We can party till late and don’t have to worry about early start line faffing.

Thew view from the dorm at Maguga

After a huge breakfast, we finally get down to the last task of the event – dissembling and boxing bikes, the drive back to ORT and the flight home. A memorable event and one that stands head and shoulders above all multi day events.

The highlights for me were, in no particular order;

  • The trails
  • The descents
  • The accommodation
  • The water points
  • The meals
  • The bike wash by others
  • The fun of self navigation
  • The atmosphere of the event
  • The value for money

Of course, also there were all the participants – from Narcotix who came in the top 5 teams, to all the others all the way down the field. We came in 47th overall out of 88 starters. I dig all the funky names like “Beer Made Me Do It”; “Swazi Sweaty Pies”; “Camel Toe and Hungry Bum”; …

Thanks Brett and Lesley; Thanks Logico; Thanks Conman. Thanks KTM dude!

Full results at

And read Tweaky’s report at – it’s hilarious!

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