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Freedom Circuit 2021 Race Report #2

Wednesday 28 April 2021


For as long as I can remember I have stopped for a bite to eat at the Little Church in van Reenen on the way down to PMB or Durban on the N3. Geraldine, the owner, and her partner Malcolm are always gracious hosts. My preference is for the bangers, mash and peas but really everything is good. In the men’s toilet, on the wall opposite the loo, hangs a portrait of a young man. I guess it dates back to the 1930s or so. I’m always glad to see it is still there but to be honest it is a disturbing image. Something about his eyes.

John the Geologist and I spent most of yesterday sitting on the top floor of the lovely three story building at Centacow Mission that serves as the support station for Freedom Challenge events. Nonhlanhla, the hostess since 2005, is used to seeing exhausted riders hauling themselves up the two flights of stairs to the top floor to be fed, watered and sometimes bedded (in the singular sense of the word and, as we have flirted dangerously with this topic in the past, let’s quickly move on).

Centacow is exquisite, a relic from the missionary zeal of many European churches in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. The whole region in which the FCirc takes place is dotted with mission churches. 21 of them to be precise. Those of you who enjoy the peace and tranquility of the old churches in Europe will have a blast down here in KZN and East Griqualand. They are still in good nick and continue to play crucial roles in providing spiritual, educational and health services to local communities. In my first attempt at RASA 2009 I spent 2 hours wandering around the two stunning churches at Centacow, reveling in the architecture and taking many photographs. I thought that it was that kind of race, plenty of time to be curious. It didn’t take me too long to discover that I had it horribly wrong, it wasn’t that kind of race at all.

One comment on Centacow before we eventually drift back to the main story, whatever that is, for the life of me I can’t recall. Yes, there used to be a Post Office in the very same building that I am sitting in. Nonhlanhla tells me that it closed “a very long time ago”. I walked down to the ground floor to see if I could find any evidence of this postal past but alas, only a “Centacow” metal sign outside that may or may not be connected. This flirtation with the postal history of faith institutions has got me thinking, perhaps a theme to pursue. The arrival at my house of a box of letters and documents from 1897 to 1930 from the NG Kerk in Rhodes (or is it Rossville?) a week ago is no doubt fueling this thought.

I remember now, the race. FCirc. 42 riders set off from Bushman’s Neck at 9am yesterday, a quite spectacular setting for the start and finish at this race. There is only one chance to take part in the first edition of anything and I sense that this year’s riders will forever be grateful that they decided to enter the 2021 edition of the FCirc, the first. The only hiccup was Leon Erasmus’s brake whatsit imploding yesterday. He had to go back to PMB to get it fixed and started three hours late. Maybe he can still win the race, although as I write this he has just come through Flitwick (the Buffalo Herders have moved on from Centacow) and tells us he is actually the only entrant of the third option for FCirc, “die Leeuloop”. This option involves staying at Mrs Kibi at Tinana and then cutting back across and over to the homeward bound leg, thereby avoiding 200km of the 700km event. Leon’s late start has given him the freedom to be creative, why not.

Looks like Kevin Benkenstein will win the 700km event. I say this not only because he is way in the lead but because he literally ran up two flights of stairs at Centacow, very steep stairs and didn’t miss a beat once at the top. Buffalo Herders are easily impressed by this sort of thing. He is through Vuvu in under 24 hours and looks on course to go under his predicted time of 48 hours. Mike Woolnough is lying second and on track to break his target of under 60 hours. I suspect he will go well under. Timothy Calitz, from Middleburg in Mpumalanga, is in third place. Quite a rider, in the last few weeks he has ridden the Munga Grit in the Cape and the Cullinan to Tonteldoos ride.

Young Oliver Greaves deserves a special mention. He gave Kevin Benkenstein a run for his money much of yesterday, not a bad effort for a 19 year-old. That effort took its toll though and he is currently regrouping with his dad Merak.

Sarah van Heerden unfortunately has had to withdraw so Ingrid Avidon is currently in pole position amongst the women for the 700km ride, with Kim Brearley and Sandy Mayham-Bailey riding together in second and third place. I have to clarify something. In endurance MTB/gravel bike racing in South Africa there is a Sarah van Heerden and a Sarah van Eeden. In my first report I spoke of Sarah van Eeden, which was a mistake in that she isn’t actually doing this race. She has done many other FC events, just not this one. Buffalo Herders shouldn’t have to deal with complexities like this but contractually we are bound so we have no choice.

Anthony Avidon is leading the men’s 400km event, in fact he is not far from the finish, looking set to take the win. Roger Nicholson should take second place. Estelle Labuschagne is way ahead in the woman’s 400km. She arrived here at Flitwick at 2.30am this morning, relaying stories of thick mist up, over and down Ntsikeni. Couldn’t see more than a meter in front of her but loved every step of it.

The Buffalo Herders are well represented in FCirc with Elton Prytz riding in the 400km event. So far he is looking at a comfortable finish. We are very proud of him and giving him every encouragement to ride RASA next year. At 73 years old he would be the oldest finisher, beating the current record of Ted Allen, thereby cementing his reputation as the legend of the Cyclopaths.

Flitwick Ranch, the second support station on FCirc, is situated in the Swartberg region of East Griqualand. The farm itself dates back 132 years. Katie, the owner of this farm and, together with Jurie very gracious hosts of the FCirc, spent considerable time taking me back into the past history of the Swartberg. The greater area, before it was known as East Griqualand, was known as Nomansland. Zulus to the north, Sothos to the west and Xhosas to the south. The arrival of the Adam Kok (hence Kokstad) and his fellow Griquas from the Kimberly region, together with immigrant farmers and traders all contributed to one of the more completed and diverse areas in South Africa. James Cole (‘Old King Cole”) of Riverside and Donald Strachan of Umzimkulu are two of the most remembered characters of bygone years.

Of particular interest to me is the first postal service that was set up by Donald Strachan. He had the contract for running postal carts in the area. There were postal agencies in Sneezewood, New Amalfi, Beersheba, Salter’s Post, Swartberg, Elangam, Glengarry, Newmarket, Rathfarnham, Harding and Karg’s Post. Names that probably don’t exist anymore. Names that are to be savored as relics of a bygone age. All part of this very special part of the world, a world through which we are privileged to travel on this unique journey known as the Freedom Circuit.

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