Freedom to challenge your mountain-biking skills on SA’s best touring route
The Freedom Challenge is a gruelling 26-day race suited for the tough and trained — but now ordinary mountain-bikers can enjoy the route in a more leisurely fashion, writes Teigue Payne
The best formal mountain-bike route in SA is also mountain-bike touring’s best-kept secret. The 2,300km Freedom Challenge route (with less than 50km on tar) can be done by anyone.
The route is primarily for the 26-day maximum race from Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal to Wellington in the Western Cape, which takes place every year in winter. One of SA’s great mountain-bike races, it is for the truly tough and fit, and proof of this can be seen on YouTube videos.
But people like me, with less mettle, can do any distance on the Freedom Challenge route at any time of the year.
All that needs to be done is to book with the organiser, Chris Fisher. The previous organisers apparently did not publicise or promote the route for touring because of problems they had experienced with riders who did not know what they were letting themselves in for.
But Fisher, who was recently appointed, says his organisation will be promoting the touring route. For cyclists interested in combining races with some touring, the route has been broken up into four sections on which there are shorter, more doable races than the full Freedom Challenge at four different times of year. But touring of the route can also be done at any time of year.
Booking with the organisers gives access to the route, which is often on tracks on about 140 private farms and nature reserves. Touring cyclists will also be given access to all of the Freedom Challenge accommodation.
However, touring cyclists should ensure the organisers know their capabilities. Tourers probably will not want to book race-length days; 60km-100km a day is usually good enough for people who are not chronic jocks. It is possible to tell the organisers you would like to cycle shorter distances.
Of course, distances per day are influenced by where accommodation is available. Booking costs R900 a night, including all route directions and maps, beds and all meals, and there are slightly lower prices for groups.
Access to these remote parts of SA is priceless. With others, and occasionally alone, I completed the whole route in five- to seven-day sections over six years. It was, taken together, one of the great experiences of my life. It put me in touch with, and gave me a better knowledge of, many parts of SA.
The route runs from Pietermaritzburg to Matatiele, then along the west of the old Transkei, into the remote area near Rhodes, past Berkeley East, through the Stormberg mountains, past Cradock and past Cockscomb (my favourite section) to the bottom of the Baviaanskloof. It then goes up Baviaanskloof, along the Swartberg mountains, out of Die Hel via Die Leer, to Anysberg Nature Reserve and Montagu, then via the Brandvlei dam to Wellington.
When I did sections of the route, I generally planned to get to the start by intercity bus (or occasionally by train), and to end where I could also find public transport to get home. This obviated the need to get back to a vehicle parked at the start.
As with the race, all of the sections were done without any back-up vehicle complicating things. We rode with the minimum of clothes, gear and food. GPSes are not allowed on the race and we never used one on the sections of the trip we did.
That meant, on a few occasions, I got lost. Once I was riding alone and became severely lost in the forests near Ntsikeni in KwaZulu-Natal. I sat down to have some lunch next to a stream and was alarmed when a strapping insizwa (young man) in part-battle regalia appeared. He raised his hand and greeted me politely in Zulu, and I returned his greeting.
The countryside is much safer than many think, and we never had any nasty incidents, besides the theft of a tool bag. On another occasion when I was lost and exhausted, I came upon a prosperous set of houses and asked the way. I discovered this Zulu family were horse breeders selling trained mounts for about R2,000. I was severely tempted to swap my bicycle, but was halted by the thought of the difficult arrangements needed for the horse at the end of the trip.
On another occasion, near Cockscomb, my friend and I were so tired that we knocked on the door of a local farmer and spent the rest of the day there talking and eating — and never made it to our night stop. In farming areas like these, hospitality is generally second only to religion in people’s belief systems.
• Payne is a route scout for Spekboom Tours.