From my saddle I saw South Africa in its Sunday best – observations on a six-day ride across the country
A race of dreams, large and small, private and public, developed on the natural canvas of an ancient landscape; a tale written in the heart of lightness about a country where there is so much darkness.
The Free State town of Frankfort (population 26,000) may seem like a strange place for the start of a six-day international Mountain Bike Race (MTB), the inaugural Old Mutual go2berg.
It’s a 150-year-old agricultural town that the new South Africa looks like it forgot. Notable mainly for the Wilge River that winds round it and the landmark grain silos that tower above it. Its main claim to fame may be the burning of its Dutch Reformed church by the British during the South African war. More recently it briefly made media ripples because of a fight between Eskom and a local solar farm that was prohibited from selling energy to alleviate load shedding in the area.
Sadly Eskom won.
Yet two weeks ago, on 3 June 2023, more than 200 bike riders from all corners of South Africa and the world converged on its innocuous and jaded rugby stadium to baptise South Africa’s newest mountain bike race – 17% of them were international riders, several from as far away as Australia. I was one of them.
The race village
Like the Comrades Marathon the Old Mutual Go2Berg is a very South African creation. But before I go further with my observations let me give novices a sense of the set-up and structure of a multiday bike race, and what – other than wheels – helps it to roll.
A multiday race is broken into “stages.” Each stage centres on a race village: a specially built small tent city from which riders depart each morning and into which, in another town, they will decamp their bodies, bikes and belongings at day’s end. The 200-plus canvas tents in which we sleep are so close that the night is punctuated by a cacophony of farts and snores.
Read more in Daily Maverick: To South Africa with love – new six-day mountain bike race with an unusual mission
After action, portable showers alternate jets of boiling and freezing water, and the village sprouts a phalanx of travelling physios, a bar on wheels (known as the Pig Rig, complements of Notties Brewery), and a special circus tent where, each evening, riders converge to be fed and for a nightly race briefing.
In what feels like a fairground a mixture of musical genres blares out, but while we are in the Free State there’s a preponderance of Afrikaans folk music.
The responsibility of running the essential functions of each race village is contracted out to a local public school: as you cross the line the kids take your bikes and clean them, parents cook and serve, each school brings their unique character – usually a reflection of the town in which they live – to the day.
In Frankfort the school was Hoërskool Wilgerivier, a veteran organiser of previous JoBerg2Cs. It has 600 children and, according to Hennie Pelser, the principal, the race provides an “economic injection into the town”.
If the school is a reflection of a community it is also a reflection of a country still in transition to racial integration and equality.
In Frankfort the phalanx of young cheerleaders who greet the racers are all white. By the time we reached Hoërskool Reitz (the second night) the young people were more mixed and with each school it got more diverse.
One of my highlights was listening to Annetjie Coetzee, the principal of Clarens Primary School. This no-fee school (meaning it caters to learners from the poorest of families) had been founded in 1913. But it is pristine and modern; lamp posts in the school yard carry signs pointing to “Hope”, “Forgiveness”, “Tshwarelo”, “Goodhartigheid”; that caught my eye and made me feel warm on a cold morning.
Most of its 580 pupils come from Clarens’ adjoining township of Kgubetswana. That evening Coetzee told the riders over dinner how her staff “went beyond the call of duty in preparing to host the race by sneaking into people’s yards in the dark to steal succulents and going through the restaurant’s garbage to collect tins for your table decoration!”
Coetzee tells proudly of how Sibusiso Motsoeneng, a Grade 7 pupil, made the wire bicycles parked on every table.
The route: You can ride for miles and miles and miles and miles
The go2berg takes place over six days, many mountains and 530km. To make it easier my description divides it into three parts:
- Days one and two: Frankfort to Clarens, the race across the Free State;
- Days three and four: Clarens to Em’seni, dropping from Highveld to Lowveld; and
- Days five and six: Em’seni to the great Ukhahlamba, the magical geography tour.
Gary Green, one of the two founders of the race, jokes that it is routed “through the farms so riders can see what rural areas are like”. He’s right: with less than 10km of the total of 530km being on tar, it is amazing that it’s still possible to travel so far off-road.
I find there’s a whole world to rediscover out there.
But before embarking you on this journey the greatest credit must go to the trail’s builders. Unfortunately, as is the norm in South African history, most of the trail builders whose names we should know, are unknown. But we give them all thanks! The three I can name are Mbhekeseni Kunene, Sollie Prinsloo and Glen Harrison.
Off we go …
For the first two days the beauty of the route lies in the blandness. It’s winter and the land is bare, or at least that’s how we are attuned to think about it. A low winter sun glances off the earth. The earth is dry now, the flora yellowed. A hot wind blows cold over it.
Spatial apartheid is still very much alive. To every town its stepchild township.
Outside Frankfort we ride along the Wilge River, lethargic and seemingly resigned. A few forlorn fishermen fish forlornly. My guess is not for pleasure but for food.
Then, as we escape the bounds of the everyday, the beauty is in the emptiness.
For most of day one’s 80km I’m riding alone. So it feels like the world is you and you are the land.
Rolling with the rolling hills. Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. On and on. The ground grinding beneath you.
The country roads alternate between cattle paths and human paths.
It’s strangely quiet. No bird life, just cows and some sheep; isolated farms, some looking prim, others on their last legs.
A few last pink and white cosmos flowers cling to the road sides. A month earlier they would have massed in full bloom, a colourful margin to dusty roads. But these are the bittereinders of summer.
A rider tells me how they hail from Mexico and were brought to South Africa in contaminated horse feed during the Anglo-Boer War. That evening I check Google. He’s right.
When the town of Reitz eventually comes into view, my first sighting comes from the sun’s harsh rebound off corrugated iron shacks that metastasise off the edges of every town. From a distance they look like litter on a hillside. Flashy. But ironically it’s a sign of poverty. Spatial apartheid is still very much alive. To every town its stepchild township: Frankfort-Namahadi, Reitz-Petsana, Clarens-Kgubetswana, Harrismith-Intabazwe. Viewed from Google Earth the inequality is glaring.
I can’t help but think how, 110 years ago the great writer and intellectual Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the South African Native National Congress, rode across these (then Orange) Free State lands, documenting the “native” dispossession following the passing of the infamous 1913 Natives Land Act.
As a founding father of the vision of a democratic South Africa, Plaatje would not be impressed at the state of the indigenous people of the Free State now. It’s not their fault. They are the people Plaatje’s successors in the ANC forgot.
I doubt Plaatje would have. People were in his heart.
June nights are cold. Even a minus-8 sleeping bag can’t keep all your parts warm. The dark too is unfamiliar, but a full moon lights up the empty plains. You’re in the middle of nowhere except it’s somewhere. When dawn approaches you don’t want to get up. Pack your life back into your race bag, breakfast, stretch and get on the bike again. Miles more gravel roads to travel. On day two, there’s a relentless headwind, making even the downhills uphill.
On and on.
Twenty kilometres from Clarens I encounter children coming back from school in a bus, navigating the uneven dirt road, shouting excitedly.
It took imagination to etch this trail onto the hillside, weaving between rocks, gaining altitude, finding a view across to the escarpment of the Drakensberg.
A little boy and his brother, both in uniform, trudge wearily along the edge of the dirt road, their daily chore. Both make me think how big the task of the democratic government was, and how we should be more understanding of their failures, even forgiving? Patterns of poverty, deprivation and inequality carved deeply into the foundations of South Africa won’t be overcome quickly, even by a good government.
Which we don’t have.
On day two, after nearly eight hours of riding I crossed the finish line. This is what exhaustion feels like. By the time I pull into Clarens it’s 4 o’clock and the town is already in the shadow of its mountain. Suddenly it’s cold as hell. I get a beer and try to make my way to a hot shower and hotel. I’m lucky.
At least I can turn off the cold.
Clarens to Sterkfontein Dam to Em’seni
In the morning, the privilege of a hotel bed makes me yearn for creature comforts and wonder why I subject myself to relative deprivation. Is it just pleasure or is there something to be proved? To whom?
You may laugh, but with another 90km ahead it’s a serious question.
Ah, but the trails we ride (on days three and four) are beautiful: Winding around sandstone mesas, up passes then long, sweeping downhills, the sun warm but the air cold.
Pushing. Pushing. Pushing.
Alone again. Only the silhouette of a rider on a rise ahead of you.
In the last quarter of the race there’s a famous (among our MTB clan) “single track” up and down Mount Paul, a mountain on the edge of Sterkfontein Dam. It took imagination to etch this trail onto the hillside, weaving between rocks, gaining altitude, finding a view across to the escarpment of the Drakensberg. From afar the mountains look benign and beautiful. But I know their power.
I thank god that there are parts of our country that remain inhospitable to the blight of human settlement.
The day ends riding across the earth fill wall of Sterkfontein Dam. The strong wind that today had aided us to climb mountains is now crashing waves into rocks that line the dam wall, making an out-of-place inland sea spray.
The inland sea is a deep dark blue, contrasting with sky blue above it. It’s alive.
That evening, after a sunset to die for, we ate potjiekos compliments of Harriston School. The kids are full of life, laughter and more at ease in their diversity.
Em’seni to Ukahlamba
The trail that takes us down the escarpment of the Drakensberg, descending 500m in a kilometre. It is the most breathtaking trail of all.
Then, for two nights we camp on the bank of the great Tugela River. A feeling of peace flows with it. This river is not what it once was. But it still has a gravitas, a calmness, a wisdom. Wind rustles the trees all night and after four days my dreams have become less frenetic and frenzied.
The earth is having its way with me.
The ride itself is preposterously beautiful – and taxing – through forests of mountain aloes (Aloe marlothii), over asset-stripped farmlands and then back into unspoilt nature, contouring then climbing the Spion Kop mountain range.
I ride past a group of giraffes. Ears pricked. Gaze intent. But still and disinterested. “Never sniff at a giraffe,” I think, as I register their beauty. Far from common.
Shortly after that we ride down the “Grand Canyon”, an empty shale river bed, on a plateau that precedes the final ascent to the Kop. It’s fast and formidable, in one place hardly a metre wide. All on a day’s saddle.
Then we are onto a virgin track that Mbhekeseni Kunene, the master builder, has engineered up the north slope of Spion Kop. Cheekily, it’s named Boer Way, harking back to the path the Boers took up the mountain 123 years ago. It’s made of 53 ascending switchbacks. At the top I come across half a dozen cyclists felled by the mountain, lying on the grass looking like victims of a sniper’s bullet. Children from the local school step among their bodies, tending to their needs.
On top of Spion Kop, unbidden, the 1980s song by Boy George and Culture Club, War is stupid, and people are stupid, starts playing in my mind.
War is stupid.
Most riders whizz past, anxious to commence the down run. I can’t. I pause. Get off my bike. Look at the graves, read the names, tip my hat.
Here we are, with a 360-degree view, on a mountain that is still relatively in the middle of nowhere, where on 24 January 1900 more than 300 men lost their lives.
The story of how the British soldiers reached the top to become sitting ducks for Boer snipers, many of them shot in the temple, now has a new layer of meaning. Suddenly the connection to the famous Kop at Anfield (Liverpool Football Club’s stadium) comes to mind.
Humans bridge time and space with strange associations, but only Mahatma Gandhi, it seems, learnt the lesson, linking his witness to the slaughter on the hill that day to his later embrace of pacifism.
Later that afternoon, back in the race village, go2berg has organised a lecture on the Battle of Spioenkop by lay historian and raconteur Ray Heron.
Heron calls the Boer War “the real First World War”, and Spioenkop the place that brought Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Louis Botha into the same square kilometre. Before they went on to follow very different life trajectories.
Most riders whizz past, anxious to commence the down run. I can’t. I pause. Get off my bike. Look at the graves, read the names, tip my hat. “I see you, young men.”
Yes, war is stupid.
The down is fast, dangerous and fun. Dr Steve Reid, one of the riders and a pioneer of rural health in South Africa, put it this way: “There’s mountain bike heaven and there’s real Heaven. Riding fast downhill is heaven, everything is concentrated in the next second. But crash and klap your head and you’ll find yourself in the other Heaven.”
The last day of go2berg takes you out of the almost tropical feeling of the Tugela Valley, with its forests of aloe and acacia, across to the wall of the Drakensberg Mountains. They make their presence felt fairly early: a vast, continuous, mountain of grey rising into the sky, gnarled and punctuated by its different peaks and cliffs. With one eyeful you can take in a range of famous peaks; as you pedal closer they take on more and more shape.
The route is ingenious, again: a combination of single tracks, district roads, farm roads, tractor paths, skirting fields, game reserves. I find myself riding with a couple, public-sector doctors from Greys Hospital in Pietermaritzburg, who want to tell me positive stories of the commitments of their colleagues to the right to health.
We bond briefly over our bikes.
The race’s last laugh belongs to the organisers. With Champagne Castle now fully in view, an official from SARZA (the emergency rescue volunteers who have been en route in case of serious accidents throughout) encourage me on: “only 8km to go!” she calls out as I pass.
She neglects to mention that the race ends with a steep 2km climb up the side of a beautiful hill, a climb the organisers have called the De Kock Up (after the veteran broadcaster and bike rider Gerald de Kock). And yes, it’s hard as fuck.
But suddenly you are up, over the last rise, and Champagne Castle really jumps out in front of you.
Go2berg is over.
Mountain bikers are a ribald tribe. They come from all walks of life. go2bergers included doctors, lawyers and farmers. The Pros are dominated by youth, world-class riders at the top of their game like Philip Buys and Pieter du Toit. However, as I was leading up the rear I didn’t see much of them!
One morning, an MTB fundi I spoke to said he feared that mountain biking risks becoming a predominantly middle-age sport. On go2berg the average age was mid-thirties. There were, however, several riders in their seventies – people who have learnt how to go a distance in life. The oldest finisher, Steve Fenton Wells, is 76. He beat me at my youthful 59!
It needn’t be that way. Mountain biking offers incredible freedom. But because it’s expensive, it’s also a sport still scarred by visible racial inequality.
Put bluntly, it doesn’t reflect the demographic of our country.
This is a marked contrast with road running. Luckily, even if you are dirt-poor a road will always be found at your feet, and you can beg, borrow, steal or buy a pair of running shoes. As we saw with the 2023 Comrades Marathon, the result is the successful diversification of the sport, so that it truly reflects the demographics and aspirations of the country – and indeed the world.
This is why the participation of the Soweto 10 on the go2berg was so important. Yet insufficient – much more needs to be done. Their exceptional performance proves a rule that many more people could enjoy the sport, given a half a chance.
Read more in the Daily Maverick: 10 Soweto cyclists get ready to rock go2berg
Each evening I meet the Soweto 10 for a post-race briefing. As the days progress their characters unfold with the road, smiles become familiar. Each has their own story. I discover, as British poet Kae Tempest writes, that “there is so much in people’s faces”.
Little bits of life story emerge – of hope and loss.
Relationships are formed: for example, on the last day of last year’s JoBerg2C, Keabetswe (“Kea”) Mosidi, helped a rider whose bike had broken down.
“I had to push him till the next water point,” he tells me, where the bike was fixed, “and we went together to the finish. His wife was there. She was so happy to meet me. Henry says, ‘let’s go I have a surprise for you’, and I asked myself what is it? We went to the Pyga* guy and he bought me a bike. That was a big gift from him. I was too happy!” (*Pyga is a pioneering, proudly South African maker of high-quality mountain bikes).
Another evening Nkosinathi Maphumulo ruminates on how “as soon as he gets on his bike he becomes a human being”. He tells the team he “prays for a MTB church, to make the mountains go away, so that there are only downhills. If only my parents were rich I could go like Phil Buys.” At the end of the race, “Maps”, as he is known, is awarded the spirit of the go2berg.
Then there’s 40-year old Lazarus Mosuwe, or “Master”. Several days into the race I discover that he’s riding the technical and difficult downhills without a back brake. “Master” works as a gardener at a primary school in Soweto. He’s a veteran rider and very skilled. He could have been a champion. But last year when his two prize bikes were stolen and he couldn’t afford to replace them, his life and dreams crumbled. He admits readily that that’s when alcohol took over.
After spending a week with the Soweto 10 I learnt again how deeply carved is the historical disadvantage left by apartheid: the problem facing young black riders is not just the affordability of MTB bikes and equipment, but access to places to train and develop skills, store bikes safely and to be seen by potential sponsors.
For me, the fact that 19-year-old Siyabonga Ntsele finished 26th overall, in a time of 26 hours and 2 mins, is as much an achievement as that of the overall winner, Phil Buys (18 hrs, 57 mins). The last solo man finished in 41 hrs 57.
These youngsters (watch an interview with Siyabonga here) could be MTB champions if they are given an equal opportunity. That’s another mountain we must climb.
Back to reality
Being on a stage race places you in a state of suspension. While the shit in the world goes on, you enter a different reality, a better, more ideal one. From my bike I see South Africa in its Sunday best. I can’t help thinking about the potential we had/still have as a country, and the multiple meanings we could create, if we thought outside a broken economic box.
It’s hard to know what causes thoughts to bubble into being as you ride. Stray ideas get snatched out of the wind; random insights and observations offer themselves up to you.
A lot of thoughts about the state we are in passed through my head, but I also asked myself why do I reflect mostly on the outer life? Am I afraid to look inward?
At 11am on day three of the ride, halfway between Clarens and Sterkfontein Dam, my thoughts switched from the race to Johannesburg, where the memorial for my friend Eusebius McKaiser was about to start. There’s no positive gloss I could put on his sudden death. It felt meaningless and mean. Arbitrary, as so much of death is. Final. That undiscovered country from which no traveller returns. I imagined the event. The genuine friends and those who had claimed friendship to appropriate some of his magic. And then how quickly we all move on with living.
The early mornings, before the sun rose, were my favourite times to wander round the race village, engaging in short, intense conversations. One morning with a senior leader of the National Prosecuting Authority, another with a doctor, once with race founder Craig “Wappo” Wapnick, who talked excitedly about the potential of schools to teach children in towns like Clarens skills and “socialistic” values that they really could use to move forward in life.
Drawing a parallel with the race entry fee and the experiences it had made possible, Wappo said that “paying tax is your entry fee” to citizenship, to being part of unleashing a country’s full potential (not just its economic potential).
And that became my abiding impression of the six days: a race of dreams, large and small, private and public, developed on the natural canvas of an ancient landscape, a tale written in the heart of lightness about a country where there is so much darkness.
On Saturday, as I drove back to Johannesburg along the R74, trying to spot from the road parts of the trail we had followed, thinking how now I know what lies hidden in those folds in the land. I felt that, like a very good book, I would have been happy to start the race all over again, again. DM
Watch the videos of each stage of the 2023 go2berg here: go2berg