Tuesday 19 October 2010

Posted by Velouria Posted on 20:09 | 6 comments

Swazi Frontier 2010

In a small land locked country on the south eastern tip of Africa, roughly the size of Wales and better known for things like the Reed Dance and being the last absolute monarchy in Africa, is an event that captures the very essence of mountain biking. How this event hasn't received more publicity is a mystery. The country is Swaziland, and the event is The Swazi Frontier.

Swaziland, here we come

After hearing some fantastic stories from several sources, I composed the best suck up letter ever, promising the naming rights to my first born, and large sums of money and other favours, should I get an entry. (I have kept the letter, and will be using it as a template for similar events. I haven't yet told my wife that we'll be having a rugby team of children). I also bribed some past participants into putting a good word in for me. After several nervous weeks I finally got the email - I had cracked the nod.
Svalbaard in kit form
The next challenge was to find a partner. With Craig preferring the company of older men, I was left to either find someone of a similar level as me, or someone who was brave or mad (or both). After exhausting the former options, I had to resort to the latter, and thankfully I didn't have to look to far. Enter Tree John - best known for his lack of skill at avoiding trees. I made a couple promises, about riding sensibly blah blah blah, and suddenly, Team Goat and Guru was born (I am the goat, as I go uphill well, and John is the downhill guru, provided there aren't any trees).
The old movie house
After months of planning the logistics, Team Goat and Guru and Team 5339.co.uk (feel the creativity in the name) set off on a country crossing adventure. Hermans to Somerset West, Somerset West to Cape Town Airport, flights up to Johannesburg, hire car to Pretoria, sleep - the junior team got relegated to the caravan by a rather grumpy Little John (of Little John and his Merry Men fame, the other half of Team 40.is.old), road trip to Oshoek, fighting with obstinate customs officials, lost customs forms, missed turnoffs, before finally arriving Hawane Lodge in the pouring rain. Us Capies know all about the rain, and aren't scared of a bit of mud and gunk, but throw in a bit of lightening and thunder and we become quivering wrecks - looking for the nearest bed to hide under. The other concern was that the sum total of my wet weather gear consisted of a pair of arm warmers (once again, Team 666.be.evil providing us with bad advice, telling us how hot Swaziland always is).
The T-shirt doesn't lie
Team 443222.mtb.gears on the podium

Stage 1 was a "gentle 60km ride through some beautiful surroundings, with a bit of climbing near the end" - to quote Brett, the event organiser and finalist for The Most Understated Route Description award. Unlike the Epic where Dr Evil goes to great lengths to put the fear of God into you many months in advance, Brett just lets the trail do the talking - up, mist, long grass, wild animals, trees, dam wall, down, stile, down, river crossing, waterpoint, up, up, up, trees, down, down, down, river crossing, forest, up, up, mud, up, trees down, waterpoint, up, up, up, down, tar, finished. Something like 64kms with 2100m of climbing for a total riding time of 5h25 through some of the best riding I have ever done. Team 2236.co.uk came in second, losing some time on the last climb.
But is it art?
Derek and Cliff - all smiles after Stage 1
In an effort to try to be inclusive, and to stop being a control freak, I had delegated the role of navigator to Tree John - that way he had some control over where we went and how fast we did it, and I had to follow him. That was the idea anyway. It became quite apparent that Tree John wasn't happy with this designation, and did his best to sneakily dispose of our route maps when I least expected it. After having to ride back up the trail to hunt for our cards for the third time, Tree John finally made a plan and stuck them down with a mouth full of half chewed PVM Energy bar. I always knew those bars were good for something. Thankfully, we were able to navigate by following others most of the time, but this comes with its dangers - several times we followed teams off into the great unknown.
Little John hates a dirty pool
The rest of the afternoon was spent soaking up the atmosphere, chatting about the fantastic riding, gorging ourselves on the tasty food, fiddling with bikes, and napping - all in the old mining town of Bulembu, now an AIDS orphanage.

Stage 2 dawned with the rain pouring down. Resisting the urge to climb back into bed after a hearty breakfast I once again put on all my wet weather gear - a sole pair of arm warmers, and got ready for what promised to be a 60km mud bath. At the Swazi Time of 7am we set off, braving the elements, the mud, and Tree John's navigational skills (Swazi Time is very much like African Time - just a little more random and unpredictable). With the odd slip here and there, mud in the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, wet bum, caked bikes and big smiles we progressed along one of the best day's riding I have ever done, made even better by the weather. We climbed, we flew down hills, we got lost, Tree John staked a claim to a particularly slippery piece of land, we crossed rivers, we crossed rivers, we crossed rivers (something like 32 times), we got stuck in mud, Little John broke a chain, we raced pigs (the pigs won), we high fived kids, and eventually crossed the finish line at the Orion Piggs Peak Hotel in a little over 4 hours. Team 8008.dodgy.giant, and in particular Little John, lost time as the mud brought their race to a sudden stop, but managed to hang onto a third place.
Certainly beats an Epic tent!

We weren't the only ones to fall victim to the mud, with the truck carrying everyone's bags getting stuck. The result was that 180 cyclists walked about the hotel in nothing but towels. All in all, the Unofficial Piggs Peak Toga Party went down well, with no reports of wardrobe malfunctions. Several riders even achieved minor stardom as other hotel guests clamoured to take photos of people in towels with funny tan lines.
Bike wash geniuses.
The mud had been particularly brutal on the bikes, and for the first time I experienced what can only be called "Collective Bike Repair" - where a whole bunch of people work on a whole bunch of bikes - often not their own, for the general good of everyone. Karl Marx would have been proud.
The Collective at work

Stage 3 was to be a 60km affair with 3 major climbs. The weather was finally playing along, so the arm warmers weren't needed, and I swapped them for a pair of sunglasses. After a slightly relaxed start, we found ourselves in the lead bunch. Just as we were settling in, as happy as a Swazi pig in Swazi poo, Little John of Team 911.im.lost sent the entire lead bunch down the wrong road. We watched despondently as first the mixed teams, and then the baggy shorts clad mountain bikers whizzed past us. The only consolation being that now we had some targets up ahead of us, and there is nothing I like more than something to aim at.
The finishing venue - Maguga Lodge
I'd given up on Tree John's navigational skills, and had to find other reliable sources of navigational info. The obvious option was to follow the tracks ahead of us, but there was a certain risk in this. With people like Little John doing the navigation up front, who knows where we might end up. A far more reliable source is what I call SCPS - Swazi Children Positioning System, and involves scanning the route up ahead, and then heading off towards the largest group of Swazi children on the side of the road. I'm still working on a business plan to commercialise my new positioning system, so watch this space.
We came down that mountain
Tree John had finally found some legs, and was making me work hard. While not as technically challenging as the previous days, the riding was still top notch, and as an added bonus we got to see the scenery. We also got a hint of just how warm it can be, and were more than grateful for the cooler weather we had experienced. We enjoyed some steep climbs, sweeping descents, a swing bridge crossing, angry Swazi cows, emaciated Swazi dogs, friendly Swazi supporters, beautiful panoramas, swamp crossings, flowing cow tracks, and a fast tar descent to finish off at Maguga Lodge in a little over 4 hours, securing 7th place overall. As Ricky Bobby says - "If you ain't first, you're last", and the Kenyan team of David and Davidson (or Epic fame and good friends of Sarah and Benedikt) made sure they were first. Team 0002.isnt.bad secured a well deserved 2nd place with the defending champs - Bruce Turvey and Rob Dormehl of Osama B's - succumbing to mechanical issues and finishing in third.
A Kenyan showing off his technical skills during Stage 4
The rest of the day was spent packing, cleaning up, enjoying a few drinks overlooking the Maguga dam, and just chilling - we had Stage 4 to look forward to that evening, and a long trip back to reality the next day.
Little John working on his Captain pose.
It's not often that event organisers get everything just right, and yet some how, Brett and Lesley have managed this. Even when things go wrong, it just doesn't seem to matter. From the race briefings, to the route, to the food, to the accommodation - everything is just perfect. The Swazi Frontier isn't a race, it's a ride and an experience that is out of this world. Many thanks to Brett, Lesley and all the other unseen helpers that make the Swazi Frontier the event that it is.

Still no word on the name of my first born, but I expect a call any day now...


  1. so i guess Malcolm or Kayleigh (from Serenity) for your firstborn will now be out of the question then.... does your wife know about this?

  2. Great report dude sounds like you had an awesome time and good work on managing to avoid any finish straight incidents ;-)

    On the Serenity note I would go for Ilara ahead of Kayleigh.

  3. Dane, as I have said on more than one occasion your BLOG is brilliant.
    The Swazi mtb race just looks awesome. I hvae just added this to my wishlist orf things to do before I'm FORTY HA HA.

  4. russ it is bog not blog.

  5. what is wrong with forty nob nuts! will you stay on your bike then.

  6. Forty is OLD! Surprised more people weren't calling you Oom...