Tuesday 1 November 2011

Posted by Velouria Posted on 14:53 | 3 comments

Swazi Frontier 2011

Once again, the cousins from Cape Town found themselves re-enacting the Groot Trek as we made our way from Cape Town to Hawane, via Johannesburg, Hendrina, and Carolina, for the start of the 2011 Swazi Frontier (possibly not the exact Groot Trek route).
Nervously awaiting the arrival of our bikes
Apart from the odd ablution stop and run away whirlwind, the trip was rather uneventful. No lost baggage, no forgotten passports, no missing customs receipts. Until we got into Swaziland. Rather prophetically, in the space of 9kms, we got lost 3 times, but eventually arrived safe and sound at Hawane Luxury Chalets. After registration and picking up our race goodies, chatting to familiar faces and sussing out the competition, we made our way to our accommodation. Once again we hadn't quite cracked the nod for a luxury chalet, but we had been upgraded from the tents to the stables.
I drive, Little John navigates. That was the deal!
Once we'd made sure the airline hadn't performed random drop tests on the bike boxes, we un-boxed and rebuilt our bikes. I'm always a little nervous about riding a bike that I've just put back together - I always have this nagging suspicion that I might have missed tightening an important bolt or two, particularly when I'm flying down a bone rattling descent, and of all the races to discover a loose bolt, Swazi is not the one.
Our room for the night
Dinner and stage one's briefing was a rather subdued affair by Fossil's standards - there was no talk of distance or altitude gained, and the profile for the stage was only subliminally flashed on the screen before we were distracted by the arrival of desert. There was some mumbling about a big climb, and drinking lots of water before we were told the difference between a stone and a rock (something along the lines of a stone can be picked up in one hand and thrown, while a rock requires at least two hands). Apparently, all stones had been removed from the course, which leads me to believe that Fossil can't pick up and throw anything bigger than a golf ball.
Little John and his new steed
As far as the competition went - the Kenyan Grasshoppers were back again, and they'd brought some reinforcements in the form of two youngsters. The Swazi pair of Thulani and Fana were looking good, and eager for a spot on the overall podium. Bad luck had struck the Osama Bs (is it just me or are they a magnet for bad luck) with Bruce Turvey falling sick in the week leading up to the event. We spotted a couple of other racing snakes and made mental notes on people to keep our eyes on.
Navigational homework

Stage One

Bright and early at approximately sometime after 7 (Swazi time is a non-exact concept) we were off and almost immediately we were climbing. What little air there was just seemed to get thinner as we gasped our way up the climb, our team name of Altitude Sickness suddenly feeling quite apt. Meanwhile we watched the Kenyan Grasshoppers and their protégés disappear up the climb, but we weren't overly concerned. We knew the Grasshoppers couldn't navigate, and so they were falling into our trap at the front of the race.
Another tough day in Africa
In what is becoming a rather regular occurrence, Little John had an early mechanical problem with a dodgy pedal and several teams came flying past us. We got going quickly again and made our way back up through the field. With the footage of the mountain bike hating buck fresh in everyone's mind we entered the Malolotja National Park and almost immediately spotted one of the now feared and infamous Red Hartebees. I held back a little and made sure I was behind Little John. Everyone now knows that it is the front guy that gets taken out!

Up ahead we could see our plan in action as the Kenyan's had indeed taken a wrong turn and we quickly nipped around a corner and out of sight. Another tough, rock littered climb awaited us before we encountered one of the scariest, death defying technical descents I have ever ridden. I have fondly named the descent Tyson's Traverse, and although I can't remember too much of the descent because my eyeballs were bouncing around so much in my head, I survived the prolonged 10 minute crash-in-motion, my entire body feeling like I'd just been in the ring with Mike Tyson for 5 rounds. Bruised hands, aching kidneys, cramping arms, and sore legs. Several times I questioned the wisdom of riding a hard tail at this event. By the time I got to the bottom Little John was out of sight up ahead, I'd lost a bottle (Fossil's warning about drinking enough suddenly haunting me), and I was convinced I'd forgotten to tighten several bolts on my bike.

Thankfully the descent had given us a bit of a gap, and while Little John and I both had some Mother Earth reacquainting falls, we were in the lead. We flew through the water point, gulping down some Pepsi and ignoring the temptations of the doughnuts and ice lollies and crossed the suspension bridge. All we had to do was keep our cool, follow the map and get to the last climb with a sizable gap and the first stage would be ours. What we hadn't quite banked on was that we'd miss the simplest of turns, get lost on the wrong side of the mountain and then bump into two teams of Kenyans.
Charlie the lettuce farmer feeling the effects of a long day out
We knew were we had to go, and the only thing standing in our way was the almost vertical side of a mountain. While I was trying to find a route AROUND the mountain, a decision was made to go OVER the mountain. I still wonder what Little John's reasoning was, not about going over the mountain, but the decision to take navigational advice from the Kenyans. Half an hour and four blisters later we'd made it to the top of the Kenyan Crux to find that we were now in second place, with several teams approaching fast and one last opportunity to make up time on and lose the Kenyans on the descent.
The Country Club at Bulembu
Little John contemplating a swim
However, Little John had other ideas and got us lost again, somehow sniffing out an illicit plantation of Swaziland's finest cash crop. And it wasn't just us that ended up among the tall, healthy plants - half the field of the Swazi Frontier got "lost" there. This probably explains the ten and a half hours it took the last team to complete the stage (and why they were giggling like girls when they finished).
Thulani stocking up on flapjacks
With our morale at an all time low, and several teams ahead of us by now, we started on the final climb (with the imposing name of Too Brutal). Both the Adult and Nymph Grasshoppers were back on their preferred terrain and flew up the hill as Little John and I adopted a rather more sedate approach of riding, pushing, carrying and dragging our bikes up the climb, eventually crossing the finish line at Bulembu in 5 hours and 7th place, for what has to be one of the toughest day's out on a bike I've had in a while.
Lunch at Bulembu
More worrying than the lack of BMT displayed by Team Altitude Sickness was the news that Little John had cracked a rib. Thankfully, the hospitality, food and surrounds at Bulembu provided enough of a distraction - we would deal with the rib in the morning.
Charlie applying Voltarin to Little John's rib
After failing stage one's navigational test, Little John is eager to make amends
Stage Two
In stark contrast to the treacherous nature of stage one, stage two has to be one of the most enjoyable days one can have on a mountain bike. Fantastically fast descents, countless river crossings, twisty single track - what more could a mountain biker want. Fortunately, the route was almost exactly the same as the previous year's stage, so while we couldn't rely on the Kenyans getting lost, at least we wouldn't get lost either (or so I thought).
The bicycle cleaning and self servicing area
With Little John doped up on anti-inflammatories and pain killers we set off from Bulembu, leaving the inspiring town behind and headed off towards Piggs Peak. Our plan was the same as the day before - try to lose the Kenyans on the descents, and make them have to navigate for themselves. Before we could really put our plan into action, Little John once again had his early morning mechanical, breaking a chain. We got going quickly again, and watched as the group up front were forced to make some navigational decisions.
The pool at Piggs Peak
We rejoined the group just as the long downhill was about to begin and almost immediately noticed that the baby Kenyans were under pressure on the downhills. The Kenyans had to make a decision - wait for their protégés or stick with the lead group. They chose the latter and soon there were just three teams from three countries at the front, Thulani and Fana from Swaziland, David and Davidson from Kenya, and Little John and myself from South Africa. The Swazi guys were riding a great race, they'd ridden smartly on day one and now were setting the pace on the front. I was worried that they would out climb us on the final climb of the day, and so was eager to put them under pressure in the technical stuff.
Now this is luxury
We got a slight gap through one of the longer river crossings and while the Kenyans rode across to join us, the Swazi duo took their time. A lightning fast stop at the water point and we were on our way again, the Kenyan's marking us (obviously relying on our superior navigational skills). One minute we could see the Swazis hot on our heals, and the next minute they were gone - nowhere to be seen. We put this down to them missing a turn, but the reality was that Thulani had broken a frame. Not just a dent or a crack, but a solid clean break. His bike now consisted of two halves, held together by gear cables and brake hoses.
Thulani and his new bendy bike
In a rather courageous move, Thulani told Fana to go on ahead - they'd never been in the lead group before and he would like to know how well they could have done if he hadn't had a mechanical. In order to be considered finishers of the Swazi Frontier, Thulani had to finish the remaining 18kms of stage two with his bike, and so with a borrowed pair of shoes began the torturous trek up towards Piggs Peak, carrying what used to be his bicycle.
Secretly, I think every rider checked their bikes for cracks that night
The only bit of route advice Fossil had given about stage two was that when you see the big blue concrete block, turn right. Guess which way Team Altitude Sickness turned? Ironically, it was the Kenyans who had to tell us we were going wrong, before they kicked it up a gear and vanished up the final climb, eventually riding 11 minutes into us as we settled for second place in just over 3h30.
My pansy feet showing the effects of the Kenyan Crux!
Once again the BMT jokes were flying around as we lounged around the pool when Thulani arrived, bike in hand, to the applause of all those there. We might have beaten Thulani on the stage, but there is no denying that he was the true victor that day.
I came back from Swaziland 2kgs heavier.

Stage Three
Lance was right, it's not about the bike
Much to The Pipe's disappointment, the route for stage three had been changed quite considerably. Mickey's Madness was a thing of the past, as was the long boring district road that climbed out of the valley up to the beginning of Mickey's Madness. Instead, we were all in for a new surprise. Ordinarily, this would have played into our hands, as this would force the Grasshoppers to either follow us, or do their own navigation. However, the Kenyans no longer trusted Little John's navigational skills, and were quite prepared to venture out on their own.
The finish - no high fives allowed!
Instead of having our early morning mechanical within the first hour of racing, Little John decided that 5 minutes before the start was a better option. As if our navigational skills weren't under enough pressure, his speedometer had stopped working. Perhaps we would be following the Kenyans today.

Enter The Pipe, who the previous night had made a bit of a nuisance of himself, immediately offered up his own GPS. Just another one of those things that makes this "race" so special. After a quick crash course on how to use the GPS we were off, and almost immediately the whole lead group got lost. Several times. Team Altitude Sickness wasn't to blame this year, as we were still trying to figure out the GPS at the back of the bunch. I suspect it was the Kenyans who were trying a new tactic - Treacherous Intentional Route Extension - they were trying to T.I.R.E us all out by making us ride up and down hills we didn't need to. A very sneaky tactic.
Do we really have to go home?
After passing back markers for the 3rd or 4th time (that's how many times we chose to ignore the route card), the racing upfront settled down and we reached a pact - we'd help with the navigation if the Kenyans didn't push too hard. Unfortunately, the Swazis were feeling the effects of the previous day's bike portage and were off the pace. However, the Kenyan protégés were in the mix, and this time we wouldn't be able to shake them on the descents.
The Kenyan youngsters - Antony and Kennedy. Keep an eye out for them - you saw them here first.
After a fabulous section of single track along the Komati river we were faced with a couple of torturous kilometers on a tar road up to Maguga Lodge - both Kenyan teams ahead of us, and another team hot on our heals. As the road went up, the Kenyans vanished and we were left to defend 3rd spot. A rather brutal way to finish another fantastic tour of northern Swaziland. We'd done enough to hang on to second place overall, thirty minutes down on the Kenyan Grasshoppers. Once again Little John was the bridesmaid to the Kenyans - and that's not something we minded too much. It's not often that guys like us get to race riders like them and the format of the Swazi Frontier makes that possible.
The overall podium
All that was left to do was enjoy some beers by the pool, cheer in the riders as they finished, pack our bikes back in their boxes and prepare for the prize giving party that night. The Swazi Frontier was over for another year, and already I was making plans for 2012. From the passion of Brett and Lesley, to the hospitality of all those involved, the beneficiaries of the money raised, and the other "competitors" - the Swazi Frontier is quite a special event, and a must do for any mountain biking enthusiast.
Not only did they beat us on bikes, the Kenyans have all the moves on the dance floor too
Time to pull up our socks.



  1. Great report as always dude and a nice result to boot!

  2. Outstanding report. Wish I could make it there in future.

  3. Bravo to the Kenyan grasshoppers!