Friday, 19 October 2012

Posted by Velouria Posted on 15:44 | No comments

The Swazi Frontier 2012

Several intrepid mountain bikers set off from the Cape for a cross country adventure in search of some of the best mountain biking Southern Africa has to offer. And as much as we'd like to believe that we live in mountain biking heaven with the fantastic trails in Stellenbosch, Grabouw, Somerset West, Durbanville and Tokai right on our door step, it is the tiny Kingdom of Swaziland that was our destination for mountain biking nirvana in the form of the Swazi Frontier. Judging by the smiles of the mud covered faces each day, it's difficult to find another event that comes close on the smile-o-meter.
Annabelle's first Swazi adventure
This is in part due to the eagerness and passion of the event organisers - Brett and Lesley, and in part due to the superb landscape they have to work with in Swaziland. There is no shortage of leg burning climbs, knuckle whitening descents, sweeping switchbacks, and never ending panoramas that the route follows as we traverse the north western corner of Swaziland. The attention to detail, both on the route and in the general event organisation is quite impressive, and should be the template from which all other events operate. Throw in a bit of what the locals call Swazi time - the laid back carefree nature that things will happen when they're ready - and the friendliness of the locals and you've got an event with a truly unique flavour.
The Kenyan Crickets flanked by the Grasshoppers
Unlike the other representatives from the Cape who had mistakenly flown up a day early or had forgotten their passports behind (Swaziland is indeed NOT part of South Africa), The Flaming Marshmallows (consisting of Captain Craig and myself) had a rather uneventful trip via Johannesburg, through the border post at Oshoek, and on to the race registration at Hawane Resort. We'd heard that the Kenyan Grasshoppers of David Kinja and Davidson Kamau were going to be back and rumour had it that they'd spent the entire year attending every course on navigation and map reading that they could find. They were now pretty much unstoppable. With first place practically sealed, we were eager to see if there were any other up and coming Kenyan Crickets that might be reducing our podium aspirations to just third place. Enter the duo of Vincent and George - smaller and skinnier than their mentors, but just as lethal when the road starts going up.

The Swazi Frontier consists of 3 stages, each unique and so very different from each other that together they pretty much cover all aspects of mountain biking. Stage One is The Killer and if there is any particular skill that you haven't yet mastered, it will expose that weakness and have you on your knees begging for mercy. The 60km route would take the leaders just under 5 hours to complete. The climbs are brutal - literally - there is a climb called Too Brutal that even has the Kenyans crying like girls, while inducing serious bouts of sense of humour failure amongst the rest of the field. Friends have been known to swear at each other, and wives call their husbands childish. The downhills are just as treacherous - taking you to your limits, and then gently nudging past them. No matter who you are, you're always riding a little too fast, throwing caution to the wind and loving every second of it. Like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, dessert comes first in the form of tough technical yet extremely rewarding descents and is followed by Brussels sprouts and cod liver oil in the form of unridable climbs in the midday heat. Only in Swaziland could they get away with this because the good parts are just so darn good.
Captain Craig chilling at Maguga Lodge
With 15kms to go in Stage One, The Flaming Marshmallows were in the mix with both the Kenyan Grasshoppers and Crickets, and the first mixed team of Phil and Jane just behind. I'd drawn the short straw this year and so I was trusted with the dreaded responsibility of navigation. Having been a pilot I thought this was going to be a stroll. Until I had to read a route direction in size 6 font while doing 35km/h down the side of a rocky mountain with my eyeballs bouncing around my skull like balls in a pinball machine. It's a miracle we didn't end up in Tanzania - lost to roam the plains of Africa forever. I did however make two crucial mistakes that day in an attempt to outfox and out navigate the Kenyan competition. The rather generic direction to turn left at a grassy junction cost us in excess of 15 minutes and any chance of a strong finish. But it didn't matter. Yes, it's nice to do well, but after the sweeping switchbacks of Heenen's Staircase, the intimate singletrack next to a river of The Brown Crocodile and even the loose and precarious climb of Baboon's Back, the adrenaline and endorphin fix more than made up for 15 minutes of bundu bashing and Brett cursing.
The pool at Bulembu - 2010
Sun shining in 2011
 Back to its former glory in 2012
Another thing that sets The Swazi Frontier apart from other races is the intimateness of the event. With only 90 teams taking part, it's easy to share stories and listen to tall tales while sharing a beer overlooking the finish line and cheering in those teams that have yet to finish. Much like outcomes based education - everyone at Swazi is a winner, whether you shave your legs and count calories, or are carrying a few extra kilos around the middle, a few more in a bulging CamelBak and only ride in baggies. This is an event where we're all just mountain bikers.

Stage Two is The Queen Stage - the stage where a little bit of climbing is rewarded with hours and hours of downhill, some stunning scenery, and between 27 and 43 river crossings (depending who you ask, and after how many beers you ask them). To put a slight dampener on things, Mother Nature had finally answered the forester's calls for rain and by the time we left the inspiring town of Bulembu it had been raining solidly for 14 hours. The riders from the Cape were licking their lips - finally we had something familiar to make up for the effects of altitude and give us an edge. The Kenyan Grasshoppers and Crickets rocked up on the start line looking like they were on an Arctic expedition wearing ALL their kit - arm warmers, leg warmers, wind jammers, under vests, winter gloves - the lot.
The rain settling in for the night
The pace was furious up front and before long we found ourselves overtaking the lead motorbike. A yelled warning of "WAAAATCH OOOOOOUUUUT FOOOOOR THEEEE TREEEEEEEES" from Brett had me rather confused - we were riding in a forest with hundreds of trees. The warning could have been a little more specific. Until I collided with a tree hanging over the route at chest height while hurtling down a forest track at 40km/h. In what could have been a life altering accident, I somehow managed to stay upright, despite being shot backwards after coming to a abrupt halt. The only thing I had to show was a small flesh wound on my arm, and racing pulse, and a wounded ego. Later on I heard that while I was the first victim of the tree, I certainly wasn't the last, and in comparison I got off rather lightly.
My Swazi tattoo - thanks to a stray tree
By this stage, Captain Craig and I were in 4th place, chasing our Cape cousins and the over dressed Kenyans as we crisscrossed the river in the Mganda valley when disaster struck. In addition to riding with no back brake, Captain Craig broke a chain which gave the leaders a gap on us as we fiddled around in the dirt to put it back together. As we left the Mganda valley behind us and the safety of the river, we found ourselves having to navigate the uniquely Swazi sticky red mud of death. It's like jam mixed with super glue and baby poo. All forward motion is halted as the mud clings to anything it touches, eventually clogging up anything that is supposed to turn. As I waited for Captain Craig after a particularly punishing patch, a local took one look at my bike, shook his head at said "Eish - it's time to throw in the towel". But we're better than that, and we persevered on.
Little John getting put back together again, also indicating their  planned position for the next day
Just when it looked like we'd be settling for 4th place with 5kms to go we came across the Arctic Kenyans bent over in a huddle. A rather strange scene greeted us - I saw a shoe cleat, what looked like spoke spanner, a broken chain and a rock which was being pounded against the other items. This was our chance for a podium! But that is not what Swazi is all about. Without hesitating I gave them my chain breaker and a quick link and then set off to make use of the two minutes head start we'd get over them up the final climb of the day to Piggs Peak Hotel. With only a quarter of the hill behind us, the Kenyan Express came storming past us like we were out on a recovery ride. To see these guys in action is quite amazing - the effortlessness and fluidity with which they climb is impressive. We eventually rolled into Piggs Peak in 4th place behind our Cape cousins and the Kenyan Snowmen - covered in mud from head to toe with aching legs and burning lungs, but with massive smiles - the luxuries of the hotel awaiting us.
Making Swazi Soup in the Piggs Peak hotel room bath
After a scrumptious dinner, a few beers and a good night's sleep we once again awoke to the pouring rain. There is nothing worse than leaving the comfort of a warm bed for a cold wet saddle for the start of Stage 3 - The Playground. In the past this stage was more like a transitionary stage between Piggs Peak and Maguga Lodge, but with all the changes made it turned out to be my most enjoyable stage of the event. The lead group were off at a furious pace, but before long things were starting to go pear shaped. People are very quick to criticise the guy that leads the whole group astray, and while I didn't get any shouts of appreciation when navigating correctly, I sure did get a lot of abuse for missing one or two (or three) turns. After that, I changed my navigational strategy - I'd rely on Phil and Jane, and if they weren't around, the SCPS - Swazi Children Positioning System. Captain Craig was once again showing us just how hard core he is by again riding with no back brakes. Apart from the odd fall at high speed he managed to survive the stage in one piece - mostly.
Making Swazi Soup at Maguga Lodge
Before long it was the usual suspects were at it again - the Kenyan Grasshoppers were asserting their dominance, leaving the Crickets, our Cape cousins, the incredibly strong team of Jane and Phil and us to dice it out. Our Cape cousins were in 2nd overall, and so when we came across them fiddling with a loose cleat The Flaming Marshmallows stopped to offer help. If anyone had a chance of dethroning the Kenyans, they'd need all the help they could get. By the time we got to the water point, Captain Craig was having cleat problems of his own, but in his usual tough and carefree manner chose to ride on, effectively pedalling with one and a half legs as he rode away from our little posse. It was around this time that we entered The Playground - goat track blending into jeep track, traversing dongas and ravines, picking virgin lines to avoid the obstacles that the trail threw at us. Score a 10 out of 10 on the smile-o-meter. None of us wanted it to end. Of the three days of riding in Swaziland this was the highlight for me. But like all good things that end we eventually left The Playground and popped out on the Maguga Dam wall and had a short sharp climb up to the lodge. The Kenyan Crickets were back on their preferred terrain and disappeared from sight as The Flaming Marshmallows crossed the line in 3rd place.
Racing in luxury
All that remained was to clean up, pack away the bikes and get ready for the 4th stage. Unlike the previous 3 stages, here the back markers hold the advantage and it's the race snakes that suffer. The Swazi Frontier once again exceeded expectations - the fantastic, raw mountain biking, the friendly locals, the enthusiasm and passion of Brett and Lesley and the like minded fellow cyclists - all combine to create an exceptional event and I'm pretty sure The Flaming Marshmallows will be back again next year.
The first out of category climb of Stage 4

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