Below is the amazing story of an expedition that Colin Cooper and his daughter Bianca embarked on in May this year – to ride the length of the Marico River from its source to its confluence with the Limpopo and even beyond in 24 hours. Not only did they take on a grueling distance through harsh terrain but they did it on solid steel (26kg), no suspension, one gear and no front brake, only a pedal-back rear brake Qhubeka African village bikes, All with no fancy energy drinks or expensive sports nutrition but only the water from the Groot Marico River and basic home-made foods. As supporters of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s efforts to conserve the Marico River catchment, we take our hat off to Colin, Bianca and their back-up crew.
Here is their story……
In March 2013, our intrepid team of mountain bike riders completed a four day journey of 300km from the Eye of the Groot Marico River (its source) to its confluence with the Crocodile River in Botswana where it becomes the mighty Limpopo.
The trip was done to raise awareness that the Groot Marico River is the last clean river left in North-West Province. Also, March 19th was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir David Livingstone and along the route we visited the Livingstone Well and finished our ride at a monumental dead leadwood tree known as the Livingstone Tree.
I also rode the course on a Qhubeka African bike. Solid steel (26kg), no suspension, one gear and no front brake, only a pedal-back rear brake. The bike was great, caused no trouble and was a relatively easy ride for me.
Whenever I finish a long ride, I always think of the next challenge. Two things were missing on this ride, firstly, my ever reliable biking companion, my daughter Bianca, could not be with me due to work commitments and secondly, the test of endurance was not hard enough for me or my Qhubeka.
I sent a short sms to Bianca: “I’m going to try and ride the same 300km route in one day. Would you like to join me on a Qhubeka bike as well?”
Sixty seconds later came the reply: “When are we leaving?”
The date was set to leave at midnight from the Eye on the night of the full moon in May.
Three weeks to go
Find two friends to do back-up vehicle driving – Arno Faul and Father Noel Gillespie. Arno will be main driver and photographer and Father Noel will do navigation and washing-up duties.
I am busy in my workshop and moved an old car engine out of my way. I rick my back badly. Now shuffling about bent double
Two weeks to go
Bianca arrives at the farm for the weekend and as she has never ridden a Qhubeka bike we go for a long ride. We manage 132km which is now her longest ride ever, but just a bit short of our target.
I am busy grading our roads and when I jump off the tractor I pull a muscle in my right calf. Now shuffling about bent double and limping.
One week to go
Back in Joburg, Bianca keeps training on a stationary bike. I decide to try a dirt road 200km ride on the Qhubeka. Just make it, but extremely sore in the nether regions.
I am busy fixing the electric fence around the orchard and slip off some rocks and badly gash and bruise my left knee. Now shuffling about bent double, limping and hobbling.
Three days to go
Time is going sooooooooslooooooowly.
Two days to go
Pack vehicle and trailer.
Four hours to go
Bianca arrives from Joeys and the rest of the team pitches up. Drink coffee and everyone falls asleep as it is now bedtime!
One hour to go
We all wake up drowsy and trek off to the start at the Eye.
“In Africa there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes Africa great.” Apologies to Gertrude Stein.
We leave the Eye at midnight on a Friday full moon. It is seven degrees and we are wearing shorts, two vests, a thin wind jacket and a beanie each. Also cotton gardening gloves to keep our pinkies warm.
After 1km we start up a steepish hill and start sweating heavily from pedalling 26kg uphill. Think about taking my jacket off, but then reach a long down where we coast and start to freeze again. This continues for the next hour as we pedal (and push) our Qhubekas up and down the big hills.
“You don’t need eyes to see, you need vision”- The Prodigy. We do not have bike lights, but we do have two LED headlamps each and with the full moon we can see clearly. In this second hour the biggest hills of the trip are over and we reach the highest point of the route. In daytime you can see the Marico Dam which is 30 km away but all we see is the faint glow of the occasional farmhouse light in the bush. It is very, very quiet. Just the sound of swishing tyres, hard breathing and the odd joke or two.
“I never predict anything and I never will.” Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne. The roads are relatively smooth and there is lots of downhill coming as we leave the Highveld and drop down into the Marico Bushveld, approx. 350m descent in 10km – weeeeeeeee! Many friends have asked whether this odyssey on the Qhubeka can be done. I say I can do it in 24hours but I don’t really know. A lot of things can go wrong in one whole day. Experience in long distance running has taught me that when you hit the wall, it is over, almost impossible to recover and start running again. The next 20 hours will not be just about energy, it will be mainly about mental strength.
“The best way to prepare for a Tour is with a good woman and a bottle of champagne.” Jacques Anquetil.
Coming up to the 50km mark, a sixth of the way, we had not seen or heard a car or even a person. We roll easily into our little town of Groot Marico, cross the N4, and stop. Here we meet Father Noel and Arno (who is asleep on the back of the trailer) for the first stop of the trip. Bianca puts on a second pair of socks and I add a woolly jumper to my attire as it’s getting even colder than the start.
Our liquid substance for the trip is Groot Marico River water and here we refill our bottles. The only bike problem so far is a broken bottle rack on Bianca’aQhub. This is quickly repaired with the world’s best maintenance product, Duct Tape. We also have in stock on the bikes the world’s second and third best repair products – Cable Ties and Bloudraad.
“A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of the trees, the fissures of the rocks and from the ground… it is a voice that proclaims to us that all nature breathes.” Sir David Livingstone. Nearly had a major puncture problem as Bianca just manages to swerve out of the way of a porcupine that is nonchalantly trotting along Our Road.
We are now heading along the dirt road to the Marico Dam. A road I know well so the speed keeps up at 20kph along the small rolling hills. Every time we go down a dip we hit an inversion layer and its consequent chill. Then on every climb we perspire again. There is no consistency but the variation in terrain is great compared to what’s coming. 20km.
“Get up and try, try again.” Pink
We ride through the village of Koffiekraal where parties are still pumping. This is the first noise we have heard in over four hours. Out the village, and it is a shortish ride to the next village of Uitkyk. From previous rides I know hell is coming in the form of a horrendous road surface for many kays. I warn Bianca, but until you ride this section you cannot foresee the pain it is going to give you, especially without any form of suspension.
Out from Uitkyk the rough road gently rises forever and a slog is on. Then we hit a T-junction and turn left onto a sea of elephant size corrugations for the next 25km. The solid waves are just less than one wheel’s diameter apart so you crash from one peak to the other which drives your wrists into your elbows. Your brain is no longer suspended in fluid and smashes about in your skull. But worst of all is your butt and saddle combination.Interpersed with the ridges are endless patches of deep soft sand which stops forward progress like a bird hitting a window. Soon I am down, caught out by the almost swampy texture of the soft grains of dust. Luckily, it is a slow speed accident so only a couple of bruises. Actually, it was quite nice just to lay on the ground for a while.
“The mug who tries his hand at the system (of keeping fit) I have mapped out will be well advised to see to diet, and, while training, to eat nothing but food.” Herman Charles Bosman
Progress is still painfully slow but there is a slight glow in the East and a promise of some warmth. Windchill from fast riding is not a factor for the last couple of hours but lack of blood circulation might be a problem unless we raise our speeds.
It’s always darkest, and coldest before the dawn, but when the road surfaceeases, small houses come into view, the sun rises and we coast into Sesobe where our manne await.
We have our first real stop and make it a good one with lots of breakfast. Before we left, I baked three loaves of bread, made some jam from oranges and apples from the orchard and also I baked some of my Marico Power Cakes (1000kJ per slice) Also had a couple of boiled eggs and topped up with river water. Luxury. We shed a couple of layers of clothes, but not too much as it is still nippy in the shadows cast by the Bush.
As they say, a new dawn brings new adventures, and leaving Sesobe, we were re-vitalised.
Heading north again to bypass Molatedi Dam which is fed by the Groot Marico River.
“Until the 1935 Tour de France wheel rims were made of light wood.” Fair roads now but still no traffic. Only several donkey carts on their way to town and another donkey cart being pulled by humans. I assume the worker donkey was on strike, like most other South Africans, for better feed and working conditions.
How mad is this? In the Marico there has been a sudden increase in unemployment levels due to the government applying a 50% wage increase to R105 per day, for farm workers. The Government now employs these unemployed on their own Expanded Public Works Programme at a wage of R60 per day.! Am I missing something? Stop to do some photos and find some very peculiar nests surrounded by webs in the bush. Must find out what they are.
The road has been gently undulating for the last 15 kays, but now we have to cycle up and over a steep kloof. I am lying, we get off and push the Qhubs. Then a speedy drop for a few kays into a neat and tidy Molatedi village.
Now that there is light I can finally check our distance covered on my trocheamer.
“The trocheamer is an instrument which, when fastened on the wagon-wheel, records the number of revolutions made. By multiplying this number by the circumference of the wheel, the actual distance travelled over is at once ascertained.” Sir David Livingstone 1843. And you thought bike computers were new?
From the village we stop as we cross over the Groot Marico River for photos (It’s actually just a reason to stop) Bianca has now broken her previous best of 132 km in one ride so we celebrate with high fives. We cycle along a ridge of hills toward our next stop which will be the Molatedi gate of Madikwe Game Reserve. I have to remind Bianca of the fact that when biking away from predators, you don’t have to be faster than a lion, only faster than your buddy.
“Besides humans, the only animal that can stand on its head is an elephant.”
Arrive at Madikwe to a small problem. The armed guard that was organised to drive through the reserve with us has decided to be busy elsewhere, even though the trip was re-confirmed two days ago. Arno applies his negotiating skills in fluent Setswana with two other rangers who arrive at the gate and they agree to guide us through the park. Brilliant, but it does take us half an hour to get in, time that we cannot really afford to waste. Elephants, more elephants and lots of elephants pop down the road to see us through. Boy are they big when you are riding a bike. We miss out on any lion sightings so there is no match race sprinting between us.
10h00 and 11h00
“In the history of humanity, does it not constitute the first successful effort of intelligent life to triumph over the laws of weights?” Henri Desgrange
We arrive at the centre of the park, Vleeschfontein, and turn right to aim for the Derdepoort gate. Oh horrors! The road turns into one made of small boulders, just big enough to give us the same troubles as after Uitkyk. Butt numbing, wrist breaking torture for another 20km. It’s so bad that we give up looking for game and just look at the road surface instead. We have a spare bike hanging on the trailer, just in case. The road is so bumpy that the front wheel of this bike just drops off and our team had to rescue it from being squished by elephants.
“What are you saying
Supermarket shopping lady
In the scarlet telephone box
Lady with the shopping bag
Full of labelled pollution with secret codes.” Spike Milligan
After twelve hours in the saddle we leave the park and head into the town (?) of Derdepoort and a lunch stop at the only petrol station/farmers’ supply/café/furniture store in the metropolis. Park off under a large shady tree. All around is luscious green lawn that looks perfect for a little lie down. But every available space is taken up by little Jack Russel size turds. Even my small frame could not find enough clear space for a kip. Make do with sitting upright on a hard wooden bench instead. Eat more wonderful home baked bread and jam with a Marico Power Cake and a nice cup of tea.180km under our tyres and still ok.
“Tour de France riders consume 32 000kJ on a mountain stage.” And I only baked 24 X 1000kJ Marico Power cakes.
Eventually decide to leave our little paradise and manoeuvre our bikes around the little black bombs and back onto a dirt road. Just 2 kays to the Botswana border and just for a little joke, the authorities decide to put their Customs post on the top of a little Everest. No problem to us though, we just get off and push. Crossing that border takes some time as everyone on the SA side wants a chat to see what we are up to. They find it very difficult to believe we have come 180km on these bikes and we are not even two-thirds of the way to our destination.
On the Botswana side we meet a little Hitler. Arno broke one rule and I broke another. Both offences could see us jailed apparently. This, by the way, is Africa’s quietest border crossing. There is no-one there apart from us.
Therefore Arno parks the Landy and trailer across three parking bays so that no reversing is required to get out. Noooooooooo! The little official instructs Arno to park correctly within the lines or we cannot go any further.
I commit the second offence by signing the vehicle register before I get my passport stamped. Noooooooooo! The same official has popped up inside and given me a strict verbal warning to adhere to procedures and get things the right way round. The fun carries on when the passport official calls Mr Gills Pie to collect his passport. (Gillespie!)
“This is a hard sporting event and hard works wins it.” Lance Armstrong 2005. Yea, right!
Now safely in Botswana, but lost a lot of time again. Now we ride into Sikware on a tar road and have this luxury for the next 10km. In this next hour we reach a milestone of the double century. Only one hundred to go but getting mentally difficult now. The legs are still turning over at a good rhythm, speed has dropped and cannot maintain 20kph even on the good roads. Hustling along, constantly talking to my body, at around 18kph.
Bianca is a doc, so I ask her for some morphine to get through the pain. She prescribes Endorphins. We’ve got South African flags flying from the backs of our Qhubs and the locals love it and shout encouragement as we zoom (?) past, especially the kids.
“Gears were allowed in the early Tour de France, but only two. To change gear, one had to stop, remove the rear wheel and turn it around to use the gear on the other side.” Thank goodness we had only one gear!
The tar finishes and we are back to dirt roads for the rest of the way. But what dirt roads! Well maintained, hardly any corrugations and almost as good to ride on as tar, South African authorities take note, learn a lesson from your northern neighbours and fix your roads. About half past three we meet the team for the last time until we finish. Stock up on river water and Marico Power Cakes. Our target finish plek is the Livingstone Leadwood tree and our crew are not sure of its precise location so have to set out now to find it before dark and set up camp.
“The strongest muscle in the body is the tongue.” Maybe I should lick my bike? It is now getting late on Saturday afternoon and the shebeens and bars are getting busy as we plough on. Amazingly tempted to drop in for a cold St Louis beer just to make a difference to our routine. The weather forecast for this time of year is for northerly headwinds but it is as still as a graveyard. We give thanks for the fabulous weather so far but it turns to bite us as night falls.
Left, right, left, right etcetc
Ride in saddle for 500 meters, stand up and ride for 100 meters, again and again and again.
“When I feel bad I attack – that way no-one knows how bad I feel.” Bernard Hinault
Sun setting down in the west, which means we are still on the right road heading north-east. Smooth dirt with occasional variations of small patches of soft sand, but nothing to be concerned about. 220km comes and goes as I go through a bad patch and feel like giving up and calling it a night (and a day) Bianca seems to be going ok so I settle in her tracks and plod along in the slipstream. We actually can’t give up as our vehicle is at the finish and we have no Botswana cell phones. Therefore, left, right etc. sit, stand etc. on and on.Beautiful African big sky sunset over the bush. The odd car goes past. Some very odd cars go past! Is there no roadworthy test here?
“Wombats can run up to 40kph and stop dead in half a stride. They kill their prey this way – the prey runs into the wombat’s bum bone and smashes it’s face.”
Nothing to say.Still following Bianca.Neither of us talking anymore. Just need to get to the conclusion. This is a stupid idea. Should never have left Groot Marico. My nice warm bed and wife is there. It’s Saturday night, should be having a braai and a beer too many. It’s dark now, very dark. Where is the moon? I forget that it only starts to rise after eight so we are stuck with inadequate LED lighting. The lack of wind makes itself a huge problem now. There are a few cars around now, every five minutes or so. They create a huge, fine dust cloud which hangs over the road for a couple of kays with no wind to blow it away. The dust is choking but worse, our LEDs just reflect off the cloud one meter in front of us. We can see nothing on the road and suddenly I am down again. I hit a patch of loose sand and the front wheel just slides away. It’s my second fall, and this one knocks the wind out of me as we were going at a fair pace and I stop like a wombat. Luckily nothing is coming from behind.
Stopped so we walk for 500 meters and get back on. I am now very wary of passing cars and hanging dust so the pace reduces. I thought we would arrive by 20h00 but this is not going to be.
“And reaching the valley the boy must pedal again
Left-right-left but meanwhile
For ten seconds more can move as the horse in the chalk
Moves unbeginninglycalmy.” Louis Macneice
We have no maps or GPS so when we see a sign saying Olifantsdrift 20km we know we have only about 34km to go.Absolute peace in my mind. We will knock this final peak off chop chop. Mentally and physically I get back on top of my game and all is relatively easy again. I lead and Bianca follows, but more often than not we ride side by side and conversation starts again after the verbal silence of the last two hours.
“The correct amount of sleep for a human is about five minutes more.” We pass Olifantsdrift and there is Father Noel in the Discovery. They had found the tree, set up camp, and now Father Noel was going to wait at the turnoff which would lead us down the last three kilometres of donkey track to the Tree.
We ride another 10km to the dirt road off ramp and follow the Disco to the finish. One km to go and there is an almighty crash behind me as Bianca comes a cropper and falls heavily. The score is two-one to me. We enter camp under the giant leadwood to the sight of our tents up, dinner on the go and our beers cold. We eat and drink. I brought plenty of beer and wine to celebrate the completion of our odyssey, but instead we all went to bed.
The stars of the show, our Qhubekas, spent the night around the campfire.
Dun and dusted.
“Livingstone felt he might begin achieving things again in Africa. Precisely where in Africa he was uncertain. When he would return and how, were equally vexing questions, but the most puzzling question of all was what he would do when he got there.””