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28 Oct, 2016

1000 Mile Duathlon

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Avid cyclist and full time Philanthropist Eric Tollner recently completed a solo, unsupported off-road cycling journey from Namibia to Knysna, to raise funds for the the Children’s Haematology Oncology Clinics (CHOC). This three-week journey saw him climb many mountains, ford flooding rivers and endure temperatures from over 40 degrees to below freezing, and on top of that, just before departing for Knysna, he not only ran the 100km Fish River Canyon Ultra Trail Marathon, but won it, too! – BY ERIC TOLLNER AND KYLE DEELEY

Every year in June a group of intrepid runners tackle the Fish River Canyon Ultra Trail Marathon, and this yearthe group included Eric Tollner, who was about to set out on another his incredible ultra-distance adventures. “After more than a year of dreaming, planning, and most importantly, training, I found myself amongst a small group of runners whose hopes and ambitions of running the canyon were about to become a startling reality. Depending on your navigation skills, the distance varies between 80 and 100km, and you’d be looking at spending 12 to 24 hours in that canyon,” says Eric.

The route begins at the top end of the Fish River Canyon and traverses the plateau for around 10km before arriving at the notoriously treacherous descent to the river bed. “You drop half a kilometre in less than 3km, and it’s like trying to run down steps into a mineshaft – loose, steep, slippery, but exhilarating”, says Eric. “However, by late afternoon I was getting mildly nervous. The canyon was gradually beginning to widen, which meant it should have been nearing its end, but my watch battery was going down even quicker. Not wanting to get stuck out there after dark without the GPS route map, it became a race to see which would reach its end first”.

At the last checkpoint, with 20km to go, Eric was sure he wouldn’t finish in daylight. “Luckily, my fears were put to rest late that afternoon as the unmistakeable sight of the flags lining the home straight to the finish line came into sight,” says Eric. The next few hours would be spent trying to balance the sense of achievement at having finished and won the race, with the daunting prospect of the journey that still lay ahead...

 

The Peddling Begins

The first week of riding would take Eric from Ai-Ais in Namibia, down to the Orange River and the border into South Africa, and then on to Niewdoudtville, which lies just north of the Cederberg. Using mostly back roads, the first two days’ riding were on wide open plains, then through Aussenkehr, Noordoewer and across the border. “The customs officials did get a laugh out of ‘bicycle’ being stated as my mode of transport, with the last official between me and home soil being a bit uncertain if I was to be treated as a ‘pedestrian’ or not, as there is no tick-box for cyclist,” laughs Eric.

Exiting the Richtersveld valley, the route picked up the main road from Eksteenfontein and ran south for the next 100-plus kilometres, before turning east and embarking on a never-ending climb up to Springbok. From there it was over 300km south-east of endless open space, through the tiny farming settlements of Gamoep and Kliprand, before eventually meeting the Loeriesfontein road and turning south to Niewoudtville. And here Eric had to be very careful with his supplies.

“Water became more and more scarce, so much so that there was no chance of using any to clean the dust off those bike parts that need constant maintenance, and every pee break was wisely used to rinse chains and cogs… recycling at its most efficient! Peeing on your chain is common practise in bitterly cold areas where your bike parts get frozen and iced over, but this was a first for me,” says Eric.

 

Things Get Real…

From Niewoudtville, Eric’s route took him south across the Doring River and deep into the heart of the Cederberg Mountains, turning off just before Wupperthal into the ‘lost valley’ of Kleinvlei, before hoisting his bike on his shoulders to tackle the daunting 18km portage up to Sleepad hut. By now the weather had taken a severe turn, with temperatures going from the sun-scorched 40’s in the north down to between zero and five degrees. Anything that was previously a dry stream bed was now a deep-flowing river, and waterfalls could be heard gushing over any vertical drops.

While trying to cross an ‘innocent-looking’ river high up in the Cederberg, Eric took an unexpected swim. He says this served as a timely reminder to him just how quickly things can change. The temperature that night would drop to minus six degrees, but fortunately the following days in the Cederberg gave Eric the chance to thaw out, and dry out his drenched kit, while staring at maps and planning how to get into the Tankwa Karoo.

“I had permission to go through private reserves and straight over the mountains to the Doring River, where I hoped to cross into the Tankwa, but I knew the Cederberg is a massive catchment area and with all the rain that had fallen, this was going to be a formidable, knife-edge task, with the very real possibility of losing all my gear to a flooding river, or at worst, drowning,” says Eric. So, after much internal argument, Eric decided that it was simply not worth the risk. “The journey was barely halfway and I still had a long way to go, and so I decided to opt for the longer but safer route, to the far southern end of the Cederberg range, before turning east and wrangling with the Katbakkies pass to get over the mountains.”

 

Better Safe Than Sorry

The next stop from Sutherland was Merweville, in the middle of the Karoo. With some tactful planning, Eric engineered the back roads between the two towns into a carefully plotted route that should have been an easy afternoon’s ride to get close to Merweville by sunset, with the possibility of even reaching the town itself. However, the ride proved a lot harder than expected and Eric became scared as the daylight slipped away. Luckily, a bakkie pulled up alongside and Eric was greeted with an unforgettably warm welcome and a giant friendly handshake from a local farmer who was determined to save him from the bitterly cold night ahead. “He simply said, ‘You will die out here tonight, so you will stay with us.’ I didn’t argue!”

Just as well, because the next day’s short ride to Merweville saw the roads become a fiasco of deeply eroded and gutted tracks, with Eric also forced to climbing over fences as he faced one unexpected valley after another. Then things got still worse as Eric’s brakes announced that they were done… right at the start of the descent off the escarpment and into the central Karoo. “The timing was just mind-blowing. Of all the things a long distance rider yearns for, a downhill like that is an absolute treasure not to be missed, and here I was cautiously white-knuckling it down, with metal grinding on the discs, and waiting to be launched over one of the hairpin bends at any time,” says Eric.

 

Getting Close

The next stop was Prince Albert, a nice day’s riding over the N1, followed by the Swartberg pass to Outdshoorn. “By now the days were becoming manageable, and apart from the frightening sounds coming from my beaten and bruised bike, I had eased into a very peaceful and calm Karoo state of mind,” says Eric. It is a somewhat bizarre perspective when the Swartberg Pass is treated like a rest day, but he was doing well, and when he reached Oudtshoorn, Eric even indulged in a much-anticipated proper cappuccino in a local coffee shop.

“I departed Oudtshoorn with mixed emotions, but enjoyed a nice day’s riding before arriving at Louvain for the final night, tucked up at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains. When I travelled through here last year, I was in thick clouds and rain, but this year the final morning dawned bright, cold and clear.” With the fields at the foot of the mountains white with frost, Eric took on the Voortrekker Pass, and at the top he caught a glimpse of the sunrise and his first sighting of the sea. “It was a big moment. For three weeks I had this on my mind, and there it was before me, the final 50km stretch to Knysna.”

At the top of the final pass, with just 6km left to the N2 and roughly 15km to the Knysna Lighthouse, Eric stopped and sat on the roadside, just thinking about the journey, before riding the last few kays. “It was late in the afternoon by the time I arrived at the lighthouse at the Knysna Heads, and I had been dreading any fanfare – all I wanted was a quiet and unobtrusive arrival, and that is exactly what I got. There was one family fishing who I asked to take a photo, which they kindly did.”

“Then I carefully unpacked my bag to get the tiny treasure I had carried with me the entire way, a small rock from the northernmost point of the journey, at the start of the descent into the Fish River Canyon. I held it tight in my hands, said a soft prayer of thanks, and quietly threw it into the ocean as a symbol of the journey that had been.” And with that, another one of Eric’s unforgettable voyages came to a deeply peaceful end. “The journey to Knysna may be over, but I’ve learnt to realise and accept that there never really is a finish line. I understand this now. There never will be a final horizon to cross.”

Eric took on this journey to raise funds for the Children’s Haematology Oncology Clinics (CHOC). Established in 1979, CHOC plays a key role in providing care for children across South Africa diagnosed with cancer. Eric does all his rides in support of the Choc Cows, who ride in memory of Jessica Bain and many others who have passed away from Cancer.

Kyle Deeley

Kyle Deeley

Editorial Assistant |

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