16 Oct, 2014

Eric Tollner’s Cape to Knysna Challenge


“In this society, a man can go through his whole life without finding out whether he is a coward. I think he should know”. —John Berryman (American poet) 

Eric sculpts bronze and rock for a living. Mixed into periods of frenetic workload, he dreams of adventure. Excursions - without entry fees or finish lines - permeate his thoughts calling him to the open road. Earlier this year over a coffee and croissant at Kalk Bay’s Olympia Café and Deli, the adventurer’s epicentre, we contemplated his latest undertaking.

“Has anyone ever done it before?” I probed.

No-one had, of course, thought of riding solo for 800 kilometres from Cape Point to Knysna because there are no roads, few signs and most importantly its winter. And winter in the Eastern Cape means cold. Very cold.

“Well sort of. In pieces maybe,” he pondered. “I doubt I’m the first. Though maybe no-one’s carried their bike for 16 kilometres through the McGregor Hiking trail,” he laughed.

“Or tagged on the Knysna marathon,” I thought sipping the end of my coffee cup.

His Arctic ice eyes drifted to the horizon beyond the fishing harbour. “What are you looking at?” I asked. “Just the sunrise,” he said, and then repeated it again to no-one in particular “Just. The sunrise.” Like other infrequent journeymen seeking high adventure, when voices call, Eric pays attention.

To save expedition space, Eric strapped an Alaskan saddle-bag under the seat of his mountain bike, perched a toy rhino on his handlebars and cycled in his running shoes. He further unburdened himself from too much food. “I’ll pick up some pies and Creme Soda at the local shops before heading into the mountain.” It was his stab at a nutrition plan.

The dawn off the Cape Point reserve was the launch pad for Eric’s first day. He turned his back to the sea spray and aimed for the rising sun. With the hour glass thinning out to the start of the Knysna marathon, reports of the brewing storm came in from the weathermen. Zero temperatures and snowflakes were percolating off the peninsula and aiming their worst at Knysna and Eric’s heels. The scene was set for a one-way journey with no margin for error and little room to manoeuvre.

The first two days bade a farewell to suburbia and its chalk-boarded coffee shops with sand and grit replacing cat’s eyes and tar. Several farmers granted Eric permission to cross the pathways that hitched their farms to the topography. To access the labyrinth of the Boesmanskloof mountain range, his first task was to portage his mountain bike across the Greyton-McGregor hiking trail for 16 kilometres. Trailblazers blaze trails and all that.

Many people ask me why Eric does these trips.

“It’s for The Cows - that motley crew of charity riders,” is my usual response. Eric, Cape Town’s favourite ultra-Cow, completed the 2013 Freedom Challenge to raise money for CHOC, the kids cancer charity. My response this time was different. Mutual friends of ours found out that their little boy, James Read, had a very rare form of leukaemia. We didn’t need to discuss it for too long. No need. My response was to the point “He’s doing it for a little guy, James. He needs our help.”

After nine days of surviving freezing temperatures in his green tent, outrunning the snowstorm and criss-crossing the frozen backbone of a mountain, Eric finally found his way to the WhiteWashed cafe and gift shop in Knysna. Its owner, Tammy Keet, had promised Eric a free meal if he completed the challenge. Eric, soaked in smiles and hunger, kept Tammy to her word and duly partook in all the trimmings the cafe had to offer.

As for the rhino atop Eric’s handlebars, it would be dry cleaned and given to Eric’s son, Kade, who is a sucker for stuffed wildlife. On his way back to Noordhoek, Eric found a fluffy Knysna elephant which he couriered to James a week later. Around the elephant’s neck would be the medal Eric received from completing the Knysna Forest marathon.

There’s cycling. There’s endurance. There’s marathon running. And then there’s class.

To paraphrase John Berryman, the greatest piece of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can do without it, but most require ordeal. If in addition to helping James, ordeal is what Eric was after, to aid his art or feed his muse or whatever, he found it out there on the road between the mist and mountains. Ordeal, he discovered, congregates there in droves.

You can read about Eric’s Cape Point to Knysna exploits at:


If you are able to join a donor drive and be a potential bone marrow donor for James and others please check out the Facebook page

Roberto Riccardi

Roberto Riccardi

Journalist |