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Blue Cross 2013

This year saw the introduction of a variation to the Traditional Blue Cross, based on a suggestion by Ant and me, which we called the XT or Extended Time option. In simple terms the XT means the first 43kms of the Traditional Day 1 would be done the day before, thus spreading the very long Traditional Day 1 of 160kms over two days of 43kms and 117kms. Then at the end of the ride, instead of finishing at Inyangani car park after riding from the Vumba, the XT is split so that one stops at Rhodes Nyanga Hotel, and does the last 16kms to Inyangani car park early the next morning, prior to the walk up to the mountain top. This way one can truly enjoy one of the most spectacular sections with fresh legs.

And what a great idea the XT variation turned out to be. Read on …..

Our “group” of eight set off from Harare on Saturday 3rd August – six riders and two seconds. Dave and Patch very kindly agreed to be our seconds – and this is hugely appreciated – because the seconds spend hours just hanging around waiting for the riders.

Laurie and Fi had originally planned to do a standard Traditional, but as no-one else was going to do it, they also opted to do the XT variation. The next pair in our group was Paul and Philippa (I’m going to call them the P-team) – both first time entrants, both new to bike riding, each with less than a year’s real riding experience. The P-team agreed to enter as long as they could do it as a relay – effectively sharing the distance. And then there was Ant and me.

We broke into the drive from Harare near Chiredzi, for a superb lunch prepared by me. OK, OK – noboby else said it was superb, but let me tell you they ate ravenously.

I had been a tad busy the days before we left, and had forgotten I was supposed to prepare the first lunch, so at 8pm the previous evening, on the way to sup on peri peri chicken at the famous Portuguese restaurant, Coimbra, I was allowed ten minutes of shopping in Spar – and in that time I managed to get cold meat, cheese, crackers, butter, tuna, tinned asparagus, tomatoes, punnets of strawberries, cucumber. Not bad? Nah, pretty shoddy actually – I was embarrassed if the truth be known. But, it did mean that the bar for future meals was set pretty low, thus making it easier for the other meal providers to look good.

We got to Chilo Lodge around 4pm in the afternoon. It’s a beautiful spot and with the late winter light, the bush colours, the flowering Sabi Stars, plenty of water in the river, hippos, crocs … what better way to prepare for the next six days.

We had our briefing at sundowner time, met the other riders, received our goodie bags (including long-sleeved tee-shirts from Hunyani, and about 24 yoghurts each from Kefalos) and after a rather good braai put on by Paul and Ant, headed off to bed for an early night. Unfortunately during the night there was some unpleasant drama. Laurie woke Philippa (she’s a doctor in case you don’t know) up at midnight to go and attend to Alan Winterton – the poor guy was in absolute agony, writhing on the floor with a kidney stone problem. Philippa used up half the pethadine she had on hand, and thankfully managed him calmed down – but that was it for the organizing team – Alan and Cheryl headed off home to Harare early next day so Alan could have a scan and proper medical facilities. Laurie took over managing the event from that point.

Early next morning the reduced group met at the start point – just 4 mountain bikers (another two who had flown in from Bangkok were still driving down from Harare), and 8 Traditional XT riders. Here we are, a few minutes before 7am, twelve of us lined up in the sands of the Save River, 500kms to go.

It had rained a little during the night and this was perfect as it sorted out the dust, and the air was cool. Off we set on the first 43 km leg – on gravel road. We had decided to do this as a “neutral” ride – no racing, all riding in a bunch – but that didn’t hold for too long. Some of us (Ant and I in particular) were determined to enjoy the ride, appreciate the scenery, and save ourselves for the forthcoming onslaught, but this was just too frustrating for some of the others – so the group soon spread out.

About halfway Fi had a problem that could have been VERY serious – her saddle literally came off the saddle stem when a large bolt sheared. The vertical stem (looks like a piece of one-inch piping) could easily have gone up into her nether regions (a nice way of saying sensitive, delicate parts) – but she managed to bring the bike to a halt injury-free. Laurie immediately got into fix mode, ably assisted by Mike Gill in the backup vehicle, and they found the perfect replacement bolt and fixed the saddle. Altogether it was “too lucky”, because whilst the saddle was being fixed I caste a glance at the bike trailer and noticed the grease cap for the axle hub had been lost. Closer inspection showed that the main bearing nut was loose and we were about to lose the whole wheel.

Laurie and Mike Gill again came to the fore, and within half an hour off we set once more with fixed saddle and trailer. With no further incidents of note, we made it to the tar rode, loaded the bikes on the trailer and headed back to Chilo and went off on a game drive. Gona re Zhou is a damn good national park. John (our guide) showed us a huge baobab tree with a large hollow centre – this was one of the hiding places for Shadreck, one of the most infamous poachers of the area. Shadreck was arrested a few years ago, jailed, and unfortunately died before anyone was able to record the details of his life.

Laurie and Frank (one of the Scots team) at the tree, Patch peaking in.

We saw quite a bit of game – nyala, warthogs, bush buck, impala … and of course elephants

We stopped at a pan for a sundowner drink and watched a multitude of birds as four different herds of elephant came down to drink. A fine way to spend an hour.

John tried to drive us around to the far side of the pan, but in some pretty thick scrub we came across a matriarchal herd of elephants and one of the mums was not too subtle in chasing us back the way we came. There is only one quickly snapped pic by Laurie through the windscreen of that incident as all other hands were white-knuckle-gripped on the vehicle as John reversed.

Back at the camp we feasted on a pasta dish Ant had prepared before – and now the bar for meals WAS set high. Next morning we got up very early as we had had to pack the vehicles, load bikes and get to the tar road. We had hoped to start riding by 7am, but for various reasons we only got going at 7:45 – but the riding conditions were perfect – no wind, cool, very little traffic. The first stage that day was the 80kms of seemingly flat tar, but the word “flat” means one thing to a person in a car, and something completely different to a bike rider. This is us, the XT Traditional riders, at the start of the day with the Jack Quinton Bridge about half a km behind us.

Frank the Scot, Laurie and Fi headed off at a cracking pace and in a very short time were no longer visible. Paul and Philippa got into a fine rhythm, riding alternate stretches of 20kms, whilst Ant and I just managed to keep up with them. After three hours we got to the point where one leaves the tar and starts the long 14km climb up the hill (another euphemism used by motorists – in bike speak we say MOUNTAIN) called Barbara. All the significant climbs on the Blue Cross have been named after women involved in the event in its early years. I don’t know who Barbara is or was, but I definitely know that the climb is one monster of a bitch of a climb. Excuse the strong language, but almost every female who has ridden up that hill has used the same word to describe it. This is a pic of one of the few flat bits on Barbara – Paul and Ant.

Paul, Ant and I started the climb – whilst Philippa rode in the car with Dave – intending to stop at about the one quarter mark. However, she claimed (much later) that they had had trouble with the trailer and had to keep stopping and never managed to catch up with the bike riders. Bottom line – Paul did the whole of Barbara with Ant and I! At the top of Barbara there is still 25kms of “undulating” tar to the finish for the day. Some of the “undulates” are about 2kms of up, and seem to be just 50 metres of down – but it was a pleasant ride. Laurie and Fi were narrowly beaten by Team Scotland (no smile on Laurie’s face that evening). Ant, the P-team and I were almost 2 hours behind!!!

At the end of Day 2 we got to Fiddlers Green, the Chipinge Polo Club. Built in the heyday of polo crosse by some fairly bucksed up farmers, it is a jolly fine place to stay.

Three of the ladies in the club prepared a lamb stew that was delicious, plus sweet potatoes, rice, salad, gooey bread pudding etc. And in the morning – a full on English breakfast with porridge, fruit, fried eggs, sausages, tomatoes, toast – and best of all, bottles of Mrs Jill Steyn’s marmalade. It was quite hard to move away from the breakfast table and get ready for Day 3 – the shortish, all tar 70km ride to Chimanimani.

The ride from Fiddlers Green starts with a 4km climb into the town of Chipinge, and after a further 2 kms of uphill, there is a wonderful stretch of about 15kms, mostly downhill – exhilarating! Then one does a series of anything but exhilarating hills for about 30 kms to the summit of Skyline Junction. Actually, done the way Ant and I and the P-team rode the stretch (slow with lots of short breaks), it was not at all difficult. The scenery is stunning as one either glances back to the Chipinge hills, or forwards to the southern peaks of the Chimanimani range.

From Skyline there is arguably the best bit of the whole journey in terms of pure riding enjoyment. It’s the 12km descent to the Nyahodi River. The road winds down a series of hairpin bends, interspersed with straight sections. Laurie managed to get up to 70kph! If I could name this section I’d call it Wow!

The little village of Chimanimani has not boomed in recent years, but is still charming. Once again we were able to stay at the Kriel’s huge house – six bedrooms, a lounge/dining area that is bigger than many hotels have, great hot showers …. “Very civilized”, as Ant put it. That night Laurie, Fi and Patch prepared a feast – starting off with a vegie soup of note, followed by roast leg of lamb and all sorts of other things, finishing up with custard and fruit. Dee and Jane (who run the Frog and Fern in Chimanimani) joined us – and it was a festive time – but at about 8:30pm we sort of ushered our guests away and by 9pm everyone was fast asleep.

Day 4 was the killer day. We all knew this. The extended time option reduced the impact of the Traditional’s first and last day, but this day had to be as it always was – tough. The first 20kms is almost all downhill, with a stunning descent down to Martin’s River. Then there is the 20km’s up to the top of Tanks Nek – a slog for everyone, irrespective of fitness level, then a 20km descent to the village of Cashel. This first 60kms is all gravel.

We started at 6am, just as it was light enough to ride safely. Not freezing as the previous year, it was still bloody cold.

With Patch driving the backup vehicle, we rode “neutral zone” style – meaning that Laurie, Fi and Team Scotland didn’t leave us choking in the dust. Philippa did the first 20kms down to the bottom, and then managed about 5 kms going up, before she handed over to Paul. The view back to the Chimanimanis was magnificent, and this is Paul and Philippa at the time of their hand over.

I had noticed that Paul was a bit subdued, but once I started riding with him I realized he was not a well boy. This middle stretch of Tanks Nek is the steepest, so Ant Paul and I did some serious walking. At the first false summit, the end of the really steep bit, we all stopped for a bite – boiled eggs, provitas, yoghurts. Laurie, Fi and Ant headed off strongly, Paul and I gently.

A few kms further on Paul asked to stop … and proceeded to puke his poor old heart out. A very sad looking chap he was too. He got back on his bike and tried to ride, but after a couple of kms, said he just couldn’t continue, so Philippa took over, and rode the rest of the way to the real summit, and then all the way down to Cashel – the 20kms of downhill that Paul had been looking forward to.

From Cashel there is a 20km descent to Wengesi Junction where one rejoins the Mutare-Birchenough Bridge road. Back on tar, for Laurie and Fi this meant getting onto their road bikes and off they took like demons. Ant and Philippa switched to slicks, I stayed with knobblies and Paul … well, Paul stayed in the car. The riders all thoroughly enjoyed the great bit of downhill as you leave Cashel and ride down the Umvumvumu valley. At one of the river crossings there is an amazing descent of a kilometre ending up on a curved bridge. I’m sure Laurie hit over 70kph on this bit. With about 5kms of downhill left, Paul insisted on doing his bit again, and rode well for a while, but started to fade about 5ms up the long hill after Wengesi. Ant and I abandoned him, got to the vehicle and told Philippa she would have to ride again. Off the three of us set, and not too long afterwards Dave and Paul came driving by. Paul was not looking too well, but at least wasn’t puking.

This last stretch, from Wengesi to Mutare is probably the “low point” of the whole ride – there is a bunch of traffic, the scenery isn’t up to much, one’s bones and muscles are long past their best … it is just a grind of a ride for 60kms. Philippa did an amazing 98kms that day. About 15kms from town Ant started to feel dizzy, so he decided in favour of increased life expectancy and climbed into the car. A few kms up the road, as they waited for me to get there, Ant started up a most interesting conversation with a youngish man on the side of the road.

The man introduced himself as David and explained that he was a schizophrenic, “not on medication”. Ant and he chatted away about various things for a while, and then, when it became obvious that Ant would be moving off, the young man stood up, gave Philippa a huge hug, and indicating Ant, said “I like meeting life’s interesting characters”.

Eventually, around 5:15pm, I managed to ride up to the finish point. Dave drove us up to Inn on the Vumba, and after some rapid unpacking we all headed off for hot baths. That night in the dining room, we had a fun supper. Jack Hully (“Mr Blue Cross”) and his wife Christine were there. Jack has done a multitude of Blue Crosses – he has ridden on a bike, walked both the Light Infantry version and the Heavy Infantry. With Light one walks the 500kms in 10 stages of about 50kms each, supported by a backup vehicle. With the Heavy option, one has to carry everything one will use on the walk except liquids – so that’s all the spare clothes, first aid kit, food, sleeping stuff – eeiiiisssshhhhh.

Next morning we had a slightly leisurely start – beginning with a sumptuous full English breakfast. Around 7:15 we set off once again – with that cheeky hill of about 1km to wake us up, along the flat winding Vumba road with the magnificent views of Mutare and the road down to the Moz border. This followed by the ride through the town and then up Christmas Pass. We all rode together to the start of the pass, but Ant was not well and opted to give the day a miss. Laurie and Fi and team Scot disappeared from view before Paul and I even got to the first corner. Paul had now recovered, and, with not too much discussion with his partner Philippa, was charged with doing the bulk of the day’s ride. He put in a spirited 38kms as his first contribution to the day, and then Philippa gave him a short break for 7 kms. Paul got back on and rode the rest of the way to Juliasdale – so he put in about 90kms. The two “P’s” were once again more or less even in terms of distance.

At Juliasdale we stopped for our “traditional” coffee and sandwiches. OK – tradition is not really the right word because it had only happened once before – last year when Ant and I weren’t feeling too crisp we pulled into the Montclair and had the best-ever sandwiches, coffee (multi-cup) and soft, soft lounge chairs which are heaven for sore bottoms. But a fine tradition it is for those not chasing time, and rather focusing on having an enjoyable time.

Dave treated us this year – and the five of us (Dave, Ant, Philippa, Paul and I – thoroughly enjoyed the break and the fine sandwiches, rich coffee, and soft seats. Did I mention how nice the soft seats …..

From the Montclair it is downhill all 15ms (well almost all!) to Rhodes Hotel – which is where we XT option riders stopped for the day.

Laurie and Fi had carried on and got to the base of Inyangani at 3:30 – meaning they had powered their way from Mutare – effectively 2 hours faster than the rest of us.

We stayed at the Rhodes Nyanga National parks cottages, had a fine meal and were all asleep by 8:30!

Next morning four of us (Ant, Paul, Philippa and I) set off at 6:30 for the two hour ride to the Inyangani car park. It is steep and the road is rough, and we definitely found the first half hour tough, but then we got into our stride, and got to the car park quicker and easier than we had expected. Laurie, Fi, Dave and a few others were there to cheer us in to our ride finish. The happy smiles of finishers.

Not long afterwards, the other participants arrived and by 9am we were all heading up the mountain.

At this stage I‘d better explain about Clive Swanepoel. Many years ago Clive was one of the ecologists at Mana Pools in the Zambezi Valley, and then got the job of managing a huge cattle-and-wildlife ranch at Shangani. He did an amazing job there through very difficult times, and the wildlife definitely thrived under his stewardship. He retired nearly two years ago, and just a few weeks before his retirement/leaving the ranch, a serious brain tumour was diagnosed. It’s a long story, involving surgery, post-op infections, radiation and chemo etc. However, about two months before the Blue Cross, Clive was talking to Philippa, his old friend and GP, and decided he would like to walk the Blue Cross as part of a relay team. He had been walking every morning as part of his recovery program, but now increased the distances to improve his fitness. Then, about two weeks before the Blue Cross was due to start, Clive began to experience dizziness, periods of confusion and detachment – but in spite of protestations and advice to the contra, he was determined to walk the Blue Cross. So, he started as a member of a team of four – Nick and Sue Fawcett, Brian Trethowan (Clive’s loyal, long-time friend) and himself. The first few days went badly; in addition to the confusion and detachment, Clive was unsteady on his feet, stumbled and fell a few times – his friend Brian holding him up for short 2 to 3 kms stretches. Philippa was phoned from Fiddler’s Green by Clive’s wife Sue, who was in a high state of distress, and cortisone was prescribed. The muti was quickly dispatched from Mutare and within a day Clive had responded positively. He then walked every day, and by the end was doing up to 16kms a day. This was truly amazing! On the Thursday when we got to Rhodes Nyanga, we heard that Clive and his team had successfully made it to the base of Inyangani and that evening Philippa and Ant went to visit him at Rhodes Hotel. They came back to tell us that Clive was absolutely determined to make it to the summit the next day.

On Friday morning, as we gathered in the car park at the base of Inyangani, getting ready for the long uphill climb, Clive and his walking partners arrived. So off we all set, about 25 of us in all, Clive (in the orange top) walking slowly right behind Brian.

The progress was steady, and at one point Ant asked Clive to slow down as he (Ant) was finding the pace just a tad too fast!!! It took two hours in the end, but Clive made it to the summit. He clambered up the last few rocks, reached up and held onto the metal post, his head bowed in prayer.

This was such an emotional moment for him especially, and also for his team. Each one of us there felt privileged to be with someone who, in spite of such extensive health issues, had the guts, the balls and sheer determination to achieve the goal he had set himself. There was hardly a dry eye.

And then we all cheered and congratulated Clive and everyone else, and Nick Fawcett produced a bottle of champagne for the walkers.

Wow, it was a festive few minutes.

Many of us were more worried about the descent, as it is tricky enough when one is in full control of one’s legs and balance – but for Clive this would be so much more difficult. He only had vision in his right eye, and his control of his left side was impaired. Once again he surprised us. With Brian immediately in front of Clive, keeping a slow but steady pace, we all got to the car park without mishap.

Then it was off to the hotel for a fine lunch and prize giving. Clive was awarded the Spirit of the Blue Cross award by Cheryl Winterton – and I doubt if anyone over the last 20 years deserved it more.

The End

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