The 9 Peaks Challenge is a bucket list target for local hikers and climbers – summiting the highest peak in every province of South Africa. Most people do it in stages, driving from trail head to trail head, but not Colin and Bianca Cooper. This is their story as told by Colin.
With the 9 Peaks Challenge on my own bucket list, my daughter Bianca and I sat down one night, over a Guinness, and worked on ways to make the challenge into a real adventure. Bear in mind that we were not born long distance athletes, so after settling on the idea of cycling between the hikes non-stop in a six week period, we had some decisions to make.
Rather than make the trip ridiculously difficult by doing it on a unicycle we decided to make the trip truly worthwhile and do it for a good cause. We settled on riding Qhubeka Buffalo Bikes (Solid steel, single speed, no suspension and only a back-pedal rear brake, weighing in at a mammoth 28kg) and the aim would be to raise funds for the Qhubeka charity along the way.
To add authenticity we also resolved to go “back to basics” in terms of nutrition and hydration. This meant that during the riding and hiking we would not use any over-processed and plastic packaged food or drink. So there would be no Coke, bottled water, energy drinks, gels or bars. No sweets, chocolates or muesli bars. No stopping for coffee and a muffin. And no supplements or vitamin pills. Just hard work, mental stamina and true grit.
For kit we stuck to the “back to basics” theme and went with a strict no Lycra approach. We did all our riding and hiking in a home-sewn African shirt, Mr Price baggies and when the weather turned nasty we had hi-vis Johnson Workwear yellow rain jackets to pull on. I rode in takkies, with old fashioned toe clips, and whenever possible we camped – only resorting to guesthouses when the elements truly conspired against us.
And to top it off we did all our navigation ourselves, with maps, a compass and an odometer – we had no guides, porters, GPS’s or Strava on our 9 Peaks Challenge.
The plan was to start in Limpopo and climb Iron Crown in August 2014 and finish in September 2014 by climbing Seweweekspoort in Western Cape, 3 000km and 42 days later. It sounds so simple when you distil it down to those basics.
The 9 Peaks
|Limpopo||Iron Crown||2 126m|
|Mpumalanga||Die Berg||2 331m|
|North West||Nooitgedacht||1 852m|
|Free State||Namahadi||3 275m|
|Eastern Cape||KwaDuma||3 019m|
|Northern Cape||Murch Point||2 156m|
|Western Cape||Seweweekspoort||2 325m|
A Small(ish) Setback
A week before we are due to leave my wife, Maggie and I were victims of a horrendous Farm attack which left me in a coma and ICU for a month with massive head and face injuries along with a smashed hand/wrist and ankle/feet injuries. Superb work by the Doctors and Nursing staff at Millpark Hospital meant I survived and was back on a stationary bike within a week of leaving hospital.
Initially I could only manage 5 minutes on the bike, and had to tie my wrist to the handlebar to stop me falling off. A long month later and I was back on the bone-jarringly rigid Buffalo Bike and could join Bianca on training rides, though I trailed far in her wake and needed baby-sitting.
Three months after the attack I finish a 100km ride on the Buffalo and by January 2015 I reach my short-term target of three 100km rides in three successive days. The 9 Peaks challenge was back on!
Our new departure date was March 14th 2015.
An Eventful Start
We reached our starting point in Haenertsburg, Limpopo around midday and headed for the only campsite that we had pre-booked on the whole trip. It was closed and there was no-one in sight. Our amazing route plan was falling apart on day one!
After a couple of hours delay we managed to find another campsite and still had time to climb Iron Crown before the sun set. We hiked from the “wrong” side at Ebenezer Dam which made it a four hour walk up and down. Number one done!
The next day we got on our trusty steeds (they are as heavy as horses) and charged down Georges Valley road towards Tzaneen, a super 40km downhill, where we are supposed to meet with our back-up crew (Maggie) for the first time. Second day and second problem, we couldn’t find her. A 5km detour and we discover each other. This first day on the bikes was a long one, as I wanted to get to the base of Abel Erasmus Pass so we could ride it before the traffic got busy the next day. We met up with a team of students on a charity relay ride from Tzaneen to Hoedspruit and rode with them for a bit but eventually had to push on and leave them behind. With the temperature well into the 30’s we discovered that our African shirts are actually better for keeping us cool than Lycra; what a bonus.
After 127km on the bike we called it a day and both had a nap before dinner and bed.
Typical Cycling Day Schedule
1) Get up at 06h00.
2) Eat breakfast of toast and peanut butter plus two cups of coffee.
3) Fill three bike bottles each with our mix of water, sugar, salt and lemon juice.
4) Ride the first 20km whilst talking silently to the body:
a) Ok butt, you are not sore, get on with it.
b) Legs, stop complaining. You did it yesterday, you can do it again.
c) Brain, no negative thoughts please, you are not needed whilst on the bike.
5) Ride to around 60 to 70km and stop for lunch. This consists of cheese sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches.
6) Finish around 100km in approximately seven hours including photo stops etc.
7) Put up tents at 15h00.
8) Kip for an hour.
9) Get up at 16h00, have dinner early and go to bed around 20h30.
10) If we have time and the energy, make bread for the next day.
Actually after three or four days we no longer needed afternoon naps.
We planned the trip to try and avoid the summer rains and the chance of winter snow in the ‘Berg’. Murphy had other ideas, obviously, and it bucketed it down for several days early in the trip, but by some fluke we managed to miss the worst of it while out on the bikes, but it did leave us with wet tents for days on end.
We arrived at the gate to Die Berg on 18 March and hiked the road to the top. This peak deluded us into thinking that the rest of the trip would be easy. From the mountain top we descend a few kms to our stop for the night at Lomas Creek. A campsite was advertised but apparently there isn’t one, so we suffered through the night in a fabulous old farmhouse with wonderful hospitality. What luck!
From Lomas Creek our route took us to stops at the Loskop and Bronkhorstspruit Dam, but that did mean we ended up cycling though Pretoria on Saturday lunchtime; excellent planning! After swapping paint between bikes and buses we dragged ourselves along a highway and arrived at Hartebeespoort Dam. The next day we had a short ride to Ingwe Game Reserve, the base of Nooitgedacht.
Since we’d made excellent time we broke our rules and nipped in to Van Gaalens Cheese Farm for a cheese platter and to stock our mobile larder with their extra mature Gouda.
From Ingwe we hiked up a road to the top of Nooitgedacht. Peak number three and no sweat so far. In fact, it was cold, misty and very damp.
From there it was two days of dodging traffic from Hekpoort to Vereeniging. Gauteng traffic is mad! We nearly got wiped out several times, once by a woman in a big SUV who came from behind and swerved in front of us whilst on her cell phone. Then a Coke truck coming from the other direction shot off onto the dirt in a cloud of dust before sending us diving for cover on the dirt verge. But these paled in comparison to the main and ever-present scourge of our trip, large men in double cabs (complete with superfluous pipes, lights and rubber) overtaking cars towards us intent on running everyone else off the roads.
We had been trying, by email and cell phone, to get permission to ride in and out of Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve to climb Toringkop as it had been closed for a water supply problem. We eventually got right to the top of the Gauteng Tourism Authority, but they apply the typical “Person-in-Power”, rule is a rule, pettifogging, pernicious decisions.
“No-one goes in, even if they are raising money for black underprivileged children.”
So we were forced to take the second option and climb the second highest Peak in Gauteng, Platberg. It is in fact a much longer climb with a greater altitude gain from the trail head, so we were satisfied, although not with Gauteng Tourism or its staff.
That meant in ten days we’d ticked off four peaks already! Although it hasn’t been easy, we were pleased with our progress and our routine now meant we are relatively comfortable. We had been lulled into a false sense of security!
Heading To The Berg
Leaving Vereeniging and riding along the Vaal Dam it started to rain, so we stopped to put on our Johnson Workwear yellow rain jackets. Bianca christened them the Serial Killer Yellow Jackets (SKYJ’s) and I had a really good day leading most of the 114km way at a good velocity (for a single gear Qhubeka). Towards the end of the day we heard the cracks of doom and the sky turned oily black. The rain came down in JoJo tanks and the road to Frankfort was full of heavy mining trucks that couldn’t see us, so we called it quits for the day. I had planned three rest days in the six weeks but the first was not supposed to be so early on.
For our assault on the chain ladder up to Namahadi we had booked into the Witsieshook Lodge, but this meant we had to ride through Phuthaditjaba, past the base of the climb at the Sentinel Car Park. The opening slopes up the foothills were hard work and we had to take several walkies. Then the road just kept climbing. The final 8km took us more than two hours with more pushing than riding. This would be the start of the hike the next day, but first we had to get down to the lodge for the night. We expected a luxurious coast downhill but after 1km Bianca’s brake broke. The Buffalo Bikes are equipped with only one coaster brake so she was instantaneously hurtling out of control downhill with sheer cliffs dropping off on the downhill side of the road. Quick thinking, or sheer panic, made Bianca sit down on the top tube and drag both feet, sparks flying from her cleats to slow herself down. With that helping little she resorted to swinging her bike into the uphill cliff face to come to a sudden and painful stop.
A quick assessment of damage done to bike and girl showed the only way down was to walk. What should have been a 15 minute ride became an hour and a half hike. We got to the Lodge safe but shaken.
I had a bad night for another reason. I had climbed this mountain before, twenty years ago, and I knew the chain ladder. I am very, very bad at heights but also I was still carrying bad war wounds from the attack in August. My right hand was broken into over a hundred pieces and I had serious problems with my ankles when walking. In my dreams that night, I fell again and again.
On waking, I told Bianca that I couldn’t climb the ladder; we would have to take the long way round up and down the gulley.
We hiked the donkey track, I had a few wobbly moments at the steep drop-offs, scramble up the gulley and head across the hills and valleys to our fifth peak: Namahadi. Up was not a problem, but going down proved far more difficult, my ankles were in tremendous pain. We stopped to rest only twice on the way up, but going down I had to stop every twenty minutes and to make matters worse we were both beginning to sniffle, it looked like colds were coming for both of us.
With number five done we were beginning to realise how tough this adventure would be. For the first time in my life I began to wonder if I would be able to complete the task I set myself. Doubt is a terrible thing, and along with the cold we were forced to approach the monster that is Mafadi with trepidation.
Just riding the rolling KZN hills from Namahadi to Injusuthi on a single speed 28kg bike was tough enough!
The normal hike up Mafadi takes four days, two up and two down. But we didn’t have that sort of time so equipped with Kobus Bresler’s, of African Adventures, advice we set out to climb up and down in 36 hours. We took the long way up via Judges Pass, as it is probably the easiest scramble to the top of the Berg but with a 15kg pack it tested me to the limit. At the top the wind started howling and it was dark so we set up Bianca’s two-man tent (Two-midget tent? Honestly, tent manufacturers must train at the same college as estate agents) about 2 km from the base of Mafadi. The previous night something crawled over my head and bit me on the bridge of my nose and again just above the eyebrow, I thought nothing of it at the time, but during the night atop Judges Pass it swelled up right behind my left eye and the pain was horrific. Yet another sleepless night! The next morning we de-camped and hiked the two kays to the top of Mafadi at a brisk pace. Peak number six was complete but we still had to get down.
It was a long steady walk to the top of Judges and the pain in my head was getting worse and worse, as were the sniffles and sore throat from the cold that was taking grip. As on Namahadi, the trip down Judges and on to Injusuthi was a nightmare for my ankles and I fell countless times. Bianca was strong but tired and led the whole way back. The last hour was hiked by the light of head torches and we finally got back to Injusuthi around 19h00.
Our next target was KwaDuma in the Eastern Cape near Rhodes. The ride there was extreme: the hills were endless, we both had colds and the pain behind my left eye was excruciating. We had to cut back on our daily distance to around 70km. Eventually we arrived in Matatiele, our base for the next climb. Matatiele is a breath of fresh air. Whoever is running that Municipality should train all other public servants how to run a town! The streets are clean; all the potholes are repaired, even on the side streets; and all the street lights work at night. There are plenty of pavement waste bins and on Monday mornings teams of workers empty them and fit new bin liners. The traffic cops are even doing duty on the zebra crossings for children going to school.
Kobus Bresler gave us advice for KwaDuma too, but we got lost on the way there and lost a precious hour of daylight. The local police came to our aid and pointed out the best spot to start the climb. When the trail got really steep we noted the three possible ways over the cliffs. Kobus had recommended the left kloof but for some reason we took the right kloof… It was a tough scramble, bordering on needing ropes but we made it over the top and climbed the relatively easy last few kays to the summit with ease. Seven down and two to go!
With the three Drakensberg summits done the worst was behind us, plus our colds were abating and the pain in my head was much less, but I still stumbled my way down KwaDuma on ankles and feet that had taken a hammering in the Berg.
Last Two Peaks
Murchison Point in the Northern Cape was next on the agenda, so we had some long bike rides to complete. We decided to push further on the bikes, 110 km per day and the Eastern Cape roads are wonderful for Qhubeka’s; enough of a hard shoulder, only rolling hills and plenty of picnic spots to stop off and take scenic photos. Our daily routine of cycling together developed early on in our Tour: I would take the lead each day for the first forty kays then Bianca could sense my power dropping off so she would come past and drag me in her slipstream for about 70km, when we would stop for lunch. Back on the bike, Bianca would lead again for the next 15 kays or so, then we would take turns until the end of the ride. We aimed to ride around 17kph but on headwind days this dropped to as low as 14kph. Occasionally we got freaky good days like the ride to Camdeboo National ParkThe road was flat and wide and we had a strong tailwind, we charged along completing 114km at 21.4kph! Nieu Bethesda was our base for peak number eight, the innoxiously named Trig Beacon 29, which is also known Murch Point. Located just on the Northern Cape side of the border with the Eastern Cape, it’s probably the least known of the 9 Peaks, and it was also an easy hike up and down for us.
The ride to Oudtshoorn and on to Calitzdorp was wonderful. Good roads, the traffic behaved sensibly and either no wind or a puff from the rear. We even finished early one day and enjoy wine and craft beer tasting (with a cheese platter) at Karusa Winery. Have you noticed we like cheese?
We hadn’t tackled any serious hills on the bikes for some days so the Huisrivier Pass out of Calitzdorp came as a bit of a shock. We really tried our best to cycle all the way up, but it was no good. My legs eventually gave in and we pushed for 5km. The ride to and through Seweweekspoort was brilliant; what incredible scenery there is in the pass!
There is a gate to the start of the climb up to our last peak but the trail soon ran out. We picked our way through thick proteas and tall spiky grass on the foothills then scrambled over rocks and boulder-hopped to what we thought was the top. It wasn’t! We then hiked along a long ridge and finally hit the top of Seweweekspoort. That was it!
We had completed the Nine Peaks by Qhubeka Buffalo Bike!
Almost, But Not Quite Done
Officially, we had reached our target and climbed the nine peaks and cycled our Qhubekas the almost 3 000km between them, the hardest part of the whole trip though was stopping. Bianca had a couple more days of leave left so we continued our ride back from Calitzdorp to Victoria Bay near George. With beers in hand and watching the ocean from our tents we started to plan our next adventure.
Our adventure was completed more or less on time and we raised a good sum of money (R 18 450) for Qhubeka to put Kids on Bikes.
To put things in perspective, the final distance cycled by single speed, solid steel Qhubeka bike was 3 500km. In terms of human effort, this is like doing the Cape Epic five times non-stop and climbing Kilimanjaro twice or Everest once in between.
If any of you would like to join us on a future Qhubeka trip please get in touch via our website, www.heavymetalbikes.co.za or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you’d like to attempt the trip on your own we’re more than happy to offer free advice!