Orienteering has a reputation as dark art. A sport frequented by engineers, their girlfriends… and old Boy Scouts, like me. Basically anyone who believes the ability to read a map in the age of GPS devices is not an obsolete skill, and should be tested regularly. It must be the idea of having to control your bike (or even just your takkies) down a long-forgotten section of eroded jeep track while simultaneously plotting waypoints on a topographical map that scares away first-timers. Even the most adventurous among us are usually content with a race that includes a well-marked trail and a water table at the halfway point.
I can happily say my prejudice – and I’m an ex-Boy Scout, remember – was well and truly shattered in the gorgeous Hemel en Aarde Valley on Saturday, August 6. The NavChallenge is for everyone and a brilliant event no matter your fitness levels or your competence with a compass. For the record, we did find ourselves launching off a ridge, careering down a sketchy section of track while trying to work out whether we’d overshot the farm road that would hopefully reveal a small dam we figured would hold Clipper 11. But that is beside the point.
Of course it helped that NavChallenge organisers Jody and Kerry had arranged a postcard summer’s day for everyone in the middle of winter. I teamed up with my brother, Simon, and the drive out to Hermanus had us bouncing around with anticipation. A glorious day dawned as we drove through Bot Rivier. This was going to be epic!
Even though we hadn’t pedaled together in a race since this year’s Cape Epic Simon is a particularly fit specimen with a serious pedigree of competing in Polaris events. If I was lucky he would drag me most of the way and I wouldn’t even need do dust off my nearly two-decade old map-reading skills. You see Simon is the practical genius in the family, DIY guy extraordinaire, mechanical guru and adventurer of note. They could have made the movie 127 Hours about him, except that his forearm isn’t trapped under a boulder in a Utah canyon. I, on the other hand, I’m the… well… I get to write the story afterwards.
The Hemel en Aarde Valley is just outside Hermanus and a real gem of rustic beauty. From the start it was tough to remain focused on the task of racking up points on our little blue scorecards as stunning vistas greeted competitors at every turn. I pretended to listen to Jody bark out instructions and rules at the race briefing, but really I was greeting a great turnout of fellow racers, stealing some much needed High5 Energy supplements and watching the sun bathe us all in orange. Wow, there was some serious talent. I glanced over to Simon every now and then to make sure he was paying attention.
We had our trademark slow start, as Simon had left his Songo.info race jersey behind and I forgot to lock my bakkie. Simon found a dirty brown t-shirt in the car just before the starter’s gun, while I was left to carry everything in my cycling jersey’s pockets. After two laps circling the start line looking for each other, we picked up our ‘disclosure’ card, with the clues for where to look if we ever found ourselves near any of the 20 checkpoints marked on our large map. We had decided to have a crack at the more difficult checkpoints 19 and 20 first, located in the heart of Hermanus.
After we’d passed three other teams, who had exactly the same intention of clipping checkpoints 19 and 20 first, there were no other competitors. And that was when it hit me: we were racing against ourselves! There was no route. It was every team versus the three-hour cut-off. If you were really competitive, you were also racing against the fading image of all the other teams at the start line.
We were on our own, weaving our way through the backstreets of Hermanus on our way to the Old Harbour (we weren’t allowed on the main road into town, probably for insurance purposes!). This was going to be a tough race to report on! Because we had no idea where anyone else was! Even if we spotted other competitors, there was no way to tell how well we were doing. They could have twice our points, and helpfully point us in the wrong direction, and we’d be none the wiser. Good thing I enjoy my boet’s company, even if our riding kit didn’t match.
As it turned out our scenic trip through Hermanus suburbia to find checkpoint 19, and the 10-metre abseil down the walls of the Old Harbour, landed us behind the other three teams we had passed just after the start. It was a scene that played out over and over again. We’d meet a team out on the course, clearly heading in the same direction as us, we’d often find the checkpoint together, and then we’d split up, only to rejoin the familiar pair 20 minutes later sweating up the same loose climb.
After successfully clipping checkpoint 19 and 20 on our trip through Hermanus we returned to Rotary Drive to discover runners and riders crisscrossing our route in every direction. Ah, we must be doing something right, I thought. As it turns out that is a common, and mistaken, notion held by first-time NavChallengers. Simon was quick to point out that spotting other competitors, or worse, fresh tyre tracks, was no indication we weren’t hopelessly lost. It just meant that if we got stuck in a ravine, and a blizzard closed in, we’d have someone to eat while Mountain Search & Rescue tried to find us.
Simon and I cruised up the steep tar climb while we fine-tuned our tactics. We were going to find all the furthest-flung checkpoints (offering the most points) and then head home and pick up all the ‘easy’ ones. Sounded good to me.
The sun was now burning off a layer of mist all along the coastline and the ride along the spine above Hermanus offered magnificent views south-east to De Kelders. We picked up a few more checkpoints and then chose to ride into the Hemel en Aarde Valley via a faintly-marked jeep track. It was very eroded and may not have been quick but it was direct. I had a birds-eye vision of us passing the countless teams we’d seen riding back along the tar spine. Yet bizarrely we met up with most of them in the valley, chasing down the same checkpoint. Team Kelfords’ Lara Woolley and Kevin Flanagan just seemed to pop up everywhere!
Our tactics were paying off handsomely. We had over an hour and a half to collect checkpoints 15 and 16, and then turn for home and pick up the smaller checkpoints 9 through to 1. Some complacency even entered our banter as we trekked out to the furthest point up the Hemel en Aarde Valley. We were pretty sure no-one could have covered the same amount of ground as us, and we were pretty chuffed with our effort.
Then it went pear-shaped. Checkpoint 15 was not deep in a gorge we spent 20 minutes cycling towards, nor was it around the dam we bundu-bashed to access. We even committed the cardinal sin – following other riders’ tyre tracks. No luck. Checkpoint 15 was a figment of our imagination.
With half an hour remaining we eventually found the elusive checkpoint, on a bridge made from a packing crate. We helped another bewildered team find it then bolted home with no hope of picking up the ‘easy’ checkpoints we had planned to, and that tantalized us along the way. It would be a struggle to get across the line within the three-hour cut-off.
We decided to push hard and see if checkpoint 1 and 2 (a grand total of five points each!) would be worth deviating for. With minutes left we attacked the slippery singletrack a kilometer from the finish line to find checkpoint 2 lying in a dead-end. We clipped it but we would now be late. And the 10 points we hoped to gain would be wiped out by penalties for running over the time limit! We bundu-bashed again and leapt across a river to find checkpoint 1. Simon clipped it without getting off his bike and we tore off up the track dodging cyclists and running teams also heading for the inflatable finish line.
We snuck under the finish line three and a half minutes after our cut-off, losing eight points in penalties. Our detour, dead-end and impromptu river-crossing had earned us a grand total of 10 points, and we’d lost eight for being late. Score!
But we soon forgot the details as a Castle Lite was shoved in our sweaty hands and we joined the excited teams regaling stories of the elaborate treasure hunt.
The winners all appeared to be trail runners, who’d managed to collect the 14 checkpoints in record time. Hats off to them, it wasn’t easy for anyone. But damn, was it fun. And the Hermanus Food & Wine Festival was a fitting way to drown our sorrows and discuss how to sharpen our tactics next time around. I’m convinced anyone who participated will be signing up for more action in December. I am.