The Freedom Challenge is well known in cycling circles and among endurance sport enthusiasts as a series of mountain bike events held along the Freedom Trail. What’s not as well-known is the generosity that surrounds this trail. Photo: Andrew King

Freedom Challenge: A story of South African generosity

“Riding the Freedom Trail has the potential to change lives. The lives of those riding it and of those along the trail.” – David Waddilove, founder of the Freedom Trail

The Freedom Challenge is well known in cycling circles and among endurance sport enthusiasts as a series of mountain bike events held along the Freedom Trail. What’s not as well-known is the generosity that surrounds this trail.

The Freedom Challenge has a small group of slightly obsessed people who ride and follow these events. Their collective noun is “Dot-watchers”, they’re, however, also known as Freedom Family.

This family means that you’re friends before you have met. It means if you’re not riding, you’re “dot-watching” (following a tracker online). It means you’re “proxy family” at every finish for every rider that crosses the line (as the finish lines are often so remote that there are very few others there). It means you lie awake rooting for a stranger to get over some adversity and make it to a warm bed. It has you willing them on at every moment.

You gain an appreciation for our spectacular country and the very, very special people that live here.

The Freedom Family extends beyond the riders, their families, the race office, and supporters. This family is carried by the amazing people that live on the trail.

Those who year after year open their homes to accommodate muddy, smelly, hungry cyclists at all hours of the day and night. Those on the trail who are happy to cheer riders along and give directions to the nearest spaza shop.

Every year we hear stories from the trail which live in the heart of every rider who has been out there. Stories of riders being invited into rural homes in adverse weather, late at night, are commonplace. Families sharing their meals and a spot around their fire.

In the recent Freedom Circuit 700km event, which is GPS navigated (unlike the other FC events that use maps and compass), a cold front hit which caused large amounts of cold rain on the trail and had participants looking for shelter. 

A number of the riders were provided a warm place to shelter from the elements, something to eat, and even clothing, by strangers.

Mike Woolnough spent a moment around a fire sharing a mielie with Papelo, while covered in his warm jacket, with very little common language between them.

“[They] continued sitting there in silence. Two men, one from a world of privilege the other from a life of need. In that place [their] roles were reversed, albeit temporarily.

“[Mike] needed warmth and shelter and Papelo met that need without hesitation or question from the little that he had. [They] sat around the fire as two men sharing the simple yet vital comfort of the fire as well as the presence of each other’s company.”

Ingrid Avidon and Sandy Maytham-Bailey were invited into Nolwazi’s home, where she was busy preparing for a funeral but welcomed in these two freezing, soaked, “crazy ladies on bicycles” and had them warm, within an hour, and back on their bikes with a pile of extra clothes for the rest of their journey.

“[Their] arrival was met with great excitement. From the kitchen area, women emerged to greet the freezing abelungus. [They] were given seats between the boiling pots and gas burners to warm [themselves] up.

“[They] were wrapped in blankets and served hot coffee. An elderly lady with a wicked glint in her eye offered [Ingrid] a sip of Vodka from her half jack and a sniff of her snuff. [Ingrid] resisted the temptation.”

Carlo Gonzaga retells the story of Kim Brearly and Thubalethu Shange’s similar experience, where they were trying to find the lodge in Masakala.

“Thuba seemed to think he recognised the rondavel from a prior visit. Sliding the gate open they pushed their bikes into the yard and saw some chaps inside with a raging fire going.

“Being true to the hospitality of South Africans they offered up some drums to sit on, to which Kim and Thuba gladly accepted. Duly seated Thuba took the lead and asked how the ‘food and sleeping arrangements worked’.

“After much confusion, it was agreed they were at the wrong place and would be back on their way to find the real Masakala. But not before a sip of beer.” 

This South African generosity has brought about a charity called the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund (FCSF), which educates children from the rural areas that the trail traverses. These children have academic potential and the FCSF allows them to attend the Mariazell Mission school.

Mariazell Mission School where Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund (FCSF) beneficiaries attend school from grade 10 to matric. Photo: Llewellyn Lloyd

It’s amazing to see how quickly the Freedom Family can empty their pockets for the FCSF.

When a student needs a laptop for online varsity lessons, six minutes after the call goes out, she has a new one.

When the FC race director, Chris Fisher, rides the ‘Munga Grit Cape’, three years’ worth of education is donated in three days for his effort.

Since the FCSF’s inception in 2010, an accumulated 150 years’ worth of education, benefiting 54 learners, has been raised for the fund and only a few hundred people have ridden the events.

It’s not only the FCSF that benefits, Adrian Saffy rode the Freedom Circuit to raise funds for ‘Children in the Wilderness’ (almost R12 000).

Tertius van Staden finished his ride to find out that his colleagues at work were backing him for every kilometer he completed, as this was his first attempt at anything like this. They raised almost R16 000 which he then donated to ‘Hanna Charity and Empowerment Foundation’.

The Freedom Challenge ‘Race Across South Africa’ (RASA) and ‘Race To Rhodes’ (RTR) start on June 21.

RASA traverses the entire trail from Pietermaritzburg to Paarl and crosses many South African landscapes and mountain ranges, and it is in the Maluti section of the trail that you will find the Mariazell Mission School where FCSF beneficiaries attend school from grade 10 to matric.

For the past 125 years, the school has been quietly producing African leaders who are shifting levers of power at key South African institutions.

Brothers, Nigel and Adrian Payne start RASA on July 1, for their fourth year together. After completing last year’s event they committed to pay for five years of education with the FCSF. 

“As a thank you to [their] mom and dad for [their] family, for [their] opportunities, and as a thank you to all who make it possible for [them] to ride the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa, [they] commit R14 000 annually for the next five years to give someone an opportunity. 

“[They] don’t want to know who the student is, and [they] don’t want [the student] to know about [them], but [they] should look up to the Mphrane Ridge and the mountains above [their] school.  [The Payne brothers] will be there each year, on [their] mountain bikes, riding the Freedom Challenge Race Across South Africa.” – The Payne Brothers, Nigel and Adrian.

Clint le Roux is riding for ‘The Carel du Toit Center’ for hearing impaired children, Jonathan Williams is riding for CHOC, and Craig Copeland is raising money for FCSF.

During RASA, the FCSF receives money from the many ‘dot-watchers’ who donate in support of riders’ efforts. R100 here, R250 there, an entry into a draw at the end of the race to ride one of the shorter Freedom Challenge events (donated every year by the Freedom Challenge).

These little bits, given from the comfort of our warm homes, behind our computers, inspired by the riders’ efforts, all add up to something life-changing; education.

The Freedom Family community consists of people who love these events, people who host and support these crazy adventurers, people who want to increase the opportunities open to young South Africans, people who love to ride bikes in the most spectacular parts of our southern provinces, and people who support those out there living their dreams.

So, if ever you’re wanting to join this Family, enter one of the events, follow a participant’s “dot” as they travel across the country by bicycle, or support a family member by learning as much about their experience as possible. 

And, if you feel inspired by our Freedom Family or are looking for a charity to donate to monthly, perhaps consider the Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund. The Freedom Family is always looking to welcome new members to the Family.

To find out more about the Freedom Challenge events – www.freedomchallenge.org.za / www.freedomcircuit.com or contact race director Chris Fisher – chris@freedomchallenge.org.za

To follow the events, join the Freedom Dot Watchers Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/FreedomFollowers or follow on any of the events’ social media.

Written and compiled by Sue Greaves – avid Freedom Challenge supporter, with information supplied by Freedom Challenge, Freedom Challenge Scholarship Fund, and race participants.

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