Friday, March 23, 2012

Babboons, Bikes, Climbing and Views... Week One In Stunning South Africa

So there I was, sitting in the waiting lounge at Wellington airport with a couple of carry-on bags and my cow-patterned "cuddle buddy" to keep me company. My beloved Ninja had been left in the hands of the airline staff after removing an extra kilo of weight from my checked in luggage (more to haul aroiund for the next 34 hours!!). Having done alot of travel with my bike, I have always found that regardless of how inconvenient or annoying travelling with a bike can be, airport staff can make it much, much worse if you aren't nice to them, so I've formed a habit of being exceedingly nice to anyone who works at an airport, ESPECIALLY check-in staff! As I settled in to wait to board my flight, I looked at the two meagre bags next to me which contained, amongst very few other things, one pair of shorts, one t-shirt and 4 pairs of undies and socks, then stuffed full of multiple sets of riding kit. Any other clothes I had, I was wearing at the time, such are the joys of travelling with a bike... It seemed so strange to think that my entire existance for the next two months was shoved into those little bags. Only after I settled in and had some lunch did it finally start to sink in what was upon me. It was nearly unbelievable to think that in one week, I would be lining up with John on the start line at the Cape Epic... It was a strangely emotional moment for me and I felt nearly unable to keep my eyes dry. I wasn't sad, but I wouldn't call it tears of joy, either. It was a feeling that was hard to describe... Like I was ready to burst out and unleash what I had built up inside me over the last year and assault the ground with my two wheels... It was like my "race face" was trying to get out and show itself to the unsuspecting world (lucky it didn't because that would have been very hard to explain!). It had been a good year and a half since I had done a race this big, and I had forgotten about this feeling... I would spend the next week working on containing my excitement and my emotions until the start of the race.

The first leg of my flight landed me in Sydney, and after being swabbed and frisked on my way through the transfer gate, I was back on another plane to Abu Dhabi. The flight was long (14 and a half hours) and I got some broken sleep in between the times when people were either walking past bashing my knees with service trolleys or standing on my toes in high heels (seriously, who wears heels on a long-haul flight?). We finally arrived in Abu Dhabi where I had a 15 hour layover. I had originally planned to leave the airport, put my hand luggage in a secure storage facility and go and check out the sights in Abu Dhabi, but upon clearing customs and getting to the outside of the terminal, I found they didn't have a storage facility, and considering I was carrying my backpack, laptop bag, snuggle pillow and helmet, I figured it was probably going to be more hassle than it was worth to go sightseeing and ended up bound to the airport. I felt really tired. I was now in a timezone very similar to Cape Town, so I was pretty keen to work in to the right sleep pattern and not succumb to falling asleep at the airport. I occupied my time at the airport facebooking and watching movies and reading books. I found an area of the airport where there were no flights in and out for the afternoon and just hung out trying to keep my eyes open. At about 12.30pm, this amazing, hauntingly beautiful Arabic chant began playing at full volume through the airport loudspeakers in a part of the airport that had been otherwise completely silent. It was made even more surreal by the fact that I was in a zombie-like state of fatigue. After a quick google search, I confirmed my suspicion that it was Muslim prayer time (12.31pm in Abu Dhabi).

After a flight to Johannesburg that was delayed by 5 hours (at least the airline ended up putting me up in a nice motel for a sleep) and then then hassle of missing my connection and then also missing my new flight and having to get another new flight, I was finally on the last leg of my trip to Cape Town. It was in Johannesburg that I learned my first valuable lesson of the journey... Do not accept anyone's help unless you are happy to tip them... To be fair, the porter that I had managed to pick up along the way had been very friendly, patient and useful, but it was kind of embarrassing when he asked for a tip and I had no money with me... I had to get him to show me to an ATM just so I could tip the poor guy! The other thing that became fairly immediately apparent was that my NZ dollar here went a long way, especially when you are hanging out with locals and avoiding the overly touristy areas. It was a lovely clear day and as we flew straight over the South African landscape, everything seemed so flat and arid, until we reached our descent into Capetown. Mountains suddenly loomed out of a landscape that had been flat for thousands and thousands of kilometres and the mountains and hillsides were riddled with dirt roads and trails... This is where we were to be spending our 8 days riding over the course of the Cape Epic... I couldn't wait... My legs were just screaming to get at them (especially after having been stuck in transit for the last 2-3 days). This big grin came across my face and I got butterflies in my stomach. My mate Gavin picked me up at the airport and as we drove back to his place I was in awe of the beauty of Cape Town. Table Mountain loomed out of the landscape in the middle of the city, which in itself was spectacular, but it was also a beautiful sunny day with blue skies, the buildings were lovely and old and rustic and everything around meseemed new. We drove past one of the shack villages. Gavin explained how they really struggle to get infrastructure into the shack villages because the people who live there don't want to move. Apparently, the moment someone leaves, someone else just moves in... A bit like squatting... So whilst the city wants to install services into the area for the people to use, the people can't move for this to happen or they effectively give up their homes, which I found really bizarre. I had met Gavin probably about three years ago at 24 hour solo world championships and he and his partner Sarah had stayed with me in NZ recently for Singlespeed world champs. We shared a mutual love of riding bikes for a really, really long time. After enjoying a braai (that's the South African name for a BBQ) with Gavin, Sarah and some of their friends, we picked up John from the airport just after 10pm and headed back to Gavin's to hit the sack for some much-needed sleep. Finally we were in Capetown... Bikes intact and all!

Our first day in Capetown was pretty amazing... We would have these moments where we would turn to each other with this big grin on our faces and say "we're in South Africa!" like we couldn't quite believe it ourselves. We woke late (really late) and headed down the road for some breakfast at Hello Sailor (this was to become our local breakfast and internet spot). It was a beautiful mornning and Table Mountain's prescence dominated the skyline and served as an ever-awe-inspiring backdrop to anything we looked at. I felt mildly embarrassed by my apparent need to take photos of EVERYTHING, however, didn't feel so bad once John turned around to me and said "is it wrong that I want to take photos of absolutely everything?".

Instead of going stir crazy for the day (obviously, we should be resting up for the race on the weekend), we decided to catch the train into the city and go for a bit of a walk around and check out Cape Town. We wandered around a bit aimlessly through the city, finding markets and pavement artwork along the way. I have to say, I felt a bit lost for things to do... I had no training to do, no work to go to that day, and I felt at a bit of aloose end... What do people do when they have spare time??? This is going to take some getting used to. We were slightly amused by the minibus taxis that kept stopping at random spots in the middle of the road. Some guy would get out and run around the van yelling really loudly and whistling at people, then would jump back in the van and they would be on their way, continuing to yell out the windows as they drove along (I found out later that they were yelling out their destination and that apparently, the minibus taxis had originally been used as a form of transport for non-whites, who, up until probably the early 90's, were not allowed to use any other form of public transport). The other thing we noticed was the heat... it was hot, really hot, and it served as a reminder that we are both going to really need to look after ourselves out there while we are racing, drinking plenty and making sure we layer up the suncream. We headed home early and had a little afternoon nap. To our delight, when Gavin got home from work, he asked us if we would like to go for a bit of a ride on the trails at Table Mountain... We sure did!!! After a false start and having to return home to tighten John's handlebars (the one time I wasn't carrying a multitool with me!), we set off again up the mountain on a rooty, ledgy climb to this amazing lookout that looked over the city off Cape Town. It's hard to describe just how incredible this view is, and even photos don't do it justice. We took some family photos with the bikes and then continued on our way, climbing up more tracks. I was trying to keep my heart rate down, having just gotten off the plane the day before, but it was hard to hold back... I was quite excited about the whole thing. I remember catching up to John and Gavin at one point and saying to John "how cool is this? We are riding our bikes in f*@king South Africa!". We climbed up further to an outcrop in the trail and stopped there, watching the sun set over the city of Cape Town. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. I still couldn't quite believe we were here. "There's a lot of people back home who don't realise just how jealous they are" John said... He was so right. Then we headed down the mountain to go and enjoy a traditional South African meal of bobotie and malva (delicious! I could get very used to this!)

Tuesday morning we made our way to possibly the coolest bike shop we have ever been to, Olympic Cycles, to get some supplies for the race (including this weird little rubber repair kit thing that you apparently use when thorns rip holes in your tyres... Hope we don't need to use that, but best be prepared!). After another satisfying breakfast at Hello Sailor, we amused ourselves by hijacking Gavin's car (thanks Gav!) and heading out on a little tourist mission to the Table Mountain cable car, with a little impromptu side trip to the site of the famous Cape Town Noon Gun, arriving in very good time about ten minutes before the firing. As the host of the show counted down the last ten seconds, I lined up a perfect photo shot, only to have the absolute crap scared out of me by the cannon firing and giving me more sky than cannon in my photo... Certainly not quite as I had imagined. The trip up Table Mountain in the cable car was an absolute feast for our eyes. It's hard to describe just how spectacular a sight it is and photos don't do it justice. From the top of the mountain, you could see 360 degrees around Cape Town and surrounds. We noticed, once again, that the height of the heat for the day was around 2.30-3pm... Best we get our hussle on during the race to be off course for the day by then! We polished the day off with some more fine Cape Town single track on another beautiful evening and then an evening out to hang out with some of Gavin and Sarah's mates, eat pizza and watch a documentary on the Cape Epic... Nerves starting to roll in now!

Wednesday we headed out on a little road trip to Cape Point, stopping at various spots along the way. The route was, once again, constantly scenic. We stopped at the coloured sea shacks at St James, and stopped at a number of other spectacular lookouts. I assumed the responsibility as master photographer for the day once I discovered my legs were too short to reach the pedals in Gavin's car, hence absolving me of any driving responsibility for the day. As we drove along, we discussed how we would approach the race. It really is tough to gauge how well you could expect to do when you are in unfamiliar terrain, unfamiliar climate and against unfamiliar competitors. We agreed the best approach to take was to go out nice and hard on the prologue time trial, see where that put us in the scheme of things and then work on chasing the next team in front of us. John also suggested that unless we had a headwind to contend with, that I should set the pace. This way neither of us would expend more energy than was necessary. Our communication was also going to be of utmost importance (we agreed that neither of us really was all that concerned about how the communication was delivered... I don't think either of us are really all that easily offended!). It all seemed like a good plan, and it was a relief to feel like we had some sort of loose plan ready for the race.

As we enjoyed our lazy tourist drive around the cape, we saw heaps of signs warning us of how dangerous babboons are, but it seemed to be "all sign, no babboon". I was highly disappointed... Until our trip back from Cape Point when we came across a whole family of them lazing around on the road. Add to that a family of Ostrich not long before and a Chameleon yesterday, and our wildlife experience wasn't too shabby so far. We came back along the western side of the point, which was even more spectacular, including a covered-in roadway along the ocean cliffs on the way up to Chapmans Peak (maybe this is what they should be doing to the Manawatu Gorge!). No riding on Wednesday (although I was meant to)... It's actually really frustrating when you are in an amazing place and you want to go on walks and do crazy things but you are constantly reminding yourself of the bigger picture and the task at hand, which stops you doing things you would otherwise really love to do... Essential to rest up and conserve energy for the race!

Thursday morning we set off on a tour to Robben Island. This is the prison in which Nelson Mandela had been held. It was quite a moving experience, made even more special by the spectacular trip over on the ferry, where we were treated to some amazing views of Cape Town from the water, and a visit from a huge pod of dolphins frolicking in the water beside the boat. The enormity of the event we are about to partake in also became very apparent when we were on the V&A Waterfront in the morning. There were signs up advertising the Cape Epic everywhere... Encouraging people to come and watch the prologue and the grand finale and the television coverage... That is something we very rarely see for any cycling event in NZ.

This morning, I headed out for my last ride up the mountain before the race. My legs felt really good, the weather has been stunning and whilst I am nervous as all hell, I just want to get stuck into this race. I still have very little idea of what to expect. It will largely be a matter of rolling with the punches as I go.

It has been such an amazing week, and on a number of occasions over the course of the week, I have found myself feeling exceedingly blessed for the opportunity lying in front of me, and for the fact that I have such amazing friends on the other side of the world who welcome me into their home, share their local knowledge with me, take me out to shred trails, loan me their car and are just good dudes in general. I feel like I must have taken a correct turn somewhere along the way in my life. I've always thought that riding a bike has given me the best friends and the best experiences in the world and the last week has been a very poignant reminder of this. Today will be spent doing final preparations and resting up, then we are at day zero for registration tomorrow. For now though, I'm going a little stir crazy, and Gavin's "fat camp" theory (where you put on a bit of weight pre-race during your taper period) is kicking in. Quite frankly, my body has had enough of this resting carry-on. Bring on Cape Epic in a couple of days time! It's time to rip it up!!

1 comment:

  1. Nice one, Megan. Hopefully by the time you've read this you'll be on the way. I wish you and John the very best of luck. Cheers, Oli x