My first taste of The Munga

The Munga is a 1000km, single stage MTB race across South Africa in the heat of summer. It’s been marketed as the toughest race on earth. And — is it?

Days before

I was still glowing after the stint in Europe and didn’t do much training, go figure. A total of 3 days cycling the roughly 100km out and back from Vrede to Malmesbury should do the trick. It was Wimpie who aptly remarked, ‘Pasop vir overtrain’.

This was my swansong trip for Move My Bicycle, which I sold earlier in the year. I drove up with Philip to Bloemfontein and met old friends upon arrival — Rob, Theunis, Francois, Chris, Richard, Joggie and many more friendly faces. We goofed around and copied the GPX route file created by Rob, knowing it will be faultless.

After registration we cycled in the pouring rain to the guest house for the night. There was some confusion as to who slept where and being the youngest, I went for the couch. Many beers flowed. The only thing left to do was to fiddle with our bicycles and go for dinner as the start was only at noon the following day.

Race day

They guys were up way too early for my liking, but I joined them in packing our things and leaving the BNB for the start venue (Windmill Casino & Hotel) where all the pre-race admin was about to happen. When we go there the Spur was still closed and we moved over to the hotel for a great, long breakfast.

Eric Vermeulen took some bike pics and we saw more familiar faces. Chris was looking focused and we were all silently holding thumbs for him for a good result, as he had more than his fair share of misfortune in recent editions of this race.

I handed some spare items to Richard for transport back to the finish line. Then caught up with Joggie and saw Francois in passing. He enquired about my plan for the race and the only response I could come up with is that the best plan is to have no plan. Just see how it goes and adjust accordingly. Ideally, I would like to be back by Sunday lunch time as it is my dad’s birthday.

I took the minimum amount of kit. Single light and spare batteries. Topeak Toploader for phone, power bank, droëwors and gels and Backloader for warm clothes (no extra jersey or bib needed) and spares. The Epic’s frame carries two full size water bottles inside the triangle, which is very handy, but I also had to take the compulsory third water bottle — it was empty at the time (I did fill it once during the race as a precaution, but never needed it). Fortunately, they supplied a small emergency kit during the pre-race briefing, that did contain a space blanket, otherwise I would have had to find from a pharmacy last minute.

The End.

Not quite. According to the start banner this was the end of life as we know it. Either way, at 12.00 the gun went and we were off.

The start followed the familiar loop from the OFM Classic MTB Ride from years ago and it was just as dry and dusty as always. Had I known what was to follow, I would have used a form of cover or protection over my mouth to breathe through from the very beginning.

I quickly settled into a nice rhythm and zig-zagged through the fields to the first stop. Nagging cough aside, things were going great.

Boerewors rolls and coffee did the trick and the toilet was very welcome (I questioned the sanity of the owner, opening his house to 150-odd cyclists, but that is the friendly and welcoming spirit you’ll find everywhere on this ride).

150km into the ride there was a turn-off at next to a local shop. I was keen for a coke but immediately added to that order when I saw a fridge filled with ice cold beers. Lovely.

Shortly after departing this little oasis, dusk fell and it was time to switch on the lights. I noticed a slow puncture but pushed on, thinking I’ll reach the next stop.

Francois came from behind and we cycled together from here. Our only prior excursion together was the doing the DC on mountain bikes, when Eugene and I experienced nothing short of a train-wreck on the day and we’ve been looking for an opportunity to redeem ourselves ever since.

Midnight. Francois and myself rolled into another checkpoint together and enjoyed boerewors rolls yet again. By now the phlegm build-up was getting out of hand and I asked a very kind lady at the control point for something like Amuco to try and get rid of it. Unfortunately, she handed me something to dry it out, which I didn’t know but willingly took and it just worsened the problem. Henceforth only shallow breathing allowed, as the alternative was uncontrollable coughing.

Fast First Four-hundred

Daybreak and I feel great again. Everything is better when the sun is shining. We encountered some nice winding tracks before Britstown and rolled into the Country Lodge at 11am, having covered the first 400 kilometers in 23 hours. I also spotted Chris’ name near the top of the list on the sign-in sheet. Good going.

We had breakfast and planned a nap. In hindsight this was a bad choice. The sun was up and there was no reason to stop, just because we’ve been on the go for almost 24 hours. The coughing persisted and I couldn’t get any sleep.

Tried my luck with the medics many times before but still no-one had anything that could provide relief and there wasn’t a pharmacy around. We departed four hours later, still in the top 50, with ample time in the bag and we skipped the worst heat of the day.

Through another night, dodging aardvark holes and navigating along game fencing and onto breakfast at Loxton, roughly 200km after our previous stop. This time I was elated to see Chris’ name in third position on the sign-in sheet. We had breakfast, I think Francois went for a quick shower and then we were off again.

I had high hopes of a promising tailwind when leaving Loxton, but shortly after town the was a right-turn onto the R356 and things changed for the worse. The next 100km to Fraserburg turned out to be our first true test of endurance during this race.

I picked up a nasty side-wall cut on the front tyre, a till-now bulletproof 29×2.3 Ground Control. This was my first time having to plug a tyre and it was a piece of cake, even with two left hands. It still holds to this day. I caught up with Francois at an interim control and we soldiered on.

Then there were three

Somewhere before Fraserburg we picked up Ryan Lewis, whom I’ve met before at the start of an Audax ride. The town could not have arrived at a better time, as our spirits were fading in the wind. After a bite to eat we were happy to get going again and ready for the night ahead.

I stopped for a battery change and caught up with the guys. We turned left off the R356 and started with a slow, gradual climb. Ryan requested not to sit in front as this was better for his eyes at night. I led and unknowingly, Francois started to fade. We all have highs and lows at different points.

Francois said he was going to stop for a while. Never quit at night. He turned around to a couple of nearby farm workers’ houses. This would be his first ever bivvy night. It was cold outside, but I was wide awake and keen to tackle the technical bit with Ryan. The two of us carried on enthusiastically.

The remaining stretch to the control before Sutherland was great and we were absolutely flying over the rough stuff in the dark. We played around, had lots of energy and enjoyed the flowing and winding tracks — no wonder this was one of my highlights. Also saw Munga Trial runner legend, Nicky Booyens, who settled in next to the track for a catnap.

The fun bit ended way too soon and led us onto a massive wide-open white gravel road to the next checkpoint. It was a lovely Cape Dutch home with a massive lawn out front. I arrived alone in the bitter cold. Ate. Coughed. Tried to sleep. Which I did, almost too well. I overslept. Didn’t hear the alarm.

Dawn was breaking and it was still bitterly cold outside. I grabbed something to eat and defiled a portable toilet outside of the house (by now all the facilities on the inside were already out of order). I set off alone, into the daylight.

Next stop Sutherland. Saw the telescopes in the distance and reached the tar road. When I arrived at the checkpoint in town, Francois was strapped up and having breakfast. He was delighted to meet up again. The toilets were atrocious, but the breakfast was great and the sun was shining. 800km done and the fun was about to start.

Before we left Sutherland, I said goodbye to Ryan. I felt bad when we parted, maybe I could have been more encouraging. Francois was now riding with Paul Krynauw, one of the organisers of the Munga training rides around Worcester. They’ve met before and had great rapport. I joined them and we left for the Tankwa Karoo.

Ouberg up and down

It was a long climb to the top of Ouberg and we reached the escarpment at around midday. Suddenly you turn the corner and the world opens-up underneath you. I’ve never been here before and it is something to behold.

After 850kms there is the small matter of a magical descent that feels close on a vertical kilometer. I went flying down here and enjoyed every second of it. The road eventually flattens out and 20kms later I arrived at a little oasis in die middle of no-where.

The wind was picking up as I sat next to the swimming pool. The hosts were cheerful and the meal was great. I coughed up a storm but to no avail — the sticky evil spirit in my throat wasn’t ready to leave just yet.

I thought a hot shower might do the trick, but the shower was outside, rather cold, and essentially to no avail. At least I was refreshed and ready to hit the road again.

Through the winding ravine and up a silly hill. About half-way up (or so I thought at the time), I gently came off my bike while climbing. The sun was fading. I couldn’t get traction and had to resort to walking for a bit. The downhill section tested your skills and I saw the ER van searching for someone’s dislodged tracker.

Alone into the dark. Bliss.

I picked up tremendous speed over the next section, chasing to the famous Tankwa padstal. Upon arrival it was cold again. I had something to eat (with some amazing date balls) and hung around unnecessarily until Francois and Paul arrived. We left together, but in hindsight I should have gone much earlier. I felt strong and kept pulling away in front.

I saw lights from houses up in the distance — and then a rider in the middle of the road. I’ve seen him a couple of times at water points before, but now he was in a desperate situation. His hands have seized due to handlebar palsy and he was standing alone in the dark, unable to change the batteries on his light. After I stopped and helped he carried on. A special breed.

Morning has broken, for the last time. Today we finish. I go into the groove and lost the others. It was cold when passing the familiar Ceres R46 T-junction.

I stopped at the bottom of Ou Swaarmoed to take off my jacket before the climb and met up with a chap from Namibia, Leonard Martin. He knows Ingram Cuff (a mate from school) and Mannie Heymans (Desert Dash). Leonard has also done three Epics but maintains the Munga is harder. We climbed up the gravel path so smooth it is fit for a road bike.

As it got steeper, I had a lapse of concentration and almost got off my bike. But just in front was the tar road. How quickly things change. I was low on energy but knew it was downwards to Ceres.

I picked up speed at the top and in my zombie-like state missed the left turn off the Bo-Swaarmoed road onto the gravel path leading down. Idiot. Backtrack.

What followed was a great, fast downhill stretch (that was longer than anticipated) through the farms and into Ceres. Just before town I noticed a friendly motorbike, but it was only when he came passed a second time that I recognized Henri Meier. What an unexpected and great surprize. Again, he didn’t have to say anything. Just took a pic and leapfrogged into Ceres.

My rear tyre burped as I turned off the main road towards Dennebos. The latter was my fastest control yet — ten minutes in and out, plus a minute or two while the friendly mechanics added sealant and inflated the tyre. Francois and Paul came in just as I left. I wanted to finish before 12.00, so under four days.

A little chase at the end

Michell’s pass was great and a group of road cyclists passed, nodding in approval, before I turned left onto the R43 towards Worcester. Bainskloof was easy and I passed my Namibian friend. Hooked a right onto the last downhill. It was a steep and unfamiliar road.

And just then my Garmin died, 2kms from the finish. I saw Leonard coming down the mountain and went for it, hoping for some signage. There were flags to guide us home. A last swooping turn, onto the grass and over the finish line.

Valerida & mini-me and Dewald & Daniel was waiting at the finish. Alex greeted us with a medal and a personalized bottle of Doolhof wine (nice touch). Beers flowed. It was also great to see Ramses supporting us mortals.

I found my spare clothes in Richard’s bag and played with Nico on the lawn. An emotional Francois and sliding Paul crossed the line shortly thereafter. Great fun was had by all.

We drove home to Stellenbosch, but not before a quick stop at Burger King in Paarl. Minutes later it felt like I was plugged out of The Matrix and I was snoring before we hit Old Paarl road.

The result was a total time 94 hours and 44 minutes (or 3 days, 22 hours and 44 minutes) and a reasonable 55th place. Moving time was around 58 hours, so ample opportunity for improving time spent off the bike. And I buggered up my strava averages by forgetting to switch off at the end.

So, it is the hardest ever?

With the fear of sounding arrogant, no. At least not at my pace. I think Randonneurs have an advantage when it comes to this type of event as we are used to non-stop riding and little sleep, as opposed to shorter but higher intensity efforts like on the Epic.

This ride ticked many of the right boxes. I liked the heat (as opposed to a cold and wet LEL). Maybe it was because this time I had navigation. Or maybe it was because of all the food for the soul. Solitude. Vastness. Remoteness.

I’d love to do it again.

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