The Big Day Out.
Word forms: plural midlife crises
countable noun [usually singular]
a crisis that may be experienced in middle age involving frustration, panic and feelings of pointlessness, sometimes resulting in radical and often ill-advised changes of lifestyle.
Words and images by Dane Walsh (mostly)
This feature appeared in the May/June issue of Ride.
If racing bikes is the epitome of where modern cycling is, with all the shiny machines, techno gadgets, and flashy kit, then The Big Day Out is all about adventure, discovery, endurance and camaraderie. And maybe a cover for four oldish guys, each having their own version of a midlife crisis.
Still inspired and motivated by the mammoth Birthday Ride that Richie Porte and Cameron Wurf did in 2012, The Big Day Out has taken on a life of its own. There is a selection committee. We have route planning sessions. And now, we even have themes. But the point of it all is still the same; mates on bikes having fun together, exploring our beautiful countryside, doing something out of the ordinary.
After several months of careful planning, heated exchanges, and a few whacky ideas, the #BigDayOut™ committee finalised a route. Invitations to new victims inductees were sent, and qualifying haikus received. Now we just had to wait for the perfect day to ride bikes.
In its fifth year this year, we wanted to do something special. And not just special in the sense of riding a ridiculously long way, but make it about something. We toyed with the idea of an off-road Big Day Out, we considered a Big Day Out of Everesting, but then it hit us: What is the one topic of conversation that seems to dominate most social gatherings these days? The water crisis, showering with a bucket, not being able to flush the toilet, the smell of grey water hanging in the early morning air, and the lengths people will go to fill their pools and water their grass. And so The Damn Dam Big Day Out was born; a fact-finding mission on bikes to check out five dams dotted around the Western Cape.
As is now customary, the BDO committee considered inviting a few new outsiders to join in on our adventures. Added to this, Halfway Robertson hadn’t got the memo that sympathy-eating during his wife’s pregnancy should end with the birth of their child. At the risk of living up to his nickname, he graciously bowed out of the 2018 edition before the riding even started, but not before helping with the selection process. A short list was drawn up, invitations were sent out, and acceptance was on the submission of a haiku.
Now we just needed a perfect day to ride bikes. And this is where the difficulty comes in. My idea of perfect and Captain Craig’s idea of perfect are somewhat different. I like a hot windless day for riding bikes, Captain Craig prefers it slightly cooler. In the end, life got in the way and we had to settle on a day, regardless of the weather. It wasn’t an ideal day, but it wasn’t bad either.
As we gathered on my front lawn at 4h30 in the morning, there was an air of trepidation, anticipation and nervousness (and the wafting smell of grey water). Four hundred and eight kilometres, five drought-stricken dams, and four passes lay ahead of us. The newbies were barely able to conceal the panic.
The first dam on our route was Steenbras Dam. Built in 1921 (with some extensions in 1928), it was the main source of water for the City of Cape Town for the first half of the twentieth century. We didn’t actually get to see the dam, but we saw the sign to the dam next to the gate that prevented us from seeing the dam. So we know it’s still there. And we got to see an impressive view of Cape Town still sleeping.
Back on the road, we made good progress as the first hints of sunrise started to appear, despite the nagging headwind. Spirits were still high, conversation was flowing, and the kilometres were slowly ticking by. As we neared our next dam, the road got a little lumpy, and the first signs of weakness within our merry squad were starting to appear. With 100 kilometres in the bag, such signs were to be expected.
Then we saw it. Or what used to be it. The desolate, dry, dusty imprint of where Theewaterskloof Dam used to be. Like a kick to the crotch, it takes your breath away and brings tears to your eyes. If you don’t believe there is a water crisis, the sight of our biggest dam with barely any water in it is enough to make you shower with wetwipes from now on, rip up your grass, and fill your pool with concrete.
A longer-than-anticipated stop in Villiersdorp for breakfast happened to coincide with my several attempts at repairing a puncture. Not the finest demonstration of my bike maintenance skills, but I was grateful that there were so many people with such enlightening advice. With our stomachs full, my rear tyre finally inflated, and the temperature slowly picking up, we set off for Franschhoek Pass and the safety of being on the right side of the mountains once again.
One of our new recruits has always had issues with Franschhoek Pass. Right from the first time I met him. Despite the rather favourable conditions, the result was still the same. Tim imploded. Several times. And there is nothing worse than being that guy, living in a world of hurt, trying to get over a deceptively long climb. We’ve all been there, and while three of us were glad to still have legs, we were all too familiar with the demons that Tim was fighting with each pedal stroke.
After what seemed like an eternity, we crested the climb to the welcoming view of the Franschhoek valley, and in a flash, the downhill drag racers were off. Tim’s recent ordeal behind him, and Captain Craig only too happy to be descending the pass in the daylight. Myself and Mike, the more risk averse in our quartet made our way down at our own pace (this is the polite way of saying that we suck at going downhill). In the distance, our next dam beckoned.
The Berg River Dam is the new kid on the block and was the first dam in South Africa to be designed, constructed and operated in accordance with the guidelines of the United Nations World Commission on Dams. As far as dams go, it’s unimpressive. It has all the usual features. A wall, an overflow thingy, and one of those towers that they use to suck the water out with (which must have been doing a very good job as most of the water seemed to be missing).
It was around this point we discovered that Tim’s belly and my tyre were both having issues. Rather similar issues actually – they were both venting large amounts air, impeding our progress. Luckily, my issue was easily fixed by a quick detour into Paarl for spares. Tim’s belly was not as easy to fix, as air was not all that was escaping, and he had to make the dreaded decision to withdraw from the full BDO.
Rather on this side of the mountains before we headed back over into NoUber territory.
As we parted ways, the three remaining BDOers quickly popped into Wemmershoek Dam. Another completely unremarkable dam made even more unremarkable in that we didn’t actually get to see it.
But we saw the gate with the dam’s name on it. And rumour has it that the dam is also rather empty. With 200km done, we hit another big climb; Captain Craig’s dreaded Dutoitskloof Pass. And while Captain Craig was cursing his decision to once again ride BDO, Mike had secretly found a set of legs and was putting them to good use up the mountain. It might also have been the copious amount of snacks and supplies that he’d been transferring all morning long from his overstuffed pockets into his always beckoning mouth. Snack Monster Mike.
Stopping for a nature break tells you a lot about a cyclist. The real experts can ‘go’ while still riding along – those are the can’t-waste-a-second, no-modesty, I-wish-I-was-pro kind of guys who don’t care if they urinate on half the peloton, as long as they look cool. Then there are Stop ‘n Drop guys – when the urge hits them, they’ll stop wherever they are, whip it out and do what needs to be done. No time for pleasantries. It’s a bodily function and it’s happening now! Lastly, there are those guys who treat a nature break like a space shuttle launch. Everything has to be perfect. The wind direction, the slope of the ground, the protection from onlooking eyes, the view, a place to optimally lean your bike up against. And if any one of those parameters isn’t within bounds, the launch is cancelled and the countdown is reset. Snack Monster Mike is one of those guys.
We spent our entire Big Day Out looking for the perfect spot to wee.
Cresting Dutoitskloof Pass is a mixed blessing – the climbing is over and a beautiful descent awaits us, but we’re still going in the wrong direction from home, and the only way back to the right side of the mountains is over another pass. But we’d come this far and, despite being two hours behind schedule, we would continue on our adventure. We had one more dam to see.
A fun descent, a relatively quick stop for water and before long we were heading towards Rawsonville. An impromptu stop for snacks turned into a late lunch, with no one in any real rush to get going again. It was here, at a rather nondescript petrol station in Rawsonville, surrounded by curious onlookers and amused bystanders that Captain Craig probably had the best idea of his life. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced a couple of his good ideas in the past, like the time he thought it would be fun to ride some new looking single track in Jonkershoek, despite the no entry signs and logs across the trail. It turned out we’d just entered the new downhill track. On cross country bikes. And the track was still under construction. It’s the closest I’ve come to having to change my cycling shorts. Then there was the time we went for a quick ride with one bottle of water and came back six hours later because Captain Craig wanted to “see where that road went”. But this was different.
Snack Monster Mike and I had bought some Cokes and chocolate milks, feeling rather proud of ourselves when Captain Craig came towards us with an ice cream. Sheer genius. I can safely say that was the best ice cream I have ever eaten in my entire life. No ice cream will ever elicit the emotions of that Rawsonville petrol station ice cream.
We had a short 7km trip to make to our last dam before we’d finally turn for home. The Brandvlei Dam is actually two dams side by side, separated by a wall. When the dam is full, the wall is submerged, and it looks like one massive dam. As you can imagine, there is no danger of that happening in the foreseeable future. The only other interesting thing about the dam (apart from a warm water spring that feeds it) is the name of the river it is on: Holsloot (maybe that’s just my juvenile brain taking over again). Seeing the Brandvlei Dam up close, a once-massive expanse of water, looking so empty, was another jolt to the system. We are going to need a lot of rain to fill these dams up.
DAMS DONE AND, UM, DUSTED
With the final dam of our journey ticked, we had 130km to go. More importantly, we wanted to get over Bainskloof Pass before sunset, and that was 60km away with roughly two hours of sunlight left. And we still hadn’t officially had lunch. In a rare display of urgency, both Captain Craig and Snack Monster Mike put aside their desires to fill their bellies, and we made the collective decision to get up and over Bainskloof as fast as we could. Well, as fast as anyone can with 280km already in the legs.
But first, Snack Monster Mike had to wee. He could have gone at the secret snack spot, but something wasn’t quite right there.
He could have gone on the side of the quiet valley road, but something was not quite right there either. He eventually found a spot, and as Captain Craig and I were dismounting to sympathy wee, we could see by the look in Snack Monster Mike’s eyes, that something wasn’t quite right.
Thankfully, a bit of cajoling and some rapid improvising did the trick and the old gate posts of Bergsig Estate met his exacting needs for a wee stop. Back on the bike, I was suffering from a bout of white line fever. We had an objective, something to race against, and that was enough to numb the pain and give the legs something to aim for. And what a spectacular race it was. Us against the Sun. With the towering mountains on either side keeping an eye on proceedings. It’s moments like this that we’ll remember forever. The colour of the peaks in the fading light. The moon making an appearance just as the sun was about to dip below the horizon. The melodic squeak of Captain Craig’s pedal.
We summited Bainskloof as the light started fading, and all that stood between us and dinner was a frantic dash down the twisty windy bends of the pass. Like kids, we were riding bikes and having fun, soaking up the freedom and enjoyment that only a bike ride can bring. Three hundred and forty kilometres in, and we were still having a good time!
Dinner in Wellington consisted of a Steers Burger of Regret and a milkshake. No gourmet dining; this was eating out of necessity. As we hopped on our bikes for the final time, Snack Monster Mike informed us that he had to wee. Again. We convinced him that we’d stop out on the road, away from prying eyes, under the cover of darkness, and we set off into an annoying headwind.
Between the three of us, we had one commuter light, two flashy white lights, and two flashy red rear lights. Our missing companion Tim had been the light guy (while he never did finish The Big Day Out, he managed A Fairly Decent Day Out with 290km in the bag, despite the stomach demons). Thankfully, the moon was almost full and it did a great job of keeping the total darkness at bay.
The next 40km were done in near silence, one pedal stroke after another (except for the squeak). It felt like we were flying along – we had the wind in our faces with limited visual cues for us to gauge our speed against, but reality sunk in when I snuck a peek at my Garmin. It might have felt like we were whizzing along in the low 30s, but the reality was that we were barely holding 25km/h. Our final 68km went from taking us 2h30, to somewhere over 3h30.
And yet there is something special about just riding along in near total darkness, listening to the noises around you, and talking to the voices in your head. Your entire world at that very moment consists of a small puddle of light, the two guys nearby, and whatever thoughts you’re able to summon to keep you company, and at the same time numb the pain.
DAM WORRIED/DAM RELIEVED
With just over 30km to go, we were once again surprised by the appearance of The Big Day Out fans. My wife and son taking the time to find us and escort home. It was also around this time that I was banished from riding on the front – my white line fever not being appreciated by my fellow companions. It was also around this time that we remembered that we’d promised Snack Monster Mike a wee stop 45km previously. Our enquiries revealed that he did still need to go and that he hadn’t pulled a Euro-Pro-wannabee move and gone while on the bike, much to our disappointment.
A quick wee stop, three rolling hills and the quiet roads of Somerset West later and we pedalled back into my street. The same street we’d left in the dark 17 hours previously. We’d gone on a day-long adventure, seeing some pretty cool, and some pretty heart-wrenching things, and we were back where we started. Normal people had gone about their normal lives, and we’d done something special. From afar it might look like a midlife crisis, but I prefer to believe it’s just a continuation of a lifelong passion for adventure. The day we lose that passion is the day we’ll have our midlife crises.