Climb every mountain … on a mountain

2013-10-17 00:00

MARTIN Dreyer, the seven-time Dusi winner and extreme sports adventurer, mentors athletes in the Valley of a Thousand Hills where he spent a lot of time training for the Dusi Canoe Marathon.

His Change a Life Academy has impacted on the lives of many young men who would not have the opportunity to develop their sporting potential or to escape the grinding poverty of their surroundings.

His most recent project involves the development of young mountain bike cyclists who show passion and commitment for the sport. He selected the best candidates at a trial mountain bike race and put them through their paces. The best young men were chosen for his team.

Dreyer realised that some of the young men who had mountain biking potential could not make the top grade because they did not have the right equipment. A generous sponsorship from Rand Merchant Bank gave Dreyer a chance to form a mountain biking team.

Previously, he had the idea to train young black men for the Dusi Canoe Marathon, but he needed sponsorship to make that a reality. He realised when he started training young canoeists that although they had raw talent, they were always at a disadvantage when their old boats broke on the rocks or when their canoes were punctured. When Dreyer organised for sponsors to come on board, the canoeists thrived and performed extremely well.

The first black Dusi winner was Dreyer’s partner, Michael Mbanjwa, and this was the beginning of Dreyer’s passion to train upcoming black canoeists. Dreyer, who had seven titles under his belt, promised his sponsors that he would give up the race himself, and focus solely on training and managing his protégés. The results were phenomenal — 15 of his trainees were placed in the top 50. The sponsors were incredibly impressed.

Eric Zondi and Thomas Ngidi from Dreyer’s Change a Life Academy were the first black canoe crew to come third in the Dusi in 2010. With their winning money, they built houses for their families. Dreyer says Zondi is a tremendous role model for the youths in the valley.

Dreyer says: “Giving these young men a chance to compete in sport means more than just encouraging them to do well in the sport — it also teaches them self-discipline and gives them a chance to mix with sports competitors who come from many different backgrounds.

“The guys who are training for their mountain biking races are mixing with many people who are well-off. Mountain biking is often a sport for those who have money. My guys must learn manners and confidence, and they get to up their game. It’s an entry into a world they can only dream of.”

Dreyer has found that some of the young men’s families are resentful of the time they spend on training, when they could be contributing to the family’s income. So he has organised to give the families food parcels.

The mountain biking team is known by the locals as ngwenya as they form a column of bicycles snaking through the grass on their way up the mountain. They go through the rough terrain and over bushes and rocks, and often the old gogos watch and shake their heads, probably thinking they are a little bit crazy.

Most locals rely on taxis to navigate up the steep mountain roads and valleys, and dirt tracks link one homestead to another. But this wild and untamed terrain is perfect for mountain bike training. The men train every day for a few hours, they compete with each other and race each other up to the top of the mountains. Racing back to their base camp, they are caked in dust and sweat.

They live in two rondavels that Dreyer rents from one of the local families. Chickens roam around the bicycles looking for seeds that may be caught in the spokes. Local children play games in the sand and watch the men with curiosity.

Washing their bikes in the river and keeping their equipment in good condition is a priority for the team. Team captain John Ntuli makes sure the team sticks to the rigid training schedule, and he tries to make sure they enjoy a healthy rivalry and camaraderie.

Ntuli’s leg muscles are like tree trunks, solid bands of muscle. He doesn’t need to flex his leg — the muscles have been exercised into eye-popping specimens. When he says he trains up to four hours a day, it is believable.

Ntuli and Dreyer were partners in the Cape Epic race and Ntuli is the team captain. The guys call Dreyer Madala (old man) because he is the oldest among them, but they jokingly confess that their other nickname for him is Grandpa because he gives them a headache. Dreyer is a hard task master, but is greatly admired by the men who know he has their best interests at heart.

Dreyer is hoping to develop the mountain biking team into top-class competitors and he is also hoping to develop them individually as mountain biking guides for visitors who wish to ride in the area.

In the Sani2c bike event earlier this year, all of the team members did extremely well and showed great promise. But Dreyer wants them to work hard and to get somewhere with their talent.

In another inaugural mountain biking race set in their valley, named the Dusi2c, the young team performed exceptionally well. Dreyer said: “The reality is that there is already a mountain biking ethos in the valley, as the youngsters in the valley ride everywhere.

“I was thrilled when Glen Haw, a local farmer, started this race, because I am hopeful this will be the start of something huge for the valley and the guys. The Dusi2c has the potential to kick-start a whole mountain biking tourism industry in the valley, creating sustainable employment for these young athletes,” said Dreyer.

Employment opportunities in the Valley of a Thousand Hills are few and many men have to seek work in Durban and even Johannesburg. Ntuli is also excited about the new bike trail in the valley and hopes that it will draw enthusiastic bikers to the area to discover the challenges of the terrain, but also the rough beauty.

“We have so much talent in the valley and we want to get some women in the team next year. There are great trails to ride in the area and we believe that this will help create more opportunities in the valley,” said Ntuli.

Dreyer said: “I watched when one of the local guys came to the race on an old bicycle and I saw him at every mountain biking event trying his best. He paid the entry fee and he rode to the start from his village, which was miles away. I was amazed at his guts and determination. I thought this guy needs a chance. When we got a gap in the team, I offered him a space.

“He has been so grateful and he reminds the others that they are lucky. I think luck is a part of it, but I also think you make your own luck.

“Another young guy found out there was a job going in Johannesburg at our sponsor’s company. He travelled there and he waited for a chance to speak to the interviewer. When the interviewer found out he had hitchhiked all the way from the valley, he was astonished.

“These guys have drive and initiative, and what they put into their sport they put into their work ethic. I really am proud of them.”

• trish.beaver@witness.co.za

GROWING up in White River on a farm, Martin Dreyer (45) loved the outdoors.

He spent his high school years at Woodridge College in Port Elizabeth and spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities. At the University of Cape Town, he says he spent a great deal more time hang-gliding, playing underwater hockey, climbing, life-saving, running and scuba diving than studying for his BCom degree.

In 1993, he was determined to avoid the army call-up, so he headed off to Canada’s west coast to earn a living by fishing on the commercial fishing boats. This is a treacherous and hard living. Dreyer says: “It was very tough, but I learnt a lot of life lessons and skills.”

Dreyer was attracted to adventure offered by extreme sports where it was a heady combination of sport, travel, endurance and adrenaline. He found himself competing in a number of these extreme sports marathons for the thrill and for the experience.

Dreyer is most well-known in South Africa for his spectacular Dusi performances — he is a seven-times winner and his name is associated with canoe racing. His mentor was the legendary Graeme Pope Ellis who took him under his wing and taught him about the canoe marathon. But Dreyer is actually an accomplished all-round extreme athlete who has climbed mountains, run ultra-marathons and, most recently, completed and won an endurance mountain bike ride.

One of his biggest achievements went largely unnoticed by South Africans as he scooped the prize for the Landrover G4 Challenge. The event entailed each country submitting its strongest contenders. Then there was an international selections event at Eastnor Castle in the United Kingdom. The gruelling challenge involved mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, abseiling and trail running. His skills were pitted against the best athletes in the world and he travelled across four countries. Winning the competition in 2006 gave Dreyer an unbelievable thrill. Sadly, the programme was not broadcast on South African television.

Dreyer recently won the mountain bike race, the Freedom Challenge in 2012, when he reached the finish in 10 days, 16 hours and 40 minutes, cutting a massive one day, 22 hours and 10 minutes off the previous record of 12 days, 15 hours and 30 minutes. His friend and rival Alex Harris came in second a few hours later.

Dreyer has also won the Cape Epic. He says that while he enjoys pushing himself to compete, he is now more interested in mentoring those youngsters who can make a future for themselves and their families using sport as a tool.

Dreyer said: “When I won the Dusi the seventh time, I was very excited, but something was different. I realised that my motivation had changed. I wanted to win, but my hunger for the win was not the same. It is important for any athlete to recognise this point and then step away. A lot of athletes get addicted to the adrenaline high of winning, but they don’t have the right motivation.

“I have looked at other top performers like Lance Armstrong and Michael Schumacher, and there was always a point in their careers where they should have quit while they were ahead, but they didn’t. I recognised the fact that my role was to step into a managerial role and to lead the way for others.”

With sponsorship from the Change a Life foundation he started the Change a Life Academy, which initially focused on training aspirant canoeists for the Dusi River Marathon. The programme has now been expanded to include a running programme and a mountain biking team.

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