Team Unogwaja celebrate their arrival at Robertson at the end of the 200km first leg from Cape Town on Thursday. Photo: Jeff Ayliffe

CAPE TOWN – The seventh edition of the Unogwaja Challenge got under way from a local hotel on Thursday morning, bound for Pietermaritzburg via the Karoo, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Within hours, the colourful procession of the core team of 11 plus support riders ran into their first challenge, with municipal street protests in Kuils River causing delays, tension and uncertainty.

But the team soon consolidated, conquered the Franschhoek Pass and reached their planned destination at Robertson well before dusk after 198km in the saddle.

The Unogwaja Challenge follows in the cycle tracks and footsteps of Comrades Marathon legend Phil Masterton-Smith, the youngest ever winner of the Comrades Marathon.

After being a close runner-up to Comrades legend Wally Hayward the year before, he took line honours in a sprint finish the following year in 1931. He was just 19.

In Cape Town two years later, without means to fund a rail ticket to the Comrades Marathon, Masterton-Smith – nicknamed ‘Unogwaja’ (Zulu for a hare) – chose to cycle, completing the 1 750km journey in just 10 days before placing 10th in the Comrades.

The physical dimensions to the challenge are enormous – athletes cover up to twice the Cape Town Cycle Tour distance every day for 10 days before persuading protesting muscles to change modality overnight and run 90km the next day.

But Unogwaja founder John McInroy has always preferred to emphasise the wider vision of courage over adversity, and spreading a message of goodwill and reconciliation to communities along the way.

Sporting a South Africa-Brazilian flavour, the 2017 team, which includes the first Indian national Vikus Dhawan, left Calitzdorp before dawn on Saturday morning on a 198km journey to Willowmore and the 600km mark.

Brazilian Rosanna Almeida and South African Kenny Chiloane battle the challenging Franschhoek Pass during the first day of the Unogwaja Challenge. Photo: Jeff Ayliffe

Team Unogwaja 2017 consists of Piet Viljoen (55), Jess Kavonic (27), Kirsten Wilkins (40), Kenny Chiloane (43), Andrew Christie (28) and Miguel Netto (33) (all South Africa), André Ferreira (32), Clodis Boscarioli (43) and Rosana Almeida (50) (all Brazil), Cecilia Marchant (Germany), Dhawan and a strong support crew of 13.

“We need to get down and dirty, and out of our comfort zones for our country. We all want to contribute and do good, and Unogwaja has provided a powerful platform to achieve this,” said team leader on the road, Andrew Christie.

“My two priorities will be to always be in the moment, and to help the team to maintain high energy levels.”

Dhawan looks to following in the traditions of Gandhi.

“There is a strong historical connection between our countries, and I hope to follow in those traditions and give someone or people a helping hand along the way,” said the Delhi-based chartered accountant.

“So often we focus on the darker side of things when thinking about South Africa, but it is such an incredible place,” said Cape Town-based environmental planner Kavonic.

“We need to engage with and support those incredible acts of kindness and acts of progress... only collectively can we make a difference, and Unogwaja can help do that.”

Weekend Argus