Jean feels the burn during blockhouse cycle challenge

Out of respect for the emergency crews still dealing with the aftermath of last month’s Table Mountain fire, Jean du Plessis has put the brakes on his rides to the King’s Blockhouse.

When Jean du Plessis completed his 200th consecutive cycle ride to the King’s Blockhouse, on Devil’s Peak, last month it proved to be a day to remember for more than one reason.

Jean has a home in Newlands and works as a land specialist for UN-Habitat in Nairobi, Kenya, but he’s most at home on his bicycle, and last year he set himself the goal of completing the gruelling 500m climb to the blockhouse every day during October.

On the maiden ride on Thursday October 1, he and friends cranked through gears in a howling south-easter. Their reward was the panoramic view from the defensive lookout built in 1796 by the British.

On the rides that followed, they talked and thought and committed to supporting an initiative to raise awareness of the plight faced by victims of gender violence.

It’s a cause Jean has found a close affinity for because of a friend who was sexually assaulted.

Jean has been riding a bicycle all his life and has always owned one wherever he has found himself in his life and in the world. “Cycling is a place where the world makes sense,” he says.

For him, climbing to the blockhouse became a metaphor for what those experiencing gender violence face. “I’ve pondered what this must mean for survivors of gender-based violence. Having no choice, the mountain confronts me every day. Some days might be easier, with friendly companions, pretty views, pleasant descents for coffee and croissants. But the catch lies in those tough moments, when the next rise seems just impossible. And, of course, that never-ending absence of choice.”

On his 200th ride, on Sunday April 18, he was joined by an escort of other cyclists at the cattle grid entrance to Rhodes Estate. Others, responding to a call on social media, joined him in solidarity around the world – walking, running, swimming, even doing yoga.

They raised R14 000 from donations for the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children.

“We reached the blockhouse an hour later and were joined by hikers and runners,” Jean says.

It was a crowning achievement for him – since that first ride on October 1 he had cycled the equivalent of more than 11 Everest ascents from sea level and covered a distance of 4 000km.

But it was an achievement that was to be wreathed not in laurels but in smoke.

“Almost one hour later,” says Jean, “we saw flames below, on the lower slopes. The wind was horrific, a north-west, swirling wind.”

It turned out that his 200th ride had coincided with one of the biggest and most destructive fires in Cape Town’s history.

Later, arriving in Fernwood, with helicopters flying overhead and continuous sirens, he felt heat from the fire. “Thankfully, the wind changed direction, otherwise it could have reached our house,” says Jean.

He has put the brakes on his rides to the King’s Blockhouse for now while emergency crews continue to deal with the aftermath of the fire.

Bernadine Bachar, director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, says they are very grateful for Jean’s efforts.

“The pure grit he showed in the campaign is inspirational and is evidence that by standing together we can support survivors to bring them the support they so sorely need.

“The monies raised will be used to offer survivors access to accredited job-skills training and thereby address the ongoing economic inequality survivors face daily. Employment opportunities offer a lifeline to families decimated by gender-based violence. The campaign affords them hope of a better future, one free of violence.”

Jean hopes the ride will become an annual event on the cycling calendar and for October to be renamed Blocktober as a month of gender-violence awareness, similar to Movember when men grow a moustache for testicular and prostate cancer awareness.

“It makes sense,” he says, “it follows August, Women’s Month.”

Meanwhile, Jean’s friend is still waiting for the sexual assault case against a former friend of hers to be finalised.

“We’ve no idea when this will be. I’m appalled at the way those brave enough to stand up and resist are further punished, even by the processes and institutions put in place to protect them,” he says.

“There’s so much to be fixed. We should all make ourselves aware and become part of the answer. I encourage people to ’listen, learn, think and act’ against gender-based violence in all its terrible forms.”

Jean du Plessis, of Newlands, works for UN-Habitat in Nairobi as a land specialist.