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Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Off-Road Course, Eating Sand and Other Adventures.

14 May, Off-Road Bike Course
Dad and I, all kitted out next to his bike with the beautiful mountains in the background.
This past weekend we were taken by (dust) storm at our off-road course just outside Wellington. The day was hosted at Bontebok Ridge Reserve, which was a magical spot fenced in by breathtaking mountain range. The day was filled with adventure, laughs and hysteria, fear and the conquering of it and a fair dose of intermittent frustration paired with the occasional mumbled swearing under the breathe of a frustrated rider. But all and all it was a wonderful afternoon with brilliant teachers who taught us a lot, making us realise that we really (in my father’s words,) “didn’t know what we didn’t know” about off-road biking. Our course was convened by experienced motorbike guru, Rony Desodt who did an exceptional job of taking us from tar to sand. His fearless partner in saddle-Jurg- did a brilliant job demonstrating exercises, although obviously with far more finesse (and fearlessness) than any of us could possibly manage. Our group was a wonderful crew which made the day even more enjoyable as we managed to strike the fine balance between support and ridicule ;)  

Dad finds a Kawasaki fan in Jurg!

Rony making some adjustments to my bike... getting ready for off-road riding!

Boys and their toys! The guys marveling at Cecil's 1200GS.

Me and my toy!

We started the day off with an exercise which would set the tone for the rest of the day: how to pick your motorbike up from the dust! Quite a challenging feat, since these bikes weigh between 190- 250kgs. As Rony so adeptly put it, the most important thing is to look up and smile for the camera while picking up your bike, because your friends will no doubt be huddled around laughing and taking pictures. This is something I expect to have to do a lot during the trip... I’m just being realistic! So it was oddly enough one of the most valuable skills we learnt, since we were definitely doing it completely wrong beforehand and with very little grace (grace is important for a ‘rough and ready’ biker... do it with grace please!)

Cecil showing us how it's done! Yes, you need to sit on the bike to pick it up!

Eager to get started! Gearing up...

It is quite amazing how riding a motorbike off-road is utterly opposite to riding on-road. Almost as if, when you get off-road you need to induce amnesia and forget absolutely everything about riding a bike on-road in order to ensure you survive the dust. For example when turning a bike off-road, forget about counter-steering and leaning into a corner, unless of course it is your intension to bring your front wheel out from under you with your face lying not so comfortably in the sand. No.... leaning into corners off-road = forbidden territory! Instead, it is mandatory to do the completely opposite gesture. To survive an off-road sharp turn you are required to be standing up on your bike, actually turn the bike in the direction you want to go (opposed to counter-steering) and put all your weight on your outside leg (opposed to leaning your weight in towards the corner.) As Rony said, if you are a good dancer, you’ll be a good off-road rider because you are obliged to thrust those hips out over your outside leg. Quite a funny site when weaving between cones and seeing these men thrusting their hips from side to side, some as awkwardly as they would on the dance floor before a few drinks loosen it all up. It is all quite confusing in the beginning and I think we all squashed a few of Rony’s cones as it is far easier to ride over them then weave precariously in between them with your hips waving to and throw all over the place. 
Dad getting the hang of weaving with the hips to and throw!
Me trying my hips @ the weave.
The next exercise was learning to ride your bike in a sharp circle and then progressing on to a figure of eight. Not so easy in the sand! And here Rony’s small white cones really got annihilated by some overzealous drivers. Hmmm... largely myself! Here the trick is really putting all your weight on your outside leg, hips out and over the leg, square those arms, delicate balance between clutch and throttle and LOOK OVER YOUR SHOULDER, cause if you look at the ground you end on the ground! Quite a lot to think about! Needless to say, a few bikes ended on the ground. My Dakar bit the dust a few times during the day. Mostly I find coming to a stop on unlevel ground the most challenging... let me keep on riding, no problem, but as soon as I have to stop on my ridiculously vertically challenged limbs... there is trouble! Where many people can prevent a fall by just putting down their legs quickly and balancing the bike before zooting along again, I am unable to get by legs down without prior warning. Hell, even when I have time to plan coming to a stop I have to make sure I stop in a place where the ground is level or else pre-empt myself by evaluating which leg goes down according to which side of the road is higher- hehe! So putting my legs down without warning... very challenging indeed! On-road there is far less unlevel ground but off-road there is a lot. So the outcome of this experience has been that we have decided that the Dakar has to stoop to my level per say... Sorry Dakar but you need to become a shorty like your mum! Suspension is coming down asap!

The next exercise was designed to assimilate a situation where you don’t make a hill and therefore need to turn your bike around, come down the hill and try it again with more force. So basically you needed to purposefully stall your bike by pressing the back break half way up the hill. If your bike is in gear it ‘should’ remain still on the hill so that you can turn it around by moving the front-wheel from side to side, as you would with a 4X4. However there are several things that could go wrong in this situation, and which did! Namely, you could get your bike into neutral by mistake in which case it will go rolling backwards down the hill with poor rider in tow and probably eventually under the bike, in the sand. Also not good is if you use the clutch because letting go of it will cause your bike to rear forward with rider coming off the back of it... hopefully not under the 200-250kgs bike. You could also manage to stall the bike but not be able to put your legs down properly and so go for a bit of a tumble. Or situation number  four, what I did, you can stall the bike and then put in the clutch... in which case it is the same situation as being in neutral with bike and rider heading down the hill backwards and four men screaming “let go of the clutch!” and trying desperately to improve the nature of the eminent fall. In my defence ... come on, it is natural to put in the clutch when a vehicle comes to a stop... no? Hmm... Well, we all managed to do one of the above and come crashing down in the sand. Except for my dad, who was the only lucky (talented) man to survive the exercise without eating some sand! But for the rest of us, we were brave enough (or perhaps stupid) to try it again, with success all around on ‘attempt number two.’

First failed attempt... not looking promising for the rest of us.

Far easier to pick the bike up with four helping hands.

After 100% failure... dad gears up to try his hand at the hill-stop.

Yes! Success... he will not eat sand today!


Here I have already rolled half way down- backwards! Lesson: ignore your clutch completely up a hill!

Second try: Success!They all look just as relieved as I was to not be rolling down the hill and biting the dust, so they didn't have to break my fall AGAIN.

Now to turn around...

After eating a fair amount of sand... well some of us anyways, it was time for some lunch and a moment to catch our breath. After a lovely lunch, a few laughs and some words of encouragement for those feeling a bit overwhelmed, it was back to the grind. Riding up and down a hill: my personal nemesis for the day! A bit harder then what you would expect. If you don’t go fast enough, you end up stalling; in which case all of the above mentioned (on the previous exercise) can happen. Except of course that you aren’t expecting to stall and so it takes you by surprise, which for beginners usually means straight into the sand, unless of course you are Cecil! Cecil was one of the wonderful people on the course and is planning on doing a 16 month cross-Africa adventure in 2015. But he has good foresight and so decided to train up on his big 1200GS in good time, before embarking on his trip. In hindsight it would have been rather helpful to have Cecil’s foresight in preparing in advance, instead of 3 months before-hand! But we are the spontaneous types and our hard determination and out-right stubbornness will have to see us through. Anyways... back to Cecil’s epic dismount. Cecil perhaps provided us with the most entertaining episode of the day when his attempt of riding up the hill failed and instead of coming crashing down with his huge 1200GS he opted to leap up from under it, (somehow????) and end up about 100m’s from where his bike was lying helplessly in the sand. It happened so quickly, none of us had any time to digest how he had managed this amazing feat! We all canned ourselves, even while poor Cecil was trying to pick up his 250kg 1200GS on the side of a slope (with a big smile on his face for the camera of course.) 
Rony showing us how it's done.

Ok... We'll give it a shot I guess.

Hmm... Maybe not! The Dakar bites the dust. (She did get up and over eventually after a fair dose of encouragement!)

I could go on and on about the funny and devastating moments that the day enraptured us in. But that would entail a very long post and I think I have said enough. Besides, I would like to keep some dignity without having to publicly relive ALL of my nose-dives into the sand. 
Dad's emergency stop... with the sand in his wake...

We finished the day off well in plumes of dust shaken up from the ground by our skidding and sliding during enacted emergency stops. More successful enactments for some then others! As we all said our thanks to our brilliant teachers and the wonderful group that made the day so enjoyable, the cloud was lifting from the valley and exposed the beautiful mountains and an early-rising moon... such a very quintessentially African scene! Sorry about being overly poetic... but I really do love this area of the world. It is such a treat to ride through the beautiful wine lands, vast expanses of land, distant smoky-violet mountain peaks and up and out to beautiful Cape Town. What an extraordinarily beautiful part of the world we live in. Ok, enough of the decadent language. Where do we go from here? 
The whole group together.
Great shot of dad with the beautiful peaks behind him.

And we are off! Back to Cape Town it is. What a great day!

We are busy tying up the ends required to organise this epic journey. I had a meeting with BMW on Monday and am hoping to secure a bit of sponsorship from them, to help us out with what has exposed itself as an exorbitantly expensive trip... all the odds and ends, sprockets and shocks etc etc etc etc... It really does add up! We should hear about this soon. We will definitely be doing a crash course in ‘motorbike maintenance’ with the trusty BMW mechanics! I will soon be approaching more people in the business community to support our mission and make donations to the Earthchild Project. And, and, and... there is a lot going on to ensure the trip is a success and we reach our goals of raising R500,000 for the Earthchild Project and of course complete our exciting African adventure. We shall keep you posted! Until then please help us by sharing our project with everyone you know and in doing so, let’s make a better day for all those beautiful Earthchildren out there... because we sure can’t trust them politicians (happy voting day tomorrow... that is, if you have someone to vote for!) Let’s change our South Africa... the grass-roots way :)  

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Training session number one: the rainy road from Johannesburg to Cape Town.


Proud owner of a F650GS Dakar!!!
Our first training session for our epic Cape to Cairo journey was a fun-filled success! My father and I drove down to Cape Town from Johannesburg on Monday morning, the 11th April. I had just barely completed my Novice Riders course with BMW Motarrad at the Zwartskop Race Course in Pretoria and so the trip down was quite an exhilarating experience… if a bit harrowing! I am absolutely in love with my beautiful BMW F650GS Dakar. It is a beast! After being dubbed the wildest and bravest girl on a Dakar, by my course instructor, it was time to live up to the praise and throw caution into the wind, (despite my novice status!) After ensuring that my feet touched the ground, (if only barely with platform boots) we were very keen to hit the open road and try out our wheels. Along the road we faced all sorts of weather conditions… but mostly it pissed with rain all the way along the 1300 odd kilometers of road. We learnt a lot about how to ride in the rain on busy roads, full of trucks and insane drivers who seem to have an inbuilt resentment for motorbikes. Keeping one’s nerves about one’s self in such conditions and still being able to be mesmerized by the freedom of the saddle, is I believe the first step to ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ … in my version of the book anyway.  

The first part of the journey took us to Bloemfontein in freezing conditions. This part of the journey taught us that summer gloves, with air vents which allow biting cold air to seep through, will simply… not do! Get warm gloves- tick! My dad had a day of meetings in Bloemfontein so I spent the day warming my cold bones up and catching up on some work. We then left Bloemfontein at around 4pm to continue onto Smithfield, where we would be spending the night. This route was absolutely beautiful and nothing quite compares to the feeling of driving through beautiful terrain on the open road with the sun set to complete it all marvelously. Yes, it was quite a stunning scene, minus my episode of being stuck behind a large truck carrying chicken feed. Chicken feed falling off a truck at 100kms an hour can feel rather like being pelted by rubber bullets (if you’ve ever experienced this sensation… it is rather unpleasant.) But yes, the universe is rather humorous and at this point it took the opportunity of making fun of my romantic notion of freedom on the road, at quite the opportune moment. As we rode into Smithfield after facing chicken-feed bullets and biblical swarms of miggies, (annoying small bugs,) which arise timely in the dusk, we were very relieved to find a welcome bed and a glass of wine at ‘Nick’s Place.’ 

Dad on the balcony of "Nick's Place." 

Outside Nick's Place in Smithfield, ready to hit the road!   
Dad getting geared up with the two beasts!
After a wonderful big breakfast and a fat cup of coffee and after being briefly interrogated about our trip by the local Smithfield journalist, (I don’t think we can be too hopeful of a resulting celebrity status,) we were off on the open road again. Shortly after, maybe 5 minutes into the drive, it once again began to piss with rain. But we would not let this spoil our drive and instead opted to pick up a rather obnoxious, fluorescent yellow, farmer’s rain suit for me, much to the bemusement of the petrol attendants. My dad luckily did not have to dress in farmer-attire as he had hardcore bikers’ rain gear. But my fluorescent yellow suit did the job and we were off once again, my hardcore biker status slightly tarnished by the farmer’s suit! This part of the journey was definitely the most challenging since it poured so desperately with rain the whole way and on top of this it was rather windy. Passing hundreds of trucks on the road, in these conditions, can be rather frightening. To survive such encounters, the rider is required to react counter-intuitively. For example when you drive past a truck at 140kms an hour and you come into a serious crosswind that causes your bike to wobble furiously, all your head is telling you is - “brake!!!” But what you in fact need to do is accelerate into the crosswind! Absolute madness but quite riveting! I believe it must be this ‘madness’ that is so intoxicating to avid riders.

Along the wet road. 
Embracing the rain! hmm... kind of!
After a few hours of driving we stopped to fill up our bikes with petrol and our bodies with fuel in Beaufort-West. What we discovered at this stop was nothing short of a miracle and an affirmation that the gods are indeed on our side! Whilst sipping his coffee, for some arbitrary reason my dad peered down at my bikes chain to see that the master-link was missing, allowing for the chain to come off at any moment with unpleasant consequences. If a chain comes off of a bike at high speeds it will likely go into the engine causing the bike to go from perhaps 120/140kms to a dead, screeching stop. Hmmm… doesn’t sound like my cup of tea! How I managed to drive the odd +- 1000 kms from Johannesburg to Beaufort West without the master-link on my chain, in the rain is… a complete mystery. The mechanic referred to it as ‘a miracle!’ Now I am not one to be superstitious, but I did feel damn thankful to whatever powers may be! After securing the master link we continued on in the pouring rain which was no longer pissing but rather cascading down upon us. We took shelter in the nearest petrol station when the downpour became too intense, which much to my disgust happened to be a Shell garage, (needless to say we did not fill up, in protest!) It was becoming dark and we still had another 250kms to go and so we decided to stop in quaint and quirky Matjiesfontein for the night. 

After pulling into the little town, we were soon welcomed in the parking lot outside the Lord Milner hotel by a man in a waist-coat who referred to himself as Charlie Chapman… a fair taste of what was to come! He ensured that we promptly made our way to the Laird’s Arm Bar, where there was a blind-man playing a piano albeit not too well despite his laudable effort. We enticed him with a beer, where he was far greater company engaged in conversation and away from the piano. Sadly, it was time to leave the eccentric bar fit with Charlie Chapman’s South African double, a blind-piano man and classy signage requesting “please do not spit on the floor,” or informing that, “loose women are admitted free.”  Dinner was beckoning! 

Welcome respite from the rain. Dad at the Laird's Arm bar in Matjiesfontein.
Classic Sign :)
Another... notice the jar of eggs to the right... quite arbitrary. Quirky very quirky.
The Lord Milner Hotel from the front.

Matjiesfontein's London bus.
We made our way across to the Lord Milner hotel where we were to have dinner in 19th century style. I am quite sure that this building, as well as the staff’s outfits have not changed one bit since the establishment was erected in 1899. The hotel itself boasts of its charm as ‘the last authentic vestige of Victoriana.’ The waitresses were dressed in Victorian-style black maids’ dresses with white aprons ornamented with doily-type detail and white maid’s hats perched ceremoniously upon their heads. The whole ‘1900’s time-warp theme’ was most enjoyable as were the courteous staff... naturally. The meal was quite a treat and so very ‘platteland!’ The mains all served with generous helpings of sickly-sweet, sweet potato. After a wonderful meal we took a stroll around the building which has been preserved all these years in its original state and is full of interesting knickknacks and beautiful antiques. After the +- 800kms drive we feel quite happily into a blissful sleep.

Taking a stroll through the antique embellished lounges of the Lord Milner Hotel.
The next morning we left to finish the last 250kms. At first we drove through an extraordinarily thick fog which covered the entire road and made it very hard to see anything at all. I was quite relieved to find that the fog was not too expansive and we were soon able to see where we were going. This part of the journey was blessed with the best conditions, a welcome relief! So we were thankfully able to just take in the beautiful surroundings without battling difficult conditions. This last part of the Karoo was quite stunning and it was wonderful to witness the change in terrain as we entered into the lush, rolling mountains of the Western Cape. After all the trying weather conditions, it was a real treat to just relax and enjoy the freedom of the bike beneath you, driving through the exquisite landscape.

5425 Miles to Cairo compared to the 745 miles we had just done... puts it into perspective. Our route to Cairo will be roughly 14,000kms.

It felt like quite an accomplishment getting to Cape Town despite how I had given the length of the journey very little credence when deciding to drive down after riding the bike only two short times beforehand. It is probably this nonchalant attitude that gets me doing exciting things like this trip in the first place... even if I only realise the extremity of my planned adventures once I’ve already taken the plunge! I have been so caught up in the excitement of the trip, seeing all these beautiful places, meeting wonderful people and being able to share this wonderful adventure with my father, that I never really considered how challenging actually finishing the journey might be. It has definitely sunk in that one profound element of the trip is going to be the endurance aspect of completing the drive, in very challenging terrain on a bike that weighs roughly four times what I do!!! But waking up to this reality has been a good thing as it will ensure that we are both as ready as we can be to take on ‘the road that lies ahead.’ I think that we both learnt a lot about dealing with the bikes in challenging conditions and more notably about how necessary it is to train before embarking on a long journey like Cape to Cairo. 

The next part of our training agenda will definitely be getting down and dirty in the dust and doing some intensive off-road training, since many of the countries we are driving through will not have long expanses of tar road like the N1! We shall also be focusing on getting some sponsorship for essential gear since driving in difficult conditions seems all the more dangerous and nerve racking when you and your bike are not protected. Come BMW, come Kawasaki, come all! Support us along the road for the Earthchildren xxx The psych is high! The journey has begun! Watch this space... 

With Love, Brittany.