Enduro Africa: Part 1

Jul 19, 2013 View Comments by

Enduro Africa: Part 1

Shortly after I sold my automobile dealership I was looking for a motorcycle trip to decompress from the stress of the past year. I came across a trip called Enduro Himalaya, which is a ride on the world’s highest “motor-able road.” It climbs to 17,000 feet, lasts about 10 days, and is arguably the most spectacular mountain ride in the world. The downside is that you ride on Royal Enfields built in India (from a 60 year old design) on a dirt and gravel “road,” and have to compete with huge trucks and local buses. Most of it sounded great but the Royal Enfields put me off. The Himalaya web site has a link to Enduro Africa, which is more off-road orientated and uses current Honda CRF230 enduro bikes. The two British Princes were on the ride in 2008 in support of the Sentebale charity of which Harry is a co-founder.

The more I looked at Enduro Africa, the more I was intrigued, so I signed up in November of 2008 for the 2009 ride, not fully understanding what I was in for!

Enduro Africa, which is one of the adventures offered by Global Enduro, is run each year in South Africa on the Eastern Cape, or Wild Coast, as it’s locally known. Like the other Global Enduro adventures, it supports various charities that work in the area where the event is staged. In 2009 it raised over $400,000 CDN for our portion of the ride and I surmise a further $350,000 for the return ride.

In the past the bikes were donated to medical teams who used them to visit isolated villages that were inaccessible by any other form of motorized transportation. Now the entire net proceeds go to: UNICEF, Sentebale, Touch Africa, and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. It’s amazing the financial impact an event like Enduro Africa has on the local causes.

The first paragraph of our Enduro Africa Guide Book has a great description of what happens on the actual ride. What they fail to mention, is that if they ever told you beforehand what it was going to be like, nobody would sign up!

The Guide Book reads: “Enduro Africa is a motorcycle adventure like no other, the route is as wild as it gets and so is the team. You are about to experience something extremely special, to become part of an extended family of very special people that belong to the unique Enduro Africa “club.” Once you have completed the route and experienced the highs and lows of this amazing event, you will soon realize what I mean—as it is only people that have ridden Enduro Africa that will understand what it is you went through, and achieved together.”

The South Africa organizer is Mike Glover who runs an adventure company called Red Cherry Adventure Tours. His company takes highly experienced riders on the routes we took but at a faster pace. He’s a multiple time South Africa motorcycle Enduro champion as is many of his staff members. He describes Enduro Africa this way, “The route we have put together for you is outstanding—this is motorcycle heaven. The journey you are about to embark on will not only assist four great charities doing superb work in my country, it will also change the way you look at life too. Enduro Africa is all about facing fear and overcoming obstacles, we will all face these daily, you as participants and we as organizers.” He goes on to say, “At times we will deviate from the plan, this is what adventure is all about—there will be unpredictable events and situations where we may all feel out of our depth.” That pretty much sums it up!

Before I Left

Before going to Africa I took two days of off-road motorcycle instruction in California with a company called Admo Tours. My two instructors did a good job of enhancing the little off-road skill I had, but since none of us knew what Enduro Africa was all about, it didn’t actually help me that much. We focused on riding in sand and on mountain tracks, which was fun, but since we were in desert terrain I didn’t get any mud, rivers, bush, or bare rock instruction. Still, it was a confidence builder and both instructors were excellent.

I carefully went over the gear suggested by the Enduro Africa team and purchased some additional stuff along with various medical and personal requirements. I got my vaccinations up-to-date and brought along my UK passport for ease of access into London, which was the jumping off point to get to South Africa.

Day 1 & 2: Meeting the Group at Heathrow, Flights

I arrived at Heathrow two hours in advance of flight time to find I was one of the last participants to check in. After going through the usual intensive security checks I gravitated to the bar, not really for a drink, but figuring that’s where I would find my group. Sure enough about 20 guys (mostly from the UK) were gathered around a couple of tables swapping “biker banter.” Timothy from Ontario was at my table and he turned out to be the only other Canadian on the ride. Andrew from Washington D.C. was the only other North American, but he’d flown directly to Johannesburg the previous day. After the usual economy class squashed flight we arrived in Johannesburg and waited a few hours for the internal flight to Port Elizabeth. South African Airways was okay but 11-12 hours on any airplane is a bit hard to take. Fortunately the Port Elizabeth flight was short, followed by a quick bus trip to a new Radisson hotel situated on the beach. Timothy and I turned out to be roommates in a very stylish and contemporary room on the 23rd floor. This wasn’t exactly what we expected since some of the equipment suggested was a sleeping pad and bag; this was looking good!

That night we had quite a nice buffet meal followed by presentations from the four charities and some entertainment from the local high school. The presentations gave us an idea of the magnitude of the tasks the charities faced and the incredible financial impact of Enduro Africa. As soon as the presentations were over everyone ignored the sensible suggestion of getting a good night’s sleep and headed for the hotel bar.

Day 3 Sunday: Port Elizabeth to Port Alfred

The day didn’t start off that well as I still had my alarm clock on a different time zone, which meant Tim and I had to scramble to get ready for the mass departure. Being on the 23rd floor with only two elevators wasn’t that great either. Somebody had moved my Honda so I had to wander through the 80-plus bikes until I found it. Then the rotten beast wouldn’t start. It had some sort of fuel problem that persisted throughout the whole trip. So my first few yards of Enduro Africa was being push-started by a couple of team leaders while all the rest of the riders screamed off with a police escort to the outskirts of town. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.

However, by keeping my Honda on half choke for a couple miles, it seemed to sort itself out and I was able to catch up to the main group. The route took us through an area that had been the Ford Proving Grounds for the rally cars they entered in the East African Safari. The “Safari,” as it was called, was the toughest rally in the World Rally Championship, so you can imagine what the proving grounds were like. Thankfully, our little Honda CRF230s were perfect for the terrain and had amazing climbing ability. Really, the biggest challenge of any part of the ride was to trust these little “donkeys” to get the job done. So long as you looked where you wanted to go, kept your head up and the throttle open, you were pretty much assured you’d get there; sometimes not so pretty, but you’d get there none-the-less. On one occasion, I was climbing a hill and the Honda threw me off backwards, flipped in the air, and still made it to the next level. The team leader who was helping us through that section made the laconic comment; “Well, the bike made it.”

In the Proving Grounds the first challenge was a rutted rocky downhill traverse into a gorge followed by a river crossing and a climb up the other side. The idea was for the team leaders to get an idea of the ability of each rider and then allocate them to the appropriate riding level. Unfortunately for me, this type of riding came pretty naturally, partly because of mountain biking, so I was a minor star and ended up on the Orange Team. I later regretted “showboating” that first day because I should really have been at least one level lower. I was often in over my head as the ride progressed.

The Proving Grounds was a bit of a fiasco. It was a Sunday so it was also full of the locals who were riding in every direction. Amazingly we all made it out the other side without any head-on collisions or anyone going off a cliff.

After lunch we were separated into our various teams and met our team leader and team sweep. Our leader was a retired pharmacist who had ridden all his life and had done a three-month motorcycle circumnavigation of southern Africa with his twenty-year-old son. He told us of some of their adventures at lunch breaks and I have to say, I wouldn’t have wanted to do that trip. The team sweep was a retired helicopter pilot who I presume learned his trade in the South African armed forces. They both were Afrikaans in speech and attitude although their surnames sounded English. They were great guys, tough as nails, and terrific riders. They were very pragmatic (and sometimes negative) about the future of South Africa but neither wanted to leave. Both had been in the national forces during the Apartheid era and had seen some stuff they could have done without.

We would usually have discussions at the rest stops and at one point I brought up the Dell initiative of donating one laptop to Africa for every one purchased in North America within a certain time period. Like most North Americans, I view the Internet as an amazing technical and societal leap that will change the world. I said, “Why not scrap the traditional school system here and simply provide every kid with a laptop?” The Team Leader quietly said, “I don’t think that’s a very practical idea.” I was deflated but then I started to think about the area we were riding in: it has no electricity, running water, sanitation, phone lines, or even roads as we think of them. If you want to go somewhere, you walk till you get to a ‘road’ and then try to flag down a mini-cab.

The homes are single rooms made out of dried mud and branches. The floor is dirt and the only heating and cooking source is a stove fuelled by brush or sometimes propane. The design is circular with a thatched roof of grasses or clay tiles. The walls are whitewashed and often the door is a blanket.

The traditional schools are a source of community spirit and organization that parents and kids can gravitate to. On day six we worked at a local school with dirt floors, no electricity or heat, and outhouses for sanitation; but everyone in the area came out to see us work on it. The kids all wear a school uniform, which are amazingly spotless. One of my lasting memories of Africa is kids walking for miles on dirt and rock roads—barefoot—to school. They put their shoes and socks on when they get there!

The ride to our overnight stop (Port Alfred) was long and dusty but pleasant. We checked into the Halyard Hotel absolutely filthy. That night we got a lecture about riding too close, which creates a zero-vision dust cloud and the dangers involved. The hotel was attached to a Marina but we stayed in the so-called Lodge. I had a room to myself; rough but clean. Dinner was good and everyone was in high spirits. I got to know some of the other riders from the various teams and, of course, the bar was packed.

 Text and Photography by Mike Atkin

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