Monday, November 9, 2009

Andrus Enduro Africa Slide Show: 12/7 @ 6:30 PM Harp & Fiddle

It's been just about a month since I returned from my Enduro Africa trek and I'm still buzzing from it all. After a 3-day respite to recuperate from the ride, I returned to South Africa and traveled on to Morocco for work. I've been home for about a week now and have been struggling to catch up with the pile that has overtaken my desk.

Since returning, I've watched several amazing developments come in via my RSS feeds and Google Alerts, including last week's UNAIDS report Women and Health, an inspiring Lancet story of health care delivery in rural South Africa, and many other intriguing items.

My latest obsession is with Sachs' incredible book, 
Common Wealth, which ties infectious diseases, population growth, climate change, and economic development into a coherent whole that has helped me put everything I witnessed in rural South Africa into perspective. It has been hard to sit on the sidelines and not blog about these things, as I might have before the trip.

Next steps
Here's the plan for the rest of the year, as regards shutting Andrew's Enduro Africa down. First, I'll finish editing and adding links to my "trail side" accounts, which I posted each night from South Africa. Although I'm tempted to edit them, I'll just reformat the accounts so they appear in chronological order and I'll fill out the story with links to relevant material.

Second, I've got a slide show and pub quiz night scheduled at Bethesda's Harp & Fiddle December 7th @ 6:30 PM ET. We'll show videos and pictures from the event, reveal the winners from the "How many falls will Andrew take" contest, and provide an insider's view on the trip. Please join us.

In the meantime, here's a great 6-min. video compilation by fellow Enduro Africa rider, Nick Stubbs, which captures nicely the anticipation, excitement, and heartwarming aspects of the trip.

A heartfelt thanks to everyone for your generous donations!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day 11: Durban and flight home

So, for me, Enduro Africa is over. I'm now in the Durban airport about to leave for Joburg. I had a fantastic time and learned to become a much more proficient offroad rider. I'm sore, but otherwise unscathed. With help from my generous sponsors, I expect to turn over $10k in donations when everything's said and done. Thanks to the many recent new donations, which will go to the four amazing charities providing HIV prevention, education, and support in Southern Africa.

Along the way, I got to meet incredible people - fellow riders and South Africans alike. Foremost among the former were members of Team Orange, whose sense of humor, advice, and assistance helped me to enjoy the ride even more. And many thanks to my team leaders, who patiently educated us about the country, its people, and wildlife. They never failed to step into the breach and fix a tire, adjust a bike component, or pull us out of a ravine.

I'll miss the short stories by South African writers they read to us on our longer breaks. My only hope for them is that they practice their proficiency with their GPS devices, although the downtime needed to locate ourselves did offer us more chances to take pictures!

Later today, I'll head home to my family, rewarding job, and affluent life, at least by national and global standards. It is not lost on me that I pulled a winning ticket in the lottery that gave me American citizenship and the incredible opportunities that middle-class life there affords. Time will tell how I convert this experience into something tangible. 

But I'm determined that this will be the end of a chapter and the start of something new. Not more adventure tourism, mind you, but something that has an even greater impact on the lives of the global poor than the HIV prevention science that I've devoted my life to thus far.

And soon, dear readers, I'll shut down this blog. But not before I backfill these rider accounts with pictures and links, and add a bit more content aimed at future riders (e.g., 5 top things to pack - and leave behind) and follow-up with the winners of my recent poll (How many falls will Andrew take?). I'll leave the blog up for a year, in case future riders are curious about what they may face.

I'm tremendously grateful to all who made this possible, including those friends, family, and new friends who donated, or sent encouraging notes, comments, and questions as the trip progressed.

For those on the next leg back to PE, I have only this to say: We thrashed your bikes. Nothing personal. We really thrashed them. Enjoy your ride, be safe, and be sure to take in as much of the country as you can. You'll miss the best parts if you focus only on the ride.

Photo credits: Andrew Forsyth, Mike Taylor, Andrew Forsyth

Day 10: Mbotyi to Port Edward

We departed at 7:45 AM Sunday in light rain and with dark clouds overhead. The final push was to be a 200-km run toward Durban, with a few technical sections thrown in for good measure.

We immediately encountered more of the slippery goop that did me in the day before. But I'd learned overnight that it had also caught Red Cherry Adventure's Mike Glover offguard. The seasoned, ex-champion enduro racer was said to have broken toes in the tumble. The slop would claim scores of others before the day was out.

After staying in several 1 - 2 star venues along the route - including one that took the area's name, "Hole in the Wall," as a quality benchmark to strive for - Enduro Africa riders dismounted Saturday night at the spectacular Mbotyi River Lodge, with it's manicured lawns, lighted palm trees, and fantastic food.

One of the part owners was a kind middle-aged woman with a warm smile who recounted her years working in HIV prevention in the region. She even made an invited visit to the Bush Whitehouse for her work on the Mothers2Mothers project. Hands down, the lodge was the nicest, friendliest place we would stay on the trip. It didn't hurt that it also was home to a pleasant pitbull mix that made the rounds to ensure that guests were sorted. Visit, if you have the chance.

We made our way into the hills and up through the low hanging clouds. We came across large, shoddy schools and pristine police compounds in seemingly deserted mountain communities. From the saddle, the contrasts suggested a ranking of funding priorities out of step with the need.

The once familiar goat paths and open fields were now soaked and had turned rather formidable. This was particularly true as we slid our way down a steep decline to a shallow stream crossing. By turning the ignition off, we used the clutch to work first gear to control the rotational speed of the rear tire. Pull the clutch in and the tire rolls; let it out and it eventually locks up.

This strategy, when combined with careful control of the front brake, freed our feet to stabilize the bikes in the slippery muck. I dropped and lifted the 300-lb bike a dozen times (but rarely fell myself). All of this exacted quite a toll: Dressed in full protective gear and a rain jacket, I sweated more profusely than at any time in my life.

The entire group of ~80 riders eventually made its way out of the valley with the help of a narrow, gravel road. Miles later, we stopped to regroup by the roadside and immediately drew a small band of 4 - 8 year old boys, barefoot, and dressed in ripped clothing. Some played with tops in the dirt and debris. Two smaller boys deftly climbed a fence wrapped in rusted barbed wire for a better view of the bikes. One of them, with big eyes and quick to giggle, goofed with me as we made each other laugh by the roadside.

Only one of their lot spoke a few words of English. I pleaded with him to work hard in school and to study. He translated. I pointed to a few and asked "Mandela? Mandela?" in the only way I could think to suggest that they -- like their former President before them, who arose from very humble roots - could have a bright future and contribute meaningfully to their country. Admittedly, it was a long shot and a weak effort. Still, they shook my hand excitedly as I left, seeming to appreciate the impromptu mentoring even more than the chicklets others had given them. I shook the hand of the little boy with the bright eyes twice, just for good measure.

The rest of the ride was unremarkable. We eventually made our way to the camp grounds that would serve as our final base. We dismounted the mud-caked bikes and were greeted by a traditional Zulu dance performance. Had I not destroyed my camera during my last fall, I'd have taken pictures. We checked in, cleaned up for dinner, and began to get organized for our flights home or onward.

As the evening events started, I finally identified the slow, burning tension that had come to a head. Enduro Africa had attempted to strike a fine balance from the beginning between two competing factions. On the one hand, the event is an out-and-out testosterone-fest, complete with the drunken hooligans among us wreaking havoc at all hours. And on the other hand, the place is crawling with more pensive people genuinely interested in the speeches on opening night by representatives from the event's selected charities. I wanted the group to end on a similar highpoint as that first night, one that emphasized less the ride and more the remarkable charitable work that we'd make possible.

But tonight, the testosterone faction was clearly in control. The closing ceremonies thanking all involved ended with an Enduro Africa tradition: Two of the bikes were ridden by team leaders who, stripped to their skivvies, circled the pool several times before plunging them into the water.

The goal was to see who could get the water cleared and the bikes restarted and running faster - the team leaders, or the extraordinary mechanics who had kept us all going. It took all of 3 minutes for the first team to remove the water, reinstall the spark plug, and ride the dripping bike out to the parking lot. In a surprising upset, the team leaders beat the ride mechanics to restart their bike. 

But the outcome said less about the competitors than it did about the hardiness of these incredible Honda CRF230Ls. I didn't envy the camping grounds staff, who would have a sandy pool floor and a fuel slick to contend with in the morning. 

Photo credits: Mbotyi River Lodge, Andrew Forsyth, Mike Taylor

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Top 5 things to pack (and leave behind)

Here are some reflections on the things to pack and leave behind for Enduro Africa. Aside from the essentials recommended by the organizers, my top 5 things to bring include:
  1. Power adapter. Those of you who have traveled internationally know to bring a power adapter. But some will be surprised to find that there's a 3-pronged plug for South Africa, one that is shared with a few other former UK-colonies (incl. India, Hong Kong, etc.). The two-pronged outlets common in the UK are few and far between outside of the larger cities. Not to worry: Every grocery and hardware store I visited had the adapters for ~ZAR9 - 10. 
  2. Layers. Those who have been to South Africa in the Spring will know that the temperatures vary considerably during the day. Bring a breathable, waterproof shell and avoid any riding gear made of cotton - unless you enjoy wearing sweaty clothes. Quick drying synthetic shorts and tees as base layers are highly recommended. 
  3. Digital camera. It should go without saying but bring the gadgets you need to keep your camera up and running (power, memory, etc). South Africa is phenomenally beautiful and you'll want to be ready to show them to people back at home. In a single day, we saw whales breaching, amazing birds, monkeys, impressive trees and plants, and a remarkable cityscape. And that's not counting the game park you'll visit.
  4. Ibuprophen. Even if you don't hit the deck, you'll end each day feeling every muscle in your arms, shoulders, neck, and legs. A little dab of ibuprophen, for me, was just the ticket.
  5. Large volume hydration backpack. Take your choice. There are many good brands out there. But just make sure that you have the capacity to carry 3.0 litres of fluids and have room for waterproofs, energy bars, chocolate, and camera gear. I brought a back-up 2.0 litre bladder - and I used it regularly in addition to my main one!
Runners-up: Gatorade, moleskin, instant coffee (Starbucks!), lens wipes, antibiotic cream, hand sanitizer, a bottle of red South African wine, and your bank's number or email (so you can notify them YET AGAIN that you're really in ZA and to unlock your account).

Things to leave 
Were I to do Enduro Africa again, here are the things I'd leave behind: 

  1. Half of everything. Sure, go ahead. Pack everything you think you'll need. And then divide by 2. Maybe 3. Seriously, all of those tee shirts and pants? Leave them. You'll have plenty of chances to hand wash and dry any essentials. Socks are the only exception: Bring an extra pair. My gear bag's check-in weight was 16 kg (Limit = 20 kg) and I still brought more clothes than needed.
  2. Delicate electronics. I only brought a blackberry and small camera and was grateful to have even one of those functional when I left. I wouldn't take a computer, large lens SLR camera, etc., although others did. In addition to falls and river crossings, theft is still an issue in some places. 
  3. Second+ level aid kits. I wondered about the need for first aid gear on the trip. In truth, most could get by with basic/level 1 first aid kits because riders are followed like Joe Biden by ambulances and mechanics. Ride leaders have aid kits and tools too. 
  4. Tons of cash. I was surprised by how little money I actually needed, most of which I pulled out of an ATM in the Joburg airport and in Port Elizabeth. Aside from the ZAR1500 we gave to ride leaders for lunches, gas, and game park fees (a sizeable amount of which we got back at the end), I made it through the week on another ZAR1000 or so. Mind you, I wasn't up all hours buying and downing rounds with friends. So, plan accordingly. At the time, the USD:ZAR exchange rate was 1:7.5 or so.
  5. Your ego. Seriously. Go and have fun. Enduro Africa is not a race, and there will inevitably be far better riders around than you. Just chill, have a look around, get to know your fellow riders, take in the country (its views, history, cultures), and meet as many locals as you can. You'll enjoy the experience that much more. 
So there you have it. My list of packing essentials, some of which overlap with EA's own recommendations. Anything I missed?

Day 9: Port St. Johns to Mbotyi

We awakened to find that it had rained overnight in Port St. Johns, South Africa and that today's short yet extremely technical offroad motorbike ride would be impassable for neophytes like me. We planned an escape route at the midway point, just in case.

We traveled along goat paths, open fields, and gravel roads similar to those we'd traversed the day before. Again, people waved from the sidelines and ignored the rain just to watch us pass. Many more young adults were among the spectators, perhaps because it was a Saturday and they were home from the city, mines, or elsewhere.

Rain soaked trails
But the rain made these familiar landscapes much more challenging. Worse still, the harder inclines - with their loose boulders, bulging roots, and off-camber ruts - forced many off of their bikes or to come to the assistance of those who had been. As thanks for their efforts, samaritans often received a rooster tail of mud thrown from others' back wheels.

At the mid-point, our team leaders decided, in consultation with the older man who had plotted the route, that we should head home. Our progress had been hampered considerably by the steep, muddy climbs.

Our strategy of staying ahead of all of the teams for access to virgin, unchewed terrain was a good one but the level of skill required was beyond many of us. It was the right call, as we learned later that several of the team leaders, many of whom are South African enduro racing champions, struggled to clear the sections without dropping their bikes or having to recover them after they fell over a cliff.

En route, we stopped at a decrepit old town that had been abandoned by Afrikaaners at the end of the apartheid era and reclaimed by local villagers. The electrical lighting no longer worked and the buildings looked ready to crumble. Inside the main store, a family was huddled around a fire that appeared to give off more smoke and soot than heat in a room that was unventilated save for the entranceway. A mother sat next to the fire holding a small child. The living space was simply covered in dirt and debris, what little I saw of it. I stood outside, my mind reeling to make sense of it all.

And I became mired immediately in yet another set of ethical issues: What right have we to walk into this former store, given that the space is clearly used as a habitat? Can I take pictures, even if only from the doorway? And if I do, would compensating the occupants for their tolerance offset the intrusion? Or would it make matters worse?

I try to imagine how I'd feel if a shiny motorcade pulled up along my street and disgorged a throng of middle aged, foreign tourists, dripping in implausibly expensive clothing and gear, peeked their beaks into my front living room, snapped a few quick photos, smiled and blithered incoherently at me, and left a few dollars on the table on their way out. Several of us continued to mull such questions, as the rain soaked deeper into our layers and we remounted and clicked our bikes into gear.

A big spill in Mbotyi
Twenty minutes later, I took a rather sudden spill while cruising along a seemingly benign, rain-soaked, red clay road that had lulled me into daydreaming about my wife, our families, and work. I'd become preoccupied with thoughts about how the trip had opened my eyes to the realities of the global poor in ways none of my many travels had to date. Most often, I tend to visit new countries in a protective, sterile cocoon that effectively limits exposure to how life is actually lived by area residents. Adventure motorcycling offers a similarly insulating bubble, but with less volume.

And in a flash, I was on the ground, skidding to a halt in the middle of the rain-soaked road at 40 MPH or more. I'd hit an off-camber rut in a surprisingly slick section that very efficiently swept away my front tire and catapulted me over the right side of the bike. I was immediately surrounded by Team Orange and other riders, who may have been as surprised as I by how fast it all happened. I quickly got up and stared at the bike, only to be disturbed seconds later by a truck closing in from the opposite direction. Its horn blaring a warning that it wouldn't or couldn't stop in time, due to the slop underfoot.

I cleared the path, checking myself and the bike for damage. Nothing. Although covered in a fresh coat of the viscous, red goop, I was no worse for it. But I think it was a wake up call for everyone to ride more cautiously. It certainly was for me, as I'd been a minor demon on wheels for much of the week's ride.

Heading home
The decison to use the escape route and come home early was a good one for other reasons. By then, we were completely rain-soaked and beginning to chill. The reward for our prudence was an early check-in at the hotel, hot showers, and an opportunity to have clothes washed before morning. It's the small things in life, really. I felt no shame in leaving the day's tougher section to the experienced riders.

The briefing for tomorrow's 207-km ride was par for the course and featured a map outlining high- and low-road routes, for those preferring easy and more challenging rides, respectively. We plan to visit water falls and cruise along mountain roads before arriving in TO Strand for a final dinner and party. The next morning, we depart for Durban and Joburg.

It is hard to imagine walking away from this trip untouched. I've met amazing people, enjoyed the our South African hosts' kindness and hospitality, and benefited from more experienced riders' sage advice.

And I've enjoyed the range of conversations we've had, such as ways to optimize humanitarian assistance programs, the economic development needs of the region, and the types of motorbikes that we own or want.

I've also peeked behind the curtains in modern South Africa to observe instances where it has labored to live up to its promise and I witnessed the persistence of beliefs and behaviors that remain highly resistant to change.

Photo credits: Andrew Pawley, Mike Taylor, Andrew Pawley, Andrew Forsyth

Friday, October 9, 2009

Day 8: Hole-in-the-Wall to Port St. Johns

Today's run was a mild, 140-km trip from Hole-in-the-wall to Cremorne, near Port St. Johns, South Africa. On tap for tomorrow is a very difficult route, one that takes 8-hrs to cover only 41-km. The problems are that it is very technical, and isolated, so no medical or mechanical support will be available.

I just can't say enough about the Honda CRF230Ls that we are riding. They are not powerful, but they are sure-footed and capable. As I've been fond of saying, they could climb a tree if you'd let them. The bikes are based on dated but reliable technology, and they are tough and easy to repair. Taken together, they make the perfect choice for a trip like this.

Most of today's trip was spent on narrow goat paths, gravel roads, and tarmac. I've used these conditions to try to improve the technique of riding while standing on the footpegs, squeezing the fuel tank with my knees as needed, and holding the grips lightly for stability. Unlike riding while seated, the standing position offers greater visibility, improved speeds over bumps and ruts, and quicker redistribution of weight front to back and laterally.

I started the week feeling quite nervous about the technique but find myself using it more and more, especially now that I've mastered up- and down-shifting with my left foot (and braking with my right) while standing.

Because tomorrow is expected to be terrible and I'm exhausted, I'll stop here. It has been raining all night, and in the low-50s at night, 60s and 70s the past few days. Thanks to everyone for their comments and questions. I read everything even if I'm unable to respond (e.g. on FB).

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Photo credits: Andrew Pawley, Andrew Forsyth

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Day 7: Mazeppa Bay to Hole in the Wall

We began our 12-hr, 140-km ride from Mazeppa Bay to Hole-in-the-Wall with a long climb into the Qora gorge and down to a river crossing that left most riders with flooded boots, myself included. That's right: We had soaking wet socks, heels, and toes for the rest of the day. But we didn't care.

The day was especially hard on the bikes, as there were many trying sections on the route. At least 1 motorcycle was "drowned" at a river crossing, one clutch was burned out in our group, and there were plenty of flat tires, crash damage to the controls, and burned out headlamps.

My own bike got a rear flat that had to be nursed regularly with fix-a-flat gel for the rest of the day. And after bending a rear brake lever, it took hours and two near accidents on sharply turning, gravel mountain roads before I got the brake adjusted to give me better control.

Today's ride also brought a seemingly endless parade of impoverished villages, emaciated livestock, and curious children who lined the roads again. I've learned that while everyone smiles and waves, they don't do so necessarily for the reasons we attribute to them. Very often, enthusiastic waves and big smiles turned into sad expressions and requests for money, candy, or food, if you stop long enough to investigate.

And word had it that several bikers got pelted by stones in a few places. Others encountered makeshift barriers in the roads or strategically positioned boulders along especially challenging sections. Admittedly, these incidents were very rare. And frankly, I could imagine several explanations for these antics, without condoning them of course.

These incidents seem to offer the counterfactual to some riders' contention that villagers are happy with their impoverished, diseased, and low opportunity lives, speaking frankly, and do not seek anything from our merry band of adventure tourists than to give us heartfelt greetings from the roadside. But then again, I suspect that I carry a genetic predisposition for cynicism.

If nothing else, this aspect of the trip has been an eye-opening experience that has raised many difficult questions about what the developing world needs and how best to provide humanitarian assistance. In short, how best can we use international aid and charity resources to bring sustainable changes to quality of life, reduce preventable diseases like HIV and TB, and close the gap between the haves and the have nots, if only a little? I'm not convinced that we are achieving as much as we could with existing resources.

The post-ride briefing for tomorrow was encouraging: We'll have a "mellow" 140-km trip and it will contrast sharply with today's punishing route. I won't say how many spills I took today, but let's say that it was a record for me.

All for now. I'm falling asleep while sitting upright at a table and texting. A first for me. Stay tuned - the adventure continues.

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Photo credits: Andrew Forsyth, Mike Taylor

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Day 6: Volunteer day in Mazeppa Bay

Enduro Africa riders were off of our bikes for a rest day today, which was spent at a nearby school refurbishing desks, painting interior walls, and performing other maintenance with TouchAfrica.

As we arrived, children started pouring out of the buildings and began waving and dancing for us. There must have been 300 kids there, all dressed sharply in black uniforms.

I know that most of my blog readers need no description of what schools are like in this part of the world, with their dirt floors, crumbling walls, sparce instructional materials, and broken windows. We spent much of the day attempting to address these issues.

During a break, I sat against a building with a thoughtful, young Port Elizabeth-based medic who is providing support for the trek. He picked up and held the most adorable 2-yr old with saucer-shaped dark eyes.

We discussed at length the life expectancy in the community, residents' health status, and health care services available to rural South Africans. Needless to say, much of the discussion was rather bleak, but not all of it, thankfully.

By the end of the day, EA riders had left several permanent products behind which should benefit these children immensely. And we created some lasting memories, including a bagpipe performance by Neil Rathbone that mesmerized everyone at the school for a good 30 minutes. It was touching to see the joy this brought to the crowd. Well done, Neil.

Once again, the experience caused many to reflect seriously about how best to bring positive, long term impacts to communities that need aid the most. Needless to say, a consensus eluded us.

The 8:30 PM pre-ride briefing was unusual tonght for its blunt words of caution about the need for safe, steady progress on tomorrow's 140-km, highly technical, 11-hr ride. In fact, two (not one) escape routes are planned in the event, for example, that the 500-foot, steep declines on loose shale and boulders, prove too much for some.

Stay tuned. I'll provide an update tomorrow night.

Photo credits: Andrew Forsyth, Andrew Pawley

Injury status update

This morning, I interpretted the lack of swelling and bruising to mean that I haven't fractured my foot, thankfully. It is a little sensitive still but nothing to keep me off my bike.

Lesson learned? Take every step to avoid dehydration, as it erodes concentration and coordination incredibly fast out here. And, yes, I must slow down a bit too!

Lorraine - I'll be sure to say hello to Mike, your hubby and my fellow Team Orange rider. In fact, he's one of the more sensible riders whose technique and strategy I've been trying to mimic. Perhaps I'll do a a few rider profiles and see if he'd be game for an "interview" for the blog.

And thanks everyone for your comments and well wishes. I'm still hammering these posts out with my thumbs, which may be showing the greatest amount of wear of all my body parts. And I do the posts after the rides described, so I'll beg your forgiveness for any typos, mispellings, or grammaticals. I'll edit and add pictures, links, and other content later.

Stay tuned. Volunteer day today with TouchAfrica, one of the charities supported by Enduro Africa. More soon.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Day 5: Morgan's Bay to Mazeppa Bay

Today, we set out early from Morgan's Bay to allow time to complete the punishing 80-km route, with its deep sandy trails, seemingly impossible climbs, and more stream crossings than I could count. It got so hot that I worried for the first time in my life about the possibility of suffering heat stroke.

At about 1:30 PM, we made an unplanned stop at a remote community store that soon teamed with young children as we turned onto the road. We interacted with many of them for some time, and were treated by several young girls to a beautiful renditon of the song, Shosholoza.

As I understand it, the song speaks to the sadness of former Rhodesian miners separated from their families for work in South Africa. The kids allowed us to snap their pictures, which often led to our being mobbed moments later by our subjects anxious to see themselves on the small screen. They giggled excitedly after each shot.

Team Orange had a number of delays during the route today, including a severe case of dehydration that required medical care, and a nasty endo that pitched a rider over the bars and violently to the ground. Both are ok now but we can all see why Enduro Africa has a 10% attrition rate.

A third delay involved yours truly, when I'd lost control of my front end during another steep descent. I was pancaked to the ground with my bike pinning my foot just beneath its rapidly spinning rear tire. I credit the fall to exhaustion: It occurred an hour after I'd drained my 5-liter water supply and a 1.5 liter soda. My focus and bike control quickly melted away in the heat and never fully returned.

I suspect that I may have suffered from the fall a hairline fracture to my left foot. But I'm not injured enough to quit. An ibuprophen and a much anticipated day working with TouchAfrica to renovate a school, and I'll be right as rain.

All for now.

Photo credits: Andrew Pawley, Andrew Forsyth

Monday, October 5, 2009

Day 4: Port Alfred to Morgan's Bay

We set off from Port Alfred at 8 AM with the obligatory police escort to the city border, which was all of a half mile away. The morning's light rain was a mixed blessing: Less dust on the trails but a greater risk of slipping into the foot-deep ruts along parts of the route. Thankfully, the rain ceased by 11 AM or so.

Team Orange, consisting of a fascinating and diverse group of 12 - 14 riders from the UK, Shanghai, Vancouver, and Washington D.C., made its way through progressively poorer communities over the course of the day. We were greeted frequently by enthusiastic school children who heard our approaching engines and ran to wave to us from schoolyard fences and in perfectly pressed, blue and grey uniforms.

Our team is expertly led by a kind and highly disciplined, retired, Afrikaaner who not only gets us safely from point A to B, but also provides us with insights into the history of the region, even showing us one of his favorite fishing and camping sites. Just before lunch at a lakeside stop, he read an amusing short story to expose us to South Africa and its cultures. These insights furthered an ongoing discussion about the challenges of addressing simultaneously the needs of all South Africans, but whites and blacks in particular.

On today's route, we traveled through several small and bustling towns. I only caught glimpses of each -- the lines of colorfully attired women 30-deep for the bank ATM, or Christian proselytizers wailing into their microphones, or the proprieter of a "Chicken and Chips" shack awaiting customers. I'm often tempted to feign a mechanical just so I can stop to take pictures. I'll talk to the team leaders tomorrow about letting me pull over as needed.

On a double-track road, I was involved in a rather unfortunate incident with a puff adder, a generic name for a venomous, triangular-headed, yellow and black snake introduced to us on yesterday's game park tour. The creature accounts for more deaths than any other snake in the region.

As my Orange Team colleagues raced along in the left lane of a double-track dirt road, I proceeded in the right track seeking improved visibility. I spotted the adder just as the rider ahead of me passed it, but the 2 - 3 footer was midway through my lane as I raced up to it at 50 MPH (or more). I tried to bunny hop over it, which is a mountain-biking technique for clearing obtacles by compressing the suspension and releasing it just as you hit the offending curb, log or snake. But with 300 pounds under me, it didn't quite work. I gave the poor thing instead a generous helping of rear tire, again, spinning furiously at 50 MPH (or more).

I looked over my shoulder and saw that the snake had assumed a defensive, coiled position for next rider that attempted to treat it as a speed bump. At the rest stop, I heard from the sweep (i.e., the experienced rider at the tail of the pack who ensures that all survive the day) that the snake remained in the road even as the final riders passed. I hoped I hadn't mortally wounded it.

After three flat tires and a mechanical on the sweep's bike, Team Orange was the last to arrive at Morgan's Bay this evening. We were covered in mud, just like everyone else. After power-washing the bikes and taking showers, we reconvened for dinner and tomorrow's pre-ride briefing.

The route now takes us into the Transkei region ("the area beyond the river"), a well-known part of South Africa for its political history as well as its rugged, undeveloped coastline. The 80-km route is expected to take 8-hrs, require 13 stream or river crossings, and offer challenging single track, wooded trails. The organizers are bringing out fuel and water trucks to meet us and keep us on track. Note that our trusty Hondas usually get about 160 km per tank - that we'll need to refuel on this short section speaks volumes about the challenges ahead.

We'll also drop in at one of TouchAfrica's school projects, which is one of the four charities supported by Enduro Africa. We'll be there for a volunteer day to help renovate one of their schools. I can't wait.

A warm word of thanks to Deborah. Mike, Hector, Mojo, Jess, Cris, Mike, Lance, Lorraine, and Elizabeth for their comments. Please feel free to send any questions about the trip. I'll do my best to respond asap.

That's it for today. Everyone made it safely and with huge grins on their faces. The adventure continues.

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Photo credits: Andrew Forsyth, Andrew Pawley, Mike Taylor

Lives transformed by mobile phones

On my flight to South Africa, I read with keen interest the Economist's recent special report on the transformational impact of mobile phones in the lives of people in developing countries. Consider this: For every additional 10 mobiles per 100 people, a nation's gross domestic product increases per person by 0.6 - 0.8 percentage points in developing countries.

Why? Because these phones are immediately put to use, serving as "village phones" to residents who can check produce prices before going to market or to share medical information (thereby saving cost and time traveling to distant clinics). Micro-lending programs that have put mobiles in the hands of poor men and women have generated new income that has been used for school fees, medical costs, and other basics.

One wonders what impact these simple tools could bring were they made a larger part of the admittedly impressive work already supported by NGOs in developing countries, including those supported by Enduro Africa donations.

Interesting article. Take a look: Mobile Marvels.

Technical difficulties

Thanks for all of the emails, comments, and requests for pix! My blackberry allows me to write, but I can't respond to facebook, post pics, or respond to your blog comments, sadly! Will do so at my next computer terminal, although pix must wait. Follow the FB links to the full blog posts.

Rain this AM could mean trouble for many. Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Day 3: Port Elizabeth to Port Alfred

Under police escort out of Port Elizabeth today, we rode to a labyrinthine network of trails that the local riders were kind enough to share, many even offered us technical and mechanical assistance. There were steep inclines and declines, stream crossings, logs, sand, mud, and miles of incredible single-track through the bush.

It was on the first major descent -- long, rutted, and strewn with rocks -- that I had my first fall of the trip. I locked up the front wheel and just dropped the bike without falling to the ground myself. I quickly pulled the bike up, cranked the engine, and finished the hill without incident, proud to serve as entertainment for the crowd.

Around noon, we entered our first game reserve near Addo. Suddenly, we found ourselves on roads being crossed by herds of gazelle, with zebras, giraffes, warthogs, bison, and springbok looking on. Incidentally, a park we later visited in the day deployed a graphic of a bicyclist being stomped by an elephant, all to suggest that it wasn't a great place to pedal around. I began scanning my surroundings with a renewed vigor.

We shut down the bikes near a pond with two huge alligators resting in the sun and did a quick tour of the park in jeeps. The highlight for me was being visited by two-ton rhinos lulled over to the cars with fresh hay.

Our 10-hr, exhilarating day ended after a long slog on roads so dusty that we could barely see. In fact, tonight's pre-ride briefing for the 307-km run to Morgan's Bay tomorrow emphasized the importance of maintaining approriate "dust gaps" (i.e., the amount of space between riders affecting visibility and reaction times), as well as staying hydrated in the hot sun, and riding safely.

We've now been sorted by skill level. I'm on the Orange team, which corresponds very roughly to a middle group of riders on the trip. This comes as a surprise given that my only off-road experience is on mountain-bikes.

All for now.

Photo credits: Andrew Forsyth, Andrew Pawley

New poll: How many falls will Andrew take??

For your entertainment, I've added a poll to my blog. Whomever guesses correctly the average number of times I fall off of my bike per day gets a special prize.

To do the poll, just look in the righthand column on here on my blog, just below my donations widget. Go ahead. Fire away.

Be sure to email me your answer, so I can follow-up when I get back!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Day 2: Pre-ride dinner and briefing

By 5 PM, all riders had arrived in Port Elizabeth. We assembled for a quick introduction to team leaders and each other, and for a pre-ride check of our trusty Honda CRF230Ls.The excitement was palpable.

At 7 PM, we met again for a group dinner, talks by reps from each of the sponsored charities, and performances by local school children who tried in vain to teach 80 weary EA riders an uplifting song in Xhosa (pronouced by many as Corza). We learned that over £250k were raised this year, thanks to all of our generous donors.

We also met many of the other women and men who will provide critical support - mechanical, medical, sweep, and logistical. And riders were roused by Red Cherry Adventure's Mike Glover, a world-class enduro racer who gave a nice overview of the trip, provided a schedule of briefings, and offered a blunt recommendation about riding carefully and within one's limits. We are in expert hands, let me tell you.

Tomorrow, we start with a brief offroad section to enable the organizers to sort us by skill level and assign us to color coordinated teams. We'll then bolt for Port Alfred, approximately 247 km away, followed by Morgan's Bay (300 km) the next. In the mix, however, will be time in the dirt. The pace slows considerably after that, probably as the ride gets more technical.

That's it for now. Stay tuned.

100 red motos, fueled and ready!

The morning fog and rain clouds burned away by 10 AM in Port Elizabeth, but not before dozens of dolphin swam past the hotel, some even playing in the chest-deep shorebreak. I've been in the ocean a lot, even seen sharks, seals, otters, and dolphins surface next to me. But I've never seen numbers like those.

I wandered over to the Radisson at 8:30, hoping to find others. No luck. When I returned at 11:30, I found the lot filled with 100 red Honda CRF230Ls, many with scrapes but otherwise shining and ready to go. I found one with my name on it.

Since the UK-based riders still hadn't arrived, I decided to go grab a quick bite at the compex next door, which has a hardware and grocery store (for future reference, fellow Enduros).

And while eating lunch at the beach, I met three UNICEF staff from Pretoria in town to help launch the ride. We spoke at length about UNICEF's exciting new, family-based antiretroviral care programs for infected children and their parents, parts of which were developed and tested with NIMH funding support, I'm pleased to say.

I helped spot another pod of dolphin for them - the first they'd ever seen - before they had to run to help organize the day's events.

Stay tuned. The adventure continues.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Republic of South Africa

The Republic of South Africa is a country located at the southern tip of Africa, with a 2,798 kilometres (1,739 mi) coastline[6][7] on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.[8] To the north lie NamibiaBotswana and Zimbabwe, to the east are Mozambique and Swaziland, while Lesotho is an independent country surrounded by South Africa.[9] 
Some quick facts about South Africa: 
  • Capital: Pretoria (Joburg is the largest city)
  • Official languages: 11, including Afrikaans, English, Xhosa
  • Population: ~50 million
  • Distance: Washington, DC - Port Elizabeth = ~8250 miles, bearing SE
  • Time difference: UTC+2 (or +6 hrs ahead of Washington DC)
  • South Africa is about twice the size of Texas, and ranks 32d in the world for area.