Sunday, October 11, 2009

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


Matt Felkin said...

Andrew ,your commentary throughout this trip has been second to none , my thanks ,you have given the second ride a view and excitement with every word written ,as if we were with you , im glad you have finished the ride without too much discomfort or injury ,and if anyone wants an insight into enduro africa ,then just look here

again many thanks and safe journey home hard ,you deserve it

Katybear said...

That spill was a "high side?" And I agree that your blogs have been so vivid as to make me feel like I am there (but without the rain...). I'm especially tickled how riders' families and the next wave of riders have been following you along. Everyone, THAT'S MY AWESOME SWEETHEART!!

I'm so proud of you and am glad that you have had such an amazing opportunity. But your family eagerly looks forward to your return on Tuesday.

Love, Elizabeth, Katy, Adie, Mischa, and Sasha

Monica said...

Thank god you weren't hurt! I'm so touched by your reflections on the lovely country and the even more wonderful people of South Africa. Perhaps you should ditch NIH and become a writer for the Travel Channel!

Cris said...

Andrew, these posts have been amazing. So much detail when I'm sure you were exhausted...and then to have to type with your thumbs! (Yes, I, too, can see you as a Travel Channel host!) It sounds like you've had a great experience, not only with the bike, but like you said, being exposed to a side of society and culture that you wouldn't normally get to see. Can't wait to see your pictures. Thanks for the updates! P.S. Who's Kaybear? Just kidding. =)