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