Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Rookie

When George Clooney was asked what makes a man attractive he said a sense of humour. Obviously he couldn't say "if he looked like me", but I was more hoping for him to say a man that can admit he is a rookie without coming over as a being an inexperienced wuss at the same time.  When Dave our navigator and "team leader" for the day pointed out that the route he had planned for us was done "with the most inexperienced rider in mind", I knew he was refering to me and I couldn't help but feel like a wuss at that point. John the Salesman invited me to join himself, Dave and Graham for a breakfast run that would include a large section of gravel road. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to get over my recently acquired fear of any road that does not resemble something similar to a runway at the O.R Tambo International Airport . After my recent fall I felt rather inexperienced and embarrased to say the least and not wanting to look like a wuss I knew that something had to be done. So I said "Yes, count me in".

We met very early at the BP filling station at Klapmuts. Dave showed us the route he had planned out with his GPS and GoogleEarth and what-have you, but all I could see was the yellow lines representing gravel roads. Dave mentioned something about "doing some highway" but later explained that he calls any section of tarred road a highway and that there wouldn't be much on this trip. At 8.30 we were heading towards Bonnievale via Franschoek and Villiersdorp even though I was pretty sure that there was just one road to Bonnievale and as far as I could remember it was "highway" across Worcester. Dave and his GPS proved me wrong. When we hit the first dirt just after Villiersdorp I realized that there are more than one road indeed, but definitely not all tarred and definitely not all indicated on your average South African Road Atlas. At first I tried to remember the names of the little backroads we took, but when I touched that gravel road everything except my last fall was erased from my memory bank. Dave was so eager to get onto the dirt that he did not even stop to disable his ABS or to give me a small introduction as to what I can expect. Only when his GPS started getting confused somewhere in the Ouhangs Mountains we stopped for the first time and at this point John said to us it might be a good thing if we all switch off our ABS. At this stage we were doing maximum speeds of 60km/h on the gravel even though it felt to me like we were trying to take off to fly over to Bonnievale. When we decided to turn around the prospects of getting back onto tar made me feel a bit relieved, but the turn-off we missed was not very far back and we never saw that tarred road again. 

My biggest challenge at this stage was to find out what the bike can do on gravel, how far I can take it before it slips out underneath me and which section of the road has the least amount of loose gravel. Dave and John was ahead of me and Graham at the back followed me at a safe distance just to make sure I don't do the unmentionable and stay behind somewhere over a ledge. All I was thinking was that if John's bike can do it at that speed, then so can mine. At least we were both on a F800 GS. Dave was on a F650 GS and although he said it looks more like "a bike for a girl", he definitely was not riding like one. Neither was Graham, who took his girlfriend Brigitte along "just for the fun of it", on his 1100 Adventure . As I was going along I could feel my confidence grow with each kilometer we reeled in, but sharp corners and loose rocks still left me quite nervous. Thankfully we never hit sand, but that I want to leave for a later stage after my planned Introductory Course. Every now and then we crossed a very small section of tar and then I had time to breath in and breath out again. It felt as if my bike was glued to the tar in comparison with the gravel, so my confidence on tar was improving at the same time. By this time we were covered in dust, and every now and then the breeze would make it a bit easier for us to follow at shorter distances. When John and Dave disappeared in the dust I slowed down, not only to prevent myself from suffocating, but also because I could not see the road surface anymore. Thinking back I believe it is actually better not to see the surface, because it did not feel like the GS really minded where we were going and I wasn't worried about loose rocks on the road when I didn't see them. Just before Bonnievale we hit some drizzle that cleared all the dust and by that time it was a real pleasure to be doing around 90 km/h without the Klein Karoo dust powder in my lungs.

You think about a lot of things when you ride, but my thoughts on the last few kilometers before Bonnievale were spend mostly on food rather than the dangers of gravel riding. At 11.30 we stopped at a small cafe called Into Africa and had a very pleasant breakfast. There I took in some more tips from my more experienced companions. The road from Bonnievale to Robertson was all tarred, but just after Robertson we turned off onto another dirt road towards Elandia. This road would eventually meet up again with the road we came on, and by now I was standing up and riding like an experienced circus clown on a circus pony, a skill also needed when the road gets a bit rough...or when the sand appears from nowhere. At one point we were doing 110km/h and I even managed to push it up to 120 aiming to set my new gravel land speed record at the same speed as the national speed limit on our highways. At this point a little voice from nowhere started talking to me and I took it back to around 100. But the record was official and I was feeling really chuffed with myself.

On our way back to Villiersdorp we pushed the bikes to 160km/h on the straight tarred sections. I wasn't attempting to break my tarred land speed record that I set on my GV650 cruiser as well, but it was interesting to see what the GS could do on tar. But this was just on very straight sections and something I would never do again if I don't have to. Fortunately for me at some point sanity kicks in. The round trip was about 450 kilometers and I arrived back home at 4pm. The weather on route was perfect for biking, no wind and overcast with temperatures ranging from 21 to 33 degrees Celsius. When I arrived home I could feel that I have just spend about 7 hours in the saddle in a semi-crouching position. Despite that I was very pleased with my riding for the day. Just before we parted ways at Franschoek my fellow riders all agreed that my improvement since we started this morning was "fantastic". I might not have a good sense of humor and might still be a rookie in the eyes of many but at least I don't feel like a wuss anymore. I wonder if George Clooney would add that to his list...?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reality Check

I was having a quick breakfast at Carlucci's this morning. We were chatting about the morning traffic to town that had come to a complete stand still. I knew exactly why the traffic was backed up, because I just came from town and drove passed the problem. I took my GS in for her first 1000km service and for some repairs after my second fall. Yes, I did not even write anything about my second fall, I was too embarrassed. On my way back from the service dealer I passed a motorcycle accident. A gentleman was lying on the side of the road next to his damaged bike. It gave me cold shivers to think that I've just passed that same spot a couple of minutes earlier on my way to town this morning. It could've been me lying next to that road....

I think out of all the adventures sports that I have attempted in my life, and this ranges from skydiving, paragliding, surfing, skateboarding and bungi jumping, the most dangerous of them all does not compare to a bike ride through peak traffic. In all the other activities the biggest source of concern is the unpredictability of the elements. What I think is even worse for any biker is the unpredictability of motorists. When I see or hear about a motorcyle accident, I always wonder what the cause of the accident was. Was it an unpreventable or unforseen accident like a pothole in the road or loose gravel maybe? Was it the result of plain stupidy by the biker himself like speeding or taking reckless chances? Or was it the unpredictable motorist that changed lanes without looking back or skipping a traffic light maybe? No matter what the reason behind the accident might be, it is not a nice feeling seeing a fellow biker lying on his/her back on a sidewalk.

I have a new bike. Much more faster and difficult to ride than my previous one. I have fallen twice already, ending my clean record after many years of "safe" riding...and being lucky I guess. I know these falls are a bit different, both happened on loose sand while knowing what could happen if you take an oversized semi-offroad bike through thick sand for the first time. Stupidy on the side of the biker maybe? Yes, definitely. But regardless the cause, falling is not a nice feeling even when done under "controlled" circumstances. Falling on tar is a bit worse. Getting hit by another car is extremely bad and should be avoided at all costs.

While sipping down my last bit of coffee I got a lump in my throat. It's a sign of a reality check. In all the adventure sports you take a calculated risk even though you cannot predict the outcome. In biking you just take a risk, no calculations and no predictions either. Unless you drive carefully and you keep thinking about the what-ifs, you are in the hands of other drivers, drivers that couldn't care less when they jump a red traffic light or couldn't care less if they get caught for speeding or reckless driving. Drivers that do not do the calculations for the risks you are about to take. Sadly it took another biker's misfortune to bring me to my reality check this morning. All I can hope is that he is ok and then thank him for that. I am signing up for an introductory course on gravel riding. I hope the cost of the course will reduce my costs of repairing my bike in the future and maybe improve my general riding skills. But I will always try my best to ride safe and never get too confident.

Keep well and keep it safe.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The road I travel

I seldom have to worry about getting from point A to point B when I do my business travels. Usually everything is organized well before my trip, and even though pick up in most African countries are below standard, I still manage to get where I have to be fairly easily. Today my trip to Pretoria was a bit less organized. I knew I had to fly to Johannesburg, but from there to Pretoria was still a bit vague. I asked around for opinions but decided I will cross the proverbial bridge when I get to Johannesburg. There are not many options; taxi, train, shuttle or hitch hiking. Before I could make my decision I was cornered by what seemed to be a taxi driver. “Taxi Sir?” First I wanted to bypass him for being so obtrusive, but I had to start somewhere. A taxi to Arcadia usually costs R450, “but for you sir, we can do it for R400”. He got the job…

It was already dark when I got into his sporty red Mazda X6 and before I could say “go”, we were already on our way. Being a reggae fan I was very pleased when I heard Burning Spear’s “My roots I'll never forget, I'll always remember the road I travel” playing on the sound system while we were doing about 120 in the 100km/h zone. It was only closer to the Tembisa off-ramp that I realized for the first time that I got into a stranger’s car without checking if it was really a taxi or not. There were no signs on the door and no yellow light on the roof either. It didn’t even have a distance clock. What if I end up in Tembisa minus a laptop, a cell phone or even my life? I realized how careless I was and was thinking of ways to protect myself should we take this turn-off to Tembisa. The taxi driver whose name I never got didn’t speak much. I never know when I take a taxi if you should speak to the driver or not and if you should sit in the front or at the back. I didn’t make too much conversation either but did tell him that Cape Town was “always good” when he asked. I also mentioned that I also like reggae and hoped that my fellow brother will have some mercy on me because of that. When Burning Spear was well away with his “We all are one” I made sure that my driver friend heard me sing along. After we passed the Tembisa turn-off I was looking for familiar landmarks to confirm that we are actually on our way to Pretoria. Doing 130 in an 80 zone now didn’t bother me much, I was buckled up and we were on the R21 north which sounded like the right direction to be in. I have never been so pleased to see the Voortrekker Monument before. Pretoria indeed. Now we still had to get through Sunnyside and then hopefully to Arcadia.

The nameless taxi driver took me straight to the hotel’s entrance. I was so relieved to be there in one piece that I did not even go for the R400 deal. I gave him his R450, shook his hand and wished him a safe trip back to the airport. When I checked the receipt it looked like a real taxi company and that my fears were unfounded . I checked in and when Marvin at reception asked me how I got there, I was quite proud to say “I came by taxi, why?” Marvin said: “Oh, we had a shuttle waiting for you at the airport Sir and they just phoned to say that they could not find you....

Demotion Blues

Traveling sucks. I am not talking about the excitement of two weeks lying ahead in Mauritius or the expectations of conquering Kilimandjaro that usually overshadows this fact. I am talking about the part of getting from point A to point be B, before the fun actually starts. What is nice about standing in queues, sitting in cramped up seats and dragging huge amounts of luggage around with you? Just like in many facets of life, there is also a ladder to climb for travelers. From flying on low budget airlines with no free meals or special treatment to flying first class on the world’s most luxurious airlines with champagne and white slippers. The higher the status, the easier the traveling part becomes, but to get there you have to work for it or be filthy rich. I have never gotten far on this ladder myself, but I have managed to reach step 1 on SA’s most popular airline…Silver Status on SAA’s Voyager Program. So what benefits does this have for me as a traveler? Nothing much to be honest. I get to check in with the business class passengers where the queue is usually shorter, I have access to some of the SAA lounges where there are comfortable seats and the muffins are for free, and if I get really lucky I get bumped up to business class on some occasions when the economy seats were overbooked. Apart from that, nothing else. Oh, and I get my preferred seat (if available). So nothing much, but to make traveling easier every bit counts.

So today was my first trip for 2010. I was not going far, only from Cape Town to Johannesburg, but the procedures were the same, waiting times were the same, it is just flying time that was different. I asked the driver to fetch me early. I wanted to check-in, get comfortable in the SAA lounge and fire up my laptop to get some work done…or to update my blog if all else fails. Check-in went smoothly, but on my way to the lounge I noticed something on my boarding ticket - Frequent Flyer Status “BLUE”. This meant only one thing - I have been demoted, no access to the lounge, no comfortable seat and no free muffin. I checked my Voyager card and saw the expiry date...”02/2010”. I missed it by one week. All my privileges were ruthlessly taken away without getting a warning letter first. Being the optimist I usually am I immediately went to the nearest restaurant where the seats were also comfortable, the muffins slightly more expensive but the Internet access exactly the same. Or so I thought. No internet access today, no power socket for my laptop, the muffins were too expensive and I still had 90 minutes on the clock to kill. It is amazing how the few lost benefits could put such a damper on your trip. At this point I remembered that the lady at check-in never asked which seat I wanted, meaning that she was either kind to put me on my preferred seat, or what I was fearing most now, just where she wanted to put me. And why did she not say anything about my status while checking in where only the privileged were allowed to check in? I guess she was just kind, not my preferred seat, but at least in an aisle seat. Better than nothing for someone who had just been demoted to “BLUE”.

So what do I have to do to get my status back, to get a free muffin and to have internet access? I have to fly more. I have to go through this a couple of times until they decide I deserve preferential treatment again. How many flights do I have to do, how many long queues do I have to face, how much money do I have to spend on overly expensive muffins? I don’t know, but in order to put some sunshine back in traveling I need that silver lining BAD!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Biting the dust

I wasn't planning on doing any riding yesterday except for a ride with a friend of mine who wanted to have a go on my other bike. He had a bike years ago and was thinking of getting one to beat the morning traffic, so the idea of getting some refresher experience sounded like a good idea to him. I was expecting his call around two.  My wife and son was taking a nap around noon and I was getting bored, so I decided to take my bike and go to Yzerfontein. I headed in that direction but got sidetracked when I stopped to refuel and saw another gravel road that I have never been on. One thing led to another and soon I found myself in a area called Morning Star. There were a few smallholdings in Southfork Ranch style like from the TV series Dallas, just on a smaller scale. It seems like everyone was breeding or doing something with horses. I was more interested in the gravel road and finding out where it was leading to, so I was heading on. I was thinking of returning here one day because learning to properly ride a horse is on my to-do list for 2010.

Anyway, I am starting to realize that riding on gravel and sand is not as easy as what Ewan McGreggor and Charlie Boorman form The Long Way Down made it look like. I am definitely very inexperienced when it comes to gravel riding. On a small section of the road I hit sand. I could feel how the bike was getting all wobbly underneath me. I don't have a problem with falling of a bike at that speed onto sand, but when your bike is 3 weeks old that idea becomes less favourable. Then the sand turned into something that I would refer to as powder rather than sand. At this point I was nearly standing still. I guess the more experienced riders would tell me never to stop and just to throttle through, but I made the mistake and stopped. When I put my feet down on what I thought was firm ground, it turned out to be nothing more than fluffed powder. I couldn't hold the bike and we both fell into the powdered sand, my bike nicely on her side, and me face first into the white powdered dust. I got up and all I could think of was my bike. I would not have been able to handle another dent in the fuel tank. The bike's engine was still runnning while it was lying on its side, so I killed the engine and with power that I don't know where I got from, I picked up the bike. There was no-one around at that time and I was stuck in the powdered sand. Then I remembered how Ewan and Charlie did it when they got stuck. I switched on the engine while standing beside the bike and rode it our while allowing it to rest against my body, making sure it does not fall again.

Well, to make a long story short, I eventually managed to get it to firmer soil. I checked the bike for any damage, but apart from my damaged ego the only other damage I found was the bracket holding the clutch lever that was broken. I managed to tighten it to a point where I could use it again and covered in white dust I decided to head home. I was thinking that the image of a ghost on a bike might unsettle some of the locals along the road so I headed straight home, not wanting to upset the children. Once home I washed the bike to look for more damage, but fortunately there wasn't any. The soft powder turned out to be a better choice for falling than concrete.

I will not stop exploring dirt roads, but I will definitely be much more careful when I hit sand again, but I am now thinking of dishing the horse riding lessons and rather go for proper offroad biking lessons....

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lifelong scars

My mom, who keeps everything from a plastic toy to an empty toilet roll all for "sentimental reasons", told me the other day that she has a shoe box full of my love letters from primary school hidden away somewhere with all her other ancient trousseau. I actually still remember writing some of them, the huge round letter types I used, the paper that we all collected with silhouettes of lovers in the moonlight, sometimes smudging the words when we sprayed the final attempt with deodarant, all that stuff. I think that was the first proper "documents" I wrote when I started learning to write. I was never good at essays though, but love letters seemed to come naturally. I am a bit disappointed in my mom for reading my love letters, to me invasion of one's privacy is a serious offence, but that is a topic I'll take up with her one day in person still. What I would like to do though is to go and read all of these letters again. See, I always believed if you move on from one girl to the next, you have to cut all ties with the previous one. That is because the chances of hurting the previous one or getting hurt yourself is just too big. So I want to go find out when I first came to that conclusion in my life...or if I ever did. These historical letters might help me. Apparently the same goes for buying a vehicle and letting go of the previous one. I learned the hard way...

Since I got my new bike I was "selling" the other one. But because I was not really keen on selling it, I kept it and still uses it. I should've let go of her immediately, because I could sense her feeling of betrayal every time I pushed her out of the garage to go to work. I was hoping that she would stay in my life forever, or that I could do what our Mr President Jacob Zuma is doing....marry them all. I could sense the hurt in her when I started her, she was not as eager as she used to be, and when I compare her with my new "lover", besides for her looks she does not really come close. And then yesterday she did it. I took her to work and after returning from Paddocks I parked her in front of the office building. I've always parked her there when the spot was empty, so this was nothing new. What she didn't realize was that I was actually looking for shade so that she does not get sunburnt, a sign that I still love her. I was three steps away from her when I heard a crashing sound. I was shocked when I looked around. She threw herself over in an attempt to end her life. I never knew that she would turn suicidal after what I've done to her. Wasn't the fact that I wanted to keep her along with the new "lover" enough for her to understand that I still love her? If our President can do that, why can't I?

Anyway, she is now not only emotionally bruised, but physically as well. I am so glad that the scar on her tank is not too big, but it has to be repaired. No-one would buy that bike now, not with that ugly mark on her side. It could've been worse I guess, but the fact that she got hurt even more really makes me feel like the bigest loser around. I was not careless, I promise, she just started to move forward and then the side stand gave in. What a ugly sound. What an ugly sight to see your bike lying on her side like that. Scarred for life maybe, because after purchusing the other bike I definitely don't have money to repair this one. I am really sorry for what I did, it cannot be reversed, not even the huge tub of Trifle pudding made me feel better. I hope one day that we can heal that wound, because she might not be as fast and furious as my new lover, but she is ten times prettier.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hidden treasures

When a friend from further up north in the country recently paid us a visit, he told us about this beautiful place that he discovered not far from where we usually go on our Sunday breakfast runs. I was a bit disappointed that someone from up country could come down here and tell me of beautiful places that I have not discovered myself, but this is another way of discovering new places I guess. So yesterday morning I took my bike and went looking for this "awesome place" that he described as "a scene from Switzerland."

Somewhere not far from Franschoek is a dam called the Wemmershoek Dam. I searched the Internet to find some information on the dam, but was not really very succesful. All I know is that it was built in 1957 in the Wemmershoek River which is a tributary of the Great Berg River. Finding it on my map was also difficult, but I guess a better map might have worked. I headed towards Franshoek and eventualy drove past the road leading up to the dam and the waterworks. I made a U-turn at the Drakenstein Prison and was glad that I had the freedom to turn around and try again. I was warned by my friend that a permit was needed to get in, but he was allowed in to have a look and I was hoping I could do the same. At the gate a friendly gentleman was telling me exactly that. The problem with obtaining the permit of R9-00 is that it can only be obtained during office hours at the Paarl Municipality. This means that you have to plan your trip to the dam a day or two in advance, not wake up Saturday morning and decide to spend a nice day at the dam. The friendly gentleman at the gate told me that I was welcome to drive in and have a look. On my way to the dam wall I past a sign saying "Picnic Area", but I did not see anyone around. I stopped at the dam wall and took a few pictures. It did give some sort of impression of Switzerland, but I was not totally convinced. The dam was completely deserted, not a soul in sight. I drove down to the picnic area which was also deserted. If it takes so much effort to get the permit in Paarl, then I guess it is clear why there weren't any visitors. The picnic area was not very well developed and it looked more like a stop-over point on your way through Africa. Something else that worried me was that the picnic area was downstream from the wall. I am not paranoid, but trying to relax with your back to a 20-storey high wall with millions of tons of water pushing against it does not give me that reasurance that I could sit down and braai without having to worry. But I guess it could be a very nice secluded spot if you want to have a "private" braai there, and it has it advantages, but I cannot even remember seeing ablusion facilities.

I have never seen the dam on a "busy" day, so I cannot really say what it is like and what it has to offer. I read that there are bass in the dam and that it is popular for fishing. What I did like was the fact that it was not well known, that you might still find a spot to go braai in a safe area with not having your neighbour eating his meat from your plate or his child screaming in your ears. But going through the effort of getting a permit in Paarl is just not worth the effort for me.