Monday, November 15, 2010

Waking up the Sand Monster

There comes a time in any man's life where he needs to face his fears. Mine was this morning. I was on my way to a place called Bontebok Ridge for my long awaited sand riding course. Sand had become the obstacle in my quest to explore gravel roads across South Africa and beyond, and it was time to lower that obstacle by a few inches. When I drove into Wellington the Parlotones' song "A Giant Mistake" was playing on my iPod and I was wondering if it was a sign of things to come. But, I was ready to face my fear. The only problem now was to find the place called Bontebok Ridge. If the course was anything as difficult as it was to read the map that Rony had sent us, then I was really in for a challenge. After unintentionally exploring most of the gravel roads in the vicinity of Bontebok Ridge, I finally found the place where the more direction orientated guys were waiting for the more directionally challenged ones to arrive. My GPS gave up on me about 3 kilometres past Schalk Burger's farm where I ran into a couple of BMW and KTM riders fixing a flat tyre. I was really worried that I too might become “deflated” today, but these guys had other plans for the day and it was clear that they had done a couple of "sand riding” courses before, both officially and unofficially.

Rony, our trainer for the day, was very eager to hand out the indemnity forms before starting the introductions. It was clear that I was the rookie for the day, not even my accumulative bmx, mountain bike and Virgin Active gym bike time could match the time that most of these guys have spent on motorbikes before. Most of them obviously not that much on dual purpose bikes, otherwise they would not have been at this "Introductory to Sand Riding Course" in the first place, but more nevertheless. When guys start discussing which tyres have the best traction and how much air to let in or out, then I already know I am lagging behind in experience. So, after we all let out the air from our tyres, signed our death certificates and read our CV's, Rony officially started his course by giving us some background information on sand riding in general….and falling in sand…and getting up from sand. When he casually laid his motorbike on its side to demonstrate the best way of picking up a 260 kg bike, I could feel the uneasiness in my stomach. Seeing a bike on its side like that is like seeing your wife hugging her best male friend. There is nothing wrong with it but the picture just makes one feel uncomfortable. I didn't want to feel that way today, so my objective for the day was not to fall at all. Clearly very optimistic still at that point. Believing that I was not going to fall my mind was drifting off to whatever was still waiting out there. If there was going to be an exam at the end of the course, then I guess I would've struggled answering any questions on "Chapter 1 - The Bike Pick-up Technique". Falling was not an option for me. Rony also covered the stand-up riding technique in detail, confirming how the point of gravity actually moves down when one stands up, changing the weight from your seat to your foot pegs. It also allows your bike to move freely under you. Contrary to what most believe when they hit the sand for the first time, your bike actually wants to get to the other side. It just wants to do it in its own way. Refraining from clamping the bike in between your legs gives it that freedom it needs to do it. You NEVER sit down when riding in sand, unless you ride one of the "plastic bikes" where you can actually walk and ride at the same time. They weigh around 100 kg, so who really cares if you lose your balance and eat sand with a "plastic bike"? You just pick it up and carry on.

Rony showing us how it's done
By the time we got to start our bikes for the first skill test and warm-up round, I could feel the adrenaline pumping. I remember that I was much more relaxed with my first parachute lesson. I guess there you had one chance of getting it right, and if you were unsuccessful then there was no opportunity to kick yourself afterwards for doing something foolish. But today was going to be one opportunity after the other to make a fool of myself, and I knew it. And besides, damaging your ego is one thing, but damaging your bike is another. And what I was scared of most was destroying my motorbike while trying to save my ego. Rony said we should rather "walk away like a man" when we get to that point where we knew we were going to injure ourselves. But none of us were "men", we were grownup boys with adventure toys...and no-one was going to walk away when you are in for an adventure. The idea with the first skill session was to shift your weight from one side of to the other while negotiating your way through a couple of cones. I knew I was going to take out a couple of cones in the process, but after getting the feel of the bike it turned out to be reasonably easy to do. That is negotiating the cones of course, not taking them out. The little circle route we did to get back to the starting point was already challenging enough for some of us, but we all managed to finish this with not too much disappointment in ourselves.

Geoff facing the first snot pot
 After the cones we went for a little "tweespoor" track (two wheel track) ride inside the Bontebok Ridge Reserve. Rony suggested that if the guy in front of you ride likes a "doos" (an ugly Afrikaans word for someone who rides like an arsehole), then you overtake him. Eventually all the "dose" will be at the back of the line. Geoff jokingly indicated that he would take up the last spot and be the "doos" from the start. In the reserve we saw quite a few animals roaming the foothills of the Limietberg Mountains; Blue Wildebeest, Springbok, Bontebok and lots more. I was thinking that stopping to take pictures would've been a bonus for the day, but that was not going to happen and my little point-and-shoot was not going to bring justice to the tranquility of the reserve in any case. And besides, the animals were running in all directions when we got closer and weren't going to pose for picture hunters on roaring mechanical beasts. What an awesome country, with so much stunning scenery, all waiting to be discovered. And here you have game running around you while you are enjoying this on a motorbike. During this awesome ride, we encountered a little ditch with water, and even though the more experienced riders at the end of the day might've forgotten that it was there, for me it was my first big challenge of the day. I always have this feeling that the rocks beneath the surface are as slippery as snot, and that one HAS to fall when you go through. With a bit more revs on the other side than what was really required, I managed to keep my ego still intact. Further along the way some guys missed a turn-off and lost the front guys in a reserve where you can actually see for miles ahead. I was one of the lost tribe. The other guys just disappeared into thin air, so the lost souls rode back to the base camp to wait there. There we were joined by the others not long after we pulled out the ice cold Powerades from Rony's cooler box. A well needed refreshment and rest. By now the temperature was touching the thirties and we were not even close the hottest time of the day.

Brent cruising through the "Baby"
 After the break it was time for the "Baby Sand Monster". Getting to this piece of sandy single track again presented a couple of challenges, but yet again we all made it there in one piece. When we stopped at the start of this 20 meter section of single track sand pit I knew this was show time. The most sand I have ever taken on with my F800GS. Geoff at this point admitted that he was a bit worried, and I couldn't do anything else but agree with him. I felt exactly the same. But it was "Stand Up, Look Up and Open Up". Some guys made it look like the easiest thing to do, but one by one the sand monster was taking its prisoners. It was already clear at this stage who were the most experienced riders. Anton and Tim who had already done a five week drive from Dar Es Salaam to South Africa were clearly used to riding in sand and was getting quite "aggressive". But aggression was what Rony wanted in order to take on the "Mommy Sand Monster" later that afternoon. After we did the circle in both directions to make sure that we do it on your "chocolate side" (quoting Rony) and our "non-chocolate side", we were ready to go back to base camp again. Unfortunately Rony's bike was pointing in the wrong direction and we all had to do another round through the sand following him back to base camp. I was really pleased with myself at this point, because I had not fallen off once yet. But then disaster struck. Getting to the last section of the sandy patch I managed to do some sort of "sideways lift-off" to the right hand side. For some reason, everything I had just learnt failed me and I went flying into the side bushes nearly spinning my bike 180 degrees. Geoff who was behind me heard the revs and thought I made it to the other side, but was rather surprized when he rode passed and saw me taking pictures of my bike lying on its side next to the road. You know that uncomfortable feeling I was talking about earlier? I was experiencing it at that moment. Apart from the few extra character scratches both rider and machine was unharmed. With Geoff's and Andrew’s help we managed to get it back on its feet again and I knew that the "Baby Sand Monster" just wanted to remind me before I leave that he is still the boss out there.
"Wife hugging another man"

Geoff driving passed accident scene

When we arrived at the base camp we were quite delighted to see that Rony's wife had already started the fire and that the "wors" was nearly ready for consumption. What could be better than sitting around a fire, out there somewhere where my GPS refuses to function, close to nature, with a lot of guys talking about bikes and the smell of a braai hanging in the air? And what a better place to catch up on the morning's riding and learn more about sand riding and motorbike stuff than here in the open veld? At this point a lot of us were thinking that a siesta would not be a bad idea, and knowing that "Mommy Sand Monster" was still waiting for us made the idea even more appealing. However, we were there to face the monsters and with a full stomach and much more confidence we were ready to take on “Mommy”.

"Holy Shit!" Yes, that was my first reaction and exact words when Rony took us around the corner and showed us our next challenge. I immediately went on to my knees to take a picture, but if anyone else were thinking that I bowed out of respect for this monster, it would not have been far from the truth either. There was no way that I was going to get over that sand hill, and some of the other riders were thinking exactly the same thing. Only Anton and Tim looked confident, but when Rony took us a bit further and unveiled the "Daddy Sand Monster" I could see they had their doubts as well. But none of us was ready to sit out already and Nicky suggested that Rony first do an "exhibition run" and showed us how it was done. It was actually a very good suggestion, because after Rony got stuck more than once, we all knew that even the best and brave can sometimes fall prey to the nasty sand monster. Rony, with experience on his side, knew that the monster was not that impossible to tame and went around for a second run, this time doing much better than the first. But, for us it was first the "Mommy Sand Monster" to conquer before we could even think of taking on the daddy. At some point we all got stuck, and even though the sand was much deeper and situated on a corner, eventually we all managed to cross it at least once without being thrown off. Some of us took out a lot of trees on the side, widening the track with each round. Eventually one by one people were sitting out. This was hard work to say the least, and picking up a bike is a bit harder than picking up your grocery bags at Pick & Pay. Put the bike in sand and you are picking up something equivalent to your bike and five Pick & Pay bags. By now it was already 33 degrees in the shade.

Ronnie getting 'side-tracked'


Tim taming the "Daddy Sand Monster"
Sometimes a push helps
When it was time for the "Daddy Sand Monster", only Anton and Tim took on the challenge. I guess in the end the only difference was that it was just a longer ride, but this time with thicker sand and a corner added for more excitement. I wasn't scared of falling anymore. After picking up my bike a couple of times and not getting hurt, I just didn't have the energy to do it anymore. And getting stuck now just for the fun of it wasn't considered "fun" anymore. It was fun however to see how Tim and Anton were strutting their stuff, kicking up sand and getting better with each round. But even they were getting tired and eventually realized that falling and getting stuck in sand is a given. At some point you are going to get stuck, but the importance is knowing that you can get out of the situation eventually. No need to get all nervous when you hit sand and your bike starts floating around. I already passed the the point where watching "my wife hugging her best male friend" didn't feel that awkward anymore, and I knew that next time when I do fall (and I was lucky to survive), that I will just hit the kill switch, take a deep breath and start all over again. I might not have turned into the most competent sand rider just yet, but I have taken my bike to a sand level where it has never gone before and the same goes for my confidence level. Most of all, I spent an awesome day in an awesome setting with some awesome guys. And we did some awesome riding to top it all. I was much more comfortable on my GS and when I sat down on the seat again after the day's riding the bike actually felt much smaller than what it did when I arrived.

After Rony, Tim and Anton did a last “victory lap” around a short "adventure track" we went back to the base camp, topped up our tyres with more fresh air and received our certificates from Rony. Needless to say, we all passed. I stopped at Wellington to drink another Coke and double-check my tyres before I took a nice and relaxing ride back home. When I drove into my driveway the Parlotones' “A Giant Mistake” was playing again on my iPod, but this time I just smiled knowing that I am one step closer to conquering that monster for good.

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