Tonight the United People of Adventure are camped on a beach by the Indian Ocean, approximately 50km south of Antalaha. The distance travelled reflects the difficult nature of the terrain. Rain-slicked tracks slow progress but not as much as river crossings. Today there were two major rivers to cross, taking rafts hand-propelled by boatmen using bamboo poles, four bikes at a time. Starting at dawn, finishing at dusk, this was one long day’s adventure ride.
The wake-up call came at 04:30, pre-dawn. It took an hour to make the final arrangements, packing the last items, climbing into Campanero suits this time to start the ride proper. One last coffee then hit the road! The first 400 metres was probably the toughest, being a sand track leading to the first sealed road, and it took some traversing, riding for the first time with fully loaded Zega panniers and Ortlieb bags. Not a few riders cursed Benjamin and July for the kilos of potatoes, onions, carrots and rice they procured from the local markets, now wedged into every nook and cranny in the panniers.
The roads through Antalaha were far from empty. In these tropical regions most start their day early; we’d already seen groups of people in the capital Antananarivo huddled roadside taking a breakfast before work – at 03:30! Here in Antalaha the market stallholders along the one road south, Highway 53, were already doing brisk business as the 12 UPoA riders thrummed past.
Just 10km south from Antalaha the tarmac ended. An aging road sign pointed down a clay track, promising ‘Cap Est’ – as good as the last road sign for the day. Not that road signs were needed; there was only the one route south. Immediately there was trouble. Overnight heavy rains had slicked-up the clay track making the surface extremely slippery, then for a section, probably no more than 400 metres it became super-extremely-slippery, like ice. Omar Mansour Alfardy was an early faller, although in the conditions it could have been any of the riders. No injury, but Omar’s confidence was dented.
When the clay ended a section of deep sand began and here it was Benjamin Myers turn to fall. The trail was clearly not without its challenges as the UPoA riders were quickly learning. Then the first serious water crossing – an estuary with water a good 3m deep, fortunately protected from what looked like a lively sea by a sand bar. Local ferrymen, using canoes lashed together with planks and plastic drums to make floating platforms, could take up to four of the bikes at a time across the water (but with very little freeboard sinking always looked a very real possibility). To take all the bikes across it took a good couple of hours, allowing riders on both sides of the estuary time to meet and mingle with the locals. Omar, keenly representing the African continent, was quickly up to speed with the local traders bargaining for more food in his ever-entertaining style (“Two camels, they are good camels, I will send…”).
Barely an hour’s ride later came another crossing. Again on poled platforms. Here the crossing took even longer as many villagers were crossing the waters at the same time, clearly enjoying Sunday inter-village visits in what was a warm afternoon. On the far bank, disembarkation involved a risky push or ride along a rickety wooden pier with many aging or missing planks. Just how risky soon became evident as one of the UPoA’s local support riders, plus bike – carrying UPoA filming equipment – lost balance at a critical point and fell into the waters. Only the watertight (-ish, it leaked) aluminium container on the pillion kept the bike afloat until it could be recovered, a job for six men with ropes. Had one of the UPoA bikes fallen it would have gone to the bottom…
By the time all the UPoA riders had assembled on the far bank (in the village of Ambohitranana) it was late afternoon and time to be looking for a camping spot. Just 4km later, after a first experience of crossing a crumbling bridge (rotten planks, gaps, no guard rails…), a beach was found adjoining a forest plantation where the staff of a Christian mission were more than happy to welcome some fairly frazzled travellers.
With no amenities, washing took the form of a swim in the sea, while ablutions involved a walk in the woods. Benjamin and July, ably assisted by Andrea, started on their first meal for the group. Andrea had built a fire using driftwood and fallen branches and on this she baked potatoes. July set about boiling rice, while Benjamin created an avocado, tomato, onion, garlic ‘mix’. Benjamin was clearly head chef, but July’s impressive knowledge of Asian cuisine put him in charge of adjusting the flavours, using an impressive array of herbs and spices he’d brought with him. The resulting meal was a gastronomic delight and for wilderness cooking it quite probably set a new benchmark.
Reinforcing the wilderness setting, a hermit crab cheekily scuttled around the campfire as the riders ate, but given the level of contentment from the food already consumed it was spared the pot!
Settling into their one-man tents (Herbert and Ramona excepting, cosy in what by comparison looked a palatial residence – a two-man tent!) the riders bid each other a good night’s sleep (Waltons style: ‘Night Herbert’, ‘Night July’, ‘Good night Ramona’, ‘Good night Gunther…’) and noted the warmth of the night – but slept soundly nonetheless.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard to make such a modest distance! The road quickly became a track and in the early morning conditions it was a particularly testing track. We had quite a few spills but I was at least happy to see the Touratech crash protection working well – nothing broken.
“The river crossings are always a highlight on a trip, they’re an endless fascination but always carry a risk. We were lucky we lost only one bike into the water today. The camera equipment on that bike took a soaking, but we’ve been able to dry that out. And both our friendly Malagasy support rider and his bike have dried out nicely, too. It was a lesson to watch the locals dry out the bike. They’ve probably good experience of this and were fast workers, diligent too – I noticed they took the precaution to change the oil in the bike. The 125cc bikes the locals ride are relatively basic and far from new, but I admire their care and skills in maintaining them.”
“It’s great to be on our way at last. It’s a test of the group to be at last riding in such conditions, coming to grips with their bikes, and they’re quick to come to each other’s rescue – each time offering supportive words of encouragement. Teamwork was always important to this adventure but I can see it working already.
“The evening meal was a triumph, as well. Neither Herbert nor I have ever eaten so well on an adventure ride. Our chefs are inspired and clearly know their onions (and herbs and spices). The quality of food is usually fairly low in the order of adventure riding priorities – aside from the need to maintain energy levels – but I suspect we have an unexpected highlight of the trip here. I wonder what’s on the menu for tomorrow?!”
Australia / Team Photographer / Team Doctor:
“Tackling river crossings varied between delicately wheeling bikes across rickety planks, taking a chance on riding faster than those planks were likely to succumb or punting across on boats cobbled together with wood, rope and empty drums. Either option was a mini-adventure in itself: one mistake would leave bike and rider consigned to a watery graveyard.”
- UPoA rider Asia -
“Before most rides I struggle to sleep and this was no exception. In fact, this was the worst, as I couldn't wait to get on the bike and start the ride. This was the moment we'd all been waiting for. It was here. It was now. One could almost sense the excitement, the energy, the atmosphere! And yet there were last minute things that needed doing. Had we packed the food provisions? Did we have enough fuel in our bikes? Were we missing anything? Did we pack the air compressors and the water filters? And on and on and on... I just wanted to ride, to hit the road.
“I was amazed how quickly the off-road section started – or rather the tarmac section ended. The first sections started with slick mud and puddles (that being the understatement of the year) followed by ruts and deep sand. Welcome to Madagascar! Fortunately it didn’t take me long to find my rhythm. I was on a real high, until I encountered Omar taking a good few spills right in front of me. I have to admit they did subdue my spirits, but not for long. It did hurt to see a fellow rider struggle and I tried my best between breaks to ensure he was chipper – and, typically Omar, offering him gratis fags sure helped as well.”
The bikes of the UPoA - Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom
|Rider: Gunther Fischli, UPoA rider South America
“The highest compliment I can give a bike is that I forget I’m riding a motorcycle. I become one with it. I can say this happened while riding the Suzuki V-Strom 1000. The bike felt light and agile, had plenty of torque when I needed yet glided smoothly over the muddy and sandy terrain in second and third gears. The engine sounds great! It has a sweet purr in low RPMs that become a primal roar when you rev the engine. The engine sounds were a perfect soundtrack to the adventure; soothing while I was taking it easy and howling when I was riding aggressively.
“The only thing I would change would be a better setup for someone my size. Handlebar risers and a higher seat would have helped me have a more neutral riding position, but those are small adjustments that don’t take anything away from this underrated motorcycle.”
“The V-Strom is a bike typically viewed as a road bike first, adventure bike second, but in fact it takes to the trails with very little fuss. It’s a very reliable unit and has excellent engine character that works its way into your heart.
“We recently supported Claudia and Mirko Nagler on a 45,000km adventure through North and South America on two V-Stroms and the bikes ran perfect for their ride. Our writer on UPoA, Jon Bentman, we also supported when he raced a V-Strom 1000 in a British rally a year ago – and again the bike excelled. I think this is a very under-rated adventure bike. It may not be as well appointed as the stars of the adventure world, like the BMWs and KTMs, but it is a very capable bike that’s proving itself over and again. ”
|Star of the day|
Mr Funnel – the fuel-filtering funnel!
Expecting to find contaminated fuel at certain points along the journey, the Touratech team had packed a Mr Funnel fuel-filtering funnel (available through Touratech dealers). This neat little funnel comes with a unique filter that is able to separate water, sand, dirt and all other manner of contaminants as the fuel is poured into the motorcycle’s tank.
After our support rider’s bike had fallen into the water it was pushed into immediate use in filtering the fuel in that bike’s fuel tank that was by now a mix of petrol and river water, meaning none of his fuel was wasted. A handy device and a must-have for journeys where fuel quality is likely to be variable.
|Rider of the day - Herbert Schwarz
Each day a new rider was given the mantle of ‘rider of the day’ – that’s nothing to do with marking his or her riding prowess, instead a matter of adopting the role of pathfinder: taking the lead position – breaking trail as it were – but also having the key responsibilities of looking for food and a camp spot for the night.
Herbert took the role for the first day’s riding. With Benjamin and July having stocked the UPoA larder almost beyond bursting point he had no pressure on the food front, instead – rather cannily – his nose led him to a bar (no more than a hut, of course) in Ambohitranana where he was able to procure almost-chilled THB beers (the local brew) for the evening’s meal…
His choice of beachfront camping spot met with universal approval and the dip in the warm ocean was most welcome. However the night was far from silent, for the nearby village was enjoying something of a party that night and proceeded to play club music through to 4am the following morning! Not quite the roaring lions of the Serengeti, but in its own way, authentic…
|UPoA support riders|
Dominique Chan Sao Chan & friends
When word reached Madagascar of the UPoA project, local top motocross rider, and former mayor of the port town of Mananara, Dominique Chan Sao Chan knew he wanted to be a part of the action. He’d missed the opportunity to qualify for the team positions, but instead offered his services and those of his lifelong friends in riding in support of the group. With local knowledge and local contacts Dominique knew he could help the UPoA riders connect with the local communities and to reach their goals. As the route was often so narrow (a single footpath) and could not be driven by 4x4s, his team was also able to bear much of the load of the extensive filming equipment that was needed on this trip.
At first the ride proceeded with the two teams – UPoA and support – but as the days went by, as everyone got to know each other, they merged into one, some impromptu bike swapping gave each team an insight into the other’s, as 1200cc was swapped for 125cc, while shared food and beers around the evening camp fires helped bond the riders still further.