Episode 4

Tough doesn’t even start to describe today. The UPoA riders are a man down and the rest of the team is soaked-through having pushed, pulled, heaved and literally inched along the trail while being pelted by unrelenting rain. We made camp in torrential rain, by a riverbank we know not where, and at this moment the UPoA riders are struggling to find shelter wherever they can. Everything is wet with little prospect of drying. Worse news still, the distance covered today was in the order of 40km, as the crow flies. Not much at all, and yet the effort to achieve this much was extreme.

At yesterday’s rate of 50km/day we’ll take 20 days to complete the desired route – twice the ten days we have – before we even factor in a necessary boat trip across from the East Cape. So the day today started at 04:30 as it was evident that we must utilise every minute of daylight. It was dry and warm as we dropped the tents, but by the time the bikes were loaded, and as we headed out in the first light of dawn, the first drops of rain started falling.

The ride could not have been 15 minutes old before we had our first major incident, when Ramona speared off the track into bushes and down a bank. Ramona – an expert in such maneuvers – was unharmed, her bike too, but buried deep in the undergrowth of the bank it took 20 minutes to machete a clear path for its recovery. It then took more than six men with ropes to bring it back to the trail. The BMW F800GS bore barely a scratch from its excursion – built tough these GSs.

Ramona Schwarz: “Phew. It was all about making the right choice in a split second. It was a choice of either hitting the rear end of Gunther’s Suzuki, who had come to a sudden stop in a muddy rut before me, or taking a right turn into the lovely bushes. My new nickname is “duck n’ roll”!“

Riding on wet clay there were more spills, all minor, so the UPoA riders were more than a little relieved when the trail turn to sand. However, that relief evaporated as Omar Mansour Alfardy (UPoA rider Africa) fell in deep sand while passing through a village. Omar’s cries of pain left no one in doubt this was serious – the falling Yamaha Super Ténéré had trapped his foot and the pannier was transferring much of the bike’s weight onto his ankle. Team doctor Robert Davies, together with Gudmundur Bjornsson (UPoA rider Europe) – also a doctor – worked in conjunction with Andrea Box (UPoA rider Australia), who’s a trauma nurse, in diagnosing a very probable broken fibula. This is the non-load-bearing second bone in the lower leg and while not life-threateningly serious is still a serious break and very painful.

Working with the doctors, Andrea stabilized and bound the injury, then gave Omar pain relief (all part of the panniers-full of medical supplies carried by Robert and Andrea). Omar confirmed through pain tests that he was in no condition to continue the ride and so via sat-phone Herbert called back to Ocean Momo – and to Germany – to arrange his evacuation. This was not immediately straightforward and so it was our local man Dominique who initiated stage one – riding north to rendezvous with a pick-up being dispatched from Ocean Momo.

Meantime, comforted by painkillers, Omar regained his composure and started negotiating with the villagers for various favours. We approximate that within half an hour he’d bought two new wives for the price of his Super Ténéré plus complimentary red camel (always the camel, reflecting his Egyptian roots). It was as well the pick-up arrived after two hours for we fear Omar would have taken ownership of the whole village if he’d been left any longer. Joking aside – joking being Omar’s modus operandi – the UPoA riders were upset to lose one of their number, especially so soon. The sadness was there in Omar’s eyes too, he was fighting back the emotion, but he needed nothing less than hospital treatment and the remaining UPoA riders knew they had to be moving again if the adventure was to succeed.

The riders – and the subjects of his village – waved Omar off and then proceeded south, nervously at first given the recent experience, but with rain coming on soon nothing less than 100% concentration was required to ensure safe progress.

There are a lot of wetlands here and so the trail was interspersed with countless wooden bridges over streams and channels – all of the bridges in an advanced state of decay. None could be trusted and needed prior inspection – and rebuilding – before crossing. Some could be ridden, only slowly and carefully for one slip would end in disaster with bike and rider most likely tipped over the edge. Others needed the bikes to be walked over, which is as difficult – actually, more difficult – than the riding. There were vast gaps between the planks on some bridges that tested nerves to breaking point. This is in reality, with bikes so big and so heavily loaded, a mission beyond the edge of reason – but there is simply no alternative. On one bridge a plank snapped as Herbert’s BMW rode over and it was only by chance the missing plank was spotted before the next rider passed over, for it would have caused the bike and rider to come crashing down…

When the bridges weren’t tearing at the riders’ nerves, when the wet clay wasn’t seeing them slide to earth, then deep sand did its best to sap their energy, while the rain poured down its own form of misery. The UPoA riders needed a break, a rest. When Dominique said there was a village in one-and-a-half kilometres, there was a sharp reply of ‘in another one-and-half hours then’ from one UPoA rider known for his exceptionally dry wit. He wasn’t wrong.

The village was welcome relief when we arrived. The villagers (numbering probably no more than six) had a cooking hut with a permanent fire and no chimney – the smoke escapes through the entrance door, just as in medieval times – and they offered to boil water so the UPoA riders could at least make a (very late) lunch with their dried travel food. The rain tipped down unrelentingly, but the food tasted delicious – the circumstances clearly enhanced the flavours – and the energy burst helped get the riders moving again.
Relief was short-lived. Within a kilometer there was a super-steep descent over wet clay that led to another rotten bridge – and it was a long one – followed by a steep climb on the far side, in deep sand. It was every nightmare rolled into one. The descending looked particularly perilous, if you didn’t stop at the bottom you’d hit the bridge too hard and crash, probably falling metres into the waters below.

Fortunately, Herbert recalled a fail-safe descending technique: a matter of rolling down in gear, ignition off, using the clutch to let the bike roll and then releasing it to allow highly effective rear-wheel braking. It worked for everyone – to their considerable relief. The bridge, soaking wet, every plank looking to offer all the purchase of sheet ice, was so long it simply had to be ridden. And nerve wracking it was, too. Then immediately after that was over there was the need for full-power to climb the sand hill. When everyone was at last over and at the top of the sand hill (and it had taken so much energy) there was a sense the group can tackle anything. Only once we’ve all got our energy back!

A few kilometres later there was a river crossing, with a raft-ferry that crosses back and forth by means of pulling on a rope fixed to trees on each bank. It took a long while to get the bikes across and darkness fell while the bikes were still being ferried. There was nothing for it other than to camp on the far bank. The rain was still hammering down, and it took a concerted team effort to put the tents up without creating swimming pools in the inner tents.

The villagers offered us dinner tonight – chicken and rice – and this was accepted by many. Whereupon we saw two chickens swiftly scooped out of their under-hut shelter and instantly dispatched. Fresh chicken it is, then – we’ve vowed to eat the meal in its entirety, to honor the chickens.

And that brings us to now. Sheltering in a hut – we’re not sure if it’s a café, a hotel, or just a living room – with the rain lashing down. Chicken cooking, rice boiling and Momo’s rhum doing the rounds. Surprisingly spirits are high for all the set-backs. We’re just hoping the rain eases up overnight…

12.04.2016 13_34_35-R60_3255 (LowRes)Herbert Schwarz:
"Yesterday I said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard to make such a modest distance’ – already I have experienced a day that was far worse than that. It’s been a tough one. To lose Omar was a sad loss to the entire team, but we are lucky that between Dominique and Momo we were able to give him as comfortable an escape as we managed.
“For us, the slow progress is very concerning. But as well the conditions – it’s very windy as well as raining – can mean trouble for the boat we intend to rendezvous with. We have a serious struggle on our hands here.”
Ramona Schwarz:
“I’m very glad we are all here tonight, all except Omar that is. To lose him is a great sadness for he’s such a lot of fun and he has a great way with the locals, he communicates so well. He’s will be in good hands with Momo, though, and I look forward to seeing him again when all this is over.

“The struggle was very real today and we had many anxious times but I can feel – and I can see in the eyes of the UPoA riders around me – a sense of exhilaration too, it was real adventure today.”
11.04.2016 08_42_09-H60_1681 (LowRes)
11.04.2016 08_35_48-H60_1594 (LowRes)Gunther Fischli
- UPoA rider South America -
“The riding was outstanding, with several bridge crossings that took quite some time to be repaired so we could cross. The physicality of the day took a toll and I was running out of juice by the time we had to setup tents at dusk under heavy rain. At the same time, tent setup was a beautiful experience because we figured out nobody could setup their tent alone fast enough to avoid getting everything wet, so we worked in teams where several of us worked on each tent together. After that I went to bed at 6:30, skipping dinner. Too tired to eat...”

Appreciating Malagasy Cuisine – With July Behl, UPoA rider Asia:
“We were up at 4am and it was a long wet day, especially for me as I was the last one to cross the last river on the barge in the dark. I appreciate the little things in life, like a good night’s sleep, a good meal, a dry tent, comfy sleeping bag – none of which I was close to that evening as it was torrential rain and everything was sodden. Most importantly, I hadn’t a clue about dinner/ my food/ the next meal which was extremely unsettling. This was until I heard that we were going to be fed chicken and rice in the wee hut in the village. The two words, local and food always make me happy no matter where in the world I am.

“It was chicken and curry and boiled rice for dinner with a lemon chilli concoction from Momo’s resort. Like most third world countries the chicken was cut up in 16 pieces and was on the bone. On the bone is the essence of a good chicken curry. Fortunately I was sat next to the vegetarians, which meant extra portions of chicken. The curry was a gastronomic delight. Considering my Indian origins, this is a big compliment as I’ve tasted and cooked my share of curries. From what I could tell, the chicken was slightly fried in coconut oil with onion, garlic and a hint of ginger and it was gently spiced with salt, turmeric and chilli powder. The curry, or the gravy if you must, was medium thin and slightly oily – just what you need to cover a big plateful of rice.

“The trick to eating these hacked up chickens is not to use a knife and fork but instead to use your tongue, teeth and hands to separate the flesh from the bone. With small portions, it’s always such a pleasure to see clean bones on the plate, as it gives you the satisfaction and joy of making the most of each bite.
It may sound rather simple but what made this chicken truly amazing was the quality of the ingredients – fresh and local. The chicken obviously had its part to play. In India, these type of chicken are called ‚desi murga‘ referring to wild chickens which eat anything and everything in their path thus making them super flavourful. This curry was the benchmark for all the chickens we ate on the rest of the trip and even the fancy restaurants of the capital didn’t come close to it.”

Benjamin Myers, UPoA rider North America: “Jan Peter – UPoA film cameraman –and I spent three hours tending a fire under a little hut to dry our socks. We partnered up and started our UPoA laundry business. Unfortunately no one on the team wanted to use our services –50 Euros for a pair of dry socks. Hey, it took three hours! I went to bed that night having made a new friend.”

The bikes of the UPoA - Yamaha Super Ténéré

Rider: Omar Mansour Alfardy, UPoA rider Africa
After Omar’s accident Kurt Yaeger got to spend a little time in the Yamaha’s saddle, Jon Bentman too. Here are their comments:

11.04.2016 09_33_13-H60_1719 (LowRes)Kurt Yaeger
- UPoA video presenter -
“Yamaha – please don't buy me! Underpowered, awkward, and the turning radius of a man with a broken neck. The clutch was pretty easy on the hand, no problems there. The suspension was decent, made for a soft, couch-like ride. The rest of it was just pretty subpar. Engine was a little weak compared to the weight. The ergonomics felt uncomfortably low for me, 5'11, but I'm not sure if it was set up lower for a smaller rider. There was also a odd feeling that the front and rear wheels wanted two different things, like dating a bipolar woman... or just a woman I guess! You wanted to love her; she wasn't unattractive but man, once you got to know her you realized it wasn't meant to be.”
15.04.2016 10_53_26-H60_2338 (LowRes)Jon Bentman
- UPoA writer -
“My poor dear Yamaha. On ice-like clay it scared Omar, for Kurt – after days on the Africa Twin – it was too big, not agile enough. But this Yamaha saw me clean across Portugal in 2015, off-road, in four days in complete comfort. As Kurt says it offers couch-like comfort. For that trip I had it set-up on full-height on every adjustment, which gave it more prowess than Kurt experienced. And it’s not so underpowered, I got this bike up a couple of seriously big hills no issue. It matched, occasionally beat a BMW R1200GS waterboxer we had along on that trip. No, it’s not as up to date as the latest offerings, but you can find love for it, not least for it’s beautiful colour, and those handsomely rugged wheels. If you don’t need absolute off-road mastery on your shopping list of adventure attributes you may well find it very satisfying.”

A broken leg and a broken dream – Omar’s story
Omar Mansour Alfardy, UPoA rider Africa

“First I have to admit that I was the worst biker in the group. I come from a dry country where we rarely see rain (Egypt) so riding on that very slippery red mud as they call it in Madagascar (terre rouge) was freaking me out as I’m not used to riding on it at all. In my previous trips in Africa I faced it a few times but as I was travelling for months I was able to wait a few days until it dried or I’d go very slowly through it.

“I remember I had the first fall in almost two feet of mud and I became so afraid, but in few seconds I found some of the UPoA team around me helping, checking if I’m okay. I felt I’m with good people and that gave me more self-confidence.

“Then we came to a nice sandy track and I was travelling at almost 30km/h when I felt the front tyre playing in soft sand, then the bike started to fall to the left side. Now usually if I’m almost sure the bike will fall I jump away from it so it won’t land on me or hurt me, but that time I tried to not let the bike fall and that was a mistake as the bike landed on my left leg and my ankle was under the pannier. I couldn’t get my leg from under the bike but in few seconds I found my lovely team helping me lifting the heavy Super Ténéré, and then lifting me and resting me under a tree.

“I immediately knew that I broken a bone. The pain was super-super big in my ankle and a little in my knee, too. Our two doctors (Robert and Gudmundur) and the lovely Andrea were around me checking and helping me. Andrea put a bandage on my ankle and gave me some medicine while Ramona brought me a delicious coconut.

“I tried to step on my left leg but it was too painful. I became very sad as I knew then that I couldn’t ride any more with the group. The team arranged a pick-up to get me to the nearest town where I could find medical treatment. So I had to say goodbye to the team and the pain of sadness in my heart was way stronger than my broken leg.

“After a while I found myself in the pick-up and I felt alone without my team –that was hard and I felt so lonely and the road was so bad, with every hole and mud crossing I could feel my broken bone moving.

“I arrived at Momo’s and he was waiting for me, with his daughter Anouschka too. Momo took me to hospital and the X-ray confirmed the broken bone. But there are no bones doctor so the decision was to go home as fast as I can – which wasn’t easy at all. I called my travel insurance to ask them to change my flight – they were no use, asking me for an official full medical report. I tried to explain them there are no doctors in Antalaha! In the end I was rescued by the Touratech team in Germany who in minutes had managed to change my flight (special thanks to Katja and Dominique, they are superstars). My only problem was reaching the capital, Antatanarivo, as the only way was flying from Sambava but the flights were all fully booked – but Anouschka managed to sort that.

“Meantime Marceline, who works for Momo, became my witchdoctor, treating my broken leg with honey and herbs! It was so funny as thousands of ants were under and on the bandage because of the honey and Marceline was laughing and telling me that is good for healing!

“When I arrived to Antatanarivo, Touratech had arranged a car from the airport to the hotel for my last night. Next day the car took me to the airport and after three flights I arrived in Cairo. I took a car straight to hospital to find I needed surgery: a plate and screws (the good doctors Robert and Gudmundur were right). So in total it was seven days of pain! But I’m healing now and I hope I can soon walk and to see my lovely team again in Germany.”

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