The Indian Ocean is lapping at our feet tonight, which is good news. But probably our only good news. Our coordinates show that we are just a handful of kilometres from our start point for the day, yet the struggle to get here has been immense. And our situation looks tenuous. A reef between us and the open ocean masks troubled seas; the ship that will take us along the coast and across the Helodrano Antonglia Bay to the port of Mananara cannot reach us because the seas are too rough. We want for progress but the elements are conspiring against us.
This morning started as the evening ended, with heavy rain. We’d set 5am as our start time but with the rain hammering down we remained in our tents for another hour. When the rain did let up enough for us to venture outside it was evident the clouds were not going to relent anytime soon and so we resigned ourselves to breaking camp and climbing into wet clothing – every layer saturated (save for Benjamin’s and Jan Peter’s fire-dried – and smoked – socks). Only the warm temperature made it bearable. Worst of all were our wet boots, having constantly wet feet in tropical climates is a recipe for disaster, but we have no choice.
With news of the ship’s delay we debated staying put for the day – with a hope of drying our equipment – or carrying on south. There are three points on the coast where the ship can dock, so we considered riding further south to one of these. In the end, a scouting party of four (Gunther, Benjamin, Kurt and Jon), together with Dominique and cameraman Marcel, elected to ride east to the coast and then south to the first of the possible rendezvous points.
The trail was tortuous, far worse even than the previous day’s. The trail was no more than a footpath as it wound its way through rice fields and along the banks of an estuary. Only with the rains it was mostly underwater. There were many channels and streams to cross and for these all the bridges were rotten. Also they were built to take people, not bikes, especially not 250kg adventure bikes, so often they had to abandoned and the bikes forced to make their way through deep water.
The first bridge was the worst. Barely 1m wide it spanned a 4m deep ravine, it was a muddy ride down to it, the wooden surface was ice-like and one slip would end in disaster of the highest magnitude – we could lose bike and rider, and we dared not imagine the consequences if the rider fell under the bike. One slip could, quite literally, be deadly. So there was real fear and nerves screamed out with each crossing. One bike slipped momentarily but didn’t fall and we all wanted to cry out in anguish, it was unbearable. But all got across.
There were six more ‘bridges’ between there and the coast. All were rotten – some we rebuilt so we could push the bikes across (never easy), some we left and instead rode through the water. The water level easily ran higher than our knees and it was a miracle we didn’t drown a bike. When we were through, a distance of 2km had taken us two hours.
Reaching the coast had its own challenges – not least deep sand just as we reached a village. When we reached the sanctity of the beach and found the village store had bottled water there was a much needed rest and refresh. Then onwards again. The village where the boat could dock was another 3km south. There was yet another bridge, a big one, but with the biggest holes yet where planks had rotted and fallen away. We repaired it the best we could but still it claimed Kurt Yaeger’s Africa Twin as we ran out of foot placements and the wheels slipped away. No damage done, thanks to the crash bars and panniers, but a reminder to be ever careful.
The village when we reached it was the poorest yet, but the people were friendly as ever, amazed to see these giant motorcycles. The trails on this point of the coastline are so poor – as we’ve experienced – that most supplies arrive via the sea. The biggest vehicle to reach this village has probably been no more than a 125cc trail bike as favoured by the more affluent locals.
The advance party split at this point, Dominique and Jon made the tortuous return trip to the overnight camp while Gunther, Benjamin, Kurt and Marcel stayed to scout for a camping spot.
Back at the overnight camp the sun had come out and the business of gear drying was in full swing. There was no breakfast today, just coffee, so July set about spicing potatoes and carrots to make an incredibly delicious lunch. His command of herbs and spices – making the mundane magnificent – will become the stuff of legend. Such food does so much to maintain morale.
For this group, then, there was the same challenge of the seven bridges over the two kilometres. The same terrifying first bridge (now just a little drier, so a little less risky) followed by the inch-by-inch crawl through the wetlands. Under the midday sun that was even harder work than for the advance party. Then the deep sand. When it all seemed over, the very bridge that claimed Kurt’s Africa Twin earlier, claimed another – Gudmundur’s. First to arrive, he’d mistakenly ridden the bridge, not pushed over, and a rotten plank collapsed under his rear wheel. The Africa Twin thumped down onto its sump plate, and thankfully was held by the remaining planks. Gudmundur stayed on board, momentarily shocked, but unhurt – a very close thing.
The team was reunited on the beachfront on a small clearing about half a kilometer from the village. Tents were pitched and there was a welcome swim in the ocean. We noted that our fingernails and toenails are black from our toils, there are indications of the inset of trench foot as well, from two days of wearing saturated boots and socks. Wolfgang (film producer-director) also has severe wounds on his calves where his boots have chaffed his skin, there’s a real threat of infection so the doctors treated and bandaged them. Our boots, socks, underclothes and Compañeros stink horribly from the combination of mud and sweat accumulated over the recent days. These, when drawn into our tents as rainsqualls beat the coastline, make the air ‘rich’.
The villagers elected to feed us tonight – before Benjamin and July could get started – so it was a meal of fish in a coconut curry with rice. Eaten with keen appetites as ever. The intention was for a fireside get together tonight but the weather turned against and the rainsqualls were unrelenting so we dived into our tents for a long night being hammered by high winds and heavy rain, wondering just what the immediate future will bring…
“This is real adventure – really hard work actually. We have a huge uncertainty hanging over us, the weather is making our lives hard but it’s also a problem for the days ahead: our ship cannot sail – all boats have been ordered to stay in port – so we have no idea when or where we’ll be able to rendezvous.
“In the meantime the riding gets harder, today so much harder. JB and Dominique forewarned us it would be difficult after the scout, but the six or seven kilometres we rode today broke all records for the effort required. With so much pulling and pushing, then dealing with the deep sand, we were so glad to reach the camping spot. ”
“For a while this morning, when the sun came out and we were able to dry some of our clothes and equipment, all felt harmonious. Even more so after July’s beautiful lunch. Then came the fight of the seven bridges, and what a fight – just unrelenting slog. But again the UPoA riders rose to the occasion, there were no moans, no sense of defeat. If we only made an inch a minute then we’d celebrate that. And the teamwork was brilliant; when one tired another would take over. Amazing.
“Having had a swim in the sea, having eaten so well again, we feel rested and ready for the next challenge. If the rain would only let up that would help, but we’re not complaining. Adventure is dealing with whatever is presented to you.”
- UPoA rider Europe -
“This afternoon I was first leaving the last town before the beach camp 2km away. Everybody was looking forward to it, it was hot and muggy and we were tired after battling mud and broken bridges. I had to plough through the loose sand before exiting the village. Then for the first time in days we drove quite fast, on a narrow track, and came to a beaten bridge about 50m long. I was with one of Dominique’s men and he went first on his 125cc, out in the middle and then at about halfway he switched to the right on to the boards laid lengthways (like rail tracks) and continued over. He waved me to follow and I started carefully on the centre part, then about halfway, as I was moving over to the right, the back wheel suddenly gave way – one of the bridge boards fell away and the bike slammed onto the engine, as the broken piece of bridge fell into the river and floated downstream. I must admit I was startled and then relieved for it not being worse, the bike standing there by itself on the bridge with the rear wheel down. I couldn´t resist laughing when the others came with a grin on their faces. It could have gone much worse. It could have been a bridge too far…”
- UPoA rider, Australia -
“I found this to be one of the toughest sections of riding, mainly because we couldn’t ride most of it! In the heat and humidity getting some of our bike gear off was the only way to cope with the temperature while pushing and pulling our bikes through mud trenches and over broken little plank bridges. It felt like we’d just get all of our gear back on and around the next corner there would be another obstacle. This repeated over and over again. And then moments after the relief of seeing the last of the bridges we ran into deep sand. The trail taunts us every hour of every day. Yet the experience is fantastic! I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The bikes of the UPoA - Triumph Tiger 800XCXRider: Andrea Box, UPoA rider Australia
“I was lucky enough to be riding the Triumph Tiger 800 XCX, the triple cylinder engine makes its own special tune and while it doesn’t have an impressive growl its smooth purr definitely grows on the rider.
“I have the XC model at home as my adventure bike and so I found the suspension upgrade on this model to be my favourite aspect of the bike. To have standard factory suspension (by WP) that needs no tweaking or upgrades is a pleasant surprise, its ability to maintain traction and smooth-out the ride over rough conditions is quite impressive and the 21-inch front wheel with dirt tyres definitely made my life easier in the sand and mud.
“The only drawbacks to the bike are the position of the tank bag can get in the way in riding conditions where you want your weight forward, and the inconvenient safety feature that means the traction control has to be turned off again every time the bike starts up.”
Jon Bentman, UPoA writer: “This 800 XCX is an unexpected star in the group; Andrea lent it to me to try for a while and I was impressed. As Andrea says, the suspension is excellent, the forks particularly absorb every little stone and rock, making the ride (for your wrists) so comfortable, the best on any bike here.
“For me I’d need the set-up raised for comfort, with my weight (90kg) I may well need heavier springs, but I can’t deny just how good this bike is: smooth engine, smooth ride. Andrea’s riding style is also very smooth, so anytime you see these two, Andrea and her Triumph, they look to be in perfect harmony, they are probably the least likely of the group here to be found in any kind of bother.
“The 800XCX is clearly an ideal mount for anyone coming into adventure for the first time – and it’s proving itself as rugged as it is capable – but I can see even experienced adventure riders would get a great deal out of this bike. For me, yes, quite the surprise!”