Monday, September 24, 2007

Angola, it's not like they said. (Ep.2)


Suitably cooled down and having rinsed some clothes we leave the river behind again.

Not too shabby for someone with no sand riding experience.

Another smoke break. Before this trip only Nardus smoked. He quickly converted another two ex-smokers.

As I hit the starter at the next stop I hear 'poof' and my bike is dead. Dead. No dash lights, no nothing.

I so wanted this bike to be reliable. I so wanted to trust it.

It certainly chose the worst place to shaft me like this. A scenic spot officially known as Fucking Nowhere.

If the problem is the battery, I can still believe in the bike.

We spend some time trying to figure out what the problem is. It's clearly electrical. It could be the battery, the CDI (God forbid), the starter, fuses, ignition switch, starter relay or any wire pinched somewhere.

Intermittently the dash lights would come on. The headlight would also work fine. So we figure it's not the battery. When you hit the starter however everything disappears again, only to come back after some time and ignition switching.

It could be a connection though, so I sand the contacts on the battery wires. I strip the earth wire from the frame and sand that too.

It makes no difference.

We can hear the starter relay kick in, so it is not that either. Unless it engages but the main contacts are burnt. It's sealed thoug so we'll have to ignore that possibility for the time being.

We strip out the ignition. I have previously come across reports of the ignition wires coming loose. It's not that either. We strip the ignition to the contacts and clean them. We fit it again but there is no change.

Getting comfortable, we may have to spend the night.

We isolate the entire ignition by pulling the plug and shorting the contacts with a paper clip.

This appears to have one benefit, the dash lights comes on everytime. The lights don't work though and neither does the starter.

We try to kickstart it while the dash lights are working. This bike does not start easily with a kick starter. But after a while it fires up. Halleluja!

I'm not gonna tempt fate so we decide that I will ride as fast as I can and only stop when I reach Foz. Hennie is to accompany me as he has a GPS and if we do get seperated at least we'll still be two groups of 2 and 3.

It doesn't work out exactly that way because less than 500m from where we were Fred and Hennie hits the deck coming down a dune. Fred takes the impact on his hip which buckles his spine and takes a while to recover. I've always said that a chiropractor will be very handy on these trips. By the time Hennie gets going again I've already disappeared into the desert and he decides to stay with the group.

And so we race the setting sun.

Just as a quick aside, remember the shell worn by the Himba women? This is why I said it's a big deal. Imagine crossing this on foot.

Being on my own and riding at pace this turns into the most enjoyable riding of the trip.

Just me, the desert, the bike and poetry.

Dammit, this bike is just sublime when you use the suspension properly. This afternoons ride will stay with me for a long time.

I finally get to Foz do Cunene and pull up at the Police post. Hell of a friendly chaps and I spend some time with them while waiting for the others. Much laughter ensues when Michnus drops in with the rest in tow.

The ruins you see above is the whole of Foz do Cunene.

Fred with the Angolan flag. It's been a longish day. We left at daybreak.

We are in time to catch the setting sun though.

When I try to start my bike it is not interested at all and we have to push it down to the river. Good thing I kept it going while it was going.
We camp by the old pump house to try and get some shelter from the cold coastal wind.

My lodgings.

One last thing on these policemen at Foz do Cunene. They must have the worst post in the force. I'm sure you get sent here for punishment.

Here's a map. Foz do Cunene (Kunene Mouth) is in the far bottom-left corner.

There is nothing anywhere close to it. Well, the 'metropolis' of Iona is closest.
They drink river water. They eat only fish that they catch in the sea several kms away.
There is no beer, no shop, they don't have their wives staying there, there are no women, no goats, nothing except sand, sun and wind and 7 guys. Oh, and one book into which they copy names and passport numbers.

They have no electricity, so I assume they have no communications. They have no vehicle. They must be dropped here and left until it is time to fetch them again.

They borrowed our English/Portuguese phrase book for entertainment. Now they know how to politely inquire if room service is available and what to say when they tip the porter.

Those okes at Monte Negro don't know how good they have it.

Today is the day all of us have been looking forward to. Today we reach the coast and the next leg of our trip starts. About 200km of deserted beach and dunes. Woohoo!

We are ready for some of this.

Surprisingly my bike starts without too much kicking and we head out to find the river mouth.

And this is what it looks like where the Kunene enters the sea.

We cannot contain our joy. We made it. We feel a lovely sense of accomplishment.Now our beach holiday starts.

We celebrate with a breakfast of biltong and Stroh rum.

Hennie goes of to go catch something for the pot.

We are in angler's Mecca. By all reports, this place is swarming with fish. You can throw almost anything at the sea and pull fish out. A bite per cast they say.

Well, they don't know Hennie.

On the way through Namibia we had to stop in Keetmanshoop and Mariental. We spent what felt like hours in the heat waiting for Hennie and Fred who was looking for rods and tackle. I started having my doubts when Hennie asked what a swivel was at the one shop. The idea is that we spend a couple of days living off the sea here. Hmmmmm.

One of the policemen is fishing with a handline. Hennie uses the same bait and casts right next to him. The policeman pulls out four cob. Hennie pulls out the bait he cast in.

Don't know what happened here but it looks like it was funny.

Nardus taking the ATGATT thing a tad too far.

The river provides plenty driftwood.

While Hennie is out proving that angling needs skill, Fred sorts out a slow puncture. I also strip the 640 again and start isolating parts and testing. I'm slowly starting to suspect the battery again.

Hennie returns with great fanfare. He successfully bought these fish off the policeman for R50. We applaud him for setting a record as the only person ever to come to Angola and catch buggerall.

My carrier rack becomes an imprompto cutting board.

Fresh fish tastes much better than shop fish. No doubt about that.

The wind picks up and starts sweeping the beach.

On these wastelands there's nothing to stop it. If you need shelter, you'd better make a shelter.

Behind the shelter sand continuously sifts down on us. Fred's ear is starting it's own beach.

Later in the afternoon we can't take it anymore and decide to head out.

We move inland to join a marked track.

We find it.

It quickly dissapears under the sand though and it turns into a guessing game.

So we move down to the beach again.

We would have liked so much to play on the dunes but we cannot. Our fuel situation is bordering on serious. We are either just going to make it or just not going to make it.

The riding on the beach is lovely though.

Nardus looks over his shoulder to see if the next rider is coming and the 950 promptly shakes him off. KTMs are like that. They like for you to pay attention to them. They want you to be committed. A lot like women actually.

Some places the dunes move away from the sea but you have to stick with them. Usually there are lagoons and if you stay on the shoreline you have to backtrack tens of kms to get around them.

We find a spot to overnight.

Sunset over the sea. We live on the other side of the continent. We are used to a sunrise over the sea.

Fresh mussels for dinner. Very tasty.

Yeah, life is good in Africa.

The day's riding had been easier than we expected. I know that Fred especially had been worried, because every time we have hit sand so far, he had had a hard time. Knowing that we had 200km of beach and dunes on the way must have weighed a bit on his mind.

After today though, we are all relaxed and full of confidence.

Little did we know what we were in for the following day.

Here's the thing.

There's a section today renowned for taking vehicles. The reason is that the waves break straight onto a dune face. There is no beach to ride on. It's about 80km long with here and there a place where there is a break in the dune. About 40 km of it though, has no break. Just waves and dune. It is referred to as the "doodsakker". I don't know what the translation is but it is a term used when you are lying in ambush. It refers to the area where the enemy has to be before you open fire.

You cannot go around. As the waves break straight onto the dune, the only way to get through is to use the inter tidal area at low tide. It is sloped, soft and not very wide. You have to be quick or get caught. Have a look.

T4A has this to say:

"Do not drive on this beach track between Baia DosTigres and Tombua, not even with 'experienced' tour guides. It is extremely dangerous and you stand a good chance of being trapped by the tide."

We have always taken "very dangerous" and "not recommended" as indicators of where some good riding was to be had.
This would be the first time we were wrong and 'they' were right.

So you learn.

It's still dark as we break camp. We need to be ready as soon as dawn breaks. It will be low tide then.

My bike is not co-operating. When you kick it over, the dash lights dim and sometimes dissapears. It's getting worse. I kick with the left foot until I can no more. Then I get off and kick with the right foot until the leg gives out.

Then it's Hennie's turn, then Michnus (no patience, that boy), then Nardus.

Waiting for the KTM.

Eventually the flippin bike fires up. I now know that I have to keep it running until we stop for the night. Fuck'n excellent way to start a morning, sweating like a pig and some mental shit to carry with you all day.

We camped right at the start of this dune section. Immediately the riding is a lot more challenging. The sand is soft and the bikes labour. Some riders labour too. A 950 showing off the kak side of gravity.

I remember a TV ad for a Subaru where the car is driven through the shallows on a beach with water being sprayed all over the bonnet. I used to have a conniption every time I saw it. We quickly find that there is no place for squeamishness about the bikes getting salt water all over them. You have to ride in the wet left by receding waves to get traction.

Have a look at the last two bikes; they are less than 2 metres apart, yet one has traction and one is digging.

The sea mist is also fouling your goggles, every 200m you have to let go of the bars and wipe them.

There are lots of seals and seal carcasses. Also jackal that feed off them, but they don't pose for pictures.

A 'before and after' picture, or a warning to the naive bikers?

The riding progressively gets worse and worse. The soft sand is un-ridable. In places your front wheel throws up a bow wave that you can see flying past you. The bikes are just sucking, sucking fuel. Even before we enter the doodsakker, I am forced to leave the others behind. I cannot afford the rest stops because it wastes fuel. I feel like shit because I'm useless to the others.

This gives you an idea of where the tide goes to.

Fourty kilometres can be as long as life itself. When you think you've had enough you look back to the horizon and see this.

You look forward to the horizon and see this.

The immense drag on your front wheel, and the fact that you cannot back off the throttle, makes the back wheel step out and try to overtake you now and then. I ride out two successfully, but the third ends in a mini-highside. I land on my back but my left hand still has the clutch lever in a death grip. So the engine doesn't stall and I am saved.

The longer we ride the more intense it gets. The sand is so thick and waterlogged it's hard to believe. At one point the drag pulls me down until I'm in 1st gear with the throttle wound to the stop. The motor don't rev out though. It sits in the fat part of the torque curve. The bike bellows like a wounded animal and it kills me.

It just kills me.

No motor should be abused like this. It goes on for a good hundred metres. And there's nothing you can do. I'm on the pegs, murdering the bike and moving at just above walking pace. If I tap off for just a second I'll be stuck, with no way to get going again. And if I get stuck I get fucked. It turns into a refrain in my head that I can't control: "If you get stuck here, you get fucked here".

It get's worse and worse. No pics were taken when things got wild but this will give you an idea.

We are forced to power down into the wave area after a receding wave in the hope that we'll reach traction before the next wave chases us up into the soft sand again. You have no choice. You plow down into the wet, get traction, pick up speed, and then try and outrun the next wave. If you don't get traction before the next wave hits, you are history. The waves down at the bottom is breaking about a metre and a half high. And in my head it's going: "if you get stuck here you get fucked here" on and on and on and on!

There's no way to avoid it. When you're racing the waves, sometimes you are going to lose. You get surf that just rushes in at a speed greater than the limits of grip in turning. So you crash through it. And everytime that you hit that wave at speed you know you're fucking with chance, or fate, call it what you will. And every time you make it, it's not even a relief, because it's gonna happen again, and how lucky can 5 guys expect to be? We're working like our lives depend on it. Which it does.

When you get traction you gun it. You're gonna need the speed soon. I'll be flying at 75 km/h and feel the sand make a grab at my front wheel. Immediately I'll bang down on the seat and lock my arms straight. The next soft patch is bound to be worse and you have no way of visually identifying it, or with what tenacity it's going to grip your front wheel. Flying over the front wheel is staring you in the face (like that ugly stranger you see in the mirror when taking a piss some very late, very drunk night at some dive that you never thought you'll be caught dead in). Yeah, like that.

Whatever mistake you make has the potential to be really serious. Whether you fall, stall, get stuck, misjudge, whatever. I have never ridden like this. It scares me shitless.

And in the end it's fear. Naked fear, but no choice. I'm riding at a risk level that's totally unacceptable. And I try to be liberal about that kind of thing.

But if you stop, you are fucked. So you keep riding, racing, shouting obscenities at fate, knowing you're gonna get the short end of the stick. Turning like the worm being trod upon. Let no-one ever tell you that the worm doesn't turn. He turns........ he knows.

There are limits. Always and to everything. And behind me the limits are being reached. There's a limit to how long our luck was going to hold out.

There's a limit as to how deep water a Dakar can crash into and hope to punch through.

Fred is the unlucky one that draws the short stick. As he hits the wave, the bike starts it's cartwheel. Fred does not get thrown clear. His soft bags wrap around his foot and he becomes an active participant in this unnatural, ugly, vertical carousel.

Like I said, there are limits to everything, and swinging a grown man around by his foot is going to reach some limit. His ankle accordingly fractures. As Fred and his android bike finally comes to rest, he has the presence of mind to hit the kill switch before the first wave breaks over his head. Respect!

There's no-one on the scene yet. The second wave breaks over his head. He realizes that this may be some serious shit. His fucked-up leg is wrapped up under the bike and he can't fix this. The third wave does not break over his head but fills his helmet. He rips off his goggles gasping for air. Yes, this is serious.

In the mean time Nardus comes upon this scene. Firstly he has his own demons to deal with. He's got a fat pig that's not happy in sand. He knows that if he gets stuck, he cannot fix it. What he sees when he arrives on the scene is a Dakar lying in the surf ..... and the rider too. This is serious shit. If you ain't dead, you're supposed to stand up. Nardus have known Fred and his family intimately for many years. He invited Fred on this trip. This is not the kind of news he should be expected to break to the family. He gets a bit of a loose bowel feeling until he sees Fred raise his head. Relief! And anger! He cannot stop here, WTF man, why me? He'll be stuck. So he shouts something useless at Fred and rides past to some place where he can stop.

Hennie in the mean time is not absolved from demons. He stopped to help Nardus where he got stuck. As soon as Nardus got traction he just wrung that throttle. He was rattled. "You get stuck here, you get fucked here". Hennie takes some time to extricate his own bike and races off after Nardus. He is last in line and no-one is going to assist him. He has been on reserve for some time already. And like everybody else , he still has to chase the receding waves. If he runs out of fuel while down below, he is fucked. Fucked! He races at over 100km/h where-ever he gets grip. Either he catches up or he donates his bike to Poseidon.

When he catches up, it's where Nardus is trying to get Fred disentangled from his bike. Hennie doesn't help. He doesn't take a picture (very, very unlike Hennie), he rips the fuel from Nardus's bike and starts filling his tank.

It's new to me, I haven't ever seen the both of them lose it like this.

Out front (and none the wiser) I reach the end of the doodsakker. I'm fucking dilly. The first jackal that doesn't disappear but just stands there watching me go by, has me waving at him like he's a friendly local. I have to shout at myself in my helmet to get real.

I pull up at the first place where I can get above the high water mark.

Not too long and Michnus joins me. We seriously underestimated the doodsakker. He sucks on his tripper like his life depends on it.

I'm a bit in shock. On every trip you have one or two moments when you overcook things and miss a turn or race into a flock of sheep at breakneck speed; this was like that, except that it continued for for 3 hours with no let up.

Nobody else arrives. My God, how did we fuck this up so badly?


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