Africa Rally - Adventuring with the Princes

South Africa opens its arms to the heat and dust of Enduro Africa, the rally that promises to thrill and thrash its participants in equal measure. And this year, Princes William and Harry came along for the ride

All told, it was a vintage year for the African rally. A massively revised off-road route heading southwards from Durban to Port Elizabeth down the eastern cape of South Africa, hugely technical and challenging riding, £300,000 raised for the supported charities in back-to-back rides, 160 fresh customers raring to go and all topped off with the Royal seal of approval in the shape of William and Harry, who turned up with four of their best chums and promptly rode the wheels of their Honda CRFs.

There was a scattering of broken bones amongst the various teams but nothing too serious, the most common complaint being a deeply contagious bout of the shits that blasted through the entire event and left everyone knackered at the end of the day. Proper character-building stuff, then.

For those not familiar with the Enduro concept, it’s very simple: raise £5,000 and have a cracking bike adventure holiday. A third of your money goes to charity - in the case of Africa it’s Sentebale, Unicef and the Nelson Mandela Children’s fund - so while you’re tearing through the countryside of your choice, others are benefiting from your hard fundraising work. South Africa is a tough, passionate country where no quarter is given and the ride reflects this.

There were days when you didn’t want to ride another mile, when every bone ached and hands were taped-up to keep the blisters at bay. With over 70 river crossings riding boots were always wet and the unseasonally cold wind meant riders didn’t get a chance to warm up. But the camaraderie and team spirit in the 2008 event was unparalleled, and the South African team leaders and fellow riders kept each other going when individuals would have long since given up.

The riding was properly, impassably tough at times and yet people who’d never ridden off-road before managed to get through. The expected paparazzi circus due to follow William and Harry never materialised, and the amount of care and attention to detail in the route shone through. From the choice of beachside hotels along the way to the excellent medical teams who supplied much-needed first aid to the riders as they fell off/succumbed to viruses, the Enduro model of pushing people to their limits whilst having a large safety net to catch them when they fell was in full effect.

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the people

The People

The South Africans supplied a professional lunatic called Daryll Curtis, who not only happened to be one of the fastest enduro riders we’ve ever seen, but also had a penchant for doing burnouts on bar tables, riding bikes up hotel stairs and wheelying for three miles at a time. There was team leader Kevin Fisher, a man who appeared blind drunk when he was sober, and vice-versa. Mike Glover, the responsible organiser who bellowed “screw it! I’d rather die than turn back” when leading his team over an impenetrable mountain pass.

There was Skippy from the red team, whose appetite for destruction seemed to be only matched by his disregard for the safety of himself or anyone around him. During the course of the event he was consecutively battered, bashed, drowned, strangled and hurled to the ground, and he came back for more every time, his eyes just a little bit wider. And finally we had Falklands war veteran Rob Lawrence, who lost part of his brain and the use of his left arm during the conflict but came to supply Jagermeister to anyone within touching distance. In one particularly messy Tuesday night Rob administered 210 medicinal shots of the evil concoction to the assembled crowd.

The Teams

Orange had the best team ‘thang’ going on (they were a corporate team-builder’s dream), green were consistently the best riders (and didn’t they let you know) red were brilliantly chaotic and by far the most fun to ride with, blue were steady away, silver a mixed bag and yellow a bizarre mash-up of super-fast and deadly slow. Riders ranged from their early 20s to late 60s, with plumbers from Macclesfield, traffic cops from Ireland and a married couple from Singapore.

There were the ultra-competitive Johnson sisters, three blondes who were chaperoned by their slightly over-protective father (can’t blame him), got tongues wagging across the event and then promptly out-rode at least half the blokes on the trip.

“We used to be all in the national swimming team so yes, we’re slightly competitive,” they gushed afterwards. There were those who could barely ride a bike and others who competed in real enduros, a scattering of fathers and sons, some were riding for dearly-departed friends and others for their own private reasons, but everyone got across every obstacle and the South African team leaders and sweeps were absolutely spot-on in chaperoning their herds.

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the riding

The Riding

From flat-out cinder roads to incredibly difficult single-track and rock-steps, the route this year was beautifully put together. The Devil’s Staircase was a series of vertical rocks and reduced people to tears. The Gorge was a 50° climb over massive boulders that wouldn’t have been out of place on a national enduro. We rode across open fields, through swamps, through people’s back gardens, past vertical seaside cliffs - all the while following a small black arrow on a GPS screen.

Journalist Michael Guy and myself got horrifically lost and had to resort to bushman tracking (marks in the grass, broken twigs) for over an hour as we followed the group’s movements. Nobody seemed to improve at river crossings, with a tell-tale queue backing up every time. Witnessing the unlikely-named Dick Christmas riding up a tree was most unusual and he nearly made it to the top, too.

Road-riding sections were mercifully few and spiced-up by Daryl Curtis’ endless wheelies, while day five produced mud of such epic proportions that I managed to cart-wheel my CRF and team sweep Dave ‘The Dog’ Ogden managed to barrel-roll his Transalp with spectacular results. And with just 10 minutes left of the rally, Enduro served up sand so deep that people were dropping like dead flies.

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the Princes

The Charities

With £1,500 of each person’s entry fee going to charity and with two events running back-to-back, Unicef, Sentebale and Nelson Mandela’s Children’s fund netted £300,000 from the event. At Morgan’s Bay the participants got hands-on in a primary school just outside of town, building a swing for the kids and re-decorating the interior for the local charity, Touch Africa.

“We don’t do anything fancy,” says Mike Glover. “Just the basics to make school more exciting. Out of the 10 worst places to grow up as a child, nine of those places are here in the Wild Coast so we’re trying to change that. A teacher in this area only earns £100 per month, so we put in soccer fields, soup kitchens, desks and chairs.”

The first three days of Enduro are spent riding through incredibly impoverished areas, where entire villages are decimated by the effects of Aids. It’s a grim reminder of why we’re here. “It was impossible not to react to it,” said Prince William afterwards. “We were riding through complete poverty, these people had nothing and yet they were incredibly welcoming.”

The Princes

Proper stand-up blokes the pair of them, always the first in and never afraid to tackle the hardest obstacles head-on. William and Harry were part of red team, the youngest squad on the event and certainly one of the fastest. What the reds sometimes lacked in experience they more than made up with aggression and fitness. Hardly ever crashed but when they did it was huge and hilarious. Learned incredibly quickly under the watchful eyes of Mike Glover, the event’s South African organiser. There was never the slightest moan or whinge, just enormous amounts of laughter and a limitless supply of 20 year-old energy. William was clearly the more skilful rider, picking his lines with skill and precision, while Harry was totally fearless and carried plenty of raw speed.

They both loved being anonymous behind a crash helmet and spent the afternoons chatting with the other riders on the event. “Both us like to be pushed,” says William, “and when we’re faced with a challenge like this we get stuck in. We like to get our hands dirty, and I’m one of those people who likes to be good at everything – but it doesn’t always happen like that! Here it was about holding our own, trying to up our game and stay with the fast boys. After this, I’d like to do some serious enduro competitions.”

William rides a Ducati 1098 while younger brother Harry is on a Triumph. “We never really get to hang out together,” says Harry, “so this has been great. You have to be able to laugh and have fun to get through something like this, because there were people seriously beating themselves up out there. But the whole reason for being here was, I hope, in people’s minds the whole time.”

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the crashes and riders

The Crashes

Varied, painful and endlessly entertaining. It was the river crossings that always provided the most excitement, with at least six bikes getting fully submerged and needing the upside-down/drain airbox treatment to get them going again.

Rock-step sections like the Devil’s Staircase and en route to the Hole in Wall had people leaping repeatedly into jagged granite, either over the back or over the front. Thank God everyone was body-armoured up to the nines. Orange team seemed particularly fond of a good body-slam, “if I crash again today I’m going to sit down and have a proper cry” muttered one as he jumped off again.

Crashing into your team leader was popular with the green team, as was an unusual collision with a wild boar. Fortunately, the hog was fine. There were at least two broken collarbones, a busted shoulder, and every night several riders were on drips from dehydration. Prize for first proper spannering went to Sebastian Bourgoin although it was the red team (of course) who managed to have the first good-sized two-bike collision a mere 5mins into the event. Step forward, Batian Craig.

The Riders

“I’ve never been so knackered in my life,” said Paul Moseley after day five. “My hands hurt, my arse hurts, my head hurts. This place is great!” Poh Yu Seung had come all the way from Singapore with his wife. “Back home everything is so crowded,” he says. “Here, there’s so much space and you can do what you like. Back in Singapore, you could never ride like this, never.”

Colin Baxter thought the whole experience was “breathtaking, bloody hard work and, like war, difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.” Charley Irish remained perennially cheerful throughout the entire trip, while Tim Richards turned up in Africa in summer wearing a Rev-It winter oversuit which promptly became the most lusted-after item of clothing when temperatures struggled to get above 12°. David Beard inexplicably wore his full motocross gear (including boots) on the 11 hour flight from London, while 78 year-old Dave Hobbs amused everyone with his 1964 motorcycle boots and original Belstaff jacket. “It costs very little to look this bad,” he admitted afterwards.