John Cantlie Does Africa

A ride off-road through the un-tamed bush of South Africa? Tough going but a real thrill, and in November 2006 you can do the same - and all for charidee, mate

Christ my body hurts. My left foot is broken in two places, swollen horribly and coloured black and green from bruising. My left thumb has been wrenched so far back that it's barely mobile, and I have a bloody wound on my throat the size of a walnut. I've lost seven kilos in weight and this morning woke up with a livid red rash all over my body, courtesy of the tick bite fever virus coursing through my veins. The spider bite on my right knee has turned septic and throbs with pus and pain. Africa is a bloody tough country, and I fear that I may not be tough enough in return.

I'm in South Africa, and I'm loving it. It's a wild, raw country in a continent rooted in the very essence of mankind and somewhere I've wanted to explore since my dad flew a rickety old Tiger Moth from Croydon to Capetown in 1958. In the UK, where we live safely protected from ourselves and nobody takes responsibility for anything anymore, a motorcycle offers a rare form of escape. Ride and rejoice! You might hurt yourself, and you'll almost certainly break the law. But in Africa, where even the plants want to kill you, riding a bike is as natural as breathing.

The reason for my being here is to recce a route that in November 2006 will be known as Enduro Africa. My host, a barrel-chested lunatic called Mike Glover who laughs like a buffalo and doesn't so much drink beer as throw it at his face, organises motorcycle trips into the heart of South Africa and knows even the remotest places like the back of his big, hairy hand. It's his passion for Africa that means next year's rally is taking place at all.

The route is an almighty loop taking in most of South Africa's Eastern Cape. From Port Elizabeth in the south-east, you'll head north-west through brutal mountain passes towards the Drakensberg range, climbing to nearly 10,000 feet before passing through game reserves as you cross Lesotho. From there you'll traverse the rugged Transkai region before swinging east towards the Wild Coast where game animals roam the plains and sharks and humpback whales cruise off the beach. From here, you'll turn south and run down the coast back to Port Elizabeth.

The British away team on this recce is Enduro Africa's UK manager Simon Smith, team leader Jules Brooks and myself, while the South African home squad consists of Dave Ogden, Mervyn Woods and Mike. Dave and Mervyn, weathered old men with decades of hard off-road riding under their belts, observe us pipsqueak Englishmen with the contempt we deserve. We're using brand new Honda CRF230s for the ride, a mild, air-cooled 18bhp fun-bike. They are entirely non-road legal, with nothing more than a feeble headlight and no rear light or indicators. But, like most things in Africa, these are mere bagatelles which can be easily overlooked.

As we smile for a group picture in Mike's back garden, Jules' CRF topples onto mine, scoring a deep scratch in the fender. Had I known what fate had in store for me I'd have stayed where I was.

We ride for precisely 10.2 of our 2500km before a very funny thing happens. Mike, Mervyn and myself are waiting at a crossroads for the others to catch up so I decide to pop some wheelies on my four-hour old CRF230. And right there, in front of my South African hosts, I flip it. I flip it so perfectly that the rear mudguard is folded round the seat, the exhaust is bent skyward and my fender bag is spewed over the road. At which point the CRF topples onto my boot, smashing two toes. I pick the bike up and perform a wailing, John Cleese-esque dance of self-loathing. The last time I felt this much of a cock was when I broadsided a car sideways into another car, clipping Niall Mackenzie and sending him flying six feet through the air. It was bad.

The fact that this was the first bike I had EVER flipped meant nothing. With a quiet "you're a bit of a cock" from Dave, we kick the exhaust straight and go. Something was seriously amiss with my foot as I could only change up with my heel, but pride kept me silent.

We continue through the forest tracks that saturate Africa's south-eastern tip, my foot starting to throb like a double-bass. The ride heads steadily north fording rivers and picking our way through orange and lemon groves. I mutter along at the back, still seething. But gradually the mood improves as we step up the pace. It's around this time that - incredibly - I have my second big crash of the day.

I'm following Jules and Mervyn, fourth gear, about 50mph. It's dry and dusty, so I hang back but there's still a metre of miasma above the ground. The track is smooth, apart from a single rut, one foot deep, one foot across and 30 feet long. And, as surely as a homing missile, my front wheel slices into it. Wham! We're catapulted into the air, the bike flipping over and landing upside-down while I smack down on my head with a helmet-crushing crunch. The pain from my already-broken foot jams into maximum gear, and dark, arterial blood seeps from my exposed right forearm. Simon, apparently unused to seeing bike crashes close-up, assumes I'm dying as I go into shock, but Mike immediately swings into action and unclips the medicine pouch on his bum-bag. "Two of these for the pain, two of these for the shock." Mike keeps the pharmaceutical black-market of Port Elizabeth in a steady trade, and gradually my shakes subside.

In the space of six hours and less than 10% of the journey distance, I have been reduced to a lump of blooded flesh by my own stupidity and a beginner's trail bike. My reputation is in ruins - nothing I can say now will redeem myself in the eyes of the Africans, who slowly turn their bikes and continue into the sunset. Mike stays to escort me back down into town, where I'm picked up in a truck. Where the others stay their first night in the game-park splendor of Bushman Sands, recounting the day's hilarious events to the sound of hunting lions the background, I jack myself up on 2000mg of Ibuprofen and hop painfully into bed. You could say I've had better nights.

Lying in hospital, the doctor is shaking his head at my X-rays. "You can't walk on it for at least two weeks, and it'll be six before it's fixed." I explain I have to re-join my team that afternoon, and I'll be riding 2400km over the next nine days. "In that case, you'll need some very strong shit, my friend. Take this and good luck." That's what I love about the African spirit - they understand when business is business.

With the damaged foot levered into an oversize motocross boot (white pain going in, clenched teeth coming out), Class A pain-killing narcotics swirling around my body and a brand new exhaust on the straightened CRF230, it was time to rendezvous with the others. Mike meets me at Bushman Sands as the others have gone ahead. Feeling for all the world like a schoolboy just out of detention, we set off.

If you travel for a short distance in any direction, Africa becomes very wild very quickly. Compared to the previous day the townships are rougher and the tracks more difficult. Day two is hard going as we thread our way north through the small towns of Post Retief and Alicedale, where the Boers kicked the British about back in 1902. By nightfall, with the temperature plummeting, we finally meet up with the others. "Tonight we're staying at the game reserve of a friend of mine," Mike informs us. "He says watch out for the hippos, because they're liable to get a bit aggressive." Sure, hippos, whatever.

Twenty minutes later we've been chased by a hippo at 30mph and I have a new-found respect for this most territorial of animals. Simon and Jules got the worst of it, the gargantuan beast launching itself out of the bushes towards our rear, and since these things kill more people in Africa than any lion or crocodile they are not to be trifled with. We stay the night on the game reserve with the slightly unsettling sound of white rhino snuffling around our tents.

The next morning we're up at 6.30am. It's so cold I thought my face was going to fall off - minus 11 is nippy in anyone's book, but the thick coating of frost on the ground and on the bikes looks completely out of place. Wrapped in scarves, thick gloves and anything else we can find, we look like Afghan Muhajadeen. Mike picks up the route as we climb 3000 vertical feet, away from civilization and towards the incredible scenery of the South Drakensberg range.

At this stage, it's fair to observe that CRF230s are not the world's most comfortable long-distance tourers. The participants of the 2006 rally will be riding Honda CTX200s, hugely comfortable agricultural bikes with a mountain-goat ability to ascend the steepest of climbs. The CRF, on the other hand, is designed for 30-minute play sessions in disused quarries, and after a full day on this torture board the saddle has to be physically removed from one's arsehole. Mike, Dog and Mervyn have wisely equipped themselves with luxurious BMWs, KTMs and Kawasakis, leaving us bony-bummed Englishmen to squirm on our narrow seats like salted slugs.

We stop for lunch in the town of Barkley East, and enjoy a fairly unique eating experience. At a quaintly Norman Bates-style establishment called the Hill Hotel, the hotelier is almost overcome at her first business in probably a month. We order five bacon cheeseburgers. Simple enough, but an hour later they arrive, looking a little limp. Aha! A vile piece of bacon and some slimy cheese, but no burger. We inform the trout of the omission, and off she bustles. 20 minutes later she brings three micro-waved hamburgers, each on a cold plate and swimming in grease. "What are we supposed to do with these?" Simon asks, before flipping the lifeless meat to a fat Alsatian. The dog forces down all three in one gulp, then spreads his legs wide and pumps out a huge shit right in front of us. We run for our lives.

In the middle of nowhere we're cutting our way through huge valleys on fast gravel roads. We stay that night in the tiny town of Rhodes. With only 14 permanent residents, it is the gateway to Africa's only ski resort, Tiffindel, a tiny white blob surrounded on all sides by stark brown mountains.

Empowered that evening by the magical strength of Jagermeister (surely the most evil drink on the planet) I demonstrate to Jules the miraculous recovery of my broken digits by putting all my weight through the raised foot. "See how I'm cured!" I boast, milliseconds before a muffled crunch indicates that my toes are now freshly re-broken. At a height of 9000 feet Rhodes is savagely cold that night, as we all shiver in our beds in our hats and socks.

At this altitude my CRF was running like a train. It hadn't been re-jetted for its straight-through muffler and was running far too lean at sea-level. Up here, the power was immense. The views and the riding is spectacular as we slither and slide our way over the top of Africa. We stop at a mountain pass called Naudes Nek, and the views are incredible, at least 60 miles in every direction. Apparently, sometimes it's possible to see the coast from here, and that's 100 miles away.

This is as high as the rally goes, and from here on we commence a steady descent eastwards towards the sea. We ride all day through the Transkai, a region inhabited entirely by native Africans. The terrain is open, rolling hills festooned with round mud huts as far as the eye can see. The road ends abruptly and we appear to be riding through someone's back garden, and whole families come out to watch our progress. Simon indulges them by toppling onto his back in a ditch. "We've built-up excellent relations with the tribal king," explains Mike. "No tourists are normally allowed, but we have permission to transit all the way." It's a tough life in the Transkai, with no phone lines, mains electricity or running water. Some of the areas run at 70% HIV infection. It's a timely reminder as to why we're here and the vital work that organisations like Riders For Health do.

We break into more forested country, clearing the small towns of Maclear and Ugie as twilight descends. We still have another 50km to go and the roads are incredibly twisty,and coated with a thick layer of dust. It's like riding through fog, and you need all your wits about you. "We can't be riding out here at night," says a concerned Mervyn. "It's too dangerous." There's a real sense of urgency to get to the coast before it's pitch black, but it's a race we're bound to lose. I overtake The Dog, struggling with visibility, and am setting-up for a fast left-hander using all of the road when a 4x4 rounds the corner. I re-adjust and swerve left, but he's coming up fast. With both brakes hard on, I clip his wheel arch and hit the dirt. Bingo - crash number three.

Thus far I've had a flipped wheelie, a high-side off a rut and now a head-on with a car. My thumb has been tweaked, but otherwise I'm fine. The driver of the 4x4 is getting out, as are the six guys in the back, but I'm not waiting around. I pick up the CRF, hit the starter and take off. The handlebars are on the piss, the brake and clutch levers pointing in opposite directions, but the old girl is still in one piece. As I wonder how I'm going to explain this latest piece of expert riding to the lads, poetic justice gives me a right proper thrashing and a rock, thrown from the roadside, catches me in the throat. For a second I think I've been shot as I claw at my windpipe. My breathing comes in shocked gasps as my bruised trachea swells from the impact.

This rock-throwing is something that cropped up a few times crossing the Transkai region. "It goes back to the apartheid days, when we didn't like each other very much," observes The Dog with wry understatement. "The people here are desperately poor, and then we show up on fancy motorbikes." The simplest way around it is to wave happily at every kid on the side of the road and they'll wave happily back. Still, it all adds spice to the journey.

Mike escorts me in to Coffee Bay, because my headlight is pointing straight up and I'm really rattled. It's good to hear the ocean crashing against the rocks below the Ocean View hotel, and feel the tropical warmth on our faces after the frigid mountains. I can't really speak - if I try, it sounds like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. I slink off to bed.

Day five consists entirely of the Wild Coast. It is mind-bogglingly beautiful. After doing our best to bend my CRF's handlebars vaguely straight with a length of scaffold pole, Mervyn and The Dog take the high road and we ride down to the sea. To see coastline like this is one thing, but to ride along it is very special indeed. Rivers and gorges with names like Mighty Bashee and Mbolompo cut through green hills and spill out into the deep blue sea through white-sand beaches. We see humpback whales breaching clear of the water, and pods of dolphins 1000 strong hunting sardines. Huge cliffs tower their way along the coastline, and it's these that we ride across.

Simon's off-road ability is sketchy, but his balls are evidently the size of melons. Mike was running through how to deal with steep descents: "Leave the brakes alone and let the engine slow you down on slippery descents." We could see Simon digesting this, nodding silently, before setting off down a treacherously steep, rocky descent.

The last we saw of him he was disappearing downwards at 40mph, with Mike screaming at him to slow down as a large tree loomed. He did slow down - by flying off the bike and onto a rock so hard that it shattered his body armour. Result: one broken finger and cracked ribs. Perplexed as to why he had launched himself with such gusto when the rest of us had slithered down, Simon explained: "Mike told me not to touch the brakes, but he didn't tell me I was supposed to be in first. I was in third!" Mike's mobile chemistry kit comes into play, and in no time Simon is impervious to pain and ready to continue.

The next day consists of tight, rocky trails. Simon is in agony and swallowing handfuls of pain killers like they're Skittles, me grunting like a wildebeest every time I put my foot down. It's technical riding, cutting through tiny jungle trails that literally steam with heat. After 1000 miles of dusty, rocky roads, some of which we were convinced would shake the Hondas to pieces, it's nice to feel the squelch of mud under your tyres. We pass through the Qora gorge, sling the bikes onto a rickety old ferry across the Kei river, and ride inland.

After three days of being in the middle of nowhere it's weird to ride back to civilization. The Dog scores a flat tyre in Stutterheim, which Mike loves because it gives him something to fix. From here it's back to fast, loose cinder roads and up into the cool air of the mountains, resting for the night at the Armenal Lodge in the picturesque village of Hogsback. There's a growing sense that the journey is over, but the following day will throw a couple of cracking surprises into the mix.

Surprise one is the turn-of-the-century British army fort just outside Committee's Drift, 100 miles north of Port Alfred. The fort's condition is extraordinary; all the walls, towers and rifle slots intact, and since no tourists come this way we have the place to ourselves. It's easy to imagine Zulu warriors charging through the thickets, and equally easy to imagine as Michael Caine in red battle-dress issuing orders to the line. "If it's a miracle, Sergeant, it's a short chamber Boxer Henry .45 calibre miracle. With some guts behind it," I mutter. Mervyn looks at me like I'm odd.

We leave Committee's Drift and ford the Fish River. Then there's Crater Road, 25km of brutal dirt road, its surface pock-marked with craters so deep they jar to your core as the front wheel drops into each one. Simon is quite literally crying with agony by the end, his smashed ribs bouncing around time and again. We arrive at Mervyn's coastal home town of Port Alfred in the late afternoon. Frightfully affluent, postcard pretty, it is here we have our second big surprise.

It was Simon's idea: ride one of the Hondas to the end of a long pier as five-metre waves crash in. "It'll look awesome in the photographs," he shouts over the roar of the waves. By the time the three of us get to the end of the pier, we're soaked. The waves are smashing against the concrete buttress dousing us on the other side. "Look out for the seventh wave!" Mervyn yells. "What?" We couldn't hear a thing. Simon and Jules stand next to the CRF, I raise my camera and get off a couple of pictures, and the next thing this mother of a wave comes bursting in, knocking the Honda straight onto it's side and sweeping Jules and me off our feet. Simon has a hold of the barriers but I'm underneath them, and if Jules hadn't grabbed hold of my leg I'd have been in the ocean. "There's already been 11 people killed on that pier this year," said the manager of the Halyards Hotel afterwards. I take Jules aside and thank him for probably saving my life.

On that spectacular note, the journey was pretty much done. The following morning we mounted the hardy CRFs for the final 150km ride to Port Elizabeth. The tyres were bald and bodywork a bit scuffed (mine obviously more so than the others) but the bikes had survived serious, serious abuse with little complaint. Unlike the riders. As we hobbled and struggled with the jet-wash back at Mike's ranch, Simon and myself looked like casualties of war. Only Jules, curse him, remained utterly virginal with neither himself nor his bike hitting the ground once.

What an adventure. Ten days and 2500 km through some of the most glorious scenery you'll ever see, Africa is one of the most captivating continents on the planet. For all its troubles, there is something deeply magical about the place. As always, a motorcycle is the best way to see a country, immersing you in its sights and sounds like no car ever could. And all the chaos that befell us would be highly unlikely to affect the main rally next year. We were cramming 14 days' riding into 10, barely stopped for lunch, and were always in a rush to beat sun-down. When Enduro Africa kicks off next November, they'll have an extra five hours of daylight per day and four days more to complete the rally in. The most extraordinary riding experience awaits those who can get it together to enter. Question is, have you got what it takes?