Two hours witnessing riders attempting to reach the top of a sandstone hill convinced this scribe that it must have been easier for a Boer commando to take an English stronghold on a Free State mountain than ride a heavy BMW motorcycle up this unforgiving incline…
Text and photographs Pieter Oosthuizen
Young and old men struggling, their steeds suddenly losing grip on the loose rocks, falling down as if hit by a hail of bullets. It was time to get down to my own steel horse… to get more memory cards for the digital camera.
As I scrambled my way down, the words of chief BMW off-road instructor Jan du Toit came to mind: “A Land Cruiser with front differential lock can make it to the top – but only just.”
The air was filled with sounds – revving engines, metal scraping on rock. Some riders were on their fifth attempt, and still they would not give up. After three days of exhilarating dirt biking in the Great African GS Challenge, competitors were facing their worst – “Heartbreak Hill”.
No wonder chief organiser and “father” of the GS Challenge, Deon Meyer, sported a wide grin when he saw all the riders volunteering for the “red” route. “You have to be fit… and a little crazy,” he said.
Although most of the damage to the bikes turned out to be cosmetic, there were still enough pieces and accessories lying next to the track to prompt one rider to remark: “After this, we can start a spares shop!”
The camaraderie was great to see. Many riders who had made it to the top scrambled down to help the strugglers. Former South African Ivan Knezovich, who now lives in Croatia, was one of them. “Once you’ve got Africa in your blood, you’ll always make a plan to come back. Next year I’ll bring a whole group of overseas riders with me.”
The third international GS Challenge saw 650 riders converge on the Moolmanshoek Guest Farm near Ficksburg for the continent’s most prestigious BMW motorcycle event. (GS is the German abbreviation for “Gelaende/Strasse”, meaning off-road and road.)
Last year 400 riders pitched up near Loxton in the Northern Cape, after only 100 had taken part in the first event near Amersfoort in Mpumalanga.
Everything was bigger at Ficksburg. In 2004 there were 40 staff members; this time there were 90. The organisers started off with three ambulances and three medics; this year seven ambulances and 15 medics looked after the riders’ well-being. In 2004, riders shared six showers. This time there were 33.
Participants had to arrive by bike, carrying all their camping gear. The more experienced riders could choose the mud and rocks of the red route, while the more prudent could go on the open gravel roads of the green route. The only competitive part was a Skills Challenge section. Well, that is if you ignored the not-so-subtle rivalry between the chain-driven F650 Dakar riders and their counterparts on large, shaft-driven R1200 Adventure bikes…
In the mornings riders left at leisure after coffee and breakfast and collecting a sealed lunch pack, a roll of duct tape to secure the bits and pieces threatening to fall off, and the day’s route, which was downloaded onto each competitor’s GPS unit by the company, African Stuff.
Although the organisers stressed that there was no need for speed to finish the daily routes of up to 300km, three people landed in hospital on day one. Injuries weren’t serious, though.
At the end of the day’s riding warm showers awaited, followed by fresh boerewors rolls washed down with a cold beer or two in the shade of the biggest bedouin tent in South Africa, specially built for the occasion.
The Skills Challenge took place on a mountain slope behind the stables and homestead of farmer Willie Nel, owner of Moolmanshoek. This event has become a highlight of the GS Challenge, with bigger and better prizes each year.
The very technical character of the challenge provides for some of the most testing riding conditions for such heavy on/off-road bikes. This year just over 60 riders started out. The top 18 qualified for day two, and on the last day the top ten battled it out. In the end, 33-year-old Eugene Snelling from Bergville won a brand new BMW HP2 worth R139 000.
Second was Grant Beattie, who lost by a whisker and won a gift voucher worth R20 000 from adventure bike accessories company Touratech. Third-placed Gerber Strydom received a R10 000 voucher.
To most riders the GS Challenge is about the camaraderie and the opportunity to put the “SUV of motorcycles” through its paces in a controlled off-road environment.