Nervous excitement and the sound of rain led to a broken sleep. I’d been warned that the surrounding clay roads could become challenging when wet, hence the nerves. Today was going to be a riding day I’d never forget.
On the bike and off to our briefing for Day One. Greg had suggested a buddy system and matched us up with other riders. We also had our pre-loaded GPS to guide us plus sweep riders, so I felt reassured. Greg and the team conducted a clear and concise briefing and he probably felt like he was holding back wild stallions as riders were brimming with enthusiasm to get underway. Me, I was happy to ride at the back of the pack and learn as I went.
I followed Chris my riding buddy and we probably left about mid pack. Within minutes our GPS was leading us through secondary road which was an easy introduction to the Rally.
I was intermittently activating my chin mounted GoPro and providing my own commentary, which I think was my way of dealing with my nerves. First stop was scheduled to be at the Pub With No Beer at Taylors Arms, but that seemed a long way off.
As we hit dirt my lack of off road skills become glaringly obvious as riders overtook me with ease and looked very comfortable in doing so. The road conditions deteriorated and felt greasy under foot. I grow in confidence whenever I bounce over a tree root or splash through a water filled clay pool.
My excitement quickly changes as I approach a series of rutted wheel tracks filled with water. Even rewatching my GoPro footage I don’t know what happened, but my front wheel washed out in the clay as I slid down through the mud pit.
I’d just dumped by $18,000 motorcycle and was instantly panicking about any damage. Pride kicked in and I wanted to pick the bike up before anyone saw her laying in a mud bath. Rather than inspect for damage, I decided to jump straight back on the horse and asses any damage later.
As I continued along the challenging slippery roads, I was relieved I’d invested in my boots. Other than a bruised knee and smack to my confidence I felt okay. My fall had me drop back through the pack, but I had the reassurance of the sweep riders at the back of the field.
I try to refocus, shrug off my fall and reel in the pack ahead of me. The clay roads become even rutted as our GPS twists and snakes us towards lunch. As I round a slow corner, I see the road rise steeply ahead.
The trail cambers off sharply both sides, so clearly the trick is to stay in the centre of the track and avoid slipping into the deep dirt gutters on either side. Like a moth to the flame, the more I tell myself to avoid the deep gutter, the more my bike drifts to the left until a crash into the embankment.
Fall number two. This time I’m wedged between the bike and the embankment with my left leg caught under the bike. I can’t see my ankle but I know its caught in my Rotopax and hyper extended. I try to lift the bike whilst laying underneath it but I’m worried if I do the bike will roll back down hill further extending my trapped ankle.
I decide its worth the risk and manage to lift the bike enough to free my ankle and stand up. Nothing appears sprained or broken, however my knee and ankle are in pain and I’m hobbling as I attempt to lift the Tenere.
My confidence is completely smashed. I don’t know the extent of damage to the bike but I’ve hurt my knee and ankle, and I’m out of my depth. This is harder than anything I’ve ever done on a motorcycle.
Rooster riding sweep catches up with me, checks I’m okay and leads me through to the lunch break.
As I arrive at the Pub With No Beer I feel like I’m doing the walk of shame. Dead last, covered in mud and hobbling. Greg wanders over to check on me, I admit to a couple of falls, to which he seems un-phased and offers a few words of encouragement.
I inspect the bike for damage fearing the worst but can’t believe the only sign of falls is a slight scuff to my left Barkbuster. Whilst I try my best to project my typically bubbly and positive personality, quitting the rally seems a real option.
I head up to lunch in what will be the turning point of the rally for me. As luck would have it I’m sharing a table with Stephen Gall and Alan Roe, a former Finke Desert race winner. One of my favourite sayings in life is, “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” By that logic I was at the right table. These guys were amazing and it was clear they both have a real passion for coaching and helping riders.
Two key pieces advice I was going to implement immediately were from Alan – run a gear higher to smooth out my dirt riding, and Stephen – 90 per cent of the time twisting the throttle will save you.
Advice from the guys and a warm meal had settled my nerves slightly, but I was far from confident I’d make it to the end of the rally. The heavens open and riders run to their bikes to collect their gear. Shortly after this Greg calls us to muster a nearby shed for an unscheduled briefing.
The “zero riders” whom head out early to sweep the road ahead have radioed in with bad news. The constant rain has made the tracks impassable, not only the special stage, but also the standard route. Any confidence I’d gained over lunch quickly dissipated.
Our Trail Boss (Greg) had a solution for us. It seems he knows these parts of the world pretty well and is confident he can come up with an adventurous route and use a corner man system to guide us through.
A slight break in the weather has us heading for our bikes and off we go, keeping an eye out for riders at corners directing us on our new route. As we leave the bitumen the dirt roads rapidly deteriorate and we climb, descend and climb again through the valley somewhere near Belligen.
The roads are a combination of rock, clay, grit and covered with a layer of leaf mulch making them incredibly slippery. I’ve never concentrated so much in my life on two wheels, and suddenly realise these conditions are far more changing than prior to lunch where I crashed twice.
We take a break after an hour or so and once I stop and look around the scenery if simply breath-taking. It’s like we have been teleported to a tropical rain forest surrounded by luscious ferns and cloaked in a blanket of mist on top of the world.
As we continue the road begin to descend with what seems like an endless run of down hill tight turns. Somehow I’ve kept the bike upright so far and think of nothing but the next corner. I tight right corner leads to a steep downhill run and I come across the group stopped in a pack in the middle of this wet, muddy leafy track.
Word spreads that there is a tree across the track and the crew is working hard to remove it. Several of us wander down to investigate and see that the tree is only part of the issue. There is a creek crossing about knee deep immediately followed by a deep muddy hill climb. Riders more skilled than me start to express doubts about making the climb, so obviously I’m quietly panicking.
Greg decides before any bikes attempt the climb we need to ensure our support ute can get through. After about fifteen minutes and a dozen or so guys helping push, the ute makes the climb to a loud cheer. Now for the bikes.
Single file bikes attempt the creek crossing and climb, with guys standing either side of the hill to assist anyone who gets into trouble. Most riders scramble or fishtail up the climb with the occasional rider needing assistance from the sidelines.
My immediate thoughts are, “Who can ride my bike up for me and I’ll just walk.”
I talk myself into have a crack at it, after all what do I have to lose as I’ve already crashed twice. If I’m doing this I’m not going to be last, so I line up leaving only three or four riders behind me.
I waddle the big Tenere into the creek where one of the crew has been standing to help riders through. I look up and see the challenge ahead and can’t believe I’m even attempting this. I hear Stephen Galls words ringing in my ears, “Just twist the throttle and go”. At that exact moment the crew member next to me yells in my ear, “Go, go go!!”
I really don’t recall what happened next, but I made it straight through the creek and up the hill. The video of the climb reveals my deafening squeal of excitement as I couldn’t believe I’d made it.
This had been the most challenging and most rewarding day I’ve ever had on a motorcycle. I’d gone from the verge of quitting to complete jubilation. I honestly don’t remember the rest of the ride to Coffs Harbour. I can’t explain the feeling of euphoria in facing my fears and succeeding, but it was awesome.
We arrived in Coffs at the resort where the crew was staying to collect our gear from the Mercedes monster truck. As I hadn’t booked ahead I was staying at a neighbouring resort so I headed off to enjoy a shower, get changed and then back for dinner with the group.
Back in the room I gingerly removed my left boot to survey any damage to my left ankle. Other than some swelling and limitation in movement I had survived my crashes. I have no doubt that without these boots my left ankle and/or lower leg would have likely been broken.
Suddenly $550 sounds like a bargain compared to hospital cost, booking a flight home, paying to freight my bike and forfeiting the rest of the rally. I’ll never ride off road again without proper boots – thanks Greg.
I returned to meet the riders for dinner with some good-hearted ribbing of my excited squealing earlier in the day. My confidence started to slowly return not only succeeding but hearing from other riders that they found it extremely challenging too and was harder than any other day they’ve had on a rally. To confirm this Greg Yager even named the infamous climb the ‘Valley of Doom’ and voiced his pleasure that the group had conquered such a challenge.
After sharing a few stories and laughs I headed back to my room for a well-earned rest. What will day two of the rally bring?
Day 7: 310 total km. Highlight – Valley of Doom. Must do – Pub with No Beer.
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