Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reflections on the Dark Continent

Team USA
Left to Right: Iain Glynn, Shannon Markle and Bill Dragoo

Reflections on the Dark Continent
The 2010 International BMW GS Trophy
By: Bill Dragoo

“Eet ees not a grrrace, says Director Sportif Tomm Wolfe at the riders meeting just before we began the navigation exercise. When I poosh thees button, turn over your cards and go!” Artifacts were stashed over hundreds of acres of lush, green African countryside. Our task was to roll over these mountain pastures, through bottomless quagmires and dodge Aardvark holes the size of refrigerators, scavenging our treasures and returning before the hour was up. This was only the beginning of our adventure and we were confident.

We overcome our first obstical when Iain gets his ear infection inspected by a team of experts...Tomm Wolfe, Event orgainzer Michael Trammell and Doctor Axle. Nobody likes what they see in Iain's head.

But Africa is only a memory now. Team USA was victorious in that three men, Iain Glynn, Shannon Markle and Bill Dragoo were able to go there and compete for our country. We ended the week in fifth place, losing to first place Team UK, Second, Team South Africa, Third, Scandinavia and forth, Canada. Only three points separated first from third places. We managed to best the Alps, Spain, Germany, Italy and Japan, but only in points. Upon reflection I would argue that everyone present was a winner.  Competition was stiff to say the least. A lot of folks, me included have written about this event and much of it can be read in Adventure Rider Magazine and the BMW ON this spring. British journalist Jonathan Bentman has also captured the feel of the event here:
Jon did a superb job of describing what each team went through and much of the overall feel of the event from a number of perspectives. I would encourage you to take a few minutes and have a look.

I was disappointed at first in how difficult it was to gain points. Although we rode very well overall, little things killed us like my wrongly selecting first gear to cross a mud bog, Iain’s missing his spear in a contest where we were required to snatch a spear from its resting place, ride a course and hit a target, all in relay form, one after the other. Of course all events were timed until the last day when a large trials course challenged even the best of riders. We used the R1200GS then instead of our now familiar F800GS, a surprise to say the least!

An interesting highlight was when the Italians fell out of their boat into the Swazi River during a canoe race. It was exciting enough watching them attempt to stay afloat in full- on motocross boots, but the adrenaline really hit the next morning when crocodiles were seen crossing the very spot where they took their swim! We also learned that day that hypos frequented our playground. This was Africa after all…

We were one of the smallest teams by weight, with Japan the only trio that may have brought less mass to the Dark Continent. This proved to be a handicap when we were required to tow a Porsche tractor with a dead engine over a dirt and grass covered course. We also found ourselves handicapped when tasked with hefting and rolling a giant tractor tire and wheel through a slalom course as rapidly as possible. We did well for our size, but size or the lack thereof did not gain us any extra points. Big guys ruled in both events.
Shannon, Iain and Bill towing the Porsche tractor.

This tire/wheel combination was huge. These guys, even bigger!

But muscle wasn’t the only asset the winning teams possessed. Everyone came to Africa ready to rumble on dirt bikes. Men who had ridden and competed their whole lives composed the teams, men with trials, enduro, motocross and desert skills well suited to the tasks at hand. This was no cake walk for anyone present. I must say that the best teams won.
It wasn’t long before we settled in to a mode of simply doing our best and enjoying what had been prepared for us as we crossed borders and explored three exotic countries. Viewing wild game, meeting local farmers, women and children greeting us, waving and sitting on our bikes all made this a magical experience. And BMW put on a first class feed every morning and evening with gourmet chefs, wine and entertainment to keep us occupied. Everyone slept well at the end of each day, what with a few hundred kilometers of dual sport riding, special tests and general sensory overload every waking minute.
This "Official" at the Swaziland border crossing was more interested in the photo ops than checking our passports.

All the ladies were friendly

This mud and grass hut was a typical home for the Swazis.

This fellow spoke no English. He seemed to be waiting for work with other men beneath a shadetree. Nothing much around here but it seemed to be a gathering spot of some sort.

BMW put on quite a feed every morning and evening. We were well cared for.
Wine and great food everywhere we stopped!

Eggs cooked to order. Every one perfect.

Most of the country was fairly unkempt, just like the border crossing. But I heard the King just bought a dozen or so new armored BMWs for his wives. He is also building a new palace. Things aren' all bad.

As we left one game park we were held up by a herd of elephants crossing a couple hundred meters ahead. Leon, our Marshal suggested we pass by in twos, an idea that went bad as soon as he and I (the first pair) tried to slip by. As I snapped my first photo of one angry pachyderm, the monster raised its trunk, trumpeted out a warning and charged! I dropped my camera to its lanyard, powered up and exited the area, leaving the elephant to chase a slow moving Land Rover instead. Thankfully it was after me and chose to let the folks in the open top vehicle live to pee themselves another day. Lesson learned. Elephants do not like motorcycles in their midst. Go figure…

I snapped this photo with my right hand while handling the throttle with the left. The elephant rared up, trumpeted and charged, sending me scrambling to regroup and exit, stage left!

You can see the same elephant in the distance moving towards us. The motorcycles are just to the right of the Land Rover.

 Team USA was lucky as were most teams in that there were no serious injuries. Iain took a hard fall during a towing test, but came out okay considering the potential for serious hurt.

Iain takes a hard fall here. The strap came tight at just the wrong time yanking him into the ditch in the forground. Lucky he wasn't badly hurt. Of course he does look a little like Superman here, doesn't he?
 I only fell a couple of times on the F800 and then only in the sand. No damage other than pride which was scarce among Team USA in Africa this year.

Everyone got a surprise or two in the deep, rutted sand roads of Mozambique. "Mucho gas!" was the mantra of most riders, carried over from Spain's chant in Tunisia in 2008.

...and our Canadian buddy, Brian Kelly got a few roadside stitches for his dance with an oncoming car. "Keep left, look right." Old habits are hard to kill. Thankfully, so are Canadians.
 A number of journalists and a few other team members weren’t so fortunate. Although there were no life- threatening injuries, there were a few broken ribs, a separated shoulder, two broken or badly injured feet and some scrapes and bruises…oh and one busted collar bone when a photographer got too close to the 120KPH action of a dust-blind F800 jockey. Danger is where you find it and nobody had to look very hard at the GS Trophy Competition.
Note the missing instrument cluster and other dangling bits.

A UK jourlalist took a hard fall at 120K when his F800 developed headshake on the rough dirt road. His bike was totalled after high siding and flying sans rider over a fence. The British stiff upper lip was replaced with a fat lower one...sad to have ended the day like this.

His bike was smashed end to end.

Two of the Japanese team were crippled with foot injuries.

Our spirits were pretty low mid week when we found ourselves in eighth place. We took a chance by rushing through the towing contest causing poor Iain’s fall, but we felt it was necessary if we were to move up in the rankings. It backfired of course, setting us back even further in the standings. The canoe race later on was our chance to shine. Iain and I are both Eagle Scouts with canoeing experience and thought we smelled a victory. It was nearly so until the Scandinavians powered their way through the water five seconds ahead, placing us second in that event. Better than most but not all we’d hoped for.

Team USA blazes through the water with more precision than most. The Nordics beat us by only five seconds!

We lined up for a slow race on day six, another relay sort of event with Iain going first. He set the low time record, even with an engine stall stopping his time five meters from the end. Shannon had a clean run and did nothing to hurt Iain’s winning pace. I rode conservatively and ended our run only 15 seconds faster than Iain, cinching the win for Team USA. A decent performance on the last day kept us moving upwards in the rankings and making us wish we had more time. We finished the trials one point behind Canada, cementing our fifth place overall finish.

We won the slow race with Iain's slow, (read "winning") start. I bring up the rear with my part in the race as well, left far view in photo.

The teeter-totter was harder than it looked with dips in the expanded metal creating balance issues on the upslope. Several riders took early exits scattering photographers and spectators like mice.

Believe it or not, this guy saved it! Note the foot still planted on the right footpeg...he's still in control!

Other contests included a bike push uphill through a slime filled tunnel beneath a train track, a dark run through a mile long train tunnel where we were tasked with guessing how long it was after stopping partway inside and an elephant turn which was a sort of premonition of what was to come later on.

This tunnel was covered in slimy, slippery moss with an inch of water flowing to keep things soupy. Uphill and dark except for the photographer's lights.

" Tell me in meters how far it is to the end of the tunnel. You have 45 seconds to confer among yoursleves, then you must give me your answer!"

We also had to swap a rear wheel from one bike to another, cross a swift, rocky bottomed creek and get through a bottomless mud bog as quickly as possible. Fun stuff all, if not exactly what we had expected.

Our tire change was made more difficult because we chose not to borrow cinder blocks which were stacked inside the fence of a nearby family.

Team SA had this deal dialed in like clockwork. Theirs was a fantastic performance.

This family sits watching the fracas as we frantically swap rear wheels from one bike to another. If only we had chosen to borrow their cinder blocks we could have cut minutes off our time. The event was filled with these little point-eating regrets.

Iain gives me a much appreciated tug over a slippery stone in the creek. My feet never got more than slightly damp in my Sidi Adventure's from Revzilla.

Some riders weren't so lucky. This guy will feel the wind chill for the next 150 kilometers or more!

The scenery in Africa is pretty much what you might expect from what is seen on television. Umbrella trees grace rolling vistas and are scattered here and there adding to the exotic feel of the place.

Shannon, Iain and our embedded journalist and friend Jeff Buchanan crossing the veldt.

Miles and miles of canopied, rutted sand roads pierced Mozambique. A few ribs were mangled here when riders biffed at speed or were dumped into the briars by an errant bar end.
Of course seeing a rhino grazing in a field, monkeys watching from the roadside and having a Cheetah stroll by your open topped vehicle  during her evening hunt let us know we were definitely not in Kansas…or Oklahoma for that matter. Mud huts roofed in broom- straw, naked children staring at our motorcycles and a young boy playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on a guitar made with a plastic jug and a stick of wood removed any further doubt.

"Near the village, the peaceful village the lion sleeps tonight..."

I must say that BMW has outdone themselves with their celebration of the GS’s 30th anniversary. This was proof positive that an amateur can still win big and enjoy the experience of a lifetime. Adventure riders, walkers and thinkers will understand the need to do this. To anyone who has ever considered trying out for the impossible, I would encourage you to go for it. Identify your medium, set the date and seek your adventure wherever it may be.
Thanks to all my sponsors, friends and loved ones who put up with me as I trained, sweat and bled Africa over this past seven months. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.


  1. What a great experience it would be to participate in something like this!! Although I don't think I would much care for the tractor pull and tire roll.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Bill. Congrats on gaining such an awesome life experience.