The Final Leg

Posted: November 24, 2010 in The Journey

Things were looking bad. We were late. The panicky first leg had put our nerves on edge and taken a lot of strain on Phil. When we arrived at the rest stop I rushed around trying to manage the situation and get us ready to go again. I’m surprised Andre and Brendon didn’t give me a smack in the face the way I was going, but we managed to get Phil some shade to rest and pull together for the final leg.

We emptied every drop of petrol we could find into the Polaris, which got us up to a half tank. The journey was much shorter than the previous leg, but it would be close. If we got lost again we could easily run out of fuel. We were also feeling the pressure of the other riders – they weren’t able to finish until we arrived at Carnival City. The tradition is that they wait for all riders, and Phil already had a spot booked at the front of the crowd to lead the pack over the finish line with the other disabled riders.

We regrouped, calmed down and considered our situation. We had driven the route before, so it shouldn’t be difficult. The rest of the pack could sit there till sundown if need be, finishing the journey was the most important thing. Cowboy insisted we leave quickly, but we took it slower. Better to finish last than not finish.

Strapped in, with a bucket of cold water dumped over his head, Phil drove the Polaris out and followed Cowboy and Brendon in the Rhino on the last leg of the race. Paul followed us on his bike, ready to help us in case of disaster. We immediately calmed down when we saw familiar landmarks, and noticed that we were easily overcoming obstacles that had challenged us last week. We both laughed at how we had previously struggled with such trivial parts of the course.

Over a steep hill, we were back on dirt roads, pushing the quads as hard as we could to make up time. We followed closely, sometimes driving into the dust cloud behind the Rhino instead of waiting. This was almost the end of our race.

Brendon, Paul and Cowboy examine the dead RhinoSuddenly, metres ahead, we heard a loud bang. The Polaris was still going about 50 kilometres per hour when out of the dust cloud we saw the Rhino braking hard, almost at a standstill already, right in our path. Phil turned hard to the right. Brendon and Cowboy were leaping from the Rhino, and Cowboy ran in front of the Polaris as we swerved. We just missed hitting the Rhino, and Cowboy barely made it out of our path as we braked hard and came to a stop a few metres in front to the Rhino.

Cowboy pulled off his helmet and threw it at a nearby wire fence, running up behind it and kicking it. He was fuming mad, like the fuming engine of the Rhino. The Rhino had died for good and no amount of mechanical wizardry would start it again. A hole about the size of a CD had blown in the side of the engine. Brendon and Cowboy had barely escaped without burns.

There was no choice, we had to carry on. Phil and I left Paul, Brendon and Cowboy to deal with the broken Rhino while we pushed ahead, trying to make up time and finish. They weren’t far from the rest stop, so help could come and get them.

We followed the trail, comfortable that we could make it because we’d driven the track before, until suddenly it changed direction. The up run was different from the down run, and the course deviated. So much for knowing where we were going.

Slowly but surely we made progress. We entered a sparsely wooded area with lots of markers conflicting with each other, and took a few wrong turns before finding the track again. Shortly after that we hit a steep hill which ended at a river, with a lot of riders on the other side egging us on.

One of the many water features in the final legWe drove through the river. Water sloshed in over the sides and covered our feet. It was a highlight of the journey, and seeing a crowd of riders on the top of the hill ahead meant we weren’t lost, we weren’t late. We could still make it.

Shortly after the river crossing we reached familiar territory as the route rejoined the one we’d taken a week earlier. Our spirits were up, and we laughed with relief every time we spotted familiar markers. We were certain we could make it now. Phil started estimating how far it was from the end, but we were still aware that our petrol tank wasn’t as full as it should have been. It was approaching empty, but Glen assured us (when we passed him) that we had enough to make it.

At a junction shortly after crossing a railway, we spotted a bike rider and pulled over to ask him how far it was to go. He pointed at the horizon, and sure enough, we could see the familiar “big top” shape of our destination. With a sudden burst of energy we drove onward toward Carnival City.

But it wouldn’t be true to form for us to easily make it to the finish line. Maybe it was the relief of seeing the end in sight, but we missed a marker and took a wrong turn. We saw a cloud of dust in the distance, assumed we were on the right path and pushed ahead. After a few turns the cloud had dissipated and we were lost in the tracks just outside of our final destination.

Just a small detourWe tried a few paths, but they all ended in dead ends. We were so close that we could see the highway that passed by Carnival City just ahead. There was no way we were going to spend half an hour back tracking to find the route. With all our fuel almost gone we pushed off the path making a direct line for the highway. We went over steep terrain that would have stopped us a few days earlier. We reached the highway and we knew we were almost done.

But before we drove into Carnival City, we remembered that the entire pack of riders was waiting across the road. Driving down the highway, using hands to signal turning, we turned and met the head of the pack. Word went through the crowd that we were here, and we were conveniently at the front where we were supposed to be. Getting lost right at the end was a fitting way to finish our journey which had been marred so early on by a navigation error.

With a signal from the organisers we revved our engines and drove ahead to the traffic lights. Across the intersection we could see hundreds of people crowded around the finish line, clapping and cheering. The sound of a hundred engines enveloped us. We were there, we had finished. The marshals stopped the traffic and we led the pack into Carnival City. We finished Quads for Quads!

The End of the Road

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Knee Jerk Reaction

Posted: October 25, 2010 in The Journey, The Nerds

Here is the reason why we added foam to the dashboard.  Not feeling pain is overrated.

The chef at Buther Boys started to drool

Day Four: First Leg

Posted: October 14, 2010 in The Journey

It was hard to imagine that the final day of the journey was here. Life had become a strange routine of early morning activity packing things up, putting petrol into various things and strapping things to other things so they didn’t fall off when we hit a few bumpy things along the way. Now at the end of the day, we would be going home and sleeping in our own beds. A welcome thought after travelling so far, but also sad.

The first leg would be our tough leg today. Reports had told us we would see much of the same terrain as we had in the second leg yesterday. This time however we had the advantage of driving through the morning before the heat became unbearable. We wanted to leave as early as possible to make sure we could make the rest stops in good time. But the organisers threw a spanner into that plan.

The previous evening, while everyone was gathered around an array of braais cooking supper, Glen warned us that nobody could leave before 8am. Not just a recommendation, but an order, because the Standerton council would fine every Quad seen on the streets before that time. It was a Sunday morning, and church-going folk would probably be upset with the roar of engines drowning out their praise and worship. On the down run, Standerton fined the Quads for Quads race R20,000 for breaking this rule.

The unforeseen consequence of not being able to drive the quad early was that we couldn’t refuel before Phil got in (without doing a few trips with jerry cans). We filled the Polaris from our jerry can, and with petrol remaining in the can we decided that making good time on the leg would be better than taking the time to stop and refuel. After all we had Brendon and Cowboy following in the Rhino (which had been patched up and resurrected the night before) with extra fuel.

We left in good spirits, knowing that we only had to worry about the first leg. The second would be going over familiar territory, because the previous week Phil and I had done the first leg of the down run as a test of the Polaris and Phil’s skill and stamina. From Fortuna resort (the first rest stop) we would be fine.

We weren’t getting lost today, and we followed the Rhino closely. We left Standerton and hit the same dirt roads that had punished us the day before. We pushed on, making decent time. The journey itself was rather uneventful, and the landscape was bare and uninteresting.

About two hours into the trip, Phil noticed that the fuel gauge was lower than it was supposed to be. Compared to what we had seen on previous legs, we seemed to be burning more fuel than expected. When we stopped to take a break, we emptied our jerry can into the tank, leaving us with whatever was in the Polaris to get us to the rest stop. We were also slowing down, and noticed that most of the pack had passed us.

The kilometres fell away behind us, and the fuel gauge slowly crept towards empty. The landscape changed from dusty roads to grassy hills that we drove through and over. A few winding tracks through burnt grass confused us, but we followed the markers diligently when the Rhino went ahead of us. On straight roads the more powerful Polaris could easily keep up with the Rhino, but when we hit winding tracks Cowboy’s driving left us in the dust and there was still a chance we could take a wrong turn.

When our fuel gauge hit the final bar, we pushed as hard as possible to get to the Rhino and ask for more fuel. When we caught them, Cowboy told us that there was hardly any distance to go, and we would make it. Phil was agitated, knowing what running out would mean, but we trusted Cowboy’s experience and pushed onwards. This wasn’t the time to sit in the sun and argue.

Shortly after that we stopped on a hill where a fellow rider had broken down. Cowboy jumped out and tried to assist, and by the time Phil and I got there he was already setting up a tow rope to tow the Quad to the rest stop. We didn’t know how long they would take, and how slow their pace would be towing another rider, and so we decided to go on ahead without the Rhino for the rest of the leg.

By now we were panicking a bit. Almost out of fuel, with our backup navigator and reserve tank now on a hill behind us, we had to make it to the stop. If we got lost, we would run out of fuel and not make it. Not knowing how far it was, we couldn’t say we would make it without running out of fuel anyway. But we went slowly and followed the markers.

Every rise over a hill we expected to see the rest stop, but it was always another track to the next hill. We should already have been at the rest stop, and text messages from Andre confirmed we were late and they weren’t sure where we were. Every minute that passed we became more concerned about whether we would make it. But the markers were there, we hadn’t lost our way.

Finally we saw big signs pointing us to Fortuna, but halfway along the road which we expected to take us straight there, the marker pointed us off the road into the wilderness. Phil wanted to ignore the marker and push ahead, but after a bit of discussion on our options, we agreed that ignoring a marker would be the worst thing we could do in this situation. We left the road, and drove through ten minutes of technical off road driving.

By now we couldn’t think about our predicament. I was concentrating full time on spotting markers, gesturing vigorously whenever I saw one to point the way. Phil followed the road and my directions, trying to keep calm. After the detour, we arrived back on the same road we had left just a minute ago. If we had known we could have avoided the technical section, but at least we were out and the rests stop was minutes away.

We drove into Fortuna resort on fumes. Even the resort itself thwarted us, and we drove up a few wrong turns until we found our backup guys sitting under a gazebo, along with Cowboy and Brendon who had skipped the technical section and got there before us. We were flustered and upset, but we were there. We were alone.

Every other rider had left already.

Day Three: Second Leg

Posted: October 11, 2010 in The Journey

On our Quads for Quads journey, discovering how far away the next rest stop is can be very difficult. The organisers estimate the distance, because to a normal quad rider, an extra 30km in not a massive difference. Other riders give varying estimates because they base it on their previous trips, and the route changes from year to year. We couldn’t estimate using GPS because the paths we took were winding and much longer than when measuring as the Garmin flies.

Our best guess, as we set out for the second leg of day three, was 120km. After the 70km we had travelled, also knowing that this was an easier day than yesterday, we set out in high spirits from the rest stop, keen to finish the leg. We were also advised by everyone that this leg didn’t contain much in the way of “technical” sections – technical meaning difficult terrain like a riverbed full of boulders or steep inclines. The rest of the day would be nothing but straight roads.

We left the rest stop and followed the roads. The markers were easy to spot, and the roads didn’t deviate much. It quickly began a routine of arriving at a T-junction, turning down one road and following the dirt road for a few kilometres before repeating. We passed a few riders taking a break on the side of the road, they passed us again when they had finished.

Two hours into the ride we were starting to suffer. The heat was becoming unbearable, as we spent most of the journey in direct sunlight without any shade on the side of the roads. The landscape had flattened quickly, and now spread out around us as flat and uniform farmland. Dust clouds took a long time to settle, and so we were constantly battling the dust, lifting Phil’s helmet visor to alleviate the heat, closing it again to protect from the dust.

We stopped regularly to stretch whenever we could find a scrap of shade. Another hour passed and we had to empty our jerry can into the Polaris which had almost run out. The heat bore down and dust covered everything.

The mental connotations of doing this journey were quickly becoming clear. As physically challenging as it was, keeping out negative thoughts became difficult too. How much further was there to go? Would we have enough fuel? Does Phil have enough stamina to make it? Hoping we could just finish the remains of the race as quickly as possible, we drove quickly down the roads, hoping to hit the 120km and get out of the sun.

Half an hour later we reached a tar road with directions to head right to a fuel stop before continuing. We stopped off, filled our tanks, and met up with a few riders and locals while we were there. Cowboy was at the small rural petrol station, and told us that the Rhino has died along the route, unexpectedly shutting down. We had never really paid much attention to the possibility of a breakdown for the Polaris, but now after 600km of riding in the heat, that eventuality wasn’t too farfetched. But it was here we learned that the journey was further than we thought. From the fuel stop we had another 70km to go, making the estimated distance on this leg 170km instead of the expected 120km. We were getting late into the afternoon. The possibility of not making it before sundown was also a distant thought. We hurriedly strapped in and left the petrol station, drove back down the road and onto the trail again.

After five minutes of driving over heavy bumps, we hit a particularly big one and there was a loud clang from the back of the Polaris. I looked back and was horrified to see that the straps that were holding down the box with our water, and our jerry can, had come loose. The lid of the box was missing and the jerry can was bouncing around dangerously loose. I strapped them back down, as tightly as possible. There was no way we could go back for the box lid, everything would just have to get dirty (passing riders later told us they had ridden over it a few kilometres back down the road).

When I climbed back in, I noticed another problem that could potentially have ended our race. The fuel cap for the Polaris was not on, and the petrol tank was exposed. We’d been driving without it since the fuel stop. The petrol attendant had not replaced it, and in our hurry to make good time, we hadn’t checked it. After a small heart attack, I spotted the cap, resting a few centimetres away from the exposed tank. In all our bouncing around, it had not fallen off. We wouldn’t have been able to return to search for it, so we were impossibly lucky that it had remained nestled on the Polaris. I didn’t mention it to Phil until much later – we needed to remain focused on finishing the leg without idle speculation about the disasters that could have finished us.

We pushed on. The section shortly after the fuel stop was shaded, and gave us enough time to rest from the heat. Phil was struggling, so we worked out a quick system of pouring cold water down his back every 5km to keep him cool. We pushed on.

After a lot more driving, we hit the estimated distance of 170km, with no end in sight. Dirt roads and open countryside surrounded us, and the sun was getting low in the distance. I tried to contact our backup guys, but signal was poor and the messages wouldn’t go through. We had no choice, push on or perish.

The relief of seeing Standerton in the distance as we drove over a hill was palpable. It was still in the distance, but our destination was visible, and suddenly we could estimate how far it was. We drove into the town, winding around a few small bridges and parks before driving into the school where we would finish the leg. The total day’s journey had been 250km and much harder than the previous day.

Phil was elated to be there, but physically drained. Andre and the backup guys quickly got him out of the Polaris and drove up the road to the B&B where he could rest and reflect on possibly the most physically challenging drive he’d ever done.

As everyone else drove away, I lay back on the grass, drained. My back was aching; I was tired, hot and covered in dirt. But all the while I thought: if I’m this drained, Phil must be much more because of his limited mobility. Petrol wasn’t the only thing fuelling us on that drive. Phil’s determined will to finish carried us most of the way.

Day Three: First Leg

Posted: October 7, 2010 in The Journey

Leaving early on Day Three, we set out from Newcastle knowing the worst was behind us. The first leg was short and scenic and we drove through it in a much more relaxed state than any other leg we experienced. The sun wasn’t hot enough to cook us alive, and the trees and pathways we took shielded us from the heat. We drove through farm land through the hills, primarily gravel tracks through trees. One piece of land had a raised track for us, which dropped on either side to reveal a burned, dead forest, which reminded both of us of areas in World of Warcraft.

The highlight of this short 70km leg was driving through the tunnels. Along the route there are a few tunnels going through the hillside – we went through a short one and a long one. Perfect for cooling off, riding into these tunnels is like driving through a fridge. Luckily our Polaris had bright headlights to shine the way, but other bikes weren’t as lucky. When we reached the second, longer tunnel on the trip, there was a large crowd of bikers outside waiting for a quad to lead the way so they could see where they were going. Paul wasn’t so lucky when he went through – he ended up temporarily stranded in the darkness until a quad with lights arrived to lead the way (without accidentally running him over).

We reached the rest stop with time to spare, completing the most scenic route of the race with ease. The journey looked like it would be a piece of cake from here onward. How wrong we were.

Day Two: Second Leg

Posted: October 5, 2010 in The Journey

Already tired, with the previous day’s events fresh in our minds, we set out cautiously onto the second leg of the day. Our trip so far had given us more experience in what to expect. We packed extra water for the journey, to keep Phil cool in the oppressive heat. We followed Brendon and Cowboy in the Rhino, making sure we couldn’t miss any markers and get lost again.

The second leg was not as far as the first, and immediately after leaving the rest stop, we encountered a train. Many parts of the trip run alongside train tracks, but now a train was trundling alongside us, and we were forced to wait at the crossing for it to finish passing. The dirt track continued along the tracks, and once we could pass it we set out to beat the train to the next crossing. Cowboy was driving the Rhino at this point, and he pushed hard to beat the train to the crossing as Phil and I followed as closely as possible. We arrived at the second crossing, having just missed the arrival of the train and waiting again. Our train chase lasted for three crossings each time the train got there first. Next time we’ll beat it.

The scenery rolled past us, changing from hills to flat grasslands dotted with industrial smokestacks and factories in the distance. We drove past old buildings that hugged the railway line, no longer used. After two hours of driving, we entered the town of Newcastle and discovered from one of the marshals (locals volunteering to stop traffic from driving into us) that we had arrived 50th out of 100 riders. Not only had we successfully made it through the second day, we had done it ahead of half the riders in the event!

We stopped briefly to assist a fellow rider whose quad has suddenly died only 3km from the end, and using one of the straps holding down our jerry can on the back of the quad, we fashioned a tow rope and the Rhino towed him into camp. We arrived with hours to spare. The sun was still high, we were covered in dirt, but thrilled to have beaten the longest leg of the trip with time to spare.

Later that evening Phil returned to camp after a long rest to attend the QASA auction. Every year in Newcastle the organisers hold an auction to raise funds for QASA, putting up small items (like drinking bottles shaped like spark plugs) and large items (signed rugby jerseys from the Blue Bulls and Western Province). The down run raised R55,000 and our auction for the up run raised R30,000 (with a lot of encouragement from Glen).

The tired and weary travellers  went to bed satisfied with the long day, and the not so weary travellers bundled into the backup vehicle to hit the local night life of Newcastle. Phil returned to his Bed and Breakfast with renewed confidence and optimism, ready to tackle the second half of the trip.

Done & Dusted

Posted: October 4, 2010 in The Journey

Phil here, alive and successful!

I’ll write something more comprehensive when I’m up to it but for now want to share a few thoughts and emotions after finishing the 4 most physically demanding days I’ve ever experienced.

I just found out that I’m just the 3rd quadriplegic ever to fully complete the event; I count the 50 kms that took over an hour of driving when we were lost on day as being equivalent to the 40kms that we missed.  But I couldn’t have even done one morning of driving without Jeremy as my co pilot.  You are a legend, thank you Jerry.

From the afternoon of day 3 (which by the way was a horribly long section of over 180kms of unbearable heat), I started to realise it might be possible to complete the whole thing.  As the kms ticked by, each time I thought of the finish line I got a little more emotional.  That evening, we arrived last at camp (I think) but the thought that there was only another 250kms left eased the aching shoulders and gave me the boost I needed to finish.  As we drove with the other riders into Carnival City yesterday afternoon, the tears came flooding out and I was a wreck of mixed emotions.  I can’t really describe it, you guys will need to do it yourselves to get an idea but it’s a mixture of relief, happiness, pride in completing something so epic & a sense of accomplishment that is more overwhelming than you can imagine.

We did it.  I drove over 1,000 kms through mud, dust roads, insane trenches, rivers, rocks, mountains and valleys, saw places not on any map and most importantly learnt how far the human spirit can compensate for a broken body.