Tamale, Ghana * November 30, 2008
I suffered my first spill of the journey on a narrow, sandy, rutted and twisty piste in a wildlife preserve called Ranch de Gibier de Nazinga in southern Burkina Faso. I ran this track hard and fast. I had ridden it two days earlier, to enter the park and view some of its elephants, and on the exit knew what to expect.
It was mid-morning. The DR650 felt strong and agile, and so did I. I stood on the pegs and steered with my feet and gripped the tank lightly with my knees and gunned through long sandy stretches and took corners aggressively. First I passed Migo in a section of deep sand, and then I passed Geoff on hardpack. A few times I stole an admiring glance in the rear view mirror of the large cloud of dust I left in my wake.
The motorbike went down as I exited a rut on the far left of the track. The rear wheel slipped on what upon post-crash inspection proved to be a fairly steep incline on the right side of the rut. I had hit the throttle to return to the center of the road and the bike fishtailed from rear on the brittle earth and spun 180 degrees.
Now my bike lay on the ground pointing back towards the lodge we had left this morning. I waited for Geoff and Migo to catch up. ”You all right?” Geoff asked. I was. “You were running pretty hard there, mate.”
We took the obligatory fallen bike photos and Migo helped me hoist my DR. We stood around, taking a break and inspecting my motorbike for damage. I heard a strange sound from behind the tall grasses and trees that lined this piste – an inhuman crashing, cracking and thrashing sound.
I stood and listened, and a horrifying thought occurred to me. I said, “Is that an elephant?”
Geoff and Migo had heard it, too. “Nah, I think that’s the fire,” Geoff said. The park rangers managed fires throughout the preserve to curb excessive foliage growth and provide a savannah for the 1000 or so elephants that live here, along with lions and monkeys and baboons and water buffalo and gazelle and dozens of other species indigenous to Africa.
No, that’s not the fire, I thought. We watched and listened. It was quiet for just a moment and then again came the crashing and cracking and thrashing and I saw it, a massive dark grey head just behind the tall grasses to my left, and I exclaimed, “IT’S AN ELEPHANT!”
I grabbed my helmet and slammed it on my head and leapt on the bike. Geoff and Migo did the same, and now came a blood-curdling trumpeting. In fact, there were two elephants, less than 10 feet away from me in the grasses, and one of the creatures had its massive ears fully extended, a sign of aggression and hostility.
Don’t panic, I thought, in a suddenly panicked state. Think. Look. Do. I tried to right my bike before starting it, but it was leaned over far to the left on the irregular surface of this track, requiring a strong hoist to get it straight up.
My left foot slipped frightfully on the sloped and crumbly earth and I struggled to right the motorbike. “I can’t get my bike up!” I hollered at Geoff, but he had a problem of his own. He had started his bike but then it stalled, as in the panic in he had forgotten to put up his kickstand.
Then I heard it again, the long and mighty and bellicose trumpeting of an elephant, so close that it seemed to be from a megaphone pressed up to my ear. By instinct I could feel the massive presence of an elephant behind my left shoulder, could feel its enormous bulk and towering height, and it was moving towards me.
A day earlier, I’d sat in the shade of a lakeside observatory at Ranch de Gibier de Nazinga. It was mid-afternoon. We were in the bush, but it was oddly cool here …or at least, it wasn’t hot. A soothing breeze wafted across the small lake in front of me. Two small birds of an iridescent neon green frolicked in the air; a poster at the observatory informed me they were rose-ringed parakeets.
And then came a mighty trumpeting. The great bull elephant’s trunk was in the air and the rest of the herd paused for a moment. Eleven elephants were on the other side of the small lake, wading into the water and splashing about, massive creatures like the bellowing bull with his huge tusks, and smaller females and adolescents and a single baby, the size of a Volkswagen Bug.
I had never seen an elephant in the wild before, and I admired these beautiful beasts as intently as I often do the motorbike that as brought me here. I was alone. The peace was luxuriant. This is Africa, I thought. I realized I had a green apple in the motorbike tankbag that I’d carried down the trail to the observatory.
I had bought the apple in Ouagadougou the day before. I bit into it and it was sweet and good, so incredibly delicious that I studied it closely to be sure that it was, indeed, an apple. The motorcycle journey, it occurred to me, makes the simplest things the grandest of all.
After a half-hour, the elephants repaired to the savannah, out of my sight. I found Geoff and Migo back at the restaurant lodge. We passed the afternoon relaxing and reading the discussing various problems afflicting both Geoff’s and Migo’s motorbikes. The front and rear lights and RPM indicator on Migo’s KTM 950 Adventure had failed.
Migo had stripped the bike in the morning and we analyzed for a blown fuse or bare wire that might be the root cause. We could find nothing. And he had changed the fluid to his rear brake, which had been inoperable on the moderately technical 30-mile piste here. On this sort of dirt road, you want to favor the rear brake, as the front brake can lock up the front tire and put the bike down.
To make matters worse, Migo was still running a worn road tire on the front, rather than the aired-down knobby that would be ideal. “That was fun,” Migo said with understatement of his piste ride to the lodge.
Geoff had his own problems. The bleed valve on the oil cooler he had installed on his Yamaha XT 600 back in Dakar to lower its engine temperature had failed catastrophically. He’d lost perhaps a liter of oil before he noticed a huge stain of oil on his left leg. He’d fixed the problem with Loctite, but the failure was troubling.
Still, the bikes were running. We were happy. We enjoyed a dinner of chicken and rice and peas and green beans and toasted some Castel beers. Tomorrow we would continue through the park, down the semi-technical track for maybe three or four miles towards what my GPS indicated was a broad, graded piste to the town of Leo in Burkina Faso and a border crossing into Ghana.
Except there was no broad, graded piste to Leo just a few miles down the track. The GPS was wrong. And so were a few fellows from the lodge, who had assured me that, yes, head down that track and you will shortly come to the main piste to Leo. Is the track OK for a large motorbike? Easy? Difficult?
No probleme pour moto! they assured us.
We headed down the track. It snaked off in various and confusing directions. It was more narrow and technical and overgrown than the piste that has brought us here, from Po – little more than a small farm footpath. We found a small village and asked for directions. That way. And now this guy said that the farm-track would run for 12 miles – not a mere three -- before it reconnected with the main piste.
Fifteen minutes later we stood in front of a smallish body of water. Locals had used rocks to fashion something of a bridge. I walked through the water and found the bed littered with sizable rocks. Water fordings are great fun, but you want to be sure you’re not running a rocky bed. Chances are good you’ll go down if your front tire strikes a large, slippery rock.
My vote was to push the bikes across the water and continue on the farm track. It couldn’t be that bad, I reasoned, and it would exit somewhere, probably. Geoff and Migo voted to turn around and return east towards Po, from which we had come, so we did. Consensus prevails.
You know, even as they are unfolding, that certain moments in your life will never be forgotten. Forever I will be able to feel the presence of the elephant over my left shoulder, and the characteristics of that presence. It felt colossal and leaden and electrically charged. It was as if I was in proximity to a primal force of nature -- the force that governs the movement of planets around a star, or protons and electrons around the subatomic nucleus.
The blare of the elephant’s trumpeting, too, is imprinted forever in memory. It was terrifying and as loud as anything I have ever heard, and yet as these moments unfolded, I found myself watching myself in a sort of slow motion – filming myself, as it were. The memory of it is as clear and hard as a diamond.
I righted the DR with all my strength and concentration from its severe lean to the left on the sloped road surface. Don’t panic. Execute. You have started a motorbike a million times. I turned the key on. I pulled in the clutch lever. I hit the starter button. The DR started immediately, even after my crash. I jammed the foot shift lever from second gear down to first and took off.
Immediately I was confronted by a large, deep, gravelly rut running vertically down a slight decline. I had no choice. There was no time to maneuver. I took the rut and the front wheel shimmied hard and slipped and silently I screamed at myself: Don’t dump this bike!
I kept the bike in a steady second gear, acutely conscious of avoiding a crash. I stole glances in the rear view mirror for an elephant charging down the piste behind me. The road was empty. After a quarter mile or so, I stopped. I parked horizontally across a clean stretch of the piste, so that I could take off either to the left or right, as circumstances might dictate.
I was drunk with adrenaline. My heart was pounding. I took a deep breath and debated whether to get off the bike. Finally I did, and removed my helmet as well, and stood and listened and figured what to do. On a deeper level, I marveled that I had just experienced an unforgettable moment, and I shook my head at the fantastic unbelievability of it all. I even smiled.
I thought, too, of my armored Icon motorcycle gloves. They had fallen to the ground in all the excitement, but there had been no time to pick them up. I wondered how I might be able to retrieve them, or whether they would need to be a sacrifice to the elephant gods.
Because of the way my motorbike landed after the spill, I had fled back towards the lodge. Geoff and Migo had gone in the opposite direction. Again I heard a sound in the bush – the same cracking and crashing and thrashing sound I had heard minutes earlier. By gut instinct, in a matter of seconds, I decided which way to go – towards Geoff and Migo and out of the park. I slammed my helmet on, started the bike and took off.
My reasoning was that the elephant I had just heard was the same I had encountered a quarter mile earlier. But that was incorrect. As I approached the scene of my crash, I could see the towering grey heads of two elephants and heard again the powerful trumpeting. I rode past briskly, ruefully eyeing my prized motorcycle gloves lying on the ground.
Geoff and Migo were waiting for me a half mile to the east. We were shaking and smirking and trembling and laughing all at once, wanting to say a million things in a minute. I shook Geoff’s hand and then Migo’s and we talked in rapid-fire about how the moments had unfolded and our various perspectives and then again came the awful crashing sound in the bush. We bolted.
The main entrance to the park was less than four miles down the piste. I was in the lead, and kept my eyes trained to the left and the right for elephants. As I rode, it occurred to me how foolish I had been to ride aggressively on a semi-technical piste in a wildlife preserve. The potential consequences had never occurred to me.
I shrugged it off quickly, though, because the thrill of what had just happened was more electrifying than anything I had ever experienced.
We stopped at the entrance gate and were greeted by a half-dozen men who worked for the park. Now, in this relative safety, Geoff and Migo and I could relive the incident for the first time of what would be many to come.
“I saw the elephant – two of them, actually -- and you,” Migo said. “He was very close to you – like two meters. And then it started trumpeting. The last thing I saw was him moving towards you.”
Geoff said, “I saw the elephant’s ears go wide and I thought, ‘Oh man, this is serious.’
“I think the fire probably had the elephants scared,” Geoff went on. “They must have been fleeing the fire and came across us in their path and man they were pissed.”
We retold the tale to the park workers and they listened, eyes wide and chuckling. Stupid tourists. I asked if they had a car or a truck. I would gladly pay them for a ride down the road to pick up my motorcycle gloves, which after serving me well for 35,000 miles through Latin America and now Africa had accrued a sentimental value.
They had no car. A 4x4 full of tourists passed through, but the vehicle had suspension problems and the driver was loath to help me out. I told Geoff and Migo to run the 20 miles down to Po and have lunch and I would catch up.
A kid about 18 years old who worked at the park overheard me talking about my lost gloves. He had a small Suzuki 200. He would run down to fetch them, with a friend on the back.
“But the elephants?” I asked. He just smiled. No problem. He returned 20 minutes later with my gloves intact. The elephants, he said, were still there at the scene. I gave them 4000 CFA each (about $8 USD) and an Obama sticker for the kid’s bike. I remembered the word from my French study – oublier.
I told the kid, “Ce je ne oublie pas.” This I will never forget.