ATV Adventure: Going Wild in South Africa

August 16, 2013
Mike Calabro
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As the ride reached the Imbabala Lodge  we came upon giraffes that would often walk up to the cabins in the morning.
Dreams of escaping the concrete jungle led Mike Calabro to make his way to South Africa for an ATV adventure of a lifetime.

Being an eight year old in the ’80s was tough. Teachers could still spank you; the red dodge balls really hurt and, if thrown by one of those kids who started puberty way before everyone else, could be fatal. You had a bad case of Pac Man fever and, worst of all, your parents thought that 3-wheelers were too dangerous for you to drive.

The only thing that helped me survive such an onerous youth was the soothing sound of music. Every night before falling asleep in my “Space Invaders” jammies, I’d drift off into slumber land listening to a special tune on my scratchy sub-par clock radio, the kind where the neon numbers look like they’re made out of Red Hots candies: “I bless the rains down in Africa/ Gonna take something blah blah something yooooouuu” by Toto. I never really knew the words. But that didn’t matter. The song soothed my childhood woes (that stupidly impossible Rubik’s Cube) and helped me drift off and dream about giraffes and the naked women in the National Geographic magazines my dad got me to broaden my horizons.

I spent the majority of my adult years in concrete jungles (or, more accurately, glossy office buildings) watching the real jungles and deserts of Africa on the Discovery Channel in my air-conditioned living room. I decided that watching was no longer enough. I had to go. And I had to go by quad.

There is no better way to see a foreign land than by a quad. It’s more immersing than a car, faster than walking and more fun than those human cattle drives some call tour buses. Setting up an overseas trip can be tricky from the States. That is where Les Leonard, who operates ATV Action Tours out of Seattle, comes in. Les works with a 4 x 4 group in South Africa, The Polaris Club of South Africa, to coordinate his tours. He had just the hook-up in South Africa that I was looking for. We’d head to the Wild Coast, a region situated in the Eastern Cape of South Africa known as the Transkei, which means “the area beyond the Kei River.” Les already has 10 African tours planned for next year. You better book one before they get filled.

I couldn’t wait to start my ATV adventure in Africa. To prepare, two weeks before the trip, I “borrowed” the Toto song from the internet and played it nonstop until my girlfriend threatened to toss my computer in with the elephants at the Lincoln Park Zoo. After getting malaria pills, which we didn’t need, I was off on the adventure of a lifetime with Editorial Associate, Brian and film specialist, Glen from Quad Off-Road Magazine to “The Rainbow Nation.”

A few kilometers out of the city of Johannesburg  the landscape changed drastically  replaced by fields of grass and mud huts.
A few kilometers out of the city of Johannesburg, the landscape changed drastically, replaced by fields of grass and mud huts.

Arriving in Johannesburg (locals call it Joburg) was nothing like I imagined. Where were the Zulu Warriors, the mud huts and the elephants? Joburg looks like any other major cosmopolitan center in the world. It wasn’t until we stocked up on comfort foods and headed towards the country that I felt like I was in South Africa. A few miles (or should I say kilometers) out of the city, the landscape changed drastically. The concrete was immediately replaced with vast fields of grass and the buildings became no more than the few huts I was hoping to see.

With a handful of other Americans, I spent my first week in South Africa with The Polaris Club of South Africa and its leader, Johan Kamp. Afrikaners are very sarcastic, big drinkers and hard riders. And the terrain breeds the latter. Craggy, rocky and untamed, the Wild Coast is the highlight of the Eastern Cape with countless natural attractions and a rich cultural heritage. Mile after mile of unspoiled coastline reach as far as the eye can see, punctuated by forests and open spaces that make for a breathtaking ride through various landscapes and ecosystems. Some of the long dirt roads were too easy for my taste, but as soon as I started getting bored we’d invariably happen upon more challenging, technical and often unforgiving trails.

The Wild Coast, as the name suggests, is rugged and treacherous, with numerous shipwrecks along its deserted beaches. A large portion of the coastline here falls within protected areas and makes for an incredible unspoiled area. The good: no gargantuan resorts messing up the natural beauty with plastic pool chairs. The bad: you can’t ride on the beaches. The ugly: some idiots don’t follow the rules and tear up the beaches. The bad and the ugly will likely bring restriction if not the outright prohibition of trail riding along the Wild Coast. After all, this place is the heart of unspoiled rural South Africa; untouched by time, the infrastructure of the rest of South Africa and, thankfully, Chicken McNuggets.

For the first few days, I had a problem adjusting on the other side of the world and not just from the lack of processed food available. My body didn’t want to be upside-down, so I tried to correct myself. In case you were wondering, the toilets do flush in the opposite direction south of the equator, due to the Coriolis Effect. My next research project will to find out which way the water goes while flushing directly on the equator.

I decided the best way to right myself was to simply dive head first into the culture and its rich history, which I will inaccurately regale here. Three million years ago, Australopithecus Africanus took one giant leap for ape kind and started walking on hind legs. Charles Darwin suggested that humans had originally evolved from Africa. So, South African hominids then spent the next few million years getting to grips with, first, their opposable thumbs, then tool making, speech and the best invention, the wheel. Actually, according to most authorities, the wheel originated in ancient Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, everyone was having a blast and learning new things, round or not.

Sunrise in South Africa.

Then, in 1652, a Hollander with a big, floppy hat landed at the Cape and his crew and other countries started to pick on the native inhabitants. Thus began a long history of racial strife, poverty and apartheid. For those of you who fell asleep in Mrs. Wilson’s social studies class, apartheid basically legalizes being racist, condoning “separate but equal” education and uprooting groups of people from their homes. In the early ‘90s, apartheid was finally abolished—if you’re looking for an educational side trip, stop by the Nelson Mandela Museum.

Today, the majority of South Africa remains impoverished, dotted with villages of traditional mud and thatch huts, where family matriarchs take in children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. Cattle graze on the grasslands and the land is toiled by hand and oxen to provide a subsistent living. It almost feels like being sent back in time, except for the few well-appointed hotels where we stayed. Even so, now that democracy has been established, South Africa, especially the Wild Coast, has been a great destination for the ATV tourist.

There is so much more to adventure than riding the ride and tasting the dirt. For that, you might as well head to a dirt mound in your nearest suburb. How often do you go on multi-day trail rides and see women building bricks from cow poop to make their homes, giant ships wrecked on the coast and zebras grazing on wild grass?

The Wild Coast  as the name suggests  is rugged and treacherous  with numerous shipwrecks along its deserted beaches.
The Wild Coast, as the name suggests, is rugged and treacherous, with numerous shipwrecks along its deserted beaches.

Johann, like most of the people here, are extremely pro-environment, especially when compared with us too-lazy-to-cut-up-beer-can-plastic-rings-before-throwing-them-out-so-seals-don’t-suffocate Americans. We chased down a small group of ORV-ers that were riding on the beach, like non-animated Captain Planets, and then set out to where the Kei River meets the Indian Ocean near the wrecked Jacaranda. It was a Japanese fishing trawler in 1971 and rumor has it that the captain picked up a hooker while having a party on the boat. He got a little tipsy and, distracted by the lady of the night, crashed into the shore. Loose hips sink ships or something like that. That night we slept well while hearing the oceans waves’ crash outside of our rooms at the Mazeppa Bay Hotel. 

We steered clear of female diversions and rode through incredible forest with yellow wood, stink wood and a plethora of other protected trees and cacti. The area has its own microclimate. Every plant had giant thorns on them. I highly suggest wearing protective body armor if you don’t want your lungs punctured. Allegedly, these nasty plants were bioengineered by tire companies to increase sales. Africa is their test country. These monsters will soon be planted near your favorite riding spot.

There were many different obstacles to conquer. Some of the river crossings were so vast that we had to take a ferry to cross them. Planning a trip like this is a logistical nightmare. Without Johan, a certified guide, we would not even be able to legally ride quads along the Wild Coast.

The group stopped to visit a big cat breeder during the final days of the trip. It was better to the cats chew the gear than your leg.
The group stopped to visit a big cat breeder during the final days of the trip. It was better to the cats chew the gear than your leg.

A few days into the trip, Johan set up an adventure within our adventure. You see, no large animals live outside of game reserves. And there was no way I was going to travel to this country for more than two days straight and not see some serious four-legged creatures. National Geographic had set my hopes high. To fulfill my boyhood fantasies (the ones without Brooke Shields), we visited a cat breeder. Not little cats named “Princess” that poop in a litter box in a city condo, but big cats that can poop wherever they damn well please. As we walked past the gates, we saw tigers and lions playing on the front lawn. I will never forget this. We got to play with all the baby cats. The oldest one was 6 months old and bit a little too hard—my fibula became a teething ring. The adult cats had to stay caged up because sometimes they play too rough and people end up like Roy, only without a partner named Siegfried to take care of them.

By the end of the day, we were ready for some creature comforts of our own, like indoor plumbing. Enter Lekoa Lodge, a fancy place with an indoor pool, 4 x 4 routes, and an airstrip just in case you want to land your own private jet. Adrenaline junkies who need more of a fix can sign on for clay pigeon shooting, rock climbing or paintball.

Since we didn’t bring any girls with us, we got Brian a bit liquored up on South African hooch and sent him to the beauty salon, where he got one of his armpits waxed. I begged the wax wielder to do one of his eyebrows as well, but she wasn’t drunk enough…yet. Later that night, the girls we met at the resort, including the hair remover, broke into our rooms and duct taped our hands and feet together while we were sleeping. I vowed to get them back. I guess vows are made to be broken.

Once we got out of our adhesive shackles, we plowed on to Imbabala Lodge, which is approximately four hours from Johannesburg and two hours from Durban. This lodge is mainly based for quading with miles of great trails that climb to awesome overlooks, past giraffes, zebra and wildebeest. Rumor has it they just purchased a rhino, too. Trails cater to both novices and experienced riders and include a 2-kilometer flat track, 16-kilometer mini enduro trail and a gut-wrenching trail over Mhlumba Mountain. Here giraffes often walk up to the cabins in the morning. Predators include black back jackal and leopard. After a day of avoiding toothy beasts, we partied like, you guessed it, animals. Like all South Africans we’ve met, the guys here know how to party. They even forced us to drink out of some smelly animal horn.

We didn’t need any additional liquids to alter our cognitive skills. Our western sensibilities took care of that the next day—we drove on the wrong side of the roads, which is a bit scary when a truck pulls around the corner and the voice of your driver’s ed teacher yells at you to pull right, careening you into a metal grill of death on this side of the world.

By the end of the trip we were tired. We woke up early in the morning to shoot the sunrise and went to bed way too late every night. But South Africa isn’t all exotic animals and death-defying, breathtaking rides. It’s a place rich in natural beauty unmarred by the outside world. It was incredible to learn the history and about the people firsthand.

I got off the plane singing, “I blessed the ride down in Africa…” Yeah, I still don’t know the words.

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