Finishing a Ride, come (Die) Hell or High Water

Zanie's picture

Points: 12

The Plan
I recently tackled Gamkaskloof (Die Hel) for the first time on my own bike; talked into this crazy venture by my overly-optimistic partner, Lance. I was extremely worried about the Huisrivier crossing and “drowning” my bike. Thanks to Youtube, I could see that it is no quick fix once you manage to get a lot of water into the engine or exhaust. Die Hel is a rather expensive middle-of-nowhere if you have to call for any sort of assistance, be it from a trailer rescue service or long-suffering family.

The History
To gain perspective on how big a deal the Die Hel trip was for me: I went for my first motorbike driving lesson last year August and bought my first bike, a F650 GS in October last year. I have since been on a few off-road trips, including Oasis via Katbakkies and the Tankwa Bike Burn. I have also been on two Level 1 off-road courses – I wasn’t able to do too many of the exercises the first time around, which is why I did it again (and will definitely attend some more in future). My days of sitting pillion are over. The bug has bitten. I am now in control of my own destiny; however dubious that idea may be.

Heading out
My jello arm was twisted and Saturday 12 July saw Lance and I head off from Blouberg, Cape Town into the sunrise; me on my 650GS and he on his 800GSA. We took the straightest and fastest road possible in order to leave plenty time for tackling Swartberg Pass and Die Hel. This meant a long stretch of N1. It was beautiful nonetheless, with the mountains just after the Huguenot Tunnel still sporting a sprinkling of snow.

Brrr
It was very cold in the morning, with the temperature hovering around 4°C. I was very grateful for my newly acquired off-road gear, complete with thermal layer! I remember sitting pillion to Matjiesfontein in similar temperatures at night, wearing jeans and fingerless cycling gloves. I have never felt colder in my life.

Taking a break in the cold before Huguenot Tunnel

Taking a break in the cold before Huguenot Tunnel

In one way I was thankful for the cooler temperatures, thanks to a weird quirk of my bike: the overheating light comes on whenever I go at high speed on a normal or warm day. The definition of “high speed” varies depending on the day’s temperature. Sometimes it’s as low as 80km/h. Try driving that speed on the N1 for a while. It drives you batty! Diagnostic checks don’t show any faults and low speeds are fine (I can drive in second gear for 10km and the bike gives no complaints).

Bump
I had a side-stand incident at the petrol station at Laingsburg. The blow actually shifted my right-hand-side Barkbuster upwards a bit. I should have let Lance man-handle it back to its original position. It would play a key role later…

Swartberg
We took the R328 turn-off towards Prince Albert, where we stopped for lunch at the coffee shop of the Swartberg Hotel. Shortly after leaving Prince Albert we reached dirt road, where we stopped to adjust tyre pressures. I have been to Die Hel before as a pillion, but we had driven from the Calitzdorp side. Lance and I have never seen the Prince Albert side of the Swartberg Pass. It was absolutely stunning! The road seems to be a “civilised” version of the Die Hel pass: it has switch-back corners and views for Africa.

Swartberg Pass on the Prince Albert side

Swartberg Pass on the Prince Albert side

Small victory
I take it relatively slow on dirt roads, due to me being a novice. Poor Lance had to have the patience of a saint. We soon reached my mental nemesis: the Huisrivier crossing. I stopped my bike and considered my options. It would have been easy for Lance to offer to drive my bike across. I would have let him if he offered, but he didn’t, for which I am grateful. If I hadn’t gone over by myself, I knew I would regret it later. I walked the crossing first, to find the easiest line. And then it was all “look up, stand up, open up” and I was over! I know this is peanuts for some of the old hands, but it was my great victory for the day.

Heading into Huis River

Heading into Huis River

Made it!

Made it!

The hectic switch-back corners on the pass into Die Hel were not too difficult for me, going at my slow pace.

 Heading down the pass

Heading down the pass

One of the many hairpin bends

One of the many hairpin bends

We drove slowly and respectfully over the Gamka River low-water bridge, keeping well away from the slimy middelmannetjie. Last time we were here we saw two bikes go down on the slippery stuff.

Gamka River crossing

Gamka River crossing

Home away from home
We stayed at Die Stalletjie, which is quite far into Die Hel. We were given the code to open a locked gate in order to get there. Die Stalletjie consisted of a combined kitchen, bedroom and living room, and a separate bathroom. It had its own braai, with all the required implements (other than Blitz), and a little pool (obviously for summer). A local, Donald, came to welcome us and make sure everything was ok. He admired our bikes. He also told us a story of a girl biker who had driven off the road and broke her leg. Yikes! Lance and I ended the day with a lovely braai under the stars and full moon. The place and setting was beautiful.

Just arrived

Just arrived

Lance at Die Stalletjie

Lance at Die Stalletjie

A plunge pool for the brave

A plunge pool for the brave

Lance and I

Lance and I

Lance starting the fire

Lance starting the fire

Sunset at Die Stalletjie

Sunset at Die Stalletjie

Lovely atmosphere

Lovely atmosphere

Brrr x2
The temperatures hit -1°C the next morning. We had a long way to go back, so we headed out at 08:30.

I see you

I see you

Leaving Die Hel

Leaving Die Hel

I found the Die Hel switchbacks a bit more difficult going up than going down, but I managed. We stopped at the top of the pass to enjoy the view before heading on again.

Stop at the top of the pass

Stop at the top of the pass

The road calls

The road calls

My first off
Not far from the top of the pass, disaster struck. I took one corner too fast (for me) - later analysis of my Garmin track showed I was only doing 37km/h. I noticed some loose gravel and fixated on that, instead of looking through the corner. When I saw I wasn’t going to make the turn I hit the back brake first, but I was fast running out of road. At this point I hit the front brake. Front brake plus turned front wheel = instant hit the ground. The bike and I skidded together and ended up on the very edge of the road. I would have been fine if not for the fact that my bike had landed on my right foot/leg and had skidded on top of it for a bit.

Too sore to get up

Too sore to get up

I don’t think I had any memory megabytes left to think of anything other than pain, but yet I managed to stomach-slither a bit closer to my bike to switch it off using the key. The kill-switch had popped out – another of my bike’s quirks. At that point, Lance arrived. I think he struggled to figure out what had happened or even which of my feet were hurt. All I could say was “It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.” In retrospect I’m amazed I didn’t swear. I think my brain reverted back to basic manageable English.

Lance checks out my track while I recover my senses

Lance checks out my track while I recover my senses

Lance dragged my bike away from the edge of the road and then lifted it for me. All the while I was just lying there. I had to wait for my traumatised foot-nerves to stop screaming at me before I attempted to move. Lance asked whether he should take my boot off. I said no. If I took it off and my foot swelled up, I wouldn’t be able to get the boot back on. I knew getting someone to rescue us would probably cost us an arm and my other foot. The only thing to do was to try to get out on our own. Meanwhile, I didn't want to see what was going on inside my boot.

The diagnosis
When I finally got up, I guessed my foot was either broken or very badly sprained. I couldn’t put weight on it. Further bad news: the Barkbuster, which had not been in its optimal position thanks to the previous side-stand incident, had caused the front brake lever to snap clean off when the bike hit the ground. A front right indicator was missing and my right mirror was a bit loose, but the missing brake lever was the biggest concern. But what else could we do? If we called for help, it would be expensive and we would probably only get back home the next day. I decided to get back onto my bike. It was an easy decision, but one of the most difficult to execute.

Long way home
I only had a back brake now, which is unfortunately operated by the right foot. I am forever grateful for my W2 boots. They probably saved my foot from being completely pulverised. They also kept my foot relatively immobile. I could lift my right foot up and, flat-foot style, bring it down carefully on the back brake when necessary. It hurt like hell every time, so I used my gears to slow the bike whenever possible. So there I went: a bike with half braking power and me with half foot power!

Lance had to take both bikes over each of the longer river crossings and carry me across. Whenever we stopped, I would place the bike in gear and put my left foot to the ground. I could not put serious weigh on my right foot to kick the side-stand out, so Lance had to pull the side-stand out for me before every dismount. At Huisrivier he managed to drop my bike in the river. I don’t think he’s ever dropped his bike during a water crossing, but he’s not used to my bike. I think adrenaline kicked in, as he managed to right it pretty sharply. When started, I could hear there was a small bit of water in the one exhaust, but it burnt off soon enough. Thank goodness my bike didn’t get a proper drowning.

On the Swartberg Pass on the way to Prince Albert, I stuck the bike in first gear for all the steep sections. I was very nervous of the corners. I did not want to drop the bike on my other foot. Then we would be screwed. Lance was hanging back somewhere, removing water from his shoes and changing into a dry pair of socks. I met up with him again at the bottom of the pass. I passed two cyclists at the top of Swartberg Pass. They caught up with me quite soon. One sat behind me for a bit, probably hoping to catch a slipstream. I think he realised I wasn’t going anywhere fast, so he passed me. I only saw them again at the bottom of the pass, where they had stopped before going back the way they came! We saw two other bikers along the way as well.

Spotted some other bikers down Swartberg Pass

Spotted some other bikers down Swartberg Pass

The best sighting ever
On my way down Swartberg Pass I saw something that made my entire day worth-while: two half-grown caracal kittens crossing the road at a leisurely pace. I slowed down to a stop to watch them. After they crossed, I saw a face pop up at the side of the road. It was probably “mom” checking out that her kids crossed safely. What a magical moment! No-one else was around. I guess the caracals didn’t high-tail it across the road, because I was going so slowly. I was a curiosity to them; not a threat. Unfortunately I wasn't the one with the GoPro. Only memory pictures available.

On the stretch of tar to Prince Albert I had to slow down yet again, using the back brake (pain, pain, pain), because two yellow mongooses were having a tea-party in the middle of the road. They took a while to make up their minds to run; at which point one went left and the other went right. They looked like little foxes, with their white tail-tips.

N1
The stretch of N1 was not enjoyable. The previous day I had checked out the scenery. Today I was watching break-lights. The day was warmer than yesterday, which meant that my bike was up to its old tricks, with the overheating light coming on. I had to slow down three times to 80km/h to let the bike cool down, before picking up the pace again. The temperature dropped as the day wore on, which meant that this problem disappeared. We made good time home; stopping for fuel-ups and a late lunch. Lance had to help me hop to the bike. Hopping is a very strenuous workout – like skipping with one leg! I had to stop a couple of times, as my left leg muscles were burning. One guy came up to help, and almost picked me up off the ground to get me across the last steps to my bike. It turns out he was a biker (though he was in his car that day).

Final prognosis
After a nice soothing hot bath and hot chocolate, Lance drove me to the hospital. I was seen to pretty quickly due to my level of pain. The doctors suspected a break, because there was a funny bump on the top of my foot, but they couldn’t find one. They suggested that I consider having a second X-ray taken when the swelling has gone down. My ankle is ok, but the bottom and top of my foot is not. Meanwhile I am now on crutches and have a moonboot.

Follow-up
It has been about 6 days now and I still cannot put weight on my foot. I am immensely frustrated at how long it takes to do just the little things. Having perfectly working limbs is such a privilege. There are technicolour bruises all the way down my right leg and on my foot.

Technicolour leg

Technicolour leg

Technicolour foot

Technicolour foot

The final question
Will I get back on my bike? Definitely!

Tony's picture
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Joined: 2008/08/24

Great pictures.

Well done and respect for riding all the way home.

A bend in the road is not the end of the road... unless you fail to make the turn. ~Author Unknown

Johan du Preez's picture
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Joined: 2007/06/20

I take my hat ( and helmet...) off for you. Well done!

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Joined: 2008/01/28

Great pictures and a great report.

Hope that you are able to get back on your bike soon.

Marais Kotze's picture
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Joined: 2013/08/13

Great RR.  Hope you get well soon

Andyman's picture
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Joined: 2007/06/22

Excellent trip report and a wonderful adeventure!!!

 

Thank you for sharing.

Well done Lance on the GoPro stills taken from footage.

Shame you could only go for one night.

The kloof really deserves more than one night and it should never be rushed.

Very glad to see you on the training  on Sat 27th.

Resourceful of you to use the gearing to assist speed control and ride within the safe boundaries.

 

Ask on the forum for a full Dakar screen, you should find one. I recently gave Annie's old Dakar screen to someone who was looking for one.

And I hope you get the temp issue sorted, that bike is bullet proof, this should not be happening.

 Good luck on the leg recovery.

Andyman
Anyone can ride a bike fast....   But can you ride your bike real slow???

Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

Thanks all for the well-wishes.

To Andy: I definitely want to go back to Die Hel. The next time we can add another day. I couldn't take leave this time around, as everything's a bit hectic at work until the end of August.

I'll be at the training, but I'll have to take a nice camp-chair along and watch and learn. I hope it doesn't rain too much...

At the moment I'm happy with the wind in my face, but I guess I haven't driven far in a hectic SE.

Andrew from Kingtek mentioned that he'd let me know when he has a bike that will stand around at his workshop for a bit. Then we can swap thermostats and see whether that's the issue. Unless someone on the forums has a spare one lying around for loan?

But that will be a worry for the future. My poor bike still needs to go to bike hospital, but we can only take it there over a weekend (I'm not having Lance drive it through traffic with no front brake) and when I'm better and am able to give Lance a lift from Kingtek back home (I still can't drive).

Kevin van Blerk's picture
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Joined: 2008/02/10

Great trip report Zanie, I enjoyed reading it *thumbs up* respect on your deursettingsvermoe! Die Hel is one of my favourites - so secluded. Donald is a character - he can keep you occupied with stories of his inventions for ages. Get  that overheating issue sorted, I agree with Andy it should not be doing that, you don't want to get stuck on the road with a seized engine. 

/\/¯¯¯¯¯\/\ R1200GS-WP

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Joined: 2008/01/28

Zanie, I have a trailer that you can use if it would make things easier to get the bike to hospital.

Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

Thanks for the offer Geoff. I think Lance and I will wait until I'm better, at which point we can take the bike in ourselves. It will be less hassle. Anyway, if my bike is fixed and I am not it will just add to my frustration! The bike will be sitting there, saying "ride me, ride me..."

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Joined: 2009/12/09

Hi Zanie pitty about the down. But hell, the Hell is just great by bike and you have no option - it must be done again! In fact it actually should be an annual thing. I have a Dakar screen of sorts. Give me a PM if you want to take it further.

Regards

Jakobus 

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Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

It has now been just over a month since my accident. Unfortunately I am still on crutches, as follow-up X-rays did show a fracture in one of my foot-bones (medial cuneiform), which had not been picked up previously. At least my ankle is ok, so a moon-boot is sufficient.

I was advised by a specialist to keep the weight off my foot for 6 weeks and to gradually increase weight on it over a further 4 weeks. 10 weeks off my bike! It is immensely frustrating; especially with the beautiful weather we had last weekend and forecast for this weekend. I am now almost at the end of week 5.

My foot after a month

My foot after a month

Still swollen

Still swollen

In the above picture, the dark spot on top of my right foot shows where my foot is fractured.

I will never, ever take my mobility for granted again. I am reliant on others for the big things, e.g. getting to work and back (fortunately my sister works in the same business park), and the small things, e.g. having coffee/food in a place more interesting than the kitchen means that someone has to carry it there for you. When you’re on crutches, you don’t have free hands.

Cooking with crutches

Cooking with crutches

I have learnt one lesson that I feel should be passed on to other newbies: if you have a fall, let go of the bike and let it skid away from you. If I had done this, my bike may have picked up more damage by going off the road, but I would have probably only had some bruises instead of a squished foot. Getting entangled with something that, in my case, weighs more than 3 times what I do, is not a good idea. Humans heal much slower than bikes. Also, I am sure my medical bills will be higher than the cost to fix my bike.

I had an interesting talk with my boss (who surfs) today. He asked whether I am still dedicated to biking. I said sure. Strangely enough, if I was in this situation due to an impact from a car, I may not be so certain. Likewise, he said he would still surf if he broke his foot in a random surf-accident, but may reconsider if he survived being nibbled by a shark. It seems we get put off things by outside influences that are almost wholly out of our control, while we can somehow live with it if it is even remotely our own fault. I must say, the idea of being mowed down by some random crazy cager is a sobering thought.

Andyman's picture
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Joined: 2007/06/22

Nicely put Zanie.

biking 101 ado not tether yourself to the bike, stay clear in a fall.

and like you did At the time, stay down and let time have a chance.

your body needs to talk to you slowly so you can assess all the bits.

and get back into the saddle quickly.

you grow from this and you learned through this will become a better rider. 

Time will restore confidence,a as will saddle time.

Well done.

Andyman
Anyone can ride a bike fast....   But can you ride your bike real slow???

Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

I reached a great milestone today: I finally put a bit of weight on my foot! I’m still on crutches and the foot is still swollen and a bit blue in places, but it took the weight without complaints. It actually looked a nice, healthy “I-have-been-used” colour by the end of the day, instead of looking an unhealthy semi-purple “what-is-this-thing-called-circulation” colour.

Six weeks down; potentially four more to go. Then I’m getting back on the bike. I can’t wait! The weather here has been absolutely spectacular over the past 3 weekends and I would get green with jealousy whenever I spot a biker going on a breakfast drive. I need to phone a friend if I want to go on a drive (I still can’t drive), and then it’s in a metal box. Sigh.

Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

Today is exactly 13 weeks since my accident. Tomorrow I will hit the 3-month mark, since I was sitting in Gamkaskloof after my first serious off.

Feeling the pain

Feeling the pain

Ouch

Ouch

Just let me lie here for a bit...

Just let me lie here for a bit...

If anyone wants to know how long just a small fracture of the foot (of the medial/1st cuneiform) takes to heal, here’s my timeline:

  • Week 1-6: in moon-boot, no weight on foot, two crutches required
  • Week 7-9: in moon-boot, gradually increasing weight on foot, two crutches required
  • Week 10-11: moon-boot off, in my hiking boots (lots of support for my foot), some weight on foot, two crutches required
  • Week 11-12: switching between using one crutch or two crutches, depending on how the foot feels
  • Week 12-13: switching between using one crutch or no crutches, depending on how the foot feels

I need both crutches if I’m barefoot, but I can now walk without them (slowly) if I am wearing supportive shoes, e.g. hiking or biker boots. You know what this means….

When Andrew from Kingtek phoned me to tell me my bike was ready for collection, I felt like bursting into tears. I had my first drive on the bike in almost 3 months when I fetched it on Friday (2 days ago).

I was asked whether I wanted to touch-up the scratches on the front mudguard. I’m keeping them, as reminder battle-scars of an interesting story.

Bike scratches

Bike scratches

I am very glad that I had the crash bars installed the week before my trip to Die Hel. They saved my fairing.

Crash bar damage

Crash bar damage

Lance and I went for a spin around Cape Point yesterday, stopping in the reserve itself for lunch. Freedom has never felt this good.

Cape Point

Cape Point

I have learnt 3 lessons from this whole experience:

  1. Let go of the bike if things are going south, even if it means the bike may pick up more damage. Getting entangled with 200kg of bike is not a good idea. You take longer to fix than the bike and chances are you are more expensive. Bike: R 2,590. Me: R 6,200 and counting (now the physio starts).
  2. The W2 boots probably prevented me from getting ligament/tendon damage through foot-twisting, but they are not sturdy enough to save your bones. They are so comfy, but I think I will look into sturdier boots. I spent 3 months of my first year of biking on crutches – not worth it.
  3. ATGATT! My knee was very bruised and sensitive after the fall. I suspect I may have cracked a kneecap if I hadn’t been wearing kneepads. My helmet also picked up some scratches. If my bike hadn’t landed on my foot, I would have been fine. Safety gear is a great investment.

Such a little crack, so much hassle…

X-ray 1

X-ray 1

I’ve circled in yellow where the muscle/ligaments managed to pull off a small piece of bone due to the force exerted on said bone.

X-ray 2

X-ray 2

ireddie's picture
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Joined: 2014/10/03

Just a question - im doing Sutherland to ladismith in one day which includes die hel. is this doable or am i taking on to much for one day?

 

 

Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

It's definitely too much. Check the estimated time given on Google Maps for that general route, taking the fastest roads but including Swartberg Pass and Die Hel (but no other cool gravel roads): 8.5 hrs.

This is actually an underestimate, considering Google Maps believes you can do Die Hel (one-way) in 1h 12 min - only possible if you are Superman or Geoff Russell. The one-way time for mere mortals is about 2-2.5 hours. It would also be a terrible waste to speed like a bat out of hell through this area. I'd suggest staying over in Die Hel.

ireddie's picture
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Joined: 2014/10/03

Thanks Zanie. Though as much. when i initially planned the route i was under the impression die hall will be 2hrs both ways but i misunderstood that obviously. angel

ill give ity a skip for this round and just pass it when i do the swartberg pass.

Gives me a reason to go back at a later stage

Craig Cauvin's picture
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Joined: 2012/01/11

We rode in and out of die Hell (from Willowmore and ending in Stilbaai) in a day two years ago - and it was from 7 in the morning until 10 at night on the bikes - doable but a mad rush where you never actually have the time to enjoy and appreciate anything.........

I'd suggest doing only die Hell in and out in a day - giving you ample time to see the sights and enjoy the 'moments' - after all isn't that why we ride..........

Craig C

Zanie's picture
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Joined: 2013/11/21

It has been almost two years since this ride... About high time to go back there! Lance and I will be heading to The Hell with some friends next weekend.

I want to find that one bend in the road, just after the top of the switch-backs on your way out of The Hell, where our last ride started unravelling. It will probably seem silly now.

I still need to do physio exercises to keep the strength of the foot up to par. Wearing heels or any type of sandal with a heal is still not fun at all. Good thing I usually live in slops and tekkies, but I do need to look smart for work meetings. Sigh.

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Joined: 2007/06/25

Well Zanie your experienced bum in the saddle time will now carry you through like a piece of cake. Maintain your positive outlook and you'll be O K. At least if you are unfortunate enough to have a puncture you can fix it on your onesome.angel 

Think before you ink.

Trust is the most valuable asset.

I have the rest of my life to get old.

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