Men's Journal | March 2006
The east coast of South Africa, particularly the stretch between Coffee Bay and Hole in the Wall, is one of the wildest landscapes on the planet. Vast cliffs plunge hundreds of feet as the uninterrupted rollers of the Indian Ocean break over treacherous reefs and limestone terraces that have been the bane of five centuries of sailors. Rock formations like modernist scuplture stand in the waves, carved out by millennia of wind and water. Humpback whales breach in the distance, and closer in dolphins jump from the backsides of waves. There is scarcely a human development in sight, except for the few round thatched huts of the Xhosa fishermen who dive for prawns in the tide pools and tend herds of goats on the hillsides. I am standing on a precipitous bluff, dotted with boulders, surveying the scene.
Hundreds of feet below, a lone dirtbiker on an orange, mud--covered KTM 250 kicks his bike to life, the whining two--stroke engine drowned out by the thundering surf. He circles, spraying mud, and attacks the steepest part of the hill straight on. The slope rises at nearly 50 degrees, damp grass, mud and boulders threaten to dump the bike over backwards. The rider leans forward over the handlebars to keep the front wheel on the ground, standing on the foot pegs at a preposterous forward angle, until a rock in the grass pops the front tire up, and bike and rider tumble ass--over--teakettle (or ass--over--two--stroke), down the hill. He cartwheels, lands on his feet and tries to run, cartwheels again and tumbles a hundred feet down the hill, before leaping up and raising his arms in mock victory. A group of Xhosa boys who have gathered to watch point and laugh, commenting on the scene rapidly in their click--inflected language.
Alfie Cox, the 43--year--old Paris--Dakar Rally champion and dirtbiking guru, chuckles as much for what's happening and who it is, Tao Berman: one of the world's premiere whitewater kayakers and an interdisciplinary extreme athlete who, to put it mildly, does not know how to take no for an answer. "The hill's fucked him now. He's a throttle jockey. He's trying to climb it like a bull in a china shop. Have to do something to wear him down," says Alfie.
For a working stiff whose 9 to 5 involves plunging off multi--story cataracts in a kayak, this is vacation. Tao Berman is not a guy who knows how to unwind. At 26--years--old Tao has distinguished himself as a premiere extreme kayaker, completing fifty first descents, winning the World Freestyle Championship and shattering many world records, most notably a 98--foot plunge over a waterfall in Alberta, Canada in 1999, the highest successful drop ever made in a kayak. 5'5" of wound up energy, with a bleach--blond coif and a build like the Tasmanian Devil, Tao's relentlessness, his almost pathological absence of timidity both as an athlete and as a brand--building, self--promoting businessman, has earned him a controversial name in the kayaking community. He's an avid dirtbiker, and tackles trails with the same gonzo intensity as class 5 rapids. In South Africa, Tao is going out of his element, traveling halfway around the world on his dream vacation to study at the feet of a master in one of the most rugged dirtbiking landscapes on earth. If you wanted someone to teach you how to huck Niagara, you'd put in behind Berman, and if you wanted to get schooled by one of the world's most accomplished enduro racers, you'd go for a ride with Alfie Cox. Cox is a Paris--Dakar Rally legend from near Durban, South Africa, who has run the fabled race on motorcycles for the last decade, finishing on the winners' podium five times. Alfie is going to push Tao to his limit against the landscape of the Wild Coast of the Transkei, an undeveloped coastal region that was not incorporated into South Africa until 1994 om a month--long circuit of the Himalayas to a job as a motorcycle courier in New York City, but my dirtbiking experience (a wildly different beast, as I will discover), consists of a couple hours tooling around a farm field on a 50 cc Kawasaki when I was in junior high. I have been supplied apparently for comic relief.
I had begun to suspect, on the shuttle train through Atlanta's vast Hartsfield airport, before we even had a chance to leave America, what traveling with Tao was going to entail. As we glided between terminals, Tao grabbed on to the overhead handrail. Harried business travelers stood back, irritated and glaring. Tao paid them no mind, as he began doing rapid military--style pull--ups and counting aloud. "I love doing pull--ups," he told me, not even short of breath, "It's like everything in life. If you don't get hurt, you're not pushing yourself hard enough." I'm not a diagnostician, but if there were a clinical term for a sort of compulsive hyperactivity disorder that manifested itself thusly, Berman's Syndrome would be a catchy name for it. One could imagine a telethon for Tao's Kids.
Our group meets up with Alfie after our twin--prop plane lands at the tiny regional airport in Umtata. He's a compact man with a burst of red hair and a neatly clipped moustache, and talks fast in a South African brogue as he tosses our gear into his cargo van. We pile into the back, with a cooler of ice--cold Windhoek lagers awaiting us. A trailer on the back is loaded with KTM dirtbikes against lions. "You'd get eaten while you were trying to start the bike," says Alfie. "Now get a good night's sleep boys, cause you're going to go all out tomorrow."
The Hollywood trope of the kung fu master and his acolyte usually involves the student being shaken awake in the predawn blackness. Tao's as wound up as the Energizer Rabbit ces of Xhosa farmers, through vine--hung patches of jungle and up along the bluffs above the ocean, we ride in single file. The KTMs dig in and climb extraordinarily steep pitches, scrambling over scree, crumbling lava rock, bouncing through boulder--choked creeks. At difficult points, Alfie stops and coaches us through, yelling "use more throttle!" and "let the bike do the work!" as we careen off boulders and get tossed over backwards on steep hills. Josh stops dead on a boulder and pogos off into the thorn bushes. Tyko gets thrown off his bike backwards and snaps the fender clean off. He'll wear a Jackson Pollock painting of mud on his back for the remainder of the trip. At one point yours truly, during a particularly rugged creek crossing, dumps the bike over midway and drowns the engine. Alfie, in a classic Dakar improvisation, pulls off the air filter, which is filled with muddy river water, strips his T--shirt off and stuffs it inside to sop up the water, wrings it out and puts it back on. The bike starts up like a charm. The bulletproof power of the dirtbikes is amazing, but Tao is the only one of the group who can fully keep pace with Alfie.
While we catch our breath, Tao blows donuts below the tide line, leaving his helmet behind. A group of South African bikers passing the other way along the coast stop to watch Tao's antics, with one commenting "he won't be so pretty with a foot peg through his brain." One of the qualities that has made Tao so successful in the perilous world of extreme kayaking is an utter lack of fear. No matter how much planning is involved, being able to paddle off a hundred--foot waterfall requires a lack of self--preservation that, as Darwin might say, has not been selected for. Alfie, on the other hand, has developed a bearing that can only be gained by the punishing experiencesrovides. Tao and Alfie have a lot in common: they are both self--made successes from poor families. Alfie has a character in a Dakar Rally video game, while Tao has an action figure of himself coming out. Alfie seems to recognize something of his younger self in Tao. They are both sponsored by Red Bull, the 800 pound corporate gorilla of the extreme sports world. Neither is tall, but are rather built like pit bulls, with Alfie mounting his high--suspended 500--pound Dakar bike like it's a race horse, only able to touch one foot to the ground at a time.
Alfie, having had a much longer and no less dangerous career, possesses a quality of wisdom, in his riding and the way he carries himself, that can only be gained through a measure of suffering and a great deal of experience. In light of that, Tao's credo is that he never doubts himself, never feels a frisson as he edges his way toward a big drop, an oft--repeated canard that "fear equals, doubt, and I never doubt myself." Alfie, hardcore as he as a racer, strategizes every move he makes. It is something he picked up from the Dakar, when a rider must make decisions alone not only about the next treacherous bend but the next exhausting week of all--out riding. There's nothing safe about enduro, but there's no place for recklessness. "If you're a loose cannon, the Dakar will destroy you," says Alfie. While Tao is a phenomenally gifted athlete, his leadership style is more given to motivational--speaker catch phrases plucked from an airport bestseller. Tao plays sheep dog with stragglers, partially, it seems, for the satisfaction of rooster tailing gravel in our chests as he races back to the front. Alfie, on the other hand, is constantly joking, winking and laughing as he picks us up out of ditches or out from under our bikes. It's a natural leadership style that makes it easy to follow him to the edge of the world.
There's a Zen way of dirtbiking, a counterintuitive sense of balance and aggressiveness. It's about reading the landscape, and letting the bike do the work for you. If you have a stranglehold on the throttle, the bike will toss you on the first bump. Pick a line up the hill, stay forward and keep the throttle even, don't breakneck it. Keep your weight above the front tire (even on downhills). Go slowly in mud, so the treads don't get clogged and spin out, and never clench the brakes in panic. Alfie puts us through Jedi training, and Josh and Tyko take to calling him Alfie--wan Kenobi. The Transkei coast offers up no shortage of object lessons to test out skills against, streams filled with loose boulders, hanging vines, mud slicked tracks up sheer hillsides or across scree fields. Vines dangle at face level, and boulders roll over in midstream. Picking up a 400-- pound bike break on a cliff edge, watching while a pod of humpback whales spray and breach in the surf far below us.
Making our way by dark back to our lodge at Hole in the Wall, we get cleaned up and limp for a steak dinner at the only restaurant in town, comparing our various contusions, burns, gouges and bone bruises en route. "I thought the Americans were sending me men!" shouts Alfie, laughing. Windhoeks and Bell's scotch are the remedy for our ills, except for Tao who refuses to drink anything but Jaegermeister on the rocks. Apparently not a promotional tie--in, he just likes the stuff. Alfie regales us with stories about the Dakar, a race he calls "the most soul--destroying thing you could ever do."
Held over three weeks in brutal trans--Saharan stages, with little sleep, breakdowns, crashes, and waist--deep sand. The Dakar is widely considered the most challenging endurance motor race in the world. "Grown men cry. The course is scientifically designed to see how far it can push people," says Alfie. The Dakar is the only race where a rider is truly tested, Alfie thinks: NASCAR is ridiculous. Impossibly punishing, fewer than 20 percent of vehicles finish in a given year, and Alfie's only failure to finish came when he broke his shoulder in the race during a bad wreck. One of Alfie's closest friends Fabrizio Meone, a two--time winner, wrecked in Mauritania in the 2005 race. "His jugular vein was cut by the broken windscreen," says Alfie, who arrived four minutes after the wreck. They waited for a helicopter, but Meone died before it arrived. He was buried before the race even ended. Despite the suffering it inflicts, Alfie likens the Dakar to a drug: "You leave Dakar swearing you'll never do it again, and a week later you're waiting for next year's race." This year, Alfie is running it in a BMW X3, on four wheels for the first time.
Despiteertzberg, a three--hour mountain climb in the snow that fewer than 20 bikes in a thousand finish. Alfie makes him a bet on his ability to finish the race: "You'd like a challenge, and I'd like to take your $100," says Alfie.
The next morning we go out again at sunrise, and the next and the next, following steep tracks along the contours of the coast, trying extremely technical climbs over wet rocks above the tide line, dragging the bikes under fallen trees, racing in a line through villages as flocks of kids reach out for high fives. Alfie makes the hard parts look incredibly easy, blistering up impossibly steep hills that one by one flick us off like mosquitoes. Alfie has a surgical precision with the throttle, giving the bike exactly what it needs to make it up any hill. He wheelies along cliff--edge tracks with nothing but hundreds of feet of air down below, and threads up forested scree fields that would be impossible even to walk up. He doesn't fall once.
At one point I get split off from the group, and find myself negotiating a narrow trail through a jungle above a creek. I hit a rock in the path, and the front tire pops right over the bank and I tumble ten feet down through bushes into the mud. Nobody knows where I am, and I suddenly have a school kid's dread of Alfie catching me stuck down a ravine with his bike. I'd have to buy several rounds just to get everyone to shut up about it. I try to dig my way out, pushing alongside the bike and throttling it through the loose dirt by the creek. It's late afternoon, and I'm miles away from the lodge, the point we'd agreed to meet if we were split up. It's hot, sweaty, and utterly exhausting, and there seems to be no way I can get the bike back up over the embankment on my own. Finally I flag down a group of local farmers, who find the whole matter extremely funny. They've come with a rope and tie it around my front fork, hauling it up above the bank as I grunt behind, covered in mud. It is a true cross--cultural encounter, not to be found in the tourist brochures: I am mocked in the click--language of the Xhosa. Near dark, when I make it back to lodge at Hole in the Wall covered in mud and soaked in sweat, Alfie looks at me and laughs, "Where's the mad professor got off to now?" It's a small measure of the travails extreme athletes face every day. While I understand the enigmatic allure of danger, I'll stick with the risks of carpal tunnel syndrome for a career.
On our last day at the Transkei coast Alfie takes us to the hardest hill we have yet to encounter. He calls it the Hill of Death. It is a monster, slick and steep as hell, high above the surf. It requires a fine balance of enough speed to take a hill while maintaining control to clear the boulders, washouts and ditches that thread its face. One by one it picks us off, and we circle around the easy way to wind up to the top, leaving Tao alone at the bottom. Tao attacks it, and again the hill tosses him off. "He just won't quit, will he?" said Alfie, who had easily crested it. It seems to be Tao's defining characteristic, a kind of cheerful relentlessness, which he applies to everything in his life. "I was just like that when I was 25. Wide open all day," says Alfie. Whether it is a pace Tao can sustain in his life remains to be seen.
Giving it one final push, and leaning so far forward as he climbs that his waist is over the handlebars, Tao guns it, bucking through the rocks like a mule, until he bursts up to the top with a two--stroke scream and a cloud of exhaust smoke. He pulls off his mud--covered helmet. "Gosh, that was fun!" he shouts, and looks around eagerly for what's next. The phrase adrenaline junkie has perhaps been over--used in the marketing of sports drinks and sneakers, but there's no other diagnosis. For people like Tao and Alfie, two extremists at different points on their career paths, life is always about the next challenge. The Transkei coast is just one place to throw yourself against in a life of pushing limits. Alfie, already getting ready for his Dakar bid in January, chuckles at Tao's unflappable gameness. "That's the spirit!"