Motorbike training Day 1 (Tuesday):
We turn up at Riders for Health, an international company who VSO use to give our training and ongoing maintenance. They present us with a 5 day schedule complete with time-scales and objectives. The schedule for day1 includes; starting and stopping, hill starts, riding standing up etc.
So they begin by telling us about PLANS (on the schedule for day 2) in great detail. P-petrol, L-lubrication, A-adjustment, N-nuts and bolts, S-stopping. Approximately 5 minutes was spent telling us that we should check how much petrol we have so we don't run out, over and over again. We had been pre-warned that we probably wouldn't get anywhere near the bikes on the first day, but after being presented with such a clear schedule I was getting quite twitchy. Pointing out the inaccuracies in the schedule however didn't seem to achieve much.
So we completed PLANS then he made us repeat it to him individually, whilst he chatted on his phone and didn't even listen! I was quite stressed by now. Liz then mentioned that we had to move upcountry on Monday and that we didn't have five days to finish the training, he looked slightly panicked at this and decided to see whether we could start the bike or not. We all managed that successfully, so he sent us home at lunchtime until the next day.
Motorbike training Day 2:
Very nervous. We turn up at the office, all our bikes are lined up outside. Feel slightly sick. We get on the bikes and ride to a nearby field (essentially a football field sized sand-pit). Our trainer, Salifou gets us to do a series of starts and stops individually. It's 9.30 and there are about 30 kids hanging around watching but more and more are flocking towards us constantly. I wouldn't have been surprised if someone was charging an entrance fee to watch the Toubabs make fools of themselves. After we'd all done our initial starts and stops in the sand, we moved out onto the roads where it was quieter. We then spent an hour driving along the roads in a loop around the sports stadium. Eventually we stopped for a rest under some trees, there was so much adrenaline coursing through my body I nearly cried! We then got back on and repeated that exercise in reverse with right-hand turns rather than left.
About half an hour later we returned to the sand field to learn how to deal with sand. Salifou demonstrated. The technique involved getting into 2nd gear then standing up on the bike and continuing to drive with only one hand and your left hand sticking out. We laughed. We then had to try, but were allowed to use both hands. In reality it's a bit like horse riding, stand-up, relax and grip with your knees, whilst keeping the throttle steady (and avoiding the really deep sand). Apparently having your weight further back makes it more stable in the sand.
Then, at last we could stop for lunch.
After lunch Liz and I were looking suitably unexcited about starting again. My hands were sunburned and everything was tired. So we headed off to the sand-pit again where we did some emergency stops one-by-one. I “started and stopped” to the end of the field then got completely and utterly stuck in deep sand. Every time I tried to set off I stalled. That killed five minutes. Eventually I rescued myself and returned to the tree. Next we tackled the standing up with one arm thing. I could do it really well – went round corners and everything with one arm!! Woo me!
Then it was home time. Everyone started back to the office with me last and Salifou behind me. I found myself trying to start in deep sand and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. Soft landing but at least no-one saw me! Salifou ran over and picked me up, and then the bike because there isn't a chance I could have lifted that up! Slight bruise but all is well. At least my inaugural falling off is done with!
Just got tomorrow to look forward to now. Brilliant. I'm not loving the motorbike training. And by the way you eagle-eyed readers, I didn't wear my gloves in the morning, hence the sunburn, but I did in the afternoon. I was however, the only person still wearing their jacket by lunchtime, due to the sun more than anything else. Fun and games. Sweaty. Nice.
Motorbike training Day 2:
So, today we head back out to the sand-pit to do emergeny stops using only the rear brake first and then both brakes. Mine were perfect and that is the first and last time I will be saying that about riding motorbikes. Salifou then made two rows of concrete slabs and demonstrated weaving in and out of them and then doing figures of eight in and out of them. Looks easy enough, in London I managed this even if it was a bit wobbly. In sand, not a chance. It is not possible to go slow enough to make the turns and stay balanced and not slip in the sand. Well clearly it is, but I could not do it. I improved, but will not be entered into any championships any time soon.
Next we were taken to a quite road for some deep sand training. Salifou demonstrated. He made it to the end of the road and back sliding all over the place with both feet down most of the time. I was so terrified I volunteered to go first, knowing if I had to watch everyone else first I'd never do it. We asked for practical advice and were told, "look where you want to go, open the throttle and have bravery in your heart". So I make it about 2 metres and stall. It's then incredibly hard to get going again without stalling in deep sand - or at least this is my weakness. I managed part way down the road, then just could not pull away again in first and was in such a state I had to give up. Salifou rescued my bike and couldn't start it either, he had to change my spark plug. I walked back to the others then promptly burst into tears. It was horrifically scary. Pete tried and did pretty well (he's been riding for over 30 years) but did say it was the hardest thing he's ever done and every single instinct is telling you to stop. So we stood and watched whilst everyone tried incredibly hard and didn't do brilliantly. I just about pulled myself together (I have used up a lifetimes worth of adrenaline) when Lucy went. She did really well then got to the end of the road and fell off. I instantly burst into tears again. Eventually it was my turn again. It took forever but I made it to the end of the road and back again, then cried again the second I got off the bike. Salifou didn't know what to do with me. He kept telling me there was nothing to be scared of, which clearly stopped me being terrified. So we went back to the office, Salifou looking traumatised, one injured girl and one hysterical one! He drove us all home in the car.I walked in the door, sat down and started crying all over again! We applied ice to Lucy's injured knee and it took 3 large shots of gin for me to calm down.
Motorbike training Day 3:
Had a dodgy stomach all night. Brilliant way to start the day, but at least Friday is a half day and we knew we were finishing at 12.30. Although we also now know we're not going up country until Tuesday, so more training on Saturday.
We all had to do PLANS on our bikes this morning. That took forever, with me nipping off to the loo where necessary. We then followed Salifou off to where we were going to do hill starts. On the way Liz managed to fall off. 3 down, 2 more to go. The Gambia is an incredibly flat country, so we pulled off road and came accross this incredibly rough uphill section which was way steeper than I could have imagined. I have referred to it as a cliff a few times today and been reprimanded for exaggerating, but that's what it felt like. Salifou demonstrated. A sneaky tear or two escaped. You go up the hill in 2nd just revving hard, than back down in 2nd, back brake only leaning back. You then repeat the process but stop half-way up and do a hill start. Pete went first and did really well. I was standing at the top of the hill warning people on foot, Liz was getting as worked up as me so walked to the bottom to see Pete. Pete then walked back up to be with me. Jim next, he made it up first time, if a little wobbly, then went back for the second run. He got midway up and stopped as requested but couldn't start again. Pete and Salifou were behind his bike pushing and he eventually got going again, but was leaning so far back on his bike (as he re-tells it later) that he could no longer reach the clutch to slow down, grabbed the throttle anc completely lost control. From our persepctive he veered off into a field of crops, the front wheel in the air swaying from side to side then completely totalled it into a crop hedge. Pete just grabbed hold of me as I burst into tears again. Jim was fine, just a little grazed and bruised. Salifou looked distarught, he then said to Jim "you just had the throttle open too much", I completely lost my temper at this point and responded with something along the lines of, "no s***, we know what we're supposed to do but it doesn't mean we can just do it...." and so on and so on. He put his head in his hands and then said the immortal words, "Emma, Suki, they all came here, they all did it..." that just set me off again. 4 down 1 to go. So we abandoned the hill starts as being too dangerous and just did the up and down hill. Lucy, Liz and I all were successfull even if I was completely shaking and burst into tears again as soon as I got off the bike.
Next we headed to the golf course where we got yelled at by the guards. We turned around and went to the beach, this involved a hairy ride down the very edge of some steep steps. That took us a least five minutes. When we got down there, the tide was in (thank-god) and there was no room to ride. Salifou took his helemt off and sat down in despair. We rested for about 15 mins, then headed back to the office on the roads. There were plenty of near death experiences but I'm a little blase about them all now.....
We were left with strict instructions that for the off-road trail tomorrow we have to be brave. We shall see. Just had lunch and two beers. Stomach seems better. Tomorrow is another near death experience.
Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.