Clarkson on: quad bikes
Last year I met a chap called Ralph who has Tarzan’s hair and is officially the best-looking man on Earth. And he said I should go to Botswana, where he runs a safari company, because I’d love it.
It turned out however, that Ralph’s idea of a safari is not what you’d imagine. Oh, he can do the elephant and giraffe stuff, but mostly he’s based at a place called Jack’s Camp, miles from anywhere on the edge of the Makgadikgadi, the biggest salt flats in the world.
You’ve probably seen photos of the salty wastelands in America or Australia but the Makgadikgadi is nothing like that. It’s vast on a scale that simply boggles the mind. I’m talking about an area the size of Portugal which contains absolutely nothing at all. Go to the centre, get in a Ferrari Enzo, put on a blindfold and set off in any direction that takes your fancy. And flat-out, at 200mph, it’d be over an hour before you even felt a ripple through the wheel.
There’s just one problem. You can’t actually drive an Enzo over these salt flats because they have all the structural rigidity of a crème brûlée. There’s a seemingly firm outer casing of ice-white salt, but it’s not that thick and underneath you have about a hundred and eleventy four billion dead sea creatures which, over five million years, have turned into slime.
Way back when, the rift valley was formed and created the largest inland sea in the world. And then the planet started to heat up – I have no idea how because the Range Rover hadn’t been invented at this point. Anyway, the water started to evaporate until one day, it was gone, leaving all the creatures dead and covered with a thin sprinkling of salt. That’s what you have today and the only way of getting across it is on a quad bike.
Now, the quad bike has had a fair degree of bad press in recent years. First of all, we had Rik Mayall damn nearly killing himself when his turned over and then, more recently, poor old Ozzy Osbourne breaking what’s left of his body in two when his pulled a wheelie, throwing him off the back.
If you want to kill your children, there’s no quicker way that I can see than buying them one of those 50cc jobbies you sometimes see at garden centres. My son went on one the other day and in less than two minutes, he and it were in the swimming pool.
And yet, there I was, on the edge of the Makgadikgadi, on a bitterly cold pre-dawn morning in August, with my wife, my three children and two guides – the ridiculously good-looking Ralph and an 18-foot Zulu called Super. No, I’m not joking. Super is his real name.
Super was going to be tail-end charlie for our 250-mile trek. But first, he had a health-and-safety lecture to deliver, Botswana style. Two weeks later I’m able to quote the whole thing verbatim. It went like this...
There were no helmets, no high-visibility jackets, no disclaimers to sign, no lectures on what to do if you were to be hit in the face by a giant meteorite and no reason that Super could see why our seven-year-old shouldn’t drive her bike the whole way if she wanted to. Which she did, very much.
"If you want to kill your kids, there’s no quicker way than buying them one of those 50cc jobbies you see at garden centres"
An hour into the journey we stopped at random and began to poke about in the salt. Pretty soon, we’d found several early-iron-age pots and a little while later, a human leg bone. My eldest daughter also found a couple of diamonds.
I turned out to be very bad at archaeology, mainly, I suspect, because my head is very far from the ground. At one point I dropped my iPod and it took me damn nearly half-an-hour to find it again.
Anyway, I was genuinely surprised to find so much history just lying around and asked Ralph why it hadn’t been hoovered up by tourists and thieves.
He was genuinely incredulous, pointing out that in the last 5,000 years, no more than a few dozen people have been onto the flats at all. He gave me odds of a billion-to-one that any human had ever stood where I was standing. Slightly weird feeling that.
We set off again and after another hour the view was incredible. Because there was nothing in it. Nothing. Can you imagine that? Utterly, absolutely flat white ground and an utterly absolutely flat blue sky. No clouds. No distant hills. Nothing. Except a bad smell.
This, it turned out, was coming from a dead aardvark which had been drawn onto the pans by the heat haze, which he’d mistaken for water. And then he’d fallen through the salt and got stuck. Which is pretty much what we did, next to his rotting corpse.
Wisely, Ralph had provided us with Yamaha Bear Trackers, a light, two-wheel-drive machine that, in theory, glides over the surface leaving almost no clue that it’s ever been there. Unfortunately, when you do break through, you must rely on the rear tyres alone to get you out. And they can’t.
So then you must get off and you sink up to your knees in pulverised frogs, and push. This is very tiring.
Soon, however, we reached firmer ground, climbed back on board, opened the taps and... aaaaaaaaargh.
Now, there was a spray coming off the front tyres directly onto my shins. It looked like water but was, in fact, a highly saline liquid, which is the opposite of acid. But, Christ, it burns.
“No problem,” said Super, “so long as you get it off within three days. After that, it’ll eat through the skin”. Great. Our safari was scheduled to take... three days.
Luckily, soon we were stuck again, and I found that a million rotting trout will cure alkaline burns.
By this stage it was nearing noon, and the temperature had rocketed to 35 degrees. Out there, in the big white, with no helmet, doing 30mph into the wind, my face was beginning to ripen badly. Super tossed me a ko koi which is a sheet of material, like a tablecloth, which, if you know what you’re doing can be fashioned into a hat-cum-face cover. I made a mess of this, and ended up with what looked like a tablecloth-cum-tablecloth draped over my head.
In the course of the afternoon, it blew off 7,000 times. Eventually, I decided I’d rather have a burned face. And then I got a puncture. I knew this because suddenly the bike veered to the left.
Sadly we had no jack. But we did have an 18-foot Zulu, which is the next best thing. And he was useful again when neither Ralph nor I could see far enough over the horizon to spot our overnight rest-halt; a granite island covered in baobab trees that pokes through the salt. Thankfully, Super could.
As we made it back to base, burned and knackered three days later, we realised it had actually been a genuine voyage of discovery. I loved it more than any journey I’ve ever made. You can drive something amazing and that’ll enliven your life. But if you drive somewhere amazing, that’s even better.
An Enzo across Belgium or a quad bike across Botswana? No contest. No contest at all...