Montagu, Western Cape - They came from all over Southern Africa and beyond, some from as far afield as Germany, the Netherlands and Poland, brought together by a shared love of big, bundu-bashing, beetle-crushing, mud-plugging off-road BMWs, riders for whom the road less travelled is just the starting point, keen to challenge themselves and learn new skills.
No fewer than 750 BMW GS adventure-bike riders - almost 100 of them women - took part in the 2018 GS Trophy, based at Montagu in the south-western Cape from Thursday 10 May to Saturday 12 May, but with riding routes that stretched to Cape Agulhas and deep into the Karoo.
Most of them were on R1200 GS boxer twins, with a sprinkling of older R1150 GSs, but each year a growing number pitch on F-series 798cc parallel twins, a few on F650 GS singles and, this year, a couple of hardy souls on R NineT Scramblers.
The routes, laid out by the experienced riders of the BMW Club of South Africa, were classified as ‘Green’ (good gravel roads), ‘Orange’ (jeep tracks) and ‘Red’ (hiking trails too rough for 4x4 vehicles). There were even all-tar routes, for those few who preferred a less brutal challenge.
And each route was a loop, bringing the riders back to the tent camp at the Montagu Caravan Park for a catered dinner, and the chance to cheer on your Regional Team.
Because, for an elite few, this was also a competition, and the prize was a chance to qualify for one of the world’s great amateur motorcycling adventures -the biennial International GS Trophy, two weeks of teamwork over the toughest, most remote terrain the organisers can find. To give you some idea, the 2018 GS Trophy, for which the teams have already been selected, will take place in Mongolia.
Even before the GS Trophy weekend, riders who were convinced they had the right stuff took part in regional selections, scoring points for both speed and accuracy through really difficult off-road courses.
The top three riders from each region - plus an extra three from the Western Cape - became the Regional teams for the GS Trophy, while the top six ladies from around the country were seeded into two ladies teams.
And each afternoon, after the non-competing riders had finished their chosen routes (some of them more than 400km of rough riding) they gathered at the skills test arena to cheer on their heroes, as they tackled a succession of obstacles, more difficult each day, running against the clock and being penalised for every time they put a foot down on the ground.
And always, the three riders of each team competed together - the clock would not stop until all three had got through all the obstacles. If one member got stuck, whoever was already parked in the finishing ‘box’ was encouraged to run back and help.
Because the International GS Trophy is so tough, nobody can get through it alone – and that’s intentional. Riders have to work as a team, assisting each other and, more often than not, riders from rival teams, to complete each day’s route and its associated tasks.
At the opening of the South African GS Trophy in Montagu, the riders were told that the team with the highest score would skip the next round of regional selections and go straight to the national selections in 2019, where the top team (and possibly one or more of the ladies) would qualify to represent South Africa at the 2020 International GS Trophy.
Note that the venue for the 2020 GS Trophy hasn’t been announced yet - these guys don’t know where they’ll be going but they’re prepared to ride through hell to get there!
The skills tests on the final day - all run on soft sand that got progressively more churned up - included synchronised three-dimensional figure eights, a see-saw, staying upright with one wheel on each side of a log, and a section of 180-degree corners that were way to tight for even the smaller machines.
You either had to make a three-point turn in soft sand - which meant getting off the bike and wasting a lot of time - or dump the clutch and spin the bike round, which led to some spectacular tumbles. These tests were so difficult, the spectators were cheering all the teams equally.
The final contest was one-on-one: one rider at each of two barrels about 20 metres apart, starting to chase each other at the same time – and the first rider to catch up to his opponent was the winner.
The winners were announced at the final dinner on Saturday night: the top team was the Free State trio of Roelof Schutte, Dalton de Bruin and Carl Cronje, while the top ladies' team was Antoinette Janse van Rensburg, Charine van Niekerk and Lezanne Truter. Respect.