By Dave Abrahams
Margate, KwaZulu-Natal - Even by biker standards, Africa Bike Week is wild.
Thousands of riders descend on a small coastal resort town on the Freedom Day weekend, park the streets wall-to-wall with motorcycles for four days, shatter the nights with open pipes revving to full throttle and drink every pub in the place dry - and the locals love it!
The seventh edition of Africa's biggest free motorcycle rally, hosted by Harley-Davidson and open to anything with two or three wheels, an engine and handlebars, was different only in that it was, if anything, louder than previous years and that, probably for the first time, machines bearing the host's brand were in the minority.
There were bikes bearing every nameplate from Aprilia to Zong Shen - cruisers, superbikes, tourers, adventure bikes, bobbers and customs. In fact nearly all of them merited that last description - the rarest genre at Bike Week was that of motorcycles that were still as the factory built them.
They ranged from 125cc sixteener machines - not all of them local, either - to a number of 2293cc Triumph Rocket 3 cruisers, with one, two, three, four or even six cylinders.
The heart of the rally was on Marine Drive, where the main stage, refreshment tents, dealer displays and dozens of stalls kept bikers and non-riders alike entertained all day and late into the night.
As always, the road was completely closed to four-wheeled vehicles but this year for the first time, rally organisers instituted a registration fee for riders wanting to bring their bikes on to Marine Drive, in a bid to make the area more family-friendly by reducing the number of rally-goers riding through the crowd of pedestrians who constantly thronged the area.
It seemed to work; the road was as crowded as ever with a mix of biker families and locals - the latter easily distinguished by their expressions of wide-eyed wonderment - with little if any diminution in the number of superbly customised machines parked wherever space allowed.
There were, however, fewer machines pushing through the crowds and fewer harassed parents rescuing small fry from having their legs scorched by too-close encounters with overheated exhaust pipes.
And that, said country manager at Harley-Davidson Africa Paul de Jongh, was the whole idea; as a father himself, he wanted to make the 'biker village' a place where parents would be happy to take their children to soak up a little two-wheeled lifestyle and a whole lot of top South African music - free of charge - on the main stage.
Such was his emphasis on bringing top acts such as Just Jinger and Jack Parow to Margate that he almost seemed to regard Bike Week less as a rally and more as a music festival hosted by a motorcycle company.
There were some complaints about the registration fee, mostly, it seemed from riders who had no intention of parking on Marine Drive but just wanted to rev their way through the crowd calling attention to themselves, and a few from older riders who would rather have heard covers of 'biker rock' classics than original local stars.
They should have gone to the Backline pub, where family band Due South was belting out standards such as Mustang Sally, Money for Nothing and Radar Love in fine style.
EPICENTRE OF NOISE
One unexpected result of the new rule was to shift the epicentre of noise a hundred metres or so away to Main Road, where there a was constant procession of superbikes and big 'power cruisers', mostly Harley V-Rods and Suzuki Boulevards, many superbly customised and all running open pipes.
Accelerating past the crowd, they would jerk at the throttle to make as much noise as possible, or simply sit at the side of the road holding the twist-grip against the stop, eagerly egged on by hundreds of locals, whistling and screaming every time the sound reached a new crescendo.
So, on Saturday afternoon photographer Willem Law and I grabbed a couple of Harley-Davidson test bikes - a Road Glide and a Street Glide - and headed inland, cruising through the steep hills and deep valleys of the Ugu area and stopping at a spectacularly beautiful low-water bridge for a few shots of the bikes - and some much-needed R and R for our ears.
But we made sure to be back in time for multiple SA trials champion Brian Capper's astonishing stunt show, using a little Beta trials bike and a trailer that opened up into a multi-level tower 3.5 metres high, to pull off incredible jumps, mid-air turns and bunny hops, including a one-shot finale ramp-jump straight up to the top level, a platform not quite as long as the bike itself.
That set the pace for the evening, as Main Road became an all-night party zone and Bike Week favourite Dilana, Taxi Violence and headline act Just Jinger blew the roof off the main stage.
Understandably, there were many bleary-eyed faces on the roof of the Shelly Centre on Sunday morning as Hibiscus Coast mayor Nomusa Mqwebu yelled, “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!” and cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the mass ride.
Hundreds of bikes, led by the mayor herself on the pillion of a Harley Triking and escorted by a grinning contingent of local law enforcement, and waved on by thousands of spectators, wound their way through Shelly Beach, Ramsgate and back to Margate, where the end point at Main and Marine became an event in itself.
But that soon had to make way for the Ride-in Bike Show, as superbly customised machines in a variety of genres rolled in, each under its own steam (it's a condition of entry) to compete for 'best in show' in a number of categories judged by industry experts as well as the people's choice, by popular vote.
As a tribute to the motorcycle themselves - far more than just machines to their riders - and the artists who create them, it was a fitting close to Africa Bike Week, which is after all, about the bikes.