A year ago, I had no idea that the world moves differently when experienced from two wheels.
Having ridden pillion on the Honda VT750S that The Husband and I acquired in early October 2012, my backside was itching for my own bike, so by mid-November last year, I’d bought and learned to ride a Honda CBR250R. I passed my learners and licence tests first time and with that bureaucratic crap out of the way, have been enjoying the calm, serene thinking space of my vibrating leather seat for about nine months.
We ride in a group of bikers and biker families that ranges in size from five to 12 bikes. Our rides extend from the southern highways of Johannesburg into the Vaal Triangle, to the western mountains of the Magaliesberg, to the far reaches of Cullinan, around the breakfast table at the Dainfern Country Club, and to pretty East Rand estates – and everywhere in between.
The riding culture in Johannesburg is a doughy mix of dangerous, beautiful, friendly, cliquey, family orientated, rebellious, and anti-establishment – flattened out with a rolling-pin and shaped with a mix-n-match of cookie cutters. The point being: there are thousands of riders of all shapes and sizes, and it’s a given that Sunday morning sunrises are peppered with a two-stroke tune of whining engines, grumbling exhaust pipes, and the anticipation of a stunning day with all the fun rumbling between one’s thighs.
In June this year, I took over riding the VT750 and simply love this bike. Sure, I wouldn’t mind being that bad-ass chick on a <600 CC superbike, but I don’t need that kind of pressure to perform when pulling away at intersections and some chop in a BMW wants to “daaice” me. Anyway, when friends and new acquaintances ask me about riding a motorcycle and “Aren’t you scared? I’d be so scared!” – the answer is simply: I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not going to be a dumbass about it – I value my life – but I don’t fear death.
Not by motorcycle.
Not by gunshot.
Not by car accident… nor any of the other horrible ways to die in “one of the world’s most dangerous cities”.
So Sunday morning was great because The Husband and I hadn’t been out riding with the group in a while and at 07:30, we headed down the M1 South to meet up with our fellow riders. It was cold, but there’s the appropriate riding gear for that – plus the anticipation of a delicious, hot breakfast at the end of the ride is enough motivation to keep going with the hunger hidden behind tinted visors and our hardcore exteriors.
On Sunday morning, 18 August 2013, our riding group consisted of Tom-Tom on a Honda VFR400; The KK on a Honda NC700; The Instigator on a Yamaha FZS1; Crow on a VT750 (*wink wink*); Blade on his bike Big Blue (Yamaha R1); Ice on a Honda CBR600; and The Sweeper on a Honda Transalp (XL-something-or-other). Seven bikes in convoy. Easy to see. Easy to give way to. We’re not a brute force on the road – we are relaxed riders, respecting each other’s space and that of the one-ton, four-wheeled weapons we share the roads with.
Our journey was a 110 km ride along a fairly straight road, in crisp, clear air. It’s a relatively good quality road surface – the one that crosses provincial borders into Parys in the Free State; providing a comfortable ride and allowing us to let go of at least the clutch hand to wave to other Sunday morning riders. This past Sunday’s ride was relaxed, giving us that opportunity to ditch the last month’s worth of cares along the tarmac as we progressed towards the aforementioned hot breakfast and clocking up a few more kilometres worth of biker “experience points”.
About 30 km outside of Parys I was performing routine checks – mirror, speed maintenance (between 100-110 kph), distant traffic – and scanning to ensure that everything was still in order. Our seven bikes were in a staggered formation on the road, giving ourselves enough room for manoeuvre, should anything go awry. I noticed a puff of dust or smoke in the distance – not making much of it, since it was an incredibly windy day at the end of winter: the dry grass and ground gets churned up into dust devils in anticipation of the rainy season. I checked my mirrors and speed again, then glanced at The Instigator ahead of me, noticing her pillion – 10-year-old Prospect’s – jacket was finally starting to fit him, thinking that soon he’ll be even more desperate to ride, anxious to show us that his feet can touch the ground even more than last week…
Suddenly she swerved and in a few moments, I realised what was happening…
I had noticed, but not really noticed, the silver-grey Mercedes coming from the opposite direction, which wasn’t sticking to its side of the road. Surely the driver had seen us? We were seven – SEVEN – bikes riding in staggered formation. That’s seven bright headlights, nine helmets, nine bodies – us. Living people. Surely the driver could see us.
Once The Instigator had swerved herself and her son out of harm’s way, surely the Merc driver would do what it took to evade a collision with the rest of us?
But no, as The Instigator swerved, I realised that the Merc wasn’t moving back into its lane, but still occupying the space directly in front of me (three quarters of the way into the lane I was riding in) and she – now obviously a female driver – wasn’t going to move back into the opposite lane.
The 750 is a heavy bike with a long wheel base. Any attempt to quickly turn the handlebars would have seen me crashing into the barrier or performing some or other acrobatics and leaving the bike behind. All I could do was lean… and I had a millisecond in which to do it. And as I leaned hard, the Merc roared through my (very) personal space…
Usually just before impact – be it elbow to door-frame; basketball to head; forehead to windscreen – your body will douse your short-term memory centres with a shot of adrenaline so that you “forget” that impact.
I was conscious. There was no protective blackout.
There was silence in my usually loud helmet. The Merc made a whooshing sound as it rushed up at me. I experienced a strange kind of synesthesia (a mixing of the senses) – my lean was orange. And then the impact came…
I felt that noise with my whole body – that “PUNG!” – as the Merc’s front right bumper clipped my right-side footpeg with a potential impact speed of 200kph. The car brushed past my riding boot as my (thankfully) spring-loaded footpeg snapped up then back again.
The noise returned to my helmet as I quickly did a mental check: foot – still there. Knee – still there. Elbow – still there.
Not rolling on the ground, sliding in my brand-new Kevlar jeans, or being driven over by the three bikes behind me or the oncoming cars.
I’m still up. Logically, there is no reason to stop. I can carry on riding. I’m fine.
I’m not fine.
The Mercedes driver hit me and didn’t stop. She carried on driving. She probably almost hit my biker friends too, but all I knew at that point was that I needed to pull over or I was going to puke in my helmet.
I indicated left, checked my mirrors to make sure I was pulling over safely, then stopped in the emergency lane. I put my kickstand down and crumpled up inside. I had to remind myself: breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Then I couldn’t stop breathing. I opened my visor and gulped in huge breaths of that cold, windy air. More. More. More. Lungs heaving, I stood and swung a leg over the cruiser’s low seat and hot tears stung my eyes. Dammit, my mascara was probably running. Everyone had stopped with me, but it was too late to keep it together. Shit. The Crow is supposed to be the comedian, the joker, the life of the party… except now The Sweeper was having to pick up some very messy pieces.
I bawled, okay.
I bawled into Sweeper’s neon yellow visibility vest. I bawled for all my own reasons. But, gathering my shit together again, I checked the damage on the bike. This:
The Mercedes driver’s irresponsible behaviour can be summed up in that 1 cm diameter “graze” on my footpeg, which forced the metal cap back by a few mils. Had I not leaned as hard and as “orange” as I could, she could have killed me. Two more centimetres over to her right and she would have hit my foot, or clipped my front brake (at the handlebar), and sent me careening into my friends and/or the oncoming traffic.
And she didn’t stop.
It took no debate whatsoever: Tom-Tom, Sweeper, Blade, and Ice got back on their bikes and chased after the Merc driver.
The rest of us stayed on the side of the road and waited.
I’m not religious, but I am highly spiritually aware and there was a calm presence with me after The Incident – and probably also the reason why this wasn’t The Fatal Incident. I expressed the necessary gratitude and cleared myself of any malice, resentment, anger, or spite towards the Mercedes driver.
I gave her the benefit of the doubt: maybe she was having some kind of seizure; maybe she had received some terrible family news and was rushing towards the epicentre of her own disaster. Maybe… maybe…
Unfortunately for her, my biker family didn’t take her bullshit. About 45-ish minutes later, they returned to us with scary tales of her lack of remorse… and a picture (there are two pictures, but I can’t publish the other one just yet). The story is hearsay, but I distance myself from her distasteful lack of remorse as she tried to smile-and-apologise her way out of her own accountability for putting others’ lives in danger.
Two other witnesses (a truck driver and a bakkie driver) reported that her driving was erratic not just at our unceremonious point of impact, but for a distance of at least 70 km between Parys and Vereeniging. The truck driver’s account included the story of how she drove completely on the other side of the road – the oncoming side – even though the lanes in which she had right of way were open, and devoid of potholes or other obstructions. Who does that? This woman, apparently.
With everyone gathered together again, we made the rest of the trip to Parys and sat down to breakfast and a whole heap of steadfast gratitude for life, for friends, and for loved ones. I wasn’t afraid to get back on the bike. There’s no fear of riding (but I’m not complacent), no fear of death, and no regrets for nurturing this passion for motorcycling. I won’t avoid riding just because some woman without a conscience almost knocked me over, made impact, and continued on her too-merry way.
I don’t understand people who move through life without a clue. Many people are asleep at the wheel. Yes, their eyes are open, but their minds and hearts are closed. They don’t realise that they’re operating a machine that has the potential to kill, all the while expecting others to move out of their way while they ignore the rules and ignore life.
So, South Africa – there’s the number plate: JBB 607 NW. I have no threats, no vengeance, no thirst for payback to the Mercedes driver. She’s as much my messenger as I’m about to be hers.
Share. Share. Share.
And if this happens to appear in front of the eyes of the owner/driver of this car:
Dear Mercedes Driver,
You could have killed me. You didn’t. But you could have.
You didn’t stop – didn’t even slow down to see if I was okay. Hit and run. And when my family caught up with you, you apologised to my husband and friend while smiling, then almost drove over them too in your efforts to get away. Where’s your sense of responsibility? Where’s your accountability? I am grateful for everything I learned through this experience with you and the mark it made on me (and my poor bike) – what are you grateful for? Do you even know what that means?
And what are you running from? I hope you figure it out. I hope you get the chance to sit down with yourself and face your demons before they eventually catch up with you.
With eternal gratitude,