Riding Through the Heart of Africa in the 1970s
Words : John Gunnell
Jerry Smith of Hendrick, Iowa, was a motorcycle dealer in Ottumawa, Iowa, for 48 years and is a member of the Iowa Motorcycle Dealers Hall of Fame. Smith is also an avid competitive motorcycle racer and a world traveler.
Smith has witnessed more of what the world has to offer than the average person; and he did it all from the saddle of his two-wheeled travel companion. His greatest motorcycle adventure of all time became the basis for his novel, Into The Heart of Africa (first published in 2000 and currently in its fifth printing by Morris Publishing). The book documents an 87-day, 8,756-mile trek across Africa that he and 17 other riders embarked on in late 1974 and early 1975.
Starting in Morocco, on November 20, 1974, the adventurers mounted their XL250 Honda motorcycles and began a three-month adventure full of wondrous sights, interesting people and plenty of dangerous situations. "God did but few people favors when he created Africa," wrote Smith. "The inhabitants have had to either succumb to or endure atrocities from within and those brought by others to their continent, enduring diseases and an unforgiving climate." Smith also saw Africa's natural beauty and gained insights into the human condition.
With a wide variety of terrain to cover and not many paved roads, the 248-cc Hondas proved to be the perfect motorcycles for the riders on their journey. The XL250s were the first four-stroke enduros to be mass-produced. The bikes’ reliability, both on and off the roads, was important to the adventurers, especially considering the lack of service stations in the heart of Africa.
One of the most tense and yet exhilerating experiences for Smith was making hammerhead stalls on the wall of a sand dune that was 60 miles wide and 400 miles long. "Sand riding is one-third psychological, one-third skill and one-third internal fortitude to turn on the throttle and let the motorcycle skim the top of the sand where a good bike loves to fly," he wrote.
The rugged paths were not the only dangers the riders faced in their day-to-day travels. Sometimes it was the people and animals that stepped in front of them on the path that proved to be more dangerous. Before the trip started, Smith ran into a life-or-death situation. While exploring in Ceuta, he took a wrong turn on his bike and found himself in a ghetto surrounded by a mob of young thieves. Things didn't get much easier for Smith over the next three months.
By the end of his ride, Smith had faced down the tip of a spear held by a native, the tip of a bayonet held by a soldier and a couple more angry mobs. In a Zairian village, he and the group got a close-up look at jungle justice when one of the riders, Dick Bettencourt of West Bridgewater, Mass., decided to borrow a bolt from an old, rusted-out truck frame to fix the grab handle on his bike. In another village, the simple act of taking a picture incited another angry confrontation.
The exploration of a Sahara Desert facility where the French tested atomic weapons provided Smith a "once in a lifetime opportunity to view the aftermath of a weapon that changed the political structure of the planet,” while a visit to an isolated Pygmy village deep in the Congo jungle brought him face-to-face with a group of people who Smith felt could "enrich one's life just by meeting them."
Other positive experiences included performing a motorcycle thrill show for a group of natives in the Zairian jungle and escaping from a mad elephant who did not want Smith to take his picture. One animal that Smith did snap a picture of during his trip was the okapi, a rare relative of the giraffe. The journey wasn’t easy, physically or emotionally, and only five riders, including Jerry, ended up completing the entire trip.
Jerry Smith’s book is a tale of riding, and of Africa, in the 1970s, leaving a picture of a once in a lifetime adventure that has never been forgotten. He still shares his stories and the book at different shows where it remains well received. To contact him about his book, write to Jerry Smith at 102 West 5th St., Hedrick, IA 52563.