A bit about me – Joey Evans
I have always loved bikes, it started for me with my first secondhand bicycle I got for Christmas one year as a kid. My brothers and I would make ramps in the garden from bricks and pieces of wood and a track that would go through most of the flower beds much to my mom’s despair. Later I saved up money from my news paper rounds and birthday money from my grandparents and bought my first BMX. A gold and black Raleigh Racing. Now the tracks started to move into the veld over the road from where we lived and onto building sites with the big mounds of dirt. We would ride down the road and meet up with buddies at the back of the old tennis courts and ride tracks and jumps we made in the dirt. Along the way there were scrapes and bruises as well as skinless shins from the pedals. I always wanted a motorbike but growing up second oldest in a family of six children it was never going to happen. My buddy in high school, Sheldon, raced motocross and let me ride his KX125 a couple of times in the veld and it was incredible. It eventually took me until I was 26 years old before I bought my first 2nd hand Honda CR250 2 stroke motocross bike. I started learning to ride in the veld and then moved to motocross tracks in the beginning, followed in the coming years by a bit of freestyle and then onto enduro and hare scrambles where I found my passion. I dreamed of racing in the Dakar Rally after watching it on TV and made it my goal to compete one day. I went on to race a number of races both regional and national in 2006 and 2007. I finished the Roof of Africa and Mafikeng Desert race (500km) in 2006 also finishing the year in 2nd place in open pro in the northern region hare scramble series. I dreamed of racing in the Dakar rally across North Africa and started to find out more information slowly realizing what a massive financial and time consuming commitment it would be. With a young family and the financial commitments that come with it the rally was simply out of reach at the time. But I continued to ride often and raced local and some national races with the dream of Dakar on the back shelf for the time being.
Then at 32 years old on the 13th of October 2007 I lined up at the start of the Heidelburg hare scramble with about 20 other riders. I had a bad start there the year before and sat in the dust for ages unable to pass. This time I was determined to get a good start. And that’s all I can remember until I woke up facing the sky with paramedics and spectators standing round me. Later I was told that going into the first corner about 100m after the start another rider crashed into my swing arm and I was catapulted off the bike, landed on my head and ridden over by other riders. I next remember lying in the dirt looking up at all the faces and realizing I had clearly crashed and been unconscious, I joked “did I win?”. They all laughed and were clearly relieved but then my buddy Tristam’s wife Tiffany who had been standing next to me with my bent knees resting on her moved back. My legs just dropped to the floor like two big pieces of dead meat. I whispered to the paramedic, not wanting my wife to hear who was near me, that I could not feel my legs. She heard and suddenly we all realized that this was serious. To top it of I thought my mouth was full of dirt and stones and I was spitting it out, it turned out to be my teeth. I had broken 12 teeth, some completely shattered. There was many complications with the treatment I got that day. First they tried to get a helicopter evacuation which is normally standard for spinal injuries but there was a problem and the helicopter couldn’t come. Next the ambulance on site was not equipped to transport a spinal injury. Eventually they called in another ambulance and after lying in the dirt for more than 3 hours I was transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital more than 60km away, partly on dirt roads.
I saw several specialists and was transferred to two different hospitals and ended up in Meulmed spinal unit in Pretoria. It turned out I had broken my T8 and T9 vertebrae and broken them off the ribs and crushed my spinal cord, leaving me completely paralyzed from just below the chest down. I had head trauma and had been unconscious. I broke 12 teeth amongst various other smaller injuries. At that point we had absolutely no idea what challenges the future would hold for us.
I was told by the two previous hospital specialists that I would never walk again in light of my spinal cord injury that appeared to be “complete”. A few days later after many X-rays and CAT scans the doctor recommended that we fuse my T8 and T9 vertebrae to stabilize my back and attempt to relieve pressure off my spinal cord. This was a big decision to make as other doctors had recommended that we leave the area to ensure no further damage. I had a small “flicker” in my right big toe which gave us some sort of hope, which the doctor said that would more than likely be lost after the fusion. He said if the operation was successful I had at best a 10% chance I would walk again and if I did I would walk badly with serious difficulty.
After some serious thought going back and forth, in the hope that the fusion would offer the best possible long term possibilities, although my wife was still unsure I decided to go for it, and she backed my decision. I didn’t have too much to lose but it was still incredibly scary being wheeled into theater wondering if my wife and I had made the right decision. The next thing I knew I woke up after surgery in the most pain I could ever had imagined. I had a morphine button that I was pressing like a Nintendo game but it seemed to make no difference. In the days that followed the flicker in my toe had gone and my legs were really wasting away. I would look down at a body I couldn’t feel or even recognize. My legs were so skinny and the little flesh that was on them just hung on the bones almost like saggy bags of water. Things were really tough and every day was a fight to stay positive and “keep it together”. Lying in that hospital bed I decided that this was not going to beat me, that I would work as hard as I possibly could to walk again. I had so much support from my wife, my family and friends. Everyone pushing me to keep going and always full of encouragement. I had visitors for most of the day, everyday, week after week, family, friends, fellow riders and guys from the biking community rallied around me. I was in for the fight of my life. Looking back I had no idea the challenges that lay ahead for me, my wife and my four daughters. It was probably for the best as it would have been too much to bear at the time. I thought about my dream to race in the Dakar and how awesome it would be to come back from this to achieve it, but it seemed at the time that that was now too far and too impossible to even contemplate. Just to be able to feel something or move my legs was beyond almost all hope.
Then over the next few days the flicker in my toe came back, followed by some slight weak movement in my left ankle in the following weeks. Later I also started to feel something slight in my quads. After six weeks in hospital I came home in my own wheelchair to find ramps put up in my house to help me get around. There was a realization that life was going to be very different from now on.
The next year 2008 was by far the most difficult year of my life. My body from under my chest downwards was completely wasted away and my skin would just hang from the bones. I could now feel touch, but not any hot and cold or pain sensation on the skin below the injury. My feet and legs constantly felt like pins and needles. My back was very painful and I had lost all proper bowel and bladder function making daily life very difficult for me and my family. I would get spasms in my legs and also struggled to digest food playing a constant struggle to balance laxatives and diet. Not a fun game with limited bowel control. There was also lots of trips to the dentist to fix my teeth as best they could.
I had however started to get some movement in my legs and was learning to stand and then slowly I went on to start to try and walk again. I went from walking in parallel bars with back slabs on my legs to crutches then to one crutch and finally walking without aids although often ending up in a heap on the ground. It was a struggle and often embarrassing as I’m sure most people just thought I was drunk most of the time. However I was determined this would not be my fate forever and would walk through the mall with my wife and kids dragging my feet and losing balance but insisting on not being in the wheelchair despite the fact that it would have be much easier at the time. There was constant physiotherapy and many unforeseen physical complications, stuff that you always took for granted that you now couldn’t do. Simple things like picking up your kids, kicking a ball or driving your car. But with the huge support from my wife Meredith, family, friends and the riding community I persisted with my recovery. The Enduro World Magazine lead by Gary and Lynne Franks and supported by many bikers and friends raised money to help with additional therapy not covered by my medical aid. Many people called round and helped to encourage me. There were times I was bullet proof and would work so hard on recovery. I was optimistic and pumped to succeed and beat this. There were also many times I would lie in bed at night and just cry, it all seemed just too much to bare. My wife would encourage me and help me get through those times. Some times my wife could no longer be able to handle it all and I would be the one comforting her and telling her it was all going to be OK. Other times we would lie holding each other and just cry together. All the stupid things we thought before the accident were important, now seemed so trivial.
About 2 years after the accident with much encouragement I was determined to try get back on a bike, the first time I tried to throw my leg over I could not support my weight and the bike on one leg and ended up falling over with the bike on top of me. My buddy Neal helped me up with the usual friendly mocking and banter. My legs were shaking with the spasms and I felt physically sick but with help I got on and rode about 100m coming to a stop next to my mates who would help me off again. Then my mate Tristam Davies and some friends of mine organized a day where we would head out on a small ride all together. Many of my friends and fellow riders came out to support me. Words could never describe the feeling of being back on the bike again. Alone in my helmet I felt my eyes well up knowing that this was truly a miracle to have come what seemed full circle and be back on the bike again. This was never supposed to happen. Not being able to run or jump or play other sports being on the bike and able to ride flowing paths and move with ease was incredible. It was such a feeling of freedom. I was filled with gratitude and excitement.
I was still going to physiotherapy every week and I told my physiotherapist Sharne that I wanted to learn to swing my leg over a bike without falling over. She would build a “fake” bike out of gym equipment and I would train to lift my leg and pivot on the other slowly learning and training the muscles needed. We would work a lot on core strength and balance constantly trying to become more and more functional.
Next I bought a secondhand bike and had the suspension lowered and the seat cut down to help with my weak legs. I began to ride more and more. After a long time I entered my first enduro race at Arrows Rest organized by Enduro World I managed one lap of about 8km shadowed by two good mates Tristam and Johan. That one lap took me several hours to complete. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had wanted to quit so many times and my legs would constantly spasm. At the finish I had to fight back the tears as my mate Neal helped me take my boots off. I was completely worn out physically and emotionally. It felt like my own personal Dakar even though it was nothing special to the average rider. I realized that day I was racing against my injury from now on and no one else. It took more time and a few more races before I managed to finish my first race.
Then in June 2012 I entered the silver class (500km) in the Botswana desert race and managed to finish 3rd in the open class and 1st in seniors. The next year in 2013 I entered the full 1000km unfortunately I was time barred on the last lap after having to start at the back on both days since I didn’t have national ranking and only got to ride 750km. It was frustrating as I had trained hard but having to start in row 28 both days when no one after row 8 made the time bar it was simply impossible. This however encouraged me to continue knowing that I was able to ride long distances on back to back days.
I still continued with weekly physiotherapy even though it had been more than five years since the accident and I constantly worked towards being as able bodied as possible. I would like to say I was always positive and worked like a machine, the truth is there were times like that but there were also times I gave up hope and let thing slide. It was tough to always be positive and to give 100% everyday.
Then in September 2013 I entered the Amageza Rally, my first “Dakar style” roadbook rally, nearly 2000km from Cape Town touching over into Namibia and finishing in Kakamas in the Northern Cape over 3 days of racing. This was a race that would leave a lasting impression on me. It was a challenge to say the least. There were 46 starters and only 17 finishers. I managed to finish in 5th overall in what was the best riding experience of my life to date. Riding in wide open places without a soul in sight for km after km was truly special. I raced it without any support “Malle Moto” style living out of my steel trunk, servicing my own bike and sleeping in my pop up tent. I knew after this race that rally racing was my passion and was what I wanted to do.
After this race I again started thinking about my dream to race in the Dakar and there seemed to be a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, this might just be possible. So I decided that if my dream was ever going to be reached, I needed to get serious about it. I spent a lot of time looking up information, what was needed and what it was going to cost. This was going to be a huge sacrifice in every way for not only me but for my wife and family too, especially after they had gone through so much already. A lot of people would comment how foolish and selfish I was to be riding again after such a serious injury. However my wife understands me better than anyone and she could see how riding and setting goals gave me the freedom and motivation that I needed to continue to fight my injury. She supported me all the way, make no mistake she would worry and be concerned especially after being there and witnessing the accident herself it was never going to be easy. But the goal was made and there was a lot that had to happen and I started to set specific goals. I decided that 2016 would be enough time to prepare yet not too long away that I would lose focus.
Firstly I needed to get stronger and fitter so I put together a training program and focused on riding longer distances and more technical terrain.
Secondly I needed to have more racing and specifically rally racing experience not only to ensure my best chances of finishing but also to ensure that my application to the Dakar would be accepted. Not living in Europe, Australia or South America made it incredibly expensive to race any of the big rallies and this was a challenge. Then the Namaqua African rally was announced to be ridden over 7 days in the Cape and promised to be a international standard rally so I entered that. Unfortunately it cost a lot of money and I felt very let down as the organizers shortened it because of logistical problems to 5 days and the distances were no where near those promised. I had some challenges on top of that with my bike losing oil and had to carry oil and constantly stop to fill up the oil, nevertheless I still managed to finished the rally in 16th overall in bikes and 2nd in my class M2.2. I rode the rally Malle Moto style as well servicing my own bike each night and living out of my tent.
I also continued to race several other offroad races in 2014. My plan was to race my third rally, the Amageza Rally 2014, this time it was about 3000km over 5 days. My training was going great, I was riding every week and hade done some good roadbook training organized by Mark Campbell. My navigation had improved massively from the previous year and my bike fitness was better. In preparation I entered Dallie Terblanche’s Pongola 500, staged near the Swaziland, SA and Mozambique border to be ridden over 500 km as one of my final big training rides. It started out well and the bike felt great but fate was to hand me another challenge. Not far into the ride I was following behind some other riders when I hit a cow while riding at some where near 100km/h. I didn’t see it as it ran out in front of me and I didn’t even have time to brake. I was a mess, I was concussed and tore ligaments separating my collar bone from my shoulder, fractured a rib and a broke another one off, tore my tricep tendon and had an avulsion fracture on my elbow, lacerations down to the bone on my forearm and bruised up pretty bad all over. Several other rides stopped and took great care of me as well as the organizers who were brilliant in sorting the ambulance and getting me to the nearest hospital over 150km away. It took two operations to sort out my arm and six months of healing without being able to ride which ended my Amageza Rally plans for the year and once again put the Dakar dream out of reach. Missing out on the Amageza Rally was particularly frustrating. The second half of 2014 and the first couple months of 2015 were really difficult working through the injuries and not being able to ride.
At the end of February I decided to do a solo offroad trip from Johannesburg to Cape town about 2700km over about 5 days. A sort of get my head right trip. My wife and I love spending time together but after the last few months since the cow deal she was basically begging me to go ride. The ride was fantastic, got my head right and I was pumped to keep loving life and chasing my Dakar dream.
Next goal for 2015 was the Amageza rallye, this year a 5000km race over 7 days. Training was difficult as my elbow was still healing and very painful after each ride. As a last training ride I decided to do the Pongola 500 just 14 days before the Amageza Rallye. Perhaps tempting fate a bit after the cow incident last year, but it went really well. I rode it smooth and at a safer speed. I really found a good pace and flow, a bit slower than I would usually race but I made a lot less mistakes and never hit any cows. Make no mistake though it was tough. There was lots of riverbeds and thick sand which turned out to be great training for the Amageza. It also helped me get my head right for Amageza. I had also tried a new bash plate with the water in required for Amageza. I realized that with my limited ankle movement I would sometimes use the back brake with my right heal. Using the bash plate made this difficult so I made another plan for the Amageza.
Eventually the Amageza arrived, 2 years of waiting and I was ready and relatively speaking injury free. I was like a kid counting sleeps before Christmas. I had chosen to enter it Malle Moto again, for a few reasons. Firstly it was cheaper which suited my budget. Secondly it would be more about survival and less about speed which I figured would help me stay injury free, something that I had clearly struggled to do up until this point. I didn’t want to be risking it all with the guys up front. And lastly there is something really cool about finishing a rallye “Malle Moto” style, I love the whole suck it up and tough it out style of it.
So in September 2015 nearly 8 years after breaking my back, I headed off to Kimberly to race in the Amageza Rally. Seven days and 5000km through Botswana and the Northern Cape. I was pumped!
The race was a challenge, it included going through a fence and later fixing a destroyed tyre with elbow guards and a liquifruit carton, but I finished, and to top it off I won the Malle Moto class and received the “Yamadoda Amadoda” award. A unexpected and great result for me and no major injuries!
Things got really hectic at work after Amageza and I rode very little over the next few months, but now the Dakar was eating at me. I can do this I thought!
Next I raced and finished the Amageza Baja up in Port Nollith. A two day rally race with a super special prologue the day before. About 800 km in total of thick Kalahari sand combined with incredible mountain sections through the Richtersveld. It was a challenge and I had numerous problems with the ICO and road book which was frustrating at the time but made for good training as I learnt some important lessons. I managed to get the finish and some more rally training under my belt which is what I came for, so another step towards Dakar was completed.
So here I am in 2016. Physically I can now walk quite well and sometimes people don’t even notice I have a problem. My legs still don’t work properly, they are a lot weaker and slower that before and spasm a lot when I’m tired or when my adrenalin is going. I can’t run properly or jump but I can do a bit of a dodgy looking jog. I can feel touch but still can’t feel any hot, cold or pain sensation from below my chest. I still take medication to help digestion and need to self catheter several times daily. Some thing that is a challenge in race conditions.
BUT I can ride a bike ok, and know that Dakar is (after a long time) within my reach. So this year I entered the Merzouga Rally in Morocco that was held in May. This rally is owned by ASO, the same company that owns the Dakar, and is an official qualifier for the Dakar 2017. I needed just to finish in the pro class at this 6-day rally and I would automatically qualify for Dakar 2017. It wasn’t easy but after the six days I managed to cross the finish in 39th and thus earned my place at Dakar in January 2017!
So Dakar entry is in and deposits paid. I am on the start line at the Dakar rally come January 2017. Now the hard work of fund raising, sacrifice and training really starts. My goal is just to finish the Dakar, 9000km through Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, a distance that’s about 1000km longer than the length of Africa. A goal that’s been a long time coming and going to take everything I’ve got and more to achieve, but I’m up to the challenge and hope you join me on my journey to the end. Let’s do this!