This South African adventurer overcame incredible odds to complete the 2017 Dakar Rally
Growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Joey Evans had your typical introduction to the world of two-wheel action – a BMX.
His first taste of motorised biking came later aboard a mate’s KX125, which he rode on the country’s open veld.
“It was incredible,” he remembers. But it wasn’t until Joey turned 26 that he bought his first off-road bike, a pre-loved Honda CR250 stroker. He did motocross and a bit of freestyle before entering hare scrambles and enduros, paving the way to open country racing.
What really fired his imagination was seeing the Dakar Rally on TV. It was
an event he was determined to challenge.
“I dreamed of racing in the Dakar across North Africa and started to find out more information, slowly realising what a massive financial and time-consuming commitment it would be.”
Undeterred, he finished the Roof of Africa and Mafikeng desert race in 2006, and claimed second place in Open Pro in South Africa’s northern region hare scramble series.
On 13 October 2007, Joey lined up for the Heidelberg Hare Scramble with about 20 other riders. He had made a bad start the year before and knew he needed to get a good getaway.
“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 another rider crashed into my swingarm. I was catapulted
off the bike, landed on my head and was ridden over by other riders.
“I remember lying in the dirt looking up at all the faces and realising I had clearly crashed and been unconscious. I joked, ‘Did I win?’
“I whispered to the paramedic – not wanting my wife Meredith to hear – that I couldn’t feel my legs. She heard and suddenly we all realised that this was serious.
“To top it off, I had broken 12 teeth, some completely shattered.”
Joey had broken his T8 and T9 vertebrae, leaving him paralysed from just below the chest down. At that point we had absolutely no idea what challenges the future would hold for us.
“The next year, 2008, was by far the most difficult of my life. My feet and legs constantly felt like pins and needles. There were also lots of trips to the dentist to fix my teeth as best they could.
“There were times I was bulletproof and would work so hard on recovery. There were also many times I would lie in bed at night and just cry; it all seemed just too much to bear.
“I had started to get some movement in my legs and was learning to stand, and then slowly I went to try and walk again. I went from walking in parallel bars to crutches, then to one crutch, and finally walking without aids, although often ending up in a heap on the ground.”
Two years after the accident, Joey was determined get back on a bike.
“My legs were shaking with spasms and I felt physically sick, but with help I got on and rode about 100m. Then my mate Tristam Davies and some friends of mine organised a small ride together. This was never supposed to happen. It was such a feeling of freedom.”
Joey was assessed as an ‘incomplete paraplegic’ after his operations and rehab. Able to mount and dismount his bike via his stronger left side, he began to ride more.
“In June 2012, I entered the silver class in the 500km Botswana Desert Race and managed third in the open class and first in seniors.
“Then, in September 2013 I entered the Amageza Rally, my first Dakar-style roadbook rally. I managed fifth overall in what was the best riding experience of my life to date.”
With the support of family and friends, Joey began preparing for Dakar 2017. Fundraising saw his coffers rise to A$100,000 to help pay for entry fees, travel expenses and a support team.
He met Toby Price before the start, which he says was “pretty cool”, and was overwhelmed by the support from the fans in Paraguay as he headed off.
“It was an incredible moment. I’m not a showman, but I thought I’d better do a few wheelies to give them something to cheer about!”
Arriving into bivouac after dark after setting off at 5am each day, once with just two hours of sleep, Joey had covered almost 8000 gruelling kilometres. On the second-last day, at the tail of the bike field, his KTM 450 Rally machine got stuck in a rut.
Dakar employs the Sentinel audible warning system for bikes before they are overtaken by a car, but Joey couldn’t get his bike out of the rut in time and literally had to jump for his life with a leading car bearing down on him. He was okay, but the bike ended up a mess, with a flattened exhaust, missing right footpeg, damaged right fuel tank and mangled navigation tower.
Still, he was determined to finish and rode 15 very wobbly kays before coming across another fallen rider.
“A Colombian guy had broken both his arms, but his bike was okay. Some locals were out on their trailbikes and we managed to fit the exhaust system to my bike with a bit of bending and bush plumbing, and jerry-rigged and patched up the other damage, which was good enough to get me the last 800km to the finish.
“It was chaos when I arrived, but I allowed myself a few quiet moments to thank Meredith, my four daughters and all of my supporters for their belief in what I wanted to do. I’d finished Dakar at my first attempt and couldn’t have done it without them.”
Now working as a motivational speaker, with a book coming out later in the year, Joey would one day like to visit Australia.
“I grew up reading about the Oz Safari and Finke. I love open-country riding, so if I ever get the opportunity, I would love to come over.”
By Darryl Flack