BANANALAMA | WATCH THIS
More than 3000 dressed-up riders racing oddball bikes through a muddy rainforest in Brazil. What could possibly go wrong?
In Brazil, they say a day without laughing is a day to forget. This one was unforgettable. On a normal day, the sound of howler monkeys signals the break of day, but not today. Today dawn broke with a horde of dirtbikes and they silenced the primates. They’d never seen anything like it and, frankly, neither had I.
Now in its 13th year, this edition of Brazil’s whacky Bananalama Enduro attracted more than 3000 riders ready to do muddy battle on whatever bike they could get their hands on. Some arrived on suitable and competent Yamaha WR450F or KTM EXC machinery, many on Honda’s made-in-Brazil Honda CRF230, and there was plenty of the firm’s hugely popular and inexpensive CG125 single-cylinder commuter bike. Two valves and 11 horses available on the throttle, a fast and furious missile barely slowed by a not-so furious drum rear brake.
There was no way the CG was going to dislocate any shoulders, but there’s always a way to get hurt at Bananalama. Especially wearing rubber boots, runners or, as a few even opted for, rubber thongs! Ignoring all survival instincts, most of the riders raced without gloves and most only merely protected by their choice of fancy dress. One used an inflatable woman as an airbag; another one crosses the banana plantation full gas, with two plastic baby dolls strapped to his back.
Then there was the crazy guy wearing a striped convict’s uniform – ball and chain around the ankle and all – trying to run away aboard a trail bike. He was hoping to immortalise the experience with a compact digital camera sticky-taped on the chin of his helmet that he reaches up to and takes snaps when the terrain allows. Between the clutter clanging around his brake foot and an on-the-bar-off-the-bar throttle hand, it’s not long before he’s face down in the mud, his unlucky number 13 clearly visible on his back.
Fancy dress seems to be a big part of the show these days, especially for the riders on inappropriate machines, but some riders race for serious competition and on serious machinery, and the juxtaposition of a quick and skilful rider powering his quick and skilful CRF450X past a convict scraping mud out of his eyes just adds to the spectacle that is Bananalama.
Even the most serious riders do get into the spirit, however, generally opting for a decorated helmet. This year, there’s lids donned with rubber chickens, metal saucepans, a bowler hat, a set of antennas, a huge set of horns and many, many, many other varied and obscure objects.
The Bananalama event – which literally translates to ‘banana in the mud’ – takes places in a banana-producing region in South Brazil. It’s hard to categorise this fun, whacky and unique event. This is neither a full-on race nor a shits-and-giggles trail ride, but rather both, culminating in a huge dirt-track party promoted as an enduro race. There is a final ranking, but most people don’t give a coconut who actually takes home the winner’s trophy.
The organisers and riders alike like to think that everyone wins and if, as the saying goes, grinners are winners, then I can assure you everyone does win. Events like these are the reason most of us buy motorcycles. The evening before the kick-off of the race, the crowd got to know each other around a cebu – or cow – grilling on an outdoor barbie. It was a hot night, especially around the fire, and the party atmosphere was alive with live music blasting into the night and freestyle motocross riders backflipping in the sky.
Come dawn, I’m up at the area’s lookout point and the enormity of this annual extravaganza reveals itself. All of the participants are signing on, paying their 50 reals ($18) entry fee and, rather laughably, getting their bike scrutineered at the event’s technical control area, which is managed by two blokes dressed in drag. Of course.
There’s retro gear that would make hard-core collectors cry at the beating it’s about to get, let alone the rider it’s meant to be protecting. It’s 1980s-fluro galore in places, super-hero central in others, blokes dressed as their American supercross heroes; there’s Bob Hannah, David Bailey and, I think, Ricky Johnson.
You’ve never seen a starting line like it. The rolling marshal who opened the trail spent more time looking behind him than he did looking where he was going. He, quite rightly, felt threatened by a huge swarm of two-wheeled mayhem. Time to cut the wild insects loose.
Most narrowly avoided highsides when they accelerated hard in the mud as the track opened up and became fair game. I laugh out loud and a lot at the amount of people actually stupid enough to enter a muddy enduro event with a bike shod with road tyres. Some people are even racing two-up; I suppose it will help when they’ll have to push their asthmatic little singles through the deep and sloppy mud. This is some seriously funny shit.
Violent and sudden downpours are common in this tropical region, and do nothing in terms of maintaining the tracks. Needless to say, the spectacle simply gains intensity as riders undertake blind crossing of water holes full gas, or tackle steep and tricky climbs in the wet banana plantation. Only the best are beating the traps of a track that refuses to absorb more water.
With a bound, a KTM jumps a huge step and lands in the crystal clear water of a stream. The 110cc Honda step-through that follows tries to do the same thing, but it bounces like a spring and launches the rider into the mud, before he gets clattered in the helmet by the scoot. He’s just there in front of me, I can’t believe it.
“Man, are you okay?” I asked? He nods. And smiles. We talk for a little bit before he, er, muds himself off and tries to kickstart the engine. It won’t go, but he refuses to be defeated and finds himself a rock to stand on to get the leverage he needs in the sinking mud – this guy is crazy. It’s going and he slips and slides onwards up the hill, where the trail turns into a rocky climb which is rewarded with a breathtaking view of the hills of Corupá. The feeling of freedom is real up here. But scooter boy’s arse hurts. I watch him break off some leaves from an Arnica tree and knead them into a paste between his fingers before reaching into his pants and rubbing the handmade ointment into his bum cheek.
He might need more than homemade remedies if that big hairy tarantula on the nearby fencepost takes a disliking to what he’s doing. He’s back on his scooter and off.
From here, the bikes rush into the darkness of a labyrinth of overgrown vegetation. We’re two hours into the event now and signs of fatigue are everywhere. Several motorcycles cross a suspension bridge at the same time and starts to swing so violently that one rider is thrown into the river, 10 meters below. His motorcycle is swallowed up by the water.
Things don’t look good for his XR250 but, slightly bruised and ego battered, the rider found enough strength to flip his bike over onto its handlebars, where he removed the spark plug and watched the muddy water puke from his trusty air-cooled engine. Finally, it’s brought to life again, backfiring like mad, and he’s back on his way.
Further up the river is shallower. A local guy, walking chest-height through the water, pushes a frail boat that carries motorcycles by the dozen from one bank to the other. With their engines off, you can hear the riders laughing and talking and regaling one another with the yarns of their ride this far. Friendships are created among the riders from all corners of the country – this stuff shits all over social media.
The best and longest days must eventually have an end and the finish is celebrated in euphoria. A tractor arrives in town with some broken bikes and a pile of exhausted riders sit grinning in the tipper. Looking at their gleeful faces, they will be back next year when, once again, the number of riders wanting to experience the raucous and muddy debauchery will no doubt increase yet again.
It could be as many as 4000 riders ready to ruin themselves in the quest for the coveted trophy comprising of two bananas. But you can’t blame them, it’s stupid, it’s awesome, and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.