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Ivan Erceg was a bloke who truly embraced the spirit and camaraderie of the Australasian Safari

Ivan was blasting around the Jurien Bay sand dunes on his quad when he first met Vern Strange and the two struck up a lasting friendship. Vern recalls that as soon as Ivan had jumped a dune on Vern’s bike, his conversion to two-wheels was complete. As soon as he returned to Perth, Ivan began looking for a new weapon and announced to old mate and quad devotee Heath Young: “I have seen the light – no more four-wheeling for me.”

Cross-country races such as the Gascoyne Dash soon followed, and when the Australasian Safari was rebirthed in Ivan’s home state back in 2007, Ivan and his crew – a semi loaded with Heineken and a Honda or two – were the first to set up party headquarters in Kununurra. The party lasted 5000km to King George Square in Perth just as the beer ran out.

Blessed with more go-fast bits, Ivan stuck with the Honda XR650 for 2008, and when a rear wheel collapsed, he radioed for a replacement to be dropped in by helicopter so he could ‘find’ it in the bush. While impressed by his initiative, officials decreed that Ivan was taking the concept of ‘living off the land’ to extremes, but Ivan was only now getting serious. For 2009 he joined the CPW outfit on a KTM 530EXC; or as CPW team supremo Don McGrath put it, ‘Ivan and his retinue simply took over’.

The team didn’t quite manage the results they were looking for, but Ivan scored a class win and fourth outright; and the three Japanese rent-a-riders are still dining out on stories about the crazy bloke they met Down Under.

That was the year the Sunrise TV crew flew in to prepare for a live telecast to Perth the following morning. Presenter Fifi Box was doing some preparatory interviews when Ivan turned on the charm and said: “Jump on the back and I’ll introduce you to my mate international rally star Alister McRae.” With Fifi riding pillion on his Kato, Ivan had no problem lofting the front wheel, though Fifi had to hang on very, very tightly while screaming very, very loudly for a full lap of the bivouac.

The following year CPW became the first team in Safari history to take out the trifecta but, heading for an almost certain fourth outright and a class win, Ivan suffered a monumental get-off, remounted and continued on until fellow competitors convinced him to stop and wait for the medivac. Six weeks later he was back for the Gascoyne Dash and, of course, he returned to the Safari where he’d become an instant legend. As Reg Owen, a veteran of 18 Safaris, put it: “You didn’t really have to know Ivan to appreciate how well respected he was by the entire Safari family.”

Ivan certainly enjoyed Safari life, going out of his way to ensure everyone else enjoyed it too. When Heath Young’s quad burned to the ground only weeks out from the 2010 event, Ivan was the first to jump to the fore.

“No use sooking,” he told Young. “Now’s your chance to get on a bike.” Young, a quad man through and through was uncertain, but Ivan pulled a spare bike from his shed and spent considerable time converting Young to
two wheels.

Like most regulars in the Safari bivouac, I’d enjoyed a Heineken and a few laughs with Ivan and considered him indestructible. So, during the fifth leg of the 2013 Safari, when I heard the two-way chatter that rider #19 was down I thought little of it. Though as soon as the radio traffic switched to another channel I realised this could only mean bad news. By the time the riders filtered back into the bivouac everyone knew Ivan wouldn’t be with them. There was little shock, just simple disbelief that Ivan had become the first Safari rider to suffer a fatal accident in competition.

Vern Strange joined Ivan’s teammate Paul Nappy and privateer Charlie Ball at the scene of Ivan’s great misfortune, but this time nothing could be done.

“We recognise the danger,” Vern said later. “And that may be part of why we do it. However while I’ll still enjoy my riding, my podium-hunting days are over.”

As Ivan’s old mate John Staines’ said: “Ivan was then the ultimate competitor, the laughable larrikin, the prankster, the motivator and always there to lend a hand in helping someone out. He called a spade a spade, loved life to the limit, and wouldn’t harm a fly.

“He loved his family, partner Hazel and daughters Holly and Stevi. He loved all his mates, and anyone that met him loved him in return, because he was just a damn good bloke who lived life to the max.”

That was certainly the bloke I knew.

Words Peter Whitaker + Photography RBImage