Kamfari mud. This is how they do enduro in the Top End
Things are tough in Australia’s Top End. It’s a remote, vast and harsh landscape where 1.7 metres of rain falls every year. The heat and humidity will test you, but at least there is water everywhere – just don’t go swimming, because if the sharks don’t get you, the crocodiles will.
The races are tough, too. Take Kamfari, for example, a four- hour enduro through swamps, billabongs and some of the softest mud you will find anywhere. No assistance is allowed; you’re on your own. You carry your own tools and complete as many 12km-long laps as you can. If you get bogged, pray there is a marshal or competitor nearby to help you, or you might be stuck for a while.
Chris Warwick was ready to defend his 2017 Kamfari crown and, after completing the Baja 1000 last year in Mexico, he had plenty of riding to keep his fitness up. A new Sherco 300 SEF-R was Warwick’s choice for this race; powerful enough to carry him through the mud, but light and compact enough to keep fatigue at bay. He admitted to being nervous lining up for the shotgun start (literally, the boom of a shotgun marks the start of this event) and the pressure was on to take back-to-back crowns.
The first corner saw one rider down on the outside of the main pack. Peter Manning grabbed the holeshot with Daniel McInnes right on his back wheel. Warwick managed a good start, taking fourth behind David Bates. A few corners later and he had moved up into second, behind race leader Daniel McInnes. Both of these guys had won Kamfari before, so a great battle was starting to unfold.
The two bikes stormed into the first billabong side by side, with Warwick showing his front wheel to McInnes.
McInnes accepted the challenge and stepped up the pace in the back half of the track, where the mud plains and spear grass gave way to hard-packed tracks lined with Pandanus palms, and sections of rock began to appear.
McInnes was picking up some serious speed when his front wheel slammed into a rock ledge hidden in the long grass. Before he had time to react, the rear wheel kicked, sending McInnes into a 12 o’clock flying scorpion over the handlebars. He hit the ground so hard that Warwick stopped to make sure he was okay. A wave signalled McInnes wasn’t too banged up, so Warwick knocked the Sherco into gear and raced down the track to complete the first lap.
Meanwhile, Kamfari rookie Nathan Evans was dealing with a dead engine on the startline. Kicking it over and over trying to get life into the KTM, he kept his cool and didn’t panic – this is a four-hour enduro after all.
Evans finally got himself off the line and slowly but surely began catching and passing other riders. His speed and ability were making up time, but being his first Kamfari he didn’t have a whole lot of experience in the unique and insane mud this event dishes up.
On the second lap, Evans quickly learnt that backing off when skimming across a mud plain is not ideal. The front end was quickly swallowed up by the quagmire, sending him over the ’bars. Fortunately, the landings at Kamfari are generally soft and a helmet peak was the only casualty.
Bren Rodda finished second in 2017 and was keen for another podium. Getting off the line in eighth position was not a bad start and, with the experience he’d gained from last year, he was able to keep his KTM from being bogged. He did find the back section of the course demanding with lots of rocks and whoops keeping him on his toes, but by the halfway mark, Rodda had made his way up into second overall and was looking good for that podium finish.
An hour later, positions were beginning to settle; Warwick was out in front, Rodda some 10 minutes back in second place, and rookie Evans in third, albeit one lap down.
David Bates was cutting fast times on his KTM until lap nine when the infamous mud flat caught him out. With his bike running wide open in fourth gear, the front wheel was nabbed by a muddy rut, and bike and rider were hauled to an instant halt. Over the ’bars he went, but his bike followed and gave him a good whack while he was down, injuring his shoulder and ending his race.
As the four-hour mark began to loom, Warwick looked unstoppable. He had amassed a 16-minute lead and had lapped every competitor aside from Rodda, but when he came up to the finish line, he was told there were still two minutes to go.
In this situation, most people would sit still, not risk a crash or getting bogged, keep the lead and then cross the finish line once the clock clicked over four hours. Not Warwick. He pulled into the pits, refuelled and headed out for another lap!
Fifteen minutes later, Rodda was just 200 metres from the finish when he became bogged up to the guards. As marshals helped tear his bike from the relentless mud, he spied another rider coming towards him. He remounted and took off as quickly as he could so that he didn’t lose second place to whoever the bloke was beneath all that mud.
Rodda beat that unidentified rider over the line and pulled into the pits, exhausted, thinking he had finished. But he didn’t realise that the bloke under all that mud was race-leader Warwick, finally finishing his very last lap. Since the rules state the race continues until the leader crosses the line, if Rodda was to hang onto his second place, he had to head out for another 12km of punishing mud racing.
Mentally broken and physically worn out, that last lap was a long one for Rodda, but he got through it with no mishaps this time and was rewarded with second place.
Chris Warwick ended the day 19 minutes ahead of Bren Rodda while a very hard-fought third after that difficult start went to Nathan Evans on his Kamfari debut.
This unique event attracts riders and spectators from all over Australia, most of whom settle in for a bit of a holiday in the Top End at possibly the best time of year. This Motley crew travelled from Brisbane and Sydney to meet up with a mate in Darwin, just to watch Kamfari.
The boys enjoyed the dry-season weather along with many beers – which they think keeps them hydrated! Kane, Dave, Nick, Scott and Alex have made Kamfari their annual get-together.
Last year the boys were lined up waiting for their chopper ride around the track when a media guy jumped to front of the queue (pre-arranged, to get the shot). This year they lined up again and were chatting about last year’s bump down the queue. As the chopper landed, the guys were getting ready to hand over their cash and walk up to the helicopter when up walked the same media guy! Yep, me again. “Nice to see you back again, boys!”
They all had a laugh, another beer, and regaled me with plans to race themselves in 2019. Was it just the beer talking? Can’t wait to check them out next year and find out!
“Kamfari is my home race up in Darwin, so I’m always really excited. This year I was super nervous on the line, despite having a brand new Sherco and a win under my belt. Once the shotgun start fired, though, I came good. By the second corner I moved into second position.
“The track wasn’t quite as wet as we had all predicted, but if the moist sections broke up it would have been a hell of a day in the mud!
“By the two-hour mark I’d opened up a good lead of around 11 minutes and once the big lead was established I just punched out laps. I had plenty of juice left in the body but not in the tank. I had to throw a few litres in quickly at the end and still did a 16-minute lap to take the chequered flag.
“I am really ecstatic to go home with the buffalo horns. I’m the first Territory rider since Tony Morris in the early 2000s to win back-to-back races.”
Words & Photography Max Sullivan