It was one of those moments when you lift your eyes from the common and quotidian and suddenly find yourself transported into a different world. One of the memorable times this happened to me was out in the Australian desert when I saw – really saw – the Milky Way for the first time. Australia faces it directly, which means that you can see a hundred times as many stars as you can from the Northern Hemisphere. In the cold, clean night air of the desert that translates to a sweeping diorama of sharp points of color, hardly twinkling and looking like the gods’ own party decorations.
Pretty cool, in other words. Everyone should have the opportunity to see this; human-made art is wonderful, but this is transformational.
Another occasion I well remember was my first early morning in Kathmandu. On the way to get a coffee I stopped to chat with another westerner who was loading his motorcycle, a two-stroke Yezdi, in the early light.
“Look at the mountains,” he said. I looked up at, I suppose, about 45 degrees and made an appreciative noise.
“No,” he said, pointing almost directly upwards. “Those mountains.” And there they were, at what must have been 80 degrees, so high that they seemed to be part of another reality entirely. I literally reeled back. It was a little like the time a local showed me how, by taking a single step forward or back in the gatehouse, you could make the Taj Mahal disappear and appear again at night.
Many years later, I was on a ride through the Alps, on my way to meet a friend in Klagenfurt for a trip through Austria, Slovenia and Germany before attending the INTERMOT motorcycle show in Munich. I checked into the local pub, parked my borrowed BMW GS out the back, ate the usual excellent and substantial Austrian dinner and then decided to walk off some of the calories.
It was dark outside, and though the street lighting was not especially bright it was enough for me to find my way. I turned a corner and, for some reason, glanced upwards. I found myself looking at a bizarre and apparently vertical landscape lit by the full moon and crossed by curving, shadowed stripes. For a moment I simply could not integrate that view with the dark, intermittently lit streets and houses around me. It seemed as if another moon had suddenly pushed up from the horizon and taken over half of the sky.
After a few seconds I realized that the bright pinpricks of light moving over the terraces were trucks, and that I was looking at an open-cut mine.
A light came on in my own head. I was in Austria, in Styria; the town I was in was Eisenerz (Iron Ore), and I was looking at the Erzberg (Ore Mountain) mine – the site of the annual Erzberg Rodeo.
Iron has supposedly been mined here since the Bronze Age. Yes, I know that sounds a bit weird but I guess there was a period during which metalworking moved from one to the other – a bit like the way we are moving from petroleum to electricity to power our vehicles. Large-scale mining has been going on here since the 8th Century, and more than two million tons of iron ore are peeled off the mountain every year. But Eisenerz has not been a happy town for quite a few decades as demand for ore dropped and mechanization reduced the workforce by something like 90 percent. Alternative employment had to be found if the town was not to die.
But bad times, traditionally, are good times for innovation. There is a mining school here now and then… enter the Erzberg Rodeo. It goes by many names, including the Enduro at Erzberg, the Erzberg Rodeo, and the Red Bull Hare Scramble, and it is the “toughest one-day enduro in the world.” Not only that, but it is probably the only one-day event that takes four days.
The race was launched in 1995 by Karl Katoch, although others were involved, with a mere 120 participants. Katoch wanted to create the world’s toughest Enduro competition ever. “Rules, regulations and red tape [did not] guide the founders,” says sponsor Red Bull’s history of the event. The 35km course has 20 required checkpoints and the selected 500 competitors (out of an initial 1500) have only four hours to complete the course. Riders start at intervals of 20 seconds with two opportunities to reach the top.
Usually, the event is a four-day extravaganza with every conceivable kind of motorcycle entertainment laid on. Why “usually”? Well, like so many other events the Rodeo was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19. Sadly, it was the 25th anniversary. But of course it will be back, helping the small village around me to survive as well as serving as a magnet to the world’s dirt bike riders.
Since that day – or rather night – I have been back to the Iron Mountain and have taken a tour on one of the giant ore trucks, this one called ‘Hauly’, that have been converted to tourist ‘buses’ in another move to create work. I am here to tell you that you could not pay me enough to even make me start in the Rodeo.
So, it is not the Milky Way, the Himalayas or the Taj Mahal, but when you’re looking at this mountain you will have no trouble envisaging the “toughest one-day enduro in the world” with all the fun of the four-day show. Take a look when – and if – you can.