Life, for Kirsten Landman, isn’t merely the steady quotidian act of breathing in and out but an act of defiance and a clarion call to seize each day to explore all that she can in this world.
Few people have gone to death’s door, rung the bell and somehow managed not to cross to the other side, like she did when she survived an almost fatal crash in Botswana in 2013.
Her medical file was the Grim Reaper’s scroll: lacerated spleen, severed pancreas, ripped small intestine. A double groove in an S-bend on the second day of the Botswana 1 000 Desert Race sent her enduro motorbike careening into a tree stump and Landman into a faraway galaxy of pain.
Her appreciation for life in the years since her miraculous survival only intensified her zeal for the rough outdoors. But the journey to this year’s Dakar Rally has been harder than any hard enduro route she’s navigated.
“I swore after my accident never to do high speed racing again,” Landman said before she left for Saudi Arabia.
“But as part of this I decided to face my fears head on and there is no better way to do it than doing the Dakar Rally.
“Initially, when I came to making this decision [to ride the Dakar Rally], it was 2017 and I pondered on it for a year. I didn’t voice it to anyone until the end of that year because of the fears within myself stemming from the 2013 accident.
“Dakar is a high-speed race and many people die. The Rally has been going for 42 years and I think there’ve been nearly 70-something deaths. The death rate is high. It is quite scary.”
Landman is the Amelia Earhart of hard enduro racing, a pioneer. When the cavalry reached the starting line at this year’s Dakar Rally on 5 January, she was the first African woman, alongside Taye Perry, to ride the race in its 42-year history.
Landman’s myriad achievements on her motorbike – multiple first woman finishes at Roof of Africa and Redbull Romaniacs – are bettered only by the incredible never-say-die feats off it.
Beating death and its demons
The accident, though, is always at the back of her mind as the first mental milestone to cross before she can even think of completing the grueling 8 000km of desert rallying.
“I’ve been put in the deepest, darkest places where I just wanted to crawl under my bike and die,” Landman said.
“I wouldn’t wanna wake up. It’s because it is such a physically demanding sport, so much so that it will push you to the point where you’re vomiting, you’re crying and you hate life.
“But you’ve just got to carry on. And the only way to get out [of that dark place] is by getting on your motorbike and carry on riding. I’ve faced a lot of those challenges in all the races that I’ve done and I’m so glad that I’ve been through that because, I can tell you now, I’m gonna face that in the Dakar.
“When I made the decision, I said I can’t do this by myself. I met Jeannette Thorpe, who’s been in an intricate part of everything I’ve done.
“As well as working with me on the bike and overcoming difficulties I face on the bike, she helped me carry on when I got to that point where I thought I hit a wall.
“She [Thorpe] has taught me how, if I get into that deep dark place, not to get deeper into it and to come out and try to see the positives.
“She’s been incredible and so has my support structure, which includes my family, friends and teammates and sponsors. Having the country backing me has also been a big thing.”
The spine-chilling details of her accident still bring those haunting memories back. From the time of her crash to receiving adequate treatment and going into surgery, it took a mind-boggling 36 hours.
The long road to recovery
In that time she was in an outer world of pain. No one knew what was wrong because she wasn’t bleeding and had no visible broken bones.
“I remember going to the Gaborone Private Hospital, which was the worst for me,” she said.
“At the time I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I had to go through all the CT [Computed Tomography] scans and sonars, which wasn’t pleasant.
“The hospital wasn’t really well equipped; they didn’t even have enough bedding. I remember all the hiccups along the way before I got operated on and, of course, the pain from when I woke up.
“I’ll never forget having my lungs drained. It was the most painful thing I’d ever been through. They go in between your ribs and it was exceptionally sore. And a lot of small things like having a catheter [attached] to you; it is so uncomfortable and so invasive. Being in hospital for two weeks I started having bedsores. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who’ve been in hospital for months.”
The whirlwind didn’t end after she was discharged from hospital. She had a catastrophic relapse, like some unknown force has been sent to finish her off.
“Then I had an allergic reaction to the food I was being fed intravenously,” Landman recalled.
“They didn’t know I was having an allergic reaction to the food but I kept getting so sick. Then, six weeks after the operation, I had a complication when my small intestine burst again.”
To this day she wonders how she managed to escape with her life and sanity intact. The post-traumatic stress developed in her an adverse reaction to anything medicinal that she has to consume. Nor can she tolerate any beeping sound in her presence, such as a car seatbelt alert, because it reminds her of all the beeping life-support machines constantly ringing around her in the two weeks she was in the intensive care unit.
‘I’m stoked to be alive’
The smell of hospitals is a nauseating reminder, too. But through sheer will, she turned adversity into rocket fuel.
“I’m stoked to be alive, you have no idea,” she said, with an ironic chuckle.
“Everyone says, ‘You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.’ I nearly had my life taken away from me and I was blessed enough to get a second chance.
“After my accident and after I woke up and regained my senses, I swore never to take life for granted again. I wanted to live each day like it’s my last and that’s what I have done.
“Most people only ever dream of doing the Dakar but we’ve worked hard to put it together and we turned a goal or an idea into a reality. I don’t take anything for granted.”
The Dakar will not only test her rally riding acumen but her strength of character. Let alone the technical demands of high-speed motorbike racing, each waypoint reached will be as much a victory as each morning in the past seven years she woke up wanting to live.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Landman. “Two years of hard work and preparation and it all comes down to the racing in Saudi Arabia.
“Most people think that the motorbike does all the work but it’s the complete opposite. You must remember we are riding an enduro bike that weighs about 120kg and a Dakar bike that weighs 180kg.
“I weigh 73kg and I have to manoeuvre that thing. So, it’s been a huge adjustment preparing for Dakar but I’ve been on my motorbike my whole life and have been riding since I was eight.
“My goal is to go there and finish, ride a smart race and hit all the waypoints. If my navigation is good, I’ll have a really good race.”
She approaches the world’s toughest motorsport race with the same spirit she took to her fight for her life. “As humans, it’s amazing what we can overcome. Our bodies are so fragile, at the same time our minds are so strong. You can overcome incredible odds with a positive mind.”
Update, 10 January 2020: This story was amended to acknowledge another South African entrant in the Dakar Rally 2020, Taye Perry, a fellow female enduro rider from East London.