Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Some might call it an unfair comparison—perhaps even a stretch. At the very least, it is an unlikely juxtaposition. How is it that the life of a “bad-boy” English rock star intersected with the life of a Belgian motorcycle champion? Equally strange: how did these famous Europeans experience their life-changing experiences in the sands of the Sahara Desert? Their stories are a labyrinth of twists and turns.
“Ginger” Baker was one of rock n’ roll’s original superstars. Eccentric, with a self-described destructive lifestyle, Ginger was nonetheless a talented drummer.
In the 1960’s he teamed up with Eric Clapton to form Cream — one of rock’s first supergroups. Later, with fellow countryman Steve Winwood, they would perform as Traffic and Blind Faith. Ginger Baker (1939-2019) was honored by the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame as “one of the most innovative and influential drummers in music history”. His creative music fused the spontaneity of jazz with the lyricism and crude power of rock n’ roll. In evolving as a musician, he became attracted to the pull and improvisation of the African percussion beat. So much so that in 1970, Baker drove his car— an unproven, stock Range Rover— from Algeria, across the Sahara Desert to Nigeria and Senegal. His hope was to immerse himself
in African percussion and hopefully, start a recording studio. Ultimately, he did form a successful African recording studio but, as he later admitted, was naïve in attempting to cross Sahara. Luckily for posterity Baker, chronicled the 4,000- kilometer journey in a documentary called Ginger Baker in Africa. His documentary was not about the pursuit of music but rather the physical and emotional challenges of crossing the Sahara. Somehow Baker persevered through the: 66-degree Celsius desert heat, the lack of water and gasoline, the effect of the insidious sand, sharp stones, mud, flash floods, and ever-present wind/dust storms. He was also detained by corrupt border officials and held captive. He
described his adventure as; “a passage through an auto graveyard where death is no stranger”.
Ginger Baker’s documentary was about survival. It was those very same challenges posed by crossing the Sahara Desert that appealed to the founders of what would become the Paris- Dakar (Senegal) Rally. Since 1978 this event has become the gold standard as an off-road and motorcycle endurance event. Those same challenges faced by Baker—the heat, blowing sand, endurance, etc.. and the challenges of vehicle maintenance are what have given the Paris to Dakar Rally its special bona-fides.
André Malherbe was born (1966) to race in an event like the Paris- Dakar Rally. The Huy, Belgium native had motorcycle racing in his DNA. His father owned a Honda dealership and was himself an accomplished motocross rider in his younger days. By age 17, André was crowned the 125cc motocross World Champion. He repeated this feat again the following year. Before the age of 20, he would finish 3 rd in the World-Wide Championships (1980-84) riding a Honda for the Belgian team. André was the recipient of the prestigious Belgian Sports Merit Award in 1984. He retired two years later with an astonishing 41 Grand Prix motorcycle race victories. Suffice it to say André was prolific!
Always the dare-devil André would later retire from track-style motocross to concentrate on long-distance “off-road” racing. These are events where navigation skills, driving prowess, endurance, bike performance, and maintenance are put to their ultimate test. The most well-known of these races is in fact, the Paris-Dakar Rally— an event that follows nearly the same route taken by rock
star Ginger Baker a decade earlier. In 1987 Andre entered the rally driving a 500 cc Yamaha. During a challenging stage in the Sahara’s formidable Hoggar Mountain Range, with low visibility due to a blinding sun combined with a dust/sand storm (not uncommon), he found himself lost and disoriented.
Surprised by the waves of sand in every direction, André lost control of his bike and as they say in motocross jargon; “ he lost the front”. He was launched forward and hit the ground head-first. André had broken his neck. So remote was this accident that it was hours before any rescue help was able to assist and days before he was properly hospitalized. He was unable to move any extremities from
his head down. André Malherbe emerged from the hospital a quadriplegic— a condition in which he would remain the rest of his life.
The experiences of Ginger Baker, a rock n’ roll bad-boy, and André Malherbe a Belgian motocross icon could not be any more different. So different in the fact that there is little basis for comparison. What they do have in common is a very personal and real-time experience with the Sahara Desert. For Ginger, it was a means to an end. He, perhaps naively, completed the harrowing 4,000km experience, and started a very successful African recording studio that would later attract the likes of Mick Jaggar, Paul McCartney, Charlie Watts et.al. Baker’s recognition of African percussion was successfully fused into rock n’ roll in a way that endures today. Conversely, André Malherbe had brought the level of his sport to
a point far beyond his wildest dreams. He was flamboyant, a media darling, and his sport—motocross— has never been more popular not only in Belgium but beyond its borders. For André, the Sahara experience was the ultimate catastrophe. Tragically, his 1987 crash “ended his means”.
Andre Malherbe died last month (November 24 th ) in Liége, Belgium at age 68 yrs.
RIP Ginger and André.