Seeing my whole life rush before my eyes ten times a day. It is averaging out at four homicidal assaults a day. Not too grateful for this. I mean, the story aint so interesting. I don’t need to be repeatedly reminded thanks very much. Christmas in Colombia is a month of booze and more booze. Have a drink have a drive. It is wild.
See three wrecks on the way to Cali. Two in the ditches, one driven up on the metal side-fence. The car is gently swaying in the wind, balanced on its ripped undercarriage. Twenty-four carat Italian Job. Four wheel drive to no wheel drive. I feel its pain. The wide-eyed driver is beyond suffering. Not hurt, just sharing the fate of his car, absolutely smashed.
The staff warn me not to leave the hotel after dark. Yeah, but what about my trip to the carnival? Imprisonment in an air-conditioned box is not what I had in mind. I escape with Paula from reception playing diminutive bodyguard. We watch the world go by on Sexto Street, half of it tottering on four-inch heels. It is a bit like being in a giant Christina Aguilera video. So this is why the boys talk so fondly of Colombia.
Get to the Ecuador frontier on the 31st December. Ten in the morning. Everyone is very friendly. Very friendly indeed. The conversation’s fumes are a fire hazard. The whisky bottle on the office table has been empty a good while. But never was bureaucratic refusal done with such warm-hearted bonhomie. I make half a dozen friends for life but don’t get through the border. “Ask anything of us amigo, anything but that.” I turn around and do my last hour in reverse. I push the bike backwards to make my point. Nothing is quite as petty as the rage of the defeated man.
Recompense time. I take a room in the top hotel in town. There is a hot water bottle in the bed, Ché on the wall and a huge painting of a Palestinian youth in the dining room. Really big. A rock in one hand, in the other a flag. His T-shirt says one word: Jerusalem. The building’s owner tells me of his high regard for Lenin and Trotsky. Yeah, this country is a bit different.
Evening takes its sweet time to arrive. “I just can’t get you outta my head…” is blasting through the walls. The windows shake a dzzdzzdzz mzzhuhmzmzz for the big bass notes. This was great favourite in Thailand too. I take my hangdog face downstairs. The girl at reception keeps giving me rum shots and big smiles. I must have had two dozen. I return to my room for a breather and pass out on the bed. It is an all-too-brightly-lit 2004 when I next open my eyes.
Some good news. I have found the solution to the bike’s altitude problems. Sometimes the solution is staring you right in the face. Just go downhill. Big improvement. It works a treat.
After weeks in the sky I drop to under 1000 metres. The mosquitoes are man size, but it is great to be in the clouds. It is a joy to take on a cumulonimbus—see one on the horizon and then ride right through the middle. Spooky, mesmerising, unbelievable fun.
Ecuador is like Wales. The spectacular mountains, green hills, and lots and lots of rain. I swear that was a pint of Albright I had back there. I give the country two and a half days, which is unfair, but I am keen to get moving after all the delays. More the fool me.
Overlander conundrum time: you lose your keys. Thankfully you have thought to put a spare set in your left pannier. Trouble is, they are locked in the pannier. Get out of that sunshine. Answers by daybreak please.
I ask in town for some tools in order to break into the box. “It is not necessary” says Juan. He takes a hammer and a small screwdriver to my padlock, and gives the latter a gently measured tap. It springs open obligingly. “Te doy las gracias” says I, thinking that it is definitely time to rethink my security system.
We chat for a while. He wants to go back to the USA. “Why did you leave?”
“I was reported. Illegal”.
“Why would anyone do that? Who did it?”
“Yeah. They met.”
For a few days I cross paths again with Didier and Catherine. A familiar division of labour emerges. She takes the pictures, adding wry encouragement and quiet smiles. He throws a charming French version of Australian manhood into the mix, “no inquietudes mate”, and I have lots of obscure adjectives for sand. But they want to go east to the magnificent Inca ruins and onto Rio’s fantastic carnival. I want to keep south into Chile looking for solitude and altitude. It makes sense. Just doesn’t sound like it.
Easier to get in the sand...
...than to get out.
I find plenty. The open deserts pull together all those dissolute thoughts and creeping doubts around biking travel. Huge spaces; the feeling of covering miles without danger or difficulty; the sheer amount of nothingness. Just me and lots of absence. Motorcycle emptiness. I adore these vast landscapes: blissfully lost in my helmet, tracking kilometers on the map, enthralled by the thin black line winding forwards like a discarded leather belt. I am very happy.
Early start. Over the Andes. Skip breakfast to get moving. Touristy San Pedro de Atacama has the last gas station in Chile. I ask around for the distance to the next fuel. It is either 200 km, 400 km, or “Far. Very far”. Best carry some spare. Spend my lunch hour failing to find gerrycans. Thankfully, the improvising overlander alternative is all around. Big plastic pop bottles. Where are these useful empty containers Simon? Why they are in the rubbish bins.
I tour the skips all over town. One of my finest hours. How do you explain to the well-healed blond North American families that climbing through the stinking midday rubbish for coke bottles in full biking gear is part of a great adventure? Much better than being a common tourist. “No, no, it is a great way to travel”.
A bemused and uneasy crowd gathers. Glad to provide diversion I emerge wiping putrefying vegetables from my shorts, sweat from my face and suppurating animal remains off my boots. The mothers gently shepherd their daughters toward the stuffed toy-lama stalls. Soon I have only my miasma for company. Oh, and six Seven-Up bottles. Success--it is always relative.
Still face two border crossings and some real high ground. They’ll be food on the frontier. By 3000 meters the bike is slowing down. Black smoke emerges behind. At 4000 metres the throttle is wide open in third gear to maintain momentum with a billowing gasoline-rich black cloud. At 4500 I get off to give it a rest and take pictures of lamas. There is no one around. No one to see the next half hour of me trying to make the bike move forwards with every combination of gear, clutch and throttle but only managing a couple of yards. Not enough air pressure up here. Un problema. Drastic measures are called for.
I can barely speak the words…forgive me for I have sinned…it has been twenty-nine years since my last confession...I take off the air filter and ride on. The likelihood of grit seizing the engine climbs from “marginal” to “really quite likely, and are-you-really-sufficiently-responsible-to-be-in-charge-of-this-fine-piece-of-machinery?” But the only other way is back. And that’s just plain unthinkable.
A selection of concession food outlets ranging from McDonalds to TGI Friday is just what isn’t waiting for me at the Argentinean border. The three miserable guards who live their isolated freezing windswept daytimes at 4,900 metres would surely be happy about the idea. But at present plans are well on hold. There is nothing.
It is five in the afternoon as I complete the paperwork. A hundred kilometres to go. Or two hundred. Susques before nightfall is possible if I ride hard. Maybe. I begin to decant the bottles into the tank. The guards come outside. There stare and point. They argue heatedly. What now? Can’t risk a delay. I keep my head down. Don’t catch their eyes, just keep pouring. I am flying down the asphalt when the centavo drops. What must have it looked like? The world’s first lemonade-powered motorcycle.
All day without food now. Then the road ends. Tarmac becomes gravel. Engine seizure becomes a certainty without the filter. I replace it. Fuel use is impossible to calculate at this height. No clue if the next town is in range. But there is no way back. It has been five hours at altitude with minimal cold-weather gear. I am shivering. At least it can’t get any worse. Then it begins to rain. Ahh, what I mean is now it can’t get any worse.
The gravel deteriorates further. The bike is deep in a truck wheel rut. Invisible goblins are taking turns to yank the front wheel towards the bank. At least now it can’t get any worse. Then it begins to snow. Enough already!
I am struggling to push hunger down my mind’s priorities. An adventure tour group has set a row of identical tents at the roadside. They are paying three thousand dollars to spend a fortnight in the back of that truck. A bunch of meats are sizzling for supper next to the ten-wheel-drive monster. The next town is not too far on my GPS, but their map shows the road making a huge U around a salt lake to get there. Darn. Half an hour of light left, maybe two hours of dirt road. I have no tent. And no supplies. That counts as worse. Food isn’t offered. “So where are you going to stay tonight?” one of the pleasant trainee-accountant adventurers asks. “First hotel I come to I suppose”. Several of them take a breathless step backwards at this revelation, “what a way to travel” one gasps.
Off I go, sun grumpily slumped on the horizon, cold, hungry, unsure of my destination, low on fuel, trying to see the least-worse track through my fogged visor as the sleet diagonals down. The consequences of a crash have to be balanced against the need for speed. There is no right answer. At least it can’t get any worse.
Then the gravel turns to sand. The back end joins the front in carving terrifying parabolas. Now I am hauling my 370 kilos left and right across my favoured vector. A battle of wills. The goblins are working flat out. This really is no fun. I reassure myself that it would only be worse with fuel sloshing around in the tank. Never lose your sense of humour private Kennedy; gives Gerry the upper hand.
As darkness falls it occurs to me that this really is quite dangerous. There’s no shelter. No food. What are the survival percentages huddled in a ditch overnight without food at sub-zero? Hmmm. Let’s concentrate on keeping the bike upright shall we. And I do. This is good. On your own there is no one to take out your anxieties on. Focus. No one to blame. Concentrate. All this is down to bad preparation, shoddy planning and bad choices. Think it through. Sort it out for yourself. At 4,500 metres there really is no one, no one at all. The lamas wont save you.
It is two more hours in the saddle, bike and rider down to last reserves. The stars are bright sequins on a black blanket when the gravel ends and a hotel appears.
In one of life’s little jokes, tacked onto the end of the drama as the credits are rolling, the hotel owner refuses to take my Chilean pesos. Peruvian money is no good too. Nor my Bolivian stuff. I am re-loading the machine with gritted teeth for another long haul in the dark when a Brazilian guy comes over. He’s done a long-distance bike trip. He won’t take my money in exchange. He insists on giving the cash and his address. “Send it to me when you have it. Or drop in when you’re passing Sao Paulo”. So I get my bed after all, though it is two hours before the shivering stops and I can sleep. What a way to travel.
(Connor Carson is the discoverer of the invisible Goblins that plague overlanders around the world.)
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