April 19, 2006 GMT
More Red Dust

It gets worse.

Yesterday I rode 575 miles in 16 hours, from Teresina to Belém where I´m getting a boat to Manaus (5 days) because the only alternative is 500 miles of mud.

The road surface varied from excellent to Not There. It started OK - the first couple of hundred miles were great, so I stopped for a glass of the excellent (if rather sweet) and free coffee at a little chef, and a petrol infusion. Then suddenly the road surface completely disappeared. It having rained rather a lot there was no warning dust cloud, and the usual milling of 18-wheelers and buses through the mud and around holes of truck-swallowing dimensions started. I´m really glad I learned muddy ruts in Berkshire, as this would have been an extremely steep learning curve.

Being a one-track vehicle it´s often much easier for a bike to get through in these conditions, and I managed a fair amount of overtaking despite nearly being forced into the roadside ditch on more than one occasion by one of the aforesaid milling leviathans. The trouble with standing on the pegs is that the ergonomics of the bike are set up for sitting, so the bars are really too low and it puts a lot of extra stress on the shoulder.

Occasionally there was a half-mile stretch of decent but potholed tarmac, but the mud soon started again; I was lucky it didn´t start raining just then. After about 70 miles of this I stopped at a posto (petrol station with snack bar, tyre man, autoelectric man etc) for a rest and to glug loads of water. I asked how long the conditions went on for (it was 2pm, so only 4 hours of daylight left to get the 260-odd miles to Belém). I had some difficulty understanding what the chaps were saying, but then my saviour appeared in the guise of the local military policemen, who spoke Spanish. He gave me very precise indications of the state of the road from there onwards (and he was very accurate as it turned out) and reassured me that by the time it got dark I´d be on decent asphalt again.

So I heaved myself back on to the bike, having checked stuff over (lots of suspension-bottoming, and the fork seals are comprehensively blown), negotiated the next 30 miles of not-too-bad and well-graded dirt (that was a relief), then the 10 miles of awful to Santa Luiza where the good stuff started again. There were still big potholes and the occasional washout, but it was all much better. And the rain held off until now - it would have been impossible on the really bad bits.

At sunset (6pm) I stopped for more sweet coffee and debated whether to go on or try to find somewhere to sleep. I´ll go on. I stopped at the next police post and asked where the nearest hotel or motel was. He instantly answered "120km towards Belém". OK, so I have to go on. Then a couple of trucks came along, so I attached myself to the little convoy - thing is, they slow down lots for potholes, speed humps and nasty bits, so I knew that even if I couldn´t see anything that I was probably pretty safe. In fact, once the lead truck realised I wasn´t going to overtake and was hanging on his tail for grim life, he was great at indicating and stuff so I had plenty of warning of what was coming up.

Eventually the truck pulled off and I was on my own, but then a Golf overtook. I gave it some wellie and tagged along at around 65mph. Like the trucker, he tried to get me to overtake, so I switched off the auxiliary lights and he seemed to understand what I was up to and was happy about it. I stayed with him for about 80 miles until he, too turned off. On my own again, but by this time it was clear that I was back on excellent and there was unlikely to be any Not There. And the road was clean so markings were visible. And the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared.

So I continued happily to Belém, the major port on the Amazon delta, and found a hotel just before 11pm, extremely filthy and tired and more or less unable to move my right arm. But I didn´t fall off even once.

Everything´s damp, whether from sweat or rain or both, and won´t dry out because nothing does here. I started yesterday´s ride in damp clothes and finished likewise. You get used to it, honest.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at April 19, 2006 02:10 PM GMT

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