Nick Sanders Pan-American Expedition 2011
It read 10 093 kilometres to fly and an estimated 11 hours and 55 minutes time in which to cover this distance. The map on the television monitor aboard Aerolineas Argentinas 747 – 400 told us all the information we needed to know. The flight from Gatwick to Madrid had been uneventful and we hoped the long leg to Buenos Aires would be smooth and quick. I disliked flying and even though the range of the plane was 3500 kms more than the distance we were to travel, a headwind would cut that down by half. If I was truthful, I would happily stay at home, give maps to my fellow heroes and let them get on with it and while it is sometimes difficult to say what a journey is, the solo nature of this voyage is not what this adventure is about.
We are airborne, the heavily laden wide-bodied plane heaves up off the ground, wings the width of a football pitch flexing with the strain. The moon is full, illuminating the port wing, little eyebrows looking puzzled over the Sea of Tranquillity, the contrast ratio of reflection and dark so great it is the only thing you can see, when suddenly, a voice pings over the intercom introducing itself as the captain. Signor Ronaldo Banana wishes us a pleasant voyage as we rushed across this now black void that was minus 17 degrees centigrade.
Squished in between our medic, Dr Taylor and a round-faced boy who looked like an Indian, I could smell the dinner trolley getting closer. It is a limiting experience being on an aeroplane in the sense that it takes you to a place you do not need to go. Neither do you feel the pain of the cold nor have any real idea where you are supposed to go. If there were fires on the ground you would not smell the smoke, but as you climb to a point where you are unimaginably high, you can stretch your legs a bit and hear the rattle of trays containing your meal.
The riders have signed up for an adventure which might change the way they think about their lives, or not, but right now the only decision to make is whether to have chicken or the beef. A glass of red maybe or perhaps a drier Pinot Grigio with the white meat. It was something to do on this long dark flight.
Dr Taylor is reading a book about the Andes and tells me about the Mapuche Indians and how 100 000 of them live in Bariloche, a place we will soon ride through on the west of Argentina. The poets there strive to assert their Mapuche identity where the last symbol of the Araucanians is the now suburbanized monkey-puzzle tree, the pine nut of which was the staple nourishment of these people. The Mapuche get drunk a lot and claim it’s their route to enlightenment, not unlike this Pinot grape that tries hard to wash away the dryness of the unmemorable food.
On the flight the honourable doctor continued to feed me facts about the world we were soon to inhabit. Did I know that when Darwin sailed for five years with the captain of HMS Beagle, Captain Fitzroy, a deeply religious man prone to depression, the captain slit his own throat with a razor and bled to death in his cabin. Suicide is not my fear and not something I worry about on behalf of my riders, more like they will experience such a blast of life between the start and Alaska that they won’t know how to contain such a stiff breeze.
For some, motorcycling 24 000 miles in around nine weeks, riding the length of the mighty Americas across the windy south and her mountains and deserts and tropics is in some way analogous to climbing a mountain – scaling the peak of one’s life – the solo journey in a person’s head – those frantic yet funny thoughts which so confusedly search for an answer that is all but impossible to find. On the other side of the Andes, not so far from where we will finally disembark, there is a mountain called Cerro Torre, a needle-shaped pinnacle of rock of crystalline igneous diorite thought to be unclimbable because of winds reaching 150 mph. The Italian Cesar Maestri claimed a successful attempt to it’s summit in 1959 but lost all proof when his companion, Toni Egger, fell to his death carrying the only camera. In 1970 Maestri attempted it again but this time armed with a drill to secure better footholds. This remarkable feat became the subject of a film, Scream of Stone (1991), an examination of this ascent, by the director Werner Herzog, dramatising the role of traditional climbers and the new mountaineers.
A motorcycle journey is perhaps not as dramatic as something which forces you to hang on to rock by your fingertips, but the dangers of death on the open road are equally everywhere to see.
Blog 2 Waiting in Ushuaia
Weve been stuck in Ushuaia 5 days, already 2 days down on the original schedule. A bit annoying because the containers holding the bikes had been loaded onto the boat in January and the shipping schedule across the South Atlantic allowed for 65 days when we only needed 42. If I were ever 30% out on any of my business estimates Id be out of a job, but my agents in Buenos Aires and Southampton tell me how often sailing times are widely off the mark.
Jim Wolfe, my driver and mechanic has been down to the port with guide Erik Thomsen and the customs procedure looks quick and straightforward. Slow shipping; quick exit from the port will give us a net time loss of 4 days. Inconvenient, not a disaster. In fact, by re-aligning the start of the project by this amount of time means the new start creates a new schedule, a time frame that we can be in control of and certainly maintain. The first Pan American Expedition started 5 days late but thereafter we kept to the schedule precisely. In 2002 I led 22 riders around the world. 33 000 miles across 17 countries and 4 continents scheduled for 96 days, and with every rider completing the journey, we finished on day 96.
Its a bit like I am definitely going to take a course on time management but only as soon as I can work it into my scheduleyea right! Last year I rode from Prudhoe Bay and was bang on schedule to break the 21-day record down to Ushuaia but abandoned the ride in Chile, three days from the end. I failed the journey, bottom-line, because of poor preparation. My lack of heated clothing whilst riding in the south gave my exhausted body no time to recover. Paperwork and a camera were stolen and my incentive to complete was taken away.
In my own record-breaking life I do not feel different but am strangely urbane. Instead of being part of some different life I have to engage with the business world as anyone might and likewise adhere to rules and behaviour of an understandable system. In the lounge of my hotel, here in Ushuaia, I look down on corrugated roofs and breezeblock walls, but in the distance across the Beagle Channel there you see the beginnings of the cordillera. The start of the length of the Americas is in our sights. Jagged peaks slice into an intensely blue sky and you imagine on the tops how Dante thought how earthly paradise lies atop such Mounts of Purgatory. Compared to up there you can feel trapped in our lower down world, with its living room-style sensibility and the comforting places where we can hide. Today is a calm day, a day that stretches summer into autumn but further north, the Andes will become more terrible with their disappearing horizons and clinging dark mists. As we all sit drinking our coffee before the journey starts, you imagine that from the air, high up and wave-like corrugations of the mountains would look like a rough sea turned to stone.
Across such a sea our motorcycles would be like small ships transforming our adventure into a voyage.
Monday 28th March 2011 The Journey StartsUshuaia to San Sebastian
Customs released us uncharacteristically quickly the mediation between the riders and the chief of staff being through a small white haired old man, but also through our shipping agent from Buenos Aires, Carlos from Blue Star Cargo and his mate Hector and Alberto. It was all very Tolkienian, here, at the very end of the world. The peak of Mordur continued to strike a hold over the town and the main street. The jewellery stores and camera shops, the casino and countless small restaurants were all subject to the same law that required them to sell to tourists or die. Small cruise ships came and went, disgorging mostly old women cashing in their insurance policies. Tough sailors from container ships bound for Panama idled there free time before continuing on through the Canal Desperado and the western seaboard of Chile. From their portholes they would see the wine harvests of the south, Valparaiso, Santiago and the arid sands of the Atacama. They would smell distantly the vapours of the land but mostly they would know only the sea.
We rode out of the port and turned east out of the town and then northwest to wards the Magellan Strait. Before that the Paso de Garibaldi, a small cleft through the mountains that took us over to the plains. A cool sun shone bravely through a blustery sky and as our engines made our journey easy we rode on towards the sea. Either side of us, small areas of flatland and marsh fell away from a forest to a faraway staccato of jagged peaks. Dead trees are prefaced by wind blasted bark made silver by erosion. If there is a dramatic conclusion to the life of a tree, it is to be reminded where we are so far south. There are Triumphs and KTMs and BMWs, an Africa Twin, Yamaha XTs and Teneres and my own big new Super Tenere all zooming past near-distance damp and decay. You could set off in a straight line and slip on death around these parts, rotting stumps sticking out of the ground like the broken teeth of an old man.
By Rio Grande, with its noisy cars loaded with holed exhausts, we rode onto the border with Chile at San Sebastian. 7 kms further on, deep into the night on piste and in the cold, we camped by the Cafe Frontera, one of the greatest small cafes and at the bottom of the world.
Blog 3 30th and the 31st March Rio Gellegos – Rio Chico
The wind that blew across our bows had the kind of strength that precedes a warm front. Gusting at 80mph our bikes leant so hard over that we were nearly riding on our rims. Only the previous day Phil Cairn, a nice sensible lad broke his own wind as he got into a high speed wobble and as he fell used his elbow and handlebars as a brake. Both of them scraped down the road for a while and the look on his face was of bewilderment; that someone with his off-road capabilities should look like a novice. He now wears a tee-shirt that says, ‘I ride like a twat me…’ but of course he doesn’t, it’s just that this is Patagonia; this is somewhere different and the riding needs to reflect that.
Moving on, Mr Scott Williamson on his Triumph was suddenly blown right off the road. One minute on the tarmac, happily thinking about what was in his packed lunch when the next minute he was buried face down into a fence 50 metres across tufty grass. Sanguine yet confused, he took out his pipe and stuffed the bowl with tobacco. You expected music to accompany the way he took his first puff and just as you accustomed yourself to this ditty of eccentricity, two more riders hit the dirt. As we put Scott’s bike upright, Andy Stoddart missed us by the width of a tyre and landed with a thump. Jim Wolfe, our mechanic and support driver was perplexed because every time he put on a CD in the support truck, he never got to the end of a track before someone binned a bike. I told everyone that the action was really at the back of the group, when, well, oops, someone did it again. This time it was Brian Clague the Aussie on his beloved but knackered old hand-me-down Suzuki something done up by his clever son Dan. Forced off the road by a gale so strong it could suck out the contents of your stomach, he was shoved at speed down a 6 ft steep-sided slope, bumping to a standstill on the tundra.
Meanwhile, Jim kept picking up bits of broken bike, keeping them safe in a plastic bucket for people to collect at the end of the day. We decided that it was an odd thing to buy an expensive motorcycle only to chuck it down the road whenever the opportunity arose. Seemingly every time the wind rose someone would lob themselves into a fence or a bush. The end of the mythical vanishing point for many of these riders seems not to be something in the distance but something they can crash through.
The next day was no less exciting. It is a Thursday and after a night camping in the rain we woke to a bright but bitterly cold day. The sun was watery but shone bravely against a backdrop of snow laden mountains. The cold had come early to southern Patagonia but with it we had lost the strength of the wind. 100 kms out of Calafate and 40 minutes from our camping we stopped for coffee at La Leonia, the ranch where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up after robbing a bank in Bolivia. It was from this little ranch where the legendary mountaineer Tony Egger stopped to rest and contemplate summeting Cerre Torres. If there were a mountaineers café to be awarded such historical kudos it would be here. Often I imagine where it must be that you find immortal places, and think of them being very faraway, and then you realise that you are indeed faraway and that the place you imagine is real, and here. You might equate it to Joeys Bar in the Provinces of Northern Ireland or somewhere else where a great sailor took his high tea.
Suitably refreshed we left. Brian’s son Danny and his pillion Becs had gone ahead as had Craig Dale from Manchester and his pal Paul Truelove and John Trevor. People were bonding and friendships were forming. In a disparate world it was enlightening to see strangers enjoy each others company. On the road again we fuelled at Tres Lagos where the tarmac turned to piste. Hills flattened and the road filled with gravel. Plains stretched to faraway mountains and all around the sky seemed to go on forever. Our field of view narrowed down to thin strips of baked earth shovelled clear of stones by successive vehicles which had passed by. Central to these strips, a cars width apart, these furrows of road rubble piled up as if ploughed to one side. Sam Wilson hit one of these furrows very fast and tank-slapped all the way to the ground, the side of his lovely orange KTM Adventure once again, like his friend Phil, became his brake.
John Dawson, the builder, rode into a bank of gorse and Scott flat sided his Triumph once again (and out came the pipe). Per Reinolf, the Swedish man riding with his daughter Ebba as pillion came off across a pool of pebbles that covered the road like a sea of marbles and my Super Tenere slid down my leg as I paddled my way across such a stubborn obstacle. By late afternoon, as we wild camped at Rio Chico – a little river that crossed the isolated Pampas - everyone was accounted for safely as we made our fires and warmed up our tea.
Blog 4 Still in Argentina
Briefly we are in Chos Malal, a small dusty town in a semi-arid desert somewhere in mid-south Argentina. It could be Mexico but it is still only two days north of Patagonia. This journey to Alaska is still at the bottom rung of a very long ladder - the perfume section of a department store, a long lift shaft away from anything more substantial. Suddenly, the wind began to drop and the heat descended on top of us.
Having queued for fuel we settled in a parilla for food and drink. Train driver Richard Niven had 74 gigabytes of memory on his various photographic appliances and was taking pictures of everything – a door, where he sat, the hot chocolate he was drinking. His helmet camera had already recorded tens of hours of the road in front of him and when he stopped he mentally diarised his total environment around him. As a similarly minded on the road diarist myself I understood this pattern of behaviour. Like the 1998 satirical American comedy, The Truman Show, here was a man, like most of us on this journey, initially unaware that he was part of a constructed reality. He took pictures of his chips and other meals before he’d eaten them and no doubt bushes and trees and desert artefacts would not have escaped his attention. This man was determined to exploit his adventure in the way you squeeze a lemon into a stiff drink and who could blame him? As a train driver who regularly runs from Edinburgh to Leeds, he has a lot of straight track to look at. Perhaps he would have worked out that if each photograph had a low resolution of 72 dots per inch and had a width of 20 centimetres and a height of 10, he could take 4 200 000 images, which if laid out end to end would stretch from Buenos Aires across the South Atlantic to London. He’d drunk his hot chocolate and left, presumably to take more photographs.
For me, the particularly disconcerting part of my egg and chips was the sultry waitress in Don Pasto’s restaurant where we were in Chos Malal. She wore a faded flower print dress that slipped seductively off her right shoulder. Her service was sexy but slow and when she leaned over the boys to take their order her breasts became exposed to half-moon level. To spare the blushes of the eager chaps I looked outside where the sun shone brightly and noticed how the leaves on the trees were turning to the colour of autumn.
Through the window I also saw David, concern on his face that his spare petrol containers were about to explode with the heat. He had such a sense of urgency in his expression it suggested to us that he thought they were about to burst at any moment. Calmly he asked for a bucket of water and immediately dipped his containers into the cool water. Perhaps there is some mathematical co-efficient or algorithm that explains quite when and why petrol explodes and that David was correct in his actions?
Inside the coolness of the restaurant, it was now lunchtime and everything had stopped in this now quiet town. Another waitress came to collect our pots and gave us the distinct impression she wanted a husband. Gawd, not from this extraordinary lot, surely, but yes, she placed down everyone’s chips and salad as if we were days from Armageddon and that maybe Brian the Australian or even Richard the train driver would save her. We are in a bubble and such minutiae is beginning to absorb us.
It was indeed true that whilst Argentinean women can be such heart throbs, we knew we had to move on, bracing ourselves for Bolivia where the ladies wore bowler hats and wrapped in many layers of skirt and knitted wear to become the antithesis of the western stereotype of what we thought a women should look like. As an aside, even though we were not there yet, it is true that Bolivian women can carry loads on their back that would make a mule feint. They are hardy beasts the mules but the women are stronger.
Back on the Ruta 40 leading up to Malargue, the piste carves its way across a basin surrounded by a Cordillera. Side vents and burnt out pimple peaks presented as the blown out top of a long ago active volcano that was maybe 20 000 ft high. The piste wound though burnt colours of pimento and brown and all around lay the jigsaw pieces of blasted out black basalt that had solidified in mid air before falling back to the ground. In the midst of such geological splendour, the ride had been magnificent. With its twists and bends, it’s dropping and rising and the colours that claimed to be green and then brown, this was a mighty presentation of the topographical magnificence of Argentina. Nowhere through which I had ridden has consistently such tight pockets of natural perfection as the fabled Ruta 40 in this beautiful place.
I got dropped on the piste and by the time I reached the small bridge over the pocket sized canyon at Rio Grande, Andy Cunningham was arms up-to-his-elbows in grease and wire trying to sort out his battery problem. His Harley Davidson Sportster was the bike we all watched with trepidation and if a fair wind were an indicator of us willing him along, his sail would catch the next breeze.
For myself, riding on the Super Tenere, I can now feel the engine loosening and the animal within awakening. After so many years riding an R1, the feel of the bike, it’s mood, the way it swings with my load, the panniers, how it runs around corners are slowly and carefully becoming to my likening. We are cautious, the bike and I, slowly getting to know each other. Unlike the R1 where it was love at first sight, this is an affair come to bear out of mutual respect and the relationship is slowly beginning to form.
Blog 5 The Road to Uyuni in Bolivia
The road across the mountains from the Bolivian border at Villazon to Uyuni is without doubt one of the top three most exciting rides in the world. The 210kms from Tupiza to this small Bolivian town, made world famous by the adjacent salt lake, the Salar de Uyuni, is a twisting tale of heroic motoring not to be attempted by the timorous. This is a road that forms the metal of a great rider, a route that has few equals and the stories that creep out are really the stuff of heros.
At the Bolivian border, Danny – he’s the big guy from Australia, going out with Becs, riding with his dad Brian, all going back to Oz. This route for this family is a bonding exercise and very important to the Clagues of Melbourne. For one person to ride the Americas is a fine thing, for a family to complete it, is beyond memorable, but unbeknown to us all as we stood in line in the sunshine enjoying the excitement of entering such an unusual country, for the Clagues it will end in disaster.
The riders are still queuing for their entry visa and Danny has a low oxygen saturation of 87% from normal. If this saturation falls further, the drug Acetazolimide will be administered by our project doc to help the body work at lower levels of oxygen more efficiently. There are several drugs that can also be used but if these fail then the final line of defence is the male impotency drug Viagra. This revolutionary pill which facilitates increased blood flow in the corpus spongiosum of the penis also has some benefits for altitude sickness. No one knows why it works but what is known is that it can promote irritability and sometimes violent behaviour. In Danny’s case, being a big lad, if he turned nasty with a raging headache and hard on, God only knows what would happen if you were stuck in a lift or boys dormitory after he popped a pill, but quickly moving on once again, the queue to enter Bolivia, has halved.
We have now moved from the Argentine section of the border and into Bolivia proper. Little old ladies, wearing their aprons and strange bowler hats, are half the size of what you’d expect a normal human being to be. They hobble around bemused used to their life lived about 8000 ft. At these altitudes and above, the rarity of the oxygen content in the air forces people here to adapt in curious ways. The most obvious variant being bandy legs weighed down by barrel chests holding up enlarged heart and lungs.
In the land of the small – ie, here in Bolivia, I feel tall. It is a rare but pleasant feeling to look across the street without anyone’s heads getting in the way. Later that evening I overheard American Paul talking about someone he knew hiring a midget strippers in Vegas. Perhaps a perfect occupation for a Bolivian woman, it was suggested by someone else, and by the time we got to stand-up blow jobs, I thought time once again to quickly move on.
The road to Uyuni was a single lane track, which was in part rippled and gravelled with occasional smooth sections, which wound and stretched across a landscape that took me to some primordial world. Geomorphic strata had clearly been compressed and pushed with the colour of copper and iron squeezed in between. The road wound and dropped and sashayed with such magnificence I was reminded at how beautiful it is to ride my bike in such a place. Hour after hour turned from a bright breezy day into twilight and then night. The rippled surface turned to sand and more gravel and as I rode steadily I caught up with rider after rider until I was leading the tail end of a small posse when on the desert plane at 9000 ft on the alto-plano 30 kms before Uyuni, a rider was lying on the ground. The wind was swirling sand, Danny was panicking and Becs was in tears. Brian’s V-Strom was standing still and under a red plastic mac I presumed Brian was seriously hurt or dead. “It’s my dad,” said Danny, “he’s hurt his eye, a bungee sprung into it.” Brian it transpired had taken a tumble as had Danny before him and so as to right the bike they had to take off the luggage. Whilst re-fastening his tank bag, a bungee hit Brian in the cornea splattering his face with blood. Earlier American Paul had been pushed off the road by a truck after which the trailer snapped in half. Jim was back somewhere trying to fix the trailer so quickly I told Danny to ride Brian as pillion, leave Becs with Richard the train driver after which he would come back for his bike in a taxi. It was organised chaos but it was happening. In a moment all is well, then around the corner in the wind and the cold, the bad road and the dark at altitude in one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth, we had to deal with disaster. And we did. Tomorrow will be another day.
Cone shaped volcanoes were dotted near and far and here on the ‘ring of fire’ one of the summits was smoking, making the air smell of sulphur.
NEWSFLASH Craig Dale Breaks Collarbone The giant man himself will be forced to leave the project. One the nicest and most genial of characters on this 2011 Pan American Expedition is out. Having landed heavily in construction dirt after a slow fall, Craig Dale broke his clavicle and was forced to retire. I am personally deeply saddened to lose this rider but there is no question of him continuing, as Dr Taylor confirmed; “He had a mid-third fracture of the clavicle with marked displacement. The proximal portion pointing dangerously to the apex of his lung.”
Blog 6 Protests in Bolivia
What an unbelievable end to what started out as an ordinary day (if you can call riding in Bolivia ordinary?) It started with breakfast in the pretty mountain town of Putres. Still in Chile and climbing across the eastern flank of the Atacama we were soon high in the Andes once again. The geo morphology was made up of layers of sedimentary rock being squashed under pressure, only to be manipulated almost with ease into contortions of extraordinary complexity. Colours of copper and zinc sparkled in a warm sunlight whilst white sulphates leached through the reds and greens to paint a picture of sublime beauty.
For us, it was an easy ride here, in the Andes. I was nearly last man, as usual and behind me the support vehicle followed, of course, driven by Jim. As we climbed higher to the alto-plano, what small stubby vegetation existed became smaller. Tufts of grasses like transplanted hair became more sporadic and base layers of broken rock were scattered between the fauna. On the top, the cone-shaped volcano Cotahue sat splendidly, her head covered in snow, her peak dormant. The road climbed to 3600 metres and the surface alternated between broken tarmac and piste.
We exited Chile and crossed into Bolivia without fuss whereby the road to La Paz was surfaced well, weaving and undulating across the short tundra. Here, on the alto-plano life takes on a distant turn. Hunched women carry loads on their backs to homes you simply cannot see. To us it is an invisible life, one not touched by our Dallas-like cosmetic culture, and to them we ride past and I am sure these carriers of firewood and children have no idea where we are from.
At the Pachamama turn you can go right into the small dirty town or left for La Paz. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century was known as Upper Peru and is one of South America’s poorest countries with pockets of enormous affluence in the Amazon basin. Most of us were together, riding easily in the sparse traffic. Run down farms dotted the undulating landscape and women and children washed their colourful cottons in sweet looking streams. The air was cool and caught our lungs but the sun was warm. Such moments incite you to feel comfortably in control, as if all the buttons have been pressed in the right order. There are times when all the components of an expedition like this begin to sing and hum, when suddenly a queue of vehicles started to line up. We started to skirt down the opposite lane up which there was no movement of traffic. Truckers and motorists waved us to stop but we carried on. Police patrols signalled that we could continue but soon bricks and rocks started to appear, strewn orderly with the intention of bringing all traffic to a halt, when at the head of the queue a violent demonstration of people brought us to a standstill. From opposing embankments, rocks were thrown at riot police, each supporting different sides of the government. President Evo Morales was no longer unanimously supported by the indigenous Indian population who originally voted him into office. His reforms had not brought the benefits they had hoped for. A rock narrowly missed my head and a chap with a bolas and stone came forward menacingly when a series of individuals told us to leave immediately. That did seem like a good idea. So I turned round to the chaps and lady pillions and suggested we make a getaway.
The road was covered in rubble making the heaving of heavy bikes difficult but soon we rode back fifty metres the way we’d come. Paul Truelove shouted he’d spotted a bus being driven across a field and indicated that was our only chance, so without a moments breath we turned off-road, all 22 of us. In a storm of dust we rode gracelessly but effectively across patches of turnips and potatoes. I caught a carrot bounce off my windscreen whilst the leaves of a yucca plant were kicked up by Paul’s back wheel. The protestors didn’t pursue us; in fact, a new group applauded us when we popped out through a field of alfalfa and onto the road leading to La Paz.
At nearly 12 000 ft La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and sits in a bowl surrounded by the mountains of the alto-plano and the towering triple-peaked Illimani. Under the shadow of this mighty mountain, the autopista led down to the city centre, which was emptied of traffic. The strikers had prevented anyone driving into La Paz unless they were capable of motoring over poor peoples allotments and to rub salt into the wound, 40 police armed with CS gas canisters riding 650 singles, escorted us into town. The journey continues.
Blog 7 Cusco to Nasca
Copocabana is a small Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca and a handful of kilometres from the Peruvian border. The hotel we are staying at overlooks what is by volume of water, the largest lake in South America. When the sun sets here, it is so impressionistic, you almost forget to breath.
Back on earth, Brian the Auzzie has got a new prescription for his eye – ciprofloxacin; “that’s the sort which is given to young ladies who have painful wee wee’s”, piped up Dr C. “And also koalas who’ve all got Chlamydia,” said Brian’s son, Dan. “Some babies are born with gonorrhoea,” said Dr C, “25% of the under 25’s had Chlamydia in a part of London called Lambeth,” “100% of all koalas have it and there is a university programme designed to find out why,” said Brian, “and when they have sex they scream and make such a noise.” “You should be more careful with your koala,” said Craig, now in the support vehicle nursing his collarbone, and we all laughed. “I was at a local church meeting once,” said Brian, “something to do with the local koala population getting gonorrhoea, and when we were asked to submit questions, a very proper old lady put up her hand and said, ‘excuse me, I apologise for asking, but why do koalas make such a noise when they are having sex?’” “Babies can be born with gonnorea and it manifests itself as sticky eye, the mothers simply don’t know they’ve got it,” said Dr C. “No wonder you fell of your bike Brian, getting gonorrhoea in it,” said Jim. So instead of talking about the Island of the Sun or Moon, about the Suriqui or Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expeditions, we discussed Koala Bear sex on the shore of Lake Titicaca.
The ride to Cusco was uneventful enough. The city of Puno was industrial and in a way, wretched. To my eyes it evaded any description of beauty. The traffic was constantly busy and the main trunk road to Juliaca presented only two narrow lanes, making driving difficult. Scenically it was scratchy with poorly levelled terraces looking unkempt. Goats and cows wondered untethered, lonely and desolate, as if owned by no one. Behind me a train sounded it’s deep horn and two large diesel tenders marked Perurail pulled a street length of wagons containing hazardous materials. As I drove towards Cusco, the road continued to climb until once again we were at 14 000 ft when with a force I had never before experienced, a hailstorm started to fall and I had to stop and wait. Underfoot a thick layer quickly formed of small frozen balls, and the sky was black. My pillion – our lady doctor – unbraced a small umbrella and looked sanguine. Here was a remarkable woman who took such things in her stride. My pillion was the ultimate motorcycle passenger, fearless and uncomplaining in the manner of a modern day Freya Stark.
By evening we had ridden into Cusco. Without doubt one of the most beautiful small cities in the world, it is the historical capital of Peru as well as being the site of the historic capital of the Inca Empire. Sitting at an altitude of around 3400 metres, it lords it over the Urubamba Valley, nestled as it is in the Andes. In1983, UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site, a place of outstanding international historical and architectural importance. Being the whistle-stop expedition this journey obviously is, that morning we left Cusco. Brian the Aussie and Craig Dale were in the support vehicle. Brian nursing his damaged eye and Craig strapped up still with a broken collarbone. Their bikes were on the trailer making friends with Alan Clunnies Super Tenere. We were now no longer able to support anyone else should their bikes fail or should an accident befall a rider. Technically we could get a fourth bike on the tailgate of the truck, but already Jim was towing a ton weight and as a project we were stretched.
The ride over the lower section of the Andes was proving to be extraordinary. The road climbed and then swooped around corners so tight it removed any memory of a road considered straight. Horses with ribs showing through dirty skin stood hobbled by ropes around skinny ankles, behind which were views so deep and dynamic as to be unbelievable. For several hours we rode around corners, switch backing all afternoon until we dropped the final 30 kilometres into Abancay. As we fuelled at the first gas station, a text came through from Jim that the head gasket of the support vehicle he was driving had blown. The engine temperature had gone into the red as he left Cusco and for 70 kilometres he had nursed the vehicle like an ill patient. The group had now dissipated into town for food and only by receiving short sporadic texts with Jim did we ascertain that he would be with us in a couple of hours.
Because we were carrying Aussie Brian and his bike along with Craig and his Triumph and Alan’s old 750cc Super Tenere, the support team were pulling a weight in the mountains at altitude that the engine could not tolerate. We ate, we waited. I slept, my head on my arms, hoping that this would all get better when I woke. When Jim arrived he said we might need a new engine and that the cylinder head might be broken and warped. Jim had a head fine tuned for drama and often used this ability for effect, but deep down I knew that if anyone could diagnose the problem correctly, and solve it, it was Jim. Here we were, at 4000 metres in the Peruvian Andes hundreds of miles from anyone who could help us. Jim said that we would need a machine shop to skim the cylinder head but where would we track down a gasket? Nasca would not have the parts and Lima would be closed for the Easter holidays. I had 22 riders and 3 pillions to care for and a vehicle that could implode at any minute. It would take a driver with consummate skill to pull us through this particular part of the adventure.
The back up vehicle is on its last legs. The head gasket has blown, and it took all of Jims professional motoring dexterity to nurse it over this section of the Andes. This was bad luck indeed. I have a great crew and the riders are handling the challenges of the project superbly, but we need this crucial support vehicle not to fail. The Super Tenere on the other hand is taking this journey in it’s stride. I never had reservations about it’s ‘Yamaha’ reliability, but simply whether I would adapt to the type of bike it is – touring verses my R1 track riding position. So far so brilliant. I am once again crossing the Andes and this bike has not missed a beat. More than speed, more than handling, more than anything associated with a good bike I need one that not just doesn’t break down, but never breaks down. Is this too much to ask of any bike? Will this bike last a total of 52 000 miles?
That night the riders decided to take a campsite 30 kilometres out of Abancay, disregarding my instructions to go a further 130 kilometres. As it was getting dark, I was considering booking a hotel for some of the riders but Jim said we should go on so he could drive at night while it remained cool. So we set off, and by some act of sharp sightedness, Erik saw the rear lights of Andys bike and chased me to turn us all around. Jim would certainly have gone on to the pre-arranged campsite. Whilst we had stopped early, he would be concerned hed missed us and presume us to be in trouble, or he would be broken down with an over heated engine. It was a small catastrophe in the making, administered by a series of stupid errors that easily happen under stressful conditions.
I turned my attention away from the major problems and looked through the window of the campsite managers room to see how he lived. It was scruffy and unkempt, but in the lamplight it looked almost cosy. A little girl lay in her bed, and a hollow cheeked man old enough to be her grandfather sat nearby watching television. He seemed oblivious to us, and when he looked out as we looked in, he didnt register that hed seen us. There was no wave or acknowledgement to indicate we were there. On a journey it is often like this. People see you yet dont see you. So far are you from fitting in to their familiar habits or associations that this lack of context lends you a cloak of invisibility. Of course you are obvious as you ride by their dusty shacks on a wind torn alto-plano, but the reality is fleeting to the people who watch curiously from their doorways for a moment, before turning their attention back to more important matters.
At daybreak I saw where we had pitched our tents. Surrounded by vertical crags covered in mosses and patches of trees, it was in a most beautiful location. The toilets, however, were not beautiful, and the swimming pool was empty. A loose sheep in the meadow started licking around the leatherwork of some of the mens crotches and it was debatable who secretly disliked it least.
After the customary briefing when everyone pretended to listen to me, we lined up at the exit and set off. Jim would surely be 100 kilometres up the road worrying where we were. When we caught up with the support vehicle Jim was filling the radiator with water. He was to do this every 30 kilometres to cross the Andes. He enjoyed challenges like this, did Jim. Erik would ride ahead with a bucket and find running water or a pond and report back to Jim with it full. In some ways it gave Erik an additional reason to be here.
I stopped the group by a large open area advertising itself as a restaurant. From Northern Chile to here, such places are built with a single layer of whitewashed breezeblock and mere pretence of toilets that never work. Each toilet bowl in the adjacent Banos area was full of the products of the dirty end of passing truck drivers. Layer upon layer of discombobulated food had begun to assume the consistency of something unspeakably solid. Frankly I would rather shit in a puddle than use a Peruvian toilet. And so, another few days pass.
Across the way in the restaurant we sat on hard chairs whilst the waitress wiped down wooden tables so we could enjoy egg and bread. All of this was washed down by warm cups of odd tasting coffee laced with condensed milk. At one level it was a breakfast of such mediocrity you wonder why you stopped to eat, until you looked up at the faces serving you, which were utterly charming.
Further up the road we met Jim, still pouring water into the radiator. It was touch and go as to whether the engine would last until Nazca. It took four fill-ups to climb the few kilometres onto the alto-plano, so by extrapolating the number of fill-ups multiplied by the distance we still needed to travel that day, I figured that Jim would need to send Erik out for 420 buckets of water. It was a harsh landscape of rock and stubby vegetation. A cool wind was blowing and rain threatened. Jim was still filling the radiator when I left, and Erik was somewhere down the hillside with his bucket and a plastic bottle, looking for a stream.
The Pan American Expedition 2011 is now over. After Mexico we made it to Las Vegas where most of the riders decided to either ship or ride their bikes to New York. That week we lost in Ushuaia because of the shipping delay did affect us and even though we pulled back 2 or 3 days, I think it impacted onto the project. The Swedish father and daughter combination, Per and Ebbw made it to Hyder Alaska as did John Dawson and Harley rider Andy and KTM rider Phil got up to Tok in Alaska. There was talk of them trying to get even further north but nothing’s been heard of them.
In conclusion I think this trip is hard, not just the riding, but the emotional content that goes hand in hand with being away from home for such a long time. I’m trained up for being away from my family – 10 weeks and counting – but most family men do this once in a life time.A remarkable adventure with it’s ups and downs but as the containers are loaded in New York for their journey to the UK, I continue north, to the start line in Prudhoe Bay – keen, trained up, riding fit – for the ride of my life.