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Adventure Motorcycling for Dummies: Tales From The Road


By: Graham Styles | Published 09 August 2009, 20:12 | Views: 3,787 | tags: guides, experiences, adventure, offroad, long distance riding
I’m Graham Styles and on 1st May 2008 I flew to California, bought a motorcycle and set off with a plan to travel to every country on the mainland of North and South America. I’ve previously written about my bike preparation and modifications, and also covered tips and tricks including packing lists to help get you on your way. In this article I thought I’d share three of the more unusual situations I’ve found myself in on my 34,000 mile journey; getting stuck in the Arizona desert, becoming a victim of extortion on the Honduran border, and a day in Colombia that started with breakfast served by midgets and ended with me riding in to the aftermath of a drive-by shooting.

Enjoy.

Stuck In The Desert

Day: 30
Mile: 1,219
Location: Arizona, tantalisingly close to The Grand Canyon

These were the early days of my trip; I was wide eyed and excited by the unknown adventures that lay ahead of me. I looked down at my map to plan a route to the Grand Canyon and to my surprise I spotted that an alternative but longer road to the canyon offered me the chance to travel along a section of the classic Route 66. As I looked closer at the section of Route 66 I also spotted a track heading north through an Indian reservation towards the canyon and I reckoned that my reward for negotiating the trail would be a unique and personal first view of the canyon, besides my bike is made for tough trails like this so the only reason to avoid such an adventure would be my own fears and lack of ability. So I took my bike along the historic stretch of tarmac and turned off up a well maintained gravel road buoyed by the knowledge that my GPS picked up the trail so it must be a legitimate route.

It wasn’t long before I had to take a right turn across farmland, there were tantalising views of the crests of rolling red hills and I was aware that only 10 -15 miles separated me from the holy grail of National Parks. The track I was riding had probably been carved out over many years by wagons and trucks taking the same path but once I’d passed through a gated fence deeper into the farmland the track got a little thinner, in fact I remember thinking to myself that the herds of cows that I passed appeared a little surprised by my presence and were giving me a “what the hell are you doing here” kind of look. Was it paranoia or intuition?

Beyond the farmland the terrain changed into rough hills and whilst the track was still visible it was punctuated by rocks, tough sage bush and dry-washes. A more experienced rider would tackle a dry-wash with no problem; they’re caused by flash floods in the desert and to you and me look like dried up river beds. The problem is that they’re a natural formation found at the bottom of hills and are often full of boulders or fine sand that when riding into cause your front wheel to dig deep and conspire to throw you from the bike just when you need the power and acceleration to ride out and up the other side. My learning curve was steep but I pushed on.

I caught sight of a wild deer and accelerated to try to get a better view but the noise of my engine scared it into a hasty retreat. The desert sun was scorching hot and at slow speed wearing all my protective clothing the rising heat from the engine was not helping the comfort factor. In fact the physical exertion required was something that I was unaccustomed to and made me realise just how unfit I was. I battled on but within a couple of miles of the canyon I had my first real spill as I attempted to climb up a pass, my front wheel dug into a rut and I was thrown from the bike. This was a moment of clarity for me as I realised that the track I was following was almost indistinguishable from the desert bush and this was no time for heroics, despite being so close to the canyon I needed to turn back and return to civilisation. I picked up my camcorder and recorded my thoughts and a view of the track ahead, unaware that arriving at this point was going to be a much easier undertaking than the return leg.

At this point in my journey I was still carrying a mobile phone that friends in the U.S. had lent me, I checked the battery level only to realise that out in the Arizonan desert there was no coverage. I checked my water bladder, I had less than two litres remaining so resolved to ration its contents until I was sure that I was safely back in the farmland.

As I edged my way back along the track I made it to the base of a hill that on the way down had been tricky enough to negotiate but now looking back up at the twists and deeply rutted track I realised it would challenge my newly acquired off-road skills. There was no one to help or spur me on so I scanned the track as far as I could see and judged which of the two ruts to ride up and cautiously set off. Caution was my mistake since my slow speed caused me to lose balance half way up when my bike was knocked off course by a rock and I was sent into the more difficult of the two ruts. The bike came to a halt lodged in a deep furrow of fine sand.

I started the bike, selected first gear and tried to aggressively ride out of the rut; my rear wheel just dug deeper and deeper into the sand. I was now dripping with sweat and took my jacket off to assess the situation more comfortably. Firstly I decided to take off my luggage and walk it to the top of the hill, no easy feat in temperatures in the upper 30’s °C. Next I decided to back fill the hole with small pebbles and rocks and use gravity to roll the bike back out of the rut, and then front fill the hole with more rocks. This time opening the accelerator just caused my tyre to spin and leave a signature of blackened rubber over the pebbles; I was getting nowhere.

The track was only a motorcycles length wide with boulders and steep inclines either side making riding off the trail a virtual impossibility, still I figured that dragging the bike around, riding to the bottom again and making a second attempt was my best option. Nobody knew where I was, I had no functioning mobile phone, my water was running out and I was stuck in the desert, clear thinking and determination were going to vital. I had now been stuck for over an hour and was starting to wonder if I would ever get out of there. My next lesson, to my own surprise, was that the front end of the bike is much heavier than the rear end. It sounds obvious now but I had never needed to drag a bike before and I had to use all my strength to pick up the front and pivot the bike on its side to face back down hill. Any last remaining strength was required to get the bike upright again without slipping on the steep incline of loose stone and sand, I did eventually succeed and ride to the bottom where a dry-wash allowed me to turn the bike back around. I looked back up at the hill with a new sense of determination and a melodramatic thought that I’d only have one more attempt to get out of my desert prison.

This time I opened the throttle, dumped my clutch, quickly stood up on the foot pegs and confidently pointed the bike forwards. I started to climb the hill, the back of the bike was sliding about and it felt exhilarating. I passed the site of my previous fall and continued up the hill over rocks and bumped around corners eventually making it to the top where my luggage was waiting for me. It was only now that I picked up my camcorder again to reflect on my stupidity. I was exhausted, dehydrated and very relieved.

A few hours later I made it to the official State Park where I had a camp site space booked but my strength had been sapped to such an extent that my neighbours, a family from San Francisco, took pity on me and helped pitch my tent. At least I had a good story to tell when we all sat down to roast marshmallows on the campfire and I was rewarded the following day with a no less breathtaking first view of the canyon even though I was sharing it with more fellow tourists than I’d anticipated the day before.

Border Corruption

Day: 311
Mile: 25,285
Location: Los Manos - Honduras / Nicaragua border

The area bordering Honduras north of Perquin in El Salvador is disputed territory and the road leading up to the border is a reasonably tough mountainous gravel track. My research told me that following a land dispute with Honduras El Salvador didn’t recognise the border so there would be no customs or passport control to clear, but since I had no plans to return to El Salvador exiting the country without completing formalities wasn’t an issue for me. Honduras, with a reputation for having the most notoriously corrupt border crossings in the region, did have a frontier post and despite their reputation I was very relaxed about completing formalities at my seventh border crossing.

Sure enough on reaching the remote border area there was no sign of an El Salvadorian official but on the Honduran side there was both a building for customs as well as for passport control. I was waved over by the only official manning the post who was propped up behind a large wooden desk outside the customs house; he made it clear that he would deal with both my passport and importation of the bike. A comically large log book was produced and as he proceeded to ask questions regarding the bikes colour and engine size; he dutifully scribbled down the answers only to wave me on my way once he was done. What about the customs paperwork that had been required for every other Latin American border? “No problema” he assured me, and despite producing examples of my importation documents from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador he wouldn’t change his frustratingly optimistic view point. What then followed was a two hour ride through farmland along a dirt and gravel road to contemplate my precarious position before I reached tarmac once again. I wondered how with limited Spanish I would explain myself when I came to leave the country.

After spending a few days riding around Honduras I approached the border just east of El Paraiso at Los Manos with a degree of trepidation but I was confident that a positive attitude would eventually see me through. I dismounted the bike and a group of “helpers” descended upon me and I politely refused their services but nonetheless they diverted me to the Honduran customs office where I was asked for my papers. I confessed that I had none. I calmly explained where I had crossed the border, that I had asked for customs clearance and been told it was no problem to proceed without it, the officials looked a little puzzled and pointed at what looked like a shopping list of fees that I should have paid when entering the country amounting to $42.50, the most expensive border I’ve had to cross. The fees were clearly displayed in the customs office window which is usually a sign that however daunting they might appear to be they are probably valid. I paid the money and handed over my passport along with a couple of bucks to get necessary documents photocopied. Shortly after this I was politely asked for an additional $20 “road tax”. No evidence of such a tax was documented in the long shopping list of other fees pinned to the building and I quite reasonably assumed it to be a bribe and refused payment. Things were about to take a sinister turn.

Whilst I waited for my documents to be processed a “helper” walked me to the Nicaragua border explaining that further fees would need to be paid there. I should explain that Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua all have a reciprocal agreement, C4, allowing free movement of people between their borders for a 90 day period, in theory this means that I would only need an entry stamp in Guatemala and an exit stamp in Nicaragua, which was confirmed to me by the El Salvadorian authorities. Somebody clearly needs to let Nicaragua know this is the case as a belligerent official later refused to stamp my passport unless his hand was crossed with a few dollars, I concluded it was a cheap price to pay following the treatment I was about to receive at the hands of the Hondurans.

I realised that I was in a difficult situation especially with limited Spanish, thankfully a passing Honduran now living in Canada offered to help me with the negotiation. We returned to the Honduran office and I was promptly informed that without the correct paperwork I had entered the country illegally and was therefore liable for a fine. I was told that I must have entered the country through a blind spot because Honduras doesn’t have a border crossing where I had passed, I then explained that I had videoed my crossing and could prove that there was both a customs and passport control at the border and that the official had waved me on. No matter, the fine would be $145. What! Why? Because I had entered the country illegally.

Discussions continued between the “helper”, my translator and the officials before I was informed that they wouldn’t let me out of no-mans-land until I had paid a fine and that the fine had now risen to $300! I reflected on what I had done in the last half an hour to effectively double the price of the fine. I asked if they would allow me back into Honduras to return to El Salvador to rectify the problem, the officials agreed to this but told me that they could only let me return once I had left Honduras for 72 hours and Nicaragua wouldn’t let me into their country until I had cleared Honduran customs. I was stuck in no-mans-land.

I was then told that if I returned to El Salvador that I would be liable for a $1,000 fine, or if I stayed in no-mans-land the police, conveniently situated right next to the customs office, could impound the bike, imprison me and fine me $1,000. All the while the border officials smiled at me as I explained that I was an honest tourist just wanting to experience and enjoy their country. No matter when they can effectively double their monthly income from a passing gringo.

I asked if there was somewhere I could pitch my tent for 72 hours in no-mans-land, more discussions took place. The fine would now be $253, which I thought to be a bizarrely random figure but at least the price was falling. I still refused to pay. A combination of my stubbornness and the efforts of my translator eventually lead to the officials conceding and handing me back my passport and documents with an agreement to let me return to El Salvador to rectify the problem. A small victory which I thought would then allow me to attempt exiting Honduras at another border crossing. As I mounted my bike and got ready to leave my translator approached me to inform me that the border officials had had a change of heart and they had now agreed to let me go on to Nicaragua, so after three hours of discussions I was free to leave. Grateful, bitter and vowing never to return to Honduras I entered country number 8, Nicaragua.

In many ways experiences like this are a tourist’s worst nightmare, however with some perseverance a positive attitude and a large dose of good luck we live to tell the tale, victims of our privilege to travel and the corruption that is part of every day life for vast numbers of people throughout the world.

Midgets, Bamboo Bridges and Drive-by Shootings

Day: 400
Mile: 31,120
Location: Tierradentro to San Agustin, Colombia

A restaurant in a remote mountain village in South Colombia is the last place I expected to be served breakfast by a husband and wife team of midgets. There were no self deprecating jokes here, in fact in the small town of Tierradentro they were socially accepted and had cornered the market for the provision of food to the four or five tourists who come through the village each day.

This was a stunning location set amidst dramatic green mountains with waterfalls flowing down hillsides to form a river at the bottom of a valley. Torrential rain had made the journey there tough enough; I rode my heavily loaded bike along a muddy potholed track that at one point had itself turned into a bubbling river as fast water flowed down rocks forming a waterfall to my right side and then took the path of least resistance down the road to the valley floor. Following a further two days of torrential rain I knew that the ride on to San Agustin would be challenging.

I’m a cautious rider and don’t go out of my way to seek situations to challenge my limited ability, but nor do I shy away from remote locations or opt for tarmac when a dirt road offers better scenery. Today there were no options, I dressed up in my waterproofs and prepared myself for a long tough ride. I started on my journey to San Agustin heading towards the town of La Plata stopping at junctions to confirm I was taking the correct route.

“Is this the way to La Plata?” I would ask in my heavily accented Spanish.

“Si, esta via” would come the response from surprised Colombians staring at my overloaded motorcycle and the astronaut who appeared to be manning the alien craft. It wasn’t long though before I descended into the valley and was faced with a ferocious torrent of a river swelled to bursting point by the recent deluge of rain. Across the raging river was strung a swaying bamboo bridge braced with slippery wooden slats and at its lowest point it was suspended barely a few inches above the aggressive water. It looked like a scene from a TV show “Worlds Most Stupid Motorcyclists” and I was the star. I did however retain the presence of mind to switch on my helmet camera!

I carefully approached and mounted the bridge but within a few metres the swaying affect of the bridge was testing my sense of balance and I turned to a small group of fascinated Colombians following on behind me to confirm that the crossing would be possible. In a continent devoid of health and safety legislation what reply was I expecting? I reluctantly pressed on punctuating my film commentary with expletives.

As I moved beyond the point of no return the bridge lowered itself closer and closer to the river flowing beneath. Just when I needed some comfort that the structure was robust and strong enough to support both me and the bike the bamboo slats beneath me became sparser and the surging water was now tickling inches beneath my tyres. The rapid movement of water passing by had a hypnotic effect and made concentration on the swaying bridge even more difficult. What had started out as fear turned to an inward anger as I eventually cursed my way to the other side and successfully captured on film a travel moment that I still shudder from when I re-watch it.

Onwards I rode knowing that I was still a number of hours from my eventual destination. I stopped in La Plata rewarding myself with a portion of my favourite Colombian dish, Lechona, a plate of slow cooked pulled pork with onion, peas and rice. From here I pushed on along the winding muddy road towards Garzon and having spent nearly two months in Colombia I had become accustomed to tailbacks in the mountains. Sometimes it would be a road accident but I reasonably assumed that with the current weather and in this geology that the road had been washed out by a landslide. Whenever there’s a queue of traffic the accepted norm is that a motorcycle should pass it by and head to the front where I was met by a large gathering of people and a number of policemen. Time wasn’t on my side and I also assumed that with such a large crowd the landslide was a big one so I approached a the police to ask if there was an alternative route to Garzon.

“Tranquillo, the road will be cleared within the hour, just as soon as forensics have finished doing their job.”

“Forensics?!”

It turns out that lying in the road a matter of metres away was a corpse, a victim of a drive-by shooting. I know it’s a little bit ghoulish but I grabbed my camcorder to record the incident and the police rather surprisingly told me that I would get a better view if I climbed the bank to my left to film. As alarming as a drive-by shooting sounds in rural communities like this it’s a swift form of justice and it was explained that the victim had just robbed somebody who had managed to catch up with the fugitive and they had dealt out a punishment in a more informal manner.

Wherever there’s a crowd there’s an entrepreneur and it wasn’t long before the back of a car was turned into a store vending soft drinks to the masses. As is normal in a country as friendly as Colombia the proprietor offered me a free drink which he dutifully opened using the barrel of a willing policeman’s rifle.

Despite the challenge of days like this they are my motivation to travel and experience a small flavour of life for the people who live along my path. I should also point out that most days spent on my motorcycle are much more mundane affairs than the pictures my stories above paint.  Beautiful black tarmac, dusty functional towns and the overwhelming welcome from friendly strangers make up the vast proportion of my experiences.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my stories and found the information I’ve shared in my previous articles of use. I’m now in Peru heading to Ushuaia for the end of the year; if you want to stay up to date with my adventures you can join the “Brainrotting” Facebook group:

http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=14177687274

or you can subscribe to my Youtube channel:

www.youtube.com/easyg1409.

Photos
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