Bolivia. Mud, sweat & oh so very nearly tears.


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South America » Bolivia
January 26th 2011
Published: January 26th 2011
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Hello, I hope 2011 has got off to a flier & you're all keeping well in your various corners of the world. I'm in Bolivia which is a little cold & can be very muddy but otherwise it's all good. In a few days time I should be back on the road south, once I've straightened out a few bits on the bike. I'll get to why it needs to be straightened later.

Thanks for taking the time to read the blog & for the notes saying hello too, as ever they're much appreciated. This entry is far too long so apologies in advance. Skim read or just look at the pictures if you like, I'll never know.

After a rather lack lustre effort last time & more then a few emails telling me to put my arse into gear (you know who you are) here I am merrily typing away whilst still in bed in La Paz, Peru, the highest capital city on earth. I originally thought the highest capital city in the world was Lima but my sat nav told me otherwise as I rode through. Lima is 366ft above sea level whilst La Paz is over 15000. So I admit I was wrong. However, as I told Patrick, Lima is the highest capital city in Peru, & therefore I was partly right. Patrick wants me to add by way of an apology how I told him & Damon to wrap up as it would 'be cold at altitude' when instead it was roasting as we weaved through solid mid afternoon traffic for two & a half hours in 30 odd degree heat.

The plan with this blog entry is to type a little as I go rather then sitting down somewhere & trying to recollect what I've been up to a few weeks later. You wouldn't believe how much time riding the bike, finding somewhere to eat, finding somewhere to sleep & the associated messing about actually takes.

I arrived in La Paz after riding over the Andes (again) from Chile. Damon's bike has been ill & so I'd ridden back down to the Chilean coast with him whilst Patrick & Andy pushed on into Bolivia. I then turned around & headed back into the mountains towards Bolivia, the poorest country in South America.

It felt odd to look in my mirrors & not see another motorbike or two, especially out in a landscape so vast but it was nice to have it all to myself. Selfish, but the lads know what I mean.

Patrick & Andy had emailed to say there was no fuel in Bolivia & they'd had to rely on small shops & cafes filling them up out of 7Up bottles so I kept to a pace my mum would be proud of knowing I needed to conserve fuel. Plus my tyres are more then a little worn after those amazing Peruvian roads I mentioned in the last entry & I'm trying to nurse them 3000 odd miles to Santiago.

The Bolivian Government had been subsidising fuel prices to the tune of 70% for the last 10 years but decided two weeks prior to my arrival to pull the subsidies in one hit which not surprisingly resulted in mass riots & civil unrest. I've said it before, I know how to holiday.

They did reverse their decision when confronted by a lynch mob so I thought things would be back to normal. They're not. It's a case of getting fuel as & when you can & everyone at the border warning me about fuel shortages & venturing too far out into wilderness.

My original plan had been to ride 1000k's to a place called Santa Cruz but due to all the warnings I opted to head for La Paz to meet Andy & Patrick instead. Common sense prevailing, take note, it doesn't happen often. Leaving the border I bumped into Shigeru Sato, a Japanese lad I've shared miles with here & there since Mexico & we agreed to head to La Paz together.

Sato & his bike were both suffering from the effects of altitude sickness & so 45mph all the way to La Paz it was. At one point I lost sight of him in my mirrors & turned around to make sure he was okay, a lesson learnt from Peru as when I didn't see Damon in my mirrors I pulled over & relaxed for 10 minutes thinking he'd stopped for a photo when in fact he'd crashed rather heavily. It was 15 minutes & about 6 miles back the way I came before I got to Damon & I won't make the same mistake twice.

Fortunately, for me not for him, Sato was just throwing up. At 15000 feet the air is pretty thin & as we'd climbed all the way up from sea level in a matter of hours he was really suffering. Oddly, altitiude doesn't effect me. I say oddly as I'm prone to all other such illnesses. Motion sickness, sea sickness, feeling queasy on planes & merry go rounds if spun too quickly. You name it, I get it. However, altitude is the one exception to the rule. My ancestors must have been the Irish equivilent of Nepalese sherpa's.

Sato & I arrived in La Paz which is enormous (see picture if you don't believe me) late afternoon & looking into the valley from the top of the mountains that surround I couldn't believe how big it is. Finding Patrick & Andy without a map amongst the warren of city streets was not going to be easy. Sato & I headed for the centre of town dodging the usual buses, trucks & taxi's as we went & stopped outside a police station to ask for directions. Just as I was about to invest ten minutes confusing the Policeman with some bad Spanish, who should ride by? Yep, Patrick & Andy. It might be an enormous city but thankfully sometimes, it can be a very small world.

We rode the bikes into a hotel courtyard via a precarious & steep wooden plank up some steps with Patrick having another near death experience with me charging up the plank (speed is your friend) whilst he was standing in front. Those that have seen the 4 second facebook clip of me charging towards him in much the same fashion in Ecuador will be able to picture the expression of terror on his face. It was then across to the Irish bar for some proper food & a couple of drinks.

Whilst in La Paz I needed to get some chores sorted. One was to send postcards (never got round to it) & the other was to get my biker boots resoled, another example of just how exciting life on the road can be. None of the shoe menders (& there were loads) had soles to fit as evidently Bolivians have very small feet. The next option was buy some remnants of a truck tyre for $2 & get a man who sits in the street with an archaic sewing machine to attach the pieces of truck tyre to my boots. A stroke of genius I thought but in hindsight, it may have just been the on set of a stroke.

I was a little sceptical & had thoughts of spending the remainder of my trip walking with a limp as one would inevitably be shorter then the other or ending up with three inch heals but in for a penny... The one eyed Bolivian chap I gave the job to appeared confident so I left my boots & remnants of the truck tyres in his capable hands. Later that afternoon I gave him $6 & to my surprise he'd actually done a reasonable job. Old truck tyres for soles it is. (They held together for less then a day - just in case you were thinking of doing the same).

My evenings in La Paz were spent in the Irish Rover backpacker bar. Not typically Bolivian I'll admit but as I'm on the bike I rarely get to mix with backpackers & the crowd in there were so very friendly. As Patrick was off climbing a mountain (I've had my time doing that) & Andy doesn't drink I'd turn up on my own & within a matter of minutes I'll be happily chatting away with Israeli's, Irish, Americans, Dutch, Germans, Brits, Canadians, Aussies & Kiwi's. I didn't go wild over Christmas or New Year & nor have I spent much time in bars & so I redressed the balance a little in there.

One bonus of time spent on my own is I'm more inclined to say hello to others. Bikers stick to bikers & talk about... you've guessed it... bikes. Listening to backpackers tales without the mention of the word 'sprocket' or similar made a nice change. Everyone sitting at the bar had a tale to tell so it was time well spent. I even met people with whom (I'd normally say 'who' there, but I thought I'd make the effort) I share friends with back in London.

Aside from spending my time walking the very steep streets, which at 15,000ft in altitude isn't easy, I also spent a Sunday afternoon watching Bolivian wrestling involving bouts of men v men, women v women & even men v women. It was brutal, even the referee put the boot in a times. I haven't laughed so hard in ages mainly due to two brothers from Leeds I was sitting beside, but at times it was too graphic to watch. Entire Bolivian families were there shouting, screaming & throwing food. By the end of a bout the ring would be covered in popcorn, chicken bones & bottles.

Right, time to get out of bed, next update from I'm not sure where.

I'm in bed again. No, I'm not being lazy, it's early so there's no need to get up & I can use the time productively to update this blog entry. So there.

Patrick, Andy & I took on the fabled 'Death Road' which after some of the mountain passes in Peru just felt like a road, but it's one to tick off the list. The most dangerous part was by-passed three years ago so it's now only really used by tourists on mountain bikes & motorcyclists from London scaring tourists on mountain bikes.

So the fabled 'Death Road' has been by-passed but as Patrick, Andy & I took a notion to try & ride up & into the Amazon jungle we spent two entire days riding the part they have yet to by-pass & yes, it does get VERY scary. Without question it is the toughest & most fear evoking road I've ridden on.

Our first obstacle (apart from riding up through freezing cloud not being able to see which way the road went) was a landslide which covered the trail in a foot & a half of mucky sludge. Traffic had built up on both sides with no side wanting the other to pass first. We squeezed our way passed buses & trucks & made it through without falling over in front of a couple of hundred spectators which made me happy & isn't easy on a heavily laden motorbike with slick road tyres. Once through we then had to SQUEEZE passed the traffic waiting on the other side which was taking up both sides of the narrow, muddy track meaning we had to ride along the roads edge which we did whilst not looking down.

Less then 15 minutes later the track was closed again, this time by a torrent of fast flowing muddy water racing down the mountain & washing out over the road. A digger was trying to push a track through but all I
The bikes went next.The bikes went next.The bikes went next.

I was genuinely scared.
was looking at was how deep his tyres were in the water, how much he was bouncing around from hitting the unseen boulders beneath & the drop off should things go wrong. Until then I'd be winging it & so I told Patrick & Andy I would probably have to turn around & head back to La Paz. Riding that stretch of trail on a heavy motorbike was well beyond my off road capabilities.

Common sense was telling me crossing could be the end of the bike & or me & after coming this far it would be a shame to end it all here, on a muddy track in the arse end of Bolivia, but another part of me was telling me to throw caution to the wind & go for it (you big girl!). Andy & Patrick were trying to reassure me but I could tell even they looked more then a little concerned.

As soon as the digger was done Andy went for it, followed by Patrick & with only 400 odd spectators watching, me. I could see Andy's bike squirming & Patrick's sinking & as I was so close behind when Patrick slowed I
When it was dry we could fly.When it was dry we could fly.When it was dry we could fly.

Note. Despite the fact I was 'flying' along Andy was able to get off & take pictures.
had to stop. As soon as I did I could feel the bike sinking in the same way your feet do on a beach when the sea washes around them. As the bike sank so did my heart, I was destined to become a muddy speed hump in the Bolivian jungle. Out of hope & more then a little desperation I gave it a fist full of throttle, dropped the clutch & somehow my worn rear tyre started to inch forwards.

An off road pro like Andy or Patrick would wisely match acceleration to traction, but as I was so pleased I was moving at all, I kept the throttle pinned WIDE open, meaning when I did reach the mud again I was carrying a whole load of momentum, on a 400kg bike. Somehow, I have no idea how, I didn't hit any of the trucks, buses or spectators, nor did I fall over the edge. A minor miracle, I'd made it through. GET IN THERE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We then spent the next 30 minutes negiotiating our way through the traffic waiting to come the other direction which had again taken up the entire muddy track meaning no one could go anywhere.

Eventually, we squeezed through & were free. I was so happy & relieved but couldn't help thinking what's around the next corner? Thankfully for the next hour or so the track was clear & we made good progress as long as the trucks coming the other way were given enough room to ensure they passed without sending us over the edge.

Rounding one corner there was a digger in the middle of the track trying to divert a waterfall from running across the road. Although the flow of water over the trail wasn't wide, it was flowing fast & the bucket on the digger was digging deep so it looked like this one was more of a trench.

Andy was first with me following thinking yet again it was game over & my run of good luck was about 4 metres short of coming to an end. As Andy went through his bike dipped & my god it looked deep. The bike bucked & squirmed then climbed up & out the other side. I was next, turned, looked at Patrick who had also seen how hard Andy had found it with his wealth of off road experience on a bike weighing a third of the weight of mine & then reverted to my tried & tested approach - gun it. If I did hit a boulder or sank into the gravel hopefully momentum & a huge fistful of luck would get me to the otherside.

I rode in, the water came up higher then I thought possible & even the engine note changed key but I kept the hammer down & despite it looking like uncontrolled motorcycling mayhem, the bike pulled me through & back out into the mud on the otherside. I screamed with joy for about 30 solid seconds. This motorcycling off road through Bolivian jungle lark might be precarious but when was the last time you screamed & screamed & screamed just for the sheer joy of it? (Take your minds out of the gutter, I meant with your clothes on).
A little further down the road we all pulled up & I asked Patrick who has a video camera attached to his crash helmet (I felt I had to place 'crash' before 'helmet' as I know how your smutty minds work) if he'd filmed any of what is without doubt the toughest road of the trip so far. He said he was so busy concentrating on just getting through all three crossings he'd forgotten to press the record button each & every time.

In 7 hours we covered less then 100 miles & had twice that distance on the same track still to do the following day. Patrick & Andy described the route as a 'little adventurous' with a smirk, which to the likes of you & I translates as nigh on effin' impossible. What a way to spend a Tuesday.

Not long after getting on the road on the Wednesday I wedged the bike between a bus & a car on a very narrow mountain road. Good effort! Thankfully my mum has invested thousands of pounds over many years in 20 pence pieces lighting candles for me in church so I was unhurt, but in that one instance I reduced my balance to zero.

I'd been following a car for a while but because of the dust plume decided not to overtake as I couldn't see when the track was clear. Rounding a bend the car skidded to a halt as there was a bus coming the otherway & stopping my very, very weighty bike on a loose gravel trail isn't easy. I pulled the brakes, locked the wheels & realised I wasn't going to be able to stop in time. On the right was a enormous drop off, in front was a car & to the left was a bus. I skidded left & tried to squeeze a rather large BMW down between the bus & the car, a gap you'd struggle to fit a BMX through & inevitably the bus hit the handle bars (or more appropriately, I hit the bus) & over I went.

The chap in the car behind (which was full of piglets - strange the things you remember) got out & Andy came running over to help get the bike upright again & off me. Once the bike was lifted clear the bus driver drove on without a word, which was good as I'd put a scrape down the side & a dent in one of the lugguage compartment doors.

Once a little further down the trail I had space to pull over & assess the damage. Windsheild snapped in two, bent mirrors & crashbars, throttle fixers snapped but otherwise it all looked okay. The bus did nearly snap off the front brake fluid resevoir which would have left me on a trail on the side of a cliff miles from anywhere with no front brakes but somehow it was still attached.

I asked Patrick to see if the handlebars looked level & in doing so he took a few steps back & so very, very nearly went over the cliff edge. At that point we still had another 8 or 9 hours in the saddle still to do so once things were straightened out & stuck back together (you'd be amazed what you can fix with a roll of gaffer tape & some cable ties) & Patrick had got his breath back it was back on the bike & go.

The biggest problem we had was knowing which side of the track to ride on. Ride on the left no problem for three miles, but come miles four to six all the other traffic would be over on our side honking & screaming telling us to ride on the right. Switch sides & sure enough from miles 6 to 8 trucks would honk & tell us to cross back to the left. Being a dirt trail with mile after mile of blind corners clinging to the side of a cliff face it was important we got it right but we never did fathom what we were supposed to do & so we just took turns at riding out in front. In the end whoever was at the front would have to opt for 'middle/wherever the others aren't' which wasn't ideal, but was better then the alternative.

For the majority of the ride I was standing on the foot pegs staring at the road 30 foot in front trying to pick a path through the mud & dust between the holes & the rocks. Every few seconds I'd glance up to see if anything was coming, what line the bike in front/behind was on & then look down again just prior to smashing into a pothole or a rock I didn't see, or that was on a line which avoided an even bigger rock or pothole. That same process was repeated 20 times a minute & Patrick, Andy & I were on the road that day for 10 hours. Trust me, 'riding the America's' is
When you rely on another form of transport.When you rely on another form of transport.When you rely on another form of transport.

On route to the Amazon. 4 hours in a car, 3 in a boat.
harder then it sounds.

In the afternoon we came to a deep muddy section & for some inexplicable reason I didn't slow down. No idea why, I did see it but my mischievious side clearly thought it would be fun to try & ride through it at 30mph. Andy knew it would cause problems & had his camera at the ready & yes, for the second time in a matter of hours I came off. I did try to hold it upright but as I was comfortably 27mph over the appropriate speed & on slick tyres it was only going to end in a big, muddy mess.

Finally after 10 hours in the saddle & all of 110 miles covered we reached our destination. It may sound like we were crawling along but at times we could be riding through punishing sections of gravel & rock at 40mph huge dust plumes in our wake. Other times we'd be stopped trying to gauge how deep a puddle is with cries of 'you first' & 'go for it you big girl'.

Our trip into the Amazon lasted three days in which we went spent two & a half bitching about the biblical swarms of vicious mosquitoes who seemed to thrive on deet, whilst we blamed each other for wanting to come to the Amazon in the first place. The other half day was spent watching the wildlife & Anaconda hunting in knee deep swamp whilst still bitching about the mosquitos.

Whilst out in the Amazon it poured & poured with rain making me think how in hell are we ever going to make it back? The route was nearly impossible in the dry!!! So here I sit, in bed (yes again!) the night before getting back on the 'Death Road' with the rain hammering down as I type. Tomorrow is not going to be fun.

Day one of the journey back to La Paz. Miles covered 64.

The rain didn't stop all night long & so come morning the trail was one huge very slippery mess. I think I came off about 8 or 9 times, I stopped counting. No injuries to me however, the bike took a beating as it went sliding down the road again, again & again.

Now, to get the bike going in a straight line you need to turn the handle bars to the right. Also the frame holding the cases on the side is bent to such a degree that I can't access the fuel cap which is a problem as I'll be needing fuel between here & Argentina. Unbelievably the cases themselves are in remarkably good shape considering time & again the full weight of the bike would smash them into the trail.

In the falling off the bike stakes I claimed first place by a comfortable margin. Patrick was a strong early contender but didn't throw the bike down the road nearly as much as the hours passed & so fell into second place. Andy didn't come off once & therefore was way down in third. Amateur.

At times whilst stationary waiting for an oncoming car or bus to pass the back wheel of my bike would just slide left or right & out from under me which made me think what is it going to be like when I'm on the trail along the cliff edge???

When I did fall off I was barely able to stand up it was so slippery. Watching Andy & Patrick walk towards me to help lift the bike they'd be slipping & sliding all over the road. I swear, if you were to add a liberal smattering of baby oil, ball bearings & banana skins it could not have been any slippier.

Despite the heavy rain, the mud, the damage to the bikes, the buses hassling us to pick our bikes up when we could hardly stand, we had to laugh. Why oh why did we think we could ride to the Amazon?

Patrick has a video clip from his helmet camera (I left out the 'crash' from that sentence as by now I'd hope you've matured) of him riding along one moment & hitting the ground the next as if he's been taken out by a sniper. As he spins around who do you see crashing behind him? Yep yours truly! By that stage I was getting good at it. I'd already been sent over the handle bars, off the left, off the right, finishing up laying on top of the bike, laying beside & on more then one occasion laying behind as the bike slid down the road. I can confidently say on Sunday 23rd January 2011 I crashed more times then in all of my biking career thus far, which prior to this trip stood at a grand total of 1. I suppose I should count my blessings & be grateful only one of my off's involved a bus.

Trying to pick the bikes back up was exhausting especially mine as my rear tyre wouldn't grip & so we'd have the bike at a 45 degree angle & it would just slide along the trail & go down again which got more then a little frustrating.

After about 7 hours of the above being repeated over & over we arrived at a town & gave up. Patrick's bike boxes were smashed to shit, my box frame was mangled & handlebars were skew-whiff & Andy was a little muddy. We booked into a hotel with no hot water & no light in the room & concentrated on being miserable. I did a sterling job of ignoring the fact we had the hardest part of the road still to travel.
& you all thought I was out here having fun.

Day 2. Still trying to get back to La Paz. Miles 99.6.

After a long, wet, treacherous day on the bike I'm sitting here adding to this blog entry. Yes, I'm sitting on a bed, but for a change I'm not actually in bed. But it won't be long.

Last night it didn't stop raining all night long. I lay awake thinking how on earth can I ride a road when the bike can't even grip enough only only a very slight incline to stay upright when stationary? We got into our cold, wet, muddy & smelly biker gear & were on the road for 8am. Not far out of town the road climbed out of the mud & into the mountains where there was more grip from the gravel & rock on the trail. Much more grip in comparison to yesterday which means the back tyre was as grippy as a bar of soap in a shower, but in relative terms I was a happy man.

Six hours to cover nigh on a hundred miles through mountains & jungle in continual heavy rain on a gravel & mud track with trucks, washouts, holes & all number of other hazards to dodge was good going. Andy stayed out front all day long which isn't fair or easy as he's the first to encounter oncoming traffic & he has to gauge the trail for grip too, but as he's easily the best off road rider it made sense, well to Patrick & I atleast. We stopped a few times for roadside repairs as the trail was the same punishing mix of potholes, gravel, rock & mud for mile after mile & each time we stopped spirits were high. It may have been raining hard, cold & grim & we might be on one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world but oddly we were happy. Me especially so as I didn't crash all day.

So here I am in a place called Caranavi which isn't too far from La Paz. Hopefully only a days ride away if the road is open & passable. I'm busily conserving energy by lazing about in anticipation of the most dangerous part of the route back which starts tomorrow morning & involves the narrowest sections of slippery trail with the largest drop off's. Hopefully I'll finish & post this entry tomorrow night from the comfort of a hotel in La Paz. Fingers crossed.

Day 3. La Paz!!! Miles 101.

I'll keep it short. We made it back through rain, sun, mud and snow & I didn't crash. Magic! Time for a visit to the bar.

Sorry for taking up so much of your time.

Lots of love,

Brian


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26th January 2011

I've said it before...
...and I'll say it again. Your blog is surprisingly good. PS - I want a postcard.
26th January 2011

I too am traveling South America and having a blast but as a "biker" who can't afford to do the trip on 2 wheels, I keep seeing you lucky folks on your BMW's, KTM's and Africa Twins and I am so envious, at least with you I can live vicariously through your blog, Keep warm safe and aim for the gap between the green bits, Happy Trails you lucky sod, might see ya somewhere along the way, Suerte
26th January 2011
Hour after hour after hour.

Mud death roads-Mr Gohery you are mad! Stay safe amigo x
3rd February 2011

I started reading this update with thoughts along the lines of "Bloody Gohery, lucky bastard. I'm stuck at my desk and he's off travelling Bolivia".... I was surprising non-jealous once I got to the scary parts... Glad you (seem) safe 'n sound. Shannon xx P.S You write good for a fella :o)

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