Friday 1st September
Since the last blog entry from the three Nuts on the road, we each made our way fairly directly across Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama to join up again beyond the canal eager for the next significant step of our journey. It is definitely a shame to have had so little time in Central America; there is so much to see in the lush tropical jungle of these three lower countries, not to mention El Salvador which we avoided all together. We have had ample time in the last week to hear stories of exploring the region, and heard about what we have missed.
One thing that we did not miss however was the Panama Canal. While I have obviously been aware of this all my life, it was only on actually seeing it for myself that I realised the enormity of the engineering feat that building the canal entailed. Initiated by the French in 1881, work was abandoned due to engineering problems and high worker mortality. It was picked up again by the Americans in 1904 and the canal was opened in 1914. Seventy seven kilometres (48 miles) from Pacific to Atlantic, the amount of earth and rock that had to be moved is simply stupendous. The engineering is brilliant. Three locks at either end raise ships to the artificially created Gatun lake at 26 m (85 ft) above sea level, which occupies a large proportion of the width of the isthmus. The entire functioning of the lock systems is driven by gravity, as the lake drains down to each ocean. It is hugely impressive.
The main reason we have been in a bit of a rush in the last three weeks is that we changed our plans for crossing the Darien Gap, and decided that rather than fly over it we would sail around it. I think we have Sam, a young Australian biker we encountered in Alaska to thank for putting that idea into our heads. Looking at the possibilities we found that the Stahlratte had a sailing available to us on 28th August, at least a week before we had thought we would fly.
Before going into the stories of this slightly bizarre trip, it may be that some people are not aware that there is no road crossing the border between Panama and Colombia. In fact, as the crow flies there is approximately 100 km between the two ends of the Pan-American Highway, the space being filled by a mix of dense jungle and swamps, with a range of mountains reaching heights of up to 1845 m on the Panamanian side. Attempts have been made over the decades to construct a road, but unlike the Panama Canal this is a project that has not come to fruition. This is partly because of the engineering difficulties and attendant cost, partly because of the concerns for the environment and unique habitat supporting rare wildlife and two tribes of indigenous people, and partly as a very effective deterrent to illegal crossing of people and drugs from South to North America. Control of large parts of the Darien region by FARC guerrillas has provided yet another reason for the region to be extremely dangerous, although the danger has subsided since 2013.
Crossing the Gap has been a quest of several explorers and adventurers. The first successful crossing was by Land Rover and a Jeep in 1959-60. The team averaged 201 metres per hour over 136 days, traveling for large distances up the Atrato river. The first motorcycle crossing was by one Robert L Webb in 1975; subsequent crossings are extremely rare and remain a great feat of endurance and effort.
So, the hundred or so odd adventurers who wish to ride (or drive) the length of the Americas each year are obliged to find an alternative means of crossing. The most common means of transport favoured by people in a hurry and guided tour groups is to fly; cargo planes criss-cross the Gap on a daily basis and arranging to have a bike transported is a simple if costly procedure. This was our initial plan, as advised by our two very different gurus, Kevin Saunders and Nick Sanders.
Taking a boat however sounds so much more fun. Particularly a sailing boat, with the bikes loaded on deck. And especially as the trip took the guise of a short cruise, with a couple of days idling and relaxing among the San Blas islands – this is the Caribbean, remember! The boat is the Stahlratte, or “Steel Rat”. She was built in 1903 as a fishing vessel in the Netherlands. Having changed hands and functions a number of times, she now sails various routes in the Caribbean including this passage from Panama to Cartagena in Colombia, and voyages to Cuba as a strictly non-profit enterprise crewed by volunteers under the guidance of Kapitan Ludwig, otherwise known as LuLu, who has been running the boat for about 14 years. So the deadline was to get to Panama by 26th August, in order to arrive at the dock 100 km to the north and east of Panama City in the Kuna Yala region, home to the Kuna indigenous people, ready for loading the bikes on the 27th. This was going to be fun.
What was to make it even more fun was meeting our fellow travellers on the voyage. Almost all were bikers – 14 in all plus five other non-biker passengers. While all the bikers had clearly a lot in common, we were also a disparate group. Australians Paul and Neake are a husband and wife team each with their own bike traveling around the world with seemingly no particular aim or goal in mind; this is how they had chosen to live and had been on the road for 17 months so far. We were possibly at the other end of the spectrum with a specific target of riding from North to South and aiming to be finished by a particular date in December. The common reaction was that we had been traveling very fast – several of the travelers had spent a month or more in Mexico, we crossed it in little more than a week. To be honest, there are times when listening to stories of roads and places that I wished I had had more time, but in reality that would entail a different goal from the outset. Maybe next time. Every single one of the group was fascinating. July Behl is a British guy riding solo who has credentials as an adventurer as well as a wonderful sense of humour. He writes for a couple of magazines and I think we will hear more of him. Simon is another Australian on a similar bike to mine whose laid back nature is so refreshing. The craziest one of the lot has to be Anthony, yet another Aussie (with “Another Stupid Aussie” emblazoned on his pannier). Aged just 24, he set off like us to ride from Alaska to Argentina. But unlike us, he set off in January. He apparently became quite famous without knowing it, as lots of people had taken photos of this madman on a bike riding in snow and ice at temperatures well below freezing, and posting them on social media with WTF – type captions. His bike, a KLR 650, is pretty knackered by now but he seems to be a pretty handy mechanic which is just as well. I think he goes down as one of the gutsiest people we have met on this trip so far, and I hope we bump into each other again somewhere along the road. Anyone from the Stahlratte voyage whom I have not mentioned please forgive me – all were fascinating and great company, but more importantly perhaps all were truly inspirational.
An event that cannot go unmarked (and didn’t) was Ian’s birthday, on Friday 29th. How many people celebrate their 69th birthdays on a two masted schooner in the middle of a six-month motorcycle ride? Another inspiration I think. The evening was marked with wine and lobster and much good cheer while at anchor off such idyllic palm-fringed islands it is almost a cliché. Then after dinner the anchor was hauled up and we set off for the 30-hour voyage across the south-western Caribbean for Cartagena. And the sea swelled and heaved and the boat rolled and pitched for probably 29 of those 30 hours.