Monday 18th September
In the various blog posts we have written, one thing I keep forgetting to record is some basic statistics of our trip so far. Today this is a perfect opportunity to rectify that.
I am writing this on 18th September, exactly three months since the first three Nuts landed in Anchorage, and so almost exactly the half-way point in our journey. And today we crossed the equator in Ecuador, just to the north of Quito.
In the last three months Tom, Ian and I have ridden through 10 countries. My bike has clocked up around 13500 miles (21600 km) since leaving Anchorage. As previously documented all the bikes have suffered significant problems of various aetiologies during the initial weeks but are now behaving perfectly. Ian’s injuries have healed (although I haven’t enquired about the progress of toenail re-growth), and I am now walking well following my torn calf muscle.
We have stayed in a variety of hotels and hostels, some lovely and charming such as the Coffee Tree Hostel in Salento, and some godawful holes. We have carried tents and camping gear all of those 21000 km; Ian and I have used them once. Hopefully that will change – who knows?
A feature that I have commented on a number of times is the friendliness and curiosity of so many people that we meet. A common question is What is your favourite place so far? This is always difficult to answer as everywhere is different but so many have their charms. But now, the current top of the leader board for me at least has to be Colombia.
We had heard it was a beautiful country and worth exploring, but that tells you nothing. It is a fantastic place – we spent 17 days there. The northern Caribbean coast where we landed is very hot and humid. As we progressed south, we rode first in the wide valleys between the mountainous ridges of the Andes before climbing to the higher, cooler altitudes. The Andes in Colombia are where most of the population live, and always have. The mountains comprise three large ridges called Cordilleras: West, Central and East, running more or less north – south, with wide valleys between them. Main arterial roads run in the same direction in the valleys, and sinuous mountain passes traverse the Cordilleras linking the valleys, and more importantly linking the large towns and cities which lie in the cool of the mountains. These roads are a biker’s paradise, only marginally spoiled by the trucks chugging up and down them acting as mobile chicanes. In addition to these main mountain passes, there are countless smaller roads linking small rural villages and settlements; most of these are unpaved and can be little more than stony tracks – further excitement for the adventurous biker!
We have all enjoyed some of these unpaved roads to varying degrees and extents. What was Type 1 fun for some was more like Type 3 fun for others, and I think one particular night time foray by Tom could possibly count as Type 4 (with thanks to Ian Wright, fellow student of exuberance, for introducing me to the Fun Scale: https://kellycordes.com/2009/11/02/the-fun-scale/amp/).
With the full four-strong team together we visited Salento in the heart of the Cafeteria, or coffee growing region. Here we met Eddie in whose Coffee Tree Hostel we stayed a couple of nights. Eddie was born in Colombia but raised in New Jersey. After travelling the world over several years he has returned to his native country to make use of what he has learned in building the most idyllic hostel for like-minded travellers. The result is quite enchanting. A keen biker himself, Eddie recommended a route for the next day, and came along for the ride over 65 km of unpaved road through yet more wild and lush mountain landscape. A more conventional road was a suitable alternative for Ian who eschewed the dirt rather than risk chewing on it. But again, for the rest of us the unpaved route was good practice for what was to come.
Part of the excitement of the adventure comes from finding roads and routes less well traveled – for unspoilt scenery, less traffic and the feeling of heading into the unknown. While we all have different thresholds for what constitutes an adventure, it is that concept that has driven us all individually to do this, to be here.
The world’s most spectacular roads is the name of a website hidden away on the net that we have found useful. To get details of any particular road listed, you are rather disconcertingly redirected to another site called dangerousroads.org. It was here we came across a road charmingly named Trampolin de la Muerte (The Trampoline of Death) or sometimes Trampolin del Diablo, which crosses the central Andean ridge at the southern end of Colombia. Where we were broadly heading. The web entry was encouraging: http://www.dangerousroads.org/south-america/colombia/3030-trampolin-de-la-muerte-mocoa-san-francisco.html. This bouncy-sounding route clearly needed investigating and so another web search revealed a number of articles and blogs some of which were hard to believe: “1000 metre sheer drop”, “many deaths”, “large trucks that don’t stop”, and “over 500 deaths in 2011 alone”. It seemed unlikely. I fancied riding it. Tom fancied it too. Mark had a moment of intelligence and declined. Then Tom changed his mind. I was on my own. Then Mark decided that accompanying me for my own safety overcame his concerns of vertigo. What a guy.
Friday evening saw Mark and me in Mocoa at the eastern end of the Trampoline. Ian and Tom were waiting in Pasto at the western end, or so we thought. Until Tom’s satellite tracker revealed him to be heading in our direction. In the dark. I will leave out the details of feelings and anxieties, but suffice to say that none of us, probably including Tom, have any understanding as to how he reached the decision to do this ride alone in the dark. It has led to greater realisation for all of us what the responsibilities of being a part of a team entail. I believe he did not find the ride to be easy, but he did eventually arrive in Mocoa, a little tired. So the next day three Nuts set off to ride the road as planned, Mark and I feeling that the challenge had been diminished a bit by the knowledge that it was clearly doable. In daylight it was tricky, sure, and in places very difficult but not as lethal as had been suggested by some of the more hysterical reports. The sense of wilderness did not disappoint, nor the rugged terrain or the feeling of satisfaction at having completed it.
Anyone who has skied the Vallee Blanche in Chamonix will be familiar with the Arête, the steep ridge one needs to walk down carrying skis from the top of the cable car to the plateau where one starts skiing. This ridge is the stuff of legend and has many people trembling in fear based purely on over-blown stories of the dangers, such that they decide against even trying. It strikes me that the situation is similar – talk up the dangers and you will talk people out of attempting a route or feat that would be well within their capabilities. But nonetheless, for the benefit of any future riders considering this route just as you need to be a competent skier to ski the VB, you need a level of competence to ride the Trampoline.
Reunited with Ian in Pasto it was now time to leave Colombia for Ecuador. The border crossing was well organised and simple, but it still took an age for the officials to produce our import permits for the bikes. The time waiting was not wasted as we encountered Alfredo, a Colombian living and working in Ecuador who was riding a GS1200 on nearly bald tyres. We enjoyed a fun ride together into Ecuador that evening as dusk was falling, the entertainment being briefly interrupted by Ian’s bike developing a flat tyre. His own personal god was paying attention; Ian had felt something not right but the flat only became apparent at a police check point less than 100 metres from a roadside tyre repair shack. Such places are common all over Latin America, probably due to the poor state of a) the roads and b) the tyres fitted to all vehicles. It probably took 45 minutes to whip off the front wheel, have the inner tube replaced (we carry spares) by the very helpful (and strong!) lady, get the wheel back on and be on our way. Alfredo stayed with us during this, a helpful interpreter and facilitator despite it meaning that his three-hour ride to Quito would now be even more in the dark.
Together, repaired and refreshed the four Loose Nuts rode south and crossed the Equator today just before noon. This seems like a momentous occasion. We are glad to be here, clearly making progress, and enjoying the prospect of the rest of the ride in the Southern Hemisphere.