Madaru Moto: motorbike adventures in South America
The trip, the bike, motivation, selection, purchase and preparation
I have been dreaming of a motorcycle trip around the Andes for many years. Although I have already spent over a decade working and travelling in South America, travel was almost always by public bus, and the number of times I had seen something interesting and wanted to shout 'STOP!' to the driver ... well, once or twice I actually did ask the bus to stop so I could get off and investigate or photograph something, forfeiting the remainder of my fare in the process. But more often than not it was not possible or feasible to do so. In short, I yearned for the freedom having your own vehicle would endow.
Thus the idea of an Andean motorcycle journey coalesced, but it had its genesis when I was a child, after reading the Tin Tin classic, 'Prisoners of the Sun'. Later, my dream was nourished through devouring popular travel books and films - like Jupiter's Travels, The Motorcycle Diaries, Mondo Enduro, Alby Mangles and of course Long Way Round - and further boosted after meeting some who had actually participated in these adventures or done something similar. In 2001 a new teacher arrived at the school where I taught in Cartagena: Mr Ashley Rhodes. Ashley had ridden a large-capacity bike from the tip of Tierra del Fuego all the way to Alaska, which he documented in a travel book titled Lonesome Rhodes. In this photo, taken in February 2002, we bumped into Andres Pastrana, who was then incumbent President of Colombia. Ashley later settled in Colombia, where he runs a travel agency specializing in Colombian attractions: GoColombiaTours.
The first internationally famous moto-man I met was Ted Simon, who stayed a few days with me in 2002 when I lived in Cartagena. If you know anything about motorcycle travel literature, Ted needs no introduction; I read his best selling book 'Jupiter's Travels' more than 20 years ago. Ted was over 70 when I met him but in the middle of his second round-the -world bike ride, which he completed, despite having broken some bones in an accident just a few days before he stayed with me.
The next famous motorcyclist I met was none other than Che Guevara's best friend and moto travel buddy, Doctor Alberto Granado. I met him in the Amazon town of Iquitos in January 2003, when he was a consultant to Walter Salles' popular film, The Motorcycle Diaries. I interviewed him in Spanish, the details of which I hope to publish one day - old Alberto had a few interesting things to say about my home country. Sadly he passed away in 2011.
One day in 2006 my brother, who works at a hostel near Central Station, said he met someone whom he thought I might want to talk to. It turned out I did want to talk to him, and he to me, but talk was impossible as the man in question was a deaf mute since an infant (due to a WWII bomb). As his native language was Russian, even written communication was impossible; our interaction was limited to grunts and hand gestures. Vladimir Yarets had recently recovered from an accident in California which put him in hospital and written off his bike. Yet he is a shining example of what a so-called 'handicapped' person can do: the map behind us plots some of the amazing rides he has done in many parts of the world. At the time this photo was taken, Vladimir was soliciting for money in the Central pedestrian tunnel, to pay the import duties on his new bike, which was stuck in customs.
Fate led me to meet yet another famous motorcyclist, perhaps more famous in his native India than anywhere else, a man who documents in video his travels on Royal Enfields: Gaurav Jani, producer of the inspiring film "Journey to the top of the World" . I am pictured here with him in Mumbai at a screening of his 2nd film, 'One Crazy Ride'.
(ps I am not an FBI agent! That FBI t-shirt - which got me verbally abused in Colombia on one occasion - is tongue-in-cheek and stands for "Federacion de Borachos de Iquitos" - the 'Federation of Drunks of Iquitos' - a charity organization.)
My next fateful meeting happened when a dynamic British duo, Steve Holmes and Pete Sandford, crossed my path in 2009. Steve wrote a best-selling book; Pete plans his own book and a documentary film, about their re-enactment of Che Guevara and Alberto Granado's famous journey - on antique Norton bikes they restored themselves from spare parts they bought on eBay! Pete is currently building a bike for a speed attempt on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Details are sketchy for their next adventure ride, a freezing adventure planned for somewhere in the Arctic. I made a short film about their visit to Cusco; here we are pictured at the Peruvian town of Anta.
With such illustrious friends and acquaintances, I felt challenged, goaded - actually, almost compelled - to make my own journey, to feel worthy enough to be promoted to their ranks, so to speak. And I wanted to do it before Ewan and Charley did!
But there were a few catches. One was that I had very little motorcycle experience. As a teenager I owned a Suzuki A100 two-stroke road-registered bike, but I only rode it for a year or two and though I still hold a motorcycle rider's licence, I have had precious little riding experience since. Another small problem is that in my country we drive on the opposite side of the road: everything is OK until I get to an intersection, when my traffic instincts make me look the wrong way! So I decided to pay for some riding lessons in Cusco on a Honda Tornado 250, and then do a few day-long rides with a guide.
A sensible plan, I thought, but it all ended with a small disaster...
I arranged a lesson for myself and Christo, a long-time friend and former manager of Cusco's Coca Shop. Our instructors took us, as passengers on the back of the bikes to a dirt trail called Carreterra Llaullipata; I took my GPS along for a 'burl':
Ducking under a thick road barrier, made from woven-wire cable, we avoided kids playing soccer , stray cows and a man with two horses, then came to a paddock. We both were given a few basic instructions, then allowed to ride around in circles in the open paddock in first gear, then second gear, third etc, trying out the brakes and throttle etc, before our instructors said we should then explore the trails on our own.
Here I am with Christo on Carreterra Llaullipata, up in the hills to the north-west of Cusco, on rented Honda Tornado 250s. We are at an altitude of around 3625m (11,893 ft) here.
Back in Cusco, at the end of the lesson, we felt like we were pros!
So far so good...
Back in my hostel - which is a bit of a Mecca for both moto and bicycle riders - I was honoured to meet an amazing German couple, Annette and Kai, who have ridden many parts of the world in a moto-sidecar combination.
What amazed me was not only did Kai custom build the sidecar, but the bike as well! It has a BMW engine and Volkswagen rear wheel, and custom forks; Kai was a mechanical engineer and he told me he built it 20 years ago, when registration laws weren't as strict. To build the same bike today and get it to pass German inspection would be almost impossible.
Next on my agenda was a proper day's ride. I wanted a smaller, easier to handle bike (remembering I am a more or less a bike newbie) but the smallest bike the rental agencies offered - apart from scooters - were 250cc Tornados; but since I had already taken a lesson on one, I felt pretty confident. I booked one on a Sunday, along with a guide on his own bike.
"Please don't drink the night before your ride" said the manageress of the rental agency."I don't drink" I replied. Then I remembered I had bought tickets to a Halloween show, "The Nightmare Circus", scheduled for the Saturday night before:
I had a good time...
and so did my friend Bill !
This is my dentist on the left, and Elizabeth, the manager of the Explorers Club, in the middle:
Despite the festive atmosphere, both Bill and I only drank coca-colas.
At the rental offcie the next day, we planned a route that would avoid most of the main roads, but took in a lot of dirt and scenic routes. I paid extra for bike and medical insurance, cautious as always.
Filling up before we set off
After winding our way out of Cusco, we were soon on a dirt track that followed the railway line that eventually leads to Machu Picchu, though it is mostly on the other side of the river.
One had to be vigilant around blind corners in case you collided with the locals:
The long ride took us through traffic on sealed roads and lonely dirt tracks, and it rained for part of the way.
It was an exhilarating ride! I was really having fun! At one point we saw a landslide where half a mountainside had slid away into a canyon river valley.
There was a bulldozer and rail line at the bottom and you could see it was just waiting for the next heavy rain before another landslide would occur. My guide told me it was the main line that connected Cusco and Machu Picchu.
After several hours and 143kms of travel, when we both got the bikes going well over 100 km/h, on a safe ,sealed section, we headed back to Cusco. About 15kms outside the town the traffic grew heavy again. I was having a ball... this bike riding was great fun, and easy! Despite the varying altitudes and conditions, the Tornado didn't stumble at any point.
But... a small disaster lay waiting...
Just as we came back into Cusco streets, my guide signalled me to stop beside him, on a rather steep patch of cobblestones in a street called Arco. The cobblestones stood higher on the edge of the road than in the center; they were slippery smooth river stones set in concrete; it wasn't raining, but a leaking drain meant some were wet while others were dry. Lack of experience caused me to lock up the front brake on the wet stones, but when the dry stones came the tyre actually gripped and the handlebars twisted out of my control - as if violently wrenched by some unseen hand - and me and the bike went down sideways. I remember my head hitting the ground pretty hard, but my helmet saved me.
Luckily I was already going pretty slow, only about 15kmh, and a taxi behind me managed to stop before he hit me. Here is are a series of GPS maps of the crash:
Caused $30 damage to the bike mirror and hand-grip, and after dusting myself off and checking I had not broken any bones, jumped back on the bike and rode the back back the last 500m of the 143km ride. It then started to hail, even though the sun was shining from an angle.
Back at the hostel there was a family reunion going on, with 200 guests. I had a room on the second floor, and I needed help climbing the stairs as my left hip socket was now hurting, but only if I put weight on it. Later that night I was in a lot of pain if I tried to walk. The next day I could not walk, and had to crawl to the exterior bathroom like a baby. I thought I would give myself a day or two and see if I got better before I called a doctor, but the 2nd night I was worse, and was starting to worry I might need an operation. Yet, I could move my leg normally and painlessly in any direction, I just could not put vertical weight on it. Remembering I had paid extra for accident insurance, I called the rental agency owner, but she said since two days had passed, and we had not called the police, the policy was void. In any case, she added, she had thrown out the policy papers! I had tried to get travel insurance before I left home, but no companies replied to my emails specifically asking if motorcycle riding was covered.
I felt like crying...