It was the second water crossing of the day. Unlike the water crossings dual-sport adventure motorcyclists live for — . peaceful rushing creeks or rivers in wilderness areas or the occasional flooded desert wash — these water crossings were on the main road from Sucre — Bolivia’s official colonial capital city and the fourth largest in the country — to Santa Cruz it’s largest. This highly travelled route promised a long but easy 10-hour ride to Santa Cruz. So we thought — and were told. In reality, the first 40 or 50 miles were paved (sort of), but the rest of the route was dusty, rutted, washed out horse trail. But it was the only road between these major cities. Busses, trucks, cars and motorcycles — everyone and everything that needed to get between Santa Cruz and Sucre had to travel this trail.
Jeremiah and I had been studying the Bolivian map for the past several days. We were looking for a route allow us to see the best of Bolivia in the time we allocated. We wanted to experience more of the altiplano, the lowland agricultural areas and the tropics including the jungas and jungle. We settled on a loop that take us from Sucre on Tuesday (Halloween) October 31, 2006 to Santa Cruz leaving the arid highlands for the low-lying lush and green agricultural area of Santa Cruz. Along the way we’d stop in Vallegrande, perhaps the last resting place of Latin American revolutionary icon Che Guevera before he was assassinated by the Bolivian army under orders and financing by the C.I.A. Then we’d head north experiencing a number of extremely UNESCO World Heritage designated Jesuit Missions before circling back to La Paz for trip into the jungas — the high jungle. And from La Paz we’d return to Potosi and make the trek along the infamous road where I broke my leg in January. From their we’d finally find ourself after 10 long months of patiently waiting gazing and riding onto the Salar de Uyuni before sneaking over the border to Chile and Argentina.
A simple plan and we figured three to four weeks. The first part of this plan would theoretically have us travel more or less paved or very good “primary” dirt roads. So the map told us — as well as nearly every local we asked.
So as I stared down my second water crossing of the day, it was evident that not only had it rained in the past day or two, but that hundreds of trucks had turned what could have been a simple stream into a muddy rutted mess. This didn’t look good. Describing myself as apprehensive would be true but extremely understated. At my first water crossing just a few hours earlier I nearly chickened out. Also thick with slippery and ugly mud, my alternative was a rocky high-point complete with shale, sharp rocks and watermelon sized boulders. A very technical “out” where one slip and I’d fall onto this sharp and jagged mess. To be sure, a 250cc or 400cc dirt bike would have no problem tackling the technical out – perhaps even the deep muddy rutted way by. But a F650 Dual Sport loaded with full panniers and then some? Unloaded these bikes are still just wannabe dirt bikes. Fine for basic dirt roads and the occasional off-road “lite” outing, but loaded for world travel they’re clunky and cumbersome. In technical off-road situations it’s akin to hammering a small brad with a sledge hammer — control becomes extremely difficult. And here I was faced with such a situation only a scant 2 hours into the second leg of my journey.
It’s been 9 months since I’d journeyed in Bolivia. Sure I rode the bike a few days ago from Potosi to Sucre. But it was unloaded, light and agile. And I was on a fine paved road. Now I was staring down my nemesis — a muddy water crossing. Dejá vu.
I wanted to bail. My heart pounded and with my knuckles bleach white with anxiety I squeezed the grips. Where the pavement ended just minutes before I navigated through a deep muddy rut, scraping my pegs on either side while a Suzuki Vitara barreled down the other lane spaying mud my way. This wasn’t exactly the smooth segue I’d planned for “this” leg. I’d had enough, I thought. Jeremiah refused my pleas to take my bike through the mess. He made it through the technical stuff moments before, but there’s no way he wanted to repeat the obstacle course. I looked at the mud again. Then the rocks. It was mud that sent me to the hospital and forced my medical evacuation from Bolivia. I chose the rocks.
Feathering the clutch and maintaining my RPMs and proceeded in the poor excuse for a first gear that the BMW F650GS is equipped. I made it to the other side without falling.
It’s hard to explain the nervousness and trepidation that ran through my body. Cardio, gastro, nervous and cognitive systems were all on overload. And they were playing tricks. While I’ve ridden this type of terrain, I was in no mood to start my journey without some warm-up or practice. So you can imagine the feeling in my gut when I encountered the second water crossing. Especially after a little episode an hour earlier that wracked Jeremiah’s cage.
We had just stopped for refreshments and fuel in Iquique before making the turn toward Santa Cruz. It was about 4:30 and because of a late start in Sucre we’d traveled only 85 miles in just over five hours. While climbing a rocky and sandy route of switchback after switchback above a fertile valley surrounded by dry desert mountains, Jeremiah nearly got pushed off a cliff by an 18-wheel trucker. He’d pulled to the side of the road, using the appropriate decorum and safety procedure, to let the truck pass. Position is always tough on these roads, but Jeremiah had found a spot before the tight downhill left-hand turn the trucker would make. Unfortunately the driver didn’t swing his rig wide enough so as he made the turn the sidewalls of the truck’s rear tires struck Jeremiah’s left pannier causing him to lose balance and drop the bike on a pile of sharp rocks and boulders. A few feet past the rocks and his bike would have sailed sans wings. The nominal damage to the bike hurt Jeremiah more. Remember he’s the rider who armed with a sponge cloth in the morning keeps his bike pristinely clean. And after more than 30,000 miles of riding North, Central and South American roads, his bike barely showed any scratches or dents. So not only was his bike a bit bruised, his pride took a whack too. The worst part of the whole episode was despite Jeremiah’s yelling pleas, the trucker didn’t stop.
I walked to edge of the mucky water, slid my boot across the mud, kicked a rock and walked back to my bike. This water crossing was much longer, deeper and nastier. The way around was ever rockier, messier and perhaps more technical than before. Jeremiah and I tried to clear the most obtrusive rocks to make a path. But even then this track would end in deep sand. The rocks this time looked worse. Falling on such not only does more damage to a bike, but falling hard on something sharp or getting a limb caught between the bike and a boulder meant higher risk of injury. Jeremiah took the rocks and despite getting momentarily stuck in the sand, he popped up and out to safety.
My bike felt heavy. And those rocks looked menacing. So I set a line on the outside right edge of the muddy cesspool. I started the bike and slowly released the clutch and waded Doc into the water and mud. So far so good. I cleared the nearly 30 or 40 feet of water with both wheels when my front wheel sunk into a deep truck-made rut. I tried to keep Doc upright but the rear wheel swung around fast while pivoting on the front. I was now 180 degrees turned and facing the mud from the other side. I jumped to safety. The impact and slide in the mud caused one Jesse bag to fly off. It happened so fast and afterward, Doc sat buried in the mud idling, still in first gear with pits of mud flaying off the rear wheel as it spun helplessly until I turned the engine off.
So far so good. I can do this. (photo by Miah)
Well. I guess this was a bad idea. (photo by Miah)
We moved Doc to safety, and surveyed the damage. One of the posts on the left Jesse bag was tweaked making it incredibly difficult to secure it to the bike but we did the best we could and simply hoped that the road wouldn’t hammer it loose until our next stop or Santa Cruz where we could repair and seat it correctly. As for me? Considering I ended the first part of my journey laying in the mud, I was roaring with angst, anger and regret as we continued down the road. To me, this was stupid. By now we’d lost our sunlight and were still more than 50 miles from a town that offered accommodations, food and beer. Not the way I wanted to start out my journey.
I guess I expected something different. A slow and easy ramp up. Spending two weeks in Sucre while securing a battery, working on the bike and exploring the historic city was certainly one part of the formula. But just 7 hours into my journey I’m crashed into the mud — again.
This experience does nothing for confidence. And rather than toying my brain with regret, I just pushed on.
As the blazing huge sun painted orange streaks across a darkening sky we passed through a small pueblo. Pigs scurried across the road while mules nibbled on dry grass. There were no hotels or guest houses. The road rutted hard and curved downward out of town until we came to our third water crossing. Good god. Jeremiah surveyed the muddy pond. It looked worse than the two previous. Contending this crossing with diminished light would be foolish. But we were now stuck between two difficult water crossings and no accommodations or food other than what we had packed in our panniers. We had to go back. For our safety it would be best to find a campsite several hundred yards off the main road. Because this part of Bolivia is dramatically hotter than Sucre or Potosi, most of the trucks travel the road at night to avoid the heat. And we wanted to avoid the trucks. We passed through the tiny pueblito and found a dirt road about a mile out of town. Our sun was gone but a glorious nearly full moon gave rise and offered enough light to find a spot and set up camp.
As I set up my tent and unpacked my sleeping bag I drifted back in time. Only to the events of the day. This was my first dat back on the road. And what a start to this journey of adventure and discovery.