Madaru moto - motorbike adventures in South America  

To cut a long story short, the engine had completely self-destructed once again. 



To further cut a long story short, I am going to condense the next 14 months into a couple of paragraphs. I stopped writing my blog when my external hard-drive became corrupted; I was able to salvage the contents some months later, but I lost my blog momentum, and seeing as it takes me a half a day to write and post 1 day's photos and text, I am so far behind now it would take me months and months to get back up to date. I will do it one day, maybe when my trip is over - which it isn't yet! 

My bike was rebuilt by Jorge at Nato Motos in General Pinedo in less than two weeks. Here is a video of its test ride:


But, now I was way behind schedule, I knew I was going to lose my non-changeable return air ticket. And I wanted to go home to see my dad on Father's Day, following his major surgery. Seeing as the bike had a 9 month import permit, there was no impediment to me leaving it at Jorge's workshop while I flew back home for a few months. So I did.

Returning to Argentina, my engine fixed, I rode up to near the Bolivian border, but not before being robbed of some stuff when I was forced to leave the bike outside a church when the chain jammed around the sprocket, in a small town in northern Argentina.

Continuing north through Bolivia

the bike performed well, my main problem in Bolivia being gasoline can only be sold (at higher prices) to foreign-registered vehicles at specially licensed gas stations, many of whom told me the had run out the special forms needed to make the sale legal.  The bike spluttered a few times approaching the high altitude city of Potosi, but I left my carburettor untouched.


Somehow I got through from the southern end of the country up to Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border.


 Here, leaving Bolivia was no problem, but re-entering Peru was! The Customs official seemed not to know what to do with me. He muttered something about  carnets and auto-club booklets, none of which I had - nor needed, as the bike was in my name since new, less than 1 year old, and all the Peruvian registration papers were in order. After an hour or two of discussions and phone calls he let me through.  Whether or not he was fishing for a bribe, I am not sure. Two days later I was in Cusco, where I stayed 9 months, working on gigapans, video projects and generally enjoying myself... (ok, if you must know, there was a short-lived romance with a Cusco girl, and an even shorter one with a girl from Lima... ) I also went on a pilgrimage of sorts, the Quyllur Rit'ii, a religious festival with Inca roots


where I was able to shoot some great panoramas:


More Quyllur Rit'ii panoramas click here

At Christmas I had the good fortune to meet Mr Harry Lyon-Smith, nearing the end of what was to become the first round-the-world tour on a diesel-powered bike. His bike was a Yanmar-powered Royal Enfield called "Batty" - here is a video of the day Atwakey accompanied Batty on a half-day ride:


 

(If I had thought I had bad luck with engines - Harry's tales of woe made me feel better - he was on engine number 4! )

Although the rebuilt engine was running ok, in August I had a brand new Ronco engine fitted by Willy for $600 


and then began my much-delayed ride north, leaving my surrogate family the Bravos at the Hospedaje Estrellita; here I am with brothers Victor and Ruben Bravo


I left Peru via its border with Brazil, but not before crossing the Andes one more time, at Abra Hualla Hualla, at an altitude of  around 4720m, or 15,485ft, the new motor seemed to perform pretty well:


Skirting along sparsely-populated western Brazil...


(click on image above to open as a gigapan)

An Amazon crossing and visit to Manaus


 Then into Venezuela


 In Venezuela I received some sad news: my friend Jeff Powers, owner of Norton Rats Tavern in Cusco, had hit a left-turning truck while riding his Norton Commander in northern Peru and was killed instantly. Even sadder, he leaves behind a family including a daughter and infant son.

I made good progress in Venezuela - gas is cheaper than water there - and went on a trek to ascend Tepui Roraima - which was tough going, but one of the most enjoyable excursions I have ever experienced.  (BTW,  I highly recommend Eric Buschbell's Backpacker Tours) 


Click on the image above to open as a zoomable gigapan

I even managed to shoot several gigapans up on the table-top:


Click on the image above to open as a zoomable gigapan

Next major stop was Ciudad Bolivar, where I saw the famous aircraft Jimmy Angel used to discover Angel Falls, he crash landed it on a table top mountain. 


Click on the image above to open as a zoomable gigapan

In Merida, a beautiful Andean university town, my stay was delayed due to excruciating bouts of gout (cured by taking a higher dose of Alopurinol pills). In Merida I was well-looked after, lodging in the cheap and friendly, French-run Posada Cafe Norte Sur; thats my room with door half ajar


Click on the image above to open as a zoomable gigapan

From Merida I went on an amazing "Lightning Tour" of Catatumbo, a region where lightning strikes almost every night of the year. It was incredible, with horizontal bolts lighting up the sky every few seconds - all night! (BTW, I highly recommend Alan Highton's tours).


Truly amazing lightning...


Catatumbo is on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, a lake that is larger than Lake Titicaca. It is also home to many monkeys, lizards, birds 


even freshwater dolphins


Two months after entering Venezuela, I entered Colombia at Cucuta, whence I rode up to Cartagena, my old home, clocking up 20,000 kms enroute.  Here I am at the famous El Penol rock, near Medellin 


You can climb this giant monolith to enjoy a breathtaking view of a man-made lake, the Embalse Guatape. Here I shot some large gigapans, including one of Atwakey from the top of El Penol, but the best one turned out to be this small, exposure-fused, single-row 360:


Click on the image above to open as a zoomable gigapan

In Medellin I invested in a GoPro camera, which has proven so far to be a great little camera. I spent Christmas and New Year and my birthday, in Cartagena. Here I am with a waitress called Kissy in Plaza Santo Domingo


 Then, in early February, embarked on a chief objective: ride all the way to Punta Gallinas, situated at the top of Colombia's La Guajira Peninsula: South America's northernmost point. My attempt to get there is what the rest of this blog entry is mostly about.


I made it from Cartagena to Riohacha in one day; the coastal road is quite good. 


In Riohacha I stayed at a biker-friendly hostel, the Casa Blanca.  Here is a video made with my new GoPro of me leaving in the morning - it was overcast, but the owner told me it would be "a miracle" if it rained at this time of year. (Click on pic below to play video)


From there I rode along paved road to Uribia; a few miles further north and the road turned to dirt, but is was wide and hard-packed, seeing lots of traffic due to the railway maintenance crews who work on a straight-as-an-arrow rail line that delivers massive amounts of coal from the El Cerrajon coal mine.


Note the Happy Trails aluminium panniers, which I bought cheaply from a Canadian who unfortunately wrote off his Kawasaki 650 in an accident near Cusco. They were a bit bent, having been ripped off the bike in the accident, but nothing a few judicious blows with a hammer could not rectify! Now that I know how handy they are, I'll never tour without them ever again!  The LED auxiliary lights worked well for a few weeks, but now have died also. Getting them going again  is on my current 'to do' list.

Here is the beginning of the dirt, north of Uribia:


Around 3pm I saw on my GPS I was nearing the end of the La Guajira Peninsula and would probably be better off turning west and spending the night at Cabo de La Vela, a picturesque desert resort. First you ride past a wind farm, the Parque Eolico Jepirachi:


Here is a gigapan of where I stayed, the Hotel Caracol (click on the two images  below to open as a zoomable gigapans):


I wheeled the bike around the back of the hotel 


to face a beautiful sunset over the Caribbean


There was no running water at this hotel; a large bucket of fresh water and a cup was how you showered. Quite an easy and relaxing way to shower, actually. Dinner was a beautiful fish... night air was cool due to a coastal breeze... what more could a man want? Well, you could not even ask for more beautiful neighbours: meet Helen and Sasha, friendly girls from Sweden and Puerto Rico, staying in the room next door.


I always take the precaution of unloading all my bags. 


Atwakey in the moonlight...


In the morning my bike was still there...


... but Helen and Sasha had left a plastic bag of fruit hanging off the door handle - to distract the flies, they reasoned - and in the morning they discovered it had been stolen. A small lesson that you can never let your guard down.


Packing up and saying goodbye to my two charming friends, who are based in London. I wish I could have taken them with me! But there was no room, and as it turned out, the trip to Punta Gallinas was fraught with a lot  more danger than I envisaged...


 

Everyone, including this Wayuu woman who filled my tank from a plastic soft-drink bottle, said it takes about 3 hours to get to Punta Gallinas. Most probably all the petrol sold around here is contraband smuggled in from Venezuela, where gasoline is cheaper than water.


Confident my maps and GPS would lead me to Punta Gallinas, I left at around 10am, crossing the railway one more time


Relying on my paper map, as my GPS map showed only broken sections of trails here and there, I started off by riding a fair way too far south on the access road. Guided by what some Colombian soldiers told me. I found a turn-off, and came to the town of  Portete, but the road was closed due to roadworks, and I was  directed to ride back about a km or so, to an alternate route behind the secondary school. A myriad of different tracks going everywhere, not marked on my GPS nor paper map, led me to ask directions from a teacher at the school. Confident I had found the right trail, I set off, when disaster struck... my front tyre hit soft sand and the bike stopped as surely as if I had hit the front brakes, throwing me off. Luckily I was only doing about 20km/hr, and I landed on soft sand. My Fox motocross boots saved my ankle from any injury, but... my foot was trapped under one of the panniers for about 5 minutes before I could wriggle free...


Can't blame anyone but myeslf for this - I had come off because my eyes had not been watching the road surface conditions. As I struggled to lift the bike back up, two boys and a girl from the nearby school helped me right the bike. No damage done  to the bike, though the clutch lever was now bent like a banana, it still worked.

I didn't stop to think how dangerous this excursion could potentially be.  

Time was on my side - at that point anyway - so I pressed on, coming to a small hut, where a woman pointed out a trail that crossed a salt flat. I thanked her and followed what appeared to be a well-worn trail. Several times I came to forks in the trail - which was not marked on my map nor GPS - and I took the one which seemed head to the NE. 

Big mistake, it turned out, because I was soon lost. 

Not completely lost, but on the wrong trail, one that did not hug the coast, but headed straight into the low mountains in the heart of the peninsula. Here you can see where I was on the main trail, lost it, regained it, then lost it again. I had to backtrack several times, as these trails curved to the wrong direction or led to a dead end - usually a remote goat-farmer's hut and corral.


I was not too concerned, as I was travelling with enough food, fuel, and a tent, should the journey take more than a day. But a more pressing problem manifested. In some places the trail was pure sand, like a beach dune. Or there were rocks, covered with a thin veneer of sand. By the end of the day I had come off seven or eight times. 

In the photo below you can see how there is a kind of 'tunnel' for my leg created by the panniers and "mato-perro" knee railing. So I escaped this one injury free.


This next spill, I came off when trying to change from one tack to the other to avoid some dead cactus spines lying on the trail. The middle section of the trail was pure sand.  Either get stopped by some cactus spines or chance a lane-change in the sandy section - I chose the latter option, and the bike literally threw me again, as I was going too fast - about 15km/hr.


This time my right foot was caught under the pannier. Thoughts of me being pecked to death by vultures crossed my mind. It seemed like an eternity before I could wriggle free. Once again, thankfully, no injury to myself - saved by those expensive Fox motocross boots I had bought back in Arica, Chile. But I was starting to understand the conventional wisdom about travelling in pairs, if not to help right the bike - my arms and back were to be very sore the next day - then to go and raise help in the case of mechanical breakdown or medical emergency, not to mention its harder to kidnap two people rather than one. One of the reasons I had never been to La Guajira when I lived close by in Cartagena in 1999-2002 was it had a mighty unsafe reputation as a den of smugglers and guerrillas. In fact, only last year some Spanish tourists were kidnapped in La Guajira:


Yet, most of my enquiries had said La Guajira was now quite safe - as indeed I had found everyone here to be very friendly. Colombian police had, in fact, rescued the Spanish couple a few months ago. 

After I righted the bike, I had another problem - it wouldn't start. I checked the fuel line, the spark, everything seemed ok.  I coughed like it was going to start, then was completely dead. But the battery was on its last legs, and I could not see why it would not start. I yelled out a few choice four-letter words - not that anyone could hear, there weren't even any donkeys or goats on this particular trail, and in fact hadn't seen another human in over an hour. I thought about unpacking my bags, wheeling the bike off the trail, and then putting all my valuables into one bag, flagging down a transport back to Uribia, and organising a tow or mechanic to come to the bike. What a hassle... my excitement at being in Punta Gallinas by lunch time had turned to near despair.   I was less than 30kms from Punta - I certainly didn't want to abandon the attempt to make it to the northernmost point like I had been forced to do in Patagonia trying to reach the southernmost point (my blog about that fiasco here).

I decided to give the bike one last try... and you could say I was extremely elated when it roared back to life. I guess the carby had an air bubble in it.

Luckily in none of these spills did I injure myself, but I was starting to get very weary, and my tiredness might have contributed to some of the falls.  BTW, I carry around 80kgs, which is the same as a pillion passenger, and well within the capability of my 250 bike. It amazed me to see in La Guajira and many other places, two or even three adults doubled up on a 125cc road bike, with highway tyres. I guess they had more experience on sand, and were familiar with the bad sections...

 

At one point I arrived at a small homestead, where a woman told me there was a trail that was very rough but would eventually lead me to the coastal trail. I soon found out she wasn't joking about it being 'rough', it appeared to have been a muddy quagmire in the rainy season, with deep ruts where 4wds had been bogged. With the dry season, the holes had become as hard as concrete. This made for bone-jarring riding on my loaded bike. I fully expected something to break, as that section was so corrugated with rock-hard, deep pot-holes. But it only lasted about a mile, and Atwakey was an enduro bike, built for such conditions, and she came through shining and undamaged. I would have taken a photo of that Styxian trail but I was already starting to worry about not making the Point before sunset. I am sure my rear spokes only held up to that punishing hammering because they were heavy-duty custom made by Senor Aladino in Santiago.

Wearily I continued on, taking the most northerly fork at each trail intersection. But still I came off a few more times


In the crash below, my lower-than-normal panniers hit a rock, stopping me like I had hit a brick wall, and spinning the bike around, causing me to come off


Eventually I reached the hamlet of Paraiso, where I bought some more gasoline to be on the safe side, and the road seemed to improve. Next village - more a collection of huts - was Taroa, where I came off another time, due to hitting a rogue rock, but I knew my goal was now only a half hours ride away; the ocean came into view. 


I also got bogged a few times


I escaped these two sand traps by lots of throttling - my panniers stopped the bike from sinking too far, but I dread to think what damage my chain was sustaining from being engulfed by all that abrasive grit.


The last time I got bogged was only about 12kms from the Point. I really got bogged this time, so badly that I decided taking all the bags off, carrying them 50m ahead was the only option. Fading light was now becoming a concern because 12kms at 12km/hr means I would arrive after sunset. But being so close, there was no other option than to keep on going. Even with all the bags off, the bike had dug itself so deep I couldn't ride it out. Fortunately two boys arrived on a bicycle, and with their help we were able to free the bike. 


These boys were doubled up on a bicycle that needed its tyres pumped up every ten minutes; they said the best hostel was the one at the far west of the peninsula, the Hospedaje Alexandra, which had running water showers and electricity from 6pm to 2am. I said to them, if they followed me through to the end of the trail, I  would pay them for their help at the Hospedaje Alexandra. I rode ahead, and soon lost them in the rear mirror. It was getting very dark when to my surprise I saw them ahead of me, pumping up their tyre. I guess they took a short-cut. they said it was another 20 minutes to the hostel, and waved me on. I really wanted to pay them, but I never saw them again - because I never made it to the Alexandra that night.

Darkness falls quickly in the tropics, and was caught trying to negotiate the sandy trail in the twilight. I could see a flashing light on a tower in the distance, which I correctly assumed to be the Faro, or lighthouse, of Punta Gallinas. So I headed in that direction, arriving about half an hour after the sunset. By my reckoning, the hostel was another half an hour further west. It was extremely windy, so I could not pitch my tent, but there was a concrete bunker where I could sling my hammock.  That was a Godsend, as the wind was strong and quite chilly.


The floor of the bunker was littered with goat droppings and the odd goat bone, but who cares about that


So we - me and my bike - had made it to Punta Gallinas!  I could hear and smell the ocean waves but not see them. That would have to wait till the morning.

Atwakey's odometer read 21,777.7kms. 


Here is the GPS map of the route I took. The red X marks where I took the wrong turn.


Here is another view, superimposed over a Landsat image


Speed vrs altitude graph


GPS software calculated the route I took was 146kms, at an average speed of only 13.4kph, taking almost 11 hours. A far cry from the 3 hour jaunt I was anticipating! 


(ps - here is the GPX file, should you be masochistic enough to want take the same route. It contains almost 19,000 points, as I set my Holux unit to record at 5 metre intervals. Download the GPX file here).

When I was ensconced in the concrete bunker, it began to sink in how lucky I was to have made it in one piece. In the last 2 years, and more than 21,000kms, I had only come off the bike three times, once each due to cobblestones, ice, and gravel. Today I came off 8 times...

Lying in my hammock, I could not sleep. A slow wave of euphoria swept over me, so much that I felt compelled to walk outside and hug and kiss my bike. We had made it!

In the morning I was relieved to find my bike had not blown over in the strong winds. And I could see the Caribbean...


Lots of goat skeletons around, including in the back room of the bunker.


I buried several coins in the vicinity as geocaches


Its all down south from here!


One last shot for posterity


I left Punta Gallinas and spent a day and a night at the Hospedaje Alexandra. 


Click on the image above to open as a zoomable gigapan

Before I left the Punta Gallinas area however, I stopped by to shoot this 360 panorama of this windswept, arid,  harsh and desolate.... yet hauntingly beautiful place  


(click on image above to open as a gigapan)



From there, on the 6th February, I rode all the way to Riohacha, using the correct trail, in a day. 


What's more, I didn't fall off the bike even once, though I did get bogged in some mud flats for about ten minutes. I escaped by the same method employed in the sand: getting off the bike, walking alongside it while revving it like crazy...


And I was not the only one...


 

I wonder how this tanker came to be here... in the middle of nowhere... and get bogged in what seemed to me to be a solid, dry stretch of road...

When I was manoeuvring the bike into the back of Riohacha's Casa Blanca hotel, I tried to stop the fully loaded bike from falling over by lifting it by the handlebar... but it started bending. It had been kinked in one of the falls in La Guajira. I bent it back as best I could and nursed the bike back to Cartagena.


Back in Cartagena, was able to source a replacement for the clutch lever which had also bent like a banana on my first and hardest fall in Guajira


I replaced the bent handlebar with a snazzy red anodized reinforced bar. 


Purchasing a pair of 35w H3 halogens, I replaced the LED spotlights from Cusco which only lasted about 1 day. With the dual-battery set up I have, and the fact that I only ride at night if I get caught short, I wired them in without a contactor. 


All the shocks and vibrations from La Guajira's falls, crashes, pot-holes, and corrugated roads were starting to manifest with small problems... as the corner of my rugged, drop-proof, military-spec Durabook laptop now shows


But, all in all, no serious damage that wasn't easily and cheaply fixed. 

Ha! Or so I thought, until...

I judged it prudent to change the air filter after having been in that sandy, dusty desert. Upon removal of the filter box lid I was horrified to see... a tablespoon or two of SAND inside the filter box




Further inspection revealed a gaping hole in the plastic filter box where the rear tyre had been hitting it... the housing was cracked at its supports and had dropped to a slightly lower position that normal. Coupled with the extra weight I was carrying and the numerous deep pot-holes I was hitting - well, you can see for yourself the ugly result 


So, that punishing road of bone-jarring, cement-like 3ft-deep holes I forged through did take its toll. You've heard of the "Road of Bones"... well, I hereby christen it "The Road to Ruin"!

My guess is that hole existed before I was in La Guajira, but once there, it only got worse. All that dry sand I was bogged in... ugh, my mind shudders at the thought how much sand has been ingested by Atwakey's engine... its a miracle she still runs.

 Now, I have to ride the bike back to Peru, via Ecuador... in Peru I can get all the correct parts or even a new engine cheaply... but... the million dollar question is...

 will she make it?wilit

 


                                


 Text and photos copyright  © Glen David Short 2014
 refresh your cache to see if a new chapter has been added!