Getting thrown in at the deep end is sometimes the only way to learn!
It’s the beginning of the New Year and I find myself reflecting on a lot of things whilst still overindulging in all the leftover pigs in blankets and mince pies. It’s a great time of year to look to new pastures, but also to look back on life and be proud of achievements made, or even chuckle at some of things done. The last few weeks for me have been pretty crazy and full of new experiences (some best forgotten entirely!) but I always have a chuckle to myself when I think of the time I bought a motorbike without having the slightest clue about these beautiful machines.
Location: Colombia. Date: 19th September 2017. Mood: extremely excitable. After riding two-up throughout Central America, I became restless not being the one behind the handle bars and enjoying my own adventure, so I bought my very first motorbike: a YBR125cc, and on this my friends taught me the basics of how to ride in the local car park. After a few hours of tootling past stationary cars, practising corners and having had enough of emergency stops - mainly because my lady bits were starting to turn the same colour blue as my bike (unsurprisingly my bike later earned the name of Bruiser) - it was time to take on the big bad roads of Medellin.
My first solo ride was to Pablo Escobar’s prison. A skeleton of what it originally was, but still full of history and an uneasy atmosphere. I followed my two friends on the hairpin roads up to the top of the mountain which, for my first ride, felt like the biggest mountain around. Inevitably, I fell off my bike trying to master turning a 180-degree corner on a two-wheeled machine. When my friends realised I was nowhere in sight they luckily came back to my rescue. Panic over, I dusted myself off and jumped back on the bike, not batting an eyelid as I wasn’t the only one who had fell off on those steep and perilous bends. After a self-tour around the prison and its grounds, I nervously hopped back on my bike, my right hand clutching the front brake for dear life as I anxiously drifted downwards back towards my hostel. I parked Bruiser back in the hostel car park, wiped my profusely sweating forehead and headed straight to the bar to look for something strong to calm my nerves. Later that evening it dawned on me that I had just bought a motorbike in a foreign country and didn’t really know what I was doing! Was this a big mistake, or was this going to be the start of an epic adventure?
Me and my two new biker mates - we later became known as The Three Musketeers - headed out of the city southbound to Manizales, about a 200km journey. They let me take it slow but being a slight adrenaline junkie I was whizzing around at 90kmph (56mph) straightaway.
After all this new excitement I pretty quickly found myself facing my first dirt road; this was Colombia after all. Now, I’ve ridden a lot of dirt roads since this initial anxious moment but then I had a lot to learn, and quickly. So, when coming up to this dirt road, my friends didn’t think to tell me to use the rear brake instead of the front brake; error number one. I also wasn’t told not to ride in the dirt grooves; error number two. In fact, all I was told was that we needed to get from point A to point B. So, heart pounding out of my chest and not really knowing what to expect, I inched my front wheel forward onto the first lump of gravel and … it actually seemed pretty easy. Trying to keep up with the other two Musketeers I found myself getting faster and my confidence building. That was until I started to see the rocks getting bigger as I was flying past them, dirt grooves getting deeper as I tried to power my way out of them and then a downward hill approaching. Panic begun to set in, sweat was dripping down my forehead, my thoughts racing, I knew I was completely out of my depth. Then the dreaded thing happened that all bikers fear most when first time on dirt - I fell off. UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE YEAR! As I struggled through colossal boulders, the bottomless passageways beneath me leading me astray, my handle bars disobeying my commands, I snatched my front brake and, well all I can say is that I spectacularly stacked it down a gravel hill and broke half of my clutch bar off in the process.
But all was fine as we made it to our final destination – Steel Horse, Colombia! Now this place made my first dirt road worth losing half of my clutch for. A secret overlanding retreat set in the heart of the Colombian coffee district owned by two travelling Brit’s who fell in love with this place back in 2016. They want to continuously welcome you with open arms to the beautiful vistas that Filandia has to offer. Check out their website for more info and make sure you visit when you can: https://steelhorsecolombia.com/ . Unfortunately, that treacherous road I endured is no longer there as it’s only gone and been paved but it’s not a total loss. Yvette, one of the lovely owners equipped me with the best dirt road advice that I will use forevermore: ‘When you’re on a dirt road, just think of it like dancing!’ and to this day I do. I keep my head up, my arms loose and I just have fun with it. Next time you find yourself on some gravel make sure you’re having the best boogie with your partner in crime.
Riding through the Cocora Valley was a wonderful experience. 60m tall wax palm trees showered the landscape and I was starting to master the dad dancing with my handle bars off-road. Or at least I was until I encountered another first: a bridle way. Soaring down yet another hill too fast I was faced head-on with an entire passageway full of thick, wet, slimy mud. My wheels moving faster than my brain could think, I could feel my tyres lose grip and start to skid. Knowing this would never end well I, for some reason, decided it would be best to bust out an action movie ‘leap out of danger’ move and landed in the biggest pile of horse shit around! My friend behind me who embarrassingly saw the whole thing bravely asked me ‘are you ok?’. To which a replied ‘of course not, I’m covered in HORSE SHIT!!!’, to which we all burst into laughter while the local farmer yanked my bike out of the mud. There was no picture evidence of this one, but I did see the funny side of it. Unfortunately, even when my head-to-toe caked on horse shit outfit did dry out, I seemed to become the Pied Piper of the local flies. Persevering on, our next mini adventure was the Tatacoa desert. This was the first time I had ever been in a desert and boy was it fun! Tearing up the dusty roads with a backdrop of cacti and heavily eroded rocky terrain scarred by dry canyons, was an experience all on its own.
They say to usually save the best until last and this was most definitely the case for one of my final and most memorable roads in Colombia. A road with many names, but all with the same meaning - Trampolín de la Muerte (Trampoline of Death), Trampolín del Diablo (Devil’s Trampoline), Adios Mi Vida (Goodbye My Life), The Death Road - a road that’s renowned as the most dangerous in the country and one of the worst in South America, having already claimed countless lives. A winding 70km dirt road wide enough for just about one car, with a never-ending cliff drop and only tape to ‘secure’ the edging in some parts. After ten days of learning to ride a motorbike I was convinced to take on this adventure. Luckily, the weather was on our side as it hadn’t rained in two days making the roads only slightly less slippery next to the god only knows how many metres drop I was about to ride alongside. I started off slow and wanted to be careful but that wasn’t the mentality of some of the other drivers I encountered, having nearly collided with an oncoming car on a switch back at the beginning and being forced to back up several times by big ass trucks who happily dominated the narrow lane. I was honestly grateful to be shoved into a ditch mountain side rather than watch the road crumble beneath me when only inches from the drop. Some people were crazy enough to want to do that - I couldn’t believe my eyes!
I then stumbled upon my first river crossing and absolutely kakked my pants big time. Not really knowing how deep the flowing water was and what type of rocks I would face, I stopped for a moment to compose myself. Except the only thing I could think of was, “oh fuckballs, what the hell do I do now???” I had two options; to turn back around and face death, or to keep moving forward and face death. My options were slim! I could feel my clutch coming out and my throttle turn, immersed in the river bed itself I could feel myself shaking my tail feather as I glided across the top of the water. However, in reality, my backend was sliding out all over the place as I wrestled with rocks the size of mangos and feared I would later develop trench foot – but the moment was over in seconds and I was glad to have conquered yet another fear. But now I couldn’t see anything, not even my hand in front of my face! What was going on? A dense cloud forest had appeared out of nowhere and I thought I had temporarily gone blind. I suppose I had really. With no way of knowing if I was headed for the cliff edge, I had no choice but to continue on as this damn force of nature decided to stay put. The whole shebang felt like it took forever to navigate, in fact it most definitely did. I had ridden Colombia’s most dangerous road at a cool 20-30kmph so, as you can imagine, it took me quite a while to complete, but I’m please to say I live to tell the tale.