Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cycling Death Road, also known as "The World's Most Dangerous Road"

Hi everyone.  I just arrived back from a busy day where I cycled down Death Road, did a 1.5km zip line reaching speeds of up to 85kmph and then got in the bus and was driven back up Death Road.  There was plenty of adrenaline throughout the day that's for sure.  I was a lot more comfortable cycling down Death Road than being driven in a bus back up it.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that when I am cycling I am in control and not having to rely completely on someone else's judgement and will to live.  The second is that on a bike you have a lot more room for error, because on the bus there is less than half a metre of spare space at some points on the road.

I did Death Road as part of a group of Vuelta Sudamericana riders.  The majority of the group came along and only a few abstained.  I wasn't expecting quite so many people to be up for the challenge, especially the older ones, but I think the group size got to a certain number and then people felt a sense of "well if I don't go and everyone else has a lot of fun then I will feel I have missed out".

The road has the ominous nickname of Death Road or The World's Most Dangerous Road for a good reason.  In the worst accident, one hundred people being transported in a single lorry were killed when the lorry went off the road.  In one year alone around 300 people died on the road, and 18 cyclists have been killed in the road's history.  Some of you may be asking why I would want to do something like this.  Well firstly the majority of the accidents happened when the road was the main route from La Paz to Coroico and there was a lot of traffic on it, but at the end of 2006 a new safer road was opened, and the majority of vehicles use this new route, leaving the route mostly for cyclists.  The problem before was when lorries and buses tried to pass each other and one would fall off, or when people overtook dangerously, or due to the vehicles not being roadworthy.  In the case of most of the cyclists killed, they were pushing their limits too far or they were distracted somehow.  There was the case of a cyclist who was looking at a butterfly so intensely that he just went off the road, although luckily he survived.  Then there was the case of a cyclist who stopped to take a photo of the group, took one step back too far and fell off a drop.  There there was the case of another cyclist who was busy trying to clean her goggles whilst riding and just went off the edge. I wanted to bike the road to see just why it is considered so dangerous and scary, and also I had heard that the views from the road are spectacular.

We did the tour with a company called Gravity Assisted and they picked us up from the hotel at 7.30am this morning.  There were 3 guides who accompanied us, 2 of them Bolivian and 1 from the US.  The drive to the start point was pretty long and basically one continuous climb, as the day starts at 4,700 metres above sea level.  Once we reached the start point we got out of the trucks and were given our full suspension mountain bikes that we would be using for the day.  I have never ridden a full suspension bike with disc brakes before, so it was a little bit different to what I am used to.  After a little test ride to get familiar with the bike, it was time to make an offering to Mother Earth or Pachamama.  This is who the indigenous people worshipped before Catholicism came along.  We had to pour a small amount of alcohol on our tire then on the floor and then put it to our lips.  It may sound a bit strange and I am not normally superstitious, but there are several stories of people who didn't make the offering and who had bad things happen to them.  Of course at the same time there are plenty of people who did make an offering and bad things still happened to them anyway. But hey it was worth a try.

After performing the little ritual and offering to PachaMama and taking a few pics, followed by a safety briefing, we were off.  The company had designed the bikes with gear ratios that meant we couldn't really reach ridiculous speeds like we could have on a road bike.  They do this to try to prevent people from going absolutely crazy.  So we coasted down the paved part of the road, stopping at various points to wait for the slower ones to catch up.  At the first stop, the guide Darren pointed out a bus far far below that had taken the corner too fast and crashed into the abyss below.  Nearby was a minibus that had most likely done the same. This was a pretty shocking start to the ride, but it helped us to realise just how seriously we needed to take our own personal safety and the respect we needed to give to the road.

The troublesome trio ready for the off

If you look carefully you can see the wreckage of a bus

A little further down the road is a drugs checkpoint.  The guide explained that the Yungas valley  (where we were heading) has a lot of legal coca plantations that grow coca leaves for traditional use, but also a lot of illegal ones too, that process the leaves in order to make cocaine or make the paste that can then be transformed into cocaine at a later stage.  At the checkpoint they are trying to check for chemicals and equipment going into the valley that could be used to make cocaine or cocaine paste, and cocaine or cocaine paste coming out of the valley.  They didn't stop any of us cyclists though, so we were through almost as soon as we arrived.

After passing through the checkpoint and paying for the entry to the Death Road (the money is used for the road's upkeep) we then had an optional 8km section, which has some uphill in it.  Normally the climbs would be easy, but we were riding full suspension bikes that are both heavy and very bouncy, and also the climbs were at high lung bursting altitudes.  Most of the group decided to give it a go though, including James the chef and Jono the chain smoking truck driver.  Actually James and Jono finished ahead of everyone except me, which was absolutely amazing considering neither has done that much cycling before.

After the 8km optional section we all grouped up, including those that had ridden the truck for the optional part, and started the descent of the dangerous section of the road, which then basically lasts all the way to the bottom of the Yungas valley at 1,100 metres above sea level.  It was extremely foggy and drizzling slightly so we weren't really able to see what was below us, but we could tell that there were big drops on our left hand side.  Actually I should mention that the road is very unique in Bolivia in terms of the side of the road that you must drive on, because on this road people must drive on the left and not on the right.  The reason for this is that when you are descending the drops are on your left hand side, so the drivers side needs to be on the same side as the drop so the driver can check that his wheels are not going over the edge when passing other vehicles coming up the hill.  Despite the fact that there is an alternative road, some occasional traffic does use Death Road.  For this reason one guide always goes at the front, and if he encounters a car or truck he blows a whistle to warn the riders behind.  In this way we were able to ride a little further away from the sheer drops, and could feel a little more comfortable.

Not far from the top we saw another group and the one woman was wobbling all over the place and was extremely nervous.  It looked like she had barely ridden a bike before and none of us wanted to be alongside her.

We would stop every few kilometres to wait for the slower ones to catch up, and when we were waiting we got very cold as we were soaked to the skin by this stage.  As we descended it did slowly start to get warmer though, and eventually we dropped below the level of the clouds and then it was much warmer.  It was a relief to be able to see the road ahead clearly and not have to proceed quite so cautiously as we did in the cloud and fog, but at the same time the absence of cloud and fog meant that we could see the awe inspiring drops just a few metres to our left.  It is no exaggeration to say that the drops at the edge of the road are sheer.  At some points it looked like the drop must have been around 1,000 metres or so.  We started to see crosses that marked the points where people had died and there was really a sense of just how delicate and precious life is, and just how easily and quickly it can be taken away from us.

As we descended further down the road, it became so narrow in places that it looked like a bus would barely be able to pass, and there were also sections where there had been landslides and where waterfalls fell onto the road itself, eroding the surface.  I just took my time and descended steadily.

Eventually we got to a level where the drops were not so frequent and at this stage people in the group started to descend much faster.  There was still the occasional sheer drop though, so I was quite surprised to see just how fast some were going.  The guide warned us that 80% of accidents he sees happen on these lower sections where people start to become more confident but they are physically and mentally tired from the previous sections.  A couple of people overshot one corner and had to brake sharply to avoid hitting the embankment on the right hand side.  Just after that someone shot down my left hand side without affording me a warning and our handlebars touched together.  I was not impressed.  The guide had informed us at the beginning of the day that passing is allowed but always to shout a warning that you are passing on the left or passing on the right.

Benjamin taking in the beautiful vistas of the Yungas valley

Once we reached the valley bottom we kissed the ground and then went to visit an animal sanctuary where they help to rescue mistreated or illegally poached animals.  We had a buffet dinner, which was provided by the bike company, put on our warm clothes, and rested a bit.  Darren the guide then asked if anyone was interested in doing a 1.5km zip line.  I have never done one before and I like to try everything once, so I thought I would give it a go.  Three other people opted in too.  A minibus drove us part way up Death Road to the first base and then after a short safety briefing and putting on the equipment we were ready to go.  The zip line is composed of three stages.  The first is the highest and you are several hundred metres above the valley floor, the second is the fastest and you can reach up to 85kmph and the final one is the longest.  There are three braking systems to help you come to a stop at the end of each stage.  Each person has an individual brake that they can pull when they want and then there is one that the guide puts near to the end that slows you down and then finally there are some springs on the end of the line that will absorb some impact.  I went first and it was really exciting (and a little bit scary) as I went out over the highest point.  I was also really impressed by the speed that you reach.  Jason and I made it to the other end okay, but the two girls being a fair bit lighter came to a stop before the end and were helped to the side by the guide.  It must have been pretty scary for Marieke as she came to a stop a fair way from the end and was still pretty high above the valley floor.  On the second stage I was more at ease despite it being much faster, but I actually came to a stop a little short of the end and had to pull myself the few extra metres to the end.  The others this time all managed to make it to the end and told me that if I put my feet up in the air more I probably would have made it.  So on the final longest section I did maintain a more streamlined position, and I made it all the way and required a little braking before the end.  The others went in tandem, Marieke with one of the guides and Jason and Virginia together.  I didn't fancy another guy wrapping his legs around me and the second guide didn't offer me the tandem anyway.

A few nervous faces getting a safety briefing on the zip line

All safely done with the zip line, we rejoined the rest of the group and set off in the bus up Death Road.  As I had suspected being a bus was much scarier than it had been on the bike.  At some points the wheels were very close to the edge, too close for comfort I would say.  Darren was also telling us all the bad accidents that happened as we passed the relevant spots, and that didn't help peoples' nerves that much.  As we passed under one waterfall the bus came to a stop and Darren told us to look down.  We looked down the side of the bus and there was less than 25cm of space between the wheels and the road edge (maybe okay if the road was paved but it was just loose rock and gravel) and then it just seemed like it dropped away to nothingness below.  Apparently this had been the place where the lorry carrying 100 people had plunged off the cliff.  We were very happy to move on.  There were several spots like this where the road became extremely narrow and there was nothing we could do but trust that our driver had a strong will to live, just like we all did.

Once we made it safely to the paved section we all gave the driver a huge round of applause, and thanked him for the fact that we were still alive.  We also made sure to give him a nice tip.  It was an adventurous day, and one that made me think what things are important to me.  Now I am back here in the hotel and ready for a good night's sleep.  I will try to put up some pics from today if I can get hold of an SD card reader, but until then goodnight folks and God bless.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Thin air and a new country

Hello friends, Romans and countrymen.  I am writing this post from La Paz, Bolivia.  As you may or may not know, La Paz is the world's highest "de facto" capital city, or administrative capital at 3,650m above sea level.  I use the term "de facto" as the official capital city is Sucre, but La Paz is the administrative capital.  Bolivia is also our third country of the tour, and the only one left to cycle through is Peru.  The air here is pretty thin, and even walking up the stairs is making us breathe heavily, despite the fact that we have been staying at altitudes of over 3,500m for a week now.  We crossed into Bolivia the 3rd day after leaving San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  Things on the tour have been very hectic the last couple of days, and we should have only arrived in La Paz on the 17th.  However, the threat of a 3 day strike closing all roads in the Oruro district (which always has the potential to turn violent in Bolivia) caused a change of plans and we had to be trucked from the Salinas de Garci Medoza straight to La Paz.  That means we will now be here in La Paz for 6 days instead of the original 2 days.  I am not exactly sure what the strike was about, but there were rumours it was over a land dispute with the Potosi district.

The second rest day in San Pedro we went the Valley of the Moon.  We visited it at sunset and it was a very impressive site, especially once the sun went down and only the moon lit the scenery.  The valley is so called because the landscape resembles the surface of the moon, with lots of strange rock formations caused by weathering of the salt, clay and minerals abundant in the area.  As well as being extremely beautiful it is also kind of an eerie place, with absolutely no animal life.

The first day after leaving San Pedro we headed to a small village called Chiu Chiu, located at 2,525m above sea level.  The first part of the day was a long steady climb and I felt very strong so I attacked the climb somewhat.  After that we had a long gradual downhill and on this section Augusto and Paul caught me up and then we formed a chain and sped towards lunch.  I left lunch before them as I heard from Ricardo that if we left early we would get a tailwind instead of a headwind on the final section after Calama.  Strangely enough the wind tends to switch direction between the morning and the afternoon so depending on whether you are at the front or back of the group you can have an easy or hard time on the same route.  The part from lunch to Calama though was extremely tough, as there was a very strong headwind.  After Calama the direction changed by 90 degrees to head to Chiu Chiu and then as promised by Ricardo the wind was behind me and I was zipping along at 40kmph on the flat.  The village of Chiu Chiu was very pleasant and there is a lovely old church there, that some people in the group said was the oldest church in Chile.

Leaving Chiu Chiu the following day we faced probably the strongest headwind of the tour so far.  It was so strong that everyone tried to form packs and take it in turns to be at the front, save for Laurence who was at the back with Mark and didn´t have a pack to ride with.  She may be quite slow but she is as tough as old boots and she did just fine.  Initially I was with the lead pack but I soon got fed up of people shouting instructions about where I should be etc etc and I went off ahead on my own.  I must have been a bit high on adrenalin from all the effort because after a while I turned back round and cycled till I met Laurence and then turned round and continued, adding an extra 7km to my day.  By lunch time I had overtaken everyone again and was at the front on my own.  After lunch we had to climb to 4,000m above sea level and then descend towards the salt flats of Ascotan.  Just after passing over the summit I saw signs warning that were minefields on either side of the road.  When I asked Ricardo later, he told me that Bolivia and Chile don't have a good relationship at all (Chile took a lot of land from Bolivia and Peru), and the minefields (with Bolivia being very close by) are because of this.  The descent was very rough and upon reaching the salt flats at the bottom the craziness began.  Imagine a strong headwind with lots of sand and rough rough roads and then imagine an even stronger headwind with even more sand and even rougher roads and you probably have an accurate picture of how it was.  I was the first into camp and I arrived sometime around 5pm (compared to 1 or 2pm on a normal day). It was very clear that only the strongest riders would make it before dark and the others would have to be picked up by truck.  I cannot recall exactly how many people made it, but it was far less than half the group.  The place where we camped was very remote and was amongst some old ruins on the salt flats.  The ruins provided the only shelter there was from the onslaught of the winds, but even that was not enough.  Evelyn was putting up her tent when suddenly it just blew away and she lost her tent and her sleeping bag.  Shortly afterwards my groundsheet was torn from my hands and was off towards Timbuktu.  I went on an excursion on the salt flats looking for my groundsheet, but I never found it.  I did however find the rain fly from Evelyn´s tent and when I returned it to her she offered me a spare groundsheet she had as a thankyou.  The one she gave me was a better size than the last one I had, so all turned out well in the end.  After the mishaps of myself and Evelyn losing our stuff, everyone teamed up to put up their tents, some tents requiring teams of 5 people to assist.  Near the ruins was a saltwater pool, and this was home to hundreds of pink flamingos.  It felt so special to be so close to these beautiful birds in their natural habitat.

After dinner it was the turn of Sven and I to do wash the pots and pans.  We couldn't have had a worse night to do them with the high winds, lack of running water and the temperature plummeting rapidly once the sun went down.  The night was fairly sleepless for most, with the winds buffeting the tents and threatening to tear them down.  When we woke up in the morning it was absolutely freezing and it was a struggle to muster up enough enthusiasm to get out of our tents.  Jono (the truck driver) had been kind enough to light a small fire, but that was not enough to make people comfortable and we huddled round the fire shivering.  Even the flamingos on the lake were huddling together, and why on earth they chose to live in such an extreme place where it is hot by day and cold by night with ridiculous winds I cannot fathom.  In light of the ridiculously low temperatures Ricardo and Christiano (the tour leaders) decided that we would leave a bit later and wait for the sun to warm us up first.  Luckily the winds had died down though.  In the meantime they asked that we all team up and help each other out.  We left about an hour later than usual and noone was in a hurry to leave. For the first hour of riding my feet felt like ice blocks and it wasn't that pleasant.  My hands were okay though as I had bought warmer cycling gloves in Santiago de Chile.  Within a few hours the sun warmed the earth, and everyone was happy again, including my poor feet.  It was around 40km to the Bolivian border, and the truck was going to meet us there.  I got to the border soon after the truck and it took very little time to clear the Chilean side of the border.  Some of the group changed money at the border but Jono advised against it and said it would be better to do it at an official money exchange.  Later it turned out the ones who did change it got a much better rate than was offered in the small villages we would pass through for the first few days in Bolivia.

After passing through the Chilean departure point, there is a no man's land of several kilometres, and this is where we met our 2 Bolivian guides (each with a Landcruiser) who would be our support crew for the next few days, as Jono's company did not want him to cross the salt flats of Uyuni with the big truck.  After initial greetings we headed to the Bolivian side of the border, and it was rather painless to get through save for one incident with Lani who has dual Canadian Indonesian nationality. The customs guy wanted to see her Indonesian papers but she only had her Canadian passport with her, and he said that wasn't good enough.  After a bit of pressure from Christiano the guy relented and let her through.  Once all the cyclists arrived we set off.  After 10km we had a bit of lunch and then we had to cross some salt flats/ desert where we were advised it was very easy to get lost with no clear road and hundreds of different tracks in all directions from vehicles that had passed through.  They told us it would be flagged as much as possible though, and the flagging must have been pretty good because noone got lost.  Once again I put the pedal to the metal and went ahead.  It was pretty smooth most of the way (after the initial rough part) and I got some good speed, but the last few kilometres approaching San Juan were very sandy and I had to get off and push a couple of times.

In San Juan we stayed in a hostel and I was in a room with 6 people.  Unfortunately the worst snorer of the whole group was in the room with me, Chris P. He snores so loud that you can hear him even if you have earplugs in.  Luckily I had earplugs with me, which at least helped a bit.  After eating supper and going to bed, we were awoken by the sound of drums and music.  Upon further investigation it turned out that a local band had come to play for us, so we all went to the common room to listen to them.  They only played a few songs as they could see we were rather tired, but that was a nice touch to the evening.  Then we all went back to bed and tried to sleep as best as possible with the worlds loudest snorer in the room, and a chorus of flatulence most likely caused by the high altitude.  Poor Eric only got 3 hours sleep.

From San Juan they decided to truck us to the salt flats of Uyuni, around 50km away.  The reason being that the route is deep sand and very tiring to ride.  Apparently on the previous tour people were so tired upon reaching the salt flats that they didn't get to enjoy them, so this time the tour leaders decided by trucking us to the salt flats at least we could get to enjoy them to their full, as believe you me the salt flats are very special.  Once everybody had been transported to the start of the salt flats we set off.  The salt flats are so amazing because they are pancake flat and all sense of perspective is lost.  In every direction you look it is the same, save for some mountains on the far horizon.  Tour d'Afrique decided to hold a photo comp, with the best picture winning a bottle of wine, the idea being that people play with perspective to make funny pictures.  For instance by lying on the floor and placing an orange on the floor infront of your camera with someone standing a bit further away, you can make it look like the person is balancing on a gigantic orange in the photo.  It was really interesting to see some of the entries and how creative they were, but in the end the winning one was made by Erik, Chris (the female) and myself.  It was of me lying on my back with my bike in the air and then Erik cycling in the distance, so it looked like he was a little mini person cycling over my back tire.

A giant orange or a tiny guy?

A mini person cycling over my back tire

The interesting patterns in the salt flats of Uyuni

Navigation on the salt flats is extremely difficult but we had 2 reference points throughout the day to guide us. The first was an island where we stopped for a drink and the second was a large volcano, with the town of Coquesa (where we would stay for the night) at the base of the volcano.  The distance perception was so deceptive and even when we still had 20km left to get to the island it seemed like only a couple of kilometres away.  The same too as we were approaching the volcano.  After leaving the island the salt flats became rougher, caused by a snowfall cracking the crust a month earlier, and it was tough going with all the bumps taking a lot of energy out of us.  Erik and I stopped several times for a rest and a drink.  Just before reaching Coquesa there was some water to cross, and that wasn't good news.  The dry salt is fine as you can brush it off afterwards, but salty water corrodes the bike to hell.  We tried as best we could to minimise the water getting on the bike, and Erik decided to get off and walk through the water, but getting some salty water on the bike was inevitable.  We stayed in a hostel in Coquesa and the beds were really bad.  They sqeaked and groaned and had big dips in the middle, but still I preferred it over another night of camping.

The day leaving Coquesa was a very easy 41km ride to a town called Salinas de Garci Mendoza.  The first 10km was on the salt flats and then there was a rocky section, followed by another short section at the edge of the salt flats and then finally a sandy track into town. I arrived by 9.30am at the hostel so it was a really short day.  Everyone had arrived by 11am.  Salinas de Garci Mendoza is a really quiet town where time almost stands still.  There was no internet cafe and no money exchange place, and so most of us were stuck as we only had US dollars.  There was no rest day due in Salinas de Garci Mendoza, but in the evening we were informed there would be one, because Jono would have to drive through the night to get to us, since the route bypassing the salt flats is much longer than crossing them.  There wasn't a lot to do in town so we weren't that pleased to be stuck there, but for many the rest from biking was much appreciated.  And at least the hostel was nice and clean and the owner Hugo was super friendly.

After spending our rest day in Salinas de Garci Mendoza we were all ready to leave the following morning.  However, there was to be more unexpected news that evening.  There had been rumours of a strike due to happen in Oruro for some time, but the tour leaders were informed that the strike was now imminent and due to happen the next day at midnight.  The strike would last for 3 days and all roads in the district would be blocked.  Whilst in theory it might be possible to pass the road blocks by bike, strikes in Bolivia can become violent and on the previous tour the cyclists had unexpectedly stumbled upon a strike and the situation had become scary with projectiles being thrown at them.  So Christiano and Ricardo decided no chances would be taken and we would be transferred by vehicle from Salinas de Garci Mendoza to La Paz before the strike happened, and that is where I am now.

I must say I am much happier to have extra rest days in La Paz than to be stuck 3 days in the middle of nowhere, and there seems to be plenty to do here.  A group of us are planning to do an organised bike tour of Death Road and that should be a lot of fun.  Whilst the road has the ominous nickname of Death Road, it is mainly car and truck drivers rather than cyclists that died.  Some vehicles fell of the edge when trying to pass as the road is narrow in places, but another alternative road has now been built for the traffic, and the route is now pretty much only for cyclists.  Only something like 18 cyclists have ever died on the road and considering the thousands of cyclists each year that make the descent that number is not so alarming.  It is all about knowing your limits and staying within your comfort zone in my opinion.