The Devil’s Road – Bolivia 3

Approaching the gateway to Tupiza
Approaching the gateway to Tupiza
Riding in Tupiza
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A small pair of legs hang plump like cooked brown sausage links, wiggling and kicking as if trying to get in to the deep chest freezer.  The shop owner, a man with a droopy face watches on, propping up the lid with a raised arm.  He looks fed up.

”How much is this one?” comes the muffled voice from inside the freezer.
”5 Bees,” he says.  The man’s shoulders are narrow, narrower than his waist and they arch over as if they’ve been propping up this freezer lid since the beginning of time.The legs wiggle more frantically, higher and deeper, there’s a scraping sound of boxes on ice and then, ”how much is…is…this one?”
A sigh, ”8 Bees.”
”Hhmmmff….and…this one?”I think about jumping in the freezer myself, it’s hot and I feel like a cooking sausage.  The man’s eyes narrow and his bushy moustache bristles with tension as he looks at the boy’s weighty form.  The droopy man looks inside, “well, which one?”  The boy’s legs fight and spasm,lots of movement but with little gain until with straining digits he just manages to finger the ice-cream buried deep within the recesses of the icy tomb, “ESO!”Looking at me, all eye-lids and jowls, Droopy says, ”6Bs.”
”Oh,” says the boy.

The boy’s body slumps on the freezer wall like a damp towel, exhausted.  Soon the feet drop down to the floor – still attached you understand – revealing a tubby boy who brushes himself off and then empties his pockets.  Among the sweet wrappers and marbles is a small amount of change, maybe 1.50Bs. Droopy shuts the freezer door, dunkk.  “Hmm,” the boy thinks, “just a coke then.” and Droopy hands one over and turns to me.

“How much is….” I begin, “ummm…I’ll just have a coke thanks.”  He reaches into a chest fridge and down into the piled-up bottles to pull out a coke, pops the cap and wordlessly clears an arm-chair in the corner for me.  I slump down and grasping the red and white I empty the sweetness into my mouth.  Ahhhh….I hate buying coke.  I mean I love the taste, don’t get me wrong and here it tastes even better, glass bottles and sugar cane.  But, it seems like such a waste of money, I should drink the water I make so much effort to carry.  But I’m not in Africa now where money was so tight.  Now my budget is a little healthier, but even so  I’m still marked by my time there….and it does only cost US15c.  As well, this treat comes as a congratulations for having just saved a few dollars on fuel…at the cost of about an hour and a half in time.

With my bike’s number-plate broken off, I was hoping that I might be able to persuade the fuel attendants to fill my bike up at the lower nationals’ price.  Here in Bolivia the law states that “Vehicles with foreign plates must pay 9.22Bs per litre,” an increase of nearly 250%.  If you remember, in the previous chapter  the bike’s number plate broke off whilst bouncing along the wearisome corrugations of the Lagunas Route.  But this got me thinking, without a number plate could I argue that the bike doesn’t have a foreign number plate…because it doesn’t have a plate at all?  Usually I’m buying fuel on the black market anyway as pumps in the countryside are rare, and there it makes no difference, the prices fixed for all.  And technically, I should pay the full 9.22Bs at the pumps, it just seems unfair somehow, despite the reality being that it is completely fair; I don’t pay Bolivian taxes, but then who does?  Whilst it would work later, it didn’t here in Tupiza, but I still didn’t want to pay the full price, hence the long search for a black-market (or “black bag”) seller who had some……and the resultant celebratory drink!

As I sit sipping the cola droopy-faced Alfonso makes me a sandwich from his lunch kit.  Into a white bread roll he spoons filling; “aji” (red-hot chilli pepper), seasoned with a sprinkling of tuna. “PPPPuta!” I splutter as I take a bite, “I think it needs more pepper…!”  Alfonso smiles.

The shop is crammed wall-to-wall with fridges and freezers and Alfonso sells ice-cream and sodas rather reluctantly to those who dare disturb his reverie.  He rises heavily from the other sofa to wade through the heat of late morning to a face in the doorway glistening with sweat like condensation on a cold glass…always they have the same questions, “how much is this? How much is that? And this? Hmfh, okay, I’ll just take a coke.”

Where the walls are visible behind the jumble of fridges one can spot the usual eclectic mix of posters; the Virgin Mary, cola ads (“¡Ahora en 2L retornables!”), naked blondes and calendars depicting llamas photoshopped into the Swiss alps, usually poorly and missing a hoof or ear.  I’m laughing at the pictures as Alfonso slumps down into an armchair.  He raises his brows quizzically, tipping his head back, “que?”

”Is that your daughter?” I ask gesturing to one of the blondes.
”Hm, one of them.”
”Your wife must be very pretty?” I say.  He twists the corner of his nose up, not really. I gesture over to the facing wall and ask, “And what does she think?” Alfonso’s brows knot in confusion, so I add, “the Virgin Mary….of the blonde?”
”Ah…It’s ok…it’s no problem” he says breaking into a twinkling smile, “they’re both virgins!”

Alfonso, AKA Droopy

A man comes in, dabbing his brow with a handkerchief, a big man with messy hair and his shirt half out, he looks tired.  He asks how much a few things are and then buys a coke.

Alfonso slumps into his seat.

The man leans in the doorway and takes a deep gulp from the dewy bottle, a sigh of pleasure like a wave on the shore.  He goes on to tell us about his journey from Tarija, which I’m interested in as it’s my next destination…


Oh well.  He tells us that the journey has taken him all night, ten hours for what normally takes four or five.

A young girl comes in then, holding a shiny precious coin out in front of her, like a guiding compass.  She asks how much every individual sweet is, holding the compass to each, lemon drops, caramels, cola sweets, lollipops, gummie sweets, fruity chews and on and on.  She looks glumly at her coin not so precious after all and then leaves, without even buying a coke.

Alfonso slumps into his seat.

The dishevelled man goes on to tell us that he took the main road from Tarija, heavy rain causing a landslide.  I’d actually planned a different route; a minor road direct across the mountains to the north. The prospect of a landslide-challenge ignites momentarily, but I decide to stick with my original plan, reasoning that sitting in the rain and not moving won’t be much fun.  Shouldn’t force things.

Leaving Tupiza
A Woman leads her goats out to feed on thorny desert bushes in Tupiza
Into the mountains, heading east to Tarija, storm clouds to the south

I ride away from hot Tupiza then, heading north before turning sharply to the east into the mountains along smooth grey dirt. I look far to the south, to the obvious thunder clouds, below which must be that other road and I ruminate over my decision, whether right or wrong, dry or wet, brave or weak.  To soothe my concerns the road here is excellent, dropping into a hot fertile valley of bizarre and huge angled wedges of rock; an ancient meteor crater.  I stop in another shop for another drink in a lovely little farming village, crumbling sandstone buildings around a small square reminiscent of Italy.  A man sits listening in the corner of the cool interior of the shop, quietly drinking as I chat with the owner.  One or two friendly farmers come in to buy some local – and supremely “special” looking – clear brew, either taking a few quick nips or else filling their own bottles from the large plastic gallon bottle secreted behind the counter.  They head off to sit in the shade against the wonky golden walls of the church or else start off on the long walk home through the fields, at least partially drunk.  I leave to find camp, spending an age trying to find a spot along one of the huge blasted-out shanks of the earth on the high lip of the crater, but can’t quite make it.  I find a very fine spot all the same with long views down the broad red valley.

I couldn't find camp on the crater edge so took this rather fine spot instead.Riding away from TupizaA pass of sorts through the mountains, looking down to the valley and meteor craterAs I approach the village, one of the farmer's housesDespite my slight anxieties about the route south, I had a very good ride all the sameStopping in a lovely village for another drinkWhat every motorcyclist likes to see!Sheep managing to find something to eat amongst the thorny bushesAn old houseA very white tree at campA fairly representative view of the shanks of the crater

My trail joins the Pan Americana highway the next morning, as it heads ever southwards, here on its way to Tarija at 1,800m (6,000ft), and even provides some beautiful riding. However, along with urban Tarija, it all comes as a bit of a shock after several weeks in the altiplano where even bananas were hard to come by.  As I walk around the centre of Tarija a man pulls up alongside in his car and asks if ‘that’ is my motorcycle parked several streets over, I say yes and he tells me that I’m a bit foolish to park it there, it will be robbed. I thank him and tell him it’s fine, though now I’m not so sure.   I continue on, looking for a hostel with parking, but failing, hot, sweaty and a little concerned for the bike I turn about and start back.

Rodney, my trusty companion is still there parked up when I return. I pat the tank, “vamos amigo, let’s go.”  I find my way out of Tarija where for the first time my ruse works and I buy fuel for the local’s price and from here on main roads heading lower still to the east.  However, the anxious feeling remains, a feeling of being out of place, like I don’t belong in this odd urbanised area. I’m made happier when the paved road stops and, with a bump-bump, I drop off its terminus and continue along dusty red dirt towards the lowland Amazon, the temperature conversely rising rapidly.
The Pan-Am!A walk around TarijaHeading east still further to Villa MontesCould have given me a nasty bight on the forehead!Warm low altitude and rivers means only one thing; bath timeSanta Ana along the way, a nice place to stock up with supplies

I see condors enjoying the cooler air up high, circling atop the hot rising air of the thermals.  Down here though and all I can do is think of the heat which is now incredible.  If I stop the bike, only for a moment the petrol in the fuel-line evaporates and the bike won’t start.  So, when I reach a frond-roofed shack and stop for a coke I find I can’t restart the bike. I chat with others, truck and bus drivers, all parked up, either broken down and waiting for parts to arrive, or simply waiting for sunset.  All agree that today is simply too hot, for the engines particularly, on this slow, twisty and steep road.  After a few attempts I manage to push-start the bike, though after all the effort I’m considering turning it off again and going back inside for a second litre of coke!

Another(!) coke….55°C/131°F
The sun burns white and fills the sky with light and heat leaving little blue to be seen. It’s even hotter riding than stationary, the air as hot as flame, burning my face and filling my stomach with a swelling sickness (probably all the cola you greedy git). I pass numerous broken down vehicles as the road carves its way through low gnarled trees and bushes, including my favourite; the plump bellied Toborochi tree.  This tree, they say, is the hiding place of Araverá, an ancient goddess.  Araverá was pregnant with a son who, it was prophesised would destroy the evil spirits, Aña.  These chased her everywhere until they lost her when she hid, and remains today inside the Toborochi tree.  I wonder how these trees can bear the 55°C (131°F!!) heat…I’m not sure if I can, despite a belly-full of cola….maybe the Toborochi manages better as its belly is actually a storage for water, and not cola….or a goddess.
Toborochi trees…and maybe a goddess
Getting very, VERY hot!!!Approaching the Pilcomayo CanyonIt was very tricky to get a picture of the canyon....this is just rounding the corner on to the narrow section of the trail over it.
The Pilcomayo Canyon

A telephone-box like cabin sits perilously close to the edge of the road and the Pilcomayo canyon as I approach. A man steps out, squinting into the dazzling heat, his face the usual blankness of someone with a bagful of coca crammed into their cheek. He doesn’t tell me to but I stop and wait as he stares absently left and right and spits bright green. Confirmed by radio that the single-lane is clear I’m waved through and the man repairs to his small cabin to cram more leaves into his numb cheek, to keep him going through this intense heat. Along I go, traversing the vertical walls of the canyon by the very narrow and excellent, but sadly short, trail cut into the towering sandstone walls brooding over the Pilcomayo river whose waters run brown and warm below….water….oh, water! I drank mine long ago and I search for a shop in the last of the light and, finding one, I buy two litres of Fanta before riding back to the canyon to set the tent up riverside.

It’s not a river for swimming in, running fast, brown and turbid.  Black cormorants stand unmoving on rocks and boulders amongst the river. They look cooked and shrivelled up, like old dry bugs and not once do I see them fly, or move.  The sun, mercifully setting, is still all powerful and I strip off quickly to underwear. Ants dart about on the floor like people burning their feet on a hot beach, and mosquitoes and flies buzz around angrily drinking my sweat and blood, forcing me into the tent.  Inside is unsurprisingly stifling, despite putting only the inner-tent up and though I’m rather sick of the sugar, I take endless gulps of the already hot tang until the bottle is painfully empty.  I certainly can’t entertain the idea of eating and instead choose to lie down and sweat into the mattress, which sticks to me like Velcro. I put on a t-shirt to alleviate this, but in this heat the T-shirt feels more like an electrically-heated, fleece-lined, goose-down polar jacket and even slipping my head-torch on feels like donning a woolly hat.

The sandstone floor under the tent burns hot as smouldering coals and makes sleep impossible. Perhaps not just the heat, or the noise of trucks as they erupt into life as darkness falls and pass by one after another, but perhaps it is because I’m worrying about my next problem; tomorrow.  In the previous chapter (The Lagunas Route) I had finished by describing my decision making for this route.  This basically involved my choices to visit this canyon before turning north along a long and isolated route directly to Sucre.  It looked to be a good challenge though even in Tupiza I was worried about this one and if perhaps I was taking on a bit too much.  My estimation is that it is between 500km and 600km, maybe even more.  It’s almost impossible to tell due to the difficulty in taking into account the elevation changes.  Once, a road that looked 10km on my map turned out to be a near vertical switchback decent over 30km, or short sections to a town 2km away – by crow and by map – are actually circuitous routes down, around and up valleys 50km or more.  Not only many times longer but also inevitably many times slower thanks to endless hairpins.  And so now on the eve of this route I’m quite worried and night-time thoughts whirl around my mind; how far will it be, how much fuel do I need, can I even carry enough, and how much food and water, how many days?  I’m also worried that if it’s this hot it could be quite dangerous….if I get a problem…..better not to think about it.  I spiral around and around my thoughts, again and again and again, until eventually falling asleep.

Parrot in the shop
Camp, the ground like smouldering coals
In the morning, already roasting hot….and the sun isn’t even up!

The black cormorants are still there unmoving when I rise early next morning. I want to beat the heat but I also want to reach nearby Villa Montes early, stock up with several days food and water and find two large bottles to fill with petrol, before back-tracking to near my camp-spot to start the road north as early as possible. The sky is just lighting violet as the unseen sun approaches the horizon, but even so it must be approaching 30°C (86°F).  I consider riding in my underpants, but can’t carry the extra clothes on the bike. Putting on my riding jacket is absolute torture and the helmet is damp with the slimy now-cool grime of yesterday.

Repsol drilling station.
Petroleum towers along the way

The road to Villa Montes is very twisty, far exceeding the map’s perspective greatly and, at 70km, much farther than I expected, delaying my start along the Sucre road. I pass by several oil drilling towers as I twist and turn along, wanting only to arrive. I stock up quickly in the markets of Villa Montes which is just waking up,  people setting up, unwrapping blue tarps from the neat bundles of their stalls of fruit and veg.  I’m delayed finding the two four-litre oil bottles for fuel, but do eventually and fill up those, the tank and not forgetting the life-saving 0.5L stove bottle.  I get a slight scowling frown from the pump attendant at my lack of number plate but again pay local prices.  Finished, I then buy two litres of fruit juice, it’s before 9am and in the shade of the cool concrete shop it is already 32°C!  I drink my juice down easily, wanting more, and talking at length with the shop owner who agrees with a smile that yesterday was killer, “today will be better,” he says, “there will be clouds.  Yesterday there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky!”  I ask him both how and why he can live here…him and his friend smile, ”when it is hot like yesterday, we don’t work, we just drink.”

Whilst I’d like to just drink, I’m preoccupied, thinking of the possible difficulties and unknowns ahead that one can never plan for, only worry about.  Who knows what I’ll find.  My mind moves to another place now. The man is talking but I’m not listening, as if I can see the words, see him talking but make no sense of it all.  I’m too busy thinking.  I’m thinking that it would be nice if I could carry more fuel, more food and more water.  I’m thinking I can’t, the bike is fully loaded, including 9 litres of fuel.  I’m thinking the road could be more than 600km.  I’m thinking about my recent forays in the altiplano which taught me that perhaps my fuel range is much less than I’d thought, perhaps only 500km. I’m thinking how on the one hand I don’t have enough fuel and on the other that there’s nothing that can be done.  I’m thinking; what if there’s a problem. What if I fall badly.  I’m thinking I just want to get going, I want desperately to get moving, to just leave the voices and fears behind.  So, I bid the friendly chaps farewell and start off, back the way I came through the Pilcomayo canyon and to La Palma and my turn off north on to the Devil’s road.

The beginning of the Devil’s Road
Click to view the map

There are several roads in this area all running parallel from south to north along the basin and rising up towards Sucre at 2600m.  I assume that they are all old petroleum hunter trails.  With the heat and the dense scrub land being hostile to almost all but mythical goddesses and the hardiest organisms, there is little to tempt people to live here, far from Villa Montes, Sucre or Santa Cruz, even with these roads in place. The initial part of the route is as expected very good, leading to a petroleum well and with some rural houses along the way whose inhabitants manage somehow to scrape a living farming tired-looking (pre-cooked!) cattle, or else at the oil wells.  There are several junctions and feeling lost and a little anxious I am eager to speak to anyone and everyone I can, to quiz them about the route ahead and not feel quite so alone. This is always a bit of a Catch 22; asking means more information, and more information often means more fears, things I hadn’t thought about.  If not this then they have no idea about the route at all, which is almost as worrying as it only shows the lack of use it receives.  The consensus here is that the route does seem at least to exist, is a very long way, is very sandy and meant only for horses.  But they say I will make it. I hope so.

The last photo, hereafter I was to anxious to cover ground and didn’t take any until things got easy again…and  Irelaxed

Narrower,  the trail tunnels deeper into the gnarled jungle which closes over and around the thin strip of dirt, closing me off from the houses and people behind. After some time I surprisingly see two men amongst the trees making a concrete water trough for cattle. They give me very complicated directions and explain that just round the next curve the road becomes bad, no people, unused.  I get a photo here and pour in the first of the two 4litre jerry cans, which the tank gobbles dismayingly, meaning I’ve covered just over 120km. I’ve not even started, I hope I’ve got enough fuel.

The trail is oppressive in the darkness, becoming rocky and the two men were right; clearly unused now.  Rather than being totally flat the trail undulates and twists through the vast jungle to the point where I have no idea of direction at all and I realise my insignificance, a small dot of red among an huge ocean of green. The darkness at least puts me and machine out of the scorching grasp of the sun’s reach, which I’m grateful for. But I don’t like this trail, ghostly somehow, not a place for the living and I think about turning back. I can think of little else only of covering ground and so anxious am I that I stop taking photos in an attempt at haste.

When I arrive then at a junction I have to try hard to remember the directions given in all the conversations earlier.  I seem to remember that the first instruction was to keep left, that right was bad, maybe then I’d follow a channel or canal, and perhaps once I reach a school I can turn right. I can’t remember.  I was so busy worrying about the quality and length of the trail, or perhaps simply: just worrying, that I didn’t really concentrate on the directions.  I try desperately to remember, feeling like the boy on the freezer, reaching around inside and stretching out his digits, fingering memories.  I take the left and pray I understood correctly.

After the early rush from camp and the frantic preparations in Villa Montes this morning, time slows now to an equally worrying standstill.  Whole days seem to pass by to cover single kilometres.  Anxious and confused by this warping of distance and time, I look more and more regularly at the odometer, which seems to barely move and eventually watching these numbers becomes more important than concentrating on the trail.  Large salmon-pink iguana flash colour like lightning along the floor of the ominous jungle where darkness otherwise consumes the green of leaves and the beige of bark, and lichen hangs from branches in shadowy webs of black.  Even the jumbled rocks of the trail are black, slipping, tilting and tinkling beneath the wheels as I ride thoughtlessly hoping only that the odometer has caught up one-hundred kilometres, but when I look again it has moved barely one.  I feel certain that, in spite of these small 1km increments, I am still using up all my reserves of fuel and, at the same time as getting no nearer my destination, I am moving many hundreds of miles from the last houses, people and help.  With my total distance covered at about 141km, I still have a rather discouraging 400-500km to go and my fears move away from fuel, to that of time.  How many days will it take? and, have I got enough biscuits?

From this all-enclosing darkness I eventually emerge into a much more open area; one of colour and sunlight, of grass and breeze.  A great relief, but I am far from relieved.  A building then, which I hope is the school, though it’s hard to tell as it looks unused like from a ghost town.  I see a woman sitting on the hard-packed dusty floor beneath a shade tree outside the long rectangle of her house, and I pull over to check if I’m going the right way.

When I talk to people I have a need to remove my helmet, to get off the bike and say hello with a handshake, thinking that perhaps it’s not very nice talking to a pair of alien blue eyes and a big white nose, wearing what looks like a paratrooper’s jacket and sat – seemingly very happily – atop Apollo 14.  Whilst perhaps this is a good idea, those few moments when the people watch as I remove gloves and helmet and twist out of the saddle, seem oddly tense.  Kids come out of the shadows and stare as the woman, solid-looking and in a dirty blue smock worn thin with use and torn, takes a few steps towards me.  I remember that; her smock full of holes and her odd walk; a stiff-legged waddle, like Frankenstein’s monster or a large zombie with their arms down.  She stops well short of me and stands apprehensively back.  Usually any tension I feel or imagine fades when I shake hands and say hello, but here it’s another still-familiar conversation, one of disbelief and the fear that I’m another petroleum hunter (or gold hunter as when I was captured by Indians in Colombia).   It means that her questions seem oddly probing and my answers only seem to raise more suspicion.  As we talk together I look around to the house, the shed, the landscape, the children, wondering how she and they can live here in this tiny speck of light set amongst a vacuous black hole.  I ask questions to this end, but these only raise more suspicion, and are met with avoidance and generalisations.  I look for vehicles too, and seeing none and wondering how she reaches town I ask if buses pass, “no,” she says, “so who uses the road?” I ask, “no one, no one ever passes.”

Not THE woman but nearby days later I took this photo of the same dress style…this one without holes

Another problem with long isolated routes is the lack of villages between – in this case – here (wherever this is) and the target, Sucre. It makes navigation difficult, with less to aim for.  Here too, in rural Bolivia the distances are perhaps magnified/shrunk one-hundred fold as the common vehicle is not the car but the sandal….or maybe even two.  In this case there really isn’t much to aim towards and the ones I mention she doesn’t know so I have little choice but to ask how to reach Sucre itself.  Initially she points me back, with her chin, to Villa Montes where she could take a bus to Sucre if she so wanted.  I explain again and she goes on to confirm that I can continue along this route to reach Sucre, though this only highlights another problem; does the person you are asking really know the way?  Egyptians, I noticed for example, always tell you to go the way that you and the bike are pointing, ie they always tell you it’s straight ahead.  One becomes a little better to judge people as time goes by, usually a lot of time…spent getting lost.  But you also learn that you have little choice than to trust the people and take the information available whether you think it good or bad.

There are two more houses here, making a village of three, and I pass by them on my way out of “town”.  The route changes here, staying now in the relative open and meandering alongside a dry river northwards with the green darkness ominously just off to the sides.  The trail crosses this river repeatedly via its dry and soft sandy bed of rounded grey rocks, and at times I seem to lose it completely as it fades from existence, lost to the pressures of the growing jungle or the river, until a patch of what is more obviously road momentarily reassures me.  Suddenly I’m at a junction with six exits to choose from and not a single sign.  Miraculously there is someone building a house at this junction and I go through the trees into the shade, to the house but there is no-one there.  Damn, now what?  But then after a moment, from out of the darkness comes a man with a bulging cheek of coca and the familiar feint delirium.  When I ask which way to go he points with his chin and then with a spit of coca slime says, “the careterra,” to which I reply, “but which one is that!”  I pull him out by the elbow to the 6-ways junction.  He obviously thinks I’m stupid and he tiresomely points the way, across the broad riverbed, chopping the air with his hand as he says “sssiiiigue, siiigue, sigue,” meaning the road is easy to follow, just stay straight……

And upright, I think as I cross the deep sand again to the other side.  There’s hardly a tire mark here now and plants and trees grow freely and hang into the road.  The farther I go, the more and more of the hard-packed sand road I find has been consumed at some time by the river, and so more and more often I’m riding along the tricky riverbed itself.  At one point, I try to slip narrowly between a tree leaning half-uprooted, bent forwards in the sand from an ancient flood, and an area of softer sand cut by the few tyres that have passed this way.  I catch one of the tree’s tough branches on my body and tumble off, stopping with a jolt.  Before I even hit the soft sand I’m thinking to myself, “turn back…this is crazy, if it’s like this now, what will it be like in 100km!”

...this one, I was lost the whole time....
The 6-ways junction
I wiggle out painfully from under the bike sunk heavily in the sand, burning my leg on the engine case and hurting my ankle as I rush to tug it free from the heavy heat. I go to heave the bike up and as I do a spurt of blood surges out from somewhere on to the sand. “Bloody hell….that’s a lot of blood!”  I picture a syringe full of blood being squeezed hard without a needle.  My hand is cut and I wipe it on my trousers ineffectively but can see that whilst it’s quite nasty, it’s quite a small cut in my finger, maybe the brake lever or a branch stabbed it.  But no time for that, vital fuel is leaking out from the tank; I have to get the bike up. I plunge my bloody hand amongst the soft sand and fix it around the grip and heave the bike a second time.  This time my reddened hand slips from the now wet grip and I fall backwards and tangle in the tough tree branches which I fight angrily against.  I get manage better third time and push and run the bike along the riverbed and across to the far side.
A slow awkward fall and a small but bloody cut to my finger.

The injury and fall have really brought things to the fore, I want out.  This isn’t a very wise place to be alone, or maybe I’m just not good enough or tough enough, it’s the same feeling I get when I’m climbing far above the last protection, a fall would be big, and my first thoughts here are to turn back. The road isn’t that tough (though I say this in hindsight), but it is long and isolated and the difficulties reside not in the depth of sand, or lack of people but in my head.  There are some trails that as soon as you put your wheels on them, you just know that it’s bad, it won’t be easy and most likely you will reach something unexpected, some obstacle around the corner. It doesn’t help that my bike is slow (or I am) and the distance seems huge. If I go on I’m just riding further into trouble, more than getting closer to my goal.  Some people tell me I’m brave, but I knew all along; there’s no such thing, or else I’m not brave and no matter what I do I can’t change that.

Inspecting my hand I see the blood coagulating now, sticky like jam, thanks mainly to the help of the sand.  I should clean it, but need the water.  Then I start to think – as is usual – not about turning back but instead, “just a little more, just a little more effort, you can always turn back, just see what it’s looks like…”

It looks like a bad road, but like I’ve said, not that bad though I fall several more times and then take several more turns along un-signposted roads, for some reason I choose left invariably.  After a long while, incredibly, I come to another house set in a large clear area of baked dry dirt.  I can’t believe it and it reminds me that these are the real heroes and I’m very much a wimp.  A mother and teenage daughter kneel in the shade of the small porch plucking chunky “choclo” corn-kernels from cobs into large red bowls.  They look fairly shocked as I poke my head inside and ask if I can reach Sucre this way…and shocked further when I raise my hand and ask if I can wash it…they even had a tap.

I spotted trucks then, building a new road and relaxed enough to take photos
Only to fall

It’s mid afternoon when I see a truck.  What’s a truck doing here?  They do have a comforting effect on me though, other people, and this comfort brings on thirst, tiredness and hunger. I stop amongst thick shoulder-height grass roadside, to eat some bread and drink and I watch as another truck passes by.  I follow behind this when I catch it later, the road churned up in to deep soft ruts of sand, and I pull over after some time at another house.  I slip through a small gap in the grass to speak with an excited woman who comes over and explains all, “they’re building a new road!!” she says.  Unsure if I should be relieved or disappointed, or even believe it, I give thanks and continue along the old road as long as possible until I reach a wide, stony and depressingly brand new road. Looking back from this the entrance to my trail is instantly lost amongst the tall grass and bushes growing and closing over it already.

I ride on feeling both happy and hard done-by, in fact I don’t know what to think, unsure if it was hard at all, or as hard as I think, or thought and now over it seems so far away, another world, and from this end the trail seems easy, or was it. And does it even matter?  The tall jungle grass and bushes continue to grow, growing over my memories, lost now, a new road, which I continue along, ever onwards in search of something and even now, writing this I still don’t know.

I see that the jungle trees have disappeared, making way for rich bright-green cattle-pastures, and for comfy new houses.  I stop at one to ask for water having drank almost all of my own day’s provisions. Amongst my feet run the piglets of a beached pig, the sow heaped in the yard where play two boys and a monkey. As I fill the water bottle, the man – to whom I’ve barely said a word – asks if I would like some dinner.  Having hardly eaten all day I jump at the chance and sit with him on the thick round roots of a grand old tree eating, the colour fading from the world as the sun sets, and we talk.  We discuss the monkey, whose name is “monkey” and he tells how the two boys caught it in the nearby jungle using a slingshot.  “There’re loads!” he says.  Not for long.

“Can I get some water?” I said, “Yeah…do you want dinner, too?”
A monkey named monkey and the boy who caught him with a slingshot 🙁
I’d noticed a lovely spot earlier; an oxbow curve in the river, curling tightly beneath very tall sandstone cliffs and I return there to camp. After much consideration of the dangers I place my tent near the upper edges of the cliffs.  Then, after photos and a walk and as I brew up some tea, I hear a landslide below and decide, “probably best to move the tent…”, as always.  As the sound of birds and insects crescendo and the kettle too for the second time, a thunderstorm arrives, and I move again…as always.   I get soaked in the process and, in the dark, put the tent on top of an ant’s nest!  And you think they’d be pleased for the rain-shelter!
I stuck my tent up over this precarious edge...idiot....then as night began to fall I heard two landslides directly below, then a thunderstorm, I ended up moving as I knew I would when I set up....what an idiot.
My original position for camp…until I moved it…and again
Bug noises as I clean the day’s sand from the camera

I go toucan hunting in the morning, spotting one with a long yellow beak and, in my memory at least, a white chest, bobbing up and down, up and down, as it flies by.  I watch boys racing horses along the dusty road as I pack away, WOOOOing as they go on their galloping beasts to watch their grazing cattle in the pastures, happy souls all.  Iguanas and lizards run across the road almost constantly as I ride, small and large, spinning their angled legs in a blur of motion to run out of sight before a good photo is to be had!

Corr, there were loads of iguanas and lizards on this road, continuously crossing the road
After a noisy start, thanks to so many birds, a toucan included! I carried on towards Monteagudo…very far east of Sucre, my intended target.
Reaching the large village of Rosario del Ingre I stop in the hope of finding bread (writing this I wonder what I was planning to eat and drink if the road was still the old road…sand and blood probably).  I ask in a shop if there is some in the village, “did you see the white chair?”  replies the friendly youth.
”Eh?” I say.
“Just up the road there.”
I look on blankly.
“The white chair…if the white chair’s out there’s bread….wait a second.” he walks around the counter and pokes his head out of the shop but says glumly that the white chair is in, no bread today.I sit outside on the porch tucking into sugary drinks, biscuits and wafers, my Bolivian diet. The youth comes out with a wooden chair and sits besides me.  “Where’ve you come from?” he asks.
”Villa Montes….mieEEERRde! it’s hot there!”
”It gets hot here.”
”Umm, maybe….but not 55°C!”
”Fifty-five!  No, puffhh, up to thirty-five here.  But…which way did you come? That way?”
”No,” I say, “that way”.”
”That way!  Is there a road?”
”Yeah….but it’s pretty bad.”One by one other people come to talk, old women and teenage school children mainly, each more disbelieving than the last; a white person all the way from the UK. They are delightful and it’s a long time before I think of moving off. The school teacher, a raucous bubbly female, clearly has desires for me to settle here in the village and live as her love-slave and they all ask me about the countless women who must be falling at my feet. I correct them repeatedly, explaining that the only reason women would fall at my feet is because they stink.  I stink.  I elaborate that I wear clothes full of holes, rarely wash, live in a tent and that my idea of a good meal simply means more biscuits.  I explain that my tent is very small, that it is only a “one-man tent” but then add with a wink-wink nudge-nudge to the teacher, “…and three women!” starting her off again and the jocular banter and innuendo continues from all whilst I sit there smiling and turning red.I ask them all about the road, and importantly about the fact that their village isn’t on it!  At least according to the map. It’s hard to say, but it seems that my route doesn’t exist as it does on the map.  I should be farther west but the school teacher’s family live out that way she tells me and that no road exists.  She adds that another trail loops from near here a little to the west and possibly to Rodeo, but it’s a very long way “zig-zag, zig-zag,” says the teacher, and still not my intended route. The initial excitement and challenge is lost now, it was lost yesterday when I reached the new road, but even so I decide I shouldn’t give up and I go back to take a look at this road.  However, I’m soon lost again unable to find the turn-off.  I speak to a petroleum worker who clearly knows the area well.  From him I learn that maybe a direct road to Sucre begins from a point much farther west along the Pilcomayo canyon road, farther from Villa Montes towards to Tarija. Though the man admits that it’s existence is doubtful, and doesn’t believe any route links up to Sucre.
The very friendly people in Caserio, the teacher is in the pink skirt

In any case, having made such a detour I don’t have the fuel to reach Sucre even if the trail is there.  I decide to leave and despite my non-arrival in Sucre, I’ve had a really good two days, interesting riding and great people. I ride back and through Rosario del Ingre and push on northwards to the main road at Monteagudo. Once there I buy food supplies and as well antiseptic cream for my hand.  I walk around a small but lively market where people shout for one’s custom in the tight weave of streets, the current craze here is small fancy biscuits and – as always – fried everything.  I sit and drink coffee to savour the atmosphere, just enjoying the happy presence of people, to listen and to talk to the coffee stall women.  I buy a fatty fried dough from her which reminds me of “andazis” in Africa which I ate together with the sweetest, milkiest and yummiest tea I’ve ever known from fly infested cups.   There wasn’t a single shop hoarding or advert there. The tea shops were marked not by signs but only by the smell of incense that they burned outside the door in small urns.  The scent caught in my nostrils as I rode by, and I’d swing about quickly in a sharp U-turn regularly to spend 10p.  I couldn’t talk to them then, only watch and say, “té” and nod yes to andazis.

I won’t be U-turning now, but I’m happy to sit and savour and, having arrived earlier than expected and in a place I hadn’t expected to, I have to decide where-to next…… as always.

Find out where next time!

(Author’s note: Obviously since riding this I realise it was not as hard as it seemed at the time, knowledge is power after all.  That said, if I’d have been able to follow the route – as I had assumed I was – on my paper map all the way to Sucre on this bad road then perhaps it would have been a pretty stiff test, as it turned out not so much….I’ve written, or tried to, the story from my point of view as it was at the time, which was quite obviously without this knowledge, and whilst it might read as me trying to BIG up my route, that is not what is intended.)

  • Richard

    man, so rad. awesome pics and story

  • Nick Jones

    Thanks again Rich! Lovely Pipe by the way…!

  • Nick Jones

    Hi Heather! I’m glad you liked it! So you are considering a trip?! If I can ever help just drop a mail!

    And yes, you are right, it DOES take a lot of time to write and to do the photos too! (Fun too though)…Thanks again, Nick.