The Death Road

Trip Start Sep 28, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Saturday, May 26, 2012

Oh good lord above what am I doing?  With a new pair of trekking boots and some decent gear I feel like I'm materialistically prepared, but mental and physically you've got to be kidding.  I've hardly slept a wink through sheer terror, and I'm going to need all my faculties to see me through the day.  Up at the crack of dawn, kit on, and waiting outside a hostel doorway to be picked up by the tour guides.  The death road awaits.

The North Yungas Road (to give it it's formal title) was dubbed the worlds most dangerous road in 1995.  It claims around 200-300 travelers a year, is around 61Km long and has extreme drops of up to 1,830ft.  It's not very wide for the most part, and the surface is loose and rocky.  It is the only road in Bolivia (and indeed probably South America) where you drive on the left, to give you a better view of the cliff edge.  It's lethal, and yet here I was about to tackle my fear of heights head on.  I'd made my apologies before I set off. 

Our party consists of a mix of individuals from all corners of the globe.  When I say all corners, I mean America, Canada and Australia.  There is also a guy from New Zealand who hasn't been to bed.  He was so coked out of his nut last and apparently "shagging" an "annoying" English girl until it was time to get ready for the trip.  There are many words that could be used to describe this individual.  I shall settle for moron.  Not only is he endangering his own mule-head existence (which I'm not too bothered about, one less retard in the gene pool) but he's putting everyone else at risk.  Part of me really hopes his quest for a badge of honor ends spectacularly on the canyon floor.

Speaking of coke, it appear we have another knuckle-dragger along for the ride.  This American dude will not shut up about how many bags he's taken in the last few days, or indeed his life, and how he lived three doors down from Modest Mouse.  He clearly thinks he's the big I am, and it's his dulcet tones we're subjected to every time we stop, or when we make the accent back up the road.  More of that anon. 

Negatives aside, the day begins excited, nervous, cold and brisk some 45 mins cycle downhill to the actual start of the death road.  We're pretty high up here, the air is sharp and chill, and I take a cheeky satisfaction from being well prepared.  Some of the group are not however, and are clearly feeling the bitter wind with icy fingers and noses.  Even with my three layers giving me a look similar to Robocop, the freeze soon gets through, and we're all keen to get underway.  Not without asking Pacha Mama for a blessing first, with a bottle of 97% pure booze.  Poured on the earth, poured on the front tyre, and touched to the lips.  I don't care who your god is, I'd say a grace to anyone if it kept me from flying off a cliff.

The bikes are doing most of the work as we set off through the windy rocky mountain landscape.  The windchill turns the nose red, and makes breathing a chore.  The scenery is incredible.  I'm practicing my control of the machine by riding as close as I can to the right hand side white line, without going over it.  I'm trying to teach my brain how to handle an edge.  Previous to this, the only risks I've taken is under cooking an egg and masturbating in a ten bed dorm room.  I need to learn fast.

And learn fast I do.  I'm flying down the hill, but still with a couple of fingers over the breaks.  I'm not quite ready to let everything go and throw caution to the wind as I keep thinking I'm going to fly over the handlebars and lose all my front teeth.  It's a totally irrational fear too, as nothing like that has ever really happened to me.  I'm just basically very timid.  I like to kid on everything is fine, when in reality I'm weeing myself with fear.  I'm getting better at it though.  Perhaps one day I'll take those corners fast and loose.  I'm clearly an over thinker and I need to put more trust in the bike.

The cold gives way to warm as we descend around 1000ft and near the start of the catalyst of my nightmares.  Outer layers are whipped off, bug spray applied, squeaky bums are squeaking.  Mine anyway.  Everyone else seems to be getting off on it.  Whether or not that was because 90% were still high I couldn't tell.  Regardless, there it was for the first time, a tiny ledge built into the rock and swamped by green jungle foliage.  The Death Road.  Snaking away into the distance, whispering its failed promises to keep you alive.  Temptation itself.  Now Stuart...


I've no idea where that came from, but we're off, bouncing over scree and rocky road.  Arms jittering like I'm using a jackhammer.  If I stuck my tongue between my teeth I'd bite it off.  Strewn over the uneven surface are large stones known as "babies heads." These little bastards could literally be the life or death of you.  Hit one the wrong way and you're coming off.  There was no chance to look at scenery, you keep your eyes on the road, and your distance from the rider in front.  It starts sensibly, then it just goes insane.

You round a corner and you're inches from meeting your maker.  It's a sheer drop with betrayed softness from the dense greenery.  It looks like it might be a soft landing.  You're deluding yourself.  The thing with being scared of heights, vertigo if you will, is that it makes you dizzy and demands you throw yourself off.  I'm desperately trying not to listen to the voices begging me to look down as I glare at the road ahead.  Every time I've crossed a bridge on foot I have a desire to climb over the side.  This is not a good place for me.

Eventually we reach a photo point.  The first leg is complete.  It's exhilarating.  Our guide explains some history of the road, as well as what to look out for on the next section.  This includes recent deaths, as well as what each cross stands for.  There are quite a few.  I'd imagine there's also been a number of suicides here, as well as assassinations through Bolivia's darker times.  Indeed this proves to be true, and many rebels have been pushed over the edge.  So long as I'm not following them I'll be perfectly happy.

I'm picking up the pace as we blast through wider sections, and the overall fear is subsiding as I realise so long as you're not a total eejit, you keep your head and distance, it's just like riding a dirt track in the highlands.  A dirt track in the highlands with a 600 metre drop to your left.  You have to ride on the left too, as vehicles need to hug the inner cliff wall.  That's just to make it that much more dangerous for you.  I've fish -tailed a couple of times, hitting "babies heads" too fast, and on one such occasion I mouth to myself that I've got nothing to prove, fight back the heart that's lept into my throat, and ease up on the speed.  Slow and steady wins the race.

When we stop for breathers and photo's the scenery is breathtaking.  It's difficult to get your head around it, and once again as with so many times, even the best pictures cannot do it justice.  You have to pinch yourself you're doing this.  We take a group pic at the famous curve which drops away to nothing, and push on past the scenes of so many accidents and fatalities.  There is something macabre and disrespectful about it, especially as Paddy is wearing a T-shirt emblazend with the slogan "Christ on a Bike."  It smacks of inappropriate, but is hilarous nonetheless.

Curve after curve and straight after straight is tackled and tamed time and again, and eventually we're coming through the most dangerous part to safer climbs.  In the interim, we've also managed to pass every other group out there, including a party kitted out similar to a Ben Stiller Dodgeball team.  It's a great feeling as we approach the finish line, and also one of marked disappointment.  I surprise myself with the question that utters from my lips: "can we do it again?"  Of course that was just me trying to look cool and deflect from the smell coming from my pants.

If I thought that was scary, then the worst was still to come.  After a nice group meal and a hot shower, we're loaded back into the transport to drive UP the road.  Being in control of your bike is one thing, getting in a large vehicle and letting someone else drive is a different story.  Especially when he's pulling over to open the doors and let us view the wreckage of unfortunate souls' broken carriages hundreds of feet below.  The only thing that's curbing my sheer terror is the large bottles of booze we've bought for the trip home.

Coke head 1 has passed out on the back seat, and I'm amazed (disappointed) he's made it out alive.  Coke head 2 is preceding to regail the group with just how much Charlie he's taken, how much of a party animal/extreme sports ace he is, and how everyone else are pussy's for not drinking/partying as hard/taking as much coke/going as fast as he did.  He's basically what we call in the business; 'a cunt'.  Even with an invite to go out and party with this bunch of fiends, Paddy and myself rightly call it a day upon returning to base.  Partly to do with exhaustion, partly to do with the fact they're going to a club called 'Route 36', which serves cocaine with your beer.  From my point of view however, it's because emotionally I don't have anything left to give.  I crash out around 6pm, elated I made it back alive.  Come tomorrow I will wear my death road survivor T-shirt with pride, and hopefully get back my new trekking boots I left on the bus.

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