Ahh the Tatacoa desert in Colombia, roughly 300 square kilometers of aired landscape located in the Huila Department of the country.
The altitude whilst driving around Colombia changes so much I feel like a teenage girl on a Saturday, forever swapping outfits and trying to find one that really works for me. Let’s see, should I wear the dirty biker jacket with the duct taped vents to keep the cold out at 12,000feet? Or maybe a nice light t-shirt while cutting cross country through subtropical coffee farms crossing the 2500 foot rage? Wait, wait I think the look I’m going for is a nice yellow matching pants and jacket, a business casual rain suit for the four hour monsoon for the dirt road across cattle country about 4000 feet. Ahh decisions, decisions….
Well after enough nights of freezing my ass off at high altitudes and day hikes in the rain, I opted for the only sensible and secure option, a few nights in the desert. A guarantee for warm climates and dry days, right? right? …
After spending a night behind a gas station where they let me sleep in the mango orchard, I would set off for the desert with a bag full of massive red and green mangos. Free camping and free snacks, see if you can find that at any North American fuel stop. From here I would miss a few turns, as one does on a daily basis and after succumbing to the idea that my GPS was still not working we managed to find our way with the phones mapping applications.
The route in is as amazing; as the desert is a bit of a curiosity in that it’s flanked on all sides by lush green landscape, bridged rivers and a few fun mountain tunnels to drive through route to the dry center. Once in the heart of all this action the bike tyres are spinning up dusty red track past tall full cacti and it gives me a sense of the Southern Baja in Mexico where I spent a month almost a year ago.
I find a couple of sun blocking shrubs next to a dried up river bed and set up camp for the night. During the drive in I’d seen a number of ranches tucked back off the main route, thought I’d opted for the less traveled road rather then the tourist road for the sake of avoiding, well, tourists! I knew this area was well known for it’s lack of light pollution and the view of the stars at night are meant to be immaculate.
Sitting to watch the sunset, wouldn’t ya know it, a rancher herding some cattle home for the night spots me out of place on the hillside with my tent in the bush and stops his horse mid stride to make a fast route for me. Ohh shit, maybe I’m camped on his dried up riverbed in between his shrubs.
Man I wish I had not been a bit intimidated and had asked for a photo of him. He greeted me with an intense curiosity and started to pepper me with questions I could not understand. He could not have looked more authentic with sweaty horse and sun worn saddle, Colombian style cowboy hat and red handkerchief tied around his neck, just above a western work shirt with four buttons undone showing a tanned chest. I fumbled my way through the questions about my country and tried to explain why I was here in his desert. There was one question though he repeated five times, each time faster and louder. I explained I did not understand and he just kept repeating. Finally I answered, “yes, a little”, and he regained the look of curiosity, wished me goodnight and turned the horse around into the sunset. It was all a bit surreal.
I watched the sun set, waited on a few starts then retreated back to my tent as I could feel little black flies attacking. Back in the tent I see that my legs look more like I fed the a whole friggin mob of them! When the sun goes down at 6pm and there is no one around to chat to, I lose a bit of interest in the day. I’m sure I fell asleep by 8pm. The plus was I was being waken by a startled donkey who’s normal route I must have been camped in. I heard him jump in the night & sprung up, we were both startled and I’m glad he didn’t make a route across my head. The upside was the immaculate starts were out in full lamination and what a sight, I even caught a shooting start! Thanks random donkey, you saved the night.
Over 6am breakfast in the morning I was packing camp, and man if a little old man on a little old donkey didn’t come down the trail. Jeez, I though I had set up in no mans land, seems I set up on the main trail for all creatures of the day and night. He too looked a little surprised, I greeted him and he said “Hola” than quickly scooted around me.
That day I knew it was going to be a hot one, so I headed back towards the touristy party of the desert and well the good people of Colombia know how to live. They had the brilliant idea to build a pool amongst some hoodoos in a small valley and I took it upon myself to spend exactly seven hours in that pool, waiting out the heat of the day. An hour or so before the sun set, I retreated back into the brush to set up my camp on the dusty plains.
Being so hot, I set up my tent without a fly to enjoy the warmth and see the starts for the night. Well if all the good fortune of the world would land upon me at once, I also got to experience one of the few times it rains in the desert. I woke up this time in the night to raindrops on my head and quickly ran out in my underwear to put the fly the tent on and cover up my camping gear. Back for a short sleep I again woke up about 5:30am, this time to the sound of a toppling motorbike falling outside. Ahh how nice, it had landed downslope with all my gear on it and fuel was leaking all over the place.
The dry ground had turned to red clay and the weight of the bike had sunk in the clay dropping the bike. Again I was thankful my head had avoided contact with something startlingly heavy in the night. With my running shoes on and in my underwear I was slipping and sliding trying to get the bike up from the downhill slope in the rain. I could not for the life of me get it up and had to remove some of the luggage and drag the back end downhill to finally unstick it from the muck. After some heavy grunting I got it up than realized there was no place to stand it as the ground was clay everywhere. Some crafty stretching and I coddled a stick over with one foot to put under the peg, retreated back to the tent dripping and now a very awake mess, waiting a couple hours until things turned to a drizzle.
By 8am I had my camp packed and headed for the road. Oddly there was no other tracks on the road and I would soon realise why. The road was a clay disaster that was nearly impassible by heavy motorbike with street tyres on it. From here I would spend the next six hours moving roughly 13kms through the muck. In the end I think I dropped the bike over ten times and on the final time I no long had the strength to pick up a 400lb bike with 250lbs of gear, one spare tyre and a helmet tied to the back. It was in a water hole and I was sweaty, soaked and out of water and energy.
I got lucky and a guy on a little 125cc with his girlfriend on the back rolled up and looked at me like I had fallen from another planet. His bike was light and easy to maneuver, I had a little skinny bike envoy at that moment. He stopped and offered to help, she stood with her eyes open and mouth dropped taking a video, I said hello and she didn’t know what to do. He smacked her on the arm and suggested she say hello back. Hahahaha, I don’t think they see a lot of sweaty gringos who crashed there bike that looks like a plane in the mud on this route. I felt maybe a hint of goes-around-comes-around, as I had fixed a guys flat tyre the day before and was happy for the help.
He dug me out and kept an eye on me for a few kilometers in his rear-view mirror until I waved him on. My bike had died going up a hill, no power, no nothing, I knew it would be a while to fix and I didn’t want to be a further bother. Seemed the battery cable had come lose and a little open heart surgery in the sun was require. I got that fixed just in time for the clutch to stop working and again broke out some tools. In with the tools I found a stray orange and in my starved, dehydrated state I savagely engulfed the orange before tackling the last few kilometres.
By late afternoon I would roll into a simple town on the outskirts of the desert to the wide eyes of the locals, as my limping bike kicked off rocky clay down there lonely dry streets. I found a shop, purchased three drinks, several pastries and banged off my boots street side to a small crowd of onlookers.
At this moment I am awaiting parts for a new clutch in the city of Cali Colombia, where I seemed to have accidently fallen into the motorcycle Mecca of the country. In hours I think I have exchanged more contacts, namely South America motorcycle related, than any other point or social networking event in my life. I’m never sure how or why, though I continually get the feeling that the world is watching out for my ass whilst I stumble my way across the planet.
I’ll let you know how it all comes together…