There is one small problem when driving the length of the Americas, well actually there are countless problems. Like say when you get a flat tyre on some shit dirt roads in Mexico, or maybe when a cop flags you down and try’s to fleece you for cash so you need to sit and wait him out until he gets really pissed off.
Those problems however you don’t see coming so you just deal with them as they arise. Crossing a narco and FARC controlled ninety kilometer gap from Panama to Colombia. Now this is a problem that festers from the day of departure…
If you didn’t know, that measly ninety kilometer space is called the “Darian Gap” and is basically a hyper arid jungle that sits between the two countries. A long time smuggling route of drugs and people, one would need some cash, some contacts and a hell of a lot of good luck to make it through on a motorbike. That being said, some people have done it and made it. Others have tried it and not been so fortunate.
I did meet a German fellow who had been living in Guatemala for some time that said he had made the passage in the eighties. I didn’t chat him up long enough to get anymore details, however he came across bad ass enough to tell a good story. More recently I watched a promotional video of three x-paratroopers who had planed to cross the gap with the exact same bike I am on. They start in Alaska riding through the snow with sidecars and eventually plan to drag them through the Darian. I was a tad envious of their little adventure.
CHECK OUT THAT VIDEO HERE. Or if you want to read about a guy who does it on foot. CHECK THAT HERE.
Now for those of us with no military background and no narco or FARC contacts you have three other options.
1: You put the bike on a cargo plane, say Girag Air. It takes a few hours, they handle all the bull shit paperwork and boom you are in and out in one day. Roughly $1000USD for the bike and $150USD to fly yourself over.
2: The Stahlratt (Steel Rat), a more then one hundred year old sail boat that will happily load your bike and yourself setting off for a 4-5day sailing tour through the San Blas Islands. Food, fun and festivities. All in about $1150 USD.
3: Or what I did, find some friends who are in the same shipping position. Spilt a shipping containers with the help of a guy named Boris. Shove in a Land Rover from Germany, an SUV from America and with the little space at the front for a little KLR from Canada. Split three ways it was about $400USD for the bike and $150USD for my plane ticket plus hotels and messing about.
Despite air being faster and sailing being funer, I opted for the least expensive root in the hopes of using any saved cash to extend the life of this trip, actually I used to to go diving (that in a later blog). The trade offs being all the dicking around I ended up doing in the mean time.
Actually the dicking around started the day before shipping where I was held up in my hotel room with half a tree worth of photocopied documents spread all over the bed in some dyslexic organization. The next day I set off early to drive the one hour or so to meet everyone at the shipping port. If any of us was late then we would literally miss the boat.
Setting my GPS for how to get there, I was to exit the city onto the highway. Well wouldn’t ya know it the only unmanned toll exit from the city was the one I hit and without a swipe card I could not get passed. This pissed off those behind me as they had to back up while I made a 37 point turn around between two cement blocks.
After re-routing I seemed to have exited on the free, yet slower side road rather than the highway. This route seemed to pass through every small town and has me needing to continually pass a bus or big rig or tractor or what have you in the hopes ever getting there. Now I know I’m going to be late and naturally start rushing and taking some risky inside shoulder passing techniques to save some time. It’s not the first time I’ve passed on the inside or is it that unusual for others to drive like this. On this day however I would have my first and hopefully last accident. Wopps forgot to tell anyone this until now.
Rushing to meet the shippers I go to pass what looks like a large gravel truck on the inside. He’s slow, however he seems to be getting even slower, so I take the opportunity to quickly wiz past him. Turns out he was slowing to make a right hand turn and has no working brake or signal lights. I quickly weigh my options and decide not to hit the ditch and instead hit the brakes. KLaiR has too much weight and too much speed to slow in time. The metal box of the gravel truck makes contact with the front crash bars on the bike and I get knocked sideways off the bike. The guy driving nails the air breaks and the truck becomes instantly still a mere inch from running over the bike. Seriously, the tyres were touching the bike.
I lose the GPS, my water bottle and some confidence, yet otherwise I’m completely unscathed. The bike being wrapped in Pelican cases and crash bars appears undamaged also. The man driving the truck comes out panicking and explains what I was doing made it impossible for him to see me. Or atleast I think that’s what he’s saying, he seemed very concerned.
I apologies profusely and own %97 of the blame, he still gets %3 for non-working lights. However that is not so uncommon either so I’m sure it doesn’t cross his mind as a problem. He helps me pick the bike up, I wave to the crowd of onlookers at the bus stop and continue on my way at a slower, post traumatic, brush with death kind of pace.
I arrive about fifty-five minutes late, thinking I screwed everyone and they are going to be super pissed. To my surprise they were more concerned I wasn’t going to show at all and stick them with a higher shipping bill. I try to quickly explain my blundering mishaps and brush with death, no one cares, we’re in a hurry.
Paperwork, tow trucks, umbrellas and dusty sea cans. In a much less orthodox way than I had pictured in my head we are all sweating like two Sumo wrestlers who won a meat eating contest, as we cram cars into cans. The boys unhook the batteries on the SUVs while Boris sets to work on strapping down my bike. I give a sweaty kiss goodbye to Stanley and KLaiR before the door closes. A numbered bolt is set to lock the can and we all jump in with Boris for a dusty ride out of the shipping yard.
About a week later the can arrives at the Cartagena port, a considerably more organized and bureaucratic port then Panamas. I won’t bore you with the painstaking difficulties, however what took an hour in Panama took TWO extremely frustrating days bouncing from offices to ports to photocopy agencies to hostels and back again in the sweet 40oC heat. You must wear pants and closed shoes at the port, after two days of this I had for the first time in my life salty sweat stains on my pants so bad it appeared I peed myself with ocean water.
We all celebrated with a nice communal party of Overlanders all in limbo either shipping in or shipping out.
In retrospect my friend Philipe took his bike on the boat and enjoyed several days of ship life and snorkeling the San Blas all while the captain handled the paperwork. One might say it was worth the money $$$.