Feisty friends and forest

The sign, sited roadside and heralding a blind corner was a bit perturbing. Why, I had to wonder, did Ecuadorians need this picture? If they didn’t understand that accelerating into oncoming traffic on a virtual chicane, a manoeuvre Lewis Hamilton would scoff at, had consequences – namely mangled bodies, crumpled metal, gravestones and grieving relatives – perhaps they weren’t quite ready to be at the helm of an automobile. Perhaps these people should just walk. Perhaps these people shouldn’t be let outside at all. Perhaps these people need to be told not to play with tigers and require labels on tubs of industrial strength sulphuric acid specifically warning them not to bath their children in it. Just outside Quito these soon-to-be organ donors swerved frantically, skimming past looming juggernauts and flashing by my panniers before another precarious deflection back into the lane that normal, life-cherishing people enjoy so much. So to my dismay I figured the sign was necessary after all and more questions came to the fore – did Ecuadorian cars come fitted with giant joysticks instead of steering wheels? Would a new sign do any good? “No dying in the road” or “Your family love you” or perhaps a three metre high poster depicting a man decapitated in a traffic accident à la the images on cigarette packets? Probably not.

From the buzz and throng of Quito I ventured north to Mitad del Mundo – AKA the Equator, and my 4th crossing on this bike ride of mine. Obligatory photo – one foot in the Northern and one foot in the Southern hemisphere – and I was off on back roads, Colombia-bound. An evening sift through my panniers turned into a rummage before exploding into a tantrum as I realised my only pair of trainers were sitting somewhere in a Quito hostel and I knew I would be taking a bus back to retrieve them. South Americans are endowed with dainty tootsies and my size, a not unusual one back home, is near on impossible to get hold of out here. When searching for new trainers in Peru the shop staff would stifle giggles, eyeball my feet and take it in turns to point at my (relatively) clown-like plodders. Often they would continue the ribbing by asking if they could see them. I would sigh, remove my shoes and wait whilst they huddled around me, grinning and taking photos on their mobile phones.

Trainers reclaimed I set off again and soon fleeting glimpses of Colombian soil penetrated the twisting Ecuadorean valleys. Not long after crossing the border my new country emphatically answered questions that had been swimming through my mind. Would there be big hills to ride? – YES screamed Colombia’s perpetually rolling farmland and her cresting and crash-landing caminos. Would the girls be beautiful? YES flirted Colombia with cheeky smiles and tossed hair – I got lost in their eyes and resolved to marry one. Well, at least one. Was my gear still waterproof after three years – NO replied flooded panniers, with a splash and a slosh. I’m here in the wet season and like the tropical wet of Tanzania more than a year ago I wake to a golden bath of warm light inside my tent, I eye malevolent clouds with apprehension over lunch, I get soaked through in the afternoon and I peel off my sodden garbs and drain my panniers every evening. And then I do it all over again.

I was once asked in a job interview by a medical consultant to describe myself in one word. One, he said, only one. Choose wisely. An internal alarm sounded as my lips fought the urge to reply “succinct” – an answer that could have secured me the post or resulted in a “Thanks Dr Fabes, we’ll let you know. Succinct enough for you?” It’s now a game I play with new countries, and the adjective I chose for Colombia?


Feisty are the children who run alongside my bicycle shouting “Meeeeesterrrrrr!”
Feisty are the drivers, the afternoon downpours, the gradients, and the transvestite who propositioned me in the high street at lunch time.
The fields are a feisty green after the rain, the musicians sing with feisty abandon in the streets and teenagers hold each other in feisty embrace in town squares, not caring for their audience.

Some Things That Make Me Smile

  • Dogs in trousers
  • People wearing pyjamas during the day in public places
  • The elderly in Spandex
Colombia has plenty of all three and thus I pedalled her rolling roads with a preternaturally wide grin taking up half my face. The pyjama fad may seem an extra bit bizarre when you consider just how fashion obsessed Colombians are, but it brought back memories of my adopted, feisty and fashion obsessed city of Liverpool, where at least half of those pushing shopping trolleys around ASDA on Saturdays had opted for jim-jams or else had suffered some sort of brain hemorrhage and had simply forgotten to get dressed. “Salad, got that, beans, yep. Damn it! I’m sure I’m forgetting something.”

Through the shifting altitudes I lorry surfed a bit (hanging off the back of trucks to ascend hills) whilst a green ocean of off-kilter fields slid by. Sometimes a few Colombian kids on BMXs were hanging off the back of the same trucks and we’d chat, laugh and scream when the truck accelerated and boo when it dropped speed.

They are a benevolent bunch these Colombians – I was thinking – soon after I asked a man in the street where I might be able to buy a map of Colombia. Within two minutes he had recruited a local scout troupe and issued strict instructions – I set off with a gang of adolescents in woggles to assist me in my purchase and within five minutes I had my map and was thanking the gang for their trouble. “No trouble!” they assured me with winsome grins and pats on the back. On another occasion I asked the police if they knew of somewhere I could camp. They ushered me into their patrol car, drove me to a local lady’s house and then demanded that I camp on her front lawn. The lady had every right to react a little miffed after being told to convert her property into a campsite – but she was Colombian and so just smiled instead with a “mucho gusto, Senor”.

There’s a blossoming middle class in Colombia  – evidenced on my ride by the many nice cars that glided past, the dearth of motorbikes, the well tended and spacious gardens, the many posh clothes shops and the gravity defying breasts and buttocks – Colombia’s booming industry in plastic surgery is world renowned. It all had me wondering where this wealth had sprouted from, Colombia is mineral-rich, has a good amount of oil and of course the international popularity of a particular Nose Drug may have had a part in it. But it’s also a country of divisions in wealth, like the rest of South America. The long civil war in Colombia has affected many directly and there are more internally displaced people in Colombia than any country on earth save Sudan. But Colombia is the real comeback kid – many of the roads I have cycled over the last few weeks would have been considered off limits just 15 years ago during an era when many Colombians were virtually imprisoned in their cities.

Carved into rock by the roadside the words translate as ‘victory or death’.
Taking advantage of this more recent freedom to explore the back roads I decided to leave the highway to cycle a road with the best epithet on the continent – The Trampoline of Death. Like Bolivia’s more famous Death Road this is a thoroughfare which winds and bounces through cloud forest and boasts vertical drops immediately beside it for the majority of it’s course. Though strangely the Trampoline of Death wasn’t the bit I was most worried about. The bit just afterwards had a fairly specific warning from the UK foreign office – ‘Don’t’, they said, ‘enter the San Augustin Archaeological Park from any of the back roads, use the main road only from Bogota’. A very specific warning and I would be disobeying the scare-mongerers once again. And once again I was faced with the old question I so often find myself battling – brave or stupid? If, for example, I decided to staple my penis to a wolf that could be construed as brave, but undeniably stupid. Venturing through these jungle-clad back roads was a harder quandary to answer.

When was the last time you were alone? Truly alone? When did you last spend a whole day by yourself with no communication or contact with others? No emails, no texts, no phone calls, not even a thank you at the supermarket or a “Dave’s not in, sorry. Call back later” on the land line. If I had asked myself these questions back in London I would struggle to find an answer. Now solitude is as reliably constant in my life as punctures and super-noodles and I have a guilty secret – I quite enjoy it. I realise that by admitting this I’ve marked myself out as the type of weirdo that abducts children from playgrounds or collects cats. The dubious ‘loner’. Keep away from Old Fabesy, parents will warn their children, that one keeps to himself. I need company of course, I just have an affinity for the crisp silence as I crawl out of my tent and into my wild camping spot at dawn, and I’m selfish – I like the open spaces and wide skies to be just mine to wander and to smile about. And when I need company – it’s never far away, it’s easy prey, not like the ever more scarce beast of wilderness.

November 3rd – The Trampoline Of Death

In part the lure is in it’s mystery. I can’t see where the roads goes, I can’t guess, half a football pitch away is an invisible cloud world, a precipice and a sliver of track. Upwards I go as the jungle murmurs it’s secret threats in clicks and tweets that echo through the foliage. Each push of the pedals in the not-quite-a granny gear brings me a tiny bit closer to the top of This Hill, but only a tiny bit and I know This Hill will not be the last. Sweat is cascading now from my eyebrows in a salty waterfall which soaks my beard as my bike tyres slowly crunch the gravel. I clear my mind, try not to focus on the climb and let my imagination roam – it’s the best way to ease the struggle, and I’ve had plenty of practise. The jungle recedes, though not literally, as my mind flits and rushes through an old life, a life of constant friends not superficial ones, a life of hospital shifts, of time with my family, of girlfriends, of festivals in the summer and of a reassuring routine. A life that fades with each new border and each new month on the road. 

The path twists up at a gradient a downhill skier would be more accustomed to, my wheeze hits a new pitch and power and I rejoin the jungle reality. Is that the top? Brief elation, then freewheel, then despair as the next ridge rears up and the mountains continue to mock me. I assent and on I go, exhausted now, but there’s always more to give. For hill after painful hill it’s a case of “Suck it in, I’ve had worse than this” – it’s a mantra that serves me well – after three years of cycling the truth is that I’ve almost always cycled steeper climbs before, battled up higher passes, rattled over rougher roads, and overcome worse. With each hill in my wake I’m stronger, more adept, and ever readier for the next. This at least is how I reassure myself when a little voice tells me I can’t go on, that’s its too hard, that I need to stop, rest or retreat.

Eventually I catch a view of the next valley – it’s a sight that rewards my perseverance. The jungle enswathes every fold of land for as far as I can see and there amongst it, tumbling through it, the Trampoline of Death. I ready for a bumpy, treacherous descent and know it was worth every drop of sweat and every gasping, suffocating moment, though it was a mental battle more than a physical one. It always is.

A river glints in the early morning light

Was I stapling my penis to a wolf? Possibly. There were army road blocks every 30 km or so staffed by fresh faced adolescent conscripts but so far no sign of those party poopers the FARC. I asked to camp with the soldiers hoping this would make me safer during the night, but they explained that that would in fact make me a target for lurking guerrillas who might take a pot shot from the jungle so I resolved to wild camp instead. In the gathering dusk I spotted a small track, half concealed by a collapsing tunnel of green and disappearing into the wilds. I wheeled my bike into the leafy passage which swept around a couple of bends and ended in a black tarp which hung over a pulley system. From the pulley a zip line was stretched across the entire valley and consumed by a fuzz of foliage hundreds of metres away on the far side of the drop. Only after the sun had slipped behind the peaks and as I crouched in my tent porch and scooped tentacles of spaghetti into my mouth, did I start to consider what it might be for, and the foreboding built. If there was a coca plantation in the next valley this would be one mighty fine and fast way to get it to the road. If you had ever wondered, like me, how drug cartels hide immense coca plantations in the jungle then you just have to come to Colombia – the forest is endless and untouched. You could hide whole cities here. My night was sweaty, restless and long as every rustle of the undergrowth took my heart rate from the normal tempo to something approaching Techno. As the sun rose I began to pack up but a creak made me jump. I swung around aghast – the pulley was turning. Slowly at first and then the creak became a whir as the wheel span ever faster. Someone was coming over from the next valley. Terror beat curiosity hands down and I bundled things into panniers and made off before an unexpected meeting with an amused and lowly local farmer or an unamused gang of hardcore FARC terrorists.

The next day I crossed another police road block. After the usual cheery interrogation they asked which way I was heading. I pointed east. “No problem this way” I was assured “but the way you’re coming from”, continued the senior of the two “that’s a complicated zone”. His friend elaborated by mimicking a knife slashing his throat whilst his tongue lolled and head dropped forward in fake death. I gulped and steered the conversation to what policemen in Colombia most like to discuss – girls and football.

Cali was soon on my agenda – the world’s unofficial salsa dancing capital and it was time to show the Colombians how to do it – my British hips had my dancing partners entranced and amused, presumably they were cognisant of the fact they had never before seen anyone quite so bad at salsa.

The next day I was approached by a local entrepreneur outside my hostel who offered various services – if I wanted to learn Spanish, get a guided tour of the city or find a good prostitute, he assured me, he was the man who could sort it out. Another Colombian with fingers in pies. Here’s his amusing business card – my guess is that a ‘VIP escort’ is not someone to call if you feel like a nice game of scrabble.

Salento was next – a small town embedded in the verdant, fresh beauty of Colombia’s coffee region. Plenty of foreigners flock to enjoy the views or mess about on horses or visit the farms and undulating coffee plantations nearby. It’s a town that got it right in so many ways – there’s no aggressive restaurant touts, no friction between locals and tourists, no over-charging and no hassle. In other words the polar opposite to Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Chilled out to almost freezing I set off to Manizales to meet friends of my Mum’s who did a sterling job of showing me around (thank you Ana) and then onward to Colombia’s second city of Medellin.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy booking public talks for California and during April and May I’m due to speak in various institutions from schools and universities to rotary clubs and outdoor retailers. If anyone reading this post has contacts in California who may be interested in booking me to speak then please send me an email – steve@cyclingthe6.com – and I can provide more information.

In less than a month I will reach the end of continent 3 and board a boat to Panama, soon after I’m looking forward to a New Year’s Eve in Costa Rica with an old friend from the UK. On this blog look out for a run down of some weird and wacky statistics from South America and the CT6 Equipment reviews for 2012.

You can’t imagine my surprise when I opened a pannier and this guy popped out

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Comments (2)

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    Richard Worth


    Great article, well written. My wife & I are just getting into touring, only just, got the bikes and starting to build some miles. It might be winter in the UK but pieces like this just make me want to get out there and ride.



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    Awesome adventure. I was in Colombia a few years ago. I love its views. I'm positively jealous. Again! You live your dream, meanwhile I live like a vegetable from 8 till 4 pm. It sucks man so enjoy your trip as much as you can;) Jack from Adventure Hunters;)


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