Sunday, 8 August 2010

Surviving the 'death road'

The morning finally arrived for the infamous mountain biking excursion trip down Yungas Road, and I have to admit that I was slightly nervous (read: very), having been on a bike a grand total of once in the past ten or so years. However, there was no way that I was going to let that stop me – I had managed to convince myself into it before we'd even left home, most of our group had already signed up, plus it is called the 'death road'; what greater motivation did I need?!

The track was given this ominous title as a result of the incredible number of deaths that have occurred upon it – either whilst cycling or in cars (when it was still open to traffic). The problem lies with the road's width (only a couple of metres in parts, and only 3 metres at its widest), the extremely sharp bends, and drops of over 600m at a time straight down. However, our cycle leader assured us that if we followed instructions, and kept vigilant, we’d be fine...

Our guide had recommended one company to us – they were pricier than many others, but their equipment and safety had a great track record, and as the day progressed we knew that we had made the right choice – we were kitted out with full face helmets, over trousers, protective gloves and dual suspension rocky mountain bikes, whereas other groups we passed only had minimal helmets, no other protection and rather dodgy looking bikes. On top of that, our guide was excellent – my back brake stopped working soon into the ride and he immediately fixed it with no problems for the rest of day.

Our route covered 64km, almost completely downhill. We started at 4840m, finally ending up at 1010m, and with the ride taking only 3 hours, this gives an indication as to how steep it was in parts and the speed our guide set. The first section was a tarmac road, to ease us in and build up some speed with confidence, although the traffic roaring by was a little intimidating, especially as I felt a bit wobbly to begin with. But soon we had all got the hang of the bikes and were eager to go faster – the speed was exhilarating and the bikes felt entirely safe.

Once we got onto the real ‘death road’ track, things were completely different – the road was dirt and stone; the drops increasingly sheer. With waterfalls hitting the path it was muddy and slippery at times, but nothing the bikes couldn’t cope with (another reason to go with a reputable company). The riding was exciting and thrilling – every sharp turn led us mere inches from the edge, and as our confidence continued to mount we got faster as a group.

But the real thrill was the scenery around us. As we set off at high altitude we were far above the lower lying clouds that ringed the tips of mountains just peeking out, tinted blue in the early morning sun. As we descended, the landscape changed dramatically, from barren high mountains to the lush green and humidity of the jungle environment that lay beneath. Waterfalls splashed over our heads into the drops beside us as we rode ever down, and the high cliff face to our right hung with mossy plants. By the time we were half way, the temperature had risen, we could feel moisture in the air for the first time in a couple of weeks (we hadn’t been below 3000m for a while) and all around us gorgeous butterflies fluttered. The only sobering thoughts came as we passed crosses clinging to sharp bends on the way down – although when we spoke about it over lunch, our guide explained that most accidents were the result of riders overtaking their guide, or becoming too cocky and not slowing sufficiently at corners; incredibly sad but unfortunately preventable.

We finally made it to the bottom, sore bums and shaky hands from all the jolting, sweaty and tired but thrilled to have made it down in one piece. The ride was an incredible experience, and one I would definitely recommend – the breathtaking scenery combined with the excitement of zooming down the narrow road (and the bonus of it being almost completely downhill – no heaving and trudging uphill!) made for a great day and a wonderful memory. And if I can do it, I’m sure anyone can...

Now we leave Bolivia – and just in time as it turns out, as apparently the borders are being closed tomorrow due to strikes (although this is still unconfirmed and with no internet access we can’t check it out, so by the time I post this it might all be okay again), so we are jumping on another bus and entering Peru – first stop Lake Titicaca…

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