Tour Divide 2019

8.30am day 16

Its 8.30am on day 16 of the Tour Divide and what looks to be turning into a hot day. Pie Town (yes that is the actual town name) has been and gone and I’m riding a dirt road heading for the haloed Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. I’ve only been riding for four hours this morning and already I’m fighting the sleep monster. First there are the hallucinations, seeing buildings or cars in the forest that on closer inspection turn back into trees, hearing people talking, seeing people that when passed turn into trees. Next comes the whiteout. This is the real indicator that I should stop…but there’s so far to go. During a whiteout I can’t focus, I’m aware the road is passing under my wheels, that corners come and go and I’m managing some sort of control but it’s just not registering. The ground is a blur of grey that blends into the horizon, there is just no sense of presence. Nodoz and some other caffeine rich snacks just seem to be taking to long to kick in and then it finally happens…I’m asleep, still peddling, still upright. It’s only for a second or two before I start dreaming. There’s a large beech tree growing right in the middle of the road, what’s that doing there. I’m going to fast, it’s down hill after all. Brake and turn…brake and turn. And with the fright and a massive adrenaline dump I wake up to find myself braking and turning to avoid this dreamtime tree. It seems self preservation beat the sleep monster and the adrenaline dump kept it at bay for another 10 minutes before I just need to stop for a sleep in the dirt. Surely 30 minutes will get me through so the timers set and I’m out like a light. Only problem is the ants didn’t think I needed to be sleeping and starting biting after only 10 minutes. Time to move. But what a difference that ten minutes made, buying me another eight hours of riding time.

So how the hell did I end up here, and who the hell said this would be fun…

Tour Divide is one of those epic legendary events that just seems to draw people in, it has been on my mind for a couple of years now and after 11 months of bikepacking North and Central America I found I had time to spare before returning to work. The body was in good shape, the bike was a bit tired but surely it could do another 4395ish km. So why not.

I went into this race not expecting it to be fun or enjoyable. It was just going to hurt and be a bit of a suffer fest. My goal was 18 days and depending on who turned up I might make the top 10. But how wrong was I. It was everything I expected and more. Yes a sure suffer fest with some very dark places visited as well as the physical pain that accompanies all endurance sports, but it was also immensely enjoyable and rewarding and this turned it into a pleasant ride and amazing experience.

I get asked the question all the time…how can riding a mountain bike over 4395km for over 20 hours a day for a couple of weeks in challenging terrain be anything close to enjoyable. It’s a simple answer really, you just become one with your bike and the environment. There’s no stress outside how far it is to your next resupply or sleep, your aching body and the bike staying in one piece. And all these stresses can be overcome by riding your own race, getting some sleep, eating as often as you can and looking after your body and your bike.

So I arrive in Banff after a pleasant ride up from Calgary with fellow TD rider, Zoe from France, after bumping into her at Walmart. So it looks like it’s going to be a social day or so before the start with bikepacking rigs at every turn. It seems that wasn’t an entirely accurate perception. With a friendly ‘Gidday’ to all I passed some would return a friendly smile or stop for a chat while others would just look at me with this, ‘what the hell are you talking to me for’ look on their face. I just put this down to some last minute pre-race stress and left them to it. I know the race was going to be a lonely old affair so I was quite keen to have some social time beforehand, alas it just didn’t quite pan out that way.

Salsa were there giving away steerer topcaps which qualified you for free pies in Pietown so with this safely tucked away and after a short final fairwell from the legendary Crazy Larry we were off. 145 happy riders leaving the Grand Depart with a common goal of getting to Antelope Wells. Only about 50% of us would make it though, it is definitely a race of attrition. With a target of 18 days I expected to be in around the top ten and headed out of town about there, surprised at how sedate the pace was…until we hit the first rises in the trail. Riders just started streaming past and I had to tell myself not to try and keep up, it’s a long way and riding within yourself is key to surviving. So how did it go?

4.30pm Day 0

Koko Claims…who the hell decided to put the route over here, the first brutal climb of the race. Sweats dripping off me, my bikes on my back and I’m grovelling up the road which looks more like a boulder field. Other racers are passed while they are resting. I though one guy was in a bad way but turns out he was just having a nap and probably didn’t appreciate me waking him up to see if he was ok. It’s 8km to the top and 3km of that is hike a bike. The decent is just as steep, it’s probably all rideable but it’s just not worth the risk so there’s more hike a bike. At the bottom of the steep stuff I meet up with Kim Raeymaekers from Belgium. He’s broken his seatpost, he’s got it going again but the seats about six inches to low, it looks like he’s riding a BMX. It doesn’t seem to slow him down any with us getting along at 35kmh as we head towards Fernie, where he can get a new post the following day. Turns out Kim knows how to ride a bike and came here to win but he’s up against it now. I expected to see him streaking past me in a few days time.

10.05pm Day 0

It’s my first real disappointment of the race. Food is nearly everything in this race so on arriving in Fernie just before 10pm. I go to the supermarket while it’s still open to resupply for the next 190km. Loaded up with food I head to McDonalds for some instant calories…but it’s closed. Here I was thinking a couple of Big Macs and a shake would set me up for the next few hours but no, I have to settle for some hotdogs and fried chicken at the 7eleven. I shouldn’t be disappointed, McDonalds is always terrible but after 14 hours on the bike the body’s crying out for some fatty calories.

I want to get into a sleeping/riding routine so head out of town hoping to camp at about midnight and start riding again at 5am. Camping is the easy bit, sleeping not so much. There’s to much excitement, I’m restless and keep waking up. I decide that if I can’t sleep I may as well be riding so I’m back on the bike before 3am and passing other racers sleeping on the roadside as I head into the Flathead Loop. This is all new country for me, having missed this section when we toured it. I’m not disappointed, it is just stunning. The beauty about these races is you see places and experience things at times you wouldn’t normally be there. Like the sun rising over towering cliffs then the sun setting behind mountain lakes and the stars slowly getting brighter until the moon rise makes them fade. It’s a pretty special experience.

19 hours and 315km later

The US border has come and gone so we’re now in the land of the big. Food is easy to get as nearly every town has a 24hr convenience store and it’s high octane stuff. After a few more mountain passes I’m approaching Whitefish and am a bit torn as to where to stop. It’s only 10.30pm and the suns just gone down but if I push on I’ll be in suburbia and the intensively farmed area on the flat lands so I decide to pull up early and see if I can catch up on some sleep. At least this night, like the rest to come, sleep isn’t elusive and I’m out as soon as my head goes down. Unfortunately the alarms going four hours later and it’s time to hit the road again…yep ride eat sleep repeat.

8.00am Day 5

It’s all about efficiency which means if you can do it while peddling you do. This includes eating and taking care of your dental hygiene. I might have got some strange looks from locals as I rode past brushing my teeth but there’s not to much decorum in these events.

12.30am Day 5

Wyoming at last but it’s getting colder and there’s a good frost forming. Having just dropped off the Teton Range I’m looking for somewhere to camp. Being just outside Yellowstone National Park I’m aware that I’m in bear country, plus I’d seen one earlier in the day, so I wanted somewhere I’d be able to store my food so pushed on a bit longer to get to a camping area. And was I in luck. The roadside camp had bear boxes and a toilet that was just spotless…and more importantly about 5 deg warmer than it was outside. It didn’t take much thinking to camp in that Hilton of a toilet. Oh the things we resort to.

1.30am Day 6

Bloody hell its cold. I’ve got every piece of riding gear on. The never ending uphill decent of Union Pass is behind me and Pinedale is fast approaching. My drinking tube is frozen and while on the phone to Karen the cold just sucked the battery dry. That means my maps gone so I get it plugged in and bury it deep under my layers to warm up. Luckily I can get it running again when I have to make a nav decision. Then I manage to get back on the phone to Karen. I haven’t seen another racer for three days and won’t see one for another two days so these phone calls are such a mental boost. While we’re chatting I spook a moose grazing on the roadside. It lopes across the road, hops a fence like it’s not there and disappears into the darkness. I finally roll into Pinedale at 2am, get resupplied at the servo and head to the church. Luckily they still leave their doors open for weary travellers. But I’m in for a treat, they have renovated and now there’s a shower, oh it’s bliss, the first shower in seven days.

12.30am Day 8

What the hell am I doing here. I want to go home. I’ve had enough. My ass is sore. It’s the middle of the Wyoming basin, 10km short of half way, there’s nothing here but sagebrush, my 220lm headlamp can’t penetrate the darkness. It certainly isn’t up to fast downhill riding. And then it happens. I nearly lose the front wheel in a rut I couldn’t see. While saving the crash I seriously aggravate my injured archillies. That’s it, I’m tired and I’ve had enough of this day and this race. Tomorrow I’m riding back to Atlantic City and going home. I miss my wife and am sick of the pain, cold and relentless biking. But first I need to sleep. It’s the first night I don’t set an alarm. I don’t care anymore. Despite the pain sleep comes quickly but strangely enough the internal alarm goes off about five hours later. I’m still in no hurry to get up though so contemplate what to do. Unknown to me at the same time a major late winter storm was smashing Colorado 200km to the south. This was later described as the worst June storm in 80 years.

The previous day the bearings in my dynamo hub failed. I didn’t realise it at first. I just knew something wasn’t right with the bike. The drag was heavy and it just wouldn’t roll on, to the extent that it slowed down while rolling downhill on a sealed road with a tail wind… I’d wanted to get through the Basin on this day and get a motel in Wamsutter, that obviously wasn’t going to happen now. I pushed on to South Pass City (population about 8) before I checked the bike properly and discovered the problem. I contemplated riding on to the next on route bike shop in Steamboat Springs but quickly dismissed this as a completely stupid idea given it was 380km very remote kms away. On top of a broken bike I was feeling mentally and physically drained so I decided that was the end of my race, I rung Karen and told her my wheel was busted and my race was over. With a very puzzled sound to her voice she said, “just go and buy another one and get on with it”. As easy as that. Just get on with it.

I didn’t even know where the nearest bike shop was so had to ask the locals. I was in luck, Lander was only 30 miles away and there was a good bike shop there. A quick phone call got me an assurance they had a wheel and would start getting it ready. But it wasn’t just the wheel, I’d lost my ability to charge anything. This was an issue because I was using a mapping app on my phone for navigation so I needed to buy a gps as well. And my main front light and tail lights were out of action too. I had my headlamp and that would have to do but needed to get a tail light. So six hours and $800 later I was back on the trail and heading into the basin without anyone passing me. I knew I was sitting 10th and wanted to hold this spot, but had lost a big chunk of the 8 hour gap I had. Little did I know at that stage that it was a completely mute point.

But this didn’t answer my question the next morning. Actually in some ways it did, I’d just spent $800, I couldn’t justify that to ride one more day so I gave myself a good talking to and got on with it. And I’m glad I did, the ride through the basin was pretty special. It was cold and there were thunder storms passing through, but they just seemed to miss me. The light was moody. The wild horses were curious. There were Antelope everywhere. The place was just completely wild.

12.30pm Day 10

Shall we have a beer, I say. After all there’s nothing else to do. Sure, why not, is the reply from the others. Beer and pizza for lunch in the middle of an endurance race sounds like a great idea. Well it does when you’re holed up at Brush Mountain Lodge because the ground is covered in snow and the road is impassable mud, unless you want to carry your bike for 16 miles. And the snow showers keep on coming.

Let’s rewind a bit. It’s 9pm the previous day when I arrive at the Lodge with Peter Sandholt, who scared the shit out of me when he snuck up behind me just down the road… but I digress. I didn’t expect anyone to be there so was surprised to see the deck covered in bikes. What’s going on. Inside we’re met by Billy Rice who fills us in on the situation. The storm arrived the previous day. The first five racers attempted to cross the pass, four made it over but not without some seriously close calls. The leader lost the trail in the dark and snow and thinking he was going to die turned back and withdrew from the race. The next two racers, Lael and Josh, attempted the crossing about 12 hours later. The weather was still completely shit and a mile past the lodge they hit the mud and made the call to return and wait for a freeze and planned to go at 3am the next morning. Kai and Evan soon joined them and decided they liked the sound of that plan so waited as well.

Peter and I were soon joined by another four riders and suddenly the lodge was bursting at the seams. But that didn’t phase Kirsten, the Lodge host, and a short time later we were each feasting on a large pizza and talking about what to do. I wasn’t getting up at three and couldn’t see a freeze happening, it had started raining again, so decided to get up later and see what it was like.

The storm was still raging following day and it was an easy decision to stay put. The pass topped out at 3020mt and was 16 miles and 1000mt higher than the lodge. I didn’t think I could physically carry my bike that far anyway, not to mention the risk of being at that altitude in that weather with race gear. I was here to race, but it wasn’t worth dying over.

So here we all were. The who’s who of the bikepacking race scene and us race newbies sitting around eating and drinking all day, and getting a bit of cabin fever. But the recovery it provided was absolute gold. The only problem was there was a lot of talk about the impact of the storm on the rest of the route and if it would clear at all or be buried in a couple of feet of snow. I should have known spring snow doesn’t hang around and this clay mud dries out quick, but I was nearly sucked into pulling out of the race. It didn’t help that I was still feeling a bit homesick and it would have been an easy option to see Karen sooner rather than later. Lael, Kai, Evan and Kim all made the call to withdraw and take an alternate ‘touring’ route. That meant I’d effectively be in fifth place so I just had to keep going.

By late afternoon the rain had eased to occasional showers and the mud was slowly drying out. Five of us decided to have a crack at continuing in the morning.

Day 11

Fast forward to 3.30am, 36 hours after arriving at the lodge and 60 hours after the leaders had left the lodge and we were away. What a beautiful blue sky day it was to. It was rideable all the way to the snowline, the hike a bike through the snow was only 6km and mostly on the downhill side and it was a great run into Steamboat Springs and as a bonus the good people at Orange Peel Bikes managed to fix my seat. Things were looking up. It had taken us 6 hours to cover the same distance that the leaders covered in 24hrs.

I was back to riding by myself again though. The other four, Peter, Luke, Bear and Stefanio, were way to fast for me and after the previous day of constant eating I lost an extra 20 minutes riding time by having to repeatedly purge my bowels. Good thing the US Forest Service puts toilets in seemingly random, but clearly very strategic locations.

So Just like that I was back in 9th place. 200km later I saw these guys again after they had stopped at Kremmling for supplies. It wasn’t long before they disappeared into the distance again though. Bloody hell they were riding hard, but stopping more which gave me hope. I knew they would stop in Silverthorne for a motel so I decided to push on for another 30km, then have a shorter sleep and get another 20km on them before they got going in the morning.

The following day the race was definitely back on. What I’d covered in 20 hours took the front four two days so their lead was back to the pre-Lodge lead. Kai, Evan and Kim had seen the progress we’d made over the pass and got back in the race, leaving the Lodge six hours behind us. Overnight I’d put a couple of hours on the fast four. So with seven very talented and fast riders behind me I seriously felt like the fox that was getting hunted down by the hounds.

Boreas Pass, 28 hours after leaving Brush Mountain Lodge. The struggles of the front runners can

still be seen in the now set mud.

I couldn’t ride faster so the only way to stay ahead was to sleep less and ride more. Oh how I started missing that sleep, three odd hours a night just want cutting it. And that was going to get less as the finish got closer.

6.00am Day 13

From here on it’s all new country to me. We hadn’t toured this part of the route so I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I had the clue sheets about resupply points, which seemed to be getting further apart, but I was still a bit unnerving riding into the unknown, but I did get to see my second moose of the trip. About six hours later I got reminded of just how unforgiving this area can be. I was still 30km from Del Norte and had just run out of water. That 30km didn’t seem to far but the stinking hot head wind took its toll. By the time I arrived in town I was as dry as a dry thing and the drink machine at the servo/subway got a hammering. There was one advantage to that hot wind though, my sleeping bag was getting quite wet but about 3 minutes of hanging it on the bike and it was bone dry again.

With the next reliable resupply 300km away it was time to do some serious eating and stocking up before tackling Indiana Pass, the highest pass on the route. But it didn’t look to bad, a 1200mt climb over 36km. Only an average 3% grade, it sounded almost pleasant. But 36km of climbing into a howling head wind increases that grade and

made that climb absolutely brutal.

Indiana Pass. I sure was glad the snow plow had been through this road.

And then just to rub salt into the wounds the decent kept going back up as well. I was so pleased to get over the final rise and roll down to Platoro just on dark. I wasn’t going to stop but I needed water so went searching and there was the holy grail. The lodge had its open sign out so I went on in and next minute I’m eating a burger and chips. They’d seen my dot coming down the pass and cooked me a feed before I arrived, plus they had a supply of iced cinnamon rolls that topped up my food supplies. It was truely bliss and fuelled me through another four hours of riding.

6.00am Day 14

New Mexico at last. I’ve never been to New Mexico and am quite excited about it but it’s not what I expected. I was thinking desert and flatlands, instead it’s beautiful riding through hills and trees, but the waters getting more scarce. And I’m still being hunted down. I knew Peter had broken away from the chasing bunch and expected to see him later today.

5.00am Day 15

There’s stags everywhere. Big Wapiti (Elk) stags with big heads of velvet. I’m high on the Pedregosa Mesa and have been back on the bike for an hour or so. The suns about to come over the horizon and it seems like every open bit of open ground has a Wapiti grazing in it. They aren’t to worried by my passing and just amble off into the forest. But this was a herd of nine stags I’d just spooked, one decided to head my way, cutting onto the track a few meters in front of me then legged it down the track with me hard on its heals. What an amazing experience. In all I saw 23 Wapiti in the first two hours of riding this morning.

2.00pm Day 15

Why is this laundromat here, it’s the middle of nowhere, like 85km from the nearest town. But I’m not complaining, there’s a store attached and they have cold drinks and ice cream. But while I’m eating my ice cream Peter rides on past. He’s smoking and this was the last time I’d see him until after the race.

8.00pm Day 15

Oh for the trail angels. While rolling into Grants I’m flagged down by a couple waiting at the rail crossing. They’ve been dot watching and know my name, offer a powerbar and a Gatorade. I tell you after the last 110km of every sort of hot wind and cold thunder showers that drink was just bliss. And to top it off I got to chat to some locals that are passionate about the race and just make you want to keep on going. This was the second lot of trail angels I’d met. The first was in the middle of nowhere on day five where I ran into a young women putting out a sign and a supply of Powerade. This area is renowned for its limited water supplies so these would be very welcome. After a quick chat I discovered she’d driven a bloody long way to get there and one day wanted to be one of the dots. The generosity of these people is just amazing and never fails to leave you with a good feeling.

2.30am Day 17

The finish feels so close, 250km is close isn’t it. I just want to get it done. I’ve just finished some of the nicest riding on the route though the Gila Wilderness and am coming back into civilisation so I get to check trackleaders for the first time since Platoro. The chasing hounds are at least 8 hours back still deep in the Gila so I can relax about them.

But in front it’s a different story, Steve Halligan and Peter Sandholt are only 20km in front of me…what happened to Peter? He had been over 12 hours ahead. Maybe I can catch them? Especially if they stop in Silver City for a sleep. And then it happened, the CDT trail, a 12km up hill technical single track with at least 3km of hike a bike. So that’s why they were so close.

By the time I come out the other side and head into Silver City those two have carried on. It’s obvious they are pushing on to the finish without a break. Theres no way I’m going to catch them and there’s no way I’m going to be caught by the hounds on my heals if I don’t stop. It’s an overwhelming sense of relief. All the pressure has been taken away, I don’t have to chase anyone, I can just relax and enjoy the ride. The last breakfast is a slow feast of a double serve of McDonalds hot cakes chased down by a few hash browns and muffins. So after eating my fill and unloading some salami sticks from my framebag and that god awful looking McDoanlds burrito that looked so good on the menu board to the homeless guy it was time to hit the road again for the final 200km. Next stop Antelope Wells, but not without another 30 minute roadside sleep in the dirt, a couple of nodoz, ibuprofen, Pepsi’s and ice creams.

Sunrise was always a special time to be riding.

Now this is more like the New Mexico that I’d been expecting

And sleeping in the dirt is becoming the norm.

12.30pm Day 17

Hachita, New Mexico. It’s a dusty desert town that’s seen better days. There’s not much here, a general store, a rundown Spanish looking church and a splattering of clapboard houses. It’s hot and getting hotter so I’m grateful for the ice cream.

This photo was sent to me by a dot watcher and pretty much sums up the metropolis of Hachita.

The significance of Hachita is its only 73km from the finish at Antelope Wells. What a way to finish though. 73km of 42degree hot dry desert. 73km of straight roads with nothing much to look at but the passing mile markers and yucca trees. The trees provide the only entertainment, they look surprisingly like people doing weird shit in the desert.

Move on. Nothing to see here.

4.24pm

There it is. Antelope Wells. Its done. Well…nearly.

Its satisfyingly underwhelming. The border control post is closed so there’s no one here.No one to celebrate with but that’s satisfying in its own way. The only shade is behind the signpost. I’ve got 15 minutes alone to contemplate and absorb this journey before my ride shows up. And what a journey it’s been. I’m stoked with my 5th place and my time of 16 days 8 hours 24 minutes is well ahead of what I thought I could do.

The following day

The body is wrecked. All I want to do is eat and sleep. There’s no skin on the bottom of my toes, the chafing on my ass is making sitting pretty uncomfortable. My legs protest if I walk more than 50 metres. But I’m getting to hang with other racers in this desolate place. What more could you want.

This is a much easier way to get around while hanging out in Hachita with Stefano, Steve and Peter.

A big thanks also to all those who were dot watching. Maybe next time I’ll get to watch your dots?

And the rest of the ride…Big Bear Lake to Tahoe

The rest of the ride from Big Bear to Tahoe was all very nice with some spectacular scenery on the doorstep of LA, but pretty uneventful in the whole scheme of things. Speaking of on the doorstep of LA these mountains are about an hours drive from LA but there’s hardly anyone in them. Maybe it was the shit weather, maybe they had a better offer, or maybe I just got lucky. But I’m not complaining since I pretty much had the high roads to myself.

Oh but I did get to see my first and only rattle snake. I’m not sure sleeping in the road is that conducive to a long life though so it got a hurry along.

I also got to see a heap of Pacific Crest Trail walkers since I crisscrossed their route for a few days. This meant I also got to hook into their supply network which made resupplies really easy and quite social.

Due to a issue with one of my tyres not holding air I had to divert to Bakersfield to find a bike shop. Bakersfield is surrounded by some pretty intensive cropping lands, and the odd feed lot and diary farm. Seeing the dairy farm certainly made me question our ethics around farming. Being use to seeing cows wondering around lush grassy paddocks I was a bit shocked to see thousands of cows standing around in muddy holding pens waiting for some feed to be put over the fence or into the troughs. They certainly weren’t happy cows. Another interesting crop was a paddock of hemp. At first I thought it was cannabis (it’s legal over here) and wondered about the lack of security but the large signs quickly told me otherwise. But I don’t think reading was a strong point of the trailer trash guy that was digging up one of the plants and throwing it in the back of his pickup. I’m thinking he was going to be mighty disappointed.

The snow was definitely a limiting factor and affected where I could go. It also meant there was more climbing, which never seemed to end, as I hoped over the ridges that run toward the coast from the high Sierra’s.

At the end of a long slow low km day I was wondering what was going on so put the route into the map and was surprised to see I’d done 5333mt of climbing over 147km. No wonder I was a bit tired. It turns out the last 10 days of riding had 40620mt of climbing over 1286km. I guess that just means it was great TD training.

Then there were the early starts and after dark finishes. Bear avoidance became secondary to staying warm as I got into camp at 10pm in the rain and cooked in the tent. Maybe not best practice in bear country…but I’m told black bears are pretty friendly in these parts, more like cute puppies really.

The last night on the road was interesting to say the least. I had to get near a pass if I wanted to get to Tahoe the following day. The pass was 2620mt and I figured I’d be able to find a good snow free camp at about 2100mt, putting me 40km from the pass and in reach of Tahoe. How wrong was I. As soon as I hit the snow line it became thick with everything that hadn’t been plowed buried under a foot or two of snow. I should have known after seeing cars loaded up with skis and snowmobiles coming down the road. So there was no option but to camp in the snow, no good comes from camping in the snow and there was definitely sleep lost to cold. A wet sleeping bag didn’t help any.

But next day the sun was out, the scenery was fantastic and I made it to Tahoe.

Near Carson Pass

Once again I was being taken in by Jim and Alenka, who we last saw in La Ventana, Baja. As I was nearing their place Alenka drives past and is surprised to see me. She pulls the car over and as I pull up the first things she says is, “you’re so skinny”. Followed by, “we need to fatten you up.” Not long after that there’s a promises of a steak dinner…and it was a massive steak, absolute bliss. Little did she know I’d still be there two weeks later…

Time in Tahoe was spent eating, eating some more and a little riding. But the best part of Tahoe was catching up with those we met last year on the Continental Divide and trying to convince them all to come to NZ. This whole journey has been about the people and seeing these friends again just confirmed that for me.

Lake Tahoe at its best

But while making my way to Banff the hospitality didn’t stop. Connie, who we met for an hour on a ferry in Mexico arranged for her friend, Karen, to look after me in Calgary. Karen was amazing, taking in a complete stranger and making sure I left with my conviction in the good of humanity well and truly cemented.

It’s time for the Tour Divide now. That’s one ride that’s going to be less about the people and more about how much the body and soul can take before it breaks.

Setup for the TD

So we’ll see how it goes and see you on the other side.

Big Bear Lake to Tahoe

One Ticked Off The Bucket List

In any ride, or adventure for that matter, there’s highs and lows. The highs can be amazingly exhilarating and the lows can make you want to go home and curl up in front of the fire and lick your wounds, so to speak.

The ride from Big Bear Lake to Tahoe City was a bit of a roller coaster of highs and lows. At one point I was struggling both physically and mentally and was ready to go home. It was cold, wet and at times just a bit of a grind. Other times were incredible and I was riding along with a grin from ear to ear and enjoying the solitude, sweat and pain that goes with it.

The bucket list item and a major highlight was the time I got to spend in Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has always fascinated me, ever since I saw the towering granite in climbing magazines years ago its captured my imagination. I didn’t realise how much I was looking forward to it until I rode passed the sign at the Park entrance and started grinning like a Cheshire Cat. It’s strange how little things can flip that endorphin switch.

Anyway I digress, entering the National Park from the South the terrain is pretty much like the rest of the country. There’s a bit more wildlife though. While riding up a two hour hill a motorist stopped to tell me there was a bear a bit further up on the road. A little more alert I rounded a corner a couple of km later and saw a whole bunch of cars parked all over the road and people milling about. All my alertness went out the window when I realised they were all there to get photos of the bear. To the bears credit he was 5-10 metres off the road and scratching about in some tree fall looking for something to eat. Luckily Mr Bear didn’t realise that there was probably a good meal or three in all spectators. As I weaved through the cars and people I couldn’t quite believe that people were taking their kids to within 10 metres of this beautiful but wild and powerful animal just to get a photo. I guess Darwin’s theory is still alive and well.

It’s not until you start descending into Yosemite Valley that the true scale of the place becomes evident. Then there’s a long tunnel to descend through that opens out to an amazing panoramic view of the whole valley with El Capitan taking centre stage. The cloud and mist just added to the atmosphere. It was truely breathtaking.

Descending further to the valley floor was equally spectacular. With all the rain and snowmelt there were waterfalls coming off every cliff. Needless to say I was well distracted and the ride up the valley to a camp was somewhat protracted.

And what better place to have a day off. The only problem with that plan was there was so much to see and do. So yes it was a day off the bike but there was the hike that just had to be done, especially with the sun shining and the waterfalls just going off. It was detracted from a little by the swarms of other people having the same thoughts, but it was Memorial weekend, which in the US seems to be the official start of summer and everyone heads to the woods. Just this year someone forgot to tell summer that.

However the crowds couldn’t take away the mind blowing scenery and it didn’t take much to find some solitude.

It wasn’t all exercise though. The thunderstorms finally arrived late afternoon and it was time to retreat to the tent for some reading an relaxation.

The following day dawned wet with snow forecast. Since I was heading north there was a couple of hours climbing before I could drop to the west. The plan was to get out of the Park then cut through forest service roads until I got to Highway 88, the nearest open pass, and could cross the Sierra’s.

Well it didn’t take long to reach the snow line and I spent two hours climbing in the falling snow. Before reaching the snow a ranger stopped me and suggested I turn around because it was going to be impossible, even though the road was open. She couldn’t quite fathom that I was going to carry on regardless and was shaking her head as she drove off. I was prepared to turn around if need be but I’d also learnt long ago not to trust an overweight American telling you that something was impossible.

As the climb progressed the snow became heavier and the road started disappearing altogether.

Near the top of the climb, in about eight inches of snow I came across a crash where eight cars had stacked into each other. Looking like they were all rentals I wondered if they had the excess waiver. Then the road crew tell me the road was now closed…”but you’ve got this far so you can carry on”. Phew. The top was only a few km away then it was all downhill. Easy right.

So riding up the hill was definitely a highlight. I was warm and dry but probably sweating a bit much. Riding down the hill was definitely not a highlight. The road was graded so the snow wasn’t an issue, but it was slippery and there were a few two wheel drifting moments. The biggest problem was the snow changed with the change of the terrain. It became wet and incredibly cold. Although my core was warm(ish) my gloves became wet through and my hands froze. The only way I knew I was braking was by feeling the bike slowing down. This cold went right through me and by the time I arrived at the Park Entrance 20 minutes later I realised I couldn’t continue without getting warm. Luckily for me here was a small visitor centre with some very friendly staff. It was warm and they even gave me a hot drink. At this stage I was a bit of a mess and couldn’t even sit on the floor without getting light headed and thinking I was going to throw up. But time worked its magic and after an hour and a half I was ready to get down the hill to some place warmer.

It didn’t take long to drop below the snow and things started looking up. On arriving in Groveland I hooked into a hot rotisserie chicken and hot chocolate when a guy approached me and said he was a guide in Yosemite and a mate of his had sent him a photo of me riding though the snow. He figured I’d stop in town and had come to find me and offer me a place to stay. Although incredibly tempting it was just too early in the day and I decided to keep moving. But this was just another example of the incredibly generous American hospitality that we had experienced earlier in our trip. Less than an hour later I had dropped to 200mt altitude and was back in shorts and shirt. It’s amazing what 1700mt of altitude can do.

The culture shock of returning back to ‘normal’ life.

Culture shock one…

After travelling in Latin America for just over 5 months our first taste of the culture change was returning to the US. Tony and I flew Spirit Airlines which turned out to be a bit like the Walmart of the skies judging by some of the passengers flying with them. A man was boarding the plane in Atlanta holding a fluff ball excuse of a dog and was complaining to the air steward that he was charged an extra $100 by the Airline to bring his ‘dog’ on the plane. He kept repeating his displeasure loudly for all to hear. He said it was a service dog and should come on for free. The stewardess (God bless her) told him (and I quote) “Quit your complaining and to sit down while I find you a seat. It turned out the dog provided ‘emotional’ assistance to the man. Tony and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes and thought ‘Only in America’…

One of the best and worst things about the States is everything is BIG – case in point this Chicago Pizza we ate at Diane and Mike’s house the first night we were in San Diego. Half a pizza was enough even for us hungry cyclists. That brings me to one of the best things about the States – the hospitality.

What to wear…

Next it was back to NZ for me. The previous 11 months had consisted of living out of two tiny bags with very limited outfit choices – one for on the bike and one for off the bike. I arrived after 40 hours of travel feeling tired and very disheveled in my ‘off the bike outfit’. I felt a bit like a hobo (which is pretty much what I had been). I had two big bags of clothes waiting for me at Cheryl’s house. How exciting it was to have a choice of more than one outfit. I was so excited to pull on a proper pair of jeans and pondered which top (more than one) to wear with them.

My off the bike outfit (for colder weather) from the last 11 months.

Toiletries…

The next small pleasure for me was my toilet bag. The first thing I noticed was how much it weighed! It was soooooo heavy – what could possibly weigh so much?? I opened it up and honestly for the first night I didn’t delve any deeper into it than to retrieve a hairbrush and toothbrush. I had lotions and potions for just about every conceivable situation – I could now pamper my skin and hair and wondered how I survived for so long without deodorant!

Toilet bag comparisons – what I needed while on the road on the left and what I thought was essential prior to that in the ride.

Culture shock two – the Kiwi accent…

We didn’t meet many Kiwis on the road over the last 11 months so my ears pricked up when I started to hear the familiar twangs of a fellow Kiwi speaker when I was waiting to board my flight to NZ from LA. Apparently the Kiwi accent has been voted the worlds most sexiest accent in 2019 by travel site Big 7 Media (I hear you say who)?? As I was sitting there listening I wondered where Big 7 Media had got their survey participants from. Were they all deaf people reading lips?? This was further confirmed when I watched NZ’s Dancing with the Stars after I returned home. The two hosts of the show Dai Henwood and Sharyn Casey were soooooo ‘Kiwi’ as they gushed over the dancers. Did I find it romantic? No! More like cringe worthy. Maybe we have come a long way from the ‘80s and ‘90s when if you wanted to hook up with someone you’d say ‘wanna a root’, but that phrase uttered with a Kiwi accent just doesn’t do it for me.

Driving…

As it turns out driving back on the left hand side of the road was just like riding a bike – it just seemed natural. Riding and walking on the left however was a totally different story. The first time I rode my bike after coming home I happily toddled off on the right hand side of the road. Once I realised and switched to the left I felt like I was on the wrong side of the road. I now find myself walking on the right hand side of the footpath and have to keep reminding myself that I need to ‘keep left, keep left’.

The Price of Avocados:

After paying next to nothing for avocados over the last 5 months in Central America the photo below says it all. Needless to say avocados may be off the menu for a wee while until they’re a little cheaper than $4.98 each.

But there’s some really great things about being home too. I get to see my mum and sister, catch up with friends I haven’t seen for a year and enjoy the wonderful food here (‘fush and chups’ and bakeries).

Hmmmmm, how am I going to resist!

Going it Alone

It’s a strange this how we get used to a certain way of life. After 11 months of travelling with Karen, and the last five of that having al but just each other to talk to due to our lack of Spanish, it was just the way it was. So saying goodbye to Karen as she headed back to NZ was an interesting experience. On one hand I was loosing my riding buddy…but on the other hand I only had to worry about myself. No thoughts, consideration or concerns for anyone else. It’s a bit hard to get the head around.

We had been staying with our previous warmshowers hosts, now our friends Diane and Mike, in San Diego. That first night alone they were heading out for dinner so I got to couch up and catch a movie, any movie…whatever movie I wanted. No consideration…it doesn’t come easy.

But I can’t stay in San Diego forever. The trails are calling.

So the plan is to ride the SoCal route to Big Bear then stitch a route through the San Bernadino and Sierra Nevada ranges to Tahoe. My excuse is it’s a training ride. But in all honesty it’s my ride to make as hard or as easy as I like. I didn’t do a very good job of the easy.

Leaving San Diego turned out harder than I though. The day dawned wet and didn’t look like clearing anytime soon so procrastination was in order, not help by Diane and Mike who kept suggesting I wait another day. It wasn’t until lunchtime that I finally hit the road. After grabbing last minute supplies the single track and dirt started. I was surprised it came so quick and it was so good. I wanted to get some miles in so skipped the first suitable camp and pushed on. Only problem with that plan was the next suitable wild camp was well after dark.

The SoCal threw up more surprises as it went. Some good, some not so good. Climbing over the Cuyamaca mountains was stunning. It was green and lush with the vegetation changing with the elevation gain until I was riding sweet single track through high alpine meadows.

The wildlife was pretty cool to. Given the extent of everything being regulated to within an inch of its life in the States there were plenty of animals about (unlike Central America where everything’s been eaten). Deer were grazing, a pack of five Coyotes crossed the track in front of me, a bobcat slinked into the bush as I came around a corner.

This wasn’t to last though. It was time to drop into the desert and nothing lives down there…except a few strange people. And I’m sure they get stranger the longer they stay.

Dropping into the desert also meant dropping into the heat. And it was hotter than hell. I’ve always liked desert riding for some reason. It’s just a brutally harsh landscape that ironically has been carved by water. The only bit not to like is trying to ride the often unridable deep sand…oh and the unrelenting heat.

But there are some wonders as well like the sculptures all around Borrego Springs. Apparently some guy decided to build these things and dot them around his land. The biggest I saw can only be described as the Loch Ness monster of the desert. At over 50 metres long it was pretty impressive.

This creativity certainly held my interest more than the shambles that is Slab City.

But Slab City is a whole story on its own. Let’s just say one guy went there circa 1975 to find his salvation. Over 25 years he lived in a truck and built Salvation Mountain as a sort of temple or shrine.

Anyway that attracted other people that saw Slab City as a freedom. The last free place in America they say…except for all the signs saying don’t do this and don’t do that. Needless to say these people appear to be either escaping something or trying to find something. The pessimist in me says without much success.

And then there’s the Salton Sea. At 80mt below sea level it’s not the healthiest looking body of water and it’s not even meant to be there. It was created in the early 1900’s when an irrigation canal failed. They thought it would dry up. It didn’t. But surrounding the Salton Sea is the most barren desert I’ve seen, well except for the massive expanse of irrigation cropping lands that seems incredibly productive. For half a day I rode alongside the canal that feeds this land. Turn out it’s from the Colorado River which is a long way from the Salton Sea.

So after three days I get to leave the low desert and climb into the high desert that is Joshua Tree National Park. But first there was the gauntlet of American Culture to run. This was in the form of a road that is used by the locals as in informal shooting range. All five km of the roadside was covered in empty cartridges. When I say covered I mean at least an inch deep. Any homeless guy could make some good coin recycling all that brass. So I passed five groups of people out there shooting there glocks and assault rifles at targets made of either silhouette humans or manikins. And safety was definitely not a consideration. These guns were being waved all over the place and there wasn’t a holster in sight. Just madness.

But then there was the peace solitude of Joshua Tree, well until I hit the main tourist rod into the park. What an amazing place. The granite boulder rock formations are just stunning and distracting.

The plan was to stay in Joshua Tree for the night and explore some more but it’s still desert, just a bit higher, and there’s no water so I made the call to push onto Big Bear Lake. After all it is meant to be a training ride.

So that means climbing out of the desert and back into the forest. As I get higher it gets colder until finally all the layers are in for the 10pm descent into Big Bear. Arriving that time of night meant I was lucky to get a bed but I found a hostel that had a bear of a dog fittingly called yogi. He was beautiful.

Turns out I was due a day off and with snow and rain forecast it couldn’t have been timed better. Hard to believe that it’s only three days between being below sea level at 40deg and being in the mountains at 4deg.

So what was the first week of going it alone like. Strange kind of sums it up. There’s no one to talk to, no one to make decisions with and no one to share the adventure. On the bright side there’s no one to complain when I fart in the tent or want to push on that extra couple of hours. And I’m not being subjected to coffee breaks, although Karen thinks I secretly enjoy those…hmm not so much. But all in all I miss my adventure buddy (aka wife) and would much rather Share the journey.

Panama a country of contrast.

Crossing the boarder between Costa Rica and Panama wasn’t without a little drama and hassle. When leaving Costa Rica we had to pay an exit tax before receiving our exit stamp. Rather than conveniently locating the tax office next to the Migration office they located the tax office about 200m away down a small hill. To make matters even more confusing the tax office had no signage to say what it was. It was around 1pm and the temperature was getting hot and sticky. We paid our tax, got our exit stamp then spent our last remaining Colones on a coke and a couple of ice blocks. Outside the supermarket some of the locals were well on their way to drinking themselves into a stupor. We decided to take our refreshments a little further down the road away from this small group. When we passed back by the supermarket a brawl had broken out between the drunks. One had removed his shirt in that international sign of “I want to fight you”. With that last impression of Costa Rica we decided it was time to get going.

We entered Panama without any hassles. The smooth wide road we had been riding along in Costa Rica turned into a goat track which we didn’t mind at all. A couple of locals tried to tell us we were riding the wrong way, but the map said the road went through and we enjoyed the fact the only other road users were cyclists and pedestrians.

Our first Panamanian road….

…complete with tricky bridges to negotiate.

The road improved but was still not of the standard of the smooth roads in Costa Rica. This part of Panama was noticeably poorer. We really felt like we had stepped back in time. On the Caribbean side of the divide there weren’t many towns and the only thing between towns was plenty of jungle dispersed with the odd shack. It was very hot and humid too. We rode over the divide in a monster day of 122km and 4000m in climbing in what felt like 99 percent humidity. Every time we stopped I would take off my gloves and wring the moisture out of them. Once we crossed the divide it became much drier and a little less sticky. We finished riding in a city called David. From there we took a bus to Panama City. Already we could tell the Pacific side of the divide appeared to be more affluent than the Caribbean side.

For you horsey types out there. We saw this set up for transporting your horse around when we arrived in David. The horse was so chilled about the whole thing and we were both amazed by it.

We arrived in Panama City at night and were dazzled by its bright lights. The next day we got on our bikes and did a bit of a tiki tour around the waterfront and out to the Panama Canal. Panama City is very modern, and it is clear to us where all the money in Panama is as the photos below show:

And the Panama Canal was pretty cool too…

The original Panama Canal. The highest price tag for a ship to pass through is USD 450,000. The lowest price was 36 cents by American Richard Halliburton who swam the Panama Canal in 1928.

Panama built a new canal alongside the old one. In this photo we saw a large container ship passing through with a likely passage fee of around USD 1.2 million!

Panama has set itself up as the ‘Switzerland’ of the Americas with many large international corporations locating their headquarters in Panama. This is the countries largest income earner followed by the Panama Canal, then tourism. This will be why Panama City is so affluent, but we were disappointed to not see that money filtered to the rest of the country.

After our day out on the bikes it was time for us to pack up and wait for a flight back to the States for Tony and home for me. During this time we had a bit of time to reflect on the last 11 months. We both agreed the biggest highlight of our journey was meeting really wonderful people from diverse backgrounds and experiencing new cultures. That was followed by seeing some amazing scenery, particularly in Canada (Rockies), Montana, Utah and Baja. Our favourite food was Mexican by far – mmmmmmmm.

As we continue to adventure at home and abroad the blogs here at thethingswedoforfun.com will continue, so please keep following us…

Costa Rica – Stepping back to the future.

We passed through the border into Costa Rica smoothly. No official at the border wanted to know our occupation, nor even cared as it seemed. We were prepared – Tony was a baker and I an accountant – the least threatening occupations we could think of. Once safely through it was time to cash up. Tony withdrew the highest figure he had ever done from an ATM in Liberia – 400,000! Actually that was only worth around USD600.

Our first impressions of Costa Rican roads was good – wide roads with plenty of shoulder. That lasted for about 1km before the road narrowed and we lost our shoulder. One thing we soon learned about drivers down here is they drive aggressively and are impatient (a little similar to drivers in NZ). We headed straight for the Nicoya Peninsula for a circumnavigation around the Peninsula. It was Easter Weekend and we took our lives into our hands on those mad busy roads to get to the north end of the Peninsula. Once we hit the gravel the traffic dried up thank goodness!

We then hit the coast and it was well worth braving the madness. Our first night was wild camping on a beautiful beach with white sand and crystal blue water. The best part was as soon as it got dark we had the whole place to ourselves.

But it wasn’t all white sand beaches and crystal blue waters. On day two we hit some rough gravel roads and lots and lots of steep sharp climbs. Added to that was the constant traffic blasting by showering us in dust. Not only that, it was HOT! We were both suffering from the heat and felt like we couldn’t drink enough of our tepid tea like water to keep pace with what we were sweating out. In order to cool down we resorted to putting ice in our water bottles. People were zipping passed us on their ATV’s or SUV’s wearing bikini’s and boardies looking like they were having lots of fun as we were slogging along the hot dusty roads.

We decided it was time for a day off and time for us to enjoy some beach time. We parked up at Montezuma Beach and stayed in a hostel right on the beach for a couple of days.

We also did a short bush walk to a waterfall in the hills and swam in the fresh water at the bottom of the falls…

When it was time to leave I found a small hitchhiker on my bike.

We then headed back to the mainland and through San Jose toward the Carribean Coast. We left San Jose on a Sunday and there were heaps of other riders riding mostly mountain bikes. Many of them talked to us, wanting to know where we were going and where we were from. That’s when we met Mario who took a video of us for his club MTB Cartago Costa Rica Las Tuercas. Here is a link to what he put together. It pretty much sums up what people think of what we are doing.

We hit the hills and the rain hit us. We hadn’t had any rain since the 7th of February, but we were making up for it now since it rained in biblical portions for the next three days. We got soaked, but at least it cooled things off, but was warm enough not to get too cold.

On the way to the coast we rode through the Banana Plantations near a place called Zent. There we stayed at a Warmshowers with Rafa and Sonia who fed and watered us and taught us a new card game called ‘Mamot’. They also grow bananas in their small plantation and have great plans for eco tourism in their plantation in the future. It was really interesting talking to these two and hearing about their plans.

Sonia and Rafa.

Riding through the banana plantation.

We hit the Carribean Coast and it was very lush and wet. It was also my birthday (a big one this year – half a century old) so it was time for Tony to spoil me rotten at a swanky cabin in Cahuita.

Our first glimpse of the Carribean.

Surfs up.

Home made hamburgers for my birthday dinner.

In the days leading up to this I was aware my mum was having an operation on her leg back home. While in Cahuita we heard the operation didn’t work and now she faces losing a leg at the age of 82. This is devastating news for her and for my sister and I. I wanted to go home to support her. Tony and I talked about it and we decided to finish our journey together in Panama City. From there I would fly home and Tony would get in a months worth of quality training for the Tour Divide he is racing in June. (No excuses now Tony). So our plans to ride in Cuba have been postponed for now.

So now it was time to head to Panama – but first it pays to check our shoes before taking more hitchhikers with us.

So why ‘Back to the future’? Costa Rica is very much a first world country from our point of view. It appears very affluent, and as a reflection of that, expensive. We almost felt like we had stepped into a tropical part of the US (there were enough McDonalds and KFC stores to think that). We would totally recommend Costa Rica as a great place to go for a holiday. The nature and the beaches are ideal.

Here’s where we’ve been:

Nicaragua – Forgotten Already

That seems a bit unfair but we only left a few days ago and it seems like a distant memory. Although when we talk about it I always comment that I quite enjoyed it and would have liked to explore more and Karen always comments that she was a bit disappointed. Given it’s the poorest country in Central America and has currently got a bit of political strife going on the expectations weren’t that high to begin with. So what did Nicaragua serve up that has given such mixed feelings.

It didn’t serve up good first impressions. After a long hot climb through the final 60km of Honduras we arrive at Immigration. Every border crossing up to this point has been a five minute affair…but not Nicaragua. Our first mistake was to be honest about our occupations. That set off a long winded half assed interview, a demand for our work id’s (which we don’t have), a very half assed search of our bikes by a Police Office who clearly thought Immigration were wasting their time (although he didn’t find our undeclared mace which was in clear view). Two hours later they decide we are not a risk to national security, stamp our passports and advise us to lie about our occupations. By this stage the thunder storm has arrived and we head down the road getting a little wet.

Luckily we only had 10km to roll down the hill to Somoto Canyon, our first Nicaraguan must see attraction. And it was also time for a day off the bikes so there was no rush exploring the area. Still after finding a great camp and catching up on some sleep we were itching to go. There are any number of tour operators willing to take you through the canyon but that’s not our way so we head off up the road in search of the mystery track that will drop us into the river at the head of the canyon. After a couple of wrong turns and some bush bashing through very prickly desert plants we hit the river and head downstream. Soon the river is getting narrower and deeper and before you know it the only way is to swim, which is great given it’s 30+ deg at 11am. A couple of hours later and we popped out the end of the canyon. We were both buzzing. It was just a surreal atmosphere to be immersed in. And to top it off the afternoon was spent lounging in a hammock enjoying a cold beer. Yes Nicaragua was delivering.

The truely stunning Somoto Canyon.

It went downhill a bit after that though. We’d heard Esteli was quite a nice place so bombed down the highway to get there. It was good going at first but got busier with no shoulder as we moved south. One noticeable thing was the increase in ox carts on the roads. It was a clear sign that the economy still has a ways to go to catch up to its neighbours.

It’s like stepping back in time.

Anyway I digress, we were happy to arrive in Esteli but after a bit of exploring were disappointed with what it had to offer. Essentially it’s a highway town that’s been talked up into something it’s not so we’re happy to leave the following day and head for some dirt roads. The loose plan, that kept changing, was to get to Laguna de Apoyo, Granada and Ometepe Island.

Dirt roads and a town to far makes for some great sunset riding.

So two days later we arrive at Laguna de Apoyo. We weren’t going to get there that day but the Volcano that we wanted to ride up to see the lava lake had some rule that no bikes were allowed. So you could drive your car up and park on the crater rim amongst the sulphur gas cloud but doing it on a bike was way too dangerous. But again I digress. Laguna de Apoyo is another volcanic crater. The water is clear(ish) and cool(ish) with an infusion of natural minerals. Just what our weary hot bodies needed.

Laguna de Apoyo. By far our best camp spot in Nicaragua.

But our bodies weren’t all that well. Earlier in the day we’d had a roadside buffet that was delicious and an absolute bargain. Clearly the bargain comes with an associated risk and before the nights done Karen’s guts is feeling decidedly delicate. In the morning she’s not much better and there might have been a tear or two as we tackle the 2km climb out of the crater up a 20% grade. To top things off we’ve decided to skip Granada, surely it’s just another city, and head straight to Ometepe. That doesn’t sound to bad, after all it’s only 65km to the ferry, but there’s a stinking head wind, the road is super narrow and super busy, especially with mad chicken bus drivers. Unfortunately my guts follows suit later that day and by the time we get to the ferry we’ve well had enough and just want to get to the Island, find a bed and crash. But first there’s the ferry crossing. It’s rough and it nearly puts Karen over the edge. But she manages to hang onto her lunch, luckily because the only outside area was facing the wind so she, and all the other people standing around her would have copped it. Not sure that would have made her to popular.

One of the Ometepe volcanoes.

And to moor the ferry the crewman jumps over the side to tie off the mooring line.

So we find a hostel and park up. The following day is slept away and the stomachs finally settle down after a few antibiotics. We’re both a bit lighter, like we had weight to loose, but just completely flogged out. It’s not a crash diet I’d recommend.

So we got to explore Ometepe Island. The island is made up of a couple of volcanos rising out of the massive Lake Nicaragua. It’s been some time since they were active but the steep ash and scoria cones are scarred with washouts. It reminded us of a bigger version of Rarotonga, just not as pristine.

We managed to score ourselves a camp at a fresh water spring. Had the place to ourselves once the day users are kicked out.

The main road on Ometepe crosses the main runway. Not to much in the way of traffic control through.

Easter Friday and all the locals are flocking to the lake for a swim. We were warned not to go to the coast. Apparently it’s just mad.

Turns out it was easy riding and we got around the Island in a day and were ready to say goodby to Nicaragua and make a run for the border the following day. Luckily this time they let us out without any hassles. Probably pleased to see the back of us.

So where have we been.

El Salvador and Honduras

El Salvador 🇸🇻

‘We’ll be right’ Tony said. ‘The hills in El Salvador are small in comparison to the ones in Guatemala’. I took some comfort from these words until we got to our first hill in El Salvador that turned into a 5km ‘hike a bike’ on a steep cobbled road! It was hot and the sweat was dripping from every pour. I was thinking to myself ‘At least I could ride the hills in Guatemala’!

The good thing about El Salvador was we could camp more. We discovered we could camp for free at water parks. The bonus to this was we could also enjoy all the facilities including the pools and restaurants.

Our camp at San Pablo Tacachico

El Salvador appeared to be more affluent than its Guatemalan cousin with more National Parks, better infrastructure and less rubbish thrown around the place. It made a nice change. We found some really nice remote roads to ride in the coffee growing region around Juayùa.

We also found a nice swimming hole.

Then it was onward and eastbound toward the border with Honduras. That’s where Tony’s comment about hills came back to haunt us. We travelled the CA3 which is one of the main highways, but it was so quiet traffic wise that we decided to stick to it most of the way to the border. Our last day in El Salvador saw us climb 3453m in elevation over 100kms in 30 plus degree heat with about 100 percent humidity. We both couldn’t drink enough water and each consumed around 7 litres on the way. No wonder when we got to our hotel that night we were both a bit poked (that’s Kiwi for tired).

Honduras 🇭🇳

We’d heard through the media and from some other riders Honduras was a dangerous place so we decided to pass through as quickly as we could. We passed through the border smoothly and took the CA1 across country to Nicaragua. We only spent one night in Honduras in a dodgy hotel in a town called Choluteca. The hotel cost us USD20 for the night which included the usual amenities, however the shower fell a little short of our expectations – even for Central America.

The other thing that shocked us about Honduras was the amount of rubbish discarded everywhere as this video shows.

Having said that the people were very friendly and appeared genuinely so. The countryside was also pretty, making the riding very pleasant. I think if we had more time Honduras would be a good country to explore further and it’s bad reputation is not deserved.

The great thing about three countries in three days (now we are in Nicaragua) is we get to sample new flavours of beer in each new country.

The other thing we noticed in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is how big the security industry is. According to the Lonely Planet Guatemala employs 30,000 police while 120,000 private security guards are employed. We saw uniformed men (and one or two women in Mexico) armed with anything from pistols to shotguns and semi-automatic weapons guarding anything from ATM’s, Service Stations, fashion stores and even fried chicken restaurants. This became more prevalent the further south we went with Security riding shotgun (literally) in trucks delivering everything from coke to cornchips. Both water parks we stayed at were guarded by armed security or even military (young looking fresh faces carrying enough firepower to make any gun nut excited). We also noticed increasingly the dairies (that’s Kiwi speak for corner stores) had grills on their doors and windows and you couldn’t even enter them. You stood at the window and asked the shop keeper to bring you what you want.

Our night security at the town pool.

Where have we been:

Guatemala Finally Delivers – Violently

Sitting at 3700mt, 300mt from the summit of Volcan Acatenango. Two km across a saddle is the summit of Volcan De Fuego…and it’s going off like a frog in a sock. When I say going off I mean every few minutes there’s an explosion and molten rock and ash is thrown hundreds of meters in the air. It’s amazing how much time difference there is between seeing the explosion and then about five seconds later hearing it.

At the moment it’s daylight and the molten rock doesn’t really stand out too much. We’re waiting for dark to see the real spectacle. But are we going to be foiled by the weather. Just as the sun starts going down the cloud rolls in and blocks the view. Being at this altitude in the wind and cloud means it’s cold, even in the tropics, so we retreat to the tent to read, do our Spanish lessons and rest our weary bodies. Every time we hear an explosion we’re poking our noses out to look into the gloomy clouds….But our patience is rewarded. After an impressively loud explosion late in the evening the clouds have finally cleared so we’re heading outside to our deck chairs (yes we hauled these up here as well) for front row seats. It’s freezing, we’re wrapped up in everything we’ve carried up this hill, and our sleeping bags over that. Don’t let anything go though because the wind will grab it and it will be the last you see of it.

So was it worth the 1600mt climb over the summit, the camp without a cooker and freezing our asses off. HELL YES. This is by far one of the most unique experiences we’ve had in our lives, let alone this trip. De Fuego delivered big time. In the dark molten rock could be seen being thrown all over the show. The experience made us realise how small and insignificant we really are when Mother Nature wants to have her way.

Nearing the summit of Volcán Acatenango.

And the decent to the camping area.

A room with a view and front row seats. Yes we took our chairs up there too.

And for the action shot…

Nighttime photos just don’t do it justice but you get the idea.

So how did we end up here. This hike was suggested by a couple we met in Mexico. After some perving at the map and study of the Lonely Planet we came up with a route that we thought would run through some of the best of what Guatemala had to offer. It has to be said that our sole knowledge of Guatemala was one line, “You’re not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata.” (The only famous line from a NZ soap opera circa 1990s). So off we set.

From Tziscao we rode a dirt track around a lake and into Guatemala. No offical in sight, no control whatsoever.

Thinking it would probably be in our interest to get an exit stamp for Mexico and entry stamp for Guatemala we headed to the nearest controlled border. Turns out controlled is a loose term. We had to leave Guatemala again to find the Mexican immigration office tucked away off the road about a km down the hill. No checkpoint, no roadblock, nothing. The offical didn’t even know which way we were going, but we got our stamp and headed back up the hill to repeat the process by interrupting the Guatemalan offical from reading his paper and getting our entry stamp. It was all so easy it just seemed wrong, but oh so right.

So day one saw us riding some really nice rural roads but they were steep, like 20% grades, and our total climbing was over 2000mt, and we were only half way up a 1900mt climb. There were no wild camping opportunities so when we passed through a town that had hotels up the gunga we took the opportunity to stop. Hotels a loose term but for $8NZ dollars we got a bed, cold shower and shared toilets….not sure what they were thinking.

Big steep hills are the order of the day.

After day one the roads got busier, the hills didn’t get any smaller, camping opportunities were non existent and everything seems to get more expensive. On the expense front it felt like we were being overcharged at every opportunity. This trend continued for the duration of our time in Guatemala so after nine days we just wanted to get out of the country and move on with our adventure. We were sitting in Antigua at this stage enjoying a day off on legs that just didn’t want to work after running down Volcan Acatenango the day before.

Our original plan was to go north into Belize then up to Cancun. But it just didn’t appeal now so we changed plans again and decided to head to El Salvador, a meet 180km to the east. So two days later we crossed the boarder…and straight into another 1200mt climb with some hike a bike…Is this a sign of things to come maybe?

So by the numbers…Eleven days in Guatemala. Two rest days, two days hiking up and down a volcano, and eight days on the bike (we rode the day we came down Volcan Acatenango). 610km with 20900mt of climbing, or an average of 2322mt a day… I must start looking at the profile more closely before I say, “let’s go this way, it looks cool.”

So the general impression of Guatemala wasn’t that good, but there was some pretty cool stuff.

The mountain villages that are still clinging to their traditional Mayan roots through their dress and culture is cool to see. They have progressed though, it wasn’t that unusual to see a woman in traditional dress carrying a water jar on her head talking on her smart phone. And there’s money to be made, the markets were bustling with all sorts of traditional wear, textiles and food. Oh that delicious food…

The market at Chichihualtepec.

But it has to be said that the Guatemalan people are hard doers. Those in the mountains scratch out a subsistence living by working the land collectively as a community. Others were in groups making mud blocks for the next village house. Then there were those in the quarries. In the mountains this meant chipping the limestone off the bluffs by hand, in the low lands there were in the streams digging out the gravel and shovelling it through a grading screen. The bigger rocks got carted up the bank in a bucket and dumped. A hard days work by anyone’s standards.

These guys are waist deep in water shovelling rocks all day.

Antigua was a pretty cool little city to visit. Very colonial but with a very hip modern vibe. It felt like the place that all the well to do Guatemalans gravitate to with hip bars and cafes on every corner.

Check out Mike Kings brother from another mother in this 70s and 80s rock band we found in Antigua. They were pretty good to.

Antigua is clearly a tourist hub too and there were a lot of stiff looking Gringos getting around after a day on nearby Volcan Acatenango. This place has seen its heartache though. Many of the really old mission and colonial buildings had been reduced to rubble by historic earthquakes and eruptions. They are working on the restoration of these, though. It seems a mammoth task, especially when they are cutting bricks by hand.

On our last night in Guatemala we got to experience an auto-hotel. Thinking this was just a hotel that had secure parking under each unit we were a bit surprised by the setup. Money was passed through a slot in a steal door. Once the right payment was made that door was opened to reveal the door to our room, complete with a cold water ( what are they thinking) jacuzzi. The room service menu had beer, meals, protection and lubricant…we just stuck to the beer. So we get the bikes in the garage, shut the garage door and get into our room, ring to order a couple of beers and settle down. The beers are passed through a slider in the steal door once payment has been made through the other slot. In the morning we are rung saying it’s time to go or pay more money, so we rush to pack up, but we can’t get out of the garage. Karen heads upstairs to use the phone but the steal door is closed, blocking our access. I guess once they have checked that we haven’t stolen or stained the jacuzzi they unlock the garage door because next minute it’s opening and we are free to leave this place…and this bloody country.

But there’s still the boarder to cross. As it turns out this border is quite organised and controlled, unlike when we came into the country. But first there is the circling vultures to get through. When we arrive at the border we’re flagged down by a very large man waving a very large wad of US dollars. Along with him are a gaggle of other shifty looking characters trying to entice us with their equally large bundles of cash. We were wondering where we were going to get rid of our Guatemala Quetzal so this seemed the perfect opportunity. The rate they quoted was surprisingly as good but that lucky large man must have been mightily disappointed when I handed over all of our our remaining cash and relieved him of 24 of those US dollars.

So Guatemala is done and dusted. We did some really cool things, but the riding didn’t really spin our wheels as we were hoping.

From here we’ve decided to head south through El Salvador, Honduras ect and try and get to Panama City by the 8th May to fly to Cuba.

After Cuba Karen is going to head home and I’m heading back to Canada to race the Tour Divide. It’s probably a very silly idea, it won’t be fun and it will hurt, but we’re here and I figure a 28000km training ride probably isn’t to bad a way to get ready for it.

Our journey through Guatemala