To read the first post in this series – click here for the adventure begins.
I found myself on the terrace watching the sun push back the shadows across the valley below. I’d woken way too early every day I’d been here, but today was something different – it was the first full day of motorcycling. I took a deep breath, the morning chill dancing its way across my sinuses like menthol.
The night before Mike and I wielded our mutual inexperience of dirtbikes to secure a ‘practice run’. There was no doubt in my mind I could handle one, I just wanted a go, but as I eased on the front brake at the bottom of the cobbled driveway the front forks sucked themselves up and I nearly went over the handlebars. The rear shock took the chance to spring up and roll me further forwards before the forks rebounded up again, nearly taking my teeth out.
Feet planted, I cracked off a beaming smile – I was getting that happy tingle in my spine that makes you suck up your shoulders and roll your head around. This wasn’t a bike – it was a sunburst yellow bucking bronco! These DR 650’s were going to be a right laugh.
I watched as Mike rolled up next to me, looking steady if a little tense. “Ready, man?” He nodded and, like pogo sticks jumping from cloud to cloud, we bounded out into the night, tearaway kids rioting around the estate. There were no neighbours to call the police – we let it rip, tearing off into the dark.
Someone had started making coffee and the smell wafted through to the terrace. The other boys were up and about and packing their bags. All our luggage needed to go in the truck that Jorge would drive along behind us. Having taken out the helmet, padded jeans and jacket it didn’t look like I’d packed much at all… I crammed in handfuls of papers, camera leads and contact lenses, scanning under the bed to check I hadn’t left anything behind.
My breakfast didn’t touch the sides as I shovelled it down my gullet like coal into a furnace. Everyone else sat sipping their tea and taking dignified mouthfuls of eggs and toast. Talking and stuff. Clearly I was the only one with a misplaced sense of urgency. I put it down to youth. Mike was also acting with a similar excited itch, but the rest of the group (how do I say this tactfully…) were pretty ‘veteran’ and behaved in an accordingly stately manner. I don’t think you’d have much change out of 200 years if you lumped Chas, Colin and Dave together, if any.
The old boys clearly had plenty of experience on bikes, this being Colin’s fifth or so South American trip while Chas was a Porsche test driver and adventure bike enthusiast. In fact it was a relief to have Mike along. He’d only passed his test a few months ago and was still learning the ropes. I’d already seen him drop his new helmet. Fortunately, this meant I probably wouldn’t be both the infant and the worst bike rider. Pride was still to play for… not that it mattered.
Slowly the pack migrated over to the bikes, trunks waving as they lumbered. I’d been sweating it out in my biking clobber since I’d woken up, bags were packed and by the van. Fortunately it was only a small wait before the team were all on their bikes. The engines kicked into life and revs filled the compound like it was a startling grid. The smell of warm WD40 whipped up from the engines. The maw like doors opened wide and, stepping into first gear with a loud thunk, I followed Colin and Franco out onto the street.
I weaved, bobbed and put bursts through the throttle to settle into the new bike while speed bumps kept us occupied all the short way to Cajamarca. We turned from the quieter roads into the morning ruckus and were immediately hemmed in, having to press between two yellow construction trucks as to not loose Franco. Tuk tuks and other urban particulate vied for gaps as we filtered through, using our numbers to block off unwanted encroaches. A handful of times our instinctive coordination lapses and one of us is lost to the fray, regaining the group only after bullying their way to the front at the next red light. The warm air, fumes, protective clothes and concentration made my brain feel sticky, but before long we were through, bobbing past buildings with bullet holes and up climbing gently up into the mountains.
I’ve emerged from Cajamarca third in the pack. Franco at the front, Colin in hot pursuit then Chas and Mike at the back, keeping to their own pace. I was gradually picking up cues from the bike, gaining its trust, and I was being rewarded with faster and smoother corners. Soon I was barrelling around as if the bike were my own – passing through the shadows of tall green pines and looming pink, sheer faced quarries and into the sunshine at the top of the ridge. Colin, riding a big Honda Transalp, had kept an impressive pace on the way up, but the downhill had my name all over it. I leaned into the hairpins, hanging off like I was on my GSR – passing Colin and eye-balling Franco’s rear tyre from only a few feet behind, snapping at his heels like a handsome barracuda. I knew I was being a little boisterous but I wasn’t used to having a biker lead me around and was feeling rebellious.
The road threaded its way down the valley to a small town called Magdalena. The sun hung overhead like the bulb in an electric oven, hot enough to melt dragon’s teeth, so we dived into the shade and stripped off our jackets. There was a lot of things strapped to my body – camera bag, rucksack, neck scarf, gloves etc. I extracted all of them and left them hanging on the bike.
Knowing that this whole trip had to be written up for Bike magazine on my return put a strange twist on the early days of the adventure. I felt like I should be a professional, meticulous in my diary keeping and ever watchful for that perfect action shot. But I didn’t have a clue what I was doing… Back in England the editor of Bike called me up to give me some advice. “Compose your photos carefully, don’t just click and shoot” and “Keep it upbeat” were the headlines – and triggered weeks of fastidious practice behind the lens and the pen.
The editors advice seemed to echo on the shimmering mid-day rays as, with one-part smile and four-part wince I looked down at my camera. The screen was smashed in beyond use and webbed with thin, multicoloured cracks – it had bumped against the telephoto lens when the camera bag had fallen off the saddle. Anything more than aiming in the general direction and hoping for the best is out of the question as this model didn’t have a viewfinder. And on my first day on the bikes. Shit. What the hell was I going to do for two weeks??
The team weren’t exactly optimistic about my chances of getting it repaired. The camera I’d bought specifically for this trip had already had its day. Jorge, our enigmatic Peruvian driver, is quick to offer a dram of clear, spicy booze from an old ‘Inca Cola’ pop bottle. For some reason I assumed it was water and took a healthy glug that nearly floored me. ‘Moon Shine,’ he confirms, smiling his suprise at my eager swig. I laugh as Mike also takes a swig. I can see this why Jorge signed up for this – it’s prefect gringo watching. Nevertheless, I was understandably irked but I resolved to enjoy the rest of the day’s riding.
The mountains soon began to rise steeply on either side, accompanied by boulder-fields adorned with cartoon like cacti. The road follows neon green rice paddies along the valley floor while birds of prey circle above. The bikes are nearly lost in the grandeur of it all – my cheeks burned, angry that I’d broken my camera before reaching such awesome terrain. But – thinking about it – the camera still actually worked, it was only the screen that was broken. Deciding to try my luck I skidded abruptly to the side of the road and whipped the camera out of its case.
Chas and Mike, unsure of whether I’m having problems, slow down as they pass. My camera, now left in ‘Auto’, throws out some promising shutter clicks as they pass. Maybe I managed to get both them and the mountains in shot… I had no way of knowing! I pack up, catch up and overtake them. Then I race ahead, stop, kneel and reel off a handful of shots in burst mode, hoping to get one decent one in the bunch. I keep this photography leapfrog going all the way to the hotel on the Pacasmayo seafront.
The others all relaxed on the terrace as I scribbled the day into diary shorthand on my bed upstairs. Suddenly I remembered that my camera had a Wifi mode – something I could use to lift all the photo’s onto my phone. I tried a million combinations, forgetting the exact buttons I needed to navigate through the smashed menu. Eventually my phone lit up and, after 10 seconds of loading, displayed thumbnails of the days photos.
In considerably better spirits I joined the boys for a beer or two. Somehow breaking the camera screen had also lifted some of that pressure about taking good photos, rather than making it worse. Ironically it seemed like I was actually a better photographer when I couldn’t see what I was doing… must be a natural or something.
To the gentle crashing of waves I took a congratulatory draught from my cold beer. All was not lost, after all.