Leaving through the big wooden compound doors at Hotel Bracamonte, I shuffled the weight through my foot-pegs and took a deep, sea breeze breath. This was our final day on the bikes, the end of an adventure. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop looking down the barrel of an insomniac thirteen hour flight and five hours worth of trains to get back home in the UK, despite it being two or three days away. It would be a far cry from the dusty freedom of Peruvian roads.
The others pulled up with Franco and myself as we waited outside, propped on one leg. The yellow headlights of our Toyota Hilux followed them. There was the habitual thirty seconds of checking mirrors and flicking idly at our controls before we collectively rumbled out onto the pockmarked Huanchaco tarmac. Before long we were riding through baking dunes once more, a shimmering black ribbon meandering through the sand. Mid morning, the group reassembled at the side of the PanAm. Colin’s front wheel had developed a weave, my DR occasionally dropped gears causing some interesting engine breaking mid way through overtakes. It goes without saying that both bikes behaved as Franco lapped the tarmac around us. Although I was reminded to go gentle on the gearbox – so far my heavy feet had been doing the opposite, trying to boot the gears in hard to lock them in.
After a pit stop in Pacasmayo, the road began climbing into the mountains one final time. Buoyed up by stories of ‘hard northerners’ and in the company ‘softie southerners’ I turned off the main road and down a gravelly ramp to the banks of Lake Tembladera where, despite a hacking road-cough, I dived in stark bollock naked. Swimming out, the water stayed warm and comfortable all the way to my toes, trailing 6ft beneath the surface. Not like an English lake then, where the sun might only heat the top 3 inches – everything beneath staying frosty cold. I paddled about for 10, maybe 20, minutes without having to fear the cold would cripple my muscles and drown me. I was convinced a sharp toothed lake demon might go for the dangling bait…
Colin held a silent consensus and decided it was time to go. We watched from the sheltered bay as he just decided it was time to ride off, and off he went. It was another ‘Bye Colin’ moment – no one else felt the immediate urgency to chase. So chase we didn’t – we didn’t need to. Colin was pulled up at the side of the road no more than 200m away from where we’d stopped, looking angry. We stopped to investigate.
His front wheel was barely attached, he said. The ride down and up to the lake shore putting the final nail in the coffin of failing wheel bearings. He unreservedly refused to ride on, obviously expecting calamity within the next few feet. The dilemma was that it was only a few miles to the rest stop where we’d lunch. To me, limping the short distance onward made more sense than riding to get the truck, returning and swapping bikes, plus I’d wanted to have a go on a transalp since we got here – I put myself forward. To my surprise no one argued the point. Colin handed me the insurance doc and walked towards my DR. I wondered what I’d just volunteered for.
Now credit where credit’s due, the wheel was barely attached. There was a good inch or more lateral play in the wheel, which lopped heavily from side to side through the twenty or so sweeping bends back to the rest stop. It was certainly interesting to ride – I was surprised it had taken Colin this long to call time. Even so, I kinda liked the riding position of the transalp, and regretted not having the chance to jump on one earlier. You were in the bike rather than on the bike – similar feeling to riding my old 650GS.
Franco worked flat out during our food stop to get the bearings swapped out. Having ridden it here, I felt a little put out I wasn’t asked to take the transalp back to Casa Buena Vista. Chas and Colin swapped bikes instead. There was nothing really wrong with the DR now I was being more cautious with the gearbox so I sucked it up and rode on, back through narrowing valleys and past vivid green rice paddies.
My bike started dying, wheezing asthmatically before momentum would turn the engine over with a cough and carry on. I was somewhere near the back of the pack having stopped to take photos. The bike gave a final cough then went out completely. I coasted silently to the side of the road, gravel crunching under-tyre. While its never happened to me before, I was fairly sure it was symptomatic of running out of fuel so thumbed the petcock into reserve.
Mike was waiting for me, turning his shiny white helmet to see what was going on. I hit the starter for a few seconds. Nothing. Hit it again. Nothing. Sat and waited for a minute for the float bowl to fill. That’s the ticket. Happy not to be stranded I thundered around the next bend into the shadow of a rock wall and nearly into a rafter of turkeys, being led serenely along the road by an old man with a stick. I pulled the levers in sharply, the front end lunging as fork springs compressed through most of their travel. Two seconds later, a little skid announced mike behind me then chas on the transalp. Turkey man turned, blinked a couple of times then meekly flicked the turkeys to the roadside with his stick. I don’t know whether he had just been or was just returning from a siesta – or too long out in the fields had put him on turkey time. Basically, he wasn’t in a rush, and it was OK with us.
The miles went by and by. I started to worry the reserve tank would also be empty soon. One by one the others thumbed into reserve, but mine was empty a while back (exciting riding style?). I stuck to low revs and gentle acceleration, coasting where possible and trying to brake as little as possible in the corners. Just as I started to think we’d never see another petrol station again, a small town rose out of the landscape. On little more than fumes I popped out the other side and careered down the massive forecourt of a petrol station.
We stood around chatting, having school kids come over to take group selfies in front of the skull bike and kicking the dirt around with our big adventure boots. Chas arrived a surprisingly long time later, closely followed by the big Hilux of Jorge and Dave. He had wild eyes – wide pupils brimmed with genuine concern. The radiator had been packing up on the way, the engine temperature spiking, and he was forced to keep his revs down to prevent blowing the transalp up. This bike was really having a bad day of it. Having left it to cool for a minute the radiator cap hissed and gurgled as it was removed so that Franco could drop more fluid in. Looked like it was thirsty, but there were no obvious leaks. Looked like a head gasket might have given up the ghost.
Three of us headed out confidently in advance (there was only one road back to Cajamarca) while Franco carried on probing into the transalp, saying he’ll catch us up later. Like the first few days on this trip, I played leapfrog – blasting past the cruising bikes of Mike and Colin, getting slightly carried away with the riding, then stopping for five minutes to take photos as the other bikes passed. The valley behind us was dimming every second until we were left in the cold grey shadows. As we closed in on the ridge’s peak it got frostier still, until we tipped down the other side in a stream of red tail lights and into Cajamarca’s bustling streets under cover of darkness. Nothing had changed, despite the two week absence and different time of day, the streets were still crammed and hectic and lined with street vendors selling everything from doughnuts to leather belts.
Franco, having caught us up in the mountains like he said he would, was there to lead us back to Casa Buena Vista. First we stopped in the fray and bustle. A cluster of bikers looking tired but relaxed, road veterans all, straddling their grumbling dirt-bred steeds. Franco’s daughter emerged out of the darkness and the mob and jumped on the back of his bike. I thought how cool it would’ve been to be picked up from school by four grumbling dirt bikes. The group seemed a little more saddle-relaxed and veteran than the wide eyed, straight-backed eager beavers that first set out. Our clothes were grey and brown with ingrained dust and our boots were scuffed. Mikes helmet (and ribs) had a few more dents in it that before.
Susan, one of Franco’s (or as Dave would have him called, “Latin heat”) partners, was there to welcome us back through the compound doors and brew up a nice cup of black coffee. She startled a little bit at the cow skull. I really enjoyed peoples reactions to this bit of old beef. For better or worse, it was certainly satisfying the attention seeking vein in my personality. En-route we’d learned it was her Birthday today, so the cadaver was offered up as a birthday gift. Nice.
(Surprisingly) It wasn’t long until Chas and the Hilux arrived, honking, at the compound doors too. Slow and steady certainly hadn’t won the race, but on the flip side he hadn’t blown up – bits of crotch and leg going everywhere. Reunited, we headed out for another trip to Dave’s private members hot springs down the road and followed a soak with some beer and steaks at a local joint before retiring for the night.
The next day I coughed myself awake, starting to feel a little feverish accompaniment to my road cough. The dirt, altitude and cigarettes had punished my air bags past the point of return, so for the second time in two weeks I’d be needing antibiotics. The skinny dip in Lake Tembladera and the cold night air in the mountains hadn’t done me much good. I had a cigarette for breakfast to brace myself for the day, mostly spent mooching around till our 3pm flight down to Lima. We held a quick ceremony to unbind Matilda the skull from its perch on my handlebars – relocating it to a thick timber post holding up the veranda. It looked pretty bad-ass.. Before we left the airport I made sure Jorge remembered the word we told him. “Skull. Fuck.” He pronounced with guttural Peruvian pride. It’s all about sharing cultures remember.
Remarkably, this tiny plane was a jet rather than a twin prop, so we shaved half an hour off the duration, barely enough time to scran back the tiny complimentary food. By the time we touched down I was burning up, beads of sweat collecting at my brow in the taxi on the way back to our previous Miraflores hotel. Feeling worse for wear I abdicated my place on the evenings proceedings (getting pretty drunk from the sounds of it) to buy overly expensive medication and the most unhealthy looking ‘packed lunch’ of crisps, biscuits, samosas and smoothies. I lay there in bed blinking in and out of fever dreams until the morning came.
Being trapped in the dry, recycled air of an international flight for 9 hours the following day was about as good as it sounds, especially trying to hide a bout of whooping cough from your neighbors. Strategically or no, I was sat entirely separately from the other guys, who all shared a row in front. I found comfort staring at the in-flight movies that flickered on and off and lost sound for large stretches. Anything to make the time go faster.
Tired I arrived back in England, waved off the boys then headed to the belly of the airport to catch a train North and back home. A few hours later I was back on my door-step; skin a little darker, with a few more stories to tell. More than anything else, I was having withdrawal symptoms from the cheeky DR650, with its weird bouncy handling and uneasy knobbled traction. Within a week of returning to the daily grind, I’d scoured ebay clean and picked up a dirty, banged up KTM LC4 640 for a grand – keen for a fixer-upper. But that’s a whole other story… For now I had to find the words to write up an excellent trip to the Andes for a future edition of Bike magazine.
Thanks Colin, Mike, Chas and Dave, Franco and Jorge from Adventure Peru Motorcycling for making the trip what it was. See you in the dirt soon!