Did I ever mention that I am stupid and naive? I think I did, but, I have proved it again.
There is a road going from Paraguay to Bolivia (and visa versa) which is called the Chaco-road. Why it is called that way I don’t know. Not the Chaco part, that I understand, but the road part. Road? What ever you call it, trail, track, path, hell, but road? No, that does not fit the definition.
It started all nicely. It always does. I checked the weather-forecast, and had a three day dry period in front of me. Enough to make it. After all, it’s only 1.000 km. Starting from Asuncion it is a nice tarmac-road. Wide and smooth. There I was, remembering all the descriptions out of travel-guides. They talked about quick-sand if it rained, mud-pools, sandy tracks with big holes. Again ‘Lonely Planet’ is out of date” I thought. And is was, but for a different treason.
At the customs-check (300 km before the border) I enquired about fuel. No problem the customs-officer told me, a 150 km from here was an other fuel-station. At that point there was also a better road to Bolivia, just in case I changed my mind.
So, the sun was shining, there was plenty of fuel, and an easy way out if I changed my mind. What could go wrong?
Five minutes later the sky turned grey. No worries I thought, the forecast had said, clouded but dry, at least for another two days.
So, five minutes later it started to rain. Ahhh well, At least I am riding on solid tarmac, so who cares if it rains a bit. It will stop raining when I reach the dirt-road.
Thus, five minutes later the tarmac stopped, and turned to red, slippery mud. Hmmmm, this was not nice. What else could go wrong?
One hour later I reached the fuel station, which was closed, for ever. Ehhhh? Well, Maybe I should take a look at the easy way out? So I looked, and saw nothing but a muddy trail going into the woods. I asked some people and they said the ‘trans Chaco’ would be better. They told me I could get fuel at the estancias. And they told me the easy way out, was not finished yet. Buses and trucks had molested the road and now it was in repair.
OK. So, the Chaco-road it was. And it did not look too bad. The surface here was a bit harder and so the rain had not made it so slippery. Reasonably happy I rode on, only concerned about the fuel.
At the Inciso NP headquarters I stopped for the night, and the first thing they said when I told them I was going to Bolivia was: “That is not possible on the bike". At first I thought they meant some kind of ‘National park regulation’, but then they told me the road was too bad. Hmmm, I tried to learn all there was to learn about this road ahead, and I was not happy. It was all sand. Soft sand. 130 km to the border. Ohhhh, and by the way, there is no fuel at the border. Only diesel. Then they offered me transport by tractor, the normal way. But they warned me it was expensive.
I decided to just go for it. The first bad part would strike me in 40 km, and if I would not like it, I had fuel enough to return.
Hmmm yes, fuel. I had fuel for 200 km (plus some reserve) and the first town in Bolivia would be around this distance. But in the sand I would use more fuel. I had a restless night. The next morning it was dry. Even the tent was dry, no dew. It was cloudy, but when I asked the park-ranger if it would rain, he looked at the sky and said: "No... it will be sunny".
So, 10 minutes later it started to rain.
They informed the military post at Nueva Asuncion, 100 km from here, I was coming, so if I would not be there by the end of the day, they would come and look for me. A good thought.
The first 40 km were not too bad. "Well, if it does not get to much worse, I can make it easily“ I thought. So, 10 minutes later my wheels sank 20 cm in soft sand. In reflex I opened the throttle, but at the same time the road had turned into two separate tracks. Half a meter deep (tractor-wheels) which left me little room to move around. Maybe if I would have more space, I would have turned around and headed back. But this was not an option, there was simply no space to turn around.
I went down to first gear and peddled with my feet and with all my strength, at the cost of one liter of sweat and a sickening adrenaline level in my blood, I made it through.The first bad part had lasted about 200 meters. After that it still was a two-track-trail, but the surface was reasonable solid and I could make good time in it. But first I needed to get a rest, and take a photo. One liter of water and a pack of cookies later I was on my way again.
The next bad part I saw coming. Why? Be course it went uphill. I started in second gear, but soon I had to go back to first. I crawled up. But I made it again. After letting Pam cool down (her fans were blowing like crazy), and letting myself return to a more normal state of exhaustion, we went on again.
The next bad part I took with some more speed and this worked. It was hard, and often I could hear myself call out to Pam: "Stay with me!" when she would swirl in the soft sand. And we were through it again. Until the next bad bit. The front wheel dug into the centre-wall of the tracks, crashed through it and, before I knew it, I was backwards. But still sitting on my bike, up straight.
Somehow I managed to turn into the right direction again. Somehow I got Pam moving again, and somehow we made it through again.
The next part I spun around again. This time I ended up with both wheels buried deep in the sand and no matter what I did there was no movement. Time for a break, maybe a quick nap? When I had my breath back, and my arms were trembling a bit less, I started to dig a path for every wheel. A smooth way up. I hoped it would be enough to get movement in my poor disabled Pam and It was.
We got moving again. In this way we went through an other four or five bad pieces. All about 200 to 300 meter long. In between were reasonably good, but still difficult to drive, stretches. I fell down twice. Not bad. Not hard. Just the front wheel hooking into the sidewall, sending me flying.
Picking up the 250 kg bike in the soft sand was a torture, and soon I rode without gloves and in the bad pieces, without helmet and my jacket wide open. I just needed to cool down enough to stay alive and the helmet limited my breathing to much.
Suddenly I saw a house, and I saw a group of people looking at me, and the path became wider, and the dirt was solid again.
Did I make it? I had no chance to look at my GPS during the ride. Even during the easy stretches I had to concentrate on the road every second of the way, so the end came as a very pleasant surprise.
After a talk and a drink and the usual checkpoint-forms, it was time to go for the next 30 km stretch to Fort Ganal (or a name like it) Just then they decided to tell me that the next 30 km were much, much, much worse then the part I had done so far. The part I had driven was also used by small trucks and big 4X4s. The next stretch, only tractors could come through. Hmmm, now they tell me
Returning the same way? No way! And anyway, could not be done. No fuel for that. And talking about fuel, I emptied my jerry-can (which rests on a foot-peg) and tied it high up so I had more leg room for peddling. I figured I would need it. The guys wished me luck and told me that if I would not be in Fort Ganal at three o’clock they would come after me. (it was noon now.)
I rode out and immediately the narrowness of the track bordered me. Thorny bushed were ripping at my arms. My mirrors were smacking against branches and my bags scraped along bushes and sand-walls which enclosed me on both sides. When I saw the first bad piece coming up I was startled. Slowing down I would never make it. It was a deep trench. Maybe one meter deep and so there was no room for my legs if I wanted to push or peddle. The sides were just to high. In despair I completely opened the throttle and in second gear I literally blasted my way through the sand, the branches, the thorny shrub, and anything which was in my way. I was sure I would rip my tires to shreds, but they surprised me by staying in one piece and by not being punctured by the thorns which were al around me.
There where four bad stretches and all four I blasted through. Sometimes I had to shift down to first gear, but no time to use the clutch. Poor Pam took the beating like the brave lady she is. In between I stopped to let her cool down. She needed it badly. The last part someone had been stuck with a tractor and had put branches in the track. Branches, leaves, and trunks. Anything they could find I guess, and this saved me. It gave the little bit of extra traction I needed. When I would hit one of those branches I would jump forward again to slowly loose my speed against the sucking sand, but I made it. And suddenly, there was Fort Ganal.
They were waiting for me and had some food ready. I needed it. And I needed to rest.
But since I still had 100 km to go before I would reach the first town in Bolivia I had not to much time to waste. It was now two o’clock.
The next part was supposed to be easy, but it turned out to be very treacherous and after two wild but successful skids I lost control the third time, and sledded down the road.
Pam was fine but the tank-side-bag on the ground-side was ripped off. All the slings were broken, the clamps shattered. The cases were fine, only one attachment-clamp had been bend, but that would be easy to fix once I had a hammer.
I patched up the bag with straps and continued. Finally I crossed the border and the road became better.
The wider road made me ride a bit faster and this almost ruined the day. I came around a bend in the road and noticed a cattle-grid (a set of bars crossing the road covering a 50 cm deep trench). Just as I was about to cross it I realized the steel bars were gone. All what was left was a trench crossing the road. By now I was full in the bend doing 60 km/h. All I could think of was to slam the rear-beak to block the rear wheel and skid sideways of the road to barely miss the trench and come to a complete stop just before I would hit the trees. A crazy plan, but it almost worked. Almost, sine I did not come to a complete stop. The bike straightened itself up a little to soon and I was still doing two km/h, but the result was perfect. Not even a foot on the ground. More careful it still took me until late in the afternoon to get to the first town, which had a nice hotel. With a hot shower!
But no fuel! And no customs facilities.
It took two days and a lot of talking to convince both immigration and customs that I had legally entered Bolivia. But they believed me and ‘pre-dated’ my passport-stamps