Washout

One of the great things about long-distance bike trips is that time isn’t something you have to worry about. I rarely know what day of the week it is. Instead, days are just counted from the last time I had a rest day or the number of days until I’ll be able to take a shower. When you travel by bike you don’t have to contend with schedules or being somewhere by an exact time in order to catch something.

That said, the passing of days, weeks, and months is not something that can be completely ignored. As you slowly trundle along a continent, the thing that you do have to worry about, and the change that it brings about, is as gradual as your own two-wheeled progress. While schedules and departure times don’t matter for non-engine powered transport, you do have to contend with the changing of the seasons.

In Central Asia, there was always this little voice in the back of my mind that reminded me that if I don’t get a move on, the mountain passes of the Pamir Highway and Kyrgyzstan will be covered in snow. In Australia, I was never in a rush as Melbourne and Tasmania were still in the depths of winter when I arrived in tropical Darwin; the longer I took to get south, the more they’d thaw out, so I took quite a convoluted, dirt road-heavy way south, instead of straight down the Stewart Highway.

In the tropics of South America, the coming of the rainy season has been on my mind ever since leaving Colombia. In the mountains of Peru, that race finally came to an end when the Andean rainy season finally caught up with me. Every day brought with it afternoon deluges of rain, hail and snow. It wasn’t too bad at first, and in isolation, the storms are completely manageable; the hail, for instance, mostly bounces off you, keeping you relatively dry. But when the roads didn’t have enough time to dry in between the daily showers, they became a nightmare to ride.

I’m on my second long climb in as many days on the Peruvian Divide when a snowstorm hits and the issue of the roads really became apparent. I am exhausted after a brutally steep climb, and brutal absence of restaurants in the last town, but have no idea where the end of the climbing was. Visibility barely extends beyond my outstretched hands, which are so wet I can’t use my phone to check on a map where I am. Beneath me, the ground has turned into a clay sludge, sticking to my tyres and drivetrain that made riding all but impossible.

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The plan was to get over the top and down the other side to escape the snow and sludge, but after a long day and despite a couple of emergency chocolate bars, I accept this wouldn’t be possible. I wheel my bike off what I believed was still the road, and kick some snow off the ground, put up my tent. I have a cosy night in my tent-come-igloo at 4800m above sea level, thankful I still have my heavy 4 season sleeping bag that I originally bought or dealing with winter on the Tibetan plateau.

The next morning the sun shines just long enough to dry out my tent, after I uncovered it from the snow, but the roads are too saturated and muddy for the sun to do any good. After what turned out to be less than a kilometre more of climbing, the descent is just as difficult to deal with, thanks to the drivetrain killing sludgy road.

Two hours later I reach the bottom of that pass and was climbing the next 1000m that becomes so normal for life on the road in Peru. This climb doesn’t last long, however, as about 45 minutes into it I turn a corner and am greeted by an impenetrable wall of wind and black clouds. Today’s deluge is early. Still tired from the previous night, I am literally chased off the mountain by the storm as I turn my bike around and descended further, past the turnoff I arrived out earlier into the village I saw further down the valley in search for a hotel. There’s always tomorrow.

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Some nice rocks on a drier section, lower down

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There’s a shop somewhere in many of these depressing villages

Officially fed up, I spend the rest of that day hatching alternative plans. The road that passes through the village I’m in descends all the way to the coast and, when you’re dealing with rain and snow every day, the call of a tropical seaside desert is difficult to resist. Stubbornness kicks in the next day, though, and the days after and I manage to continue – damply, slowly – southwards along the mountain ridges until I reach the Carretera Central, the main road that links Lima to the cities in the hinterland of the country. But by this point, I just not enjoying life. Each day I continue on autopilot, riding for the sake of getting further along the road and not enjoying the experience. This road is supposed to be the jewel in the crown of Peru and my attitude to it is the same as if I had to spend days riding alongside some busy motorway: just keeping my head down and get the distance done. This isn’t why I ride.

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Excellent shelter for the night
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Flat bitumen I had rarely seen in Peru allowed 3-figure distances to be smashed out daily

The rainy season has arrived in Peru, but it would be another month or so before it would ruin the Altiplano of Bolivia. If I can’t enjoy myself here, I can further down the road, if I get a move on. So I take a left at the next junction and spend the next two days descending along beautifully smooth bitumen. A couple of days more and I make it to Ayacucho and then take a bus to Cusco, which would mean I was only one pass away from the Altiplano and the beginning of the Plan B that became a mantra in my head as I dealt with those daily deluges:

Bolivia. Bolivia. Bolivia.

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5 thoughts on “Washout

  1. Really raw commentary there, Nick. That weather would deflate anybody travelling in a comfortable, heated car, let along somebody being self-sufficient on a bike. I do hope that Plan Bolivia delivers some dry weather and sunshine to make your amazing pedalling enjoyable again. And I am glad you listened to Japan Nick and took the bitumen highway away from the cold sludge of the mountain passes. Keep going – and have a few rest days!

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