This is our story of surfing the Pacific coast of the Americas, from Alaska to Patagonia, over 50,000km’s. Initially, riding motorcycles, then later and perhaps more rewardingly, on horseback – always surfing and documenting inspiring ideas along the way. Matt set off alone in the grizzly-infested forests of remote Alaska, but serendipitously met Heather whilst surfing in British Colombia – it changed their lives. Hopefully you find a little inspiration in this collection of stories to kick off your shoes and get outside. Life’s better in bare feet.
I pushed the wooden gate open of Sergio’s place, wondering if he was even home, adjusted my hat, hoping we didn’t look as clueless as what I felt. Wondering how much Sergio would rip us off when it became clear that we knew nothing about horses.
Nil. Zero. Nada.
We didn’t even know how to say the word ‘saddle’ in Spanish…
I had no idea what the word ‘halter’ meant in English.
Luckily we had Sam and Mick with us, they were our only saving grace, and thankfully a good one at that.
Sam and Mick were buying our motorbikes, and we were going to use the money from that to buy 4 horses. What were we doing selling our 2 bikes and buying 4 horses? More on that later…
But for the moment the problem was that both Heather and I knew nothing about horses – let alone how not to get ripped off when buying 4 of them in Latin America. I’d ridden a couple of times in my life during school excursions or a family vacation, and Heather had done about a few months of riding classes when she was 9 years old, until she was bucked off and never went back.
We’re about as fresh as you can get…
Ironically, these lads who were buying our bikes – who had travelled all the way from Australia to Chile – with the plan of riding the bikes all the way from Patagonia to Alaska (the reverse of what I was doing), were also a couple of proper Aussie drovers. They grew up on million acre stations, half a day from Alice Springs, rounding up herds of cattle across the breadth of Australia on horseback. Mick had literally just finished a solo stint in the Outback, droving cattle on horseback for months on end, alone in the desert with wild bovines and his equine for conversation. Sam used to do the same, but now does his droving from a helicopter instead.
And so we couldn’t have asked for a couple of better blokes to approach Sergio with, Sam and Mick knew their shit, and they were our mates. So yeah… They were going to help us buy horses and teach us a few things, and later we would help them buy surfboards and hopefully give a little insight about wave riding.
Sergio the horse seller, was a quiet and serious sort of guy. A proper Chilean gaucho, slim figured, dark featured and the owner of perhaps 50 horses on his little farm on the hill that overlooks Punta de Lobos. As we all walked to the paddock that housed the two horses he had up for sale, I thought to myself how cool of this guy to still be farming and trading horses, when he could very easily sell just 1/20th of his property and retire on the funds. He was sitting on a gold mine and he knew it, the surrounding properties of Pichilemu stacked to the horizon with an insane amount of ‘eco-cabin’ development. But he wasn’t selling up, and instead chose to spend his days working with horses. At least for the moment…
He showed us a couple of steeds and soon he rigged them up for us – ready to test ride. This was great, except both Heather and I hadn’t ridden a horse in more than 10 years, and even if we managed to get on the horse without looking like idiots, we had no idea what a ‘good’ horse should ride like. So we got Mick and Sam to do it for us. Thanks guys.
They swung up onto the saddles like pros and trotted off to put the ponies to the test. Meanwhile, I stood back doing my best cowboy pose, hoping that by chewing on a long blade of grass that I’d look like a cowboy who knows horses so well, that he doesn’t even need to ride ‘em to buy ‘em.
In the first 5 minutes the big, black gelding had reared on his hind legs in what looked like an attempt to buck off his rider, the brown mare looked a little more controllable. (I later learned a gelding is a male horse that’s had his nuts chopped off).
They swapped horses to continue the testing, and straight away the big, black gelding reared again, this time to a height that I thought looked bloody dangerous. I didn’t want a horse that was gonna do that every couple of minutes!
But despite the dramatic display, when Mick and Sam rode back to us, they were both really impressed, Sergio had trained them well – after all he is a Chilean huaso.
A few days later after having checked some other horses in the region, we would come back to serious Sergio (who we began to realise was actually more just a reserved gentleman) to purchase Pichi and Salvador – both strong, healthy and intelligent. He offered us a fair deal – and didn’t try to gringo us (too much!) – a good man.
In the same day, we visited another little plot and bought another two, Blacky and Harimau, both solid to ride, and healthy.
We loaded the 4 horses into a truck and took them to Camilla’s house, a friend living in the little town of Cahuil next to Pichilemu. Camilla had a sweet little house, with tall grass surrounding it that was becoming a fire hazard in the summer heat. A perfect place to store the horses in the interim whilst we found out where we could buy saddles and rope, and learn to ride.
Camilla was happy to host the horses, because she wanted shorter grass on her property – and if there was only one thing I knew about horses, it was that they ate grass.
The first day or two went well, then things started to go downhill.
First the horses broke the fence into Camilla’s vegetable garden in the night and ate everything. Had a pretty good go of her newly transplanted fruit trees too. Sorry Camilla.
Then on Sam and Mick’s last night before leaving to Patagonia, we had a goodbye party with the Cahuil crew, a traditional Chilean BBQ at Gabriel and Temi’s place.
The next morning, I was woken by Tomas, yelling from his veranda.
“Matty the horses are gone – wake up!”
We sprung up out of the tent, a little hazy from all the chilean red wine at the goodbye party the night before, cursing myself as I ran down the hill, half naked to Camila’s place.
The horses nowhere to be seen – and we’d only owned them for 2 days. I was pretty mad at myself for not checking the fences and gates better, I guess I was stressing, because I had no idea how you go about finding 4 horses in the countryside. They can cover ground…
But luckily it was Sam and Mick to the rescue again, and it turns out that as we had been sleeping soundly, they had already been tracking the horses for hours. Since 5am, nursing the same hangover as me.
By the time H and I had gotten out of bed, the lads had located and caught 3 of the 4 horses. They’d literally followed hoofprints in the dirt for hours – using well-honed outback skills. Found them 10km away.
Salvador though, was not one to be caught easily. He was missing in a dense forest on the other side of a river about a 150m wide – he’d lunged into the river and swam across it to escape the clutches Mick and Sam. Salvador is one badass horse.
And so my first proper riding experience began. Except we didn’t have reigns or saddles. We did have some old rope that I’d quickly grabbed from Camilla’s place that had been used to hang wetsuits out to dry.
Sam made a makeshift bridle out of the rope and told me jump on, and hold on with my thighs. I was still hungover, and still a little unsure about how one mounted horses with a saddle on, let alone without one, but did what he said.
Then soon enough, all 3 of us plunged into the river on Pichi, Hari and Blacky – bareback – to hunt down the illusive and badass Salvador. We rode for a couple of hours, obstacle after bloody obstacle, but eventually we spotted Salvador in the distance looking pretty chuffed amongst 3 fillies he’d managed to sniff out.
If he hadn’t of had his nuts lopped off, he would’ve made a fine stallion stud, I think. He’s got the spirit…
It was cool to watch Sam and Mick do their thing – Salvador doesn’t like to be caught, and it took a bit of ingenuity on their behalf to make it happen. But in the end we did it, and triumphantly rode home, bareback, across the river 6 hours later…
(My nuts felt like they’d been lopped off.)
So instead of beginning their own epic trans-american trip, the lads delayed their departure, and saved the day – bloody champions!
The next morning they eventually got off.
We’d just said our hearty goodbyes to them, and I watched as they swung a leg over the motorbikes, the same bikes we’d called our homes on wheels for the last 20 months – since Alaska. They started the engines and a pang of realisation overcame me as I realised I’d forgotten to buy milk for my cereal. I almost stopped them to ask if I could quickly rip up to the store and back – it’d only take 5 minutes – water in cereal is the worst.
But instead I just stood there, it wasn’t a conscious decision, just the realisation to our new pace in life. Nothing was ever going to take 5 minutes anymore, and we’d have to get used to it.
I guess in a way that was the whole point of saying goodbye to the motor – we were simultaneously saying goodbye to modern convenience and timeframes.
I glanced over at big, black Salvador, oblivious to the idea of milkless cereal, he looks up at me with grass hanging out the side of his mouth, his ears thrust forward curiously, like he’s concentrating on something. He lets go of a long, soft fart, the sound reminiscent of the last of the air being squeezed out of my sleeping mattress inside my tent, pffffffffffffffft pffffft pffft, before going back to munching the grass contentedly.
I tell myself just keep smiling as we wave goodbye to the lads riding out the gate towards Patagonia and the ‘end of the world’, but as they did, I questioned what we’d gone and done.
That was the same gate we could’ve been riding out of to reach the end of the world too. Who knows if we’ll even make it to Ushuaia now – the winter will be here soon enough. It had been the goal of the entire journey til this point, to reach Ushuaia, and yet here I was pretty much waving goodbye to that glorious arrival.
Why did we bail? We’re so close… why aren’t I more concerned? Somehow Ushuaia’s significance has paled drastically.
Because it’s the journey – not the destination right…?
I’d become accustomed to living off a motorcycle. A world where just a little fuel goes far, a minimalist approach where you can only bring your necessities, and where you’re exposed to the elements every day, of rain, hail or shine. Or snow.
The way it connected us to the local people. No steel cage or windscreen to prevent conversation with the curious people wanting to shake your hand and ask where you’re from. No insulated bubble to hide away in when you feel tired, to turn up the music, turn on the air conditioning or eat a comforting bag of chips.
You can’t eat a bag of chips with a helmet on. You can barely get your glove in the bag.
I loved riding that bike, I loved the lifestyle and the challenge, we both did. Well Heather sort’ve did…
But the truth was that living off of a motorcycle had become the norm, it was never boring, but it was no longer that strange and unfamiliar machine that I had tentatively jumped on in Alaska.
I guess way back then I didn’t know what I was in for, my psychology was all over the place, I was scared of almost everything, camping alone with the gnarly bears of Yakutat, and riding the continent on a machine I didn’t have a clue about.
And now here I am, not alone anymore but standing next to my Canadian girlfriend, in yet another situation of not having a clue of what we were in for. I do know that we are now the owners of 4 horses – and 2 saddles. Along with bridles, and hackamores, and feedbags, and rope, and 2 pack-saddles, and brushes, and maps – we’ve got all the gear, but no idea.
But even with all this uncertainty ahead, that strange sense of anxiety is nowhere to be found.
Sam and Mick are gone now and can no longer save us – in a matter of minutes they’ve travelled what would take us all day to achieve on the horses – when we’re eventually ready to leave that is.
Sometimes I think about what the horses themselves might be contemplating.
It struck me that this whole adventure thing is no longer just about us, and that our horses are about to embark into the unknown also, into their own journey of a lifetime, and just like Heather and I, are getting used to big adjustments in their lives.
In a way they’re the same as us, they have personalities, feelings, needs and fears. And they’re going to need to trust us, they’re going to live with us and carry us on their backs down the coastline of Chile, into the wilderness of Patagonia.
And in the same way, we need to care for them, find them rivers to drink from daily, good pasture to munch on every few hours, remove stones from their hooves and find grain where we can. Even taking into account the emotional support, the grooming and resting time that’ll be required to sustain the expedition.
There are so many things to think about, stuff that we haven’t yet worked out systems for.
Earlier today we tried to strap a surfboard to Blacky for the first time, and it’s safe to say we wont be trying it again. I’ve never seen a horse freak out so much, so much energy and power in such a large animal – raring, bucking and galloping for her life. I’ve definitely got a better understanding of where the term ‘horsepower’ comes from. The rope burned from my hands, surfboard and saddlebags swinging from her side as she bolted, trampled and ripped everything apart – she was no longer rational, just in a full flight of terror and destruction.
First time we’d tried to use the saddle-bags, and now they’re ripped, and Blacky is traumatised.
First time either of us realised what we are really dealing with, and that it isn’t just a fun thing to do while travelling, it was going to be difficult, and after Blacky’s display it feels a lot more dangerous than what the motorcycles ever had.
They’re so bloody strong. And they’re always so scared of everything. I almost fell off the other day whilst galloping at full speed, because a painted yellow line on the road stopped Salvador in his tracks. Turns out he doesn’t like yellow lines – white lines are fine – but don’t even try and get him near a yellow one.
What happens if they freak out in front of a moving car?! So many unknowns. Either way we are going to make the surfboards happen – we have to, otherwise we may as well quit…
We haven’t dared to rig a board to Salvador.
But Harimau’s seen a lot in his time and I think we’ll get there with him. The guy who sold Hari to us (not Sergio) said he was 12, but we later we found out he’s a fair bit older than that. A bloody grandpa of a horse! Used for everything in his time, including the Chilean styled races, which are notoriously unsafe and not always ethical (according to locals).
But he’s doing well, we’ve been feeding him up, and reckon he’ll be right… he’s super calm, and also super responsive to ride…
And luckily Pichi seems pretty cool with it too…
We were planning on swapping out the pack horses and rotating the riding to give them rests and keep things a bit more interesting for them – but not now. We have two for riding, Heather on Blacky and me on Salvador, and Pichi and Hari with the cargo loads, because they’re not terrified of surfboards…
Twin keeled fish on a four footed equine.
Perhaps that’s the biggest thing we need to get our heads around after travelling for so long on bikes – that we’re dealing with a beast of an animal. You can’t just pull up for the night, turn the engines off, leave your gear in the panniers on the bike, go to sleep and expect that everything’s going to be fine in the morning. The bike is a machine with replaceable parts that you can turn off and on with a flick of a switch, then pull on the throttle and not slow down until your body’s exhausted. It doesn’t care, it doesn’t think – it just goes.
The horse is a living, thinking being who bleeds just like we do. Who farts, gets tired, annoyed, thirsty, or stomps their feet in happiness at the prospect of more grain.
I am quickly realising that more than anything they are prey animals – they get scared, spooked and frightened of anything. A funny noise behind them, a plastic bag blowing in the wind, or the most terrifying of them all, to be approached with the utmost of caution – a small pile of unmoving rubbish on the side of the road.
Unlike a motorbike they won’t just wait for you when you jump off, and if you don’t tie em up properly they’ll be 10km down the road and across the bloody river before you know it.
So why have we taken this step backwards, or to the side, or is it forward? If it’s all going to be so much more challenging, so foreign and slow, why did we sell the bikes in the first place?
This is why…
Personality over technology.
Chile is one of the world’s cultural strongholds of the horse, where huasos and gauchos (Latin American cowboys) are commonplace, their unmistakeable footsteps down the street sounding jingles from spurred boots upon the crunchy gravel.
I’ve always admired the horse, that noble and mysterious air. And right now we the have time and inclination to learn, perhaps more time than sense, definitely more time than money.
So why not? Why not say ‘yes’ and make a little dream a reality?
A pertinent encounter for us, was reaching South America.
Riding our motorbikes high up into the Andean mountains, we were greeted with the open and true hospitality of hard working locals. The same people tending to their farms in the same way they always have for thousands of years. One tiny hamlet in particular made us stop and think.
The villagers had gathered at the local store (pretty much just a house with a couple of things for sale) and were spending the afternoon together as a community, enjoying beers and singing songs after a hard day’s work. Everyone clad in home-made Llama ponchos (called ‘ruanas’ locally). We were invited to hang out, and so we did, and we were offered a beer, so we drank.
And we watched as more people arrived to the little store/pub thing on horseback, some of them coming from a few days ride away, from their far off plots in the mountains. Soon enough the little store had become a thriving hub of smiling, laughing and hugging your mates.
But as quickly as it had all come together, the little party began to disintegrate, and after only 1 or 2 beers each, the people jumped back on their horses and rode towards home. We were offered to stay with a local family.
What struck me most was the effortlessness of it all, and the tightness of the community. The small village, the few friends and family, the 1 or 2 beers, the home-made ruanas (ponchos), the pub that is actually just Juan’s spare room, the party that was not actually a party, but just what the townsfolk did together after each hard day’s work.
And the horses.
There were no billboards. No traffic. No squeezing like factory-packed sardines onto rush-hour trains or frustratingly choked freeways bound for desperate schedules and the eternal servitude of the one, almighty ‘Economy’.
And even though that world is no longer our lives, especially now in this travelling phase, there was something special about the quiet approach of the horses that made us stop and think. Almost silent, so natural, so beautifully regal yet so grounded.
Life seemed so much more simple.
The next day (after sitting around all night in a 200 year old stone cottage) we said goodbye to the family and the little hamlet, and rode down towards the coast. We stopped at a gas station, and somehow the horses came up in conversation. And right there, amongst the fumes of spilt petrol and radio advertisements, below the neon sign of some photoshopped chick with her tits out, smiling perfectly to sell us something we didn’t need – we made the decision.
It was a concrete decision in less than 10 minutes.
We’d sell the bikes and buy some horses. Not because we didn’t love our bikes, but because change can be a good thing. And just because you don’t know the first thing about how to change, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done…
Luckily it’s been a fortunate and coincidental transition so far, more superstitious people might even call the fluke of selling the bikes to our cowboy mates from the Outback – ‘fateful’.
Neither of us believe in a pre-determined fate, but I do believe that in order to grow, and potentially find something meaningful, a good place to start is with a challenge.
And so we’re going to try to clip-clop our way down into one of the richest surf zones of South America, and to do it slowly. A place where crowds don’t exist, but world-class waves do, where we won’t need gas stations or roads, but where we will need rain gear and a camera.
A place where there are rolling green hills to graze and camp upon, with fat trout in cool rivers to catch, whilst our horses drink deeply at the end of the day.
As to be expected from timely people such as ourselves, we crossed the border from Peru and arrived in Arica, Chile the day the swell was starting to fill in. The 30-minute ride from the border crossing left us plenty of time to find a hidden camp spot beside an old bus to bunker down in and ride out the swell, which was predicted to be rather grande.
We quickly set up camp and went off to check northern Chile’s most famous spot, El Gringo. The wave looked like something a giant two year-old sitting in a bath tub would create by picking up bucketfuls of water and then dumping them back in the shallows, all in the name of chaos and destruction.
It breaks on a shallow and sharp, rocky reef, the left reeling off down the line in a fast tube until it connects with another wave and closes out with a thick surge onto dry reef.
The wind blows from the South almost every single day in Chile, so in the week there we never had any offshores, but most mornings were glassy, and almost every wave at El Gringo produced a wildly spitting tube.
The next day the swell was pumping. We ran into an awesome Argentinian guy named Pablo, riding his old bicycle with a surfboard jerry-rigged to the back of it from Lima to Arica, with shoes, clothing and books hanging off of it in some sort of organized chaos, on his way home to Buenos Aires after a year of surf vagabonding.
Together we watched El Gringo’s thundering triple-overhead hollow tubes show promise of brilliance, but in between the good ones, huge closeout sets would detonate on the reef – it would be a rather dangerous session at best.
Matty spied an outer bombora and convinced Pablo to paddle out with him, it looked to be at least 4 times overhead, the barrelling left handers complimenting the wally righthanders beautifully.
Matty grabbed his 7’2” widowmaker from and classic Pablo grabbed his tiny 6’0” from his rickety bicycle. What a guy that Pablo is –up for anything, and always with a smile.
I graciously offered to film them, because, like, my shoulder was really sore after the last quadruple overhead wave I got. It turned out to be worse for me just watching them navigate the paddle out past El Gringo.
They entered the water and paddled for their lives, narrowly escaping a few scary bombs, but as I watched, even bigger sets rumbled out of the horizon, towards the shallow reef. My heart pounding with my hand covering my gasps of relief as their boards vertically climbed each wall that then doubled up on itself and exploded onto the dry shelf behind them. Pablo, slightly slower to paddle on his smaller board, had a few on the head before he made it out, and was washed perilously close to the rocks, but somehow made it. Action packed paddling as I’ve never seen it, so close to shore.
These photos aren’t from the same day, but you get the idea…
There are waves all around the island that on regular-sized swells don’t usually break. We were lucky to see La Isla working on the opposite side, the huge and scary sets that hit El Gringo refracted, halfed their size and bent their way around until they became a friendly and long point break. I surfed that one…
It’s a very strange wave. Catching the whitewater and belly boarding to the face seemed to be the most effective, in order to hop up amidst crazy backwash off the breakwater, and dodge the other people sitting deep to catch the whitewash.
Fun though, I had a few days of surfing it.
El Gringo got a bit less gnarly as the swell dropped, those crazy thick close-out sets having all but disappeared. It was still heavy, still snapping boards everywhere, the peak magnifying its energy into one heaving and throaty detonation before reeling left and right. Matty reckons it would be a perfect wave with a bit of offshore wind, but that’ll be the day…
Here he is trying anyway…
Our camp spot was in front of a big long beach covered in various exotic types of shorebirds that I’d never seen before.
There were gulls, but with distinctly different markings, and some that looked like a mix of a puffin and a gull, all having in common their numbering in the thousands along the beach. We had fun chasing them..
..and admiring the massive energy exchange of thousands of birds taking flight just metres away.
Beautiful sunsets; the clear, dry, hot desert air meeting the cold, wet Pacific is a sight to behold.
After about a week of revelling in the fun surf and funky vibes of Arica, along with our astonishment and delight at how different and comfortable Chile felt, we realized that it is a very large country, and that there was plenty more to see.
Plus we had big plans to organize; more on that later.
First we had the world’s driest desert to cross, and I was dreading the week-long ride ahead, only a little bit…
So we packed up camp and put off leaving as long as possible, by doing yoga to prepare for the long stretches of riding ahead, eating yet another meal, and making just one more coffee.
We finally took off at about 2:30 pm that day, into the desert, into the southwest winds battering at our helmets, into the first 200 of the 2000 kms of Atacama yet to cross.
We pulled off that night and experienced our first of the Atacama night sky, but I think I was too overwhelmed by the distance we were trying to cover, unimaginably daunting given what I expected of the landscape. It’s beautiful in its own way, but for 2000 kms? I was quite anxious about it. Matty was “enjoying the moment.” YEAH WELL I HATE THIS MOMENT!!!
Somehow the hours passed, somehow I made it through another terrible day of hardship, of sitting on a motorbike through the windy desert. Poor me! The next evening, on sunset, we crested a ridge and descended above massive dunes and equally massive skyscrapers to the city of Iquique, mostly remembered to us by our epic campsite that night. We rode just south of the city, entered a guarded dumping site with a sign that read “no dumping,” and set up our tent here, right next to the softly lulling ocean and some smashed glass…
Matty did some memorable time-lapses of the hills to our east…
..And I envisioned the perfect shot of our man up on the hill, doing his time-lapse thing, and got to press the shutter button after he showed me all the night-time settings, woohoo!
Woke up to fishermen in small rowboats just offshore, preparing for a morning dive in the tranquil waters totally devoid of any swell, which was conducive to the distance we were trying to conquer in the next week. The lack of swell definitely made it easier to ride past a few sweet set-ups as we sped along the coastal road.
Got through the next day of riding too, somehow, weaving along the coast, powering through vast deserts with not a single plant or sign of life, just sweeping purple pink and brown hillsides and distant mountains. It was beautiful; the coast is all rocky headlands and tiny coastal clusters of makeshift homes, housing miners and spearfishermen, unable to drink the water not for typical Latin American reasons, but because of a mining ‘mishap’ that polluted the groundwater.
Gas stations were mostly non-existent on the main highway, so we filled up tanks and our jerry cans, at tiny places like this…
…arid and desolate, with nothing to hear your cries of loneliness but the wind, who swallows them up whole as if they were never worth anything anyway.
We kept our eyes peeled for any sign of something surfable, at least to rinse ourselves of the past few days of desert dust and grime. Almost serendipitously, whilst we were pulling back onto the highway after a spot check at some unknown point, we were passed by a pick-up truck whose passengers were waving wildly out the window, doling out shakas and the thumbs up, making wave gestures and pointing, and beckoning for us to follow them. They must have seen our four surfboards strapped to the bikes or instinctually knew we were hunting waves. The motorcycles have been such a unique tool for meeting people. So, what to do but laugh and follow along?!
We followed them for 10 minutes, pulling into the tiny community of Portofino, and followed them to a groovy surf shack right in front of a small and peeling right-hander.
Three smiling legends jumped out of the truck, invited us to stay for lunch, insisted we set up the tent in the backyard, filled our glasses with wine, and told us all about the world-class waves in the little bay in front, all while showing us around the ideal little house.
We all went for a surf together, and that night had a sweet little barbecue with some other folks from the community, which is not actually a legal town yet but rather a spot that anyone can build a house on. It serves as a bit of a summer resort community of plywood shacks, for the cities a couple hours away, and was pretty empty when we showed up, but the waves get pretty epic there. Considering that the one in front was shoulder high fun with some little tube sections during a current lack of swell, we believed them.
The water was unbelievably clear, much colder than Arica, and all the guys were divers and spearfishermen. Fun to chat about the things you find you have in common with people who wave you down in the street, and also to learn a bit about the mines. All three of them had spent time working in the various mines scattered all over the Atacama desert, and after a long time putting in long, dangerous hours for foreign companies whose profits rarely stay in Chile, but whose ‘mishaps’ gravely affect Chileans, decided that they can live more rewarding, fulfilling lives doing what they enjoy doing. They are now surf instructors, builders, and artists, and all have more time to surf and be with their families, and have all-night barbecues with foreigners they’ve hauled in off the highway.
For the next few nights of camping through the Atacama, the stars seemed to explode in number. One evening, just after passing a few turn-offs for various international astronomical observatories, we rode off the highway, straight up a hill covered in flat rocks that was hard-packed enough for our heavy bikes. Matty, rather poetically, wondered where all those rocks even came from..? Oh, the wonders of the world…
The desert is so straightforward, devoid of so many distracting things like plants and animals and other humans, that it allows your thoughts to wander in directions you’d never imagined possible for wandering, like where all the rocks of the world came from.
The dry air of the Atacama, perhaps getting the better of us intellectually, opened the sky to a world we’d never quite seen before.
One evening we routinely set the tent up, but in the end choose not to sleep in it because the stars were too good to bid farewell to, and the next forecast rainstorm was about 7.5 years away.
Woke up completely dry, as no dew falls in the night, nor in the millennia of nights before…
The next few nights followed in the same footsteps, we’d set up camp, pretty exhausted from the day’s riding, then cook dinner, and watch the stars that almost always conjure contemplation of life philosophies and deep thought, until we fell asleep.
On our last day of desert riding, going about 110 km/hour, I was passing the time by counting the seconds it took my odometer to click 1/10th of a mile. Such was the monotony of the land… All of a sudden I snapped back to consciousness, without knowing I had lost it, if indeed just for a split second, and quickly over-corrected my steering. I wobbled hard for about 150m, and it wasn’t until about 30 seconds after I had straightened out that my heart started racing, adrenaline firing, making my legs and arms weak with the realization of what had just happened. And what could have happened. We pulled over and I laid on the ground in the shade of my bike to have a quick nap, to settle my nerves and refresh my cloudy sleepiness. Rode up behind another desert rock mountain a couple hours later to find a camp spot, ready to leave the scarily barren desert behind the next day.
And so as the dusty the landscape slowly changed (check camera sensor!), foggy slopes leading to the ocean bore big, blooming cacti and other shrubs in various shades of green, flushing out after recent rains, everything covered with opportunistic wildflowers. Soon there were grasses and scrubby trees, pastures with horses and cattle, and roadside stands selling local fruits and cheeses. I wanted to stop at each one and taste the delicacies of Chile’s fertile lands, but we can only carry so much…
The renewal of trees and birds and bugs and flowers into our lives after 8 days of desert starvation, sent our senses into overdrive and there was no way to feel anything but happiness for the wonder of living.
Of course, the California-like landscape of perfection meant more traffic, many tolls, and lots more houses, but we were grateful to see fruitful earth again. That night’s stealth campsite, right on the side of the highway in wine country, was surrounded by ‘weedy’ wildflowers who had taken full advantage of the newly disturbed soil from the building of a new offramp. Including some native alstroemeria, oh my heart, how good it felt to be surrounded by flowers I knew, that I’ve picked for countless summers at home…
That night we could smell the ocean in our dreams at night, and our destination was clear: the little town of Pichilemu, and the famous big-wave spot, Punta de Lobos.
It felt amazing to ride through the big eucalyptus and pine plantations, looking so much like somewhere in California or Victoria, Australia, past countless horse paddocks, and finally down the highway with the open expanse of mother ocean in sight.
We showed up to a good-sized swell, even with a few breaking behind The Morros. I got convinced me to do the high-tide rock jump off the Morros (or ‘tetas,’ guess what that means ;), the two guano-covered rocks that give the famous spot its easy recognition.
I was aided by Matty, who helped me with timing, as I haven’t done too many rock jump entries before. At first it was magical being out there, surrounded by hundreds of massive pelicans peering down at us with their knowing eyes, and gulls sitting in nests at eye-level feeding their babies regurgitated fishy matter. Then I recalled Damien’s story of the day before, recounting the wave he took on the head before he cleared the impact zone that snatched his board from his hands and held him down for ages, all right in front of various rocks and a ripping current that washes you into them. I had no time to dwell on this though, as the time was now, scamper down, watch out for the algae it’s ridiculously slippery, after this wave, go now!
Somehow I landed on my board, ungracefully, and paddled faster than I ever had, although not really moving at all, was I going backwards? One panicked eye to the horizon. Phew. I had just made it.
The next day was not so lucky, we went to the low tide jump off, a bit sketchier, and I was a split-second off my timing and was sucked back, towards the rocks and then onto the rock, unable to duck dive because I was on a rock, rolling over it and trying to grasp my board for sure flotation device. I was sucked around a through a maze of them getting bashed by surging walls of whitewater. Luckily the rocks are covered in kelp, so are mostly harmless. Except for the effect it has on one’s state of mind.
Those first few days were fun; it’s a difficult wave to surf, with lots of different sections and lots of backwash on certain waves. Matty caught a few double overhead ones right next to the Morros, but the outside wasn’t quite linking up to the barrelly section called Mirador, about 200 metres down.
During that swell the sweep was so strong, that it was better to catch a wave and walk the 1.5km back around.
Such an interesting wave, with many different faces. It’s never flat, and holds up to just about as big as waves get. Matty thinks you could surf there for years and never be bored, there’s always something different.
Such an interesting wave, with many different faces. It’s never flat, and holds up to just about as big as waves get. Matty thinks you could surf there for years and never be bored, there’s always something different.
We camped for a couple of weeks in front of a wave called Infiernillo, that I thought looked small one of the days so I gave it a go. Walked past divers cleaning various daily catches and seaweed harvesters arranging their goods on the beach to dry, and, feeling confident after (sort of) mastering the Morros at Punta de Lobos, slipped into the water between the rocks, timing the sets. Paddled across the impact zone a bit too eagerly, caught one on the head, and was washed back in over the rocks I had come from.
They don’t call it ‘Little Inferno’ for nothing…
Whilst camping there we used the cob pizza oven to its full effect, making some killer dough, hosting lots of friends and eating endless amounts of pizza amongst the foreign luxury of a kitchen – even if it was dirt floored, made from odd recycled materials and lacking utensils.
We surfed La Puntilla a lot, right in front of Pichilemu town.
Apparently this is the first year since the tsunami in the 90’s that the sand has filled in, and the clean swells send fun, reeling walls down the wind protected point. I got my longest wave ever there, super fun, it’s as if the wave wants you to stay on. Never gets mushy, just fun walls the whole way.
Christmas day we were lucky enough to be invited with our friend Tomas and his awesome family to a secret lake in the hills behind Pichilemu – the water was warm, fat trout swam around everywhere without a care, and we made music on the little beaches.
Inspiring family, Tomas’ Dad, Orlando used to be a professional skier and at 70 years of age still has the energy of a grommet, Tomas himself is a great musician and has set up an awesome life in Cahuil, sister Valentina is the Pan-American women’s bodyboarding champion, and Orlandito (Tomas’s younger bro) is a ripper on any sort of board and has just built himself a little wooden home in front of a more secretive wave further south.
We ended up camping at Tomas’ place for a couple of weeks, which was super kind of him, hanging out and skating an epic bowl, surfing and making music whilst we preparing a big transition.
Even showed us a secret sand bank, that offers spitting left hand freight train barrels when its really on, we had it pretty fun – and its always nice to surf with no one but your friends.
Pichilemu is quickly becoming one our favourite places of the trip… uncrowded, country-styled goodness
Aaaarrrrrggghhhhh…. What is this?! Why would anyone ever choose to do this? I am never, ever gonna do this again. I’m sorry Mum and Dad, I’m sorry to my whole family, sorry to all my friends, I’m so sorry for everything. Fuck… Maybe this is dying?!”
Those were my thoughts as best as I can recall them, wrenching through my mind and heart as I was simultaneously sucked through a hellish maelstrom of fire. Fire rushing upwards past me, around me, through me. I could feel myself freefalling through the swirling vortex of flame, down towards a tiny red bucket of spew far beneath me.
In reality, the red bucket was safely located between my legs where I sat, and I was merely hanging my head over it, throwing up violently. I was not falling. There was no fire.
My rational self would later tell me that the fire hallucinations and burning sensations were probably induced by all the blood rushing to my head as I threw up. And the throwing up itself induced by my own inquisitive actions and decisions.
I wasn’t sick.
Instead, I was tripping balls on some ancient jungle concoction prepared by a regal looking shaman, consumed during a 12 hour ceremony that was to last throughout the full moon night.
A double-plant concoction called Ayahuasca.
Having spent about a decade living in and visiting the Mentawai Islands of Sumatra, Indonesia, I had grown to know some of its traditional shamanic communities reasonably well. I was lucky enough to witness and participate in many rituals of trance and spiritualism for various celebrations, healings or mournings.
The Mentawai shamans of Sumatra don’t use any sort of drug to induce trance or communication with the spirit world, something I’d always respected. It’s purely through chanting mantras, fasting, dancing and the summoning of spirits that they achieve their incredible state of consciousness. Sometimes, in the more elaborate displays, the ceremony (Punen) sends individuals into fits of shaking, linked to deep contact with their animistic spirit-world. In all my travels, I’ve never come across a traditional culture so well preserved or ‘authentic’, a rare diamond in the rough of our current state of global gentrification and homogeny.
I guess the Mentawai impressed me so much, that I became curious of other shamanic perspectives.
But as it turns out, the shamans of Peru work quite differently.
Before the ceremony
I hiked alone for an hour or so, up to a small waterfall high on the side of the Sacred Valley. Striking a match, I burned some Palo Santo (an incensed wood pertinent to Peruvian tradition) – the sweet smell of the exotic smoke tantalising. My stomach rumbled – I hadn’t eaten anything that day, and for the week prior I’d tried to restrict my diet to greens. No meat. No sugar or salt. No coffee etc.
I sat down with a view of the valley far beneath me, gazing upon lush green farmland and eucalyptus plantations. I figured I should try and prepare myself for what I was about to undergo by meditating – even though it’s something that I’m not very good at. Meditation has, quite ironically, perplexed me ever since I broke the rules and ran away from a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat – on the very first day. On that day the Indian guru pleaded with me to stay, explaining that it was against the rules, that I would get sick if I left early. I walked away, leaving him crying behind me, tears streaming down his face as he realised there was no changing my mind. I felt bad at the time, but scaled the wall of the ashram anyway and lost myself in the thousands-strong throng of Buddhist pilgrims, all chanting for world peace around the Mahabodhi temple of Bodhgaya. I found freedom in the crowds of red robes, but 2 days later was curled up for a week with a brutal illness. Coincidence? Or an interventionist God? I’ll go with the former.
But anyway, this is Peru, not India, and I was trying to meditate. As I mentioned, I tend to get side tracked while meditating. This time in Peru was no different. Just as I had begun to slow myself down, concentrating on my breathing and the light ruffle of the wind through my hair, a friendly donkey decided it was not to be.
Either I am fatefully cursed to never be able to meditate properly, or this donkey thought my very still and unassuming meditation pose was a safe and interesting distraction from rigours of daily chewing. Whatever the reason, the big-eared donkey wanders over and begins to smell my hair.
I do my best to ignore him, telling myself that Buddhist monks don’t even let biting mosquitoes distract them during meditation.
“Be Zen, be present.” I say to myself…
The donkey starts to nibble on my unwashed, straw-looking hair…
I open my eyes and turn to look up at the classic looking fellah, a ‘Burro’ as they say in Spanish. He was a good-looking donkey, as far as donkeys go. Striking markings around his eyes, and a healthy coat.
I gladly took this as an excuse to quit my failed meditation, yet again. I stood up and picked a bunch of thick, green grass that was out of his reach, offering it to the now happy donkey.
I sat there next to this outgoing animal for about an hour. And as I did, I watched distant locals ride through the patchwork of small farms below me, each of them on donkeys or horses, going about their daily business delivering heavy sacks of quinoa or corn.
The village dogs barked at each other, chickens pecked in the dirt, old and wrinkled ladies wearing colourful clothes walked bent-over from years of carrying firewood on their backs. The cracked, mud walls of the cob-houses were warmed orange in the late afternoon sun.
Life seemed so peacefully slow, so connected to the land and to the seasons, it was an idyllic community of traditional Quechua Peruvians.
I gave the donkey a final handful of grass and began my walk back down…
The ceremony itself was to be held inside a circular temple on the valley floor, next to a big river, and surrounded by epic craggy peaks looming thousands of feet above. The Incan wind God, Kon, brought fresh, cool air from the south.
I walked inside tentatively. Took my blankets, an empty bucket and found some space between an attractive Kenyan girl, and a 65 year old white-haired man. There were many of us in the temple, from native Peruvian families to middle-aged European women or the odd wide-eyed backpacker.
The shaman sat in the centre and explained a few important things that relaxed my nerves a little. It was dark, except for a growing shaft of light from the rising full moon.
The shaman was the first to drink. Then one-by-one we made our way to him and were offered the ceramic cup, each person took a moment to consider their intentions before swallowing the liquid brown in front of the circle of participants. I was one of the last to receive the cup, I thought hard for a moment, and swallowed – it tasted better than what it looked.
I sat back down on my blankets and waited for the unknown, as the shaman began his leaf shaking, mantras and smoke blowing.
Soon whisps of fractal light shimmered and edged their way into my limited vision. I lay there in the dark welcoming it, opening myself up to it, breathing deeply.
People around me began to vomit. Or ‘purge’ as the shaman referred to it. That’s so gnarly, I thought. My heart went out to them. I was thankful I wasn’t feeling nauseous, and naively hoped I wouldn’t vomit.
There was a strange, archaic familiarity as the plant took more effect on my body, it felt familiar even though this was my first time – caring, guiding and caressing.
The music began, 10 or so musicians in the group – the most hauntingly beautiful music I’d ever heard – harps and angelic voices singing soulfully in Spanish and Quechua.
I lay on my back enjoying the music and was thinking how nice and pleasant everything was, how enjoyable the experience was – until I felt a sharp stab to the gut. A few moments later it hit me like a train, wrenching me from my blankets into the roaring vortex of fire.
The purging was merciless – I was forced to understand the meaning of it, to somehow cleanse my body and mind. I was begging for forgiveness, terrified, apologising and wondering why anyone would ever choose to partake in this destructive experience. I was brought to my knees in complete surrender – there is no fighting such a thing.
I purged until the last drop of liquid was emptied from my already fasted stomach, and wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I dragged spittles of vomit into my beard – and yet I couldn’t have cared less. All I cared for was that somehow I survived the horrific purging ordeal.
My limbs felt like long socks filled with mashed potatoes, but somehow I managed to pull my shirt off my torso in a broken-beast of an effort to deal with the heat wave that had engulfed me.
I opened my eyes for the first time since purging and things were very, very different. There was no longer any subtlety about any of it, no more whisps of fractal light, instead I was staring at a forest canopy growing rapidly over the temple ceiling, over the skylight, towards the moonlight, growing so fast that it cast dancing shapes and shadows as the canopy closed in over me.
Lying on my blankets I tried to concentrate on my intention, to try and understand the questions that I had brought with me to the ceremony, perhaps to find some answers, perhaps not.
I kept pondering these thoughts as I fell deeper into a dreamtime, until eventually, conscious thought left me altogether. I never fell asleep, I’m pretty sure that would be impossible, but I did fall… far, far away.
I willingly relinquished my last finger-hold on conscious thought and physical body, and melted into a colourful subterranean universe of the night sky.
I was gone, no longer me. I had no body. No longer human. I wasn’t lying on my back inside a temple on a full moon evening – the temple had disintegrated.
I don’t think there is any possible way to describe the next phase; it would be futile and ineffectual to attempt it. To try and apply words to the experience would only denigrate it.
It seems to me that the words necessary, simply don’t exist.
But I will say this…
Hours of searching bliss passed.
The beautiful visions had engulfed me. Entirely.
I felt an approaching rainbow serpent open its jaws and swallow me whole. To carry me. And guide me.
We travelled together through bewitching and jade-green junglescapes of this strange new universe, past powerful animals who stood watch over me regally. Together we penetrated through stained-glass windows of serpents slithering beautifully in their hundreds, shattering their forms into brilliant shapes that would coalesce into crocodiles swimming all around me. Everything I had ever imagined, and more, was manifesting itself into a forest of forever-transitioning layers. From Egyptian transcendental symbology, to monsters of the weirdest variety.
And just when things couldn’t get any more otherworldly, I began to hear the heartbeat of that same friendly donkey reverberating around me.
How had the donkey found me here?
“Lubdub… lubdub… lubdub…” the heart beats were unmistakeably his.
I couldn’t see him, but the beating echoed as loud as the all-pervading roar of an earthquake, yet somehow softer than a summer breeze.
The serpent paused for me here, and I began to see the significance of the donkey. Visions of the people I’d seen riding horses earlier that same day morphed ethereally in front of me. I felt a powerful surge for how alive the animals were, how connected humans are to the animal kingdom, and how like us, they had noble spirits inside of their giant bodies that must also journey when they dream.
Again my bodiless soul was carried off by the serpent, ever deeper and further into the inky, pulsing universe.
And the music. Man, that music. Heavenly.
I found myself crying. Hot, wet, tears streaming down my face – for the first time in a long time. A recognition of a personal sadness supressed deep in my consciousness, along with the acknowledgement of the flagrant beauty everywhere, and the euphoric release of them together. I visited family and friends.
Much later, and much deeper in the journey, I heard a deep and alluring voice offering to show me the true meaning of ‘madness’. The voice beckoned for me to reach for his hand, he could guide me. He could show me the way to insanity. He explained that this experience was available to me, through the next layer of stained-glass serpents, right there, so close, so tangible – all I needed to do was touch it.
‘Go on’ the voice beckoned, ‘Reach for it’.
My bodiless self stretched out towards ‘it’. Hypnotised, I floated closer with trust and contentedness, towards insanity.
Suddenly a lightning bolt of fear flashed into my core, ripping me from the experience violently, and I was sucked out of the magical universe. My conscious mind had somehow blasted into focus, and for the first time in many hours I thought rationally. I recoiled in horror at what i’d almost touched.
Had I almost gone mad? Who was that voice? Why was it so soothing? Holy shit, that was heavy. I breathed fast and deeply, watching the moonlight shine into the temple. It’s all good, I am here, I am here on the temple floor.
I heard the shaman speak for the first time since I left my body, he was offering the third and final round of Ayahuasca. I thought for a moment ‘Why would anyone ever choose to do this? I am never, ever gonna do this again.’
I stood up very carefully, walked over to the shaman sitting perfectly still in the centre of us all.
I took the full cup from his hands – and drank it all.
And so things continued into morning…
The next morning
The next morning was strange. I stood and stared for several minutes at a tree, marvelling at how the dew on its branches sparkled in the early morning light. I felt very alive, very connected and inspired – in a way that would continue for several weeks. I felt really good.
I glanced over at my bike, parked next to the sweat lodge, exactly where I’d left it the night before. I was really hungry after all the fasting and purging, and figured I should head to the next village to find some food.
Swinging a leg over the seat, I turned the key with that same rhythmic familiarity and gave it a rev – somehow it sounded a little different.
I rode down the winding dirt road, checking bits and pieces, trying to figure out if there was something wrong with the bike – simultaneously knowing that something had changed within me…
It’s been over 6 months since I drank Ayahuasca. I ummed and aaahed on blogging about it – is this something that I should share publicly? It’s so strange, so personal, so beyond what most people will understand.
I am also conscious of (not) promoting drugs, because whether or not you want to call it so, ‘Mother Ayahuasca’, or the ‘Vine of the Dead’, it is undeniably a drug. An exceedingly powerful one, and I imagine she holds potential dangers for the unprepared or over-eager. Be very careful.
I am no expert in the field by any means, but I feel I owe it to the reader to offer my personal insight here – otherwise what was the point of the blog post, or even drinking the concoction in the first place?
The main point I took away from the experience was that Ayahuasca provides an easy shortcut, or direct access to the subconscious mind, to the soul – simple as that. Something that most of us can’t access easily even when we try.
Perhaps it’s possible to refine meditation practice for many years and achieve similar access to the subconscious mind, but for me, as already explained, I’m not so good at formal meditation. I’m also not sure if meditation could provide that same inter-dimensional experience.
The closest thing I’ve ever experienced to Ayahuasca were short moments of being utterly overwhelmed by nature. It’s only happened a handful of times in my life, short moments spent alone, perhaps only lasting 10-20 seconds, a profound realisation or impression of my surroundings and my place in the world.
Ayahuasca is a spiritual experience. It brings you into the spirit world once you’ve drunk it – there’s no stopping it. I’m sure it would drag you kicking and screaming if you’re not prepared to fully surrender to the experience. It took me far deeper than anything I had experienced in my life before – even in Mentawai.
Was it a positive experience? Remarkably so.
Would I do it again? Possibly.
Is it the answer to the world’s problems? I don’t think so.
It’s a shortcut or easy access to the subconscious, to the soul, and another dimension – and these things can be achieved without the ingestion of drugs – just ask the Mentawai.
I do think that we as people, as individuals, could do with a little more introspection – and Ayahuasca definitely provides that. Our world is deeply seated in the Anthropocene now, that’s no secret, and most informed people, regardless of political persuasion, can see that we need to make changes. Real ones.
I don’t think we all need to go out and drink Ayahuasca. But perhaps we could start by thinking more independently, by affecting change in our own personal lives. I think we’d benefit greatly by turning off our televisions, and turning down the powers that be – most of them only interested in more power.
Maybe you’ve made it this far in the post, maybe you’ve discredited the whole thing as whacky new-age rubbish, I don’t blame you – some of the stuff surrounding Ayahuasca certainly seems to be.
But I ask you this.
Why are the indigenous cultures around the world, those who possess similar connections with the ‘spirit world’, dreamtimes and Mother Nature – those cultures who possess such proud and lengthy histories, why are they the people so often persecuted by modern systems? We are losing the traditional knowledge and language of the shamans, the spiritual connection to the Earth, in the same manner that we are losing the plant and animal species of the world. What’s the correlation?
Why do we no longer look to the sky, or deeply within ourselves, instead craning our necks ever-closer to our hand held devices? Is this really the best way to stay connected?
Ayahuasca has supposedly been used for 5000 years – it’s still legal and widespread in Peru today. Why is that?
Why have the shamans of South America been held in such high regard for so many thousands of years? What about the shamanic Mentawai culture, still so strong, so rich? Or the animistic Native Americans of the north? Not to mention the Australian Aboriginals, the oldest living cultural history in the world? Over 50,000 years.
Is 50,000 years not the definition of sustainability – socially, environmentally and economically?
So why are we saying goodbye to this highly evolved knowledge, culture and ritual – especially when it’s so obvious we’re on the wrong modern trajectory?
Why don’t our leaders consult the elders of these cultures on ideas of sustainability? The elders are living-proof, that living sustainably is possible.
Think about it. 50,000 years…
The indigenous. The animists. The shamans.
Perhaps, if we learn to listen to them, instead of delivering more marketing messages, the notion that plants can be used to effectively heal or examine ourselves isn’t such an obscure ‘new-age’ idea after all.
“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.” – Terrence Mckenna
Thanks for reading.
Although this has nothing to do with Ayahuasca (as mentioned earlier, the Mentawai don’t use any form of hallucinogen), I feel like this is a good opportunity to introduce a close friend’s project, the Indigenous Education Foundation. Rob has spent many years in the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia, learning and working with the Sikerei (shamans) to help them build an educational platform for their own people about their own detailed knowledge of the jungle and spirit world. Rob is not ‘teaching’ them anything – he is facilitating platforms to empower the shamans, to assist with the continuation of traditional knowledge and language.
The traditional Mentawai have survived in tact, through a history of government, religious and corporate persecution. They are proud, and should be.
There’s not many working out there, and if you discount the religious organisations (who bear much of the responsibility for the death of Mentawai culture), the number dwindles into a mere few.
It’s difficult work in a globalised world. But in the same way that we need species diversity for healthy ecosystems, we need spiritual/thought diversity for healthy human evolution.
A land of contrasts: extreme physical beauty standing against millenia of human hands doing their best to tame, exploit, endure, and understand it. The vast deserts, sprawled with pipelines feeding a never-ending hunger for the stuff that fuels food, cars, things, and that abstract concept of job-creation. Beautiful mountainscapes of glaciers tentatively licking a patchwork of ancient farms and invasive timber plantations, with ruined citadels perched on precarious saddles, catching the sacred winds that blow through valleys with not a splinter of native forest left. Magnificent and unimaginable Amazon jungle, to its advantage as well as detriment too large to garner perceptible damage until recently, now facing logging, oil development, highways, and missionary infringement on ‘uncontacted’ people. Coastal cities draped in garbage, their processing plants and fisheries spewing unimaginable amounts of untreated waste into the Pacific, turning bright blue barrels into tepid turd tunnels. Once abundant marine life struggles to provide for even the most subsistence of fishermen, once a highly regarded, almost revered profession in ancient Peruvian cities. Indigenous culture still thrives proudly, the communities still dependent on intricate environmental modification for survival in the unforgiving terrain. There, as in anywhere, the strength seems to live within bold spirituality, ritualizing a complex relationship between humanity and natural forces. Peru feels like a million different worlds in one place, showing us what has happened and what may happen, a stage in which people and nature collide over and over again, in disaster, triumph, horror, and love.
Much smoother at the border, although I still rode away wanting to punch someone, just another day at another border. Maybe it was the pesticides talking..
The day before, riding past endless banana plantations on the coastal humid plains of southern Ecuador, we’d noticed a plane flying peculiarly low in the sky. Suddenly it turned 90 degrees, swooping to 3 metres above the bananas, and started flying towards us, right above the row of bananas closest to the roadside (2 metres away). The instant the plane turned, a menacing green cloud began pouring from it, onto the way too perfect bananas with their fruit bunched in plastic bags, to keep pests away that somehow managed to survive the green holocaust. The cloud engulfed the road and the families walking along it, who simply turned and covered noses and mouths with their shirts and continued walking – obviously a daily routine. We barely had time to flip down our face masks, and were mostly blinded until we pulled over to wipe the noxious green slime from ourselves as best we could. It covered us in a fine yet viscous poison.
We haven’t grown any extra limbs yet, but we’ll keep you posted.. although since then I have noticed Matty’s been acting a little weirder, even more than usual. Poor guy…
Riding in Peru felt instantly different. Two lanes actually means three and a half; mototaxis, coined ‘tricycles of death’ by our German motorcycle friends, rule the freeway, and signals are actually just what Latinos send any woman walking alone on the street.
Riding into the first city, Tumbes, just an hour into this new chaotic vibe, we passed a car slowly drifting into our lane, sort of passing a mototaxi. You wouldn’t dare (gasp) to occupy a full lane while passing, whatever would that do to the halting flow of vehicles in various states of forward motion?! I passed him on the left, noticing his indecisive veering into my lane, and continuing his encroachment into our lane, Matty who was behind me took a quick look back to make sure the guy wouldn’t hit his trailer. At this exact second, the pickup truck in front of me decided to come to a sudden full stop, without warning. I just stopped in time, only to hear a loud bang right behind me, and all of a sudden I was lying on the tarmac looking up at the pick-up’s exhaust pipe.
Matty had run right into me.
People flocked onto the road to help us right the two heavy bikes, and we rode to the side of the road, a bit rattled but okay, thanks to our handy elbow pads and the added safety feature of the surfboards strapped to the side of the bikes.
Who would have known that it’s actually safer to ride a bike with surfboards attached? They came out a bit worse for wear, but the bikes looked good as new, and they definitely saved us a few layers of skin! Such troopers those steeds.
Being late September, it was still early for solid northwest swells arriving, not the greatest news for our way-north Peru surfing hopes. However, we were desperate to get in the water again, it had been totally flat since an epic few days in the ‘Gos.
The ride along the north-facing coast was torture. Perfect mouse-sized peelers swinging along every deserty point, little fishing towns, offshore fish-boats, and billboards advocating condom-use to avoid HIV.
Arrived in Máncora on nightfall, firstly were offered some cheap drugs, then a cheap place to stay, then some barbecue. I was still grumpy after our crash.
We woke up with the sunrise to knee-high perfection on the point, if only we had a longboard!! It was still great fun…
Mancora wasn’t really our vibe so much, quite touristy and party orientated. Maybe just maybe, if we ride to Lobitos, it might be bigger and a magic swell will appear and we will score that fabled place, in the off-season, all to ourselves… ya never know if ya never go.
We were quite enchanted with the dilapidated town of Lobitos, and the ride there was beautiful, if not confusing. Sandy roads and rusty oil pipelines criss-cross the dunes like snakes and ladders, massive offshore rigs dot the horizon in their hundreds, while those workhorse iron mules bob their swinging pendulum-like heads up and down, feeding the pipelines.
Several checkpoints with men in hard hats and neon work-vests check our passports and bike papers, we wondered how this could possibly be the main road into an actual town where normal people live, and we continued.
The deep sand was gnarly on our excessively heavy bikes, but sort of fun. I dropped my bike about three times and actually laughed, unlike usually when I grumble to myself about how I even ended up in this stupid situation on this stupid bike that I can’t even keep upright…
The surf was tiny when we got there, but we paddled out anyway, thankful to wash the sandy sweaty grime off our bodies from the long day of riding and wondering where we were. We were stoked to be there; the town is fascinating, it looked like it was built only to be abandoned, then repopulated, but never really recovered.
I guess that’s sort of what happened, although there doesn’t seem to be any reason that it crumbled the way it did. It was built by British Petroleum in the early 1900s, and there are buildings just falling down on themselves scattered throughout, beside functioning businesses, spruced up with murals, everywhere.
I’d never seen fishing boats like those we found there, they were all sailboats, with short little masts and squat hulls. Still in use out on the water, there were plenty of retirees, complete with poetry in English..
We never really got much swell there, mostly hip high peelers with the odd head high set. Unfortunately there wasn’t much swell on the horizon, and so it was the weird state of crumbliness of the town and the sunsets that captivated us more than anything…
After a week we took our chance to get some southbound miles in. We took the sealed road out (which we could have taken in and saved ourselves all the bike stacks in the sand), through a dirty town called Talare.
Unfortunately the road from Lobitos takes you first through Talare’s port, not usually the most beautiful face of a city to begin with, and here was no exception. It must be a leading contender for a poster child of terrible first-impressions of a city. Rode over a big dry canal filled with tonnes of plastic and garbage, 100 metres away from the ocean and the big bay filled with fishing boats, and pipelines running from shore, filling tankers with black gold.
Rode out of there, the smell of dead fish and rotten garbage lingering in our nostrils, which we would soon find out were typical Peruvian coastal delicacies.
Rode and rode and rode. Peru is big. Real big.
And windy. Strong, southwest winds, all day long. Even wearing earplugs all day, our ears rang in the tent each night, and our necks ached with the strain of keeping our heads upright against the onslaught.
Found some good camp spots though…
..and accidentally found ourselves hundreds of kms away from basically anything on the night of the super blood moon eclipse.
“Hey Matty, the moon looks pretty big tonight, looks weird.” “Yeah, and it kinda looks like there’s a dark spot on the corner of it, I wonder what that is…”
“Hey the spot is getting bigger! OMG is it an eclipse??”
I got the strangest feeling of being a really puny being, watching that spot on the corner of the moon grow bigger. I wondered how people a really long time ago, living in tiny tribes, wandering the lands and watching the stars, might have felt when they saw something as odd as an eclipse of the moon, this most consistent of objects connecting earthly cycles with celestial wonder, suddenly changing, darkening, its soft full light slowly swallowed by creeping shadow. It felt lonely, but awe inspiring at the same time…
But I think that’s why we have myths and stories and religions, to help remind us that although we are small and puny and mostly forgettable, we are here for some reason, and there is life to live.
We rode onwards, pulled over at one point to snap a vulture drying his wings atop a cactus atop a hill.
Riding time was now measured in days, rather than hours. Several days later, we pulled up to this spot:
Except it didn’t look like this yet. Pacasmayo. We parked ourselves here to wait for a swell for several days before it started to turn on…
Meanwhile I got some sort of mean food poisoning for the first time during the trip, taking advantage of my diminished appetite by running and really getting into yoga, because everyone knows that a good bout of food poisoning is the best way to tone up!
Whilst the swell was small we surfed Puémape, a fun long left, that had 4ft waves running down the point when everywhere else was flat.
Sure enough after 1 week of waiting, when the long-anticipated swell hit, she hit with more force than food poisoning.
The first day of filtering in…
After several weeks of inconsistent surfing, we were in shape quickly. The current there is like a river, and if you’re not paddling you’re moving swiftly down the point, away from the take-off zone. I watched Matty get a ton of rides over two and a half minutes long, turn after turn after turn, then sort of just standing there riding along because his legs must’ve been tired. He would come off, hands in the air, flopping over into the water, as if in disbelief, a tiny speck in the distance, perhaps 3 or 4 kilometres down the point?
It’s a pity they don’t make camera lenses wider, there’s no easy way to fit the whole wave in…
Here’s about 1/5 of it…
I got some of the biggest waves I’ve ever had, the take-off felt so easy and gliding, until it walled up in fun and fast sections. There was one section that my limited skills couldn’t push me past, but still they were by far the longest waves I’ve ever ridden.
Even got the biggest barrel I’ve ever pulled into…
I’ve never been barreled. Well sort’ve once in Zicatela before being driven into the sand and requiring 13 stitches to my eye socket afterwards.. but that’s another story.
But Matty got a good tube, the only one who did on the big day from what I saw, not that it was crowded. It must have been triple overhead on the bigger sets that day, the longest rides weren’t quite reaching the pier, but they ran at least to the edge of town, several kilomtres away!
Most days Matty was riding my little twin keel because the extra width helps to make it through the flatter sections. He lucked into a big one at the top, really deep, and with the insane speed of my 5’8 blue wonder board, was able to bottom turn into a solid, grey cavern and get spat, spat, spat out. Pretty sure I heard him hooting from where I was standing at the lighthouse…
On the last day before the swell started to back off, we surfed in the morning, packed up, and hit the road for about an hour, headed to that famously picturesque and supposedly ‘longest wave in the world’, Chicama.
Actually, according to the huge wall mural upon entering the town it’s called the ‘longest perfect wave in the world’, excuse me.
It’s definitely nothing to scoff at…
It definitely looks a lot nicer than Pacasmayo, reeling down the sand like a math equation.
A math equation having the time of its life!!
It was much smaller there, and also just one of those waves that feels smaller, more refracted, picking up a lot less swell. It’s a lot mushier than Pacasmayo too, more suited to longboarders perhaps.
Fun though, but waaaay more crowded, people from all over the world jockeying for lineup space, and the richer ones paying for zodiac taxis to help them against the sweep. It was really fun to meet lots of other travellers though, especially after the general lack of them for the prior couple of weeks at Pacasmayo.
Maybe I shouldn’t be spilling the beans like this – Pacasmayo is clearly the more quality and consistent wave, and arguably much longer too – but I guess they’re so famous it doesn’t matter.
Chicama is a beautiful place to surf, more so than grey and urbanised Pacasmayo, with those pinky-brown sandy hills cradling the line-up.
It’s just so cozy.
This section was fun, more powerful, but it must need a GIANT swell to really turn on..
The cool thing about having the bikes in a place like that, apart from taking bad-ass photos of them on clifftops is…
…the ability to ride them a bit further afield to explore.
We rode two-up that evening, behind that conical mountain in the distance, past strange-looking abandoned buildings, little fishing spots, and rough-looking roads that must have headed east, inland to various mines.
Arrived at a little beach right on sunset, so dreamy, riding two-up is so romantic. It’s fun to be on the back feeling the same open feeling that you do while riding, moving with the bumps and leans, but able to look up and out at everything passing by. It’s more like what I imagine riding a horse feels like, flowing with the movement but not having to watch every step of the way.
Anyway, romantic sentiments aside, the sun was setting and there were thousands of sea-birds catching an updraft beside a giant rock, trying to find some bare space among the hordes to roost for the night.
The swell kept going down, and it didn’t have to go too far for the mathematical perfection to seem mathematically mushy. We went south.
Passed a massive protected bay with the biggest swarm of fishing boats we’d ever seen. Poor fishies. That darn productive Humboldt current..
Passed some nice buses..
Actually, they’re not nice buses – they’re the same ones that have little to no regard for safety, especially that of a motorcyclist. Maybe because they drive all day every day, they take more risks, like taxis in a city. Matty was forced onto the hard shoulder and over a stretch of sand on the panamericana going 100km/h one day because an oncoming bus like this decided to overtake a truck, and instead of just waiting for two of us to pass (having no one behind us for kilometres on the straightaway) he just pulled out and forced Matty off the road.
Even though we were on a desert straight with not a single car behind us for kilometers.
Peru drivers are easily the worst and most dangerous we’ve come across anywhere. Sorry Peru, we love you, you are amazing, but you drive terribly.
I got new tires. Matty put them on for me, he’s so nice. I COULD HAVE DONE IT! If I wanted to, I could have. Sometimes a man just wants to feel like a man. I totally know how to do it though, like with my eyes closed.
He also put in a new chain, some sprockets and changed my brake fluid – we were riding into the mountains next! The second highest mountain range in the world actually – after the Himalayas.
From sea-level, it took us no more than 3 hours to ride up to 4200 metres elavation.
We were light-headed to say the least. The first pass looked a little like this…
Matty had to lie down for a quick moment at one point, because fainting isn’t exactly ideal on a motorcycle, especially on mountain sides.
Huaraz, the main town in this insane region, is 1000 metres lower than that first pass we came over, so we stayed there for a few days to acclimatize, stock up on cold weather clothing, and food for the next week of exploration.
Setting off into the mountains, we rode up, up, up, winding past tiny farming villages for hours, into a narrow canyon carved by ancient glaciers.
This led to a lake, which was just your average lake really…
We camped there for a few nights. Average views, and the stars were alright…
Even though having motorbikes in the Cordillera Blanca was probably the epitome of the motorcycle experience, being able to go and stop wherever we wanted on switchback after switchback…
…we still really wanted to do a couple of proper day hikes.
In view of our little campsite was the top of a glacier, up above a massive, steep hill covered in millions of years’ worth of scree/talus/moraine/should have paid more attention in geology class.
We thought there was a chance we could make it up to the glacier, although it looked to be about 1000 metres of scrambly hiking to get there. We started out, and immediately began feeling the altitude. Our campsite was around 4200 metres, and the high peaks all around us were all well over 6000m.
To put it in perspective my home country’s (Canada) highest peak Mt Logan is 5959m, Europe’s highest is is Mt Elbrus 5642m, and Matty’s home country is Mt Koziousco at a super cute 2228m.
Super cute those strayans.
But whatever, it’s not a competition – we were higher than either of us had been before.
I find it hard to describe the feeling of altitude sickness. I’m not sure at what point it actually becomes a sickness? I just felt slightly ill and very low energy, wanting to lean over and use my hands as we were hiking up, which was pretty natural anyway because of the steep incline. At one point we passed a sweet waterfall with the peak we were aiming for in the background…
We had lots of breaks, and as soon as we ate some food I felt instantly better.
Note the greenish tint to my face. But as I started feeling better, Matty began the slow decline. Initially he was just a bit dizzy, and then kept checking on me to see if I was feeling ok to keep going.
It turns out the reason for his concern was because he was suddenly feeling terrible. And whilst I had started feeling better, he had a headache, was exceptionally dizzy, and when we stopped to eat, could barely swallow his food. Afterwards he told me at one point he couldn’t turn around and look at where we’d come from because the overwhelming sense of space and height added to the sickness. In the end he forced down some food, we picked the next little milestone on the mountain to aim towards, and we continued on, on all fours.
“Lets just get to that rock up there, see how we feel, and if we’ve got to turn around, that’s fine” we reasoned.
But each time we reached our little goal, we would make another one a little higher, and higher… and…
…eventually I could see the glacier above, we were going to make it!
4 long hours of continual uphill scrambling and minimal oxygen intake later, we reached the little lake at the top, and the glacier.
The view across the canyon to the mountains opposite completely opened up, and they must have felt the same elation that we did! We forgot the headaches and the sickness and were suddenly over the moon that we’d pushed through our own perceived limits and made it.
We’d made it to the glacier, the same one that was a little white dot above us when we looked at it from our tent this morning! We’d done it alone, without a guide or even another soul in sight…
It’s funny how little achievements like that can give you confidence in other directions in life. Matty told me afterwards that he’d never pushed himself like that before, past all the doubt in his mind and the physical symptoms (the altitude sickness hit him harder than me). Everything that was telling him that it might be better to turn around… and yet we didn’t.
I think in some little way it’s possible to take the metaphor out of these experiences and apply them in other difficult situations In life… to visualize that colourful little glacial lake at the end of the of the climb.
Descent brought back all the pain. Our knees creaked and ached, and our heads were seriously pounding by this stage – even though we’d drunk lots of water.
At the end of the day, upon reaching camp it was all we could do to boil pasta, drink some coca leaf tea, and flop into the tent, headaches mostly gone thanks to that brilliant little herb.
We slept lightly… at 4200m, the altitude preventing deep slumber, pulsating heads preventing sweet dreams, utterly physically exhausted.
Legs shaking, the next day we packed up and hit the dirt road, up into another spectacular canyon, arriving at another equally beautiful lake.
Really, it all just gets a bit tedious after a while… ha.
As we were setting up camp, two families came by, for a last ditch attempt at dinner-catching.
We drank some glacial lake tea together, then they vanished to who knows where; the nearest town is two hours of bumpy mountain road away?!?
That night we slept better – to that babbling brook a couple of metres from our resting heads.
Next day we rode on, up towards a pass that crossed the range at 4900 metres, a pass that would take us over the Andes mountain range, to the eastern side of it.
On the way up we shared our lunch in yet another beautiful glacial valley.
Absolutely massive landscapes..
Behind Matty in the shot below is Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran Sur, at a rather large 6768m.
Peru has 33 peaks over 6000m!
Crazy weather, we were even hit with snow in the higher reaches..
We crossed the pass frozen to the bone, and camped at 4800 metres that night. Perhaps a little high for a campsite, but we couldn’t resist the view…
We didn’t sleep that well, spent most of the nights with headaches, and were a bit foggy the next morning, but luckily the road descended to habitable fertile farmland dotted with tiny indigenous villages that clearly don’t see many tourists.
The unpaved main road took us past women in poofy skirts and top hats leading large herds of sheep, pigs, goats, and cows, and the odd alpaca..
Little hamlets full of rosy-cheeked, curious inhabitants who would peek out to see what crazy vehicles were coming by, our bikes made so much racket in those tranquil villages. A little too loud.
Children with dirt-smeared faces paused their play to watch these strange, large, motorbike-ish things ramble by, and elders sitting in groups in front of doorways looked up from their weaving and spinning of wool to ponder our brief appearance in their day. Life is lived outside there, despite the bite of cold in the air; there are potatoes to hill and clean, sheep to be moved to new pastures, oxen to be reigned and earth to be plowed, neighbours to chat with and clothes to knit. It all seems so open, arduous to be sure, but I found something to be learned.
We stopped just in front of the last house in one of the villages, late afternoon, and thought about camping nearby, in the hopes of making some new friends.
A hesitant crowd stood watching, and one of the younger men shouted, “regalame!” Or, “give me something!” and in quick succession, the little kids started yelling for us to give them money.
We moved on, feeling slightly assaulted that our gringo appearance had betrayed us, and that even here we were perceived as rich fools on the eastern side of the Coridillera Blanca, a region that felt almost untouched by tourism.
It wasn’t quite like the feeling we had in Colombia…
And then of course, in this very remote region, we had some mechanical issues and spent many hours laboured up on the side of a dirt road trying to fix the bikes… we watched the clouds roll in during sunset, worked on the bikes in the alpine air until midnight and eventually found a cheap guesthouse to crash in, exhausted.
To get back to the western side of the range, we went through the highest tunnel in the world.
After we shot out of the tunnel into the afternoon light on the other side, Matty noticed a tiny little dirt track defying all odds and weaving straight up to what looked like an opening in the rocky crag hundreds of metres above. We rode up towards it, I stopped halfway up because I value my life, and Matty wound his way up. There indeed was a pass, high above the tunnel, which is easily over 5000 metres. One section of the track was ready to drop away into the abyss thousands of metres below, it seemed that only a slippery foundation of mud held it in place – very sketchy. Matty later said he thought the track would collapse on the vertical cliff side in the next decent rain storm.
But he rode across it anyway (although didn’t take a camera) and made it to the top of the pass… I’m glad I didn’t.
More lakes and glaciers were waiting for us on the other side… the beauty of the Cordillera Blanca seems never-ending…
The way to Lima took us through some pretty insane landscapes, including an interesting road involving loose gravel and one-lane tunnels and signs demanding mad horn honking before entry (because that makes it much safer), and precipitous drop-offs leading to certain death in the tumultuous river below.
Reminded me a bit of Utah..
Enough of these boring mountainscapes! Give me some city! Ha… yeah right…
We rode into Peru’s capital, Lima, after a full day in the saddle, 8 hours non-stop except for a quick guinea pig for lunch.
Guinea pig on a plate is called ‘Cuy’ – it is Peru’s emblematic dish, and fat guinea pigs are a common site to see running about people’s homes or in restaurants, being further fattened up with alfalfa.
North of the city, the Panamerican Highway sweeps up onto mountains, or clifftops, or hills, I don’t even know because I couldn’t see more than a few metres. The Lima region is almost constantly shrouded in thick impenetrable fog. The fog moved in a downward motion, not quite drizzle, sort of misting. Huge trucks going 20 km/hour with their rear lights missing, or just forgotten, would loom up ahead, suddenly not so far away.
I couldn’t decide whether it was better to endure the stinging drizzly mist slicing into my face, eyes squinted against it, or close my face mask, only for it to blind me with thousands of tiny droplets. I decided I could see about 10 metres without the mask, and 5 metres with it. The nervousness felt the same as my very first road ride in my ‘how to ride a motorbike’ course, 10 months ago…
Descending from the fog, we hit city traffic. The very peculiar Peruvian driving style coupled with typical city aggression was a nightmare, and we spent two hours negotiating the busy streets to make it to the other side. Didn’t even make one wrong turn, Matty is a navigation whiz.
We got to Lima, had to do some administrative stuff, mail some harddrives, buy things, fix things, saving all the fun stuff for the city as usual. We couldn’t really afford to eat out much, which seems like the main attraction of Lima, and we took two photos. Although we did eat a couple of ice creams and visited a few delicatessens.
With so much admin to try and finish, we didn’t surf, even though the millions of gallons of raw sewage pouring into the ocean from the city every day (seriously) made it super enticing…
(Intense love sounds like the sea. – Pablo Guevara)
We did head down to Punta Hermosa for a few days a little further south and had some really fun waves, though unfortunately for Matty, Pico Alto wasn’t breaking… a deep-water wave he had been hoping to check out. At least the main point was fun and long each day…
We’d heard of a funky town on an oasis further south in wine country, and really, who needs more reasons than that to go somewhere, especially after a grimy city!
It actually just made us want to go snowboarding. The sand is really heavy and not much like its related winter activity.
Fun to give it a go though, and the hike up to the top of the highest dune was so worth it! Magical.
One sweet street dog was great to have around for the few days. We named her ‘Special Happiness’ due to her propensity for tail wagging, smiling and following us around all day all over the dunes, despite the fact she had suffered (most likely) a brain injury from a car accident or something. It added to her charm.
There was also a plethora of different birds that would flock to the oasis each morning to fish..
..but one day, we noticed a cormorant dive into the water and come up with a fat fish. Clever cormorant we thought. But after swallowing the fish it struggled to fly off with something tangled around its legs, dragging behind it as it flew off awkwardly.
It looked like fishing line.
We watched the same cormorant flap awkwardly over the oasis and land high in a tree. As it tried to fly away again the fishing line had become tangled in the branches, and he was now dangling and flapping upside down by his feet, unable to do anything.
We went over and tried to devise a plan to help him. Matty spent about two hours trying to climb the spindly, 20m tall tree, and even procured a ladder from the local council, trying the strap the ladder halfway up the tree so he could maneuver his way to the dicey top – but in the end it was too dangerous.
Frustrated after hours and hours of trying to free this damn bird, we didn’t know what to do, but we were also pretty determined. We brainstormed an idea…
How about we attach a length of rope to a rock? And if we throw it just right, 15 metres up, we might just…?
Meanwhile, the poor cormorant had basically given up his frantic struggles to extract himself, and hung upside down from the branch limply, occasionally omitting a sad and low squawk.
Matty started throwing the rock, trying to get it square between the line, branch and bird, in the hope of being able to pull on the rope and jerk the bird free. But being 15 metres up, it wasn’t looking good…
After many attempts, I was doubting the possibility of success and lamenting the fact that the poor cormorant would inevitably die an agonizing death of starvation after having his eyes pecked out by the local vultures, all because of some lazy fisherman couldn’t be bothered to clean up after himself. But all of a sudden the piffed rock crashed through the branch perfectly, and Matty was jumping around going “Yes yes yes… c’mon!!”
…and just like that the bird was free!! He squawked into flight over the lagoon and we saw that the rock had even pulled the line off his feet. We watched with big smiles and high fives as he flew off to the safety of the reeds, squawking loudly in appreciation (we imagine).
Such a joyous occasion, we celebrated the saved life with a lunchtime beer. After all we were thirsty – I think it took us almost 6 hours to free that bird.
We left victorious, and in a bit of a rush to get across the country to Cusco, where my parents had just booked a last minute flight to come meet us for a short time. We didn’t make it in time. The google maps said it was a 10 hour ride – it took us 3 days through the altiplanos (high plains).
We camped out each night with no internet to tell them we were going to be a cool 3 days late.
My parents were left standing under a grand colonial eave in the torrential afternoon downpour, waiting for us to contact them to let them know the hotel we’d booked for them when we arrived a conservative 3 days earlier, neither of which we’d managed to achieve. We were flying along in said downpour, absolutely satched to the bone wondering why it was taking so long… Daughter fail 🙁
We had a lovely time together, managed to see some serious Peruvian treasures with them. I really loved the ruins nears Pisaq, my ma and I hiked up there to see the masterful work of the Inca before we went up to Machu Picchu.
Striking to see the perfect agricultural terraces, that they had filled with soil from all the way down in the valley below, next to military structures, spiritual centres, and homes for the rich.
(Rare couple photo. Double doorway, reserved for Inca royalty..)
Just being in the sacred valley felt spiritual, and not just because it’s called that and because the Inca thought so too.
The clouds are somehow different, always moving and shapeshifting, revealing layers of sky that don’t seem to exist elsewhere. There are rainbows everywhere, sun rays creating sparkling explosions on fat raindrops, and the way the fresh afternoon breeze that sweeps down through the valley rustles the corn, gleaming in golden afternoon light, is magical.
It seems completely natural that a religion that holds the mountains, rainbows, wind, sun, and moon as their gods would choose that place to base their society.
The burial sites are placed strategically to capture maximum mountain updraft, to appease ‘Kon’ the god of wind and rain. Same goes for Machu Picchu. Crazy crowd, but the wind whooshing up through the windows feels like the mountain gods are talking to you.
Matty, when asked to surrender his tripod at the entrance of Machu Pichu, was then taken to the office, and the head security person pointed at the list of rules on their wall. Matty read them one by one, and enquired where the rule against tripods was.
Security man pointed proudly at the rule that said ‘Walking / Hiking sticks not permitted.”
Matty gestured confusingly to the (literally) hundreds of people carrying walking and hiking sticks through the turnstiles in front of the office. And patiently explained that his tripod was not a walking stick.
“…and that guy there has a tripod too, same as me, look!” said our rather confused Australian.
Head security logically replied, “but your tripod is bigger than normal, and besides we keep the paper with the rule about tripods in Cusco.”
Matty, being already slightly miffed with the whole circus and money oriented approach of Peru’s number one spiritual relic, was not about to take the 6 hour journey to visit the ‘tripod rule’ in Cusco, and instead walked out of the office with his tripod over his shoulder, to the ruins.
He started doing a timelapse of Machu Pichu. There were about 50 or more uniformed guards with whistles maintaining touristic order in the ruins. Halfway through the timelapse one of them blew his whistle furiously and pointed at Matty, saying that he had just heard from the office that he had a larger than normal tripod.
“How big is your camera?” The guard demanded, letting his whistle fall from his mouth.
“It’s very small, look. I’m just taking photos like everyone else, I’m just doing a timelapse of the clouds.” M reasoned.
The guard took one quick look at the camera, and then smiling to Matty, patted him on the back and apologized for the confusion, there was obviously a mix-up at the office.
Matty heard the guard radio the office and explain to them how even though the man’s tripod was slightly larger than normal, he actually had a very small camera, and so there was nothing to worry about.
Matty said thanks to the guard, who went back to blowing his whistle at the other tourists walking in the wrong places.
Matty sat there watching his camera do a timelapse of the hordes of colourful shirts climbing all over the ruins, their walking sticks clinking on the stone and glinting in the sun.
5 minutes later the police showed up. With truncheons instead of whistles. They told him that they had been informed that he had a larger than normal tripod, and that it was very dangerous. Not that it might damage the ruins, or that he might be profiting from his photography, but just that the tripod itself was very dangerously large. The fact that it packed down shorter than a hiking stick was of no interest to anyone.
By this stage, a small crowd of Peruvians and foreigners stood around Matty and defended his oversized tripod to the police, one of them wildly waving his hiking stick in the air in exclamation.
In the end, it was clear that nothing was clear, and so Matty sweet talked the police into allowing him 7 minutes more of timelapsing, before letting them take his tripod to the office.
I don’t think he liked Machu Picchu that much.
I on the other hand, was able to sneak up on English-speaking tour groups with my ever-curious mother, who is much more comfortable with breaking rules than I am, and learned in spotty detail at least a fraction of the history of such a grand structure. I had a few moments of complete awe when realizing the deliberate nature of every stone’s placement, the small pools of water to reflect the sky and commune with the gods, and oh, goodness, the wind flowing through those windows from the valleys below…
We also got to go to the Amazon with my parents. The road wound through the Andes mountains for hours and hours before descending into the cloud forest…
Then the hot and humid lowlands interspersed with little towns…
We then hopped on a boat for several hours (my favourite part as it was so relaxing after so long travelling on a motorbike), and watched a Tapir ford the river valiantly… (tapir not shown, we only got video)
Went on some beautiful hikes through the jungle, following the paths laid by giant colonies of army ants…
..and met many interesting crawling creatures, cool bugs such as this guy the Bullet Ant, which leaves you with body-racking pains and fevers for several days after a bite…
Also the national bird of Peru, the majestic Cock of the Rock. Teehee.
Seriously, that’s its name…
Some other cool looking bugs…
We also bonded with some funky butterflies…
The butterfly below is called an Owl Butterfly – guess why?!
We were lucky with the stars too… the nights came alive with the amazing sounds of the jungle…
And we found some jungle pineapples..
It was great to see my folks, they somehow renewed my sense of adventure all over again. Their curiosity and love and ever-present positivity is infectious – they must have gotten it from me.
Slightly surf-starved, Chile was calling us. We hit the road, southwest, across wide-open altiplano. I saw flamingos, but Matty didn’t see them because he was tired. Did I say that I saw them and he didn’t? Small victories. The ride took us twice as long as we thought it would, as the GPS led us along washboard gravel for 6 hours, which according to it, was a ‘primary road.’
It was a long way… and through the highest altiplanos we’d experienced.
Stopped here, to put on as many layers as possible before entering the dark cloud in front of us…
…then continued on, up to over 5000 metres again, envying the trucks we passed with warm-looking cabins and nice music playing, probably eating chips or something delicious.
Meanwhile we were afraid to stop and even take a picture of the snowy hillsides or the snowflakes sticking to our faces, because lightning was striking all around us.
It was a certain type of madness. What were we doing up here on these tiny little machines? And our hands felt like they had frostbite.
Lightning bolts were going off every 10 seconds, all of them with thunder that almost broke our ears at the same moment the lightning struck. We started getting nailed by heavy hail as well as snow. It was hard to see, and the snow stuck to our visors so we had to leave them up, but the hail hurt our faces. Then we realized we were both running out of gas, and so switched over to reserve tank, all the while cursing our foolishness for not having filled up our jerry cans – we were so far from any sort of village, let alone a gas station.
And in the middle of the worst storm we’d ever ridden through.
Eventually, after hooting at storm gods in an exhilarated acknowledgement of their display of raw power, we crossed the pass, and made our way down, out of the electrical storm and down into a series of uninhabited valleys. Hoping we had enough gas to make it through…
It looks friendly in the photos, but it was freeeezzzing!!
The high plains were beautiful, remote as anywhere we had been, and a perfect way to let us ponder the vibrant indigenous life, devastating poverty, elaborate wealth, ancient spirituality, hip youngsters, trash-filled roadways, barren deserts, glacial peaks, and powerful oceanic rhythm that is Peru.
We were on our way to Chile and the vast Atacama Desert…
Crossing the Ecuador border turned out to be the most exciting border yet.
There we were, smoothly moving through exit stamps on the Colombian side, then patiently waiting in the easiest queue we’d yet experienced in Latin America, no touts pressuring us to change money, no sneaky characters spying our gear, nor children latching themselves onto us as our official guide through the border.
Upon reaching the typically grumpy official sitting on the other side of the glass, I was stamped through as usual, and Matty handed his passport over. We began a little conversation about how relaxed and pleasantly surprised we were at the ease of South American border crossings, when a curt voice cut through the glass panel between us. “No puede ingresar.” “You can’t come in, your passport is not valid.”
“Umm Senor, it’s August, I have until December…?” countered Matty brilliantly.
“You need six months’ validity. You’ll have to go back to Colombia and apply for a new passport there.” Said the rather indifferent official.
“Oh, ummm… OK.” concluded Matty… brilliantly.
We stood there, watching our hopes of reaching Patagonia before winter fly away to find other, better-organized motorcyclists. Riding to Bogota city in Colombia would take a week, then another 2 months of waiting for Australia to send another little book with a photo in it.
We had just learned how to become pirates! PIRATES WOULDN’T GO BACK TO BOGOTA!!!
Onto our steeds we stealthily jumped, crossing fingers that there wouldn’t be a checkpoint as we turned left instead of right, into Ecuador instead of Colombia – illegally. Blasted at full throttle across the border, Matty without any sort of permission for either him, or his bike.
It felt pretty wild and rather motorcycle-esque to stick your finger to the man, pull hard on the throttle and race through those first mountain curves, all the time imagining we were outrunning podgy officials with whistles who must be hollering and scrambling behind us. Catch ya later suckers!
Well, at least that’s what it felt like…
We rode up into the hills, straight for Quito, a five hour ride away, and more responsibly in the direction of the friendly embassy of Old Mother England. Straya doesn’t have an embassy in Quito.
Took a few days to get things sorted, and then Matty had to ride back to the border and explain to the same official how he had miraculously managed to renew his passport in Ecuador, even though he wasn’t supposed to be in the country in the first place. Understandably they found this a little confusing and took him into an interrogation room for a bit of interrogation.
But it was never going to be a problem, because when all else fails in such situations, all you need to do is pretend you don’t understand a single word of Spanish, and that you have an IQ equivalent of a washed-up backpacker who has been holed up in Colombia for the last 3 years getting to know the local delicacies intimately. (Note: Having long hair and a beard definitely lends itself best to the stereotype). This tactic of tasteless gringo-ism, interspersed with regular and enthusiastic pronunciations of the word “Si” or ‘no entiendo’, as well as vigorous head nods, finished off with a classic, never-ending, stupid smile will always do the trick.
And so they stamped him through.
Either that or the officials just thought it was too much paper work.
We finally headed to the coast, Matty with his shiny new emergency British passport, and me with my new and very proper Pommy lad on the bike next to me.
We were looking forward to seeing Ecuador’s coast; there’s a highway that runs pretty much the entire length of it. You don’t hear much about Ecuador, aside from the Galapagos, so it was interesting to not have any idea of what to expect.
Unfortunately, the seasons were not in our favour in Mompiche in the north, and strong onshore trade winds and a complete lack of northwest swells were the story for most of our time there. We stayed there for a week, hanging out with some great Argentinians, but never had that sweet-looking point any bigger than 2 ft.
We rode the whole coast, stopping here and there in funky surf towns, mostly gazing out at uninspiring waves, wondering what it must look like in December.
Stopped in Ayampe, a funky little village my brother had spent a couple months in a few years ago, to see what we could see about the heavy, tubing, beachy swell-magnet. Serious off-season. Most things were closed, the surf was reasonably solid but always messy and closing-out, but I had fun paddling around and duckdiving for the first time in ages.
The sunsets were pretty all-time..
Matty did a little tap-tap tattoo on a nice friend we met from England, Charlie. Inspired by the adventures of Tin Tin – good to share a beer or two too.
And we were introduced to an interesting guy from the states who had moved here lots of years ago.
A rather eccentric fellow, he had spent a lot of time wandering the highway from Ayampe to Montañita, about 25 kms, collecting discarded bottles along the way. He decided that he could build a house out of these bottles – because why not? He cut them in half and glued them together, many filled with water and various food colourings to make them pretty. It worked..
The rest is just a matter of using cement to stack them on top of each other, making a beautiful house, all for about $11,000 with no prior building experience. It was an inspiring thing to see, that you can just go and do something by starting small and learning as you go. It’s a beautiful little casa, with 2 or 3 bedrooms, ensuite, great kitchen, and in the afternoons the mulitcoloured light equivalent of a cathedral. I guess we must have taken more moving pictures instead of stills, so you’ll have to wait to see more about that.
Although here’s a blurry one of us hanging out and learning about it all…
Possibly the most famous spot in Ecuador, and next on our list was Montañita. Although it’s hard to tell if it is famous for partying or the wave..?
Apparently if you stay in the town there is no actual hope of sleeping, the thumping music goes all night, everywhere, and there could very well be another reason that you’re not sleeping… anything goes…
We headed there for a bit of a swell that unfortunately hit on the weekend, when everyone from the nearby cities flocks to the coast. There was one crew of about fifteen 50 to 60 year old men, who had probably been weekend warriors their whole lives, and some of the first to surf the wave back in the golden days, hooting each other into waves, with some of the wackiest surf ettiquite we’ve seen, but all the same, just having a good ol’ time. 60 year-old grommets.
We stayed for a week, surfing every day in the funky funk. We never made it out for drinks or whatever on the town – we really are a poor show most of the time, although it does allow you to get up for the early surf.
Although it was a bit of a strange wave, we had it pretty good on the last few days, rather strange, but I guess doing it’s thang..
We debated the decision for a few weeks, but the time had eventually come to splurge on a ticket for a big shiny bullet-shaped machine and fly ourselves, through the atmospheric atmosphere, to some weird, rocky, barren, volcanic islands in the middle of the Pacific, known as the Galapagos.
We really wanted to find some quality waves, as we hadn’t surfed in Colombia, with the only roads to the Pacific Ocean suffering from a surge in violent activities from varying factions.
So we didn’t surf there.
And most of the Ecuadorian coast we stumbled through was hit and miss.
In short, we really wanted some waves! But then it was completely the wrong season for the Galapagos and swell seemed almost non-existent on the forecasts. We took our boards on the plane anyway, and somehow the check-in lady forgot to charge us for them, which was a nice surprise amongst the barrage of taxes and tickets and entry passes that tourists need to purchase to enter the Galapagos. High five!
On our first full day, we hiked about a kilometer from town, passing marine iguanas warming up on the sharp rocks, blowing snot-rockets of salt water out their nostrils, because their bodies have not yet fully evolved to process the salt they intake when they eat seaweed underwater (!?!)…
We decided on San Cristobal Island as our top choice for finding waves at that time of year. Having booked nothing in advance, we luckily arrived the day before a little bump of swell. Found a sweet little cottage-pad way up on the hill that had a nice little kitchen, and spent our entire 2 weeks there, free-diving, hiking, SCUBA diving, photographing and exploring.
On our first full day, we hiked about a kilometer from town, passing marine iguanas warming up on the sharp rocks, blowing snot-rockets of salt water out their nostrils, because their bodies have not yet fully evolved to process the salt they intake when they eat seaweed underwater (!?!)…
..watching chunky sealions laze around on the same sharp rocks, without a care for the duo with surfboards walking closely past them…
…and seeing waves explode on shallow outer reefs. Anticipation levels were at an all time high; might we actually find fun waves on the Galapagos?!?!
Hoping at each corner we turned that the seasonal trade winds would yield enough to the particular spot we were looking for.
Scraping through the last thicket of dry, spiny, low shrubbery, we stumbled on a little beach made of bleached seashells, ground by the pounding surf and black volcanic rocks to the consistency of coarse pickling salt. And then to our surprise and consequent hooting, we watched as hundreds of metres of perfect lefthanders wrapped themselves down a rocky point… and not another soul around (aside from the sea lions who had seemingly already had their share of waves for the day)…
We ran the length of the bay and scrambled into our wetsuits, the cold Humboldt current flows from the Southern Ocean all the way here, bringing rich life-filled waters, but also chilly water temperatures (even though it’s on the equator) basically year-round.
Out we went, the wind wasn’t perfect, but the faces were clean, and there were even a couple of head-dips to be had. Really punchy, fast, and long – sometimes close to the rocks…
The water was the clearest I’ve ever seen in the ocean. Below were hundreds of big colourful fish, playful sea lions, and sea turtles popping their little heads up everywhere. On sunset, the backlit silhouetted circular bodies with four little flippers keeping them upright were visible, at least four through each wave that came through, delighting us with their seemingly ungainly yet capable, quick little movements. It would appear that every time sea turtles enter our adventure chronicles the day is suddenly turned magical, and these ones did not disappoint. To see all this life in 2 or 3 metres of crystalline ocean while sitting on a surfboard was pretty surreal.
We surfed all day, hiking back just before dark, after the sun had set, completely blown away by the day and what we’d stumbled across.
The next couple of days were so much fun, a few locals joined us, we hiked out with a picnic lunch and just surfed all day, munching on snacks, and watching the booby birds, iguanas and seals do their thing on the beach.
It was interesting to watch the seals, and their daily lifestyle. They wouldlie around on the beach all day, then play for hours with each other, only to spend the rest of the afternoon surfing the waves, quite literally waiting out the back for a set wave, catching it before a surfer had the chance to, and riding it way past where we would have kick out in fear of the rocks. So far, so gnar…. So raaahhh!
They must only need to fish for a fraction of the day…
It made us think about the city lifestyles we had been surrounded by before the journey began, and how everything is reversed. Where everyone works 70% of the time, sleeps for 20%, and enjoys free time for 10% if they’re lucky…
I guess seals don’t have pockets to put all their expensive things in.
This all may sound like airy-fairy hippy rubbish – but isn’t the point of travel to ponder the lifestyles of different cultures (or in this case seals), and to have the time for a little introspection, to question how you can improve your own life?
We’re not scared of work – it’s much scarier to not live.
Man sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” Dalai Lama
After those few days, and for the remainder of the two weeks it went completely flat – unsurfable. We couldn’t quite get over our brilliant timing and luck of scoring, in the off-season, and it just meant the flat days left us with lots of time for free-diving!
We were able to explore a few different spots. The amount of animals in the ocean there is astounding. Head above water, looking at the relatively barren, dry, rocky hillsides, covered with hardy shrubs and cacti that have evolved to survive with little water and almost no soil, whose ancestors blew over as seeds from the mainland and landed on newly formed volcanic rock mounds millions of years ago. They, and the newly introduced species, brought with the human-folk, have various creative ways of making themselves known and ensuring posterity, such as these rather persistent burrs that Matty found while bushwhacking, trying to take a photo of a bird..
Hope it was worth it mate, good onya.
We both sacrificed over an hour, and Matty many, many leg hairs, pulling them out one by one. Apparently Matty knew he was collecting them as he walked, but claims that the burrs in Australia don’t take much to pull out, and assumed these would be similar. Unfortunately for him, we were not in Australia, and if ever you’ve had the pleasure of removing a sensitive bandaid/plaster from a friend or a wayward black hair from the middle of their back, then you probably understand how much fun this was for me. One hour, and hundreds of instantly gratifying moments later, we were done. Matty Looked like a lycra-clad cyclist – without the lycra.
Here’s his photo of the booby birds – hope it was worth it, good onya mate.
Diving down beneath the surface, a different blue world fills the scene, and exotic creatures glide past, unafraid and even curious.
We played with two sealions for almost an hour one day, ‘fetch the sea-cucumber’ being the favourite game. Matty’s natural affinity with dogs (and any animal) made it seem totally normal to be playing fetch with their marine relatives.
It was their idea, one of them went off into the reef and snuffled around in the sand until she came soaring back towards us with her prize…
She promptly dropped it right in front of our masks, never taking her eyes off it…
Matty grabbed the sea cucmber, and instantaneously her body language changed. Her gestures seemed to say:
I’m not sure if it was because in the end, it is incredibly difficult to throw anything underwater, let alone a seacucumber. But after 10 minutes of playing fetch (and I’m sure much to the relief of said sea-cucumber), the seal swam back to the reef for another, different one of her toys.
Again bringing it straight back to us…
But this time just teasing us, it became a game of tag, 2 seals and 2 humans, all frolicking and flipping. They would dart straight at our masks, sometimes almost giving us a ‘seal kiss’ before swerving to the side in a trail of bubbles.
It was exactly the same scenario we’d encountered through all of Latin America with the more playful street dogs we’d encountered – the only difference this time, that we were underwater.
Another day, we were cruising around a big bay, watching a little octopus ooze through holes in the rocks, changing from brown to purpley-blues and pinks and greens as he went. At some point we saw big black fins break the surface of the water, about 100 metres away. They definitely weren’t dolphin fins… but how strange for there to be two surfacing at once… studying its movements for a quick moment, Matty said, ‘it’s a big ray!’ snatched the go-pro, and took off like a submarine. I was a bit hesitant, and let our new friend Loic use my mask and fins to check it out.
Luckily, big mama ray was still around when Loic came back, so I gathered all my courage and set off into the bay. I reached Matty in about 15 metres of depth, and we set off following her leisurely pace, flapping her giant wings slowly and steadily in giant loops of the bay. This easy pace happened to be faster by far than I could swim, and by the time we were in a decent viewing spot, my breath wasn’t coming back quickly enough to dive for more than a few seconds.
The exertion did some to take my mind off her giant-ness, but I wasn’t as bold as Matty, who got right up close to her 5 metre frame. Quite a sight to see, and even better to expose yourself to, just free-diving. Whilst perusing a poster in a dive shop later, we pinned her down to being one of two species rarely seen at all, and when seen, it’s usually out in the proper deep blue, with poor visibility.
Matty went on a few SCUBA dives while we were there too.
Lots of sharks, rays, turtles and fish, fish, fish – but more video than photos.
On the topic of tourism, and being responsible, we found the Galapagos to be an interesting microcosm of how things change over time according to their surroundings. Well, actually that might’ve been Darwin. But all the same learning a bit about the history of the islands was eye opening. As internationally well-known as they are, and have been for almost two hundred years, they have had a surprising, recent past of environmental mismanagement and extreme degradation (but who hasn’t amiright?).
I suppose we had a romanticized view of these islands, famous for unique ecosystems and also that theory thingy that has formed the basis of our human understanding of life on earth.
The non-romanticized reality is an overpriced national park with a history of overfishing, extinction, and failed human settlement. The human settlements that exist now are struggling with feral dog and cat populations decimating various species, including marine iguanas.
One of my favourite stories (although sad) is that of the giant land tortoise.
Beautiful creatures with a prehistoric air, their populations were almost decimated by two separate, yet related, events. Due to the islands’ location, on various shipping routes between continents, and as a fishing mecca, people (beginning with Spanish conquistadors, then pirates, trading vessels, fishermen, etc) would land in the Galapagos and take hundreds of tortoises on board their ships.
The tortoises were stored upside-down in the ships’ holds, so they couldn’t move, due to their ability to stay alive for up to a year, without food or water. They were the perfect food source for sailors on long sea voyages. That, and tortoise oil was the main fuel source for indoor lighting, until kerosene!
These same sailors had the brilliant foresight to let goats free on the island, ensuring a hardy food-source for when they next stopped there. The goats ate everything, the tortoises had no food left, and so along with the being stored upside down forever on ships for dinner, the population was almost wiped.
But the goats are now a grand success story in the conservation world, due to a few skilled gunmen in helicopters, picking them off one-by-one. Seriously.
The tortoises are also slowly clawing their way back…
There are interesting stories regarding the Californian and Japanese tuna fishing fleets, continuing (banned) fishing activities in the Galapagos, and even though the Ecuadorian government fines them regularly for breaking the law, the US and Japanese governments routinely pays for the fines, and calls them ‘industry subsidies’.
Imagine Ecuador tried to implement a similar fishing strategy in US waters!!! Donald Trump would find a prompt solution.. hahaha… Donald Trump… haha… aaaahhh. ….what a dickhead… good for a laugh.
There’s also the story of a local political prisoner who has been in jail for years on San Cristobal because he is opposing the president’s resort development. We tried to interview him, but (understandably) he backed out at the last moment.
Or we could talk about whaling… the tale of Moby Dick was inspired by the seas surrounding the Galapagos.
Strangely, in most areas of the Galapagos surfing has been banned, but in those exact same locations there’s no catch limits for the fishing industry that visits daily?
I don’t mean to be negative nelly here, and I’m not complaining at all. We loved our time in the Galapagos, it’s definitely worth visiting and exploring, we just found it interesting that it’s not the untouched and protected ecological gem we’d expected it to be.
Having said that…
There is a slight push to focus on the sustainability of the islands, but the local consensus on what that means is unclear. Were it the sustainability of unique species and diversity, I think that would mean getting rid of the humans on the islands. But they are there, and all over the world, trying to feed themselves and their children, just like everyone, everywhere.
The fact that sustainability is even a concept means that humans are here to think about it and deem it important, so we are necessarily involved in the constant process of finding better ways to interact with animals, plants, fungi, gods, cosmos, ourselves… It’s in our own best interest.
This little offshore microcosm of change, the same place that Darwin developed ideas to flip science on its head, is going through such monumental, yet incremental, improvements and setbacks that perhaps it really is somewhere to study the future.
As important as its changes for the past millions of years have been for understanding our place on this tiny planet, perhaps by attempting to work through its current issues, we can get an idea of what we might need to do, globally?
…And so we landed. Terra firma. Colombia! South America! Stuff of legends, countries of mythic proportions. For me (Heather again!), this was my first new country of the trip, so I had high expectations, different hopes and as yet unaffirmed preconceptions about what we might find on this giant continent. Mostly, however, I was happy that we had arrived a few days shy of my 28th birthday. Matty had been hard at work for several days making my present, and the suspense was almost too much to handle. I didn’t even care what it was, he had me at ‘surprise,’ and ‘I’m making something’.
After a breezy THREE DAYS of unloading the bikes, customs, and immigration(!?!?), we found ourselves wandering the streets of Cartagena, stumbling upon vibrant plazas filled with vendors, street soccer, group exercise classes, and Matty’s favourite, the mind-bendingly fast Mapale dancers.
To a live band in the background playing all sorts of Caribbean rhythms, they twirled and shook their booties and everything else, stopping briefly to change costumes and starting back up almost as quickly as they could move across the square.
We were mesmerized, hearts full with anticipation, quickly falling in love with an entire continent after watching an hour or two of dancing.
My birthday passed as birthdays should, bathing in a mud volcano and consuming delicious food and drink with your people (person). After sizing my present a few days before the actual day, we realized that the polished coconut bikini Matty had worked so lovingly to make me from scratch was made from coconuts that were too small. How unfortunate..? Or maybe a win-loss situation?
On we rode, out of Cartagena, feeling like new people on a brand new adventure now that we were entering into the deepest depths of a new continent. On our way to the eastern range of the Colombian Andes, we stopped in a mysterious town on the Magdalena River called Mompox.
Grandly colonial, it was once the biggest port in South America.
We wandered down a few quiet streets to the steamy river, whose meandering pace seems more suited to the town’s current mood…
Riding into the mountains from the tropical lowlands was a joyous, high moment in the journey so far. After crowded Central America, the change was drastically and instantaneously awesome and radical and oh, so free, just seeing all that space, and grandness and so much room for tents and wilderness. It was beautiful. It left us in awe.
That night we pulled off the highway just before dark on a tiny road leading through potato fields and various cow pastures. Pitched the tent in one of the fields and hoped we wouldn’t be detected – only a few close calls…
Waking up beside blooming potatoes shrouded in mist just about shrouded my own eyes in mist at the sudden jolt of nostalgia for crisp farm mornings of days gone by. I miss my farm.
Matty made friends with a cow with the help of fresh strawberries we bought at a nearby local farm stand, and the second half of his oatmeal…
Turns out our fears of being discovered were unfounded anyway. A local farmer passed us (vagabonding on his potato farm without permission) on his way to have breakfast with his neighbours, and in typical Colombian style took the time to sit with us for a coffee and a description of how to find the local waterfall nearby.
We found it.
Then three dogs found us, a mama and her two pups. They galloped at our heels for an hour or so, the entire way to the waterfall, and napped with the animal whisperer atop the roaring falls (although decided to skip our skinny dip in the frigid pools) until we felt we should probably ride on..
Matty also found a horse hanging out in a glade, so he jumped on its back without a saddle or reigns, and the horse (assumingly conditioned to riding) promptly decided it was time for a walk, and they trotted off, quite funny to watch…
Around this time we were beginning to feel how big the continent really is. Loooong curvy days on the bike…
Mountains passed in a blur, and lacking our usual ocean time (not many roads to the Pacific in Colombia), we had to find a new way to bathe.
We started hunting down more and more waterfalls, and managed to find these two nestled in a canyon after hiking a couple hours through the lush jungle…
Eyes primed for waterfalls, whilst riding one day, we were drawn into a little fairyland valley, where two cascades were visible from the highway, plunging over a cliff and trickling past a tiny farming hamlet.
Upon stopping to take it all in, we were approached by two smiling, rosy-cheeked men coming down the road on horseback…
After the usual small-talk, and at the mention of possibly camping in the valley for the night, they urged us to join them down the road for a beer. Not ones to pass up a friendly offer, we made our way to a house where about 30 people were standing around, inside and out, chatting and laughing amongst each other. We got right into it, learning that this was most of the town’s inhabitants, just hanging out and drinking a couple of beers at the end of the day. It’s hard to imagine a more jolly crew, coming and going on horseback and motorbikes, enjoying each other’s company.
Upon dispersal, one man, Emil, invited us to camp at his family’s tiny farm. We set up the tent and immediately were ushered into their home and treated to that distinct Colombian hospitality. Coffee with fresh milk thrust into our chilly hands, we were plonked down in the kitchen in front of the cooking fire, where they too crowded around to share fried liver and soul-warming chicken and potato soup, same as their ancestral family had been doing in that very kitchen 200 years ago.
A tiny stone room, heated from the mountain altitudes by the flicker of the good-feeling, open fire stove. The photo below is in the extended version of their home, their living room, such beautiful people.
Cannot highlight enough how beautiful the majority of Colombians are, they’ve been through so much, and have such a great country to be proud of. Their hospitality has been second to none – pure and uncontrived friendship.
The next morning after a similarly generous breakfast (all harvested from the plot out front), they showed us how they harvest and clean their potatoes, but not before lending us a couple heavy ruanas (ponchos) that they make themselves by hand, from shearing their sheep to the final weave.
Feeling very stoked about the world and invigorated with new inspiration to keep exploring, we hugged and said goodbye to these wonderful people in this tiny hidden gem of a valley, and rode on.
Everything, from the spectacular mountains, lush jungle, to lovely colonial towns, Colombia charmed us. At one point we hiked through cloud forest to a hummingbird reserve..
Then stayed the night guarded by some majestic visitors…
The landscape seemed to get more and more breathtaking as we rode on through the endless mountain curves…
..but somehow the people we met were even more astonishing. I have never come across so many open, genuine, and happy people anywhere.
They’ve had a scary past; up until a few years ago Colombians were mostly confined to their cities, because of the likelihood of being kidnapped by one of three warring groups (including the government) involved in the struggle for control over the drug trade. Many of these cities were riddled with murder and struggles for power, but in the last several years things have drastically improved, and the people are proud and touched that outsiders want to experience their beloved homeland.
One such scary city makeover is Medellin. It’s now considered to be quite progressive, especially in the urban planning world. We noticed this right away, zooming over and through various poor neighbourhoods with million dollar views, on a gondola, up outdoor escalators, and up and down colourful staircases, all aimed at making the poor communities accessible and beautiful.
There are murals and street art everywhere you look. A very cool place. I heard that at one point, residents had been given buckets of paint to encourage the brightening and beautification of the city, from centre to slum. Even most tin rooftops were painted…
We happened to time our visit with the famous Feria de Las Flores (flower festival), that takes place every year in August. I couldn’t contain my excitement when I realized we could make it for this, so we rode an entire day from Bogota. It was not a short day, but totally worth it!
Colombia is the world’s second largest exporter of flowers, most of which come from the region around Medellin. The festival started in the late 1950s to commemorate the end of slavery, during which slaves used to carry rich folks around in chairs on their backs. Now, farmers from the surrounding towns make elaborate floral arrangements, cart the heavy displays downtown on their backs, and parade through the streets to the howling encouragement of all the city slickers.
The pained yet proud expressions on their faces, as they carted ridiculously heavy arrangements (sometimes almost collapsing in exhaustion), made the crowd rally behind them, shouting ‘SI se puede! Si se puede!’ or ‘Yes, you can!’ in unison. Thousands of people chanting it together until the exhausted flower-bearer would pick up their agonizing arrangement and carry it onwards – proudly.
It was enough to make me tear up several times.
But as nice as the crowd and hip Medellin was, the wilds were calling our names…
Settled down for the night under a big tree beside a river, just below and out of sight of the highway, Matty had just annihilated me in a game of bastard, and I had just called him a lying cheat, when a tiny glowing speck floated between us.
Mesmerized, we followed its flight through the tall grasses to a gathering of hundreds of softly floating green orbs. Fireflies!
I’d never seen so many in one place, the shot below shows some of them next to our tent, but when our eyes adjusted and we looked across the river to the wall of forest opposite, we realized there was an entire GALAXY of them. They were too far away to show up in a photograph, but there must have literally been millions and millions… so magical.
The next morning, we pulled up to the highway just in time to see another guy on a bike pulling up towards us, Go-pro fastened to the top of his helmet, and a huge grin. He pulled up fast and dismounted, and although we were trying to make a start to the day and get on the road, he stopped us and demanded that we take off our helmets in order to get our faces in the movie (his chinese branded Gopro copy atop his helmet was actually off, perhaps out of batteries, but we played along anyway) and proceeded to charm us until we were all on the road-side laughing and happy – and so we decided to continue riding together until we found coffee.
Turns out his name is Bobby, a 74 year old southern Arizonan, who’s traveling solo down the America’s from the states. Bobby is an enigma.
He was riding all the way down to the tip of South America in honour of his best mate who had just passed away, leaving Bobby his entire life savings of $12k.
He’s got over 500 skydives under his belt, most of them from when he was over 60.
He camps alone every night beside his bike with no tent, playing his harmonica until he dozes off. He used to have a tarp, but he gave it away to a homeless guy in Colombia.
We ended up camping with him for 3 or 4 nights, and can attest to the validity of this.
He told us so many amazing stories (it was a little hard to get a word in edgeways sometimes, but we didn’t care). He told us about how he was once was hit by a car on his bike that broke both his arms. After having casts placed in the hospital, he was recommended to spend 6 weeks in rehabilitation and physiotherapy, but what does Bobby do? He walks off into the Arizona desert, alone, not stopping until he hit Utah, with a pebble under his tongue to ward off thirst.
Very inspiring guy…
We said goodbye to Bobby after a few days.
Again we found ourselves needing a bath, and from a crappy photo we’d found on the internet, we mapped out the next waterfall. We pulled off the Panamerican, stopped in villages to ask directions, and many hours later on rough dirt roads, and despite the internet as well as locals along the way telling us that this was a dangerous region of Colombia and that we shouldn’t camp in the region, we found this:
…and then directly below the waterfall, via a thousand stairs carved into the cliff-side, we found a small community-owned natural hot spring.
We set up the tent and then made our way down to soak our tired and dirty bods, and spent the rest of the evening chatting with the endless stream of curious villagers who took it in turn to wonder at the foreigners who had come to spend the night.
Oh, and yes, the rainbow happens every day. The storm clouds form on the hills behind the waterfall, and the sun sets opposite it. Pretty magical.
At one stage Matty was racking through his panniers looking for his toothbrush, and after pulling half his stuff out before finding it, he decided it was time for a spring clean. Everything here somehow fits onto his motorcycle…
After two nights of politely declining offers to stay in people’s homes (“yes we are happy camping, no we don’t find it too cold, yes we can make coffee and soup with our stove”), we gave in to the friendliness, packed up and headed to new friend Olger’s family home in town.
We set up camp in his backyard (although they were slightly baffled as to why we wouldn’t stay inside).
It turned out to be a great decision, although we had to be a little wary of the cows chewing on our things (the calf below chewed off the plastic floral arrangement I had on my bike – then seemingly disappointed with their lack of deliciousness, spat them out on the ground)…
Olger, in typical Colombian fashion, was a real gentleman, and he, along with his family, showed us around his farm and region with great enthusiasm and pride.
Anywhere we went took longer than expected, as we were always stopped and invited for a hot drink (hot unrefined sugar cane juice) and cake at someone’s house, or to stay the night, or sometimes it was just 20 questions about what the hell we were doing there. Often whilst they prepared bunches of fresh vegetables for the next day’s market, or spun wool into yarn for various weaving projects.
It was always a positive encounter, with none of that gringo / local antagonism or distance that many regions in Latin America have developed.
It seemed wherever we turned, a sea of smiles would greet us in this little town, the friendliest town we’d ever been to.
This village, along with growing the usual vegetable staples, various flowers, and quinoa for income (they get 15 cents a kilo!?!), is patched with colourful fields of opium poppies. Also rainbows, all the time.
We were shown how to extract the milky sap from the seed heads and collect it in a cup…
the cups of sap are then picked up at some point, by someone from outside the village, and taken away to be processed into heroin. The heroin is then distributed far and wide, and it sounds like North America is one of the more lucrative markets. But having said that, the villagers we spoke with seemed so detached from the drug trade, they seemed to know less about it than us. It seemed that all they knew, was that if they grew it, and harvested the sap, they could sell it alongside their quinoa, one of two “cash crops” they could sell to the outside world. It was just another crop in their subsistence lifestyle. However, they did know that if the authorities came, they might cut down all their fields, which would spell disaster financially for that amazing little village in the hills.
At one point, Olger handed us a cup of the opium sap to smell – but Matty didn’t know the spanish word for “smell” and interpreted Olger’s enthusiastic gesture to actually mean “taste”. And before Olger had a chance to stop him, he had dipped his finger right in, scooped up a big dollop and stuck the contents in his mouth. But then with his face all screwed up, it was quite clear that the cup of fermented sap must’ve tasted disgusting, and Olger’s slightly horrified expression made Matty a little concerned as to what he’d potentially just ingested. But by now Olger was in hysterics, and assured the wincing and spitting gringo that he’d be fine. I was fairly confident enough in my plant knowledge to know that a little bit of unprocessed morphine taken orally couldn’t be that bad…
We all had a good laugh though…
We got to share several farm-fresh meals with everyone in the family, who were so kind to take us into their homes and teach us about their way of life, and generously share everything they could with us…
..and play with their 3 year old, who was very proud of his family’s beauitful chooks, just about ready to be, ahem, ‘processed’… Seriously, this chicken weighed about 8 kilograms…
The strange thing was how disconnected this place felt from anything, let alone a modern international drug trade. We’d heard about the poor coca leaf farmers in various South American nations, their crops periodically sprayed and crop-dusted by US authorities for their distant connection to drug networks. So to stumble upon a tranquil village far away from anything, whose inhabitants even spoke differently, more poetically, than anyone we had met, really made us feel disconnected from this entire global system we’re all a part of. And this strange war on drugs. It’s hard to imagine there being anything in common between the illegality of a drug in the states and oxen pulling a plow through beautiful, colorful fields to be planted with Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.
It all just seems so far removed…
Until, perhaps, we receive a smile and some well-wishes from a villager walking the same dirt road that we are, and we realize that maybe we are all living the same life after all.
Note on surfing in Colombia: we didn’t. There are only two roads leading to the Pacific coast, both in the south, and at the time we wanted to go, there had recently (within the last few days) been several violent attacks in both of those coastal cities.
One of the roads had been blockaded and the connecting town had been bombed by the FARC 4 times in the week prior.
The other led to a dangerous port town (which was sheltered from swell anyway), where ‘chophouses‘ are commonplace, in which regular discoveries of body parts are being found. Hundreds of people killed, they had been dis-membered alive, then murdered amongst a macabre and twisted system of cartels, guerillas, and government. Some of the people dis-membered in the chophouses were (apparently) completely unrelated to any gang or militant group – innocent women and children that walked down the wrong street at the wrong time.
Were weren’t interested in testing our luck in either of the regions…
So it turned out it was the wrong time for us to surf Colombia, a shame really, because the place has so much going for it in every other respect.
And so we set our sights on Ecuador – just a few hours south…
Hey, it’s Heather here. I decided Matty was being a bit too lax with the blogging and am taking over this one with a vengeance.
We’ve spent the last few months being in complete awe of South America, unable to even contemplate putting together thoughts on our last month in Central America. Hopefully the suspense is enough to keep this historical account interesting… That perhaps, and a different perspective from way down here in hindsight…?
Riding into Costa Rica was like entering a completely different world. Upon crossing the border from Nicaragua, the landscape changed drastically and we were suddenly shaded by big trees lining the highway. The dry tropical forest had been allowed to grow back after hundreds of years of decimation for various civilized necessities. We rode through beautiful green valleys dripping with life, were tempted to stop and camp under a waterfall but were desperate to reach the ocean and rinse the hot monsoon sweat from under our riding gear.
We’d heard various things about Costa Rica, mainly that it was not worth staying too long because it’s overrun with tourists and you will run out of money. I figured it must have changed since I had last been five years earlier, passing through Central America and also staying for a month on the Nicoya Peninsula, learning to surf.
What we actually found was a green paradise, friendly, open people, and the same prices we’d been experiencing throughout the rest of Central America, if not surprisingly lower. On the way to becoming one of the most advanced countries in the world in terms of environmental policy, they have devised a system of valuation of ecological systems, where farmers and other land-use practitioners are actually rewarded for planting trees and implementing responsible ecosystem management practices. On top of this, you could see the economic strength in society’s daily life, stemming from the pro-eco policies that this small, progressive country has chosen to implement.
In other news, its people have been repeatedly found to be among the happiest on earth.
We arrived in Playa Dominical in the early evening after a long, hot day spent negotiating steep dirt roads full of loose rocks, turning around at impasses, and getting hit by cars at 80kph.
Matty was flying down a mountain pass when, being overtaken by a pick-up truck going about 100mkh, said truck had to swerve to avoid hitting another oncoming motorcycle, the latter almost driven off the road. The truck bumped the left Givi pannier, and Matty fishtailed down the hill, somehow keeping rubber to the pavement. Maybe it was those tough Givi panniers that helped absorb the shock…
Some other adventure riders saw the entire thing, and used some choice Spanish words at the driver, who initially denied the incident and would have driven off if not blocked by the mini biker gang. Somehow we made it to the mellow beach town of Playa Dominical.
I had a blast surfing there. After Central America’s massive south swell season – and sometimes just filming Matty scoring big, perfect points with only a few others out in the mayhem – arriving at a peaky beach break while most people were lamenting the lack of swell was the little confidence booster I was hoping for!
That, and deciding whether to fix my gaze on the masses of wet jungle towering behind the one-road town, or the amazing sunsets and lightning happening out to sea.
Our main goal in Costa Rica was to get various spare parts for the bikes, new tires for Matty, and fixing my new-found bike issues. This took us to the capital of San Jose, me sputtering and attempting to keep my bike from stalling at low revs by keeping the throttle open at all times. Tricky in city traffic, but we made it. We stayed in San Jose for far too long, but it’s a nice city with a lovely climate, and beautiful surrounding hills.
We’ve mostly found city traffic on the bikes to be annoying, but not overly terrible. Being able to weave between the jammed mess of honking steel boxes, freely contributing our own horns to mix, is highly stressful but even more satisfying. We’ve only lost each other seriously once, in Bogota, where Matty got a bit ahead of me and pulled over to wait. I missed him and kept going. I kept thinking I’d see him around that next truck, until I stopped and contacted him a few hours later. At 10pm. Whoopsie!
San Jose was not so bad, except for the grime. I don’t think I’ll miss the smell of diesel fumes being puffed into my helmet when the trip’s over… I look like this at the end of every day…
….while Matty flips his hair with nary a smudge.
Between two separate trips to the city (they didn’t fix my bike the first time, so did it for free the second and wished us buen viaje), we rode to a famous national park, where we walked from dawn to dusk in awe of the crazy critters flirting about the canopy and flitting beneath our toes. We even snuck up on a guided tour and listened to the guide talking about a barely visible, camouflaged bird sitting close, but visually so immersed it was barely detectable even after we found it.
Stick bird, Potoo bird, Nyctibius griseus. This is a Potoo after realizing that the humans can see him…
…and this is him when… well when… well, something’s definitely happening.
We watched a mama and baby sloth for over an hour, 2 metres away, eating leaves. Witnessed baby’s first big journey, a perilous 45 minute mission a couple metres across the branch away from his mother, to see what he could see. I was captivated.
Saw more spider monkeys than we could count; it was definitely baby season. I don’t know if there’s anything better than a baby monkey. Or a baby sloth.
Then we saw more animals, under a bridge on the way to the beach.
We didn’t go surfing.
By this time we were in full-blown rainy season; those fat raindrops punctuated by deafening thunder every night were ushering us south. Keep moving, things are getting moldy.
Half the days we rode soaked to the bone. When a good swell loomed on the horizon, we split for Panama.
We got to Panama’s most famous wave right as the swell hit. Strangely, few people surf it at low tide when it gets shallow and exposes some sharp rocks further down the line, but Mr. Indonesia managed to find the best barrels at this time, all alone but for his stoke and surprise. I got some fun ones too, lost myself in a long one and ended up in the rocks, escaping untouched.
We also met a nice guy with a boat, who agreed to take us spearfishing into the deep blue. I thought this might be the stuff of my nightmares, the time when spearfishing finally finds the hole in my bravado and tickles my childhood fears of sharks at the bottom of swimming pools.
But interestingly I found the deep blue to be strangely calming. The meditation spearfishing allows, or even requires, makes fear secondary to being completely immersed in the search and awe of another world. We found one spot called Punta Pargo (Snapper Point), it was really deep and when floating on the surface we could only just see the knuckle of the reef through the clear-vis depths. But as you dove to 10m, 15m and sometimes even 20m the giant bouldered reef loomed with equally giant fish. Matty caught a couple big ones, a nice Spanish Mackerel that we later ceviche’d to perfection, and a beautiful Snapper from the deep, to be Ikan Bakar’d by Mr. Indonesia himself and shared with friends, how food should be eaten.
I shot one too! Guess which one!!!
Look at those biceps, I mean fish, I mean barrels!! Where am I?!?
The swell died, coinciding with more of the same troubles with my bike. Matty also needed to fix his computer, which hadn’t been turning on, so to Panama City we went! We stayed in the historic district, Casco Viejo, which was rebuilt on a peninsula and surrounded by walls after being destroyed by pirates. Now, it is being restored, and beautiful people walk around exploring art galleries and gelato shops.
Walking two blocks beyond the restored façades we found poetic graffiti…
“I spoke of you to the desert, and it rained” Anon.
…And a block beyond that, were confronted by policemen saying we shouldn’t walk any further, it is unsafe.
We turned a corner, thinking the policemen are probably just a bit conservative, and started chatting with some characters sitting on a bench. They told us that we shouldn’t be walking here with watches on. People might see them and… (finger moves across throat in a slicing motion). Hmm, okay, it must be pretty dangerous, but it’s just getting interesting… do we really have to leave?
It’s strange feeling like such an outsider that you can’t even walk around in a certain area. I haven’t experienced much of that in my travels. Most of the people are the ones looking out for you, telling you to find another place to walk. I think it sunk in when the guy above, who looked a bit rough around the edges, chatted with us for a while, then said the same thing that the cops said. Not before posing for a photo with his dog, who was ‘just a little bit too dangerous to pat.’
Not like this valiant specimen of a street dog below. The underdog.
We’d had about enough of the hectic city life, so we headed across the isthmus to explore the Caribbean. In particular, we had heard of some mysterious coconut islands set in crystal clear water, inhabited by a fiercely independent people, the Kuna Yala. We wanted to learn more about their autonomy from Panama and dive the depths of their beautiful reefs.
We arrived on a tiny ‘community island,’ so named for the group of people living on it, rather than the single family islands that make up so many of the over 300 in the archipelago. There were a couple hundred people living on the islet, their reed houses closely packed, groms splashing around in the turquoise shallows, canoes pulled up to beachfront shacks.
These were clearly a people entirely dependent on the ocean that surrounded them, the same ocean threatening to rise inches and change their world, sinking their everything. However, their resilience became apparent the longer we hung around. They only moved to the islands in the last couple of hundred years, when they were little more than mangrove swamps dotted by coconut palms, which had been planted there for use in trade throughout the Caribbean. The Kuna Yala moved from the war-torn jungles of the mainland to these islands, became fishermen, and used coconuts for currency and trade with passersby, in exchange for vegetables and other goods from Panama and Colombia. Only recently (and hesitantly) opened up to tourism, coconuts were still used as currency until the 90s.
As some of the only people in the Americas to resist the wave of colonialism beginning in the 1500s, they are still resisting, to an extent, a new colonialism by maintaining control over who enters their territory, regulating tourism within the islands, and not paying taxes to the Panamanian government.
While we were there, a once-every-four-years conference was taking place on our little community island amongst the chiefs of all the different islands, involving discussions of contemporary issues facing communities, cultural knowledge, the passing of their oral history, questions, singing, and walking the island with special spirit sticks from the mainland forests to ward off demons.
We were struck by the independent and almost aloof air of the people we met on these islands. Perhaps these traits will see them through a surely difficult time ahead of increased tourism, encroachment of Panamanian and corporate interests and rising ocean levels.
One morning, Matty took a stroll around the island and, 20 minutes later, paddled into view in a dugout canoe.
I threw in the spearguns, fins, and masks, hopped in, and we paddled off to a distant reef Matty had been eying.
30 more minutes of paddling and the canoe was anchored, we were swimming through the shallows towards the drop-off. We dove for a while, admiring the beautiful wall of bright corals and cute fish, mostly amazed by the perfect clarity of the water. Matty shot a beauty snapper, so we paddled back, satisfied with dinner…
The next day, we took off mid-afternoon. There were big, dark and rumbling clouds on the horizon when we left the canoe to swim for the reef, but we couldn’t stop thinking about what awaited us in the deep. It felt alluring. Swimming, swimming…
Clearing the edge of the drop-off, life burst all around us, engulfed by beauty.
The calmness of meditating on the deep ocean’s surface before a dive. The determination of powering yourself down into the depths further than you’ve been before. The unknown of an underwater oceanscape, waiting patiently for a dark silhouette. Holding breath. The stillness of taking aim. The appreciation of looking straight into his eyes before taking his life. The adrenaline of firing and conflict. The short pang to your heart when you’re holding the struggling fish and see the fear in its big eyes. The instinctual end to its pain with your knife. The ritual of cleaning. The process of fire-building. The art of cooking.
The reward of a healthy and delicious feast to share with your friends.
I froze, or rather went limp, as if preparing to dive, unable to move, watching the afternoon light dazzle huge schools of bait, circling down and around us as we dove. I found it hard to think about finding fish as they were there, everywhere, but I was a mermaid too, part of it. This is where childhood kicked in, not fears, but dreams. And into it floated a sea turtle, unaware that anything out of the ordinary could be happening for these strange mer-creatures, flying along the reef, diving down out of sight.
Schools of small tuna, giant torrential rain droplets shattering the surface above, golden lightbeams piercing the depths and illuminating, nourishing – and shooting a beautiful grouper.
Matty came to the surface grinning like a child. I think I was crying. I hadn’t gotten over the turtle, and the swirling schools, and the light, and licking sheets of rain from my face as I came up for air. Building lightning on the horizon thundering closer cued our paddle back, stoked and refreshed and still bursting through underwater light. The reef came alive during that late afternoon storm; one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced. The ocean gave us a life, that we barbecued over hot coals and shared with new friends from the island.
This is Bernard, a French sailor who has been traveling and living all over the world since he was 19, for the past 40 years. He was anchored near the community island we stayed on, and has been living there for the past 2 years.
He had some beautiful things to say about a life unbarred by convention, following your dreams, and even age-old pirate wisdom that stuck with us: Back in the day, all pirates wore a gold earring. Wherever they went they would always have one item that held universal monetary value, that they could sell when times got tough. Being a modern day pirate, Bernard chooses a Rolex…
Truth was, Bernard is more of a gentleman than a pirate, and if ever you are looking at sailing in the San Blas, we’d suggest getting in touch with him.
We were now fully inspired to become pirates, and needed to find a way to get to Colombia, as crossing the Darien Gap in the rainy season is not feasible on bikes.
Maybe in a stealth dugout to get you past the jungle sentries and cartels. Maybe.. but not with our bikes in tow.
We called up the Stahlratte (Steel Rat), and booked our passage on the old Dutch 120ft, 1903 steel-hulled sail training vessel.
The ‘Steel Rat’s’ history ranges from training youth as sailors, use as a sailing fish boat, serving in both World Wars, and use as a Greenpeace vessel. The historic value (and ability to carry motorcycles!) led to its current use as a non-profit ship, with volunteer crew, to transport hopefuls between continents. After loading 12 huge bikes onto the decks in a tension-filled afternoon on the mainland of Kuna Yala, we set off through the islets to the first few days’ anchorage, nestled between two remote slices of paradise on the edge of the Kuna Yala archipelago.
It was a hugely positive experience for me to meet other motorcycle adventure riders. From when I started in Mexico, I was pretty convinced that I would probably die on a motorcycle somewhere in Latin America. Meeting 10 other people who were doing similar things made my chances seem… at least 10 times better.
After a few days of relaxing in tranquil paradise,
…being fed lovely tropical food,
…and helping out with ship’s duties now and again, we set off early one morning into the horizon. We awoke to some pretty rough rocking, and the sounds of last night’s dinner being violently ejected from many stomachs over the side of the ship. Matty the pirate does not get seasick, and I had brilliantly taken Dramamine, which managed to ward off any nausea I may have experienced.
Thus piratized, we were able to experience the thrill of bouncing up and down in a huge ship, on wilder seas than I’ve ever experienced in a boat other than a ferry, and fall in love with the open ocean.
At one point, at full sail, engines off, a huge pod of dolphins gathered around the bow and swam with us for about a half an hour. We guessed there must have been at least 50…
We even got to climb to the crowsnest, and near the end of the voyage Matty espied land!!!!!
We’d reached Cartagena, Colombia, and 3 days of customs and immigration procedures, and SOUTH AMERICA!!!!!!!!!!
Chat soon! x
Recently I wrote an article an article for Swellnet that included a couple of small stories from the trip so far, if you’ve got a moment you can have a look/read here.
Surfer Magazine called me up the other day, which was very nice of them, we chatted for a while about this little surfing journey thing, and they extracted a few little tidbits into an article for the latest (September) issue. If you’re in the states, you can pick it up in any surf store or a newsagents.. if you’re in Aus you might have a chance of finding a copy somewhere, if you’re in Peru like me, well, you’re pretty much buggered.
Buenos dias amigos! Today is a year since I left for Alaska.. certainly feels like a while ago… funny little milestone, but it feels good… yew!
In Nicaragua now… pretty bloody lovely I’d say, as I type I’ve got a beautiful tropical beach to look out across, although the swell’s easing up for the next few days – so time to get on the admin!
We left El Salvador a while ago now, but before departing managed to score pretty epic waves at Flores and Mango… was hanging out for the latter, hoping to see those dredging thick round ones we’d heard about – but the wind was a little suss in the best morning… so never really saw it all time, although definitely tasty enough!
On the best day, rode there with only my gun in the rack, thinking it’d be solid, but the swell never really filled until later, and so took out the side fins and rode her as a single.. lots of arcing fun.
We had Flores pretty damn fantastic – should’ve taken some pics on the good days, but here’s a bit of b-roll for ya… I’ll never make a decent surf photographer for the simple fact I hate missing out on the action..
On our last day there Boma got a bomb across the whole point, ripping on her 5’8” twinnie, whilst I on the other hand got tangled up pretty bad.
I dropped in on a set with heaps of speed, but there was a guy stroking for the shoulder in front of me, and to make the section I had to bottom turn hard and fast. I dragged my hand on the surface behind the dude’s flailing legs as he duckdived, and somehow managed to get my arm wrapped up to the elbow in his leggie.
I’ve never seen anything swell-up so quickly, I burst multiple veins in my arm, couldn’t do anything for a day or two and was out of the surf for a week. By the time I surfaced from the wipeout my arm looked like something out of a science fiction movie. Weird lumpy burst veins beneath the skin.
One guy asked if I was ok, but I was so embarrassed about the gross state of it that I didn’t want him to see – just told him all was sweet and let the waves smash me into shore…
Here it is all lumped up under the bandage…
When the arm was good enough to ride again, we jumped back on the bikes and set off for Honduras…
Made it there alright (after some bureaucratic frustrations at the border) but halfway across the country I hit the most gnarliest of dirty deep potholes I ever did hit, shit, sent me wobbling and warbling all over the place – smashed up my trailer badly. Cracking the chassis seriously and shattering some of the fibreglass body…
So back to the roadside repair shop it was.. gotta love that about Central, when you’ve got a problem there’s always someone willing to give it a go… I guess it’s the workmanship that comes into question instead of enthusiasm.
The guy below was solid. Thanks mate… definitely beyond the tubes of liquid weld I’ve got in my pannier!
Camped on a Honduran farm that night, and the next day split for Northern Nica. Hung up the top end for a week or so whilst the arm recovered…
Next we rode a couple hours further south and camped in the backyard of a great local family – quite conveniently their backyard was also the beach, so it was smiles all round for a week or so there too…
Bomma found a sweet outer-reef bombora that we surfed together alone for a few days – super fun little jacking barrel into a wall. We called it Bomma’s Glory.
Then it was off to Southern Nica, to San Juan Del Sur specifically. A famous party town sort of thing, on the way there we rode up to Masaya Volcano, which still bellows and coughs sulphury gases…
The local indigenous populations used to sacrifice babies and young virgins by throwing them over the lip of the crater into the fuming lava below (not very nice) to please the Gods.
Then the Spanish sailed over the seas and told the remaining indigenous people whom they didn’t slaughter, that their traditional religion was all wrong (also not very nice) and that Catholicism was the only path to God and eternal nirvana.
The Spaniards then heard about the volcano and called it ‘The Mouth of Hell’, and so some monk fellah built a gigantic cross on top of it to keep it from erupting.
Miraculously, Masaya Volcano has only erupted 19 times since building the cross.
Sometimes I wonder that perhaps the world’s gone crazy, all this fanatical sacrifice and slaughter stuff – especially these days, you’d think we’d be over it by now.
Maybe we should just respect the volcano for what it is – a mildly dangerous and rather fiery mountain – but then again, what do I know?!
It was fun to balance on the edge..
I guess I get a bit fanatical about waves sometimes, and I do think there’s a bit of spiritual reprieve in the ocean. And the sun. And the forests and animals and other stuff too..
But that’s also the beauty of the world, we all think differently, and we’re richer for it..
I spent a week in San Juan Del Sur, proactively studying Spanish for the first time, whilst Boma road solo off to learn more about a permaculture farm on Ometepe Island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. My Spanish is still pretty rough, but I’m slowly getting there…
Unfortunately, whilst in SJDS we were provided with a stark reminder of the vulnerability of motorcyclists on the road when a local guy and girl were killed just up the road from us.
Sad stuff. Hope their families are dealing with it as best they can.
After I finished my classes, friend Dean whom I’d travelled with through parts of Mex turned up, and he was keen to get a tattoo. He’d seen a couple of ancient Aztec figurines in Mexico City Museum (below) and asked me to sketch up a design that could be tap-tapped.
So I did… and we began.
Dean sat through about 11 hours of traditional Mentawai tattooing in 2 sittings, pretty long by anyone’s standards I’d imagine, but he handled it without a single real flinch.. first tattoo he’s ever had too.. brave fellah.
I’d imagine the triceps can be a little sensitive..
We made the ink together from the Agave plant of Baja and some Nicaraguan hardwood…
We were both really stoked with how it turned out…
Also did a small one for new mate Dave, a great fellow..
After all the intensity and pain, it was time for a beer and some good food – we walked out the door of the lads’ hostel and noticed the Aztec Gods were rather happy with our offerings – put on a bloody good electrical show they did…
The rainy season is now almost in full swing – it is pouring with rain and lighting the skies with electricity every single night… for those that have ridden motorcycles a little you’d know that this isn’t exactly perfect – but whatever, we’ll make it…
We had a great dinner, then Boma and I split the next morning, arriving into Popoyo in the arvo.
The International Surfing Aassociation finals were on that weekend which meant Popoyo was chockas and the swell was rising.. we didn’t watch any of the competition, but did manage to score some quality surf…
We’d actually come north to Popoyo from San Juan Del Sur (an anomaly for us considering our end destination is very much in the opposite direction) because I was hoping to score Popoyo Outer Reef.
It never really turned on properly, maybe because the swell was too west..
But luckily after a chance meeting with Dave and Skylar we hunted down another, rarer outer reef that none of us had surfed before. The first day we paddled the kilometre or so out, on the second we rented a little panga to store lunch in the channel.
Had some cracker backhand tubes out there, just the 3 of us, proper waves with real juice… a couple of scary ones even… a session to remember.
Great way to end Nicaragua… off to Costa in the next day or so, looking forward to getting into the jungle to meet some colourful critters (fingers crossed for a sloth!) whilst the swell is down…
Hope you’re well…
Hope you’re well…
Hope you’re well…
Hope you’re bloody well… aaaaaarrrk!!
Oooh.. getting a little ahead of myself – that’s actually the sun rising in El Salvador. Can’t skip Guatemala!
Boma and I went and visited the impressive Mayan temples of Tikal in northern Guatemala, and even got to catch great mate Gaz there..
After being hassled by touts and guides, endlessly in the temples of Palenque (Mexico) I was a little dubious to these tourist trappy templey things.
Gladly, I was wrong.. Tikal is beautiful, serene, uncrowded and majestic.
The three of us dodged the few guided tour groups easily, finding many quiet moments to just sit and contemplate.
There’s a romantic sense of mystery about it all. But also tragedy. Such power, riches and spirituality– torn away unremittingly in the face of ecological collapse, drought and the over-harvesting of resources.
The site chosen for Tikal by the ancient Mayans had no water source! Well, only a couple of small, negligent springs incapable of sustaining a growing population.
The Mayans used their advanced technology and engineering to build elaborate causeways and reservoirs to catch rainwater instead, and survived on the rain for both drinking and farming for over 1500 years – remarkable really…
But as we all know, it all went to pot when the riches, technology and impotent penance to God couldn’t make rain fall from the sky..
As we sat and watched the sun set over the dense jungle reclaiming the land, we heard the distant, yet unmistakeable chime of bells ringing.
I guess in the end, nature’s always going to win…
This is a Mayan parrot.
This is the Mayan cousin of the racoon.
They’re both winning.
Here’s a rendition of a powerful Mayan King.
After a while Armageddon got a little passé, so we jumped on our fossil fuelled demon steeds and blasted outta there.
As we were riding along, our mutual coffee addiction kicked in and there was an unspoken but mysteriously synchronised acknowledgement of the need to pull over for a break.
And as we sipped on an ironically poor cup (most of the amazing beans grown locally are exported for expensive international markets, whilst locals are left with the instant stuff tasting of sugar water somehow died black), I gazed upon the map and where to go next…
And lo and behold, you bloody beauty!!!
I had made it halfway to Patagonia! Yeeeeewwww!!! Sounds a little trivial, and also a little embarrassing because I thought I’d passed that point about a month ago. But who cares! It was written right there on the map, ‘Geographic Centre of the American Landmass’ – all official like.. and we happened to be stopped right there to celebrate with shitty coffee – completely by accident…
That wasn’t enough…
We took the celebrations to a new level of intensity with Sponch. Sponch is great, its marshmallow biscuity combo really makes you wanna sponch around and celebrate. It’s just so great.
Boma and I think it’s the best onomatopoeia getting around.
We continued riding – all downhill from here – yeah! I actually was geekily excited to be over halfway there. Whatever that meant…
Turned out it wouldn’t be as easy as all that, and thanks to my enthusiastic interpretation of the map (perhaps a little distracted with the geographic centre thing and sponch) I chose a rather questionable shortcut through the mountains.
In my defence the map said it was a primary road…
Instead it was a monster of a thing.
Full of loose gravel, small boulders, potholes and shaly horribleness – all on a steep grade.
We rode for 12 hours that day.
It should’ve been 6.
Halfway through my rear brakes stopped working completely.
Boma dropped her bike 4 times, yet powered on like a soldier (protected with her Rev’It adventure apparel).
We were also held up at a mountain roadblock and extorted for some money by 8 dodgy men with gold teeth and machetes. I bargained pretty hard and only handed over 10% of what they initially demanded. Rather chuffed actually.
And 11 hours later we had reached the other side of the range – our end was in sight… my rear brakes even miraculously reappeared!
In the end, despite the exhaustion, it was a really beautiful road and mountain range, dotted with traditional Guatemalan communities.
That’s the great thing about adventure riding, it allows you to go places you normally can’t or won’t, even if it is by accident…
Then there was news of an all-time swell hitting in a few days, so jumped back on the crotch rockets and shot for El Salvador.
We made the right decision…
El Salvadorians are incredibly hospitable people from our experience so far, the first night there we were taken in (after having ridden until nightfall) by the awesome family of Mauricio and Bertali. Housed, fed dinner, beers and laughs, a big breakfast (complete with real coffee grown by Mauricio himself) and sent on our way the next morning with a great feeling about humanity.
The swell arrived the next day, and was of epic proportions – the biggest wave ever paddled was ridden during it, at Puerto Escondido where we’d been only a few weeks earlier..
It was a lot more manageable on El Salvador’s long points – but still packed plenty of punch.
Took me 45 minutes of paddling and duckdiving to make it out, even standing on the rocks to time it wasn’t easy. The lulls were rare, and to get close enough to jump meant putting yourself in the same spot that the whitewater rumbled over..
But its all worth it in the end, and couldn’t have been on a better board for the conditions, really stoked to have brought a 7’2″ along for the ride – sometimes a shorty just doesn’t cut it.
For the last hour, just myself and one local out…
Over the following days, the swell gradually dropped and became easier and more perfect..
Come in, eat a snag, get back out there..
There was talk of the swell being the biggest the region had seen in a decade or two, so I guess we were lucky. But because it coincided with full moon tides and a long weekend holiday, it also wreaked a lot of havoc for local businesses… 5 people also drowned on the same beaches we were frequenting during that swell.
This used to be a restaurant…
Bummer to see…
This used to be a sandy beach…
Yep, nature always wins I reckon.
Boma and I are back on the road, and there’s supposed to be another solid swell hitting tomorrow… fingers crossed.
I’m outta here… thanks for reading. You deserve a nice song…
Well, its been a little while.. haven’t had a lot of internet for this last stretch of Mexico – disconnected, unwired, slooowwwed right down – concerning myself with important things like wind direction, building fires, oil changes or where to fish for dinner.
So yeah, where to begin?
Seem to remember writing about the loss of my sidecar rig, which hurt, whilst conversely gaining some of my best mates to adventure with, which was epic. Seems so long ago.
Grown a beard since then. Makes me smile – so much awesomeness in the last few months, got everything we hoped for – and more.
Mexico. Mehico. Mehico.. what a place.
Sometimes so barren, it feels like Mars.
And then sometimes it’s like being illustrated into a Dr Suess’ classic. Trippy and beautiful desert forests, endemic with hardened thorns, adorned with exotic blooms.
Man that place is heartbreakingly beautiful – awe inspiring like anywhere I’ve ever been – one of the most mystical for sure.
Then when I look back and consider that I got to spend that time with some of my best mates – that’s what really makes it.
Riding solo prior to then was awesome, and I loved it – love the aloneness, the isolation, vulnerability and independence – but there’s something about sharing experiences with people you love that makes it special.
Yeah, I reckon…
We sat and watched the bush telly for hours every night..
When you remove something as dogmatic, mind-numbing and intrusive as a television from your daily life, it opens up the time and curiosity to ponder ideas outside of daily distraction and easy entertainment – even allows you to know the people around you a little better. There’s definitely some great television out there, and perhaps i’d be a smarter fellah if I bothered to watch the box now and again…
On the other hand, there’s something about the instinctual hypnosis of a dancing flame that opens up deep conversation – sometimes topics that we don’t dare arouse in a modern social setting. Religion, politics and God(?) forbid, even pondering the meaning of life. The warmth and comfort opens you up, and the stars above allows your imagination to soar – instead of being smothered and confined to 7 minute blocks of cooking competitions between commercial breaks.
Someone once mentioned to me that the fire (obviously important to many human evolutionary traits) was crucial to our intellectual probing, imagination and creativity etc, because historically our natural predators feared and avoided the flames. And since the time when we learnt to control it, were able to turn our backs to the cold darkness and potential predators, hence the luxury of sitting together around the flames to share our experiences of that day, or the next. To tell stories and learn.
Either way, whether you get deep about it or not, campfires are cooler than TV because you can roast marshmallows.
We rode and camped every night, doing it everywhere and anywhere we fancied – real freedom.
Met some top Mexi mates too, Memo, Pablo, Perry and Dean the Kiwi. They had dogs. I like dogs – almost adopted a couple already.
So many expanses of true wilderness, as far as the eye can see.
No one to tell you what to do, no national park entry fees, no ridiculous rules and regulations to adhere to – just an all-engulfing landscape and your own insignificant sense of wonder.
It feels good.
Each vastness hammering its way into your soul – depleting the engendered and desperate claw at the acquisition of crap not really needed.
You figure that out pretty quickly on a bike in the desert.
Real camping. Real adventure. Real living.
Real skies. No city obscurity.
My little (giant) brother Damo and his girl Kara even came to visit – somehow navigating a tiny hatchback hire car through the vicious roads of the rocky desert – awesome to see them again, and even better when they surprised us all by announcing they were getting engaged… Huh?! My little bro? ha.. so stoked – I love those guys so much.
On one of the nights I made some traditional Baja tattoo ink from the native Agave plant. Also found some driftwood, carved a coconut, grabbed a safety pin for a needle and a little while later started doing a few tap-tap tattoos. It’s Mentawai style tap-tap, but seemed quite fitting here in exotic Mexico.
Oh yeah, and the surfing?
We scored… all time. Everything from long points, to A-frame beachies, to heaving tubes..
But somehow I managed to erase the majority of surf shots whilst transferring them to a hardrive.. gotta love it when that happens. Still have most of the video though… but you’ll have to wait for that.
Here’s just a couple of tasters..
The bikes proved themselves 1000 times over. I love the KLR – whether bombing along on the open roads or climbing gravelly and eroded mountain passes, they handle it all reliably and doggedly. That’s not to say we didn’t have days of carnage with dropped bikes, injured bodies, dinged boards and pure exhaustion – yeah there was plenty of that…
My single wheeled off-road trailer has been one crucial element that has made this trip possible for me, after losing the sidecar I originally thought the trip was done for (I need more space than most), but when I got in touch with Trail Tail realised there was still hope.
And more than hope – this thing has doubled my space capacity and absolutely killed it through the last 4000 miles – the harder I ride the better it performs. Even though there was a small learning curve initially, I can now fly through the twisties or hook it up a gnarly gravel hill, no dramas.
The Givi top box and panniers also have proven themselves time and time again, whether river crossings, pouring rain, gnarly wind and dust, they keep all my fragile filmmaking equipment safe and sound. There’s also been a few occasions where I’ve been a little concerned to leave my gear on my bike outside whilst I slept, and the quick release removal of boxes has made it possible to keep things that bit safer.
As you can see I’m pretty loaded down, and I’ve been questioned about it by a few adventure riders. I’ve thought about cutting a few things back, but then quickly slapped myself – there’s no way I’m not surfing, or spearfishing, or filmmaking, or photographing, camping or cooking. And then add in all the necessities that even most other riders carry like tools, spare parts, water, clothes, first aid, spare fuels, maps, etc etc – yes, you are definitely loaded.
Funny thing is, there hasn’t been anywhere the bike hasn’t made it to yet – even in Baja.
The spearfishing has been great in Mexico too, so satisfying to catch your own food, to know where it’s come from and to feel good that it’s reasonably sustainable with no bycatch – taking only what we can eat.
The thing I love about spearfishing is that you’ve got to put yourself into the hunt, immerse yourself in the ocean, and become a predator. There’s no sitting around daydreaming waiting for a catch.
You work for it.
And there’s always the chance that when you’re wrestling a large, bleeding fish in a murky rivermouth, a 30 minute swim from shore, that the man in a grey suit might just come along for a look.
And he always comes from behind.
That chance of becoming the hunted. I think it’s just that bit fairer…
Hmmmm.. what else?
Oh yeah, we swam with whale sharks too – a dream come true for me…
And of course, before I go I should most definitely introduce you to H.
H is short for Heather, also known affectionately as Boma. She’s real groovy I reckon. Used to run an urban farm called Yummy Yards in Vancouver, British Columbia, and when we met was halfway through selling it. Rather convenient I guess – as that freed her up a little…
H likes surfing too…
H also likes spearfishing…
She climbs a hell of a lot better than me…
Also basically has an encyclopaedia’s worth of plant and permaculture/farming stuff in her head – which I think is pretty cool..
This is H on her first real day of riding her new bike (having never rode a motorcycle in her life til she met me!), we’re almost at 3000 metres elevation, after riding for 5 hours from sea level through some of the twistiest roads i’ve come across since Alaska or BC…
And she nailed it like a boss.
A big thanks to Rev’It for making Heather an ambassador to test out the latest and toughest adventure motorcycle apparel.
…that was a long one, thanks for sticking it out. I may as well leave you with a shot or two of where we are right now, beautiful San Cristobal De La Casas – plenty of indigenous tradition, great architecture, cool climate, strong coffee and towering mountains to keep us riding for days. Just did an interview with some Zapatista proponents about how to live outside of the western capitalist model – love learning about different ways of life…
We’re going to steal away from the ocean for a couple of weeks through Guatamala – if you’ve got any suggestions, drop us a line..
If you’ve got the time, check out The Howling Sea, a new project a few friends and I are working on as we burl down through the Baja desert and beyond in search of waves – it’s been a pretty wild journey already. Cheers
This is a hard post to write. I don’t really want to write it.
I didn’t want to believe it.
Least of all put the bloody story on the internet. Delayed doing that for a month now.. been a hard month. A big hurdle. Pretty stressful…
A month ago I crossed into Mexico.
They said don’t go to Tijuana.
So I went to Tijuana to see why I shouldn’t.
Found out pretty quick.
And on the second day there, my rig, on which I’ve ridden and lived off for the last 6 months, belonged to me no longer.
Feels surreal to say it. Feels worse to stew on it.
I don’t really know.
What I do know is that I went for a walk down at the playas of Tijuana, bought a coconut and walked the foreshore. Fresh tacos smelt bueno, so I detoured into a small restaurant and watched the sun set over the blue.
I’m guessing it was a professional job, with more than a couple of individuals involved – there must’ve been at least one watching my movements and communicating back to whoever was jacking my ride. However the hell they managed to do that…
Because after 40 mins or so I returned to where my bike was parked 30 metres away and…
Wasn’t even dark yet.
Gone. Nada. Nothing.
And that was that.
Spent the first hour or so in panic mode, thinking that perhaps I’d gotten confused with where I’d parked it – searching rather manically through blackened back streets of TJ.
That sick feeling in the pit of your gut.
Then faced the reality of the situation at 3 different police stations. Plus the bureaucracy of the Ministerio Publico. Even consulted the hardened Tijuana bikies to see if they had any leads.
Gone. Nada. Nothing.
Not many photos either in this post, partly because I haven’t really had the motivation, but mainly due to the lack of cameras. Gone.
Pretty much lost everything.
Paraphernalia galore – MIA.
Photography, filmmaking, surfing, diving, all my tools, all my clothes, all my spare parts, hardrives (that hurt), backcountry gear, cooking, sleeping, all my navigation equipment. Etcetera Etcetera…
Not even a clean pair of sox to my name.
I hung around TJ for another week – holed up in a windowless hotel, desperately willing the gods for a miraculous materialisation of my steed… hoping that I wouldn’t have to break the news to family and friends.
All I got was a knock on the door on Saturday night from an eager prostitute.
But that stuffy hotel room gave me time to consider my options. And it was there that I made the decision to continue the journey regardless.
It also allowed me to see a more attractive side of TJ and meet some great locals.
But to get things happening it was back to San Diego. To the ever-generous good-vibesy pad of Jake and Katie.
I’m not going to go into detail of what went down over the time in San Diego, mainly because it just entailed the entire re-organisation and re-purchase of everything I owned prior. I’ve burnt way more dough than what I’d ever anticipated by this stage in the trip… definitely cutting it fine.
Although it was in San Diego that I got to tee up with some good friends who I’d been planning on meeting in Baja – we spent our days working on the bikes.
Organised chaos for a month solid.
Sleeping in the Aquatic Oddities shaping bay amongst the excellent company of Pat and Jake.
Went on a groovy trip with a real groovy gal out to Joshua Tree National Park – beautiful out there…
Painted a mural at one point to say thanks to the Aquatic Oddities lads. First one I’ve ever done.
Although used oils and burnt the back of my throat on the fumes – think I’ll switch to acrylics from now on – took me a couple of days to regain my sense of smell.
Bought a cheaper, second-hand bike. His name is Ned Si-Mon – and he’s tough as all shit.
Photo Alex Doseff
Was hooked up by Givi for a full pannier system of the Outback Trekker range. Best panniers I’ve ever laid my eyes on – they are quite simply, kick-ass.
Also hooked up by Trail Tail with a badass trailer. An unreal addition to my bike, awesome on the long, fast stretches of pavement, as well as gnarly off-road creek crossings, mud and sand.
Feels amazing to be back on the road…
And although its been a rough one on the spirit and hip-pocket at times, there’s plenty of positive outcomes…
Not least of all the new steed.
But of course the amazing pack of friends to share it with.
Photo: Alex Doseff
And the waves have been solid and pumping.
Even got to surf Killers on Todos Santos Island. Something I’d dreamed of for many years…
And I still have my surfboards and tent that were tucked away in the hotel room in TJ during the robbery, safely awaiting some luckily-timed ding and tear repairs.
Photo: Alex Doseff
And now that I’m out of the predictable systems of the US and Canada, it feels like the adventure is only beginning…
I’m still determined to ride down to the bottom of the world… somehow.
Stoked on life. Stoked on the year ahead.
I hope you are too…
Happy New Year.
I left Yosemite on a beautiful Autumn day, sleep deprived, but in my mind stoked to be alive and cruising in the sun. The ride down through Big Sur was about as good as they get – epic vistas on an ocean road, the lines of swell rolling and detonating into towering cliffs above the blue.
Came across some elephant seals – rather aggressive fat things they are…
But I like ’em. Others seemed a little more chill, happy to just float in the warm waters of the estuary making strange guttural sounds of contentment.
Whilst watching the seals alone, I saw a lone figure approaching – also dressed in motorcycle gear. Turned out to be Alex, who was just about to complete his moto-surfing circumnavigation of the states, also on a KLR. We had plenty to chat about, and laughed at how random it was to bump into a fellow surfer/rider.
Then out of the blue another figure walks up, a huge smile, comic’s disposition and a classic German accent. His name was Klaus and he’d just finished riding around the world on a 50CC (yes 50, not 500) motorcycle built decades ago for people with physical disabilities (complete with a homemade trailer thing).
Klaus was not disabled from what I could see, but he was funny as all hell, and to think the guy had just completed his round the world tour, putting along at a slow 30mph, made me feel that I was almost doing it too easy.
We hung out and traded yarns (good and bad) for a while, before splitting our own ways.
Although, I’ve got a feeling I’ll be seeing Alex pretty soon…
Rode all day, before setting up my tent in a parking lot of northern LA – camping’s not so romantic round there, but luckily over the next few days got to hang out with old friend Jaeson, who I hadn’t seen since many a jamming beach-feast of BBQ’d fish in Mentawai about 5 years prior.
Great to catch up again, go surfing, riding, and see the sights of Orange County. Even made it to some billionaire’s Halloween party in his marina-side mansion.
Awesome few days – thanks to the Plon family for being such great hosts and fun people to be around…
Before riding into Mexico, I had a few things to sort out – like swap out my tires for something more aggressive, buy goggles and a dust mask instead of sunnies, new oil filters etc.
Oh yeah, and start learning some Spanish…?!?
Luckily, was introduced to this fine gentleman and his lovely partner in crime Katie (second shot), They offered to put a roof over my head for a couple of days alongside Gaz and Teash who had been there a while already, in order to get the final things sorted before crossing the border..
Whilst there I got to check out and film a little of Jake’s amazing work with the Eco-flex boards he’s been producing. Even got to try a couple out on – they’re fast and sexy as hell.
Jake’s been shaping for a couple of decades now (along with running an organic farming business and a range of other creative pursuits), and has been leading the industry in high performance boards made from recycled and environmentally friendly materials.
Boards that don’t sacrifice performance or ethics I guess.
He’s got some beautifully wild shapes… functional too.
Check out the Eco-flex boards here, as well as his latest project – Aquatic Oddities.
In amongst the preparations, we had some dinners with other likely and inspiring folk, a couple of travelling and immensely talented artists joined us one evening for a spot of black light scorpion hunting.
We found 2 in the space of 15 minutes.
I got chatting with Celeste and Aaron who had just had an art show down in Mexico city, and after seeing a little more of what they get up to, found myself yearning to get behind the paintbrush again. These guys kill it.
Only a few days after I met them they’d already whipped up this mural in San Diego below…
Always stoked to meet passionate people…
Would’ve liked to have hung at the San Diegan ranch a little while longer, but I was hoping to squeeze in a bit of language study before a new and exciting chapter unfolded.
And so off to Mexico it was…
A couple of weeks ago I had the scariest encounter I’ve ever had camping – and this time it wasn’t the bears.
I’d been moving around a bit before making my way to Yosemite National Park. Spent a few days hanging out in San Fran, just walking around and checking out the art in the mission area etc – was a nice change to spend some time in a city.
Also hung out in Santa Cruz for a few days doing some surfing, the waves were super fun, but a lot more crowded than further north. Didn’t stay for that long, but it seemed like an awesome town with plenty happening.
Then an inland detour into Yosemite. I almost didn’t go because I’d booked into some Spanish lessons down in Ensenada, Mexico, that weren’t that far off.
But I’m glad I did – it was beautiful, spectacular and grounding.. everything you’ve ever heard about it stands true I’d say. Being Autumn, it wasn’t crowded with tourists either.
Would’ve loved to have done some climbing or proper backcountry hikes – perhaps next time.
Instead I did a few day hikes, and spent the rest of the time just doing some timelapse photography.
At one point I headed up to Glacier Point, and the view there actually made my palms sweaty at times. It felt so vast and impressive that it was almost overwhelming – especially on the edge.
I started a timelapse and 8 hours later I couldn’t bring myself to turn the camera off – everything just kept getting better and better. From about an hour before sunset to looong into the night.
Sundown was beautiful. I didn’t enhance any colour in any of the shots below –it just did what it did.
I set up my tent in anticipation for the long night ahead..
..and kept shooting the stars for hours – one of the more memorable events I’ve ever timelapsed.
Eventually, with no cloud cover, and being so high up on an autumnal evening, it got so cold was steered into my tent. I’m sure it got well below zero that night.
Now I know you’re not supposed to camp there, but by the time I was ready for bed there wasn’t another soul around for miles, and it was too cold to ride the bike without heated gloves…
…plus I like stealth camping, especially in places you’re not supposed to…
But a few hours later I was seriously wishing I had chosen the campgrounds…
Very far from help.
Woke up at 2.30am to the distinct sound of rustling and woofing at my tent. Assumed it must be a bear again, and so popped the safety off the spray and undid the fly. I’d been through these motions many times by that point, and although I never liked it, felt ready to defend myself… here we go…
Knew i’d heard something, so got out of the tent and checked my surrounds. Walked around for a bit until behind me slinks a big wolf canine character standing about as tall as halfway up my thigh. He’s not scared, just slinking behind me 10 metres or so away.
And he was definitely interested.
And it was him poking his nose under my tent – checking me out.
NB. After having spent 4.5 months camping in this part of the world I knew well enough to not have food, toothpaste etc in there with me.
I shone the torch in his eyes and he slunk away into the forest – but only slowly. I remember not being scared at that point – just thinking that it was cool to see a wolf again – think I was just relieved to not have to fight off a bear.
But clambering back inside, I started thinking it was a little strange that he’d been investigating my tent.
And then it all kicked off.
He waited for me to zip the fly closed before giving one massive howl – I didnt capture that first howl, but this is the minute or so afterwards…
Ab. So. Lute. Ly. Terrified. The video doesn’t show (or sound) how many there were, I didn’t have the camera properly set up (even the picture is the wrong shutter speed), and with no real mic on there was hard to capture what was going on.. but anyway I digress..
2.30am. Completely alone and surrounded. No help. Bike on the other side of the forest.
Wolves in said forest, surrounding the tent all of them between about 10 and 30 metres away i’d say.
Black, black night. One measly little can of bear spray and my tripod to fight off the pack.
Seriously thought they were howls for an attack – all so close. It reminded me of going on wild boar hunts in Mentawai – the Umma longhouse’s pack of dogs howling and psyching as poison arrows were slid into sheaths, bow’s strung and into the forest.
The thrill of the chase.
The howling continued for 3-5 mins, and then stopped all of a sudden.
For the next 2 hours I sat at my tent door, watching for anything, not moving. Too scared to go through the forest to the bike and get out of there, but also too scared to close the tent door. Battery on the torch running out conveniently, so sat there in the darkness of an already set, crescent moon. I’m guessing there was about 10 of them around me.
Twice that night I tore open the fly ready to fight.
In all my years of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing I have never felt that same electric adrenaline flaring up my spine as in those moments. Perhaps an instinctual fight or die reaction…? In my mind it was that anyway..
Didn’t really sleep again until the sun came up.
And oh my, was I happy to see sunrise.. best sunrise of my life.
I did some research afterwards, and apparently there aren’t any wolves in Yosemite, just healthy mountain coyotes. And in hindsight, listening to the howls on the video, they are definitely coyotes, not wolves. A lot less intimidating..
There were probably three reasons I’d thought they were wolves:
Although it does seem that when you get coyotes in a pack, they can become dangerous. Not that long ago Canadian folk singer Taylor Mitchell was killed by 2 coyotes.
There’s a few videos like this floating around on the net too.
But I think in hindsight, the threat was probably never really that great, even though it freaked me out at the time.
I imagine that the Alpha was checking me out as a foreign and potential invader to his territory, and that was why he was woofing and nosing my tent while I slept. Then when I got out to investigate, he kept his distance and stayed behind me, to keep an eye on my movements. And most likely once I’d returned into my tent, he realised that I was no threat and gave that one massive howl in order to reunite with his pack.
Otherwise, why didn’t they attack??
Professor Gary Julian, from Penn State University talks about the howls:
“It has several functions. One is to call the pack—really a family group—back together again after a period of individual hunting. A second reason that coyotes howl is to advertise their presence to other packs, essentially warning those other family groups against trespassing across territorial boundaries.”
So yeah, that’s probably it. Nothing to worry about really…
One thing I can say, was that looking back on it, it was a beautiful moment.
For that fleeting space of time I’d been reintroduced into the natural order things, beyond the every day of human existence.
A very simple and primal situation – but one that’s forever etched in my mind.
I’m writing this post from inside my tent, pitched deep in a spruce forest on a black new moon night. I said goodbye to my friends, Gaz and Teash earlier today – alone on the road again.
It’s a beautiful night, not another soul or town for miles – it’s nights like this that make camping in the bush special. I love it.
I can still hear the giant swell, easily 5 or 6 times overhead, smashing and crashing into the tortured cliffs of Oregon – a constant roar of energy.
Oregon feels less like bears.
Not that I didn’t enjoy camping in Alaska and Canada – but after a few interesting encounters, its kind of nice to think that I’m slowly working my way out of bear country.
I’ve woken up on countless nights, grasping one in each hand – waiting with baited breath, ready to face whatever the hell was just outside my tent.
Normally just a raven or a deer…
The most intense nights were easily those in spruce forests of coastal Alaska, especially on the coast – teeming salmon runs feeding dense populations of gigantic bears.
Alone almost every night – no campgrounds – just in the bush.
Sort of alone…
I never had to use my spray or machete, but came face to face with the bears on a few occasions.
I didn’t have my camera with me when I literally opened my tent to a Black bear 2 feet from me (who had just eaten all my poorly strung food bag), and so later was determined to try and get a selfie when a griz decided to surprise me as I set up camp.
This was as best as I could do..
It’s a wide angle lens, which makes him look small, and it’s only his top half visible – his abdomen and hind legs below the embankment.
So the frame-grab’s not too impressive (my hands were also shaking a lot too) – but it was an awesome feeling locking eyes with a coastal brown bear at such close quarters. Slowly backing away, heart beating hard.
Heart beating very hard…
You get a better idea of his size here…
Such a different feeling than any of the blacks I’ve met.
The browns rule the land.
Once saw a gigantic fully grown moose, the size of two dairy cows put together, lying on the forest edge, its skeleton freshly gleaned of meat – bright white with streaks of red in morning light.
For animals that can grow to 1500 pounds, they move mighty fast, and have been clocked at 50km an hour – there’s no outrunning them. Or outswimming. Or outclimbing.
Actually the only tactic for Browns recommended by the biologists and authorities is to slowly back away, and if it charges, play dead.
“If an attack is prolonged (after playing dead) or the bear starts eating you, it is no longer being defensive and it is time to fight back” (www.bearsmart.com)
Later I had a more calculated encounter with a wild brown bear (Grizzly), sitting far away, on the end of a long focal length.
Oh and by the way, not sure if you remember Noora, the Finnish hiker attempting to cross the Brooks range solo, on a month-long hike in ridiculously remote Alaska?
Noora had a run in with a Grizzly – got off fortunately unharmed, but understandably decided to turn around and count her lucky stars after the incident.
“I was crossing a big river in a thick fog, when out of nowhere this grizzly appeared right in front of me. I managed to spray it on the face, but its paw touched me enough to make me fall in to the big river. Luckily I managed to get to the shore, miraculously found my backpack about 500 meters downsteam, and got myself warm again after many hours. As I said, good to be alive.”
Attacks like these are actually exceedingly rare, and for the most part bears do not perceive us as potential prey or as food. Most attacks occur when a bear is surprised (which may have been the case in Noora’s situation, given that it was foggy and the sound of the river might’ve drowned out her approach?), or defending food or cubs.
There were some mornings in the forests of Yakutat where I would wake up and find a pile of bear scat that resembled something an elephant would’ve been proud to have deposited. Right outside the front of my tent.
They were somewhat melancholy moments, feeling slightly shaken that a coastal brown was obviously checking me out during the night while I slept, but also relieved and content in the knowledge that they don’t really want to eat us – not too often anyway.
If they did, I would have been chomped a long time ago.
They definitely don’t attack nearly as often as the sports hunters like to shoot them for fun.
Some ‘hunters’ just lay bait, secure themselves safely away in a hide, wait for a bear to turn up to check out the bait, then shoot the Bruin giant at point-blank.
Not very ‘sporting’ now is it. Not really even hunting.
Just safe trickery in my opinion
I’m a little dubious as to how many of ‘hunters’ actually eat the grizzly bear meat themselves, and how many do it more for the glory and peer awe of a taxidermed bruin in the loungeroom.
I’m all for sustainable hunting of game, more so than eating meats from the unetheical shelves of most supermarkets, and I’ve done a lot of spearfishing and the odd bit of boar hunting in the past.
But to term any of it a ‘sport’…?
After hanging out in beautiful Point Arena for a few days, it was always going to be a gamble when the swell forecast showed a good low on the horizon.
Do I stay and continue to surf in what would probably be some great waves here? It must get epic…
Or do I take a chance and ride 4 hours south to a very dangerous wave that I know nothing about, without the right boards, with no mentor and with the swell hitting within the next 24 hours…? Will it even break? What are the right winds?
Safer bet to stay, I’m guaranteed waves.
But it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity… errrsh… it’s a risky move.
I packed up the bike from the cemetery where I’d been camping and hit the road.
Quite a few hours later I was standing on top of a cliff in beautiful Half Moon Bay watching the swell begin to fill in.
I asked a guy on the cliff, Mike, if he knew where to buy a strong leg-rope. We got chatting and he laughed when I mentioned that I was thinking about trying to surf Mav’s on my 7’2”.
A little while later he introduced me to a nice fellah, Jeff Clark. For those of you who might not know, Jeff’s name is synonymous with Mavericks, credited as being the longest and one of the hardest charging surfers out there. Some say he surfed it alone for 15 years before the rest of the world caught on.
A big wave legend.
And yet for someone with this hardcore reputation and the potential for attitude, he turned out be a relaxed and genuinely nice guy.
After chatting for a while, I explained that I was a little under-gunned. Jeff very graciously walked me over to his truck and pulled out a beautiful 10’4”.
I was in awe.
We strapped it to the bike as best as we could. He didn’t even ask for any money, my phone number, deposit or email. Very trusting – very cool.
I bought a gun leggie from his store, Mavericks Surf Shop, and went off to find somewhere to camp for the night.
Figured I may as well camp on the Mavericks beach. Was a beautiful night. But the swell woke me up at 2 in the morning, and I lay awake for at least 2 hours wondering what the hell I was getting myself into.
Woke up early and excited – beautiful Californian fall morning.
Made some oatmeal with trailmix, banana and dehydrated milk. Drank water.
Checked the surf, no one out, but the swell’s starting to come up. No way I’m paddling out alone. Nah I don’t think so…
I actually went to the library (yes the library!) and let a few southerly squalls blow through – rain and wind. Maybe I wouldn’t get my window? Oh well…
A few hours later I returned for another look, but before I could make it to the cliff met 2 guys from Santa Cruz in the car park – Dan and Henry who were like:
“We’re not even gonna check it – we’re out there as soon as I get this damn inflatable vest thing on.”
One of the soda bulbs goes off and Dan’s standing there all inflated. We laugh, but deep down I wished I had one too…
Either way they knew what they were doing, having surfed it regularly for years. Dan’s super knowledgeable and friendly, and offers to show me where not to get caught in the boneyard rocks, as well as some lineup points.
Sweet. Clamber into the wettie, wax board, drink water. No matter how much water I drink, my mouth is dry.
Here we go…
Follow them out…
There were only 3 others in the lineup when we paddled out, a few bombs thundered across the reef. It seemed to me that they were pretty legit waves.
I sat and watched for 40 mins or so from the channel, almost a 100m away from the peak, making sure I was far away from it actually. Trying to understand how it breaks.
By that stage a few more crew had paddled out, it was time to get in there.
I ended up getting 5 waves in 4.5 hours that afternoon. Awesome feeling. Blowing my mind out there… The swell increasing, the tide dropping right out, perfect winds – classic conditions.
Although don’t get me wrong, it gets waaay bigger than this day, way gnarlier.
But it wasn’t as small as it gets either.
Below’s a little clip of one of my waves when Curt from Powerlines Productions arrived on the jetski – thanks for the hook up mate. It wasn’t my best wave over the 2 days, but it wasn’t my worst either. I didn’t fall on any. Looking back on it, perhaps I should’ve – maybe I should’ve gone harder…
A little embarrassing that I’m shoulder hopping it, but it was a swinger, and I’m probably stoked I wasn’t that guy taking off in the bowl – from memory there were a couple behind it. It did reform nicely.
So yeah as far as waves go at Mavericks it’ll never be remembered by anyone but me, but I’m just stoked I got a few for my first time out there.
Below is a couple of shots from the same swell that’ve popped up on the internet since – it’ll be good to see if anyone puts up the backlit arvo shots from when it was at its best – havn’t seen any yet…?
Many photogs lined the cliffs… we’ll see.
But for the moment…
The next morning wasn’t as clean, but there were still some solid ones coming through.
The wind got into it in the arvo, but for some reason this was when I got my best one…
Sometimes it pays to take a risk…
Not long ago I packed my bag, took a punt on which board could be right, locked my bike as best I could and set forth on a 30km hike. A hike that had to be timed with the tides if you wanted to make it without being smashed into sheer cliffs or dragged out to sea.
I’d arrived late and solo, initially starting the hike in the middle of the night, only to realise that it was a little foolish considering I didn’t know where I was going, I was alone, it was dark, and I was late for the tides.
So decided to wait it out for the morning.
After being told off by the ranger for my not-so-stealth camping efforts, I had a chat with new friend Aloe, who’d also arrived solo with the same idea.
Embarking on all day hike with someone you don’t know is a bit of an awkward gamble, but the conversation came easily and we were soon passing the time with stories, laughs and many tucker breaks.
The packs though, were probably the heaviest we’d ever hiked with.
We hiked all day and arrived at night, just in time to find a couple of prime spots, get the tents up and cook some well needed dinner. Exhausted.
In the morning we woke to some little peelers – the swell predicted to grow throughout the next few days.
And what a few days it was…
Perfect on so many fronts. Classic Oregonian fall – beautiful weather, people and waves…
I’d only brought out my 5’10, deciding that I had too much gear already to try and lug the 7’2” with me also.
As the swell kept increasing, I wasn’t sure how the 5’10” would handle, but Corey Graham had the foresight when shaping it to leave a little extra volume, push the mid point forward slightly, and liked the idea of a multi fin set up.
At the peak of swell I swapped the quad out for a two-up fin setup. The difference it made was huge, that big centre fin feeling like it drew out the bottom turns as if I was on a gun, and yet with that much power in the waves, felt like it turned on a dime.
The days were beautiful.
And so were the nights. Essentially alone in the wilderness, aside from the distant campfires of the few fellow surf-trekkers.
About as good as the surfing lifestyle gets I think…
Surfing is more than a sport.
Sometimes I feel the million dollar sporting competitions cheapen it. Don’t get me wrong, the pros are unbelievable and inspirational to me. But all that marketing? All those rules? All those clocks…?
There’s not much of that here.
No scores, no uniforms, no winners, no losers, no whistles or half time – just you, your own slightly weird style of surfing – along with the universe and choices to be made in life.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
– Jack London
Unfortunately, after dreaming at the stars for too long, i’d mistakenly ignored The Howling Sea and wind, and upon returning to my campsite tired and ready for bed, discovered I no longer had a tent.
Strange feeling. Was someone playing a trick on me? Weird joke to play on a tired fellah…
I scoured the beach (cursing myself) for 20 minutes before finding her bedraggled, torn to shreds and soaking wet – with all my sleeping stuff and clothes inside.
She lay in the rocky foreshore at least 300m away, sandblasted and being pounded by a large and building swell.
After getting some help to move the bloody thing, I piled her with rocks to counter the wind.
Luckily I’d made a couple of friends who really helped me out – Nick, Aaron, Mike and Aloe. Mike even gave me his amazing furry onesie and a boardbag to sleep in for the night.
Why did Mike have a furry onesie on a 30km hike? Don’t ask me. But thanks a lot mate, it was incredible…
In the morning I did my best to fix her with some duct tape (flying-pig decorated duct tape no less) that Michelle had given me. I think there were about 30-40 tears in it, some about 30cm long.
She’s still holding up though. I’m gonna see how long I can make her last.
Love that tent.
In the last 4.5 months I’ve probably camped about 120 or more of the nights – the other 15 or so spent at gracious friend’s homes.
I reckon she’ll make it to South America.
Some moments brand a lasting scar.
Like times spent marching on moonlit beaches, legs burning – the exertion of miles and miles. Heavy packs and right awkward boards.
Keep moving, tide’s changing, sheer cliff’s looming – don’t get caught. Watch the step, but don’t forget the stars. Or the rocks. The low tide moon-sparkle on the wet, and the deepest blacks of all colours at once. 20-20 everywhere. Wanna stay and wonder, but gotta keep moving. Eat a carrot. Eat another. Keep going.
Drink in the silhouetted redwoods as they march past. Breathe out warm white swirls into the cold black immensity.
The allure of shimmering ahead, rising silver behind the cliffs…
Its distant glow casts soft light across the toppled tree – draws us in, standing enamoured. How can something so wise, so beyond our small selves of comprehension lay like this at our feet? Vulnerable beyond repair, breaking hearts. A behemoth redwood root-ball 20ft in gnarled diameter, most of it worn away from the years it’s spent half buried in the shores of this mighty black sand beach. The sad and knowing monumental trunk reaching into the depths of who knows where.
A broken memory of the moments when we still had respect – before the fucking televisions sequestered our hearts and minds.
Those moments when Mother Nature might obliterate our scurrying selves, balanced on slick cobbleboulders – whitewater churning below our feet with shorepounds overhead. And the torn souls trapped in the rushing shallows – their white-laced hands hissing and grasping desperately for our slip.
But turn off the head torch for a moment, we’ve hit the low tide sand pack. Turn it off…
It’s moving to hike without it.
Now look up, look at the moon. Oh my god, look at the moon…
Northern California is amazing. Reminds me a lot of Victoria – cold water, big waves, big fish, big forests, rootsy vibes..
I met some great people there – people I hope to run into again in the future, not all of them in shot below.
Surfing everyday – great vibe in and out of the water.
At one point went for a 3-day hike with Mike and Pete along the lost coast, the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in California. Too costly and hard to build roads on, and so it remains a grand wilderness area for the most part.
We hiked in at night…
Under the glow of an almost full moon, we checked new and unknown waves – hoping…
Beautiful autumn weather – no need to bring tents…
We hiked during the days too – ambient temperatures under the canopies were perfect. Steep elevations and dangerously tempting shore-pound beaches.
We found a funky little point break seldom ridden (the seals would attest), and surfed against a dramatic backdrop that will forever be etched in my mind.
A very alive ecosystem.
That feeling of sitting in the imagined safety of a deep kelp bed, surrounded by an astonished colony of seals trying figure out what on earth we were, the pelican-laced rock stacks refracting the swell, their silhouetted stature back-lit by the brilliant orange of the setting sun. Breathtaking. No camera.
Yeah I guess you had to be there.
I also did some solo hiking around the mighty redwood forests of the north.
Left me speechless.
Although John Steinback summed it up pretty well…
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”
– John Steinback.
Like he said, no justice in the photographs…
I stayed for a few days – hiking, admiring and meditating on it. Hiding from the rangers and their probing torches at night…
As I rode southwards down the coast, the regular smells of the forest would be interrupted by distinct pockets of perfume redolent of the famous ganja farms of Humboldt.
Sometimes upon entering a valley, the stench was almost intoxicating.
Overwhelmingly blatant and thick.
Yep Humboldt’s an interesting place, that’s for sure..
Transients come from all over the country (and world) to try and find work as ‘trimmers’ – nimble-fingered hippies meticulously trimming and refining the prized buds.
It’s not really my bag – don’t have time for it, but thought it was an interesting, if not a central aspect to a true NorCal post – as anyone that’s been here in the harvest months will attest.
I didn’t realise but almost half of the US states have made cannabis legal for medicinal purposes, and it’s completely legal in a couple of states with more following suit.
Certainly makes Australia seem very conservative and strict. Not really something that I care too much about personally, but it does seem a little incongruous considering how mainstream Australia embraces binge drinking almost as a cultural pillar…
Anyway, I’m off topic.
My drugs of choice are camping and surfing…
And impressive trees…
And ferny canyons…
As well as chance encounters with impressive creatures…
Or surfing alongside giants…
Yeah that’s plenty enough stimulation for me…
Upon arriving into Arcata, Humboldt county, I visited a surf-shop called The Neighborhood, just looking to buy a little fin screw – but after meeting the owner Jess, and being offered a cold beer straight away, I found myself hanging out for a couple of days.
Turned out Jess and Marnie (sorry no pics of these great people, just video), were in the midst of setting up a collaborative space for surfers, shapers, artists, food lovers, muso’s, photographers and groms to hang out and share the stoke.
They’d just leased a great space that looked a like an aircraft hanger to me, and were working hard to morph it into said space.
Whilst hanging out, I got chatting with local artist, Matt Beard, who’s now part of the Neighborhood collective. As someone who enjoys painting as a creative outlet, I was keen to check out his work.
Matt has developed an impressive series of paintings documenting the landscape and waves of California – but somehow it’s more than that.
Better that he describes what it’s all about (the guy’s great with the pen too), rather than the limits of my poor prose and misconceptions.
Just as a taster, here’s a couple of his pieces that jumped out at me.
Oregon is a beautiful place, raw and epic. I felt dwarfed by its immensity and the foreboding ocean that sometimes had me locked to the beach, staring out across some of the largest swells I’ve ever seen.
Nowhere to go – no headland holding. It seemed the whitewater stretched out as far as my eyes could sea.
A lot of the coast is sparsely populated, and even in regions with small towns there is plenty of forest to camp in – no rangers, no RV’s.
I woke on one morning to find that I’d set up the tent in the middle of an elk bed. A bull, his 20 or so does and their calves relaxed around me as I cooked my morning oatmeal. The forests felt a lot less beary than up north – only saw one black.
I didn’t meet many other surfers on the Oregon coast, just miles and miles and miles of empty beaches. It seemed most of the time I was trying to find refuge from the swell, just trying to find anywhere that could hold it. There were days that I couldn’t.
But there were days that I did.
A majestic coastline.
At one point was riding along, when all of a sudden I thought I saw Bells Beach, Australia. Had to stop the bike and do the double take. Had I somehow been instantly transported back home for a moment? My gosh, it looks exactly the same. Was that the torquay pub? Surely not…
Of course not, that’s ridiculous. This was called Indian beach – definitely a little reminiscent of something somewhere though…?
Oregon is a beautiful place. Indeed.
Stopping at Seaside was a strange anomaly to my ride so far. I’d heard rumours of how blow-in surfers were treated – but I treated them with a grain of salt. I’d heard that sort of thing before and figured as long as I blew in low key, paddled out solo, sat wide and waited, it’d be cool.
I won’t go on about it, but for 3 days I was subjected to a form of localism I just couldn’t get my head around. Don’t get me wrong, of course locals deserve the sets and the inside, and I’m not about to hassle or even paddle for taken waves.
But the clearest instance of surfing gone wrong (in my mind), was the best day of the swell – my second day there. I’d sat out the whole morning whilst it pumped at 6ft, tubes for breakfast – all you can eat, 10-15 guys out.
Sat it out on the shore and waited.
Then it went onshore, messy, the tide dropped out and everyone went in, except one local. Now’s the window me thought. Into wetsuit, wax board up, hop the cobblestones, freezing water – colder than Alaska.
Then weirdly, as how sometimes happens with surfing, the conditions started to change again. The wind dropped until we had pure indo-esque glass, and the inconsistency pulsed into 4-5 wave sets every 5-10 mins.
Just one local and I.
Too many waves for just two people, pumping 6ft tubes going unridden as everyone sat at home warming fingers or eating brunch.
For the moment anyway…
‘Hey man, Cali called – they want you back.’
‘I’m not from Cali mate…’
*pause to think*
‘I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear you. MATE.’
‘Rightyo – its cool’
‘You’re getting lucky right now man. You just wait.’
‘No worries mate.’
I kept laughing in my head as each set came through, let him take off on a sick one, and catch the next wave of the set, smoking and proper. Reminded me of some waves in the ments, but if I could compare it to anything it’d be the reverse of a particular wave in the far north of Scotland. Yeah, equal to that I’d say.
I ignored the guy’s brooding seething beneath his rubber-hooded head. Whatever man.
A yell from the beach. The campfire burning. One more local doing that weird sea lion noise that their gang does in greeting to each other, or as a threatening bark at a blow-in. They’ve got a weird secret hand signal thing too. West side.
He paddles out, pumped up. Gaunt, hawk-like features and burning eyes that look like they need sleep. Leering. Fuming. Icy eyes.
I sit wide.
The next 15 minutes are followed by vitriolic dribble, spitting, and eventually the threat of physical violence. Now I’m actually in shock, trying my best to stay passive, play it cool. I paddle wide, he follows me, sits an inch from me until we bump. Loses it.
The guy is paddling around like a mad man, ruining his own surf and blowing waves by concentrating on how he can harass me. Then a dude from Santa Cruz paddles out. That’s it, Hawky’s lost the plot, now he’s flying off the handle and paddles towards him…
The dude from Santa Cruz has seen it all before – handles it smooth. He winks at me – cool cat. I’m still in shock.
I keep surfing, but the vibes are so bad that I’m not enjoying it at all. Just out there to prove a point now.
Clamber up the cobblestones with a distinct bitterness in my mouth.
I’m outta here.
As I’m getting out I see Hawky paddle into a good one, he threads the tube, and hits the lip 3 times before kicking out…
…with the prowess of a guy who knows the wave better than anyone, but with the smug inward thinking of a guy who’s never surfed anywhere else.
As he paddles back out another set rolls in, 4 perfect waves pass him by unridden, I hear him faintly yelling something – seemingly at the ocean this time.
Start the bike.
NB. I’d just like to highlight that this experience or post is not directed at Americans. Unfortunately surfing has its dark sides, in all parts of the world – although seaside point is apparently amongst some of the worst out there. The people i’ve met in north America have been some of the best people i’ve met anywhere. Everywhere else i’ve surfed on this epic west coast has been great. Awesome people…
This particular post is long overdue and unfortunately far from all encompassing.
Its about the generosity of strangers and new friends. I don’t really know where to begin with it. Definitely can’t start listing all the people who’ve showed me kindness for no reason other than being good humans – there’s just too many.
The North Amercian continent has blown my mind so far, and the people within it have cemented my love for this place, I’ve felt nothing but stoke (apart from seaside point and the rather strange Alaskan woman who kept throwing stones at me in my tent).
I guess this post is just about saying thankyou.
I lost my leatherman that was given to me by my parents 10 years ago before my first series of travels – Jim gave me his that he’s had for over 20 years, the original model made in Oregon.
I broke my sunglasses – Jason gave me his. I broke my sunnies again – Greg gave me his.
I’ve been bought coffees, beers, dinners, breakfast, lunches and deserts. Given roofs to crash under – last night I slept in a new friend’s trailer as it poured with rain. My tent still in tatters from where it blew across the rocks into the ocean.
Been given a furry onesie and a board bag to sleep in after pulling my tent and all my sleeping gear wet from the ocean.
Been given duct-tape with flying pigs on it to fix my tent.
Found vouchers for a bakery tucked into my bike by an anonymous lady.
I’ve was even given $40 cash for the road once. Forced to take it, stuffed into my hand, by a genuinely good bloke.
Free work done on my bike, free parts, free labour – wouldn’t accept anything.
Sage advice given, and taken. Strong handshakes and genuine smiles.
Even vegemite and an awesome jar of peanut satay sauce.
New friends made. So many good vibes.
I’ve tried to offer what I can also, and I hope I’ve never seemed like I was asking for any of it, certainly tried my best to refuse some – but down the track, one day, I’ll pass all this generosity forward.
Thankyou for everything so far North America – you’re awesome.
Recently the world lost a great man.
Although I haven’t been living in Sumatra for a few years now, I can’t remove the impact it’s had on my life, like nowhere else I’ve ever been – arrow to the heart.
Aki was one of the first people I met, always smiling, always so polite and generous, so gentle and so stoked. I always thought of him as carrying that traditional Japanese honour in some way.
Living for life. A life of tropical barrels, bbq’d fish and imagery.
Nothing but positive memories.
Life is short.
Arigato Aki. RIP
I think I’ve already mentioned in the posts below how I managed to run myself into the ground by the time I arrived into Vancouver – riding hard and eating badly.
If ever there was a healing formula for such a condition, organic veggies seem to do it for me.
On my way through Vancouver City enroute to Washington I decided to drop into friends Heather and Lauren’s place, I was interested in learning a little more about how they had setup their urban farm Yummy Yards – growing and selling amazing fresh and organic food in the city. You can check it out here.
I turned up in time for a Friday night feast of sorts with a bunch of good crew, something that must go down a lot on the farmstead – a sweet little house nestled amongst towering maples, apple orchards, flowers and a mouth-watering array of groundcover.
Turns out these organic entrepreneurs have a range of mini farms scattered throughout urban Vancouver, on land that might otherwise have only harboured lawn or weeds.
I hadn’t really heard a lot about urban farms before, although I guess CERES in Brunswick is a similar sort of thing, except Heather and Lauren run theirs as a business rather than a not-for-profit. So I asked them if I could do a little filming – luckily they said yes, and then even went ahead and cooked me the best breakfast I’d had on the trip so far. Think homemade kimchi, 4 types of homemade jam, homemade bread, freshly harvested vegies and good coffee on a sunny little veranda surrounded by hundreds of curing onions and garlics hanging from the ceiling.
The next day Heather came up with an idea to trade some vegies for a fresh salmon down at the docks, so we headed to one of the farms for a choice harvest, one sure to please any fisherperson.
Then we headed down to the docks, where Heather worked her magic on some unsuspecting fisherman – he traded a prime fish without a second thought. He did get a killer deal…
Now that we had a fish, it was a quick stop for 8 strips of Big Leaf Maple bark.
A pinch of cliff jumping..
A dash of rock climbing…
It was quite the day, and by the time we got back to the farmstead it was already night, but all 3 of us jumped into action and got a radiating bed of coals stoked in the pit (love getting stoked in the pit). Made edible flower and blackberry salads, and strapped up the salmon with the maple branch and bark for a jungle-style barbeque. Lauren even whipped up some dirty margaritas – yeah!
As anyone that’s spent time in Padang, West Sumatra might know, Joni Koon’s ikan bakar santan sauce is pretty tops. A few years ago I managed to get the recipe out of Ibu, and it came in handy on this random evening in British Columbia.
The photo below is actually from a different night of feasting with a different fish that Lauren whipped up, too many feasts to keep track of…
Quite the day indeed.
One day easily turned into a week (eating similarly throughout) before I hit the road again – totally rejuvenated, feeling healthy and stoked – ready for the next leg. Although it was very tempting to stay.
A massive thanks to Heather and Lauren for being such gracious hosts, and for showing me a bit about their organic farms and inspiring way of life. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to visit the farmstead again – i’ll be sure to bring the eggs.
From Fairbanks all the way to down to Vancouver Island there is no easy way to access the exposed ocean beaches and reefs, there’s definitely some outer islands such as Haida Gwai and Sitka that would’ve been amazing to explore, but even then boat access would’ve be a must.
The ocean had been on my mind a lot since leaving Fairbanks, and so arriving into Vancouver Island was a culmination of exhaustion, relief and pure bliss.
It’s a beautiful rugged coastline, interspersed with long sandy beachies, and a few great little communities.
The waves were pretty small for the most part, but I borrowed a longboard on a couple occasions, and that sweetened the little long-period lines.
The sea fog was classic, it’d just roll in out of nowhere and engulf everything. Most mornings it sat there until midday, only to be burnt off by the warm sun and blue skies in the arvo.
One thing I really liked was how friendly the surf scene was there, and it seems at least half of Canadian sliders are surfer babes – could it be the girls that keep things more chilled out in the water? Either way, I got to meet so many amazing people – guys and girls, some of the most chilled locals I’ve surfed with.
NB. I’m in Oregon now and have just had a surf at one particular break with possibly the stinkiest locals I’ve ever encountered, borderline hilarious when they were trying to send me in (before I’d even paddled out) – that’s not happening mate. But also a little disconcerting when it sounds like they routinely and systematically knife tyres and vandalise vehicles with plates from outside of Oregon. Especially since my bike kinda stands out. Real open minded stuff.. pfffft.. ha. There were a couple of cool guys though, and I must admit, it is a class wave…
Aaaanyway, back to Vancouver Island…
It wasn’t all longboarding. We had a couple of really fun and punchy 3ft beachy sessions. It was a good warm up after not having surfed since a weird and sometimes gnarly tidal bore near Anchorage.
Was refreshing to surf everyday…
I camped on riverbeds, forests and clear-cuts initially, but upon arriving into the little town of Ucluelet decided I needed a break and set up in a campground. It also meant I got to meet some more awesome people. Was a great little campsite, had some amazing dinners with Markus the timber boat specialist and Sarah the professional ballerina turned novelist, Jen an amazing chef, Giovanni the Italian romantic, and Dennis the ever enthusiastic travelling muso. Great to stop moving and just hang out – and to start eating healthily again.
I ran into a couple of groovy surfer girls at one point, Kayla and Heather and who managed to turn up right in time for the swell – had a blast hanging out with those two.
After a few weeks it was time to leave, time to get back into the lower 48, to keep moving and keep shaking. The road was beckoning…
It seems a long time ago that I made my last post.
I’ve covered over 13,500 km in total now, most of it solo, and have been fortunate enough to live some amazing experiences as well as meet genuinely great people who’ve now become great friends. To me that’s the best part of being on the road.
There’s been times of pure joy, moments of exhilaration, moments of contentedness, and moments where I’ve felt totally burnt out. So far the trip has been everything I expected, and way more…
I left Alaska about a month ago…
David Ryberg is the guy in the photo below, he’s is a motorcycle mechanic, who very generously helped me figure out a few things on my bike before beginning the long ride down. He also let me pitch my tent out the front of his cabin and gave me way too much beer. Thanks mate.
I set off stoked…
Passing through a range of awesome landscapes – I didn’t stop that much, determined to make some ground.
Sometimes I wouldn’t see anyone else on the road for hours.
The bike held up beautifully, she coasts along at 100kmh no worries, although the extra weight of the sidecar along with the gravel and chip-seal roads ate my tires in record time. Only got 2000 miles on my last rear – errrshhh.
The roads were about as spectacular as they get – my sidecar dwarfed by the environment, at times it almost felt like I was on another planet.
Every night on the journey down I’d find somewhere off the road to camp. Up that way it wasn’t too hard as the amount of wilderness is almost overwhelming. But it’s reassuring to see such epic vistas untouched by humans, economics and the machines.
As an Australian, the distant howls of wolf packs and coyotes at night was an eerily awesome experience.
The non-stop riding continued for weeks – I can’t even remember how long it took. I didn’t have power on the road for the most part, but my Goal Zero Sherpa Solar pack made it possible to keep shooting in the backcountry.
Totally in mission mode.
Eat. Ride. Unpack. Eat. Sleep. Eat. Pack. Ride. Appreciate natural beauty. Ride.
Dreaming of the ocean.
Was an epic experience, but one that took it out of me a bit, mainly because I was eating poorly. I’d somehow gotten it into my head that a good way to save money was to scrimp on the sort of food I bought, especially because the price of fresh produce in Alaska is so exorbitant (due to seasonal restrictions and imports). So peanut butter sandwiches, pasta and rice became the norm. They kept me going yet wore me down at the same time.
Prior to the ride I’d been picking a lot of berries and eating salmon when I could, but no time for such luxuries when you’re hanging onto a bike at 65mph.
I didn’t realise how much it had been affecting me until, I came to a stop on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada.
I’m not quite sure what the hell has just happened.
I’m cold and saturated lying on my side in the boggy tundra, a strange whirring noise filling the air, my elbow hurts and there is a dog on my head. It takes me a moment or two to comprehend…
Ah yes, of course, the dog is Frankie, the noise is a fridge, and I’m in Peroy Jones, the VW bus from Detroit owned by Pete Novak the American guy who is groaning and hanging from his seatbelt above me. Hmmmm… yes, all starting to make sense now.
It’ll take a bit to explain exactly how we found ourselves here, so if you don’t mind, I might just begin from a few days earlier. I’ll try to keep things brief.
5 days ago I decided I was going to hitch-hike 1600 kilometres from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Arctic Ocean and back – to the top of the world. Why hitchhike when I already have a bike? Well, essentially I didn’t want to shake my highly modified bike to bits on what I knew to be an infamous road, namely, the Dalton Highway. I’m just not good enough at fixing things yet to justify inevitable issues with my bike afterwards…
Rather fortunately I met a cool German girl, Maren, who was thinking about doing a bus tour up to the Arctic circle before she flies back to Germany in a few days. Didn’t take me long to convince her that hitchhiking, and going all the way to Prudhoe Bay instead would be way more interesting…
So we made a sign.
We quickly got two different rides, one from a nice Fairbanks lady, and another from a friendly father and daughter duo who were out to hunt some grizzly bears as a celebration for the daughter (Katie) having graduated high school.
After hours of driving we arrived at the Yukon River, where we saw an old VW van putting into the gravel lot. This is where we met Pete, a friendly guy from Detroit who didn’t hesitate to offer a lift when we approached.
Turns out he’s already picked up another traveller, Norah, a wilderness guide from Finland with big hiking boots and a great smile.
Pete also has another friend – Frankie, a super sweet staffy-cross, who loves people, but not other dogs or rabbits.
So we all pile in to the 1966 VW bus and head north for a few more hours.
and a few hours more…
Was great cruising and chatting with new friends in such a classic old bus…
At one point in a somewhat featureless landscape a rather phallic rock jutted from the earth. We needed a break, so we sat on it for a bit.
After a good many more miles of potholes we eventually arrived at the Arctic circle – the latitude on Earth where the sun will not set on the summer solstice, nor rise on the winter solstice. From here on up we were heading into an intriguing landscape…
But it was a short stop – we had miles to cover, onwards and northwards we trundled for a few more hours, until we reached a break in the spruce forests that looked to be a good place to camp. We cooked some delicious salmon and pasta – Norah and Pete had the caught the salmon the day before.
It never got dark that night. The next morning I cooked pancakes, we broke camp and pointed to the Arctic Ocean again. We entered the Brooks – a majestic and revered mountain range. I fell in love.
We stopped every now and again to put more gas in the van – ain’t no gas stations out here – but there’s more mosquitoes than I have ever seen in my life.
And then it was time to say goodbye to Norah, but please let me digress for a moment.
Consider this – carefully if you don’t mind.
Norah quietly smoked one of her 6 milestone cigars as she packed the last of her 40kg backpack. We all hugged – I kind of wanted to go with her. Follow her on the 1 month, 300 mile, solo hike across incredibly remote Alaskan wilderness. She modestly told us that she’d be fine, because if anything went wrong she’d only be a 3-day hike from the road. Right.
And then she was off on her way, to where no trail lies, completely alone, except for the healthy grizzly bear populations and mosquitoes.
In fact right now, as you sit in comfort reading this, Norah is out there – by this stage she’d be in the Brooks Range – those gigantic mountains you see in the background below. Imagine.
So yeah, hats off to Norah, because I don’t even have one bloke mate who’s done anything like that – and she’s doing it quietly and like a boss.
Perhaps next time you think something is a little challenging, think of this chick, and then just go do it.
Good luck Norah.
Ok, I’m going to speed things up a bit. We trundled through the rest of repetitive tundra until we arrived at Prudhoe Bay. It’s basically just a camp for the oil company workers – felt like a rather depressing place to me to be honest. Although was great to see some Caribou. We also saw a big wolf the day before.
We did however score a free dinner and camped in my tent under the industrial architecture (?). Next morning we swam in the Arctic ocean, on what was probably the most grim beach I’ve ever been to.
Then it was time to say goodbye to Maren, she jumped on a little plane on her way back to Germany, we all hugged again then split, Maren into the air, Pete and I back onto the Dalton highway, but this time, heading South.
Felt so good to start heading south – felt like a beginning of sorts…
As we drove along for the remainder of the morning, I fell into a content sleep, happy in the knowledge we’d made it to the top, and excited for what lay ahead.
But I was quickly woken by a sudden change in the driving. Somehow we were now on the soft shoulder of gravel travelling at about 40mph/75kmh. Next we were tipping, we were flipping. Everything was crashing. On the side, on the roof, on the other side, on the wheels, then on the side again. Smashing, crashing, holding onto anything to survive. What the hell is going on?! Funny thing is, it happened so slowly, I remember clearly thinking, is this actually real? Is this some gnarly dream I am in?
Real it was – the ditch monster had got us. Reached up, grabbed us and rolled us 1 and ¼ times.
There we lay in the swampy tundra, on the permafrost, everything seemed to be heaped on me, even the poor dog who didn’t have a seat belt on.
Turned out two big oncoming semi’s had forced us to give way more than usual, and compounded by the effects of a wayward mosquito in Pete’s eye, lead to one wheel in the ditch, then two, then…
Luckily the when we were rolling on the roof, the racks had taken the brunt of the weight and probably stopped the roof itself from crushing in on us. Lucky.
Poor old Frankie had been thrown around inside the bus (along with the fridge and everything else), she was shaking and trying to find a way out amongst the mess inside. Gave me a lick as I pulled her out, such a great dog.
I thought we were finished with the bus, was ready to catch the next lift we could hitch back down to Fairbanks.
Here’s a VIDEO below to better show the state we were in.
Thankfully a truck came after a while…
Dan (left) and Paul (right) were awesome. Pulled us up and out in no time.
That was everything the truckers could do, so we said goodbye. And thank you very much.
Next, 4 compound-bow hunters showed up, and helped us get the rack and gear back on. They had hunted 5 Caribou in 3 days.
Pete got to work on fixing the engine, did a stellar job. The distributor was buggered (smashed by the battery) but he had a spare to swap into it. Played with the timing a little, then vroom vroom…
But while we worked, so too did the mozzies.
Inside was destroyed, the interior panelling smashed. All of the exterior body panels were dented. The roof was the worst. But the whole van faired surprisingly well considering. Only one of the doors worked, we strapped the other 3 closed, same with the rack – all done with tie downs.
Really glad the girls weren’t in the van, no seatbelts in the back, things would’ve been bad. Scary to think.
Somehow Pete got her started and to my disbelief we drove the thing out of there.
Soon though we had to drive over the Atigan Pass – the highest road pass in the whole of Alaska – it was a tense crossing, but the rainbow omen proved solid and we made it through safely.
Ironically it was a beautiful 2 day drive back, albeit one beset with a feeling of disbelief and generally not-so-stoked-ness.
We camped for the night and straightened out the van – not an easy task.
Next morning was a bit scary going down some of the big hills – hoping the rig would hold together.
But everything was sweet – we were gonna make it!
Once we put out the engine fire of course..
But Pete fixed it again and we kept on truckin’
Stopping only for the other 2 breakdowns.
Eventually, 2 days after the roll over, we made it back to Fairbanks, and gave Peroy a well deserved wash.
Then some random guy pulled up outside the car wash in a VW of his own, and after a brief chat told us to follow him to his mate’s place… So we did.
Turned out his mate was Mike, a VW fanatic and owner of many models and spare parts. He had some doors that could replace the trashed ones on the passenger side of Pete’s VW. Super nice guy who offered to help fix up the wounded bus.
Now I am back Fairbanks. It’s been quite the few days. I’m a little tired and my elbow’s a little sore, but overall I’m stoked – I had a sleep-in in the tent this morning.
Everything’s turned out great in the end and a new chapter is beginning. Pete’s got some great plans to fix the van up in Alaska with Mike before he takes her back to Detroit. He’s already fixed the doors yesterday afternoon.
Frankie still hates rabbits.
I need to go surfing. Canada is calling.
But to get there I’ve got the longest journey ahead of me I’ve done yet, so I’ll be going slowly and carefully. I’m hoping this rain will clear.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s just a couple of random portraits of some interesting folk i’ve met along the way – looking back, i’m missing a lot of people that I would’ve liked to have up here for memories sake. Its taken me a while to get my systems for riding and shooting figured out, a lot harder than what I anticipated, especially balancing stills with the moving image, but i’ll get there..
Above is George, he’s been fishing the Situk River in Yakutat since 1948. He was in the process of building a new fishing hut on the river bank when I met him. Told me an incredible story about how he’d been fishing out in Icy Bay just North of Yakutat, when he realised his fishing companion had left the bung out of the boat – they both nearly drowned and suffered from hypothermia before managing to rescue themselves. They’re a hardy breed out here in Alaska – and kind, he actually gave me this fish (Sockeye Salmon) to take back to my campsite which fed me for a couple days. He also gave me a beautiful Dolly Varden trout, which i’d hung from a tree near my tent in delicious anticipation for the coming days, but I didn’t put it high enough and a bear took it in the night.
Above is Walter Johnson, a 75 year old Tlingit man living in Yakutat since 1957. He told me a tragic story about how he had lost his best friend (William) in a fishing accident when a net coil wrapped around William’s foot and dragged him overboard into the icy fathoms – they never saw him again. When I asked him how he managed to deal with the loss, he told me “I haven’t, i’m still dealing with it. But I named my son after him, I named him William Williams.”
Above is Zoe Urness a 30 year old Cherokee/Tlingit/Norwegian photographer who has been dedicating her time to documenting and championing her native heritage through photographing fellow native Americans across the country. When I asked her why she does it, she told me “This path has been there before I was even here, it is a message that is much deeper and important than me. I am just the messenger”.
Above is Larry Bertland, a character from Portland, Oregon. He builds awesome igloo style homes for people all over the world, reckons he can build them from scratch to finished with a deck for less than 20k, in just a few days. Super energy efficient too. I wouldn’t mind living in an igloo style house one day – but i’d probably have to paint it green.
Above is Vinnie Johnson, he likes to spend a lot of time at the central hangout in Yakutat, the Glass Door bar, and I had a number of conversations with the friendly guy. Unfortunately for the most part I couldn’t work out what he was saying, although I could tell by his intonation and tone that it was all good-natured. After a while of not understanding him, I would sometimes have to politely cut the conversation short, and walk away assuming that he was a little merry, so to speak. Then one day he decided to jump up on a makeshift stage and transformed himself into an articulate man, started wailing on the guitar and playing with the dexterity, poise and subtlety of a class musician – I was blown away…
David Cheney is a 64 year old shaman healer from the Kenai Peninsula, when I met him he was on his way to tend to the spiritual needs of a family in mourning in Deadhorse. “That’s what I do man, funerals. I help people, i’m a healer”. He offered me a puff on his pipe. Looking back, it probably would’ve been interesting to have a puff on it?
Ken Fanning is somewhat of a local legend in Yakutat, grew up leading hunting parties, sports fisherman and even worked as a senator for a while. His house is the most incredible log cabin i’ve ever seen, the above photo barely does it any justice at all. To be honest, when I heard he had all kinds of taxidermed animals from around the world, I wasn’t sure how the interview would go – sports hunting is not something I personally understand very well. What I did find though, was a very articulate and intelligent man, with clear and respectable morals towards the people and environment around him. I enjoyed our conversation greatly, and think I walked away with some insight into the Alaskan way. When I asked Ken about his house he told me “We built this place 13 years ago, and the front door has never even been locked, and you can see there are a lot of valuable things in here. When you’ve got that sense of trust in a community, it allows you to be the most positive, creative person, family and community member that you can be. Yakutat is a magnificent place.”
For some reason I have always been drawn to the native art of the Pacific Northwest. There’s something about it’s bold use of line, shape, colour, and especially the use of negative space that has always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s also because its inspirations are deeply rooted in nature…
When I embarked on my first solo wanderings at the age of 22 I committed to a rather large Tlingit/Haida tattoo of the sun on my back, and ever since then i’ve felt the need to go to where the designs originate, out of respect, but also because I wanted to learn more about the art itself.
So I was really stoked when Chief Baty (Robert M Baty) agreed to show me his carving and give me a background on its history and processes.
I was blown away with its quality, as well as the use of different materials that he sourced locally. Beautiful wood, mother of pearl, copper and furs of sea otter, snow fox and rabbit. Craftsmanship at its finest, at least that’s what I thought.
I was mainly shooting moving pictures rather than stills , and so you can only see one of his masks (he had quite a few others) and his canoe here, but at least it’ll give you a bit of insight into his beautiful work. Thanks Chief!
I was lucky enough that my arrival into Yakutat coincided with the small, annual Language Conference at the American Native Brotherhood/Sisterhood hall. Like many instances in history around the world, the native language of the Tligits was banned, and the people themselves soon found that the language was (and is) on the brink of extinction. A very complex language with amazing guttural sounds and clicks, apparently so complex that children couldn’t actually speak it fluently until around the age of 10.
These days less than 300 people in the world still speak Tlingit fluently, about 10% of that managed to make it to the 5 day conference. The Haida language only has a few dozen fluent speakers left – nearly all of them over the age of 70.
It was impressive and inspirational to see the younger generations learning and priding themselves on their heritage.
Afterwards, I shot a couple of photos for Starr Jensen and her family. Starr is of Tlingit descent, and is married to Jim, an eskimo fisherman, her kids obviously a mixture of both – great family.
Rode two-up with Zoe down a long gravel road passing beautiful meadows and distant mountains, arrived at a rather stunning lake full of icebergs. Didn’t have a kayak, but luckily had my little 5’10” single fin from Corey Graham – that thing goes so good you don’t even need waves to have fun. All photos by Zoe Urness
We arrived two-up on the bike after getting about an hours ride out from the township on pot-holed gravel roads. Passed a massive moose skeleton freshly killed and gleaned of its meat by what would have only been another large Brown bear. When we pulled up at the trail head, I was checking out the bike to see how she handled the rough road, when from behind the bushes a guttural growl made me jump back a metre or two – that noise unmistakeable. Hand back on the bear spray, but he split pretty quick so no need to use it, think the bike might’ve scared him off..
It was a decent 7 or 8 mile hike up to our destination, not that far, but when combined with big Alaskan downpours and negotiating rivers and lakes and accidentally following bear trails instead of the hiking trail, it was enough to wear us out by the time we got there.
I discovered pack rafts, a most amazing invention, which actually made it possible to cross the lake to where an old hunters cabin offered shelter from the rain (not from the incessant mozzies) for the night. It had an old portable kerosene heater which was bloody amazing to say the least..
Fishing was superb, i’ve never fished in a river where every cast reels in another catch, couldn’t believe it. Rainbow trout galore. We took 3 for dinner, quite the exquisite way to end a great days in the forest and muskeg. Spent the rest of the night carving a whale from a spruce root with Gleb’s carving set. Discovered I quite like carving, might invest in a little set one day…
Gleb just finished his studies in film, and is currently producing material for a sports fishing lodge during the summer, he’s passionate and knowledgeable about nature and the outdoors and is well on his way to becoming a wildlife filmmaker. He plans to hike back out to that cabin solo for a few weeks at the end of summer – an experience I think would be truly enriching.
After boarding the ferry I got chatting with a local Alaskan crew member who began talking about a super remote and tiny town with what he claimed were the best waves in Alaska. I had heard of the little village with a population of less than 300, not connected by road to anywhere, nestled on a peninsula in South East Alaska – open to the full brunt of oceanic swells. In the week prior i’d even rung up the ferry office to try and change my ticket so I could get off there. But it was to no avail – “Sorry, if you’ve got a vehicle, you can’t change your ticket, we’re booked out for months in advance and if you get off you won’t be able to get back on”. I decided to give it one last try, and with 10 minutes before the ferry departed I made a frantic dash to see the ferry office people in person and plead my case. The lady was awesome, and said that ‘considering your vehicle is a motorbike, we should be able to squeeze you back on’. Stoked! “But there wont be another ferry through there for 2 weeks.” No worries at all… So off the ferry I jumped into a day of cold rain with no idea of where to stay in such a tiny town. Did speak with a local surfer who recommended the open beaches. They were miles from the town, and backed by a forest with a very healthy Brown Bear population. Must admit, camping there was at times a little disconcerting, I was the only one out there, had the entire beach and forest to myself every day for 10 days. But each night the critters would begin their cacophony of noises, I woke with a start and grabbed the bear spray on more than one occasion. Saw a Brown Bear sow and her cubs on one occasion, only about 5 metres away, made a bit of noise and they bailed thankfully. Other mornings I woke up with huge piles of bear scat right out the front of the tent – reasonably reassuring in the sense that there was obviously a big bear right next to me as I slept and it didn’t want to eat me, although also a stark reminder that i’m definitely not at the top of food chain out here alone. But it was all worth it in the end, plenty of surfing, hiking, fishing, cultural insight, and a good way to start learning how to live out of the motorbike… it’s definitely taking some getting used to – a lot harder and time consuming than what I anticipated, but so rewarding.. Overall staying in that little town was amazing, met some great people such as Zoe and Gleb (above). Zoe is a Cherokee/Tlingit/Norwegian photographer working on a photographic series of Native American culture, and Gleb is a Russian/New Yorker aspiring towards a bright future in wildlife filmmaking. Many great laughs were shared, with escapades into the night, treks into the mountains and surfs into sea lion territory. Was always a pleasure to have these guys visit the campsite..
This is Gregoireet and Marion, super nice Frenchies whom with I shared a delicious bottle of French wine over some BBQ’d fish i’d cooked up (ikan bakar style). They’re gnarly. They’re riding their push bikes from Seattle to Patagonia. If you fancy, check out their blog…
I barely had time for any excitement or anticipation for the journey ahead during the 10 days prior to the ferry in Enumclaw. To be honest, when I arrived into the States I was pretty overwhelmed with what i’d got myself into, I had 10 days to get everything ready and although the USA isn’t all that different from Australia culturally, I didn’t know my way around or even which shop i’d be able to find a screwdriver. I actually had some preliminary moments of homesickness. I was definitely nervous and a little stressed out from all the planning and hard work over the prior few months..
Funny though, because when I got on that ferry heading towards Alaska, all those concerns and worries seemed to dissipate. Suddenly I felt myself surging on a hard-to-control adrenaline high – I was meeting people left right and centre, seeing whales, the fresh North West Pacific wind in my face. As the bow ploughed forward through icy blue Pacific I could feel my spirit begin to soar.
I found a great little spot to pitch my tent on the back deck where I met other like minded travellers. One Canadian guy especially made a bit of an impression on me, a little older than me perhaps, with a giant smile and creases round his eyes that hinted at the adventures he’d seen. He had done some of the the most comprehensive cycle touring (not motorcycle, push bike) i’d ever heard of; circumnavigated Australia, circumnavigated New Zealand, ridden the length of the Americas twice and was on his way up to Prudhoe Bay to do it again (but this time taking the mountain route). He’d seen a lot and made it through a lot, been robbed and been stabbed just to name a couple. And yet here he was, a totally switched on character, intelligent and personable and off on another quest. We talked for an hour or two, about pretty much anything except the economy or housing prices or what we’d purchased lately. It was a conversation i’d missed living in Melbourne. I didn’t get a photo of him and I cant even remember his name, but I don’t think i’ll ever forget our chat… all the best mate, inspirational.
I also met a bunch of other travellers and riders, each on their own trip such as Bruce and Vickie (who I also did not get a photograph of) who were even kind enough to buy me a beer and meal aboard the ship (i’d been cooking my stove), great to learn about so many different people’s lives and outlooks. Or there was Greg Kibble a kind career sailor, who had a lot of great stories and even wrote an article on my trip in the BMW owner’s newsletter. I am going to endeavour to photograph the people I meet from now on… good for the memory bank.
I spent 10 days in the tiny little Hamlet of Enumclaw with the very generous and kind family of Ben and Jen Auger, where I added the final touches to my KLR hack. Its definitely one of weirdest looking sidecars i’ve ever seen – but I love her. She’s got enough room for a couple of surfboards, wetsuits and surfing paraphernalia, a rather indulgent travelling suite of photography and production equipment, big box of tools, camping equipment, gas, water, food, spare tire, and a handful of clothes..
Haven’t done a lot of modifications at all (aside from the hack), just a stiffer rear spring and a power outlet for the GPS.
Fully lockable and about as Mexico proof as you’ll ever get a side car i’d imagine…
She’s pretty slow off the mark, but will get up to 65mph at reasonable rpm’s if I need to, but I like going nice and slow, taking in the views with lots of stops for cups of tea..
Anyway, the guys at DMC really looked after me and allowed me to work in their shop for a while, whilst Barry even sacrificed some of his own time in making sure everything was running smooth and as ready as possible. Jay was there the whole way from beginning to end, helping with all sorts of advice, tools, and space. Tara’s seemingly endless supply of patience at my barrage of administrative requests was another thing that made it all possible. A big thanks to all of them and the rest of the DMC team who got me on the road.
First pic is of Barry and his hound Babe – if I wasn’t hauling around so much gear i’d get a babe of my own..
What the hell am I thinking anyway?
It’s 1am in the morning and I’m sitting paralysed in front of my laptop, my finger hovering over the left click of the mouse – it’s been that way for the last 5 minutes. The computer screen hurts my tired eyes, but I’m staring anyway.
The Buena Vista Social Club hums melodies through my headphones straight into my city-jammed soul, beckoning me to free myself, to embrace whatever it is they’re saying in Spanish, and to click that button I’ve almost clicked 3 times.
Feels like my heart is beating in my head.
Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub..
A momentary rush of adrenaline fires from my synapses to the tip of my right pointer finger.
“Congratulations and thank you for flying Qantas
Booking number 8FH7BZ
Departure date: 10-06-2014
One-way to Anchorage, Alaska”
The paralysis worsens for a second, heart might’ve stopped. But only for a moment. Smile starts.
I throw my arms in the air, kick out the chair and break out into an awkward jumping dance of fist-pumps and muted hoots around my room. Trying so hard to be quiet and not wake my housemates, but I’m fully freaking out. The curtains to my balcony are open and the taxi on the street can see my weird dance. I run over half-naked and wave to the indifferent, blinking skyscrapers down the end of Lygon st. They don’t care.
Who bloody cares!
It’s happening, and I’m going..
…and it feels so good.
One day in the middle of winter we had a break in the weather, so I filled my pockets with batteries, grabbed a couple of cameras and went for a walk around town. Melbourne’s a big, fast-paced city and may not be the most beautiful in Oz, but it harbours a thriving underground full of little quirks and intricacies that arguably makes it the nation’s most creative…
Everything shot in one day…
Music by Melbourne artist Nightswimmer:
Song: There’s Only Now And There It Goes
My first attempt at a timelapse of a plant – made a few mistakes, but it was enough to get me excited to do some more…
Music by Nightswimmer
Track: The Shadow
Album: The Sound of Disconnect
To learn more please visit – palmoilaction.org.au/
I was initially drawn to the Mentawai Archipelago by the lure of perfect waves peeling against picturesque beaches, rimmed by lush, tropical rainforest – although I was quick to discover that there is so much more to this special place than surfing.
I ended up staying for many years and working on a range of things, from surf-guiding on charter boats and resorts to programme design with Surfaid International, punctuated by periods of vagabonding about the simple villages and hidden reefs.
One of the first places I was lucky enough to stay was deep in the rainforests of Siberut Island, where I was introduced to the local community, as well as some of its animal inhabitants. I’ll never forget as a wide-eyed 22 year-old, watching in fear as one of the village women’s Malarial fever became so intense and convulsive, that the Sikerei (shamans) were called for from the neighbouring village.
Longhaired, loin-clothed silhouettes arrived late into the night, paddling up-river in a dugout canoe under the warm moonlight. Their bells jingled and reassuring mantras bounced off the water. The chanting continued as they made their way to the sick lady’s hut to sing, dance and heal.
I tried over my time in the different villages to learn about the culture, language and environment, and I hope that this video respects all three. My intentions by making this short film are to give a digital voice to the obvious and resonating protest in Mentawai.
The people of Mentawai, especially those of the traditional persuasion are easily the most welcoming, humbling and richest of communities I have come across in my travels. I believe they (like many indigenous cultures) represent a time and a world that demands respect for the natural environment, community and balanced spirituality. Theirs is a paradigm long forsaken by the modern trappings of big cities and belligerent profit margins.
Information is not always easy to obtain, but to my knowledge many areas within Mentawai have in 2014, managed to deter the palm oil companies, whilst other villages are still in negotiations, refusing to hand over their land. Other villages still have relinquished traditional titles of the land, and have consequently been locked into development concessions that render the land in question ‘State owned’.
Zoe Keating – “Sun Will Set”, from the album “One Cello X 16: Natoma” – zoekeating.com
Edward Sharpe and Magnetic Zeros, “Man on Fire” from the Album “Here” – edwardsharpeandthemagneticzeros.com/
This journey started when I was asked to produce a short documentary about a bunch of blokes on motorbikes raising money for a charity, riding from Australia’s most eastern point, to its most western.
I had never seen the Aussie interior before, and so jumped at the chance.. I don’t think I realised how bloody far it was. Turns out that when strangers come together, travelling for long distances, sleeping in the dirt with minimal cooking facilities or other worldly luxuries, personalities can clash. I stood by silent, generally dumbfounded by people’s actions and words.
About halfway through the journey I realised that the inherent drama of the motorbike crossing would not be suitable for the type of doco I had been asked to make. But I kept shooting, riding shotgun in good friend Bob Sander’s Landcruiser as we trundled across the landscape.
I still wanted to document the journey, but by this stage my subjects didn’t like each other much, which isn’t exactly the perfect recipe for a video that’s supposed to promote the trip. So I turned the camera on myself, and began walking in front the lens, amongst the different landscapes..
As the splintered group travelled ever westward, we slept in our swags under the stars, cooked on an open fire, drank beer, told rude jokes and did other man stuff. It was great.
There wasn’t as much time for shooting as what I had thought – turns out you’ve got to spend a lot of time driving when doing these sorts of things. But in between driving and setting up camp i’d go for walks and find these amazing little glimpses of the outback – beautiful moments spent sitting in the red dirt watching a kingfisher, or stalking across the red dirt after an emu or dingo.
Red dirt permeated everything, my swag, my ears, my nose, all of my camera gear – by the end I had a smiling beard of red dirt.
The ocean was a welcome sight to gritty eyes after all the mileage. And not just any ocean, but the astoundingly beautiful Shark Bay. I love Western Australia.
It was an amazing journey in the end, I learned a lot, saw a little bit of Oz, and made some great friends..
By the time the edit came around, I had a lot of footage with no real idea of what to make. I had a lot of shots of the back of my head as I walked through different landscapes.. hmmm.. real interesting..
Anyway, I mashed it together, wrote a little quip, and was lucky enough to have Ron Johnston come out of acting retirement at the age of 84 and offer to narrate it.
Everything shot on location in the aussie outback.
Thanks for watching.