Thursday, August 14, 2008

La Paz - Death Road

Tuesday 29th July

I thought I'd done enough cycling not to need to book a cycle tour, but this is "The World's Most Dangerous Road" or DEATH Road!! It starts at an altitude of 4750m in La Cumbre and ends in Coroico at 1150m - a drop of 3600m in 64kms. Pedals are attached to the bike, but they are just to rest the feet on and have no other purpose. Pedalling is not required here.

The day begins inauspiciously with our first accident. 20 metres from the start, the bus driver ploughs into the side of a taxi! Much comedy ensues as the Bolivian police arrive to direct traffic. At one point the taxi driver attempts to physically lift the taxi to seperate it from our bus. 2 tons of steel is going nowhere...

Eventually someone has the bright idea of moving the bus and the damage is revealed...

A second bus turns up, bikes, gear and people are transferred and we finally depart for the "real" dangerous road. We leave the original driver to sort out bribes and pay offs...

The death road is half tarmac, then a narrow gravel track hugs the walls of the sheer valley as it snakes its way beneath waterfalls and rocky overhangs. Lanes are reversed here and vehicles drive on the left, not the right as is normal in Bolivia. The reason: the driver on the left can best see how close he is to the afterlife, that is, how close his tires are to the edge. A fatal accident every fortnight is not uncommon. I can see why - drops are 600 metres and vertical, giving you time to review your mistake as you contemplate becoming part of the valley floor. A large flat part!

The view from the top...

Rogerio is a 20 year veteran of the Brazillian army. After being shot at and surviving for weeks in the jungle without aid, he reasons a little bike ride is childs play. Alessandro is 20 years old, from Costa Rica, crazy and knows no fear. I ride a bike for a living. No-one is going to back down on this one and things could get silly.

Just to spice things up, it starts to rain. Visibility is low, goggles get covered in mud and steam up, and things get a little slippery under rubber.

We set off and it rapidly does get silly!! Roberto from Italy tries to stay with us, and after stepping a back wheel out over the edge!! he decides to play it safe and drops back. His ashen face gives vivid testimony to how close he came to adding to the statistics...

We get our first warning from the guides for riding neck and neck - 3 abreast on one stage - the rule is 2 bus lengths between riders. But how can you overtake if you play that game?

We pause to review the route - rapidly disappearing in to the mist...

Our second warning is for overtaking the guide!! A definite no-no apparently and he is NOT amused. I feel like a school boy again as we get our dressing down. Threats of riding out the route in the bus to "cool down" bring on a change of tactics.

The game now is to start at the back and work through the field, overtaking as many rabbits as we can. Allesandro runs wide and hits a boulder field. His front wheel is totaled and we wait in amusement as he walks his bike sheepishly down to the mechanics for a replacement. And another bollocking!

Snake like coils of slippery rubble...

There is little time to marvel at the scenery as it blurs past us. Little time for photography either as everything is covered in mud and grit...

In a single day, we crossed high wind-swept passes and snow-covered plains and plunged down through dense cloud forest to semi jungle from a freezing four layers to a balmy tee-shirt and shorts. It's a great day and thoroughly recommended even by a jaded veteran of a 6000km continental cycle tour!

We finish at an animal sanctuary in the jungle and scrape off dirt in hot showers. A slap up feed is part of the day, as is a death defying bus ride through zero visibility cloud back over the route to La Paz - definitely the most dangerous part of the day!


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