Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thor's Hammer

October 23rd to 26th

Sometimes it takes a Colombian a few hours to size you up before getting to know you. We are packed and ready to leave with the dawn when Margarita the hotel owner stops us for a chat. She is joined by sister Magda and daughter Melissa and suddenly we are on a guided tour of their land which proves to be quite extensive....


Behind the fruit orchard is a 'vivero' or nursery for a range of unusual plants and trees. We sample fruits we have never even seen before like 'Lima' - that tastes like a cross between orange and lime. 'Guanabana' is a huge green prickly fruit the size and shape of a rugby ball.....


We are given one that must weigh about 20lbs which is too much to carry so Margarita juices it for us with milk. It's totally delicious!

We eventually get away by around 11am and the heat is building, but it's not a problem as the road we are about to take falls off the edge of the 'Cordillera Oriental' range into a deep river valley over a thousand metres below....


At the Northern tip, The Andes split into three fingers that spread through Colombia and on to Venuzuela like a giant hand. Now there are three ranges - The Oriental (East), The Central and The Occidental (West). The Magdelena river valley that we are dropping into divides the East and Central ranges, a flat grassland at around 300m wedged between peaks that soar over 5000 metres just 40 miles away.
It's an intense kind of landscape!

The descent is a dizzying series of rapid hairpins with spectacular emerald hills rearing up around us....


In 6 miles we loose around 3000 feet and the temperature is noticeably warmer. Towards the bottom we enter a sheer sided canyon and the sun struggles to penetrate down to road level. The air feels like it's trapped between the rock walls and is torpid and densely hot. We ride beneath the 'Devil's Nose' and along the fast flowing Sumapaz River towards the Magdelena....


Passing through Melgar I cannot resist snapping a helicopter mounted at the roadside....


Turns out to be a bad move as the guys on the gatehouse are not amused about tourist cameras around military bases. They call me over for a chat as Sue, unaware of the situation, rides off into the distance. Four of them surround me and it's all a bit intimidating, armed as they are with assault rifles and sub-machine guns. I show them my other photos to prove I'm not on a spying mission and try to explain that wearing coloured Lycra and riding a fully loaded touring bike is not the best way of going undercover.... luckily they see the funny side of it and don't shoot me!

It's beautiful easy riding, along smooth, flat tarmac past the ranks of crops that grow beneath the shadow of the Central range....


When disaster strikes.... The welded repair on my seat post from Costa Rica gives a brief 'Crack', then gives up the ghost depositing my seat in the road. That's not a good sign.... By now it's boiling and we are in the middle of nowhere. I ride on with the seat strapped to the back of the bike and remind myself, mantra like 'do not sit down! do not sit down! do not sit down!....'

Riding such a heavy bike standing up is exhausting! Worse than that, I can feel the frame flexing as all my weight is on the pedals. I'm just glad it's flat here, otherwise this would be a non-starter in this heat.

We reach the junction between 'Espinal' and 'Flandes' and a group of locals tell us Flandes is much the closer, but that they would not go there. We have no choice, but I can see what they meant as we hit the main square and it feels like the worst of Central America again. Litter strewn streets and the stink of stagnant water. Prostitutes and raggedy people hang out on street corners with nothing better to do than stare, blankly into the distance. For the first time in Colombia, this does not feel safe at all!

I enquire in a hotel which is obviously more used to renting by the hour and when I come out Sue is surrounded by maybe 15 guys. Looks bad, but appearances can be deceiving and they are as friendly as can be. Sue's already explained the problem and a couple of them jump on bikes and show us the way to a bike shop. They can't help as my seat post is a European size so the guys ride on to check with a local workshop and find us a slightly more upmarket (read slightly less seedy) hotel.

What follows is a bit of a trial for me and I'm sorry I didn't trust this place enough to take a camera....

Salt from the boat crossing from Panama has fixed the stump of my seat post solid and it will not budge from the frame. In a dingy, dimly lit back-street workshop not much wider than the door frame we get to work. This is not a high tech solution.... The bike, upside down on a bench with the post gripped in a vice tightened using a three foot pole, what follows may invalidate my bike's guarantee.

Three guys set about wrenching the bike backwards and forwards using the frame as a lever to rotate the post in the frame. You would not believe how much force this took. Standing on the bench, two of us were hauling the bike upwards while a third manfully rotated it using all his strength, the seat post stubbornly giving up a millimetre at a time. Ten hot, sweaty minutes later - the air full of curses in both Spanish and English, it finally came free.

Next job - to join the broken parts of the seat post together by driving a solid piece of bar into each half.... using a lump hammer so large it is normally only wielded by Thor the Norse God of Thunder.

I could not watch!

Seeing a 25lb lump hammer smashing repeatedly into bits of the trusty steed that has taken me from Argentina to Peru and from Canada all the way to this grim place of torture.... I think I wept a little....

But I have to hand it to them.... in true South American style.... we did finally get a solution.... all be it a temporary one.... and a very, very ugly looking one....


Anyway - that was how I spent my birthday.

It definitely felt good to leave Flandes and head to Espinal. Espinal is a bigger town and we're hopeful of getting a better fix as there's a bike factory and several shops there. Unfortunately it's Sunday and we kill a day waiting for everything to open. We book into somewhere more appropriate to belatedly celebrate a birthday....


After trailing round all the cycle shops in Espinal (there are six of them) I am now convinced that you can't get a replacement part of this size anywhere in the Americas. It seems strange that Thorn chose such a non-standard size when building a bike designed to travel the world, especially when their bikes are obviously so well thought out. It's a minor criticism of an otherwise, near perfect machine, but.... could do better.

Reluctantly I have to ride to Ibague and hope for a better solution there. I know this repair will not last long and I'm not even sure it will get us the 60kms (40 miles) to Ibague.

We roll out along the flat valley that is just perfect for big agriculture. With a 12 month growing season of high rainfall and strong sunlight the land here is just a food making machine.... with the help of some real machines on an industrial scale....


I guess the only fly in the ointment are the voracious insects and a couple of small airfields provide defence from the air. The sky drones with ever present crop sprayers that rain down chemical death....


After crossing the valley of food, the road attacks the Cordillera Central head on....


Ibague sits at around 1500m (5,000ft) so the day soon changes to that upwards grind we know so well. This route forms part of a training run the racers take from Espinal through Ibague and on to the much revered 'La Linea' topping out at 3200m (10,600ft). Cyclists being a sadistic lot, they always choose the nastiest, steepest sections of road to race on, and that's our route too. The road does get pretty steep in places as it hugs the mountain side....


We meet one such cyclist 'Cristhian' on the last few miles into Ibague and he slows down to ride alongside us. Typically Colombian, he is friendly enough to sacrifice his hare pace and slow down to our tortoise speed.... until a phone call from his dad lets him know he is late for lunch and he rides off to meet the family. Adios Cristhian, con mucho gusto amigo....


Riding into the city centre, a guy in a car stops me to check everything is OK.
And so we meet Omar!
And that's a whole chapter in itself....

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