This journey has taught me many things. One repeated lesson is this: use your superlatives sparingly.
Time and time again I have crested a ridge or rounded a corner on my moto and been presented with a vista laying claim to be the most beautiful, the most breath-taking, the most stunning thus far encountered. Two in particular come to mind: a salt lake encircled by volcanoes near the Chile-Bolivia border and the Andean foothills falling away into the distance towards the desert around Piura in northern Peru. But as I crossed the southern edge of the Cordillera Blanca on a lonely dirt road after leaving Huaraz, the vistas I was rewarded with convinced me that here was, indeed, the best, the most breath-taking, the most stunning.
Pau and I had ridden this route in the opposite direction three months previously. On that occasion, we rode with driving snow in our faces along tracks which had turned into rivers. This time the skies were crystal-clear blue. A good tarmac road a few miles further south means that there is no reason for regular traffic to use my chosen route, which cuts through the Huascaran National Park. I was alone amongst this expansive and barren landscape.
I came across a gentle, shale-covered hill beside the track and felt compelled to ride up it. As I crested the top, the dagger-like, ice-covered mountains of the Cordillera Huayhuash appeared in front of me. I turned around and saw the beautiful peaks of the Cordillera Blanca standing shoulder-to-shoulder to the north. Lesser mountain ranges and valleys stretched to the horizon in the east. I couldn’t even begin to estimate how far into the distance I could see, so vast was the scale of the landscape. All I could do was stand there, slowly pirouetting around and around as I tried to take it all in. On this occasion, superlatives were the only option.
The reminder of the ride was not all sunshine though. Having eaten lunch in La Union, I decided after a lot of hesitation to take a dirt road over the Pampa to my destination, Huanuco. As I rode the gravelly switchbacks above the village, I was aware that I had a long way to go and time was slipping by. Maybe this subconsciously led me to push the pace a little too much. As I was rounding a very gentle right-hander, standing up on the pegs, the back end suddenly went from underneath me. The bike spun 180 degrees and I went down hard in the gravel. My last day on the road for two months had just served up my biggest ‘off’ so far in 42,000km of riding.
I picked myself up gingerly and then did the same to the Tenere. I feared this time I may have done some more serious damage to the bike, but as usual, she was fine – except for the brake pedal which always seems to take the brunt of a fall. I was sore down the right side (and still am four days on), and a little cut up on my right forearm. Riding this track hadn’t felt right from the start – I should know by now to listen to and follow my instincts – so I turned around and set off down the long, tedious and poorly maintained valley road onwards to Huanuco. Holding the throttle open with a badly-bruised right forearm was not easy.
My bike is now in the care of my friend Toby Shannon – an expat from the States who has spent about 30 years of his life in Peru and runs motorcycle tours around the country (www.aroundtheblock.com). With Toby’s help, I have suspended my temporary vehicle import permit for the seven weeks I shall be away. During that time, Toby’s mechanic Jaime will do a full strip down of the bike, replacing all the bearings and hoses, rewiring the harness and servicing the suspension.
Sitting here in Starbucks at Lima airport, already the mountains and villages of northern Peru feel a long way away. I’m excited to be going home to see friends and family, but inevitably mixed in with that is a sense of wariness, maybe even nervousness. Coming home after a prolonged period amongst a very different cultural blueprint is always a confusing experience for me. On the one hand, when you return nothing seems to have changed at all; it is like you never left. But on the other, certain things are seen in a different light and can sometimes challenge the beliefs, values and perspectives that have evolved from your experiences away from home. Already, I have found the short time spent here in Lima uncomfortable: the energy of a big city; ten foot high billboards on every street corner selling, selling, selling; the impersonal and disconnected rush of people locked in their own little bubbles and they head to work….. Spend enough time in the mountain villages with the local folk and this urban world, which only three years ago was my world, starts to feel very alien.
Whilst I won’t be riding the roads of South America for a few weeks, I shall keep blogging. There should be much to write about: I’ll be spending a couple of days with the Yamaha Off Road Experience team in Wales, working on my off-road skills; I’ll be visiting CCM Motorcycles in Bolton to look at the GP450; and I’ll be attending the Adventure Travel Film Festival in Dorset, hosted by Vince Austin and Lois Price, where I suspect I shall be rubbing shoulders with many an adventure biker.
So stay tuned.