2 Wheel Vagabond

2 Wheel Vagabond


Tuesday 6 October 2015

A day of mis-adventure riding, Laos

I got on the bike expecting to spend my day riding a relaxed 300 km of sealed roads doing a circuit around the beautiful Bolaven plateau in Southern Laos. The roads that I had encountered through Cambodia and Southern Laos had all been in reasonable condition so although I had done my usual minimal amount of planning I left the city of Pakse quite confident that I wouldn’t encounter any unexpected troubles, I even skipped breakfast hoping to find somewhere local for a bite to eat. I followed the highway south for 50 km until I reached the turn off for the town of Attapeu, the sign said it was 119 km and It took about 2 km before the small sealed road turned into dirt, I was quite happy about this, it was a nice day and I liked the idea of doing a bit of relaxed off road riding. As I ventured further along the dirt road into the country side the people seemed to be getting friendlier and I was thinking that taking this road was a pretty good decision, I was even glad to come across the first river crossing for the day, it wasn’t too deep or wide and with a twist of the throttle I was across without a problem and in the mood for adventure. A few km further down the road the next river was a different story, this was a deep, wide river with a strong current and closed to vehicles, some locals pointed me down a dirt single track where after a few hundred meters I came across a ferry. The Ferry was just a big raft operated by 2 young girls pulling it along a cable, I floated well however and had plenty of room for the motorbike so I rode on feeling quite pleased at the adventurous turn this ride had taken.

I followed the road for another 2 bumpy km when I came across a very precarious makeshift bridge, I walked from one side to the other and it seemed reasonably stable so I decided to give it a go, I lined the fully loaded, big Beemer and went for it, we made it across, this time with a sigh of relief. At this point I was still enjoying myself and quite happy tackling the small challenges that this road was throwing in my direction but if I knew what I was in for I would have turned around then. What I didn’t realise was that although it was a beautiful sunny day and there had been no rain the last few days, the recent wet season meant the rivers were swollen making most of them unpassable using the usual road crossings therefore makeshift ferries and bridges were the only way to get across, swamps had also covered the road meaning long stretches of mud. The next river was wide and deep, the only way to get across was the flooded ford and after seeing a scooter manage to do this I thought I could get across easily enough. The ford was wide enough a car to cross but because the water level was so high the only way to cross was by riding a two foot high and wide raised stone wall at its edge which was under about a foot of fast flowing water. The river crossing was about 50 meters long and riding the heavy bike across the narrow bumpy wall with deep water on either side was a balancing act I was becoming less and less comfortable about. I made it to within 10 meters from the other bank when I felt the front wheel slipping off the stone wall, I looked down and could see that the water on the ford was still quite deep here but I couldn’t hold the bike and the last thing I wanted to do was lay it over or stall it in the deep water. I gave it full throttle, rode off the wall, landed on both wheels in the deep water and to my amazement I managed to ride up the bank without flooding the engine. Any questions as to whether I should continue on this road or backtrack were answered, I just didn’t think I would make it back across that river so going forward was my only option.

I felt as though I got a little lucky with the last crossing and it made me well aware of the fact that I was by myself on a remote road in the Laos, nobody spoke English and should anything happen to my bike I doubt anyone could help as the closest BMW mechanic was in Thailand. The next 5 km was slow going, there weren’t any big rivers but there were wide muddy patches to cross every few hundred meters, these were a little challenging because of the weight of the bike but I managed to get through without any dramas. That’s when I hit the next river, it wasn’t too wide but the crossing was deep and rocky and the water was flowing fast, there was no way I could cross this one by riding. 50 meters upstream a group of ladies were running a ferry service and this was my only chance to get across, I saw the ferry and thought “What the F@#k are you doing Raymond”? it was a few planks of wood across two canoes, the length of the ferry was about 4 meters and its width was less than the length of my bike. The ferry was operated by a local lady who pulled the raft across the river using ropes, I must admit I was impressed at how well the ferry floated when we loaded up the bike. My confidence soon disappeared when we hit the fast flowing water in the middle of the river, the ferry began to turn with the flow of the water and I could feel the small raft beginning to lift because we were too heavy at the rear. I looked at the ferrywoman and the look of concern that she returned gave me a horrible vision of the whole thing flipping and the bike ending up in the river. I had about a foot spare on the raft so to the ferrywoman’s surprise I turned the bike on and inched it forward the until the front wheel was right on the edge of the raft, this was enough to correct the shaky little crafts balance and we were able to make it to the other side, high fives all round.

I kept pushing on and like before the road had a few muddy areas over the next few km’s that weren’t too much of a problem, however just in case I thought the worst was over I came across a stretch of mud that looked so bad it slapped me back to reality. This stretch was a few hundred meters of rutted, muddy misery, the worst section being a 20 meter long section of very soft mud covered in knee deep water. The odd person on scooters who gave this a try were able to make it because their bikes weren’t heavy enough to sink into the deep mud hole in the centre, I watched two people make it through and spent some time picking the best line. The trick was to ride high on the narrow lip of a rut to avoid the soft mud on either side until you made it to the edge of the deep mud hole, from there get your line right and give it full throttle until you make it through the really boggy section and from there its smooth sailing through shallow mud to the dirt road on the other side. I had the plan but enacting it was a different story, I rode along the top of the rut but balancing the heavy bike was just too difficult, part of the rut gave way and the front wheel slipped off the edge. I held the bike upright but I was stuck, going forward would have got me bogged and I wasn’t able to back the bike up. Eventually a young guy came along and he was happy to give me a hand but between the two of us we still couldn’t budge the big girl. After an hour of hard work in the midday sun we were both exhausted, thank goodness another guy turned up and we were able to get the bike in a position where I could give the crossing another go. This time I made it to the edge of the mud hole, lined the bike up and went for it, I made it ¾ of the way but the wheels sank in to the soft bog and the big Beemer toppled over on the side. All I could think of was water in the air intake or wet plugs so although I was lying in the mud I did my best to hold the bike up until other 2 guys got there to help me get her upright. I was up to my knees in mud and it oozed into my boots, the bikes wheels had half sunken into the mud and no matter how hard we tried to push the bike out the three of us couldn’t budge it, I tried to ride it out but  the rear wheel just kept spinning.  It was now early afternoon, the temperature was 38 degrees, there was no shade and the sun was beating down on us, we were all exhausted after a fruitless hour of trying to move the bike and I still hadn’t eaten anything and had now run out of water. We eventually lifted the rear wheel a little out of the mud and tried once again to ride the bike out while my helpers pushed, I tried to start the bike but it wouldn’t turn over, this day just kept on getting worse and worse, a list of worst case scenarios ran through my mind, had the water seriously damaged the bike? I was now stuck in a muddy bog in a fairly remote area of Laos and even if I managed to get the bike out of the mud hole it was possible that I wouldn’t be able to get it started again to make it back to civilisation. At this point my two helpers were ready to give up and wanted to leave, nobody had come past in the last 2 hours so I knew that if they went I wasn’t getting out. They didn’t speak English but I literally begged and offered them money stay and asked them to see if they can get more helpers, the response I got was a shake of the head and my morale hit new lows. After 30 minutes of desperately trying to convince them to stay and keep helping two more young guys turned up and between the 5 of us we were able to push the bike out of the mud and onto the other bank. We were all covered in mud and the guys just wanted to get out of there but I managed to convince them to give me a push start in the hope that the battery was just low on charge. We gave it two tries but no luck, I had no other option other than putting the bike on the back of a truck, and I hadn’t seen any of them so after a lot more desperate convincing I managed to get one more push start, I cannot express my relief when the big girl fired up. There were cheers all round and the guys could see the immense relief on my face, I offered to pay the guys for helping me but they politely declined and headed off down the road.

At this point I was only 55 km into the 119 km road to Attapeu and I had no idea what was instore, I couldn’t go back and the only thing that thing that kept my spirits up was the hope that every river crossing and muddy patch was the last. Over the next few km’s I tackled a few small mud patches and caught another make shift ferry, thankful everytime I made it across an obstacle without any problems. I was starting to feel the effects of the heat and lack of food and water so I jumped in one of the rivers with all my gear on and drank a few mouthfuls to avoid heat stroke, hoping the river water wouldn’t make me sick later. It wasn’t too long before the road was once again covered in water and this time I was very cautious, this was more of a swamp than a river and after I checked the depth I realised that it was just too deep to get the bike across. I could see that other vehicles had taken a track up a steep little rise to the right which was very rocky and also meant crossing a short patch of fairly deep water. I walked the section of water and the large rocks really concerned me, the muddy water meant you couldn’t see where they were, on top of that It wasn’t a straight crossing, I would have to do a 90 degree turn halfway through and I was worried that the rocks may through me off balance and the bike would end up submerged. I was absolutely amazed that I made it through the crossing without a problem, I somehow managed to stay on a good line through the muddy water and began talking the steep, rocky rise that bypassed the swamp. I bounced my way up the hill keeping a steady throttle but the front wheel hit a rock and sent me slightly off the path, I held the bike upright but the front wheel was jammed up against a tree stump and the rear wheel against a crop of rocks, I couldn’t move forward or backward. I had noticed a young guy on the other side of the swamp and I called out to him for help, he came running around the corner and after another 30 min of hard work we managed to push the bike back enough to let me line up the track and keep going.

At this point I felt physical and emotionally drained, the last 30 km had taken me 6 hours, it was a hot day, I hadn’t eaten and I still hadn’t been able to get hold of bottled water anywhere. The young guy gave me some hope by telling me the road improved for the next 50 km to Attapeu so I continued on with a positive attitude praying the worst was behind me. Thankfully he was right, after a few more km of dirt road I came across a small village and was able to buy a few bottles of water, after that it was another 50 km of bumpy but dry road to Attepeu. The 119 km stretch of road that I thought might take me 2 hours max ended up taking over 8 hours but I finally made it back to tarmac and finished my circuit of the Bolaven Plateau that day. My relief at finished that day of riding was huge, it was a sickening feeling thinking that the bike might not make it, especially because of something as simple as poor route planning. Having said that the worst experiences often turn out to be the best adventures, as long as you make it through unscathed and this day was no exception.

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