Emily has a cunning plan – part 1….

(James) Now that we were in Cambodia, our intention was to head to the far north east of the country to visit the small town of Ban Lung which, we were led to believe, boasted a lake of such startling clear waters that it alone justified our riding almost 500km out of our way. Our plan had been to ride the 70km or so south on the main highway to Stung Treng before turning east on to highway 19, the 150km dirt road that connected Ban Lung with the outside world. We were just about to head off after completing the border formalities when Em, looking the map, (Em: a rarity in itself!!) had a suggestion; ‘Instead of riding down to Stung Treng and then heading east, why don’t we take this small road east, it can only be about 5km from here?’ She wasn’t joking when she said it was a small road; it was marked as a ‘minor road, cart track’ – never a good sign, but at least the map indicated that there were two or three villages along the way where we’d be able to get lunch. (Em: the new route meant that we’d be doing a circuit round to Ban Lung then back again, rather than taking the same road to and from – surely preferable? And Juan agreed with me…)

We set off and having located our side road, turned off the main highway to find ourselves straight away on dirt road. Fortunately it was hard packed and pretty smooth for the first 20km but after that it gradually started to narrow and deteriorate and before long, we were riding along the top of a raised embankment. It occurred to me as we rode along the top, that our ‘road’ might not be quite what we’d hoped (we were hoping for an emphasis on the ‘minor road’ rather than the ‘cart track’ element) – the fact that it already seemed highly unlikely that any 4×4 could drive here wasn’t a promising sign. Confirmation, when it came, left us in little doubt. A ten metre break in the embankment, spanned rather worryingly by a very fragile, not to say narrow, bamboo footbridge. If it was looking bad for us, it was worse for Juan whose big BMW weighs maybe 350-400kg (with rider). We watched Juan walk over to the bridge and conduct some standard tests to gauge structural integrity (jumping up and down on it and shaking it from side to side to see how much it moved!) The results were not promising, but Juan decided to give it a go and very gingerly edged forward. Ordinarily I’d tell you how we held our breath and watched as the bridge inevitably buckled under his weight (which it did) but our concern was focused more on the way the bridge started to lean to the side! It really did look like it was about to keel over, taking Juan and his bike down with it into the dry rock bed five metres below. Two thirds of the way across, he came to a point where there were a pair of bamboo struts sticking up and had to come to a standstill. They were almost exactly the same width apart as his panniers. A centimetre narrower and he’d have not made it and I’d have had to add my weight to the bridge (yeah, yeah, very funny!) to try and pull them apart, not something I wanted to do as they, no doubt, were an important part of the bridge’s structural strength. As it happened, Juan was able to very gently ‘lean’ a pannier up against one of the struts, moving it enough to allow him to squeeze through and make it to the other side.

Next it was my turn (I tend to go through first so I can give a rolling commentary to Em via our intercom – great when I make it, but we also get to hear each other’s grunts and screams when things goes wrong!) Having seen Juan scrape through, I was already preparing myself for the bamboo struts but first I had to get there! When crossing dodgy little bridges and spans like this, the temptation is to either stop or try to get it over and done with by just giving it some beans. In reality both are pretty bad ideas. Stopping not only has you keeping the bike’s combined weight all on one spot for longer than necessary, it also means you have to put your feet down which either changes how you’ve spread the balance of weight on the bridge or risks you putting your feet down where there is no ‘floor’.  If you try ‘flooring it’ the bike’s weight transfers more to the rear and the drive of the rear wheel can pull the span apart ending your day very quickly. In the ideal crossing, you maintain a nice, slow but constant and predictable pace that doesn’t stress one part of the bridge more than any other. Sadly, this was not going to be possible here; although I had the bike rolling nice and gently across the bridge, I knew that I was going to have to stop mid way. I’d already chosen the spot where I was going to put my feet down (the planks that moved least when Juan was on the bridge) and coming slowly to a stop was able to edge the bike through  and up the other side. Next up was Em who, although having the advantage of having been talked through it all, had also had to sit, wait and watch. It’s never ideal going last as you have time to let all sorts of thoughts go through your head, but she made it look easy (which it most definitely wasn’t!) and along she came. Not having panniers to worry about, she rolled across the bridge and up the other side, let out a breath and said something along the lines of how she dearly hoped that that was the only one of those we’d be having to cross today (this being a family friendly site, I’ll spare you the exact quote!). Em, it would seem, is not afraid to tempt fate……

We continued on our way and the track continued to deteriorate to the extent that we were struggling to get out of first gear, never ideal for bike or rider when the temperature is a very, very humid 40 degrees (104F). We’d originally thought that we’d be sitting in Ban Lung with our feet up in little more than three hours but the last 10km from the ‘bridge’ had taken us an hour and we still had 100km to go including several river crossings for which there were no marked bridges! In the early afternoon, we arrived in a very small village and were relieved to find a woman selling bottles of water – we’d run out at least an hour ago. We continued on and soon reached the first of the aforementioned rivers where the track turned to run parallel with the river, just inside the canopy of the jungle, which offered us the odd bit of shade. Then, all of a sudden, the track abruptly stopped and the only way onward seemed to be through some trees to our right (confirmed by Juan’s gps). Getting off the bikes, Juan went to inspect the tree route on foot whilst Em, having been deemed the least ‘threatening’ (it was pretty remote), was ‘chosen’ to go and ask the small smattering of villagers who had been watching us with curiosity through the undergrowth . While we’d been mulling it over, the small crowd of maybe twenty or so villagers, mostly men and children (the women were probably working, they normally are!) had ventured closer towards us to see what these strange foreigners were doing. However, on seeing Em turn towards them (she had, for the record, removed her jacket and helmet!), they all turned and ran shouting, back into the tree line! I should make this clear, they didn’t shyly retreat – they ran in what can only be described as terror! It was a bizarre sight, and a slightly surprised Em turned to us as if to say ‘what now?’ She tried once more and again the same reaction but did eventually manage to corner a man who suggested we were heading in the right direction – although I’ll confess, it did cross my mind that he might be agreeing just to ensure that he avoided any possibility of disappointing the scary monster that is Emily Littlewood!

Having negotiated a ‘path’ through the trees, we weren’t surprised when after just a few hundred metres we came to our next obstacle – another ‘bridge’ much like the previous one but this one was spanning a gap where flood water had eroded the bank. Leaving our bikes at the top of the slope, we walked down to test it and then, seeing that it hadn’t collapsed under our own weight, agreed to go for it (our quality control standards may have been influenced by the fact that we were already shattered and had no intention of turning round and going back!) Once again it was heaviest bike first so Juan got ready but the approaching slope to the bridge (which this time was perhaps eight metres below ground level) was really steep and filled with deep sand, which for those who don’t know, is up there with wet clay as the worst thing to ride on. It was going to be impossible to edge down the slope without losing control so we each went down, engines off but in 1st gear, releasing the clutch when we needed to stop, and aided by someone acting as an additional break by grabbing the back of the bike.  Having made it down to the bridge we conducted one last walking inspection (the first had revealed that almost all of the planks were lose and most were really thin, flexing way too much even under foot!) We each crossed the bridge with one person walking a couple of metres in front testing and then pointing to different boards to indicate the very precise route required and which boards to not even touch. Although it was only five metres it was still a pretty hairy crossing, and it was worse watching the others doing it when you could clearly see each plank lift as one wheel touched it creating a space just big enough for the other wheel to drop through if you were off course by just a centimetre or two. Having all made it (Em: er, James is being generous here – he did my bike for me!), we powered up the steep bank on the other side and waved goodbye to the 50 or so villagers who had gathered at a safe distance on the far bank to watch what these strange farang were doing.

Within a kilometre we arrived at yet another bridge but this time, although it was a proper bridge, sadly it still under construction. The labourers working on the foundations watched us with interest as once again we got off the bikes and laid our jackets and helmets in the shade before walking down the steep sand bank to test the old footbridge which was the only way across (two bits of tree with some bamboo and wicker laid on top). Again the steepness of the approach would require two people for each bike but on the other side, we would be on our own; we had to climb a steep slope in a deep sandy rut, all in a narrow ‘tunnel’ through dense vegetation. It was going to be a case of hitting it with as much speed as you could, and then keeping the power on as much as was possible without flipping the bike safe in the knowledge that if you didn’t make it you’d only fall into the bushes and bank alongside the trench – it was so narrow and the sand so deep that you wouldn’t fall back down. One at a time we attacked it and just made it up by keeping the power on, even when the bike or panniers collided with the banks. At the top we all stopped for another break and sat in the shade, passing around the last few dregs of water (which we were now rationing). The combination of heat, hunger and thirst were really starting to sap our energy. 

Shortly afterwards we arrived in the village of Siempang, the point where we’d be able to cross the river. The river was perhaps three hundred metres wide and thankfully was served by the same system as at 4000 islands i.e. two kayaks lashed together with some boards thrown on top and a small motor stuck on the back. Again, the ‘skipper’, probably quite sensibly, said that he could only manage two bikes at a time so Em and Juan dropped down the steep slope and over the insufficient gang plank and set off while I sat in the sun and waited as the villagers looked on. Ten minutes later the boat was back and I crossed over and rode up the other side to find Juan and Em in the shade at the top playing with a couple of puppies (Em: so cute! The dogs were owned by a woman running a small stall but it only sold sugar cane juice so we thought we’d get some more water at the next village – not far on the map).  I think we all secretly harboured hopes that we’d done the worst of it and that now that we’d crossed such a big river, it would all ease off and our progress would improve; after all, the map indicated maybe three villages along the next 40km section, and given that we were still 80km from Ban Lung we’d have to get a move on just to get there before dusk, right? Oh, how pathetically wrong were we?

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7 Responses to “Emily has a cunning plan – part 1….”

  1. Mama/Kate says:

    All I can say is, can’t wait for Part 2!

  2. Julian says:

    Just had to check the top of the page. Yes, you are now in Malaysia. Phew! You must have got through this then. I’m surprised that the maps even show this sort of PATH! You are THE badass bikers! X

  3. Joanna says:

    Are you sure you’re travelling in 2011? I think you may have been in an episode of Dr Who somewhere along the line and experienced a little bit of time travel!!!

    Lots of love to you both and … HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!!!

    Joanna xxx

  4. Martha and Marcus says:

    Yes, Happy Wedding Anniversary!! We have just been sitting on our balcony catching up with your adventures. Lovely day here today – a sunny 22 degrees – can’t begin to imagine what riding in 40 degree heat is like!! Looking forward to part 2! xxxx

  5. Jackie (AKA Mum) says:

    Well you guys having read part 1 of ‘Emily’s Cunning Plan and looking at the photos all I can say yet again is that you said you wanted ‘an adventure’ and boy have you got one. Perhaps you should stick to safer routes but on the other hand what would be the fun in that !! J xxx

  6. The Littlewoods says:

    Hi guys,
    Stay cool i think the cunning plan was a good one, TY for the e-mails. All well here as we head into autumn, perhaps a little cool to what it is normally like at this time of year. Megs team did really well in the horse trials ending up about 10th which considering the amount of teams was a great achievement. ready for easter now and ANZAC Day.
    D,S,M and Dan in uni.

  7. Debbie Knight says:

    Emily….I can’t believe that I’ve been reading your adventures for over a year now! I think Cambodia gallery is my favourite, that was until I got to the live pigs on the bike shot! Stay well, look after yourselves and carry on enjoying every minute. xxxx

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