Emily has a cunning plan: part 2

(James) It soon became clear that crossing the river hadn’t brought us back to civilisation as we’d hoped; within 100 metres we were riding along a narrow rutted, dusty track that clearly didn’t get much use any more. Sighing, we resigned ourselves to more of the same but after just 400 metres Juan, the lead bike, came to a sudden stop. By the time we’d pulled up behind him, he was shaking his head. In front of us, for as far as we could see, was sand, thick thick sand! This was not good. We’d had pretty thick sand on occasion before, but this was ridiculous. It was not only deep but fine enough to shift around a lot. Sand is a nightmare to ride on as your front wheel doesn’t ever go where you point it, it just slides with the shifting grains. The only way to ride it is to give it enough power to allow the rear to dig in, which lifts the weight off the front wheel. Once the front is ‘light’, it’s about keeping the power on (even if you feel the front wheel being ‘guided’ off course) and using your body and the power from the rear wheel to keep you going straight. It’s a tough thing to get your head around when you first get to it (Em: tell me about it!) because it’s counter-intuitive to hit the power when your brain is telling you to take it easy. We all knew that for however long this lasted, we’d be spending most of the time in first gear with our feet down on the ground, just paddling along trying not to fall off. Hopefully it wouldn’t last too long….

Sadly it did, and all too soon Emily became our first faller of the day. She was, of course, fine – she’s amazing unaffected by falling off road and no longer thinks that a fall is because she’s not up to it – and was straight back on the bike (Em: once we’d managed to get it upright again!). The sand just kept on going, limiting our speed to less than a walking pace which, given the heat, humidity and the concentration required, was absolutely draining. When the sand did eventually end a kilometre or so later, the track became incredibly uneven with ruts over a metre deep (Em: out of the frying pan, into the fire!). Riding on the top of the ruts was impossible as we couldn’t put our feet down so we had to ride through them requiring us to raise our feet up to ground level. This, of course, other than looking completely ungainly, gave us little control – not ideal as so deep were the ruts that the bottom of our panniers were grounding out. After 200 metres or so, the ruts came to an end only to be replaced once more by narrow tracks covered in thick sand. We battled on, riding in bursts of ten to twenty metres and experiencing a lot of near falls. After what seemed like an age, Juan stopped under the shade of a tree and asked if we could have a break, something we were all more than happy to do. Whilst the last of the water was shared around, I looked at our progress – it didn’t make particularly good reading. In the last hour we’d managed a staggeringly difficult 4km! We lay on the ground for five minutes or so before I tried to get everyone to get moving again (it was all too easy just to lay there and the idea of even putting our jackets and helmets back on really wasn’t appealing!) We continued on and managed a couple more kilometres before stopping for  another break. This became the pattern for the rest of the afternoon. We’d already given up any hope of reaching Ban Lung that day and had set the next village of O-Samong as our target for the evening.

As the afternoon wore on, fatigue, brought on in no small part by the workload, heat and lack of any food or water, became our biggest problem and the gaps between our breaks decreased. Mistakes were also starting to creep in and we were reduced to getting the bike just five metres or so before stopping and going again. We continued to have plenty of ‘near misses’ and before too long Juan went down. In our shattered states, it would take both Em and I to help Juan pick his heavy GS back up so he just sat thereby his bike for a couple of minutes whilst Em and I tried desperately to find somewhere suitable to put the side stand down on one bike, then find some stones or wood to place under the side stand of the other bike before we could help. Juan, drenched in sweat, was a wreck so we agreed to stop for a couple of minutes again (our breaks were now coming every 500 metres or so). We hadn’t gone too far when Em went down again and we again agreed to stop. Juan and Em both remarked that had we had water, we would have happily stopped and camped right where we were but both map and GPS indicated that O-Samong was just three not-so-short kilometres away. It was now gone half four and we knew that if we could do the last 3km in an hour we’d be in a better position with the possibility of a shop selling water and even a guesthouse. We pressed on through more deep sand after about 40 minutes, the sand turned to harder packed dirt and we saw a couple of dwellings through the trees. To say we were relieved would be a mild understatement. We rode through the village and to the top of the river bank where a  few curious villagers stood watching us in amazement. We tried to ask if there was a shop, somewhere to get food or even a guesthouse but were met with the kind of blank looks that suggested they didn’t even know what a guesthouse was! A quick look round established that we were out of luck and, seeing that there was no bridge across the river, we rode down the bank to find a fording point.

The river itself was slow flowing and about forty metres wide but didn’t appear to be any more than waste height at its deepest point, with the odd sand bank creating an island mid stream (thank god it’s the dry season and levels are low!). It was now about 5:30 and the whole village appeared to be down at the river washing, collecting water and playing so our arrival at the water’s edge caused something of a stir. We got off the bikes to find a suitable spot to cross and luckily a man on a scooter (we’d have all given anything to be able to ride that little scooter the rest of the way to Ban Lung!) approached from the other side and managed (just) to cross near us, indicating to the crossing point with the hardest ground and, rather importantly, the least chance of underwater rocks – falling off in the water would mean flooding the bike and killing any electronics that weren’t kept in waterproof panniers such as the cameras and laptop. Juan went first and indicated that the riverbed was smooth, if a bit soft (just give it some beans then!) so we followed across. By the time we were all over, a large crowd of perhaps forty villagers had gathered and Juan had discovered one teenager who could speak a bit of English, enough to tell him that there was no shop and no guesthouse anywhere nearby (and the food situation was also a bit of a grey area). Great!

We quickly agreed that with darkness approaching and our energy reserves nearly depleted (Juan was quite literally a broken man!) we were going no further and so, having got permission from some locals (it helped that most of them were standing watching us so we didn’t have to go looking for someone in charge!), we pulled our tents out and began to put them up, an act that astounded our audience! Juan, still unable to move, just sat there for ten minutes before summoning the strength to make camp. With tents up, we left Juan to sit on a log while we walked upstream a little (the kids all ran screaming and laughing as soon as we started to walk towards them!) to what appeared to be a spring on a sandbank in the middle of the river and began filtering some much needed drinking water – again an act that shocked the crowd of locals that followed us, partly because of the small hand pump we were using, but mostly, I’d imagine, because they couldn’t understand why we weren’t just drinking the water directly!

Having filled a couple of bottles we headed back to give some to Juan, who was now sat alone in a near vegetative state. Apparently the guy who spoke English had walked off into the trees – along with any chance we’d had of getting some food! Still, at least we had water. All we wanted to do now was have a wash but we were still such a novelty that we’d have to wait until dark when hopefully our audience would go home for the night. Fortunately night falls fairly rapidly at this latitude; by 7pm it was pitch black so Em and I waded into the river near the fording point where there was a boulder to put our towels and soap on. We took turns – Em washed first with me on lookout duty and then it was my turn – and that’s when the comedy of errors began…..

Having stripped off  (don’t try picturing it – it was pitch black!), I was standing in the stream washing the accumulated dirt and sweat from my hands when suddenly my wedding ring slid off my finger! (Our diet on this trip means that I’m quite literally half the man I used to be!) Cursing, I quickly but carefully got down on all fours and blindly felt around the riverbed for it. Em went back to the tent for a torch and soon returned with Juan to help look. Juan, of course, didn’t know I was butt naked; a fact that didn’t remain unknown for long! So, there we were the three of us, two torches and me, on my hands and knees in my birthday suit scrambling around in a river! Just when I thought my humiliation couldn’t get any worse, we heard the unmistakable sound of a scooter and seconds later, not one but two came into view and rode down the bank to the fording point, which, of course, was right next to me! All I could do was sit down to retain some degree of modesty! All three of us were in hysterics as the scooters rode by, I hope we didn’t offend anyone (Christ knows what they’d have thought had they’d seen us seconds before!) After they’d disappeared up the other side, we continued the search but it was fruitless and we had to give up. Even though the ring was only very cheap (bought specifically for the trip at Covent Garden market), I was sad to have lost it but Em was pretty philosophical (frankly, I think she thought it was worth it for the laugh that the whole sorry episode had provided at the end of what had been a really tough day.) Then, just to rub salt in the wound, as I got up to walk back to the bank, Em (still on torch duty) noticed that I’d sat in what must have been an old oil rag or filter and had thick oil all over my backside! Not exactly my finest hour!……

With nothing else to do, and being totally shattered, we were all asleep by 8pm and woke at dawn the next morning  eager to get going. Our early departure was made quicker by the fact that there was nothing for breakfast and, whilst packing the tents up, we kept trying to ask people from our audience if the road improved from this point or stayed the same. The few who understood our sign language smiled and indicated ‘yes, it’s good’ but we’re old hands now and knew all too well that this was in all likelihood a case of someone saying what we wanted to hear (people throughout Asia say yes if you ask a leading question so as not to disappoint you – sweet but not particularly helpful!) After I’d given a regretful glance back towards the river to say one last goodbye to my wedding ring (cheap it may be but I’d become rather attached to it), we were ready to hit the road by 7am, which would hopefully give us a chance to get some distance under our belts before it got too hot. Upon riding up the bank, our worst fears were confirmed when we were met with yet more sand – it was clear that we, quite literally, were not out of the woods yet! There was still 80km to go to Ban Lung, and 40km until we reached the next river where, on the other side, there would be a main road.  According to the map, between us and the river there were three villages, each about 10km apart. All we could do was set the first village as our target and hope that they had water or food there (Em: despite the long rest, we were still completely lacking in energy. We’d have given anything for some noodle soup!)

We battled on through the sand covering a tough six kilometres in the first hour (yes, a mammoth 4 miles!) before taking a much needed break. Not taking any chances, we rationed the water and not wanting to waste any of the cooler part of the day, set off in anticipation of the settlement ahead and the possibility of a drink and some much needed food. The ‘village’, when we got to it forty minutes later, was a crushing disappointment; well, what  was left of it was anyway. All that remained of said village were a couple of long abandoned huts on stilts that were leaning badly and would surely collapse any day now. We just laughed (Em: somewhat hysterically), and continued on our way – now we understood why this was an ‘ex-road!’ The lack of food and water was clearly starting to get to us as both our strength and our concentration were faltering and more mistakes were creeping in. First Emily went down in a deep patch of sand, and then a kilometre or so later so did I. Just twenty minutes later I was down again, this time having been propelled into an old thorn bush (always nice!).  The second village when it came was much like the first so we continued on having already prepared ourselves mentally for the fact that village number three would be no different.  At this point, the terrain started to vary a bit more. We were still getting deep sand and rutted tracks (they were getting worse leading to much scraping of panniers!) but now the jungle started to close in on us much more (offering us some valuable shade) and we found ourselves having to ride down very steep banks, through old dried out riverbeds and up steep banks on the other side. As we approached each new bank, we’d hold our breath as they were so steep that until we were right on top of it, it appeared as if it was a sheer drop. Too steep to brake on, we’d pick a line and roll down, trying to maintain momentum for the other side. Em came a cropper on one of these when the bank back up required a sharp turn midway up. In true style, she gave it the beans only for her handlebar to catch the side of the bank, which then threw her into it – it looked spectacular! (Em: my handle bars were twisted out of alignment after that – not ideal when you’re riding slowly and doing lots of nifty manoeuvres round obstacles!)

We stopped once more with three hours gone, during which we’d managed 24km and all of us had fallen at least once. We were taking regular breaks not only to rest ourselves but to allow the bikes to cool down. Juan (who had laid his roll mat out on the floor such was his need to lie down) was starting to have concerns about the abuse the clutch on his BMW was getting – at least our XTs could cope at very low speeds in first gear. Whilst we were sitting there, a local came along on a little scooter with motocross tyres – it was the perfect bike for here and we’d have all gladly swapped at that moment, but what caught our interest was the large polystyrene box leaking water on the back. In it were dozens of little foil bags containing fruit drinks (Em: the sight of which was like a chest full of gold!). We asked how much they were but there was obviously a language barrier (not to mention the fact we still had no local currency!).  Juan then showed him a $20 bill and the guy was soon piling drink after drink into our hands (Em: perhaps it’s his army survival training from back in the day but James was saying the situation wasn’t desperate enough to fork out so much money – sod that, Juan and I would gladly have paid $20 for just one drink!!) The guy must have seen the desperation in our faces and could quite easily have fleeced us but, after we indicated that ten pouches should be sufficient, he counted out some Cambodian riels and handed them back to Juan. So honest! He rode off and left us slicing the corners off and drinking one after the other! These sickly sweet drinks are genuinely disgusting, but right at that moment, they were one of the nicest things we’d ever tasted!

With spirits lifted and sugar rushes all round, we continued on our way. The track offered up a rare stretch of shallower sand and we managed a record breaking 4km before the next stop. We were now all keeping a keen eye on our odometers and knew that when they reached 42km for the day, we would be at the river. That magic figure was getting tantalisingly close. We were just into the low 30kms when suddenly the narrow track became hard packed and we were able to get the bikes into 2nd gear (still only doing about 15kph but beggars can’t be choosers!). Moments later we spied a roof top in the trees. We were trying not to get too excited as we’d been here many times before on the trip, but the track stayed solid and when we saw a pick-up truck pass what must be a junction up ahead, we knew we’d made it. We got to the junction, and sure enough there was beautiful smooth red dirt in both directions and, more importantly – other vehicles! We stopped at the junction, parked the bikes and walked straight to the nearest stall that not only had cold drinks but packets of biscuits – we ate one each (Em: a packet that is, not just one biscuit!).

Fully refreshed, we continued on the beautiful road that ran alongside the river enjoying the novelty of third gear and hoping that the inevitable small riverbeds that would be running down to the main river would have working bridges over them. They did, and just twenty minute later we arrived in the main village where the crossing point was. The boat dock was at the bottom of a ridiculously steep 30 metre dirt ramp and given that it would be impossible to park on it, we sat at the top to wait for the boat to come back over. When it came over, we could see that, although still the usual  kayak affair, it was a little bigger so would fit all of us on at once. I went down first, and quickly found that there was no traction. The brakes were pretty much ineffective and I started to skid and slide down towards the water. In the end I had to settle for a rapid skid all the way down and then release everything and roll on to the boat at speed, hoping I’d be able to stop before exiting the other side and into the river! I made it, but only just. Having seen this near miss, Em decided that she’d let someone else do her bike (Em: aren’t I generous !) and when Juan’s turn finally came, I had to drag along behind him acting as an anchor. With everyone on board we headed across, excited by what might be on the other side. The dock, when it came, was an ‘interesting’ one. A narrow plank ramp sat in the water at the edge of a sandbank which our boat pulled up next to. We lined the bikes up on the boat before riding down the plank on to the sand bank which left us just 300 metres of thick sand and a couple of small water crossings to contend with! We hopped from one sand ‘island’ to another and suddenly we found ourselves climbing off the dock and onto a village street complete with cars and  trucks! (Em: hurrah!) We stopped and rewarded ourselves with another cold drink and, having confirmed that we were just 40km of good solid dirt road from Ban Lung, sat there under a tree and reminisced about the last two days. Juan, who has years of off-roading experience, paid Emily quite the compliment, saying that anybody who could do what we’d just done was ‘a f**king good rider’!! I couldn’t agree more, but it meant more coming from Juan than me, as there was no bias, and as anybody who knows Juan will testify, he doesn’t say that much and rarely gives out compliments. 

We set off and just as we’d hoped, the dirt road was, for the most part, fine (Em: just the usual dust clouds and a few maniac drivers!). Just an hour later we arrived on the outskirts of Bang Lung where, in line with the first building, the tarmac started. We all stopped and just stared at it. We’d originally expected to be here at lunch time on the Monday but here we were at almost 5pm on the Tuesday  – tired, hungry and absolutely exhausted, but despite everything, filled with a sense of adventure and achievement. To be honest, we’d sort of assumed that the ‘adventure’ part of our trip had ended when we’d arrived in southeast Asia and that it would tend to have more of a ‘holiday’ feel to it from that point on (that’s why we’d given away our emergency rations!) so it felt nice to have one last little wilderness adventure before we headed back to the developed world – well, unless that is, Em’s put in charge of navigation again!…..

Photos for this entry here.

6 Responses to “Emily has a cunning plan: part 2”

  1. Darren says:

    All hail to the tarmac! I don’t think you’ve ever turned back when the going has got tough well done.

  2. Mama/Kate says:

    Lordy, lordy – I’m having great difficulty picturing all this! It sounds impossible. Better look at the photos, I guess. I’ll come back to you after I’ve had a chance to absorb it all. The power of mind over matter, eh? x

  3. Julian says:

    Crazy! Does nothing stop you two? Read with gasps. laughs and rising incredulity (if that is a word!). Longest and most amazing blog yet. Thank you for all the effort being put into these write ups. X

  4. Jackson says:

    as you were riding through sand, bush and bramble, baking and parched, dreaming of the next morsel of food, i guess it wouldn’t have helped thinking about the fortunate soul back in godknowswhereakstan blissfully munching through those ration packs that you gave away. no?

  5. Jess says:

    Absolutely brilliant! James, I’m sorry you lost your wedding ring too – but it was defnitely worth it for that comedy escapade! You guys are amazing.
    LOVE YOU x

  6. Martha says:

    What an action packed installment! I would love to know what the locals were saying about you after seeing you pass through their remote village! You mad mad people!! When stuck in the busy traffic of london I can at least console myself with the fact that we have tarmac and bridges!!! Well done Em, I agree with Juan’s assessment of your riding skills!!! xxxx

Leave a Reply