The longest day

As I mentioned before, neither HP2 or I were terribly interested in taking tough roads simply for the experience- there had to be some purpose to make the risk worth it.  Semuc Champey in Guatemala seemed like a no-brainer.  This massive 300 meter natural bridge over The Cahabón River was only 20 odd kilometers from the main road and only the last 11km were listed in guides books as 4×4 only roads- shouldn’t be a problem at all.

Getting to the turn off from the main road took a lot longer than expected since later in the afternoon the heavens had opened again for more proper jungle rain.  Normally we would have stopped for the night, but since we had a fairly short way to go, we decided to press on.  At the turn-off we left the tar road and started going downhill on a very rocky gravel road.  The large rocks were slick with rain, so we slowly rode our bikes around them, keeping to the slightly surer footing of the gravel.  Making our way around bends, our headlights would shine out into the distance- a sure sign that the edge of the road was a drop off, or at best, a very steep hill.  We were down to doing maybe 20km/hr, wanting to make sure we didn’t get too fast and hit a large stretch of slippery rocks that would make us drop the bikes- or worse- slide off into the blackness at the edge of the road.

An hour of tough riding later we arrived at the town of Lanquín.  While the last hour had been very tough, we decided to continue on.  We wanted to camp at the Semuc Champey site so that we could enjoy it before any other tourists arrived, that and the black night with it’s unrelenting rain had focused our minds on our goal- we were riding on, completely in the moment and not really considering our options properly.

And we had completely forgotten that after Lanquin, the road was listed as 4×4 only.

Continuing on it wasn’t long before the road started to live up to its forgotten billing.  What had been a steep, but manageable, descent became a series of ever steeper hills.  The water coursed down the track, obscuring rocks and potholes, the grade reminded me of The Sani Pass in South Africa, and as the gravel was washed away by the rain, the slick rocks became more and more the only option to ride on.  Riding up the hills I was forced to gun the engine and keep up an unpleasant speed, since once stopped, starting up again on that slippery grade would have been near impossible.  Riding down the hills was shear terror- soon even light braking was enough to cause the bike to fishtail, and even with a 1200cc bike and an endro low first gear, engine braking could only provide so much.

Hp2 and I stopped at the top of one hill and he- the wiser man- suggested we give up and camp there for the night, finishing the last 5km the next morning in daylight.  I wanted to keep on going since it was only 5km and I was in the groove.  I was also afraid of loosing my nerve- a wet night sleeping on the side of the track worrying about the ride ahead, maybe the sun revealing more of the road and making it seem even more daunting since instead of just taking it as headlight revealed chunks, we might be able to see the whole treacherous length of it.  I pushed for us to continue and HP2 reluctantly agreed.  We also decided to space ourselves widely since the road was enough to worry about- no point in adding the worry and danger of running into each other into the mix.  So, since I had pushed us to continue, I went off ahead.

On one downhill I started sliding, my rear tire snaking around so much it threatened to completely come loose and swing me around for a dangerous fall.  I stopped even touching the brakes, but I was on a long patch of slick rocks and even trying to turn off or stop would have dropped me just as quickly.  Soon I had to start pulling the clutch since even the engine braking was starting to cause me to slid around.  I had no choice but to ride straight down the hill and hope that at the bottom there was maybe some gravel pilled up from the river that seemed to be running down the road- I could use that to brake hard and swing about into a controlled skid.  The hill just kept on going, and my speed kept on increasing.  I was probably never going that fast, but in that rain soaked night it felt like I was flying down a highway into unknown blackness.

The hill flatten out and immediately began to turn, leaving only tall elephant grass and the unknown before me.  Luckily, the rain followed the ruts around the bend, and in doing so, left a smoothly banked pile of gravel along the leading edge of the road.  As soon as I hit the corner I braked hard, turning the bike into the gravel and using it scrub off speed and provide at least some positive traction.  A wave of gravel shot out from my rear tire, my bike started to twist around- the front tire digging into the gravel and the rear spinning through it, pushing me parallel to road.  And to a complete stop.  My foot came down, shaking as it hit the ground.  I’d completely forgotten that I was still in first gear and let up my pressure on the clutch, the bike jerked forward and stalled.  And I just sat there listening to the rain and my heartbeat before starting the bike up again and continuing on.

The road quickly levelled out and I quickly reached the campsite where I waited for HP2 and relived my experience.

I was torn- proud and impressed with myself for having gone through what was by far the most difficult technical riding experience I’d had on the trip without dropping the bike.  Annoyed and disappointed with myself for letting the bloodlust and desire to conquer the road that night win out and cause me to not only take the risks for myself, but drag HP2 into them as well.

Hp2 turned up shortly later and we made camp on the edge of the walking trail to the river.  He was a bit annoyed with me, but since we had both made it okay, it passed quickly.  Especially since the next morning we had the entire Semuc Champey site to ourselves.

The river disappears into the ground…

… and leaves quiet pools of water to filter through the trees…

…before bursting out again and roaring down the gorge.

I’m not sure if the ride was worth it.  At least not in the manner we arrived-a wet night just made for an unwarranted risk.  After riding back to the main road we found that a dry day made for an exhilarating and challenging ride.  Though, I have to admit- I was still pretty happy with myself and felt the last bit of fear from my Bolivian accident wash away.  Now, I just had to worry about becoming over confident.



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