I should have taken off my knee braces. I should have found a way to tie them to my back, but I wasn’t thinking very clearly. We walked in the rain, wearing our helmets to keep our heads warm and dry.
I felt fine walking downhill but uphill was a battle against the weight of my boots and the movement restrictions from my knee braces. MX boots are designed so you can’t bend your ankle and sustain an injury, but it means that walking in them is like walking with concrete blocks on your feet.
My friend was wearing supple trials boots. I was stair climbing, and stumbling like a zombie.
I switched on my phone for a minute to check our position and direction: yes, we were still on the right track. Just before I switched it off again to save the last of the battery, I glimpsed the altitude graph of our trip ahead: we had to walk over one massive mountain, and then to the top of the next one, before we’d be out of the jungle. Over 500 vertical metres to go.
We started on a downhill section and my friend sighed with relief. “Not far now?” he asked. “That’s the last hill?”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about the two mountains of doom looming in front of us. “Just a little bit further,” I told him vaguely. Better to sustain hope.
We were walking out of the jungle because, after 24 hours of struggle, we’d finally been defeated by rain on the slick, soft mountainside. The clutch on my KLX230 had given out and the CRF450 was beached on the side of a slope too slippery for us to stand, or drag, or lift or drive the bike up and out. Our collective strength had run out. It had been 16 hours since my hydration pack ran dry, and the dehydration was affecting our strength and coordination.
We knew that no-one would come along the path and find the abandoned bikes as long as the rain continued. Honda Wave or not, mud chains or not, let alone an enduro bike – the track was equally impassable to all, and even a local person on foot would not have ventured out in that cold, wild storm. Both bikes would be guarded by the elements for the rest of today. Now, we just had to get ourselves to safety – to food and water and shelter and a little rest – before we could come back and sort out that mess.
We crested the next ridge and walked out of the mist: on the other side of the range, the weather was sunny. As my core body temperature climbed back to normalcy, the thirst rode back like a devil on horseback. My mouth was sticky and I could only think about cool water and cold beer. I knew that dwelling on the thirst wouldn’t help but was powerless to turn my mind to other thoughts. On a lark of its own, my imagination was mixing lime and soda, the carbonated bubbles frothing and bursting around the edge of the glass.
For the first time, I began to consider that we might actually be in danger. I knew that I could walk seven gentle kilometres but these were not going to be gentle kilometres. They were going to be brutal gradients and right now I just wanted to lie down and have a sleep. Maybe I wouldn’t get up again, and would just drift off comfortably? I began to imagine the end of my life coming in the middle of an ill-advised enduro adventure on the side of a Thai mountain, and I couldn’t pity myself. I’d been having a lot of fun lately, after all.
We were staggering up an endless hill when my friend spotted the wild banana tree. He mentioned it to me in Thai, and I agreed – yes, there’s a banana tree – but I didn’t grasp its significance until he dumped his pack, pulled out a flick knife and started hacking at its trunk. You can drink it.
Banana trees have these soft, fibrous trunks. You can cut out the core and use it in your stir fry, but even more importantly, if you simply cut the trunk, it will drip bitter, clear liquid. Hydration.
It tasted awful and I licked up every drop with relish. I would have stayed there for an hour sucking on tree trunks until my thirst was sated, but my friend wanted to continue. It couldn’t be too much further, he said. Sure, only three more kilometres, I told him – rounding down and not mentioning the mountain to come. Despair never helped anyone.
He selected walking sticks for us both and we trudged on, the sunshine getting warmer and warmer on my pale skin. Behind us, the storm sat as a wall of cloud over the place where our motorbikes rested.
* * *
Single track turned to double track turned to road. We saw a No Camping sign, a toilet block, and windswept lookouts. The first person I saw was a tourist taking a selfie. She looked startled. Soon we saw cars, tents. People going about their safe, sheltered camping weekend: on a completely different page of life.
We staggered through these outposts of bourgeois comfort and it became clear that we were not, actually, going to die in the jungle. In fact, we were both completely fine. A bit dirty, a bit thirsty, nothing to worry about. I thought about asking some of the people for drinking water but decided it was unnecessary to bother them. We could make it the last five hundred metres to the national park shop.
* * *
The shop was closed. My phone died. A cold wind gusted across the top of the mountain and straight between my ribs.
I was still so thirsty.
There was a washing up sink with clear water in a deserted shelter, and normally I would never have drunk this water in Thailand. But I was desperate, and it was cool and clear and spring fed. For the first time since I got stranded in the hills of East Timor, I cupped my hands and drank the local water. One mouthful – two – suddenly I was sated. It was all I needed. The idea of drinking more was unimaginable.
As I sat in the shelter, dazed, my friend found the caretaker of the look out. I was staring into space when he showed up on a scooter, grinning like a little boy.
“The caretaker has a good heart,” he told me, we rode the little scooter down the mountain to the next lookout, to a cafeteria selling water and food. You could have pad kra pow or you could have garlic pork and that was it, but as we shivered over our bottled water and small meals in the draughty dining hall, we savoured our food like kings.
* * *
In Thailand, you can always find someone to help you. By the time we’d finished eating, we’d enlisted the cook’s father to come and drive us back to the house on the mountain. By the time we left, she’d called young strong local men and enlisted them to help us in the morning.
We were safe, I thought… until I got into the beaten-up pickup for the ride back to base. There were no seatbelts and I gripped the window ledge as the driver appeared to forget to turn the first corner. Completely on the wrong side of the road, he remembered and wrenched the wheel just before the nose of the truck plunged into the ditch. Oh hell no, I thought, don’t tell me I just walked up those damn mountains to die NOW. Far more terrifying than riding ridges with plunging cliffs on both sides; far more terrifying than wondering if I would expire of exhaustion or dehydration in the jungle; even more terrifying than being driven back to Vietnam by an horrendously intoxicated Laotian treasury official who wanted to date me; this took the cake.
I prayed to the gods of motorcycling: please don’t let me die like THIS.
* * *
When I alighted from the pickup on shakey legs, I expressed my terror to my friend. He just smiled his calm Buddhist smile at me. “Don’t worry,” he said, serenely. “That old man has been driving this road like that for many years. He has died many times.”