The track had long ago turned into a hard enduro playground. Steep, slippery with scree, washed out by ruts that could swallow a whole bike. To the right and left, cliffs. In front, fallen timber and roots on slippery angles.
It had been a long time since we’d seen any sign of usage. Worn tracks had split off to the left, leaving us traversing a mountain without the reassurance that anyone else had come this way in months. Sometimes we could only go a few hundred metres before the next tangle of fallen wood. We would drag broken trees to create gaps for the bikes, or drag the bikes under or over when it was impossible to create any gap.
It was elating – every obstacle conquered was a shot of adrenalin.
* * *
Again and again, gravity threatened to smack us down into yawning gullies.
It was only after the first few hours that gravity began to beat me down. The first time, it was a spectacular and inevitable victory. Inevitable because in my mind this hill had already won: I didn’t believe I’d get up it. It was steep enough that you needed momentum, and rutted enough that momentum was impossible.
When I fell, it was to the downhill side – a fall from height – the bike toppling down upon me. It was a good fall, under the circumstances. My friend had told me GO RIGHT and I’d lost control and gone left, to the lip of the gulf; but somehow, the bike had not fallen all the way in. It was salvageable.
For the first ten seconds, however, I cried. Thirty-four years old and, imagining myself in the privacy of my helmet, I cried real tears of pain as the flesh in my hip haemorrhaged black. There was a part of me that thought my arm might be broken because it hurt so badly, so paralytically; I yelled “not that arm, not that arm!” as my friend reached out to pull me back up the slope. There were salty tears on my face and as the pain faded, I felt embarrassed in case he’d heard me crying. I was fine.
But this was only the beginning.
We had 17 kilometres to go and were averaging one or two kilometres an hour.
I know you can do the math.
* * *
A few clicks later we came to an intersection, and the faint suggestion of tyre marks in the dirt. Someone had passed this way since the last wet season; maybe a few people. I took heart at this – the track ahead must be more passable. Important, because my hydration pack was dry. I was hoping for a village, or a villager, or any source of drinking water at all. Today had been hard work.
I carried on, in the lead, and was cresting a steep slope in first gear when the gap between the trees was suddenly filled by two Honda Waves, parked on the trail. I cut the throttle in surprise and promptly keeled over in the scree.
My leg was pinned under the bike, so I looked around for the people who went with the two scooters. But there was non-one. No-one, nothing, just the breeze and the sound of my friend’s four stroke labouring up the hill. I decided to chill until he arrived.
Sure enough, within a few minutes he had lifted the bike while I scrambled out from underneath it. I remounted, picked my way carefully past the scooters, and then killed the engine. Crashing always makes me hungry. Time to eat.
I was just about to crack an iced coffee when my friend – the most chill person you will ever meet – pulled up beside me and started yelling.
“Go, go, go!” he was insisting.
I stared in puzzlement. What had gotten into him?
“But I’m hungry,” I explained. “If I’m hungry I might fall off the mountain and then we’ll have a real problem. Just wait a minute while I have something to eat.”
But he was still insisting, forcefully.
“We can’t stay here,” he said, “not here, we’ll stop later, just GO. GO.”
When I kept staring at him in puzzlement, he stomped the CRF into gear and took off. Speechless, I followed him. What in the actual hell….?
Ten minutes later we pulled into a clearing and he killed the engine.
“Okay,” he said, “You can have a rest here.”
I asked what on earth was going on, and he looked around restlessly.
“We can’t stay near the scooters,” he said. “There might be people around.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“They might not be good people.”
I was still staring in puzzlement. “What do you mean?” In my experience, people on mountain tops were normally just friendly villagers looking for mushrooms in the forest.
“It’s not mushroom season,” he told me, and then the penny dropped. Who do you think you might find moving goods by scooter relay in wild mountains on awful tracks, somewhere near the Myanmar border? Not mushroom collectors.
As the pieces fell into place, my eyes focused on a patch of scrub to my left. There, in the bushes, was another Honda Wave. Strategically stashed.
I necked my coffee and we got the hell out of there.
* * *
The light was already fading when I followed the tail light of the CRF450 down a slope, into a gully so steep that we both just turned off our engines, locked our back wheels and slid down.
Was it even possible to get back up the hill we’d just come down? I soon forgot about this question as both bikes slipped off the side of the almost imperceptible path which clung to the opposite side of the gully. From here on in, the hillsides would be laced with conifer roots, glossy diagonals which would take your back wheel and slide it off the track like a slippery dip. I learnt to angle the front wheel uphill, above the path, so that when the rear slid down it would come to a rest at the level of the path instead of below it. Because getting more than a hundred kilograms of bike back up a hill too steep to stand on – that’s a two person job and it sucks. We did it again and again.
As we both struggled more and more, I began rescuing myself more often instead of waiting for help. Before, the idea was that I should wait for help so that I didn’t get too tired too early; but now, we were both tired. It was an even score.
The track started to wind around the sides of the peaks instead of cresting them straight on; barely an indentation in the side of the slope, it was too narrow for our engines. We would have to dismount and tilt the bikes out over the abyss while we scraped the clutch cases and folding pegs past a rock, a root, an outcrop.
The fallen leaves were thick and slippery, and sometimes when I thought everything was absolutely fine, I would still feel my back wheel step out into space.
Darkness was setting in when we came to a slope leading out of a ravine and my friend finally said to me in Thai, “I’m not confident”.
Well, damn. If he wasn’t confident, I was toast.
And it was at that moment at the fatigue really hit me.
“I can’t do it today,” I told him. “I can do it tomorrow. But now I need to rest. I’m done. I need to sleep.”
But we were in a creek bed. It was damp, replete with mosquitoes. Wild animals would come down in the night to drink. I attempted the hill once, failed within the first few metres, and surrendered. For the first time that day – except for when I’d be sobbing over my bruised hip – the smile slipped from my face. My strength was finished and my balance was on its way out too.
“You ride it,” I said.
I could tell that he was tired too. As he wrestled the bike out of the impossible gully, I whispered under my breath: don’t get hurt, don’t get hurt, don’t get hurt.
He didn’t. He managed to ride both bikes about a third of the way up, and then we dragged and pushed and pulled the bikes the rest of the way. I was on the front wheel, gripping the rubber knobs, dragging the bike forward and over the logs and rocks in its path.
Then I went back down to get our hydration packs – light, nearly empty – and helmets. Walking back up to the waiting bikes, I felt like I could barely lift my feet. Each step was tiny stumble up a steep hill. My friend laughed and called them zombie steps, and he was right.
On top of the next mountain we called it a day.
I switched off the bike and began dragging fallen wood into a huge pile.
As a child, I’d been taught: never go into the bush without fire. Some habits you never shake, and soon I had pinecones crackling and firelight pushing back the darkness.
My friend wondered about the wild animals – tigers, leopards, snakes, Thailand has plenty – but I assured him we’d be sweet. “They won’t like the fire,” I said, and lay down, and closed my eyes, and went to sleep.
In the small hours of the morning, the rain began to fall. It made me cold and I woke up and put more wood on the fire. As the rain got harder, I stoked the fire higher and we huddled in the dry ring of heat around it.
I slept again.
We woke, just before dawn, and saw how long it really takes for daylight to bleed into a night sky.