Lesson 1: Never try to keep up with the locals.
They know things you don’t.
So we’ve just finished fanging through the dirt section – me and my new bros, it’s all icecream and KLXs and mud puddles. What more could you want.
Now that we’ve posed for another victorious photo, it’s bitumen all the way to lunch: the police chief at the next town has a feast prepared and is awaiting our arrival.
So off we go, and the boys set a cracking pace – especially when you consider they’re all on KLX 150s with knobbies. Some of them are taking the corners flat-track style, all counter steer and leg out. They go alright.
They know this road.
Beastie’s got buckets more speed and acceleration, better suspension, more road-suited tyres, but it’s a moot point: the road is narrow and windy and hilly, and I don’t know what’s coming up next. It’s pretty good bitumen for Indonesia, but it’s still Indonesia.
So I’m following the guys, and we’re not going that fast, but we’re going fast enough. We’re coming up to the blind crest of a hill, so I ease off the throttle a little and keep left. I’m watching the road ahead but I notice, in my peripheral vision, that the guy in front of me has done something quite strange: he’s approached the crest closer to the middle of the road, and then laid the bike over to make a hard, hard right.
What’s going on? Not even an Indonesian road turns a corner that quickly, but it’s too late to keep speculating because I’ve crested the hill and there, instantly in front of me, is a pothole the size of Lichtenstein. It’s two metres wide, filled with loose rocks and gravel and collapsed bitumen, and it covers the entire left side of the road and most of the right. The road also shifts gently to the right with a reverse camber and a steep downhill slope, straight off the crest of the hill. The scrub grows all the way up to the roadsides.
There’s no way around the left hand side; the boys have swooped around the right hand side, but they knew they needed to set up for that before they crested hill. Me – I’ve got no hope. In isolation, on a flat road, the pothole is completely manageable for Beastie, but I’ve just crested the hill – the bike is momentarily light, traction reduced – and I’m looking for an escape route. I’m looking to the right, where the others have neatly skirted the crater.
I can feel how light the bike is as I come over the hill, and I can feel my traction evaporating as I roll off the throttle in horror, and I know that there’s going to be an ugly bottoming out as gravity and my 40kg of luggage reassert themselves when my rear wheel crashes into the hole and then into the sharp lip on the other side. I’m having visions of being pitched over the bars or into an ugly, downhill highside.
I chicken out, and I bail: on the brakes, lean in towards the side of the hill. It’s a pretty ugly way to take off speed – sort of sideways in a hole full of loose rocks – but there’ll be no high speed high sides today.
To my surprise, I nearly pull it off: I’ve taken off almost all of my speed, I’ve got the front out the other side of the pothole, steering is back, but then the rear wheel hits the sharp edge of the hole on exit and breaks contact with the road. I think I might also still have the back locked up, which was fine for my sideways skid in the dirt but disastrous once we hit bitument again. Because I’ve already got the bike leaning in towards the hill as I countersteer hard, this final loss of contact is fatal: now she’s on her side, sliding to a stop down the road.
I had been up on the pegs, and as she’s gone down I’ve pushed the bike away from me and slid down the road on my arse. This turns out to be a good move, because we’re still sliding when one of the boys crests the hill.
He’s heading for the right hand side of the road, away from the pothole, but now there’s a large KTM skiing sideways down the road in front of him. He bails, does a sideways skid across the hill like I did, and I watch the KLX collect the KTM sliding down the road in front of me.
We all – KTM, KLX, me, and my friend – end up in a pile in the rocks on the side of the road.
What a fuck up.
I’m absolutely stricken. This is a disaster.
We’re all okay. We’re all wearing gloves, boots, protective gear. I think the clutch lever on the KLX is a little damaged. Beastie’s fine; it was a slow and short slide.
I’m horrified. I’m mortified. What have I done.
Everyone is super nice. It’s awful.
I’m so horrified, I have no words.
It’s blazingly hot.
In my head, I swear I will never ride with anyone else again. I berate myself for letting my guard down, for giving into the temptation to let someone else set the pace, for assuming everything would be fine. I never, ever do this, and today I did, and the consequences came and kicked my arse so, so hard.
Speaking of which, my arse is actually numb. Well, mostly just the right thigh. That’s where I hit the ground and slid. My kevlar jeans are fine, my skin is fine, but the numbness and faint tingling bodes ill. A rainbow is coming.
Indonesian motorcycle first aid usually consists of getting the skittled person back on their bike and riding again as soon as possible: if you can still ride, everything must be okay!
When I’m in my right mind, I know that you shouldn’t be putting anyone back on their bike after a serious incident for at least forty minutes, because all those chemicals rushing through your body can do weird things to your physiology. You might, for example, suddenly pass out. But, when you’re dazed and confused, you don’t remember that.
So I let the guys dust me off and put me back on the bike – ‘I’m okay, I’m okay’ I keep saying – and I start riding down the road again. It’s relatively straight, curves a bit to the right.
I’m riding down the hill.
I pass out.
Just for a second.
I come to, and I’m off the road, coasting through the scrub. The bushes are smacking me in the face, my visor’s up, it’s the first thing I notice. Maybe that’s what brought me round.
Ah, I think. This is not good.
Drop a gear gently, don’t panic, don’t grab the brakes, steer back onto the road. Stop carefully.
Lots of concerned faces.
I mumble something about being fine.
Obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about, but we keep riding anyway.
By the time we make it to lunch, I feel almost normal.
I think my bars are slightly bent. I find a good rock and straighten the front wheel.
Good to go.
* * *
We have lunch. Everyone is super nice.
When we get to Reo, we have es kelapa at the police station and play with Angelo’s kids, who are awesome and who think the motorbikes rock. Then some of the guys head home to Ruteng, and Arry helps me find a cheap homestay.
It’s a lovely room on the second floor with a big bed, clean new sheets with a rich red pattern on them, less than $10 a night. The owner lets me park Beastie inside his shop.
I walk down the street and buy myself a beer. I drink it.
And then I cry. I absolutely bawl. I feel like my heart is breaking and going to fall out of my chest.
Why the drama? I’m safe. It’s okay.
But I can’t shake the despair.
One of the reasons I left on this trip was because I felt like everything I touched back home, I made worse; because I was so sad, because I had my back to the wall, because I had nothing left to give. So I left. I took my aching heart elsewhere, so that it could be no-one else’s problem but mine.
But now, I’d touched something, someone else – I’d joined with other people – and here was what had happened.
I was still making things worse.