Day 3 dawned in rain that hissed on the coals of the fire as we allowed its heat to subside in preparation for leaving camp.
There was nothing much to do except brush the pine needles from our faces and put our armour back on. We carefully shared sips of the last of our water.
The night before I had used a discarded glass bottle to boil creek water for drinking. The faint track was littered with empty M150 bottles – the real Thai energy drink of which Red Bull is but a dim shadow – and I had had the presence of mind to fill one with water before we climbed the last mountain of the day. The dim fire light hid the water’s muddy tinge, and after a minimum six minutes of boiling, it was as the nectar of the gods poured over my dry, gluey tongue. It was just enough water to ensure that my thirst didn’t keep me awake.
In the morning, sweet drinking water was falling out of the sky, and we tried our best to catch it in plastic bags; but the surface areas were small and our thirst great. We needed to get out of here, get clean water, rehydrate as a priority.
We kicked out the smoking coals and rode off after the shadow of a track in the dim morning light.
Within three hundred metres I was looking at the sky again, my bike lying by my side. We’d been grabbed by a root hidden in the soft wet loam, and my reflexes were already slow. As I wrestled the bike upright, rain began to fall harder.
The forest floor was covered in leaves, and underneath the black dirt was soft and tractionless. I could see the track cresting the next hill, and knew I couldn’t afford to lose any momentum on the steep slope. I railed up in second gear, both wheels deflecting off roots I couldn’t see, using momentum to keep my balance. Every time I got knocked off line, I just kept going and tried to wrestle my way back towards the path without pulling the clutch. Go go go, I told myself, every vertical metre a victory. As I crested the blind hill about ten metres to the right of the track, I heard my friend’s shouts. I had no idea what he was saying, but the tone was urgent, and on faith I pulled the clutch and grabbed the brakes. I stopped, one wheel on each side of a razorback ride. I’d thought it was a hill that I could safely crest, but in front of me was only space.
That had nearly ended badly. I wrestled my front wheel back over the ridge crest and wriggled the bars from lock to lock until the bike was pointing 90 degrees to my left. Gently, I rode the last few metres back to the track, across the slope of the hill. My full throttle dash had done its job of gaining altitude, and luck and watchful friends had saved me from the rest.
* * *
Much like the day before, we found ourselves on barely-indented walking tracks that skirted the sides of unassailable peaks. Small roots tried to slide us down the slopes like slippery dips and large roots presented sheer steps in the path. The constant terror was falling the wrong way – to the downhill side – because there would be no getting back up.
The rain began to fall harder and harder until it became a solid, cold downpour. I had just made it through to a small saddle, and could hear my friend wrestling the big 450 over a big slick log, but I couldn’t see him anymore through the rain. I was too tired to go back and help him. I got out a plastic bag and used it to catch the water dripping off my front mudguard. Everywhere around me was water, and yet I was so thirsty.
As the minutes went by, my body temperature plummeted from sweaty exertion to hypothermia. I began shaking uncontrollably, my teeth chattering. When my friend arrived and set up for a rest, collecting water as well, I shook my head and said we had to ride.
“I’m getting too cold,” I told him unsteadily.
He looked up the ridge that disappeared into the rain. Every leaf was coated in water. “It’s too slippery, we can’t see,” he said. But my chattering teeth were hard to ignore. The rain eased, and we carried on to what would be our last hill of the day. Yes, we were seven kilometres and 600 vertical metres from the next road, but we wouldn’t get much further.
I got halfway up the hill before losing momentum and feeling the back wheel step out too far, too fast to save it. No problem: I needed to change direction anyway – to skirt gigantic granite boulders that loomed out of the mountainside – so I wrestled the bike upright again and facing across the hill. This was when something strange happened: I couldn’t take off. Yes, the hill was as slippery as pigskin but now I was facing across the slope, not up it. I’d pulled the bike into a good position and still couldn’t go anywhere.
The rain was mixing with sweat all over my body; my goggles fogged up and I moved them to the back of my helmet. I was frustrated and struggling to think clearly. My friend came to help me and I surrendered the handlebars, grabbing the rear subframe to push. Gradually we got the bike another ten, twenty, thirty metres. I was getting roosted less than usual, and assumed that it was because my friend – a trials rider – was being characteristically gentle on the clutch for maximum traction.
By now the exertion was overcoming me. My breath was ragged in my chest and I felt dizzy. I stumbled repeatedly and fell in the mud. I could see that it was only another forty metres before this particularly gnarly section smoothed out, and I wordlessly surrendered the bike to my friend. Please ride this section for me. He did – struggling to take off a little – then got twenty metres more and dumped it in the mud.
I staggered up the hill and we both peered at the bike. Something was not right. Something… ahh. Yes, that would be it: no drive to the rear wheel. The clutch was toast.
I wiped the rain and sweat out of my eyes and switched off the bike. There was nothing to be done or said. I had no sandpaper to roughen up a smoothed clutch plate, and it was raining too much to open the bike anyway, even if I’d known what I was doing.
We peered down the hill through the rain at the CRF450, also beached on its side, slid sideways off the track. Its clutch was fine but by now we both lacked the sheer physical strength required to drag it up the tractionless slope.
I crawled into the lee of a large tree to try to check my phone without drowning it. I had ten percent battery and we were seven kilometres from the road. The altitude chart showed that we would have to travel over one mountain and to the top of a second, gaining over five hundred vertical metres.
I shut off my phone to save the battery, switched on the now-cooled bike and confirmed that the clutch was indeed rooted, hot or not. My friend pulled off his knee guards and dumped them beside the bike; I did not. These Mobius knee braces are one of the most valuable things I own.
We started walking.