I found out that we were going enduro camping about 500km after we set out.
The beginning of the trip had been the last word in civilised – as far as a dirtbiking trip is ever civilised. Myself and the KTM had been collected by air conditioned vehicle, driven halfway across Thailand, fed delicious food and high octane fuel, and then supplied with nothing less than a hot water campsite. Dang. I hardly knew myself.
The first day off road was mostly chicken enduro, and part exhilarating challenging, during which I did not fall into the abyss.
On the second morning, my companions seemed to be packing rather a lot of a gear for a one day jaunt. I stood there, confused, with my hydration pack and a spare bottle of water.
‘Aren’t you going to pack up your tent?’ asked somebody. I looked at them in confusion.
‘Why would I do that… we’re sleeping here again tonight…’ I said, as the penny began to drop. ‘Aren’t we?’
No, apparently we weren’t – we were going to go deeper in the wilderness, too deep to come back out in one day. I love this shit! – but I was totally unprepared.
Nevermind. When I was a kid growing up in the Australian bush, I was always taught to head out on the assumption that I might not make it back that day. You always carried matches and a knife and water. In the last couple of years since I’d begun wandering like a vagrant around the moister areas of south east Asia, I’d added to that collection a 7-Eleven plastic poncho. I might not be comfortable, but I wouldn’t die.
I hadn’t brought anything like a small dry bag to strap to the fender of the bike, so I just shrugged and figured that my night was going to be pretty basic. I certainly wasn’t going to pack up my tent and attempt to strap that stupidly large thing to the back of my dirt bike – sure, I used to lug it around on the 690 Enduro, but that was back in the days when I carried so much gear that the weight warped the plastic mounting boards of my panniers. No way was I up for that stupidity anymore. I wanted a bike that handled as well as possible, and I wanted to save my energy as much as possible. Sleeping in a 7-Eleven poncho would be fine.
My friends were unconvinced, and pressed me to take a thin tarpaulin that I could sleep under or in, somehow. I stuffed it into my waterproof duffel along with my sleeping back and some extra water, folded the enormous mostly-empty bag in two, and ockey strapped it to the fender. It wasn’t elegant, but it wasn’t heavy.
We went to play in the jungle. We’d never ridden these trails before so it was a matter of trial, error, and ask the locals. As per usual, we’d ride up some gnarly rutted track to find a village and someone’s pristine R15 parked in front of a little wooden house. You can drop your cash on KTM or Gas Gas but some village kid will always be there to humble you.
At our lunch stop we ate beside a stream silver with fish. You could see their slick sides flashing as they swam upstream against the current.
Then, we stuffed our pockets with barbecued chicken and beer for our dinner in the hills.
But it didn’t work out. First the single track petered out in someone’s mountainside coffee garden, with fallen timber cutting the narrow track at an impossible angle. No-one had been down there for years. It took me about ten minutes to turn the bike around because I was determined not destroy some old lady’s coffee bush. That’s bad karma; you don’t do that.
So we turned back, and then headed into the hills again; this time we ended up looking out and over the Laos border, but the track ended and we turned back west again.
My friends said we would head back to the campsite, because it wasn’t far; I was appalled. No way, I said, I haven’t been carrying around kilos of chicken and tarpaulin for nothing; I was promised a mountain to sleep on.
And so, as the day faded into purple dusk, we made for the mountains again. At first it was fine, and then suddenly – so suddenly – I felt my front wheel dropping into ruts I couldn’t see. My night vision is terrible and the flickering candle on the front of the old KTM was worse. I longed for the searing spotlights mounted on my 690, but it was too late for all of that. I envisioned myself having a stupid accident and breaking a collar bone and not being able to ride for six weeks; yeah nah, screw that. Wherever we were, we would have to camp here.
It turned out that we were at some deserted, touristy lookout carved into the mountainside. It was perfect. There was a fireplace, and bags of dried corn husks to burn. In the darkness, I helped my friends set up their tiny and complex tents; one of them, from Decathlon, was like a pile of spaghetti in the darkness. It was so bad that we actually had to read the instructions.
I strung a rope between the front wheel of my motorcycle and a wooden pole, and draped the thin tarp over it to make a triangle shelter with enough of the plastic on the ground to keep my sleeping bag off the dirt. Kind of like a triangular, tarpaulin burrito. It was pretty lux. We smashed our beers in front of the fire and couldn’t eat all the chicken.
Sleep came early – when you camp light, it always does. The sun goes down, the stars come out, you run out of beer and then sleep just naturally comes to take you. I snuggled down in my sleeping bag, removed a rock from under my hip and drifted off into the sweet sleep of a person who knows their head is less than forty centimetres away from their motorbike.
The next morning, I woke late.
The dawn had long broken. The first thing I saw was the wide, wide eyes of my friend.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked immediately. He looked alarmed.
‘So dangerous here last night!’ he said. ‘I couldn’t sleep at all!’
‘What? Why?’ I mumbled, confused.
‘Tigers!’ he said. ‘There were tigers everywhere! Everywhere I moved my tent I could hear them growling all night! Everywhere!’ He imitated a vicious, growling, snoring sound.
‘Oh my god,’ I choked, laughing so hard I snorted. ‘I’m SO SORRY. You poor soul.’ Just imagine: the only light sleeper, surrounded on both sides by people who slept like the dead and snored like drowning warthogs.
I’d slept on my back the previous night because of the rocky terrain; it was more comfortable but in hindsight, I knew that I must indeed have been one of the tigers who tormented our poor friend all through the night.
Filled with pity, we took him back to the village and plied him with espresso.
Later that day, in a dried rice paddy, amongst the golden stubble, I pulled my first ever clutch wheelie. I was uncoordinated, and delirious with delight. My throttle and cluch control were woeful, so I never knew if I was going to succeed at getting the front wheel up or not, and when it did come up, I held on for dear life.
‘Cover your back brake….’ called my friend as I looped out, to the delight and entertainment of a small family of farmers who were watching from the shade.
Of course, I got up and continued trying to do it all again and again, until my friends dragged me away from my risky rice paddy maneuvres. My audience turned out to include several young girls; their mother told us they’d never seen a girl riding a dirt bike before, let alone looping one out while trying to wheelie.
Later, I sat on the kerb in the village drinking beer out of the can as the afternoon sun flooded the street. It was bliss.
People were looking at me again.
Yes, that’s me, I’m a bad influence. My work here is done.