One, two, one, two… I count myself through each step. If you put enough of these tiny, zombie shuffles together, you’ll reach the top of this mountain. And the next mountain. Maybe.
I am so thirsty that my brain is off on a lark of its own. Instead of being surrounded by lush jungle, my imagination is squeezing lime into a glass of cool soda water. It’s cracking a cold beer. It’s dreaming of drinkable water flowing out of taps.
That’s when we see the wild banana tree. It’s growing in an unusual place – high up the mountain, instead of nestled in a shady gully. I don’t care why it’s here, though; today, it’s going to die.
My friend flicks open a knife and starts hacking at the trunk of the tree. The blade makes squeaky fresh noises against the damp fibres until the cuts go all the way through, and the light tree falls into our hands. Dripping from the severed trunk is a bitter juice.
I collect this precious nectar in a plastic bag and after a few minutes, we are able to slurp mouthfuls from the wrinkled plastic.
* * *
Two days earlier, we’d been sitting a particularly nice restaurant in Pai, eating mussels in white wine. We were bringing down the tone of the place in our mud encrusted enduro boots, but the owner seemed glad of our custom.
It had been an excellent day and life was good. We’d taken an off-road route all the way through to the mountain town of Pai, and it had been cruisy and delightful. A little single track, a little double track, and only one torrential downpour which had soaked us through and sharpened our appetites. The track would be perfect for next December’s tour group.
All was tranquility; but the next day dawned with exactly the kind of curiosity that killed the cat.
I had been told of an old enduro competition track which began in a dry riverbed somewhere on the eastern side of town, and I insisted we look for it. I wanted to see how the KLX did in tighter and steeper terrain – or more specifically, how I did in conjunction with a smaller and lighter bike.
The directions I’d been given led us straight into an open land fill, the air noxious with decay and buzzing with flies. Perhaps I should have taken that a sign, but – the eternal optimist – I didn’t. We asked around the local farmers and received vague directions, eventually just riding down into the riverbed and following tracks in the sand.
In front of giant rocks, the tracks all turned around and went back the way we’d come.
But now there were three of us – we’d acquired a new companion, a cheerful local dog who’d decided to adopt these lost visitors. He trotted along ahead of us, and took me up a rocky outcrop to survey the view. Well, I surveyed the view, while he rubbed his face in something dead that he’d found. We were both happy.
Still, we never found the enduro track so decided to abort mission in favour of another mountain. By eleven o’clock I was savagely hungry again, the tasty but thin rice porridge from breakfast having been metabolized long ago. We found a small local restaurant in which to feast – and then it was on. Adventure time.
We’d decided to head back along a track that was marked as a walking trail through the mountains on the northern side of the main Pai-Chiang Mai road. The map showed this trail as running all the way through to a village named after sticky rice steamed in bamboo. As a big fan of said sticky rice, I was on board. And besides, if the trail was marked on the map at all, that implied that it must be practically a highway! 20km to the next village and we had all afternoon. Piece of cake.
I didn’t even flinch when the trail started in a cemetery – a unusually sombre and desolate sight here in Thailand where most people are efficiently cremated within a few days of death. It was a field of dusty crosses stuck in dirt, presided over by the stark silhouettes of leafless trees.
Here, the leaves fall at the end of winter – just before the hot dry season kicks in. They fall dramatically, within a few days, clattering to the ground and covering the terrain underfoot.
I found the single track leading out the back of the graveyard, and we were off.
At first, it was just rocky double and single track weaving between some farms, but as soon as we hit the hills we found ourselves in a desolate wilderness.
The national park had been burned and we were surrounded by the blackened skeletons of trees, anchored grimly in loose scree that shifted and eroded under our tyres.
The single track narrowed and soon we were clinging to the side of the mountain. The track was easy – not steep, relatively smooth – as long as you were able to trick your mind into forgetting about the precipitous drop a few centimetres to your right. Easy, as long as you don’t mess up.
We both favoured our left sides – fall into the hill, not away from it – and carefully wound our way higher and higher. I blessed my little KLX230 for its lightness, its more moderate height, and its friendly weight distribution; behind me, my friend wrestled the tall and top heavy CRF450RL, coaxing the oversexed tuning into the kind of gentle power delivery that wouldn’t throw him off the mountain. It’s a beautiful machine and I was glad I wasn’t riding it.
As we gained elevation the mountains became wilder and more desolate, the track more challenging. We were only a few kilometres in when we passed a young guy on a loaded scooter. I expected him to be friendly – usually when we meet local villagers on tracks like this, we stop to ask directions and make sue we’re going the right way – but this young man looked at the two of us in wordless terror as he passed by. I was confused. Behind me, my friend was saying ‘go, go, go’ and I didn’t understand why.
Only later, as I lay pinned under my bike near two mysteriously abandoned Honda Waves would I start to comprehend what might be going on.
* * *
To Be Continued.