I am now 29. Jesus. Seems only yesterday I was clambering around the Cleveleys Woolworths looking for the newest Mighty Max set, jamming pick’n mix into my mouth like they were going out of business (too soon?). Days started with Going Live, Biker Mice from Mars and X-men and faded dreamily into evenings of Bucky O’Hare, The Crystal Maze and Noel’s House Party. Lego, Transformers and Bucky O’Hare toys* littered my room, issues of Sonic the Comic spilled from my shelves and boxes of Megadrive games created an impromptu obstacle course to the multicoloured sheets of my bed. I had exactly £5 a week to live on, little to no idea what a Tory was and any thought of future career or lifestyle was limited to “I want to make robots.” And now here I am, halfway across the world with no job having the time of my life with about as much insight into my future as when I was 10. Funny where life takes you eh?
“The World’s Most Dangerous Road” would not, I hazard, be a slogan many tourist boards in good old Blighty would choose to promote their region. The possibility of screaming, splattering death is not, I expect, something most tourists would necessarily be drawn to. But this is Bolivia, a country where Health and Safety refers mainly to choosing the bus with the most functioning tyres, and so TWMDR is in fact one of the main draws in La Paz. But not by car or tour bus, oh no. Even the Bolivian government realised an average death toll of 200 people per year (that’s one vehicle every two weeks) was probably a bit much and shut it to motorised traffic a few years back. No, the big thing to do now is to cycle down there. On a bike. Without stabilisers.
I don’t want to say it was peer pressure that eventually saw me crammed into a jeep making its way to the start of the Camino del Muerte but it was. Almost entirely. I get nervous riding a bike down the country lanes of Poulton-Le-Fylde where the major danger is represented by stately forms of moo-cows who would occasionally give a withering stare. I once fell off a bike in my own driveway. I passed my cycling proficiency test because the instructor was a friend of my mother. What I’m trying to relate here is that in the old idiom “You need X like a fish needs a bicycle” I am the fish.
We started on asphalt thank god, to “get a feel for the bikes.” That feeling was one of abject terror. Our group was about 12 large and each was an expert on everything two wheeled. There were wheelies and skids before we’d even started. I managed to not fall over in the starting area which warranted a small pat on the back. Less than 10 minutes on the road though and the rest of my team was a distant memory, their faces blurs on the windscreen of my mind as they powered off into the foggy distance leaving me and the rear-guard guide to slowly inch our way down the meandering tarmac. Of course, it didn’t feel like that. You know that bit in Back to the Future where Marty finally reaches the critical 88mph, streaks of light flashing past the DeLorean as its tyres begin to burn? Yeah.
Luckily we were stopping fairly regularly so the fear didn’t get anywhere beyond “mind-melting.” Photos were taken and I managed to hide my mental anguish fairly well, appearing as I did slightly constipated instead. After roughly 45 minutes we met our first taste of the Death Road itself as the path switched from asphalt to gravel. Of course by this point it had begun to rain and the sunglasses that had only moments before provided valuable protection from the wind suddenly became foggy discs of discombobulation. I couldn’t see. I careened straight into a particularly large gulley, almost losing control as my thankfully fully-suspended bike did its thing and ploughed on as best it could considering the idiot at the controls. It was here that the first of many swears passed my blistered lips, thankfully unheard as, yes, the rest of my group were again literally miles ahead. I don’t resent them for it though. Nope.
Eventually we reached the road itself which was every bit as ridiculous as that Top Gear special made out. Wide enough for perhaps one mid-sized bus, the ground a collection of loose stones and mud it wasn’t hard to see how people had gone careening over the edge in the past. This was a lovely thought to be having as I rounded corner after corner to be faced with turns that Senna himself would think were “a bit hairy.” Thankfully the fog had rolled in and concealed the drops, but every now and again a glimpse of the 500m drop would clear and my speed would reduce from “crawling” to “basically stopped.”
I didn’t fall over. I’m really quite proud of that. There was one bit, just after the waterfalls (yes waterfalls) where I misapplied the ridiculously sensitive front brake and nearly went over the handlebars but I must say I rallied magnificently. I also invented several new terms for the female genitalia and put them to good use rapidly and repeatedly.
Eventually I limped to the finish point, only to be greeted warmly by a group of complete strangers. Who were these folks, so happy to see me alive and so liberal with their plastic glasses of beer? It took several moments for me to recognise my group, having not seen them for pretty much the entire day. Apparently I was only a few minutes behind them but this may have been simple niceties. One of them had grown a beard.
So, not dead yet. The story of how I eventually did manage to take a bus along another, less well maintained section of the same road will have to wait until next time. Speaking of which, next time may be quite a while away. I am currently planning on heading to an area of the country with zero internet, phone lines, electricity or indeed workforce, going as I am to volunteer my services to a big cat sanctuary. Let’s see how that goes eh?
Song of the month: Chris Rea, Road to Hell. I sort of wish I’d had some headphones on the way down actually, if only to block all the screaming.
*I really liked Bucky O’Hare alright? I even had the Toad Croaker spaceship. It was amazing and still would be if Mum hadn’t bloody thrown it out, alongside my Star Wars At-ST walker, my Ecto-1 (with very rare accessories, market value as of 2010, £100), my Manta spaceship and all my Transformers. Anger.