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Highway to hell
August 9, 2003

By Jane Reddy

The guide is splashing alcohol on the wheels of our mountain bikes in the morning light of Bolivia's Andes. This ch'alla, an offering to an indigenous deity, is meant for the mountain spirits in exchange for mercy as we prepare to ride the World's Most Dangerous Road.

Behind us, the snow-covered peak of Huayana Potosi of the Cordillera Real bears down. It is windy and bleak on the 4700-metre pass and the thin air leaves me light-headed and shaky. I could do with a little tonic myself.

It was only days earlier that I had been so easily seduced by the enthusiastic blonde at the booking office and her obvious love for mountain biking in this country ("The ride is awesome and you get a free T-shirt!"). I had signed my waiver of liability and paid up before she could say, "What helmet size?"

But now the thought of descending this treacherous stretch most famous for its fatalities had strangely lost its appeal. I wondered if my will, unfinished and stuffed down the bottom of my backpack, would be found and deemed legal. Or if getting into the support vehicle before the start of the ride would constitute losing face.

The road, given its title in 1995 by the Inter-American Development Bank, owing to the large number of often overcrowded trucks and buses dropping off into the abyss, takes in the stretch of the Yungas Highway starting at La Cumbre, about 90 minutes by bus from Bolivia's capital, La Paz. One guidebook estimates an average of 26 vehicles fall off the edge each year, the worst ever a bus filled with 100 passengers.

Beginning on the Altiplano, or High Plain, the road snakes towards the outskirts of the steaming Amazon jungle through the Yungas, an area between dry highlands and humid lowlands.

It is a narrow, sometimes muddy road, sans safety rail, that drops 3600 metres in just 64 kilometres. As a bonus, we will share this long and winding road with overloaded cargo trucks and buses.

But first our guide delivers her thorough safety spiel - it's both a comfort and concern. As she and her assistant perform what will be the first of many safety checks throughout the day, I desperately try to recall the do's and don'ts of her 10-minute, no-nonsense lecture.

"Go at your own pace, it's not a race. Have a good time. Keep your body relaxed. Get into the support vehicle any time you want, even for a rest." (Excellent.)

"Always stay in control and, whatever you do, don't look down to see how far you could fall." (What am I doing here?)

It is her 100th trip down and she is clearly not in the mood for any "incidents".

The second guide leads off and is around the first corner and out of sight before I'm in the saddle. Nicknamed "Roadkill", he will be the first to greet any oncoming traffic. The occupational hazards of these guides cannot be overstated.

At this altitude, it is dreamlike watching the riders in the red jerseys that identify our group of 15 glide through the mist ahead. Alpacas and llamas graze in the valleys either side of the smooth bitumen road. It is easy riding so far, as the beginners warm up and the more advanced streak ahead.

Urged on by our guide, and feeling like I am on my first two-wheeler, I manage to pass my first truck without incident. Looming closer to a red jersey in front of me, I recall one of the commandments given by our guide: "Anticipate, give the riders in front some room." My right hand hits the brake and hovers over it for the rest of the day.

Regrouping after 10 minutes, we take in a full view of the Yungas Highway, a thin brown line snaking its way down the valley toward our destination of the jungle village of Coroico. I search for another nervous face among the obvious adrenalin junkies who are champing at the bit to descend.

Leading out now is the New Zealander who races bikes and the Irishman who claims to have never been on one, his inexperience clearly no barrier to speed. My partner is up ahead as well - I can see him stealing glances to see if I have retreated to the support vehicle in a sulk. But I'm still on my bike, bringing up the rear of the pack with a couple of Swedes, the guide and a back-up bus keeping a respectful distance behind.

Avoiding the dogs and children wandering across the road, we arrive at a strip of restaurants and a drug checkpoint. The US-funded post, part of a highly unsuccessful war against drugs, is designed to stop the transport of apparatus used to make cocaine.

We cram into a tiny room for toasted sandwiches and, ironically, the nation's favorite brew of mate de coca (coca-leaf tea), a bitter drink supposed to fight, among other things, altitude sickness and stress. I down the contents of my cup, willing the tonic to provide strength for the road ahead.

Hitting the gravel now, a rare burst of pedal power is required to get to the start of the most difficult section of the ride. Gathered once more, there's a final check of brakes, tyre pressure and helmet fit. Our head guide whips out her allen keys and makes a quick adjustment to a seat that is askew.

Once more, we are reminded to stay in control. She demonstrates an emergency release manoeuvre should things get a little out of control. In short, it is a deft leap from the bike before it slides over the cliff's edge.

The road rules change on this narrow stretch. As downhill traffic, we swap from the right side of the road to the outside left, allowing the uphill traffic to squeeze past, hugging the rock face. I am now an arm's length from the 1000-metre drop. To my right is the colossal cliff face draped in a tangle of greenery. In between, the gravel road - just wide enough for one truck - is the way ahead.

Following the outside tracks left by vehicles, we move onto the turnout ledges, which hang over the abyss to make room for upcoming vehicles that have right of way. Stopping at the first ledge to let a truck pass, I count five hairpin bends below. As it passes, the human cargo of Bolivianos looks on in amusement. Further down in the valley, the trucks look the size of toys, the echo of their horns resonating.

Switchback after switchback, I labour on. With gravity at work, there is nothing to do but hold tight and avoid the larger rocks littering the road. Gravel pings out from my wheels as I brake and slide clumsily down the track. Plumes of dust from the rider in front strike my eyes, obscuring my view before settling in my nose and throat.

I feel a surge of jealousy as two Scots whiz past with the polite warning of "don't mind us, we're coming through". They look relaxed, as if on exercise bikes at the gym, as their chatter fades away down the hill. Meanwhile, I am trying to sit up straight, anticipate and meditate, without much success. That emergency release move isn't far from my mind.

The temptation to ride close to the rock-face is great, but as the traffic coming towards me increases, I am forced to obey the road rules and move to the edge, which is a little flaky in parts. I start to steal the occasional glance beyond my front wheel. Across the green abyss the leaders are mere specks moving on a narrow strip before disappearing out of sight around another sharp corner.

Parking our bikes next to one of several memorials on the road, we hear tales of tragedy and miracle. Of the Israeli woman who rode in a straight line off the edge while on this excursion with another operator. And the man who did the same but, with his fall broken by a tree, lived to tell the tale.

We've just passed the Bolivian known as the human traffic light. His wife died in a bus accident on this stretch and he now devotes his life to making it safer, flashing his red and green flags at oncoming traffic.

We churn through the mud made by cascading waterfalls overhead. The spray hits the dust on our faces, leaving an instant mudpack. There's a traffic jam ahead and we dismount to wheel our bikes past a broken-down truck. Vehicles are halted in both directions as men unload the cargo of fruit and replace the blown-out tyre, which is sinking in the mud.

Nearly three hours down from the start, the crisp air has given way to tropical heat. My hands shake from gripping the handlebars. As the road flattens out I take in the view of my jungle surrounds, with its bird life and banana palms.

For 15 minutes I ride alone and in silence, the only sound my tyres rolling over gravel. We ford a creek before arriving at the village of Yolosa, our mud-splattered faces barely concealing our self-satisfied smiles at completing our journey.

One guide and the Irishman choose to cycle the seven kilometres up to the hotel but the rest of us hitch a ride in a ute to Coroico. Freshly showered and shamelessly wearing my free T-shirt bearing the company's logo, I spy from the hotel balcony a dust cloud in the distance as traffic begins to move again on the World's Most Dangerous Road.

We spend the next day recovering by the hotel pool. I visit the masseuse from Oklahoma, who does his best to undo the knots that have formed in my back.

It is dark by the time we head back up the road to La Paz, safer apparently as the headlights of oncoming trucks hurtling down the hill can be seen from a way off.

I shut my eyes anyway.


Getting there: La Paz is connected by air with most main South American cities. Aerolineas Argentinas and LanChile are the main carriers from Australia to South America.

Visa requirements: Australian travellers can enter for up to 30 days without a visa.

Currency: $A1 equals about 5.1 bolivianos.

Visitor information: Several agencies in La Paz offer the ride down the World's Most Dangerous Road. Before signing up to an agency, check on the condition of the mountain bikes and experience of the guides. Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking offers several rides, including the World's Most Dangerous Road. See http://www.gravitybolivia.com for details.

This story was found at:http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/08/08/1060145854904.html

This story was found at:http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/08/08/1060145854904.html

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