Surviving the Road of Death

2011-04-08 14:55

When dealing with South American tour agencies, it is near impossible to separate misleading myth from verifiable fact. In each country I visited I was to receive contradictory claims – of places possessing the world’s highest, longest, deepest, tallest, shortest, coldest, hottest, oldest, most spectacular natural wonder.

And so after allegedly having crossed the highest motor-able pass (Ladakha in India) in the world, stood at the base of the world’s highest mountain (Everest in Nepal) and crossed the world’s driest desert (San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), I decided it would be foolish to turn down the opportunity to brave (and hopefully survive) a bike ride along the world’s most dangerous road.

At just under 65km, the Road of Death, which begins half an hour outside the Bolivian capital of La Paz, offers the adrenaline-bent and potentially suicidal tourist a hair-raising day’s excursion of all-terrain mountain biking terror.

There are a multitude of biking agencies situated around La Paz each claiming to have a higher safety record (and lower death-rate) than the last. The various guide books all warned against booking through fly-by-night agencies, whose discounted prices would more then likely include discounted brake pads. Being a lowly backpacker on a shoestring budget, my amigo George and I were forced into accepting a $38 (R254) agency over the more reassuring $68 dollar.

With a degree of hesitation I found myself offering up “in case of emergency” phone numbers and signing away my life.

At 7am the following day, we were escorted by our guide and driver to the crest of our deadly ascent, praying that on arrival we would not be met with a rusty pair of tricycles. We were relieved to find two reasonably sturdy-looking bikes.

At an altitude of 4?750m, Cumbre, our starting pointing, is a stark and impressive peak in the snow-covered Andes range.

At such a height one peers down into a distant cloudline churning in the cauldron confines of the valley basin.

Once kitted out in helmet and the compulsory biking armour, George and I pursue our guide down the first of the day’s many serpentine passes.

The icy air cuts through my anorak, whistling past with the steady flow of swerving tankers and oncoming traffic.

Here I learn my first crucial lesson of the day: In order to live long enough to tell the tale, I must not get carried away by the majestic vistas.

After our first hour’s exhilarating free-wheel descent, it’s a hefty 8km uphill climb, made all the more unpleasant by the thick mist, which renders speeding trucks invisible up until the last moment.

Torrents of rain begin to pelt down, causing the bike treads to slip along the road, all this only to discover that the roads much-hyped hazards are yet to commence.

We crawl off the stretch of tar road saturated and muddied while our guide begins to take us through a concise safety procedure. With the climb out the way, the rest of the day’s ride will involve steep downhill freewheeling.

A physically undemanding yet relentlessly bumpy ascent to the more temperate foothills of Coroico. Here a slim gravel road (barely 3.2m wide) snakes its way through high-altitude cloud forests. I make the vertigo-inducing mistake of glancing to my left.

Barely a metre away from the front tyre of my bike, the road’s slight width gives way to a 600m free fall into dense cauliflower-crested forests – as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying.

At these heights the plunge allows one to sweep, condor-like through dense blankets of cloud, emerging on the other side though a series of intercepting waterfalls.

The bloodstream buzzes and heart thumps with the simultaneous rush of terror and adrenaline that comes with knowing that the slightest slip of concentration might reduce one to joining “the Road of Death’s” infamous list of statistics.

The journey’s risks become glaringly apparent during discouraging glimpses of burnt-out bus carcasses and vehicles wedged in the depths of the crevices below.

The countless crucifixes lining the route demarcate the points where fellow travellers unexpectedly slipped, skated or soared off the road’s edges never to be recovered.

Despite such ominous reminders, on the day of our ride, at least two groups of pensioners overtook us on the way down.

The roads eponymous string of incidents, as with most, can be attributed to the speed-demon cyclists.

To further rectify the road’s rather inglorious rep, a new freeway was constructed in 2002 enabling intrepid cyclists to navigate the trip’s hazards without the oncoming traffic.

It’s while wheeling through the village of Sacramento that one literally enters a new climate. The frigid Andean heights merge with the more temperate foothills of Yolosa at 1 185m.
With such a descent comes the dramatic shift in temperature from the morning’s below-freezing thermometer readings to torpid equatorial humidity. Rain forests gently submit to butterfly-infested banana, coffee and coca plantations.

Rattled, sweaty and shaken I arrive more then a little humbled at the finish line of Coroico. A perspiring cerveza (beer) is the well-earned trophy for having survived what I can now officially confirm to be the world’s most dangerous, if not spectacular, road.

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