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Adventure special review 3 The Pan-American Highway, the world’s longest road


As I bounced down the road in Colombia on my head, I could not help thinking that things were not going quite according to plan.

The plan, that is, which had begun two years earlier when I picked up a copy of The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook by Chris Scott and accidentally opened it at the section on the Pan-American Highway, at 16,500 miles the world’s longest road, from Quellón in Chile to Fairbanks in Alaska.

It sounded brilliant. The next day, I went out to buy every book I could on it – and found that there weren’t any. Then it’s about time I wrote one, I thought.

A year later, I had found sponsorship, two motorbikes and a fellow lunatic in the shape of Clifford Paterson, a former Isle of Man TT racer who’d read my previous bike adventure books and phoned to see if he could come on my next jaunt.



Start - Geoff and Clifford at Mile Zero of the Pan-American Highway in Quellon, Chile
Start – Geoff and Clifford at Mile Zero of the Pan-American Highway in Quellon, Chile

As a result, two men in search of an adventure found themselves standing in Quellón with a Tiger 955i that Triumph had foolishly lent me, and an Aprilia Pegaso 650 that Clifford had borrowed from his brother. They had, naturally, been christened Tony and April.



Glorious - The magnificent coast road in Chile
Glorious – The magnificent coast road in Chile

We shook hands, climbed on and rode north, soon leaving behind balmy vineyards and riding into the Atacama Desert, 2,000 of the driest miles on earth.

Just as the engine warning light came on. It was to stay on all the way through the Atacama, with the engine spluttering and stopping at nerve-wracking intervals.



Desolate - Geoff in the vast Atacama Desert with the Triumph suffering from dodgy fuel
Desolate – Geoff in the vast Atacama Desert with the Triumph suffering from dodgy fuel

Finally, in Peru, we tracked down César, a back street mechanic who announced that the problem was diesel in the fuel.

He refilled the tank, and started the engine. It sang without a hiccup, and the light went off, and stayed that way.



Chaos - The Peru-Ecuador border. These crossings usually took three hours to get through
Chaos – The Peru-Ecuador border. These crossings usually took three hours to get through

In a maelstrom of heat, noise, chaos, dust and hawkers selling everything from puppies to parrots, we passed from Peru to Ecuador, rode into an unbelievably verdant alpine landscape and came to a native roadblock.

Cars burned and the mood was ugly.



Challenging - A mountain road in Ecuador
Challenging – A mountain road in Ecuador

We were diverted 10,000ft up a dirt road, then down the other side in slippery mud, our feet inches from a sheer drop and our hearts pounding.

Within days we were at the border with Colombia, a country that everyone had told us not to visit, or we would be kidnapped and shot.

“Is the Pan-American safe to the north?” I asked the border guard. He looked up the road, and shrugged.

“It is never safe, but whatever you do, you must get to Cali before dark. May God go with you,” he said.

Late that afternoon, after riding hard all day without a break, I went into a bend too fast, braked too late, and the next thing I knew, I had adopted the rarely used horizontal motorcycling position.

I got groggily to my feet with my left shoulder in agony, and most of the skin stripped off my left elbow and forearm. On my right hand, the bones of my knuckles gleamed through the blood and bits of tattered flesh.



Disaster - Geoff after the crash in Colombia
Disaster – Geoff after the crash in Colombia

A few yards back, Tony lay in the ditch with oil pouring from the engine, the forks twisted and the front fairing shattered. Behind was a trail of wreckage and luggage.

Within 10 minutes, the police had arrived and loaded me and the bike into a truck and we were hurtling north to Cali, where Clifford had friends.



Security - Geoff with Colombia soldiers, his arm bandaged after the crash
Security – Geoff with Colombia soldiers, his arm bandaged after the crash

They tended my wounds and phoned the local bike shop, which took away the shattered Triumph and returned, miraculously, with it bent and hammered back into shape.

A week later, still bruised and battered, I rode behind Clifford into Cartagena, the medieval walled city on the Caribbean coast, where because of the 82-mile gap in the road between Colombia and Panama, the bikes had to be shipped by boat to Colón on the north coast of Panama, the world’s most aptly named town.

The buildings are derelict, the streets full of rubble, teenagers roam around with Uzis, armed robbery in broad daylight no longer even merits a mention in the local paper, and visitors are routinely mugged within a minute of arriving.

Fortunately, we found a taxi within 59 seconds of stepping off the bus from Panama City, and walked into the grimy lobby of the Hotel Internacional to be met by a stunned silence from the locals. We were, I imagined, that year’s tourists.

Three days later, we finally got the bikes out of customs, and rode west through countries which were so small that we spent three hours at the border getting into Honduras, an hour riding across the country, and three hours getting out.

As opposed to Mexico, so vast that it was a week before we crossed the border into the United States, a smile on my face as wide as Fifth Avenue and exactly the same feeling in my heart, I imagined, as every dusty refugee who has entered this promised land.



Repairs - Clifford Paterson working on his Aprilia Pegaso in Mexico
Repairs – Clifford Paterson working on his Aprilia Pegaso in Mexico

With Tony leaking oil from his damaged engine and April held together with wire and gaffer tape, we limped into San Diego, where the bikes were due for a much-needed service.

Tony, according to Alex the mechanic at Rocket Motorcycles, was a two-week repair job, but he had the bike ready the next day, and we rode north to Canada and lakes and rivers still petrified by the icy grasp of winter, our only companions the bison, bear and wolves we saw strolling unconcernedly across the road in front of us.

Clifford was to miss the end of the journey, as he had run out of time and had to go back to work. We crossed the border into Alaska and got off the bikes outside an abandoned log cabin, uncertain what to do or say.

“You take care, chum,” I said.

“And you, my friend,” he said, and we shook hands. I stood there and watched him disappear into the distance, and then, without warning, I felt tears trickling down my face.

The next day, I reached Fairbanks, but I was determined to press on another 132 miles to Gobblers Knob, for no other reason than the name.



Tough - The Dalton Highway on the way to Gobblers Knob, Alaska
Tough – The Dalton Highway on the way to Gobblers Knob, Alaska

The next morning, I woke at five, and set off again up a road of mud and gravel through desolate, frozen tundra. After several hours, I reached the Arctic Circle, then finally found myself at Gobblers Knob, with a raven sitting on a rock looking at me in that arch way that ravens do.

I looked out across the endless miles of solitude as the wind howled like the lost souls of wolves, feeling in my heart that I had, at last, reached the end of the longest and most difficult journey of my life.

And then I said goodbye to the raven, climbed on my motorcycle, and rode south for the first time in a long time. It was the morning of my 50th birthday, and I was going home to the woman I loved.



Favourite: The Road to Gobblers Knob, Geoff's book on the Chile-to-Alaska ride

If you’ve got 20 weeks to spare, Globebusters’ Alaska to Patagonia expedition is 22,000 miles through North and South America using your own bike from £33,995 per person sharing, or Alaska to Chile from £29,995.

If not, you can do individual segments from £2,300 for 17 days. See globebusters.com.

If you’re going it alone, horizonsunlimited.com and Chris Scott’s Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, £15.99 from Amazon, are great sources of information.

The Road to Gobblers Knob, Geoff Hill’s best-selling book on riding from Chile to Alaska, is £3.79 on Kindle.

Restless Natives ride again

Suzuki and movie fans will remember that a GP 125 played a pivotal role in the 1980s comedy film Restless Natives, which is now out on DVD and Blu-ray.

You can watch a clip here: youtube.com

Get £30 off your insurance here: MotorcycleDirect.co.uk







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