By Stephen Thompson
This is about biking the 30km abandoned mining track between Lençóis and Andarai in the Chapada Diamantinha, which crosses several rivers which flow down from the foot hills. Ive always loved the sensation of total liberation when riding a motorbike, especially in shorts and a t-shirt, but used to be terrified of the thought of trail bike riding, until I had the chance to try it on this abandoned mining trail. I think my fears went back to an experience riding down a precipice shotgun, thinking "Im going to die.".
I went with two of my English students, Flavio and Mario. The track is in a very poor state of repair, crosses 6 rivers which flow down from the foot hills, and we rode or carried the bikes through the rivers. Everything started smoothly that day, as we headed out from Andarai and on smooth asphalt. The sun and big open sky overhead and the empty hills rolling by, gave us that sense of freedom you get when youre on holiday. There was not a cloud in the sky, and rent, bills, work, debts, bad weather - all distant English memories.
Further down the road, we turned off down a rutted track of packed red earth. We span passed rocks, cactuses, small farms with donkeys and chickens, hedges full of humming birds. We splashed through hot puddles of water lying in the midday sun - refreshing!
We did the first section in first gear, getting used to the bikes and the road. It was easy going until we hit a stretch of sand, brought down the valleys by the desperate miners, who throw everything into the rivers. Riding on sand is like riding on ice. I stuck my feet out to steady the bike, and carried on in first, riding in the ruts of the cars. As we went on, my confidence in the bike grew and I started accelerating over the holes and up hills instead of approaching them slowly and carefully. This turned out to be just what the bike needed. The sensation was like flying! As we flew up yet another nearly vertical cliff, bouncing over ruts and rocks I discovered that the best stabilizer was speed! It was a case of open up the throttle, and hope for the best!
After a few Kms, I began to trust its uncanny ability to stay upright no matter what we went through. Pot holes full of water, huge holes, tree roots, rocks, hills full of gullies and other signs of erosion. Time and again I thought we would come off, but at the last minute it righted itself - sailing valiantly over the rocks. Of the two bikes we hired, I was glad that Id bagged the XLR, a trail bike with pro-link suspension which turned out to be unstoppable.
We hit a stretch where the road appeared to have been hit by meteorites. There were huge holes with water in them. There was only one thing to do - go for it! The bike wriggled over the rocks and just as we were about to fall over I stuck out my foot to right myself! Except I whacked it on a stone - were sandals really the best choice for this kind of trip? Well, at least they dry quickly!
The first river we came to was fairly shallow and easy enough to cross. Its water was dyed red with iron oxide. A bit later we came to a beautiful waterfall, which looked too deep to cross. We plunged in and got a thermal shock from the fresh mountain water. It looked too steep to climb so we lay in the torrent of water, massaging our backs. After our swim,we nearly gave up and turned back, thinking the waterfall was too deep to cross, but in the end we were able to carry the bikes across. Although they got wet, they started up again, and this made us all more confident, both in ourselves and in the bikes.
I only fell off once, when a wasp flew into my sandal and bit me, I tried to stop to pull it out, and I slid into a hot muddy puddle and came off. No one was hurt but I was shaken. But there was no way out - either I carried on, or my passenger would think I was chicken. I stood the bike up and got back on, so did my passenger, grinning with pain in the hand crushed by the bike.
I recovered my nerve and carried on, but then a new problem. All these hair raising escapes were giving me nervous exhaustion fast! At this rate, pretty soon Id have an accident. I could feel it coming on - my arms were getting heavy and they were sore from tension. In the army they stop every hour, so I pulled up and had rest. What are you stopping for, asked my passenger, implying I was chicken. Just for a breath, I said. My legs were close to jelly. We both laughed with nerves and at crazy fun we were having. But I knew I couldnt afford to let my mind off the road so I carried on.
We came to a huge dip in the road so deep it looked like it had been dug by a mechanical digger. Ill never get over this, I thought. But I had to try. On the other side was sand. I told my passenger to get off and took a run at it. I got half way up the other side, but then there was no traction - the wheel just span! I got off and pushed, while I controlled the bike with my hands. Flávio came back and put some rocks under the wheel, helped push, and we got the bike up the other side of the huge heap of sand. We came to another huge sandy dip in the road. I stopped to think and the CG over took me. The bastard! Now I had to overtake the CG. It wasnt difficult because the CG is a road bike and Mário is a fatty - 90 Kg at least! By now, I was racing against the CG. I had the advantage of a trail bike but I had no experience of trails and a passenger. Whenever I got to a hill, Id open up the throttle had and hang on for dear life as the bike bounced up, its engine growling -rat-tat-ta! The CG would disappear in the wing mirror. But sure enough, it would appear again. The CG carried all 90 Kg of Mário as well as the XLR carried me and Flávio (Total weight 130Kg).
With the tropical sun over head, the shadows were intense black and with my sunglasses on, when we hit a patch of shadow, we were blind for a few seconds. There were stretches of trees on either side, like the high hedge rows of an English country lane I stopped for a rest, lay down under a huge tree with yellow flowers, full of insects and birds singing. I tried putting on my sunglasses - what a sensation of cool. The colors became richer and my eyes breathed relief. But when I got back on the bike and got to the next pool of shade on the bike, I couldnt see anything. But I felt more relaxed with the sunglasses so I kept them on even though I couldnt see so well. It was like drink driving. I didnt know where I was going exactly and I didnt care!
When we got to Lençois and parked the bikes in the cobbled town square We found a bar covered with posters of beautiful girls advertising bottled beer cobble store and instantly fell for the beer-sex-marketing strategy of the beer companies. After an hour or so of relaxing, we set off sightseeing. We climbed a huge rock with a fantastic view, called the Pai Inacio, from where, according to local legend, a fugitive slave jumped rather than be caught.
Then It was getting late and we had to get home. There were two possible routes. We could go back the way we came, tackling all the obstacles in the dark, with only the headlights of our bikes and the Milky Way to light our way. Or we could take the asphalt road, at 90 km, three times longer but faster. Mario was all for riding back the way wed came. And pointed out that we knew the way now. I tried to imagine riding my bike through a waist high river in the dark. What if I hit a rock? Or if the river rose suddenly, as they can do when it rains in these parts. I didnt want to be swept away in a flash flood, like the tourists who camped too close to the river last year. The area also contains some of Brazils poisonous snakes, which I didnt fancy meeting in the dark.
So for the first time that day, common sense got the better of us and we decided on the long boring way home. Within a few seconds of setting out, I regretted a decision, wed forgotten about wind chill! At this altitude, 800 m, even in the tropics, the air cools quickly after dark and we were wearing only T-shirts. We were also riding 5 times faster than on the way here. The night air settled into pools of warm and cool air. Every time we rode through a patch of cool air my teeth started chattering so much I thought hypothermia was setting in. My whole body was shaking violently. But then we hit warm air, which was a delicious relief.
We went through patches of darkness so black all we could do was hope and tense our legs to absorb the impact of the pot holes, and pray there were no really huge craters. After what seemed like an eternity of more cold air and more violent shivering, we stopped for a rest and lay down in a driveway and looked up at beautiful starry sky. Needless to say we got home eventually, our holidays ended and here I am in São Paulo dreaming about doing it all again.
Have you ever had one of those dreams where youre flying? Our bike ride was like that - something I thought Id never do, and how! Like flying, it required faith - a leap of faith - and the bike flew up the hills like Id never imagined. Maybe inside eveyone lurks a wild biker, nostrils flaring, matted hair on air, a hells angel with Viking blood in his veins, fearless and drunk on speed! I think it's time to meet my inner biker again!
Stephen Thompson runs "O Gaucho", a snack bar serving breakfast, juices, smoothies, sandwiches. Galeria 2001, 2001 Avenida Paulista, São Paulo. For an English menu contact email@example.com
To read previous articles by Stephen click the links below:
Brazil: So Near, but So Far Apart
How to Get Into University in Brazil
The Pleasure of Driving a Car in Brazil
Brazil: The Bairro of Flamengo in Río de Janeiro
Brazil: The Information Technology Law
Managing a Brazilian bank account
Brazil's Middle Class Ruled By Political Apathy