Dodging Gunboats and Taming Elephants

The narrow canoe rocked hard from the heavy chop, and Felipe strained against the weight of the Triumph as it shifted between the gunwales. Sweat poured from his forehead, the heat of the midday sun pounding his back, any breeze impeded by thick riding gear. The canoe, filled with three motorcycles and four people had just crossed the main channel of the Meta River; everyone was feeling fatigued from the passage. Felipe’s concentration deepened and his grip tightened to the handlebar when the bark of a megaphone broke his focus. “Alto! Alto!” punctuated the rattle of the outboard motor and he turned his head left to see a .50 caliber machine gun aimed directly at him, the gunboat only 20 meters away and closing fast. The canoe operator chopped the throttle in response to the order, immediately destabilizing the small vessel. Felipe fought against the loss of balance and braced himself for impact. Within moments the gunship was upon them, turning only slightly before slamming into the canoe, the force of steel and wake crushing the side of the narrow boat and sending everyone into the river’s piranha-infested depths.

Photography by: Sinuhe Xavier

Beginnings

Sinuhe Xavier was born in Colombia, but has spent all of his adult years living in the Western United States. Despite his many travels, he felt the strong pull back to his homeland, drawn by stories his mother told about the highlands and the savanna of Los Llanos. Sinuhe and I travel together frequently and his invitations almost always begin with a cryptic text message. When I read, “Hey, wanna cross Colombia on BMWs?” my response went something like, “Hell YES!”

Sparing the convoluted details, the idea for this adventure was born when Sinuhe’s friend and business partner in The Mighty Motor was visited by his former college roommate Mauricio “Micho” Escobar. Micho just happened to have access to BMW GS Adventure bikes in Colombia and was starting an adventure tour company called Elephant Expeditions. All of the pieces were falling together except for one problem: Sinuhe and I don’t do guided tours.

There is nothing wrong with guided tours, but I like the calamity and uncertainty that results from not only limited planning, but also a complete lack of familiarity about what is around the next bend. To maximize the opportunity for adventure, the traveler must allow for a degree (okay, a lot) of spontaneity. Sinuhe contacted Mauricio and said, “We will go with you, but the route must be something you have never done before. It should be a little crazy.” Mauricio knew exactly where to go, replying, “We will ride through Los Llanos to the Venezuelan border. Nobody goes there.” The next few months passed in a blur and I boarded a plane for Bogotá, excitement high, my thoughts filled with motorcycles, jungles, and the savanna.

Broken

Within a few hours of departing Bogotá, the team was hitting their stride. Sinuhe and I were bantering on the intercoms, our conversation mostly making fun of Mauricio who neglected to fit a radio. The roads were perfect and every turn was seemingly carved for an adventure tourer, broad sweepers interrupted by tight, decreasing radius curves; back and forth we climbed, further into the jungle. The smooth pavement gave way to wet gravel and we settled into passing small farms while dodging potholes and the occasional barking dog. The countryside was impressively clean, nearly devoid of the trash and graffiti common in the rest of the Americas. The trail was easy and my guard was down; I found my thoughts distracted by the beauty around me. Crossing a concrete bridge I turned to my left to watch an elegant waterfall meander down through a series of boulders, the forest encroaching on the gap, large ferns dancing in the light breeze. Suddenly I was airborne.

In hindsight, I was distracted. It was a rookie move that any traveler could make, being lulled into their surroundings and then crash. The bridge was smooth and dry, but the exit transitioned to a muddy rut. While I was taking in the waterfall my line drifted to the middle of the track, the front tire slipping away immediately against the slick surface, the GSA pounding to the earth. As if in slow motion, I remember when my shoulder first contacted the berm, followed by my helmet, then a chorus of vertebrae popping and adjusting to the impact. As my arm compressed into my ribcage, the air from my lungs expelled and a sudden, pathetic “Buuuuugh” resounded through the intercom. Sinuhe, who was directly behind me replied with a “Whoa!” partially from the surprise of my brutal augering, but more so from the near collision of his bike into mine.

I jumped up quickly which was a stupid move; a survey of my limbs revealed that nothing was broken. I wiggled my toes and squeezed my fingers into a fist, clenching them tight as I waited for a shooting pain—none came. I shook out my arms and then looked to the BMW, my only means of transportation for the entire trip (short of a pillion seat). I always find that these big bikes are easiest to pick up immediately after a crash, most likely from the benefit of residual adrenaline and our own fragile egos. I lifted the motorcycle up and onto the side stand. Looking around, I saw a bunch of mud shoved into the crash bars and the right side fog lamp was dangling from the harness. “Not bad,” I thought as I reached for the starter button. The boxer motor shuddered to life and settled into a smooth idle. “Yes!” was my next thought, followed by confusion as I cracked the throttle, only to find the motor stumble and die. The bike would idle, but not accelerate above 1,500 rpm. Further investigation revealed a broken potentiometer, also swinging from the wiring. This is the Achilles heel for the oil-cooled GSA, easily busted by a branch, rock, or in this case, my size 12 boot. The bike would not work without it. We rolled the motorcycle to the edge of the road and began devising a plan.

There are a few things I have learned from encountering challenges, the first being that the people you are with are far more important than the tools you have with you. The second being that almost every problem has a solution if you remain calm and are open-minded enough to discover it. We had a broken bike and no support vehicle, so the typical list of ideas was explored, including towing me out (it was too far). Next, we went to work on a field repair, complete with filing plastic and metal, electrical tape, and a few prayers to the moto gods—none of them worked. We were running out of daylight and options. Then I realized that all of the bikes were exactly the same, which gave us our own parts depot. I suggested that Micho and Sinuhe ride the 30 miles back to the nearest town, then take the potentiometer off of Sinuhe’s bike and have Micho ride back to me solo. Then we could install the part and get all three of us to a town with cellular service, supplies, and accommodations. While in town, Micho would work to get a replacement part and have his cousin Felipe bring it with him that night. With that, they were off, and I was sitting all alone on the side of a muddy track in the jungle of Colombia.

I found some shade under a huge tree, sitting against a small stone wall built along a path that led to a tiny house across the route. A few trucks passed, none giving me any notice. Then a small Suzuki bounced by, only to park up the road; they also went about their way. Out from a house bounded a puppy, no older than a few months and happy to play with the chickens and even gnaw on the tire of the BMW. I could hear shuffling from above as a person walked down the path that led by my resting spot. They were moving quickly, not running, but at a deliberate pace. The bright colors came into view first and a woman emerged, wrinkled from sun and years, but strong and fit. She knew immediately that I was from the city (or further afield) and announced an “Hola!” from the distance. I responded in broken Spanish and we began to chat. I explained the predicament and she laughed, clearly amused by the American broken down on her road. From her handwoven satchel she pulled a cell phone and suggested a call to the next town for a truck. Her offer of help was immediate and without reservation, a blessing I have encountered in all of the remote places of the world I have visited. I explained that everything was okay and that my amigos were coming back to help me. We continued to talk, most of her comments becoming a blur of local dialect and clauses well outside of my limited Spanish. Regardless, we laughed and she hugged me before disappearing into the jungle. Her departure was replaced with the thump of a GS cresting the hill. Micho had made it and we were back in business.

The Rancho

Micho and Sinuhe had made the impossible happen, contacting Felipe before he left Bogotá and arranging a replacement part from a friend’s bike. He arrived around 10 p.m., just in time for a late meal and a few laughs as Sinuhe was chased down the street by an errant bull. Early the next morning we installed the potentiometer and the BMW roared to life. We had many kilometers to travel, and needed to make up for lost time. Now a team of four, we continued east, steadily dropping elevation as we wound through the mountains toward the savanna.

Los Llanos is a massive subtropical grassland that stretches from the Andes Mountains in Colombia to Venezuela in the east. There is only one paved road through the region and we would be far south of that, negotiating the deep mud and swollen rivers from the late rains. In many cases, the tracks would be little more than cattle trails. Our first destination would be the Hato la Aurora Rancho, a sustainable cattle farm that maintains thousands of hectares of indigenous biodiversity. Nelson, the son of the ranch’s patriarch and proprietor of a small lodge provides game walks and drives into the wetlands. This is a special place and just getting there is a challenge, requiring technical riding skill and a good waypoint. Here, we had our second crash as Sinuhe launched the BMW over an irrigation ditch, an impressive effort and display until the rear tire fell just short and pole-vaulted the bike (and him) onto the ranch’s grass landing strip. Laughing and photographs followed, but neither the rider nor bike was hurt.

As the sun set, we closed in on the ranch house and our accommodation for the next few days. Parking the motorcycles under ancient palm trees, we were greeted by Nelson’s daughter holding glasses of fresh-squeezed mango juice. Still in our riding gear we settled into hammocks strung from the rafters, drinking pitchers full of jugo, letting our muscles and joints recover from the day’s kilometers. We enjoyed a hearty meal and were asleep by 9 p.m. in anticipation of exploring the farm the next morning.

Breakfast was at 4:30 a.m., the egg yolks deep orange and accompanied by beef raised on the same land. Bellies full, we loaded onto a small wooden canoe, the oarsman bailing water when we arrived. We were to cross a small river and then climb into the back of a Hilux to watch the sunrise and take in the prolific wildlife. This ranch is unique as the family has allowed indigenous fauna to commingle with the cattle, including the world’s largest rodent, the capybara. These docile creatures can weigh up to 200 pounds and gather in groups of hundreds. On Aurora Rancho, they integrate with the livestock, caiman, wild horse, white-tail deer, feral pig, innumerable bird species, and even the anaconda. Having experienced the game drives in Africa, I expected to enjoy the view but be underwhelmed by the quantity and diversity of species. The opposite was true and I remain in absolute awe of the beauty of that place and the proliferation of animals. Before the day was out, we had watched a cattle drive, photographed our first piranha, and felt the mild terror of seeing an anaconda glide along the riverbank we had just walked.

Exhaustion

After leaving the ranch, all signs of civilization fell away. The track was no longer maintained and there was only the occasional barbed wire fence sectioning the grasslands. We were riding hard through the rough terrain to make time, long stretches of sand interrupted by deep mud and murky water crossings. It was hot and humid, with few clouds to block out the sun’s intensity, and our water supplies were dwindling. We were fighting against the ruts, the cylinder heads often biting into the edges and knocking us off line. Sinuhe took a particularly hard hit, shoving mud and grass into the crash bars and breaking the fog light and handguard. We righted the bike and kept riding toward Mauricio, only to see him waving his hands frantically in our direction. When Sinuhe came to a stop, Mauricio dove toward the front of the bike as smoke engulfed everyone. The grass shoved up against the exhaust had caught fire and by quick action he prevented any damage.

I always know when difficulty takes its toll on teammates; their movements become less fluid and more deliberate as the humor and casual banter fades. Hardy travelers rarely bicker or complain, but you can see the impact of exhaustion. At a cattle gate, Sinuhe went to ride through a ditch and the rear tire slid sideways, causing him to lose balance and roll on the throttle, making traction. The 600-pound motorcycle nearly looped completely, ejecting Sinuhe and ending up on its side. The physical effort was getting to us and the sun was lower on the horizon.

As the light continued to fade I started to contemplate contingencies. The one thing we shouldn’t do is ride in the dark. Not because of some imaginary banditos, but because of the labyrinth of trails that headed off in every direction, often into deep mud. We discussed camping in a thick row of trees, the one significant downside being a lack of clean water. After a few more minutes of brainstorming, I suggested that we ride until dark or until we encountered the first rancho. We were lucky, and within 30 minutes a few structures came into view along with the reassuring purr of a generator. Mauricio hopped off the bike and went to investigate and hopefully speak with the occupants. He knew going alone would be less intimidating to the rancher and would better our odds of getting water and a safe spot to camp. We did better, were invited into his home and given beds and full meals. The family was wonderful and extended the most genuine hospitality, including pulling salted meat for us from a big plastic bucket on the side of the house. We drank gallons of cool water from a fresh spring and laughed well into the evening. The only thing that woke me up that night was a bat crashing through the window bars and hitting me in the leg. This startled me awake and resulted in me kicking the bat directly into Sinuhe on the next bed over.

We woke with the light and shoved a quick breakfast into our bellies and gallons of water into our packs and bladders. We had to arrive in Puerto Carreño that night or we would miss our flight. Motivated and rested, we took to the pegs yet again and fought the worst mud of the trip; some holes were deeper than the tires, hiding big ledges and ruts. Part of the track was through a marshy wetland that taxed every rider; some crossings required two additional team members pushing on the back of the BMWs as the rear tire threw mud skyward.

We were closing in on Bocas de la Hermosa, a small enclave on the western shore of the Meta River. Arriving in town we searched for the ferry, only to find it drug up on shore and in complete disrepair. Talking with a few locals we negotiated passage by canoe and started to lower Felipe’s Triumph 800 XC down the ramp, followed by two other villagers with smaller dirt bikes. Even in the moment, crossing such a massive river in small canoes seemed like a crazy idea. However, Felipe was in good spirits as he straddled his motorcycle, sitting on the saddle and using his feet to stabilize the tall bike between the sides. He looked at us with a crooked smile and shrugged his shoulders. “Listo,” he yelled, and then, “Let’s go!” The canoe operator swung the narrow vessel into the current and twisted the throttle of the small outboard. They were off and soon out of sight.

Back to the Gunboat

Felipe crashed into the water, high sided off the canoe from the impact of the gunboat. The momentum of the falling Triumph forced him under and he opened his eyes to a murky underworld of sinking bikes and thrashing bodies. He struggled back to the surface to see the canoe lifting skyward like the Titanic, being pulled under by the weight of the outboard and fuel tank. Feverishly he looked about, seeing the soldiers with carbines brought to bear, yelling at him to show his hands. To his right he felt the Triumph, which miraculously did not sink immediately, most likely spared by the air in the fuel tank and luggage, but it was going down. Felipe grabbed for the handlebar and kicked with all of his strength toward the side of the gunship. With his free hand he managed to grasp at a strap dangling from the side of the boat and thrust his mouth skyward, pulling in a long breath. The relief was only for a moment before the weight of the motorcycle drug him under again and he fought against it, kicking and struggling to bring it back to the surface. The river was too deep and the Triumph was being sucked downward by gravity and sideways by the current. His head completely underwater he had just a moment of thought: “I either let go of the boat or I let go of the bike.” His grip relaxed off the handlebar and the motorcycle slipped free into the deep. He pulled himself skyward yet again, this time directing all of his ferocity at his attackers. “What in the HELL have you done?” Felipe foamed, his blue eyes glaring directly at the closest contact. He gasped for another breath, but could immediately see that the soldier’s countenance had changed from suspicion to confusion.

Three of the boatmen grabbed for Felipe’s hands and jacket, pulling him aboard. Falling to a soaked heap on the deck of the ship, he yelled again (in Spanish), “Why did you ram us?” The officer was now hovering over Felipe, looking clearly concerned as he replied, “We thought you were stealing the bikes and smuggling them into Venezuela!” The conversation broke as the commander in a nearby vessel started yelling as well, the officer describing the situation. Within moments, army boats were everywhere and soldiers were grabbing for the other swimming victims. All three bikes and the canoe had disappeared.

Realizing the gravity of their error, the officer ordered his men to start searching for the Triumph. They began removing their boots and diving into the river in the general area of the impact. Within minutes there were a half-dozen soldiers in the water and the commander was doing his best to appease the wealthy hotelier from Bogotá that he had nearly killed. Almost 20 minutes passed before one of the divers came to the surface screaming, “I found it!” Ropes were secured and the 800 XC was drug through the water to the muddy shore using pulleys secured to the nearest tree.

Back on the other side of the river, Mauricio, Sinuhe, and I were completely ignorant of the insanity that Felipe was enduring. We were busy enjoying cold Cokes and filling water bottles from little plastic bags labeled agua purificada when a cell phone rang. The local that had arranged our passage pulled the mobile to his ear and his eyes widened. Lips starting to tremble, he said, “Are they dead?” as he started to pace. He looked to Mauricio and yelled, “The boat has capsized and everyone is in the river.” That was the end of the call; the person on the other end had no more information as the news was relayed from another boat that had witnessed the impact.

Mauricio’s face went flush from the sudden impact of shock and disbelief. His cousin was in the Meta River and we had no idea if he was alive or dead. Mauricio mumbled that he needed to call his family and wondered if we should even risk going across the river too. I responded that we must go, to which Mauricio replied, “But it is not safe!” When I asked him how many times they had used canoes like that to cross rivers he said, “hundreds of times.” Then I asked him how many times they had capsized. “This is the first time,” he replied. The odds were in our favor and I urged Mauricio to arrange another canoe. Within minutes we had a second vessel coordinated and started lowering the three BMW GSAs down the ramp and onto the deck. I was the first to board and after considerable effort we had the motorcycle in place. While the locals stabilized the boat and bike, I slowly kicked a leg over the saddle and jammed my boots against the slick metal hull. I was struggling to maintain balance and despite being over 6 feet tall, my feet could barely touch. In a moment of ingenuity I remembered the electronic suspension and by pushing a series of buttons had the preload backed off completely, giving me precious contact and grip. One by one, the group lowered the remaining bikes onto the tiny boat.

Much to my relief, the stability of the boat improved once we were under power, the hydraulics pressing against the bow and taking most of the rocking away. I still found it difficult to relax but managed to snap a few photographs with my Canon before shoving it into a small dry bag. The river was huge and took nearly 20 minutes to cross; all the while the team was tortured by the news of Felipe and completely uncertain of his fate. From the main channel the canoe operator turned us down a tributary. That was when I first noticed the gunboats, counting at least six of them, several under power and a few more tied to the shore. My heart was thumping as I searched for Felipe. The gray of his Motorrad Jacket finally came into view, his posture slumped forward, his head in his hands. Hearing our motor, Felipe turned and stood, grabbing hold of the canopy as he leaned his head into view while his other hand chopped at his neck three times. The look on his face was clear, the bike was dead. Cruising past him we could now see the Triumph on the shoreline, the luggage rack lashed to a tree trunk and the headlight still pouring muddy water onto the bank.

We were filled with immediate relief, yet also had deep concerns. Felipe was alive but his bike had been submerged for far too long, the computers and sensors exposed to water, sand, and mud. Our trials were just beginning, starting with getting the remaining bikes safely up the ramps further down the river. Each of us pulled, pushed, and shoved the BMWs up the embankment, running the motor and working the clutch to assist with the effort. Again, we were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers as the area honcho expressed his frustration with the military and simultaneously arranged cold beers and a plan. He offered to haul Felipe and his motorcycle to the next town and this seemed like a really good idea, particularly since the locals that lost motorcycles in the accident were becoming increasingly agitated, pushing for compensation because the gringos had caused all of this.

Within a few minutes, Felipe arrived with his wounded motorcycle, both having been loaded into another makeshift canoe at the crash site. His back was to us, head held low as a llanero straddled the Triumph, while a second stabilized the bike, and a fourth operated the outboard. In moments we had his bike out of the boat and agreement on a plan. Because of the tight timeline for the plane, the three of us would continue on and Felipe would try to fix his bike in the next town. We knew that his trip was over and the motorcycle likely unrepairable, so we all hugged and promised to reconnect back in the city. It was late in the day and we had hundreds of miles left to ride.

Taking Flight

My alarm kicked off way too early the next morning but there was little time for relaxation. Mauricio had arranged an ancient cargo plane to ferry us back to Bogotá and we needed to ride to the airport and load the bikes. Despite Micho’s detailed planning, we were at the mercy of a frontier operation, the airport and aircraft better suited to a dusty outpost on Tatooine than the Americas. We showed up right on time, and of course no one had any idea who we were, why we were there, or how in the world we were going to get three giant motorcycles into the back of a DC-3.

Admittedly, I love these kinds of challenges, momentary setbacks just waiting for an entertaining solution. A few phone calls from Mauricio and the ground crew was up to speed on the commitments the home office had made. The scowls slowly turned to smiles as we joked and talked through ways of loading the bikes. Did they have a truck with a ramp? “No.” A forklift? “No.” Mauricio finally asked, “How do you get the passengers on the plane?” The flightline crewman pointed at a small aluminum flight ladder. Wow, this was not going to work. When he inquired if they had any other ladders or portable stairs the loadmaster’s eyes lit up. “Yes, we have a ceremonial stairway which we use for dignitaries.” Micho smiled and announced, “Perfecto. We will ride the motorcycles UP that stairway.”

The crew was convinced we were crazy and that our idea was ridiculous. Lucky for us they were far too intrigued by the pending destruction to say no, and the stairway was pushed to the open load door of the 70-year-old airplane. Micho and I both channelled our inner Evel Knievel, riding the BMWs up the ceremonial stairway on that lonely airfield in Puerto Carreño and into the back of the aircraft.

Everyone was so excited by the show that the crew forgot to tie down the bikes, or even latch the rear door, a realization we came to at the last turn before takeoff when the cargo hatch flung open and the motorcycles shifted between the net and the fuselage. The only crewman on board leaped up, barely grabbing the handle before the hatch swung completely rearward, quickly pulling everything shut just as the pilots went full throttle on the Pratt & Whitney engines. Still in shock over the door and the completely unlashed BMWs, we realized that there was not a single seat belt on the aircraft—we could only laugh. After a few minutes the mid-century Douglas cargo plane leveled off and I looked over at the lump of riding gear shoved against dusty helmets and the worn rear tire of my GS Adventure. I stood from the jumpseat and part walked, part stumbled over to this inviting pile. Grabbing the handrail I knelt down and then rolled onto my back, a helmet serving as a makeshift pillow and my jacket making the most comfortable bed I have ever imagined. Only a few minutes passed before I was asleep, the radial engines humming me away from consciousness to dreams of the next adventure.

Scott is the publisher and founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. He was the expedition leader for the first American team to cross Antarctica by 4x4.