Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The City of "El Libertador"

It was a hot sticky night. It rained most of the time and the lightning storms were crazy beautiful but the Nemo tent kept me safe and dry. Whenever it would stop raining for a bit the cicadas would do their thing. It was a great night. When it was time to pack up and go it would not stop raining and a look outside told me it would not do so for a long time. I heard Azure's voice in my head saying "When you get lemons, make lemonade"! I took off my smelly shirt and took the longest shower ever. Gotta love mother nature! She just forgot the knob to turn the water off. After a while I crawled back into the tent to dry myself and get dressed. Before long I was riding in the sun towards Caicara del Orinoco.
I had a simple breakfast on the side of the road and went on a petrol quest again. Thinking I was far enough from the border I was shocked to find all the gas stations closed. I asked at a smaller station where I could get it. The man said he did not know. It was all gone. "The system, you know" he said. Then he looked around and told me to ride around the block and come back. I didn't really get it but I did as I was told. He looked around again and came back with the key for the pump, he quickly filled my tank and wished me good luck with my journey. I was not allowed to pay.

I wondered if they were just not allowed to sell petrol for some reason. I had to backtrack to get back on the road and was stopped again by the same army checkpoint as on the way in, only to double check if I had been able to find petrol. Are you seeing a pattern? No corrupt soldiers so far! I needed another cafecita so I puled over and used the time to dry my tent on the bike. A 4x4 stopped next to the bike. Two guys came over and started off in perfect English. They were engineers and rode bikes too. The men were working on the biggest bridge in Venezuela crossing the grand Orinoco River. They invited me to come and check it out. I left my bike with the guards at the entrance and was smuggled in. I had to stay in the car as it was not completely legal for me to be there. The project was ginormous! I was so impressed with all the work and technology that went in to building this bridge. It was also nice to see how proud the men were of their work and their bridge. We talked for a while and they gave me contacts for further down the road in case I needed help.

Back on the bike my Tripmaster was failing again. It tells me my speed is between 150 and 325Km per hour while actually going 90. It does this when it rains a lot. Somehow water gets to the neutral indicator switch and this disturbs the Tripmaster. Until it all dries up again. If anyone can explain to me how this is connected... ???

The long road continues. I am still sore from downgrading to 1 horsepower but it brings back memories of an amazing day. Every town I ride through there are school kids smiling and waving. They have nothing, yet they are so happy. The landscape has become more hilly and the roads more winding. Long sections of tarmac have disappeared and where there is tar you wish it wasn't there because of all the massive potholes. But the riding is great and I am truly enjoying myself.

A man rides by with a shotgun over his shoulder and I am back in reality. This is not Holland. It get's me thinking. Despite all the warnings and all the bad media attention I have not felt unsafe in this country, apart from the man that wanted my bike but I just didn't understand the guy and chose to bail out. And your senses are one thing that do develop a lot while riding around the world. I can't help but wonder if it is all one big control mechanism for the government. FEAR! It seems to be the case in all the other "dangerous countries": False Expectations About Reality.

A dark cloud and a curtain of rain comes towards me. While I am closing my vents and zipping up my jacket the road bents to the left and aside from a few drops I stay dry. There is a saying here that tells you to shut your eyes when it is raining because the drops are so big and they come down with such force that they will take your eyeballs out. Seeing the rain come down makes you think it could actually be true.

[​IMG] I just love the cloud formations.
I finally make it to colonial Ciudad Bolivar. Although the suburbs, with their flooded roads and old apartment complexes make me feel like I am riding in a ghetto, the historical and colorful center of town lives up to its name. The tourist season has not yet started and it's quiet on the streets. After checking out old town I find a place with safe bike parking to spend the night.

[​IMG] The colorful streets of Ciudad Bolivar. Named after the man who liberated Venezuela from the Spanish rulers.
The children's hospital.

As you can see, Chavez's spirit is still very much alive.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wild Camping on the Way to La Gran Sabana

It had rained all night. The road consisted of deep red mud and it took me a long time to get back on the main, pothole filled road. I was still mesmerized with Los Llanos and yet I was on my way to another highlight of Venezuela. There was only 1100Km/700Miles between me and La Gran Sabana in the east. According to the locals it would be a tricky ride that would take me over bad roads, through many army check points and close to the Colombian border. But aside from all that it would be a beautiful region to ride through.
[​IMG] Cows seem to have a preference for tarmac. Good! I prefer the side road!
In no time I hit the first check points. After sharing all the bike details (cost, speed, power, engine size etc) I was let go again. It did make me feel uncomfortable to see all the checkpoints. Especially when they included armored vehicles. They are there for a reason right!?! I found a gas station in town and filled up for free as the attendant loved what I was doing. A few people came over for a chat. The last one was acting weird and I could not make any sense of what he was saying. After making him repeat himself a few times I understood that he wanted the bike. I made a joke of it and tried to leave as fast as possible. When the man rode out with me in the same direction I decided it was time to show him the difference between 100 cc and a 750cc Africa Twin... I left him in a dust cloud and kept up my speed just to be on the safe side.

The road was straight and most of it was in good condition. I had the feeling I was riding through African savannas. It was so vast and it looked the same for a long time but it felt like magic to ride through this area of Venezuela. I wanted to make it across the Orinoco River today so I was flying wherever the road conditions allowed it. I was running low on gas again and found every gas station was closed because they had run out. Yep, Colombia must be close again!

[​IMG] Gas was not available but cheese was on every corner of the road. Anyone?!?
I asked around and a helpful man took me to a friend of his who sold me some gas. I was very relieved to have a full tank again and did not mind that he "ripped me off". Instead off the normal US$0.01 for a fill up I payed 0.70 this time. Great service though! I made it to the ferry over the massive Orinoco river just in time as it was filling up with other passengers. I rode past the line and managed to squeeze in the bike. Soon the men started lifting the ramp with a manual hoist. When the captain could not get the ferry to get away from shore they instructed one of the heavily loaded trucks to back up and drive forward aggressively a couple of times to get it unstuck. After 6 times, the time I needed to figure out what the heck they were doing, we were on our way. Just in time another bike managed to ride on while the ferry was already moving. Madness in our world but hey, it all works!

[​IMG] The Orinoco River ferry. It felt special, in a weird way to cross this "lifeline" of Venezuela.
I was still close to the border when the sun was setting behind beautiful black rock formations. They stood out so sharp in all the greener than green surroundings. I was hoping for a hotel but the small villages I was riding through had none.

[​IMG] The strait road started swirling around hills like this one. A road sign and heavy rain clouds told me that I was riding into the Venezuelan Amazon region.
Well, it was time to start stealth camping again! Just before dark I found a rock formation that I thought I could ride up. I made it up but it was rockier than I had anticipated. I got stuck behind a rock and dropped the bike. It was very humid and sweat gushed down my body. I managed to get the bike up and rode down on the other side of the hill to find a beautiful grassy spot behind some rocks. This was perfect! It was not till later the next day that I received a message from Azure, checking in on me because she had worked out on our SPOT website that I was camping in a region called Los Muertos...

[​IMG] I found a place to stealth camp just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the savannas.
The Nemo tent blends in very well with the local greenery.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Celebrating My Birthday With 1 Horse Power

Exactly six years ago I got on my Africa Twin and left The Netherlands.

Wow, time goes fast! I kept postponing my departure so I finally picked my birthday as my departure date and stuck to it. Now, five continents later I am still so happy with the choice I made back then. What a beautiful world! What a thrill to see it all from a bike and to be able to share this life with an amazing woman! It makes me sad that Azure is not with me today to celebrate. She would have loved it here.

Morning rituals at the farm; The parrots reclaiming their territory by chasing the 10 times bigger turkeys into a tree. Hilarious!

The parrots, doing their morning parade, put a smile back on my face. The roaming chickens walk into the open kitchen, only to be kicked out again. The kids feed the little calves with a bucket. Farm-life at its best. It somehow reminds me of home.

The mangos fell from the trees overnight. A welcome feast in the morning for everyone.

The plan for the day is to go horseback riding. I ask the farmer if he needs help with the cattle. He looks at me and says; "You really want to help to bring in the cattle"?


We decide to combine our search for anteaters with driving cattle and I am beside myself with excitement. This is a dream come true! I have been wanting to herd cattle on horseback since arriving in Australia but somehow never got the chance.

Back to 1 horse power on my Birthday. What a gift! We are after the little white dots in the distance. I was overflowing with excitement.

The Spanish horses are controlled with one hand so you have one hand free to do other things like throw lasso's or in my case, make pictures. My horse, a beautiful grey stallion is eager to work and as soon as he sees a cow he darts after it. After a while we learn to understand each other and we are having a ball. 1 horsepower can be so much fun! The cattle need to be collected for branding, a health check-up and to select cows for "the bulls entertainment". The last part was the most difficult. Imagine 200 cows in a small paddock and having to get 10 out of there. The skill of the farmer and the horse was unbelievable. My ass was sore after a few hours of riding but it did not stop me from going after a few cows that we had missed earlier. What a life!

The missing cows. Looking at the vast, empty landscape, it is hard to imagine that there is such an abundance of life in this region.

After a siesta and an anniversary oil change for the bike, we went fishing for piranha for dinner. Although the farmer took out one after an other it was hard for my new friend, Jesus and me to get any at all. But in the end, after enduring heavy rains and a caiman attack (he scared the s#*t out of me!) I got the hang of it and did not have to go to bed with an empty stomach. The piranha were delicious and it turned into a fun evening. Definitely a birthday never to be forgotten. Thanks for all the translating and a great time Jesus!

These guys were on the other side of the food chain hours ago. Piranha is delicious! Especially if you spend hours in the pooring rain and dodged a caiman attack to catch them.

Tomorrow it is back on the bike and ride over a thousand kilometers on backroads that get close to a very tricky border region to get to La Gran Savanah. The safety of Merida and my new friends is no more. The real Venezuela is waiting. During dinner the farmer does not comfort me at all with information about the road ahead. Many army checkpoints are waiting and corruption seems to be the norm...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

By any means! Merida to Los Llanos

It was Wednesday afternoon and I had finished my week of Spanish lessons. It had been tough to be back in a classroom and my brain had difficulties absorbing yet another language. I was tempted to stay another week but it was time to go!
Paragliding near Merida is as cheap as you will ever find it so I decided to treat myself. We drove into the mountains and waited for the wind to lay down a bit. Before long we were flying over mountain tops, hanging with the vultures and scanning dirt roads for the bike. What a ride!
[​IMG] The mountains around Merida from above.
Who wants to go for a ride!?! What a road!

I spent some more time in Merida exploring the local market and a Guinness book of record gelateria, for having the biggest variety of ice cream. The corn ice cream was especially good. It was sad to leave this town but Los Llanos was waiting. Everyone was raving about this place. It should have an abundance of “rare” wildlife and it would be nature at its best. I told myself to take everyone's positivity with a pinch of salt as it would probably be very touristy. My guide and my travel companion from Spain, Jesus, drove ahead in a Toyota troop carrier that was ready for some serious off road adventure

[​IMG] My "support vehicle" guiding me to Los Llanos along this stunning road.
Heavy local traffic.

We stopped at a roadside restaurant and ordered half a kilo of meat. It was all you could get and it came off a big leg that was hanging over a grill. It was delicious! Back at the bike I found a little kitten that was eager for a road trip. I was tempted to take the little furball along for the ride.

OK, I'm comfortable. Can we go now!?!

It was a long ride though and as soon as we left the mountains behind us, the heat was unbearable. In a small town, we pulled over for a break. The bike was surrounded by people in no time. It was a good chance to practice my Spanish. After filling my “support vehicle” with ice and cheap beer (my Birthday was coming up) we raced to the farm where we would be staying. The horizon stretched further and further and colorful birds where everywhere. This was going to be good. The sun was setting and just before dark we got to the farm. It had rained and the muddy road was slippery as hell. Meters away from the farm, my rear wheel slid from underneath me and I was in the mud. Where is Azure when you need a picture!?!

[​IMG] The road was still good here.
This is when you start longing for dirt roads.

Green green grass as far as the eye could see.

The noise of birds woke me up in the morning. Walking out the door I found 2 parrots chasing a massive turkey around the yard. It was hilarious! I found myself on a small cattle farm with over 200 head of cattle. It was situated in the middle of nowhere. After breakfast we drove to a river to go for a safari by boat. The farmer, who was said to be one of the best guides in the area and was famous for finding massive anacondas, told us we were in for a great experience. It was all so down to earth and the landscape was just grass everywhere so I had dificulties believing it. We drove on to some farm land and headed towards some bushes. A muddy track took us to a river and there my eyes and mouth opened wider and wider. It was like driving into a zoo! A startled capybara ran off and dozens of different herons flew away. There was a caiman on every square meter.

[​IMG] Capybara

Not A clue which bird this is but it sure was pretty!

We spent 3 hours going up and down the river. There were birds of prey, kingfishers, some kind of turtle that escaped the Jurassic Park movie set, piranha’s, strange birds and to top it all off, beautiful pink river dolphins that I did not even know existed. They loved playing with the boat and jumped out all over the place! If there is one negative aspect to traveling for a long time, it is that you get spoiled and are not easily impressed anymore. Well THIS was impressive! With a smile from ear to ear we left the river behind us.

[​IMG] One less piranha to worry about!

King Fisher
Check out those teeth!

Turtle from outer space!

Colorful heron

After lunch we went for a rooftop safari on the grasslands. It was interesting to learn that all this land would be covered in 10 centimeters of water during the wet season. Groups of capybaras, thousands of caiman and trying to find anaconda’s filled the magical afternoon.

[​IMG] Capybara family. The grown ups are protecting the little ones (and a bird) from the caiman. No lack of courage!
Every dot is a caiman...

He could not find a big one but he knew how to handle them. Would rather not have him disturb the animal but that was hard to explain.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Merida, Adventure Capital of Venezuela

Rolling down the mountain towards Merida, the views get better around every curve. The mountain range on the other side of the valley becomes more and more impressive. The two highest peeks of Venezuela are somewhere out there. A Kawasaki KLR rides by and there is a KTM 950 Adventure parked in front of a small motorcycle shop. My kind of people! I park next to the KTM and go inside for some information. I’m looking for someone to work on my rear shock. It really needs a check up as I am bottoming out on the big bumps. No luck on the shock because they don’t have the specialized equipment but one of the customers, who happens to be a bike mechanic as well, offers to take me into town and show me around.

[​IMG] The scenery around Merida. 
Two minutes into traffic, a motorcycle cop shows up and decides to escort us into town. A minute later another copper shows up on a KLR. The newspaper article of people getting shot for bike parts flashes through my mind. So far no Africa Twins so I should be OK. The cops are happy to take me to town. I think back on my time in Bandung, Indonesia, where my friend Duncan and I asked a cop for directions and before we knew it the sirens were on and we were racing through traffic and riding against traffic, trying to keep up with the police bike, escorting us through town.
[​IMG] My lovely home for a while...
The other biker assures me it’s ok and leaves me with the cops after giving me his business card and telling me that if I need any other work done on the bike I should come and see him and he will help me out. The cops try their best to find a hotel with parking for me. They even go inside to ask for prices. Great service. I tell them I will be alright and thank them for their help. Half an hour later I find a cosy place with a fenced and camera guarded parking lot across the road. Hotel Casa Sol, run by a lovely German lady, was a boutique hotel and just above my budget. So she recommended the hotel across the road, La Casona de Margot, but let me use her parking lot.

... And most important: A safe place for the bike.

I spend the evening and the next day gathering information and walking around Merida. It is a beautiful town with many old churches and lively squares. The people seem happy and there is so much to see and do. I find out about a Spanish course. For 80US$ I get 20 hours of 1 on 1 lessons. After meeting my teacher I thought about it over a delicious 2 dollar dinner and decided I would stay for a week to study, get to know the town, do some para gliding and go to Los Llanos to spot some wildlife. This is going to be amazing!

[​IMG] Plaza Bolivar in Merida. Always lively and very colorful.
[​IMG] Dance performances on one of the many other squares in town.
Mostly I have been taking pictures with my phone as I have been warned many times not to walk around with a fancy camera because I would get robbed. When I walked to a viewpoint, where there were less people, two girls warned me not to take my phone out of my pocked there for the same reason. It felt so safe but people seemed very afraid for armed robbery. It did make me even more aware of my surroundings.

I have never seen such small goals. They were very skilled with a soccer ball.

I started my Spanish course the next day with I Lingua. Their English was perfect but they insisted on speaking Spanish all the time. They focused specifically on what I wanted/needed to learn in a weeks time and used a lot of humor to achieve our goals. The second day we started of with a children's memory game. It was fun and I actually learned a few words. The next day we focused on some verbs and when it all became a little bit too much for my brain cells, we did some Spanish karaoke to lighten the load.

[​IMG] Necessary Spanish in case I get sick or have an accident...
Typical Lunch while taking care of today's homework. I feel like a kid again!

[​IMG]Starting the day with... Memory! :y0!

[​IMG] Never knew you could learn so much from Karaoke! :wings

On the weekend their were no lessons because they were too busy teaching kids English. I was asked to come in so the older kids could practice their conversational skills. It took a while to brake the ice but once they got started, they asked some great questions. From travel related questions to political issues to questions about the Dutch marijuana laws. I had a great morning until the roles reversed and the teachers forced me to reply in Spanish... euhhhhhh...

[​IMG] This family had trouble with their car. After solving the problem they checked out the bike and saw the Black Dog Cycle Works beer bottle opener on the box and insisted on opening a bottle of beer with it which I then had to drink... Well, there goes the no drinking and riding rule... Love these people!
That Sunday I went for a ride to visit all the places near Merida that the kids had recommended I visit. Winding roads took me to quaint towns with beautiful churches, wineries (the strawberry wine was delicious), an observatory at 3500 meter and a beautiful mountain lake. It gave me a good idea of Venezuelan life in the country side where old 4 wheel drives and donkeys still ease the workload.

[​IMG] I am still not tired of colorful churches. The "old mans beard" in the tree tells you how clean the air is up here.
Did I mention the food was just amazing! $1.50 and yes, studying Spanish any time I can! :ostrich

[​IMG] Less colorful but what an artwork! Iglesia de San Rafael de Mucuchíes
[​IMG] What are you looking at mate!?! Anyone not traveling by motorcycle because they have a dog... No more excuses! :rofl
[​IMG] No words to describe the riding here.
[​IMG] The winding road to the observatory at 3500 meter / 10500 feet.
Working the land with donkeys. Respect!

Laguna Mucubaji

It was getting late and I decided to go back to Merida. On the way down from the lake I saw a few bikers that I had seen earlier. They were from all over South America. One of them had gotten a flat. I pulled over to help to fix it. Just before dark I returned from a stunning day of riding.

[​IMG] Who needs a center stand!?!
The luxury of having Gobi Cases; washing your hands after roadside work on a bike.