Amazon

the

GRINGOS ACROSS

Jo and Gareth Morgan
Includes Bonus DVD

Amazon
Jo and Gareth Morgan
with John McCrystal

GRINGOSthe ACROSS

Public Interest Publishing

Designed by Typeface. Printed in Auckland, New Zealand by McCollams Print. First published in 2011 by The Public Interest Publishing Company Ltd (PiP). Enquiries to Phantom House Books: Fax: +64 4 384 5451 Email: info@phantomhouse.com Web: www.phantomhouse.com Copyright © 2011 by Jo and Gareth Morgan. All rights reserved; no part of the contents of this book may be reproduced in any form without the permission of the publisher. ISBN 978-0-9864574-5-6

PERU

B R A Z I L
BOLIVIA

CONTENTS
E

PARAGUAY
ROUTE MAP Introduction
Chapter 1

OUTH ERICA

4 8 17

Chapter 2

I

Brazil: Nuts Off…
Chapter 3

L

URUGUAY

31 52 74 90 111 128 149 166 183 204 205 206

H

…On a Tangent
Chapter 4

Sure I Am in Suriname
Chapter 5

ARGENTINA

Chapter 6

Ay Colombia
Chapter 7

Ecuador: Bananas
Chapter 8

Canal Retentives
Chapter 9

You Are in Guatemala Now
Chapter 10

Mexican Standoff Acknowledgements Author Profiles By the same Authors

C

Clear As Mud

ROUTE MAP
LEG 1/2 (key
Day 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56

)
Night Location Mambai Luis Eduardo Barreiras Lençóis Lençóis Salvador Salvador Barra de Sao Miguel Olinda Natal Aracati Sobral Barreirinhas Barreirinhas São Luís Santa Inês Belém Manaus Mamiraua Res Mamiraua Res Mamiraua Res Mamiraua Res Manaus Manaus Boating across Amazon delta Belém At sea Macapá Calçoene Oiapoque Cayenne Kourou Kourou St Laurent du Maroni Paramaribo Nieuw Nickerie Georgetown Linden Kurukukari Lethem Boa Vista Santa Elena de Uairen El Dorado Ciudad Bolívar Valle de la Pascua Tinaco Barquisimeto Mérida Mérida Pamplona Barbosa Bogotá Bogotá Bogotá Bogotá Bogotá-Wn Country Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Brazil Fr Guiana Fr Guiana Fr Guiana Fr Guiana Suriname Suriname Guyana Guyana Guyana Guyana Brazil Venezuela Venezuela Venezuela Venezuela Venezuela Venezuela Venezuela Venezuela Colombia Colombia Colombia Colombia Colombia Colombia Kms 250 474 451 428 577 243 284 350 412 463 260 422 422

SO AME
378 213 166 64 204 144 260 313 270 270 125 238 331 368 352 298 177 401 321 320 211

LEG 2/2 (key
Day 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

)
Night Location Houston Houston Quito Quito Quito Galápagos Galápagos Galápagos Country USA USA Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Kms

4

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Day 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 Night Location Galápagos Galápagos Galápagos Galápagos Quito Melgar Armenia Popayán Pasto Tulcán Otavalo Quito Quito Quito Panama City Panama City Panama City Panama City Panama City Santa Clara Boquete Almirante Puerto Limón Arenal Observatory Liberia Moyogalpa Moyogalpa León León Managua Valle de Angeles Solo Piso Neuva Ocotepeque Suchitoto Antigua Antigua Rio Dulce Tikal Belize City Belize City Corozal Piste Mérida Campeche Palenque San Cristòbal de la Casa Juchitán Oaxaca Puerto Escondido Cuajinicuilapa Acapulco Zihuatanejo Manzanillo Puerta Vallarta Tepic At sea La Paz La Paz Loreto Loreto Santa Rosalia Guerrero Negro San Quintin Tijuana San Diego Perris LA-Wn

B R A Z I L
BOLIVIA
Country Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Colombia Colombia Colombia Colombia Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Ecuador Panama Panama Panama Panama Panama Panama Panama Panama Costa Rica Costa Rica Costa Rica Nicaragua Nicaragua Nicaragua Nicaragua Nicaragua Honduras Honduras Honduras El Salvador Guatemala Guatemala Guatemala Guatemala Belize Belize Belize Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico Mexico USA USA USA Kms

PARAGUAY

109 150 300 256 92 140 84

OUTH ERICA

L

E

URUGUAY

ARGENTINA

150 360 270 160 270 160 150 0 260 0 0 350 300 250 83 300 0 330 250 200 0 100 340 150 180 350 220 330 270 250 200 250 220 450 280 175 260 0 0 360 0 200 420 310 150 200 50

C

H

I

5

LO G 75 ELE S SA N

72 73 71

74

6
70 69 67 ,6 8 65 ,6 6 64

ME
6 62 3 61 60 59 58 56 55 54 53 45 46 49 50 52 51 57

XIC O

CU

G 4 UA
3,

BA
TH

EL S ALV ADO R3
6, 37 38 40 42 41

44

TEM ALA HO ND NIC
34

UR
,3

39

BE

47 ,4

LIZ

8

E

AS AR
33 5

JA

EB
AG UA
MA ICA HA ITI

AH

AM
ICA

CO ST

AS
AR
29 30 28 23 -2

612

GA

PA GO

PA
S

NA

MA

31

,3

7 2

D RE OMIN PU ICA BL N IC

51 18 17 -5 6 14 16 15 48 50 47 ,4 9 45 46 52

AN ST K D N ITT EV S IS

13 3,4 / 2 ,5/ 022

EC DO R

19

UA

CO LO MB IA
43 38 36 35 37 42

VE N EZ UE LA
GU YAN
40 41 39 44

A

PE RU
19 -2 2 1 23 8/ ,2 4 27 ,2 8

SU RIN AM E
32 ,3 3 31 30 29

A SO M U ER TH IC A
FR 3 GU ENC 4 IAN H A

BO LIV IA

B R A

1 25 7/ ,2 6 15 16 13 ,1 4

E

L
PAR AGU AY

Z
2 1

12 3

I

I

L
4, 5 8 6, 7

11 10 9

C
UR UG UA Y

AR

H

7

GE

NT IN

A

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BOLIVIA

B R A Z I L

Introduction
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PARAGUAY

UTH RICA

or so. Throughout the planning stages of that trip and the next one, we’d assumed getting into and out of Brazil with motorbikes would

J

o will tell you she knew what was on Gareth’s mind even before

we stopped. We’d just ridden effortlessly across the border between Paraguay and Brazil for the fourth time in the last week

I

L

be too hard to bother contemplating, a morass of bureaucracy and And yet there we were, in Brazil. In Brazil on our bikes. What the?

URUGUAY

H

extortionate customs and immigration charges.

his face alight with revelation.

‘I know what we’re going to do,’ Gareth said as soon as we stopped,

ARGENTINA

‘We can do the second half of the trip from here.’

‘We’re going to leave the bloody bikes in Brazil!’ Gareth enthused. All that pre-trip email bluster from Brazilian officials on how

their country wouldn’t allow this, wouldn’t allow that, how we’d never get approvals for our bikes to enter or leave. What a load of baloney — out here on the front line there’s not an official in sight, we’ve ever seen.

you just ride in — not even an immigration stamp. The slackest border

epic Up the Andes ride, our traverse of the western edge of South
8

That epiphany came only a few months before, at the end of our

C

‘We’re going to leave the bikes in Brazil,’ said Jo.

Introduction

America, from Lima in Peru down to Ushuaia in the uttermost south, into Brazil. The plan had been to finish the ride back on the western from Colombia.

and the long ride up through Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and side of the Andes, and to resume the journey around the continent But the ease with which we slipped into Brazil changed everything.

near the village of Mambaí in West Bahia, a 400 km or so north of acquaint ourselves with our grandson Oscar, the latest addition to our family, and to cast an eye over our real lives back in New Zealand.

In the end, we finished at a farm in which we have a stake, up

Brasilia. We put the bikes into storage there while we went back to

grand motorcycling project ‘Bits of the World by Bike’, or ‘Selected Foreign Destinations Motorcycled’, or something like that, we’d have had some wiggle room. But World by Bike it is, and has remained since we first dreamed the concept up on the home straight to the finishing line on our Silk Road adventure in 2005. It had long nagged

We were, however, prisoners of our own rhetoric. If we’d called our

at us that we’d only done a tiny bit of South America in our trip to the

Up the Andes — left the continent half-biked — we’d be haunted by the same sense of unfinished business. When we were planning Up the Andes, we looked at the bits of South America that awaited our tyre tracks, and decided that the geography suggested two trips, a soft ride and a hard one. Up the Andes, for all its hardships and gnarly moments — the rugged roads, the altitude, the climatic variations — was the soft ride. We had few illusions about how hard the second trip would be. One of the first things you do when putting together an expedition like this is gather as much intelligence as you can about the route you’re planning to take. We read guidebooks, consulted blogs, talked to people who had been there, done that. We studied Google Earth and we contacted embassies and consulates. We tried to acquire as intimate a knowledge of the terrain and the road conditions as it’s
9

Bolivian highlands in 2002; we knew that if we called it quits after

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

possible to get without actually riding them. We noted the bureaucratic dispassionate assessments of the risks we’d be running  —  animal,

requirements of each of the borders we’d be crossing. We sought out vegetable and mineral  —  and worked out what was reasonable for done that, we worked out who we’d invite along to share all that risk.

granny and grandpa bikers to expose themselves to. And once we’d

along on a motorcycle expedition to be six. Six people observing the

We’ve always considered the ideal number of people to take

requisite etiquette represents quite a high degree of security in the event of misadventure, mishap or mechanical meltdown. Choose parts, tools and skills along. Six can be unwieldy: getting everyone on the road in the morning can be an exercise in frustration, and if there’s the slightest lapse in riding etiquette — someone doesn’t mark a corner, or fails to ensure they’re in regular visual contact with the trying to get everyone back on the same page again. And needless to your team members wisely, and you can take quite a range of spare

person behind them  —  you can spend ridiculous amounts of time say, unless you know everyone really well, the more people you add, incompatibilities to the already potentially volatile mix.

the greater the chance you’ll introduce those niggling interpersonal We’d always been lucky in the people we’d taken along on our

like a charm. But although we’re never short of people who are keen to come along, you find the realities soon sort out those who are serious from those who imagine the whole thing’s nothing more than an extended cappuccino canter. These trips are demanding. They take time — we’re on the road for up to three months — and they cost

adventures. The crew of five we’d had on Up the Andes had worked

money. Increasingly, while our own passion for doing the World by Bike has only increased, others have fallen by the wayside. Other commitments and priorities have progressively robbed us of our trusty
10

Introduction

team members. By time we turned the bikes around at Ushuaia at to three. Soon enough, our final companion peeled away to keep his Morgan, to complete the itinerary. the half-way stage of Up the Andes, our group of five had dwindled

own appointments, too, leaving just the two of us, Joanne and Gareth By the time our plans for the second half of the South American

ride had firmed up, we pretty much knew that when we looked at

each other across the breakfast table, we were looking at the whole team. There was plenty to be nervous about in that prospect. We both respect one another’s riding abilities — and, crucially, know one between us: Jo is an accomplished bush nurse, more than useful with

another’s limitations intimately. We can muster some handy skills a spanner, and handy with languages. You’re glad you’ve got Gareth needs to be shouted at. But we were well short of the critical mass we’d bit of a pressure valve when things are getting a bit fraught. It was

along when you need to work out exchange rates, or if a bureaucrat previously considered ideal, and having others around can provide a fortunate, from this perspective, that we’d each already ridden in our dearly beloved’s exclusive company for those last few weeks at the end would take the form of a 25,000-kilometre domestic incident. of Up the Andes: that seemed to lessen the risk that our latest venture But we were delighted, as things came together, to learn that for

much of the second half of the forthcoming trip we would have the

company of original and legendary World by Biker, Dave Wallace: a marlin fishing competition in Baja California that for him was a

he would join us for our traverse of Central America, as far north as ‘must do’. And just as welcome was our younger daughter Ruby’s wish to join us for some of Central America, too. The pleasure of their company was certainly something to look forward to.

11

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

and Tonto (we never did quite agree who was who). Another advantage of our pruned back team was that it vastly streamlined the process of settling the itinerary. Instead of trying to please six people, we only had to please ourselves. Well, that could have been the beginning of the end, right there!

In the meantime, though, it was to be just the two of us, Kemosabe

part. We wanted to ride up through Brazil to the Amazon, where we both agreed it would be pretty cool to make a side-trip up the river. Then we’d take a ferry across the delta of the great river itself, and head up through the Guyanas, of which there used to be five: the former Portuguese Guiana (now the Brazilian state of Amapá), French Guiana, the former Dutch Guiana (now known as Suriname), British (now Venezuela). Riding from Guyana to Venezuela would entail a

But geography and climate determined the route, for the most

Guyana (the Guyana these days) and the former Spanish Guiana long trek south, because the two countries are barely on speaking terms, and we’d have to re-enter Brazil before entering Venezuela. And the key point here is that the road from Georgetown, capital of Guyana, to Lethem on the Brazilian border is marginal. It closes for the entire rainy season, and whenever there’s a passing shower, so the need to time our traverse to maximise our chances of getting through would necessarily set the agenda for the first part of the ride, Brazil, sticking to the coast wherever possible. We’d need to do big too. From the farm, we’d collect the bikes and head for northeastern days while the going was good in the prosperous regions south of the as much as possible, chose the route so that these were strung along part of proceedings.

Amazon. We each pencilled in points of interest along the way and it like beads, but it was clear we’d mostly be doing transit days in this From the Amazon, it was a matter of polishing off Brazil, doing

French Guiana, hitting Suriname, bisecting Guyana, crossing the and dropping over the Andes into Colombia.
12

northern tip of Brazil again, scribing a sweeping arc across Venezuela

Introduction

Colombia, ride down into Ecuador (perhaps even squeezing in a side trip to the Galápagos Islands), then head up Central America via Belize and on to Los Angeles via Mexico.

After a Christmas break from the bikes, we’d pick up again in

Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, We looked at the map and the spreadsheet into which Gareth

had entered our projected waypoints, distances and timings. Then we looked at each other. Man, what a ride! We couldn’t wait.

we’ve ridden our own BMWs on all of our World by Bike adventures.

Apart from our very early expeditions, where our bikes were hired,

While the results have been very good, apart from trifling niggles here has appealed to us as quite so well suited to the demands we place on

and there, we’ve studied the alternatives carefully each time. Nothing our machines on these rides as the BMWs. Ideally, we’d probably have

gone for the 650-cc machines we used on the Silk Road, but BMW were no longer making them when we were tooling up for Up the

Andes. The best and nearest was the F800GS — a little heavier and taller than absolutely ideal for soft conditions (mud, sand or shingle), but with a decent power-to-weight ratio and a strong subframe to hang lots of gear off. These bikes had performed with aplomb up and down the Andes: the only problems we’d had with them had been the result of mishaps— apart, crucially from Gareth’s rear wheel bearing, which had become sloppy towards the end of the Up the Andes leg of the adventure. We’d had it replaced in Sao Paulo, where we’d also asked about the wisdom of having Jo’s replaced. No, they said. It was fine. We shouldn’t have listened. We had confidence in them to see us through the rest of the continent and through Central America, too. A lot of what gets called the fun of expedition motorcycling has been taken out of it by modern navigational aids, most notably the
13

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

GPS. Both of our bikes were equipped with units that could plot a route for you according to how fast you wanted to get from point A to point B, and what kind of experience you wanted on the way — in theory. In practice, the maps loaded on to them for the less well-

traversed corners of the globe tend to bear little resemblance to onthe-ground reality, but they’re an essential tool nonetheless. And one predictable routes when you have a day with time up your sleeve. It’s that does offer heaps more opportunities to do circuitous and less only when you discover side roads marked on your GPS turn into

paper roads after 50 miles, that you curse their temptations. But a big positive is we’re able to effortlessly head to the dead centre of every populous town we encounter if that’s where we want to spend the night. No more avoiding the towns through fear of spending hours getting in and out.

keep tabs on our whereabouts. This wasn’t just for the sake of idle

We also had Spidertracks technology aboard, so that others could

curiosity: it’s a prudent safety precaution, and when it’s combined

with Google Earth, it makes for an amazing virtual interpretation enables you to locate your machine should it get nicked, or find your wife if she’s ridden off with a Latino. We swear by Icebreaker merino clothing under our riding gear.

of the roads you’ve travelled, too. But more seriously, Spidertracks

Not only does it keep you warm in cool conditions (unlikely to be a consideration for much of this trip, given how much time we’d be spending within ten degrees either side of the Equator), but when keep you miraculously cool. And we’d come to appreciate its ability reaching the point where it pongs.

soaked with water and worn under jackets and overtrousers, it can to do all of this while wearing well, looking good and hardly ever Jo took along a pretty fancy first aid kit, and Gareth a whole

battery of communications equipment. The Immarsat modem to meet

his incessant need to be online fulltime; his Iridium voice satphone in case the local phone network is down or non-existent  —  as was
14

Introduction

the case last year in earthquake-torn Chile; and a plethora of gadgets strong subframes.

he thought he’d just test en route. Now you see why these bikes need

we’re due to traverse on these trips. There’s a pretty well-established convention in news circles these days that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, and in the world, to hear about all the awful things that are happening it’s common, once you’ve acquired an interest in any given country there. You never hear about the peaceful lives led by the majority of its population, but as soon as there’s a riot, a kidnapping, a particularly grisly murder, an attack by a wild animal, a crash involving a helicopter or light plane full of tourists or what have you, your phone runs red hot with pleas to renounce your irresponsible intentions to ride to the countries we’re planning to ride through on this leg of our grand tour, claim more than their fair share of the front page of the world’s

We tend to avoid media reports of incidents in the countries

certain death  —  and that’s just Gareth’s mum. It’s fair to say that

daily newspapers. Political stability hasn’t taken strong root in South

American soil. Most of these countries (outside Brazil) are either bankrupt, used to be, or are heading that way, and the South and Central American interpretation of democracy — the power of the people — has traditionally been that the most powerful people win.

Unlike most of the rest of the commodities produced in the region, social harmony and prosperity. Some of the areas we’ll be travelling whether it’s more dangerous to be around when the crooks confront the cops, or when they’re on the same side. drugs are in heavy demand, but that industry hardly contributes to

through are lawless; others are irremediably corrupt. It’s hard to tell

driving is, shall we say, idiosyncratic for the most part (quite apart from
15

The roading, by all accounts, is pretty primitive in places, and the

the occasional need to change which side of the road you’re driving

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

on). The engineering and materials that have gone into infrastructure such as bridges was probably questionable in the first place — before a half-century’s worth of deterioration and decay set in.

likely to be less than efficient. Knowing Gareth, things could turn ugly pretty quickly.

We’ll have to cross a number of borders where the officials are

predatory wildlife to consider… If you think about it all too deeply, you’d never leave your sofa. The world with all its marvels and rewarding experiences, like the truth that so often differs from all of these horror stories, is out there. But if you don’t go out and have a look for yourself, how could you ever know? ‘That’s why we do it, Mum,’ soothes Gareth down the phone

Then there are tropical diseases and parasites and venomous and

after the latest report of mass decapitations in Acapulco. ‘That’s why we’re going.’

16

PERU
Chapter 1

B R A Z I L

BOLIVIA Brazil: Nuts

E

PARAGUAY

OUTH ERICA

dangerously, but the woman on the other side of the desk doesn’t seem to be able to read the signs.

T
C

he temperature in the office is rising, despite the aircon.

The heat seems to be emanating from beneath Gareth’s

collar. His eyes are blazing and his moustache is bristling

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L

with Brazil’s hard men — knows how things get done here. Shouting

H

Fonterra man who has spent his life negotiating deals in Portuguese

Alex Turnbull  —  fellow shareholder in the Brazil farm, solid

URUGUAY

doesn’t get you far, and shouting in Inglèse just gets you further down the queue. A little decorum please, Gareth, there are certain protocols and rituals to be observed.

ARGENTINA

eyes. He signals to her that it would help our cause immeasurably if for a walk in a nice, orderly Brasilia street and chill.

Alex catches Jo’s attention, jerks his head at Gareth and rolls his

Gareth were taken out of the game. Jo agrees. Time for Gareth to go As soon as he’s gone, Alex’s features become suffused with a sugary

charisma. He lights a dazzling smile, and turns it like a blowtorch on the sour-faced bureaucrat. At first, there’s little change, but Alex is tall, dark and determined  —  and his Portuguese is impeccable. A a tragic, puppy-dog expression of pure supplication and she visibly softens — melts even, is putty in his hands.

few florid gestures of his hands, a sigh or two, followed up hard with

17

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

of a charm offensive is to flog obstructive officials with their own St Christopher’s medal. The lightest brush of his fingertips on her forearm as he shares

This, Jo supposes, is what you call a charm offensive. Gareth’s idea

a piece of information with her, a flirtatious flutter of his eyelashes

and the bureaucrat goes faintly pink, and non-verbally declares a

willingness to eat out of Alex’s hand. He cocks a rakish eyebrow at our

visa applications, lying all but forgotten on the desktop. She applies herself to them with a dreamy half-smile. Paper starts to shuffle, and have our Suriname visas. stamps to thump. It’s been a masterful display. Thanks to Alex, we

Although it’s completely flat, it’s visually striking, with man-made

Alex drives us through the extraordinary spectacle of Brasilia.

features accentuated by the absence of physical ones. The whole

thing was planned and purpose-built from 1956, and in 1960 took over from Rio de Janeiro as Brazilian capital. It was originally shaped civic functions, although the purity of the planners’ vision has been with the administrative centre are clustered in the cockpit area (The like a stylised aircraft, with different areas designated for different somewhat compromised by urban sprawl. The buildings associated Suriname embassy is relegated to the jetstream however, indicative of

the regard that country of a mere half a million people is held in by if you can picture Canberra as executed by a cadre of municipal artists freed at last of budget restraints, you’d have it about right. Driving out on one of the main thoroughfares, the hinterland

South America’s behemoth economy). And as for its look and feel…

arrives without warning. Like Brasilia, this too is flat. All that to hazy infinity over the Planalto Central.
18

sculpted concrete and glittering glass gives way to crops that stretch

1. Brazil: Nuts

and greenery of Brasilia in our wake, passing over the valleys and west corner of Bahia and there, up ahead, we can see the farm, a suite

After one and a half hours in a light plane, leaving the lakes

escarpments of north-eastern Goias province, we cross into the southof verdant green irrigation pivots standing out amidst the dry, almost arid surround of thousands of hectares of soybean stubble that shrouds this elevated plateau — a little slice of the Waikato here in the middle

of the Brazilian high plains. It’s a venture initiated by a bunch of Kiwis techniques to this uniquely suitable bit of South American landscape. Because we’re 900-odd metres above sea level here, it’s cool enough

a few years back, intended to bring the best of New Zealand dairying

for grass to grow, even though we’re only about 14 degrees south of the Equator. And while the vegetation is naturally that of the semijust like the erstwhile President of Indonesia), it just happens to sit humid savannah (the Brazilians call it cerrado, pronounced ‘suharto pretty tens of metres above South America’s second largest aquifer. The sand that we struggled to ride through on our way in here at the end of the last trip seemed pretty deep as we slithered, wallowed. It’s actually 50-odd metres deep — no wonder we couldn’t get any traction! Besides making skilled bikers look untidy, all that sand completely filters the water of impurities, so when you drop a bore

into the water table, you tap into some of the purest agua on earth. So with water aplenty and the whole set-up lying just beautifully to the non-stop tropical sun, you can grow anything here, including grass. In the better bits of the Waikato, you can grow about 18 tonnes of dry Verde, you can grow 50.

matter per hectare a year in pasture; on our patch at fazenda Leite The manager is Simon Wallace, the son of prominent Waikato

dairy farmer, David. Simon is there to greet us as we put down, beginning to feel the effects of the long flight. Before we tackle dinner and call it quits for the night, we lift the covers on the bikes that have sat on Simon’s back porch these last few months, careful not to
19

disturb any inoffensive snakes that have decided to use the seats in our

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

absence. Snake bites are not unknown in Simon’s house, although so far it’s only his dad who has fallen foul of their venomous reactions. They look none the worse for having been stored, and once the

batteries are hooked up, we press the starter buttons and they flutter

smoothly into life. Not bad after six months idle. The fluting putter

of the motors and the smell  —  the distinctive smell of four-stroke

exhaust, with a certain tang deriving from the bioethanol content of just what we’re about to do. We go to sleep that night dreaming of awaiting us to the north.

Brazilian petrol  —  reminds us, in case any reminder is needed, of the road, and the challenges and the rewards of expedition riding

and master of pretty much all he tackles — whether it’s building a milking shed, hooking electricity up for the factory, or sorting the filled with UHT for our supermarket customers in Bahia. There’s one thing he’s not so hot at, though, and that’s taking direction from a woman. packaging line out that produces the continuous stream of bottles

Junior is a genius. He’s one of the farm’s finds, a jack of all trades

chains and sprockets on the bikes. He’s deft with the tools, and seems to possess an intuitive sense of how these products of precision German engineering fit together, even though he’s never sighted such

Jo’s keeping an eagle eye on him as he assists in changing the

sophisticated motorbikes before. Indeed, bikes aren’t allowed on the

farm, lest they disturb Daisy and the rest of the herd that produce our Jo steps in to correct him on a detail.

livelihood. But he can’t quite keep from assuming a pained air when After some initial puffing and pouting, and few words (since

there’s no common language), they establish a reasonable working

relationship, and before they’ve finished, Jo’s glad of this. She’s feeling pretty light-headed and feverish, and knows with that sense
20

1. Brazil: Nuts

of inevitability you get that she’s coming down with something. Gareth is attending a meeting of the farm’s board of directors, so without Junior, Jo would have taken at least twice as long to do the maintenance.

Junior have finished the jobs and Jo’s managed to wire her GPS in, too. aware of her surroundings, including the moment on the second Jo hits the hay and sleeps for the next two days, only intermittently

By the time she’s admitted defeat and gone to lie down, Jo and

afternoon when Simon Wallace comes into her room and strokes her hair. Another voice is heard saying: ‘she’s not going to be fit to ride tomorrow.’ ‘This,’ she thinks, ‘must be what it’s like to be dying. Friends pat Around midnight, she wakes again. The pain behind her eyes

your head. Mmm, rather nice.’

has gone. The room has stopped pulsing and spinning. She feels something heavy.

almost normal — or as normal as you’d feel if you’d been run over by She decides to take a chance, and stumbles to the door onto the

porch. There’s a hammock strung between the verandah posts, and she slumps into it with a sigh of gratitude. That’s where Gareth finds her in the morning.

‘What the hell are you doing out here?’ he asks.

‘Don’t know,’ she replies. ‘But there’s your first photo.’

to focus, the strange, amorphous red blob in the green of the foliage beyond the verandah has resolved itself into a group of about a dozen

As her eyes have settled down in the morning light and agreed

birds, each around the size of a bantam, crowded onto a branch, all eyeing Jo. Occasionally, one of them will apparently grow dissatisfied with its vantage, and will scuttle over the backs of its companions to see if anything looks different from that end of the perch. They’re

pretty  —  sort of fluffy and with impressive red crests and orange bills— but the gleam in their eyes is faintly unsettling to Jo, who wonders whether they’ve been sizing her up for breakfast.

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‘You gonna be right to ride today?’ Gareth asks.

occurred to her, it suddenly seems like a good idea. She must be feeling better.

‘I think so,’ Jo replies, because even as the word ‘breakfast’ has

think we’d have the knack of packing for an expedition by now, this

The usual grisly triage of bike gear and belongings follows. You’d

far down the World by Bike track, but every time, the impossibility of

fitting your small mountain of gear into piddly panniers, topbags and tank bags recurs. Amazing how ‘essentials’ packed in New Zealand actually stowing everything. become luxuries to be discarded without a qualm when it comes to We’re also thrown slightly off-kilter by the task of packing for two

instead of dividing everything up amongst four, five or even six. We’re part of a team, and we’re each going to have to carry more spares. That inevitably creates space issues.

going to need to be more self-reliant than we are when we’re riding as

out that god awful sand track down to Mambaí, the nearest village. for the obligatory photos, it’s time for us to straddle our saddles, hit the ‘on’ button and set off for real. After a few kilometres, your muscle memory comes back. You

Once we’re organised, Simon trucks both us and the bikes back

Junior and a couple of others come along for the ride, and after posing

notice the way the bike handles. If the balance isn’t quite right, you mental notes on how to tweak things. Although we rode most of the way from Patagonia to Brazil as a twosome, we both still find it

stop and jiggle gear to get it in trim. If it’s not too bad, you make

strange not seeing a line of headlights in our mirrors on these long, far less shagging around  —  but we both find we’re missing the crew. We both struggle with the heat and the humidity, especially
22

straight roads. We get along faster  —  fewer stops, and generally

1. Brazil: Nuts

Jo: it’s getting on for rainy season, so it’s muggy as hell. The road

is shimmering with heat mirage as we tool northward. The traffic signage and trucks carrying agricultural produce: the sheer volume have taken a position in Brazilian agriculture. The vehicles ahead

is mostly agricultural machinery  —  utes branded with agricultural of agricultural activity visible around us makes Gareth happy to float in the shimmering midspace above the tarmac, descending and becoming more substantial as we near them and pass them. On either hand, the low, grey-green foliage of soy stretches away to vanishing

point in rows, the red earth of the cerrado visible between them. Here and there, the monotony of the all-soy diet is broken by maize or by a massive irrigation pivot and some coffee plants, but that’s about as exciting as it gets.

real estate on earth. Its name translates as ‘closed’ or ‘inaccessible’, largely preserved from exploitation by its acidic, nutrient-poor soil.

The cerrado was formerly one of the most biodiverse stretches of

and this is how farmers found it for most of Brazil’s history. It was Back when pastoral farming was the main game in town, it was coarse savannah grasses.

desultorily grazed by beef cattle, but these didn’t really thrive on the From 1960, however, with the Brazilian government’s concerted

move to refocus economic attention to the north-west of the country, work began on finding ways to farm the cerrado. A combination of fertilisers — particularly lime and phosphate — dramatically improved

its ability to grow grass, but it was the development of varieties of that really sealed the deal. The cerrado region now produces 70% of

soybean, naturally a temperate species, to grow in tropical conditions Brazil’s beef, and an increasingly significant proportion of its soybean crop. With few (if any) qualms about genetic modification technology, the Brazilians are only too happy to plant GM varieties that tolerate herbicides such as RoundUp, simplifying pest control and reducing its cost — in economic terms, at least, even if it’s come at the price of a good deal of the cerrado’s much-vaunted biodiversity.
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stop at the end of a 350-km day have sprung up. Luis Eduardo de Magalhaes was built seven years ago with a population of a hundred or so souls; seven years on, it’s already a substantial service centre boasting many thousands of people and, as our research indicates, the largest John Deere dealership in the world. It’s a dusty, bustling place,

It’s on the back of the taming of the cerrado that places like our

a real working town with no frills, and it’s strange to go from the recessionary gloom of New Zealand to such an economic powerhouse. It can’t help but remind you: with its vast resources and its immense land area, Brazil is like Australia, with the important difference that Brazil has water.

than we can say for BMW back in Sao Paulo. Jo’s just noticed they’ve

No flaw in Jo and Junior’s workmanship is apparent which is more

mounted his rear tyre the wrong way round. We soon find a motorcycle

shop to put this to rights. We find tolerably good accommodation and, better yet, we manage to stumble upon a Japanese restaurant, which is about all that appeals to the still-delicate Jo. Best of all, this turns out to serve the best Japanese food we’ve ever had. Who would

have thought it? Here, as deep as you can get into Brazil’s cropping

frontierland, the sashimi and tempura is to die for. Ashburton never had it so good. By the time she’s drained the last drop of her miso soup, Jo declares herself cured and ready for the rest of South America.

downs, for changes in scenery. Well, you’re out of luck in West Bahia.

Bikers live for variety — for corners and switchbacks, for ups and

The only real variation we find is in the signals that the truckies make to one another and, we begin to suspect, to us. It’s a couple from Luis Eduardo before Gareth decides the complicated signal the trucks give as you draw up behind them signifies a clear road ahead and an invitation to pass. Even so, it’s with his heart in his mouth that
24

of hundred kilometres along the straight, hot, soy-lined road east

1. Brazil: Nuts

he first swings out from the slipstream of an enormous rig to test the theory that when they indicate they’re about to turn across the road, they actually mean its fine for you to pass. Phew.

car or two ahead. We exercise bikers’ prerogative and cruise past the hapless stranded, fully three kilometres to where they’re re-marking the road. As soon as they see us, the workers point to the spaces between the wet bits and beckon us forward, pleading with us not to gun past the long queue waiting in the other direction. That’s one reason biking is freedom. smudge their handiwork. We pick our way through, and then smugly

Late in the morning, we see a long line of stationary trucks and a

is noticeably poorer  —  here and there, the main crops seem to be

Beyond Barreiras, the landscape changes subtly. The farmland

sand and scrub  —  and there’s less soy. Pinus radiata plantations begin to appear. Beyond the Rio Sao Francisco, everything gets a the original vegetation of the cerrado — mostly low-growing scrub or springs. bit more pleated, geologically speaking, and you can see far more of with the occasional clutch of gnarled trees adjacent to watercourses The cerrado comes to an abrupt end in the vicinity of the Chapada

Diamantina National Park, where the dreary plains are carved up into monoliths by sudden, dramatic canyons. We almost cry with relief when confronted with our first set of real, actual corners after 500-odd  km of relentless straights. They take us down from the find Lençóis. highlands to the beginnings of the coastal plains, which is where we If the agricultural bounty we’ve seen on the Planalto Central

is a taste of Brazil’s future, Lençóis is a window on its past. In the to or better than Potosi, the legendary silver mine in the Spanish colony of Bolivia, the Portuguese government of Brazil despatched
25

early eighteenth century, in an effort to try to find something equal

prospectors into the interior. They soon found gold in what is now

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

known as Minas Gerais (which translates as ‘General Mines’). The slaves who worked the alluvial goldmines frequently picked up distinctive pebbles they found as they washed the sands, and used at camp. One day, a Portuguese who had experience in the diamond mines of India was struck by the similarity of the Brazilian stones to back to Lisbon with him. The secret was out. From roughly 1725 to the middle of the 19th century, a diamond rush was on. One of the

these as counters in games they played in rare, idle moments back

the diamonds washed from the rivers around Goa, and he took a few

areas in which diamonds were found was the one we’ve just entered, being soon after the discovery in 1825.

the Chapada Diamantina (‘Diamond Highlands’). Lençóis came into One fabled account of the origins of the name of the town is

that the tents of diamond miners and their workers (African slaves, canyons that they resembled bed sheets, which is what ‘lençóis’ means in Portuguese. Another, slightly more plausible version is that it was named for the flat sheets of rock in the riverbeds.

for the most part) were so thick on the ground in the floors of the

ancient rock and laid down over the aeons by erosion. They occurred in a crumbly sandstone matrix known locally as cascalho, usually on ledges along the course of rivers or buried under silt or clay in the operation  —  and that’s where the slaves came in. Africans were

The diamonds were found in alluvial deposits, weathered from the

beds of the rivers themselves. Recovering them was a labour-intensive imported via the old capital of Portuguese Brazil, Salvador, and put

to work gouging cascalho from the rivers, and washing diamonds out of slaves were still working in the Chapada Diamantina at the turn of in 1888.

of it under the cold gaze of whip-wielding overseers. Many thousands the twentieth century, despite the official abolition of the slave trade Lençóis was one of several little towns that sprang up to service

the Chapada Diamantina diamond mines. The French had a viceconsulate here to facilitate the purchase of the diamonds  —  for
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1. Brazil: Nuts

use in their contract drilling of the Panama canal and London

Underground, amongst other projects. It has been well preserved, and is now a World Heritage site. It’s easy to see why: the buildings are gorgeous, baroque colonial affairs, with that added dash of colour that the African influence brings. We spend a very happy night here, and

sleep the sleep of the righteous after a 550-km day. We’d originally intended to spend a second night, and do a sidetrip into the reputedly through Jo’s incapacitation. We’ve got to press on. spectacular interior of the National Park. But we’ve already lost a day

Jo’s missing Dave.

serenaded by a portly gentleman disporting himself with his amigos in the pool. He had a fine tenor voice that even an excess to blur. of caipirinhas — the Brazilian firewater of choice — couldn’t seem

She’s sitting on the balcony of the pousada, having just been

and linguistic divides (Dave’s exuberant sign language seems to make itself understood where Jo’s smattering of foreign languages and Gareth’s volcanic frustration cannot), Dave was always Jo’s latchkey on our World by Bike adventures. Long after Gareth had snuggled up into the nightlife of the places we visit.

Quite apart from his value in everyday transactions across cultural

to his laptop or gone to bed, Dave would always be up for an excursion Without her chaperone, though, Jo is confined to quarters. It

wouldn’t be safe to go out alone, for Jo or the locals. Quite apart from in a strange place where you don’t speak much language or have an

the obvious dangers of being a diminutive granny abroad after dark intuitive sense of places where a single woman may go, and places where she may go only at her peril, Jo is finding the Brazilian men to be disarmingly engaging. They’re not afraid to touch, hug, smile,

kiss, flirt. Without Dave to play Jiminy Cricket to her Pinocchio, Jo
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can’t swear that she would be immune to the oleaginous charms of Brazilian masculinity. So she sits on the balcony, sips her caipirinha wistfully and listens We rolled into the old capital of Portuguese America in the

to the sound of the party that is Salvador after dark in full swing.

mid-afternoon, after a hot, uncomfortable 400-km day. We were getting sucked in along the main arterial route toward the towering skyscrapers of Brazil’s third largest city when Jo tooted. Had Gareth noticed the promising-looking pousada she’d seen perched on a promontory as we’d ridden in? We backtracked to check it out, and it

was clear that in the Pousada da Mangueira, we’d struck the jackpot. It’s close to the Pelhourinho, the historic precinct of Salvador, and is itself housed in a character building painted in a cheerful shade of yellow. The facilities are great — clean, comfortable room, niceperfect base from which to explore Salvador.

looking pool and (Gareth noted on arrival) WiFi. It’s proved to be the The Portuguese were a little like a kid with a birthday present after

the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which somewhat

immodestly divided the globe between Spain and Portugal. They just couldn’t wait to see what they’d got. As few as six years after the treaty’s promulgation, a Portuguese expedition arrived off the coast which Salvador sits, the Baía de Todos os Santos, was named on (and after) All Saints’ Day in 1500, which was when Pedro Álvares of South America, spyglasses eagerly trained ashore. The bay upon

Cabral arrived there. There were sporadic, small-scale Portuguese of Cidade de São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos in 1549 that

occupations over the next few years, but it wasn’t until the foundation they came to stay. The name proved to be a bit of a mouthful, and it is the name that has stuck.

became customary to refer to the town as Bahia, or Salvador. Salvador Salvador swiftly grew to become the hub of Portuguese activity

in the New World, and with booming sugar and mining industries in its hinterland, it also became the South American centre of slave
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1. Brazil: Nuts

trading. The area in which our pousada sits, the old colonial portion of

Salvador, is named the Pelhourinho, which translates into English as ‘the pillory’, and into more modern English as ‘the whipping post’. The grim object after which it is named still stands in one of the squares, or wrongdoings. the Praça da Piedade, where slaves were punished for shortcomings Salvador was built on a tall escarpment behind the beaches, and

this enabled the city fathers to keep the religious and administrative

district aloof from the Cidade Baixa (Lower Town), from the port and market with their fixation on the filthy lucre. This separation also served down through time to preserve the quaint Cidade Alta (Upper bust, and as urban renewal swept through the commercial sector in allowed to settle into a dignified decrepitude. Town) from progress. As Salvador experienced the usual boom and the latter part of the twentieth century, the old part of town was The two sections of the town were connected by a cablecar, the

Elevador Lacerda, in 1873, and being Wellingtonians, we can hardly

say no to a ride. The car is a gorgeous old thing of dark wood and when the short trip was over.

wrought iron fretwork, but man, is it steep. We were sort of relieved The immediately peculiar thing about Salvador is the extent to

African Skies leg of our motorcycling grand tour in 2007. The African influence is plain in the pastel colours of the buildings, in the riotously colourful artworks for sale in the many, many galleries and, of course, in the people. Black faces, white grins, colourful clothes, big boobs and bums  —  over 80% of the population of metropolitan Salvador is of African  —  mostly West African  —  descent, so it’s not hard while wandering the streets to imagine you’re on the other side of the Atlantic. And man, can these people can move! The Pelhourinho — or ‘the Pelo’, as the locals call it — has, since its installation as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985, become a kind of large-scale performance arts
29

which it reminds us of Zanzibar, which we visited on the Under

GRINGOS ACROSS THE AMAZON

centre, and as we strolled about its gorgeous, cobbled streets in the sultry evening, there was all manner of eye-catching entertainment around us. As we were admiring one of the many old colonial churches, a marching band went by, and the beat galvanised every

bystander, even the ones slouched like hobos in doorways. Shoulders

rolled and feet tapped, until the music crashed and clattered away down a side street, leaving everyone to subside back into lassitude like puppets when the puppeteer moves on. Most eye-catching of all is samba de roda, a dance that entails

all manner of ducking, weaving, tumbling, kicking and striking and that derives from capoeira, a martial art developed by the slaves way on. Sipping a caipirinha and watching these amazing-looking people back in the day. There seemed to be some kind of capoeira festival doing amazing things with their bodies, Jo found herself wondering physical exuberance that Europeans somehow missed out upon.

whether there’s a gene controlling grace and athleticism and sheer Salvador was the Brazilian capital until 1762, when Rio de Janeiro

assumed the mantle. It is still officially the capital of Bahia province, and unofficially ‘the happiness capital of Brazil’. Everything — dancing, eating, drinking, flirting  —  is happening to the pulsing, urgent

rhythm of African-influenced music; and now, long after we’ve retired to the pousada, it’s still there, throbbing through the floor to where Gareth lies muttering in bed, underpinning the laughter and shouts from the streets below the balcony where Jo sits.

of a foreign place, and to be rocked to sleep by the vibrations of life. There’s a muffled curse from the room behind her. Gareth, she writes, may well describe it all differently.

It is, she writes home, wonderful to be so surrounded by the vitality

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PERU
Chapter 2

B R A Z I L
BOLIVIA

Off…
E

PARAGUAY

OUTH ERICA

it — behind, but it’s hard to feel too downhearted. The road out is lined with coconut palms, and through them, we see the blaze of white sand and the sparkling Atlantic. It’s only nine in the morning,

A
C

t Salvador, we turn left for the 5,000 km haul up the north-

eastern coast of Brazil to the mouth of the Amazon. We’re leaving happiness  —  or at least, the Brazilian capital of

I

L

URUGUAY

the altitude kept the humidity down. Here, all that muggy air is trapped over the coast like a duvet by the high interior. Sweat courses sucks on the tube from your Camelback is a must. down our foreheads and between our shoulder blades. Taking regular We cross a huge river by vehicular ferry about 200km north

H

but the temperature is 34˚C and climbing. At least up on the cerrado,

ARGENTINA

of Salvador. Soon the tree-lined avenue turns into a shimmering superhighway, gorgeous surface, liberally infested with huge trucks, with vast sugar plantations on either hand. Brazil produces a third of the world’s sugarcane: sugar was Bahia state’s principal industry from the 1700s until the beginning of the 19th century, when British bottom out of the world market. In the meantime, of course, Brazil kidnapped from West Africa transported to Brazil.

plantations in India provided a cheaper product and knocked the was a major customer of the slave trade, with 37% of the people Now, clearly, the sugarcane trade is back, with the bulk of the crop

feeding Brazil’s bioethanol industry — Brazil also produces a third of the world’s ethanol fuel. It’s mandatory for petrol on retail sale to

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