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Cycling Bolivia’s Death Road

IT reader Kylie Smyth has one last day in Bolivia before flying home; how does she spend her time? By cycling the World’s Most Dangerous Road, naturally.

We started out at 4500 metres above sea level. By the end of the day we would be at just 2000.

Our adventure playground? The World’s Most Dangerous Road.

But how dangerous could it really be? They wouldn’t take tourists down it if it was too perilous, would they?

The road, officially named North Yungas Road, earned its reputation because it has the highest death toll per annum of any road in the world. At least one bus-load of people goes over the edge each month. I hadn’t heard anything about bicycle riders though.

We flew into the Bolivian capital of La Paz on Saturday. I was due to fly home to Melbourne on Monday. What better way to spend my last day in South America than travelling the ‘Road of Fate,’right?

We set out surrounded by snow-capped mountains on a relatively easy ride. The road was bitumen, smooth and all downhill. As the altitude dropped, the vegetation changed from barren mountains to rainforest to scrub.

So far, so safe; I was enjoying myself.

After about three hours we stopped for lunch on a cliff overlooking a deep, lush valley. On the other side we could see it – ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ – clinging precariously to the edge of the cliff face.

There were a number of trucks shuffling along it, but from where we sat it looked wide enough to accommodate a small narrow mountain bike as well.

With lunch over, our guides handed out face masks to protect us from the dust and gave us a run down of the safety rules:

1. Stick to the left; yes, the cliff side.

2. Anything coming up has right of way; move as far to the left as possible.

3. Don’t look over the edge; your bike will go wherever you are looking.

4. Take it easy; most accidents occur because people are being silly.

5. When giving way, put the bike between yourself and the cliff; a rider died because she accidentally stepped over the edge.

By the end of the briefing I was terrified. “Don’t worry, we’ve never had problems with nervous girls, ” the guide reassured me, “only show-off boys.” There’s a first time for everything, I thought.

Our bikes were checked to ensure the brakes were sound and then away we went. It was at this stage I realised I had made a terrible mistake.

The road was deemed the most lethal in the world for a reason. I might die today.

Oh well, I reassured myself, I might as well die having fun.

But there was a problem: I wasn’t having fun. The road was unbelievably dusty and the dust masks we had been given caused my sunglasses to fog up; not only was I having trouble breathing, I couldn’t see either.

I was applying constant pressure to my brakes and my tyres were sliding on the loose gravel. Two riders in front of me fell off their bikes as they slid out from under them.

The road and cliff face were at right angles. A few ferns hung on for dear life to the side but the cold-hard fact was that if you went over the edge, you were a goner.

I was terrified and tense. The main group was kilometres in front leaving a guide and two riders, including myself, at the back of the pack. Directly behind us was the support bus.

Although I was having a horrible time, I didn’t want to give in and get on that bus. I was tougher, stronger and bigger than that. At least I was until a big dirty truck came up the hill.

Oh, my god. Rules! Rules! What were the rules? Stand on the left. I looked down at the cliff edge about 15 centimetres from my feet. Oh no! The bike is supposed to be between me and the cliff, not between me and the road – but it was too late.

The truck was upon me, going like a bat out of hell. Its back tyres almost hit me. I took a step back, I shut my eyes and waited to die.

The truck passed as my heart tried to beat itself right out of my chest. And then it was gone. I felt a lump well up in my throat, then came the backwash.

What the hell was I doing? I had trekked the Inca Trail. I had hiked into the Colca Canyon. I had learnt to salsa. Now I was on this stupid bike, on this stupid road.

I wasn’t having fun; in fact I was hating every second. I took off my helmet, picked up my bike and got on the bus.

The rest of the day was wonderful. I could look over the edge of the cliff. I could breathe. I could see. Most of all, my chances of survival had increased dramatically.

I sat back in my seat, relaxed, and enjoyed the rest of the ride on the World’s Most Dangerous Road.

 

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This article appeared in issue 16

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