Through the Gap, the Taking of the Windmill Rokon Motorycle Expedition
And the quest for romantic high adventure continues! Almost eight years after our successful Jeep expedition through the Darien Gap and six years after the completion of our Roads End to Roads End expedition we were on the road again, actually that's off-the-road.
The Darien Gap of Panama and Colombia is a most worthy opponent, a motorist's nightmare - or an off-road adventurer's dream. The roadless Darien Gap is over 125 miles of thick jungles, tortuous rivers, low but rugged mountains, and a vast marshy swamp that separates Panama from South America. The Pan-American Highway stretches some 17,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina, and is yet to be completed across the Darien Gap.
We spent 49 arduous days of near never ending romantic high adventure to become the first to cross the infamous Darien Gap of Panama and Colombia - all on land - via motorcycle, the unique two-wheel drive American made Rokon Trail-Breaker.
The Rokon Trail-Breaker, has two-wheel drive, an automatic torque converter type clutch, weighs only 185 pounds, can carry nine gallons of fuel (or water) in the hollow aluminum wheels, and is the perfect rough terrain, off-road machine. Having both wheels with power meant more traction on the rough difficult terrain in the Darien Gap. Having an automatic torque converter meant that the engine could assist while climbing the rugged hills or over the countless downed trees of the Darien Gap without the fear of burning out a clutch. Weighing only 185 pounds meant two men could lift the motorcycle over obstacles, when necessary. Being able to carry an extra nine gallons of fuel was very convenient; gasoline is a very rare commodity in the Darien Gap. Yes, the Rokon Trail-Breaker is the ideal "goes anywhere" off-road, rough terrain motorcycle.
Since the Rokon Trail-Breaker is not a street-legal motorcycle, we had to transport it and all of our supplies to the beginning of the Darien Gap. We spent fifty-eight hours on a rusting coastal boat (we were told the journey would only take 12 hours!), with the dubious reputation of being sunk on three previous occasions, just to reach the end of the Pan-American Highway in Central America, Yaviza, Republic of Panama. Finally on February 11, 1995 our Rokon Trail-Breaker expedition began, Through the Gap - The Taking of the Windmill. We had christened our Rokon motorcycle Rozinante, after Don Quixote's faithful horse - thus the "taking of the windmill."
Loren was the only one who rode Rozinante; I walked, along with our locally hired guide/cook and workers. A wide and relatively clean trail punched through the dense jungle by large pieces of equipment made the first couple of days travel relatively easy. That all changed shortly after we left the Choco village of Lepe. We entered an area described by other expedition's as the "Devil's Switchback." An area of only about 13 land miles, but many of those miles seem to be near vertical! Rugged jungle covered mountains, stagnate water holes, steep narrow ravines, hungry insects, and only the vaguest resemblance of a trail comprised our home for three days of hard travel. Rozinante was in her element! The Rokon's performance on the steep grades was remarkable and its ability to climb over fallen trees was incredible. Loren proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Rokon can and will climb steeper than it is physically possible to ride, before the Law of Gravity takes over! There were days when Loren rode the Rokon and then there were days when the Rokon rode him.
On this particular expedition we had the use of a hand-held global positioning system, a Scout, by Tremble Navigation, truly a wonderful piece of technology. We were possibly the first to ever use a GPS in the mapping of a trail in the Darien Gap. It sure would be great if we could now get an accurate map drawn of the area using those coordinate readings.
The Rokon expedition was one of heart-stoppers and heartfelt life-long friendships. It was punctuated with tears of fear and tears of joy. One of those heart-stopping - tears of fear - moments was when I was alone in our campsite one evening. The camp was raided by about 15 highly agitated and very angry Kuna men. Rozinante was taken and chained to a post in a thatched hut and held for a $500.00 ransom! We were rescued by heavily armed police the following afternoon.
Another of those heart-stopping moments occurred when Rozinante suffered a minor mechanical failure that seriously set the expedition's time schedule back ten days. As usual, hindsight is 20/20, if we would have had a tube of super glue Loren probably could have fixed the problem on the spot in ten minutes. Unfortunately we did not have the glue so we struggled for ten days, instead of ten minutes, to make it all work!
This delay was due strictly to the remoteness of the area and the long struggle to get out (and back) to where we could get the needed replacement part. Rainy season was fast approaching and we were in the heart of the Atrato Swamp, not the place to be when the rains come.
And speaking of those heart-stopping, tears of fear moments, we had a few more, like coming face to face with the notorious Colombian Guerrillas. However, in all fairness, they did not push their "position" beyond the point of no return and on a whole were very polite, much more so than some of the Kuna's of Pucuro. We may have just been lucky! Another heart-stopper was a potentially serious accident - Loren was thrown and pinned by Rozinante, and lost, for a short time, all movement in both of his arms.
But every tear of fear, every skip of the heart beat was worth it when we finally arrived at the small back-water river town of Rio Sucio, Colombia, on March 31, 1995. From Rio Sucio there is a primitive road that connects with the Pan-American Highway in Colombia. We had, once again, successfully crossed the infamous Darien Gap, all on land! We hope to receive another Guinness Book entry, this time for being the first motorcycle to cross the notorious Gap, entirely on land.
As for those heartfelt, life-long friendships there were many! However, I will only mention one in particular, Juan Rivas, alias "Cookie." Cookie was born in Colombia but has been living in the village of Pucuro (Panama) for many years; he is the only non-Kuna living in the village. I cannot possibly convey my thoughts on what a truly wonderful man he is. On the expedition with the Jeep, A World Odyssey - The Epic Voyage of the Sand Ship Discovery Cookie held the position as, you guessed it - cook! On this particular expedition Cookie held a multitude of positions, Camp Boss, Guide, Cook and Trusted Friend. Cookie is a man who speaks no English, I speak horrible, improper Spanish at best, Loren speaks even less, and I trust Cookie with my life, implicitly. Cookie knows intuitively what we are saying. Truly a good and honorable man.
The obstacles provided by Mother Nature came to an end when we arrived in Rio Sucio, however, the man made obstacles were just beginning......Faced with almost insurmountable government and shipping company restrictions it took us fifteen long, frustrating days to find a way to ship Rozinante back to the United States. It was a great trip, but then they are all great, some are just greater than others!