Through the Gap - the Taking of the Windmill Rokon Motorcycle 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 comprises over 125 miles of thick jungles, tortuous rivers, low but rugged mountains, and a vast marshy swamp separating 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, rugged 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. Finally, carrying an extra nine gallons of fuel was very convenient; gasoline is a rare commodity in the Darien Gap. Yes, the Rokon Trail-Breaker is the ideal "goes anywhere" off-road, rough terrain motorcycle.
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 at our campsite one evening. The camp was raided by about 15 highly agitated and outraged 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 schedule back ten days. As usual, hindsight is 20/20; if we had a tube of super glue, Loren probably could have fixed the problem on the spot in ten minutes. But 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. The rainy season was fast approaching, and we were in the heart of the Atrato Swamp, not the place to be when the rains came.
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 the whole, were very polite, much more so than some of the Kuna's of Pucuro. So 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 heartbeat, 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! Furthermore, we had hoped to receive another Guinness Book entry, this time for being the first motorcycle to cross the notorious Gap entirely on land. But this was not going to happen. Guinness Book now requires that all their records be "breakable." And being first is not a breakable record; once first, always first!
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 had 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 remarkable 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 many 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 would know instinctively 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 beginning. Faced with almost impossible 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 they are all great. Some are just greater than others!
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, 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 after we left the Choco village of Lepe. We entered an area described by other expeditions as the "Devil's Switchback." An area of only about 13 land miles, but many of those miles seem 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 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 expedition, we used one of the first commercially available handheld global positioning systems, a Scout by Trimble Navigation, which is truly an excellent piece of technology. We were possibly the first to use a GPS to map a trail in the Darien Gap. It would be great if we could now get an accurate area map utilizing those coordinate readings.