Motorcyles and Hill Tribes.

Whilst I’ve always been attracted to motorcycles I’ve also been very wary of them.  One of the reasons why, is because my father died in a motorcycle accident when I was about three years old, and another reason is, that I recognize that I love speed.

On several occasions, while I’ve been traveling I have rented motorcycles to get where I needed to go.  Quite often in Third World countries, all that one needs to hire a motorcycle is some valid currency, as opposed to a valid driver’s licence.  As a matter of fact, when I was in Bali, I admitted to the people renting me a motorcycle that I had never ridden a motorcycle before.  They said no worries, just come next door into the empty lot and we’ll show you how. After five minutes of instruction, I was out on the very dangerous Balinese roads without a helmet.

A fellow traveler, who I’d met a few weeks previously in Portuguese Timor (as it was known back in 1974) was also renting a motorcycle at the same time, and he also received the same intensive training as I did. Later I was told by his friends that unfortunately, he failed to lean as he made a turn around a corner and left the road, crashing into a deep ditch and broke his neck, paralyzing himself from the shoulders down.  To make matters worse, the Hindu beliefs of the locals made it very hard for this unfortunate fellow to get any medical assistance.  Apparently the locals felt that it was the will of the gods that people have accidents and that he was doomed and going to die anyway.  Nobody would help, and the injured man’s friends were frantic trying to get him to hospital, but nobody would stop and help with transportation.  Finally, the injured man’s friends just stepped out into the road and blocked traffic and made a guy driving a car, take their friend to hospital.  They told me, they almost had to use violence to get the man to put their injured friend into his car.  To make matters worse, when the motorcyclist got to Hospital his friends were told there wasn’t really anything much that the local doctors could do for him.  So they telephoned his parents to arrange for him to be taken back to Australia for further medical treatment.  When the injured man’s parents rang the airline company to arrange to get him to come back to Australia.  They were told that they would have to buy five first-class tickets, so he could be laid in a stretcher and he also had to be accompanied by a trained nurse.  It must have cost a fortune and because of this story; I always travel with travel insurance nowadays.

A few months after Bali, I was in northern Thailand and I visited the hill tribes of Chang Mai.  Back then, there wasn’t really any public transport to get up into the hill tribes and you either had to go on an organized tour or rented a motorcycle, so I rented a motorcycle. 

 The bike, I rented was a Honda 125cc dirt bike. About half of the journey to the hill tribes is on the highway and the driving was quite easy, but then one leaves the road and travels on dirt tracks that were more pathways than roads.  It had been raining that day, so it was very muddy, and as an inexperienced rider I was having a great deal of difficulty negotiating the steep slippery terrain.  Eventually, I did get to the hill tribes and got to see the villagers, and it was all quite surreal, as there was a very fine misty rain falling, it was almost like a fog. 

In amongst the mist, little people, dressed in black would pop into and out of view. It was all very strange as there wasn’t really any infrastructure to deal with visitors to the villages and people just sat in their doorways out of the rain staring back at the strangers in the mist. 

 There weren’t that many men in the village, I guess they were all out working in the poppy fields.  Most of the people I saw were either women or little children minding other smaller children.

On the way back from the hill tribes, I had to cross a small creek, and as I was going over the muddy bank of the far side.  I flipped over the motorcycle onto my leg and the hot exhaust pipe burnt my inner thigh.  It was very painful and within a few days I had a very nasty tropical ulcer suppurating on my leg. I had applied anti-bacterial ointment to my burn, but the ulcer just got worse and after about a week and a half I was getting quite worried.  By then, I was in Huay Xai, Laos, so I went to the doctor at the local Red Cross outpost.  Back in those days, if you had a tropical ulcer, the remedy was usually surgery, but I was lucky as there was a new antibiotic called Bactrim,and fortunately the Swiss doctor was able to prescribe some for me.  It worked a treat, and within a week and a half there wasn’t any sign that I’d had such a serious infection on my leg.

Interestingly, while I was waiting to be seen by the doctor, I met a fellow traveller, and he looked very yellow, so I said to him I thought that he had hepatitis.  He told me that he’d been feeling very run down and sick during the last month. When he was in Chang Mai he’d gone to see the doctor and they did exploratory surgery on him, but they were unable to find out what was wrong with him.  I guess at that stage he wasn’t yellow enough for them to see that he had hepatitis, which I could plainly see and I wasn’t even a doctor.

Fast-forward several more years to the early 80s, when I was in Puerto Rico.  I had rented a dented, dirty Kawasaki 100, because I wanted to see some of the countryside of Puerto Rico.  Like most rental motorcycles I’ve seen outside of the first world it was a piece of ill maintained rubbish. The motorcycle was supplied without a helmet and my safety gear consisted of T-shirt, shorts and thongs (otherwise known as flip-flops or jandles).  I set off first thing in the morning while was the sun was still coming up, and there was still a heavy layer of dew on all the roads.  I was surprised at how good the roads were as I headed out of San Juan.  They had four lanes and were as smooth as an ice rink.  Since the roads were so nice, I thought I could open the bike right up and see how fast it went, which was only about 100 km an hour, (about 62 miles an hour). So down the road I sped, as the poor little “Kwakka” revved its heart out.

As I was riding along, enjoying the countryside I started hearing strange clicking sounds coming from the back of the motorcycle.  I had no idea what the noise was but I was soon to catastrophically find out.  All of a sudden, the back wheel locked up as the chain came off and the bike started to go down so I stuck out my foot to upright the bike.  As soon as my foot touched the pavement, my thong was torn off, but at least I had managed to keep the bike upright. The bike then flipped over towards the other side and was about to go down.  By now, the adrenaline pumping through my system was like like honey on the gears of my perception and I felt as I was partaking in a slow motion movie of my own demise.  As I started to go down in the opposite direction, I found myself contemplating my end.  I thought to myself, so this is how I die. So this is where my story finishes.  Somewhere in-between exclaiming OH SHIT! And contemplating oblivion, I suddenly had the strange thought that I could do a somersault if I wanted to. This all happened in less that a second.

As somebody who has grown up in Sydney Australia, I’ve spent quite a bit of my time as a youngster at the beach, and as a result, I’ve done lot of body surfing.  Now, if you’ve ever gone body surfing at Bronte Beach in Sydney.  You know how to handle a dumper.  Dumpers are large waves that don’t break in open water but smash straight down onto sand, and if you’re not careful, you can get hurt.  What one does to avoid a broken neck, as one is falling off the top of the wave onto the sand, is to tuck one’s chin into an one’s chest, and put one’s shoulder forward to hit the sand with your shoulder in a rolling motion.  So there I was, on a motorcycle with a locked up back wheel quickly going out of control, contemplating somersaults and remembering childhood body surfing.  In an instant, I made a snap decision.  I stood up on the foot pegs and jumped forward over the front of the motorcycle as it went down into the highway. I was flying through the air at about 100 km an hour, no helmet, dressed only in a T-shirt, shorts, and one thong.  By this time, I was in, what I guess was an adrenaline driven calm.  I felt very tranquil, and as though I had all the time in the world to perform a few somersaults, and as I neared the verge at the side of the road my body surfer instincts took over and I landed on my shoulder and rolled to a sliding stop in the loose gravel with a slight graze on my shoulder and nick on the back of my hand. As I sat on the side of the road in a daze, I watched my motorcycle in slow motion go end over end, bending the whole frame in half so that front wheel nearly touched the back wheel.

With the clear and present danger over, and my life preserved, I went into shock.  Being in shock is a little like just waking up, in that, one is groggy, conscious but not really aware.  I had the presence of mind to pull, the mangled motorcycle off the road and then hitch hike back into San Juan. I went straight to the motorcycle hire place and told the owner what had happened to his motorcycle.  He wasn’t too happy, but he wanted to know where the bike was, so we all got into his pickup truck and went down the highway to get it.  He couldn’t believe that I was in such good shape considering what the bike looked like when he saw it.  He soon got over his disbelief and then started to try and accuse me of trashing his bike and demanding that I pay for the damage.  By now my shock was starting to wear off and I wasn’t feeling as dozy as before so I let him know in very angry terms that he was very lucky I didn’t try and sue his arse off for providing me with a motorcycle that had a loose chain that nearly led to my death.

So there you go, motorcycles and me aren’t a good match.

2 thoughts on “Motorcyles and Hill Tribes.”

  1. Great photos razz and well written story. Greece and motorbikes don’t go well with me, especially after sinking ouzo and riding back to base in the dark. Lost a friend on the way back. Seems he missed a turn and ended up in a ditch. He was OK but he naturally did a quick exit from the island as the bike wasn’t too good.

    Later on a different island I was going around a corner and on a hot day hit a smooth bit of tarmac. One moment I was enjoying the cool summer breeze, the next I was sliding along the road on my back, while watching the motorbike sliding along in front of me. Lucky I chose to wear a daypack on my back that day!

    The recklessness of youth. :)

  2. This is one of the funny things about talking about accidents. One minute one is feeling stupid about what one has done and then another person tells their story of misfortune and you no longer feel alone in recklessness.

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