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Jan 12

The Desert and the Oasis

Looking out across a salt flat in the "shadow" of Picacho del Diablo.

My 300km journey from Ensenada to San Felipe took four days and already Baja California has delivered on all my expectations.  You want desolate empty stretches of road crossing vast expanses of desert?  You got it.  You want tumbleweeds blowing across the road (yes, they actually exist!)? Then, you got it.  You want crazy cacti straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon?  Have as many as you want, we got plenty.  You want run-down shabby roadside “Loncherias”? Alright, toss in a few of those.  You want full moons and nights that are as bright as day?  Don’t worry, once a month, we will keep you up at night.  Baja. California. Delivers.

The sign reads: DON'T DRIVE TIRED. I'll try not to.

Off the beaten track.

Going to San Felipe is not the norm for touring cyclists.  Not only is it not on the most direct route from Ensenada to La Paz, but it also requires riding 100 km or so on gravel roads and dirt tracks if you want to continue down south to Guerrero Negro.  In addition to that, San Felipe doesn’t get a great rap amongst budget travelers.  According to my Rough Guide, “it’s appeal is limited… if you are planning to continue south down Baja, then do just that.”  In short, the reasonable traveler will weigh up their options and decide to pass on San Felipe.

In case you haven’t caught on yet, I am not a reasonable traveler.  You are talking to the guy who endured 84 hours of hard-seat train time in China just to go a have a beer with some mates.  It is the essence of ZackPacking.  It’s also probably the reason I end up traveling alone so often… hmmm.

Sunrise near San Vicente

When I weighed up my options, San Felipe seemed the obvious choice.  In a world full of travelers and adventurers scouring every inch of the globe, you have to put in a little extra effort to get off the beaten track.

A road with no name.

On the second day out of Ensenada, just south of San Vicente, I turned Tony off of the highway and onto an unnamed dirt track that headed east through a canyon towards Valle de la trinidad.  It is about 60 km long and is the only link between the Transpeninsular Highway and the highway that runs from Ensenada to San Felipe.  It is mainly used by the military to move troops from one point-of-control to another, as well as a handful of ranchers who have ranches and farms at either end.  Four wheel drive is highly recommended.  It’s also the kind of road you could take your siesta in the middle of; Tony and I spent a day and a half riding this road and that entire time saw only two military jeeps and one 4×4 truck.

Sunrise over the ruins of Mision de San Vicente Ferrer

The road has no name.  I asked on both ends what it was called, and the closest thing to an answer I got was “la calle”, the road.  Ok, then.

It was a great ride, Tony loved it (his front suspension really came in handy), and I rewrote the lyrics to America’s hit “A horse with no name”, which I dubbed (wait for it…) “A road with no name”, and after a day of toiling climbs, and exhilarating descents, I wild camped about 15km east of the pueblo Valle de la Trinidad and the paved highway to San Felipe.  That pavement was already starting to sound pretty good.

What struck me more than anything else that day though, was how quickly the desert makes you feel completely isolated and exposed to the elements.  Suddenly, you are intensely conscious of exactly how much water you have left on your bike; immediately you are hyper-attuned to every creak, rattle and bounce of your bike.  After fish-tailing your way through an unexpected sandy patch of road, your adrenaline is pumping and your back is tingling with fear-sweat because it is a stern reminder that in the event of a bad crash: you are alone, very alone.  Ever watch 127 Hours?

Tortillas in Mexico are unbelievably good

It is all worth it though.  When you wake up alone in the middle of nowhere to that intense emptiness and watch the sun come up over the horizon… it’s pure spiritual bliss.

High quality H2O

When I was cycling in the US of A, water wasn’t much of a concern.  You had water at the campground in the morning, you had water along the way, and you had water at the campground at night.  So, I usually carried about 3.5 litres with me.  For Baja California, and the desert I knew

Mexican Ingenuity at its finest: Refried beans in a bag.

I would need more than that, so I got a reservoir for my Inov-8 daypack, and instantly increased my capacity to 6.5 L.  This is just enough for a day of riding, camping wild that night, and then finding water after a short “dry” ride in the morning.  Also, on a highway, if you are running really short, you can wave an empty bottle in the air from the side of the road and eventually somebody will stop to help you out.  Just make sure it’s an empty water bottle though, as I have found waving an empty tequila bottle to be less effective.

Crazy CactiMore crazy cacti

After riding The Road With No Name, I quickly realised that for off-road adventures where you have little to no traffic, very few places to find water, and a higher chance of your bike breaking down, you really want about 8 L/day.  So I acquired another couple of bottles and upped my water carrying capacity to 12 L.  Now, I can hear some people tut-tutting and saying this is an absolute minimum, and I agree.  Ideally, I’d like to be able to always take 20 L with me but it just isn’t feasible; water is too heavy.  My bike is already packing about 30 kg of gear, which includes 3.5L of water and a few days worth of food.  Adding 9 L of water to that load is adding 9 kg (21 lbs) of weight to an already heavily loaded bike, a bike that you then take bouncing and jolting along rough trails and roads.  Not only is it a lot more work to move that extra 9kg up a steep sandy hill, but it’s also really stressful for poor Tony, and if he breaks down in the middle of nowhere because you are carrying too much water, then ironically you may not have enough water.

If I ever feel I definitely need more water on me, then there are a couple of compromises I can take.  The first is to shift my gear around a bit and put any additional water onto the front wheel which has a lot less load on it and also benefits from having those front shocks.  The other, is to put a couple of extra bottles into my daypack.  This is a lot less comfortable to ride with but some of the additional load goes into the front wheel and, more importantly, my body acts as one giant, extremely efficient, and devilishly handsome shock absorber.  For the most part though, I’ll be sticking to 12.5 L as a maximum.

Happy days! on the Road with No Name

The bike breaks.

Once I got back on pavement, Tony and I cruised along gorgeous desolate panoramas through a high (about 1000 m elevation), flat expansive valley that winds it’s way between the various mountain ranges.  Looking down on us, and overlooking all of the other mountains, was Picacho del Diablo, which at 3096 m (10,157 ft) makes it the highest mountain in Baja California – not high by continental standards by any means, but it still puts Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko’s 2228 m to shame.

Toiling climbs on the Road with No Name

The morning of day four out of Ensenada though, Tony had a bit of a tantrum.  In my last post you’ll see that I had planned on going off-road again and would ride into San Felipe from across the desert.  However, coming out of the mountains I could clearly see the track I had planned to take going straight out across the desert, through a small salt flat, and disappearing off into the distance; and it looked really, really boring.  So I deigned to stay on the pavement.  Mental and physical fatigue had absolutely nothing to do with this decision.  In any case, after about 10 km of riding that morning I came to the turn-off for the boring road and I stopped to have one last look.  Tony must have been thinking I was about to change my mind again because as I started pushing my bike forward he threw a tantrum and I felt my back wheel wobbling all over the place.  Shit! was my first thought.   My second thought was that I had broke a spoke.  SHIT! was my third thought.

The Road with no nameI carried Tony off the road, took all his bags off and flipped him upside down to have a look.  Fortunately, no spoke was broken.  Not so fortunately, not one, but five of the spokes were extremely loose, so loose that they were visibly not straight.  (I still have absolutely no idea how this happened)  Being a self proclaimed man-scout, I did not panic as  I (of course) have extensive experience with exactly this kind of an emergency.  By extensive experience I mean that I had watched a youtube video about it – twice –  and I knew I simply needed to tighten the spokes back up and re-trim the wheel until it spun true.  An hour or two or three later, I was back on the road and flying towards San Felipe completely confident in my repair work.  In fact, I was so confident in my mechanical prowess that I stopped the bike every 5-10 km the rest of the day just to take a moment and admire my handy work.  If it looked to anyone like I was checking to make sure my wheel wasn’t about to fall apart, then they were patently mistaken.

Not exactly the road you want to break down on.  This is the road Tony broke down on.

Not exactly the road you want to break down on. This is the road Tony broke down on.

And so, in true style, and to the cheers of one hundred (legal-aged) virgins, I rolled into San Felipe, my oasis, another 300 km closer to South America.

Sunrise camping on a beach in San Felipe

1 comment

  1. Mike Skerritt

    Hi Zack, loved your post. For the moment, I’m glad you ignored your uncle’s advice.

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