Taking 4 KLRs THROUGH the Darien Gap, Leaving Deadhorse in November

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by wheretheroadendsmoto, Oct 11, 2017.

  1. wheretheroadendsmoto

    wheretheroadendsmoto Adventurer

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    So Let me preface this by saying that there are a lot of rumors and misinformation about the Darien Gap. For instance, Danny Liska's guide did not get eaten by tribesmen as one of the comments on this ADV Pulse article suggests.

    So with that out of the way, there are a lot of different aspects of what we're attempting to do here. Hitting the Darien Gap in it's dry season requires leaving Deadhorse, AK this Winter (November 11th to be exact). This brings it's own set of challenges, and we've customized the KLRs with sidecars for the arctic portion. The sidecars will come off when we reach Portland.

    [​IMG]

    Additionally we're trying to make a documentary film about the whole ride. Pretty much everyone involved in the project is former military, so we have a small camera crew made up of former combat camera operators. We made this teaser video with footage from test riding the bikes in Colorado and a short recon trip to the Darien earlier this year.



    So like I said, there are a lot of different aspects to this. You can check out our website & social channels for more background info, but I want to focus this thread on the details of the actual Darien Gap crossing.

    As you guys know, the two most recent moto attempts were:

    JD Smith in 2016
    http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/darien-gap-land-crossing.1110044/

    British Army in early 2017
    http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/british-military-team-challenges-darien-gap.1212973/

    Charlie Boorman
    Charlie was supposed to do the Darien this year for a new TV show, but it was put on hold when he broke his leg in Portugal. We also confirmed this with the TV show's fixer in Panama. He initially told us he was working on a secret project similar to what we are attempting, but after Charlie's accident he admitted that it was supposed to be a Darien Gap crossing in the same vein as "Race to Dakar."

    We've basically spent the past two years researching the Darien. We followed the British closely and have sat down with JD Smith a couple different times to pick his brain on the specifics of his crossing. He has been a great wealth of knowledge and a huge help to us. We also flew down to Panama this past January, sans motorcycles, and went halfway through the Darien on foot to recon it out. Ultimately what caused JD Smith trouble was not having permission from the Darien SENAFRONT Battalion (Panamanian security forces) to physically cross the Panama/Colombia border. He got around this by going around to Colombia from the San Blas Islands and then reentering the Darien from the South. Apparently SENAFRONT doesn't care if you enter Panama through the Darien, they just don't want you leaving.

    The focal point for all this is a town called Paya. [​IMG]

    Yaviza is where the road physically ends, then it's about a 1 day ride via dugout canoe to Paya.

    [​IMG]

    After Paya, it is about 20 miles of jungle riding/trekking/dragging before you hit the waterway network on the Colombian side. The trail is rough single track, but well worn from a steady stream of refugees from all over the world attempting to make it to the United States from places with lax visa laws such as Ecuador. According to JD Smith, 80% of the trail could be ridden by a skilled off road rider on a lightweight trail bike. So with Paya being the last town before you hop on this single track trail over the Colombian border, it is therefore the last garrison of SENAFRONT. And getting permission to continue through Paya into Colombia is the nut that we've been trying to crack for the past year.

    Where things currently stand, SENAFRONT has said that if we can get a letter of permission from the director of the Darien National Park, then they will allow us to pass through Paya. We have been going back and forth with the director's office, and while they are giving us a letter granting us permission, the small caveat is that they don't want us to ride the motorcycles on the Panamanian side. It is unclear how this will be enforced, and if they mean that we can still roll them or have to physically disassemble them and carry them part by part. But we're planning for all contingencies.

    Our team will consist of 7 Americans, 1 Colombian interpreter, 1 Panamanian guide, and 16 ethnic Kuna Indians. The common misconception about hiring locals to help is that we have a choice in the matter- we don't. The only source of income the Kuna have is selling plantains when they're in season. Other than that, they just barter and live off the land. They're pretty good and honest people, but when Westerners come around, the expectation is that they inject money into the economy. If we don't hire them, we'd basically have the entire local population working against us. But the benefit to hiring them is that if we have to physically carry the KLRs a few miles into the jungle before we can ride them, it's a little more doable with 25 people.

    So that is where we are right now. I'll update this thread from time to time as things progress.

    Thanks for reading! ~Jake~

    Attached Files:

    #1
  2. CrStep

    CrStep Been here awhile

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    Thanks for starting a RR. I've been following this for a while and I'm looking forward to seeing how the trip goes!
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  3. Parcero

    Parcero Mundial Supporter

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    I'm in.
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  4. Throttlemeister

    Throttlemeister Long timer Super Supporter

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    :lurk
    Last time I was down there in 2011 getting permission to cross the river at Yaviza and enter the Darien required letter from Panama City and the military was quick to have us move along. Had easier time going out of Puerto Quimba and out to La Palma where no one cared how far we wanted to head into the Darien. Went to spend a few days down in Mogue with an Indian tribe.

    Think you are going to have to get very creative or have some deep pockets to get through on Panama side. Good luck
    #4
  5. Grynch

    Grynch Long timer

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    This should be interesting.
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  6. wheretheroadendsmoto

    wheretheroadendsmoto Adventurer

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    The thing to remember is that it's ever changing. The "rules" and dynamic of the area have totally shifted even just since we started seeking permission earlier this year. Haven't heard of the two locations you're talking about though, I'd be curious to know where they are. Do you have approximate grids (coordinates) for those villages?
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  7. Hi-De-Ho

    Hi-De-Ho Mad Scientist

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    Gentlemen, or should I refer to you 4 as "rapscallions" ? Some of us have indeed been through the Darien Gap, but the experiences we have had at those times might be different than what you will be experiencing when you go through. I know Charley Boorman very well, worked with him and Ewan on a couple of their films, as a riding coach (not for Charley, as he won't listen to anyone about HOW to ride) but others in the film company needed assistance at times.

    Of my 4 individual rides from Prudhoe Bay down to Tierra del Fuego, all on different bikes each time, and all were roundtrip rides...the only one I was able to travel through the Gap on was my '03 Honda Africa Twin 750. The other 3 bikes were either shipped around (Stahlratte) or flown over from Panama to Cartegena.

    As @Throttlemeister has already indicated, and you have noted immediately above, rules change, and point of exit from Panama vs. point of entry into Colombia all have a bearing on the "hows & whys" of doing this ride.

    A couple of us did a ride up to Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay on December '13, on R1150GS's w/sidecars, and it was colder in Fairbanks due to the freezing fog, than it was when we finally reached Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay. But we also had studded tires on all 3 wheels on our rigs...and all Gerbing heated clothing...head to toes.

    I knew some time ago that you 4 were doing this ride, so it will be interesting to see how you do, how far you get, and what mechanical issues you have.

    I support your will and determination....and HOPE you are successful. :thumb
    #7
  8. 9Realms

    9Realms Drawn in by the complex plot

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    Should be lots of spare parts along the way in the ditches and swamps from the others whom have made (or attempted it) and turned back.
    Like the kids that turned theirs into a boat. :lol3
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  9. wheretheroadendsmoto

    wheretheroadendsmoto Adventurer

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    Can you share or direct me towards the details of your Darien crossing on your AT (specific route, year, etc.) ? We've been trying to compile a definitive list of moto crossings..

    So far we're tracking:

    -Web/Merrill '75 on 2 Rokon Trail-Breakers
    -Helge Pederson '80 on R80G/S
    -Ed Culberson '86 on R80G/S
    -Antonio Braga '89 bike unknown
    -Loren & Patti Upton '95 on Rokon Trail-Breaker
    #9
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  10. Hi-De-Ho

    Hi-De-Ho Mad Scientist

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    Will send you a PM with contact info. :norton
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  11. Throttlemeister

    Throttlemeister Long timer Super Supporter

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    You can believe me, I know the situation is dynamic and ever changing more than most and that I think you would find it much easier to 'bend' the rules a little and just 'get in' the Darien and start making tracks. Following the 'proper' channels will be a royal PITA.
    If where me I do the trip on foot first and takes notes and waypoints, will most likely be faster than riding for much of the way on big heavy KLRs and give you a good plan of attack.

    The areas I referred to where back up the road towards PC ,off the PanAm. There is a road heading off to the Pacific side that takes you to Puerto Quimbo(sp?) from there you take a launcha out to LaPalma which is really the gateway to getting you and your bike port hopping down the Pacific side to Colombia. Many of the area tribes come into La Palma to trade and Indians from Mogue were in town and myself and two others I was traveling with spent some time in their village with them.

    You mentioned a scouting trip down to the Darien in the video. How far in and where did you go into the Darien?
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  12. wheretheroadendsmoto

    wheretheroadendsmoto Adventurer

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    Interesting. I found the area you're talking on the map. I'd be curious how far into the interior you could get from Mogue since it's still pretty far North. Also I wonder if SENAFRONT patrols it more frequently now with their stepped up immigration & drug enforcement or if it's still fair game.

    We reconned as far as the village of Paya. We're pretty committed to that route at this point as it's the most direct and we have the ground work laid pretty well.
    #12
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  13. Throttlemeister

    Throttlemeister Long timer Super Supporter

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    I would stick to Paya area too. if you where not hassled going out of Yaviza then that has got to be the most direct route.
    Really interested to see how it all goes down, that whole area has intrigued me for many years.
    #13
  14. XDragRacer

    XDragRacer Long timer Supporter

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    From a blog, I read of abandoning one KLR650 in the jungle with a slipping clutch (https://www.facebook.com/wheretheroadendsmoto/ ).

    NEXT TIME, the MacGyveresque approaches below might enable completion with all four bikes:

    1. Shim the clutch spring bolts with washers, increasing spring pressure and consequently clutch disk friction.

    2. Since three operational KLR650s were in the pack, exchange one functioning friction disk from each of the rideable KLR650s with a worn disk from the disabled one. While the three donor bikes might suffer some loss of clutch friction, they'd probably still lock up (the KLR650 clutch remains notably robust); the implant of three serviceable friction disks in the disabled bike would likely restore its rideability.

    This said, congratulations to the party on an outstandingly successful adventure!
    #14
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  15. AT Blizzard

    AT Blizzard Been here awhile Supporter

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    Do I have to wait for the movie? :lurk
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  16. kf7ja

    kf7ja Adventurer

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    Excellent! I hope you get to see the Corvairs. My wife is from Panama and we will be moving there in a couple of years. I want to see the Darien Provence but not by KLR. Best of luck to you all.
    #16
  17. wheretheroadendsmoto

    wheretheroadendsmoto Adventurer

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    Hey guys, sorry I have not been able to update this thread sooner. This whole project has had me wearing a lot of different “hats” and it can be quite a challenge to keep up with everything. In short, we accomplished what we set out to do and crossed the Darien Gap with KLRs on the way from Deadhorse, AK to Ushuaia, AR. The whole thing is documented in the film which is currently in post-production shooting for a 2019 release. And to answer AT Blizzard’s question, no you don’t have to wait for the film, haha.

    We arrived in Panama City on January 10th 2018. Myself and Wayne Mitchell (team leader/rider) had gone ahead two days before and met with a translator who helped arrange some meetings beforehand. So when the whole team arrived on the 10th we went straight into the first meeting at the office of the Darien National Park. Wayne had been coordinating with their office for the better part of a year over email through his wife Tania who is a native Spanish speaker. It was a quick visit as we already had the permission letter and we only needed to pay them for a “film permit.” This had all been agreed on beforehand. They had told us a film permit was $100 USD per hour of filming and we had told them that we would only film for four hours. That number seemed to satisfy them so we just arrived, shook hands, paid our $400 and left.

    However, the permission letter from the park office basically just said that they didn’t have any objection to us passing through “Darien National Park.” This is key because “Darien National Park” only exists on the Panama side and ultimately SENAFRONT could trump this permission letter and not allow us to cross into Colombia. So to mitigate this possibility, our next stop was to the office of the Director General of SENAFRONT.

    The SENAFRONT problem was one that had plagued us since the inception of this project. The question of “how to convince a bureaucratic paramilitary entity that you will not be a liability for them in their area of operations” was one of many late night discussions in the years of planning leading up to this project. But there was one thing that we could not have planned for that worked out greatly in our favor. Director General Cristian Hayer was scheduled to retired on January 18th 2018. This meant that if he granted us permission to take motorcycles through the Darien Gap on January 10th, by the time anything happened to us it would be the problem of the new Director General. But if we successfully made it, then it would be nothing but good publicity for SENAFRONT and Panama as a whole (i.e. look how safe Panama is).

    [​IMG]

    So on January 10th we had a quick meet and greet with the SENAFRONT Sub-director Oriel Ortega. He granted us permission on behalf of his boss, Cristian Hayer and made sure that we understood that after crossing out of Panama into Colombia we would be on our own. Afterwards we shook hands and posed for the all important group photo with him. As it turned out, our permission actually came in the form of this photo. The next day our translator had multiple high quality prints made which would serve as our all access VIP passes in the Darien region over the next few days.

    [​IMG]

    On January 12th we arrived in Yaviza almost exactly one year after our original recon trip that I mentioned in the original post. Upon our arrival, we quickly had an opportunity to test the power of the photograph. As soon as the local SENAFRONT garrison heard we had arrived they made it clear that we had to go talk to the local commander. All the headquarters officers were very unhappy with what we were doing and told us through our translator that it was too dangerous and that they would not allow it. But when we finally got in front of the garrison commander and showed him our photo with Sub-director Ortega, he basically told his officers “we have to let them go because the top guy said they can go.”

    That night, we loaded the boat with the bikes. We were actually astonished to find it unseasonably wet and rainy in Yaviza, and while this would present a slew of other challenges during the actual overland crossing into Colombia, it was a bit of a blessing to start off with. With the rain, the rivers were high enough that boats much larger than what we had seen the previous year were able to comfortably cruise the waterways without bottoming out. We had planned on loading the bikes on smaller boats and for the high probability that we would dump a boat in the rapids and have to spend a day winching motorcycles out the river. But all these concerns ended up being for nothing and we were able to get all four KLRs onto one big boat with no problems.

    [​IMG]

    We woke up before sunrise on the 13th and packed anything not absolutely essential into the E350 van that functioned as our camera crew support vehicle for the duration of the project. The van would be driven back to Colón, Panama by Louis Browning (team driver/mechanic) and ship around the normal way to Cartagena, Colombia. As we were saying goodbye to Louis and loading into our little fleet of three boats, a fourth boat pulled up full of SENAFRONT guys. As it turned out, after we left our meeting with them they had decided that if they couldn’t actually stop us from going, the next best thing was to send a platoon of guys to escort us to the Colombian border. We didn’t particularly like this idea because it had some biblical “let my people go” sort of undertones. We were not entirely convinced that they wouldn’t try to stop us when it came time to actually cross into Colombia, but we didn’t have much say in the matter.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    The river travel was very slow and non eventful. The first night we stayed in the town of Boce de Cupe and after a second day of boat travel, stopping at SENAFRONT checkpoints all the way, we arrived in the town of Paya. Our experience in Paya this time was very different than our experience on our recon trip. Now that we were far away from the headquarters element in Yaviza, our SENAFRONT escort had warmed up to us and decided that we were on the same team. In Paya, they basically took us under their wing, letting us use their small command hut to stage our equipment and helping us load and unload gear from the boats. This was significant because it meant that we were not so much at the mercy of the Kuna elders of the town who had basically shaken us down the year before by charging us a fee of $20 USD per person just for permission to pass through their town. That fee would have certainly increased the second time around had SENAFRONT not decided that we were “with them.”

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    But there was still some logistical confusion for us in Paya. For one, our ethnic Kuna guide Isaac Pizarro was really bad at math and he could not seem to grasp that we did not have unlimited money. We had paid him half of our costs up front, and we carried the other half in cash spread out among our team members. We doled this out to him at different stages to pay different costs as they came.

    The total cost for everything in the Darien (food, boats, gasoline, local hires, chainsaw rentals, etc.) was supposed to come out to around $20,000 USD. For those of you shaking your heads saying that’s an insane number, you’re right. The problem is that everything in the Darien is already expensive because it’s so austere. But unlike any normal town where you can go look for a better offer from Joe if you don’t like the cost of Bob’s boat, in the jungle you have very limited shopping options. Because of this, every single person at every single level of a transaction significantly inflates whatever the true cost is. Our guide Issac had such a bad habit of this that whenever he had to pay someone, he would “pad” the number with more than we had already agreed upon in writing. We would have to go back and show him the correct (and already quite inflated) number that we had previously agreed on, then give him that amount in cash to make whatever payment. The first of these really frustrating discussions took place in Paya.

    The other point of confusion in Paya was that with the river being higher, it actually made more sense to continue by boat for approximately a kilometer farther. Within that first kilometer the river crisscrossed the trail out of Paya twice. The high water level meant that we could cover that distance with the boats and not have to deal with the river crossings. However we did not realize this and due to a miscommunication with Isaac the guide, we ended up spending an hour unloading the bikes off the boats only to realize later that we had to load them back on.

    The next day, the morning of the 15th, we left Paya with 1 journalist, 1 photographer, 1 videographer (myself), the 4 riders, and approximately 25-30 Kuna men and kids. A couple of us accompanied the boats and the rest hiked the trail out of Paya and linked up with the boats at the final intersection of the river and the trail. Here the "true" Darien Gap began. The night before, a few of us had come down to this point with some Kuna guys to clear the start of the trail. While there was very much a known trail, it was often not visible to anyone other than the Kuna who had grown up walking it. The jungle quickly swallows it up again after every clearing.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    We all agreed that the one big mistake we made was not scouting this far down the trail during our recon trip to Paya. With the recent rains, we were looking at a giant sloppy mud pit of a trail. Hill, after hill, after hill. We’ve all seen the riding videos of guys laying down big adventure bikes while trying to power up a muddy slope. It was like that, but it never stopped. The hills just kept coming. The Kuna guys would all get on the back of one bike and push while the rider revved hard on the throttle to brute force the bike up. But it was riding only in technicality. The mud built up so quickly on the chains and between the rear tires and fenders that you couldn’t go more than 50 meters without stopping to clear it all out with a stick. Within the first hour, we could smell clutches burning...

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]

    I'm going to break this down into two posts because this is getting pretty long. I'll do the next one probably sometime next week. Thanks for reading! ~Jake~
    #17
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  18. Throttlemeister

    Throttlemeister Long timer Super Supporter

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    Deep pockets for sure.

    Going to be some entertainment. Sounds like quite the parade in the jungle lol
    #18
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  19. Sifox

    Sifox Been here awhile

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    Holy shi!t. That's a lot of money to cross it. But, I'm sure it was all worth it. I have been curios about the whole process of crossing the Gap. Thanks for taking the time to post it and will be looking forward to the movie.
    #19
  20. HardWorkingDog

    HardWorkingDog Super Ordinary

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    Wow. Rock, meet Hard Place.

    Can't wait for next installment!
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