08-11-2009, 06:57 PM
Joined: Jul 2009
Location: Seattle, WA
We headed east on winding tarmac roads past jungle-clad limestone karst mountains toward the border with Vietnam atop Mu Gia pass. That’s where the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos begins. At first, road construction included stretches of gravel strewn over pavement that was like riding on marbles, and two lanes of traffic narrowed down to one lane going opposite directions making you flinch with inches to spare when passing oncoming trucks. But after that it was a fast, smooth easy ride on a good road - with almost no traffic:
Thee bikes topped out at about 120 km/hour and we rode them at this speed on these empty roads. We were buffeted by gusts of strong wind and so crouched down on the handlebars.
Ian crashed nearing the foot of Mu Gia pass. I was riding ahead and didn’t see it. Ray was riding with him. He said Ian was veering off the paved road to ride parallel to it on the dirt, then rejoining the road, then veering off again. He was keeping pace with Ray who was doing 60-70 mph on the road. Ian went off road one more time and came to a dry creek bed or culvert across his path. It was way too late to stop so he gassed his bike, wheelied and tried to jump it. He said later he would have made it were it not for the luggage on back weighing him down; he came up short, nose up. His back tire hit the far side; this compressed his rear shock, which released and catapulted him forward into a cartwheeling crash. He was thrown clear of the bike and was stunned or knocked unconscious. He wasn't moving and Ray later said he thought he might be dead. But by the time Ray stopped and ran back to him, he was stirring. X-rays later showed that he broke five ribs. The bike’s handlebars were bent and it had some other damage but it was rideable.
We met up again at a village at the foot of Mu Gia pass. This SAM had just recently been disarmed and the warhead was stored in the building in the background. Ian didn’t mention his crash so it was left to Ray to tell us. Ian didn’t complain so we didn’t realize at first how badly he was injured.
We rode up the pass, pulled onto a verge and ducked in the lee of this rock to wolf down tins of spam for lunch. The wind was blowing almost hard enough to push you over and storm clouds were boiling over the mountains. We talked about whether it is possible for the wind to knock you over while you’re riding and someone who knows more about it than I do said that, yeah, it can happen.
The Mu Gia pass was obviously a key target during the war and as such it was heavily defended; the caves and jungle bristled with AAA and SAMs. American pilots called this area 'the doghouse.' Some 50 U.S. aircraft were shot down in the immediate vicinity. You can see some of the vegetation blowing in the wind:
Steph and I rode the last few kilometers up to the Vietnam border while Digby and Ray took Ian down to the village with the SAM and cleaned and dressed his injuries.
Then we turned south and started down the trail:
The road is well maintained but is lined by bomb craters on both sides
It wouldn't cross your mind that an expert rider could have a serious crash at low speed on a road like this so I assumed there must have been a mechanical breakdown when I stopped my bike and waited for a long while and Digby and Steph didn't show up.
Steph was hit by a tractor and knocked down and then it ran over him. These tractors are the workhorses of rural Laos. The driver steers from a cart hitched behind the tractor. Steph was passing it on the left and was almost past it when it turned into him. This picture was taken a couple days later but shows the kind of tractor I'm talking about:
Not to speak for Steph but this must have been horrifying -- more like an industrial accident that a bike crash. Like you're working on the assembly line and get pulled onto the conveyor belt and into the machinery. These tractors engines go chug-chug-chug and the climb over anything and it went over Steph and his bike. One tire went over his chest and the other tire over his knees. Then he had to crawl frantically out of the way because it was pulling two-wheeled cart full of people and he didn't want to get run over twice.
The driver and the passengers in the cart were literally crying and hysterical and when Digby came upon Ray, he saw that Ray was up and walking and reassuring them and calming them down -- that was his first instinct.
We pushed on and came to the village of Ban Sen Phen where we would spend the night:
Suqsuda screwed with this post 09-07-2009 at 06:40 PM