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Crossing Panama's Darien Gap

Battling 200 Miles of Jungle by Two Wheel Drive Motorcycle

If it were not for the Darien Gap between Panama and Columbia, one could drive a motor vehicle from the northern edge of Alaska to the southern tip of South America. For engineering and political reasons, the 200 miles of jungle and swamp between Panama and Columbia has never been tamed. I decided to be the first to drive a motorcycle through, what is known as The Darien Gap.

It took four attempts before I was able to cross the Darien Gap by motorcycle.

The following is from my logs of the successful attempt with Ron Merrill. We each had a two-wheel drive Rokon motorcycle. The drive shaft went through the steering column connecting to the front wheel. Tire rims were tanks for holding extra water and fuel. Water was a bigger problem than fuel.

Saturday, March 22, 1975

We arrived at Chepo about noon. The new Bayano River bridge and five miles of road beyond it was now open, but permission is needed. Ron went to the Chepo office and received a letter of permission to cross the bridge.

At the Bayano River bridge there were so many trucks racing by I felt like we were in New York City. Horns blowing, ground vibrating, and clouds of dust. Logs were coming out of the jungle while culvert pipe was going in.

Ron and I drove our bikes to the end of the gravel road. There logging roads went in all directions. We did not know which one to take and kept ending up at logging camps. A truck driver said to follow him and he showed us the right road.

Now the road was so dry the dust came up to the bikes axles. The thick dust made us feel we were driving on ice, the wheels kept sliding all over the place. Just before dark the road branched again. We found a house in the jungle and they put us on the right road. At dark we came to the farm where we stored our bikes last year. At that time it took us six day to get this far.

The farm was taken over by a Choco Indian Tribe. This was one of the tribes that do not put sides on their houses. They gave us one for the night. As the sun went down, we took a bath with the other Indian men in the nearby river. After the sun went down, the women went to the river to take their bath. I lay in bed watching night life in the Indian village. With no walls there are no secrets. Women stayed in their house attending to family chores like putting up mosquito nets for their children and them selves. In the village plaza, men played dominos till 10 PM. Then they struck up the town band that included drums made from five gallon buckets, wood drums, and an accordion. I believe they knew only one tune, it seemed like the same tune over and over. This lasted till midnight. At this time the men went to their thatched house and I could go to sleep.

Sunday, March 23

About 4 AM the radios were blaring all over the village. Women were moving about to start the day. Don’t these people ever sleep? By 5 AM the village was coming to life again, so Ron and I decided to get up also.

At 8 AM we were on the trail we took last year. We found that a bulldozer had opened a crude road all the way to the Santa Fé road project. It was not intended to be traveled, someone wanted to get a bulldozer in or out of the jungle. For us it was better than a jungle trail. By 4 PM we arrived at Tortí. We did in one day what it took us two days last year. We set up camp and took a bath in the river. For lack of sleep the night before, I was so tired I could not eat until I took a nap.

March 24

Just outside of town we heard chain saw buzzing. People were cutting down every tree in sight. The road was impassable and the fallen trees covered such a wide area it seemed impossible to find a way around them. We found a sunken dried stream bed that was deep enough to pass under the fallen trees. Back on the road, the bulldozer followed the survey line except to bypass obstacles. This made traveling easier and faster. I did hit a tree stump that sent me and the bike flying. Mid-afternoon we arrived at Rio Canazas and the north end of the Santa Fe road project. By sundown we were in Santa Fe.

We again stayed with the constructions workers. They let Ron radio a message, he asked his wife for an air mattress, maps, and other supplies. She was to put them on a plane at Paitilla airport in Panama City.

March 25

Ron spent all day at the Santa Fé airfield waiting for supplies. They did not come. I had another one of my famous flat tires and fixed it. Ron decided to fly back to Panama City for supplies.

March 26

At 5:30 AM, Ron was at the Santa Fé airfield and number seven in line. Before long there were fifty people waiting to fly out. The wait was long and there was no water. On my bike I went to town and brought back water for everyone to drink who seemed to appreciate it. Ron did not get on a plane until 2 PM.

March 27

Ron arrived at 10 AM with a new air mattress, compass, maps, and food. He also brought flat-proofing that I immediately put in my tires. Then we were on our way to the south end of the road. Soon I had a flat tire and fixed it, an hour later I had another flat, when we got to the end of the road the tire was flat again. We stopped at a construction camp where they gave us Cool-aid and ice water. It was sure good.

We had very few tire patches left and at this flat tire rate, we were not going to make it to Yaviza on the Chucunaque River. Distance of fifty miles. The north end of the river was about five miles east of us. We decided to find the river so as to have a choice if things went wrong. We followed a dry stream bed and just forcing the bike through the jungle. Cutting would take too much time. Soon as you can expect, my tire went flat again.

It was near sundown and I felt we were closes to the river. I said to Ron, "Go to the river and set up camp. I will follow when the bike is fixed."

When I took the inter-tube out, I noticed the patches were coming off. The flat-proofing was eating the patches glue. It was getting dark so I decided to leave the bike and find Ron. Soon as I started, he came walking back. He said, "I did not find the river, but I did find a trail."

We repaired the tire using all of the patches and then drove to Ron’s bike. We set up camp by a small pool of water that had hundreds of small fish in it. As the dry season evaporates the water, the fish die. I often wonder how they survive from rainy season to rainy season.

March 28

My tire was flat this morning. I walked along the trail for a while hopping to find the Chucunaque River. No luck. A bulldozed had been through here which makes traveling a little easier. I pumped the tire with air, it held, and I took off. Ron finished loading his bike and followed later. He caught up to me at a fallen tree. By noon we reached the Chucunaque River.

At a nearby house, Ron asked about boats going down river. The man said he would use his dugout canoe and poll us down river. Yaviza was fifty miles and we did not think much of his idea. We drove along the river for another mile. There we stopped for lunch, took a swim, and wondered what to do next. We built a raft which sank when we put the bikes on it. Ron borrowed a small dugout canoe from a nearby house and paddled up river to the man who would consider helping us.

I set up camp and had a fire going. There were four young topless girls in camp watching me when Ron came back. Finally Ron got down to business and said, "Louis will come in the morning and take us down river."

March 29

We woke up at sunrise and saw a large 30-foot dugout canoe going up river. It was Louis. He said, "I will be back later to pick you up."

At 9 AM, Louis came down river with his wife, eight children, several bags of corn, and household goods. There was still room for our bikes and equipment.

All day Louis paddled and paddled with no letup. At noon he dropped off his wife, cooking utensils, and two of the boys to fix a meal and we kept going. By sundown she and the boys caught up with us in a small canoe. Louis kept paddling till 9 PM when the tide turned against us. Then he tied up to a tree and ate his first meal. Two hours later the tide turned in our favor and Louis was paddling again. At 1 AM we arrived at the jungle town of Yaviza. The town had street lights. Ron and I climbed the steep stairs and set up camp between two houses.

Sunday, March 30

We found a restaurant and ate breakfast. Then Louis took us down river where we could unload our bikes and climb up the steep river bank. Then we slowly drove around town with all the kids following and hollering. We asked about trails to Columbia. "There are some," we were told, "but not well traveled."

We borrowed a small canoe and paddled up a small river to an American missionary’s house. He had maps and the latest information. He said, "It would be better to travel up the Tuira River, then the Paya River to the village of Paya, then follow trails from there."

By the end of the day we realized the missionary’s advice is the only way we are going to make it. We needed new inter-tubes, tire patches, and more money. We found a man who would use his outboard motor to take us up river if we had a boat. One problem, the motor needed a new head gasket and cylinder head. We agreed on a price including fixing his motor.

March 31

The airfield was on the other side of the river and Ron took me over in a small canoe. The end of the airstrip ends at a drop-off into the river. When the planes take off , they don’t lift before the end of the airstrip, they fly off the end and then climb. At 11 AM I was able to get on a plane. It first stopped at Santa Fé and La Palma before going to Panama City. That afternoon I bought outboard motor parts, bike repair parts, food, and more money. Money seems to run through our fingers in the jungle. I was able to get everything we needed.

April 1

Ron’s wife took me to the airport at 5:30 AM. By noon I was back in Yaviza on the only plane that flew in that day. Ron was waiting for me and took me back across the river. He said, "We will use Louis’s boat to go up river. He was renting it and I agreed to pay the rent plus his fees."

We repaired the outboard motor and bought 40 gallons of gasoline. We were ready to go.

April 2

We loaded up the dugout canoe and headed down the muddy Chucunaque River. The crew, Louis who was responsible for the dugout and Jose who owned the outboard motor.

Dugout canoes, up to 50-feet long, loaded high with plantain were also headed down river. The canoes were so deep in the water it looked like a wave would sink them. Each canoe had an Indian at each end with a poll or paddle to navigate and a third Indian in the middle that kept the canoe bailed out. This was the day banana boats from Panama City anchor at La Palma, at the mouth of the river, to buy farm goods from the Indians.

The clear waters of the Tuira River runs from the Columbia boarder to the muddy Chucunaque River. We headed up the Trira River and passed El Real when the outboard engine quit. I found there was no spark, so took the flywheel off and found the shaft key was sheared. The key was the same size we used on our bikes and we had a replacement. That fixed we were on our way.

Early in the afternoon we came to our first fast water and all our problems seemed to start here. The rapids were too shallow to motor up and almost too deep and swift to push the heavily loaded canoe. When one of us lost our footing, we would be carried down stream, the rest would keep pushing so as not to loose what progress we made. The sun was hot and we were wet.

We sheared several prop pins which was made from nails. The fuel pump did not work, the fuel tank had to be at the same height of the motor so the the gas could siphon. The motor kept coming loose from the motor mount. We had some bolts to fix it. Finally Jose said, "We are not going any further until the motor is fixed right."

Jose did not know anything about motors which left it up to Ron and I to fix it.

Just before dark we arrived at a small jungle village of Boca de Cupe. We set up camp next to the small cantina where we ate. The police asked us where we were going. We said, "To Columbia."

The policeman said, "You have to have your passports stamped with an exit permit."

He took us to his office and stamped out passports with all the official stamps. I found it surprising that someone in the jungle would have all the tools necessary to complete official paperwork.

April 3

We camped in the wrong place, the cantina blared rock music all night. Also, Ron’s air mattress would no longer hold air. In the morning we ate breakfast at the cantina. I ordered coffee. Another customer had left, so the waitress took their cup and rinsed it with some coffee and dumped it on the dirt floor and then pored me a cup. In the jungle one does not question anything.

Two Indians asked to go with us. Pushing the canoe through the rapids is hard work, the more help the better. They left us at noon. This afternoon the rapids were getting longer, faster, and shallower. The water had mud in it which meant there was rain up ahead.

Early afternoon we arrived at the Paya River. It was small which looked like the end of the line for our canoe. As it turned out, the river was peacefully flat, clean, and somewhat deep. It was like paradise compared to the Tuira River. We could motor along and watch the large fish below. The trees arched over the narrow river which gave relief from the hot sun. Two hours later we were in fast water again. Jose refused to use his motor or push the canoe, that left five us us to do the work. Ron finally told Jose to get-with-it, which he did.

It was dark, a long way from the village of Paya, and Jose refused to sleep in the jungle. Jose no longer worried about the rapids or the motor, he kept pushing the canoe hard. The deep water between the fast water was getting shorter. Two hours after dark, we came to an Indian house. They said we could sleep there tonight.

April 4

We took off early and in one hour we were at the first Choco Indian village. This village seemed lost in time. All the Indians lined the riverbank, topless women, watching us and we watched them. Thatched houses with no sides and no signs of modern tools. Two Indians wanted to go up river with us. By noon we were in Paya.

With all the villagers standing around, Ron and I put our bikes together. When finished, we drove up the riverbank and into the village. At first the kids ran from us, when they saw there was nothing to fear they ran behind us. As we neared the center of the village, Indian Police came running out of the jungle pointing riffles at us, holding up their had for us to stop. They ran past us and the people behind us scattered. In the center of the village square stood Jose with his hands up. They knocked Jose to the ground and tied him up. What happened?

While Ron and I were putting our bike together, Jose took his outboard motor and rifle into the village. He was going to carry them into Columbia to sell. The village is also a check point and border control for travelers, Jose refused to sign a log book. While Jose was lying on the ground, the police took his rifle and wallet. In the meantime, Louis came into the village to see what was going on. The police told him to put the outboard motor back on the canoe. Ron said to the police, "We owe them money."

The police said, "Give it all to the boat owner," which we did.

Jose fought with us from day one on this trip. We did nothing right. I often wondered if this was his first trip into the jungle. It can’t be sense his village is in the middle of the jungle.

The police told us to leave our bikes and go to the police station and sign the log book. As it turned out, the police station was a mile away and when we saw the building, we had to forge a river that was hip deep. Two hours later and back at the village square, Jose was still tied up. Ron asked the police if we could go and they said, "Sure."

The police did not seem to care about Louis or us.

Just outside the village, an Indian asked if he could travel with us. Ron said, "It is OK with us providing you can keep up. We don’t want to be held back."

The Indian said, "It is a six hour walk to the next river in Columbia."

As it turned out, every time we stopped the Indian was waiting for us. At dark we setup camp on the Panama side of the border.

April 5

The Indian told us he was afraid of the jungle at night. He dreamed of being attacked by tigers. I thought to myself, "Does he know something that I don’t know?"

After two hours on the trail we arrived at the marker on the Panama Columbia border. The hills were getting steeper and longer, sometimes it took three of us to get a bike up a hill. At places the trail was on the side of a steep hill. One slip, bike and rider would plunge into a deep valley that would be almost impossible to get out of. To make problems worse, there were many fallen trees and the jungle seemed to be getting thicker. We could barley see the sky and the jungle seemed like perpetual twilight zone.

At noon we came to a small stream. I was so tired and hot I lay in the water until my body temperature was back to normal. The Indian wanted to leave us because we were traveling so slow. We now realized his help was valuable. Ron said, "You help us get to the river and we will pay you."

He said, "OK."

As it turned out, trails branched out all over the place on the Columbia side and we would have become lost. The bike had another flat tire when it started to rain. If the dry dirt turns to mud, we will never make it up the hills. The rain turned out to be a small cloud passing by. We arrived at the Cacarica River just before dark. The Colombian family living there was extremely friendly and helpful. We paid the Indian and he headed back into the jungle again.

The first thing we did was take a bath, then setup our tent inside the house because there was no flat ground nearby. That night I was exhausted and my body was sore. I felt like I could not take another day of this jungle.

Sunday, April 6

The owner of the house said he would take us down river to the next village. His was a small canoe and not too stable. With the tires off, we set the bike in the canoe and we sat on the bikes. We hit a rock which rolled the canoe, that rolled the bike on its side, and I fell in the water with my legs pinned under the bike that was still in the canoe. As I went under water, I thought the load was going to land on top of me. Those in the canoe stabilized it and lifted the bike off my legs.

By noon we arrived at the village of Cacarica. The police went through everything we carried. The inspector took some things he wanted and asked for others. I said "no" and took back the items he had already taken. The inspector was looking for drugs. When we went outside the police station, a man offered to sell us drugs. We shook our heads in disbelief. We made arrangements for another boat to take us to the Atrato River.

April 7

The dugout canoe owner said he wanted to leave a 5 AM, he did not show until 6. When he did come, his canoe was loaded with lumber and chickens. We loaded our bikes and equipment. A short distance down river the owner loaded more lumber. We protested, but id did no good. There was three inches of freeboard.

From Cacarica on, the river was one massive log jam. Trees that were washed down river during the rainy season were laying all over the place. We had to weave around, drag the canoe across sunken logs, and squeeze under others. By noon we reached the Atrato Swamp.

In the swamp the river was flat with no fast water or fallen trees. But the river was also extremely narrow, so narrow that two boats could not pass. Because of our heave load, out boat was the slowest. Other boats would back up behind us waiting for a place to pass. When it was convenient, our boat owner would pull over and let the others by. No one seemed bothered by the delay. One advantage, we were under the jungle canopy that protected us from the sun.

Also the river was shallow in places. At times we had to get out and push across the sand. One time I was pushing at the stern when I fell into quick sand. I held onto the canoe and let the canoe drag me out. It all happened so fast the others did not know I was in trouble. Yet they walked by the same area and did not fall in.

The swamp and its tall trees was fantastic. I took pictures hoping to capture its beauty on film. The scenery was so unbelievable, I expected to see Tarzen swinging through the jungle swamp.

As we neared the Atrato River, the water was deep and the boatman exchanged the polls for paddles. Also the trees were gone and replaced with floating plants as far as we could see. The last few hundred feet, floating plants was packed solid. We pushed our way through until we reached the open water of the Atrato River. The floating plants closed in behind us. An outsider would never know there were hundreds’ of people living up a river behind those plants.

We still had several hours of paddling to reach a village on an island. The wind was against us and the boat crew was about to give out. Ron and I relived them for a while. The crew spotted two sloth in a tree. They went ashore and speared them.

At 4 PM we arrived at the small river village. They said, "There is a boat to Turbo arriving any time now. There was another leaving at 2 AM, but it was full."

Ron sat on the riverbank trying to stop a passing boat. No luck.

April 8

At 2 AM the boat owner came to our tent and said he could take us. Everyone seemed to enjoy watching us strike camp and pack. I asked someone to hold the flashlight for me. When I finished I asked, "who has the flashlight?"

No one answered, that was the last time I saw it.

The river was black and I could not see anything, also the river is extremely wide. As the sun came up, we could see the thick swamp grass on both sides. Near the mouth of the river we stopped a a factory like structure and picked up two more passengers. Then across the Golfo de Darien to Turbo.

As we took our bikes off the boat, a large crowd of people gathered around to see them. We asked how we can get back into Panama. No one seemed to know. Soon a immigration agent told us to have our passport stamped at his office. That we did. We asked him how to get out of Columbia and he offered no advice.

As the day wore on, one man came to us and said, "I will take you to the San Blas Islands for $200 in my dugout canoe."

Ron said, "We only have $75."

The boat owner said, "I will take you to Puerto Oboldia for $75 which is the first town across the Panama border."

Ron said, "OK, when can we go?"

The boat owner said, "3 AM. You can load your bikes in the boat and sleep there tonight. In the morning I will leave."

Ron and I lifted the tarp and crawled under it.

April 9

At 3 AM the boat owner came but his helper did not show. It rained for the first time on this trip. It was the end of the dry season and lots of rain can be expected from now on. Ron and I stayed under the tarp. Sometime after 4 we left. The seas were high in the Golfo de Darien. After three hours I crawled out from under the tarp to look around. That act made me seasick. I ate two bananas which help me feel better. The waves were five feet high, the sky had low heave clouds, and squalls blowing all around us. Then I notice that the helper never showed up.

I sat watching the water, the coast line was rugged, and a house once in a while. At 10 AM, we arrived at the village of Puerto Oboldia. A lot of people helped us off-load the boat. Soon the immigration man came and stopped the off-loading. He questioned our right to be in Panama. We gave him our passports and explained we live in Balboa. He reluctantly stamped the passports and allowed the unloading to continue. We paid the boat owner which left us with $0. The people who helped us unload wanted to be paid too. We told them we are out of money.

We were told a plane fly’s in from Panama City about once a week, but they never know what day that will be. So Ron and I set up camp next to the airstrip. At 1 PM two planes arrive. We asked one of the pilots if we could pay for the fair in Panama City and explained why we were out of money. He said, "OK."

We got permission to store our bikes in the public library. We filled the back of the plane up with our equipment. One hour later we were flying over the Bayano River Bridge where we started nineteen days earlier.

Sunday, April 13

Ron’s friend flew to Puerto Oboldia and was able to put both bikes in his four passenger plane. We felt lucky to get our bikes back.

To read how others crossed Panama's Darien Gap, go to web site: Outback of Beyond Adventures. I met with Loren Upton before and after some of his Panama jungle adventures.

Rokon's web site

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