We're here for our scheduled appointment.
Google Maps tells us that there is no way to get from North America to South America by road. The Darien Forest, or Darien Gap, starts at the southern tip of Panama and runs all the way to Colombia. Apparently, this a real life Forest of Despair, but instead of Rodents of Unusual Sizes, they have Poison Arrow Dart Frogs! And no fireswamp or lightning sand, but plenty of Marxist Guerillas with Gun of Unusual Sizes!
We turn off the PanAm Highway, and take a windy road through thick Panamanian rain forests
The PanAmerican Highway stops at the edge of the Darien Forest. Despite several construction attempts, no road connects the two continents because of the ecological damage it would cause to the indigenous tribes and wildlife that live there, and the governments involved do not want to create an easy path for drug smugglers to traffic narcotics from Colombia up to North America.
Interestingly, the Darien Gap has also prevented the spread of diseases from South America into Central and North America, like foot and mouth disease.
Everywhere in Central America, our GPSes fascinate the locals
There are only two ways to cross the Darien Gap, by sea or by air. We opt for the water option, so we have to travel a couple of hours from Panama City to a pier at the deserted Carti Airport, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. The road twists through miles of lush, green jungles and of course, because we washed the bikes in Panama City the day before, it rains on us...
Parked on the shores of Carti beach, our ride waiting in the distance
Talking with Cornelius, another moto-nomad from Australia
We're travelling with a lot of familiar faces on this leg of our journey. We met Trevor at the Horizons Unlimited meeting in California last October, and saw Cornelius there as well but didn't get a chance to speak to him. I had a feeling we would get to know everyone on board a lot better in the next few days!
The Stahlratte, German for "Steel Rat", is a pirate ship, capable of escaping FARC Insurgents and making the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs
After a lot of research, we chose the Stahlratte to cross the Darien Gap. This is the appointment we were rushing through Central America to make. It started life 110 years ago as a fishing vessel and has lived many lives since then, from a Rainbow Warrior for Greenpeace till now, a Round-The-World sailboat that has gotten "stuck" in the Caribbean, living the sun-drenched dream and ferrying passengers between Panama, Colombia and the islands in between for the last 8 years to fund its voyage.
Dinghies and small boats carry supplies and our luggage from the shore to the Stahlratte
Because we have a small window of time reserved to use the pier to load the motorcycles, we use most of the morning to remove all the luggage off our bikes and transport them onboard, where we're treated to a quick lunch - the first of many famously delicious Stahlratte meals - before going back on shore and prepping the bikes.
Carb loading first, then bike loading next!
Our luggage arrives by dinghy and is brought into the hold of the ship
Back on shore, bikes are lined up on the pier ready to be brought on board
We lined up last. If anything went wrong, it'd be easier to back out that way!
There is no ramp to ride or push the motorcycles on-board. Everything has to be done off a narrow pier. We watched everyone else's motorcycles get winched up by a pulley off the pier and then over the edge of the deck of the ship. The hired hands seemed to be very experienced and capable and I felt a lot better when it came to our turn.
Watching the Stahlratte pull into the pier, ready to eat our motorcycles
Ludwig, our fearless captain supervises the loading
My baby is getting closer to the front of the line and she's getting nervous!
This is how it starts out...
In our haste to get back on shore to help line the bikes up for loading, we didn't notice that the only ones left on the ship were the women. So there were 12 guys on shore rolling the motorcycles on the pier and 4 women on the boat lifting the bikes over the side of the boat onto deck. They were the ones doing all the real work! We (nervously) cheered them on from the pier...
Then up goes my bike!
Had a little problem getting my big pig over the edge of the boat, so down it went and the rope was shortened...
All bikes on deck, we're ready to set sail!
Gene: "Second star to the right, and straight on till morning!?"
Ludwig: "No... we use a GPS on the Stahlratte."
Getting familiar with our home for the next few days
Big sigh of relief. The Master Planner gets a break for a few days!
Neda has been an absolute superstar over the last few months. She has planned pretty much all of our travels through Mexico and Central America, doing extra duty handling the border crossings with her fluency in Spanish. For the next few days, our schedules are in the hands of the crew of the Stahlratte. Instead of having to plan for routes, search for accommodations and forage for food, we will be told when to eat and where to sleep, and all of a sudden, there is an absolute lack of responsibility for our lives. It's the best we've felt in over two weeks!
Stay tuned for the next entry on our adventures on the high seas!