Updated: Nov 9
Mexico City. At long last Ken was on Latin American soil. He immediately noticed the difference in the rhythm of life.
It was more spontaneous. More vibrant. He realised that the type of adventure dreamt of years previously with Alan now lay at his fingertips.
He cycled through Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala and then journeyed by bus through war-torn El Salvador. Thus began a series of Latin American calamities.
He nearly froze to death on a Costa Rican mountaintop, all but died under the hot sun in the Panamanian interior, took a spill from the bike which cut him up badly, got bitten and bedded for a week by a poisonous spider, and was accused of being a spy by secret police.
His personal challenges continued. Teeming up with Guy Ruan, a Frenchman, he crossed The Darién Gap, a notorious jungle between Panama and Colombia...
THE DARIEN GAP
Above is the route Ken took with Guy across the Darien Gap. These days the Pan-American Highway extends through the interior to Yaviza but when Guy and Ken did it there was no road on that stretch. They had to slog through the rain forest, along a difficult, very muddy track, carrying their belongings up and down over small hills for hours on end. The total crossing of the Darien took them ten days. They walked and hired locals from the odd villages to pole them down rivers in piraguas (canoes hewn from tree-trunks).
At Palo de Los Letras they reached the Colombian border. After years of travel and some dangerous episodes through Europe, Asia, and Australasia, Ken had finally made it to South America. But the biggest test was still to come...
On the last day of the Darien trek, they crossed the Gulf of Uraba with locals in two large piraguas with motors on the back. It was ten Kilometres across to Turbo in Colombia.
At first, the gulf was calm. But later in the middle it became rough. The heavy swell was too much for the small craft. Waves started to enter them and the motoristas (drivers) and their helpers began frantically scooping out the water.
Suddenly, the motor of the second craft cut. When it did so, the piragua sank lower into the water and more waves piled in. There was sudden confusion and panic with the motoristas yelling at each other. The motorista and his helper from the second craft quickly jumped into the piragua carrying Ken and Guy. The other craft sank. It all happened in seconds.
Ken realised then why they took two boats. But now there was only one. They managed to make the far shore – but only just!
How would Ken transport the bicycle through the jungle in the Darién Gap? That remained a big question for him until he saw Guatemalans in the market-place, carrying huge bales of wood on their backs. The bales hung from their foreheads by means of a mecapal (Indian rope strap). As they leant forward when walking, their forehead helped in the distribution of weight. Potter could see no better way for a human to transport heavy articles unaided.
Crossing a fast-flowing river.
Sometimes slippery rocks and the strength of the current made the going difficult.
At the Cuna Indian village of Paya which was extremely friendly. The Corregidor(Chief) invited Ken and Guy to stay in his family's hut.
Guy Ruan crossed the Darien with Ken. Guy was a lot of fun but he was also prepared for the long, hard slog through the jungle.
Ken walked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It took three days.
When Ken walked down to the magnificent ruins at dawn on the fourth day, there was nobody around except for a policeman. The policeman looked surprised.
"I have been guarding the ruins for a long time," he said. "You are the first to arrive via the Inca Trail with a bicycle."
"It must seem crazy," replied Ken."Walking in the mountains with a bicycle."
"It doesn't just seem crazy," said the policeman. "It is crazy."
He then asked Ken for his autograph.
Potter cycled through Argentina and over the Andes to...
Nearing the summit on the Argentine/Chilean Andean border crossing. It's tough going in a blizzard. At the time there were border disputes between the two countries. Soon after the above photo, Potter passed an Argentine army camp with a solitary armed soldier standing outside. When the soldier saw Ken struggling through the blizzard he shouted in Spanish:
"One more kilometre and down you go..."
...and down he went. After passing the summit, the most amazing sight lay before him – 'Los Caracoles'. At first, he stood at the top in a blizzard. Far below, in the valley, he could see sunshine. It was a bizarre experience. Having just spent three days struggling up the Andes, he now free-wheeled down the zig-zagging road for ages.
He can't describe how good that felt.
Potter cycled through the lovely Andean Lake District in Argentina and Chile to find Bariloche lacking in snow but with the banks of the blue-green and placid Lago Nahuel Huapi covered in the golden bloom of amancay. The natural beauty of this region is often compared to Switzerland.
Ken rode 300kms across the pampas in the province of Buenos Aires with a heavily-laden bicycle to arrive to Mar Del Plata at sunset. He rode almost non-stop and it took him fifteen hours. Feeling like a beer upon arrival, he entered the first bar he came to at night in the suburbs. It was empty save for the barman who asked where he had cycled from that day.
When Ken told him he stood there open-mouthed.
"No lo creo..." he said. "I don't believe it!"
Don't talk unless you can improve the silence.
– Jorge Luis Borges
Arrival To Argentina
Potter arrived to Embarcación, a small town in the remote north of Argentina, having just cycled down from the Bolivian border.
It was an enjoyable ride through open countryside and Ken had the usual rush of excitement about arriving to a new country.
He planned to stay in Embarcación one night and then press on to Formosa on the other side of Argentina the following day. He was expecting a fairly straightforward cycle ride. It was about 700kms.
From Formosa, he'd make his way up through Paraguay and into the south-west corner of Brazil to see the Iguazu waterfalls. That would be a wonderful culmination of this stage of the journey.
First he had to think about finding a place to stay in Embarcación.
He found lodgings but there was a problem. The señora informed him that he couldn't cycle to Formosa because of the rains.
"Is there a bus that goes to Formosa?" he asked.
"No, señor," she replied. "Nothing can get through. All the roads are flooded."
Ken tried to absorb the implications of this unwelcome news. All of a sudden he was aware of the predicament in which he was placed.
He had thought it would be a simple case of cycling for 700kms along a country road that led to Formosa. If he couldn't do that what were the other options?
He was in a remote place in South America, on one side of the continent when he wanted to be on the other.
The distances were vast. He could see from the guide-book that to back-track and try to get through the Bolivian wilderness would probably be extremely difficult.
To cycle south through Argentina and try to miss the rains and loop back up again would probably add a thousand kilometres to the journey. And he had no idea which route to take.
"You could try for a train going to Formosa," said the señora.
"Where's the station?"
The Train Station
The town was very quiet. The small station was deserted. Inside it was dark and gloomy.
Thankfully, there was a man behind the counter. Ken asked him when the next train to Formosa left. The man shook his head sadly.
"No hay trenes de pasajeros que vayan a Formosa."
No passenger trains!
The worst had happened. He was stranded. He walked away from the counter dejectedly with no idea what to do..
Suddenly, another man who he hadn't realised was there appeared out of the shadows. He was wearing railroad clothes.
"Señor," he said. "Quieres ir a Formosa?"
"Si!" Ken replied.
The railwayman explained that, although there were no passenger trains going to Formosa, there was a goods train going there at five o'clock the following morning.
When Potter asked if passengers were allowed on it the man said no, not officially. But if it was him, he said, and he had to get to Formosa then he would take it.
"Gracias, señor." Ken returned to the lodgings determined to get up early and take the train. That was the only option available.
It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.
– Gabriel Garcia Márquez
The following morning, Potter pushed his bicycle down the road to the station. There wasn't a soul in sight.
He felt uneasy. It didn't seem quite right. But what could he do? If he wanted to get to Formosa, there was no other way. He tried to block the uneasiness out of his mind.
As he neared the station, he heard voices. He didn't know what to expect.
He walked up onto the platform. There was a group of South American Indians standing around talking.
"Buenos dias, señores," Ken said. They returned the greetings.
They were all doing the same as he was – waiting for the goods train. His uneasiness lifted. All of a sudden he was part of a group.
There was a bit of a wait but he didn't mind. He listened to the Indians, trying to understand what they were saying.
The train arrived. Potter followed the others and lifted the bicycle and his belongings into one of the wagons through an opening.
Inside it was dark. There was nowhere to sit save for the floor.
No thanks! It was caked with dried cow dung. The stench was awful but at least the producers weren't present. Ken leant against the side of the carriage.
After an interminable wait, there was a hiss of steam, a clank and a jolt, and the train rolled into motion.
Puff...puff...puff...it picked up speed and soon the occupants were rattling into the dawn ...clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity...
Rattling was the operative word. The carriage was a bone-shaker.
They travelled all day. Kilometre after kilometre of green fields.
One by one, at stations along the way, the Indians disembarked. Eventually, the train stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and the last of them picked up his belongings.
"Adios, señor," he called. He disappeared through the opening.
The train started shunting and soon it was clattering down the track again.
Ken felt lonely. Suddenly, he realised how tired he was. His body ached. But it was impossible to sleep. The wagon was shaking and rattling about all over the place.
He leant against the opening and watched as the green fields passed. One after another after another...
Night came again. Potter's legs had given up hours ago. He was now sitting on a plastic sheet that he'd spread over the dried cow dung.
He was exhausted but it was still impossible to sleep. Every time he began to nod off, the wagon jerked him awake.
The train slowed. There was lots of noise. It sounded as if it was shunting into a siding. There was a hiss of steam. Then silence.
Aaaahhh...bliss, Ken thought. He leant his head against the side and drifted comfortably into the black abyss. Total wipeout. He relinquished all claims on consciousness.
Well, almost but not quite. A distant noise intruded on his slumber. A clanging of metal against metal. A hiss of steam. Puff...puff...puff...
The train was moving again. It was drawing off.
Through his groggy consciousness, realisation suddenly dawned on Potter. The train was definitely drawing off but his wagon wasn't moving. The train had decoupled his wagon. He jumped up, looked out the opening.
Through the blackness he could see the lights on the back of the train disappearing slowly down the track. His ticket to Formosa was leaving.
Shit! Blind panic! He'd been dumped in a siding in the middle of nowhere. He didn't have a clue where he was. And the distances were vast.
Instantly, he become fully awake. He grabbed the bicycle and panniers and clambered out the wagon.
Don't miss your train
He chased the train down the track. It was difficult, carrying everything and running over rail-track sleepers in the dark. He tried not to trip.
The train was about forty metres down the line. Luckily, it was taking its time to pick up speed. After about a minute, he managed to catch it up.
The last wagon was an open wagon. Its sides were about two metres high – high enough to prove really difficult to get into with the luggage.
He managed to throw the two panniers over the top. The bicycle was a bit more difficult. He stumbled then had to catch up.
He lifted the bicycle as he was running. Really difficult. Up. Up. Up. He got it on to the top of the wagon and over she went. He counted his blessings.
What he hadn't realised was that the train was now speeding up. It started to leave him. Oh, no! he thought. There goes my stuff!
By this time he was breathing hard. But he rushed after it. He managed to catch up, reached up and grabbed the top of the wagon. For a short while he just hung there, dangling from the wagon by his fingertips.
The train picked up speed.
Grimacing, he attempted to haul himself up. With a superhuman effort he managed to swing his right foot up and get that and his chest over the top of the wagon. He rolled over and into it.
Aaaahhh...he was so tired he couldn't feel it anymore. What he could feel was bumps and bruises and cramps from knocks and strains that he didn't even realise had happened.
But he made it. Together with all his belongings, he had made it.
All through the night the train rattled on. He wasn't sure if he slept or not. It didn't feel like it.
Morning came. Clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity-clack...clackity...the green fields were no more...
Now there was kilometre after kilometre of swampland. A wilderness. Flat and flooded with long strips of water and just a few lonely trees.
No man disturbed this land, only the train as it clattered by, causing a flock of a hundred pink flamingo to take to the air.
What a sight! What an incredible sight! It was one of the most awesome sights he had ever seen. Nature at it's best. Magnificent. Breathtaking.
At five o'clock in the afternoon, the train drew slowly into Formosa station. At last, he thought. At long last. He gathered his stuff and left by a deserted side entrance.
The first thing he needed to do was to find a hotel. Get some rest.
For thirty-six sleepless hours he had endured that constant shaking. He felt groggy. His weary body was wracked with pain and tiredness.
Yet he was happy. He would not have missed that journey for anything...
Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you'll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life