“We have to make a decision.” I stated to the Social Cycles team. “And we have to make it together”. We were at a fork in the road. Just five kilometers from our departure point in Battambang, Cambodia.
To the left, a sealed tarmac highway would lead us to Siem Reap, although the journey would take two days to cover the 175km distance on our Reid X-Trail mountain bikes. It was a road I had travelled many times before. It was busy with trucks and traffic constantly passing. Drink and rest breaks were plentiful throughout and most importantly, the support van would trail behind the team the whole way, offering cold water, fruit, medical supplies if needed and mechanical equipment to get us out of any trouble. The road to our left was a safe and secure option.
The road to our right quickly vanished off into a distance of dust and dirt. It was a short cut to Siem Reap but covered country that doesn’t exist in Google. It was a journey into the unknown. Estimates guess the distance would nudge 90km, but the terrain could be anything from 4WD dry dirt track to a single strip of mud, or worse, sand. Local knowledge informed us that there was no way our support van could follow. And supplies on route would be limited to what we carry. To cycle 90km in a day is tough in 40 degree heat, but if we were to have to walk through mud or sand for a large part of it, we were going to struggle. It would take us way off the beaten track and through the most remote villages in the country. It was the path less travelled.
“Do you trust these bikes?” one of the team asked.
It was a fair question. Cycling 90km on off-road terrain was going to be tough but it’s doable. If these bikes couldn’t stand up to the pounding that they would be getting, our safety could be in real trouble. It was too remote to find help and walking in this vast open land under the screaming sun could mean dehydration, exhaustion or heat stroke.
The bikes were brand new and had so far served us well in the 325km ride from Phnom Penh. They had tackled some rough terrain to this point, but we’d always had the safety of the support van near by.
“Yeah. I do”. I said, cautiously.
As the team leader, it was my job to make sure everybody is safe. It was my first priority. Water we could carry. But if one of the bikes broke down, we could all be forced to walk and find local assistance. But the experience of taking the path less travelled into the unknown represents an excitement and adventure that creates priceless memories.
“Let’s do it!” the team cried. The adventure was too strong to deny and the rewards far outweighed the risks. It was unanimous.
We packed some basic medical supplies, water, spare tubes and said goodbye to the support van.
The road turned to track and split off into single paths like veins within the first few kilometers. The dry mud was a challenge and battered the bikes, but nothing they couldn’t handle. A strong sense of direction kept us in check and moving the right way amongst the scatter of choices before us.
A tiny waterway to our right was our guide as we knew we where there is water, there is life. After 34km of dust and dirt, the tracks had led to a tiny village. We were about a third of the way, but there was no more road. It just finished before us.
“We might need to take a boat down the river”. I said with a confidence of knowledge based on nothing more than a positive attitude. The team were a little stunned, a little excited and a world away from their Melbourne corporate life behind a desk.
Through my limited Khmer, a translator via phone and Google maps, we were able to negotiate a long tail boat ride down the river to another dirt track, that should lead us to Siem Reap.
Local villagers came out to witness the crazy white people lost with bicycles in their tiny town. Children brought out their own bicycle (parts) to play with in front of us. It was a part of Cambodia rarely seen by travellers and we were honored to be so welcomed.
The river was low and the water reeds high. With help, we stacked the bikes at the front of the boat and sat in a row behind them, filed and squashed in like sardines. The river ranged from 10m to 50m across and the water was obviously low. After an awkward 13 point turn, we were on our way. But within 3km, the engine had cut out and we appeared to be stranded from tangled reeds in the propeller.
A giant rusty machete was pulled out by the boat driver and passed between the team to hack the tangled reeds from the propeller. It was a challenge we didn’t expect to be facing.
Before long, we were on our way and the next village appeared in the distance. Behind the local huts, a single dirt track ventured towards the barren horizon. “Siem Reap!” the boat driver gestured as we struggled for the GPS to locate us.
So this was it. The final leg of the journey. Some 20 odd km into the horizon of dirt and dust should theoretically get us to the highway, roughly 30km from Siem Reap.
The midday sun scorched as shelter and shade was non existent across the wide open plains. Vacant farm lands as far as the eye could see in every direction was our only landscape as we pushed on against the turf of dried mud and rocks. Occasionally, water buffalo would submerge in the little water remaining, running parallel to the track, or congregate under the shade of a rarely found tree.
There was no doubt about it, this was a tough ride. The day was long but the spirit of the team was high. The adrenaline of pushing our physical boundaries to the limit, whilst exploring this remote country, was enough to pedal through the grit with the knowledge that a highway would be with us soon.
And as the sun reached its peak and our water ran dry, the first sign of civilization appeared. A radio tower stood tall on the horizon and the appearance of trees indicated a village lay ahead.
We had made it. Our bikes had carried us through some of the toughest, unknown terrain in Cambodia. Our sense of adventure had rewarded us with priceless memories and a belief that, with our victory over the land, there is nothing that we cannot achieve.
At our first possible opportunity, we smashed a few fizzy drinks and an ice cream. Our bodies absorbed the sorely needed sugar like a sponge.
As we sat in thoughtful bewilderment, a silly little smirk on our faces, in reflection of our crazy adventure, one of the team pondered…
“Thank goodness those bikes were damn tough! Because that could have been the best ride of my life!“