Sunday, 30 October 2011

Stahlratte (The Darien Gap)

Mon 24th to Fri 28th October

It's a common misconception that you can drive all the way from Alaska to the bottom of South America. For those unaware, there is no road or even a useable track through an area known as the Darien Gap that lie's between Panama and Colombia. Everything moving between South and Central America has to either fly or go by sea. Surprisingly there are no roll on roll off ferries either, and if you want to take a vehicle it is normally transported by air or shipped by container. A few enterprising boat owners have devised a more interesting alternative for the travelling community, however......

For those of you back in the UK about to face dark evenings and cold wet days, stop reading any more of this blog entry unless you don't mind feeling just a little envious.

Our meeting point on the edge of Panama City airport.

Up bright and early this morning (6am) to meet with the other bikes for the 60 mile ride to Carti where we pick up our transport to traverse the Darien Gap. There were 15 bikes including one Ural with sidecar and a number of girls riding solo.

Terry heading for Carti.

Adventure travellers are an independent bunch. We intended to travel in convoy, however, within 5 minutes of setting off the group had splintered into at least three groups all going different ways, but all managing to arrive at the same place within a few minutes of each other.

Arriving on the quayside and seeing the boat sitting a few yards offshore was one of those memorable moments.

Ok we're here, what next?

Stahlratte is a 120 year old vessel that was originally built as a fishing boat and now owned by a German non profit making foundation. It's mandate is to travel the World but for the past six years has been seduced by the warm Caribbean waters. Other than running a ferry service for travellers and back packers, it also cruises to Cuba and some of the other Caribbean Islands.

Once Stahlratte had come alongside the jetty and we had unloaded the luggage, it was a quick process hoisting all the bikes on board.

Once all the bikes were secured........

....... it was time for some lunch

Capt Bob on the Bridge directing operations.

We motored a short distance and dropped anchor for the night off some islands inhabited by the kuna indians.

These islands off the Panamanian coast are no more that a foot above sea level and populated by families living mainly in basic wooden and thatch structures.

One moderate wave would wipe the islands clean but fortunately a large reef protects them from any rough water.

Some of the locals arriving at the boat. The canoes are constructed from a single piece of wood as they have been for hundreds of years.

Dinner on the top deck.

Our fellow travellers are from the Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Germany, the States, Canada and one guy from Panama who's originally from Italy.
From what we’ve heard we seem to have got away lightly so far, with one couple being robbed and several others stuck for days in Central America as a result of landslides and bad weather. One girl's bike arrived on the dock by pick up as they couldn’t get the spares needed before the boat sailed.

Tuesday - This morning we waited for six backpackers to be brought by dingy to the boat and then set off for some coral reefs and uninhabited islands about four hours sailing away.

We dropped anchor amongst a group of picture postcard islands.

We wondered whether we could get one of the bikes onto the beach for a photo opportunity but settled for this instead.

The ships crew. Ludwig in the middle is the captain and the only full time crew member. He is also the navigator, engineer, deckhand and stand in cook. The other two are volunteers, Floyd on the left is from France whilst Nicole is German. Our thanks to all three for making our trip such fun. No-one's come up with a better way to cross the gap with their bike that we're aware of.

Who pulled the bloody rope away!!

Once moored it was like rats leaving a sinking ship as everyone dived, jumped or fell into the sea from any available spot on the boat.

The afternoon was spent swimming to the islands, sunbathing on deck or snorkelling among the coral reefs. Is there a better way to spend the day?

Late in the afternoon we set up camp on one of the nearby islands for a BBQ.......

....... and watched the sun go down

With the food cooking and plenty of beer, together with rum, vodka, tequila and a few other bottles of unknown origin out of peoples panniers, the party began.

There were a few sore heads and those who slept on deck were given a soaking when the rains came. Everyone scuttled below, except Bob who spent much of the night on the wheelhouse floor! (not drunk I hasten to add).

Wednesday - Another day chilling out on the boat and in the water.............

Up the mast. I wouldn't want to be here on a windy day!

A boatload coming back from a snorkelling trip.

Bob (top) taking a dip off the boat.

The reef wasn't far away. I hope Ludwig knows the way out!

Thursday - At 5.30am the noise of the engine starting and the anchor being raised, slowly brought us to conciousness. It was the start of the 24hr trip to Cartagena and as soon as we left the shelter of the reef, the boat started to roll gently with the waves like a cork from a bottle. A few people were quickly feeding the fish and I retreated to my bunk (there are some downsides to sailing).

A load of ungainly fish in the water.

The engine was cut for 10 minutes in the middle of the 'Golfo del Darien' to give us the opportunity for a quick dip. It was 1300 metres to the bottom and nothing but water to be seen in any direction.

One of the few bits of excitement during the crossing. A USAF surveillance plane checking out to see if we're drug runners.

Friday - Shortly after dawn we stumbled on deck and momentarily thought we were back in Panama. I didn't expect all these skyscrapers as we sailed into Cartagena.

Terry on a new type of jet ski

Once we had the ok from the agent we started the process of unloading the bikes. First they were winched overboard onto the rubber dingy and then taken to the shore.........

...... where they were manhandled out of the boat. That's a fair amount of effort when you consider most of these bikes are around 200kgs each. I'm surprised there were no accidents or injuries but it was a slick operation with each bike taking less than 10 minutes from being winched off the boat to being on dry land.

A bunch of fed up bikers waiting in the customs hall.

The next bit was a little more tedious. All the bikes were taken to customs for temporary importation to Colombia. An agent was organising the paperwork & inspections but we were still there for over six hours. We had to unload all our luggage from the boat after clearing Customs and it was past 10 o'clock before we arrived at our hotel all hot and sweaty and desperate for a beer.

Welcome to South America........


  1. I'm now officially jealous......

    Have fun guys.

    Phil Hawksley

  2. Terrific post today. Best yet! And yeah, I'm jealous too.

  3. Wow, put me among the jealous. Snowed here last night so I think my riding is about done for the year. I now wish I was with you guys. The past few days are just unbelievable for you. Might be the best part of the trip. Safe travels. Eric

  4. Here is another account of crossing the Darien Gap by boat and foot: Crossing the Darién Gap (2013).

    That documentary was filmed on March 2013.

    Happy travels!