Beautiful freedom, terrifying reality

Biting off more than I could chew on the Baja Divide 

Words and images

Tom Bradshaw

Scrambling down the bank, off the dirt road, frantically searching for a non-cactus filled piece of desert, I know I’m in trouble. I leave the bike behind. Turning left, turning right rushing through the sand filling my riding boots. Mercifully, finding a clear, seemingly not too snake-filled patch of desert. 

Then for the sixth time in the past two hours, I unashamedly squat and perform a filthy crime in the desert. I’m not proud of myself. In fact, I’m quite worried. It’s nearly dark, I’m by myself and I’m still at least two hours away from the nearest porcelain. I might have bitten off more than I can chew on this adventure. 

Or maybe it was the King Pablo omelette I’d had for breakfast 10 hours earlier. 

I’d started pedaling into the desert of Baja California in Mexico, blissfully unaware and underprepared for what I’d decided to do. A week earlier it seemed like a good idea to fly back to Canada. I’d see how far I could ride in 21 days. 

The Baja California Peninsula is a 1247km-long, 40km-wide finger of desert running from San Diego, off the west coast of Mexico, to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas at its southern tip. To the west lies rough and dramatic Pacific Ocean, to the East, the bathtub-warm Sea of Cortez separating the peninsula from the mainland of Mexico. The Baja Divide is a reasonably well documented 2500km route. It spends 95 per cent of its time off road, usually ridden from north to south, crisscrossing mountains up to 3000m above sea level. 

Like all good stories, this one starts at a wedding: a Kiwi friend was marrying an American. The decided “halfway” point between New Zealand and Indiana was Mexico. To be precise the beach paradise of Cabo. The American geography might have been questionable, but it was a perfect excuse to start at the southernmost tip of the peninsular. 

A few days after the wedding, it was 7am and I was in a Mexican restaurant eagerly eying up the King Pueblo omelette. Blissfully unaware of what’s ahead, I’d never been in the desert before, I’d never camped by myself before, I’ve never encountered rattlesnakes, scorpions and vultures before. 

By the third mouthful, reality hit: the first thought of self-doubt, that first feeling of nervousness, that feeling in your stomach, the twist of nervousness, the tightening of excitement … and the belated punch of gastric distress. 

Go big was the plan for day one—120km big. I’d head north west from Cabo through the remote mountains to the west coast to finish up at a surf, sun and beach picture-postcard holiday town called Todos Santos. Once there, I’d treat myself to a cheap hostel as a reward for making it through my first day in the desert (and delay rolling out the bivy bag with the rattlesnakes for one more night). Oh, how not picture-postcard perfect did it go. 

Three hours post mega omelet, and I found myself 20km into the 120km-day, sitting under a tree, sweating from places I didn’t know I could. At this rate I was looking at a 17-hour first day.  

After breakfast I’d turned on to the dirt roads leading into the mountains and was immediately chased by three scary dogs. Following that spike in pace and heart rate, I was met by a 90-minute trudge through a sandpit that would’ve been at home in any well-groomed golf bunker. I hadn’t really listened to the advice to have at-least 2.5-inch wide tyres. My 2.3-inch Nobby Nic rear tyre, even at 10psi, wasn’t enough to keep my 32kg, water-ladened bike and me moving forward. As I pushed the bike in the baking sun, the only positive thoughts I had were for my 110 peso (NZ$1.10) bucket hat with mega back flap that I’d bought at a local market the day before.  

By midday, it was 34C and I’d reached the point of commitment at the top of the first of two major climbs. If I continued and descended north west, I’d be committing to a 70km stretch of no resupply, out of sight of the city of Cabo, just, me, my bike, some food, and 6 litres of water. 

Blissfully, I dropped into the dusty desert. 

At the bottom of this descent, I tried to eat. Usually, I eat every 45 minutes on a big day, but at this point I could barely stomach a banana. 

As the hours wore on, I was greeted by dried river beds, more things with spikes I had ever seen in my life and increasing discomfort in my belly. I’ve been lucky to adventure in many beautiful landscapes, but this particular valley felt more remote than any place I’d ever been. 

“I knew I was in trouble when I could see the sweat building on my riding top like salt spilt on a kitchen table.” 

I knew I was in trouble when I could see the sweat building on my riding top like salt spilt on a kitchen table. Salt crystals were forming on my sleeves, bag, chest and even my face. I was nearing the top of the second climb though. Soon I’d be descending to the pacific coast and resupply. Eating was off the cards, but thankfully I could still drink. 

Near the top of the second climb, I performed a liquid audit while lying under what seemed like the only tree in the valley. It didn’t look good. Of the seven litres I started with, I was down to less than one: 3 litres in the frame bag, gone; 1.5 litres in the camelback, gone; 750mls of drink bottle, gone; one litre of Powerade in Croc number one, gone. The only remaining liquid was the 750mls of Coca-Cola in Croc number two. 

By my dehydrated maths, I still had a good 50km to go. That should be OK—there’s three hours of daylight left, and I’ve got a 500m descent soon. How wrong that equation was…. 

Anyone who’s ridden with a loaded bike before will tell you that your average speed is dramatically decreased. Without adding in the sand, dry river crossings and incoming gastric distress, I’d ambitiously concluded that I could maintain a 17km/h average. It was with that optimism I summited the second climb, catching the first view of the Pacific Ocean. 

“I felt the bonk coming on as soon as I started descending the rough, dirt track.” 

I felt the bonk coming on as soon as I started descending the rough, dirt track. As my view of the ocean disappeared, still 40km away, I realised I was in for some of the hottest, hardest and most vulnerable biking I have ever done. 

Fortunately, the sand in the delta of a dried river I was riding in wasn’t as brutal as earlier in the day, a constant rhythm of 20m vertical climb and 20m descent. 

As I got closer to the coast, I started to notice strange tracks across the road I was on. Slithering is the best way to describe them. I couldn’t see any movement through my sand and sun crusted eyes, but the tracks were getting more and more frequent. And then it happened.  

Hazily blasting down a slight descent, I noticed an object in the middle of the road. At about 5m, I realised that the object was rattling, coiled and looking right at me.  

“At about 5m, I realised that the object was rattling, coiled and looking right at me. “

At this point I’m nearly 10 hours into a bonk the size of the Pacific Ocean and I have no ability to avoid this very pissed off-looking rattlesnake, the tongue, fangs and the flare behind the ears. I swerved marginally to the right of the road at the last moment, hearing the snake’s rattle crescendo as it lunged for me. I’ve never ever put more power into five pedal strokes. 

Shaking with adrenaline, I stopped at what I assumed was a safe distance and drained the last of my precious liquids with quivering hands.

As the sun sank into the horizon, I knew I had to ride the wave of the red doctor and keep moving before I bonked entirely. However, it was then my stomach really started to flip. I urgently needed a bathroom. Cautiously squatting on the side of the track, I performed what would become the first of many crimes in the desert that day.  

And so, the next two or three hours dragged on, pedalling west into the setting sun, intermittently stopping for relief, hoping to make it to a hostel to try to get some food in my system. Fortunately, as the sun set, I came across the smallest, most wonderful store in Mexico, perhaps even in the world. It didn’t have much, but it had Coca-Cola, Powerade and water. In dribbled Spanish I ordered all three, sitting outside with the dogs gently drinking as much as my distressed stomach could handle. 

Refuelled, I knew I could make it the remaining 20km in the dark. I was in a state when I eventually arrived at the hostel. Those poor bunkmates of mine that night. Fortunately for them I spent most of the night on the toilet. I had to spend the next three days re-gathering my strength. I was not in a good wayI definitely admit to looking up flights back to Canada. However, after some rest and Mexican hospitality, I was ready to continue north, this time with more liquid, food and respect for the desert. 

It was a harsh environment, one that a naive Kiwi was not prepared for. But I’m proud to say that over the next 18 days, I eventually overcame my fear of camping in the sand with the snakes, enjoying amazing nights camping on the most stunning beaches, under the star-filled skies. By myself but always welcomed by every single local I met along the way. Never once locking my bike, I made fires to cook dinner in tin foil parcels, watched dolphins and grey whales play in the sea. 

Unsurprisingly, I only made it about halfway up the peninsula in my limited timeframe, taking the bus and train the rest of the way up the West Coast back to Canada. But as I’d come to discover, when you’re alone, you’re your only source of motivation, your only source of remonstrationyou have to look after yourself. It’s a beautiful freedom but also a terrifying reality.