Adventurous travelers seek the road less traveled
By Jerry Garrett
Copley News Service
Adventure tourists are adrenalin junkies.
Christoph Del Bondio is one who has found a way to make a living at it. After mountain climbing, a form of bungee jumping without bungees, and solo transcontinental motorcycling, he said he ran out of things to do to scare himself. So, Del Bondio, a Bavarian by birth and a carpenter by trade, started an adventure travel company about 15 years ago.
Del Bondio Adventure Travel specializes in two-wheeled tours across Spain's Pyrenees Mountains, through the Sahara Desert, and epic rides from one end of South America to the other. Most last a week, sometimes two.
His company's reach, and its fortunes, took an exponential leap a few years ago when it joined forces with BMW Motorcycles.
It was on the latter's new R1200GS "adventure tourism" bike that a select group was invited to ride with Del Bondio on a three-day adventure to searing-hot Death Valley, Calif.
For a fee of $2,000 to $4,000, depending on a trip's duration, Del Bondio will provide adventure tourists a BMW or Suzuki motorcycle and gear, map the route, arrange logistics and lead the ride. The price can be reduced by bringing one's own motorcycle, helmet, protective riding suit, gloves, boots and cup. Groups may be as small as a lone rider, or as large as 50.
Regardless of the number of participants, it's a loosely scripted activity. There's always that "element of surprise" so vital for any adventure tourism endeavor.
The new BMW R1200GS motorcycles our group of 12 was riding had been outfitted with knobby off-road tires. They squirmed and shuddered on the highway, but happily ate up the dust off-road.
Thermal winds, which roar serendipitously up or down Death Valley's badlands, were blowing northerly at gale force, as we descended into the valley. We stopped overnight at the historic Furnace Creek Inn, the only hotel in the 130-mile-long, 12-mile-wide sinkhole. The gusts were nearly enough to unseat us from our bikes, but they did ameliorate somewhat the effects of the record 112-degree heat.
"It is unfortunate," Del Bondio said of the heat wave. "There are other, better times to be in Death Valley, for sure, but this is when we picked. So we will deal with it."
After dinner, near midnight, Del Bondio advised us we needed to be on the road by sunrise for a 30-mile ride to wondrous Titus Canyon.
Wary riders quizzed Del Bondio, "No sand?"
"No," Del Bondio promised, "only easy stuff."
However, the next morning, five miles into the easy stuff, Del Bondio himself crashed hard in the rocks, disabling his bike and gashing his left forearm. Our chase truck and crew were 18 miles ahead of us, at the canyon's mouth, where our catered breakfast awaited us.
Now, our leader was hurt and bleeding. We would have to lead ourselves out of this mess. Hadn't this been the basic plot of "Deliverance"?
There really was no turning around, and it would take hours to forge ahead, get help, and return. But that was no solution; this road was too tough for our chase truck. Now what?
"I think I will just coast the bike down as far as I can," Del Bondio said. "I think it is downhill most of the way."
Del Bondio silently disappeared into the steep, labyrinthine canyon like a roller coaster rider headed for The Drop.
Following him, I stupidly stalled my bike in a switchback turn. When you do that, the tires freeze I was saddened to learn. So, the bike flopped. I hit with a resounding thud, but my armored suit cushioned my fall.
The bike, however, wasn't as lucky; a quartz shard holed the soft magnesium cylinder head case, and the engine's lifeblood gushed out. Now, two bikes would have to be coasted down, engine off, for 18 miles.
The object of the game was to milk the soft brake lever for just enough stopping power to careen safely through turns, and then to release them to regain momentum for the uphills.
About halfway down, I passed Del Bondio, who had stopped in a level area. No time to admire the narrow canyon's geologic kaleidoscope; I still had momentum going, so he waved me on. A following rider stopped to photograph a hissing rattlesnake I'd surprised as I crept quietly past.
After perhaps the quietest half-hour of my life, I rounded a sharp corner in the tightening canyon and re-emerged into Death Valley's searing void - to find our Penske rental truck, an EZ-up and a gourmet brunch awaiting me.
A rider went back up with a roll of duct tape to patch up Del Bondio and his bike. A few minutes later, our fearless bleeder rode out. He dressed his arm in paper towels, then wrapped duct tape around the whole mess. Good to go, we completed the rest of our tour without incident.
Yes, the adventure was over, and we had survived. The ending was an unscripted one, but satisfying nonetheless. We celebrated the successful completion of a task that had daunted, punished and challenged us in ways our everyday lives seldom do.
Our sense of achievement was well justified; and, isn't that the appeal of adventure tourism?
Next time, however, we will come in winter, not summer; we'll bring plenty of duct tape and bandages, and a more wary leader.
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