Well that’s exactly what this homesick pommie couple did. Setting off on their trusty bikes from Australia they headed off for the UK to have a nice cup of tea with their mums.
We had one more challenge to overcome before we reached the border with China; the Hunza Lake in northern Pakistan. In January 2010 there was a huge landslide near the town of Attabad, completely blocking the valley and damming the river. The result was that a 23 km section of the Karakorum Highway is now entirely under water, and the only way across it is by boat. The enterprising locals have brought wooden fishing boats up on trucks from the south of the country to act as rudimentary ferries.
We casually asked our hotel owner about how to get across the lake.
I have a friend who may be able to help. He has a guest house in Karrimabad, he will know someone.Karrimabad was the next big town north and the last town before the lake, which, was apparently less than an hour beyond it. He called his friend and as luck would have it, the guy knew a boatman. We put a deal together.
As we left Gilgit the next morning it began to rain. We’d read that on this section of road we’d get to see Mount Rakaposhi. Apparently from the roadside as you look up you can see 5000m of sheer mountainside thrusting up into the air. We wouldn’t know. In fact when we rode past the viewpoint, the road was so thick in cloud we didn’t even realise that we’d missed it. The rain got harder and the riding was beginning to get pretty cold and miserable. The dirt sections of road were slippery mud and on our tarmac biased tyres it was all getting to be a bit like hard work. We were pretty glad to arrive at our guest house in Karrimabad that afternoon without dropping a bike. Once settled in, we talked to the boss to check all arrangements for the lake crossing were in place.
In the morning the weather was perfect. The hour or so ride up on the bikes with no luggage was great. The excitement and nervousness built as we rounded each bend in the road. When would we see the landslide that had caused so much trouble? All the way up, the mountains were getting bigger and steeper and the further we climbed the more dramatic scenery became.
Then, as we rattled our way around a rough corrugated corner, it appeared; the landslide. It was immense. The whole valley was blocked. We just sat there on our bikes, looking at the chaotic scene in front of us. In amongst the rocks, boulders and dust, men toiled. In order to get up and over the landslide, everything that was either going north or south from the lake had to be loaded and unloaded onto the back of 4×4 pick-ups or tractor & trailer. The scene was absolutely crazy. Gangs of labour were humping boxes, bundles and packages by hand on and off the vehicles. A thick dust cloud hung in the air only made worse by the exhaust fumes from all the diesel engines. We watched as the 4x4s and tractors attempted the climb up the steep track, thick black exhaust fumes spewing out as they struggled on the rough, loose surface. The track itself looked like a complete bastard. The constant traffic pounding up and down over the last year had reduced the surface into foot deep dust, as fine as talc. This, in turn was littered with jagged rocks, anything from the size of a golf ball to a watermelon. It was steep and there were also several tight hairpins to negotiate. In short, it looked like a bloody nightmare. But we HAD to get over it.
We sat at the bottom, waiting for a break in the traffic, took a deep breath and went for it. Soon into the climb, a group of labourers who were walking down the track towards us looked up at the mountain in horror and started running. I looked up to see what had scared them. Fuck! There was another landslide coming down right above us! It was way up high but coming in our direction. In controlled panic we gunned it, the bikes slithering around as they struggled to get traction. Luckily the landslide petered out before it got down to our level with nothing more than some dust and a few pebbles actually reaching the track, but it was one more thing we could well have done without.
After that little extra bit of stress, we stopped to take a look at the rest of the climb. God it looked bloody tough. There were three really tight switchbacks that had about a 45 degree slope on the inside of the turns. We rode on, pounding the bikes up, slipping the clutch in order to get the right amount of power without going too fast. We were both so close to coming off so many times. Trying to pick our line was impossible. The rocks were invisible, buried in the dust. We just had to ‘give it some’ and hope our momentum carried us through as we smashed across whatever was under our wheels.
Once at the top, we stopped to take in the view. We could now see the scale of the landslide and the lake behind it. It was enormous. Literally the whole side of the mountain had cracked away and fallen into the valley. I’d previously wondered why they couldn’t have just cleared it. Now I understood. It was immense. The lake sat beyond. It looked magnificent; a huge bright turquoise ‘sea’. We could see the snow-capped peaks reflecting in the clear, still surface. The horrendous track continued beyond us as it wound its way down to the lakeside. It looked like more of the same testing conditions.
There on the water, sat the ‘ferries’ we’d heard about; simple wooden fishing boats, each one about 40 foot in length. The scene at the water’s edge was complete chaos. The boats were pulled up against the dirt bank. A couple of men holding each one against the shore with a rope, whilst gangs of others walked back and forth over gangplanks carrying the same sort of bundles we’d seen coming on and off the trucks. To the side of this was a metal floating pontoon with a smooth ramp down to it. Apparently it was owned by the military and was completely out of bounds. Oh well, a dodgy plank of wood it was then!
Up close, the scene really was total carnage. Whilst some men were humping great big sacks from the boats to the shore, others were rolling rusty 44 gallon drums of tar back the other way into another boat. No one waited until the other was off the gangplank; they just went when they fancied it, causing them to clamber over each other whilst performing a balancing act on a wobbly plank. The shouting, the dust, the scorching sun, the craziness, the excitement and the need to get across was almost too much to take in. Our boat captain shouted at us, beckoning us to get on with loading. He was moored two boats back from the water’s edge. This meant our bikes and gear would not only have to be manhandled across a wobbly ramp, but then up and over the tar barrels on the first boat, only then finally reaching our boat.
We assembled our team of merry men and decided to do Kate’s bike first as it was lighter and easier to move around. I showed my crew which bits of the bike were good or bad to grab hold of and away we went. The plank was about 2 inches thick, 12 inches wide and about 12 foot long. It had a nice big twist in it, making it extra wobbly. The loading crew wouldn’t let me anywhere near the bike. They’d been paid to do a job so they were going to do it. There was nothing I could do but watch as they lifted Kate’s machine onto the plank and started the balancing act over the water. We stood there with nervous grins on our faces, looking first at each other then at the progress of the bike then back to each other, eyes wide. One slip and the bike would be gone forever. The bank side was sheer and through the icy, clear water we could see that it just kept going down and down.
After a few agonising minutes they made it safely onto the tar boat. Now it was simply a case of manhandling the bike up and over the barrels and down onto our boat. Once there, they lowered the XT down into the belly of the boat. Bloody hell, they’d done it. Not too bad a job for a 120kg bike.
Next was my 200kg lump of metal. The weight of the DR Suzuki caused a few raised eyebrows, they clearly needed a bit of a re think on how to approach this task. After a bit of arguing amongst themselves they came up with the idea of placing another plank parallel with the existing one, that way they could walk on one whilst they guided the bike along the other. In theory it sounded OK so we just got on with it. There was no way I was going to let go of my pride and joy, so off we went slowly edging our way across the planks. I had to stop them twice on the way across as the bike was going off course. We hopped the back wheel across, turned the bars a bit and continued.
The captain fired up the engines and we were off, leaving the chaos behind. The twin engine boat was pretty basic and cronky. The captain’s seat was a broken wooden chair with the fuel tank behind it used as a back rest, all secured together with a piece of frayed nylon rope. Neither engine had an exhaust. All four crew were happy, smiling, friendly Pakistanis just like all the others we’d met along the way. The weirdest thing was that despite all the craziness of the situation, they actually made us wear life jackets!
As we motored our way across the lake I just couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The scenery was fantastic but on top of this visual treat was a real feeling of wildness. The crazy road, the incredible lake, the mad loading procedure. We were miles away from home and civilisation and it felt brilliant.
We just sat back and soaked it all up: The towering mountains, the sublime beauty and the incredible noise from the engines. I’d waited years to be somewhere like this, doing something like this and nothing was going to spoil it.