Sports Active: Trails of the Unexpected ; If You've Never Ridden a Motorcycle before, Dirt-Biking in Cambodia Can Be Tough. Fierce Heat, Sheer Drops - and the Odd Landmine. Andrew Spooner Lives to Tell the Tale
Spooner, Andrew, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The heat is unbearable, I'm tired, filthy and my limbs are aching. I sit in the dirt, head lolling, trying to grab a bit of shade. I take my helmet off and toss it into a bush. I've had enough. "Not too far now," says my cheery guide and tour leader, the wonderfully monickered Zeman McCreadie. "I know you feel like giving up, but when we get there you'll realise it's been worth all the effort."
We've been in the saddle for nearly five hours on the way to to the ancient Khmer ruins at Preah Khan - the third-largest temple complex in a country famed for its antiquities. The Cambodian terrain mixes deep, thick sand with narrow, hard ruts - perfectly designed to toss you off the bike and into the dirt. Add in sweltering 35C heat and the potential of landmines if you veer too far off the established track, and every sinew of mind and body is being tested.
I had first sat on a dirt bike six days earlier. In fact, if you don't count a couple of years riding a vintage Vespa around London, it was my first time on a motorbike of any kind. And there are certainly easier places to learn to ride a 250cc Honda XR Baja trail bike than the reckless streets of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.
By the time we set off the next morning for the abandoned 1920s French hill resort of Bokor, 130 miles south of the Cambodian capital, I am reasonably confident, though. Learning a new and potentially dangerous activity is made easier when you have a teacher who has patience and experience. McCreadie has both in abundance. Originally from St David's in West Wales, he ended up in Cambodia in 1994 after backpacking around Asia, and began dirt- biking the remoter stretches of the country. "You'd hear heavy machine-gun fire every night in Phnom Penh, and there was hardly a tarmacked road in the country," he says. "It was perfect for nutty dirt bikers."
McCreadie, 32, set up a series of dirt-bike Rally Raids that took upwards of 40 riders for wild sojourns deep into the uncharted regions of a country devastated by years of civil war. "The locals treated us like we'd just stepped off a spaceship," he says. But this gang of unruly bikers also had a conscience, becoming involved with organisations such as Unicef and distrib-uting health advice, medicines and condoms."Each rally had a theme. We wanted to make a positive contribution to the places we passed through," says McCrea- die, who has set up an adventure-travel company, Cambodia Expeditions, to extend this experience to paying customers.
Back on the road, the first two hours to Bokor pass easily enough. Apart from the potholes, stray cows, packs of mean-dering cyclists and veering, seemingly possessed, bus drivers, it is a breeze. The next two hours are decidedly tougher.
"It's a steep climb from here, and the road is a mix of sand and large rocks. Take it slowly and you should be OK," McCreadie says as we reach the foot of the Bokor plateau. I ask if he had any other tips. "Sit as far forward in the seat as possible. That way your centre of gravity is more stable and you can steer by shifting your weight. Also, stay in first or second gear and, if you get into trouble, give it some throttle."
I'm soon nervously motoring up the switchback trail. Every so often my front wheel hits a large rock, causing me to lose control momentarily and my heart to skip a beat. I get up to speeds of 30mph, start swinging the bike around a little then nervously slow down again. At times we are in the midst of gargantuan trees and ferns. The next moment the track offers up stunning vistas of the plains below as we run along a sheer drop.
We near the top of the plateau and a vast plain opens up before us. We head towards a series of ruined buildings, one of which had once been a casino. …