HIGHWAY TO HELL
El Camino de la Muerte
No matter where in the world in which you live, getting behind the wheel of a car and venturing out has its risks. Luckily, the vast majority of us make it to our destination, return home and live to drive another day. But there are a few choice spots in the world where you can exponentially increase your chance of disaster and death on the road. If you do manage to make it, you’ll certainly have a good story to tell your buddies when you get back home.
In the north of Bolivia, Yungas Road has earned its reputation as that with the highest death toll in the world. In fact, locals refer to it as El Camino de la Muerte, or Death Road. Hastily carved into the side of a mountain, guardrail free and with a vertical drops that plunge more than 1,500 feet, the drive here is nothing short of terrifying even for the most seasoned motorist. Much of the road has only one lane and can fit no more than one small car. It’s not hard to see how delicate of a dance in which the numerous passing trucks have to engage. Furthermore, the endless blind corners and hairpin turns are enough to make Indy 500 victor Dario Franchitti weep salt filled tears. It’s a sad but true fact that 30 to 40 vehicles drop off the edge of Yungas Road yearly and take the lives of 100 or more individuals with them.
At least Bolivia has some decent driving weather, unlike the next country that has offered drivers the coldest temperatures ever recorded outside of Antarctica.
If you’re truly looking for the ultimate adventure, or you just have a sick desire to punish yourself, then you need to plan a weekend getaway on the Russian Federal Highway. Of course if you do, a weekend may only be long enough to get you stuck in the mud and frozen into a Popsicle.
Starting in Moscow and leading to the Siberian town of Yakutsk, during the winter this highway is subject to some of the most treacherous snow, ice and permafrost conditions on the planet. Completely unpaved “to keep the Germans out” as the old joke goes, one particular stretch of the road over the Lena River turns into a solid block of ice. But if winter driving condition are not your thing, then try running your nifty Toyota Rav4 through these parts in the summer. That’s when the heavy rains come in and turn the road into a mud bath, making it nearly impassable to most vehicles.
If conditions of the highway itself do not deter you, then consider that this region is frequented by armed “Siberian mud pirates” who will gladly relieve you of your valuables and quite possibly your life.
No, we’re not talking about global warming. We’re talking about vastly different seasonal changes you will experience in rapid succession while driving the ups and downs of the 1,500 mile journey along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. And yes, it will leave you feeling intoxicated.
Starting in Chengdu, China and extending west to Lhasa, Tibet, the Sichuan-Tibet Highway extends across 14 mountains and crosses dozens of rivers, forests and enough danger zones to please the most daring, or stupid, of thrill seekers. Everything from warm spring to deep-freezing winter can be had within a few hours time here, provided that landslides or avalanches don’t take you out first. While the number of accidents in this region is not well recorded, there are certainly more than a few 4×4’s and their passengers that have taken a tumble into the Dadu and Jinsha rivers, never to be seen again.
But don’t worry, among the many ethnic groups that populate the areas along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, one custom that they all have in common is stop and say a prayer for the newly departed.
Of all the dangerous roads mentioned, Stelvio Pass Road in Italy, which connects Valtellina with Merano, is the least likely to kill you. But that doesn’t mean it’s a cruise down Main Street with your arm hanging out the window.
As the second highest paved road in the Alps and boasting 48 hairpin turns, each requiring careful negotiation to conquer, Stelvio Pass is probably one of the most challenging, fun and picturesque roads in all of Europe. Tourists in their rental cars frequent the road to test out their cornering skills and courage alike. During World War II, fierce battles were fought here and there are a few remnants worthy of sightseeing. If you visit during the summer, you’ll be able to witness countless bicycle and motorcycle races down the slope.
The key thing to remember about this road, and pretty much all dangerous roads, is that speed is the enemy. So slow down, enjoy the view and try not to wreck your car and yourself.
Eddie On the Edge
For 33 years, Tusker Trail’s own Eddie Frank has been leading treks across some of the harshest terrain on the planet. So it comes as no surprise that he’s had to endure a few challenging roads of his own.
“Back in ’78, I was running some trucks across the Sahara in order to sell them in West Africa,” Eddie says. “This time I was on my own, halfway between Reggane and Borj Mokhtar in Algeria. The heat was scorching and I was 400 miles from anywhere.” In order to keep his spirits and energy up, and stay fit, each day he’d pull off the main road for a jog. He would park the truck, jog down the road and then back. “On one particular day, as I was jogging along the track, a Land Rover full of Algerians pulled up alongside me. The unspoken protocol in the desert is that you always stop to help. They couldn’t figure out why a guy in shorts was running on the road when there was no vehicle in site. They assumed I was in need of help so they offered me a ride. Of course I declined. They couldn’t understand why I was refusing their help when I was in an obvious hurry to get somewhere. I kept refusing the lift and finally they threw up their hands and drove off, yelling, ‘Majnoon’.”
That means “crazy man” in Algerian.
This was one of the first steps towards Eddie’s accomplishment as a “Roads Scholar”.