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Extreme Holidays: Surviving Death Valley

Published: 19 April 2015

Updated: 20 April 2015

‘I’m so hot, I can’t even decide which way to go’

Surviving Death Valley is hard enough, going there for a biking holiday is just mental. MCN goes mental.

A bead of acidic sweat trickles into my left eye and stings. I close it and use my other eye to scan the vast nothingness in front of me. The engine is burning my legs and my feet sit in pools of seemingly boiling water. I think I might faint.

I must look like a lost and sweaty Pop-eye – a Pop-eye on a BMW R1200GSA, that is, in the middle of a desert. My heart starts to pump faster as I imagine vultures circling overhead then deliriously ponder if vultures even live in Death Valley, the desert in which I am so spectacularly lost.

Suddenly, I spot a small plume of dust in the distance. I ping my goggles over my sore eyes, kick the GS into first and spin the back wheel until it gets traction in the loose gravel. This is the fastest I’ve ridden all day, the back tyre snaking violently over shale as the front bounces over serrated rocks. Just as I start to gain on the plume it makes a sharp turn.

There’s no way I’m losing it; I flick up into fourth and open the throttle, chasing it across the Nevada desert at 70mph. I’m panicky and sweating hard. Eventually the plume of dust comes to a stop and I ride into it before braking hard. As the dust settles I look around and see two riders with a GPS! I really should have brought one of those. 

Viva Las Vegas

Last night I was in a Las Vegas casino watching old Thai women gambling into the early hours, yanking on levers, working the slots and dangling cigarettes from wrinkled mouths. The streets were bustling as beautiful women waltzed by in large feathery costumes, and neon lights burned brightly into the sky. Tonight, I’m setting up camp somewhere in a desolate desert, trying to block out the sound of wailing coyotes. The campsite is only an hour’s drive from the famous Vegas strip, but it feels worlds apart.

Hell yeah

The morning sun fills my tent with heat, leaving no time for a lie-in, so I make a quick escape. The site is filled with like-minded nutcases who also thought it would be a good idea to ride their adventure bikes through one of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth, Death Valley. I manage to swap the heavy R1200GSA for a lighter BMW F800GS and, as I didn’t bring a GPS, find five mates to ride with for the day. We scoff bacon, slurp coffee and head straight out.

As we ride, the Beemer’s bars start to shake. I look down to see the grey stones we’ve been riding over slowly turn into gold sand. I look up and see towering dunes blocking our path. “Hey Andy, have you ever ridden over a dune?” shouts fellow rider Fonze. 

“Other than the beach, no.” 

“Hell yeah, you’ll love this then, just don’t let off the gas!”

At 214kg the 800 isn’t the lightest bike in the group, but its 85bhp should help. I grab first gear and hesitantly ride onto the dune, making it half way before the rear sinks. No-one rides up to help me – they’ll get stuck too – while giving it gas makes the tyre sink lower into the sand. I push the bike over, and rock the handlebars from full lock to lock while pushing down on the bars until the front wheel faces downhill. I’m suffocating inside my helmet, which is acting like a solar panel, absorbing the sun’s rays and burning them through my skull. My mouth is so dry it stings. I forget why I’m here and want nothing more than to be out of this quicksand and in an ice-cool pool. 

Once I finally get down I have no choice but to turn around and face my nemesis again. After riding 200 miles in 30ºC and heaving an F800GS down a dune, I’m drunk on heat and brimming with Dutch courage. I pin the throttle, stand tall and slam into the wall of sand, willing my right hand not to back off the gas. The GS growls its way to the top, then plunges down a six-foot drop and up the other side. A fountain of sand sprays from the rear wheel and I’m laughing out loud. For five glorious heat-stroked minutes, I feel like I know what I’m doing – and it is by far the most fun I’ve had on two wheels in years.

Dusk falls

As the sun starts to drop, my heat hangover kicks in and I struggle to make a single decision – awkward because we’re surrounded by a plethora of trails and choices. I’m so hot I can’t even decide which way to go. Behind us lie the sand mountains, to the south an ancient dried-up river bed which stretches on for miles.

To the east is a maze of dusty gravel tracks snaking off into the unknown. We eventually decide to ride west and cross the mountains back to our base camp in Pahrump. The sand switches to gravel and the dunes return to cacti and emptiness for miles until the rolling backdrop decides to change once again. The gravel transforms, turning into red mud and the cacti multiply and morph into towering snow-capped trees, the track spiralling higher and higher as we try to break through the two mountains blocking our path home.

Ahead of me the lead rider is silhouetted against the sun and the effect is almost biblical. I can’t help but follow him closely, utterly mesmerised. Sure, I’m going to taste dust for the next two weeks, but this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done.  




AltRider are a US-based adventure bike accessory firm. They specialise in crash protection and adventure gear, but also organise the Taste of Dakar event in Nevada a self-guided tour through some of the most intense routes on earth.

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