Part 1: Close Calls
As I write, I'm already wondering if the story I'm about to relate will be believed.
If you've never previously read in these pages any of the stories of my motorbike escapades, you may suspect I'm making this up. But I can assure you dear reader, it's all true...
Of course, it's your choice whether or not you choose to believe me. All I can say is that I have lived through the experience I am about to tell you. I haven't embellished the detail, nor glorified the account.
OK, so you're probably wondering where I'm going with this.
The story I want to tell you today is the one of my craziest motorcycle adventures, and as I've said already, scarcely believable. It all took place at the end of September 1974, on the occasion of the 4th meeting of the Andorra rally.
It is for this miserable piece of junk commemorating the 4th meeting of Andorra that I almost lost my life on 29 September 1974
Dicing with Death
We all know people for whom life is a constant stream of non-events; nothing ever really happens in their lives. Their routine continues without the slightest hiccup. They have a very good chance of dying in a bed at a ripe old age; a seemingly respectable and peaceful passing, and one that I perhaps envy.
As for me, apart from my teenage years, almost all my life due to lifestyle and destiny has been somewhat of a flirtation with danger, and on some occasions even with death.
I no longer count the close shaves or the many times grim shadows have crossed my path. What is certain is that on some occasions, it wouldn't have taken much for the Grim Reaper to have scored a victory over me and I would indeed have left this world much earlier than expected. I am apparently the kind of cat for whom fate has decreed that I should possess many more than nine lives.
And each time, whether by luck, fate or karma, I came out of it with a big scare, an adrenaline rush and a heart rate off the scale!
Like many die-hard rallyists who have accumulated hundreds of thousands of kilometres all over the world on 2 or 3 wheels, I have had my share of brushes with death. But in actual fact, very little compared to the mileage I amassed during the 15 years from 1970 to 1985. This was time spent constantly riding, indulging my ever-present passion for motorbike touring before I emigrated from my native France to live as I do now in South East Asia.
But tragedy was already in the shadows. My best friend, riding pillion behind me, died in my arms one day in September 1977, while returning from a rally in Belgium. Unbelievably I came out unscathed from this tragic accident which was the result of a burst rear tyre. Although I suffered no physical injuries; I was to say the least morally and psychologically wrecked. This sort of tragedy breeds another kind of death. The kind that lies inside yourself, constantly influencing, to this day, one's life and the course of one's ongoing existence.
Car accidents? Very few too! As a motorcycle fanatic, I never wanted to get my car licence and therefore never drove one. That didn't stop me as a passenger from being the victim of car accidents, the most serious of which was in Malaysia, from which I came out once again unharmed although with a serious concussion.
I would certainly claim not to be a champion swimmer or some sort of Navy Seal, far from it, but competent enough to be able to get from one point to another in the water if the distance is not too far. Nevertheless, during my travels and fishing adventures of the last three decades, I almost drowned three times.
Each time it took very little - except my survival instinct and certainly a lot of luck as well - not to leave this world earlier than I would have liked and end up at the bottom of the water in the company of the fish I was stalking.
My passion for sport fishing, which I have turned into a successful business as a professional fishing guide, allows me to travel not only all over Asia, but also worldwide. As such, I am confronted during these adventures, often in remote wild and hostile places, with many more risks and dangers than say someone working 9 to 5 in an office.
Just the simple fact of traveling in these countries puts me at risk of catching viruses, infections and other exotic diseases.
In this close-up of a portrait photo that made the cover of a Southeast Asian fishing magazine, yours truly is pictured in the Malaysian jungle with a rare catch of 'toman bunga' (Channa marulioides). Note the infection in my left eye contracted during this expedition. By the end of it, my eye, left untreated for over a week, was so infected and compromised that I had to urgently find a hospital before returning to Thailand
It doesn't take much to die. Often it's just a matter of bad timing. You just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to go from life to death.
Like the time when we were almost captured in the Burmese jungle by a Karen ethnic armed group since they thought we were spies. I was leading a kind of scientific expedition in search of a rare species of catfish living in the Salween River. The Salween is over 2000 miles long and flows from the Tibetan plateau, running through southwestern China and eastern Myanmar and forming the border between Burma and Thailand.
Or that other time, in the extreme south of Venezuela, near the borders of Brazil and Colombia while fishing for Peacock Bass (Cichla temensis), we miraculously escaped bandits whose intention was undoubtedly to attack and rob these 'rich white gringos'.
Mother Nature's dissatisfactions
The danger that crosses your path sometimes comes from Mother Nature herself the natural landscape. I have only seen one landslide due to torrential rains during a monsoon. It washed away a large part of the road we were driving on to reach our destination in the Golden Triangle. Had we passed by just as the road collapsed, I would certainly not be here to tell you about it.
The flash flood is another scary natural phenomenon of which I was almost the victim. Thanks to the natives of Mae Sarieng in the Golden Triangle mountains, who were assisting me during a fishing expedition, I was once again saved from the brink. Their keen hearing and experience allowed them to hear the roar of the flash flood coming with extreme force upstream, from far away and early enough. A minute later and we would have been swept up in its path by the violent muddy torrent that carried everything before it.
Sometimes it is the animals that confront you; mostly because they consider, quite reasonably, that you don't belong there, or perhaps on occasions to protect their offspring.
There were two particularly unpleasant encounters. The first was being charged by a particularly aggressive elephant in the jungle in Perak, Malaysia. This happened during an expedition to Lake Temmengor to fish for giant snakeheads (Channa micropeltes).
Another encounter that could have ended very badly and that makes my blood run cold every time I think about it is having been attacked several years ago by a very snarling adult king cobra in the Kanchanaburi jungle. It was near the Nam Tjon river in Thailand during a fishing expedition for the jungle perch (Hampala macrolepidota). I'm not afraid of much in this world, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I am scared to death of this particular reptile. It can grow to over 6 metres and inject a large amount of venom with each bite, leading to certain death in the jungle far from any hospital or antidote.
As I think you have understood from reading this far, on many occasions I came close to saying my last goodbye. But the funniest part is that the very first time I almost breathed my last was actually from hypothermia when I was still very young, alone and on foot in the middle of a snowstorm in the mountains between Andorra la Vella and the Paz de la Casa pass, during the 4th Andorra rally.
This adventure that could have ended tragically took place exactly 48 years ago to the day. But the memory is unsurprisingly ingrained on my memory and it seems like only yesterday that it happened. This story is so crazy and unbelievable that I think it deserves to be shared....
- Jean-Francois Helias
(Continued: Part 2: About the rally)