From the Jungles of Bolivia to the Highlands of Peru

Many type 1's may know that every few years the HypoActive president Gavin Wright likes to pack up his bike and head for the hills - some of the highest and most difficult hills in the world. In the past Gavin has taken on Ticlio - the high Andean pass east of Lima, Peru, once thought to be the highest surfaced road in the world; Ojos del Salado, Chile, the highest volcano in the world, where Gavin led a team of cyclists to a point higher than Everest Base Camp; and even the Tour Divide in the USA, the toughest MTB race in the world, although Gavin withdrew battered and beaten after four days of competition.

Gavin has always returned proudly proclaiming 'Diabetes didn't stop me - and it never will.'

This time the HA pres headed for Bolivia and Peru with adventure in mind, but also the goal of Abra Patapampa, now listed as the highest surfaced road in the world at an altitude of 4,900 m above sea level. 'I thought I'd already ticked this one off with Ticlio, but someone sent me an email with a link and there it was - this road is a full 80 metres higher and I just had to go and cycle up there.'

Death Road, Bolivia, early in the morning - FreeStyle Lite, Gavin's meter of choice (that's a 6.6) - and the highlands of Peru

Let's hear from Gavin how it all went...

What was the Plan?

The plan was to fly to La Paz, the high altitude capital of Bolivia, then cycle away down the celebrated Death Road into the depths of the Amazon jungle. From there I mapped out a complicated and taxing circuit, with a massive climb up to Lake Titicaca, Peru and the high Andes to the west. Well, we all know what they say about the best laid plans of type 1's and cyclists.

I had a lucid and precise itinerary. It's always good to leave such a thing with the family, but unfortunately - and this has happened before - it all got scrapped on Day 1. 

Just like when I'm on the Murray to Moyne, I took a big gamble on my first day of cycling with a guess at a very low basal injection of insulin. I probably cut too much, but that was okay as it gave me leeway. My insulin pen still had occasion to pierce my merino underlayers when I refueled on biscuits and water and my bgl's behaved themselves. This kind of ordeal is ideal for testing blood as stopping becomes so frequent: this day was the one that nearly did me in.

Grit and type 1 diabetes

I miscalculated my exit from La Paz. The city is about 3,500 metres above sea level, but at the bottom of a deep valley and after three days I thought I would be okay to climb out to the eastern ranges and head for the jungle. I didn't realise the pass was at 4,700 m and wasn't prepared for the change in weather. The climbs were steep and breathing was enormously difficult. I got attacked by dogs half a dozen times on the edge of the city and had to walk as I didn't have the strength to pedal. As I got over 4,000 m it started to rain - very cold rain. Then hail came, then pouring ice-cold rain as I finally slipped through the cutting at the peak and started down the high slopes, racing eastward towards the green heart of South America. At times, I couldn't see more than 10 metres in front of me, the chill factor got worse and worse, my fingers froze and I couldn't move them properly any more.

After about 20 km of blind, downhill madness I found a stall at the side of the road selling hot food. I bought a big bowl of soup to defrost my fingers and warm my insides. It was a fabulous meal, but when I walked back to my bike I found the back tyre flat as Melbourne's western suburbs and had to fix it in the freezing rain. I carried on down, but not long after I spotted an abandoned building and took shelter for the next 14 hours.

Death Road begins

The following morning I cycled down Death Road. It's one of the most beautiful things you could ever do on a bike. The highway that once saw so many deaths is now all but empty (they built another, much safer, road) and the scenery is stupendous. The whole descent is about 3,500 m in 60 km and although it starts in the cold and barren mountains, it ends in the warm and humid rainforest. At the bottom there are butterflies that will knock your diabetic socks off and plenty of food and beer. Perfect.

Well, what happened?

The days I spent in the jungle were superb. Cycling the broken, sometimes dangerous and often very muddy roads of tropical Bolivia was an enormous pleasure. Why? What makes me love this stuff? I can only suggest...

I've had type 1 diabetes since I was three. Don't remember much before diagnosis. I do remember a whole childhood with diabetes. All sorts of confusing experiences, influences and frustrations. At some stage when I was quite young I remember falling deeply in love with adventure movies. Folk battling extraordinary odds in jungles and swamps, derring-do and ultimate triumph. Loved it and still do.

Problem was that with diabetes I always considered, consciously or otherwise, that this was all very far beyond me. I wasn't allowed to do strenuous exercise and was discouraged from physical activity at all. Nobody meant me any harm, ever: they were all acting in what they thought was my best interest. I had no resource or reason to challenge this conservative thinking.

And although I most certainly reacted in early adulthood against many perceived constraints, I have to admit I reached quite a substantial age before I realised that the world was mine to explore, adventures were mine to be had and that diabetes could and would not stop me.

Bolivian fauna

And so this year I welcomed the jungle. Climbing rocky trails was always a pleasure as the view from the top was ever a beautiful thing. Finding a village in the dense green flora was every time a discovery. Stopping to buy fruit from families posted by the side of the broken road was never anything but making new friends. Even the hungry black vultures were my pals as I sat on rocks, pricked my fingers and ate more of those biscuits.

Rain and Hail

Unfortunately, the forest rains came tipping down stronger and stronger. My jungle route became impassible. For several days I tried to ride out for the next small town, but kept having to return and persuade my hotelier that it was truly me, not the mythical Mud Man.

With limited time, I reluctantly left the sodden jungle trails and made my way back up the enormous climb to the Altiplano - the high plains of Bolivia and then on into Peru. Here I first rode along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Titicaca - the name rolls off the tongue like my black bike on a winding downhill mountainside. With snow-capped peaks always somewhere in the distance, I was back among llamas and alpacas and every time the road wound and brushed alongside the high altitude lake I'd gaze out and murmur softly, 'Titicaca.'

Alpacas are the best

The Andean weather was not my best friend on the high plains either. Every time I rode up over 4,000 m dark clouds surrounded me and unleashed ferocious hail. When I reached the final stop before I took on my big climb up Abra Patapampa, I knew I would face difficulty with the elements. I started early for the final ascent from 3,650 m to the highest point of the road at 4,900 m above sea level. I'd spent a couple of weeks at high altitude by then and was much more capable of exertion in thin air, but at these altitudes every extra 100 m is a big step. I carried extra biscuits and stopped every few kilometres.

My bgl began that day with a 9.8. Normally I'd feel a little disappointed and quickly correct a 9.8, but not this time. My acceptable range extends up to 10 when I know the day is going to be tough. I tested 8 times over the next five hours and, without any extra insulin and having consumed a fairly large number of not-very-healthy biscuits, the number slipped gradually down. When I finally pulled to a stop at the very top my bgl was 6.8.

I was pleased with a 6.8, but elated at having reached the highest point on the highest surfaced road in the world. Views in every direction, the sun still warm and bright, hundreds of small cairns built by such diverse travellers and still enough strength to raise my bicycle right over my head in triumph. It's at moments like this you can happily forget you've got type 1 diabetes: you've achieved a goal, done something really special, put your mind, your determination, very solidly in front of physical difficulties and barriers.

I got there. I loved it: I loved the country, I loved me and I loved the journey. Type 1 diabetes sat on the slow burner keeping warm. It looked like this:

Abra Patapampa: 4,900 m above sea level, the highest point of the highest surfaced road in the world


I spent five weeks away from my warm, low altitude home in Queensland, four weeks in the saddle of my beautiful, black Specialized AWOL Comp. For those who like to know about accessories and gear I have a Revelate Sweetroll on the handlebars, a 12-litre Gearjammer seatbag, a 28-litre Black Wolf backpack, plus some smaller, cheap packs strapped here and there. I carried a fairly extensive first aid kit, focussed on emergency treatment of wounds, but never took it out of my pack. I took a long course of prophylactic, anti-malarial antibiotics; Diamox (to ward off altitude sickness) for weeks on end; and carried oral, broad-range antibiotics and various ointments.

I carried about twice my estimated requirement of insulin. While on the move I split this into three lots in case of any kind of loss. There were some very cold occasions (camping in the mountains particularly), when all my insulin, as well as my meter and spare meter, were stowed close to my body, at night in my duck-down sleeping bag. I took hundreds of tests strips and came home working my way through the last tub. I didn't feel it necessary to change pen needles or syringes any more frequently than normal, but took plenty anyway as they're very light. I did take a spare lancet, but didn't use it. The one in my finger-pricker has been going well for a very long time.

Some Andean landscapes: remote, beautiful, extraordinary

I wrote earlier this year about how pleased I was with my performance in the HypoActive Murray to Moyne. My personal best, 385 km in the saddle in the allotted 24 hours. But I made it very clear, I hope, that I was only able to achieve this because my type 1 management was better this year. The strategies I used and the monitoring I did enabled me to physically achieve. This was also true of my trip to Bolivia and Peru. Diabetes doesn't stop me - no question of it - but it also doesn't dominate. I manage it, just like I organise my eating and sleeping and with thought and practice I can take on new sets of circumstances. Arrangements have to be made, time has to be set aside, but it isn't what life's about. Life is about achieving what you need to accomplish, about living how you want to live, about doing what you most want to do. 

You may not want to travel to high mountains on a bicycle. Crikey, who would? But I just want to let you know that if you do, or in whatever it is you want to do, diabetes didn't stop me, it never will - don't let it stop you.

Life's a challenge. Wishing you the very best with all your own adventures.