MagazinesPost Magazine

Round the Big Bend

The twists and white-knuckle turns of this sprawling national park in southern Texas are best enjoyed on two wheels, finds Cameron Dueck

 

A hot, dry wind is whistling through my helmet. My motorcycle hurtles towards a sharp, downhill curve. I downshift, brake and lean into the turn. As I twist the throttle and roar out, the red rock canyon walls flash by in a dizzying blur.

Ahead of me, as far as the eye can see, are curves. Dipping, sharp, suddenly dropping into gullies. Above me are vultures, with huge black wings and crimson heads, wheeling and soaring in the clear blue sky. If I miss one of the curves, or the heat gets the better of me, they will swoop and pick my bones clean before help can arrive.

Big Bend National Park, in the southwest of the American state of Texas, lives up to its name. Few places beat it if you're looking for lonely roads that wind through stark, beautiful scenery. The roads are mostly two lane, with plenty of gravel side routes to explore if you're on a dual sport bike.

The park - which hugs the Mexican border - is an easy ride from cities such as Houston, Austin and Tucson. With 3,242 square kilometres of parkland to explore, you'll wear out your tyres before you see it all. But this is no place for sissies. The spines and thorns of cacti are sharp enough to puncture tyres. The fast flowing Rio Grande, which runs for 190 kilometres along the southern border of the park and includes the canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas, claims the lives of several waders a year. Four species of rattlesnake and one type of cobra live in these sandy hills, along with tarantulas and scorpions.

The nearest hospital is 160 kilometres away, and no public transport passes through the park. Water and fuel supplies are few and far between, and Big Bend is surrounded by other protected areas - for example, to the west is Big Bend Ranch State Park and across the Mexican border is the Parque Nacional Maderas del Carmen - further enhancing its remoteness and the richness of its wildlife.

It is these qualities that can provide the ride of a lifetime. The maximum speed limit in the park is 45m/h (72km/h). I would never recommend breaking the law for the pure joy of riding, but the roads are empty and the temptation is great …

Slow down, however, and you will be rewarded. The park is home to more than 450 bird species, including golden eagles with eight-foot wingspans. The eagles are rare; 2,500 of them were shot, trapped or poisoned in the 12 years before the park was formed because ranchers considered them pests.

Big Bend is the eighth-largest national park in the lower 48 states of the US and boasts more species of bird, bat and cactus than any other. It marks the northernmost range of many plants and animals. Deer are plentiful, as are wily coyotes and roadrunner birds - which don't exist only in Looney Tunes cartoons, as I'd assumed.

Tribes passed through these hills for thousands of years, leaving behind pictographs and other archaeological treasures. Archaeologists have discovered artefacts here estimated to be 9,000 years old. The Rio Grande has been a border area for centuries, with Texas having been claimed by at least six nations. The Spanish crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th and 17th centuries, searching for gold, silver and fertile land. Comanche Indians crossed it in the 19th century, travelling to and from Mexico in raiding parties. Today you can ride your motorcycle where braves once rode horses, along the Comanche Trail.

The mountains themselves are a thing of beauty, and are far easier to spot while astride a careening motorcycle than camouflaged wildlife. Eroded into towering monuments and grotesque shapes, their colour changes from red to grey to blue and yellow, depending on the angle of the sun. Lost Mine Peak is the highest, rising to some 2,300 metres.

Sometimes the mountains are a breathtaking backdrop, a distant target to aim your bike towards. Other times they leap onto the road, forcing the tarmac into back-bending curves and climbs that leave you with a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach.

The approach into Big Bend from Houston is a dramatic entrance into the mountain ranges. A flat, straight country road suddenly gives way to a stretch that cuts through a small hill before throwing the new arrival onto the mountains' mercy. I go from riding with my feet up on highway pegs to gripping my brakes to negotiate curves drawn by the devil.

Chisos Mountains Lodge is hidden at the top of a narrow, tightly winding road. It is here that I see my first deer. It delicately steps aside as I drive by, apparently unafraid of a screaming beast in black.

The lodge offers the only accommodation in the park - ranging from comfortable, simple motel rooms to spacious cabins - and views from the alfresco dining area sweep over Burro Mesa (a mesa is a flat-topped hill). Other overnight options include economical hotels in the small towns of Lajitas, Terlingua and Study Butte, all to the west of the park and there are numerous camping grounds in and around Big Bend.

For visitors planning to stop for a while, the park offers excellent hiking, birding and river rafting. Many of the trails in the High Chisos were established to move livestock in and out of the mountains prior to the establishment of the park.

Several of the hamlets to the west are described as "ghost towns" but, although there are a smattering of derelict, aband-oned farms and buildings in evidence, they are home to enough residents offering cold drinks and tourist trinkets to keep the spirits at bay. A rest stop just outside Terlingua is home to a mock-up of a square-rigger ship and a submarine conning tower - clearly the heat has gone to some of these desert heads.

On the western side of the park are small, evenly spaced hills that give your front wheel a lift with each crest. At the bottom of each is a sandy, rough river fjord - these are just as dangerous dry as they are with a foot of water in the bottom.

The roads are empty. Whenever I see another vehicle, I'm startled and catch myself touching the brakes. Approaching cars appear to dance and waver a metre above the highway, floating in the hot desert air. I stop to take in the view, and I hear only the hoarse rasp of wind-blown sand and the ticking of my hot engine block.

I notice a black vulture circling above me, swooping a bit lower to see if dinner has been served.

Not today, my friend.

 

Getting there: Many airlines operate flights from Hong Kong to US airports that have connections to Houston and Austin, in Texas. The nearest Amtrak railway station that caters to Big Bend National Park is located in Alpine, Texas. EagleRider, in Houston www.eaglerider.com/houston is one of a number of companies in the area that rent out motorcycles.

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or