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Does a DRZ with a 27 liter Safari Tank float?

Dean and his KTM 950 SE Erzberg Edition being towed behind a taxi

Thailand is a different place — once you’re out of Bangkok there is no traffic, no hurry, and no problems.  I approached Thailand like I approached (rightfully, IMO) Latin America with great caution.  I always keep my eyes on everyone and my hands over my pockets.  In my hotel room, I lock up my laptop.  When I take a bathroom break on the bike I lock my ipod and phone up in my panniers.

The more time I spend in Thailand, the more I realize I’ve been acting paranoid.  The Thai people truly seem to be more honest than certainly the average American.  For instance..the first day I was in Thailand I was walking down the street and checked the time on my phone.  As I continued down the crowded sidewalk after putting my phone back in my pocket this old lady started screaming at me.  Tense up.  Cover pockets.  Turn around cautiously.  The lady is screaming at me and pointing at the ground at a 100 baht note that fell out of my pocket!

I love it here!

On to the story… I met Dean the first day of my travel on my DRZ as I was heading up to Chiang Mai.  I was driving along the road spacing out as usual and saw a huge travel bike.  As usual anywhere in the world when I see a lone bike on the side of the road, I pulled over.  Upon closer inspection, he was setting himself up to be towed behind a taxi.

A week or so later Dean and I met back up to travel from Chiang Mai to Pai via as much offroad tracks as possible.  I’m on my little bike/big tank DRZ 400 that still has a little offroad capacity left.  Dean’s bike.. well, it is a crazy KTM 950 SE Erzberg Edition with an even crazier x-racer riding it.  Her name is Betsy.  She and Dean rode from Australia to Thailand via West Africa (Congo!! Angola!!) through central Asia ended up on the old Road of Bones in Russia.

The first day of offroad was a little technical but not soul destroying– A good day.  A very good day.  Naturally, we celebrated with a few beers and a good meal in Chiang Dao.  By meal I mean I ate almost an entire lamb because we went to “The Nest” and joined their meat bbq buffet.

As seems to be my routine, we got an early start at the crack of 11am.  The road went from nice highway -> 2 lane road -> national park.  At the entrance to the park was a pole barrier with a couple of guys in the guard shack.   They insist that we pay 200 baht ($6.50) per person to enter the park!  We cause a huge stink with me trying to speak my broken Thai and Dean using his proficient miming skills to no avail.  Thais pay 20 baht ($0.65) and we farang have to pay 10x!  What crap.  And all of time while our negotiation is happening, they are scooters and local pickups crossing the barrier with no fee.

I know what you’re thinking.  I’m a wining baby for complaining about a $6.50 park entrance fee.  Now that I’ve been here for a while, I know that $6.50 can get you a pretty nice hotel room for a night.  Consider it more like paying $45 to get into a National Park back home.  I do mind.  This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We ended paying.  Suck.

After all the wining and complaining, the roads through the national park were beautiful.  We crossed up a switchback rich mountain pass and were rewarded with outstanding views.

Northern Thailand Village

We continued riding on and on through this nicely paved road and ended up stopping for a snack at the local gas station.

Thailand old-style gas station

We stayed there for a while and Dean had a Milo, which made him very happy.  He was singing Milo slogans that kept going way over my head.  No Milo in the USA.  It tasted like a malty sugary milk drink.  Meh.

Navigation in this part of the world is always difficult because once you leave the major roads, most road signs are in Thai.  Fortunately, I have GPS and pre-marked coordinates of routes based on a conversation the previous night with a Northern Thailand tour guide Luke.  He didn’t give us coordinates, but I assumed that I would figure out what he meant by looking at my GPS map.

Signs and arrows are incredibly helpful if you're illiterate to the local language

We make it out of town and finally start riding some dirt.  It is in PERFECT condition.  Very smooth and freshly surfaced– it was a dream to ride over at any speed.

Beautiful dirt roads

However it started becoming a little too fresh.

Heavy earth moving equipment? No problem.

The earth mover moved over to the side a little bit so we could pass.  Dean went first.  He dropped down the steep roadbed towards the machine and right before he got there the operator, while making eye contact, flinched the machine towards Dean to mess with him missing Dean’s KTM 950 SE by a hair.  Funny guy.  Really funny.

I had no problems with my lil DRZ 400 and scooted down the slope.  I love my little bike!

06 drz downhill adventure touring

Nicely surfaced dirt switchbacks as we continued through the trail.

You’ll notice that my tank panniers are now mounted to the rear of my bike.  This is because the strap was too short and kept vibrating loose almost falling into my wheel.  It is amazing how much harder on a bike it is riding off road than on as this never happened during the thousands of miles of on-road travel but has happened every time I take the DRZ offroad.

Quality dirt!

We come to a junction and see the first water crossing.  I haven’t done many challenging water crossings because where I was traveling the most offroad in Bolivia there was no water.  Secondly, all the offroad riding I’ve done in Texas did have a little water but they were all slow flowing dam controlled trickles.  There the only challenge was not to slip on the algae.

This first water crossing was not only across the deepest river I’ve ever tried to cross, but also the fastest flowing.

For Dean, this was no problem as he’s ridden some of the most challenging roads in the world like tracks through the Congo and the Road of Bones.  It was confidence inspiring to face this with an experienced traveler.

How to do a water crossing that looks like it is deeper than your boots:

  1. Strip down to your skivvies and put on some sandals (Chacos!).  You don’t want to ride in wet riding gear all day if you can avoid it.  Wet boots = bad
  2. Walk across the river and try to find the smoothest and shallowest route
  3. Mark the exit on the river bank with a stick so you know where to aim
  4. Return to bike, in my case, put on helmet and gloves (not quite ATGATT).  Stay in undies and sandals
  5. If possible have a spotter on the downstream side of the bike to prevent the bike from being washed away
  6. Ride the bike slowly through the river keeping your weight towards the upstream side of the bike
  7. As the river starts to shallow, throttle up the bike and build enough momentum to ride up the bank

Other things to consider is if the crossing is going to be incredibly challenging because of fast flowing water, take off panniers so bike is easier to maneuver and water flows through the bike.  Or maybe you want to leave the panniers on to keep more weight on the bike to keep it from floating away.  I’m not really sure, this is the internet, I just pretend like I know what I’m doing.

The first crossing went up to my upper thigh with slightly rocky bottom but generally smooth.

I'm spotting dean across the first water crossing.

Water crossing number 2 with the village watching

We get across and amazingly there is a guy there who speaks English. He tells us that the people here do not speak much Thai and that they are a migratory people who live off the land as hunters.  He is the town teacher and tells us that we went the wrong way and that the road to the next town has an easier route.  Me, confident with my GPS maps, I say that we want to take the more challenging route.

I scout around a tiny track that leads to a very small village at the top of the hill with just a few pigs and sleeping hill tribesment come to investigate.  The only route to the next water crossing is a footpath that both our bikes happily blaze.

The second water crossing was knee deep fir the first part, then a sandbar, then thigh deep for the second part.  By now, almost the entire village is watching– little kids, women, and adolescent males.

As I mentioned before, Luke, the tour guide told us about the route and had ridden it a day or two before us.  This confirmed that we were going the wrong way as his tracks were on the banks of the next water crossing as he was showing his group that it was doable.  They ended up turning around and taking a goat track through the forest to avoid the water crossings. There was a downed tree that they had to get under that we didn’t think Dean’s huge Super Enduro would make it under, so we didn’t have much of a choice.

The next few water crossings were increasing in difficulty as the river got more narrow so it became deeper and flowed faster.

drz watercrossing adventure touring

The DRZ going across

The exit for the 3rd crossing

As I was catching my breath for after the 3rd crossing, a man starts to climb the bank with a HUGE gun slung across his shoulder.  I start to get nervous.  I don’t know why he’s here with the giant gun.  However, when he gets closer to us, he produces a huge toothmissing grin.

Dean took this photo of one of the town’s hunters with his SUPER long barrel black powder gun.

Thailand Hilltribe hunter

Northern Thailand hilltribe hunter and his gun with a barrel so long that it stretches beyond the frame.

I love Thailand!

The last water crossing was the worst.  Both Dean and I scouted it and I almost fell twice while just trying to walk across the river.  The water was a flowing torrent that was waste deep, rocky with a steep exit.   There was NO way we were going to get these loaded bikes across.  By this time I’m completely exhausted and we’ve already spent 3 hours to cross less than 1 km of road.  Our option is to either attempt to cross here and risk getting water into the bike or turn around and redo one of the other water crossings.  If we attempt this crossing and the bikes tip over or it is too deep, then we’re going to have to spend hours getting water out of the engine and exhaust.

The third option– there is always a third and more creative option — was to enlist the help of the villagers, who at this point were all adolescent boys/teens.  We started negotiating with the teacher translating to the boys.  They come down to 500 baht ($16 USD) but refuse to meet our 300 baht ($10 USD) to help.

We decide to start to attempt the crossing with full knowledge of us having no way to make it across on our own.  They did not call our buff and suddenly start to yell that they’ll do it for 300 baht.

Dean goes first.  He takes off his luggage and everyone surrounds the bike and push Betsy, his KTM 950 SE, through the river.  Dean is to the front of the bike manning the controls and throttle.  We get through the first half of the river with no problem.  The second half is flowing a bit faster and it starts to lift the front wheel.  This bike is HUGE and heavy and is starting to get washed away.  Fortunately the kids have it managed and push the bike up the river’s bank.

After his bike crosses, then his luggage flies across the river on the shoulders of the hill tribe kids.  We’re getting our 300 baht’s worth of service!

Dean's KTM 950 SE panniers crossing the river

I’m up.

Dean’s bike’s air intake is significantly higher than mine and it was dicey for him.  At this point, I’m extremely nervous about flooding my motorcycle.  The funny thing about water into your air box is that water doesn’t compress nor is it good for combustion.   What’s the worst that can happen..

6 Hilltribe teens helping my DRZ cross the river

People are covering my bike — even the front fender has a little kid helping it get across.  I’m standing towards the front of the bike manning the steering and throttle.  We enter the river.

The guys are pushing the bike faster than I can keep up.  I apply a little front brake to slow things down.  No effect.

My front wheel is off the ground.  The front of the bike is starting to float away from the back of the bike.  The DRZ starts to tilt sideways downstream.

The bike stalls.

#$%@$#%

I look at Dean for a second and then press the starter button.  (!) It fires right up.  Phew.

I’m now just barely holding on to the bike as all the kids in the back are feverishly pushing it up the bank.  Front wheel contacts ground.  Bike (clutch still in) rises up the steep bank with no effort on it’s or my part.

The DRZ 400 SC, powered by villagers

My DRZ, who I now call SuperChica because she flies is on the other side of the river.

Dean looks over at me and starts laughing and says, “I thought you were going to have a kitten!”

I don’t really know what that means in Australian, but I’m pretty sure it means I was a bit terrified.

Dean and his Betsy & me and my SuperChica are now happily on the other side of the river with no more crossings left and just enough light to make it to the next town.

I put my pants and boots back and hit the road.  The rest of the ride we try to make some time because we spent so much time in the river.  It is still dirt and the occasional obstacle, but as long as it wasn’t a water crossing up to my waste… it is no problem.

We made it across!

6 Comments

  1. Michelle Nilles says:

    What a great adventure story! I think I’d be too afraid to ride between villages on a footpath though!

    If you were worried about flooding the engine, why not push it across with the engine off with all the helpers?

  2. daveg says:

    Thanks! If you were on a little bike, you’d have no problem.

    It doesn’t so much matter if the engine is running or not. If I get water in the system, I gotta drain it out. Atleast with a draining engine, It’ll stay out of the exhausting bits.

  3. smeg says:

    Sounds like a great day :)

    With all that village-power I think I wouldn’t have even bothered with having the bike running. Next time maybe you could work out a snorkel with some rubber hose…

  4. Smitty says:

    Sounds like fun – but alas, beyond my off-road skills.

  5. julio says:

    Amazing ride man , you are doing it !!
    Your off road skills improved quiet a bit from your days at the landslide near Coban ;-))
    Ride safe

  6. Ben says:

    Dave! Kick ass ride report! I hear ya about the heightened sense of awareness – The Jason Bourne syndrome if you will. Next time you’re at a park that’s asking way too much for entry, tell them you have no cash but can pay by credit card. That one worked a few times for me.

    Awesome story buddy! Can’t wait for the next installment!

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