Iquitos Welcomes British Bikers Following Che Guevara’s Tracks
By Glen David Short
Two intrepid British motorcyclists are presently visiting Iquitos. Pete Sandford and Steve Holmes have already covered more than half the distance featured in the recent hit film ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’. However, these two are attempting to do even better: to travel the entire route, from Buenos Aires to Caracas with vintage Norton motorbikes. Both Englishmen, now in their 50s, weren’t even born when Che and Alberto Granado undertook their famous journey, but they are enthusiastic fans of both the Che story and the Norton bike. The Brits’ life stories however are quite removed from that of Che and Alberto. Pete was a pro-surfer who at one time ranked #8 in the UK; in 1977 Pete and Steve made up 2/3 rds of a band called ‘Demolition’ which once headlined with Boomtown Rats. Demolition wrote songs with titles like ‘Heart Failure’, ‘Gangrene’, and ‘Swastika Girl’. The band broke up, and Pete and Steve lost contact for 26 years but found each other again in 2006 and started planning the trip only last year.
Pete, a former motor mechanic and veteran of motorcycle trips in Africa, was inspired to do the trip after seeing Walter Salles’ popular film, based in Guevara’s and Granado’s diaries. Pete began by buying a 1950 model Norton with the same engine as Che had but wrong frame, on eBay. Pete had almost lost a tidy sum when he received photos of the bike he wanted from an eBay scammer based in Spain, but fortunately was alerted to the fraud when he saw the same photos being advertised on another website. Eventually Pete found another suitable Norton from 1946. Pete added original forks, and a custom-made front wheel rim. The bikes were restored, but had a few problems, including faulty fuel taps that leaked petrol onto the magneto, and carburetors that tended to blow completely off when the engine backfired.
The two shipped their bikes to Buenos Aires and began their journey at Calle Araoz 2180 – the address of Che’s old apartment, though it has been demolished and a new building erected in the interim. An Argentine named Gustavo Agra arrived to see them off, on a restored Norton - the very same Norton used in the film. Their first few days were not auspicious: on their first day they were stopped by police for not having their lights on – it didn’t help that Pete’s lights never worked. Somehow they got out of that one without a fine, and after camping out the first night found Steve’s bike would not start – despite ‘doing more kicking than Johnnie Wilkinson’ - towing the bike for a clutch start worked.
In Argentina they were constantly mobbed by locals wanting to see the twin Guevara bikes. After so many questions and photos were snapped, Steve decided to christen his bike ‘Kate Moss’, as he now knows what its like to be so famous. Pete’s bike is called the ‘Cacafuego’, after the famous English pirate ship (whose name means something unprintable and was the scourge of Peru’s Pacific coast a few centuries ago.)
In the town of Temuco, they were interviewed for El Austral, the very same newspaper that had reported on Che and Alberto; they also visited the fire-station and dance hall mentioned in the diaries. However, after Santiago de Chile the similarities with Che’s story and theirs begins to diverge: Che and Alberto ditched their Norton – christened ‘El Poderoso II’ – in Chile, while the Brits have managed to keep theirs going. Their aim is to condense Che and Alberto’s 8-month odyssey into 8 weeks, but delays from customs, landslides, hailstorms, wrong turns, and mechanical problems are already making that deadline look shaky.
Pete’s bike has no rear suspension: that’s how Norton built them in those days. His butt is comforted by spring-saddle and a small cushion taped to the seat. Nevertheless, some of the roads encountered in Peru were so rough they had to change their route; a dust-storm near Nasca even forced them to temporarily abandon their bikes. Leather panniers loaded up with spares, video gear, the English duo must plan their route with care – neither has functioning headlights, and neither rider speaks Spanish. In fact, until they got to Cusco, they were relying on a 1950 Esso road map Pete had picked up on eBay! In Cusco they were able to get better maps, but still had problems identifying some of the smaller towns mentioned in the diaries. When in Cusco they visited a biker-bar called ‘Norton Rats’. Here they were surpised to be informed by American owner and Norton enthusiast Jeff Powers that in the more than 10 years he has run the bar, they are they first he has seen pass through Cusco on Nortons – of any vintage!
While in Iquitos the pair hope to visit the San Pedro Leprosarium, just as Che and Granado did; when Granado re-visited in 2003 during the filming of Salles’ film, at least one patient recognized him. After that, Pete and Steve plan to continue downstream to Leticia then fly to Bogota and ride to Caracas.
You can follow Pete and Steve’s adventures on their internet blog:
Back to Main Page
Webmaster: Lalo Calderon