Dave Ranson wraps up his Prairies to Penguins motorcycle trip to South America
By: Scott Hayes
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 26, 2014 06:00 am
It took 167 days on a motorcycle but Dave Ranson finally achieved his goal.
On Aug. 25 the St. Albert man set off from Riverside Honda for the city of Ushuaia, Argentina, at the southernmost tip of the Americas. He arrived Feb. 8 on his faithful ride, a Suzuki DR650 nicknamed Skelly.
Ranson didn’t call his adventure Prairies to Penguins for nothing. Among the many photos he collected during his 32,000-kilometre journey is one in which the background is a beach swarming with the flightless, black-and-white birds. The spot is as close as he could get to Antarctica without leaving the continent.
“The last six months have been a once-in-a lifetime experience,” he related via email while waiting for connecting flights back to Canada.
“From the outset I expected a trip like this to be testing and it was. From the sweltering heat of Central America to the high altitudes in Bolivia and 70-kilometre wind gusts of Patagonia, it was a trial for both me and my motorcycle.”
Ranson traversed 16 countries before reaching his destination. He said every step of the way was a thrill ride.
Setting off by himself was something for which the motorcyclist had prepared. He had upgraded numerous parts on Skelly and practiced taking apart and reassembling the bike. He had pondered the many weeks on the long road alone.
Ranson didn’t wind up riding solo all the way, however, something for which he was thankful. Trips like this have a way of helping people to make friends, he said.
“It's difficult to put into words what I've seen and been a part of. I met my first riding partners in Mexico and spent a week riding with them, dodging hurricanes on our way south.”
Crossing the border into Mexico was his first big milestone. Skelly experienced its first mechanical issue there: a slow oil leak. A friend and Edmonton expat helped fix that problem when he reached Costa Rica.
Unexpected friends, he continued, were invaluable if somewhat unreliable ethically.
“Border crossings in Central America stand out as the most stressful moments of the trip,” he said. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the process and I enlisted helpers the first few times. These helpers did indeed get me through the borders but while doing so pried a few hundred dollars from me in very clever scams. I also was conned out of some money during a currency exchange. I was so frustrated by these things it made me feel like I should go home. But I stuck it out and the next few border crossings became much easier after my experience.”
The Darién Gap is a section of the Pan-American Highway where there is no highway. It’s a 160-kilometre patch of swampland and forest between Panama and Colombia.
Ranson was able to take a break from his bike for a while, as the five-day crossing can only be accomplished by boat.
“It was both beautiful and challenging,” he said.
“We cruised the gorgeous blue water and white sand of the San Blas Islands for three days while eating fresh lobster and barbecuing on the beach. A full 18 hours of open-water high seas followed and most of the passengers were seasick the whole way. Fortunately I did not get sick but motoring through those swells and crashing through the waves was both scary and exciting.”
While on the ship, he met 13 other bikers, with whom he maintained contact for the rest of the trip.
After arriving on South American soil, he started riding with a man from Israel named Eran. They were such good partners on the road that they stayed together for the rest of the trip. They crossed the equator together, another moment Ranson remembers as a highlight.
“It was my first time in the Southern Hemisphere. That spot marked the halfway point of the trip and was tremendously significant for me.”
Unfortunately, the travails of the travels had taken a toll on Skelly. All of South America was fantastic for motorcycle riding, he said, except Bolivia brought some challenges, especially in the Lagunas route through the southern desert. It required camping at heights reaching more than 4,800 metres above sea level.
The road was rough. He and Eran both got stuck in the sand more than once. It was plenty cold and windy as well at those altitudes, he continued, but the companionship – along with the right gear – helped them both get through it.
The famous Dakar Rally was taking place as they rode through Bolivia and Chile. Some bystanders even mistook them for racers participating in the off-road rally.
“[That] was great fun. I even did an interview for Bolivian television. Of course this reporter knew I was only a tourist but to see a rider from Canada is pretty exciting too.”
All in all, he was as prepared as a boy scout for the adventure. Ranson only experienced three mechanical issues in total, most of which were easily solved because he carried spare tires with him. He did once have to get a lift with a passing motorist so he could get his bike to an auto shop to work on it.
“Of the 32,000-kilometre total, there was only 30 kilometres that I actually did not ride,” he said.
Ranson was able to keep in contact with his wife Wanitta by phone or video chat. She even made a trip down to spend a few days with him in the middle of the Americas.
“The day Dave left, I had a bit of a rough time holding it together,” she admitted.
And after their visit ended, being apart was much tougher.
“After half a year, it just won’t seem real until I actually see him. Then we can move forward to another 25-plus years together,” she said.
Dave said it was the support of his wife and everyone who stood or rode beside him that made it possible for him to reach Ushuaia.
“I think the best part of the trip has been the people. I'm so grateful to all the family and friends that helped me get this far but also to my new friends. This whole adventure has been so enriched by the people I have met. I met strangers who helped fix a problem late on a Saturday night and who interrupted their lives to help me. Meeting like-minded travellers has been so much fun. I would so like to ride some more with them.”
Ranson turned 50 last year and wanted to fulfil this dream of his at a personal milestone moment. But that wasn’t the only reason he took the trip.
Prairies to Penguins was inspired when his brother-in-law broke his neck in a mountain bike accident a few years ago. Ranson decided that he wanted to help others with spinal cord injuries by driving attention to their challenges.
At the same time, he could help raise money to purchase a ReWalk bionic exoskeleton for the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre (Northern Alberta) Society. The Edmonton-based non-profit organization promotes public awareness of these injuries and works to enhance the quality of life for the injured through support, education and research.
Ranson’s goal was to raise $10,000 for the cause but he bested that by bringing in more than $14,000 through his website at www.prairiestopenguins.com.
“I am so grateful for the effort of so many people to help me with this,” he said, singling out St. Albert resident Chuck Mulholland as one person who was instrumental in making his adventure a success.
“I'm thrilled with this because at first I thought I'd only be able to raise a third of that but donations are still coming in.”
“Overall, I think this was one of my life's best decisions. To plan and save for three years and make it come to be makes me proud of myself. I realize now that at the age of 50 there is plenty more adventure left. I just need to get planning the next one.”