The bikes are back in town

I stand under the roof of the old control tower at Tocumen International Airport, now part of the cargo complex, as another COPA, the local airline, B737 roars overhead, looks like the 800 series

for those who are really interested. We have started the process to be reunited with our bikes, and already the information we have on the process to retrieve them is incorrect. This information came from a friend who undertook the same process a week earlier. Nothing stays the same or should be taken for granted when following ours or other people’s instructions.

Anne has disappeared into the distance and out of sight while I remain with our two small bags and a five litre water container now filled with fuel. We had problems getting this filled, due to sensible safety concerns at the petrol stations our taxi driver tried to fill the water container up at. Finally one petrol station provided a loan fuel container which we could the transfer then fuel to our water bottle out of sight. Anne’s fuel tank has so little fuel left after being drained in Medellin that I doubt that the petrol filter is still wet.

As the countries we travel through are closer to our safety conscious western ways, the standards increase and the enforcement of the rules grow. In some countries fuel, or what purports to be fuel, is sold in old soft drink bottles at the side of the road. ‘Caveat emptor’ we take the risk here, as at home risk is regulated away – rules and enforcement encourage the correct behaviour of all, except usually those who it was targeted at in the first place who ignore the rules anyway. I have no doubt that most people who have been impacted by accident or injury as a result of failure of safety rules would disagree with me and, probably if I or a loved one was affected I would think differently. However at this time, I believe we still need to opportunity for adventure and perhaps risk in our lives and should be afforded it, if it only impacts ourselves. Enough rambling from me, yes I am still waiting for Anne to return, what topical subject should I tackle next while I wait?

Anne is back, our bikes were shipped with a different airline, so the initial instructions have changed. I have moved to new location a few hundred meters away. Time to ponder again.

What should be our next subject? Since I am not on Twitter, Facebook or other social media and more importantly do not have internet access at this time, I will need to choose. ‘US Presidential election 2016 campaign’ . Anne is back and has the three stamps and knows where to go for the temporary import permit. I think I will soon be on unwrapping and assembly duty soon. As we have been travelling north and now have less than 10 months before we return to Australia, we are thinking about our future. Since we retired a couple of years ago, we think what next, Chapter two after Chapter one ‘A year in Europe, interrupted by RTW motorcycle trip’. I had idly thought: how about working for a US Presidential Candidate in their campaign? Probably not sensible as they seem to take clever hardworking young Americans, and I suspect that when I get back to Australia, I will have to work to pay for all the fun times we will have had in two and a half years. Yes, by the time we get back in March 2016, we will have been travelling since September 2014, which was not our original plan of 9 months in Europe seeing family and back home. Great how life can unfold. I had no idea when we left Australia that I could end up sitting in an airport car park in Panama.

I hope we do not have to ride the bikes off the loading dock, the meter plus vertical drop will be a challenge for the bikes’ suspension.

Panama cargo area - the drop is a bit too much for the bikes

Panama cargo area – the drop is a bit too much for the bikes

No, a back door exists and after donning a safety vest and changing my red warehouse visitors access card for a green airport apron access card, the bikes are then delivered on a metal frame just outside the gates literally, the front wheels are just outside the gates.

Our bikes are now delivered at Panama airport

Our bikes are now delivered at Panama airport

A tiny bit of shade to reassemble the bikes

A tiny bit of shade to reassemble the bikes

We fill motorbikes with fuel and are ready to depart for places unknown, err not quite, the steady flow of petrol from under the seats, where the petrol pump and filter we removed to drain the fuel tanks in Medellin must have not been replaced properly. We push the bikes away from the petrol bowsers for safety reasons and quickly start to syphon fuel from the tanks into spare containers. A downpour of rain makes life a little more problematic, and with no cover to work on the bikes, we decide to stay a night longer and find a dry hotel in town.

One of the 2 drowned rats while waiting for rain to stop.

One of the 2 drowned rats while waiting for rain to stop.

A quick internet booking and we are set for a slow ride to town having syphoned enough fuel out of the tanks to stop the leaking.

We remove Anne’s pump first, reseat the pump and gasket, all looks good, refit the locking ring, refill Anne’s tank and the fuel just runs out again. Damm.. We need to go to BMW as this is beyond our basics skills and the gasket is probably damaged . BMW Motorrad is not too far away, and here we meet Arturo, who is very helpful and arranges for their mechanics to look at the motorbikes even though they are busy – they will replace the gaskets. They also confirm we need new front tyres and that my suspicions of a problem regarding the steering are correct. Anne had questioned hers previously but had been told all was ok so put it down to her highly sensitive sense of balance. We will need new steering head bearings but as they are very busy with other bikes, they can’t get to that this week. The tyres will have to be done in San Jose, Costa Rica as none of our size are available in Panama and the steering head bearings will also be done in San Jose under warranty. Arturo has kindly contacted BMW Motorrad in San Jose to confirm availability and prices, very helpful for us.

Panama uses US dollars and we need to get some smaller banknotes and yesterday we used a 100 dollar bill at a supermarket finding that for each 100 dollar bill they need your ID, signature and two staff counter signatures. Interesting that they are so concerned about this – forgeries I presume?

We have the bikes back and are set to go tomorrow.

– Anthony

Surprised to be so inspired in Panama City

Our first full day in Panama City and we decide to go to the Panama Canal Miraflores Visitor Centre. I was looking forward to seeing this world famous canal, one which my mother went through when she travelled by container ship to visit us in Australia.

About to learn all about the Panama Canal

About to learn all about the Panama Canal

What I hadn’t counted on was how utterly fascinated and inspired I would be at seeing it and watching vessels pass through over the next 6 hours!!! Maybe it was because of the recent difficulty we had had on finding a way to cross the Darien Gap and get to Panama? Or knowing how many people died trying to cross the Darien Gap and building the canal. But the importance of the Canal was suddenly clear: I felt like it was allowing the life blood of the shipping world to flow, a connector for the entire world in fact. Building the Canal was a monumental engineering feat.

Here are a few facts: the Canal opened in 1914 and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across the Isthmus of Panama. It is 77kms long and 25 metres above sea level, the level of Gatun Lake which feeds the system of locks. The canal enables ships traveling from New York to California to trim 13,000kms off its voyage by bypassing the tip of South America. Between 30 to 40 ships use the canal a day. On average, it takes a ship 8 to 10 hours to pass through the canal. While moving through it, a system of locks raises each ship 85 feet above sea level. Ship captains aren’t allowed to transit the canal on their own; instead, a specially trained canal pilot takes navigational control of each vessel to guide it through the waterway. As the ship enters the lock, the ship is guided by 4 to 8 engines on tracks to make sure the ship doesn’t collide into the canal walls. It is absolutely incredible to see these huge ships gliding through the locks, with so little spare space, the engines attached to cables slowly pulling the ships along the locks. There is a size called Panamax, the maximum width and length allowable for ships to use the canal.

And here’s a brief history of the canal. The idea for a canal across Panama dates back to the 16th century but a survey ordered by Charles V determined that the construction of a ship canal was impossible. The first serious attempt at building a canal didn’t start until the 1880s by the men behind the Suez Canal and the Eiffel tower. The project was plagued by poor planning, engineering problems and tropical diseases (malaria and yellow fever) that killed 20,000 workers and the excavation proved more difficult than anticipated. The company was declared bankrupt in 1889. Sadly Eiffel retired from business after being accused of fraud and mismanagement of this project.

America originally thought of building a canal in Nicaragua but thanks to some intense lobbying by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla, one of the French engineers who had been involved in the failed French project, who convinced American lawmakers than Nicaragua’s volcanoes made it too dangerous but they should rather buy the old French assets. Although the US congress approved the purchase of the French assets in 1902, Colombia, which Panama was part of, refused to allow the US to build the Canal. The Panamanians revolted and declared independence and negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varikla treaty which gave America the right to a zone of more than 800 square kms in which it could construct a canal, a zone to be controlled in perpetuity by the Americans. Well, not quite because, after some riots in 1964, then a number of political negotiations and treaties, Control of the canal was transferred peacefully to Panama in December 1999, and the Panamanians have been responsible for it ever since. The canal took 10 years to build, during which time 5,600 workers died, mostly due to accidents rather than tropical disease. The canal is currently being expanded to handle today’s megaships, up to the “New Panamax” size limit, and cargo vessels carrying nearly three times the amount currently accommodated. They won’t however be super-sized enough for the world’s largest cargo ships such as Maersk’s Triple E class ships, which measure 60 metres wide and 400 metres long!!

Interestingly, a century after the United States completed the Panama Canal, a navigable link across Nicaragua remains a possibility: in 2013, a Chinese company announced it had struck a $40 billion deal with the Nicaraguan government for the rights to construct a 275kms long waterway across Latin America’s largest fresh water lake and finally broke ground to start building the access roads in December 2014. Sadly, the Nicaraguan government has stated it does not have the funds to conduct an environmental impact study and I fear the construction of this new canal will be disastrous for Nicaragua ecologically…

Here is a selection of the 300 photos I took of the canal:

Panama Canal locks

Panama Canal locks

Lock gates opening, Panama Canal

Lock gates opening, Panama Canal

Boats of all sizes use the Panama canal

Boats of all sizes use the Panama canal

Time for a 3D movie on the Panama Canal history and operation

Time for a 3D movie on the Panama Canal history and operation

Tanker in one lock...

Tanker in one lock…

Lock level dropped...

Lock level dropped…

Gates opening...

Gates opening…

...time to move to the next set of locks

…time to move to the next set of locks

... Now in the last set of locks ready to head out to the Pacific

… Now in the last set of locks ready to head out to the Pacific

Enjoying the Panama Canal

Enjoying the Panama Canal

Tankers nowadays make full use of the Panamax limits

Tankers nowadays make full use of the Panamax limits

LPG tanker being guided, Panama Canal

LPG tanker being guided, Panama Canal

LPG tanker being guided, Panama Canal

LPG tanker being guided, Panama Canal

LPG tanker is now in the last lock, Panama Canal

LPG tanker is now in the last lock, Panama Canal

Condensate tanker being guided by trucks along the lock, Panama Canal

Condensate tanker being guided by trucks along the lock, Panama Canal

Condensate Tanker lowered into the lock, Panama Canal

Condensate Tanker lowered into the lock, Panama Canal

Condensate tanker and car transporter, Panama Canal

Condensate tanker and car transporter, Panama Canal

Container ship, Panama Canal

Container ship, Panama Canal

I told you I was completed fascinated and inspired by this canal!!! And this road sign made me smile:

Should be a Colombian road sign!!

Should be a Colombian road sign!!


The next day, we took the metro to a large shopping centre to buy new camera flash cards before heading as close to the old city as we could before walking. Panama city is full of contrasts. From the shiny and clean business area to the more run down commercial area and suddenly, from one side of a set of traffic lights to the other, you are transported to a different world. The old city has been beautifully restored. There are many empty facades, boarded up for future renovations. Although it was lovely to admire some of the old buildings, that part of town was surprisingly soulless. There were just a handful of local and overseas tourists. No cafes or restaurants to sit and watch the world walk by as there was no-one. Very odd. We eventually walk into the only restaurant we had noticed earlier that was open and had lunch. Perfect timing as the heavens opened up shortly after.
The old airport is now a major bus station and shopping centre - notice the shoe shine below

The old airport is now a major bus station and shopping centre – notice the shoe shine below

Shaved ice drinks seller, Panama City

Shaved ice drinks seller, Panama City

Banana seller, Panama City

Banana seller, Panama City

The old Panama City

The old Panama City

The old Panama City, restored

The old Panama City, restored

The old Panama City, restored

The old Panama City, restored

The original Panama City, restored

The original Panama City, restored

Panama City

Panama City

I really wanted to get a closer view of one of the towers I had caught a glimpse of when we first arrived. I thought of the stunning Turning Torso of Malmo, Sweden, but this one didn’t have the same elegance or finesse. Interesting nonetheless.

Panama City with the Revolution Tower in the centre

Panama City with the Revolution Tower in the centre

The Revolution Tower, Panama City

The Revolution Tower, Panama City


It meant quite a bit more walking and getting completely drowned on our walk back to our hotel – I am lucky Anthony is always so accommodating, especially considering his ankle is still constantly aching…

Tomorrow is bike collection day!!!