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Sand Ship Discovery in the Darien Gap

The following is a very brief summary of the first all-land crossing of the Darien Gap of Panama and Colombia by motor vehicle. The story begins many, many years ago, when Loren Upton was just a young boy of seven and decided at that time he wanted to be an adventurer. As years when by Loren began to fulfill his goal. Loren's first expedition was a ten-month long horseback trip into Mexico. That sojourn was to be a very valuable learning experience that was to provide the foundation for all of Loren's future expeditions.

To give you a better idea of just who we are, let me tell you a bit about both Loren and myself...
Loren is without the slightest doubt the most determined, positive thinking, obstinate person I've ever met. Born in Southern California 62 years ago, he looks like a member of the famed Royal Canadian Mounted Police or a bulldog tough British grenadier. Maybe that comes from Loren's service in the United States Marine Corps? Loren is a bridge builder by profession, but a true romantic adventurer at heart. His unwavering optimism and desire for high adventure has thus far taken him around the world - Roads End to Roads End Expedition. Not only in height does Loren stand out, he's six feet four inches tall, but also in the depth of his determination. If told something is difficult or impossible, he presses even harder to succeed. Loren's philosophy is: "If it does not work, damn it, make it work!"

Since early childhood Loren's dreamed of being an explorer - reminiscent of the great Victorian Era - to do something different; to venture into the unknown; to overcome; to be first; to reach that unreachable star!

Now this is going to be difficult for me to write. What can I say about me? I'll do my best to give you some idea of who this strange woman who literally willing to follow Loren to the ends of the earth. I've been traveling since before I was born. For you see, in mid - 1953 I traveled from California to New Jersey just so I could enter this wonderful world with my maternal grandparents at my mother's side. My dad was in the Marine Corps (once a Marine ALWAYS a Marine) and every three years we had our bags packed anxiously awaiting "orders." We had a world globe when I was young and I was constantly fascinated with places like Karnak, Cairo, Timbuktu, Kashmir, Jerusalem, Machupicchu, and countless more.

After spending only a few years in any one place, I found myself in the former Canal Zone in the Republic of Panama. I graduated from Balboa High School in 1971 and attended the Canal Zone College for two years. I began working as a secretary / receptionist at the Canal Zone Girl Scout Council, I felt right at home. I'd been a member of the Girl Scouts since the age of seven and had achieved the rank of First Class, at that time the highest award a girl member could receive. I am now a Life Time Member of the Girl Scouts of the USA. As time went by I became involved in training new leaders and in directing the summer resident camp and day camp activities. Later I was to become Office Manager, Field Advisor, and Camp Director, depending on the day of the week or month of the year! Eventually my position at the Girl Scout Office was phased out due to the United States / Panama Treaties. It was at this same time that the opportunity to join Loren full-time on his Jeep expedition, Roads End to Roads End, presented itself and I jumped at the chance.

Roads End to Roads End Expedition

Loren left Bad Water, Death Valley, California on June 15, 1975 on an expedition never before attempted. He was going to drive one American-made vehicle, a 1972, Ford F-250 pick-up truck around the world on a north / south course, all on land, except for the South Atlantic Ocean..... "Roads End to Roads End" - Arctic Ocean to Arctic Ocean.

The first formidable obstacle on the route was the notorious Darien Gap of Panama and Colombia, a motorist's nightmare - or an off-road adventurer's dream. The roadless Darien Gap is over 125 miles of thick jungles, tortuous rivers, low but rugged mountains, and a vast marshy swamp that separates Panama from South America. The Pan-American Highway stretches some 17,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina, and is yet to be completed across the Darien Gap.

On that fateful first attempt to conquer the Darien Gap, while Loren was away from camp, a member of the expedition was shot and killed, probably by bandits' gunfire. It is still somewhat of a mystery as to why the man was killed, as nothing was stolen, or it may actually have even been a terrible accident. The natives in the area have very old and sometimes homemade firearms. We have known them to be somewhat careless with these ancient firearms, so who is to say it was not a most unfortunate accident. At any rate, that particular attempt was brought to a very tragic end.

I first met Loren shortly after he arrived in Panama. At that time I "toyed" with the idea of joining the expedition, but I was not yet ready.

In early 1977 Loren once again set off from California, this time in a brand-new American Motors CJ-7 Jeep. Again, I briefly saw Loren and again, I "toyed" with the idea of joining the expedition. I was still not ready. After 49 days, Loren succeeded in crossing the Darien Gap in what was a "near textbook perfect" adventure. About 12 miles were traveled with the Jeep tethered and lashed to the top of two local piraguas (dugout canoes) through the Atrato Swamp area of Colombia - thus not an all-land crossing.

The fact that it was not an all-land crossing was to become a moot point. While negotiating a narrow, foggy mountain pass high in the Andean Mountains of Southern Ecuador, Loren reached out to clean the windshield (the wiper motor had been damaged while in the Darien Gap). The road made a sharp turn, he didn't. Some heavy brush that ripped the Jeep's soft canvas top off cushioned the vehicle's fall. Loren was thrown clear, and sat in stunned silence, watching the Jeep's headlights cut through the misty darkness as it flipped end over end. Even before the Jeep came to rest some 300 feet down the dark mountainside, Loren was making plans for the next expedition.

Loren was determined he would take one American-made vehicle on this expedition, not a series of them; so in early 1979 he set off in another new AMC Jeep, this time a CJ-5. This particular expedition, however, was not meant to be. On this trip, I did not see Loren; in fact, I knew nothing of this attempt until five years later. This, the third attempt, was brought to a swift and concise end in the Darien Gap itself. Loren had a rather unpleasant encounter with a somewhat corrupt Colombian Park official and would not agree to his "pay off" demands. As a result Loren and his other expedition members were allowed to leave but the vehicle was left deep within the confines of the Darien Gap, a long, convoluted story, to be told another day.

Loren's perseverance pays off. On June 15, 1984 Loren set off from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean, farthest road north on the North American Continent. This time Loren was driving a second-hand 1966 CJ-5 Kaiser Corporation Jeep, christened, the Sand Ship Discovery. In October of 1984, when Loren arrived in Panama, I was ready to make that leap! I knew that once I said I wanted to join the expedition, I had to do everything in my power to fulfill that commitment. Little did I know, I was setting off on an adventure that would change my life.

After a mind-boggling 741 days to travel the 125 miles through the Darien Gap, Loren was, at long last, able to say he'd made the very first all-land crossing of the "Gap" in a motor vehicle. To my knowledge there have been five motorcycle and five other motor vehicle expeditions to tackle and cross the Darien Gap. (I've included at the end of this story a brief chronology of those expeditions.) All of these expeditions, except our Rokon Motorcycle expedition of February 1995, traveled anywhere from 12 to 200 miles via the numerous rivers, known as the highways of the jungle.

On March 4, 1987, the Sand Ship Discovery, Loren and I arrived in the small river town of Rio Sucio, Colombia, much to the delight of the local school children, many of whom had never seen a vehicle. We had spent a total of 741 days to travel 125 miles, from the end of the Pan-American Highway at Yaviza, Panama to the beginning of a road system in Colombia at the town of Rio Sucio on the Atrato River, all on land. We remained true to the original goal and found an all-land route through the notorious Darien Gap. We crossed rivers, but never resorted to traveling up or down them. This achievement was first recorded in the 1992 Guinness Book of Records.

Prior to joining the expedition, I'd been off-roading, taking weekend trips to various remote places through most of the Republic of Panama. However, this trip was to be something entirely different, we were not turning back if a river was too deep to ford or if a ravine was too steep and rugged to cross, forward was the only direction we would go.

There were a total of seven major rivers that were much too deep to drive across; countless deep ravines that we cut back, filled in and then winched out of; dozens of steep mountains we painstakingly we winched up; miles of trails that were found and cleared up; mechanical problems that had to be overcome; and finally, swamps that were crossed.

In order to achieve all of this Loren had to reach back into the memories of his construction days, dredge up a variety of imaginative methods, and then adapt them to the immediate situation using available materials.

On February 21st, 1985 the S.S. Discovery, Loren, Laurence Upton (Loren's nephew from Spokane, Washington), and I reached the southern end of the Pan American Highway in Central America (approximately one hundred eighty miles east and somewhat south of Panama City, Panama) at the little river town of Yaviza. Mr. Ed Culberson, on his motorcycle, was also a member of the group for the first 30 days; he then turned back via dugout and returned the following dry season to complete the crossing of the Gap on his own.

Numerous river crossings were always an adventure. The following day we crossed the first river, the Rio Chucunaque, with the S.S. Discovery perched somewhat precariously atop two small piraguas, and began our assault on the Darien Gap. Little did we realize at the time that everything we would do for the next two years would either be directly or indirectly related to completing this crossing. The second river crossing, the Rio Tuira, was but a short distance from the first; and like the first, it was crossed with the S.S. Discovery atop the two piraguas, but this time it was a bit more stable. The Rio Tuira was crossed the second time at the small Choco Indian village of Balsal, this time on a balsa raft built in the true nature fashion - pegged and grooved, no ropes or nails. It was, without a doubt, a spectacular sight. The fourth river crossing, the Rio Boca Chica through the in the Atrato swamp the region of Colombia, did not present Loren with a particularly new challenge since he has built many a bridge. This river had to be spanned, since it was not accessible by normal piragua travel. The river was six or more feet deep, and it was 30 feet across with a steep slope on the left (approach) side. Loren and our work force of three Colombians and two Panamanians labored for four days building a log bridge across the river. Using only axes and machetes, the necessary trees were felled; the Jeep's Ramsey winch and a snatch block helped place the logs across the river. I held my breath as Loren drove the S.S. Discovery down onto the bridge - not a log creaked, not a timber sagged! The Rio Salaqui, also in the Atrato swamp area of Colombia, was crossed twice. The first time on two large piraguas, each approximately 30 feet long; the whole rig came within a heartbeat of going under! The second crossing of the Rio Salaqui was done in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Loren was unable to secure the proper size and number of piraguas so he had to do a bit of improvising in order to obtain the proper amount of buoyancy and balance. A rather awkward craft was assembled out of two large balsa logs and three small, rickety, ill-suited piraguas. She looked beautiful!

The final river crossing, the Rio Atrato, was once again on two very large and stable piraguas, each about 40 feet long. It was early March, and with this river crossing to the little backwater river town of Rio Sucio, came the realization of a dream and end to 12 years of almost non-stop struggle...the Darien Gap was once and for all truly conquered by a motor vehicle entirely on land. Here at Rio Sucio, we found a "dry season only" track of some 38 miles that we were able to travel and just over ten hours. After 741 days at virtually a crawl, this rutted and rough dirt track seemed like a paved highway.

The rather staggering length of time it took to complete this Gap crossing was due to many factors. First and foremost was Loren's unwavering determination to make the crossing entirely by land, even though everyone encountered would smile sympathetically, shake their heads, and say "impossible!"

A second and most crucial factor was, in an effort to circumvent the National Park in Colombia that presented Loren with the problems in 1979, the expedition had to head south and slightly west shortly after crossing the Panamanian-Colombian frontier. This was the only route through the Atrato swamp that gave even the slightest hint of possibly being dry and firm enough to support the weight of the S.S. Discovery. However, a virgin area of steep mountains and deep ravines was confronted prior to the swamps. There are many places where the denseness of the jungle would put any Tarzan movie set to shame! The terrain was very difficult to travel through, and as a result, the S.S. Discovery sustained a couple of breakdowns, all directly related to human miscalculations.

The third factor was good old Mother Nature herself! There had been no motor vehicle expeditions to cross the Gap since the three groups went through in 1979, so all traces of the trails were completely overgrown. In addition, it was reported that there had been a couple of very wet rainy season since 1979 that created even deeper ravines then what Loren had encountered in the past.

Also, out of the three dry seasons - January-April 1985, 1986, and 1987- there were to rainy seasons with which to contend. During the first of these two rainy seasons, Loren remained with the S.S. Discovery for nine long months near the small, remote Kuna Indian village of Pucuro, some 12 - 15 miles from the Colombian frontier. As Loren terms it, "A most difficult and trying time... watching the bananas grow and the rains fall."

The second rainy season found the S.S. Discovery with major damage to her rear axles and differential that could not be required either in the field or even in Colombia. We returned to the United States for new parts and left the S.S. Discovery sitting alone, atop a small little knoll in a remote area of the Colombian jungle far removed from civilization, with only a thatched hut or two for company. The native watchman was as "Good as gold," for when Loren and I returned with the new axles and repaired differential, we found her to be just as we had left her, except a family of mice had taken up residence.

The fourth factor was that a vast amount of fallen trees needed to be either cut through with axes and machetes or moved to the side with sheer brute force or with the help of the S.S. Discovery's winch. The native method of the "slash and burn" technique of farming leaves the countryside havoc; the area is only farmed for few years and then abandoned to start again. Once abandoned, these farms have a vast number of downed trees that have yet to deteriorate back into the soil; where the sun breaks through, the undergrowth becomes quite dense and, as Loren would say, "Damn difficult to cut through. "

The final factor for the incredibly long, but nonetheless continuous, effort to conquer the Darien Gap was the design of the S. S. Discovery herself. She is of the old style: short and narrow. The "short" was an asset, but the "narrow" was quite a deficit, especially when traveling the many ridges and side hills. She was also raised a couple of inches for increased ground clearance. Loren raised her hard roof an additional four inches to accommodate his tall frame, and she was grossly over loaded with supplies. All of this meant she was extremely top-heavy, and extra care had to be taken in order to assure that she would remain "Shiny side up!"

To expound on some of the everyday problems that could, and most likely did, arise would prove to be as lengthy as the Gap crossing itself! As Loren so aptly wrote in his journal, "One day things go like clock work - the next, as though the clock were never considered." The following is an example up one of those days when the clock was never considered.

Before joining this expedition Loren had warned me that there was always possibility of experiencing long hard days of work and still being able to look back and throw a stone into the previous night's camp. This sounded absolutely ridiculous. Perhaps we were not breaking any speed or distance records, but we did move about half a mile a day. However this statement of Loren's soon became a reality. The S.S. Discovery developed what appeared to be a faulty rear main-bearing oil seal. This allowed motor oil to pour out of the rear of the engine block when the S.S. Discovery was going up steep the angles, anything over 45 degrees. This rather eye-opening fact was not discovered, much to Loren's chagrin, until he entered into a very rugged area of steep hills labeled by other expeditioners as "The Devil Switchback. "

Loren was lowering the S.S. Discovery backwards down a particularly steep hill, using the Ramsey mechanical winch. With the bow of the S.S. Discovery high, all of the motor oil leaked out in short order and left her with no oil pressure. Without oil pressure her engine could not be used, and without the engine the winched was totally useless. The following four days were spent hand winching the temporarily disabled Jeep down one side of the ravine and back up the other side with a Wyeth-Scott two-ton com-a- long, for a grand total of some four hundred feet! The forward progress may have been slow, but it was constant.

Not only could I have thrown a stone into the previous night's camp, but by the third night in the little river valley, I probably could have hit our camp of the first night! When forward progress is recorded in feet, slow' takes on a whole new meaning!

There were always annoying problems that seemed to occur with great regularity. Things like "trails," where were they? Many days were spent trying to ferret out a route, especially after crossing into Colombia. The standard joke was, "You can't get there from here!" After hours or even days of searching, a trail would prove to be worthless and have to be researched.

Of course, as with any operation - large, small, or even in the jungle - labor problems were not at all uncommon. The Kuna Indians did not particularly care for the Choco Indians, and vice versa; both tribes of Indians had a difficult time working around the local blacks (descendants of slaves). This, at times, could prove to be a rather explosive situation, and continually had to be worked out.

The sheer logistics of supplying the expedition could become quite tangled. The S.S. Discovery needed an extraordinary amount of gasoline (she averaged about one mile to the gallon); and a workforce of anywhere from six to 16 men required an incredible quality of rice, beans, oatmeal, and sugar. But here too, it had to be worked out and untangled.

Even the insects added to the general confusion, not to mention the annoying discomfort they caused. Sickness, especially dysentery, was quite a problem at times. And then trying to convey to the work force what was required to move a Jeep through the jungle was somewhat of the challenge since none of us "gringos" spoke Spanish, the only language the three groups of natives had in common.

It was, in the true, classical sense a romantic expedition of stimulating discovery - self discovery! All in all, going on an expedition through the Darien Gap is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We have been fortunate and have had the opportunity more than once. We have been wet, we've been cold, we've been hot, and we've suffered dehydration. We experienced hunger, fatigue and dysentery. We were totally lost for most of our time in the Darien Gap, it is only because of people like Margarito Rosales, Cookie (Juan Rivas) and Marcelino that we were successful in reaching our goal. We've experienced the grief of losing a fellow expedition member to bandits, and the anger of losing a vehicle to corrupt officials. We've slept on the ground, in corn cribs, and on top of a pig sty. We've traveled for days to reach a location that was suppose to be only a few miles distant. We've had our camp raided by fanatical natives and we had our motorcycle held for ransom. We've faced mechanical breakdowns, hungry mosquitoes, and heavily armed Colombian guerrillas. We've laughed, we've cried, we've been frustrated, and when completely done with the expedition we were ready to do it again!

We have found that the only absolutely necessary qualifications one needs to cross the Darien Gap is determination, and patience! The people, the flora, fauna, and the remoteness are to be experienced. It may be different, it can be challenging, and it will be rewarding!

The Darien Gap is there today, and will be there tomorrow. We understand that there is renewed talks between Panama and Colombia to complete the Pan-American Highway. However, there are many road blocks in the tortuous path: politics, agriculture, finances, and environment, to mention just a few. But who can say what the future holds? Will it ever be completed in our life time? Somehow we have our doubts.

- Patricia Upton, 2/1998,
P.O. Box 803, Salmon, Idaho 83467, USA. [email] [web]

Go to the Darien Gap and 4WD Destinations pages


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