Learning to ride a motorbike in the Pantanal

The second time I rode a motorbike, I only crashed into a tree once. The first time I had fallen off, scarring my stomach; so my skills had obviously improved somewhat.

I was staying in the Pantanal, a corner of the Brazilian jungle known as ‘Matto Grosso’, about six hours from the nearest city. I’d seen the river from the plane, huge and undulating in a mass of green. The first adventure I’d set out on alone.

The roads were rusty dirt, and something about the space and the heat and the dust sent me straight back to my childhood, when the only motorbikes I knew were the ones I read about in books. Before I had ever heard of the Amazon, or the huge swamplands of Brazil, let alone planned to go.

The Pantanal is great for wildlife spotting, from colourful parrots and toucans in the trees, to the family of capybara waiting to cross the road, and caiman lurking in the water with glinting red eyes. It is very far away from England and I am very excited to be here.

When I booked the tour at my hostel, the manager assured me the Brazilian guide spoke English. He does not speak one word. My Portuguese is limited to ‘Obrigada’ and so there is no common language for instructions; I must learn through the medium of mime, and repetition, the few words which are close enough to Spanish for me to recognise.

The bike is small and old; the road is an empty stretch of red. I kick hard to start the machine and attempt to shift gears, whilst holding on for dear life.

A truck drives by and I want to turn to smile, or acknowledge them in some way. The idea of moving my hand or my hand without turning the bike is inconceivable, so I shout instead, and they are shouting back, and I am so alive.

I stall once, twice, again. It’s a good thing really, as I haven’t quite mastered how to stop; a temporary solution better than simply falling off, the way I did last time. I had been much younger, last time. I cried from the pain, but was as disappointed when the scars on my stomach faded away, as if they had never been there.

When the guide gestures to our road on the left, I drive straight past, unable to muster the confidence and with no idea how to turn. I have never turned before. We stop and drive back, and slowly, I move the handlebars around. It is not so hard.

I follow his directions by the indicating hands that reach out to the left or the right of my field of vision, and now we are on the long, bumpy driveway that I remember thinking was a feat to navigate in a car. There are deep puddles of water, vines and roots, twists and turns. There are probably snakes.

It feels like we are flying, although it can’t have been more than 20 miles an hour in reality. But the wind is cool on my dusty skin, the large helmet slipping over my eyes. I grip the handlebars harder and ride on adrenaline.