Hellfire and Darkness

01 Dec 2006

Hellfire Pass is a very long way from Kanchanabury.

We'd already ridden to Erawan national park, which is merely a "long way" from Kanchanabury. When we hired the 125cc scooter - the largest available - I'd asked for a map. The staff member gave me a map of town, and showed me how to get to the bridge and the museum, which are maybe 5km apart. I didn't tell her what we had in mind in case she took the bike back. By the time the day was done, we'd have put 1.5 tanks of petrol through it.

It's late afternoon when we finish with the waterfalls and head out. If we're lucky, the last yellow light of the sun will shine directly along the cutting, illuminating it in much the same way as the POW's torches had done. If we're unlucky it'll just be dark.

We're lucky. We pull into the army compound at the trailhead about a hour before sunset. The soldier waves us through.

On the railbed it's very quiet, the kind of quiet that makes your ears ring quite loudly. The onsite museum closed more than an hour ago, and we're totally alone. We walk the pass in silence, occasionally fingering the blackened rock.

Under an Australian flag lies a note written to a departed soldier. His middle name is Gwyn.

In the very middle of the pass stands a tall, thin tree. It looks dead.

We can see the sun set across the valley from the railbed, just outside the pass. I raise my hand and a distorted gray-and-gold shadow appears on the rock wall. It's not hard to fill in a chisel, or perhaps a rifle.

By the time we return to the bike the last traces of blue are fading from the sky. At this point we establish that:

  1. The bike has a very weak headlight. So weak, in fact, that revving the bike makes it less dim.
  2. It's mounted directly behind the carrier basket
  3. The streets aren't lit
  4. Our helmets have tinted visors

The visors tilt, so we have the choice of pitch blackness, or near-blackness accompanied by 90km/h insect impacts. In my case the choice is narrowed even further by the inability of my contact lenses to cope with 90km/h winds.

It's a truly frightening ride. In some places, we really can't see anything but the white line at the edge of the road. Streaks on my visor create white lines moving outwards from a central point, giving the illusion of riding into a star-trek warp field. Cars occasionally hammer past us at well over 120km/h, but they're the least of our worries. In fact, they provide magnificent illumination. It's a pity we can't keep up with them.

It's so dark, and I'm straining so hard to pick images out of the noise, that at one point I get a clear sighting of a pedal cyclist moving from the right-hand side of the road into our path. It's good that Lyn's got the sharp end of the bike, because he never existed.

Later we come across a godsend - a series of cars travelling at 70km/h. We drop into position behind them. Problem solved. A few kilometers later we reach a red light. We stop, they don't. Back to square one.

Personally, I'd have run the light.