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Crossing the uncrossable: A tally of those who’ve driven the Darien Gap

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Image via Google Maps.

Driving around the world ain’t easy. Visas, funding, language barriers, supply management, and keeping the vehicle running all require resourcefulness and resilience. But even the hardiest of round-the-world drivers tend to stay away from the Darien Gap, leaving just a handful of expeditions that have driven from Central America to South America.

Take your pick of adventurers who’ve set out to drive every hemisphere and check their route. Some, like the Paris-to-New-York racers, Aloha Wanderwell, Elspeth Beard, the honeymooners in the 1962 Toyopet RK45 and Ben Carlin, didn’t even attempt South America. Others, including the Richardson Pan-American Highway Expedition of 1940-1941, Heidi Hetzer, Dirk and Trudy Retger, the Bodeswells, the Van Ordens, Frank and Helen Schreider, Clarenore Stinnes, and the Zapp family (and probably countless others) ferried their way around the Gap.

That’s because, aside from a lack of roads, bridges, or any sort of infrastructure, the Darien Gap remains largely uncharted, thanks to dense and rapid-growing jungle that reportedly swallows up any paths hacked through it in a matter of days, frequent rainy seasons that unpredictably flood the jungle, malaria-carrying mosquitos, poisonous frogs, and the presence of armed guerillas and cocaine smugglers.

Unsurprising, then, that our investigation—aided by research by Patricia Upton—has turned up just seven expeditions that successfully (“success” defined as reaching Palo de las Letras when crossing from the north, Yaviza when crossing from the south) crossed the Darien Gap in four-wheeled vehicles:

* The Trans-Darien Expedition of 1959 to 1960, utilizing a Land Rover 88 station wagon and a Jeep four-wheel-drive pickup, sponsored by the Pan-American Highway Congress and the National Geographic Society. Crew members included T. Whitfield, Richard Bevir, Otis Imboden, Kip Ross, and Arnado and Reina Arauz. Intended to chart a path for the completion of the Pan-American Highway, the trip took 134 days.

* Dick Doane Chevrolet’s crossing in 1961 or 1962, utilizing three Corvairs and at least a couple Chevrolet four-wheel-drive trucks, sponsored by Chevrolet. Crew members included Carl Turk and Gordon Gould. Though Chevrolet released a promotional film on the months-long trip, it appears the Chicago dealership actually put it together. It also seems that one of the three Corvairs might have made it to Colombia, but no farther, while the other two were left behind in South America.

* The British Trans-Americas Expedition in 1971 to 1972, utilizing a pair of Range Rovers and a Land Rover, sponsored by the British Army and Leyland Motors. Headed by Major John Blashford-Snell. The crossing lasted three months and came across the remains of the Corvair left behind during the previous crossing.

* Loren Upton’s 1977 Roads End to Roads End crossing, utilizing a 1977 Jeep CJ-7. Crew members included John Blake. Upton would later become the only recorded person to traverse the Darien Gap multiple times (and the only to cross it entirely on land, without the assistance of river ferries) when he crossed it in a 1966 Jeep CJ-5 from 1984 to 1987 on his last round-the-world attempt. Two other attempts to cross the Gap ended with Upton turning around and heading back to the United States.

* Mark Smith’s 1978 to 1979 Expedicion de las Americas, which used six Jeeps total to make the crossing in 122 days. Smith’s crossing, part of a longer Pan-American Highway expedition, is notable as the only known four-wheeled crossing from south to north.

* Swiss expedition of 1979, involving Gerhard Suter, Reinhard Gammenthaler, and Ueli Oswald in a Toyota Land Cruiser.

In addition, our research on Lionel Forge’s around-the-world trip in a GPA—inspired by Carlin’s—shows that he may have included a Darien Gap crossing in the late 1960s, though information on his trip is scarce. Colin Stevens, who has compiled research on Forbes over the years, said he has no documentation that shows whether Forge crossed the Gap or sailed around it.

As for motorcycles, it appears five expeditions have successfully crossed the Gap:

* Bob Webb and Ron Merrill’s 1973 to 1974 trip on a pair of Rokon motorcycles.

* Ed Culberson’s 1986 crossing on a 1981 BMW R80 G/S, sponsored by Rider magazine.

* Helge Pedersen’s 1988 crossing, also on a 1981 BMW R80 G/S, conducted from south to north. According to Patricia Upton, by the time he reached Yaviza, “Helge was suffering from a broken arm and rib.”

* Loren and Patricia Upton’s 1995 expedition on a 1994 Rokon, sponsored in part by Rokon. According to the Uptons, this was also the only all-land motorcycle crossing.

* JD Smith’s January 2016 crossing, accomplished largely by dugout canoe.

As a side note, Dennis Brubaker attempted the Gap in 1986 on a Honda XL600R motorcycle. According to Upton, no further information is available on Brubaker, and he may have disappeared during the attempt.

If you know of any other motorized Darien Gap crossings, let us know in the comments.

UPDATE: This list may start growing soon with the recent disarming of the Colombian FARC rebels. Of course, plenty of other challenges to crossing the Darien will remain, not least of them the drugrunners and the Gap itself.