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ADV NewsLegendary Journey Thru The Infamous Darien Gap on a BMW R80 G/S

Legendary Journey Thru The Infamous Darien Gap on a BMW R80 G/S

ADV legend Helge Pedersen recounts his perilous 1980s Darien expedition.

Published on 10.26.2020

Few have come close to achieving what Helge Pedersen has achieved during his forty-plus years as an adventure rider. Heck, his first trip lasted a decade. In 1982 he departed Norway aboard his R80G/S with loose plans and a tight budget. He ended up putting 250,000 miles on the BMW, nicknamed “Olga,” riding through 77 countries. No doubt the highs and lows of such an odyssey could fill a book, which they did, a tome aptly titled 10 Years on 2 Wheels.

But if you asked Helge about the trip’s most profound event, he will say without hesitation it was making it through the Darien Gap, a perilous 66-mile, roadless section of marshy jungle and forest that separates Colombia from Panama. It took twenty days for Helge, with the help of an adventurous German backpacker who accompanied him on the quest, to wrestle the R80 across the hilly, dense jungle, infamous for its punishing terrain, dangerous fauna and labyrinth of waterways.

Darien Gap crossing

In the latest video posting from Mototrek, Helge reminisces about his adventurous crossing of the Gap. How he was a twenty-something hanging out in Lima when he met some journalists who told him about the husband-wife team of Loren and Patricia Upton, who had just completed one of the first overland crossings of the Gap driving 1966 CJ-5 Jeep during their own round-the-world expedition. Their crossing, which eschewed ferrying the vehicle with any type of boat, took a whopping 741 days. Helge’s first thought after hearing about the heavily supported effort was “if they can take a Jeep through it…I can take my bike!”


Helge was soon reminded about the physics that favor four wheels over two, as well as the advantage of having a huge team of foot travelers who could build makeshift bridges along the way.

For 14 of the 20 days it took Helge and his friend to cross the dense jungle, they didn’t see another human being. Although they did encounter scorpions, killer bees and ticks so abundant the travelers would some nights pick them off by the hundred. There were ropes and pulleys, boiling gas and broken bones. By the time they dragged themselves into Yaviza, the first village in Panama, they hadn’t eaten for five days, having run out of supplies. 

Helge Pedersen crossing Darien Gap on BMW R80 G/S
Still from Mototrek video: Helge Pedersen crossing the Darien Gap.

Interestingly, the Gap is just as impassable today as it was when Helge chopped his way through with a machete. It’s the only break in the entire 19,000 miles that make up the legendary Pan American Highway. A stretch so treacherous, that only a handful of riders have crossed it to date.

The reasons this missing link remains are numerous. The one you hear about most is how the Gap acts as a barrier, preventing hoof and mouth disease from spreading to cattle in Central and North America. There’s the deforestation factor, as well as feared cultural erosion. Officials also report the Gap helps discourage drug trafficking since the primary means for movement north from Colombia is regulated forms of travel like planes and ships.  

So yeah, crossing the Darien Gap is probably more of an adventure than any of us are up for, but it’s entertaining to hear Helge tell of it. There are also a couple of very important messages woven into his reminiscence you won’t want to miss.

One gem is how time is the best kind of currency when you’re on an adventure. How slow travel the key to getting the most out of a trip. Another is that you shouldn’t let money stop you. Helge says he left Norway with $2,300 USD and made it last for two years on the road. Sure, inflation makes that much more today, about $6,200, but still, two years

Lastly, Helge says to those of us living in North America we have no excuse not to head to Ushuaia today. “Go out your front door, and put your key in your bike,” he says. All that’s left is to start it and head south. 

And in some ways it is just that simple. “All up in your head,” as Helge says. Well, as long as you skip the part about the Darien Gap.  

For more about Helge’s numerous adventures, check out the GlobeRiders website.

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge

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October 27, 2020 10:04 pm

One of the few times you REALLY want a pillion on your bike – Joaquin Querenheim – a strong fit and motivated pillion whose role is more that of ‘pully rigger’ out there in the jungles of Darien. Without JQ, Helge was going by boat ifak

October 29, 2020 12:43 pm

Nothing that a thousand KLRs didn’t pull off easily.

Scott Halbleib
Scott Halbleib
December 7, 2021 9:59 am
Reply to  Robert

LOL there’s nothing that’s pulled that off easily, especially a KLR!

Paul T
Paul T
November 1, 2020 7:51 am

And all done without ‘Off Road Pro’, ‘Gear Assist Pro’, and all the other acronyms you like to load your bikes with, eh BMW

The Last Sail of the Stahlratte – Overland Expo®
May 27, 2021 8:44 am

[…] between Panama and Colombia. A few others may choose the more adventurous option: to make like Helge Pedersen and navigate their own “tour” from Panama to […]

Bernd Tesch
Bernd Tesch
December 6, 2021 1:02 pm

Dear Jamie Elvidge in USA? > from Bernd Tesch (*1941) in Germany

– thank you for your article about Darien Gap and Helge Pedersens incredible crossing South > north the Darien-Gap. – But you are not good infomed. In my book “Motorrad Abenteuer Touren” (= Motorcycle Adventure tours). ISBN 3-9800099-55-51994. Paperback. With 432 pp. 500 photos and drawings about 262 Mc-Travels worldwide 1905-1994 (Still available. € 14,99). You find an extra detailed article about “Crossing Darien gap by cars, foot and especially by motorcycles” including tries from the beginning… Danny Liska was the first making the whole distance Alaska > Tierra del Fuego (Darien by foot). American Ed Culberson was the first crossing Darien Gap before Helge Pedersen North > South.- >> Many international books written about Darien Gap you find in my database (12.500 TRAVEL-Books including 2.140 with motorcycles). I met Helge Pedersen and Ed Culberson several times. Summarises of their tours with photos are in > go left Moto-Tours > choose the continent. berndtesch (at ) Merry Christmas days without Corona please

Scott Halbleib
Scott Halbleib
December 7, 2021 10:00 am

Great video! Great attitude. My concern has always been the shady police, and other characters robbing you. Seems like there’s an awful lot of stories about that when travelling South America.

Video of the Week :: Alaska to Patagonia via the Darién Gap - Expedition Portal
November 25, 2022 3:15 pm

[…] Helge Pedersen on BMW R80 G/S […]


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