From Bolivia to Nelson: Kiwi mountainbiker who conquered the "Road of Death" returns home
When Alistair Matthew first moved to Bolivia he knew four words of Spanish he'd gleaned from kids cartoon Speedy Gonzales.
But by the time the pioneering mountainbiker moved back to New Zealand last year after 18 years in Bolivia, his Spanish was a little more robust.
The thrillseeker called Bolivia home for nearly two decades after setting up the first mountainbike company that had the cojones to tackle one of the world's most dangerous roads.
For the uninitiated the Yungas Rd, ominously dubbed El Camino de la Muerte or the Road of Death, is a perilous stretch of track clinging to the hills between Coroico and La Paz.
Built by Paraguayan prisoners, during its worst years an estimated 200 to 300 travellers a year lost their lives on the road.
Back in 1994 a much more clean-cut Matthew was working as a management consultant when he had what he describes as his early midlife crisis.
He took some time off to find himself. He packed his bike for Bali but what was planned as just a year out turned into a three-year cycle tour of south-east Asia.
However, having still not found what he was looking for, he decided to tackle South America and singled out Bolivia as his first destination.
"What appealed to me about Bolivia was how raw it was.
"It had this level of chaos and excitement and lack of infrastructure that I'd been looking for in a travel destination. Everywhere else seemed to be too developed.
"The adventures I'd heard from uncles who had travelled to places like Nepal in the 70s - that level of adventure wasn't available. Bolivia still had that."
He was eager to pursue business opportunities there and figured that since Bolivia was the least developed country in South America there would be the most opportunity. If he failed the next place could only be easier.
There were a lot of advantages for a small business person - he knew his market well and it only cost him $420 a month to live there.
"So I could afford to take a punt."
Originally he thought he would work for an adventure tourism company and, for a time, worked for a mountaineering firm but it didn't really work out.
In the meantime he did a lot of bike riding and it occurred to him as he rode why was no one running a bike riding company?
"I had a sneaking suspicion that there was maybe someone with some bikes doing something every now and then but nothing commercialised. There were no posters and nothing in the guide books."
He settled on the idea of doing the Road of Death. He bought three more bikes, hand-made some posters, got three takers and Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking was born.
"It really clicked with people. At the time there was nothing much to do in Bolivia. People weren't spending any time in Bolivia because there was nothing to do and there was nothing to do because all the local business people thought no one wanted to stay in Bolivia."
He attributes that in part to the perception that Bolivia was too unstable and dangerous. The fact that the country went through 17 presidents in 8 years lends some weight to that theory but Matthew is quick to point out that it is a safe place to travel.
"Bolivia seems more fierce than it is. It's not that any one is shooting at you and its not that you will die."
"Petty theft can be a problem but overall the country is safer than many other destinations."
But because of the political situation Matthew says that psychologically the people in Bolivia were pretty scarred and its reputation suffered.
Matthew saw some distinct advantages in that as well.
"As a country it was so raw and so rough it definitely wouldn't appeal to a $200 a day tourist but would to a $50 a day backpacker or adventurous traveller.
"If a $200 a day tourist gets tear-gassed in the street, or an eight-hour bus trip takes three days they're going to tell people not to go there, but if that happened to a $50 a day adventure traveller, they're going to go 'that was awesome' and have a great story to tell."
"For the adventurous tourist it's fantastic because finally you're getting those stories you want when you get home. You can't get that at Disneyland. Bolivia was like the final frontier in adventure tourism."
Matthew endeavoured to bring an ethos from NZ adventure tourism, do it safely and with proper systems, training and gear.
"It might be relatively expensive but you do it right and it'll create a market. And that's what I did."
In the first six months Matthew had 386 people on his rides. Last year they took 12,000 people. Now 30 different companies ply their trade on the road and something like 60,000 people rode the road last year.
"It's really created something special."
Matthew puts his success down to being in the right place a the right time and preparation meeting opportunity.
Initially Matthew tried to find other tourism operators that would benefit from his business. He began approaching hotels to see if they wanted people to stay for longer. Only three or four were willing to entertain his ideas so he formed an alliance with them.
He asked them who their accountant was, who their lawyer was - sat down and talked with them about what worked and what didn't and built up the infrastructure in that way.
He says that in Bolivia he had to compete with a lot of infighting and guarding their slice so taking a more positive approach to growing the whole market really helped.
In the first 12 months he hired a mechanic, people who could guide with him and built up his fleet.
"Initially I had to chase foreign cycle tourists down the street to buy their bikes because there wasn't anyone importing bikes but by the end of the 12 months I formed a relationship with Kona and started importing their bikes."
He formed a relationship within an eco-tourism company as their adventure tourism arm.
He says it was easy to scale up but he did not want to borrow money. However, because of the low living costs he found he didn't need to take a lot of money from the business - if made just $420 a month he broke even.
Of course there was the small matter of Bolivia being one of the three most corrupt countries in Latin America so Matthew had to account for what he euphemistically describes as "user-pays" which was handled by his lawyer. On the plus side he says formal tax rates there are lower than elsewhere.
It's estimated that about 27 cyclists have died on the road as guides or customers since 1998 and Matthew says he has tried in vain to get all 30 competitors together to agree on some safety regulations but to no avail. He says the process was always sabotaged.
"If a baseline safety level was put in place I guarantee at least 25 of the existing companies would struggle to meet it."
He prides himself on his own safety record with only one death due to a heart attack out of 100,000-plus customers.
"If you ride sensibly with guides that give you good instruction on good gear then you don't need to die."
"We prefer to call the road the 'World's Most Dangerous Road' not 'The Death Road' as when you get to the bottom and no one's died you're not getting you're money back." he jokes.
As well as the bike tours, Gravity Assisted also has its own hostel, a zipline and an urban-rappelling operation "where we throw tourists out of the 17th storey windows of a 5-star hotel".
These days Matthew sports the sort of beard that drifts sideways in the breeze.
And when he talks about mountainbiking its with a level of energy and conviction that's hard not to get swept up in.
He's moved back to New Zealand
with his wife and two sons, and is enjoying the level of safety home brings.
"In Bolivia kids live behind walls, there's always someone with them, you wouldn't send your kids down to the dairy by themselves."
Due to its enthusiasm for all things cycling, Nelson seemed the obvious choice.
He said he was impressed about Nelson and how passionate people were about the cycling scene and he sees it as being on the cusp of something big nationally and internationally.
"There's a real sense of community around cycling here."
As for his his future plans, he spent three months in Bolivia riding and looking for opportunities, so he's doing something similar here or as he calls it auditing the local riding assets.
- Sunday Star Times