Monday, August 25, 2008

And the Days, They were Long and Arduous...

Well three of them were, but I'll get to that in a minute. This is a biggie I'm afraid, so strap yourselves in....
So, its been a whole week since my last post, and by crikey things have been happening! Mendoza was a nice break, although I was victim to a scam artist...sort of. My good nature allowed him to talk to me for a bit, this bloke on the street, and he was very polite and spoke slowly so I could follow what he was saying, but then he started asking about how much money I had etc and before I knew it he was holding a wedge of my cash and did some kind of magic trick where he mixed it with water in his hand, it turned into purple mush and vanished, before he revealed it in his other hand. Very clever and worth a couple of bob I guess, but it made me rather uncomfortable when he wouldn't give my cash back when I asked him to, until he'd done his trick. Still, I reckon you need to get stung once at least to learn to avoid wasps!
Anyhoo, we ended up staying in Mendoza an extra day cos it peed down, and when we left, we decided to take the old road back to Uspallata, then head north to Calingasta - about 250km I guess, mostly on gravel. The first part was fine, out past Villa Valencia, into the desert and a bit of an incline. Then the fog rolled in, but the people in Mendoza had told us that if it was foggy this side of the mountain, it'd be clear on the other, so on and up we soldiered.
True to their word, we eventually broke through the fog and clouds, out of the damp and into the sunshine, with some glorious views (we're getting used to those!). We continued up, higher and higher, until some traces of snow lined the road (can you guess where this is going? We didn't.), and then, in shady places, a bit of snow would be in the road, but easily skirted around. And up we went. And lo, the snow it got more plentiful, and the road more slippy, and still we went up, and the worse it got. Eventually, after slipping off the bike a couple of times and being passed by cars that were giving up and turning round, I suggested maybe the conditions were a bit extreme for bikes. Rich figured it couldn't be far to the top, and the sun on the other side would have melted the snow, so why not plod on? Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed and I think we both regretted the decision fairly smartly. By this stage we had worked out (by we, I mean Rich) that riding in the new snow on the verges was easier than the packed stuff - not rocket science, I grant you, but I was preoccupied by trying to stay on my bike at walking pace - so I slipped, slid and dropped my way ever upwards into more and more snow, and no sign of the top any time soon. Rich was faring a little better, but even he came a cropper once or twice, and every time I slid off, he'd stop and help me pick my bike up again, which was jolly team-spirited of him.
It was a long day, let me tell you, and the snow on the other side of the hill was just as bad, and progress painfully slow, not to mention just plain painful at times. At one point we stopped for a drink of coke with a family at the side of the road, and they assured us it was only 4km more of snow, then clear roads. What they also mentined was that the snow got deeper first. Oh goody.
By the time my odometer had clocked up 4km, I had traveled about 300m, on account of the poor traction, so we soon lost track of how far we'd gone and how far was left. I was shattered by now, having dropped the bike countless times, and poor old Rich was just as tired from having to help pick it up or push me out of a stuck situation. I was able to return the favour from time to time, but his superior skills kept him out of trouble most fo the time and I'm afraid to say I was starting to feel a bit of a burden. Gotta be grateful to Rich for never losing his patience, despite my tendancy to treat each fall in the tried and tested McMullen fashion of swearing like a sailor with turettes (sp?) syndrome. I doubt you have to be a biker to appreciate how much snow is NOT our friend, however picturesque it looks!
As in all good fairy stories though, good triumphed over snow, and we rolled into Uspallata about 8 hours and 100km after leaving Mendoza. Always looking for silver linings, at least it was sunny and not too cold, and snow not mud, which would have been just as slippy but a thousand times dirtier. And we also got a night in Uspallata, at the youth hostel out of town, where we had a fantastic night, camped out in -5C, and joined some locals on a bank holiday weekend break for their Asado (Argy BBQ), which was a hugely entertaining and vastly more genuine experience than we'd ever have got in a cafe or restaurant. We also made some good friends, got some addresses to stay at in Buenos Aires, and I had my luggage rack unbent by Nico, a mechanic from BA on his holidays. All in all it was one of those whole experiences that starts you off asking "what the hell am I doing here?", then reveals exactly why you're there, like some kind of Karmic wizard.
After that, we headed north to Calingaste, through a wide valley bordered by snowy mountains, had a night there, then moved on to near San Jose de Jachal, to a gap on the river bank near a town called Huaco. The camp site was well hidden from the road and free, so you can't argue with that!
The next day we figured, after asking in a number of Info huts, to take the Ruta 150 to San Agustin. The short route, it was, with the plan of getting to SA and having an early stop and a day off. It was a great road, and hugely enjoyable, with a couple of shallow river crossings to make life interesting. However (isn't there always a "however"?), we got to within 20km of the end of the road, 60km or so under our belts on the gravel, when we ran into a road construction crew. Constructing the road. They found it very amusing when we explained where we were trying to get to, and kindly showed us on our map exactly where we were, before making it very clear we weren't going to be going any further. In fact, the man said, even on horses we wouldn't get through. They asked if the police road block had not told us the problem? We said the policeman just waved us through (in retrospect, he may have been indicating which road to take, but he didn't try and and stop us when we took the other road) They invited us to wait while the finished. Four years, give or take. Inevitably, we turned around, and just as we were heading off back the way we'd come, the chief party pooper pointed to a bird - our first condor in fact - and helpfully said "If you go by condor you will make it!" So back we went. And it was just as scenic from the other direction, and I even got some video footage, which may be too long to load on to Youtube, so may have to be viewed on DVD when I post it back to the UK. When we got back to the tarmac, we went north to Valle de Union, up the side of a huge empty desert with another condor, then, at Union, we went south down the other side of the desert, with another condor. Or maybe the same one, they stay pretty high, so its not always easy to tell them apart. We eventually got into San Agustin far later than planned, and 450 long and boring km later (long arduous day #2), for our well earned rest day. I went to the Valle de la luna, and Rich stayed home and played with the bikes. Hopefully some vid will be on Youtube of my day out (apologies if its a bit dull, but its more for my benefit on this occasion). The second night we followed directions 8km out of town to a camp site. What the directions failed to mention was the 10 or so river crossings we'd need to make to get there, but all well and good and we found a great little spot to stay the night.
Next day, we figured it was time to make some progress west, so we decided on a tarmac day to some destination or other never reached. Yes, as per the opening line, this is the 3rd long arduous day. Started well, though, except we missed the road out of SA that we'd been looking for. No worries, mate, we'll take the next left about 20km further on, no biggie. Except after half an hour on deeper sand than I was used to, we pretty much came to a dead end at some old farm buildings. For the second time, the map had sold us a red herring! Back we went, getting used to the sand, and back down the main road. Eventually, 15km before the actual turn, we spotted a gravel road that the map said would save us some distance, so down we went. Not a pleasant road, I have to say, with quite a lot of sand, some of it proper deep, so extreme caution was used (by me, anyway, Rich was off like a rat up a drainpipe), but all to no avail. I am proud to report that my first crash happened on this road (don't panic mum, it was only technically a crash, being as it happend at a faster pace than a "drop"). I hit a patch of super deep and extended sand, which slowed me down suddenly from about 30km/h to 20, and over I went. Unfortunatley, as the handle bars got embedded in the sand, they bent a bit, not that I realised this straight away, as when I picked the bike up, I managed to do so that successfully that I tipped it over on to its other side. Up it came again, and off I set, spitting sand, only to come a cropper in the same patch of sand 3m further on. You can probably picture the look of joy on my face, if you try really hard. Go on, try, see if you can. Up for the third time, out of the sand, and that was when I realised the bars weren't really pointing where I thought they should be (still got that happy picture of me in your head? Now, times it by 10.). It was at this point things began to get better. And when I say better, of course I mean worse. First, I met Rich coming back the other way. Not, as I thought to see what was holding me up, but because there was a locked gate up the road, and we couldn't get out, so we were going to have to turn round. Again. Bent bars for nothing I thought. Rich was impressed to notice, at this point, that I had thought to let some air out of my back tyre to improve traction through the sand. This surprised me somewhat, as I had done no such thing. Yes. Icing on the cake time, I had a puncure, in the desert. In a really sandy part of the desert with no firm ground ideal for changing tyres, just soft sand, no good at all for changing tyres on. Still got that picture in your head? Add a bit of colour to it. Somehow I had run over a nail. Surely not in the desert, probably at the side of the road, but it had done its job and given all the air an escape route.
An hour later, having had the wheel and half the tyre off, we had patched the hole and put everything back together and were heading back to the road, me even slower than usual due to shaken confidence in the sand due to the fall, and also to the wonky bars which were very unnerving in the sand, though not so bad on the road. In the end, later than planned, we found a B&B in a town called Chepes, where we tried to sort my bars out, as the newly adjusted riding position caused my left hand to go numb (useful in certain circumstances, so I'm led to believe, but not when riding a motorbike). And this is when the silver lining to Long and Arduous Day 3 was revealed. The bloke who owned the beer shop next to the B&B knew a bloke who could straighten the bars, so, after unsuccessfully trying to do it ourselves, I hopped on the back of his scooter for the most terrifying 3 minutes riding so far in South America, to his mates workshop. Five minutes later, having been laughed at a bit (and lets face it, I was beginning to see the funny side...almost) I was presented with a set of perfectly straight bars. A miracle, I hear you cry. Well, its what I said anyway, and between us we re-named the bloke Fernando Da Vinci. And things got better from there. Our new friend, Juan Manuel (yes, he really was called Manuel!)'s wife owned the shop next door, and her parents owned the pizzaria round the corner...and who should her father have been? Why, none other than Mr Da Vinci, of course! So we ended up having a big family experience in the family pizza shop, with lots of beer and laughter and broken spanish, got given a new (and hopefully reliable secon- hand map), and what had been a pretty crappy day ended on a massive high.
For now, that ought to do. We are currently having at least one, and maybe two days off in a small holiday town called Capilla del Monte near to Cordoba, staying in a beautifully tranquil camp site run by ex-2nd-in-Argentina mountain biker Victor. Today, I ran up a mountain (we're at about 950m already, and the summit was 1979m - 1000m up, about 6km of track), and had a fall 5 minutes before reaching the bottom, taking a good chunk out of my left knee, but that is a story for another day. Til then, hope you enjoyed the latest, sorry it was so long, but who'd o' guessed so much would happen on this trip, huh?


ed said...

You did realise it was, um, WINTER over there didn't you? Just wondering. An amusing tale of highs and lows... Keep 'em coming!

Ian said...

Perhaps you should put the stabilisers back on?

Kere said...

Keep up the good work bro. Logging in every day to see if there is any new stuff. Have fun but be a bit more careful...ouch!

Anonymous said...

Hello Steve Niaive and the Playboy! Its The Bear and two chicks enjoying your blog - remember Donna (wife)and Nellie?

Anyway sounds fantastic and keep up the good work!! Can't wait for the next update.

Adios amigos!

Anonymous said...

P.S. Just so you know, while you've been galavanting, I've just cooked up a rather superb stuffed marrow. Can you top that?

The Bear!