Saturday, November 29, 2008

the Day God Lost his Marbles

Feeling refreshed? Got a bit of Fresh air and stretched your legs? No? Well don't blame me, I gave you the chance, its your own fault if you didn't take it.

So, where was I? In Puerto Varras I believe, back on mainland Chile, and heading for my next crossing of the Andes. Once again, the road over the mountains was everything you could have hoped for, both from the driving perspective and the scenery on offer. And whats more, the sun was out for the what seemed like the first time in forever, so the visibility was spectacular. Once back in Argentina, the road to Bariloche was beautiful, winding through lakes and valleys bringing me to the town by about 3pm. I located my rendez-vous with Hana (oh, did I forget to mention that the friendly Canadian was of the female persuasion? How careless of me...) and so began a fortnight of chocolate and ice cream (its what B'loche is famous for after all, once the skiing has finished for the year, that is), trips to neighbouring towns by bus (El Bolson and Villa Angostura), hikes in the mountains, swims in rivers cold enough to shrink even the most hardy sense of adventure, and of course the obligatory beer, wine and good food.
As the second week drew to a close, Rich re-emerged, my bent and buckled handlebars got replace with straight ones (it was odd not driving in circles for the first time in weeks), and we checked out routes to the north. On the Saturday I bid farewell to Hana, who was heading south to Ushuaia, and Rich and I set off, initially for San Martin de Los Andes about 200km away. We had an evening lesson in making empanadas the traditional way and cooked up a storm, and the next day we headed out of the town for the next section of gravel and ultimately Mendoza.
The roads we took were some of the most spectacular of the trip so far. We avoided the main Ruta 40 which by this stage was more tarmac than gravel and stuck to smaller, winding roads through valleys and mountains, and made reasonable time thanks to my regained confidence on the gravel. Many photos were taken, but sadly all of them failed to capture the scale and colour of the places we went. Even the road would change colour from grey to yellow to white to red and pink, depending on the earth, so you'll have to come and see for yourself if you want a true idea. Until then, we did do our best with the pictures, so enjoy.
The weather through all this was a balmy 36ºC with the wind chill, so pretty draining as you may be able to imagine, but perfect for camping out by a river, so we did that.
And apart from the fantastic scenery it was all pretty uneventful. The day we arrived in Mendoza was a weird one though. Setting off in overcast, cooler weather, assured by locals that it wouldn't rain as it was the sumemr and the desert, we hoped to make good time, and in fact did for a while. Then it did start to rain, so on with the waterproofs. The road was yet another of the long straight flat ones, with nothing but empty flat ground either side of us, so we were able to watch with trepidation as the black, heavy storm clouds built and advanced towards us, stabbing prolonged spears of lightening at the ground as it came at us from the left. With a nervous burst of speed and a small prayer to the god of cowering motorcyclists, we managed to skirt round the leading edge of the storm, into drier weather, allowing us to watch the lightening continue to attack the bushes in our rear view mirrors. Safe, or so we thought, until the next lot of cloud came at us from the right. We made it to a town that looked like it had just been flushed, with water flooding everywhere. I guess we had just missed the storm here, and 5km out of town the road was bone dry again. Unfortunately, barely 20km further on, the weather closed in again, and this time offered a helping of hail. And not just ordinary hail, mind you, but hefty great lumps the size of small eggs. Small eggs would have hurt less I'm sure, and in fact your intrepid author and his trusty sidekick (who am I kidding here?) fled to the rather poor shelter of some poplar trees and waited til it passed. Apparently, Rich had never been forced to stop for weather before, so he was quite impressed. Finally it stopped, we continued to Medoza a mere 40km away, and the temperature over this distance went from a chilly 20º to a rather stuffy 32ºC, so I guess it was definitely a 4 seasons in one day.
And here we stay, changing tyres, sprockets, chains and oil, ready for the last big push to Bolivia, via the Atacama desert in Chile and Salta in Argy, so a couple more crossings of the Andes to come, which no doubt means more photos of spectacular scenery reduced to 4" x 6". Shame, but not much else we can do about that I'm afraid. Enjoy the best you can, spare a thought for us melting in one of the driest places on the planet (second only to a valley in Antarctica I believe - google it if you don't believe me). And now I must away and feed the growling beast within before venturing forth and collecting my trusty steed from a repair shop. Yes, I managed to break something else beyond my limited but growing capabilities. This time it was a stripped thread on the oil filter, which is actually a bad design - fancy using aluminium casings with steel screws.
So off with me, and off with you, and be safe and I'll be back with more tales of road in a while.

Yo Ho Ho and Where's the Rum?

By crikey, these Chileños could teach the polynesians a thing or two about time keeping! "Island time" has nothing on the Chileño timetable, let me tell you.

So there I was, waiting out the rain in Puerto Aisen til 4pm-ish. Made it to the port at Chacabuco by half past, thinking I may be late (the lady had said 4 after all), but the door didn't open til 5, then I had to wait ages while the locals were processed for tickets before being told I had to go to the port entrance and get a docket for my bike before they could sell me a ticket for the boat. (Side note: in Coyhaique I was under the impression I had been told to go and talk to a woman called Alejandrina at the Chacabuco port. It was only part way through the afternoon that someone in Aisen told me Alejandrina was the name of the boat. Doh!)
Still, tickets bought for the 6pm sailing that actually boarded at 7pm and left at half 7. OK so far, still not certain about the duration of the voyage though. The people in the office had said variously 27 hours or 24 hours (Clive Barrow in NZ had told be 18 - 24 hours as far as he remembered), and people on board (surely the ones who should know, right?) told me 30, 32 and 36 hours depending who I asked and who had seen the most recent weather report. As the time ticked by, I became aware that we were not headed directly to Quellon on Isla de Chiloe, but were meandering through the islands picking up and dropping off locals at remote fishing villages. We were also dropping anchor and waiting quite a bit, which was apparently due to high winds and rough seas. The B-movies were showing thick and fast on the TVs, in a combination of English with Spanish subtitles, or just straight Spanish, and were of a highly dubious quailty, by which I mean even I struggled to watch them, they were so bad (and no, Hugh, sadly no Steven Segal movies, despite crossed fingers. Bad though the movies were, they never got that bad!).
The boat finally docked in Quellon 44 1/2 hours after leaving Chacabuco. On the positive side, it gave me time to dry all my soaking gear, dry the tank bags and patch them with the last of my duct tape. On the negative side, I had just spent 44 1/2 hours on a boat going gradually more insane by the minute.
It was about 3pm by now, so off I set north, stopping briefly in a town called Castro on Isla de Chiloe before heading on to yet another boat to get off the island. This time it was just a half hour shuttle ferry though, and the boat was arriving as I pulled into the port and left 20 mins later, so not such a trial this time. Off at Pargua and on to Puerto Montt, deciding not to stop there and finally getting to Puerto Varras for a well earned sleep in a proper bed. Tomorrow was to see me arrive in Bariloche to have time off until Rich materialised again, and hopefully to catch up with a fellow tourist I had met in Uruguay. Remember the friendly Canadian? I did...
But that chapter can wait for the next entry, otherwise this will break all records for length and probably leave you feeling like you had been on a 44 1/2 hour voyage as well, so go take a breather and then come back for the next bit. Oh, and don't forget to check the latest photos. Theres about another 200 or so. Good luck.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

It's Been a Funny Old Day...

So rang the suitably apt words of Arkwright (prize of a sweetie if anyone can tell me his first name. My mind's gone blank and its bugging me) in my head as I sat waiting for my seafood lasagne last night. I must have been hungry to have eaten seafood lasagne, but boy, what a day! But first the lead up...

Last I wrote, I was in Puerto Natales, awaiting the diagnosis and no doubt astronomical bill for sorting out the bike. I have to say though, that the language barrier ceased to exist for a minute as he sucked in some air and shook his head. I expect what he said was "Oooo, that's gonna cost ya", and my knees began to give out. As it turned out, matey cleaned out the carburettor ("oxido" apparently) and cut a bit off the bottom of my side stand for me, and all for C$25000, so probably quite reasonable, as he was working from half 5 to half 9 at night at the drop of a hat.
Anyhoo, feeling a lot happier about the reliability of my bike for the next few days on my own, I set out for El Calafate. What a great ride! Heaps of scenery as always, and I got to El C by 3pm, checked into a hostel and immediately went off to see the Perito Moreno Glacier. What an incredible sight! The photos, when they make it on to the site just won't capture what it is like in person. It is huge, and noisy, but in a perfecly natural and "as it should be" kind of way. It'll be quite and serene for maybe 10 minutes, then there'll be a crash, or a sound like cannon fire (and I know what I'm talking about there, I've been to a few Royal Tournaments in my time) as some part of it breaks off in the middle somewhere, and then silence again. If you're really lucky, and what all the tourists are waiting around for, is to see a bit of the front break off, and if you're really, really lucky it'll fall into the lake with a splash like a salto-ing southern right whale (see what I did there? I used one holiday experience to draw a mental picture of another. Clever, huh?). I wasn't really, really lucky, so I didn't see that, but I was really lucky, and went away after an hour or more well satisfied.
Back to the hostel, big BBQ dinner, chat with a local Gaucho who totally reminded me of Uncle David in many ways (beard, long hair, mellow as, but the eyes were just the same), and off again in the morning. This was the bit I had been dreading - the start of the dreaded and infamous Ruta 40. Basically its the road that runs the entire length of South America, under different names in different countries, and the section that runs through Patagonia is notoriously un-paved and dodgy.
The first bit out of El C was easy, tarmac all the way except the last 10km, over the border and it began in earnest (note to self: next male bull terrier I own will be called Earnest. Hightly apt, I think).
Rich had emailed me with road conditions and it sounded pretty rough, and after my last nasty off-sy back before Valdez, I was in no hurry. Not having Rich in tow, or leading for that matter, actually made it easier, as I felt under no pressure to move faster than I was comfortable with. That's not to say Rich pressures me, he doesn't, but when he's there, I always feel like I'm holding him up or slowing him down, even though he is quite happy to go at my pace. On my own, fully accepting of the fact that I'd be camping on the roadside whatever happens, I pootled along. Got to Tres Lagos, the last petrol for 340km, dropped the bike in the street (foot slipped on gravel at intersection, not my fault!), got up, got petrol and moved on. Gravel was far better than I thought, wind was almost none existant (Rich said he'd been blown off the road when he went through), sun was shining and the scenery stunning. With no pressure on me, I stopped for a wee Nana-nap when I felt my concentration wavering, and all was well with the world.
A bit later I met a couple of cycling Austrians, who gave me road condition updates, and a heads up that a 50km section was tarmac-ed, so I had that to look forward to. Shortly after th tarmac, I stopped for the night, sheltered by piles of large stones presumable cleared from the road, and and had a calm night with a marvellous sunset over the distant, snowy mountains. It was Bonfire night, I realised.
Next day (the "funny old day" of the title), keen for an early start to get some distance in before the wind got up in the pm, I was on the road by 0715. Made it to the petrol in Bajo Caracoles by 9am, and met a local guide with perfect English, who showed me an alternative route to Coyhaique, that went through mountains and forests instead of wide open desert, and was fully tarmac-ed all the way. Flexibility being the name of the game, off I went, with only a short 127km section of Ruta 40 left to do if my new route was to be followed. By now, I was much happier on the gravel, confidence growing but lessons learned, so no problems at all. Got to Perito Moreno by noon for more gas, dropped the bike again (clumsy U-turn this time. Well, I ask you! The sign said tourist info turn right, so I did, up a one way street!Bloody Chileños! And no tourist info either! Bastards.) and set off to Los Antiguas and the border, and then to Chile Chico and the port.
Got to the port by 2pm, only to find the next passenger boat was in the morning, but the people telling me this were loading a boat for trucks only, so I spoke nicely to the captain, and they squeezed little ole me and my bike on for the 3 hour crossing to the other side. Unfortunately, being a truckers' boat, they all sat in their cabs, nice and warm, and I had to stand about outside getting cold. For 3 hours, in a howling wind. It crossed my mind that I had signed nothing when I got on board, and if they chose to, they could steal my stuff, tip me and the bike over board and the only record of me ever having been anywhere would be my arrival in the customs shed. After that, I'd have disappeared off the face of the earth. But they didn't do that, I only thought they could have if they'd wanted to.
I spent part of the journey looking out for dolphins and albatrosses etc, but then realised that it was a big lake (a very big lake), not the sea, despite the waves, so gave up that search, figuring it to be a bit of a waste of time.
On the other side at Puerto Igniero Ibañez, a bored customs man decided all the documents I'd got at the proper Chilean border needed changing so they looked like they came through his border, so he carefully copied everything from the documents I had on to a new set, just so he could put his stamp on them. I guess it was legit, as there was road access to P I I from Argentina, but I didn't see the need for it. By now it was 7pm, and I figured I could find a bed for the night, as I was bit weary from a long day, and Coyhaique was only 116km away. But, no beds to be found as P I I is a ghost town, so I bit the bullet and decided to move on to Coyhaique, where a bed was guaranteed. It was still light, and would be for the next 2 hours, plenty of time to cover 116km on tarmac.
And this is where it got really surreal. As I left the town, I realised that I was having fun. I was making my own way in my own time with no worries about what anyone else was doing or thinking, and the fact that I was still driving this late in the day didn't bother me at all, even when the serpentine road started climbing into the mountains and it started to snow. Despite the conditions, the road and scenery were possibly the best I had yet encountered, and I only wished I could have seen it in more sunny conditions. The road stayed clear of settled snow, while the trees took on a light frosting, and I just kept thinking that, that morning, I had been in a vast desert flat-land, bordered by distant mountains, and now here I was, a ferry ride and 400km of gravel later, driving through mountain passes with forests on all sides in a different country.
Coyhaique arrived, I stumbled across a Hospedaje for the night, found some food (the seafood lasagna) and just sat with a beer, marvelling at the crazy day I'd had. Possibly one of my favourties of the trip so far. I even managed to check the internet and find out that there was a boat to Quellon on Isla de Chiloe the next day at noon, so all was perfect.
Next day, it turned out the boat to Quellon was only for Chileños, but with a bit of skilfull negotiating, they agreed to take me and the bike, although the sailing was to be at 7pm, check in about 4pm. So here I am now, after a truely stunning ride through the valley to Puerto Chacabuco in the pouring rain, hiding from the rain and waiting for the ferry, and telling you all about it.
Think I'll go and get some lunch now though, and see where this all goes from here. My only regret is that the sun is not out, as I suspect the rumoured spectacular views from the boat may well be a bit hidden in the mist, not to mention the darkness that happens each night about 9ish. Ah well, things are on course, and all is right in the world. Except my feet are a bit cold, and my clothes a bit wet, but those are just temporary things, never fear.
Love and hugs to you all, now go and get some of that ice cream you just know is in the freezer wanting to be eaten up. Off you pop.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Some Rather Blustery Daze

D'you know, I thought we'd had it bad in the wind heading south. Not a patch on what we had to deal with the day we left Ushuaia. Even Rich thought it was a struggle, which means it must have been, but for me, it was very nearly the single most unpleasant day on the bike yet. At least in the snow and the sand it was just frustrating and slow, and my own incompetence was largely (if not totally) to blame. Thursday, though was all down to Mother Nature, and I rather think someone must have walked across her clean floor, or maybe put one too many coffee mugs down on her nice table without a coaster, because she was not a happy lady!
We left in a bit of a shower, requiring the interruption of our departure for the donning of water-proofs (always a pain in the arse), but the rain quickly cleared - like by the time we got through the mountain pass it had stayed behind in Ushuaia - so we had to stop again and remove the unnecessary outer wear. It then started to get windy. And when I say windy, I'm talking headwinds that prevented us going faster than 60kmh with fully open throttles, side winds that had the bikes on what felt like 45º angles, and gusts that had us weaving across the fortunately empty roads pretty much from kerb to kerb in a futile effort to hold a straight line and stay out of the roadside gravel. Frightening was not the word, but it will have to do.
Rich's advice of "hate to say it mate, but think 'playing a piano' with your grips" fell on terrified and deaf ears, as I was not going to release my beartrap grip for anyone, regardless of how tired and pumped out my forearms and shoulders were getting. Talk about full upperbody work out for pretty much a full day. Shocking!
On the up side, we did make it to the border and into Chile again with no problems, and set out along the road to Porvenir and the ferry to Punta Arenas, fully intending to stop by the road and camp again, as we had done on the way in. We eventually found a nicely sheltered corner, out of the still howling gales, pitched camp and cooked up some more pasta. Not a bad night, and up for a reasonable start to get us to the ferry for 1pm check in.
By now you know how much I enjoy riding in the rain, not to mention the wind, and on gravel, so imagine my poorly disguised delight at being presented with all three in large quantities for most of the morning. Trying to keep out of the deeper gravel while being blinded by rain and gusted by hurricanes was so much fun, and I just had to pull over at one point and share my joy and enthusiasm with Rich. Poor bugger, I think he has learned that every now and again I just need to vent at the forces of nature or the road, or both in this case, and he just stays in his helmet and lets it pass. Anyhow, the rain stopped, the wind died off a little tiny bit, and we got to Porvenir by 11am, reached the port and were told by a ferry worker that the 2pm boat wouldn't be sailing, and we'd need to check back at 5pm in case it was going to go at 6. The reason? Why, that'd be the wind again. Blowing at 125knots (you do the maths, I have no idea, but it sounds a bit choppy to me) in the straits of Magellan. Fair call, and Rich was relieved, what with being a rather reluctant sailor at the best of times.
Fortunately we had earlier found a café at which to fill our bellies, and although it was now clsoed, we did manage to seek refuge in the Croat Club of Porvenir for an hour or two, recover over a couple of cheeky ales, and kill some time. When they turfed us out, we bumped into a couple of Irish cylclists we'd seen at the border crossing. The wind had been too much for them altogether, and they had paid some bloke US$100 to take them and their bikes to Porvenir. He'd now broken down with a leaky fuel pipe, so we (and by we, I mean Rich. I think its no secret that my mechanical skills are rudimnentary at best) helped sort that, and then made it to the ferry for the 6pm crossing. All well and good, bikes on board, sort of tied down, and good to go.
Two hours later. Docking at Punta Arenas. My bike was again on its side, again due, albeit indirectly, to the vandals in Florianopolis. The stand had finally given out a second time, thanks to fatigued metal and rolling seas, and so for presumably a substantial part of the crossing it had lain on its side while waves crashed over the bow and doused it with sea water. Well, I ask you, would you want to start if it was you? Exactly. And with the stand bent back into place but nearly fully snapped through, it was with a small amount of delicacy that I balanced my bike against a trailor in the carpark and wailed my anguish at the new moon.
The Irish stepped up, and with 4 of us on the job, we totally failed to push start the bike round the car park about 5 times. A selection of the Chilean armies finest stood by watching and not helping at all. I´d like to think a group of similar British squaddies might have stepped up, or at least laughed at us, but nothing from this lot. So plan B: drain carburetor, remove and check spark plug. Nothing. Battery now tired too. All getting a bit much for yours truely, and then the cavelry arrive, in the form of 3 dock workers about to go home. They had jumper leads (didnt work, but at least kept hope alive) and one of them rushed the spark plug off to heat it up and rushed it back so I could return it to its slot, and with that little effort, we had lift off!
It got me to the hostel, and the next morning I felt confident, but I got nothing from the bike. Just a lot of turn over and no spark (sounds a bit like my dating record actually). And of course, now it was not only Saturday, but also a religious holiday weekend, so nothing was going to happen. And the battery was once again drained from my efforts to start the engine. We had agreed that Rich and I would make our own way up Ruta 40 as I would be so painfully slow, and we'd touch base on the way via email and rendez-vous in hostels on the way, so I had to manage on my own. I did this by sulking for a day (actually I was waiting for a bloke to turn up that the hostel person had organised. Didnt show. Not surprised). On Sunday, I tried to drain things again, and in the process noticed the local Fireys up the street cleaning their trucks. "Hello", I thought. "Funny". So over I went, pressed some flesh, plugged into their battery charger, and things started to look up. Went back at 11pm for the now fully chartged battery and, as it turned out, a few glasses of Chateau Cardboard vino tinto. Next morning, with battery now reconnected and raring to go, the old war horse fired up first time, and I was off. Sort of.
I made it about 190km, just into a remote-ish sort of area and a rainy part of the day, and the engine sarted to cough and shudder and die on me. Pulled over. Tried to restart, no luck. Waited, swore, and tried again. Success! For about 3km, then it did it again. Same process, but with more swearing, and I was off again. It seemed to go better if I kept the revs high, so I was tootling along in 3rd gear, 6000rpm, 60kph, trying to keep the bike alive. Something about that combo was agreeable to the suddenly temperamental machine, and I limped into Puerto Natales and scored a hostel. Luckily it was the hostel furthest from the motorbike repair shop I was able to find, thus allowing me a calming walk back in the rain once bike had been delivered to the workshop, so that was good. So now, at 2020 in the pip emma, I am about to enjoy the long rainy walk back, hopefully via some food, to collect my freshly cleaned carburetor and the rest of the bike, pay a no doubt heinous bill, and be ready for the next leg to El Calefate in the morning. Might leave early for this one, to allow for....incidences.
Well that will do for now, consider yourselves lucky you were safely at home and not here in the flesh to see all this unfold. It was not a pretty sight.
Off you pop, then, to feed the plants, change the dog or water the children, whatever it is you crazy cats get up to when I´m not there, and I´ll be in touch anon. Caio, my lovelies.