Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Breaking News!!!!

For those paying close attention, please be advised 2 (yes, 2!!!) new video clips have been uploaded to youtube. Give it a nudge with the link and search for Bolivian Dynamite Experience Part 1 and Part 2. I wanted to call it Bolivian blow job part 1 and 2, but that understandably got a rather larger search result of a slightly more dubious nature. Gone are the days of a harmless double entendre, it seems. Enjoy. We did.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Farewell to Boliviyeauuuurghhhh!!

Happy Christmas everyone, and a lively New Year as well. right, now that's over with...

So, we were in Oruro, if you've been paying attention, and about to head in the general direction of La Paz, which we duly managed to do. En route, as is our wont, we decided more precisely where we were going to try and get to, and picked a...suburb, I guess you'd call it, 12km out of La Paz called Mallasa, situated in the Bolivian Valle de la Luna (oh no, not another one, we thought). Unfortunately, we had no map with Mallasa on it, and as we got closer and closer to La Paz, the lack of road signage, though normal, became increasingly confusing.

And then, while stopped at a set of traffic lights in the middle lane of 3, a guiding angel appeared, thinly disguised as a local traffic cop. The cop came over while we waited for the lights, and asked the usual curious questions about where we were from, where we had come from today and where we were going. When we said Mallasa, he started giving ¨easy¨ instructions to find it that would take us off the crowded main streets. We were clearly struggling with his directions, so he suggested we move out of the now moving traffic to the side of the road, and he tried again. Seeing the looks of utter confusion still on our faces (not easy through the helmets...) he grabbed his mate, jumped on his own bike, told us to follow him and sped off through the unpredictable traffic. I dropped visor (there was a lot of both dust and dirty water being sprayed about), indicated left and pulled away from the kerb, with Rich in hot pursuit. Until, that is, my front wheel dislodged a storm water drain cover, and my back wheel dropped neatly in the hole. Rich came back, realising I wasn't on his tail any more, and we managed to lift the back end out of the hole without dropping the bike, but by now our guides had surely gone?

Not a bit of it. They too had realised we hadn't followed them, so had (probably illegally) U-turned and come back to find us. Reunited, we set off again, our wider, slower bikes finding it harder than the lighter cop bike to weave dangerously through the traffic, but we kept them in sight, and eventually got through a maze of streets to the top of a long and winding cobbled street leading into an incredible craggy valley. Hear, the friendly police pulled over, gave us some final directions for Mallasa, told us to ask any other policeman if we needed help and bid us farewell. Slightly dubiously, suspecting some kind of Bolivian rip off scam perhaps, we followed the amazing road into the valley.

After several pauses to check our direction, we were confident we were on the right road to Mallasa. And then, inevitably enough, things became a little pear-shaped. The road was rather unexpectedly blocked by a construction crew, large lorries waiting to take earth away, and a larger JCB type machine in the middle of the road, scooping it into the backs of the trucks in turn. We were assured that if we were ¨tranquilo¨, the road would be clear soon enough, so after one failed attempt at a sneaky detour, we waited it out.

Once clear, the first vehicle, a Toyota Hiace van, tried to come up the relatively steep and by now very muddy and wet road, and unsurprisingly got totally stuck. Lack of air, hot clothing and the nasty mud prevented us from leaping to the van's aid, but others tougher than us stepped in, pushed it through, and the road was open! I launched myself down the chute, throwing caution to a walking pace wind, and promptly lost my front wheel in the slippery deep mud, dropping my bike and blocking Rich and the rather large lorry behind me from being able to get past. A frenzied pick up of the bike threw it on to its other side, before I manfully and totally-out-of-breathedly managed to get it up (so to speak) and successfully out of the muddy slick. And so, on to Mallasa with no further interruptions or issues. Phew.

The Bolivian Valle de la Luna certainly deserved its name, with totally amazing rock formations we totally failed to photograph, as we were by this time just keen to get to the end of the ride. We had a very comfortable night in a fairly luxury hostel, and next day proceeded through La Paz and on to Copacobana.

Now I made that sound easy, but getting through La Paz on a Sunday morning (surely less traffic on a Sunday?) was preceded by a climb up and up and up a crazy winding road (hopefully Rich got good video footage of that), providing a steadily improving view of La Paz below us, a truly stunning location for a city, albeit a rather busy and dirty city. At the top of the hill, we hit real traffic, and had a thoroughly entertaining half our weaving our way with a recklessness surpassed only by the true locals, through the traffic and out of town. A quick, straight spin followed to get us to within sight of Lake Titicaca, and a short hop on a very rickety boat put us across from San Pablo to San Pedro, and on to an absolutely superb, high level, top quality tarmac, contour-following road around the edge of the lake to get to Copacobana.

Here we stopped for about 5 days over Xmas, enjoying a couple of nights out, met some friendly locals, had a crack at high altitude fitness activities (a hill climb and various push-up type things), and on our last night - Xmas night - a bout of food poisoning courtesy of the poshest food we'd eaten in months, and needless to say chicken. We should have known. Never mind, Rich spent the night shouting Huey and Ralph at the roses outside, and my first duty of the morning, under the impression I had escaped his fate despite an uncomfortable night, was to talk to God on the big white telephone. Having not purged myself as early as Rich, I also suffered bonus discomfort, which need not be highlighted, but altogether it did cause us to have a recovery day and mount a pavement protest which in due course got us a refund for the meal.

Which, sadly, had us leaving Bolivia with, quite literally, a sour taste in our mouths, despite having enjoyed every other aspect of the country enormously. It certainly hasn't put me off the notion of going back in March while Rich is otherwise occupied, to do a stint of voluntary work with, who work to rescue wild animals form zoos and circuses etc and rehabilitate them for release into the wild. Should be good, as long as I avoid chicken in Copacobana on the way there!

And so we entered Peru, homing in on Cusco at last and our 2 months of voluntary work for Bruce Peru. On the way we stopped at Puno for a night, not having fully regained our strength yet, which was very nice town from what we saw of it, narrow cobbled streets and old Spanish type buildings etc, and arrived in Cusco yesterday afternoon. It was another incredible drive in, totally well above 3000m all the way yet still surrounded by enormous hills and mountains. It really is a very high part of the world, round here! We have settled in to our digs, and found out a day or two before arrival that, rather than just being classroom volunteers as we had expected, we have been asked to take on the role of directors and coordinators for volunteers and fund raising (basically running the joint), as our predecessor was called back to the US rather unexpectedly and urgently. A bigger challenge certainly, but we have had a couple of working liquid lunches already, brainstormed some ideas, and are quietly confident that we will be highly successful! Of course, what else?

So wish us luck, keep an eye out for further updates and photos, and try to keep Auntie Beryl away from the sherry. You know it plays havoc with her plumbing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Great Mines Think Alike

You'll no doubt be as relieved to know as I am, that the swelling has gone down (most of the time anyway) and there seems to be no lasting damage as a result of the last bee sting. You can rest easy now. Especially the ladies out there....

So anyway, we left Uyuni for Potosí, the original and richest mining town in Bolivia. The road was about 200km long, and unsealed all the way. After a shakey start with rather more sand than I like, and one or two eye-opening construction sites (a general wave of the flag to skirt round the construction works with the bikes saved us a lot of waiting around for big trucks to finish doing whatever it was they were doing), it calmed down to a really rather good gravel road, and with my confidence at an all time high (but still not at the expense of my caution, I promise), we had a very enjoyable ride to Potosí. Not a very glamourous city at first glance, and the whole place lives in the shadow of the Cerro Rico, the huuuuge mountain that has been the subject of mining operations since 1545 and source of just about every mineral you can think of, from silver and gold to lead and tin, zinc and iron, copper sulphate and who knows what else, and they're still going. currently, 17000 miners work the hill, all as part of various co-operatives, so they fortunes are up and down as dramatically as the world markets that govern their income. last year, for example, there were more Hummers in Potosí than the rest of Bolivia put together, but this year the prices have crashed, and they are back in their crappy trucks.
How do I know so much about the mountain? Why, I went on a tour, of course. And more surprising than that, so did Rich. We went on one of the "Mine Tours", taken underground into the working mines by an ex-miner who is now about 50 years old, but worked there from age 13 to 20. Much as many youngsters do today, in fact. It was an incredible tour, scurrying through tunnels and getting out of the way of classic Indiana Jones style mine trolleys as they were pushed past by groups of local workers. Empty, they are a mere 300kg. Full, they gain an extra 1000kg (that's a ton in old language) of rocks and earth that has to be either pushed to the surface, or to shaft where it is emptied into a heap and then hauled a bag at a time to the surface. Soul destroying stuff. On the up side, we were encouraged to take in a 2 litre bottles of fizzy pop for them each and a bag of coca leaves, the local cure-all that staves off altitude sickness, reduces appetite and gives a bit of an energy kick to boot. All presents gratefully received, not least the stick of dynamite we bought from a street vendor to take down for them. And a spare to get a demonstration outside afterwards from our guide...and another spare to take away secretly and blow up later of course....
Dynamite is loud!! The 2 sticks the guide blew up for us rattled our eardrums, and it was actually very useful to watch him prepare it so we could copy later (now that is a bit of vid I will try my hardest to up load!), and slightly comical to watch this fairly chunky old fella carry the sticks to the detonation site, and then run like hell to a safe distance!
Anyhow, despite the altitude (the mine entrance we used was about 4300m), and the heat underground (yes, it was hot and stuffy), we both managed to keep up and not get too puffed from our exertions. definitely earned teh beers we had later, shared with a group of 3 Canadian bikers we met in town, riding from British Colombia to the south somewhere, on KLR 650s for those that are interested. Potosí actually turned out to be a very pretty city in the centre, with blaconies, narrow streets and the obligatory well-used plaza.
Today, we left Potosí with a view to going to Cochabamba, but only made it to Oruro, due to fatigue (I think the altitude has that effect), the threat of rain and a slightly changed game plan. Suffice to say, on the way to Oruro, we found a suitable cactus, prepared our dynamite, and very carefully (with no risk to our own safety whatsoever, O beloved parents) blew the living whatnots out of it! Highly entertaining, and its probably lucky we only had one bit of dynamite to use, or the next target might well have been a slow moving goat/llama. We are now in Oruro, and likely to head towards, but not into, La Paz tomorrow, with a Christmas goal of getting to Copacobana on the shores of Lake Titikaka for a few (more) days R&R.
So that's all, thanks for tuning in, and for those that pay attention to the details, rest assured I did utter the immortal words "Do you think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?", but regrettably forgot to use the line "You're only supposed to blow the bleeding doors off!". So half marks only for me, I guess.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On the Trail of Butch and Sundance

Before I tell you about that, I'd just like to say I have added a couple more observations to the end of the last post, so feel free to check that one again, its free after all!

And now, to Bolivia! And not without a fair amount of trepidation, I have to admit. The same nerves I have got every time we have gone into a new country so far, and this time the principal worries were the roads and the rain, it being the rainy season, by all accounts. That said, we had been assured by the Canadian couple on the BMW we met in Mendoza that the roads would be no worse than anything we had encountered so far, not that that helped calm my nerves a great deal.
Anyhow, we crossed the border at La Quiaca early in the morning, and threaded our way through the streets of Villazon, past the crazy shouting man and up the main drag and out of town. Straight into a churned up, bulldozer-strewn stretch of sandy "road". Perfect. Fortunately, we picked our way through the road construction work, and onto a reasonable enough unsealed road that took us the 100km or so to Tupiza, the largest town in "Butch and Sundance's Last Stand" area of the country. The road had its share of sand mixed in with gravel, but no deep and difficult patches. The main problem was the corrugations, which were extreme and almost permanent, making for a bone-shaking ride for most of the way. It was, in all other respects, a very enjoyable ride though, and the last part as we approached Tupiza was genuinely spectacular, with more crazy rock formations and impressive scenery.
Unfortunately, it turned out that San Vicente, the actual mining village that Butch and Sundance finally caught the Big Stage Coach to the Sky, was (a) tiny, (2) quite a long way off our route, (iii) didn't actually have anything to show for their efforts, not even identifiable graves and (d) didn't have any petrol to refill on the way. Not to mention the road, if we were even able to find it, was the smallest possible standard marked on the map, suggesting extremely poor quality. So, we made a decision: we would take the road to Uyuni and the salt plains, and when we got to the turning to San Vicente, if we recognised it, we would detour down it a bit to assess its quality and decide if it was worth the risk and extra time.
So, off we went. In the wrong direction, initially, as the diversion sign pointed down a road that actually took us to the front line of the road construction, causing us to turn around, and eventually take the right road. Up to the first un-marked crossroads. Fortunately, we stopped here to find someone to ask, which gave me time to notice that the mysterious squeak I had been hearing was not, as I thought, coming from the front end, but actually from the back, where my luggage frame had broken at the same weld I'd had fixed in Brasil. Why? Because I had lost a securing bolt due to the shake down we had endured on the way in. So we turned round, went back to town and found a welder to fix it and a bolt shop to buy replacement bolts and spares for the next time it would happen. This all took us to midday, by which time I was reluctant to go on, as I suspected it would rain before we got to Uyuni (the word on the street is that however sunny it is, it rains some time mid-afternoon, just as it had done yesterday). This threat of rain, I felt, would put me under pressure to go faster than I wanted to, so I begged woosseyness and we decided to stay in Tupiza one more night.
This gave us a chance to modify our plan and pay homage to a rather old video of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie, a welcome repeat viewing for me, and a first for Rich, so frankly, very necessary.
Next day, we found our way out of town without a hitch, but completely failed to spot the road to San Vicente, as none of the junctions we met had a sign to anywhere on them, and at nearly every one we had to stop and wait for a passing vehicle to point us in the right direction. More corrugations, but a fantastic, mountainous first 100km, up over 4000m again, and then a much less pleasant sandy second half, though mostly thin sand on a hard under surface, so not too bad. The only event on the journey of any note was my third bee-sting incident, and this time it was very serious indeed, and certainly no laughing matter. We had stopped for a piece of cake, a drink and a pee, and I had just completed the last of these, when I got the nasty feeling I had committed the cardinal schoolboy error of getting caught up in the zip. But wait, I hadn't even pulled the zip up yet, so why the very sharp pain in a very delicate place?? A quick and slightly panicky look revealed a very surprised bee escaping from my pants, and a small stinger left behind in my old fella! Quick as a flash, I picked the stinger out, and hopped around in a lot of pain, while Rich helped by taking a picture. He commented later that I had been lucky it was only one sting, and I pointed out that he was the lucky one, as if it had been worse, he might have had to suck out the poison! Still, despite these high jinx, the 210km took 6 hours, and we stumbled into Uyuni to a very unprepossessing sight of vast amounts of rubbish blown about the desert just outside of town. In fairness to Uyuni, this is not unusual in SA, as many smaller towns only have uncovered landfills for dumping rubbish, and lots of wind, so the end result, though unattractive to look at and smell, is sadly inevitable.
So Uyuni, then. Famous for its massive Salar plain, with freaky mirages, distorted perspective and seemingly endless space. We had a night to recover from the ride in, then a relaxed morning preparing food etc, considering it was only 20km to the salt, and with no shade we didn't want to have to spend the whole day out there before we camped. We found our way out to the plains, and straight away couldn't fail to notice what a weird and wonderful place it was. We stopped briefly at one of the hotels made of salt, near the "edge", then drove for about 100km in a vaguely straight line to the volcano out in the middle somewhere. The salt was very hard, so easy to drive on, and with no obstacles to crash into and no road to run off, it allowed for some interesting on-the-move photo opportunities. The volcano eventually grew larger, although the distance was very hard to judge. When we arrived, it was surprising to see grassy areas all round the "island", with stone walls, grazing llamas, and flamingoes. We pitched our tents, took some crazy photos, and enjoyed the sunset, before settling in for an early and somewhat chilly night.
Next morning, we packed up slowly due to the altitude (about 3500m), took some more whacky photos, and drove off to one of the other islands for a quick look, before heading back to Uyuni and thoroughly cleaning the salt off the bikes.
And that is where I am now. While Rich wiles away the afternoon asleep, I'm have popped out to try and upload photos and update you, but sadly this has been quick and easy, but the photos have been very slow indeed. I can only hope that Potosi has faster internet that Uyuni, or I am going to get very behind with my photos!
A final first impression of Bolivia? I like it. OK, the roads are crap, but the people we have met so far have all been friendly and smiley, despite being easily the poorest folks we have met so far. They also speak a much clearer form of Spanish - slower and better pronounced. That doesn't mean I can understand more of it, mind you, but I can at least tell where one word ends and the next begins now, so maybe that will help!
Well, watch out for bees, and start getting out the decorations for Chrimbo. Our next task is to find some to decorate the bikes with. Til then, chin chin.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Things That Deserve a Mention

One or two things caught my eye over the last few months, and before they cease to seem strange in any way, I feel I should just give them a mention now. Some are funny, some ridiculous, some just curious, but all are noteworthy to my mind, and almost without exception, none of them will have been photographed, as I'm just not that organised. Sorry about that. So, without anymore ado, and in no particular order of preference or occurrence:
·The bicycle "backy"- from old blokes giving a side saddle backy on the luggage rack to their equally old wife, to the standard, kids-only-rear-footpeg backy, to the side saddle crossbar backy, to the toddler-on-the-handlebars-and-third-person-on-the-back backy, to the highly complicated and very technical passenger-on-the-crossbar-steering-with-driver-seated-and-pedalling, it seems to be the only way to travel.
·The overloaded scooter- maximum load so far witnessed is 4 on a scooter, arranged in order from handlebars to back as: small child, male driver, slightly larger child, female backstop. There have often been examples of mother on the back holding very small baby, and one photo in the album of Dante, Millie and Nadia with full camping gear. Crash helmets optional. The only other way to travel.
·Crash helmets - optional, but if worn, often only perched on the top of the head, no further down than the ears, very possibly back to front. They found the loop hole in the law.
·Dogs. Everywhere. Except (hopefully) on restaurant menus. And cats. Same.
·Cars that in any other place on earth would have been condemned and retired to a "bits" pile at the back of some lost garage. I have no idea how they continue to run, but they do. Often crazily overloaded with people or cargo.
·Pick-ups full to bursting with people in the back, presumably on their way to work or market. Possibly an alternative to buses.
·Buses. And trucks, come to mention it. Big, fast and in total command of the road. Move or be run down.
·Speed limits - there at the side of the road purely for decoration, or possibly as the minimum required speed to be travelled. The aforementioned buses and trucks work on the " as fast as possible" theory, assuming that when they have to slow to 10kmh on the ups, they can make up time at 110kmh on the downs. With no brakes, I suspect.
·Mullets, everywhere. And in some cases swapped for a single dreadlock at the back. Mmmmm.
·Crap breakfasts. The Argies just haven't got a clue when it comes to breakfast. A small quantity of stale bread, possibly toasted but left to go cold before serving if so, and maybe some strange tasting jam, or more likely ham and cheese. If you are very lucky, and for no particular reason, you might get a pastry instead. The Brazilians have a better idea, with lots of tropcial fruits, but still with the ham and cheese and bread.
·Maté, or more accurately yerba maté, the local drink in Argy that supercedes coffee by a country mile. Small maté gourd with silver straw in one hand, packed full of maté leaves. Thermos for hot water held under the armpit of the same hand. Water is added to the mix at regular intervals and sucked up the straw, not in the manner of tea, but more as a damp sludge. Highly social, with the gourd being passed round a group, each particpant taking a refill and total sip from the same straw. The Argies are unable to function without it, and the addition of a flask to their armpits does not seem to hinder their day to day activities too much.
·Town plazas. Even the smallest, dustiest, most remote towns have a plaza, often called after General San Martin, which the try to keep green and full of trees (often with the bottom 5 feet or so of trunk painted white). Regardless of water shortage, the plazas get squirted. Similar, I guess to the village green in the UK, but given more respect by the locals.
·Change in shops. If they don't have the right coins (which often they don't) they either let you off, charge you more, or give you sweeties instead of money. I think everything balances out in the end.
·Electrical wiring. How every building in South America hasn't burned down yet I really don't know. Talk about living on a prayer.
-Buying things in Chile is very complicated. You enter a shop where all the items for sale are behind the counter, select your purchase, point it out to the man behind the counter who writes you a ticket. You take the ticket to another counter to pay. They give you another ticket to take back to the first man, who then hands over the item. Not easy when first encountered with limited Spanish. And following on from this:
-Make sure you address the right person in the shop at the right time: if you try to ask the cash til lady for an item, or even worse try to give your money to the item getting woman, you are likely to start a fight behind the counter. You have never seen mild old ladies snatch things as quickly as the mild looking lady who is in charge of the til when you hand the money to the wrong person!
- The man kiss! My favourite strange sight, and a sign that you have been accepted as a true friend if it is bestowed upon you. Male friends in the street greet each other with a handshake and a kiss to the cheek, and leave each other in the same way. It is not even remotely considered "gay"to do, although often they are generally fairly homophobic, excluding, of course, the Man Kiss. We have been lucky enough to have been considered close enough friends on a couple of occasions to have been sent on our way with a kiss, which is actaully very touching, in a good way! It has become one of our mottos, if you like, when we see it, to comment to each other that they are "taking back the Man Kiss". More power to them!
And while there are no doubt many more, my brain is sleepy so is refusing to voluteer the information. As and when I think of, or witness, more, I will add them in a later entry.
Take care out there, and remember: Keep 'em peeled!

Farewell Chile and Argentina, Hello Bolivia

So its true then. Firemen the world over, be they volunteers or professional, exist within a brotherhood of support for their colleagues. The boys at Copiapó certainly did their bit to keep us alive, and it was a little sad to have to say goodbye to them, but say goodbye we did, and off up the coast we went.
The first day was an easy one due to recent ailments - only as far as Chañaral, a small grotty town with a great fish restaurant, owned by this old wrinkly fella who stopped us on the street and chatted away in English to us, which he'd learnt 40 years ago as a merchant seaman travelling the world. He also spoke Norwegian, but only really practiced the English with friends in town. Turnd out he was 70 years old, on his second wife, had 6 kids and about 15 grand kids and 3 great grand kids. One of his grand-daughters was older than his youngest daughter, and he was proud to tell us he was still all man, about 5 times a week! He was a real character and despite having no teeth, spoke far clearer Spanish than most people we meet!
From Chañaral we split up, Rich taking a sandy goat track (he was assured it was a firm road in good condition) and me going the main road to Antofogasta. Rich's other mission was to check out a windsurfing spot (only good if you have your own gear apparently), and I went to see 007 at the movies.
We re-convened at San Pedro de Atacama, where we stayed for a couple of nights, it being the Chileño salt flats and impressive Valley of the Moon (all the countries seem to have one of them it seems), before bidding farewell to Chile as we headed over the Paso de Jama (a mere 4200m this one) and on to Salta.
This should have been a straightforward day, all be it with some gravel, but the 500km took 12 hours, as we ended up firstly taking the wrong Ruta 70 (only one road marked on the map, but we went down 70a that wasn't marked on the map at all) which was extremely corrugated, and very sandy, although not deep sand, fortunately. I hated every minute of it, although by the end of the day I had to grudgingly acknowledge that I had got better at riding on the surface. Good practice for Bolivia, I guess. On the up side, we got a stretch of 80km or so of fantastic, smooth, well cambered, curving blacktop to let rip on, and Rich really got to work on his chicken scratches. Unfortunately, they saw fit to take away our reward and stick us back on a very dusty stretch of gravel, just as Rich's bike decided to have a funny turn and cut out every 10km or so. He finally worked out that it only did it on the down hills, and that far from being a mechanical problem, it was user error, and he had run out of fuel. Ha ha. Ha.
A couple of rest days in Salta saw us girding our loins for the final push to Bolivia, and on to the unknown. After arriving in Salta through cactus strewn desert and dry sandy valleys of incredible formations and colours, we drove through town and left on a road that went through grassy farmland and up through dense rainforest on another great, winding, single lane road. Shortly afterwards, it returned to desert, and with rain clouds threatening, we made it to La Quiaca, the last town right on the Argy-Bolivian border, famous for...nothing really, other than being the last town on the Argy-Bolivian. We toasted Argentina, bid her a fond farewell, and prepared for what we both hoped would not be a very rainy rainy season, and roads that, though un-tarmac-ed,would not be mud, or sand, or nasty in any other ways.
And that,dear Reader, is where I shall leave this entry, to be continued afresh with tales of adventure and derring do in the great unknown of Bolivia next time. We are on the trail of Butch and Sundance, so wish us luck. Stay tuned for some final thoughts and observations of the first 21000km of our trip. Soupy twist.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Rather a lot of Up, and Even More Down

And I'm talking quite literally here, in the gains and losses of altitude kind of way, not in any new age, bunny-hugging emotional way. We're tougher than that out here!
So we left Mendoza with a lot of new ideas, courtesy of Cecilia, a moto-adventurer of pretty much the whole world on a 20 year old BMW something or other, which will disgust all the real bikers out there who won't understnad why I have no idea what kind of bike it was. A pre-cursor of the GS I believe, but maybe only a 1000cc, I'm not sure. Ask Rich if you really care. (Sorry Cecilia, no offence meant, I just struggle to keep that kind of tekkie stuff in my head. Too busy trying not to fall off, I expect!).
Anyhow, she suggested a pass into Chile further north than we'd planned, which meant ditching our return to Valpo, which was a pity, but these things happen. So north we went, blasting up the main roads to save some time, but nonetheless going over some more stunning gravel on the way. We got a night at a thermal spring near a small town called Fiambalá, and as well as a very therapeutic hot soak, we both managed to pick up some kind of lergy, but whether from the tap water or the spa water we'll never know. It hit us in different ways, getting Rich in the belly and appetite, and me a fraction lower down, but at least I could keep my energy levels up with the tasty dry bread and shrivelled fruit we were able to seek out in the town.

So, a little later than planned and with frequent bathroom breaks, we set off over the Paso San Francisco to Chile, certainly our highest road to date, climbing to a, quite literally, breath-taking 4700m. Once again I was slow off the mark with the video camera and missed a chance to film the first valley we went through, so will have to re-live that one with photos, but I pulled myself together enough to get the camera in place and film some of the rest of the ascent and descent, so hopefully that will come out OK.

The poor bikes suffered almost as much as for lack of air at that height, and from about 3000m up we were struggling to get over 60km/h and having to drop gear(s) like a desperate junkie (does that simile work? It'll do). The Argy customs were typically swift and efficient, but for some reason insisted in checking my boxes to see what I might have been taking out of the country, a frustratingly long process now that I have to tie the boxes on with 3m straps. They then told us it didn't matter anyway as it was going out, not in, so I huffed and puffed them back on to the bike. Rich, meanwhile had a 100m chase of his laminated registration document as the wind whisked it away. He gave up the chase, and one of his lungs, at the 100m point, and resorted to the copy rather than high altitude coronary. Wise move.

Eighty kilometres along and 1km vertically down later, at about 5pm, we got to the Chileño customs, and once again, after an incredibly slow processing of the bikes, I had to remove and open my boxes, which were duly barely glanced at, and restowed them, with even more huffing and puffing than before, and set off for more down. It was about 7.30pm by now, and the sun was in our eyes, energy levels were low due to lack of appetites and strenuous packing of bikes with no air, and we still had 176km of gravel to get us to town. Thats about 3 hours on normal gravel, so the prospect of a high altitude camp out was on the cards for sure.

By 8pm with 120km or so still to go, and feeling decidedly cold, achey and sick,we decided to stop at the conveniently placed gold mine. Not a tiny, rustic, western-movies style shaft propped up with wobbly beams type of mine, but a full scal, hard core, modern processing plant with security guards and everything. They wouldn't let us into the compound, but did let us camp outside, gave us food and, most importantly from my point of view, let us use the bathroom facilities. All this at an unknown altitude, but still high enough to make rapid movement put us out of breath.

In the morning, we packed up slowly, still feeling a little ropey from the dodgy water (Rich felt pretty bad, I just still needed the loo too much), and set off down a remarkably smooth un-paved road to Copiapó. This time I remembered the camera early and hopefully got some good footage of parts of the remaining descent. In Copiapó, we struggled to find a hostel as everything was booked up (summer season, of course, hadn't registered with us, and all the previously empty hostels were now full everywhere we went), and while I pestered the tourist info lady to call round for us, Rich got chatted up by a local fireman, who called his captain and they invited us to stay at the station, which we did. Many repeated converstations later and Rich passed out upstairs, and slept for a solid 18 hours. I kept the social end up with tales of daring do, amazingly accurate biro maps of NZ, its fire districts, economic infrastructure and cartoons of whales and shellfish and sailing boats, and was finally persuaded to go for a beer or two at midnight. Four hours and another decidedly dodgy "Ladies only Firestation" later (OK, it was a pole dancing club, but they certainly slid down their poles just like a fireman would) I stumbled into bed and passed out myself.
It is now the next day, I am about to cook lunch for the boys as a thank you (at 3pm), and both Rich and I are feeling a bit better, thank you for asking (although Rich is still off food a bit). We'll have one more night here, and maybe two if he is still not right, and then head north some more, but until then, I'd better get my pinny on and cook up a storm. Good old sausage, eggs, chips and salad, à la the NZFS all round. Now go and brush your teeth and get ready for bed, its far to late to be playing on your computer! See you next time, if you can bare it (or should that be bear it, I never know with that one).