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Friday, 21 December 2012

Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego

I headed south from Bariloche, feeling good about the road ahead - yet again I had a purpose, and this time it was the finish line - Ushuaia, Argentina. The southernmost city in the world, and my launching point for Antarctica. I reset the trip odometer for the last time, and pointed Izzy south. Less than 2000 miles and our journey together would be over. But she wasn't going to make it easy for me.

I arrived in Esquel without a hitch, enjoying the cheaper fuel - Argentina subsidises fuel below the 42nd parallel, so once again the price dropped to less than $1 a litre. I also noticed an increased number of bikers back on the road, who I'd missed while coming into Bariloche through the Pampas. Also back (and which I hadn't missed) was the wind - it is a truly unnerving thing to be leaning right on a motorcycle, and still be able to take a left hand turn. At least there wasn't any gravel, and leaning heavily on asphalt is relatively safe, if not tedious after a few hours. I found a hostel through the tourism office, and after delicately riding Izzy over some improvised bridges (the hostel was pouring concrete for a new building), we settled down for the night, Izzy taking shelter under a cherry tree. It took the hostel manager to actually climb the tree and pick some cherries for me before I realised what it was - I've never seen a cherry tree before!

The next morning we set out without a real goal in mind, except to put some distance behind us. But first I had to stop at the train station. Patagonia is home to some truly lovely old train lines, one of which runs through Esquel. I noticed the tracks upon entering the town, but had written them off as just another extinct relic of a bygone era. That, and the tracks were like 2 feet apart - surely it couldn't be more than just a toy train line? Turns out it's a fully functioning, albeit touristy steam train line, operating in much the same way as it had for decades. The train yard was out in the open, so I had a look around, and managed to film one of the carriages moving around. None of the trains were taking passengers that day, and the tickets were prohibitively expensive, but it certainly looked cool. Oh well, you can't do everything.

Izzy was really struggling in the wind, and was starting to momentarily choke up like she was running out of fuel, but then spring back to life. Patagonia is not the place to break down, so I pulled into the next town (Gobernador Costa), got some food and accommodation, and set about finding the source of the problem. I inspected the head (after Canada I'm paranoid about oil flow), and the fuel system. All seemed fine. The next morning I went in for a inordinately expensive oil change to prep for the colder weather - the 12th (I think) of the trip, and the last.

We didn't have any problems for a while, but after about 20km she started to buck again. Now that I knew it wasn't a problem with oil flow (and so wasn't going to result in catastrophic failure), I just put up with it and kept going slowly to Rio Mayo, the next town with a sustainable population and (more importantly) a gas station. It is a long way between fuel stops down here, and with the winds and this fuel system problem, the gas mileage was shot. I almost didn't make it. The May river has cut a small canyon in the plains, the upshot being that you can't actually see the town until you are basically in it. I was well into the reserve tank (which gets me about 50km in good weather) when I saw a sign in the distance. I hoped and prayed for it to be for Rio Mayo, and let out a whoop of joy when I saw "Bienvenidos a Rio Mayo". I cut the engine and rolled into town. When I filled the tank, I realised how close I had come - in an 11L tank, I needed over 10.6L! We had 10km left in the tank, tops. The landscape surrounding Rio Mayo? Small rocks as far as the eye can see, and not much else. The town is built around a petroleum well, and the nearby Army Engineer barracks. It isn't exactly tourist central, but the next town was 200km away, so I spent the night there.

The next destination (yet again not exactly a tourist mecca) was Perito Moreno. The road there was almost completely paved, and so I arrived in town around lunchtime. I pulled into the Petrobras (The Brazilian govt owned fuel company), and instantly recognised a bike parked out the front. I had first met Rich in BA, where we shared a hostel and a few beers. He has also been riding down to Ushuaia from New York, on a 1972 CBT500! His blog (Manboy in the Promised Land) is linked on the right, and is well worth a read. He has been going for about 18 months, which probably gives a good idea of both how many stories he has to tell, and how much I've slowed down in Argentina. We chatted for a while, and he recommended a town near the Chilean border called Los Antiguos. The town had also been recommended to me by the owners of the Alaska hostel in Bariloche, so I took that to be a sign that I needed to visit.

It was around that time that I recognised how much my rear sprocket had deteriorated. It was knuckling, and wouldn't be long before I was left without a final drive. Just for fun, I asked around town for a place to get a new sprocket, and almost got laughed out of town. I shrugged my shoulders and headed west. From now on, I would have to nurse it to El Calafate (some 600km away), where parts could be sourced, or flown from BA.

Los Antiguos is the setting for an indigenous retirement home - the name means 'The Ancients', and the native people of the area used to send their elderly there to die. It might seem harsh, until you see the setting - it is one of the most spectacular places in the region. Unfortunately, the prices for everything reflect its appeal to tourists. I ended up finding a sympathetic farmer on the outskirts of town willing to let me camp for the night. I had pizza for dinner, only remarkable for the guest who shared the meal - a St Bernard helped me out. I love dogs (except for strays that chase motorbikes!), and St Bernards are near the top of the list - despite being so large and strong, they are incredibly docile and friendly. They're the Pandas of the canine world.

The following day I returned to Ruta 40 via the same Petrobras, when I met another biker. Andy has pretty much done it all - 5 years on a motorbike, touring the world (his site is linked on the right). It turned out he was working for a tour company accompanying a group of cyclists from Ecuador to Ushuaia. We discussed the upcoming road conditions (south of Perito Moreno, the Ruta 40 tends to fight back, and break vehicles), and wished each other well. After he left, it rapidly occur ed to me that I should have asked if I could ride with them - with 30 cyclists, 2 trucks and Andy, I would be far safer. I filled up and rode south, hoping to see him again. As luck would have it, we crossed paths again on a dirt track  bound for Las Cuervas de Manos (a series of caves with ancient hand paintings). I asked if I could tag along for a bit, and he agreed - together we could go faster than the cyclists (despite the mechanical difficulties plaguing Izzy), and see the caves while keeping up. He rode on to have lunch with the group, while I plodded along.

We visited the caves with a Dutch couple who were exploring Patagonia in a pickup converted into a campervan. How they got there is beyond me - the road we all took to the caves was the shortest entrance, but unbelievable - steep hills full of deep rocks. I got worried when the wheels had come to a complete stop, but I kept sliding down the hill, parting the rocks like a heavy, hard wave! To see paintings left behind by people over 9,000 years ago is something else, and these people represented (nearly) the end of the human migration across the Bering strait and south, which is pretty cool. I often try to think about what it must have been like for them living in that time, but I think to truly understand the past (that far back) is about as hard and accurate as predicting the future - we will never be able to fully appreciate what life was like 9,000 years ago.

After the caves, we headed over to Bajo Caracoles. Like many towns on Ruta 40, Bajo was about to suffer from the ongoing paving works - as the conditions on the road improve, less traffic will need to stop less than 200km from a bigger, more tourist friendly town like Perito Moreno. For the moment Bao existed, but the abandoned buildings surrounding the town couldn't have been clearer on the fate of the town. I introduced myself properly to the cyclists, and they quickly invited me to dinner. I haven't eaten so well (healthily) for weeks, and I sure appreciated it. I got a room from the local hostel owner/policeman/baker, and hit the hay.

The next day I woke to the full carnage ruta 40 had wreaked on Izzy. I had travelled over 19,200 miles without a single puncture, and now we had three. It was my first, but Andy had seen it many times before - after a coffee or two, we had Izzy  up on an improvised stand, and were inspecting the damage. In a bit of divine inspiration, Andy pulled out his hand cream (this wind has your skin looking like an alligator within minutes) and we found the holes. It was decided that any kind of repair would only do more damage than good, so we employed the fix-a-flat in a can I had bought in Paraguay. A quick spray and run around to spread out the foam, and we were ready to go.

Unfortunately, the wind had turned something fierce and turned my nursing of Izzy into an excruciating crawl. We passed the last biker, and made him a cup of coffee. I had planned to say goodbye to the cyclists at their camp and continue on to the next town, but as we approached the camp, the wind turned ferocious, so I asked if I could stay with them that night. It was without a doubt the strongest wind I have ever experienced. Some facts to put it in perspective: we were blown right across the road, despite leaning against it, I had to weigh my tent (a hilgh altitude mountain tent) down with 6 rocks the size of rockmelons, and we had to lie the bikes down as they were threatening to fall down.

That night I had dinner again with the cyclists, and got a better glimpse into their lives on the road. For anyone interested in bicycle travel overseas, but aren't keen on DIY, check out Bike Dreams - they know what they're doing. From the Tour de France competitor to people who ride for fun, they can accommodate anyone. A cyclist could get a lift from one of the two trucks at lunch, and therefore only do half the distance (or none at all). With the pressures of food, fuel, parts and planning removed, it would be a more enjoyable journey indeed.

In the morning, we had a quieter (still over 60km/hr) wind, but in our back. The cyclists rode for 50km in one go, most in under an hour. I waved goodbye and headed into town, as they took a shortcut towards El Calafate. We agreed to meet again down the road, so that I could fill up on gas (it would be over 350km between stations).

I got into Gobernador Gregores around noon, found a tyre repair place and had the tube patched properly. I found a nice Hospeadje - basically a granny flat with three bedrooms. I got talking to Johannes, a South African cycling throughout SA from Caracas. The next morning I heard him leave around 7am, and went back to bed. I left at around 0930, and passed him about 20 mins later. I have alot of respect for the long distance cyclists, although I think they've spent a little too much time in the sun if you know what I mean.

The last leg into Gobernador Gregores was pretty uneventful - I filled up from Andy's tank (the truck with fuel was still coming) and made good time into town. The only thing of note was an animal, on the top of a hill, about 200m from the road. I saw what I originally thought was a Guanaco (a native animal similar to the Llama, and endemic to these parts), but then noticed it didn't have the characteristic long neck. Then I saw the tail, remembered that this area was considered the home of the Puma and put 2 and 2 together to come up with "Oh S*#t!". I'm still not positive, and the photo I took was anything but conclusive, but at that point in time I was sure enough to do some serious miles without stopping. Every Argentinian I told the story to said it's incredibly rare to see a Puma in the wild, but Gdor Gregores would be the most likely place. I'm counting it.

I had now reached El Calafate, marking the end of the largely uninhabited areas of the Ruta 40 - from now on there would frequently be reasonably large towns or cities along the way. I found a reasonably cheap hostel in town, and got busy settling in. The next day I found a mechanic who could get a sprocket for a reasonable price - El Calafate is not far from Rio Gallegos, a town of over 100,000 people, and bus connections (read freight for small parts) are frequent. After a few phone calls and back and forth, the sprocket was ordered (to arrive on Monday), and I returned to the hostel. It was there that I again ran into Rich. We had a few drinks, and chatted about the road just gone, and the 1000km or so that lay in front of us.

It became painfully obvious to me after looking back through my diary that I was ready to go home. The roads were taking more out of me, and I was less inclined to leave a town/city once I had settled down. I hadn't stopped for more than a day or so while travelling from Canada to Panama, and now I was resting for days after less than a thousand miles. I was also getting pretty homesick, but organizing my flights home probably brought that front of mind more than anything.

I didn't really do much in El Calafate, but did manage to get to the Glaciarium which housed a wealth of information about the creation, discovery, movement and current retreat of glaciers around the world. I also made it out to one of the most famous glaciers in Patagonia (and the largest reason for El Calafate's tourism industry), Perito Moreno. Cascading (for a glacier, anyway) down from the Andes at a rate of up to 2.5m per day, Glaciar Perito Moreno is almost constantly calving. Towers of ice are forever cracking and falling from the face into the river below, creating a thunderous splash and wave that prevents boats and people from getting too close. Watching the constant battle between the accumulation of snowfall in the upper Andes and the melting effect of the lower rivers and Sun is a thrilling and epic sight. Up to 700m deep in the middle, The glacier is constantly creaking and cracking as it rides over subsurface mountains and valleys.

I was emphatically told by family that I needed to walk on the glacier, as how often do you get the chance? (As it turns out, I walked on another half dozen or so in Antarctica, but none so spectacular as Perito Moreno). We arrived by bus (the driver thought that a bit of Enya was a good touch as the glacier came into view - little cheesy, but I loved it). After a short boat ride and hike, it was time to don the crampons, and start ice trekking. We went on a small loop, and saw features typical in glaciers such as waterfalls, rocks picked up and obliterated by the massive forces at work, and of course crevasses, the deep rifts caused by the rippling and separation of the ice. I enjoyed climbing the steep and slippery slopes of ice thanks to the grip afforded by the crampons. As we passed over the last ridge, we had one final surprise on the ice - a tray full of glasses and a bottle of good scotch, as well as some alfajores (chocolate covered Argentine biscuits). Cooled with some glacial ice, it was one of the best (and certainly most scenic) drinks I've had in a while.

Once back in El Calafate, I had the new rear sprocket installed as well as another tyre patch (one of the three in Gdor Gregores didn't quite stick), and prepped for the last leg towards Ushuaia.

The next morning I headed out to cross the border into the 18th (and final) country of this trip - Chile. It was a pretty easy ride to the border, only made a little difficult by a snowstorm. It didn't last long, and thankfully it melted pretty quickly on the road, but by god it was cold! The border was a breeze - the border official caught on that this wasn't my first rodeo and gave me the sheet to fill in and stamped without looking at it. By now I know what info they need, and what questions they're going to ask before they do, so I appreciated the express service.

As I came down the mountain pass, I came into the town of Puerto Natales. I seriously don't think I've ever seen a town so spectacularly located. A deep harbour (technically the coastline of the Pacific Ocean), surrounded by lush green fields and hills, with the still impressive Andes in the background. While the town doesn't match the beauty of its surrounds, it is pretty in its own way. I found a hostel with parking, met a Canadian travelling around SA on a 150cc Honda and went out for a couple of drinks after dinner.

It seems that the majority of tourists that I end up drinking with are doing some form of long distance travel (eg by bike, car etc). It's not that I discriminate against other tourists, and I have made lots of friends with people doing short term trips. It probably has something to do with the fact that 90% of my stories and interests now involve the open road in some way or another, which probably don't interest other travellers as much. The bond with a fellow long distance traveller is instant - you've probably crossed the same road or border control outpost at some point, and have vaguely similar experiences. If you're heading in the opposite direction, the exchange of information on road conditions and safety can be critical, even lifesaving.

The next destination was Punta Arenas, a big (for Patagonia) port city, where we would catch a ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The road was beautifully paved the whole way, and with the wind finally properly in my back we were making good time. About 60km from our destination, I noticed a sign warning of a nearby minefield. I thought I must have misread, until I noticed other signs warning of the same sign. It turns out that the main road in Chilean Patagonia runs right through an active minefield, a headache from the Pinochet dictatorship. Landmines are the lowest, most despicable form of warfare - the innocent casualties continue well after the regime that planted them have been rightly overthrown. I decided it was time for a roadside toilet break, and let my feelings be known at the same time. Everything was going fine... until the wind changed. In what would have been the strangest sight to a passing motorist, I had to 'Matrix' under my own stream of urine! That's right, your intrepid traveller almost peed on his own face. Only my quick reflexes saved me, and there and then my patience with the wind well and truly ran out.

I had loosely arranged with a local biker to meet up for a beer or two, but communication problems meant we couldn't properly arrange a meeting time. He did give me a new destination though - less than 100km south of PA, the road ends at the end of the South American continent (Tierra del Fuego is an island, amongst others). How could I refuse? The next day, I headed South, on what started off as a nice paved road, but deteriorated to gravel, and then to 4wd only. We eventually reached the end of the road - if you wanted to go any further, you'd have to use the beach, or cut your own path. Photos duly taken and lunch enjoyed, we headed back to PA to catch the ferry.

The boat wasn't going to leave for several hours, so I headed over to the tax-free zone to buy a cheap jacket for Antarctica. I changed some money, and with the better exchange rate almost got the jacket for free (the money left over after changing and getting the jacket would equal the money received if I had withdrew the money in Argentina at the official rate). Oh, and the wind blew Izzy right over while parked. Yep, I hate this wind, I really hate it.

In the end I only just made it on to the ferry - I drove straight onto the boat, then had to backtrack to get my ticket. I had planned to keep going after getting off the ferry, but the tough riding that day had knocked me for six - I was fast asleep on the ferry (at 4 in the afternoon), dirty boots hanging off the end of the seats.

I found a hotel in the port town of Porvenir, and had a nice seafood dinner (golden rule while travelling in Latin America - don't have seafood unless you can see the ocean/river/lake where the food was caught). I had an early night as the next day was a big one with 400+km and lots of gravel, but it wasn't the distance that I was thinking about, it was the destination. Ushuaia, Argentina was the end of the road, and had been my goal, deadline and motivation throughout this trip. Back in Canada it seemed so far away, and yet it was now so close! Whether or not Izzy would make it all the way was now beyond doubt - we would get there together. The road was easy, the border crossing more so, and the time seemed to fly by, until the last 50km. They were the longest 50km I've ever experienced in my life, but some of the happiest and most scenic of the 33,000 I've done on Izzy. I ended up counting out the last 30km, all while singing loudly. The passing traffic was interesting - they either showed very little interest or flashed their lights, beeped their horns and cheered me on to the finish line. Eventually I turned the final bend, and saw the welcome posts to the town of Ushuaia.

Photos taken and dances done, I headed to the hostel. While taking off the bags for probably the last time, Rich (who else?) came by - drinks were on. We tried to rally a few others who had recently finished the journey, but they were fast asleep.

The next day, I woke up with a weird feeling - I had no further destination, no place I needed to ride to, no further south I could really ride. I walked around town in a daze, not sure what to do. I had dinner with several other bikers including Mark, a fellow ADVRider who has somewhat of a following and is pretty well known by other adventure riders. I could instantly tell why: he's one of those guys that everybody just loves. Along with three Kiwi riders, we had a delicious dinner celebrating reaching the end of the world. I also celebrated with delicious can of beer from WA (EE) - tastes all the better on the other side of the world.

The next day I discovered my laptop charger had broken again, which I actually expected as I knew I had a boat trip coming up, and there is a distinct pattern on this trip of laptop electronics dying just before a boat trip lasting several days. That might have dampened a ferry ride, but not this trip: as I walked down the pier, I could barely contain my excitement - I was going to Antarctica.