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The main purpose of this blog is as a permanent record of my adventures throughout the Americas by motorcycle. Feel free to comment or ask me any questions - I'm an open book.

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Tuesday, 12 February 2013


I posted this on facebook a while ago (when I reached Ushuaia), but for everyone else who didn't see it...

I would like to take this opportunity to say thanks to those who made this possible.
Firstly, although she'll never see this, I must thank my motorcycle Izzy. I put you through hell almost every day, and yet you continued to carry me and our gear through some of the most unforgiving terrain on this planet. You constantly surprised me with your tenacity and plain stubborness, and never failed me when I really needed you. I really hope I can find you a good home down here.

To my Canadian second family and friends, without your support I would not have been able to do this. You welcomed me into your homes and lives, and allowed me to get a stable footing from which to springboard on to this adventure. Without you I would have never really been able to start, nor be so sure that I had somewhere to go back to, should it all fail.

To the many friends I made along the way - you made this solo journey anything but. By sharing stories, experiences and beers you have made my story part of yours, and vice versa. Thankyou for taking this weary traveler in.

To those of you who stopped and helped me when in need, you made the world and open road a far less daunting place. Whenever I was in need, you jumped at the chance to help and get Izzy and I back on the road. You always extended a helping hand when I needed it most, and made this journey a pleasure. I only hope to be able to repay this debt, whenever I see a fellow traveler in need.

To my fellow long distance travelers - whether by motorcycle, bicycle, bus or car, the enduring spirit of adventure shown by each and every one of you truly inspired me to keep going, and go further, higher, faster and with more confidence. The tips, tricks and guides you provided saved me from disaster more times than I'd like to count, and I only hope that the information I then passed on to others was nearly as helpful. Meeting you, whether on the side of the road, at the end of a long day or in those rare moments when on foot, were some of my favourite moments on this journey. You made me feel less alone, and more a part of a chaotic and memorable migration.

To the man who got me hooked on motorcycle travel, I owe you a lot. Mat - I would have never have considered a trip like this if it wasn't for you. This journey was your brainchild, and I really hope to one day to put rubber to the wide open road with you.

To my family, I thank you for your support, and for showing only mild apprehension when I announced that I plan to ride a motorcycle through some of the most dangerous places on the planet. To know that you guys were always behind me meant more than words can express. I always looked forward to talking to you guys, and can't wait to physically be with you all again.

Finally, to all of you out there reading the blog - knowing that you have taken an interest in the trip kept me motivated to keep posting, despite the time and effort it took. The end result is a record that I can be proud of, and one I will be sure to reminisce on in later years. I hope you were entertained and informed, and I look forward to your own blogs, or further posts (on that note, the Patagonia post is almost finished). It will soon be my time to live vicariously through you, so make your adventures good ones!

I'll finish with one of my favourite quotes: "The world is a book, and those who don't travel read only a page". I encourage you all to get out and read this great book of ours - there's some great stories out there!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go see a man about a boat..

Christmas, Farewells and the Return Home

Well, after 7months and over 33,000km, I have finished my trip and have returned home. I am now writing this from my desk back at home in Perth, Western Australia. First observations - not as exotic as a beach in Mexico or the snow capped Andes, but comforting in its own way. I've actually been putting off writing this last entry for a while now. Partly because sitting down and writing is not my favourite thing, but mainly I think because it marks the end of such an incredible journey, one that I really didn't want to end. 

After stepping off the M/V Ushuaia, I headed up to the hostel, and was relieved to see Izzy in the same spot as I had left her. After so long apart, I was feeling like a part of me was missing - not in an emotional sense, more in an anatomical sense. I felt like I had my legs reattached or something, it was kinda weird. But there was no time for sentiment - a couple of my fellow Antarcticans had invited me to join them for a walk through the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The park was very beautiful, but the weather didn't match. Amazingly, it was actually colder in Ushuaia than in Antarctica - the good luck that we had experienced weatherise came back to bite us in the ass, with freezing rain and wind.

The next few days was spent searching for a buyer for Izzy. Although the sentimental value is high, to ship her back to Oz is prohibitively expensive (in fact I bought Izzy in the US, as it was cheaper than shipping the bike I have in Oz). I had originally hoped to find a local charity willing to take her off my hands, and then sell her. Unfortunately, I couldn't find an appropriate local group so I started to advertise everywhere - I found the local classifieds, and advertised online. A few nerve racking days later, and an man from Buenos Aires man had committed to buy her. It was time to go out and celebrate, so I met up with Mark and a few other riders, and we hit the most southern Irish bar in the world for a few pints of local beer. A few turned into a few too many, which then turned into far too many. The hangover the next day was truly epic - I only started to properly function again around 4pm! Highlights of the night - making great new friends, and successfully distracting a cop for long enough to allow Claude (a rider and native Quebecer, living in Miami) and others to get in a taxi and avoid a drinking in public charge. Good times. 

I had resolved to spend Christmas in Ushuaia, not because Ushuaia struck me as a magical location for such a time (although snow in the southern hemisphere is a rarity), but because travelling around any kind of religious holiday is just not smart in Latin America. Basically, if Christmas or Easter (known as semana santa - holy week) is around the corner, you bunker down and wait it out. Transport companies and border controls are out of control, and tickets can sell out months in advance. This feeling was justified by the rumours of long delays and cancelled flights at Ushuaia airport, that unfortunately meant that many travellers ended up stuck in transit during Christmas, instead of making it home. 

However, Christmas eve at the hostel turned out to be an absolute blast. The owners spent most of the day preparing a lovely meal of steak and empanadas, which we all devoured. Sitting at one long table, eating and drinking the local delicacies with people from all corners of the globe, I felt strangely at home. I guess I am truly a traveller at heart. We finished off the night with copious amounts of champagne, dancing, and a visit from Santa Claus, delivering chocolates as gifts from the hostel. 

The next day I headed over to the house rented by a few other riders for a end-of-the-world Christmas lunch. After posting on ADVRider about a possible meetup, we were inundated - for riders, Ushuaia represents a significant milestone in a journey, and for many of us represented either the beginning or end of an epic adventure. It was fantastic to see so many people there - I've never seen to many long distance riders in one spot at one time (got some great photos)! I met Nick again, who I'd first seen near Bariloche, and we caught up. Maps were brought out (of course) and war stories were shared by all.

Boxing day was one hell of a day. The original plan was to ride into Rio Gallegos, and leave the bike there for the buyer to pick up (avoiding the need to import and export Izzy through Chile). I was then going to catch a bus from Rio Gallegos to Punta Arenas, and fly to Santiago before flying to Oz. However, I was unable to get in contact with the us companies (Christmas and all), and was nervous about whether or not I'd get a seat. As it turns out, I didn't need one. As I was approaching Rio Grande, a fairly nondescript city built on the oil industry, Nick caught up to me (I was crawling by this stage, as I just wanted to make it and avoid the bone chilling wind). We pulled over for a brief chat, but had to get going, as I had a long ways to go that day. Pulling off the shoulder back on to the road, I almost came off as Izzy slid all over the place. I stopped, looked behind me, and cursed loudly. I had ridden nearly 30,000 km without a single flat tyre, and now this was puncture #5. I pulled out the can of fix-a-flat, and got into town. Pulling into the service station in Rio Grande, I met up with Nick again. I explained the situation, and together we tried to find a solution - would I make it? what would become of Izzy? after inflating the tire (by hand, as the air pump at the station had predictably died) and plenty of CPR/"Don't you die on me" jokes, I decided to wait and see how the tire would hold up after riding to a B&B recommended to me by Nick. The plan - if the tire was fine, I'd head for the border, if not then Rio Grande would be the end. After filling up, I headed out for Ruta 40 B&B. We made it a dozen blocks before I knew this was the end of the trip. Flat as a pancake hit by a steamroller. 

I walked to the B&B, and talked with the owner Willie who agreed to make room for me (they were full, but he gave his room and slept outside). After I got settled in, I emailed the buyer in BA, and told him the bad news - I needed to be in Punta Arenas the next day, so would have to leave her in Chile, or Rio Grande. Willie then went out of his way to help me - we picked up Izzy in his van, dropped her off at a nearby motorbike mechanic, and bought a new tube. By the afternoon, we were set - I was going to ride into PA, and leave her there & hope to find a buyer when back in Australia. I got food for dinner, but was invited to join my fellow travellers (all riding bicycles or motorbikes) for a communal meal. It was my last true traveller meal, and I loved it - I will really miss having dinner with complete strangers with fantastic stories and a combined sense of adventure.

The next morning was chaos. I woke to have an early breakfast, and prepare for the last ride. Then I checked my inbox - the buyer had replied that he could get the bike from Rio Grande, but not from Chile. Panic mode engaged, we were off to the bus station as soon as it opened (after doing some preliminary packing) to get a ticket to PA. The clerk said they were all sold out, but that people sometimes don't show, so we should return in an hour when the bus arrives to see if we could get a spot. Back to the B&B, I packed as though the bus was guaranteed - the new(est) plan was try for the bus, and if that fails repack onto Izzy and head for PA under my own steam. Heavy stuff was dumped or given away and the rest was packed.

It is probably worth mentioning that permanently importing bikes into Argentina is prohibited. The ridiculous import duties (80% up to 400% of the value of the vehicle) when vehicles are able to be imported mean that foreign vehicles are in high demand on the black market however, and Argentinians are resourceful people. I didn't particularly want to break the law, but with little other options available and a populace desperate for decent (foreign) vehicles, the black market is a common and reasonable resting place for motorbikes in Tierra del Fuego. To protect those within reach of the Argentinian legal system, I won't talk about the particulars of selling Izzy, or mention the buyer by name. I will say that the money I received from selling Izzy has now created a pool of funds to finance microcredit in perpetuity to disadvantaged people, through an organisation called Kiva. I have focused on transport projects in countries we visited, such as El Salvador and Bolivia. It is a good feeling to know that even though she isn't mine anymore, Izzy is still going to have a positive impact in the communities that were so welcoming and helpful to us. 

After packing, I said a hurried goodbye to Izzy, and raced to the bus station. There was a small line of people who were also waiting for last minute seats, which led to a very nervous wait. 9 months away and 103 days on the road, and it all came down to 10 minutes - unbelievable. Thankfully they space for all of us, so I hugged Willie goodbye, and jumped onboard. 1 obstacle down, a few to go. I had packed my motorbike gear deep in my bags, and made sure that everyone on board knew my cover story - I was going to PA to get a new sprocket, before returning for the bike. I had taken my old rear sprocket as a souvenir, and anyone with knowledge of vehicles in Tierra del Fuego would know that PA is the best place for parts, so it made sense. I didn't like lying to my fellow travellers, but I disliked the thought of being stopped at the border far less. It was a tiny border, so I was a bit worried - was someone going to recognise me (unlikely), or would they check all the bags, and wonder why I had a helmet with me (possible)? I was packing it big time. Then I looked at my passport.

It was already stamped. The bus station had an Argentinian immigration rep who had stamped us all out of Argentina. We ended up stopping at the border only so someone could use the bathroom (and give me a mild heart attack). Getting into Chile was a simple affair - as none of us were importing vehicles, customs didn't care. Immigration was easy, and Quarantine had the dogs sniff the bags, but no x-rays of checked baggage. Total time: 15mins, tops. Into Chile, I was smiling from ear to ear. The bus was running behind schedule, but my first flight wasn't until the next day, and they were all spaced out, in case of such delays (post christmas period, and all). I had made it, and it was around then that the reality started to hit - I had left Izzy, without really saying goodbye. In the end, it was probably for the best as it was so rushed I was unemotional.  We crossed the Magellan straight at the main ferry (as opposed to the unpopular one I took last time), and made it into PA. I checked into another B&B (carrying your own luggage makes shopping around for accommodation difficult, and I was getting lazy), and went out for dinner. 

I met an Irish man in a burger joint, when he asked if I knew how much fuel costs in Chile/Argentina. I must have been a bit enthusiastic with the info, because he caught on pretty quickly that I must have done a long trip. After I explained where I have been/ what I've done, he explained his situation: he was trying to get north past Santiago by driving someone else's car for them. It's a popular and reasonable option in North America - if a rental company or individual wants a car moved interstate, they advertise online for people who are headed in the same direction. Not so popular in TdelF, so he was having trouble getting a vehicle. He decided to advertise in the local paper, and ended up making it onto the local news! He said they were desperate for information, and ate his story up. I kicked myself - how many local TV segments could I have been on? There were many of us doing similar trips, but how many think to talk to the local news about it? Next time.

The next day I wandered around the town, and got a taxi to the airport. When I tried to check in my two bags, I was told that my ticket limited me to one bag. I had foreseen this however, and unfolded a giant storage bag I had bought earlier. 2 bags became 1, and I handed it over with a giant shit-eating grin that just screamed "checkmate". it all came under weight, and I walked through the security checkpoint without security personnel (all probably on break). In the departures lounge I scared the bejesus out of some kids when I approached them and asked if I could charge my iPod from their laptop. They nodded, and I bent down to plug it in, when they freaked out. It turns out they didn't speak Spanish, and had nodded out of confusion (I sympathise). I tried English, and got the same response. Then I listened to the movie they were watching, and realised that they spoke French. 3rd time round I just asked where their parents were. Asking the father turned out to be far more productive, and I had a fully charged iPod for the flight. Which couldn't distract me from the unnerving noise that the plane started to make as we taxied to takeoff. Anyone familiar with the topography of southern Chile knows it is not the area to attempt an emergency landing, and as I looked out onto the Andes mountain range colliding with the Pacific Ocean, I pondered the peculiar possibility that I might cross the globe by motorcycle, only to crash on the flight home. Obviously we made it to Santiago (after stopping to drop off and pick up passengers along the way!), and I got a minibus to the hostel.

I had booked a private room, but when I got there I was told they had no record of a booking, and only had the dorm available. I didn't really mind, as I had booked the room so as to not wake others. As it turns out, all but one of the fellow dorm residents didn't make it back - their beds were empty when I fell asleep, and when I awoke. Santiago must be a hell of a party town. I repacked, and got to the airport. Obligatory airport stuff dealt with, I went duty free shopping. I got Alfajores, and my favourite Caribbean rum (Flor de Caña, which then broke in Sydney). I ran into Jen and George, two Queenslanders who I had met in Antarctica. Stepping onto the plane (after surrendering my deodorant and saying a prayer for my fellow passengers), I felt home already. QANTAS is just awesome like that. I may fly cheap domestically, but international flights for me are always with the kangaroo if possible. Aussie beer (James Squire Golden Ale, thank you very much) and entertainment, not to mention I could understand the crew. Bonus: I was wearing my Boca Juniors Soccer shirt, and was told by a (obviously Argentinian) steward that "you can get whatever you want wearing that shirt". "Another Golden Ale then thanks". The trip was about 15hrs, but it just flew by. The saddest realisation while flying is almost a tossup: from Punta Arenas to Santiago I covered in 4 hrs what had taken a month of desert and mountain riding through gravel, rocks and mud. Santiago to Sydney, we ventured further south (>70 Deg) than we had when visiting Antarctica. But the saddest realisation was that it was all officially over - I was returning home.

Getting through Sydney airport was surprisingly easy. Interestingly, because I couldn't say for sure if I'd still be in Oz in a year, I was stamped in as a visitor. It seems I am a traveller in my own country. Got through quarantine pretty easily also, as I was pretty in tune with what they wanted to know. 30 seconds of questions, and I was out the door to my last flight, arriving in Perth on time. 283 days away, and I was finally home.

I have been back in Perth for over a month now, and only recently feel settled in. It is a unique feeling to walk around your hometown and recognise buildings, but still feel a certain alienation. I could only liken it to visiting a city like New York or Paris. Everyone knows what the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower looks like, but it still feels different seeing it in real life. Of course, I have a stronger connection to Perth than your average tourist, but I still felt like I didn't really belong. I have definitely changed - and not just in my enjoyment of siestas. Politics matters far more to me now (it was pretty important previously), and it would take a lot of effort to stress me out now. I now appreciate aspects of Perth (beaches, weather, the beautiful people) more than ever, and scoff when people bag it for a variety of reasons (if you think Perth is boring, I have bad news for you: the problem is in the mirror. Perth has a lot going on, you've just got to look). 

I'm also truly addicted to travel, and have started to plan my next trip - anyone keen to learn Russian and ride a motorbike with me?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013



The White Continent. The driest, coldest, most isolated and purest place on the earth. The definition of wilderness. A place that remained virtually unknown and impenetrable to man until recently, Antarctica is a land that inspires fear, elicits wonder, and encourages adventure. Volcanoes and mountains of ice, rising out of the frigid sea both forbid entry and coaxes the foolhardy. Just over a century ago, the continent's propensity for savage and unpredictable weather meant death for the few brave enough to attempt to penetrate the coast for the pole. Modern technology and knowledge has managed to reduce this disadvantage, but visitors remain largely at the whim of capricious and ferocious weather patterns. It remains largely untrodden by humans, and is probably the last true frontier on our planet. What adventure trip would be complete without a visit to such a land?

I admit that Antarctica wasn't the first destination I thought of when planning this trip. But having come so far, it would be silly to forgo such an opportunity. About a year ago I had booked a November departure, but back in May was told that a large group had essentially booked out the whole cruise. I was told that I would enjoy a different cruise more. And so on the 9th of December, I walked from the hostel down to the port of Ushuaia, bag full of the limited clothes that I have, and heart full of hope. I cleared the customs/ security point, and laid eyes on the M/V Ushuaia - the vessel that would take me to Antarctica, and home for the next 12 days.

But it wouldn't be just my home - I would be travelling with about 120 other passengers and crew. When I got on board to find my room and get settled in, I had a pleasant surprise. I had feared that I would be the youngest passenger by 30 years (mainly due to the cost - Antarctica isn't cheap), but the lounge was filled with people of all ages. All in all, 14 countries were represented, from Slovenia and Israel to the obligatory contingent of Aussies, Americans and Brits. Although we came from every corner of the globe (and walk of life), we were united in our shared sense of adventure - this was not going to be a luxury Caribbean cruise.

We got settled in, and congregated in the lounge/bar for the welcome address and safety drill. The safety drill was quick, but is extremely important - more than a few ships have sunk in these waters, and simply jumping overboard is not an option. In Antarctic waters, survival time is measured in minutes - hypothermia and unconsciousness are real dangers in subzero waters. Thankfully, the lifeboats on board are completely enclosed and equipped with a motor, EPIRB and enough food and water to last a week, along with seasickness meds. Which would be vital if you're lost on the Drake Passage.

The Drake Passage lies between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula and is notorious - it's likely the roughest sea in the world. For confirmation (and a bit of a queasy feeling), check the videos below. Seriously -  watch them, and ask yourself whether you'd go on a trip like this. 14m swells are not unheard of here, and ships bound for Antarctica face 2 days each way of this, abeam of (at right angles to) the ship. Some companies offer an option to fly by helicopter to the ship once in the sheltered waters, but this option is beyond the budget of mere mortals. I had mentally prepped for days of rolling around, and was hesitantly looking forward to rough seas.


Nothing. It was as flat as a pond (on the rare occasion it's like this, it's jokingly called the drake lake) - I've taken baths with bigger waves. I felt like a soldier who climbs out of the trenches to charge the enemy, only to find out they had packed up and gone hours ago. It was by no means a river cruise, but sailing from Panama to Colombia was far rougher. Over the next few days, I entertained myself by reading a book on the race to the pole, and went to some of the lectures given by the staff.

The first real sight was a giant tabular iceberg, floating further north than any other that the staff could remember. The colours were amazing, and like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was around this time that a pod of Fin whales surfaced near the boat. At over 27m long, Fin whales are the second largest creature on the planet, and one of the fastest - capable of short bursts of up to 48km/hr (or faster than Usain Bolt)!  A truly impressive creature, and only a taste of what was to come.

The next day we sighted land, and a second group of whales, this time a pod of humpbacks, breaching the ocean's surface and spectacularly splashing down. But that would not be the highlight of the day - that would belong to the penguins at Robert Point, our first landing.

Penguins are funny creatures - they're undoubtedly cute, and the main animal attraction of any Antarctic visit. But they're not particularly clever birds, nor are they graceful on land. It is a remarkable contrast watching these creatures swim effortlessly through the water, only to struggle on land with obstacles such as pebbles or holes in the snow. Their lack of intelligence or terrestrial ability only makes them more endearing - I defy anyone not to smile when watching a video of a penguin falling over in the snow. For wild animals, they are remarkably tame and comfortable with human interaction. Tour operators to the Antarctic impose a 5 metre distance rule, which the penguins themselves break. For example, I sat down on a rock, only to be joined later by an inquisitive Gentoo. The same can't be said for the Elephant seal - not that they were fleeing from us, but that they don't really do much at all. An open eye, or a raised head is about all a non predator could reasonably expect from a napping seal. Another creature with far greater abilities while underwater.

The next day we made land at Brown Bluff, the first of several continental landings. I had brought my helmet along (jokingly for the Drake Passage), and Izzy's plate - I'm counting it as a landing for Izzy. Photos duly taken, glacier climbed, and more wildlife spotted, we headed east for the Weddell sea.

The Weddell sea is famous for icebergs, and a swift circular current - dangerous conditions to say the least. When we got to the entrance of the sea, our hearts fell - it was nothing but ice, as far as the eye could see. Nevertheless, we got into the Zodiacs, and went for a brief trip through the floes. We were looking for a floe strong enough to walk around on, when the call came back on the radio to get back to the ship, and fast - the current was bringing the ice together, essentially trapping us in the ice. We hurried back, only to see that one Zodiac had gotten stuck in the ice, and was rapidly disappearing into the Weddell sea. It was rescue time.

We all got on board (grabbing a hot chocolate from the bar!) and watched the captain expertly navigate the ice strengthened Ushuaia towards the zodiac, cutting a path through the ice (and scaring a seal and a few penguins in the process). To navigate a 3000 tonne ship to within a metre of an inflatable boat requires a level of skill that is well and truly beyond me. Once the rescued were on board we could all laugh about it, but it must have been a bit scary out there, drifting away from the ship. A truly sobering reminder of the power of the weather and ice out here.

The next few landings all went smoothly, with some fun and games in the ample snow (my igloo and snowball building skills need a bit of work...). Far more interesting were the channels we navigated through in between landings - the Gerlache strait, and Neumayer channel, both awe inspiring places.

The next morning we visited Port Lockroy station, an old British research station that has subsequently been retrofitted and turned into a museum on life in the Antarctic. It was compelling stuff - from the recipe for seal brain, to the photos of the visit by HMS Britannia (the vessel of the Royal family!). There was even a small gift shop full of one of a kind souvenirs. The funds raised supported preservation efforts both there and at the historical Scott hut in NZ territory (not to be confused with the US base at the south pole). I bought some xmas presents for the family, and unbelievably  was able to pay with a credit card - I dare someone to get a more impressive credit card charge! I posted a few postcards there as well - due to be delivered in about 3 months!

After yet another landing, everyone assembled at the bow, dressed in our best (in my case, clean) and warmest clothes for an Antarctic wedding. I think Jesse and Erin were onto something - a wedding without the hassle, in a mystical land. Although I've never seen a wedding with quite so many cameras! Everything went fantastically, both groom and bride said yes, and then it was time for the reception - Argentine asado followed by a massive party. The drinking (rum with 200 yr old glacial ice!) and dancing went on well into the night. Probably too long into the night, judging by my headache in the morning.

The next morning we visited another research station, this time the Ukrainian run Vernadsky base. Formerly the British base responsible for the discovery of the hole in the Ozone layer, Vernadsky was bought by the government of Ukraine, who were eager to conduct research in the Antarctic. The research (mainly concerning fluctuations in the level of ozone present in the atmosphere) is critical, but Vernadsky is famous for less academic reasons - they make their own vodka, and sell it at the southernmost bar in the world! I had a shot or two - vodka isn't my favourite drink, but they serve a fine drop at the Vernadsky bar. The wait for a taxi can be a bit long though... I also sent a few more postcards, but these will probably take a while - the staff take them to Ukraine when their stint is over, and post them from there. Expected time of arrival? Christmas... 2013.

The next day will simply be referred to as whale day. We saw some penguins and other wildlife/ sights, but the highlight was definitely the playful Minke whales. After determining we weren't going to hunt them, they became very friendly, and got very close. Like rocking the Zodiacs close. Unbelievable.

The last day of landings included one of the big ticket items, as far as I was concerned: Deception island. An active volcano in the South Shetland islands, Deception island was once home to a large whaling operation due to it's protected waters. As we passed through Neptune's Bellows (where the rim of the volcanic crater had eroded, flooding the volcano with water), the remnants of the whalers shacks stood out on the black ash that passed for a frigid beach. We walked around the buildings, including an abandoned airstrip that was used by the British for surveillance flights. But the main attraction was definitely the beach - we were here to swim.

When the water is at low tide, the volcanic rocks warm the water to the point where it is quite comfortable to bathe. The critical point there was "low tide". We had arrived at high tide - the water was 0 +/-1 degree Celsius - not comfortable. But screw it, we were going in anyway. The expressions of those who went in first didn't fill me with confidence - the artwork "The Scream" come to mind. But I hadn't come all this way to back out now, and in I went. The first few steps were cold, then my legs went numb, then I dove under and received the most painful headache I've ever experienced. A few more seconds, and I was trying to run to shore. I say trying because my legs, like everything else, had gone completely numb and wasn't working properly.

I don't claim to be the brightest individual, but even by my standards going in for a second time was stupid. I took my camera in (waterproof and freeze proof) and recorded a video, but as soon as I touched the water I forgot about the film, and concentrated on surviving. Exiting the water on the second time, the expedition leaders pointed out that they had found a small pool of warm water 2 metres from where we had swam. Talk about bad timing. But I ran in and defrosted my toes - Pure bliss.

We got back on board (one unlucky group got a dodgy Zodiac whose engine died on the way to the ship - not what you want after an Antarctic swim!) and chewed through the hot water supply on board with showers all round. My feet were so numb that when I stubbed my toe taking off my boots, I didn't even feel it. Antarctic swim - been there, done that, never doing it again.

After our last landing, we turned back towards Ushuaia. Again the crossing was pretty smooth, although there were a few waves which claimed a few casualties (less than half of the passengers came for lunch one day)! Once back in the sheltered waters of the Beagle channel, we had the captains dinner and another party, although everybody was a little too tired to really do anything. The morning after, we pulled into port and disembarked into Ushuaia, lives changed forever.

To anyone even remotely thinking about doing this trip - DO IT. The whole trip was amazing, the crew and staff were awesome, and my fellow passengers about the best people you could hope to travel with. Some tips - make sure the boat you're on is small, as rules only allow 100 people at a time on land (on the Ushuaia, it meant all 84 passengers and up to 16 staff could land at once). A big ship means less landings, less wildlife and less fun. Also, make sure the company is IAATO affiliated - you can then be sure of  an environmentally responsible trip. And finally, try to get a trip with experienced staff - the Ushuaia's staff were able to answer all my questions, and able to go places others couldn't (Vernadsky doesn't sell their vodka to just anybody).

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.