CHAPTER 2 – YOU SAY PAMPAS, I SAY NAPPIES
Tuesday Jan 13th
START: 1194 km
FROM: San Andres, Buenos Aires
FINISH: 1503 km
Our first real day on the road after so long in waiting, but by the time we have had breakfast, bought presents for our customs Agents (Giulio and Mercedes) and packed up the bikes and the panniers it's already 2PM.
Being decked out in all this clobber feels strange having not worn it in anger in 18 months. The helmet feels like it's from an Apollo mission, and our melange of leather and cordura clothing makes us look like gay Eastern Bloc skiers circa 1987. Some photos with our wonderful hosts and then its off down the long road to Ushuaia.
Once out of the Buenos Aires metropolis its a monotonous blat down Argentina's equivalent of the Hume Highway. Dull flat transport sections with 2 corners (yep, counted them) before our nightstop.
We manage to break up the monotony by engineering our own mechanical problems. Following instructions for easier starting and getting the last litres of petrol from our 30 litre tanks, we have pressurised them by breathing into the top hose and sealing it off with a simple tap valve. But 100 km down Ruta 3 my bike cuts out, with Pierpaolo's following suit 30 minutes later. It makes for exciting overtaking but on balance is not a good start to our big adventure. Pierpaolo eventually overrides my half baked engineering advice from the web and, shock, lets the tank breather tube actually breath! Sure enough this sorts out our fueling woes and we merrily rumble along the highway again. Only pressurise tanks when running on empty is the lesson learned.
300 kilometres is all we can muster today, due to the late start, mechanical discoveries and bodies that are not in tune to long distance travel like this. An unremarkable day of driving with gas found and cheap lodging secured. It's not much, but it's a start.
Wednesday Jan 14th
START: 1503 km
FINISH: 2176 km
Apologies to any of you with romantic visions of driving through the Pampas one day – it's just Lincolnshire with a different accent. “When you think of The Pampas, think of the nappies” – the contents are very similar.
Perhaps we are just bitter at being mocked by a road sign this morning. Ushuaia – 2900 km it read. Are we really that far away?! Aside from the occasional relief brought about by fields of sunflowers, giant yellow orbs in a sea of green monotony, we are in no delusion that the road ahead will be long and soul destroyingly dull.
Driving along the roads, filling up at the gas stations and you can believe that car designers around the world simply dropped their sketchpads in 1964 and said their work was done. Argentina's roads outside of the capital are literally crawling with Citroen 2CV's, Indiana Jones Renault 4's and American pickups plucked straight from a Bruce Springsteen video clip. It's nice to share the roads with these characteristic vehicles, as the kind of driving they inspire is that of an older, less urgent world.
Funny then that at one of the service stations they say only 98 octane, the most expensive high performance petrol, is available. The old bangers' appreciation for this highly refined juice is questionable – the equivalent of serving Dom Perignon at a blue light disco.
If you want a good lunch, stop where you see trucks parked. This old adage proves true again and for 30 pesos ($8) we have a full sit down 4 course nosh up that puts some fire back in the belly. Temperatures rise in the afternoon – at 5PM it is 36 degrees backed up by a hot head wind, so all our jacket vents are open, desperately trying to cool the steaming contents. At one point I think I see a thick heat haze up ahead and cannot make out Pierpaolo just 50 metres ahead, but a gust shows the “haze” as topsoil being discarded from the land like crumbs shaken from a giant tablecloth.
In Viedma we pull in for gas and the local cops come and chat to us and tell us where to go and where to stay away from. The country may be uninspiring but the people are all friendly. Dirt has permeated every single seam of our clothes and bags – our visors are caked and our teeth are gritty with fine clay. 650 kilometres today and we are shattered – by the time the bikes are parked and we are sheltered, fed, beered and ice creamed (ritual, don't mess with it!) it's 11:30PM.
Thursday Jan 15th
START: 2176 km
TO: Puerto Piramides
FINISH: 2691 km
Sleep, wake up, breakfast, load the bags and off again for a day of kilometre munching. This now familiar routine which comprises hours on the bike with nothing but the voice inside your helmet for company...it does allow for some amusing ponderings.
One that got me thinking today was from the wonderful world of Italian Gelato. It was up at Iguazu Falls when Pier and I went to the local gelateria, and despite the gelato being of top quality I was aghast to see a blue one on display and even being eaten. When I asked Pier what it might be he replied “Oh, that's Puffo, it was very popular in Italy 20 years ago”.
An ice-cream called Puffo? Are you serious? Has something been lost in translation here?
Pier goes on to say that there was a cartoon series in the 1980's called the Puffo's in Italy, they were these little blue people... AHA! The Smurfs? Yes, that's right, the Smurfs where called “Puffo” in Italy. Which opened up two lines of questioning:
As you can see, as the world goes into fiscal meltdown with our own planet changing beyond our control, there is still someone bold enough to tackle the issues that matter.
Today we transition from the Pampas and onto the coast (hurrah!), but the much awaited change in scenery is met with an increase in winds (Booo!) and even longer, straighter gunbarrel roads that point deep into nowhere (Yawn). There is also no escaping the fact that the seat on this bike is a relic from Changi prison, skillfully depriving the legs of all circulation while simultaneously maintaining posterior pain for hours on end. By the time we finish this trip we will need custom panelled undies to fit our newly shaped buttocks.
After 3 days of dull driving, the words “Parque Nacional” leap out from our map with undeniable appeal. So we make a detour off Ruta 3 and head for Peninsula Valdez, where the winds pick up to the point of blowing us from side to side and the temperatures drop to single digits, but reward being our first siting of ocean from the seat of our bikes.
Puerto Piramides is a small sandy town 80km or so within the park boundary. Great if you want ocean vistas and fossilized shale bones, not so good if you are after cheap accommodation and edible food. The park is meant to be amazing so we get an early night and prepare for a big day tomorrow of checking out the park and heading further down the road South.
Friday Jan 16th
START: 2691 km
FROM: Puerto Piramides
TO: Caleta Olivia
FINISH: 3306 km
Congratulations Suzuki! Your seat for the DR650 now has it's first fan. For all our bitching and whining the resident guesthouse cat puts us to shame by choosing to sleep on Pierpaolo's overnight. I feel the sheepskin seat cover is due more credit than the Rider Ergonomics team in Hamamatsu.
Waking up the owners of the guest house to pay for our room, we roll on down to the local service station for a wholly unsatisfying breakfast of space foil muesli stick things with a Twinky main course. Taking a leaf out of Sir David Attenborough's modus operandi, we research and review all points of local naturalist merit by scanning the postcards for sale in the racks.
It appears I have not done my research quite properly, as all postcards are of sea lions a-frolicking, whales a-breaching and orcas a-feeding. The kind of stuff that's pretty hard to appreciate from the seat of a motorbike unless you miss a sharp left hander at speed. Besides, all the whales headed south in December so even if we had the will to go and part with our hard earned $200 USD it would be to get a noses-on appreciation of sea lion halitosis. There's a reason Sir David gets knighted and paid for his travels and I don't.
So it's back out of the national park and back onto Ruta 3, general direction down. And the word for the day is WIND. Heaven's to Betsy I have never felt, let alone ridden, in anything like this before. It's a real fight for us to hold onto the bikes, which have all the svelte aerodynamics of a Chesterfield lounge suite in this ferocious onslaught.
To try and minimise the battering received, both of us have our heads down on the speedo, bum planted on the seat and chest strapped to the tank – the kind of positions seen only on Airline safety cards. Try maintaining that for 2 hours straight and your first week at the chiropractor is on me.
The wind is picking up as we go into the day and I wonder just how the sheep stay planted in the fields. I have images of them flying away - little cotton wool balls blown from the face of the earth like tumbleweed. Maybe the grass acts like velcro and holds them down.
We have a tea break in the middle of nowhere, and our host, a Chilean escapee from the Pinochet years, tells us that today the wind is blowing at 130km/hour, but somedays it can get up to 170! I don't know what it is - heat, rain, snow...bring it on, I relish the seasons. But there is something about the constant presence of wind that would send me nuts in a week. It tells you something about the Pinochet regime that this guy chose to live in this rather than face what was going on at home. Like those 70 year old Japanese warriors found in the Burmese jungle in the 1980's, someone should do the decent thing and tell him it's safe to go back now.
The World's Fastest Indian is our movie to take us into the late afternoon, where, unlike Burt Munro, we mould ourselves to machines in an effort to stay on the bikes rather than set land speed records. With us contorting ourselves into these ridiculous GP race poses on the most un GP bikes ever made, it makes me think of all the 15 year old spotty Valentino Rossi wannabes in Italy, crouched over their 49cc scooters trying to extract the last inklings of horsepower from their machines. I know the guys passing in their cars are laughing, but what can you do?
150 kilometres out from Caleta Olivia and we get a few hills and some ocean views again. This town is one of a handful that have grown rich from the Patagonian oil discoveries, and the flashy new pick up trucks and sneakered teenagers with mobile phones show off this new found wealth. Sadly for us wealth does not mean restaurants as we spend the best part of 2 hours looking for a place where we will be fed without contracting hepatitis. If you want to make some money, go open a fast food restaurant in Caleta Olivia. If you like wind, you'll love this place.
Saturday Jan 17th
START: 3306 km
FROM: Caleta Olivia
TO: Rio Gallegos
FINISH: 4014 km
Today sees an ambitious slog – 700 km down the coast to Rio Gallegos, our last night stop before Ushuaia. The first 120 km is a treat compared to what we have endured yesterday - rolling hills with clipped green pasture, blue skies and Atlantic ocean on our left following a yellow lined ribbon of black tarmac travelling south. With the temperature set just right, I catch myself enjoying it all for a moment. But then the wind picks up again and Ruta 3 degenerates into its usual 4:4 rhythm.
A BMW GS (the ones that Charley and Ewan cadged) passes us going at 150 km/h and I know that both of us momentarily thought “ Oh I wish that was me” as we chug along at a Clydesdalian 105 km/h. With 230 kg of weight versus our puny 147kg the wind seems to grant his bike some kind of immunity from persecution, so it's very easy to hold onto some horsepower envy on these roads.
Before getting into bikes seriously I never understood the whole concept of people wanting bigger and bigger bikes. Now I do. It's the difference between First Class in a cushy reclining armchair and long haul on a Ryanair barstool.
Like in all things, there is a kind of food chain, and when we pass a pair on a quad bike and a guy all loaded up on a little 200cc Chinese bike I can be sure they are thinking the envious thoughts we were just 30 minutes ago.
Another afternoon of getting tossed about by the wind, but today we have wildlife for company. Huge birds are on the wing above the pasture, maintaining their position, stationary in the wind (Ignorant of species yes, but if you want that you'll need to get Sir David again). Then one of them spots something in the grass, and with a simple turn of its body downwind and unfolding of its wingspan it goes from zero to 110 km/h within a second. Truly awesome to behold – I never imagined birds of prey using the wind to such great effect. Spare a thought though for the mouse in the field, who moves from one position in the food chain to another before I can type this full stop.
A record in the afternoon as we do a marathon 340km stretch without a break – not enjoyable but something that had to be done as there is not much on offer down this end of coastal Patagonia. Expecting Rio Gallegos to be yet another oil rich forgettable map dot, we revisit this and discover a pleasant town cloaked in the faded glory of yesteryear. Grand hotels, nice people and good restaurants add up to a great stop for the motoring traveller.
One concern however is given by our tyres – only 4000 km old and the rear Bridgestones on both our bikes are competing a little too enthusiastically for slimmer of the year. A bit of a surprise as on our previous trip we managed to eek out nearly 18,000 km from our tyres. Will need to revise our earlier plan of getting our bikes serviced in Santiago as we originally thought – that's 4000km away and this rubber will be lucky to last another 1,000.
Sunday Jan 18th
START: 4014 km
FROM: Rio Gallegos
TO: Ushuaia, Tierre Del Fuego.
FINISH: 4592 km
Four customs checkpoints, a ferry crossing and over 500km of road but after yesterday's marathon effort we can only muster an 8AM wake up and 9AM departure. We are getting close to the bottom of the world here, so no surprises for finding that in the middle of summer here it's around 5 degrees with Antarctic winds adding some further chill.
We pass a place called Lago Azul (Blue Lagoon), and I giggle to think of a young Argentine Brooke Shields shivering away wearing nothing more than a fig leaf and 2 shells with cameras rolling.
Cross the border into Chile and any fears we had of complicated border crossings are put to bed. The officials on both sides are super helpful and before long we are in Chile with photos to prove it and then a 130 km gravel road stretch to the ferry at San Sebastian. Taking all the precautions we deflate the tyres for gravel riding, and the bikes feel right at home. Getting off the highway and onto the smaller roads and something clicks – great scenery dotted with little tin settlers sheds, rusty wind mills cranking in the breeze. This feels like more of an adventure now. After nearly 3000km on Ruta 3 I feared I was becoming a spoiled traveler, not finding the joy of being on the road in the great outdoors. But this afternoon we are reminded of what motorcycle travel is all about. Guanacos (like wild llamas) stare at us going past as we stare back at them. We only have 180km in Chile today but already we like what we see.
Back into Argentina and the steely blue clouds on the horizon have turned to dark grey. Rain starts to pelt on our visors and the wind is now battering the shy mercury on the thermometer down further, but we are all kitted up and snug in our multi layered clothing. How the Shackleton's, Mawson's and Hillary's of the past handled their expeditions in only wool, cotton and furs is testament to how time has softened our species. Here we are in the middle of summer, 2000km from the South Pole dressed up in the finest technical fabrics technology can afford and we have the nerve to comment on the weather! The worsening conditions however add to the feeling that we really are heading to the end of the world.
Trees my dear friends, how we have missed you! Our last 100 kilometres reintroduces us to this flora unseen for the last 6 days. Bottle green mountain forests punctuated by serene lakes, this climb into the hills of Tierra del Fuego is like parts of Northern BC or Scotland on steroids. The sky above is doing some strange optical trickery... above it looks close enough to touch, but viewing it down toward the South Pole it looks like an endless ceiling with occasional shafts of light seeping through and warming the road below.
I find it strange that the allegedly inhospitable end of the world is lusher and more welcoming than the preceding plains of Patagonia and the Pampas. Rolling into Ushuaia, we stop for photos at the town entrance that declare we have made it to the end of the world. After that we follow the highway to find a town with gold rush frontier charm and a whopping port with 40ft containers stacked high.
It stands to reason that Buenos Aires is not the only place to send your bike to in Argentina – another possibility would have been to have chucked them in boat and collect them here, ready to travel up, up, up through the more interesting parts of the continent. But would we appreciate this part of the world as much as if we magically beamed ourselves down and jumped on our North pointing machinery? There is something about having spent the last 6 days covering over 20 degrees of the earth's latitude than allows us to appreciate this part of the world just a little bit more than if we had simply stepped out of a pressurised metal tube. As always, time is a luxury. And when you have it, it sure is easy to spend.
Bikes are parked up at the Freestyle Hostel, a superb establishment with enthused staff and free beer on arrival! Underfloor heating is most appreciated by our cold wrinkling feet but our timing is all off. Even though it's 10:30PM and still broad daylight, all the restaurants in town have closed, so we have to make do with a begged meal of empanadas at a closed local takeaway.
Monday Jan 19th
REST DAY: USHUAIA
We both love bike travel but gee, it's nice to have a day off them. With a sleep in and a late breakfast we also have a chance to catch up with our revolting pile of washing, some emails and then head up to the Glacier for a hike and some views of the area.
Ushuaia is a cute little town, with matchbox style houses built along a small grid of steep streets – The Magellan islands and the South Pole being your view to look out to. It is growing at the speed of a frontier town, with Antarctic tourism being the new oil. The main street is lined with shops selling all manner of technical outdoor clothing, being worn by a all manner of very nontechnical looking indoor people here on their “tick the box, saw the South Pole” Abercrombie & Kent level tours.
The steep streets that lead down to the water have me thinking about car chase scenes from The Streets of San Francisco or Dirty Harry. I can just picture some hulking great Oldsmobiles launching themselves off the crests, with standard Police issue Crown Victoria's in strobed pursuit. The only catch in filming a similar series here is that you would need the world's most efficient police force, requiring that they engage, pursue and apprehend the baddies within 3 blocks. I did say it was a small town.
Views from the glacier / top of the ski run are wonderful and we even manage to sneak in a bit of sun baking on the mountain side. Then down into town for a splurge on a brilliant restaurant meal with gigantic ocean facing windows. Going to the ends of the earth does not seem to be the torturous concept it is made out to be. In summer, that is.
Tomorrow and we will leave this town and start our journey North. With balding tyres we await inland Patagonia and its infamously punitive Ruta 40, criss crossing the Andes to take in some of Argentina and Chile's most captivating mountain scenery.