Saturday, 31 December 2011

Days 56 & 57: Perito Moreno Glacier (213 & 287 kms)

Visiting the Perito Moreno glacier was a highlight of the trip for me. It's the kind of tourist site that is heavily visited for completely understandable reasons. We spent a couple hours in the park following the pathways and then jumped the fence to bat a few rocks into the lake.

The town of Calafate was loaded with tourists, high season had begun. The place where we were staying even had a sign boldly explaining that its prices had risen for this reason. We still had a great dinner of asado, roasted lamb.

That night we camped near the outflow from Lake Argentina, Rio Santa Cruz. The drive into the town of Rio Gallegos, the self-proclaimed windiest town in the world was uneventful.

Day 55: Earning it on Ruta 40 (353 kms)

After getting a patch on my tire, we left town around 10:30. We crossed the 49th parallel at the scenic Lago Cardiel with snowcaps and turquoise waters.

Ruta 40 is being paved in an ambitious project, and we were hoping that we might be able to ride more asphalt than was indicated on the maps. In two years or so there won't be much dirt left on 40 in the south. This year there was more than enough to go around. In some ways the presence of the construction may have complicated matters: often the road was a rough temporary track to allow continued circulation while they worked to build up, grade and pave the main road; I also suspect that investment in maintenance may have declined given the imminent arrival of the asphalt road. In some spots we were able to ride on the new roadway and did so even though there were berms to prevent entry; Peter got temporarily stuck making one such entry.

About 100 kms north of Calafate we came to Lago Viedma with the view of Cerro Torre and Cerro Perito Moreno. Stunning.

Days 53 & 54: Ruta 40 through the Pampa (561 & 659 kms)

There was a miscalculation of mileage in the plan, so we opted to ride further and earn an extra day off at Christmas. This made for two long days of riding in western Argentina with a final destination of Gobernador Gregores.

The first day of riding we saw some other overlanders. First, some Germans on rented bikes heading south. We rode with them for a while but to our collective relief they pulled into a service station relatively quickly; they were unsafe riders.

Later that day we were passed by a steady stream of vintage Volvos heading north. I spoke to one of the drivers and discovered that all one hundred or so vehicles were Dutch and doing a two-month journey around SA. Nice!

Late in the day we encountered the first of the strong winds. Some riders rigged up ballast systems to keep the bike level.

We found a decent spot to camp on the pampa once the estancia fencing opened up. Nathan and I both found skulls of camelids. Mine became a kind of totem until it was confiscated by the Chilean customs.

The second day, which comprised some of the most difficult riding of the trip, with the dirt, gravel, wind and persistent construction of Ruta 40, ended later than anticipated. We also passed through a wicked little hail storm and I stopped to take a photo of the bike with some of the accumulation.

The delay was my first flat of the trip Eventually we made it to the town and had a kind of mini-celebration dinner of ravioli and vino tinto. More gravel awaited us the next day, before a day off in El Calafate.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Day 52: Southern Andes (372 kms)

This was my second favourite day of riding in the entire trip. We left out camp at Licàn Ray on Lake Calafquèn around 8am, passed a dramatic snowcapped AND smoking volcano in Chile's Villarrica national park, and, once on the gravel road that would return us to Argentina, stopped for breakfast at a hotsprings. Nathan and Peter found the eucalyptus sauna boxes to enjoy (mandatory viewing video to follow).

Back on the road, the riding grew more technical as the track narrowed and climbed. A truck was down in a creek below a bridge after misjudging the turn. We exited Chile at a tiny border station that also served as the frontier to the Lanín national park. Some excellent riding passed lakes, rivers and lava fields. The border station into Argentina was even more casual; we interrupted the single young officer who was wearing pyjamas and cooking his pancake breakfast.

After a short delay for a flat on Peter's bike we stopped for lunch in the town of San Martín de los Andes. Great pizza!

It was early evening by the time we headed south on La Ruta de los Siete Lagos, a route recommended by Uncle Harry, to Bariloche. The road did not disappoint: mostly it was tar, but there was a 30 km section of gravel that was ready for paving. In that area, there was still several inches of volcanic ash on the ground; it covered the vegetation, road and buildings in a thick crust and the air contained noticeably more particulate.

Riding south along the eastern shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi to Bariloche was almost like being transported back to coastal BC.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Day 51: South, faster (822 kms)

Every motorcycle trip I've been on has one. A day to make miles. There was no time for photos.

We rode due south on highway 5. It was a fine, simple and efficient ride on an interstate quality highway.

Based on how the day started I wondered if we might spend the night near Santiago. The one repair Nathan was not able to complete yesterday was changing his chain. But he met a couple of riders who offered to help first thing in the morning. The one guy, Nico, owned a pizza joint in a southern suburb just off the highway. He was an Italian emigre in his 50s. The other,
Davide, was an Italian national who was riding solo around the world, sponsored by Yamaha, in his early 30s and was billeting with Nico for a few days. We turned up at the gate at 8:15am and my first impression is that we'd woken them up and Nico had completely forgotten about his promise to help.

Maybe I was wrong, since he jumped right into the task and didn't really look back. Nathan commented later that he was exactly opposite to the kind of mechanic that instilled confidence. Within seconds Nico had cut the old chain off with a disc sander. So far, so good. Then he lined up the new chain, eyeballed the length and removed a link. Still too long. Two more links sliced. Too short. Fortunately there was a spare link. Unfortunately it didn't fit. He tried another spare link. Didn't work either.

At this point I had to avert my eyes. There were parts strewn everywhere on the ground, Nico was still cutting with his sander and Nathan was pale in the face.

The problem was solved when Nico cut a basically new chain off another bike parked in his lot and fitted that to the KLR. Just in the nick of time too, because all his riding buddies starting showing up for their Sunday ride. This week was special because of Davide's presence, and these old dudes were primed to show they could still ride.

Davide was a dude, the other guys were putzes. I didn't want to ride with them at all. They were all over the road, crunched up together and popping wheelies for no reason. Nico was the worst of all. After about 20 mins of riding with them, we just got off and started the long ride south.

Day 50: Santiago

Notionally a day off, we still did a lot of running around. We all had repairs to do: Nathan tires, chain and welding; Peter tires and brakes; me luggage and some loose nuts and bolts.

My left luggage box had been damaged when I hit a big pothole in Bolivia. In truth, the box itself was limp from the 2008 Africa trip. I should have replaced it before the trip. It never fit the frame snuggly. It was replaced. I was sad to lose all those stickers so this photo is a nice memento.

In the evening I met up with Alejandra, a friend from business school. She took me to a rooftop dance party at her friend's apartment. The best way to get to know about a country truly is by seeing and speaking with locals in their own spaces.

Day 49: Ruta Siete to Santiago (425 kms)

A late start, but a beautiful ride on the principal road connecting Argentina and Chile across the Andes. We bade Andrew farewell and joined national highway #7. The road rose gradually from Mendoza, passed under the continental divide and international frontier through a tunnel, and dropped precipitously in tight switchbacks into Chile.

Before crossing we passed to the south of Aconcagua which at just shy of 7000 meters is the tallest peak in the western hemisphere. There was a partial view from the park gate.

On leaving Argentina there is a prominent road sign standing testament to the continued national irritation over the Falklands Islands. And then we were in Chile; the final country (although not border crossing) of the trip!

The most dramatic moment of the day was an altercation I had with another motorist at a gas station. He was trying to go the wrong way through the filling bay (queues at station are ubiquitous and managed by single direction traffic). When I wouldn't yield ground he actually hit my bike - while I was riding it - with his car. The contact was not violent but still there is nothing quite so unnerving as being on a bike and having a car attempt to muscle you off the road. It's intolerable. I returned contact. The car had Chilean plates and apparently he held a grudge all the way to the border; a particularly busybody policeman there asked me "Why hit car Chile?" Indeed. Peter duly noted the addition of this question to the pantheon of Great Unanswered Philosophical Questions.

Day 48: Mendoza (277 kms)

On the short ride into Mendoza, 50% of the vehicles ran out of gas, Nathan and Andrew simultaneously. The problem was quickly solved and we were checked into a hostel in Mendoza, floating in the pool and refreshed by 2pm. We met a number of other travellers during what was a late night of a short stay, some who would gladly have joined us for the remainder of journey to Ushuaia.

Days 46 & 47: Northern Argentina (644 kms and 679kms)

The dirt roads in Bolivia daunted us a little. We changed our schedule in two ways. First, we kept to asphalt roads in northern Argentina and second we set out to arrive in Santiago a couple of days earlier than schedule. A lot of folks take five or six months to do the kind of trip we're doing in two. Consequently, we don't have a lot of spare time for repairs or delays. Since we'd left La Paz the days had just felt full, long and as though one thing after another was going wrong. We needed to get back some flex time in case anything else went wrong. Something is bound to happen.

The solution was two long days through Argentina's north towards Mendoza. On the first day, Nathan had tourista. He didn't eat much at all, took a break at mid-day, but managed to stay on the bike all day long. Impressive.

On the first night we stayed in the town of Rio Hondo, and Andrew and I checked out one of the many hotsprings in the evening. The town feels a little like an Argentine Myrtle Beach. Our accommodation was an entirely forgettable hotel, except for the extent to which the breakfast was terrible. Crackers and jam, with weak coffee. It has become a joke to see if any subsequent breakfast could match the level of bleakness.

Day 45: Southern Bolivia and into Argentina (292 kms)

Patching Peter's tire took took a few hours this morning. But once we got on the road, the riding was great. The road was still dirt, but better than the sand, stone and washboard hell connecting Uyuni with Huari and Atocha.

After lunch we were back on asphalt making the trip to the border uneventful. Once there, my rule of border crossings was again proven, at the very final step: Argentine customs. The weather was threatening as we rolled into the border town. There was a violent electrical storm about 50 kms southwest. As the officer was entering my info into the system, the power flickered. All info lost. He rebooted. Five minutes later, same thing. And then again. This man was a one-finger typer, and he could barely reboot his computer. At each juncture he called a junior officer to set him up again. It was excruciating. By the third failure, he packed his bag and headed home. I couldn't blame him. I thought we'd be stuck there for the night, but another officer finally completed the process for Andrew and me, and we could leave.

We got back on the road, planning to head another 100 kms. At first the riding was beautiful: windy, stormy and scenic in the high plains. Then night fell. Then we entered into the hardest rain I've ever seen. I was in lead, and my visibility fell to about 15 feet. Hard even to find shelter. I thought about a tree, but rejected it as not substantial enough. Then we came to a deserted bus terminal, perfect. Another car was already there taking refuge too.

The rain continued. At first the terminal seemed to be an adequate spot to overnight. Nathan found the electrical breakers and some interior rooms. Not quite cosy, but dry and safe.

But the rain continued. Soon the level of the water was up above the bikes' rims, and then nearly to the axles! We brought the bikes up to the platform, but the water kept rising. The primary platform was breached within 45mins. Once the secondary platform was also damp, the choice was made for us: we had to leave. There was a little debate, which I filmed while the level steadily rose, but we all knew there was only one option.

I went first and a little too quickly: water was forced up an over my headlight and came splashing under the windscreen into the cockpit. At its deepest there was likely just over two feet of water. We all made it through and were rewarded by a warm, dry hotel with Argentine steak for dinner.

Day 44: Crossing the Salar de Uyuni (413 kms)

Peter has already described this epic day of riding in detail, so I won't duplicate his report except to confirm that it was a long, difficult ride. And it was entirely worth it.

Some photos (not chronological for some reason due to the Blogger app):

1. A hole in the Salar with water beneath. Salt fishing?

2. The four bikes on the Salar. Video will follow. There is a reason they break land speed records on salt flats.

3. Nathan's bike and my bike on the very rough road leading out to the Salar. At this point, somewhere back up the road, Peter was wrestling with the first flat of the day.

4. The road to Atocha after dark. Deep sand in parts made it tough going. This was something we'd fought all day. But we all emerged with only a small collective number of drop bikes and no injuries or major mechanical problems.

5. Washing the salt off the bikes. Absolutely essential.

Day 44: Camping on Lake Poopo (342 kms)

My brakes took longer to fix than expected so we didn't leave town until almost noon. That allowed time for much needed sleep-in for the nighthawks in the party.

Andrew was now part of our little group and riding his slickly kitted BMW F800GS. Terrific machine.

Bolivia has a generous petrol subsidy. Combined with the cut rate prices from Venezuela, the final price is about $0.50 a liter. But that price is only available to Bolivian plated vehicles since the government has no desire to subsidize non-residents. There is a higher price that filling stations are meant to charge foreign vehicles. However, stations often do not have the paperwork to complete this transaction or are fearful of being shut down for manipulating the sale price and pocketing the difference. We found that most stations were hesitant to sell us gas. It was a real drag. Andrew had Bolivian plates, which was helpful, but not entirely sufficient.

Late in the day we spent nearly two hours trying to procure gas. By that time it was too late for riding, particularly since the asphalt road ended. The town nearby, Huari, is deservedly famous for its beer, but not its hotels. We decided to camp near the dry Lago Poopo. In the end we found a nice spot near a deserted llama pen. There was an amazing electrical storm visible across the lake, likely 60 or 70 kilometers away.

Day 43: Reaching La Paz (132 kms)

After clearing Bolivian immigration, we started the chilly ride into La Paz. I was following Nathan and my brakes were feeling soft. We rode quickly on the flat, open, traffic-free highway. His tail light was obscured with our small bag of trash from the previous night's dinner. That combination led me to hit a bumpy rail crossing much harder than intended. Bit of a scare.

We reached El Alto outside La Paz around 11:30. It took another hour to fight 20kms across the entire city to the southern barrios. During that time we descended ~800 meters in elevation. Coming around a corner and seeing the entire city spread out is a dramatic sight.

Andrew had set us up in his home and with the local bike shop. I had my tire changed and brakes fixed, and Nathan did a variety of repairs too. Nathan and Peter made the most of the nightlife.

Day 42: Heading for La Paz (635 kms)

We were behind a day because of my battery trouble, so we set out to ride all the way to La Paz, take a day off for repairs and then continue south towards Argentina with my friend and former colleague Andrew Scyner. We would have made it except for three delays.

First, my battery acted up again. The solution was simple: the connection to the negative post was loose, but it took some time for the electrical system to come back online. During the break we had lunch at a fancy but completely deserted hotel on the shore of Lake Titicaca. High season has not yet begun, but this place was seriously overbuilt.

Continuing southeast along the lakeshore, Peter was nearly run off the road by a car with two thrill seeking Peruvian teens. We stopped to enjoy the lake with its backdrop of Bolivian snowcapped peaks. I regretted not being able to camp there, however this desire would be fulfilled.

We turned up at the Peruvian border station in the town of Desaguadero, just as night was falling. Unusually the town on the Bolivian side shared the same name and, in fact the twins seemed to function as a single town. And it was a rotten place.

Peter's bike had overstayed its welcome; the second delay. The customs agent's computer did not like this fact, and froze. Peter will want to tell this story, but suffice it to say that a "practical" accommodation was arrived at. Peru extended a "thanks for you visit" and we crossed just as the border station was closing for the night.

Then the third delay: the Bolivian side was closed, both the immigration and customs. We were in the country, but had no permission to be there and had no desire to stay in rotten Desaguadero.

A kind customs officer took some pity on us and completed the paperwork for the bikes. He had already worked a full day, and did this on his personal time. Nor was he looking for a bribe, although I do think he asked one of us halfheartedly if we'd brought anything from Canada.

We made camp on the lakeshore just around a point, and out of sight of the town.

Day 41: Machu Picchu (0 kms)

We visited the famous lost city of the Incas. It's no wonder why so many people - up to 2500 a day - make the relatively complicated multi day journey to the site: it is an impressive structure in a stunning setting. And there are so few others mountain top settlements with equal grandeur: few if any other civilizations possessed the cheap manpower, discipline, ambition and impractical preferences to build so far away from typical means of transport, easy agricultural lands and a predictably flowing water source.

We explored the site (Peter found an Incan mummy down in the crypt!), took a nap at a resting place and made up all nature of challenges the Inca likely faced, particularly battles with their fiercest enemy, the Maya. Nathan largely failed to see the site since his nose was buried in the guidebook; I'm sure Peter will post the photo series at some point.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Salar and Archer's Post

The Salar and Archer's Post

Somedays capture all the elements of long travel on a bike. Yesterday was one of those days. We woke up to a brilliant sunrise across the dried lake bed we camped on the night before. We'd set up shelter behind the adobe walls of an abandoned farm. The lake had been dry for sometime, apparently.

We made an early start, as we knew we had a tough ride to get to the top of the Salar de Uyuni, the massive salt lake in the south east of Bolivia. The ride was harder than expected, as it amounted to either deep washboard or deep sand. As the road was under construction, it also had several unpredictable drops and ledges. I almost lost control rather seriously on two occasions, but managed to stay upright. Sam cratered in a large hole, and despite having to rearrange some luggage, kept everything in check. It was similarly good riding from Nathan and andrew. Along the way. A small leak in my tire became a serious one, so I had to repair it before reaching the Salar.

After five hours to travel 150 kms, we reached the lake. There, we rode as fast as we wanted, wherever we wanted. I suppose it's not much like the moon, but it certainly felt like it. It was about a 120 km ride to Uyuni, where we took some lunch and found a place to wash the bikes.

While we were waiting for the Iunch to arrive, fellow ran in and told me someone had knocked over my bike with their car. I ran out to the bike, which had only minor damage (these stroms are tough), and got on to give chase. Everyone around was pointing out the direction of the car and giving descriptions. Sam joined in. We couldn't find the chap. To be honest, I am not sure what I would have done had I found him, much like the puzzled dog that finally catches a car. But I did daydream about it on our ride out.

Until I got another flat. And then another. We were riding perhaps the roughest gravel road I've ever been on. When it wasnt washboard, it was deep sand, as a result of the frequent sandstorms. So, by the time we got going on a repaired tire, it was dark. We rode 50 kms in the pitched black, eventually descending 600 meters into a nice mining town. We've spent the morning here getting my tire fixed, and are soon to depart for the argentine border.

It was, I must say, the hardest day of riding I've had since the time I blew out my back suspension in northern Kenya, and had to ride 70kms in the sand to Archer's Post. Sam and I made that ride, and we remind ourselves of it in the dark last night. We'll reference this one too for years to come.

Sent from my iPad

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Day 40: Into the Sacred Valley of the Incas (249 kms)

We left Abancay in a steady morning rain and climbed steeply out of its valley. At the pass we crested 4000 meters and there was slush in the ditch.

Arriving in Ollantaytambo just after noon we found a hostel, stashed the bikes and went to the train station. We rolled right on the train and were in the town of Aguas Calientes eating at one of its innumerable pizza joints by 4pm. It's a funny town, but in the spectacular setting of the deep Urubamba river valley. I caught a glimpse of the moon rising and some children playing ball in a school yard. Peter's analogy was best: it's like a ski resort town. Hard to complain about it being overrun with tourists if tourism is nearly its sole purpose.

We bought tickets for tomorrow's visit to Machu Picchu soaked at the hotsprings, negotiated for free pisco sours and called it a night.

Day 39: A half day to Abancay (319 kms)

The plan was to ride the 500kms plus to Ollantaytambo, take the train to Aguas Calientes and see Machu Picchu tomorrow. Things went awry. Notably with my bike.

The ride started perfectly. We rose again to the Pampas and made great time: 250 kms by the time we stopped for breakfast. I snapped a shot of our three machines in a line; all the colors of the citrus rainbow.

Upon leaving the restaurant, my bike started to behave badly. The throttle would die at high revs. And then it got worse. It started to stall every 200 meters. Several theories were postulated. The simple: water in the gas or bad gas. The complicated: fuel injector issues. I limped along and finally made it to the town of Abancay. We tried fuel stabilizer. I re-checked the air filter. We dumped the gas and started over. Same symptoms.

At this point the day was quickly dwindling. We finally ended up at mechanic called Marcos. Just as I pulled in my battery died. The cause was from repeatedly starting the engine after the stalls. We tried to explain the root problem and symptoms, but Marcos was focused solely on the battery. That was a little frustrating, because it seemed like a distraction. But once he got the battery out, it had no acid. Then he confirmed that the battery couldn't hold a charge. In the event, the battery was itself the source of the problem. Basically since it could not take the charge, the main computer was put under severe stress trying to manage the electrical system. Its instinct was simply to shut down.

The delay was frustrating and a setback. Particularly during those hours when we couldn't diagnose the problem, uncertainty about the trip crept in. Through the period the guys were great: very patient and helpful.

We rearranged our schedule to compress the trip from the Sacred Valley to Bolivia. No big deal.

Day 38: Stung in Paracas and drawing a line to the Pampas (369 kms)

If we were staying at a beach house and soon leaving the coast for the Andes, I was going to take advantage of one last swim. I couldn't find the guys or Alfredo so I just went for it. Even wading out, I could see that the water was heavily populated with living things. I saw fish, a small ray and huge jellyfish. The water was chilly and after a shallow dive and a short front crawl I put down my feet to get my bearings. Immediately there was a sharp jolt of pain in my foot. I limped up the beach, bleeding a little from a clean cut on the sole of my foot just above the little toe. Instead of subsiding the pain was spreading, filling my foot and running up my inner thigh towards my groin. What was this thing and was I going to die?!

I hobbled back to the house and found the guys. Alfredo couldn't be found but one of his staff knew exactly what to do. His immediate understanding of the situation and blasé reaction calmed me. Eventually we understood that I'd stepped directly on a stingray.

The next step was painful. It involved soaking my foot in nearly boiling water and then sucking out the venom with "The Extractor".

Afterwards, Alfredo's staff killed two stingrays with a spear to make me feel better. They all told stories about how many times this had happened to them and I did feel better.

After a quick breakfast, Alfredo took us for a tour in his boat (his "launch"). We saw and startled into flight a flock of pink flamingos. Then we came across some boats harvesting scallops: divers on the floor below would simply gather them in bags which would be hauled up to the surface.

We said our goodbyes and thank yous to Alfredo and company, and shot out for Nazca. A short while later Nathan's muffler fell off. Bumpy roads in the Cordillera Blanca? He fixed it quickly with some nuts and bolts purchased from a gas station.

Only three of the many "Nazca Lines" are visible from the roadside mirador, but it was still fascinating to see these monumental sized drawings in the desert only visible from the sky or to the gods.

After the heat of Nazca, we climbed 3500 meters into less than 100kms to the Peruvian Pampas. Perfect camping terrain.

Day 37: A beach house at Paracas (267kms)

We left Lima around 1pm. During the morning we turned the front lot and entrance of our small hotel into a motorcycle workshop. They were happy to see us depart.

We rode along the Costa Verde road out of Lima and then joined the Panamericana without incident. We stopped for a late lunch on the beach just beyond the southern outskirts of the city.

After another two hours on the highway, I noticed that the Panamericana left the coast just up ahead near the famous town of Pisco. Since we were planning to camp in the desert and as it was late in the day, I thought we should stop to consult on procuring food and how to find a camp site. Just as I was slowing and pulling over I saw three motocross riders coming up on a trail just off the highway. I dismounted and went over to the lead rider, Alfredo. Within instants he had invited us to stay at his beach house 60 minutes further on down the coast. After Nathan confirmed my understanding of the conversation, we accepted eagerly.

The place was amazing: we each had our own bunk room adjacent to the pool. Mine was reserved for caballeros only. Alfredo had several businesses including a pisco distillery, a fish meal factory and mandarin orchards; how's that for the archetype of a Peruvian businessman?!

Day 36: Lima (72 kms)

This was neither a day off in the sense that we stayed off the bikes or in that we rested. The turnaround in Lima was always bound to be tight. I made a "to do" list that would have taken me two days in Ottawa to complete. And Peter needed to get his bike from storage and return it to travel ready status. In the event we spent the morning getting organized and the afternoon running around. By the time we liberated Peter's bike it was late afternoon. By the time we realized the battery on his bike was dead, it was early evening. By the time we replace the battery with a platoon of helpful men from the neighborhood, night had fallen. We pushed back departure until the following afternoon. I still managed to meet a friend for dinner and indulged in more excellent seafood.