Thursday, March 19, 2009

19 Mar – Valparaiso, Chile
Well we are not going to see the bikes into the container, that we will have to rely on the Chileans to do themselves. For the next few weeks they will sit in a warehouse gathering dust.
Our group here in the hostel is quickly diminishing in number as various ones leave to catch flights back to NZ. Today four more trudged off down the road with their bags over their shoulders to the bus station and transport to Santiago. We had a farewell lunch together at a delightful little eatery just down the road after which there was much hand shaking and back slapping as we bad farewell to what now seemed like old friends. We had come together six weeks ago, a disparate bunch not knowing each other and together ridden 10,000 kilometres, endured the roads, food, cramped accommodation and bad showers not to mention the odd case of food poisoning, enjoyed the beer and wine and spun tall tales and now it was time to go our separate ways again.
Down the road from our hostel is an area bustling with street commerce. Peddlers lay out their produce in the street, those with status on tables and those lower down the pecking order on a mat laid directly on the pavement. The vendors sit glum faced on wooden boxes hoping passers-by will spot something of value. Passers-by shuffle equally stern-faced past the goods occasionally stopping to inspect but rarely buying. All the while the motley stray dogs, ever on the lookout for a morsel of food, sniff at everything and pee on anything vertical. Since it is mostly lunch time the food sellers are busy frying local treats that resemble burger patties made of a yellow substance and eaten with aji pobre, a chilly and coriander sauce. Next door the vendor heats up empanadas, small pasties, and offers them to you in carne (meat) or queso (cheese). Meanwhile over by the park Sebastian Vila belts out songs to a beat box, collects what he can from tips and tries to sell his CD's. Actually he is not half bad so Pete and I sit there on the broken park bench listening to him. The poor fellow has his work cut out trying to compete with the tooting of impatient drivers, the roaring engines of trucks delivering beer, countless buses and the shrill sound of the policeman's whistle as he tries to wrestle order from chaos. Even the policeman retreats to the sidewalk occasionally seemingly temporally defeated. Sitting on our bench we watch the teeming humanity pass by, the vendors, old men and derelicts, mothers with kids, kids in school uniform and university students on some sort of orientation week prank. As relieved as we might be to see the back of this country, high street NZ is going to seem awfully dull.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

17 Mar - Valparaiso, Chile
We got the bikes packed back onto the platforms today and all the export paperwork done. The one major problem is there is no container available to load the bikes into. We hope this will be resolved tomorrow. If not we will all be gone and the Chileans will have to do the best they can on their own. My betting is that they won't get them all into the one container. We will see in a couple of months.
16 Mar – Valparaiso, Chile
My odo shows we did just on 10,000 km – trouble free in my case. The DR was not the ideal bike for this ride; a more road oriented bike would have been better. It struck me that the new BMW 650 GS, a V Stom/TDM or a Transalp would have been ideal. But no matter, I have hauled the DR up through BC, Yukon and Alaska to Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean and now it has taken me to Tierra del Fuego so it will do.
In general Patagonia is dry, barren and windy and is no great joy to ride, Ruta 40 has lost it's charm as a historic road, and we failed to complete the Carretera Austral in Chile but for all that I achieved my aim of riding through Patagonia to Tierra del Fuego and riding the famous Ruta 40.
I am no fan of Argentina; any first year macro economics student will tell you what's needed with their economy, and the state has an inherent mistrust of it citizens. The constant police checks are more sinister in intent than irritating. Their infrastructure is crumbling around them and they are knee deep in rubbish. But for all that the Argentinian people are delightful, friendly and helpful and seem to have a zest for life. Chile on the other hand I found to be simply organised and on to it. Their banking system is stable, their infrastructure is in good order and repair and their people do not appear to be at war with the state. Chileans seem to have a thing about dogs – there are hundreds of strays wandering the streets and they all seem to get together at dawn and have a bark-up. Do I need to mention the poop? Things are more expensive in Chile than they are in Argentina.
For the moment we are concentrating on cleaning the bikes in preparation for loading back into the container tomorrow and tonight we have a farewell dinner together before the group breaks up for the trip home.
15 Mar - Valparaiso, Chile
We finished off the blackberries for breakfast and hit the road for the short ride to Valparaiso. We got talked into a different route by one of the locals – it had the advantage of avoiding toll booths and we would also get to see some different sights. It turned out to be true. The road in places was littered with little stalls selling fruit or fruit juice and later we passed through vast acres of nut trees (protected by high electric fences) and vineyards. Officially it was route 66, Ruta del Vin, the locals, in what might be a case of language humour call it Ruta de Fruta.
We got a little lost in one town when the road was barred due to new works. Unfortunately there were no signs pointing to an alternative route but once again were were rescued by a fellow biker who guided us around the obstruction.
The rest of the days was spend on a motorway reeling in the miles to Valparaiso where we arrived at around 5.30 to be greeted by the rest of the gang who had all arrived by one means or another. The two broken bikes are here as are the three who skipped the ripio and opted instead for a leisurely cruise on a ship. The evening was spent, with everyone talking at once and as loud as possible, retelling their individual experiences.
We, like Bilbo Baggins, had made to there and back again.
14 Mar – Linares, Chile
Last night was spent in Pucon, a resort town on a lake. This general area is the lakes district of Chile so we took a in couple of them on our tour north. Sadly the weather was crappy so we did not see to much.
Today was better weather wise and we made it half way back to Valparaiso. We stopped on the side of the road to collect wild blackberries and along came a couple of cyclists – a 60's plus couple from NZ; so that filled in a bit of time. On arrival in Linares we stopped outside a butcher shop to get our bearings. The owner came out and plied us with meat, bread and home made wine. That filled in some more time. Then still without any idea of where to find accommodation we befriended a group of young kids on motor bikes who took us in hand and found some for us. That took some more time.
Autumn is arriving down here so while the Makracapa, pine and eucalyptus are still in their cloak of green, the poplars, willows and aspens are turning yellow. Occasionally there is a light litter of leaves on the road which the bike in front send dancing into the air. They come back to rest just in time for me to pass. The topography of this area is remarkably similar to NZ.

12 Mar – Puerto Varas, Chile
A rest day for me and a couple of others. The majority went off to visit Chiloe Island to see what it offered. We had originally intended to ride up the island having crossed by ferry from Chaiten in the south. You might recall that we had to cut out the Austral highway and Chiloe Island would have been part of the route. A casualty of riding Chiloe island would have been the northern reaches of the Austral that we attempted yesterday. Staying here at Puerto Varas gave us the opportunity to rectify a little of the problem. Frankly I think most are a little relieved at not doing all the Austral if yesterdays experience was anything to go by. Despite enjoying gravel roads I add myself to the list.
The LOB's walked the local town today, a male version of shopping where you ignore all the shops and just walk around aimlessly. We were really looking for a special oil for one of the bikes but couldn't find it so settled for lunch and a glass of wine.
This is a nice town with clean streets, well dressed people and a delightful feel about it. I get the grand vista of the town, the lake and the Mt Egmont lookalike from the window of our digs.
We had wild blackberries and ice cream for tea; I don't know how I can stand the pace.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

11 Mar – Puerto Varas, Chile
Our first wet day in ages and the day we decided to ride the gravel. I suppose miserable might describe the ride. Aside from the crappy weather the road surface was from hell – pot holes in pot holes and wash board by the miles. No views to speak of on account of the mist and fogged up visor. We were rescued by a puncture. It was fixed and in a nano second agreed to turn back. We weren't quite in the back end of nowhere but as someone said you could see it just down the road.
Waiting for the ferry we befriended a fat little stray dog. He had a repertoire of tricks from tail and hip wags, longing looks to rolling over (in the mud) for a tummy scratch, after which he expected payment in the form of food. Judging by his girth he has a successful act. We gave him a biscuit with brie topping.
Ah, the things you see.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

9 Mar - Entre Lagos, Chile
For the past 2 days we have have traveled over 1,000 km on roads already traveled just to get past the fuel problems in Chile. We crossed back into Chile today and had hoped to make it to Puerto Montt but one of our group had serious bike problems so we are a couple of hundred K short. The bike may be terminal - we will see tomorrow. I suppose one good thing came from the detour which was I got to do the remaining portions of route 40. The loss is possibly missing the complete Austral highway and that is sad - it is one of the worlds must do trips.
Next day. The bike is terminal and is being shipped back to Santiago.
Our two groups have now formed one of seven bikes for the remainder of the trip - we started with 12. We hope to rescue what we can of the Austral over the next three days and then leg it for Valprasio in two long hops. The last bit should be easy because the Chilean toll roads are excellent.
This afternoon we were hanging around a flash hotel when I heard this American voice I thought I recognised - I did. It was Mark. I met him, his wife plus Stu and his wife in Alaska last year. We crossed paths 6 times last year and now again. He is a pilot so is here on work assignment not riding his bike. At lunch today our bike attracted a bit of a crowd - mainly West Coasters selling Moss to the Chileans. It's a small world.
7 Mar - Chile Chico, Chile
We finished off the last section of Route 40 this morning and I loved it- not sure everyone shared my enthusiasm. I was suspicious of yesterdays road, it seemed just a little too re-engineered to me because every so often you would see bits of old road, narrow bridges and the like. Well today we were pushed off onto a diversion that was clearly the old road. This one hugged the hills and valleys and followed the contours of the land, was mostly single lane and with narrow bridges. One of the poor old bridges showed the scars of many a confrontation with its customers. The surface was rutted, pot-holed, soft spots and lots of washboard surface. Wonderful. Unfortunately it was over almost as soon as it started. We were forced back onto the newly contoured road while the real route 40 wandered off into the distance and obscurity, alive only in the memory of aging adventures. Soon there will be no Ruta 40 left at all.
In general it is warming up so the winter woollies are being stowed at the bottom of the pack. We are also seeing more green which is a relief from the parched steppes of the past week or so. The poplars are showing the first signs of yellowing of autumn. In a couple of weeks the first snows will fall on Ushuaia.
I had hoped todays crossing back into Chile would be the end of Argentina. Unfortunately we have been advised of industrial strife up north and as a result there is no fuel to be had for hundreds of kilometers so we are going back into Argentina tomorrow for a major detour. Good news for me is there is a bit more route 40 but everyone here is trying to find a way around it. Soft sods.
6 Mar - Bajo Caracoles, Argentina
Today was a serious attack on Route 40 and as a result we are ahead of our schedule. The road is in serious need of a grader and in places appears almost non existent. There is some sign of work being done because there is a long stretch of diversion road next to a nice new one being built. Also some sections are being sealed. Ruta 40 is a little like Route 66 - once a famous road that for the most part has been absorbed by other roads or bypassed altogether.
Caracoles is a dusty one-horse town with a gas station, pub and a cluster of ramshackle buildings one of which has been turned into a hostel, our nights accommodation. When the intercity bus stops for refreshments the towns population doubles. This is outback Argentina at its best (worst?).
5 Mar- El Calafate, Argentina
We have caught up to the group that were originally behind us and have decided to ride as one group from now on. Our little group is now 4, down from 7 and the other is 4, down from 8. That was until they decided to move on and help out one member further north whose 1200 GS has spat the dummy. So back to quatro amegos.
Today we did the 160 km round trip out to the Moreno Glacier in the Parque Nacional Glaciares. We duly paid our 60 pesos at the gate and within no time were presented with the most spectacular glacier terminal you could ever imagine. To say it is huge is to understate it entirely. The face is 4 km across and 60 metres high and this ice mountain runs 14 km back up the valley until it disappears into the mist. It presents itself as a series of ice stalagmites of teal blue that crack with the sound of rifle shots. Every now and then huge lumps of it come crashing down into the lake. This was a truly awe inspiring experience and no future glacier will measure up to this monster. Money well spent.
The ride back into town was no less spectacular. Think of the road past Lake Tekapo - milky blue lake stretching to the base of a snow capped mountain backdrop. But now think of the lake also reaching to the horizon in the other direction that with no hills in the distance to give it a boundary you could imaging the water pouring over some giant fall. It is Lago Argentino and it is huge.
4 Mar – El Calafate, Argentina
Back into Argentina today. The border crossings are becoming less perilous now we sort of know the routine. The key is to beat the bus to the officials otherwise you are stuck behind 40 jabbering tourists – not that we aren't tourist also. The wind is still with us but our riding days are quite short so we are often off the road by the time they get strong.
Ruta 40 is not the horror promised – todays stretch could be taken at 90kph. We get serious doses of it in a couple of days.
Tonights accommodation is a brand new hostel which unfortunately they are cramming 6 persons to a room that would/should struggle to accommodate 2. The bottom line is that they are getting NZ $300 per room. The backpackers don't seem to care.
3 Mar - Puerto Natales, Chile
We are here for a couple of nights primarily to enable us to take a trip into the National Park “Torres del Paine”. The park is huge and it takes all day for the tour. It also wasn't exactly cheap but in the end we all considered it worth it. I thought I had seen some spectacular mountains in Canada/Alaska but these beat them hands down. Typically pictures do not do them justice. The mountains are not part of the Andes which are the result of tectonic plate activity but rather the result of magma rising from a fissure in the ground. The distinctive shape of the towers is a function of time and weather.
There are also a number of glaciers in the area but for us just to far away to see properly. You can take a boat to the terminal. It's a hugely popular park and there are a large number of trampers wearing out their joints. All in all a great day out made all the better by not having to ride the bike.
This is also a very attractive little town – neat and tidy and in sharp contrast to the broken footpaths and street litter of Argentina.

Monday, March 2, 2009

2 Mar- Pto. Natales, Chile
We are here for a couple of days ostensibly to do the tourist thing around the area. Only problem is that the day is overcast and as cold as hell and a trip on the lake tomorrow is not that appealing just now. Pto. Natales is a miniature version of Taupo - a cold hole on the edge of a lake.
Our group of seven is now down to three. One bailed out at the first sight of the gravel and has taken a boat ride up north to bypass Ruta 40, one has a broken bike and may have to truck it back Valpraiso and his riding companion is suffering a medical issue regarding her leg and is flying back to Mendosa for an operation. So for the moment we are the Tres Amigos. One will rejoin tomorrow.
1 Mar – Punta Arenas, Chile
Despite the view that lasts nights accommodation may have been assembled by teenagers on dope it was in practice a pleasant visit with wonderful hosts. Breakfast was a grand affair with crapes and scrambled egg and in stark contrast to the usual fare of dried bread and tea.
We left early with a very fresh cold wind to accompany us. The chill went right through you in the same way it does on a winters day in the Maniatoto when on the way to the Brass Monkey. Only this was the end of Feb not the end of May. The road followed the shore of the Magellan Strait while out to the right in the far distance, low rolling hills with a great expanse of grassy plains in between. A couple of Guanaco grazing the roadside look up and make a bolt for the fence and with one graceful leap easily clear the top wire. Later on I see a fox approach from the right. It takes a quick look and trots nonchalantly across the road in front of me and just as it reaches the safety of cover on the other side takes a furtive look back at me before disappearing from view. We round a corner and startle a flock of geese by a water hole and in unison they leap into the air, powerful wings straining to motivate their fat bodies into action. By the time we get there they are above our heads and circling away. We wait for the parting shots of poop to rain down on us. It's our lucky day.
The ferry takes us the short distance across the strait to the mainland and for me the purpose of this ride is at an end. I wanted to ride to Tierra del Fuego and it is done. The rest of the day was largely an uninteresting ride to our overnight stop. Possibly the highlight was passing through an abandoned 1879 Estancia, San Gregorio complete with two rusting hulks washed up on the beach. One of the ships is an 1860's “Tea Clipper” – the Ambassador. A Google search shows it is one of only 4 of its type left in the world, one being the Cutty Sark.
28 Feb – Porvenir, Chile
Well, we are on our way back north. At the moment we are still on the island of Tierra del Fuego but will be off by tomorrow evening. The ride back over the mountains to Rio Grande was cold and wet but without incident except possibly our decision to go mean on the accommodation. We wanted to skip the high-priced hotel and use a hostel of more modest appointment. We got our wish and exchanged marble floors and sweet scented rooms for lino tiles and the smell of paint. This was a place in early transition from run down wreak to, er a place in transition. At least they had mastered the dismantle stage. Our group crossed back into Chile today and most took the main route to Punta Arenas, a road already ridden. Peter and I took the route that followed the coastline along an inlet of the straits of Magellan to this little town which while still on Tierra del Fuego is just a short ferry ride to Punta Arenas. I'm glad we did. The route was really quite beautiful despite it being very desolate. It was also cold and we had a stiff headwind. It is hard to believe anyone would seriously choose to live here but they do. There are a number of estancia's (farms) and every now and then a corrugated iron fishing shack with a precarious hold on the shifting stones of the beach. Hauled up next to the shack is a yellow open deck wooden boat of about 8 metres and out the back are crab pots and fishing associated litter from times past, all slowly rusting the years away. A scruffy dog comes from nowhere to investigate and finding us of little interest hurries back to the warmth of its shelter. This is no place even for a dog it seems. Tomorrow we continue our journey around the coast to catch the other boat off the island on account we missed todays one by 30 minutes and are now faced with a 300 km ride or a day and a half wait for the next boat. We were told the boat left at 2PM but it apparently went at 1PM. So for tonight we are holed up in the Chilean seaside town of Porvenir, a place of around 5,000 hardy soles. The town has nothing to recommend itself except possibly as a place to threaten the kids with the next time they drive you mad. The town is said to have been founded by ex Croats and certainly the owner of this place looks like a refugee from the Serbia/Croatia war. There is even a fading picture of a man in a suit hanging on the wall. I would like to think it to be his father but it bears an uncanny resemblance to a former Croat leader now resident in the Hague. This hostel too has seen better days. The ceilings sag and the floors creek eerily. You step directly from a gravel roadway into the guest entrance which at night is illuminated by a single bulb that flickers on and off as it rattles in its holder from the wind gusts. We are the only guests and have been made to feel very welcome. I do hope this mans name is Jankovich and not Bates for I fear we will wake up dead in our beds.