Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Pass of All Passes

By Mark

Leaving La Calera was difficult as it always is when you have made new friends, the comforts of a house all to ourselves is also hard to pull yourself away from. As our trip continues on we find ourselves daydreaming of day to day comforts, a warm dry bed to place one’s weary head is a luxury to us now with our ever dwindling bank account.

At least ahead of us was a warm, dry blue sky to see us heading north. This was to be our first part of heading up Ruta 5, otherwise known as the Pan American Highway. The longest highway in the world. Well, we changed our plans pretty quick after a long dull ride on a dual carriageway to the coastal town of La Serena. The challenge of finding a campground open or even existing was on the cards again and we rode though a few back roads that seemed to be heading over the wrong side of the railway tracks until we came to a campground. The next problem was that there was not a soul around, so we let ourselves in and around ten in the evening someone comes by with a flash light asking what we are doing. Luckily enough we were allowed to stay and slept easily.

Our journey was to head east again and back into Argentina and to pass over the highest mountain pass so far on this trip. The infamous Paso del Agua Negra at 5753 metres above sea level. First things first, we were to head through the Elqui Valley. It is the home of Pisco production in Chile. Well what a ride, it brought back so many memories of our travels back when we travelled through the Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan. The stark contrast of the immensely dry mountain range, blue skies that went on forever and the lush green of the never ending grapevines and Alamo trees were a great back drop to a biker’s dream of twisting and turning empty roads. The main differences to Pakistan however was that the roads were in great condition and no threat of terrorists!

Our destination was Pisco Elqui, the town was renamed from its original name to bring in the tourists as it is in the heart of the Pisco production. The small villages along the valley were quiet and sleepy, by far some of the most pleasing to the eye we have seen so far in Sth America. We liked it so much we decided to stay a few days and have a look around and of course sample some Pisco sour, well it went down a treat for me, enjoying it a little too much one evening after finding out that it was not too much to Sanne’s liking. I could not leave it for another night of course. The campground was a tranquil place to hangout, shady and green with a small river running through. It was a heavenly place to retreat to and have a drink after walking around in the hot midday sun.

After a restless night’s sleep we tore ourselves away from Pisco Elqui and headed for Argentina. I had a bad sleep worrying about how the bikes would fair reaching such heights as almost 5000m above sea level. Most carburettor bikes are known to struggle over 4000m and we still had only been to a height of about 3500m. From the start of the trip I always thought about bringing spare jets with me to help with the lower fuel intake to match the lower amount of oxygen in the air, but in the long run I decided against it as it is a time consuming job to get to the carby and if I had to change the jets on every pass I would have lost my mind with this tiresome job. So we went for it, the bikes have barely missed a beat with everything we have thrown at them on this trip and we had faith in our trusty steeds.

The extremely quiet road snaked its way through endless valleys until we finally reached the Chilean border crossing. This would be one of the fastest crossings yet. Only one other motorcyclist was in front of us and he was just about to leave as we pulled up. Once through customs, we left the asphalt behind with only a dirt road ahead of us. Straight away we started our ascent but it was to be a long one. We left the green valleys behind and rode into a luna-like landscape. Nothing grew up here and all that surrounded us were huge mountains rising up out of the earth, with so many colours splashed across the landscape it was hard to take it all in, so we stopped many times to admire this intriguing scenery. We pushed on and on, ever heading further into the mountains and making our way out of the valleys. The road was so quiet and I hoped we would have no bike problems as we have heard there are only about 200 vehicles per year that make this crossing, that could leave us stranded for some time.

We hit 3000m and my bike skipped a beat on a gear change, losing power and slow to get the power back on and straight away I had this rush of fear that there would be further problems ahead. Slowly but surely this was the only hiccup until we got close to 4000m, then this became a normal thing with each gear change, easily fixed by holding the throttle open through the gear changes. The bikes felt a little sluggish but on and on they went with gentle encouragement until we finally hit the pass. It was such a massive relief to make it. After of course the obligatory photos were taken we took off for the descent into Argentina which was much faster than the ascent. The colours and landscape were not as striking here but it was all and all a fantastic day’s ride. The best thing of all: we were now confident that the bikes could cope with the many high passes to come through Bolivia and Peru.

The next few days took us further into barren landscapes but without the high mountain ranges surrounding us but many unique rock formations and thankfully continuing quiet roads. The same could not be said for the municipal campground we came across in San Jose de Jachal which was on a Friday afternoon. At 2pm it was already like a disco tech and we had been warned it would continue on like this all through the night and probably until daylight the next day. Awesome! It wasn’t a hard decision to make to go and find somewhere else to stay the night, the hard part was to find the campgrounds in the dark. We did manage to find one and like the campground back in La Serena there was not a soul around so we set up in stealth mode anyway. Thinking we would take off early the following morning and not get caught was never going to happen, the caretaker turned up at 7am and was intrigued to know how we found the place in the dark. He told us it wasn’t a problem and never charged us for our stay.

We were headed for Salta and had no real route on how to get there and where we would stop along the way. This idea was not the best one to have. We found ourselves heading through some pretty ordinary towns in which we were intending on staying. Some of these places had the worst campgrounds we have seen and ones we felt that we would wake the following morning and seeing our beloved bikes gone. Not what we needed. This led us to have long days in the saddle and sleeping in the wild which is something we always love to do but not always prepared for. This sometimes also turns out to be problematic as we were now in deep cactus territory and those thawny little bastards of plants caught me out and I found myself with a puncture late one evening after having ridden down a track.

The following days passed without much excitement and Sanne and I have been finding ourselves looking forward to getting to Bolivia now. Yes, we have become spoilt on our trip and that if something is now not totally mind blowingly stunning we pass it off with little more than: “ah, seen better”! We catch ourselves and realise we should savour every moment of this trip, the good the bad and the ugly.

The Elqui Valley, Chile

The view from our camp

The village of Pisco Elqui

Pisco Sour

On our way up to the Aqua Negra Pass

The scenery was stunning

Made it!

At an altitude of 4753 above sea level, this is the highest we have ever been on this trip

The ride down was just as spectacular

Back in Argentina

More beautiful roads here

Getting back to my roots

Camping in Talampaya NP

 Where we ran into this "little" fella

 Bush camping somewhere after a long day´s ride

With a group of French Harley riders who we ran into at a petrol station in a tiny village

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Guardian Angels

By Sanne

We left San Rafael after 5 weeks at Finca Rita to move north to Uspallata. Uspallata is where the Brad Pitt movie ‘7 Years in Tibet’ was filmed, although neither Mark nor I have ever seen this movie. When we turned out onto Ruta 40 and the Andes mountains towered next to us we both got a smile on our faces; we were both so happy to be back on the road again.

We wanted to go to Uspallata via a back road that was on our map but somehow, somewhere we missed a turn and ended up back on Ruta 40 after a detour through some little villages. This was when my bike decided to start playing up. All of a sudden my gears wouldn’t change. Odd. In fact, after some experimenting it turned out that I could change gears but my gear lever wouldn’t return back to its centre position. The good news was that it was still rideable, the bad news was that we suspected it was the return spring in the gear lever shaft that had snapped and that this was something we couldn’t fix ourselves in that we would need a work shop to fix it and of course a new spring. Hmm…well it really hadn’t been in our plans to go to Mendoza but now it seemed we didn’t have much of a choice. However it was late afternoon and we decided to stay on the outskirts of the city in Luan de Cuyo in a camp ground where we were the sole campers (so nice the schools are back in!). 

The next morning we headed in to Mendoza which is a pretty big city and looked for the Suzuki workshop we had looked up online. Well, when we turned up at the supposed address it was not there. Ok, Plan B. We had looked up mechanics Mendoza on Horizons Unlimited and there was a recommendation of a mechanic who sounded good and we headed to his workshop instead which luckily was actually there. The guy had a look at the bike while we explained to him what the problem was and he said he could fix it but not until later that afternoon as it was now siesta time! No problem for us, we found ourselves a campground and returned that afternoon. According to the rules of Argentine time, the mechanic got there an hour late, which is relatively good for Argentine standards. After a lot of tinkering, two hours later my bike had a new spring and we were out of there. On the way back to the campground we stop at a petrol station to fuel up for the next day, only to find out that Mark’s bike won’t start. Literally 5 mins after we have left the workshop, what are the odds!? Turns out it is a blown fuse so we put a new fuse in, start the bike, fuse blows straight away. Ok…we try again with another fuse, same thing happens. It is now 8.30 at night, we have no more fuses and we are stuck at a petrol station. Mark asks the staff there if there is anywhere he can buy fuses. Enter Guardian Angel Numero Uno: a guy offers to take Mark to his shop to get some fuses. I watch the bikes as Mark goes off with the stranger in his car. He returns 5 mins later with a whole pack of fuses which the guy had given to him for free after opening his closed shop for just him. Turns out this guy was actually going to Australia in a couple of weeks so he was quite excited about helping out an Australian. This time the fuse worked and we rode back to the campground only slightly relieved as we suspected it could be a symptom of something more to come. 

The next day we decided to stay one more day to ride out into the countryside and see some wineries, which is what Mendoza is known for. I had great hopes to see Bono picking grapes here as supposedly he owns a vineyard in the area but much to my disappointment I didn’t. He was probably off somewhere saving the world (and honestly who am I to stop him from doing that?). We went to a nice winery where we had a tour and (the best part) tasted some wines. I had to stop myself from gargling the wine and spit it into a bucket as I so often have seen wine snobs do on TV. Instead I just swallowed and after tasting 5-6 different wines I gotta say, I had a little buzz on. To continue the buzz we continued on to a brewery, but setting off Mark’s bike decided to say stop again. Yep, another fuse blown. We went to the brewery where the same thing happened, this time while it was running. We changed the fuse and then hightailed it into Mendoza city again and straight to the mechanic. He figured out almost straight away that the fuse blew every time he turned the handlebars sharply to the right. So we looked at the wires on that side of the bike and discovered that the outer protective cable of the wire leading to the horn had been worn exposing the inner wires, so that each time the wires touched the fuse would blow. So he taped up the wires and voila problem fixed. He wouldn’t take any money from us so we bought him a couple of bottles of beer.

The next morning it was my birthday and after a breakfast of pancakes made by my lovely boyfriend, we headed out of town to find the Ruta 13 (the number should have been a warning) which was meant to be a nice alternative route via a dirt road to Uspallata. We had been told of this road by John and Alanna who we had met at the finca in San Rafael. They hadn’t taken this road themselves but had heard it was ‘amazing’. And it was. Amazingly bad. We had to ride around for about 30 mins in and around what can only be described as the slum of Mendoza, to locate this road. We found it in the end past the town rubbish dump where a tiny ‘Ruta 13’ sign pointed towards a little dirt road. We let down our tyres a bit and rode on. After 5 kms or so I turned to Mark and said; “Are you quite sure this is the right road?” By this point we had been riding in what turned out to be a dry riverbed. Didn’t seem like the kind of road that overlanders would rave about. The only other traffic was dirtbikers and a couple of 4WDs and looking towards the mountains I could only assume the road would get more challenging as we would head into the mountains. So I raise up my hand and admit that I pulled the plug. I was feeling the weight of my bike big time and Mark agreed to turn around and find another way to Uspallata. We rode through the city while I beat myself up about chickening out; we should have pushed on, kept going, where was my sense of adventure? In the end, the main road to Uspallata was stunningly beautiful so that made me feel a little better about having been such a girl earlier. When we got to Uspallata and I went into the tourist information to ask about camping, I asked about the Ruta 13 and where it came out as we hadn’t seen it meet up with the town. She handed me a map and straight away I realised – we had been on the wrong road altogether. This Ruta 13 was a pure 4WD track which the lady informed me was ‘Megamalisimo’ (if that’s even a word) which I assume means mega bad. She said it was simply not possible to do this road on bikes. Well, we did see a group of dirtbikers and quads turn up from that direction later on so that’s probably not entirely true but on a heavy loaded motorbike I think she was right, it would have been ‘mega malo’. The road we should have taken was a bit further north, but it hadn’t shown up on Google maps so we mistook the other road to be it. In the end we couldn’t have gone on it anyway as we were told the road was closed because of a landslide.

Thanks to Argentina’s affection for municipal campgrounds we had a cheap night’s sleep at $3 a head. My birthday dinner was a grease fest of fries, pizza and omelette – a selection of the only vegetarian options on the menu, but at least they had cold beer which we skulled down at Café Tibet, which is outfitted with leftover props from the ‘7 Years in Tibet’ movie. I had kind of hoped there would be a wax sculpture of Brad Pitt so at least I could say I had spent my birthday with him, but there was none of that interesting stuff there, not even photos. The props were as exciting as pillows and… lamps. Riveting.

The next day we headed toward the border with Chile which proved to be an absolutely stunning ride. The Andes range has changed dramatically from the south to the north of Argentina. Here it’s all red, barren rock and roads winding through dramatic valleys. It’s a great feeling to be riding through a landscape and be shaking your head just because it is so damn beautiful. The border post was our highest one yet at 3,800 metres (although much higher ones are yet to come) and I am happy to report that the bikes handled the thin air just fine, no problems. The border post was heaving with bikes, there must have been over 100 bikes there. It was a Sunday and this being the border between Mendoza and Santiago it is obviously very busy. It took us about an hour to clear the formalities and we descended the mountain to head towards the coast and the Pacific Ocean. Here we had a place to stay with an American woman, Lorraine, whose address we had used to get our parts shipped to Chile. She lives in a little timber shack right on the cliff looking out over the Pacific, although unfortunately the sky was one big fog the whole three days we were there. Lorraine is mad about dogs and has three of them, one being paralysed on its hind legs (an apparently quite common affliction for German Shepherds). We helped out dog walking this dog using a bicycle inner tube to half carry the dog so it can still go for walks which it seemed to enjoy. 

Unfortunately Lorraine could only host us for three days as she had deadlines for her books so we left her house to go to the coast to find a camp spot. As a stroke of luck that very morning we left, my new petrol tank which had been held in customs in Santiago for close to three weeks had finally been dispatched and sent to the post office in La Calera where we could pick it up from. We found no camping whatsoever on the coast, just flash holiday houses of the rich. So we headed inland to La Calera where we knew there was a national park that had camping, but when we got there a grumpy man at the gate who would barely raise his eyes above the newspaper he was reading, told us that the camping was closed because there was no water. Right then, we turned to go back into town, on the way there looking for bush camps of which there was zero. We ended up back in La Calera at a petrol station weighing up our options which to be honest were pretty slim as it was now late in the afternoon. Enter Guardian Angel Numero Dos: while standing at the petrol station discussing what to do a man comes walking up to us and starts asking about the bikes. After a bit of small talk I ask him if he knows of any camping in the area. He says he doesn’t, but that if we want we can stay in his house? He has two houses of which one stands empty and he would be glad to host us. Total stranger but immediately we have a good feeling about this guy. He says that he has to finish work (he’s a taxi driver) and that he will be back in a couple of hours and pick us up. Funny how things work out just as you have given up. After walking around town for a bit and eating some greasy as hell french fries (Mark, give up the habit for Christ sake!) we went back to the petrol station where Raul picked us up and took us to his second house, where he kindly said that if we didn’t think it was a nice place he could take us to a hotel. Well, of course it was nice and gratefully we accepted the keys from Raul and his invitation to come to his house for dinner the next night. We now had been given a whole house to ourselves by a stranger who had trusted us based on a chance few minute meeting at a petrol station, and we could stay there as long as we wanted to. What a lovely way to be reminded that there are some truly great people out there in the world who are looking for nothing in return, just happy to show kindness to strangers. If everyone could be like Raul, the world could truly be a great place to live. The next day we picked up the petrol tank and the other parts from the post office and paid money that we didn’t want to pay but had no choice. Then we went to the bank to change into some more dollars for Argentina, and we realised that not many gringos must come to La Calera. It was obvious that we don’t blend in very well judging by the curious (but friendly) stares of the locals. The security guard of the bank was extremely excited to get the chance to practice his English and I had a good ole chat with him and another local man helped us exchange money using his identity card as we needed one to get dollars.

That evening we got picked up by Raul in his taxi and taken to his family home to meet his wife Mariana and his two sons Felipe and Diego. My brain worked overtime trying to speak Spanish that evening as a. My Spanish is fairly shit and b. Chileans speak super fast and often an indecipherable dialect of Spanish. But we managed and they all kindly assured me that my Spanish was great. Liars.
We stayed in La Calera for 5 days and this time can be described fairly easy: lazy. We spent the time eating, sleeping, walking into town to go to the internet café, shopping and watching episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’ on our computer and catching up with Raul and his family. When after five days we decided it was time to leave or we would turn in to permanent couch potatoes, it was truly sad to say goodbye to Raul. He is one of those people where you feel you have an instant connection and trust. It’s rare, but not as rare as some people might think. There are a lot of Raul’s out there in the world, just doing their thing to make the world a little bit of a better place. So next time, when you see a stranger – reach out your hand and offer your help, your kindness will go a long way. 

The guys from Sallustro Racing who helped us out

Stuck again!

Wine tasting in Mendoza

On the Ruta 13 "road"

On the better road to Uspallata

Lots of beautiful scenery along the way

The view from our campsite in Uspallata

The beautiful road to the Chilean border

Dead bug on GoPro

Puente del Inca, this used to be an old spa and the sulfurous water has had this bizarre effect on the rock

Cerro Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres at 6,960 m

Lots of bikes at the border to Chile

On the descent

This is what it looks like when a short person walks a paralyzed dog...

And when a tall person does. Poor dog!

Lorraine's house on the coast in Chile

Mark chilaxing on the deck

My new bad-ass black petrol tank

With Raul and family

 Saying goodbye to Raul