Beside a lake,
Opposite a glacier,
S. W. Argentina
Hello, It’s me again, Happy New Year
It's just over six weeks since I wrote from Puerto Mont in Chile, so I thought I'd drop you a line. I think I said it was 1,000 miles after the ferry to Ushuaia at the bottom of Tierra del Fuego. The road isn't quite that straight - I did over 2,000 before I got there. They have some strange borders down here, to get to the southern part of Chile by land, you have to go through Argentina. Similarly, if you want to go to southern Argentina by land, you have to go through Chile. Fortunately they don't give much aggro, although the two countries are permanently in dispute over some border or other, so they do nothing to help each other. For instance, there are no rail links at all between the two, even though they have a common border thousands of miles long.
I had to take a boat from Puerto Mont, (as I said in the last letter) because the ferries on the Carretera Austral (southern highway) hadn't started up for the summer. Twenty-six hours later I was about 300 miles further south in beautiful mountains & sunshine. They say it rains in Aysen, where I got off, 370 days a year, but it was nice that day. You could see rain in the hills though, so I don't know whether that counts or not. The Carretera Austral is new, gravel, 600 or so miles long, and goes through fabulous scenery, so that's the way I'll be heading back North. I've given up the idea of getting to Australia just yet, as there is too much of South America I haven't seen, and it's an expensive continent to get back to once I've left. Anyway it's summer. A few more months around Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil seem to be called for.
Somebody told me there were some English people from Operation Raleigh in Coihaique, so I went and found them out of curiosity. It's their Chilean headquarters, and they have had a base there for five or six years, from where they control the various (and numerous) projects up in the mountains. It was nice to be surrounded by English voices for a while, watch videos, swap books, with their library, read English magazines etc. etc. After a few days though I wanted to be off again.
The road I picked from there to Argentina, turned out to be impassable, but only after following road signs showing distances and everything for almost 80 miles. Then there was a fence across the road, a river, and large bog with no way across. When I turned back there was a road sign saying how far it was back to Coihaique. There was no need to go all the way back. I branched off, went 70 miles further south, caught a ferry across a lake and got to another road, then I hit the volcanic dust! There was a large eruption last September, and the Westerly winds carry the dust constantly, right across to the Atlantic. At times it was like riding in smoke, except it gets into everything and stays there. That night in Puerto Moreno I camped in a nice sheltered spot where there were two purpose built Guzzi outfits from Switzerland and Germany also on their way to Tierra del Fuego and some cyclists from the States. An English backpacker and his Israeli girlfriend also turned up and so we all stayed a bit longer and had a piss-up, like you do. The next day all the zips on my tent broke because of the ash and dust. I'm now an expert at repairing zips, so if all else fails and I can't get a job in a circus, I'll be a zip repairman.
I then drifted south, touching both coasts occasionally to either get away from the cold and wet, or get out of the heat. Strange place. The East is flat - very flat. The West is snow-capped peaks, glaciers, waterfalls - fabulous. The bottom end of America is marketed quite heavily in Europe, and there are a lot of package tours from France, Germany, Italy etc., especially to see the Torres del Paine National Park, which I'd never heard of, and also the Puerto Moreno glacier where I am now. Even some of the notices are in 3 or 4 languages. On the 150 mile stretch from Puerto Natales to Puerto Arenas I wore my thermal balaclava for the first time, the wind was so cold. I’ve been carrying it for two years and haven't needed it before.
That's a good road. One of the very few surfaced bits but there is so little traffic they've only surfaced one lane. The other one is gravel, and if you meet something coming the other way, whoever has the gravel on their side pulls over. If it's a truck and you've got the concrete side, don’t forget to duck because the closing speed is a lot higher than when you're both on gravel, and the stones seem to be travelling a hell of a lot faster. Once out of the mountains, long stretches of road are earth, with no gravel. I hit them in the dry, and they were so smooth, and swept over and round small hills, that doing 70-80mph was no problem. It was so much fun after doing so many straight sections, weaving and snaking, and pulling wheelies over the little bridges which usually have a ramp at either end. It was very easy to imagine that you were in a long distance cross-country race, touring and camping class of course. I've since spoken to people who hit similar roads in the wet, and they said they were some of the worse conditions they had encountered. Lucky me, eh?
So I eventually got to Ushuaia a few days before Christmas carrying a battle of Glenfiddich, which I bought in the tax-free shop at Puerto Arenas. I had a bet with myself whether it would last until Christmas or not, and I would have won but I met Ingo - a German on a Bee-Emm who had the right sense of humour. Ingo has a "Paris" Bee-Emm, when I asked what happened to the "Dakar", he said he hadn't been there yet seems logical. The whole bottle went that night. Apart from the Guzzi outfits, not one of the people I'd met earlier on their way to spend Christmas at Ushuaia turned up. But we had my Tenere, the two Guzzi's, one GS80, one GS100, one GS100 Paris Dakar (all from Switzerland or Germany) and a Transalp from Austria. Plus a German couple in a truck who'd come from Alaska and an assortment of backpackers. Of all the bikes I was the only one who'd come from North America. All the others started in Brazil or Argentina. They all celebrate Christmas on the 24th and I was a bit outnumbered, so I had an early one. Ingo and I had managed to get another bottle of Glenfiddich though, so our Christmas carried on 'till the proper time. Then everybody left, including me, but the next day I decided it was so nice camping in the forest, by the lake, in the mountains etc. etc., that I went back and camped for another week. There was nowhere else I could think of that I would rather be, so it seemed daft to leave. We had a Christmas "bush", decorated with empty beer cans (and of course empty Glenfiddich bottles) with a home made fairy on top. After one day the fairy had been nicked. While we were waiting for Christmas- it was the longest day- daylight until half eleven at night, I was trying to explain to South Africans and Israelis as well as the Europeans, what the solstice is, and how it should be celebrated. They wanted me to show them but nobody could come up with a virgin.
The German's in the truck and I, plus one or two others, had a fairly quiet New Year, but still managed to celebrate three times for different time zones in different countries. Then I packed up, and decided to leave and get over the pass (earth road) while it was still dry, warm and sunny. Once I got into the swing I couldn't stop, you know how it is. I got onto good gravel roads, weaving and snaking again, pulling wheelies over the bridges (you've heard it all before), and the next day I was 550 miles away, (and I didn't leave until 3pm). There was one hold up with a puncture which I didn't feel for I don't know how long, because of weaving about on the gravel and I use low tyre pressures for that anyway. By the time I'd realised the back was almost flat, the tyre was too hot to touch. When I took it off, all the layers inside had separated and a few lumps of rubber fell out. This is a tyre I bought in Caracas, Venezuela for a ridiculously high price, and carried almost the length of South America. It had only done 3000 miles on the wheel, but twice that strapped to the back. So I'm somewhat sentimentally attached to this tyre and don't feel too inclined to throw it away just because it's knackered. Anyway there is nowhere to buy one for at least 1000 miles. I've got hold of some old inner tube, which I'll glue inside the tyre to stop it chafing the tube and I'll stop using low pressures. It'll be alright. It still looks legal, even under the ridiculous new tyre law you've got over there, not that that matters a stuff in Patagonia.
This is the first place I've had trouble with bus drivers. Even places like Turkey where they are notorious were O.K. Here they point it, go and don't slow down unless it's something bigger than them which obviously isn't stopping. Unfortunately the vast majority of Patagonian busses are bigger than me, they're not all bad. Quite a lot flash their lights and wave, as do all the truck drivers. When I camped beside the track on Tierra del Fuego one evening, every single truck that passed, the driver pipped his horn and waved. I met a Frenchman recently who thought he knew me but I was sure we hadn't met (actually I've now met him 6 times in different places.). Turned out he bought a newspaper in El Salvador and it was the edition with the article about me and the Swiss fellow. I thought they hadn't printed it, but they obviously did.
So anyway, I'm now camping opposite the Moreno Glacier which, has sheer cliffs 150ft high and calves enormous icebergs into the lake, sending big waves right down it. It is the only glacier in the world (I think) which crosses a lake (in the winter) cutting it in two. The water level on one side rises much higher than on the other, and during the spring thaw there is suddenly the most spectacular break-through when it finally gives way. You think that sitting in a mountain stream, starkers, having a wash in the Alps during July is cold? Try it surrounded by icebergs.
Next I'm heading 300 miles further north to the Southern end of the Carretera Austral, then 600 miles back to Puerto Mont. All gravel or earth, there is no tarmac between here and there. I recently heard of some enterprising chap selling trail-riding holidays. He flies people over to Chile, sits them on a Honda trial-bike, gives them a tent and points them down the Austral. Simple eh?
Time to go. I've earned a free beer or two for fixing, or rather modifying a Swiss Bee-Em to solve a little problem he was having. It's getting hotter already, isn't summer wonderful?
All the best, Ta ta. Steve
P.S. It's a different mentality in Argentina. In the National Park by the glacier they have signs with little pictures on, indicating that it's O.K. to photograph the birds, but don't shoot them with catapults.