I'm getting more and more lazy when it comes to writing letters and sending cards. Hardly anybody gets any nowadays. It's seven and a half weeks since I wrote from the Moreno glacier, and I'm about one and a half thousand miles further North in a straight line, or about three thousand as a Tenere flies. The same people kept turning up at various places, as there are only really two routes North until Puerto Montt, which is about halfway between Santiago and Tierra del Fuego. Two German cyclists think I'm completely mad. I passed them on Tierra del Fuego (but didn't know it was them) when I was feeling particularly inspired one day, on a stretch of good gravel in a long gradual sideways drift at about 70mph or so. A month later near the Moreno glacier, I was doing about 75mph to smooth out the corrugations (anything between 20 and 60 is murder - below and above is quite smooth) when I saw two cyclists having a rest so I waved. Then I saw a raised cattle grid right in front of where they were sitting. I grabbed hold again, stood up, hit it and passed them in the air. When I met them later they said they thought it was done deliberately for their benefit. When will the Germans learn that the rest of the world does not do everything for their benefit? Next day I hit a sneaky rock at about 70 odd and the water bottle burst out of it's strap and shot up in the air; and my spare front tyre leapt off the back of the bike and overtook me. It didn't feel that hard a bump, but there was a nice flat on the front rim. I attacked it with a piece of wood, and later with a sledgehammer, but couldn't get all of it out. Strong rims.
The road North is Route 40 - quite legendary with travellers, especially cyclists. There is literally nothing but scenery for hundreds of miles. Petrol is available every 100 to 150 miles, quite often on a hand pump. Patagonia is WINDY. I don't envy the cyclists. Sometimes they come round a bend, standing on the pedals in a very low gear and just stop dead. There is no traffic to hitch a lift with so they just have to stick it. When the wind was behind me one day I got over 75 mpg and it was difficult to stop on the gravel without sliding forward, there was that much force pushing from behind. The scenery was similar to the Peak District in parts, or like coming over Cam Fell on the old track, except everything is on a much larger scale, and Cam Fell is hundreds of miles long. Part of the area is like trials riding from Lands End to John 0'Groats and back again on a different route without seeing a single rambler, and only passing through two towns and a few villages on the way. At one point I tried to cut across to Chile (Route 40 is in Argentina), to Cochrane at the bottom end of the Carrera Austral. After 77 miles of slow going over a nice pass, I had crossed the border and was in Chile, 50 miles from Cochrane when I came to a river I just didn't fancy trying. If there was no choice, like in Peru, I would have carried the luggage through, and then tried with the bike unladen, but this one wasn't essential, and I just didn't like the look of it. At the border post they had said I could get a lift with a truck, but when I asked if there was much traffic they admitted I was the first vehicle for two days. The next day I was in Cochrane (320 miles round the other route), the scenery was incredible though so I didn't mind. I would have missed it if I had got through the other way.
Cochrane and the Southern end of the Austral were more or less cut off until a few years ago when they built the road. It's like a working museum, except that it's real, horses are still the main form of transport for the local people, and every house has one or two out the back. All the shops and bars have horses tied outside. There are villages like you see in old books, with geese wandering around the streets, people going shopping in a pony and trap, and women washing clothes in wooden tubs. Lots of steam engines power the many sawmills. It is just starting to change. I asked about the heavy equipment, a lot of which was cast in foundries in Britain or Europe, and they said everything came by ship to Pysen, the nearest port 250 miles North, then came by horse in pieces to Cochrane. My back tyre, which I had lined with an old tube following the damage further south, was getting worse. The sidewall had collapsed at one point, and it was like riding after you'd mended a puncture, but the bit at the bottom stayed flat. I spent a day cutting a truck rim tape (which is quarter inch thick in the centre and tapers towards the outer edges band has steel reinforcing) and lining the whole of the inside of the tyre with it, to spread the load around the holes, which were big enough to stick fingers through. These were caused by cuts from the sharp gravel on Route 40 - the tread was still almost like new. I was still a long way from the nearest tyre shop.
Then I headed up the Austral 200 miles to Coyhaigue where I stopped with Operation Raleigh in November, taking my time (I took 2 days what with the wonderful scenery etc.) I met three cyclists from Britain. Two English had teamed up with a Scot who was travelling alone. It was good to swap a few jokes that I actually understood (the Spanish seems to have stopped at a certain level on the assumption that when I leave South America, I'll probably never need it again (Can't really see me going to Torremolinos or whatever it's called.), and to drink beer with people who don't give you a strange look if you go past two pints. It's all a bit "straight" in Southern Chile. I was trying to explain the Isle of Man to somebody, and they thought sliding round Gooseneck on the outfit on Mad Sunday, with an inflatable woman called Sandy in the chair seemed a strange thing to do. It's all relative I suppose. Seemed perfectly normal when I (I mean we, sorry Sandy) were doing it.
When I got to Coyhaigue I called at Operation Raleigh, but they had 100 venturers just arrived so I went and found a cheap family hotel (sort of B and B) and lo and behold who should be there but the Swiss-French couple on the Paris-Dakar BMW who I met at Ushuaia and again at various other places. They had been there 5 days trying to get a 17" back tyre with no success, having arrived on the back of a truck because of the tyre. The local bike shop had promised to get one flown down from Temuco for 50,000 pesos (approx £85), but then said his contact in Temuco couldn't find one. I had the address of Pablo - the feller in Santiago who runs the Trail-riding trips - and he sounded like one of us, so I rang him and asked for a lot of help. He put a 17", an 18" and two tubes on the plane for a total of 35,000 pesos (£60). When I asked how to pay he said to wait 'till they arrived to make sure they were correct, and then pay the money into his father's bank account. He wasn't even sure if there was a branch in Coyhaigue- if not, pay it when we get to Puerto Montt. What a fine chap. I've never even met him, well not then but I have now.
So we all had a jolly good time in Coyhaigue. The two English cyclists and the Austrian on the Transalp ended up in the same house and stayed for a week. Ingo also turned up. He's the German on the BMW who drank the Glenfiddich at Christmas. Me and him eventually went the next 400 miles up the Austral together, having a really silly time. One day we managed a total of 90 miles, without breakdowns or any other hold-ups. Serious long distance travelling this. Just didn't see any need to hurry. There is a place called Chaiten halfway between Coyhaigue and Puerto Montt, where we were camping, when we met a cyclist who had come on the ferry from Chiloe (look it up on the map). He was telling tales of a strange Moto-cross sidecar outfit, which could only be Peter and Ruth, who I travelled in Central America with for a while, and then through the Amazon. He said (the cyclist) that they were coming on the same ferry in a day or two, and so we went and met it, and sure enough - more hangovers. By this time Ingo's English was getting quite good, coming out with phrases like "If you're going to act like a twat, wear a silly hat". It's a sort of cultural exchange really.
I'd finally got sick of cooking on wood fires, the camping gas being next to useless and not available everywhere, when Stefan (the Austrian mentioned back in Coyhaigue) said that his girlfriend was flying out to Chile in February for three weeks holiday, and did we want anything from Europe? So it was back up to Op. Raleigh, borrow the Field and Trek catalogue, and spend a fortune ordering two Optimus petrol stoves to be sent to Austria. The Austrians charged import duty on them, which wiped out the tax-free discount for export, but she brought them, along with a 17" tyre for him. Fine girl. So now I'm back on hot food again.
Only one of the stoves was for me, the other was for Gerrard and Marie-Jo on the Paris-Dakar. We all arranged to meet up in Puerto Mont on February 6th when she arrived (Stefan's girlfriend), and there were ten of us. Yet more hangovers. A week of that was enough, so we all split up, probably never to see each other again, as there are more routes to choose from further North. You never know though. I was recently staying in a house in Valparaiso with a couple I met, watching videos of their holiday on a 750 Suzuki, in which they ‘interviewed’ me when they met me. I hate video cameras. They were beside the road somewhere, filming nothing, like people do, when Mike went past on his Bee-Em (another Swiss from Ushuaia, Puerto Mont etc).
Motorcycles are an expensive hobby in Chile and Argentina, so you are very acceptable everywhere you go if you're on a bike. Being foreign helps as well - people stop you in traffic and invite you to stay with them. I've been going North backwards and forwards across the Andes, alternating between camping and staying with people I'd met further South, who had insisted that I stay with then when I was passing. The Andes gradually get higher from South to North, so every pass is higher and more spectacular than the last. Only one is surfaced, the Pan-American between Santiago and Buenos Aires, and I did that recently. Fabulous! It's like a good Alpine pass, but with hardly any traffic and this at the height of the holiday season. Earlier I crossed from Osorno in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, with a Chilean on a Transalp with whom I had been staying, he then crossed back, while I headed North. I found myself back on gravel on Route 40 and started wondering where this road actually went, as it's hundreds of miles since I left it last. When I traced it on a map it turned out to be quite a road. From Rio Gallegos near Tierra del Fuego (opposite the Falklands), almost 3,500 miles to the Bolivian border. Most of it is gravel, but some sections are paved.
I found myself back in the middle of nowhere in semi-desert, parallel to the busy North/South route in Chile only 100 or so miles East across the Andes, and nothing but scenery again. It really is fabulous to somebody who doesn’t like crowded places. This time I had to be careful about petrol, even with a 300 mile range. I thought I'd left all that behind, further south. When I was in North-West Arizona, I stumbled across a section of the original Route 66 and wondered what it must have been like in the old days going to California in a Model-T, with no back up if you broke down etc. I think I know now. The scenery here was the same, very hot, dry and sunny, and if you are not carrying enough food and water-tough. Nothing but a small town and a couple of abandoned adobe villages for hundreds of miles. The thought of breaking down in these places doesn't bother me in the slightest nowadays. Anybody else travelling the same road is in the same boat, and consequently very friendly. Somebody always comes along eventually, it's just time consuming rather than life threatening.
So I'm drifting along thinking these things, when it struck me that the bike really wasn't pulling very well. It's all in the mind you know. It really did feel quite sick, then I realised that I had no idea what altitude I was at. I hadn't seen the sea for a few hundred miles, and I think the Andes had been sneaking up on me while I wasn't paying attention. The next pass back into Chile, and a washed air filter seemed to cure it. When I thought about it, I'd been the equivalent in the Northern hemisphere of Morocco in August, except that I was looking at snow. When I hit the main road in Chile again, I rang Pablo (the tyre man) to check that it was convenient, then nipped up the 150 odd miles to his place at 80 ish to clear all the muck out of everything. It's going OK again now. It turned out that Pablo is no 3 in Enduros in Chile and was sponsored by Honda last season. He has the choice of Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki for this season. His young brother is Junior Enduro champion, and Dad races a 350 Suzuki for him - he's too old to be competitive. I spent a few hard days sitting round their pool, feeling guilty watching the gardener on his hands and knees pulling weeds out of the lawn, having just eaten meals prepared by the cook. It's hard in these backward South American countries. Needless to say I had my own bedroom and bathroom (the money doesn't come from racing, Dad has a business). It was nice amid all this luxury to see Dad showing youngest son how to burn carbon off 2-stoke exhaust baffles on the kitchen cooker. Pablo ran me round Santiago in the Chevy twin-cam pick-up, getting bits and pieces. Beautiful city, a bit like Paris but with better weather. We bumped into Kike again, so had a night out with him. I went to the U.S. Embassy to see if I could get a visa (just in case, you know) which really depressed Pablo, I got one for an indefinite stay in two hours. When he tried to get one once, it was very difficult, took a long time and was for one month maximum. It was so much aggro he hasn't tried again since.
I can't just wander aimlessly, I have to be going somewhere, although it doesn't matter how long I take, or which way I go, so I’ve sort of decided to go back to Alaska. I'll miss out Central America, and fly from either Buenos Aires or Santiago, or maybe Queoto in Ecuador, to Mexico City in April. Then I'll go up through different parts of the States to last time, in warmer weather, and get to Alaska in summer. The end of August was really too late last time. I'll visit a few friends I made last time and take in the Rally at Sturgis to see if it's really as bad as the videos make out. Has that been on English T.V.? Amazingly bad, typically American T.V. production. Then I'll go to Australia, honest. My Australian visa is 3 years old this month and I still haven't used it. Mind you the plan is "there is no plan" so who knows.
After Pablo's I went to Valparaiso to stay with the Suzuki couple I mentioned earlier. He has a special music room with videos and everything ever produced by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Cream, John Mayall and a few others. I was in my element and watched vintage Zeppelin concerts, The Vail concert from Berlin, and went to sleep to Easy Rider. They live in a flat, and the music room has to double as the guest bedroom. Luxury. When I met these people in Osorno, they were on holiday with two Argentineans from Mendoza on a Gold Wing. Mendoza was therefore put on my route, and I was heading there (here) next. When crossing the Andes I met one bike in 200 miles and it was the Gold Wing. He was on holiday with his family on the coast of Chile, having finished the bike holiday with his mate. He said his mate was leaving the next day for a short while, so he wrote me a note to hand to his mate, telling him to give me the keys to his house, and show me where it is. So at the moment I'm living in a house on my own, listening to C.D.'s (English of course), while the family who normally live here are 250 miles away, and won't be back for ten days. Very hospitable lot the Argies. Actually I'm not alone, there's an Alsatian, but nobody seems to be coming to feed it. I bought it some food today and it seemed very grateful. Strange one that. Last night I was shown the town by the other feller who left town today, and today I got invited to various places by people on bikes. Mendoza is about the nicest, cleanest town centre I have ever come across. There are hundreds of motorbikes and far more bike parking areas than car parks. The most gorgeous women ride bikes, wearing less than you could ever imagine. It's very hot, but a pleasant dry heat. People go out late when it's a bit cooler, and I've had invitations to meet people at various cafes (out in the street surrounded by trees and parked bikes) at midnight, or even later.
Last night I was supping beer in a street cafe, near a big screen showing rock videos laid on by the Local Authority - in the middle of the road. Of all the bikes parked here I haven't seen a lock or chain on any of them. Very different to Brazil where I met somebody who had had a gun stuck to his head, and been told to get off his new superbike while stopped at traffic lights - twice! He lived in Sao Paulo and told me to be very careful if I went there. I don't really think they would want mine.
At the moment I'm just killing time until the weather cools down a bit, it's 95F in Buenos Aires and approaching 100% humidity. I also want to go north via the Atacama desert, and then cross back to Argentina. It's the wet season in those mountains at the moment and liable to be snowing (at 15,000ft plus). I fancied going back to Bolivia and then Argentina, but the Argentineans have closed the border as a Cholera precaution. I've got a choice of places to stay in B.A., but I know where I'm going. A friend I met while he was on a trail riding holiday on a Transalp, who's holiday home in Bariloche I visited, lives with his mother and the maid. He has invited me on a sailing trip from B.A. up the coast of Uruguay, on a 40 odd footer with a group of his friends. He plans to leave in March. Now if there's one thing I like apart from riding bikes... Life really is a bit of a bastard at the moment.
Enjoy the winter. - All the best