Grant and Susan in Tierra del Fuego
Feliz Navidad de Ushuaia al fin del mundo! We made it to the southern end of the earth today, December 21 at 4:00, after several hundred kilometres of gravel (ripio) and dirt roads in varying condition, as well as some excellent pavement. We've traveled over 3,000 km from Buenos Aires, and only the last 200 km was at all scenic! Though we have met some interesting and friendly folk along the way.
It's only 580 km from Rio Gallegos to here, but we took 3 days to make this last portion of the trip. The first day we didn't leave until about 11:30 a.m., drove south to the Chilean border. The road is unpaved after about 10 km out of Rio Gallegos, and very windy, but not too scary although very tiring for Grant with the wind trying to push the bike over. We got through both borders, carnet stamped out of Argentina and into Chile, then the road was half paved on the Chilean side to the Punta Delgada ferry. Half paved means it's paved one lane (southbound), the other lane is gravel. Although we were traveling southbound, everyone drives on the pavement regardless of which direction they're actually going, and then the northbound vehicles (theoretically) get back in their own lane if there is oncoming traffic. Quite exciting at times, even if you do have the right of way!
No arguments over right of way with this guy!
We stayed overnight at a nice old-fashioned hotel near the ferry terminal, slept in and yesterday caught the 11:30 a.m. ferry the next day across the Straits of Magellan. The crossing is only 1/2 hour, and there are no amenities. You just stand outside on the boat deck with your vehicle and try to avoid the sea spray (impossible), and I preferred not to see the size of the waves, as the sea looked very rough from the shore. On the other hand, it was free for us and the bike.
Going south there were only 3 cars, one bus and us on it. But on the other side, there was a long lineup of cars and trucks waiting to get on, and this was only one smallish ferry, so some of them will be there for many hours. Getting off the ferry, the road was gravel for 150 km, and for the first 50 km we kept having to stop so Grant could re-tighten the plastic screws on the windshield, which kept vibrating loose because of the road pounding. We did see guanacos in a couple of places along the road, though not close enough to get any really good pics. So, that and another border crossing back into Argentina took most of the day, then we had about 100 km of pavement into Rio Grande where we stayed the night.
Rio Grande is a support center for the oil industry, as are many of the towns in Patagonia. Unfortunately we were there on Saturday night, which is the night all the men get paid and come into town to party. We had parked the bike in front of our hotel and gone upstairs to shower and change. A knock on the door. "You have to move the motorcycle." "Why?" "It will get stolen if you leave it on the street." Or damaged, or whatever. Someone will just take a crowbar to the boxes and steal the contents. Great, just what we needed to hear. The guy on the desk initially suggested we bring it into the lobby. Grant looked at the stairs and said "No way." So he led us around to a yard at the back with a gate and a lock and wherein lived a giant German shepherd chained (temporarily) to a post. "Nice doggie" I said in Spanish, and he wagged his tail.
Grant put the bike inside the yard, and when we went back later that evening the dog was roaming loose and looked like a most suitable deterrent to theft. We noted in the morning that he had peed on the front wheel to signify his stewardship, but otherwise did it no harm. The hotel was very noisy and hard too sleep with all the rowdies on the streets. Rio Grande is not a town you would spend time in by choice. We have to come back through there so we'll try to find another hotel in a quieter street this time.
Today we drove about 220 km, of which only 100 km was gravel, but some really bad stretches. They have been 'working' on the road for years, though in some areas 'working' is better spelt r-u-i-n-i-n-g. They don't maintain it at all because theoretically it's planned to be paved, then they don't get around to paving it, so it's worse than a well maintained gravel road. In many spots it's muddy and badly rutted, and only one lane.
The road for the last 150 km is very reminiscent of BC mountain roads, steep unguarded drop-offs straight down to azure blue lakes on one side and sheer cliffs up to snow and cloud capped peaks on the other. We did see guard rails in places, unfortunately they were invariably broken off and some of the remains of vehicles could be seen below. I guess they decided to stop replacing the guard rails because people keep going through them and making a mess of them.
For the fact-minded, (courtesy of our trusty GPS), we are at 54 deg. 48.420' South, and 68 deg. 18.778' West. Sunset is at 10:10 PM tonight, and sunrise at 4:51 AM. Not quite the Antarctic circle, at 66 degrees South, but as close as you can drive anywhere. It's a long way from Nordkapp at 71º10 North, and 20º00 East, in Norway - we were there July 18, '96, so it has taken us 1 year, 5 months and 3 days to get from the northernmost point you can drive to the southernmost point you can drive. Our speedo reads 72,396 km, and Nordkapp was 38,207 km, so total distance travelled is 34,189 km. It's 6,076 km in a straight line North to the equator, our next destination.
Ushuaia is a good sized town, feels a little like a ski town, with steep streets, lots of A-frame cottages, and steep snow-covered mountains on one side and windblown ocean on the other.
So you don't feel too bad about your winter, the temperature here -it is summer - is about 10 degrees, and the wind really howls (sailors call these latitudes the Howling 50s for a reason!) The locals say in mid-summer it may get to a really hot 17 degrees or so, but the wind is the same whatever the season. Another place that's better to visit than to live in.
We're enjoying a hot cup of tea (and hot chocolate for Grant) in our snug apartment here. It's probably not much warmer here than in Victoria where it's winter. Well, maybe not even warmer. With the wind chill factor yesterday, we were told it was -8 Celsius. And wet, let's not forget wet.
Nonetheless, yesterday we rounded up all the motorcyclists we could find in the various campsites and six of us (five bikes) drove to the official end of the road, Ruta Nacional 3. It is inside the national park and quite a scenic drive, with a couple of large signs at the end proclaiming the end of the road, including the distance to Alaska of 17,000+ km.
The end of the road, Ruta Nacional Tres, as far south in the world as it is possible to ride, Tierra del Fuego, Chile. From the left, Roland, Martin, Max, Susan, Grant and Greg.
A very motley crew, indeed. Greg Frazier, a Crow Indian from Montana, and self described motorcycle adventurer (that's what his business card says, honest), had driven from Montana, but this is the start of a second round the world trip for him; Martin, a classic tidy German who has driven only from Buenos Aires, but plans to circle South America; Roland, a BIG friendly German guy who looks like an adult riding a kids bike, (and his bike is the same size as ours); and finally Max, an Italian whose helmet and motorcycle clothes match his bike's color - sunny yellow, to suit his personality, and who looks like a kid riding an adult bike, as he is about Susan's size on the biggest bike of the group. Most of the bunch speaks English, but Max communicates effectively in a Spanish / Italian / English / French hodgepodge.
Although it was raining when we set out, the locals assured us that if we waited for good weather to make the run, we would wait a long time. As it turned out, at the end of the 25 km or so, we actually had some sunshine for pictures. This was a major production. Everyone's bike had to be photographed by everybody individually in front of the sign, and then group pictures with everybody's camera(s). We even enlisted a couple of other tourists to take pictures so we could all be in them.
On our way back, we stopped at a campsite in the park, where we had been told there were more motorcyclists. After a short run through a muddy field we found them, 4 Germans and 2 Icelanders on various bikes. Two of the women were on their own bikes. Birgit, a tall Icelandic woman on a bike the same size (R80 G/S) as ours (but much less luggage, she's only got her own gear, and shares tents etc. with her boyfriend Jo), and Astrid, (also sharing loads and gear with her boyfriend, Daniel) smaller than Susan, had ridden her (smaller - Suzuki DR350) bike all the way from Alaska. We lined all the bikes (9) up in front of the river for new pictures, but didn't stay long to visit as it was cold and wet.
Christmas Eve - in the evening the campground where Greg and the others were staying had an all you can eat Argentinean style meat feed for $8, so the motorcyclists and the backpackers mingled happily (all the motorcycle guys tried to pick up the British girls - with varying degrees of success we heard!). We met another Canadian there, Werner (originally from Germany), a 60 year old recently retired professor from the Ottawa area who had driven down on a motorcycle from Canada via Brazil and the Amazon, and was on his way back up to be there in time for his wife's birthday in April. (She evidently wasn't captivated by the idea of a motorcycle trip through South America). We also met Guy and Marlene, a Belgian couple at another campground who have been traveling for 3 1/2 years through Asia (including Pakistan and Iran), Australia and now South America, the last two of those years on a motorcycle, and will see them again tomorrow at a party at their campground. So, we aren't short of parties to go to and people to meet and talk to.
It's interesting to talk to the people who have come down through South America by various routes, and get first-hand experiences of the roads and the people, and the borders, etc. Certainly helps in the planning process. For example, all of the people who have been through Colombia had no problems, Greg picking it as his favorite country and plans to go back. General impression of all the routes was that there are no insurmountable obstacles, though some of the roads are not great. But certainly not like Africa, where civil wars and coups mean that entire countries are closed.
The Big News is: On the 30th December we're going to ANTARCTICA. That's our Christmas present to ourselves (and birthday presents for the next few years). We're not taking the bike, that's a huge production and very expensive, so we'll leave it here at the hotel. Antarctica has already been done by motorcycle at least twice, one of them all the way to the south pole according to Greg, otherwise the crazy in me might think about it! The cruise is 8 days aboard a refurbished Russian research vessel - 2 days each way and 4 days in Antarctica. The Russians no longer subsidize their research vessels, so they have to pay their own way, and taking passengers helps to defray their expenses. Although it was expensive, it's less than half the price you pay if you book in North America, and that isn't even considering the air fare to get to Ushuaia. Basically it's a last minute booking since they don't want to travel with any empty spaces.
We'll be back in Ushuaia on the 7th of January, then heading to Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, where we'll take a 4 day boat up to Puerto Montt (with the bike). This saves going 1000 km back up Argentina, where the roads are either boring or bad, then turning left to go to Chile.
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