March 31, 2003 GMT
To the Bottom of the Americas

Five months, 16500 miles, three seasons, twelve countries and four sets of tires after leaving home, I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, the "end of the world". It is as far south as you can get by road and is within spitting distance of Cape Horn. It seems quite strange to have made it after all this time dreaming of riding here and all of the preparations. Now the primary "goal" of Ushuaia has been reached, but really my goal is to get to know each of the countries I pass through, and so that is a work in progress.


Here's proof that James and I made it. We just HAD to bag the VERY end, 25 km beyond Ushuaia.

Let me back up a little bit. After returning to Mendoza to continue the ride south, we still had some time in town, dealing with bike issues I had and simply enjoying the good life. The ride from Mendoza south was really a mad dash for Ushuaia. It was already late February and it was going to get snowy on us if we didn't keep moving south. But the ride wasn't completely without interest. The bumpy northern section of route 40 skirts the Rio Grande before entering Neuquen province (and the offical start of Patagonia) where it abruptly turns into a perfect asphalt road after crossing one last, rickety old bridge. The land really resembles parts of the American west, with its semi-arid, shrubby desert mountains rising out of endless plains, the shallow, braided willow-lined rivers and the occasional cowboy-like gaucho type breaking the monotony of the infinite steppe. It continued like this until we cut across the country and followed the Rio Negro to the Atlantic coast. This stretch was interrupted by a carburetor problem, quickly fixed in Zapala. Then, coincidentally James and I ran into Koji again, the Japanese traveller who shipped his bike with us in Panama. It was at a hotel in the tiny town of Choele Choel, about as nondescript a place as you can imagine. What a coincidence! We caught up on travel stories over fat juicy steaks and Quilmes beer.


In Argentina's wine country


Making up for time and calories lost on the mountain. This bottomless-grill meal and a personal winery tour cost only US$10!!! I love this place. James and I ate till we almost popped and stumbled out of there after consuming a couple bottles of the unlimited wine each.

The penguins along the Atlantic coast of Patagonia coast were a source of non-stop entertainment. They seem impossible on land and wobble around, wings outstretched, tripping over rocks and sticks. They do not know any predators on land, and so are virtually unafraid of people. In fact, they are downright curious, and will approach you if you sit down with your camera. They kept eyeing me intently, first checking me out with one eye, then quickly jerking their head around to have a look with the other. Sometimes after this inspection of the intruder, they would throw their head back and let out a loud braying noise, which has given them the nickname "jackass penguins". It was great fun to stop at some of the penguin rookeries, such as on Peninsula Valdes, Punta Tomba, and Cabo dos Bahias near Camarones.


Jackass penguin at Punta Tombo

The ride south on Ruta 3 was easy, even with the incessant brutal side winds pushing me around. The roaring forties and furious fifties got steadily colder and colder with each latitude degree of southward progress, and Ushuaia was no more than a steady 5-10 degrees C. It was nice enough, but really the good stuff is furter north. At this point there were frequent border crossings and we seemed to be continually hopping back and forth between Chile and Argentina. Each time we crossed the border into Chile, I was greatly amused by a Chilean customs sign informing travellers what they may not bring into the country. The list starts innocently enough and appears to be the typical contents of ay Argentine family's picnic basket: meats, cheeses, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables, all nicely displayed in pictorial form, so foreigners get the idea too. Grouped together with all of the tasty-looking forbidden food is a giant jar, twice as big as the depicted ham, labeled "semen". The jar looks dangerously like those that normally contain jam or honey, so it could certainly make for an interesting picnic. Of course I know this refers to agricultural use, but the pics are hilarious anyway.

It was surprising to see two very different landscape types on the island of Tierra del Fuego. Near Rio Grande, it is the typical flat, yellow grass, windswept Patagonian Steppe as it was basically all the way south of the Rio Negro. The endless distances were interrupted only by the occasional border, the Straits of Magellan, and a few sheep on the road here and there. But after passing the windy, dreary town of Rio Grande, the road all of a sudden entered wooded lands and got steadily hillier and hillier. Within an hour we were in a whole different world: no wind, green trees, and mountains with large lake-filled valleys. It was a beautiful ride on the good dirt road. In Rio Grande, James and I also bumped into Sjaak Lucassen, a Dutchman who is on his way around the world on his sport bike (Yamaha R1). He has the thing fully kitted out for adventure travel and has photographic proof of riding some roads that would seem impossible to me even on my dual-sport bike, or my "grasshopper", as he likes to call them. Sjaak is a fountain of crazy travel stories, and kept us entertained as we consumed liter after liter of Quilmes, the local brew.


Me with Dutchman Sjaak Lucassen, who is on the way around the world on his Yamaha R1.


A stop on Route 3 on Tierra del Fuego


A brief stop to take in the view. Near Ushuaia.

Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares are simply spectacular and I had a great time even though I was plagued by rain and snow almost non-stop. The circuit trek in Torres del Paine is what I was eyeing intitially, but because of massive flooding, dangerous river crossings on swollen rivers, submerged bridges, and impossibly muddy trail conditions, the rangers closed the trail to trekkers and I had to settle on the "W", a short-but-sweet trek that hits the highlights of the park. I had fantastic weather for my sunrise hike to the Towers of Paine, and was blown away by the massive granite pillars bathed in a deep orange light. After that the rain just wouldn't leave me alone. It was wet, wet, wet. Mud everywhere, all clothes wet, sleeping bag wet, and usually I was soaked to the core as well. It was still very much worth it. Not only did I see some fantastic sights including the rewarding hike to the Grey Glacier, I enjoyed the nightly social atmosphere in the refugios, where campers are grudginly accepted as well by the staff, provided they spend pesos on the hugely overpriced box wine.

In southern Chile is where James and I went our separate ways. He wanted to go up to Puerto Montt with the ferry and I absolutely had to go back into Argentina to see the Perito Moreno Glacier and some more of Los Glaciares National Park. It was for the best, and I enjoyed the freedom of travelling alone again.

Another great spot is the Fitzroy range in the north of Los Glaciares National Park on the Argentine side of the border. After five days of waiting around in El Calafate for the weather to clear, on the day I was going to give up and head north on the easy paved road, the sky cleared and I knew I had a window of opportunity to go to the area. I headed up Ruta 40 toward the town of El Chalten. Along the way, Guanacos would trot away from the road as I passed, and the massive tower of Cerro Fitz Roy got closer and closer. A stiff wind was blowing a plume of white far from the snow-encrusted summit. As I approached closer the whole range came into view including Cerro Torre, and nowhere else on my trip did I stop more often to take pictures. It was simply stunning. It is the most jagged and hardcore set of mountains I have seen, and the gentle Patagonian steppe with guanaco herds and Lake Viedma in the foreground made for an absolutely awe-inducing and picture-perfect typical Patagonian scene.

Out of El Chalten, I spent one full day trekking to the two peaks of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy, and all the minor peaks which surround them. It was a long day, but worth it because the next day the weather closed in again and it was back to the usual drizzle and clouded-in cordillera.


Cerro Torre from Lago Torre. I didn't try to climb this one.


Approaching El Chalten. What a ride!


Forecast: Chile today, hot tamale

After stopping to see Fitzroy and Cerro Torre in the northern part of Glaciares NP, I continued north on Route 40, notorious for being very difficult and remote. It is difficult because of the hurricane-force crosswinds that sometimes accompany a rider here, and also because there are enormous distances between services. The first few hundred miles that I rode were quite easy. It was calm and I had nice wide ruts to cruise in, and was making decent time. 130 miles from the nearest gas station, it started raining. The mud was getting worse and worse, and I should have turned around at this point, because i was alone. I thought I've seen much worse, and really it's just a bit of slippery mud. No big deal I thought, and I kept going. Then I hit a spot with clay, which stuck to the wheels and made the bike feel heavy as a tank. Still, I saw that the end of the clay section was only twenty feet further, so I still kept going, stopping frequently to clear mud from the wheels. Then I rode another 400 feet on "normal" mud, when I hit more clay. I stopped, walked a bit and noticed it went on forever, or a half mile at least. This nasty stuff stuck to my boots in huge clumps that would get heavier and heavier with every step I took, it was like a very wet packing snow. It would be practically impossible, so I decided to camp and wait for the road to dry out. It didn't dry out, and instead it rained all night. I was out of food and water, and so the next morning I decided to turn around. The first mud was even worse now, completely gunking up the wheels and making forward progress almost impossible. Ten feet of this wheel-grabbing muck remained, so I pushed on, stupidly. Sure enough, I blew out the clutch, and I was stuck, and for whatever reason I didn't have a spare. From now on I will always carry one. Readers, learn from my mistake! They are small and light and easy to install, so take a spare! I had to wait five hours for the first car to show up, which then took me back to the first gas station. From there I got a guy who fixes tires and his son to go get my bike and take it back to El Calafate. It was a monstrous Ford pickup and I knew I would be in for a huge gasoline tab, but it was my only option. In first gear most of the way we struggled back, for hours, to where my poor motorbike was sitting on the side of the road, all lonely and broken, loaded it up, and slid and bumped our way back while the Argentine country music was playing and the mate cup was being passed. On the way we stopped at an estancia (sheep ranch) for a stiff caña each and a chat with the owner. What an interesting place. You can imagine my surprise when I saw a research poster on the wall with names of people I knew, from INSTAAR (INSTAAR=the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research where I worked in Boulder), with scientific results from the lake at this ultra-remote place. It seemed as out of place as a penguin on the Pearl Street Mall. The guy spoke surprisingly good English and we were able to talk about late Quaternary lake level history of his lake, Lago Cardiel, derived from diatoms and pollens in sediment cores. Fascinating stuff for this travelling ex-scientist. Outside he had some tame guanacos (like llamas) which were real cute, furry, and funny. One would always try to cuddle with me. I thought "awww, he LOVES me!", but when he tried to mount me that's where I drew the line. The rest of the evening, as the setting sun tried to poke between the low puffy rain clouds, was spent driving and drinking more maté and thinking about what my next move would be.

They actually have a room for rent in the single-gas-pump "town" of Tres Lagos, and I stayed there to continue the drive back to El Calafate with my bike the next day. I thought of the guy who hitchhiked around Ireland with a refrigerator (really, and he wrote a book! I gotta read it). He must have had to deal with this sort of thing his whole trip. Again it rained all night. The road was as bad as ever, like chocolate pudding. I was afraid the truck might get stuck as well! We made it though, and went to Calafate to sort things out. I thought I had it bad, until I ran into Dieter, a Swiss motorcycle traveller who I met in Calafate the first time around. At 80 km/hr he hit a sheep on the same road, ruined his bike, broke his collarbone and two ribs. He is out for six weeks and has to just sit around here. He had the real bad luck.


Loading my sad, broken-down bike on a remote stretch of Route 40. Mucho barro!

So now I am in Rio Gallegos, with the next problem on my hands- the water pump broke on my bike. It happened on my way out of town and I noticed a jump in the temperature gauge 25 miles out of town. I carefully came back, riding two miles then waiting for the engine to cool, riding two miles, waiting, etc. It took for ever. So now it means four days at least in a town that is really quite the opposite of exciting. I have been writing lots of e-mails and reading lots of newspapers, but I happened to have arrived here on the Friday before a long weekend (Monday the 31st is a day of remembrance for the war of the Islas Malvinas, aka Falkland Islands (shhh, that's a bad word here)), and everything is shut down. So as soon as my bike is back in order I plan to head north again along the Atlantic coast, and spend a day or two in Viedma, visiting a local Horizonsunlimited community member there, then it's up to Buenos Aires, which everybody keeps telling me is one of the greatest cities of the world. I'll have to go see for myself.

Posted by Arne Bomblies at 01:19 PM GMT

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