April 30, 2004 GMT
Over the Andes

Early start. Over the Andes. Skip breakfast to get moving. Touristy San Pedro de Atacama has the last gas station in Chile. I ask around for the distance to the next fuel. It is either 200 km, 400 km, or “Far. Very far”. Best carry some spare. Spend my lunch hour failing to find gerrycans. Thankfully, the improvising overlander alternative is all around. Big plastic pop bottles. Where are these useful empty containers Simon? Why they are in the rubbish bins.

I tour the skips all over town. One of my finest hours. How do you explain to the well-healed blond North American families that climbing through the stinking midday rubbish for coke bottles in full biking gear is part of a great adventure? Much better than being a common tourist. “No, no, it is a great way to travel”.

A bemused and uneasy crowd gathers. Glad to provide diversion I emerge wiping putrefying vegetables from my shorts, sweat from my face and suppurating animal remains off my boots. The mothers gently shepherd their daughters toward the stuffed toy-lama stalls. Soon I have only my miasma for company. Oh, and six Seven-Up bottles. Success--it is always relative.

Still face two border crossings and some real high ground. They’ll be food on the frontier. By 3000 meters the bike is slowing down. Black smoke emerges behind. At 4000 metres the throttle is wide open in third gear to maintain momentum with a billowing gasoline-rich black cloud. At 4500 I get off to give it a rest and take pictures of lamas. There is no one around. No one to see the next half hour of me trying to make the bike move forwards with every combination of gear, clutch and throttle but only managing a couple of yards. Not enough air pressure up here. Un problema. Drastic measures are called for.

I can barely speak the words…forgive me for I have sinned…it has been twenty-nine years since my last confession...I take off the air filter and ride on. The likelihood of grit seizing the engine climbs from “marginal” to “really quite likely, and are-you-really-sufficiently-responsible-to-be-in-charge-of-this-fine-piece-of-machinery?” But the only other way is back. And that’s just plain unthinkable.

A selection of concession food outlets ranging from McDonalds to TGI Friday is just what isn’t waiting for me at the Argentinean border. The three miserable guards who live their isolated freezing windswept daytimes at 4,900 metres would surely be happy about the idea. But at present plans are well on hold. There is nothing.

It is five in the afternoon as I complete the paperwork. A hundred kilometres to go. Or two hundred. Susques before nightfall is possible if I ride hard. Maybe. I begin to decant the bottles into the tank. The guards come outside. There stare and point. They argue heatedly. What now? Can’t risk a delay. I keep my head down. Don’t catch their eyes, just keep pouring. I am flying down the asphalt when the centavo drops. What must have it looked like? The world’s first lemonade-powered motorcycle.

All day without food now. Then the road ends. Tarmac becomes gravel. Engine seizure becomes a certainty without the filter. I replace it. Fuel use is impossible to calculate at this height. No clue if the next town is in range. But there is no way back. It has been five hours at altitude with minimal cold-weather gear. I am shivering. At least it can’t get any worse. Then it begins to rain. Ahh, what I mean is now it can’t get any worse.

The gravel deteriorates further. The bike is deep in a truck wheel rut. Invisible goblins are taking turns to yank the front wheel towards the bank. At least now it can’t get any worse. Then it begins to snow. Enough already!

I am struggling to push hunger down my mind’s priorities. An adventure tour group has set a row of identical tents at the roadside. They are paying three thousand dollars to spend a fortnight in the back of that truck. A bunch of meats are sizzling for supper next to the ten-wheel-drive monster. The next town is not too far on my GPS, but their map shows the road making a huge U around a salt lake to get there. Darn. Half an hour of light left, maybe two hours of dirt road. I have no tent. And no supplies. That counts as worse. Food isn’t offered. “So where are you going to stay tonight?” one of the pleasant trainee-accountant adventurers asks. “First hotel I come to I suppose”. Several of them take a breathless step backwards at this revelation, “what a way to travel” one gasps.

Off I go, sun grumpily slumped on the horizon, cold, hungry, unsure of my destination, low on fuel, trying to see the least-worse track through my fogged visor as the sleet diagonals down. The consequences of a crash have to be balanced against the need for speed. There is no right answer. At least it can’t get any worse.

Then the gravel turns to sand. The back end joins the front in carving terrifying parabolas. Now I am hauling my 370 kilos left and right across my favoured vector. A battle of wills. The goblins are working flat out. This really is no fun. I reassure myself that it would only be worse with fuel sloshing around in the tank. Never lose your sense of humour private Kennedy; gives Gerry the upper hand.

As darkness falls it occurs to me that this really is quite dangerous. There’s no shelter. No food. What are the survival percentages huddled in a ditch overnight without food at sub-zero? Hmmm. Let’s concentrate on keeping the bike upright shall we. And I do. This is good. On your own there is no one to take out your anxieties on. Focus. No one to blame. Concentrate. All this is down to bad preparation, shoddy planning and bad choices. Think it through. Sort it out for yourself. At 4,500 metres there really is no one, no one at all. The lamas wont save you.

It is two more hours in the saddle, bike and rider down to last reserves. The stars are bright sequins on a black blanket when the gravel ends and a hotel appears.

In one of life’s little jokes, tacked onto the end of the drama as the credits are rolling, the hotel owner refuses to take my Chilean pesos. Peruvian money is no good too. Nor my Bolivian stuff. I am re-loading the machine with gritted teeth for another long haul in the dark when a Brazilian guy comes over. He’s done a long-distance bike trip. He won’t take my money in exchange. He insists on giving the cash and his address. “Send it to me when you have it. Or drop in when you’re passing Sao Paulo”. So I get my bed after all, though it is two hours before the shivering stops and I can sleep. What a way to travel.

(Connor Carson is the discoverer of the invisible Goblins that plague overlanders around the world.)

Posted by at April 30, 2004 07:48 PM GMT

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