October 15, 2012 GMT
Central Argentina

A young Argentinean Customs Officer at the Fray Bentos, Uruguay / Argentina border processed my motorbike into Argentina. He was very keen and doing everything by the book but was still unsure how to process a non South American registered vehicle on the computer system. I was almost pleased when he wanted to see my vehicle insurance which I had finally succeeded in buying the day before in Colonia, Uruguay. I had tried without success to buy the compulsory insurance in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay but fortunately had never been asked to produce the certificate at police check points or any of the previous border crossings apart from when entering Paraguay where a bent policeman had an organised scam operating with an unofficial border ‘helper‘. I had almost given up trying to get insurance and didn’t try at all in Brazil because of the language problem. It’s difficult enough trying to buy insurance in Spanish but impossible (for me at any rate) in Portuguese. Being able to produce the certificate at the Argentinean border made the time, effort and expense worth while.

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Fray Bentos, Home Of Corned Beef & Meat Pies To The Left. Argentina Straight Ahead

I was headed towards the Sierras de Córdobas, a mountainous area in the centre of the country surrounded by a large sea of flat agricultural pampas, criss-crossed by occasional long, long straight roads. The pampas reminded me of Florida on steroids with the road straight ahead disappearing into a thin line on the horizon and the unchanging scenery. It wasn’t the best geography to be riding through but the roads were generally smooth with little traffic outside of the towns. It was a lot better than being stuck on a gridlocked British motorway or filtering through a Central American market. The roads through the pampas may be a bit boring but there are worse things in life than being a trifle bored. I was at least riding a motorcycle in the sunshine not sat in front of a computer in an office.

The scenery finally changed with hills then mountains coming into view and the road started to undulate, twist and turn as I approached and then entered the Calamuchita valley. There were a lot of police checkpoints for some reason as I neared my first destination in the Sierras de Córdobas. As the police appear to stop road users at random it could be very frustrating if you were unfortunate enough to be stopped at successive checkpoints. Some were only ten minutes apart. I was stopped once and in addition to the usual questions and a cursory glance at my documents I was handed a small round plastic object in a sealed bag. I didn’t realise what it was for initially and put it on top of a pannier as we chatted. Eventually a breathalyser was produced. The main purpose of the checkpoint was to carry out random breath tests which are, (or where when I left) illegal in Britain. The plastic object was of course the mouthpiece. As I hadn’t had an alcoholic drink in about six weeks I passed with flying colours.

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Calamuchita Valley

I stayed in the Tinktinkie hostel just outside Santa Rosa de Calamuchita. The dirt road running past the hostel was part of the 2010 Dakar rally route. Nelieta is South African, co-owner of Tinktinkie hostel with Russian husband, Andrey and a keen photographer. She had photographs she had taken from the hostel garden of various 2010 Dakar rally vehicles. Most were close ups; with only blurred trees in the background but one showed the ridgeline of the hills that formed one side of the valley which identified the location. Nelieta and I tried to replicate the photo with me riding past several times but as it was a different season; the vegetation looked different and we never managed to accurately match my position on the road with the Dakar truck. Whilst the two photographs may not be conclusive evidence, I did ride on a section of the Dakar course, honest!

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Dakar Rally 2010 (Photo By Nelieta Mischento)

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Ian 2012 (Photo By Nelieta Mischento)

A short distance to the north lay Villa General Belgrano which, despite its very Argentinean name, has an old fashioned southern German feel about the place. General Manuel Belgrano was one of the leading liberators in the war of independence against Spain and the creator of the Argentinean flag. The village was established in 1930 by two Germans. Following the WWII battle of the river Plate in December 1939, 130 sailors from the sunken German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee decided to settle here. With its alpine architecture, microbreweries, ‘Café und Kuchen’ (Coffee & Cake) restaurants and an annual Oktoberfest Villa General Belgrano keeps its German heritage alive.

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Villa General Belgrano

The Belgrano Beer Festival is the third largest Oktoberfest in the world after Munich, Germany and Blumenau, Brazil. The festival gets under way with the ceremonial tapping of a barrel of beer at the front of the main stage. The barrel is well shaken to ensure plenty of spray and foam drenches those nearest to it. Once the barrel is tapped the remaining beer is poured into the waiting beer pots of everyone within reach but only those close enough to get showered by the beer will be close enough to fill their tankard!

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Tapping The Barrel Ceremony, Belgrano Oktoberfest

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Villa General Belgrano Oktoberfest

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Villa General Belgrano Oktoberfest Parade

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Villa General Belgrano Oktoberfest

I went to the beer festival, on one of the opening days and there was traditional dancing from the different countries that Argentineans had originated from. The list included Spain, Germany, Italy, Ireland, France, Arabia and the Ukraine. I was most impressed by the Ukrainian Cossack dancing, very athletic.

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Belgrano Oktoberfest - Ukrainian Cossack Dancers

On the short, 162km (101 miles) trip from Santa Rosa to La Cumbre the bike started giving trouble. The engine has never been 100% since the rebuild in Cuscu, Peru. It leaks oil and each time I examine it I discover a missing bolt, broken stud etc. The bike cut out as I slowed to cross a dam and wouldn’t restart. Having pushed it to the end of the dam I found the oil level low and most of the radiator was cold indicating a low coolant level. I didn’t want to risk take the radiator cap off as I suspected the engine had overheated although no warning lights had come on. The engine did restart after it had cooled down and I was able to cautiously ride to a garage and top the oil up. I continued gently riding towards La Cumbre but couldn’t engage first gear when I had to stop at some traffic lights. After stopping several more times to allow the engine to cool down I eventually limped into the hostel with a sick engine and no first gear.

The bike has done 62,104 miles (99,366 kilometres - it almost made it to the magic 100,000!). Considering the age of the bike, the mileage and the problems following the first engine rebuild It wasn’t going to be worth having another total engine rebuild done to repair the gearbox. I checked the engine the following day when it had cooled and discovered coolant in the cylinder which meant a second top end overhaul. Córdoba wasn’t far away and I arranged for a truck to take the bike into the BMW dealer there. I was supposed to ride in the truck but when it arrived I was told they wouldn’t be able to take me and I had to catch a bus. The bike had already been unloaded in the workshop by the time I arrived several hours later. When I explained the problem with the mechanic and the workshop manager they said that they would need to check what parts they had in stock then they would be able to say if the bike was repairable. Due to severe import restrictions it takes at least two months to get parts into Argentina and depending on the cost of the repair it might not be worth doing. Naturally we were having this conversation on a Friday afternoon prior to a three day weekend to celebrate Columbus Day so it was going to take almost a week before I discovered the fate of the bike.

Columbus Day commemorates the discovery of the Americas on the 12th October, 1492. Some Native Americans and their supporters commemorate the 11th October instead as their ’Last Day Of Freedom’. Always one for supporting the underdog, my emotions were more in tune with the Native American’s ’Last Day Of Freedom’ commemoration rather than with the celebration of Columbus discovering the Americas. However Europe would be pretty full by now if Columbus had decided to at home.

Whatever the decision is regarding the bike the rest of the trip needs re-planning. I had intended to fly the bike to New Zealand after touring Patagonia. I need to investigate the customs implications of leaving the bike in Argentina or Chile. It is currently in Argentina on a temporary import permit which stipulates that it must be taken out of the country when I leave.

The best I can hope for is that the engine can be repaired without costing more than the bike is worth. If it can I will attempt to ride it to Ushuaia without first gear and hope the bike doesn’t suffer any further problems. I will need to avoid dirt roads with steep hills as the bike won’t be able to get up the hills in second gear and I would be too terrified to try and go down the hills in anything but the non existent first gear! If the bike breaks down again I will have to abandon it. Ideally it would be nice to get to Ushuaia and then back to either Santiago or Buenos Aires and then be able to give the bike away to someone for spares.

After over three and a half years on the road, a lot of my equipment is past its best including the bike. While waiting to hear if the bike can be repaired my camera stopped working although it wasn’t the camera I started the trip with; but a replacement purchased in Panama. I had paid USA $120 (£76) for it; which was around USA $20 more that it would have cost buying it on the internet from the USA. In Córdoba; I looked for a replacement camera. Ideally I wanted the same make and model as the original to save having to figure out how to use the new one. The first shop I tried had only one compact camera on display but by a remarkable coincidence it was exactly the same model as my broken one. My delight quickly faded however when I saw the price, USA $510, (£320) five times the USA internet price! I wasn’t prepared to pay that so I might have to travel without a camera for a while.

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The River In Cordoba - The Last Photo I Took Before The Camera Died

At the moment I am waiting to hear the fate of the bike and considering various travel options depending on if the bike can be repaired. If it can be repaired, what will it be like trying to ride without first gear and will it hold together long enough to get to Ushuaia and possibly back to a city with an international airport?

Posted by ianmoor@tiscali.co.uk at 09:30 PM GMT
 


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