To Buenos Aires and the end of the journey

Back in 2009 when I did the full Trans-Americas trip there was one loose end I deliberately left just in case I ever came this way again. Those who were subjected to my blog will remember the disturbing images of my bare arse as I skinny-dipped in the Arctic Ocean at the start of the trip, the Pacific and Atlantic in the middle, the naked-run round the glazier at Stewart, and the naked run round the desert in Peru. North, West, East, Up and Down but no nakedness in the South. Some of the group did go skinny dipping in the Southern Ocean as is traditional on these trips, but I wanted a reason to return. Well, I can proudly(!) report that I closed that particular loop the morning of our departure from Ushuaia. Taking the van with Boonie, Bal and Dave, we all submerged ourselves in the freezing waters, colouring the air of the national park a deep shade of red with screams of expletives that would make a drunken sailor blush. Yes, it was very, very, cold! The ride back to the hotel in the back of the van wasn’t much warmer, either. Nor was the initial part of the ride out of Ushuaia and over the Paso Garibaldi either, dressed once again in my bike gear, the sleet and snow made colder by a biting wind.

Heading North after so long heading south is a strange feeling, the sun directly ahead when it finally showed up and the skies cleared. Our run up took us first to Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego, a small town from where the Argentine forces were launched back in 1982 when they took the Falklands before being sent back home again. It’s home to a large army base and some memorials to those killed in the conflict, as well as signs proclaiming “Los Malvinas son Argentinas” – despite the obvious fact that they remain under British rule. Our stopover was simply a matter of convenience, the run up to the town of Rio Gallegos, the next town on the mainland requiring 2 border crossings and a ferry crossing as well as a distance that is too great to do in one hit. The wind on the way north was exceptional and when we arrived in Rio Grande it was a full-on gale. Standing up in the street was difficult, never mind riding a bike! The following day was windy again as we rode back up past Cerro Sombrero via the 70-mile dirt road, the final stretch of which was very challenging in a very strong crosswind. Once again the group coped admirably with this challenge, only to discover a problem with the ferry. On arrival we could see a large tailback of lorries and cars queuing and we knew there was a problem. Due to the high winds, strong currents and decidedly choppy waters in the Straights of Magellan the ferry wasn’t running! We rode to the front of the queue (as bikes always do) and enquired when it might restart, getting answers of anything from 5-8pm. It was now 11am.

Another bought of waiting then ensued, before the group was told by a policeman that we’d jumped the queue and had to move the bikes to a car park and we wouldn’t be allowed on the first few boats when the ferry restarted. Then more waiting before at around 6pm we were told by another policeman to move them back to the head of the queue as the ferries were about to restart running! By the time we boarded it was getting on for 7.30pm, but we made it across and then the race to the final border crossing began. Once across we rode in the dark to our hotel in Rio Gallegos. Kevin and I headed out for dinner at the British Club, the rest of the group either eating in the hotel or retiring to bed exhausted. Now here’s an interesting fact not many people know – it was the British that first settled in southern Patagonia, including establishing the town of Ushuaia. They were mostly sheep farmers who first settled in the Falklands during the 19th century before moving to Argentina, and hence the British club (est. 1911) which has a large brass plaque with the names of around 200 settlers proudly displayed on the wall.

The next day we continued our ride North, again accompanied by a strong wind, although now it was blowing from the south-west so much less of a problem. After a night in Comodoro Riverdavia, another small town useful for breaking up the journey but not that inspiring, we moved on to Puerto Madryn, via the penguin colony at Punto Tombo and the Welsh village of Gaiman. Again, a little explanation – first the penguin colony, which is on the Atlantic Ocean and accessed via a 40-mile gravel road, the final dirt road of the trip. Here there are around 400,000 Magellanic Penguins, which makes it a great place to break up the journey north and while away a few hours simply watching these lovely creatures bask in the sun or swim in the ocean, or waddle up and down. Gaiman is famous for being a Welsh settlement (the Welsh settling in a band across the continent from east to west whilst the Scots and English settled further South). As well as being a place where the Welsh settled, it’s also where the current Welsh government sends a lot of its official documents to be translated into Welsh, as here the language remains purer than in much of Wales! It’s also home to some spectacularly beautiful tea houses, including one we visited by a small river, with a lovely garden (including a large, Alice-in-Wonderland style teapot) and house where waitresses dressed in all their finery served afternoon tea and welsh cakes. No sooner had I ordered and sat down than my phone beeped with a message Kevin had sent earlier asking me to sort out the details of the whale-watching trip for the group later. I managed to rush down a few cups of tea (I really miss a good cuppa when travelling!) before racing on to the hotel, getting stopped by the police on the way. Not for speeding, though (I was), but for a roadside drugs check – they were just pulling over random vehicles for checks and had no interest in my attempts to set a new land-speed record on a GS without a screen.

Puerta Madryn is a lovely town on the ocean which at this time of year serves as a great place to go whale watching in the bay. I sorted the trip out for the group and the following day they went off, seeing a mother and calf as I had done 4 years ago, whilst Boonie and I attended to various jobs on the bikes. I also arranged a special excursion for 2 of the more adventurous members of the group to go snorkelling/scuba diving with sea lions the following morning. Unfortunately, as this would mean they would be several hours behind the group, I couldn’t join them – their stories and photos were something special!

From Puerta Madryn we continued North to Viedma, where there was a big protest/demonstration going on right outside our hotel. With lots of police cars and bikes making most of the noise with their sirens and with the policemen joining in the rhythmic drumming it was an unusual sight – but just one of many protest across Argentina by the police themselves who are angry about their very poor level of pay, which with rampant inflation is a real issue. Fortunately we didn’t experience any of the looting and violence that has accompanied the police strikes further north, this protest being good-natured and obviously supported by the local population.

Whilst in Viedma we discovered some issues that meant one of us needed to high-tail it to Buenos Aires ahead of the group, so the following morning that’s exactly what I did, riding over 700 miles but resolving the problem quickly. This meant I didn’t get to ride into the final city with the group, as I was at the freight agent’s office, which was a pity, but I still got to ride with them the final 4 miles to drop the bikes off a couple of days later. Once in BA we took the group to complete the documentation formalities, getting the power of attorney paperwork notarised and then giving them a free day on Wednesday whilst we sorted out the route to the drop-off point and tied up a few other loose ends. On Thursday we rode the last 4 miles, getting the group a minibus back to the hotel so we could deal with the customs processes and ride the bikes the final few yards into the bonded warehouse from where the freight agent will deal with them. That evening was the final group meal of the trip, at the excellent Carlos Gardel Tango Show, which was every bit as good as I remembered from ’09.

And so to today, Friday, which has been a day of goodbyes as several of the group head home, and the final job for me to ride Chad’s KTM (his paperwork not complete as we need a further PoA fedexing from the US) to another warehouse across town. With that done there’s nothing left to do but pack, eat a final Argentine steak and drink a final glass or two of Malbec then catch the flight home tomorrow.

It’s been a great journey – very different in many ways to that in ’09 – and a great experience. Working as a guide is a full-time job as there is always something to think about or sort out and you are always at a state of readiness in case you’re needed. But it’s very satisfying seeing the group achieve their goals. The better you do your job the less the clients realise it, as the smoother their trip goes, but it’s immensely satisfying when you get it right (and immensely disappointing when you don’t!!).

I just hope I get the chance to guide more trips in the future. It sure as hell beats working in an office!

To the end of the world. Again.

It’s odd how not writing a daily blog means that I struggle to remember what we’ve been doing since I last put fingers to keyboard. My last entry was written on the day Steve tipped over on the run down the Carretera Austral to Puyuhuapi, but that seems like an eternity ago. Since then we endured a wet ride south to Coyhaique and some more fantastic scenery as we followed the dirt road that is the Carretera Austral down to Puerto Guadal. Our accommodation varied from the usual hotels and lodges, with Boonie and I sharing a small cabin with a kitchen and log-burner as there was no room for us in the modern casino hotel the group stayed in. That allowed us to buy some milk from the supermarket and make use of the PG Tips he’d brought over in the van to have our first cup of tea since leaving the UK. It wasn’t quite as good as back home but it was most welcome!

In Puerto Guadal we stayed in another lodge, this one larger and with 3 rooms, one for Kevin, one for Darran and Dave and one for Boonie and me. Another log burner also afforded us chance to sit and chat a while in comfort whilst the rain fell outside. That evening we took the screen off my bike and fitted it to James’, as the replacement screen we had delivered from Motoaventura turned out to be for the wrong model and wouldn’t fit. So from now on I’m riding a “street-fighter” style GS!

The following morning dawned bright and sunny and we had a spectacular ride through truly phenomenal scenery back to the Argentine border and on to the estancia. The first part of the ride took us along a huge lake, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. The photos (on my photostream) do not capture even half of the beauty of this part of the world. The final section of road turned from tarmac to soft gravel and dirt, particularly challenging given the recent rain which had turned it very soft in places. Once again the group coped admirably and we didn’t have anyone fall. That night on the estancia we had a group meal of traditional Argentina parilla (BBQ) the lamb split and cooked in front of a wood fire, then hacked up and served to us with chorizo sausage and salad. It was simply delicious, the best meal of the trip so far, steak in Bariloche included.

From the estancia we rode on Ruta 40 once more to El Calafate, where we had a rest day. Back in 09 this was a gravel road and caused me some grief as I was riding with a broken rib, but this year it was mostly tarmac and I am fully fit, so it was much easier. With little maintenance on the bikes to do, I spent the rest day relaxing and walking round the town, then meeting up with Kevin and Boonie to buy bubbly and snacks for when we reach the end of the world. Leaving El Calafate to cross back into Chile once more proved very challenging, the wind picking up significantly (it had been blowing hard when we arrived). The sailor in our group estimated it was at gale force 8 – so strong that it was impossible to stand up without being blown about. A short section of around 40 miles of dirt road was interesting to say the least, riding with such a strong cross-wind. To try and keep the bike on a straight line required constant pressure on the bars, steering the bike to the right and leaning it into the wind. Several times the surface turned to looser gravel, meaning there was insufficient grip for the level of steering input required, resulting in being blown across the road until the surface improved enough to allow the bike to be hauled back on line. At one stage I came very close to crashing, the front and rear wheels slipping on the gravel and the bike dropping down, only my instinctive reactions to stand it up saved me from embarrassment. At the fuel stop at the end of the dirt road the group slowly came in with similar tales of near misses, the riders buzzing with excitement at having conquered riding in a true Patagonian wind. A few had taken the longer tarmac route to skip the dirt road, but had equal tales of battling the wind. From there to close to the border was tarmac which made the riding easer, but the dirt road to the border was a further challenge as the wind was relentless. But the Argentine border formalities were simple and quick and it was only a short ride to the Chilean side, where I arrived just before 1pm ahead of most of the group. Only to discover the customs guy was on strike and only working for 2 hours each day – from 12-1pm and 5pm-6pm. As he’d closed up just before I got there, I had no choice but to sit and wait, explaining to the group as they arrived that we’d be here some time! Fortunately just past the border is a cafe, and as we were checked in (immigration and SAG processing us despite the customs strike), at least we could get a coffee and some snacks. At 5pm the customs guy resumed work and we got the group their permits fairly quickly (I’d managed to get a stack of blank forms to speed things up) and we made the short journey to the hotel at Tres Pasos. Once again Boonie and I had different accommodation to the group, this time sleeping in bunk beds in a small wooden caravan in the garden – supplied with clean towels, soap and shampoo despite not having a bathroom! The first of the 2 nights we slept there was very windy, the caravan rocking from side to side as we slept – and with no curtains we were both up earlier than normal (which is early anyway!). Quite an experience…

On the rest day at Tres Pasos we were called out to fix a puncture only to find one of the group had plugged it by the time we caught up with the affected rider, then Boonie and I took a ride out to the entrance of the park, not wanting to pay the fee to go in and ride the loop, which turned out to be a good decision as a landslide had blocked the route anyway.

From Tres Pasos we made our way onto Tierra del Fuego, taking the small ferry across the Straights of Magellan accompanied by a pod of Commerson’s dolphins. A night at the gas drilling town of Cerro Sombrero was followed by another dirt road ride to the border and back into Argentina before finishing up on Lago Fagnano just 62 miles short of Ushuaia and the end of the road. That night we managed to convince Angelica, whose 1150 was too badly damaged to continue and sent home from Bariloche, and who had been riding pillion with Dave since El Calafate, to ride my bike the final few miles to the end of the road. Which meant I got to ride in the van with Boonie, snapping pictures of the group and reminiscing about my own journey to the famous sign. Once we arrived, we took lots of photos and managed to get a couple of the bikes next to the sign before the warden turned up and reprimanded us. A toast of bubbly and lots of congratulations later we made our way back out of the park – me now back on my bike again – stopping for a coffee before returning to the hotel.

That evening we shared a bottle of Johnnie Walker Green Label whisky, bought by one of the group, before heading out for the group meal. A few toasts, a few drinks and some good food before retiring to the Dublin Irish bar for a couple of beers and then bed at midnight was the order of the day.

It’s been a great experience so far, helping get the group to the most southerly point, and tomorrow we turn round and start to head North again, 8 days until we arrive in Buenos Aires and the final part of the journey. I’m looking forward to the ride, and hoping the wind will abate and the sun comes out as here in Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world, it’s blowing a fair bit and sleeting!