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!