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Leg 8: North Again - to Buenos Aires and Home

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Busy doing nothing...

Unsurprisingly I slept late, waking around 9.30am just in time for breakfast. With only a slight hangover I was feeling good, especially with a whole day ahead with nothing much to do. The first task of the day was to get the blog updated, and to steal copies of Finn's photos as they captured the day from a position slightly outside the group as he was able to stand back and watch what was unfolding, whereas I was in the thick of things. With the blog posted I went out for a wander round town in search of a sticker for the bike and a new beard trimmer as the one I bought in Prince George has stopped charging. Walking round Ushuaia in the sunshine was a very pleasant way to while away an hour or two, and to get some fresh air to ensure the hangover couldn't take hold. I bumped into Nick and Aaron eating lunch and joined them for a drink, then we found a chocolate shop where we bought and ate too much chocolate over a coffee. I found a beard trimmer and some good stickers too, and with all my jobs for the day done and a strong determination not to over-do things I went back to my room for a nap.


Ushuaia, Argentina...


When I woke again it was almost time to meet up with the others for some pre-dinner drinks, so I took a quick shower and did exactly that. Just one beer in the hotel before we walked up the road to check out the crab restaurants, as king crab is a real delicacy here. We chose one that looked OK and then went for another pre-dinner drink in the bar we'd had lunch in, Aaron stumping up for a round of caipirinhas, a sort of lemony sweet drink made with way too much bacardi. Suitably tipsy we walked back to the restaurant and enjoyed a fantastic meal – calamari to start with followed by the most delicious crab I've ever tasted, prepared in a slight tomato sauce with all the hard work of extracting the meat from the shell already done. Accompanied by a very good bottle of Chardonnay it was all very good indeed. After dinner we returned to the bar for another of those silly drinks and dessert, a combination of chocolate and lemon that didn't quite work. Then the group dispersed, with only Finn and Late Guy joining me in the Irish bar for some beer and talking rubbish until very late. With a nightcap of Irish whiskey before we left at closing time it had turned into quite a night... Tomorrow will have to be a dry day or I'm going to have some serious issues...

Friday, 27 November 2009

Oooh look... Penguins!

I woke to the sound of my alarm clock beeping at 6.30am to get me up for the skinny-dip in the southernmost ocean. Having got up and cleaned my teeth, I thought about it for a while and decided that it would be nice to leave a loose-end, something on the trip that hadn't been done, and went back to bed. The fact that I was still very tired may also have had something to do with my decision as well...

Unsurprisingly I slept late, waking around 9.00am just in time for breakfast. With a slight sense of deja-vu I went downstairs and ate breakfast, the small group of intrepid naked swimmers returning as I was finishing, looking very cold but chattering excitedly. Whilst it would have been nice to complete the set (North, East, West and South) I still like the idea of having left something on the trip undone – who knows, I may yet pass this way again and can then tick that box...

With breakfast done and the blog updated I attempted to go back to sleep, the after-effects of the last two nights taking their toll. I say attempted because no sooner had I got into the room than the cleaner knocked on the door. So I went out for a walk instead, attending to some other little jobs. These included getting a stamp in my passport from the tourist information office – which may seem a little odd, but Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world, and the stamp is pretty cool and made a nice addition to all the others I've collected so far. After replenishing my diminishing stocks of Argentine pesos I went and got my hair cut – deciding that I'd do it now rather than in Buenos Aires as I originally intended on the basis that it'll have 2 weeks to grow back a little before I get home and Tracy freaks out at how short it is. Well, have you every tried explaining to a hairdresser that only speaks Spanish to just trim it a little and leave it as long as he can? Hairdressers the world over seem to think that all men want a fair scalping, and this guy was no exception. Simon, who went to the same place an hour later, also got scalped. But it's done now, so no point worrying about it...

With my jobs done it was back to the hotel to catch up with Tracy briefly before the pre-arranged meeting at 1pm. Usually we have meetings in the early evening, but this was brought forward as there was a group of us leaving at 3pm for a 6-hour boat trip to see penguins. The meeting had a special purpose too, this being Mac's 60th birthday. Those of you who have seen “The Ride” DVD or caught it on National Geographic (the story of the initial 2005 Trans-Am trip) will know Mac for his famous quotes like “It's a once-in-a-lifetime trip” (this is his 2nd) and at the end his favourite expression “loada b*ll*cks”. He's a really quiet, unassuming and extremely generous chap, and rides a bike just like mine that has clocked up a massive mileage and still looks good (unlike mine, which is now pretty battered). So, with him sat looking decidedly uncomfortable centre-stage in the mezzanine section of the hotel's restaurant we proceeded to give him the traditional Globebusters birthday celebration. Only first, he was presented with a large cake, decorated with “Loada B*ll*cks, Happy Birthday Mac”...


Mac's birthday cake...


Jim, the other half of the Kippers, then gave a lovely speech and presented Mac with his birthday hat – not the normal mickey-taking hat, but a very nice leather hat that he'd chosen especially and which suited Mac perfectly. Next up were the presents from the group, and as is traditional they were chosen to match the country in which the birthday was celebrated. They included a poncho, a gaucho “boleadora” or “bola” which consists of some balls on a string used for hunting, a mug (in place of the usual shot-glass as Mac likes his tea!), a tee-shirt with “Ushuaia End of the World” emblazoned on it and finally a tee-shirt with the “Llama Sutra” and pictures of Llamas in various erm.. positions... He looked the part in his hat and poncho, though...


Mac, the birthday gaucho...


With the celebrations I had a hamburguesa for lunch and then joined the assembling group for the boat trip to see the penguins. Arranged by Aaron, this was to be a 6-hour cruise along the Beagle channel to a large penguin colony where we'd get to disembark onto the island and “Dance with Penguins”. To say we were excited would be something of an understatement. Gathering in the hotel lobby were the 10 explorers – Gerald, Phil, Late Guy, Nick, Finn, Pertti, Simon, Jeff, Aaron and me. At the designated time we wandered across the road to the port and the ticket office, handed in our booking slip and paid the 140-pesos (the trip should have been 200 but we thought we'd got a group discount), then went through passenger control and boarded the large catamaran that was waiting for us. Unlike our last boat trip this one wasn't full, so we spread out over 2 tables and I managed to get a window seat and settled down to snooze before we set sail. Then there was a voice over the tannoy stating that if any passengers were booked on the longer trip they should report to the back of the deck as this boat wasn't going to Penguin island, and that the catamaran pulling out of dock to our left was the penguin boat... it seems there had been a cock-up at the ticket office, and the guy had issued us with tickets for a 3-hr trip to see the sea lions and lighthouse instead... Needless to say that it was too late to get off and that Aaron took the full force of remorseless mickey-taking for the entire trip for arranging a penguin trip that didn't include seeing any penguins...

We did get to see some sea-lions though (or “brown penguins sleeping” as we called them)...


Sea lions...


and a large colony of Cormorants, to which the cry of “Oh look, poenguins” was met by the two stewardesses gently pointing out they weren't as if talking to the mentally handicapped and then proceeding to explain the difference, whilst we all tried not to laugh...


Cormorants...


The boat then went to the island with the lighthouse, a very uninspiring red and white tower with a light on top and no penguins. I fell asleep for most of the journey, the sound of banter as Aaron continued to pay for his “mistake” ringing in my ears... When we got back ashore I went to the gift shop and bought a little penguin pin for his jacket, presenting it to him with “this is what they look like”... fortunately he took it all in good humour, but I don't think that's the last he's heard of it, especially as when walking to the restaurant that evening for dinner, the group waddled along like penguins...

And I stuck to my “dry day” promise, with just one beer to accompany my French Onion soup and Pizza, before turning in at a very reasonable 10.30pm... and tomorrow we start the long ride North... and the adventure continues...

Saturday, 28 November 2009

 

The adventure continues...

After 2 days of rest and reflection, the group is itchy to get moving again and I'm no exception. Up bright and early at 6am sorting through my packing trying to get everything back into the 2 pannier bags. I've noticed that every time we have a couple of days rest and I can sort out my washing that I struggle to get all my stuff repacked. Perhaps it's the addition of the nifty Globebusters Trans Am 2009 tee-shirt...

With the group's departure time set for 10am, I ate a leisurely breakfast but was still ready to roll just after 9am. I hate hanging around when there's riding to be done, and even knowing that our destination, the same hotel in Cerro Sombrero we stayed in just 5 nights ago, has absolutely nothing going for it, I hit the road just after 9.20am. The weather was overcast but slightly warmer than the day before, so wrapped up in all my cold-weather gear but without waterproofs I rode out of town on the same road we'd come in on. This time I was riding alone rather than in a big convoy, and quickly settled into a relaxed pace, enjoying the twisting road as it headed up into the mountains towards the Garibaldi Pass. It started to spit with rain and the cold air blowing through my jacket and trousers was a little too much, so I pulled over and put on my waterproofs, taking the opportunity to snap a picture as the mountains ahead looked like they might be hiding even worse weather...


Leaving Ushuaia...


With traffic very light the ride up into the mountains was easy and the threatened bad weather never materialised, just a few spots of rain which failed to dampen either me or my spirits. I was back on the road again, heading North for the first time in 4 months, and starting the last leg of the journey that will take me to Buenos Aires and the flight home. Concentrating on the riding and the scenery my mind was empty – the last 2 days having afforded me ample time to reflect on the journey so far. And what scenery it was. On the way in I'd been so focused on the last few miles, and so busy reflecting on what I'd done that I only noticed the half of it. As I crested the hill at the top of the Garibaldi Pass, the view across the lake to the distant hills was stunning, even in the overcast light of the day. Naturally I had to stop for one more “bike, lake, mountains” photos...


At the top of the Garibaldi Pass...


The road then wound its way down the mountains and back towards the flat-land that covers most of Tierra del Fuego, this little island at the end of the world. I rode past the Hosteria Kaiken, the hotel we'd stayed at for our last night before the ride to Ushuaia, and along the side of the beautiful lake on which it sits. I rode across deserted moorland, leaning the bike into the heavy crosswind that threatened to blow me straight into the path of any oncoming traffic – of which there was thankfully precious little. I rode with the South Atlantic Ocean just metres away on my right, the water bright green and topped with bubbling white surf as the waves broke at the end of their long journey to shore. I rode for almost 3 hours with only a couple of little roadside stops until I arrived once more at the border that separates the Argentinian side of the island from the Chilean, a border we have to cross in order to get to the ferry to the mainland before crossing back into Argentina. Before joining the queues of coaches and lorries crossing, I filled up with fuel and grabbed a coffee, being joined by Jim and Mac. I've shared a room with Jim for the whole trip, but this was our first coffee on the road together. As others arrived I went and started the border formalities, getting myself stamped out of the country and then handing in the bike permit. Then I rode the short dirt road between the borders, arriving back at the Chilean side and getting yet another entry stamp for me in my passport and handing in a completed temporary vehicle import permit for it to be signed and stamped. This stage caused some problems, as it would appear that when I cross the border from Northern Chile into Argentina and handed in the permit, it wasn't entered into the computer. I soon resolved the issue, explaining that I'd always handed the forms in and that I'd been in and out of Chile since then, then showing all the entry and exit stamps in my passport. They seemed happy enough with this explanation and signed and stamped the permit and then I had to go to the agricultural inspection guy to hand in another form and get the SAG woman outside to inspect the bike to check I wasn't smuggling any fruit or meat into the country. When she was satisfied I wasn't, I was on my way, back into Chile and onto the dirt road that covers the final 70-mile section to Cerro Sombrero.

This is the last dirt road of the main route, and I was determined to try and enjoy it. Over the past few weeks since my fall I've started to hate riding on the dirt, the loose gravel sections the cause of a fair amount of pain. But I used to love them, and have very fond memories of the Dalton Highway, the 17-mile dirt road ride the day after the heavy drinking at Beaver Creek, the Moki Dugway and Valley of the Gods, etc. Knowing that this road was in good condition on the way down helped, but I was wary of how quickly these roads can change as a result of bad weather or roadworks. Picking a line on the hard-packed mud and avoiding the light sprinkling of loose gravel at the roadsides I upped my pace, riding at a comfortable 55-60 mph, sat down as the road was flat enough and almost devoid of potholes. The road had more traffic on it than on the way down, and I had to overtake a few lorries and a 4x4, the lorries going slowly and the 4x4 a little faster. This continued for a fair distance until I encountered the stretch of loose gravel I remembered from the way up, which covered about 2 miles and slowed my pace down to around 30mph, the waggling of the handlebars causing pain in my shoulder and causing me to worry it might develop into a full-on tank-slapper, where they go one way then the other uncontrollably. Fortunately it didn't, but my reduced pace meant that the 4x4 caught me back up and passed me. When we got clear of the loose gravel I was able to up my pace again, catching the 4x4 back up and re-passing it again. The additional challenge of overtaking made the journey fly by, and I really started to enjoy myself. At one point I passed a large lorry that had toppled into the ditch at the side of the road, with another lorry parked alongside it offering assistance. Seems even the lorry drivers can get target fixation and ride into ditches...

As I got further North the terrain either side of the road opened out and there were guanacos grazing by the roadside. These deer-like animals get spooked by the approaching bike and take off, sometimes straight into the fields, othertimes straight across the road and present a real hazard. Spotting them is not always easy, as they're pretty well camouflaged.


Gaunacos...


But I was on my game and didn't have any problems, making good time and arriving at the hotel around 4pm. There was no-one at the check-in desk, but the room list and keys were there, so I grabbed the key to my room (the same one I'd been in 5 nights ago) and made my way there. Looking in the room I saw some coats on my bed, so returned to reception and found the woman who I asked about the coats. She came back to the room with me and then started to wake the small child than had been sleeping under the coats, who then proceeded to scream the house down. Needless to say that once word of me waking a small child in my bedroom got to the group there was a fair amount of mickey-taking, Aaron keen to try and get his own back for all the penguin jibes...

Also staying in the hotel is a group of mostly German bikers on one of the Moto Aventura trips run in conjunction with Edelweiss. Moto Aventura were the folk that sorted out our tyres in Osorno, and it was good to see them again. Dinner was a set meal again, this time salmon which I struggled to eat (I'm not a great fan of salmon). As today is Finn's last day with us before he heads for home, we toasted his contribution with a decent bottle of red. And so to bed around 10.30pm, hoping that I can lie-in in the morning as we have another late departure (10am) as we head across the ferry and back into Argentina – our last border crossing...

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Goodbye Finn...

Despite having a lumpy cushion instead of a pillow and a bed that has obviously seen more action than I'd care to think about I slept well, and when I woke at 6am as usual I simply had a pee and went back to bed and slept for another hour. With no windows in the room, when the bathroom door was shut it was like the black hole of Calcutta, so much so that even when I'd got up and showered and left the room, Jim continued to sleep... With an hour to kill before breakfast started and almost 3 before departure, I wrote up the blog ready for when I had an Internet connection, and took my time packing the bike. Then I had a very leisurely breakfast and chatted to some of the guys, the conversation inevitably turning to going home – something I think we're all beginning to look forward to, some more than others. There have been comments made that it seems daft to ride up to Buenos Aires when we could have (in theory) shipped the bikes from Ushuaia and flown home, but I think that misses the point somewhat... this is a motorcycle expedition and starts and finishes in big cities convenient for the top-to-bottom section of the ride. There's also a lot to see between here and BA, including, hopefully, some penguins...

When the group was finally ready Kevin led us off in convoy to the ferry, so that we could all say goodbye to Finn when he took the left turn to Punto Arenas whilst we went right to the North. Gerald had a puncture but Jeff soon fixed it and he joined us in the queue for the ferry in plenty of time to board. Unlike our first crossing, the upper decks from where we'd watched the dolphins was cordoned off, so we initially just stood on the open deck chatting. When the ferry got into the middle of the Straits, the swell was terrific, causing it to rock from side to side noticeably. The lorries were swaying on their suspension and we were initially concerned that the bikes would rock off their side-stands. Chris was so concerned about Late Guy's bike that he spent the entire crossing pushing against it!


Watching the bikes on the ferry across the Straits of Magellan...


When we disembarked we only had a short ride to the T-junction where we'd lose Finn, and so with handshakes all round we bid him farewell. When he first joined our group I questioned whether he could get a real sense of what our trip has been about by spending such a short time with us, but I think he has. For a start he's spent a lot of time getting to hear our stories as well as riding with us to experience what the riding days are like. Then he's joined us for dinner and drinks, sharing our “down-time” too. And he got to ride with us to Ushuaia, and whilst I don't think he came close to experiencing the emotions we did, he certainly witnessed it, as his photos show. I still stand by my opinion that it's impossible to get a full understanding of what this trip is like without doing it, but I do think he's got sufficient insight to write a decent article or two... if you can get a copy of the Irish Sunday World, then read his Bike Torque column and judge for yourself (you can find the latest article online at the Sunday World website.

Having waved him off we set off once more, the group quickly fragmenting along the usual lines as the faster riders sped off into the distance whilst the slower ones were still getting themselves ready to depart. The ride to the destination town of Rio Gallegos was short – just a further 50 or so miles, and so we arrived early and then had most of the afternoon to while away. I did the usual things, glad of a decent Internet connection so I could chat to Tracy and post the blog, then went for a wander round town to get some painkillers and water for the long ride tomorrow. The town was a complete contrast to most places we've stayed at, being very run-down and with litter blowing across the dirty streets. The hotel was decidedly out of place but I never did discover what would warrant a decent hotel in a shit-hole town like this. The only other interesting place I found was the “British Club” a restaurant/club on the main street, more of which later...

Back at the hotel we had yet another of our regular meetings, this time to run through the final few days as we head towards Buenos Aires and the requirements for photocopies of our bike permits and every page of our passports (whether used or not). When the meeting concluded Julia mentioned that if anyone was looking for a good restaurant then the British Club just around the corner was worth a try, and it had “beef curry” on the menu. As it didn't open until 8.30pm (it was now 6.15pm) I went to my room for a snooze before joining the group to go and sample the club's delights. First disappointment was the menu, which included “Lomo al Curry” sausages, but no beef curry (lomo is beef). Second disappointment was that they had run out of langoustines so the “hot stir-fried prawns” were also off... I ordered the sausage anyway and that's when I had my third disappointment as there was only one “lomo al curry” one and 2 chicken ones... the fourth disappointment was the sausages themselves, which were poor and didn't taste of curry... I won't list all my other disappointments, but suffice to say my main course of thai-style mixed seafood wasn't thai-style and the seafood element wasn't that good... dessert, a chocolate mousse with brandy tasted more like Angel Delight and hadn't the slightest hint of alcohol. Good job I'd chosen the wine, which was an excellent 3 bottles of Latitdue 33 Malbec between 4 of us at our end of the table.

But the poor meal was more than made up for when we heard that there was someone in the bar that wanted to chat to us. It was an old gent, Colin Jameson (71) who was the grandson of the chap who started the settlement of British (mostly Scottish) families in the area in 1870. His story was fascinating, as he recounted how his grandfather, who had been a sailor shipping prisoners to Australia had landed at Rio Gallegos when it was just a river (no port) and decided it would be a great place to settle. He returned to the UK and got together between 30 and 40 families and then brought them to Argentina aboard his ship. However, he miscalculated and landed some 100 Km north, running deep into the river mouth on the high tide before getting stuck on the mudbanks when the tide retreated. The families went ashore, but realising it wasn't Rio Gallegos said they wanted to leave, but his grandfather then waded out to the ship and put two holes in it with an axe... stranded the families settled and created huge farms many of which are still worked by their descendants today. Colin then went on to explain that the British Club had been founded in 1911 as a social club for all the British immigrants in the area and currently has around 180 members. We listened intently as he told us about how he dealt with any tension that might have arisen in 1982 during the Falklands conflict, when he signed a letter stating that no member of the club would interfere – and then got the governor of the province to sign stating that no action would be taken against the club's members. This neat move meant that the club could carry on as normal and it didn't so much as get a window broken. Time was getting on and we'd drunk our whiskies so we made to leave, and then Colin produced an old dusty visitor's book and asked Kevin to sign... alongside all the dignitaries, politicians, celebrities and other worthy folk dating back to 1951 (this being the 2nd volume, the 1st dates back to the club's founding in 1911). When Kevin had scrawled in the book, we said our goodbyes and went back to the hotel for the inevitable nightcap. A couple of very large whiskies to help me sleep (not that I need help!) and then off to bed... at 2am with a 6.30am get-up and an 8am departure ahead of a 470+mile riding day... very sensible!

Monday, 30 November 2009

Battling the wind on Ruta 3

Despite all the alcohol I woke up feeling fresh and looking forward to spending a long day in the saddle. It's been a long time since we last rode a long distance on tarmac roads, and I was keen to get going. After a quick breakfast I loaded up the bike and plugged in my MP3 player and set off just before the official departure time of 8am. Late Guy followed me out of the car park but then when I turned right at a roundabout to go out of town following the route notes, he went straight on. When I couldn't find any signs for places on the route I was taking, I questioned whether I'd made the wrong turn and so turned back to ride further out of town the way we'd come in, and the way Late Guy had gone. As I was riding back South, Late Guy was coming back towards me, obviously thinking he'd got it wrong too. When I stopped again I concluded I was right the first time and so rode back towards town and the roundabout, overtaking Late Guy who was still looking confused. On the way back into town I saw one sign pointing the way I went originally and I kept going until I eventually found another sign some miles out of town confirming I was on the right road. All that had wasted a good half hour, and with over 470 miles to ride I was looking at a very long day...

The ride wasn't the most inspiring of the trip, as the road (Ruta 3) was almost arrow-straight as it headed due North. It passed through miles and miles of barren moorland, dotted with the occasional ragged-looking sheep. The sky was simply huge, the flat landscape allowing it to touch the horizon all around creating the impression I was riding over the top of a high plateau even though I was almost at sea level. With heavy grey clouds to the South and white clouds hiding the sun to the North even the sky wasn't the most interesting to look at. At least the wind kept me busy, blowing constantly from West to East, forcing me to ride with the bike leaned over a good 10 degrees. It wasn't a gusting wind, but it was relentless, forcing me to lean my head into it as though trying to resist an angry giant's head-lock.


The vast nothingness of Ruta 3...


The only real respite from the wind came with the fuel stops, which were by necessity more frequent than normal, the strong wind and constant speed increasing my fuel consumption dramatically. At the second stop I met some of the others, including Aaron who was chatting to a guy from San Francisco who had ridden his Harley sportster all the way down and was heading to Ushuaia. At least he'd avoided the rough dirt roads we'd taken and sensibly stuck to the main highways. With over 150 miles still to go and no further fuel stops, Aaron said he was concerned about his fuel lasting, so I said I'd follow him in case he ran out. So I at least had someone to ride with for the last few hours, as we battled with the wind. When the road dropped down to the coast and ran along the side of a bay the wind picked up even more, blowing us across the road and necessitating us riding with the bikes pushed over into the wind. As each truck passed in the opposite direction we'd get a few seconds of calm before getting blasted again as we emerged from the side of the truck back into the wind. It was highly comical, watching Aaron get blown around before doing exactly the same myself. At one stage the road followed the shoreline and headed due East, the wind behind us, and it was only then that we were able to relax our necks, the giant releasing his head-lock for a short while...

Finally we arrived in Comodoro Riveradia and made our way to the hotel, parking the bikes in the underground car park before checking in. I had made excellent progress, sticking at a constant 80-ish despite the wind, and so arrived around 4pm, having covered almost 480 miles in just 8 hours, including stops. But I was tired, and so the evening was a fairly subdued affair, just a pizza from a restaurant around the corner from the hotel and an early night...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Penguins and Welsh villages...

Wow... December already... and I've still managed to avoid seeing any Christmas trees or hearing any cheesy Christmas tunes...

With another good day's riding ahead, and the prospect of seeing penguins if we took a detour en-route, I was once again up early and keen to get moving. We'd agreed that as Aaron's previous penguin-watching trip had ended without seeing penguins, that I would lead a small group to the penguin colony at Punta Tombo and take responsibility for ensuring they saw penguins. The first part of the ride was similar to yesterday, battling a strong cross-wind on a long straight section of Ruta 3. We had one brief stop in the first 190 miles, for those with smaller fuel tanks to top up and so we could use the facilities, getting back on the road without so much as a cup of coffee. Riding in convoy with me leading were Aaron, Nick, Al, Pertti and sometimes Late Guy, although as usual he chose to ride his own pace, dropping back from the group. When we reached the turn-off onto the dirt road leading to Punta Tombo and the penguins, he was nowhere to be seen. As we were now on dirt, I told Aaron and Pertti to go ahead, as they both love the dirt and ride like demons possessed by... err.. more demons. The road was horrible, though, mostly loose gravel and with very little evidence of tracks that we could ride on. It was like the worst sections of Ruta 40 all over again, as the bikes wobbled one way then the other, the tyres skitting over the stones and struggling for grip. Coupled with the strong winds it made for a difficult and painful ride – for me because the bike bucking twisted my back, for Nick because the constant jarring sent waves of pain up his wrist which is still not right after his fall on the Dalton, and for Al because of his foot which is still sore from when he dropped his bike on it. What a lot of cripples we are...

After about 40 miles of the gravel we came to a junction with tarmac ahead and more dirt to the right, marking the entrance to Punta Tombo. The road ahead would be our way out and had until recently been gravel, the fact it was now tarmac cheering the 3 of us up no end. But we still had a further 22 Km (13 miles) to do before we arrived at the penguin colony, the road now thankfully showing clear tracks and allowing us to relax a little. Finally we arrived at the car park and entrance to the colony, parked up and paid the entrance fee and then walked along the gang-planks to see the penguins... of which there were THOUSANDS! All over the landscape, underneath bushes, in holes in the ground, waddling across the sand, or just laying flat out resting in the weak sunshine. Some with chicks, others with eggs, and none really bothered by the constant stream of tourists walking the pathways between their nests, poking cameras in their faces. And boy, were they cute...


Who you lookin' at?


Mummy penguin and chick...


Penguin army...


We wandered round for well over an hour watching and photographing the penguins and their surroundings. Some images images were odder than the rest, like this one – remind you of the fairground game where you have to hit moles emerging from holes with a hammer?


Penguins in their holes...


Or this one, as it's not every day you see sheep and penguins together...


Something you don't see every day... Penguins and Sheep together...


When we were done penguin watching we grabbed a coffee and some lunch in the cafeteria and then made to set off. As Al and I were running low on fuel he got Jeff to top him up (I had my extra 2ltrs on the bike) and then we were on our way, riding cautiously along the 22Km of dirt road before getting to the tarmac and making our way across to Ruta 3 again. I stopped and emptied my reserve fuel into my tank as it was clear I wouldn't make it to the next petrol station at Trelew. As it was I still didn't make it even with the extra 2 ltrs in the tank, running out just 4 miles from town. Jeff stopped and topped me up. I had managed just 309 miles on 32 litres of fuel.... hardly great when my normal range is well over 325 on just the 30 litres in the tank. When we'd filled up properly we decided to take another detour, this time to visit a Welsh settlement called Gaiman just west of Trelew. This strange little village is famous for keeping the Welsh traditions (tea, welsh cakes, black pudding, etc) of the early settlers who came to this area in 1865. But first, we got lost in Trelew and had to get a guy in a red pick-up to show us the way back to the main road, something that involved going up several gravel back-streets including one the wrong way (most were one-way). When we finally arrived, the Welsh tea houses we saw were closed, so we settled for a large ice-cream and sat in the sunshine, it now noticeably warmer than it had been all day.


Welsh tea house, Gaiman, Argentina...


By now it was getting late, already gone 5pm, so we set off once more into the wind, battling our way the remaining 45 miles to Puerto Madryn and our hotel on the ocean-front. Once checked in and showered we met up in the bar to discuss the arrangements for tomorrow, when we want to take a boat out to see whales. Following my success at getting us to see penguins I volunteered to arrange the tour and spoke to the agent on the phone. I booked a car to pick us up at 10am and then a 2hr boat journey in the bay, reassured by the agent that there were still whales in the area. With that sorted we went to a local restaurant for dinner. I ordered the steak, but when it came it was cold so I sent it back, the 2nd one was much better and cooked perfectly. As usual we had some nice wine to wash it down with, and then failed miserably to walk past the bar next door on our way to the hotel, a failure that resulted in yet another late night... good job we're not on the boat first thing in the morning...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Having a whale of a time...

With the excitement of the whale-watching trip ahead I still woke early despite a sore throat brought on by too many mojitos (I blame Aaron for introducing us to that particular drink, although it is very nice), although my early start was also due to Jim getting up very early once again. Aftera small breakfast with lots of fresh orange juice I went back to my room and updated the blog before heading down to the lobby at “Cowboy Time” (ten to ten) to meet the other intrepid whale-watchers. Our little party of Aaron, Nick, Phil, Simon, Late Guy and Pertti was joined by Julia, getting a very rare day off while Kevin continued to work on preparations for our arrival in BA and the freighting of the bikes home. She was bubbling with excitement, partly as a result of being let off the leash, but also at the prospect of seeing whales – she'd done the same trip in 2005 and not seen any... so, no pressure on me to deliver then!

Just before ten our guide, who introduced himself as “Popeye”, arrived and we all clambered into the back of our minibus for the journey from Puerto Madryn to Puerto Pyramid where our boat would be sailing from. The journey took just over an hour to cover the 100Km, and during that time we chatted and Popeye explained a little about the whales. Well, he gave us 2 interesting facts anyway. First, that you can tell the difference between fish and mammals (whales and dolphins being mammals not fish) by the way they move their tails – fish move side to side, mammals up and down. Second was that you can tell if a mammal has teeth (to bite you with!) by the number of blow-holes – one and it does, two and it doesn't. At least I think that's what he said...

We arrived at the port a little after 11am and so had an hour to kill before the boat was due to depart at noon, so we wandered off to grab a coffee. Being another self-organised tour it presented another opportunity to take the mickey out of Aaron for the penguin-mishap and so Simon presented him with a little pottery penguin...


Aaron with yet another reminder of his penguin tour disaster...


Naturally, I was now keeping very quiet in case we didn't see any whales...

Just before noon we wandered back to where Popeye was checking on the boat situation and he re-appeared bearing bad news. The authorities had closed the port due to the conditions out in the ocean (it did look pretty choppy from the shore). But they were expecting the wind to change direction and things to calm down so we were advised to wait until 1pm and return then. I remained confident that we'd get out and see whales and re-assured the rest of our little group. As the weather was improving we decided to wait and passed the hour walking along the beach, or relaxing in the sunshine. I took a photo of the boat on the beach just in case that was as close as we got...


Would this take us to see the whales?


Just before 1pm we wandered back to where Popeye was checking on the boat situation again and once again he re-appeared bearing bad news. The port was still closed, but the weather was improving, and to come back at 2pm when they thought there was a chance the port would be re-opened. We could see the weather was improving as the ocean, which was filled with white-horses when we arrived, the waves breaking as far out as we could see, was now almost mill-pond calm. As we still had time to wait and do the boat-trip and still get back to the hotel before the time fort the group quiz, we agreed to wait and went in search of lunch. As I wasn't hungry I abstained, and was very glad I did as the meals the others got looked terrible. And so we waited another hour, passing the time any way we could.

Just before 2pm we wandered back to where Popeye was checking on the boat situation and this time he emerged with a big grin and thumbs-up... we would be going in 10 minutes! The relief was quickly replaced by child-like excitement as we put on our life-jackets, and Simon put on a rather attractive poncho (the rest of us brought our bike waterproofs)... he looked like one of Santa's helpers...


Simon, ready to head out to sea...


We boarded the boat and it was pushed back into the ocean, then the engines started and we left the trailer behind and headed out into open water. The excitement was reaching fever pitch, Julia sat next to me smiling broadly and repeating “we're going to see some whales” over and over again. What happened next will remain in my memory for ever as one of the most moving experiences I've ever had. First, we caught sight of a whale just off the starboard bow (the right side and where I was sat), then the captain switched the engines off and we glided closer. Just as we got within 30 feet of where we'd seen the whale, a huge mother and her calf surfaced, blowing spray from their blowholes just a few yards from our boat...


Whales ahoy...


The mood on the boat changed in that instant, from child-like exuberance to quiet awe. Everyone on board was entranced by these wonderful creatures, who seemed completely unfazed by our presence. Rather than swim away, they decided to play a while, swimming close to the boat, surfacing and putting on a display for us. The mother kept moving the calf closer, encouraging her offspring to explore our boat, and whilst for the most part they avoided any actual contact, they did bump into us gently once or twice. It's impossible for me to describe quite how humbling an experience it was to watch this display of nature at its finest for over half an hour, so I'll once again let just a few of the countless pictures I took paint the scene (captions available by hovering over each image)...


How close would you like? Mother encourages her calf to the surface...


Mother and calf at play...


Watching you watching me...


The calf's whale-tail...


The display was magical but it had to end at some stage and finally mother and calf submerged and swam off. As they did, the chatter in the boat returned as everyone tried to share their personal experiences with each other at once. Quite simply stunning...

We then set off into deeper water where we hoped to see some more whales, but as the season is coming to an end – the Souther Right Whales come to this area to breed and leave in early December – there were not many about. We did get sight of one more, a lone youngster heading back out into the deep ocean, travelling at a fair old pace, the tail emerging from the water as it dived deeper to gain speed, affording me my one chance to capture that iconic image... and I almost got it too...


Whale tail...


Finally it was time to turn round and head towards the shore, stopping briefly to admire the shape of the rock that gives Puerto Pyramid its name and to see where the sea lions breed (which in turn attracts the whales, including Orcas). There was only one sea-lion there today, a huge great big fella fast asleep on a rock... remind you of anyone?


Sea Lion resting...


Back on shore we wandered back to where Popeye was waiting, our smiles revealing the success of the trip, and handed back the life-jackets. I don't recall much of the journey back to town as I fell asleep, as did the rest of the group, exhausted from being outside in the fresh air and sunshine and mentally drained by the whale-watching. Once back at the hotel I had just half an hour to load up yesterday's blog and have a quick chat with Tracy before heading down to the bar area for the “Globebusters Trans-Am 2009 Quiz”...

With teams allocated randomly (I was teamed up with Jim and Ed) the quiz comprised some 40 questions ranging from “what was the name of the town we stayed in after this picture?” to “what were the names of the people who didn't do the naked swim in the Arctic?”. Some, like “how many golf balls could the world's largest truck carry?” were clearly designed to identify those in the group with anally-retentive memories... I was pleasantly surprised by how many I could answer, as I was prevented from referring to my blog and my memory is terrible. And we didn't come last. Just. I think someone wasn't counting up correctly, but that's probably because I don't like losing... The girls team won, no surprise really as they had Lorraine and she is a mine of interesting facts about everywhere we go (we often refer to “Lorraining it” as opposed to “Googling”). With the quiz over we went out for dinner, a quiet affair as we were still tired from the boat trip. A plate of curried prawns (don't get excited, in these parts “curry” means very slightly flavoured with very mild curry powder) and a bottle of Aqua sin gas (water). See, a dry day. And a relatively early night too...

Tomorrow is the start of the final 3 days riding to Buenos Aires... it's all getting a little bit emotional...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

A beautiful day for a ride...

Back on the road again, with a relatively short 275 mile ride up Ruta 3 to Viedma. After the usual pre-departure routine of showering, packing, breakfasting and blogging were done I set off with Nick, him leading for a change. Unfortunately he missed the turning leading to the road out of town having misread the route notes and so I found myself on Ruta 3 alone. I pulled over and waited until Nick arrived, then tagged on behind and we rode together out into the barren and flat countryside once more. Under a very bright blue sky, dotted with fluffy white clouds (a sky that I always think of as a “Simpsons' sky” as it reminds me of the start of The Simpson) we rode at a steady, relaxed 70-75 mph. I'd recharged my MP3 player and set it to shuffle mode, so had a very eclectic mix of tunes to sing along to as we continued on our merry way. Initially the wind was strong and blustery – the tunes in my ears sometimes very apt, such as “The Wind Cried Mary” and “Blowin' in the Wind” - but then it settled down as we got further north. After 90-odd miles we stopped to refuel and grab a coffee, the pair of us in very relaxed and happy moods, just glad to be riding bikes on such a beautiful day, even if the road itself was uninspiring. After another couple of hours of cruising I noticed that the roadside markers, which count down the distance to Buenos Aires (the start of Ruta 3) in kilometres, were getting close to the 1,000Km to go point. That gave me an excuse to stop and get off the bike, quietly reflecting once again on just how far we've come and how little we have left to do...


Just 1,000Km to Buenos Aires and the end of the trip...


I soon caught Nick up again, as he'd also stopped by the roadside for a quiet moment having noticed I was no longer in his mirrors. He asked me to lead the remaining 40 miles or so to the hotel, which I was happy to do. When we set off I noticed another headlight in my mirrors, Simon having caught us up and tagged on behind. Entering Viedma we stopped for fuel and then found the hotel by the river very easily, the route being pretty simple. Once unloaded we put the bikes in the garage round the back and then arranged to meet up again in half an hour or so to go and get some lunch, as it was now getting on for 2pm. We were joined by Aaron (who had arrived first despite setting off almost last as he was on a mission) and Pertti (also exercising the throttle a little) and decided to cross the river to the town of Carmen de Patagones which is often referred to as the “old town” despite both being founded by Francisco de Viedma y Narváez in 1779 (originally both were called Carmen de Patagones, Viedma being named as a separate town in 1879. Crossing the river was not as simple as walking across a bridge (which would have taken a while as the river is about 300m wide). It involves getting a little ferry that continually goes from the jetty opposite out hotel to one on the other side. Now this ferry is more like a canal boat than a ferry – as you can see in the picture below – the ferry is the boat coming in to dock...


Ferry across the Rio Negro...


Despite its small size the ferry is pretty efficient and got us across without incident. Once on the other side we went into the Tourist Information office to get a map and enquire about restaurants, only to be told the town was having a siesta. They weren't kidding either, as all the shops were closed and apart from some schoolchildren and a few teenagers there was hardly anyone about. We did find a hotel restaurant open eventually, and I had a pretty decent hamburger followed by a very good chocolate mousse (I was intending to eat only once and skip dinner later). When done we wandered back in the hot sunshine (it's getting warm again as we head North) to the ferry and our return trip across the Rio Negro (black river) to the hotel...


Inside the ferry, Simon watches intently in case the driver reaches for his prayer beads...


Back at the hotel I retired to the room for a mid-afternoon snooze, and slept soundly for a good hour before waking up and remembering the meeting we had scheduled for 7pm. Downstairs in the hotel bar the group assembled to hear Kevin explain the next few days as we arrive in Buenos Aires and start the process of getting the bikes cleared through customs and into the freight container that will then be shipped back to the UK, arriving some time late January or early February. With Kevin and the Globebusters team taking care of most things it all sounds relatively straightforward, and with any luck we'll actually get a day or so to explore Buenos Aires and to relax in the sun before returning to cold, wet, miserable England...

Once the meeting was over we set off for a walk round the town, grabbing a beer in a pavement bar and people-watching (the one thing that did strike me was the number of Cirtroen 2CVs with wide wheels, we must have seen at least 3). A short walk later found us in a pizza/pasta restaurant where several others from the group were finishing off their meals, Ozzy Andy raving about the “Lomo in Whisky and Langoustine Salsa” he'd just had. So I ordered that and it was truly delicious. So much for my one-meal a day plan. But at least my alcohol intake was low again, not quite a dry day (2 glasses of wine with dinner for those that are counting!). I'm trying to detox a little before the inevitable excesses of the first 2 nights in Buenos Aires...

Friday, 4 December 2009

Lazy starts and late nights...

With a very short day of just 240 miles on straight roads I was determined to have a lie in and a relaxing start. Unfortunately Jim had arranged for an early morning wake-up call for 6am, so that put paid to that idea, although I did snooze until 7am before finally getting up. I did pack very leisurely, though, ditching some of my older t-shirts as I lighten the load ready for the flight home. I then ate a very leisurely breakfast, which was quite hard as there was very little on offer from the buffet, just the usual ham and cheese or toast. By the time I was ready to go it was getting on for 10am, and most of the group had gone. Nigel was having trouble getting his bike to start, as it's developed a fault whereby the onboard computer thinks the engine is already running when it isn't. Jeff soon sorted it out by waggling the wires on the gearbox sensor, though. Just as I was getting ready to leave a cameraman and young woman holding a microphone appeared and spoke to Ozzy Andy, who doesn't speak a word of Spanish and passed them off to Chris, who was sat waiting for the van to leave (Danielle and he are back riding in the van after Julia lent him her bike to get to Ushuaia). Whilst he was being interviewed I left, revving the engine a little more than usual just for the camera....

Riding alone again I easily found my way out of town and back onto Ruta 3, the road still very straight as it cut through yet more mamba country. With a perfectly clear blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon all around, and some good tunes playing in my helmet, I was as happy as Larry (whoever he is!). With an empty road ahead I rode quickly, enjoying the freedom from the oppressive speed-camera obsessed traffic-congested UK. So quickly in fact that after just 160 miles I had to stop for fuel, having used up 23 litres in such a short distance. I put the poor fuel economy down to a strong wind as well as my heavy right wrist... When filled up I popped into the café where Gerald, Tony and Phil were busy tucking into double-egg and chips. Without further ado I ordered a plate and a bottle of water and within minutes was stuffing my face with culinary delight. It's amazing how such a simple meal can be so pleasurable when you've been eating in restaurants for 19 weeks...

Back on the road I continued my rapid pace and before long was heading towards the hills and the final hotel before Buenos Aires. I arrived much earlier than planned, around 1.30pm, having covered the full 240 miles in under 3.5 hours, including a stop for lunch. My room was ready so I unpacked and showered, then did the usual blogging before going outside for a wander when I heard the sound of other bikes arriving.


Final hotel before Buenos Aires...


I joined Ed in the restaurant where he was enjoying a salad and a beer, and we chatted about his collection of classic motorcycles whilst enjoying a beer or two. I did manage to drag myself away to the room briefly to drop my laptop off before returning ready for the final “Gold Star” award ceremony which was to be held before dinner. If you recall, this was introduced by Nigel as a counter to the Prat Hat (which died a death in Futaleufu when it got burnt) and is awarded to any group member who does something “above and beyond”. Nigel as the instigator of the award was master of ceremonies, and having collected in the nominations in a secret ballot proceeded to read them out...


Nigel hosting the Gold Star Awards...


My favourite was the nomination that said the whole group deserved the award for all the little things we've all done for each other that has meant we are the first Trans AM trip to get everyone who started to Ushuaia (albeit with Danielle no longer riding). But as they say there can be only one winner, and (drum roll, please) the winner of the Trans Am 2009 Gold Star Award is....


… Chris – for without a second's consideration offering his bike up to be cannibalised so that Ozzy Andy could once again ride (he used Chris' rear swingarm and front wheel), Pertti could replace his knackered rear shock and Nigel could benefit from a fresh tyre when his was damaged. Whilst I think Chris would much rather his bike had been repaired following his crash, there is no doubt that his generosity helped other riders get to Ushuaia, and so he was a worthy winner.


Chris, Trans AM 2009 Gold Star winner...


With the ceremony complete we assembled for dinner, ordering a second bottle of wine to follow the one we'd drunk during the ceremony. The food was excellent, even if I did swap the steak I ordered for Aaron's stir-fried beef as he wasn't keen on it and I love stir-fry. There was also another bottle of wine at some stage, perhaps even 2 more, as I proceeded to continue the tradition that has developed on the trip of drinking way too much the night before a long ride. And with 370 miles into Buenos Aires and an early departure (7.30am) it didn't occur to me to break the tradition. After all, this was the last night before a ride as tomorrow is the last riding day... even the two very large whiskies we had as a nightcap couldn't take away the sense of occasion....

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The Ride, Ridden...

I was woken up by the sound of Nick talking loudly in the corridor about the “bus that hit me last night” a reference to the whisky no doubt... at first I cursed him for waking me up, but then I caught sight of my watch and the time... 7.15am... just 15 minutes to departure time! I was up and showered and outside packing the bike in record time, but still feeling the after-effects of the night before. One of these days I'll learn, but not on this trip... as today is the last riding day....

With waterproofs on as it had started to rain, a constant heavy drizzle, I got on my bike and left, not quite last as Pertti was still getting ready whilst all the others had gone. The first section of the ride was on quick but damp roads, gently winding over the hills before they were left behind and the road straightened out. Riding at a fast but comfortable pace I caught up the main group after just 65 miles, then stopped for a drink of water and some peanuts in lieu of the breakfast I'd missed. I then continued on my way, catching the group again after a further 30 miles or so, as they were riding at a conservative 60 mph. We arrived at the fuel stop with Julia's bike showing -4 miles on her range, which explained why they were riding so slowly. Filled up with fuel and coffee and with some snacks in my system I set off again, this time ahead of the group so I could set my own pace. With the open road ahead and my head clear, I settled into the ride, relishing this last opportunity to enjoy the delights of riding in this continent for the last time, even if it was raining and cold. The route-notes referred to a restaurant where we should stop for lunch and to re-group to allow is all to ride into Buenos Aires together, but said it was just after the town of Las Flores at 297 miles – only Las Flores was at less than 200 miles and the restaurant was nowhere to be seen. After riding around for a little while I saw Aaron heading back out of town and after a quick chat we decided to continue riding until we hit the mileage and see if we could locate the restaurant. It seemed the notes had confused the town's name, as on 297 miles we found the restaurant and pulled up outside. Just as we did so I noticed that the noisy bike I had heard which I assumed was Aaron's was actually mine, the exhaust having split just ahead of the silencer. Good job we only had 70 more miles to ride...


The split in my exhaust...


We went inside the restaurant and organised the staff, who were all well into their old-age, to lay tables for all 25 of us, and no sooner had they done so than the group started rolling in. Lunch took an eternity to arrive, my ravioli being the last despite me arriving first, and it wasn't worth the wait. When we'd all eaten and settled the bill we went back out into the rain and started the final leg of this incredible journey. Riding in one large group for the last time we rode the remaining 70 miles to Buenos Aires, the sound of my exhaust almost drowning out the tunes in my helmet. Riding near the back I had a great view of the group, riding in perfect staggered formation. The roads into Buenos Aires got wider and the traffic heavier as we passed through a number of toll booths and headed for the city centre. Soon we were riding along Avenida 9 De Julio, the world's widest road. This is an entire city-block wide and took us deep into the heart of the city, before we turned off and a couple of turns later were pulling into the underground car park of the hotel. Down the slippery ramp and into a parking space and then finally switching off the bike. The ride, all the way from Anchorage to Buenos Aires via the top and bottom of the world, finally over.

There was one last sting in the tail, though, as Aaron dropped his bike at the top of the ramp. Both he and the bike were undamaged, but there was a certain irony in his misfortune. We'd had Ed drop his just before the start and now we'd had a similar drop at the very end.

The car park was then filled with noisy congratulations, more man-hugs and handshakes, but this time no tears, just signs of relief on the faces of the group. We were also greeted by some of the Patagonia group, including Santa Phil (who'd brought my starter motor to Santiago) and Van Al (who we'd last seen in Chile before my off). A quick celebratory beer and then to the room for a warm shower and a rest before dinner. We'd arranged to go to a meat restaurant a few blocks from the hotel and the food was very good, although I couldn't eat my steak as I think I've had too much red meat lately. The evening was a little subdued, none of the noisy excesses of the night before, the group in a contemplative mood, reflecting on the fact that the ride was now over. With just the process of getting the bikes through customs and onto the boat home to sort before we all depart for our homes and return to our previous lives...

Which is probably a good time for me to reflect on this amazing journey...

Over the past 19 weeks I have covered a total of 22,304 miles (21,304 on my bike allowing for the speedo error and 1,000 on Nick's following my off) through 13 countries (USA – 7 states: Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, Canada – 3 provinces: Yukon, British Columbia and Alberta, Mexico, Guatamala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Equador, Peru, Chile and Argentina) and 5 time zones. As part of the longest Trans_Am expedition to date, I have been part of a group that has seen everyone who started reach the end - a first, as previous Trans Ams have had to send at least one person home due to injury. Despite a number of fairly serious “offs” (mine, Nigel's, Gerald's, Simon's, Nick's) and a large number of other falls (only Kevin didn't drop his bike the entire trip) we only had one broken bone – and that wasn't really broken, just cracked (my rib). We've had bikes broken and repaired, and ended the trip with just one bike sent home (Danielle's after she hurt her wrist in Mexico, the bike sent back in Panama) and one ended in the van (Chris' after his crash – but it was cannibalised to get Andy's back on the road). I was lucky enough to be able to ride every single mile despite a number of problems with the bike (the fuel pipe disconnecting in Honduras and the starting problem) and my off (which meant I rode Nick's bike for 3 days until mine could be repaired).

I have seen how varied the landscape of a single continent can change, from vast snow-capped mountain ranges, bright blue and green lakes, forests both tropical or temperate, huge cultivated lands, isolated and deserted plains, deserts, and the beautiful oceans (Arctic, Pacific, Atlantic and Southern). I have seen all sorts of wildlife, including alpaca, bears, condors, dolphins, eagles, foxes, guanacos, hares, iguanas, jackrabbits, king salmon, llamas, moose, ospreys, penguins, rheas, scorpions, turtles, vicunas and whales. I have seen the people of the Americas change as we travelled the length of their continent – from the stocky hardy folk of Alaska through the tiny delicate people of Central America and Peru to the tall elegant people of Columbia and Argentina. I have seen the stark difference in the way people who share this land-mass live, from the extravagant consumerism of North America to the desperate poverty of the Peruvian desert. I have ridden all sorts of roads, from smooth tarmac, hard-packed dirt, gravel, sand (oops!) and rocks, into canyons and over mountains, through valleys and by the ocean. I have enjoyed and endured all types of weather, from hot sunshine through tropical humidity, high winds, torrential rain and freezing snow.

And all this whilst enjoying the company of my fellow travellers, who once were strangers and are now friends.

And the best bit of all is I did this whole journey on a motorcycle. A remarkable motorcycle. My 2005 BMW R1150 GS Adventure, affectionately known since La Esperanza, Honduras, when it was named by a passer-by, as “El Monstro”. It looks a lot worse for wear following the off, but has got me here to Buenos Aires. When I finally get it home I'll spend some time restoring it to its pre-accident condition and perhaps one day we'll set off again on another adventure... but for now, I think it deserves a rest even more than I do...

So what was it all about? Well, one way to describe it is that it was simply a long bike ride so I could put these 2 stickers on my panniers...


Was it really just about getting these 2 stickers?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Last Supper (or Group Meal)...

With the sun streaming through the open curtains from the wee small hours it was no surprise to hear Jim getting up and banging around as he got himself ready for the day ahead. When he'd gone to breakfast I got myself up and showered, unable to lie in any longer. After breakfast I went back to the room to sort out the blog for yesterday, whilst Jim went back to bed and slept. Around 11am I went downstairs and met up with Aaron, Nick, Pertti and Simon for our planned shopping trip, determined to at least try and find something suitable to take home. I failed, though, as it seems wrong to buy others souvenirs of places they've not been to, and I have sufficient memories (and stickers!) to not require additional tacky ornaments or ghastly t-shirts. After a cup of good coffee and a bottle of water in a café we wandered round town to Plaza San Martin where we planned to get a tour bus round the city to see the sights. Only the bus' audio system was broken and rather than take a trip round to see sights and not know what we were looking at, we gave up. Simon and Nick wandered off on a long walk, Pertti went shopping, Aaron had already returned to the hotel and I decided to do the same, my back starting to hurt from walking. I manage to find a large bag to pack my stuff in for the return journey and fully intended to practice packing when I got back to the room, but then decided to snooze instead. Which I did for most of the afternoon. Lazy or what!

At 6pm we had another meeting, to run through the process for freight (again) and then the group took over the meeting with Richard and Max presenting gifts on behalf of the group to a suitably embarrassed Kevin & Julia (a picture of them peering through the rusting hull of a boat signed by the entire group) and Jeff (a picture of him with the turtle in Nazca and a large wad of cash donated by the group)...


Kevin and Julia with their gift...


Jeff and his signed turtle pic...


After a few more speeches, including a very moving one from Gerald we started to drift off, and I went to get showered and changed ready for the group meal. Coming down in my best shirt I was confronted by some of the group, all wearing their “Globebusters Trans Americas 2009” t-shirts. It seemed that as Kevin had failed to buy a new shirt and jeans he'd declared it a team t-shirt evening. With my oversized (xxl) t-shirt in the wash I was given another one, and this time it fitted me. So with just Al not wearing his t-shirt (his reasons: he doesn't wear t-shirts and thinks that old men shouldn't and besides, crew necks don't suit him) the entire group hung around waiting for our coach to turn up. Eventually it did and we were whisked away to the Carlos Gardel theatre for our meal and entertainment. The place was packed with tourists and we had a long table leading back from the stage in the middle of the room. No sooner were we seated than the water and wine was poured and we were asked to make our selection from the menu. Ordering empenadas to start, chicken for main and chocolate mousse for dessert I wasn't expecting much, as with somewhere in the region of 600 people to feed before the show started the kitchen was going to be very busy. But they surprised us all, the food of a very good standard and served with military efficiency. Whilst we ate they showed a film (with no sound) of the history of tango, which seemed to be more a musical style than just a dance as I'd assumed.

No sooner had we finished the meal than the show started. With a small band consisting of a pianist, a chello, 2 violins and 3 accordions playing from a raised bandstand above the stage, we were treated to the most amazing display of dancing I've ever seen. The speed with which the dancers moved their legs, kicking them in between each other's was staggering. One couple performed a routine that would not have been out of place in a circus or gymnastics display, the guy spinning the girl round his back and over his shoulders, whilst she adopted poses with legs and arms our straight creating elegant lines. And all the time they looked deeply into each other's eyes, the dance very sensual and almost erotic. Sometimes I wish I hadn't got two left feet and no sense of rhythm... With flash photography banned, I couldn't get any great pictures, but can't let the evening pass without posting a couple to try and capture a little of the mood...


Tango...


Tango, Buenos Aires style...


The only downside to the show were the singers, who seemed to think they were the stars of the show but were really filling in whilst the dancers changed costumes. Singing what sounded like Spanish opera I thought they were terrible, but even they could not ruin what was a great evening's entertainment. As our last official group meal it had been excellent, and despite the red wine being on “free vend” I managed to prevent the waiter from constantly topping up my glass... another almost dry night? Well, I am preparing to come home!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Saying Goodbye to El Monstro...

Yet another early morning as the sun streamed through the window waking Jim up then I woke to the sound of him in the bathroom. Today is the final “real” day of the trip before I fly home on Wednesday, as we complete the process of getting the bikes into the hands of the freight agents and say goodbye to them for 6-7 weeks. First step in this process is to complete a “power of attorney” form with a local solicitor handing over legal control of the bikes so the local agents can deal with customs etc. This involves listing any personal effects being sent back with the bike (such as motorcycle boots, although I'm bringing mine home in case I need them), then signing an official form, and putting our signatures and thumb-prints in an official book. With that done the next step is to ride the bikes round to the docks and put them into the bonded warehouse. This naturally involves riding as a group through downtown Buenos Aires, and the chaotic traffic. The first stage of this journey is to line up all the bikes outside the hotel ready for the off, and so I fired up my incredibly loud bike (which effectively has no exhaust as it's split) in the underground car park and riding it up the very steep ramp onto the street. Naturally I revved the engine lots making a deafening racket and scaring the passers-by as they waited for the Messerscmitt to emerge from under the hotel... Once lined up we created the usual stir as people stared when wandering past, or stopped to chat... I'm really going to miss our “minor celebrity status”...


Lined up outside the hotel for the final ride...


When ready for the off we pulled out into the chaotic Buenos Aires traffic and riding in a very tight convoy managed to lose 14 bikes at the first set of traffic lights. They caught us up a little bit further up the road, and we stuck together closely until we arrived at the docks. The sound of my bike made this a little easier, as even the buses moved over when I blipped the throttle, the deafening racket causing the driver to think there was something much bigger than El Monstro coming through. Once at the docks we parked up whilst Kevin went to check with the warehousemen, who told us it would be 30mins to an hour before they had cleared a space in the warehouse for the bikes. With nothing to do we hung around chatting, well aware that the ride was now almost over and soon we'd be going our separate ways...


Hanging around with just a few hundred yards left to ride...


Finally we were given the all clear and rode the bikes the final few hundred yards into the warehouse. The local warehousemen gathered and took pictures on their phones as we arrived, many encouraging me to rev El Monstro so they could laugh at the noise. With the bikes all parked up we waited whilst Jeff unloaded Ozzy Andy's bike from the van (the parts swapped back with Chris's bike for the return journey, his bike being pushed into the warehouse) and put on a pallet. Then it was time to say farewell to El Monstro... an emotional moment for sure, as this battered bike starts its return journey to the UK having successfully carried me so very, very, far...


El Monstro in the warehouse ready to be shipped home...


Leaving the bikes and catching a taxi back to the hotel really did feel like the trip was over. Just as it had felt that it was about to start when I dropped it off at James Cargo's depot in Manchester all those weeks ago. Back at the hotel I whiled away some time doing nothing before meeting up with Aaron, Nick, Pertti and Late Guy to go out for dinner. I'd found a Thai restaurant and vodka bar in town that looked good and when I told Richard & Karen and Max & Christine they decided to join us, first we went to a local café where we'd had lunch and where they served draught beer for a couple before getting taxis across town to the restaurant. Once there, Richard started selecting some very nice vodkas for us to try, Aaron discovered some of the best mojitos ever, Pertti selected some very nice white wine and we all ate some fantastic Thai food (and for once it was proper spicy!). Eating and drinking with these wonderful people has been great fun over the past 19 weeks, and I'm really going to miss them...


Aaron enjoying himself...


After a great meal and with some of our party having perhaps had a little too much alcohol (I was still taking it easy) we wandered round the corner to the Orleans café for a coffee and to people watch. This is one of those cafés where the working girls hang out to pick up clients, which made for an entertaining few minutes before we left for the hotel. Nick, Late Guy and I walked whilst the rest fell into taxis, the night still warm. On the way back Nick started chatting with the guys sifting through the rubbish at the roadsides, bundling the cardboard into bales they could then recycle for cash... guess you just can't stop him thinking about the best ways to make money from scrap!

And so to bed, but first I snuck past a snoring Jim and closed the blackout-curtains... perhaps now I'll get a full night's sleep!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A day off in Buenos Aires...

The blackout curtain trick worked and I woke up at 9am to the sound of Jim still snoring. I quietly showered and went down to breakfast without disturbing him, and when he came down to breakfast about half an hour later looking refreshed he said what a good idea closing the curtains was...

With a full day in Buenos Aires and nothing much to do I arranged to go out sightseeing with Nick, Simon and Late Guy around lunchtime, giving me the remainder of the morning to chat to Tracy and to sort out my packing. Our focus for the sightseeing trip was La Recoleta cemetery, which sounds awfully morbid but wasn't really as the cemetery is more like a bizarre city of the dead than the usual mass of gravestones. Buried within the walled “city” are the most influential and important Argentinians from the late 1800s onwards, including several presidents, scientists, poets, celebrities and, its most famous internee, Maria Eva Duarte de Peron, otherwise known as Evita. And it really is a bizarre place, with individual mausoleums decorated with statues of angels mourning the dead, or pointing the way to heaven...


One of the more elaborate mausoleums...


Outside one was an angel giving a “Gerald wave” which made us giggle...


An angel giving a Gerald wave...


We wandered round this strange place for a good hour or so, marvelling at the money some families must have spent on places to store their dead folk, here in this most exclusive part of Buenos Aires. Evita's mausoleum was not very elaborate, but attracted by far the most attention and was one of the very few with fresh flowers...


Evita's final resting place...


After her death in 1952 her body disappeared as the military dictatorship tried to suppress the people and made it illegal for anyone to possess images of her or her husband (Juan Peron, the former president). In 1971 it was finally revealed that her body had been buried under another name in Milan and she was exhumed and kept in Juan Peron's home in Spain before he finally returned to Argentina in 1973, and Evita's body was then returned to Argentina and finally laid to rest in La Recoleta. It is little wonder therefore that this is the mausoleum that attracts by far the most attention...

After touring the cemetery we went and ate a delicious lunch in a pavement café under a blisteringly hot sun. A cool tuna salad and some very cold beer was most welcome, as was the opportunity for some more people-watching. With today being a national holiday in Argentina, there were plenty of people out in their finery, from “ladies who do lunch” to lovers wandering hand-in-hand (making me homesick again) to families out for a stroll in the sun.

Once suitably recovered from the walking Nick and I wandered back to the hotel, a further hour-long walk through the city that first involved crossing the Avenida de 9 Julio, the world's widest road, which fortunately has plenty of pedestrian crossings...


Crossing the world's widest road...


Once back at the hotel I spent some more time online chatting to Tracy before it was time to re-assemble downstairs to meet Pertti's girlfriend who had flown in from Finland and then head out to dinner with a large portion of the group. Yet another Argentinian “all you can eat and a bottle of wine each” meat restaurant, this time with the largest grill I've ever seen. There were 2 serving grills, each of which must have been 8ft long, and then a huge grill that extended the full length of the restaurant where they were cooking up whole herds of cows, flocks of lamb and broods of chickens...


Meat, anyone?


They also had a very large salad bar, so at least Max got to eat something too...

Once full to bursting point we settled the bill (about £13 each) and caught taxis back to the hotel with the intention of going to the nearby Irish Bar. Only that was closed due to the public holiday so we had to settle for a final beer in another bar before calling it a night around midnight.

And so that's almost it. Tomorrow I leave for my flight home, and should be back Thursday afternoon... the journey is almost over...

Friday, 11 December 2009

The last post... home at last...

Once again the day dawned dark courtesy of the black-out curtains which Jim had finally realised was the secret to not waking up too early. As it was, we both woke around 7am anyway, and with some of the group going off to customs at 8am and potentially not returning before we left for the airport, we got up to have breakfast and say the first of many goodbyes. Once they'd gone I returned to my room to start work on the blog and to copy some pictures for Simon before returning to the lobby just before 10am to say goodbye to the first of the group to leave – Nick and Simon. As always it's emotional saying goodbye to people who have become good friends and this was no exception. Having enjoyed all 19 weeks of Nick's company and 11 of Simon's (since he joined us in Bogotá) seeing them ride off in a taxi left a lump in my throat. That was probably made worse by the knowledge that I would be next to leave the group just 4 hours later...

How to while away those hours, though? Well, first was to settle my hotel bill and then spend as much time chatting online to Tracy as I could, before finishing my packing and heading downstairs to look for a likely suspect with whom to eat lunch. Aaron was just checking out, and as usual he proved to be the perfect companion for such a task, as he suggested we eat in the Thai place we'd eaten in on Monday night. A 20-minute cab ride took us there, where we sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed some really fresh calamari followed by, in my case, chicken with chillies and almonds with basil. It was turly delicious and a great way to pass the time. Once back at the hotel I only had a few minutes to grab my bag, then re-pack the stuff that was in the end compartment when it split as I tried to drag it along the corridor before being back in the lobby surrounded by my travelling friends and saying lots of goodbyes. I really am going to miss these people...

I shared a cab to the airport with Pieter, the German guide from the Patagonia trip, and once there had my bag security-wrapped to prevent it splitting more, then checked in and passed through security for one last stamp in my passport and went through to the departure lounge. All very easy. And so to while away the next 2.5 hours until my flight to Paris boards and I finally start the 18 hour journey home...

Long haul flights can be a real pain, but this one wasn't so bad. For a start, there was an empty seat next to me and I had an aisle seat with reasonable legroom and plenty of room in the overhead bin for both my helmet bag and my small rucksack/Camelbak. Then the inflight entertainment was “on demand” which meant I got to see Terminator Salvation and The Hangover, 2 films I'd probably not watch otherwise but which helped while away 3 of the 12 hours of the flight to Paris. If it hadn't been for the turbulence and the couple next to the window opening the blind at dawn (4am) then I might actually have got some sleep too... but I arrived in Paris in plenty of time and with a couple of hours to kill before my flight to Manchester where hopefully Tracy would be waiting for me... how strange it's going to be to see her again after all this time... can't wait!

I fell soundly asleep on the flight from Paris which helped the time pass quickly and no sooner had I landed and cleared my final passport control than I was in the baggage hall watching my bag with its bright green plastic security wrapping go round on the carousel. I double-checked my watch, not wanting to go into the arrivals lounge earlier than I knew Tracy would be there, and then cleared customs without even a 2nd glance from the bored-looking customs agent. And there in the hall was my gorgeous wife, looking very slim having lost 2 stone whilst I was away and with a wide grin on her face. A long hug and then we were off to the car, almost walking into the barriers as we feasted our eyes on each other... 5 months is a very long time to be away from someone you are still in love with...

Once in the car we chatted excitedly about things that had happened at home or on the trip, agreeing that there were some things we needed to spend some quality time discussing as we seek our next adventure... and so home, to a real fire, 2 lovely new cats (Titch and Marmy) and a take-away curry (I had been craving an Indian since my last one in Tuscon).

The adventure was finally over and I was home, safe and sound, the familiarity of being back as comforting as putting on an old pair of slippers. It was almost as if I hadn't been away... except... I now had a full bank of new memories and stories to share. Oh, and about 3,000 pictures to sift through...

Friday was spent visiting my girls and grandchildren, including being introduced to “The Beans” at long last – Isobel and Rebecca – and aren't they just gorgeous?


Proud Grandpa, back from his adventure...


And so I'm home, this adventure is over and so I'm closing the blog. I've had the most amazing time as those of you who have read the blog will know. At this point I'm not sure what adventure lies ahead, as that's something Tracy and I need to discuss, but rest assured there will be one... after all, if life isn't one big adventure, what is it?

If you have enjoyed reading this blog, or even if you haven't, please use the “Comment” feature to leave a comment. All you need is a Google account and they're dead easy to get if you don't already have one.

If you're inspired by the story to undertake an adventure of your own, drop me an email (paul@justonemoremile.com) and tell me about it, I'd love to hear from you.

Finally, if you'd like to make a donation to a good cause related to this adventure, please donate to Gerald's Devon Air Ambulance fund. You can do so here

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