The Road to Patagonia Part 2
Our intrepid narrator, Matt Bailey, started in Chile with the Globebuster's tour of Patagonia and we've read exploits of pickpockets, Matt's penchant for tea, amazing sights and fantastic food. This adventure took place during November and December of 2009 and part one is online here.
Article words and images by Matt Bailey
Bariloche was, for us, a stop off to wash clothes, service our bikes, and have a day off from riding, and it served us well. For everyone else it offers a wealth of tourist activities and an unhealthy number of very good chocolate shops. On my previous visit to this alpine resort there had been a beachwear fashion show, but alas his time the bikini models weren’t present.
And so our journey continued. Avoiding main roads, we have chosen dirt tracks and have been across some very rough terrain, a preference that has caused a few problems, especially with our modern electronics. Not really built for this sort of environment, mobile telephones and laptops have proved to be horribly fragile making communications ever harder. On the plus side, this adds to the feeling of adventure as we move further south and life is increasingly remote. Already the days here are long, the nights short, and the temperature low.
We left Bariloche after a couple of nights and headed towards El Bolson, and on to Esquel. We would have arrived in Esquel much earlier, except that in a fuel station in El Bolson we had to pose for more photographs and spent a good deal of time telling a gathering crown of interested Argentines about our journey. When we explained that we came from England they were astonished and pleased that we’d come so far to explore their country, and immediately gushed forth a series of places that we must visit, and fine wines that we must taste, in order to get the true flavour of their country.
Nevertheless, because of our obsession with going south, we crossed back into Chile, and embarked on one of the worlds’ great roads, the Carretera Austral. Built by General Pinochet to open up the South of his country, this unpaved road twists and turns like an angry snake southward through some astonishingly beautiful scenery, and a suitably wild landscape.
It took us first to the picturesque German fishing village of Puyuhuapi, situated at the end of a long inlet. The houses were all of a simple wooden style,with thin columns of smoke rising slowly from the chimneys through the cold damp dusk. Apart from the occasional barking dog the street was quiet; the sort of quiet that develops because everyone is inside and out of the cold. I was taken into the warmth and greeted by friends I made on my last visit here. They gave me tea and very, very good cake and we chatted in front of the fire while I played with the excited dog that was a puppy when I last saw her. The houses, like the welcome, were warm. Heavy rugs covered wooden floors, and there was a pleasant smell of wood smoke mingling with sea air. It would be easy to believe that this village was not real at all, but a film set for some kind of period drama, only one with a lot of big bikes.
The next day, after somehow emerging from beneath the heaviest blankets ever, we carried on, following the slippery track along the side of the inlet, and across a ridge of mist covered mountains in cold rain forest. Heavy rain became snow at the top, and a couple of riders tumbled on treacherous steep and muddy hairpin ends, but laughed it off, and a bent foot peg was straightened by the innovative and repeated application of a large rock.
Later in the day we were faced with another “dirt track or tarmac road” choice. We were unanimous in our pursuit of rough roads and headed on down the gravel. One rider hit a rock and was thrown off. An injured leg and badly buckled front wheel meant we had to take this rider to the nearest hospital, which wasn’t near at all, and then go back for his bike. The Chilean Policia kindly collected the bike from the scene, and took it in their pickup to their station where it was safe until we could retrieve what was left of it that night. Somehow I can’t imagine that happening in the UK…
The rider’s a trooper and took his injury in his stride as it were, and we forgave him the inconvenience caused because he bribed us with a lot of beer. Adventurers have to be pragmatists you know. Our lodgings that night were in Coyhaique, and seeking thrills to the last, we chose to stay on the far side of a narrow and worryingly unstable suspension bridge, that spans a very fast-flowing glacial river. Not only this, but our brave overlanders then had to face a fierce Alsatian guard dog, who turned out to be a nice doggy called Kurt who liked having his tummy rubbed. None of us were eaten, and instead we relaxed with our feet up in front of a roaring log fire in a cosy lodge, the icy wind banished outside, while gently attentive staff made us nice and comfy.
Next on our destination list was Cerro Castillo, and after a long photo session with our kindly hosts, we set off for it the following morning. We threaded our way through the cold mountain pass, and on along the Careterra Austral, pausing only to eat fantastic steak sandwiches in a café fashioned from two old American buses joined together. Off again and we bounded ‘enthusiastically’ along the gravel, enjoying the spectacular views, heart stopping hairpins, drifting bends and airborne moments. We stopped to help extract a crashed pickup from the edge of the track, but otherwise ripped through the miles, and arrived at our lakeside hotel with dinner plate eyeballs and manic white toothy grins shining through faces caked thick with dust.
Our accommodation was a fantastic choice. Well insulated wooden buildings kept the mountain cold out, while balconies offered panoramic lakeland views too big for any lens to capture. The main lodge was situated right on the shoreline, down a considerable slope from the track. Although this posed no issues for tough overland bikes, our injured rider struggled. So, being practical types we put him and his cast leg in a wheelbarrow and hastened his arrival at the lodge by some minutes.
Nightfall brought a sky sparkling with stars, accompanied by a soothing soundtrack of water washing against the shore, and the wind singing through the trees. I live for moments like that. I slept a deep sleep alone in an attic space while the wind tried to tear the roof off.. Morning introduced bright South American sunshine glinting off of the water, and squinting, I padded out onto the wooden deck with a mug of hot tea. I drank in the scene, and felt very happy indeed.
Then things got silly, and we began investigating tracks that looked ‘interesting’. We were already off the beaten track, but then we turned off again and the road disappeared altogether. At first it was ok, and I coped. Gently undulating ground with a few sandy bits. But then it went up. And then up more, getting steeper and steeper and narrower and narrower. The back end of the bike bucked and slid as the tyres struggled to grip the loose mountain scree, but somehow I made it up, only for it to dawn on me that I would have to go back down again. Bugger. My German off-road instructor friend Peter, advised me. “It’s okay, just drop her into second and let go”. He teaches this stuff, and I’m a novice, so I trusted him. Off I went, careering down a Chilean hillside like a talentless bloke hanging on for dear life, which is exactly what I was doing. I did what I was told and about half way down I was pretty sure I was going to crash into the cliff, or plunge into the lake, or both, but that either way it wasn’t going to end well. “Oh shit” I thought. Lord knows how, but I made it down safely, and later, while tucking into an unhealthily large Pechanga, Peter commented that “you went fast ja; I would have used a little brakes.”
At the end of the day our Southward passion forced us to hop back into Argentina, land of the best steaks, the finest wine, and the most beautiful women on the planet. We finally came to a halt in Los Antiguos, and quietly prepared ourselves for what lay ahead.
Ruta 40. Overlanders talk about Ruta 40 in hushed, respectful tones. It is a road that stretches through Argentina, across vast plains and mountain ranges. It is a lonely, remote road where the kilometres click by without seeing anyone, any other vehicles, or any sign of human life at all, bar the road itself. Until recently Ruta 40 was all unpaved, but tarmac crews have been furiously plying their craft, and yet the sheer scale of the road means huge tracts of gravel and dirt remain.
We left Los Antiguos and turned onto Ruta 40. Roads like this are inspiring, and I just want to keep going and going. This is my church. On good gravel you can ride relatively quickly, with good suspension and off road tyres making life easier, but there are a host of hazards for the unwary. On turns the gravel piles up on the outside of the bend making any drift in that direction a really bad idea, whereas the inside of the curve is usually badly corrugated, making any grip vague at best. At any point there may be areas of deep gravel that defy any attempts at controlled progress, or deep potholes camouflaged by water. In the dry, the tracks clog air filters and eyes with dust (how does it get into my ears when I have a helmet on?), and in the wet dirt tracks are slippery enough to spin the inattentive, even those in four wheel drives.
The track is often of deep gravel, with narrow strips of clear ground carved by the Volvos and Scanias that thunder their way through. Across the track there might be several clear routes, but with flat light and dust it is difficult to see that these are actually at different levels, and attempting to cross from one track to another through the deep gravel between is an extremely risky activity. A large pothole after a small rise claimed one of our riders, and after 227 dusty miles and some fractured ribs we lodged for the night in a remote estancia. It is a lonely but magical place, sheltered in a hollow from the wind. This is true wilderness, and Mother Nature is very much in command. Everything is scoured clean by the wind and bleached white by the sun in its’ huge sky, and our bikes, replete with their new livery of caked mud and coated with the dust of hundreds of miles of dirt roads, seem strangely at home.
Exhausted, filthy, and content, sleep came easily.
The next chapter from Matt will be online soon!