10th, Arica, Chile, Stop: March 6th, Chile Chico, Chile,
Distance: 5228 km, Total
Distance: 44031 km [Map]
It was dry and boring the desert of Atacama. The capital
was modern. With travel companions we headed south and finally hit the
Carretera Austral, the southern part of this incredible long country.
Bike problems started to be more the rule than the exception, while the
lesson we learned in first grade that it was warmer in the south was not
Coming down from the mountains of Bolivia towards Arica on the
coast of Northern Chile.
When we entered Chile, we left the adventure and were back in "civilization".
After descending the mountains to Arica on the coast in Northern Chile,
Rocinante was no longer taken in by every eye, we did no longer stick
out of the crowd as spacemen, and the gas stations had hot dog menus.
The city was clean and prosperous, the backpackers hard to distinguish
from the rest. I felt almost sad about it, knowing that the rest of our
trip would go through countries that culture wise was closer to Europe
than the rest of Latin America. It was a two-sided sword, however, since
we also knew that from now on things would be easier, the roads better,
the gas of higher quality and the focus on us lower. Also, it had always
sounded strange and arrogant to us when people said they enjoyed the poorer
countries more than the wealthy ones, because it was like saying they
wanted this part of the world to stay behind Europe and North America
just so they could have a exotic place to travel to. Now I almost agreed,
thinking back on how fantastic we thought Peru had been, knowing that
if they climbed up towards Chile's economic level, a lot of the culture
and "wildness" would disappear. But it would either way be better
for the average Peruvian, so we didn't allow ourselves to think like that.
After two nights in Arica, where I fixed a couple of small problems on
the bike, we headed south through the desert towards Iquique. The ride
was boring, but halfway we saw a packed up biker heading towards us. We
both flashed the headlights and pulled over. An old English gentleman
presented himself as Geoff Sykes, alias Grandpa Motorbike, a name given
to him by his grandchildren. He was on his way from Tierra Del Fuego to
Alaska on a BMW F650, heavily upgraded with custom made panniers and likewise
fuel cell resting where the passenger normally would sit. He talked like
a waterfall in the rainy season, admitting that with limited Spanish he
hadn't been able to speak freely for a long time. He was a tall, bony
man, and when the strong winds carried away his papers while we were exchanging
addresses, and he was running after them with a limp, I had to smile.
He had had an accident in Patagonia almost identical to ours in bodily
injury, so we both laughed at our still hurting knees and damaged helmets.
After a pleasant half an hour at the roadside, we wished each other a
safe journey and sped off.
Geoff Sykes alias Grandpa Motorbike in the desert south of Arica.
In Iquique it was time for another service. This was a resort town with
one of two tax free zones in Chile, the other one in Punta Arenas. After
an hour in the Zofri, where we bought absolutely nothing, we escaped the
shopping mall and had a beer instead. The handbook recommended a motorcycle
mechanic in town, and Sergio welcomed me with a smile and offered workspace
and tools for free. He was the head of Givet Adventure, a company who
took tourists on desert sailing trips and motorcycle trips to the Altiplano
in Bolivia or to Carretera Austral in Patagonia. A BMW R80GS stood between
his tools and had been used on trips to Patagonia and Peru. He bought
the bike from a German traveler a few years earlier, a deal made possible
in Iquique because of the tax free status. After an oil change, brake
fluid change and checking all the bolts on the bike, we went to a bar
with Sergio and talked throughout the night. Most of the conversation
focused on Chilean politics and Pinochet in particular. From Sergio we
got a different version of the early seventies than what our own newspapers
and political observers had transmitted to us through the years. He wasn't
pro-Pinochet, he told us, but he was anti-Allende, who according to him
was about to run the country into a full blown civil war when Pinochet
seized power. Of the two evils, he still believed that with the fragile
situation back then, Pinochet was the one who saved the country from ruin.
We didn't know enough to object, but pointed out that still today they
found mass graves in the wake of the totalitarian regime, and that still
a lot of people were unaccounted for. He agreed but also replied that
probably a lot more people would have died or vanished if a civil war
had broken out. It was a different point of view, and knowing that the
opinion in Chile is split in the view of Pinochet, it might very well
have some sense in it. Politics are never as black and white as they seem
when the news travel across the globe to end up in a socialist country.
Another thing Sergio pointed out to us, was that today most Chileans didn't
care about Pinochet. They wanted the history left behind them and rather
look into the future.
Our first night in a tent in nine months of travel. Five minutes
later it started to rain.....
We followed the coast from Iquique for a few hours, marveling at all
the camp sites and the hitchhikers we met along the road. This country
reminded me of Norway in the seventies. I was to young to hitchhike myself,
that came later, but one of our local songwriters even made a song about
all the long haired hippie hitchhikers who believed they owned the road
in those years. Now most young people back home have their own car, while
here they still stood along the road hoping for a nice car driver to pick
them up. Even the ragged clothes, long hair and beard and relaxed attitude
were like home back then.
As we left the coast in the direction of San Pedro, we entered the real
Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. We rode straight for hours.
It made me wonder what drew people to this place. While the coastal desert
in Peru had been interesting, this was just dry and contourless, hot and
boring. We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama early enough to pinch our tent
for the first time on the whole journey. I loved it, and realized I had
missed camping a lot. A bottle of wine and a few beers were consumed on
a camp ground where every guest was a teenager. We should have known,
and when we woke up at three AM we did. The whole campground had gathered
outside our neighbor tent to party. If it wasn't that late, we would have
joined them, because we knew we couldn't beat them. But this late in the
night we just tried our best to ignore the singing, loud talking and drums,
and an hour or two later they finally went quiet.
The Atacama desert, day after day with nothingness.
Our plan had been to stay a couple of days in town to see all the sights
around, but in the morning we both had the urge to head south again. Gerald,
the Austrian motorcyclist we met in Mexico, was just a few days ahead
of us, and we wanted to catch up with him to travel together for a while
again. So we entered the Atacama again, going south around 120km per hour
for the whole day, and when the evening came we had covered 700km of nothingness.
The great oil spill
One the first stop of the day I discovered that my left leg was covered
in oil. Looking closer the bike revealed oil spill on the left side of
the engine. What the hell was going on? Frantically we started searching
for the cause, but it only got confusing as it seemed to be more oil in
the electric wiring above the engine than on the engine itself, like oil
that leaked out under pressure. A nearby mechanic stood watching while
we started the laborious process of taking of the tank panniers, the tank
and the fairing panels. Still we couldn't determine were the leak came
from, there was oil splattered everywhere, but the wires had most.
"What is this?", asked the mechanic. He was holding a plastic
bag that was dripping oil. I stared for a moment and then started to laugh.
When I changed the oil and filter a few days ago in Iquique, I saved the
old oil filter so I could easier find a similar when I needed it. I always
wrap it up in plastic and stick it in a little space above the head lights.
This time I hadn't taped it good enough and oil had leaked out. The great
oil spill mystery was solved, a mechanic got himself a good laugh, and
we could continue with only pride lost.
Reunion in Santiago
By now we were tired of desert and longed for some greenery. We stayed
a night in Chañaral, then did 500 km more desert to La Serena,
before we did a similar distance to Santiago. The desert changed from
nothingness to low bushes to irrigated valleys and finally vanished. More
than two thousand kilometers worth of Atacama was behind us, and we didn't
miss it at all.
After searching the five million capital for an hour or two we found
the SCS Habitat, the hostel we had been recommended by Reto and Carola.
Bente went in and asked for the price and when she opened up the garage
door for me, three more bikes were parked inside. Geralds BMW was one
of them, and he came out with a big smile. Another BMW belonged to a German
biker we secretly named Champ, a name he got because he behaved like everybody
else was novices and he the only true biker in the world. The last bike
was a Suzuki DR800 and belonged to Temo, also a German and the totally
opposite of Champ. That night we tried our best to empty the beer supply
in the hostel, catching up on our travels and laughing at mistakes done
along the road. It proved my suspicions that I was allergic to Gerald.
The next morning I had a headache and shaky nerves, just like the last
time we met.
Colonial and modern buildings in Santiago.
I tried in vain to find shims for the valves in Santiago, knowing it
would be my last option before Argentina to check and potentially adjust
the valves. But it was futile and I gave up, reassuring myself that the
ticking sound was proof enough that the valve clearances was good, but
also promising myself I would check them at first opportunity. We found
a new front tyre for Gerald's bike and decided that our Metzeler Tourance
tyres would still hold a few more thousand kilometers.
Santiago was the most modern city we had visited since the States. What
we saw of the city was clean and high tech with the most spot free subway
we had ever taken. People were friendly and the bikes didn't catch much
attention, except when people managed to read the license plates from
behind the dust and realized we came from very far away. At this stage
of the trip we could say for real that we had covered a lot of distance,
and the motorcyclists we talked to in the motorcycle shop district were
pretty amazed. So were we in fact, just thinking about the forty thousand
kilometers and twelve countries we had covered to get here. But still
the bike was without a single sticker bragging about our adventure. I
promised myself I would get one and only one, the sticker that said "Ushuaia,
end of the world".
We drank more espresso than in a long time in Santiago, walked around
the city center and visited the National Museum on the Plaza de Armas.
It had a very interesting section of Chile's history until Allende's fall,
especially interesting because it only said negative things about the
socialist government that was brought down in 1973. When we exited the
building, we couldn't help smiling when we saw the plaque in the entrance
saying; "This museum was inaugurated by Augosto Pinochet".
Gerald agreed to make the rest of the trip south together with us. He
was starting to feel the travel would have to end soon and was happy to
have company from now on. We felt much the same. We were at the last section
of our trip south, but anyway it felt strange to start looking towards
the end of the trip, at least three months before we would return home.
But everything is relative, and we had done more than 3/4 of the trip.
A cool and happy biker, Gerald with his temporary fixed top box
Later it was done better.
We left the capital going west towards the coast, Gerald following in
our steps. He made it clear from the first time we travelled together
in Mexico that he didn't like to ride first in a pack, so we settled in
the routine of us leading and him following. The only times this changed
was when the road was twisty and nice. Then he would speed off for a while
and wait for us at the next intersection. We left the highway and headed
out on dirt roads towards the small village of Licantén. The road
was fun and at one spot it climbed steep up a hill with loose dirt and
deep holes. We climbed up first, the bike jumping and throwing up large
quantities of dust. Looking back at a small break in the bumps, I saw
Gerald just a couple of meters behind. He saw nothing, he later told us,
just gassed it and took each new bump and soft part as surprises. It would
have made a great shot, but there was a limit to how much I could manage
at the same time.
Top box, fall and poor running
As we drove into the little village, I realized Gerald wasn't behind
us anymore. We waited ten minutes before I headed back. Around the next
bend he was standing next to his bike, smiling and trying to tie down
his top box on top of the rest of the luggage. The weakly constructed
rack had finally given in and broken off. We looked closer at the problem
on the campground. The solution was simple, remove the passenger seat
and tie down the rack with steel wire, then make a new rack out of a steel
rod and one of the tyre levers and put the duffle bag behind the box.
It still worked, several weeks later. More beer was bought and we passed
a beautiful night below the stars, chatting about every thing possible.
The next day we continued on dirt roads in a southerly direction, making
our decisions of where to go from intersection to intersection. Around
a bend in the road I came to far out and ended up digging the front wheel
deep into soft dirt. The result was a slow speed fall. The right tank
pannier ripped open, and I twisted my leg slightly. It was hard that night
to take off the boot, and the skin colours around my heel was blue, purple
and green. We had a cigarette and quickly moved on. After a short while
Rocinante started running poorly, and as we closed in a a little town
it was spewing more and more black smoke and finally stopped all together.
We found a place on the shaded sidewalk, said "God damn it"
a couple of times, smoked more cigarettes and speculated what could be
"Spark plugs?", asked Gerald. "Air filter maybe?",
said I. "Choke?", said Bente. We were totally lost and had another
cigarette before starting the search.
Off went the tank and out came the spark plugs. All three were black
as the night, indicating a blocked air filter or locked choke, according
to my Haynes manual. The choke seemed to work fine, so what the hell,
the air filter probably needed cleaning anyway, so off came the side panels,
the air filter reservoir, the carburetors and finally the filter box itself.
The filter didn't look bad at all, but I cleaned it and set it in with
oil again, then went through the laborious process of fitting everything
back in place. We started up the engine and it ran fine for a little while,
but soon the black smoke was back and I shut it off. Off came the spark
plugs once again. We cleaned them and put them back in. Now it ran perfectly.
We scratched our heads and congratulated each other on a well done job,
not having an idea of what had fixed the problem.
Engine mounts, again
The toolmaker at work. New engine mounts for Rocinante on their
After another night of camping on the coast we headed towards the lake
district. We passed Constitucion and then turned inland. In a little village
we stopped and bought the food we needed for the night. Bente and Gerald
went inside while I guarded the bikes. For lack of other things to do,
I had a quick look at the engine mounts that had broken in the States,
and I couldn't believe it when I saw another crack on the right side,
in exactly the same spot as it had cracked the last time.
A problem nobody had heard of before with this bike had now happened
twice on ours. I checked the left side and found the crack after removing
all the oil and dirt that covered the mount. It was identical to the last
crack, only in a earlier stage. Now what? I said another "God damn
it" and lit a cigarette, starting to think about how this could mean
the end of our travel, at least the end of the road for now. But I hadn't
counted on the toolmaker from Austria. When Bente and Gerald came out
and I told them the bad news, Bente sighed and looked defeated. Gerald
just smiled, looked at the crack and said, "Let's find a blacksmith
and fix this problem". He immediately had an idea how to fix it.
All he needed was a proper tool shop
We rode to the next campground and settled in for the night. The manager
thought it was amazing to see such long distance travelers, so he offered
us a discount if he could take a picture of us to use in advertising,
which we accepted with a smile. More beers were consumed that night, planning
and designing the solution for the bike. Beers is an important component
in our friendship with Gerald, and he was fast to point out the waste
when I was about to go to bed without finishing the one liter bottle I
was working on. He is one of the most easy going people we have met, never
thinking two times about the same problem. He makes a decision and sticks
to it, like when we discussed the road quality on the Carretera Austral
and Ruta 40, he simply said that after 1600km of mud in Peru, he was no
longer afraid of any road.
Never travel without a toolmaker
In the morning we headed of to a village called Coihue and found a blacksmith
with all the tools we needed. They had angle grinders, welding equipment,
powerful electric drills and as much steel we could ever want. Gerald
went to work. The four people inside soon left the whole shop to him,
standing back in awe. Back home in Austria he works as a toolmaker for
the car industry, and often travels to Mexico to help out on the plants
there, working with simple tools to fix advanced problems. With a creative
brain and a focus I admired, he knew exactly how to attack the problem.
I simply stepped back and helped whenever he needed anything, but tried
my best not to get in the way of his adrenaline kick.
From a piece of edge iron he made a support that fitted around the whole
engine mount and was clamped around the frame. I got the task of strengthening
the support with small angles ground out of steel pieces floating around
on the floor, then we filled the room between the support and the mounts
with a heavy duty plastic two component compound that Gerald carried with
him from work just for these situations, and finally we welded two small
spot welds to keep the support from sliding down on the frame. It looked
real heavy duty to me, but only time and the Carretera Austral will prove
if it holds up. The toolmaker gave me his guarantees though.
Puerto Montt, Chile
Was the Tiger beginning to fall apart? A lot of things had gone wrong
so far on this trip, so it could seem so. Rocinante had by now covered
80000km in all, and 60000km had been two up riding with a heavy load of
luggage. The maximum load on the bike was about fifty kilos below the
load we had put on it. But that is the case with most bikes, and if we
had followed the recommendations from the manufacturer, we would be limited
to ten kilos of luggage, slightly less than what we needed for a trip
like this. No other Tiger owner had ever reported about similar fractures
in the engine mounts, but very few Tigers had been through the same long
term maximum load test. Maybe too hard settings on the rear shock and
too hard riding on bad roads, combined with an accident had increased
the stress on the frame enough for the fractures to happen. Maybe this
particular bike had a structure failure. Maybe we were unlucky, or maybe
we had just about found the maximum this bike could take without strengthening
the frame and mounts. I don't know.
For the next days we sped through the Lake District towards Puerto Montt,
feeling that we were so close to Carretera Austral we just wanted to get
there and start on a more interesting journey than Chile had been so far.
The region south of Santiago was pretty and different from anything we
had seen since the States, but it was kind of boring as well, considering
what we had ahead of us.
Hazardous driving on the Carretera Austral.
This famous road is 1000 km long, and except for a 200 km paved section
halfway through, it is a gravel road of mainly good quality. It starts
in Puerto Montt and ends in a fjord south of the town of Cochrane. We
would do about 750 km of it, starting in Chaitén, thereby skipping
the first 250 km because the ferries stopped for the season, and then
head inland towards Argentina in Chile Chico.
In Chaitén we drove off the ferry from Quellon on the island of
Chiloe on the morning of the second day in March. It was raining cats
and dogs and the wind was howling. The road was full of potholes, but
after an hour or two the sun came out, and the road quality changed to
the better. Now it was like riding a good Norwegian mountain road, with
hard packed gravel and dirt making fast riding a breeze. The nature, or
what we saw of it below the never too distant clouds, was amazing to me.
High waterfalls, green forests and glaciers that seemed to poor out of
the valleys, small lakes and every now and then a gaucho herding
Around a bend in the road a truck was lying on its side. Gas was still
pouring out from the tank, and the driver was frantically disconnecting
the battery. There was just enough room for us to pass, and the shaken
guy came over and said that all was OK and they were waiting for help.
He was very lucky and said something about overtaking another car when
he came too far out. The front of the truck was hanging over an edge with
a twenty to thirty meters fall, so his shaking voice and trembling hands
Gathered around the stove in Hostal Las Salamandras, Coyhaique;
Gerald, Tini, Lars and Bente.
The road quality got even better, and it was easy to travel around 80
km/h for hours. When the night came we had done almost 300 km. On a small
farm that offered camping, the owner looked like he was made from the
woods around him with a wide beard the color of tobacco, a lumberjack
shirt and high boots. We lit a huge fire, shared a bottle of wine and
tried in vain to empty the bottle of Pisco we had carried for almost a
week. We called it medicine and with each sip made a sound in pain. But
we also figured it was a much better bottle to carry than a good whisky.
It lasted a lot longer. The soup we made tasted delicious in the cold.
Back home we would have thrown it away and ordered pizza. A few hours
after bedtime the temperature was about to reach the freezing point. Bente
pointed out sarcastically that we had light weight sleeping bags, and
we were far below the comfort temperature.
The second day we made good progress as well, but it was cold again and
the rain was coming from every direction. After a long stretch to reach
Coyhaique, we tried our best to heat up frozen bodies in a small restaurant.
When we found the Hostal Salamandra, repeatedly recommended to us, we
smiled when we recognized the Africa Twin parked outside. Lars and Tini
rushed out to say hello before we could get off the bikes. They had been
a week or two ahead of us since Quito, and had travelled with Chris Bright,
another traveler on the way south on a BMW, for many weeks now. He left
the day before, but they decided the place was too cosy and the weather
too bad to continue just yet.
Beers were obtained, a huge and fantastic pasta prepared and consumed,
before we moved to the wood stove and shared more stories from the road
into the night. The hard and tough motorcyclists, never minding the weather,
now fighting to get the seat closest to the fire. The Pisco disappeared,
the beers emptied and the laughter brought out the owner who asked us
please not to wake up the rest of the guests, who had gone to bed a few
hours earlier. We had had a joke going between Gerald and us since we
joined forces in Santiago. Whenever he said Colombia was dangerous (he
had been looking for Peligroso - Danger - because everyone had said that
Colombia was just that, but couldn't find it on the map), we said Lima
was worse, because he hadn't been there. If the mountains
of Peru was muddy, Lima was flooded, and if the cold was too bad, Lima
was covered in ice. When Lars and Tini joined in this just increased,
since they had been too Lima but had skipped Colombia and most of the
mountains in Peru.
Cold, wet and windy, but worth every kilometer. That's Carretera
Austral for us.
Quite naturally we had no urge to leave the next day, but got going after
two nights. It was colder and wetter than ever before, and when we came
to a flooded river with petrified trees, the temperature was just a few
degrees above zero and with the rain and wind, it was bitingly cold. The
road was still excellent though, and when we saw the first part of the
Lago General Carrera, one of the biggest lakes in Chile, it was well worth
the ride. Colored green by the glaciers that supplied water to it, and
circled by snow covered tentacle mountains, it was a magic sight. In Puerto
Rio Tranquilo we found a cabin with two bedrooms. After a flip of coins
that we won, Lars, Tini and Gerald moved into one room while we took the
other. We fired up the wooden stove and probably irritated the owner the
fifth time we asked for more wood, but that is what it takes to heat up
tough bikers. "Be one with the cold", said Gerald and shivered.
Beers, cognac - the local version, more good food all called for another
late night and more laughter. It is funny what one's fantasy can come
up with on nights like this. For example, we had seen sea lions on the
coast of Chile, and now we debated why they decided to emigrate from the
plains of Tanzania. No wonder, really, since with their many hundred kilos
of meat and fat and with only short fins as propulsion, catching antelopes
for dinner must have been hard work. I know, we're loosing it.
A glacier lake, the Lago General Carrera is beautiful.
The last stretch of our part of the Carretera Austral took us through
more beautiful scenery along the south shores of the lake. After a days
ride we had only kilometers left before entering Chile Chico. The road
quality had degraded to loose gravel and the road was climbing and diving
and turning fast. Sometimes we had to gas out of the dangers, while other
times the danger waited around a downhill bend and came as a surprise.
Lars and Tini had a slow speed fall on one of these loose sections, but
were soon back on the bike. When we came to Chile Chico, Bente had just
about had enough of loose riding. She admitted it scared her, and it made
me realize that the Ruta 40 in Argentina was not for us. This road which
stretches for 5000 km from the borders of Bolivia to Rio Gallegos in the
south, is a difficult ride because of the deep tracks separated by loose
gravel mixed with the constant side wind
After a night at a rather strange hostel we crossed into Argentina and
said good-bye to Lars, Tini and Gerald, who would all take the infamous
Ruta 40 while we would take the long paved road to the Atlantic coast.
We agreed to meet in Calafate in a few days.
We're in Argentina, in many ways the last country on our list, and Ushuaia
is very close. Carretera Austral was a fantastic ride, while the rest
of Chile was somewhat disappointing compared to the "wilder"
neighbors further north. The engine mount supports Gerald designed and
made hasn't moved a millimeter, so we feel it safe to continue the rest
of the trip without doing more work on them. It is March, we have been
almost ten months on the road, and in not too long, we will change our
course from south to north. It will feel strange, but more about that
Lago General Carrera, magic in light
that made it look like the glaciers that supply it with water.
Calle Carretera Austral in Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
In the Atacama sunset, still smiling
but hoping to be out of there soon.