Published: March 11th 2012March 10th 2012
Friday 9 March
I was a little apprenhensive about today as this would be my first ride out into the desert alone. It was what I had come for and I had picked what I thought was a safe route that took me high up into the mountains up to the Argentine border. I was apprensive because of the distance and I had discovered in the few days I had been o n the F800GS it had no where near the range of my R1200GS, especially loaded up. It was touch and go to get between fuel stations on Ruta 5. On the c-31, a minor semi-paved road I could not expect to find any.
I got the map out and the guide book and estimated the journey to Laguna Verde would be about 250 kms or 500 there and back. So far I had only managed just under 200kms on a tank of petrol. The woman at the hotel convinced me it wouldn't be a problem if I took a fuel can and as I didn't have one she told me to help myself. This must be a common occurance for her guests as she had a dozen
or so tucked away around the back. I took 2, 20 litre cans, with my 15 or so litre tank I would have plenty.
I took both panniers too. One with tools, one with water & food and set off just after 9 am. The road out of town was easy, flat, staright and well sign posted. It continued like this for about 20 minutes. At first I passed through a very industrial area. The trouble with having so much space is no one feels the need to keep things tidy and it did all look a bit of an eyesore, almost as if I was travelling through the world's largest junk yard.
After a while though mankind gave way to the desert proper and the road forked right and headed to the mountains. This was it ! The road was still of tarmac, but only just. It was poorly maintained. In fact it had probably never been maintained and although you could ride along at a steady 80kph you had to concentrate as there was the odd pot hole but the bike was built for this kind of terrain and took it well.
The road was
still straight and flat and ran up the middle of a wide flat valley bordered by quite high hills. Each hill was indiviual rather than a ridge of hills. The sun had burnt off the moring mist and the temerature was a shade under 30c but so long as I kept going I didn't notice the heat. The landscape was at first glance and certainly from a distance, a dull brown but as you looked you could see it wasn't at all. It was all shades of umber and ochre with grey/green and the occasion bright white. I assumed these last two were a form of cooper core (as that is what they mine around Copiapo) and salt deposits.
Although it appeared the road was flat we were climbing as every 500 metre rise in altitude was marked by a sign. At about 2500 metres we had entered the mountains and the road changed. It was now definately an unmade road. After passing a ruined villaged, which I learnt on the way back down was a native indian settlement (but I couldn't gather much more that that) the road started to ascend steeply. Interestingly there were signs of water,
with gullies and green shrubs by the road side, including pampas grass, which looked so out of place not being in suburbia which as everyone knows is it natural habitat. There was also a collection of ramshackled huts which seem to have been knocked together with pallets and string with plastic sheet roofing. Further up the road there was a herd of donkeys and horses, living on what I have no idea but they looked in a lot better nick than some of the horses I have seen back home. I assume the collection of buildings I had seen 5 minutes earlier was the herder's quarters. What a place to eek out a living!
The road now hugged the right hand cliff face and wound itself up some steep sharp hairpins. I had seen very liitle traffic but what I had did include a couple of lorries. Although they were slow moving a didn't want to run into one, so I stay as wide as I dared and sat on the horn. In fact most of the other vehicles were big brand new 4x4 pickups. They all had roll cages and huge antenna. I assumed most were mining company
In places the road split and it was not immediately clear which way to go. There were the odd sign post but I probably only saw half a dozen at most. Looking at the map there appeared to be very few roads branching off so I assumed those I passed lead to mines or farmsteads. My ploy was to follow the road with the telegraph poles.
Having got through what turned out to be the first set of mountains the road leveled off and was flat and straight again but it had never seen tarmac - compacted dust that was it. The scenery had changed and I was now on a plateau. There were still a few mountains dotted along the way but now these were just the peaks, giving an impresion you were really quite high. This illusion was shattered though by the first sight of the giant snow capped peaks of the Andes away in the distance. The sight was spectacular. These topped out at nearly 7000 metres - pretty darn high. It was what I had come to see and I was overwhelmed by the thrill of it all. I think getting here by
motorbike made all the more emotional.
I had been riding for about two hours as I came to the end of the plateau and the road started to climb into the mountains again. The road was steep and tight but the bends were more visable so I was able to ride with less apprehension. The altitude signs read off 3000, 3500, 4000, 4500 metres. I had never been so high outside of an aeroplane in my life! My personal best was in the Alps at 2700 metres.
All this elation may have been an effect of the altitude and it lead to careless mistake. I had mastered this off road melarky or so I thought. I came up to a step right hand hair pin, dropped into first, moved to the right, looked where I want to go, and powered through the corner. All things you are meant to do. You are also suspose to look where you are going and I had forgotten that bit. I hadn't notice the road surface in this bend had changed to bright white. It turned out this was a super fine sand, almost like talcum powder. The front wheel just dug
in and before I knew what had happened I was lying on the side of the road.
Nothing hurt. It was a slow speed tumble. At first I thought I had winded myself, but soon realised I hadn't and that was simply the altitude. I ws out of breath and I hadn't noticed because of the positive air pressure experinced riding the bike. I picked myself and the bike looked fine, just lying into the camber, which meant picking it up would be hard. I thought what would Bear Grylls do? Nope - it was too soon to drink my urine and eat a raw lizard. So I took my helmet, coat and gloves off and had a drink and a think. Perhaps someone would come along, but slim chance of that as I hadn't seen anyone for at least half an hour. I decided to take everything off the bike and spin it round. That would probably scratch the bike and that would mean I'd lose my desposit but it was the only way to pick the bike up. Even with two you would struggle given the angle of the road.
Once up the bike looked fine
but the engine guard bars were scratched where I had spun the bike round to pick it up but that is what they are therefore, to protect the bike.
When I got the bike up I was going to struggle to get on it as although I had moved it to pick it up this meant the road camber was now going to mean I would never touch the ground with my right foot once I got on it. This was important so I could take the bike off it's stand and put it into gear. The risk was as I got back on I would simpy fall over the other way. The solution was to push the bike up the hill until the ground levelled itself off enough for me to get on safely. The trouble with that was with the altitude I was kanckered and pushing up a steep hill didn't seem very attractive so I sat down again for 10 minutes and had more water.
I couldn't push the bike up the hill, even unlaoded, it was too heavy and I had no strength so I kicked into gear and walked itup - like I
had been taught om my BMW off road skills. I don't know if Simoan Pavey (who runs the courses for BMW) would be proud of me solving the problem or shake his head in shame I dropped the bloody thing in the first place.
I finally got the bike you the hill and took 3 trips up and down to collect the gear before I was finally ready to get back on. With rests it had taken nearly an hour. As I got back on a pick-up drove by, stooped and asked if I was OK ! I should of sat it out and let some hairy arsed crew of miners sort me out !!
I had about another half a dozen or so more hairpins to negoiate and I took them very gingerly. Too gingerly really as I would have been better to power through. The road surface was fine too. It was just that one bend.
I estimate the climb topped out at about 5000 meteres before descending on to another huge plateau, giving me my first sight of the huge snow capped peaks of the Andes. It was truely spectacular. I was overwhelmed I
had made it this far and it seem all the more special I had achieved it on my motorbike.
The road levelled and straighten out and the surface became more even so I could pick up speed again. To the right was a large salt lake, Salar de Maricunga. As the road reached the far edge of this lake it hit a T-junction with my way signed posted to the right. 5 or so minutes later I hit road works ! I kid you not! In the middle of nowhere some one had set up cones and laid about 2-300 yards of tarmac. Just like back home there were plenty of cones laid out but no actually workmen ! When this little bit of good road ended I could see ahead of me two large reddy brown corrigated tin sheds. Each straddled the road and the way was barred by a barrier. This couldn't be the Argentine border could it? I hadn't passed anything remotely like the Laguna Verde I had seen in photographs. By my calculation I had at least another 50-60 kms to go.
As I pulled to a stop I was approached by a elderly
man. I still don't quite know what he was doing there or what he actually did. There were no other buildings or vehicles, he was just wandering around. I asked him if this was Argentina? Si. I tried to explain I wanted to see Laguna Verde and he seemed to suggest I had either passed it or I had the wrong way and I couldn't go through as I had no papers. As it turned out I did but at the time I didn't realise that as I had told the hire company I wasn't going to take this bike into Argentina.
I couldn't believe it, I had got all this way and was going to be pulled up 50 kms short of my destination
I was hot and tired and I couldn't believe how out of breath I felt so I got off the bike to have a drink and re-fuel the bike. A short while later a pair of Lara Croft type 4x4s pulled up, loaded to the gunwhales with serious expedition kit. From the stickers on the side I gathered they were Finnish and driving the length of South America. Fortunately one of them spoke
a little English and I determined I had reached the Chilean customs post on the edge of the National Park, Nevado Tres Cruces. Laguna Verde lay the other side, before the Argentina border.
At this point the old man re-appeared and seemd to confirm what my fellow travellers had said. I could go through he said if I paid. Yeah right mate! I'm English not stupid. Well I am - I got ripped of at the airport remember, but I wasn't going to let it happen again thank you very much!
It could be he was simply saying I had to pay to get into the National Park, which I was expecting I would have to do but there was something about the guy I didn't trust. He just did not look like an offical. It was now about 3 pm and I thought even if a paid to get through it would be an hour to get there. That would mean, assuming I didn't fall off again I would not get to the hotel until gone 8 pm and it gets dark at about 8.30 pm. I might find on the return trip I'd face another demand for money or some other sort of beaucratic problem. I decided to turn round and head back. I was disappointed but had actually achieved what I had set out to do and that was ride high into the Atacama desert and it had proved to be quite an adventurous day. Enough was enough.
As I got back on the bike a smartly dressed cuntoms man in a green uniform appeared. Of course ! It had been siesta! Who the old bloke was I still have no idea. the customs man let the x4s go and said I could ride though if I paid, but I had made up my mind. The altitude was exhausting and the heat oppressive I think it was better to head back. I think he thought I was mad to ride all this way to look at a tin shed and then go home again.
The journey home was uneventful except for the bloody fuel cans. I had to stop 3 times to strap them back on. I was clearly not thinking straight and it wasn't till I had descended did I manage to apply some common sense and do a proper job.
I was a little nervous as I approach the hairpins, but it had only been this one bend that had proved tricky and as that was the only one covered in white sand it was easy to pick out. This time I took a narrower line. The sand still grabbed the front wheel. but I was expecting it so I twisted the trottle and stamped down with my left foot. Simon Pavey would have been proud of me !! It was like I was in the Dakar ! (well in my tiny little mind perhaps) It might seem counter intutitive to give the engine more revs but it picks the bike up. In fact it was quite fun but I wasn't tempted to turn round and try again !
I pulled up at the hotel just after 6 pm and the lady who had cooked and served me supper last night helped me with my gear, fetched the room key and brought me a nice cold beer! Once showered I sat down to another fabulous meal of tomato salad, roast chicken and rice. It was some of the best chicken I have ever had, all washed down with another beer. Bloody marvellous !
The only down side was pudding - a fresh banana, peeled and nicely presented. My hostess had been so good to me and presented her offering with a beaming smile I felt I couldn't ask if she didn't realise bananas are the devil's work and I hated them. There was only one thing to do - man up and eat the wretched thing. I did think about putting mustard on it but she was watching. Inexplicably I didn't gag or break out in hives, but for the record I still detest them
What a day. I had more or less achieved what I set out to do, ride into the desert. I had survived a motorbike crash and eaten a banana. There would be no stopping me now!