El Calafate – Torres del Paine, Chile: 200 Miles: Cold, cold wind….That’s Patagonia
Since we have been in Patagonia it has lived up to its reputation as being one of the windiest places on Earth. On a motorcycle it saps your strength as you fight to keep as straight a line as possible, especially through a thin, dirt track surrounded by gravel ridges. This morning the wind had abated somewhat, and since I prefer to leave early and take a more relaxed pace, there was no doubt I would be on the road as soon as possible even though the measured distance was only 150 miles.
The recommended route notes indicated that we had 60 miles or so of gravel roads to cut a corner in the route. But referring to the map, indicated that by taking a slightly (about 40 miles) longer route we could avoid at least 50 miles of this, and thus only deal with an obligatory dirt road close to the border. So setting off at 8:30, an hour ahead of the rest, we initially headed east, rising out of the valley floor at just 250 metres above sea level up to 800 metres on the adjacent rolling hills of glacial moraine. The sun was shining, there was no traffic and all was well with the world. Cresting the hills and turning south across a higher plateau with no shelter, the wind picked up and became the same gale force buffeting blast from yesterday and every other day we have driven in Patagonia. The temperature dropped to around 5C (40F) and with wind-chill began to penetrate the very core of the body. The landscape was not very inspiring, mostly flat but with the snow-capped mountains on the western horizon, rising abruptly above the plateau, clearly visible even though they were still 100 miles away.
We continued for the first 100 miles, stopping at la Esperanza for coffee and a fuel top-up cognizant of the paucity of fuel availability in this part of the world. And to accompany the coffee, an Argentinian specialty, alfajorles. These are a sweet sandwich type of sweet with a burnt sugar/caramel filling between two sides of flaky pastry. They are originally Arabic, and also known, but less popular in Spain.
Setting off now to the west to catch up with the rest of the group, the wind was now a full headwind of perhaps 40-50mph, making forward motion at any speed a chore. Any slight deviation from the road direction meant that the wind kept changing the impact on the bike inducing a weaving motion. When the wind is blowing full strength on one side it has the impact of driving a wedge between the jacket and the helmet and forcing the helmet to rise under air pressure, creating a mild choking sensation with the chin strap. After 50 miles of this my head and neck were aching from the constant strain.
We caught up with the rest of the group at the official fuel stop on the route and then headed towards the Chilean border once again. Immigration and bike import/export documentation taken care of on the Argentinian side we then did he same in reverse on the Chilean side. As we have seen in many borders the immigration /customs posts are separated by several miles… I wonder who owns the no-man’s land in the middle.
The hotel for 2 nights is once again, in the middle of nowhere…..no phone, no internet, and much to the chagrin of some, no nightclubs and dancing girls! But it is closer to the entrance to the Torres del Paine national park where we plan to go tomorrow. Dinner choices were…limited…..again….am starting to feel I am being held hostage to some of these “remote, idyllic, locations” which feel free to charge whatever they like as one has no choice. grumble, grumble, moan, moan!!
Torres Del Paine: National Park: 150 Miles – voluntary dirt road riding?
The Torres del Paine mountains are really quite famous, and I have known at least of their existence for many years. To get there one has to take a 75 mile circular route through the national park….and another 30-40 miles access at each end…..and all on gravel roads…. and all in the Patagonian gale force winds.
So given my obvious pleasure of riding on gravel roads (!!!!) it is a surprise to many that I am actually voluntarily engaging in a 100+ mile drive away from paved roads. Apart from the intense, cold wind, the “road” is no more challenging than other “roads” we have driven of late, and in fact, is not technically difficult. The surface is quite corrugated in places which makes forward progress very uncomfortable while you increase speed until the bumpy road is balanced by the clever suspension harmonics and you are bouncing along the tops of the bumps instead of feeling the whole dip.
The mountains are indeed spectacular, with glacial lakes, glaciers and waterfalls.
To finish the day we detoured down to Puerto Natales to look for fuel. As we have found regularly, fuel is scarce when you are away from big cities, and there are no big cities for hundreds of miles. Puerto Natales is a sea port connected to the Chilean fjord system. It is a tourist town as well as a working port. There are restaurants, banks, bars, shops and a nice new hotel overlooking the seashore……so why are we staying in the middle of nowhere just 20 miles way to the north? Obviously a mental note to provide feedback on location of hotels!! Tonight a spit roast lamb for all in the hotel…very good, but more red meat just before sleeping is not the healthiest of choices.
Torres del Paine – Cerro Sombrero: 240 Miles: Entering the Land of Fire
Today is the day that we cross into Tierra del Fuego, the “Land of Fire” by crossing the Straits of Magellan. At only 240 miles and with no border crossing, there was no need to leave very early, but as we have found that the wind picks up during the course of the day, we set off around 8:30. The Torres del Paine mountains to the right, we once again headed towards Puerto Natales and then south towards Punta Arenas. By 9:30 the wind had already picked up and the next 100 miles became a battle with the side wind again. But the road was good, the sun was shining and the traffic was light. We expected the wind effect to reduce considerably when we turned east towards the ferry terminal for Tierra del Fuego, but the impact was negligible.
The roll-on/roll-off ferry runs a continuous service between the mainland and the island of Tierra del Fuego. As it approaches each side of the channel it holds itself in position using bow-thrusters against the fast running current without tying up. This means that driving on to the ferry involves going from a wet concrete jetty to a wet steel ramp which is constantly moving sideways.
The final 20 miles or so to the hotel at Cerro Sombrero (“Hat Hill”), a small hamlet based around an oil field service facility, was again a battle between biker and the wind. The hotel situated on the outskirts of this village was clean and functional, but was also the only place in town to eat….with a pre-ordered menu of red meat late in the evening….hmmm, my arteries are starting to get clogged!
Cerro Sombrero – Kaiken: 190 Miles: Getting to know Tierra del Fuego
We knew that the first 75 miles of today’s ride would be on gravel roads. As Cerro Sombrero is the last town on the road to the Argentina border the Chileans probably thought it not worth laying down a paved surface as it was just going to facilitate people leaving! In bright sunshine, but cool, 12C, we set off early to take advantage of the lower morning wind speeds. Heading south across Tierra del Fuego and for most of the day near or parallel to the east coast, the road was fairly well compacted dirt and gravel, but with enough depth of gravel at times to keep your concentration at a high level. The “road” was generally flat-to-gently undulating across a grassy plain with what appeared to be low, sandstone hills on the horizon. One of the challenges today was the presence of large trucks coming from the border along the dirt road raising billowing clouds of fine dust as they passed. For a few seconds the visibility reduced to just a few metres and with gravel ridges lining the hard-packed track I was following, ample opportunity to lose direction.
After the border we headed along the coast and passed through Rio Grande. We will stop here on the way back and it looked like a nice little town. On the side of the road was a memorial to the Belgrano battle ship sunk during the Falklands war in 1982.
I had seen a couple of small drilling rigs yesterday on our way south. Today there were more and a few small pump-jacks reminiscent of Oklahoma and Texas with adjacent tank batteries. Yellow plastic low pressure gas flowlines took the gas into treatment and compressor stations and the yellow markers for buried pipelines were visible cutting across the fields.
This was not my mental impression of Tierra del Fuego. A grassy plain with cattle, sheep and Vicuna spread out across vast estancias, no trees and only low hills dos not conjure up the image of early European explorers looking at the fires of the original inhabitants and naming it “land of fire”. But perhaps the island was once covered in trees, but long since cut down for firewood and the creation of the large farms. As we headed south we began to see some evidence of woodland, although the trees such as they were, were stunted and with the kind of tortured trunks that indicates a tough climate. I was also not expecting to see oil exploration here, but then, nor did I research it ahead of time. It seems fitting that we should start in the oil province of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and end in the oil provide of Tierra del Fuego.
With more than 200 miles driven across the island the plain turned to more gently rolling hills and the small patches of woodland into more coherent forest. On the horizon slowly arose snow-capped mountain peaks. With about 70 miles to go to reach Ushuaia, perhaps I will get to see my mental map of Tierra del Fuego fulfilled after all.
Our hotel for the night is a cabin resort overlooking a lake, surrounded by mountains in the distance and hills in the foreground. A stunning location, but once again remote with no choices as to where, when or what to eat…. vast quantities of red meat in the evening with no choice! Of course, many in the group are quite happy with this arrangement!
Kaiken – Ushuaia: 65 (93) miles: Destinantion or just the justification for the journey?
Today was a short ride, and one taken as a group as far as Ushuaia so that we could look very cool on arrival and also gather for the group photo at the entrance!
The sun shone through a milky sky, the road was mostly good and traffic was light as we headed to our final destination in the early morning cool of around 10C. The only reason to come to Ushuaia is to visit the most southerly town in the world (although if you take a ferry you can visit an even more southerly town of 36 inhabitants for the purists). And so the town, which is bigger than I expected, and very much a tourist location and cruise ship stop-off, justifies itself.
Following through the outskirts of the town towards the National Park we go from paved surface to the 8 miles of dusty gravel road that marks the end of Ruta 3 in Argentina, and the official End of the World sign.
Having parked the bikes there followed a period of hand shaking, congratulating, a few moist eyes and a little sparkling wine served in plastic cups to mark the occasion. But reflecting back on the sombre mood at breakfast this morning, there was also a tinge of sadness that the justification for the journey had now been reached, and so, notwithstanding another 2,000 miles to Buenos Aires, the journey is essentially over and 18 months of planning, 18 weeks of riding and 20,000 miles are now just memories rather than expectations.
Of course there was a long and not always patient line of people waiting on the chance to have their photo taken with the sign, with the bike, with other people, or in groups. As my room-mate, Drew had started together, it seemed only fitting to end together too.
Behind the sign is a boardwalk to the edge of the Bay of La Pataia, and the “End of the World”.
With all photos taken, all felicitations exchanged the journey back north began with the 8 miles of dusty road. While the ride to the park was relatively rapid even on the loose surface, the ride out was a little more sedate, not only because we are now on the way home, but also because a tour bus in front was sending plumes of choking and blinding dust into the air preventing any chance of passing on the twisting, narrow gravel road.
Our hotel in Ushuaia is modern and overlooking the harbour….at last a place with some life and bars, restaurants etc after one too many “quaint remote places”.