Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Grand Finale

Days 219-225

There have been times on this journey when we've questioned the wisdom of arranging to meet friends in Rio for carnival, thinking maybe we'd prefer an extra month or two resting along the way instead. As soon as carnival began, though, these doubts vanished and we're so pleased we kept pushing ourselves along! There were street parties all around the city every day, called 'blocas' with small samba schools providing music, but the main samba parade in the purpose build sambodrome was definitely the highlight. Together with a load of friends from London we had tickets for the Monday night, one of the final nights in the main competition, in which 6 schools paraded past taking around an hour each, while we danced relentlessly on our chairs along with the rest of the crowd and even tried to sing along to the repeating anthems. While it wasn't as music-focussed as we'd hoped, the costumes and floats completely blew us away: the mile-long parades were full of the most flambouyant and bizarre disguises and contraptions, with thousands and thousands of dancers leading each school. After the parade we tried to get back to Copocabana beach for sunrise but unfortunately were just too late - a sign of a good night out though.

As well as all the carnival activities we managed to drag ourselves out of bed while it was still light to fit in a little bit of sight seeing. The statue of Christ was a bit smaller than any of us had imagined but still great to see up close. A trip to the massive Maracana football stadium to watch a local derby confirmed what we'd been told about a) Brazilians being crazy about football and b) Brazilians being crazy. And a tour to some of the favelas allowed us to see into the darker and sadder side of the city. The police are getting a bit tougher on the favelas and so we didn't see many people toting guns, which anyone who's seen the film City of God (set in one of the smaller Rio favelas which now has a permanent police presence) will know used to be commoneplace. Still, we didn't fancy hanging around there on our own, even though we'd heard that they are hosts of the best parties in town. It was our friend Russ's birthday during carnival week and we planned to go on some sort of boat trip to celebrate - plans for chartering a schooner were dashed by some bad weather, so we settled for the swan paddle boats on the lake instead. With some cans of bubbly called "Glam" and nibbles. Very classy.

Days 226-227

The sad day came when we all went our separate ways from our lovely apartment: Hazel to continue on her travels around South America, having spent the last few months in Central America and Cuba; Gav back to Dubai; and Russ back to London. The drizzle had cleared the air in Rio and cleaned the streets a bit of the post-carnival pee and beer stench, but it was getting hot again and we still had two motorbikes in our care so we headed out to the mountains for the weekend. A beautiful drive just a couple of hours north took us up into a land of cheeseries, honey factories, and sculpture gardens - our last jaunt before working in earnest to get the bikes back to London.

Days 228 - 232

Back in Rio we agreed to go ahead with the one quote we'd managed to get for flying the bikes home - a similar price to the sea freight quote we'd receieved but more importantly we were told we could complete the process in a few days whereas to send the bikes by sea might require up to 15 days of hanging around just to get them through customs. Unfortunately the quote turned out to be more of a guestimate, with extra costs being added on at the last minute for forgotten necessaries, but at least it happened. We arrived back from the mountains on the Monday, checked into a hostel carefully sourced for being able to park our bikes safely outside, and immediately had to get back on the bikes to take them to the crating company - our last ride of the trip. The next day we hoped to do our last bit of sightseeing, as well as finalising things with the airfreight company, but Emily was very ill from what we assumed to be food poisoning, leaving Ric to work out how to get thousands of pounds of cash out in 24 hours - at the last minute we found out that the freight company don't take any form of credit or debit cards! On Wednesday morning we packed our bags, picked up our enormous wodge of bank notes and went to the freight company at 10am to hand over the money. We then accompanied our freight guy to the airport to get the bikes through customs: the last task we needed to complete before we could leave the country. After five hours of our guy altering forms, making photocopies, being told by different people what else he needed, and getting us to sign things, we finally got to the grand finale of taking a customs officer to check the VIN numbers on our bikes and we were free to go - the bikes would follow on a flight the next day.

We dashed to the airport aware that we'd already missed the cheap TAP flight we were hoping to get onto. There were a number of other flights leaving that evening but they were variously full or too many thousands of pounds so after a few hours of toing and froing and hanging around in case people didn't turn up, we headed back into town for the night, and a couple more caiparinhas. First thing on Thursday morning we went to the TAP office to book the evening flight but on our way back to the hostel Ric started to feel funny and rapidly developed symptoms suspiciously similar to Emily's two days previously - it seems what we thought was food poisoning was probably actually a tummy bug. So poor Ric had a miserable flight back to England, but at least he'd pretty much recovered by the time we touched down in London on Friday lunchtime. That evening we had just enough strength to pop down to Softwire's anual 'birthday party' (for those of you who don't know the company we work for, this is the party of the year to go to, second to carnival in Rio of course).

Now we just wait for the bikes! As it turns out they didn't leave the day we did as planned, or the next day as we were later told they would. We think they've left Brazil at the time of writing, but are reserving judgement until we actually see them back in Britain.


The last eight months have been a brilliant adventure for us and so far it's been a great home-coming. We hope you've enjoyed reading our blog - although we can't always say we've rejoiced in the task of writing it, we're sure it'll be a great thing for us to look back on. Thanks in particular to those who've kept us up to date with goings on while we've been away - in particular our Mums, Alice, Lizzie, Katie, and for all those who commented on the blog. Which wasn't many of you compared with the number of people claiming to read it - for the rest of you, now is your last chance! :-)

We'll leave you with some of our favourite trip statistics.
  • Expected mileage (before we left): 25,044
  • Total miles ridden: 31,370
  • Days on the bikes: 180
  • Days without setting foot on the bike pegs: 50 (19 of which were in Rio de Janeiro and Quito / Galapagos)
  • Days Ric put a plait in Emily's hair: 142 (probably - no she couldn't just learn to do them herself)
  • Average daily mileage: 135
  • Most miles in one day: 480 (on boring Ruta 3 in Argentina)
  • Most miles in a 24-hour period: 685 (racing to meet Ric's Mum in Chile)
  • Amount of petrol consumed: about 5 tonnes
  • Amount of money consumed: a lot (but it was worth it)
  • Highest altitude ridden: 5,046m (South Bolivia)
  • Lowest altitude ridden: -9m (Peninsular Vladez, Argentina)
  • Hottest riding temperarure: 46C (Arizona, USA)
  • Coldest riding temperature: -5C (South Bolivia, but only Emily's bike started)
  • Ratio of days in Argentina to number of steaks Ric ate: 1:0.97
  • Number of photos taken: 10,678
  • Number of bikers we saw before Brazil wearing a pink crash helmet (other than Emily): one (a crazy Australian woman in Argentina)
  • Number of bikers we saw in Brazil wearing a pink crash helmet: about a million
  • Number of times:
    • We got a puncture: 5
    • We had to pump the hand pump to get a full tyre of air: 840
    • We ran out of petrol: 0
    • Ric's bike said it had run out of petrol: 2
    • Emily dropped her bike: 6
    • Ric dropped his bike: 8
    • Ric also dropped his bike with Emily on the back: 2
    • Ric would have dropped his bike if someone didn't save him: 4
    • Emily got Ric to park / manouvre / generally deal with her bike in order to keep her drop rate down: many
    • Ric swore from fear of falling off in a very painful / fatal manner (Emily doesn't swear): 30
    • Emily cried from fear of falling off in a very painful / fatal manner (Ric doesn't cry): 3, she just grit her teeth and went rather pale the other 27 times
    • We got stopped by the authorities: 25
    • We got fined by the authorities: 1
    • We phoned home: 1 (are we bad children?)

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Road To Rio

Day 215

From our country retreat it was just 100 km to the colonial seaside town of Paraty: a nice easy ride we thought. We started off in sunshine but could see grey clouds in the distance. When it's really hot it's easy to think that the rain is your friend and there's always an initial moment of glee when the temperature drops ten degrees. However, we're back in the tropics now and the rain on this day was good old, sopping wet, thunder and lightening, can't see a thing, tropical rain. We rode through the rain pretty quickly but were soaking wet by the time we reached the end of the tarmac. The 10km of dirt road that led us through a national park from there was in fact marked as such on our map, but we hadn't looked closely enough to notice until we were half way through it. At that point there weren't any more cars trying to navigate the ruts, boulders and steep inclines that were getting worse by the kilometre, leaving us more or less alone to (very slowly) admire the dramatic jungley hills.

Paraty was definitely worth the effort, though, and a lovely place to spend the night: a beautifully preserved town where the relaxed old colonial centre next to the sea is all pedestrianised, making it perfect for strolls and photographs.

Days 216-218

On the morning of day 216 we woke with one goal: get to Rio! After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to the internet cafe to get in contact with the agency with which we'd booked our flat for carnival, we set off for what should be our last official riding day of the trip. We had stopped mid-way at a petrol station for a drink and a rest when a Brazilian approached us and offered us directions for how to get to our destination in Ipanema in Rio because it was a bit tricky. We had quite a good map of the centre but more info is always better than less when going into a big city so we gladly accepted. As it turned out we would have been lost without them, or at least we wouldn't have managed to find the main highway into town – we were about 20 minutes late as it was but we reckoned we would have been hours late otherwise!

Unfortunately once in Rio we had a frustrating first couple of days trying to sort out the flat we'd booked – because the owner was still living in it! And so we had to spend a couple of nights in a hotel while he moved out. We are now fully installed though, and waiting for our friends who are coming from England to join us. Rio is already growing on us and Ipanema is a fantastic district within it, right next to the beach and near to a lake with stunning scenery and lots of yummy caipirinhas on offer.

The last couple of days of riding hit Ric particularly hard. In what Emily can only assume was a stalling tactic but Ric blames on his still-raw eye following the wasp sting, he dropped his bike three times in the last two days of the trip: once just before leaving the campsite in the country while getting the bike off the centre stand, once whilst telling Emily how bad the next bit off off-road track was in the National Park (by way of demonstration?) and, finally, at the petrol station on the way to Rio while reversing into a parking space. Or maybe it was just a last minute bid to win the “most number of drops” category of the trip which after those three Ric is now leading 8-6!

“Is this the end then?”, “Can we stop checking this blog?”, we hear you cry. Well, not exactly. Despite having started shipping enquiries while in BA we still haven't managed to sort anything out and we're running out of time. We can't book our flights home until we know what day the bikes leave so we're in a bit of a limbo at the moment wondering ourselves when our adventure will really end. One thing's for sure, though, we're going to enjoy a week or more of Rio and her carnival in the meantime...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Water Water Everywhere

Days 205-208

Our first night in Brazil hadn't endeared the country to us that much – an unremarkable town with a lot of concrete and two nice buildings its only excuse for the “historical centre” signs. So we were very relived when our first experience of camping in Brazil turned out to be exceedingly refined. We chose the campsite closest to the town of Canela: a hotel / estancia which allowed camping in the grounds. Two members of staff walked around with us to find a non-swampy site (there had been a heavy downpour recently) and when we found that the best spot had a few of the resident llama's doings, instructed a groundsman to rake it for us. This still wasn't deemed acceptable by our hosts, so we were given a big groundsheet to go under our tent. After checking we had everything we needed a few times Ric was a bit surprised to find them back at the tent ten minutes after we'd pitched – with afternoon tea! As we were enjoying the buffet breakfast the next morning we agreed that “posh camping” is definitely the way forward!

From Canela we visited the waterfalls and canyons of the region. After all the amazing landscapes we've seen we're sadly a bit desensitised to natural beauty at the moment but it was enjoyable none the less. We then headed to the beach, hoping in vain for a cooling sea breeze to temper the ever-increasing heat. The road to the coast was beautiful, winding through the forested hills, but was mostly single carriageway with lots of lorries holding up the traffic. After working our way up to the front of a particularly long queue Ric commented “At least now we should have a good stretch of open road in front of us” - the comment of death because at this Emily's bike started spraying up huge quantities or liquid straight at her visor. It was a bit of a shock, and all Emily could say was“My bike's leaking!” which wasn't the best summary of the situation but she then clarified that she couldn't see where she was going and we pulled over to take a look. The liquid was the engine coolant which was spraying out of the top of the header tank. We noticed this happening a couple of times before the service in BA but not nearly in the same proportions. The mechanic there looked at it, found a bit of air in the cooling system and bled it for us, suggesting it really wasn't anything to worry about. After a bit of investigation we found that there was a lot of air in the system, but no obvious blockages or leaks, so we syphoned the coolant from the header tank, opened the valve to the radiator and filled it up, pouring the little remaining coolant back into the header tank afterwards with a top-up of drinking water. This all happened within a few hours of the beach and although Emily obsessively checked the temperature reading for the rest of the day we arrived safely.

Camping on the beach was a pretty relaxing way to spend a few days, even though it was a little too hot for our liking. We met a lovely Portuguese couple who spoke very little English, but we communicated in a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, English and sign language. They invited us to join them for a typical barbecue of their region – huge chunks of meat covered in rock salt and cooked on spits – and we had a good few beers together. Unfortunately we still didn't manage to pick up much Portuguese so in desperation have acquired the first few Michel Thomas lessons on mp3. What was obvious, however, was that they're serious about this pronouncing “r” at the beginning of a word as “h”. On introducing himself as Ric this couple (and a number of others since) have said “ah, Hicky!” and called him that from then on. Emily thinks this is rather amusing. Ric does not.

As a break from the beach, we made a day-trip inland to the German-founded town of Blumenau. We hoped it would be cooler there, but it wasn't, and we hoped to see and eat various German things, but we didn't. The architecture and landscape had a slight German egde (they have palm trees in Germany, right?) and we had a nice cold beer, but then quickly headed back to our sunny coastline for a bit more near-deserted beach relaxation.

Days 209-212

Our next major stop of interest was to be the Iguacu Falls, a 400-mile detour to the west of our main route and of the nearest big city, Curtiba where we rode to from the beach. In light of Emily's coolant problem, her chain already looking worn, the price of petrol in Brazil and the number of tolls on the highways, we decided just to take Ric's bike to the falls. It was definitely worth the long day of riding each way to see the sheer amount of moving water in Iguacu. It's not just one big waterfall but a series of thundering falls, immense amounts of spray, and spectacular jungle vegetation all around. We had a great day seeing the falls from all angles – the Brazilian side, the Argentinian side, from walkways above and a boat below (where we got rather wet). Ric then had to take on the gargantuan task of sorting through the hundreds of photos we took!

Days 213-214

On the journey east from Curtiba we felt pleased about the decision we'd made with the bikes – the spraying coolant issue was persisting and we needed to bleed the cooling system every 100 miles or so. The chain also needed tightening again and is getting to the end of it's life, but we're loath to change it before getting the proper sprockets on the bike. It's only a couple more hundred miles to get all the way to Rio so hopefully we'll make it! (The story of the lost sprockets is a sad one: when we got to BA the bloomin' post office had returned the package to the senders, Dan and Jacquie, who were no longer where they'd posted them from of course, because it hadn't been collected within 10 days. We thought we'd have 30 days as you do for international Poste Restante, and the post office hadn't told Dan and Jacquie anything different. It's annoying for everyone but we've put it down to just “one of those things”.)

We successfully navigated ourselves right through the big city of Sao Paolo and into the hills where we finally found some slightly cooler weather in a country campsite / retreat with a sleepy farm-like atmosphere. People-wise it was very quiet: we were the only guests! The only thing to break the peaceful days was Ric screaming like a girl when he was stung on the eyebrow by an evil wasp. But wildlife-wise the evenings were very noisy with a veritable cacophony radiating from the woods and ponds (hear video below).


The riding in Brazil has so far been great, and it'll be a shame for it to all end in Rio. In this final country we've travelled along twisty coastal roads, through jungle-covered hills (though not the mighty Amazon jungle, of course), green rolling farmland not unlike Europe, and varying conurbations ranging from little truck stops to enormous sprawling metropolises. But there have been challenges to the ride: as well as the heavy traffic and sometimes crazy drivers, the biggest issue for us has been the stifling heat. The riding temperature has often been up around 40°C and humid, and very rarely has it dropped below 30°C. It's not the hottest we've had (Arizona) or the most humid (Mexico) but it is pretty relentless and we've found ourselves seeking out air conditioned sanctuaries wherever possible.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

New Clothes, New Mount, New Language

Days 196-199

It came to our attention recently that when we get to Rio for carnival we will want to have some clothes that aren't completely travel-weary. This is how the shopping spree in Buenos Aires started. Having found way more nice, cheap, original clothes than we could ever justify buying, and Emily having bought most of them anyway, we needed a new bag to put them in. Unfortunately that left room for a splurge at the antiques and artisan markets. We then picked up the motorbikes from their service along with a huge bill and so once we'd booked the rather pricey ferry to Colonia in Uruguay we were really done – Buenos Aires has to have been the most expensive city stop for us so far.

Buenos Aires isn't just one big shopping centre though, it's also the birthplace of Tango (the dance, not the drink) and as well as there being lots of Tango shows, mainly for tourists, there are lots of “melongas” (music and dance nights) for the locals. After being inspired by a show one night, the next day we had some bad luck trying to get to a class and melonga in a dancehall, but happened across a small open air melonga in a plaza and really wished we knew how to join in!

Days 200-202

Our entry into Uruguay was rather relaxed - they waved us straight through off the one-hour ferry from BA to beautiful colonial Colonia, so we had to go back to hunt down the customs office... which turned out to be the back of the custom guy's car. It was air-conditioned though so we weren't complaining!

From the coast we rode inland into the heart of Uruguay – cowboy country. Driving in southern South America we'd passed loads of estancias: ranches that cover much of the land, many of which have adopted a bit of ecotourism alongside the farming. Since we were soon to be leaving them behind as we got into the more populous areas of Brazil we figured we really should pay one a visit. All we wanted was a horse ride but we decided to go all the way and so stayed at San Pedro de Timote, a beautiful old place with numerous buildings (including its own stand-alone chapel), lovely rolling grounds, and lots of communal areas for relaxing and playing games, including no less than three swimming pools. Obviously we made full use of the facilities and after a day of horse riding, visitng a nearby cheese factory, tennis, table tennis, table football and swimming we were pretty sore (we haven't done much except sit on the bikes recently!) but managed to console ourselves with the fantastic buffet and a nice bottle of red.

Days 203-204

From the estancia we rode to the Brazilian border feeling quite excited about reaching the last country on our trip. We did all the border work in Uruguay no problem and rode into Brazil expecting to see some signs of border control but there were none. We managed to find the police station where immigration is done but even they didn't seem to know where customs was. After a lot of complicated asking around we eventually tracked it down and our suspicions that not many motorbikes come through this way were confirmed when both the receptionist and the security guard asked to have their photos taken with us! We were then taken to a nice comfy office to do the paperwork with a man who spoke neither Spanish nor English, just Portuguese. We do not speak Portuguese, but we were all pretty good at Pictionary and this helped the process immensely. While the officer was finishing off the paperwork we decided to make a start on working out this new language. And quickly gave up. It looks like Spanish so we can understand a lot of the written word but it sounds like dutch (the double variety) and even having read the little language guide in our guidebook we have no idea how to pronounce it. Apparently “restaurante” is pronounced hess-to-roch. Enough said.

A lack of ability to communicate continued to be the main theme of our first few days in Brazil. Everything from filling up with petrol to getting directions to ordering food is proving to be quite a challenge, but fortunately the Brazilians are a nice enough bunch. And being on two big motorbikes and answering “Alaska” to the second question everybody asks (“England” is the answer to the first) is continuing our celebrity status, so people do like to get involved. Generally that's a good thing, and we don't mind the odd photo being taken of us by petrol attendants etc, but it was a bit much when someone took a video of us with his mobile phone whilst overtaking us on the motorway!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

A New Direction

Days 185 – 187

Our last act before leaving Ushuaia was to throw a stone that we collected from the Arctic Ocean back in to the sea. Actually we think Ric may have missed the sea, but reckon it'll get washed in at high tide! Then began the long journey north on Ruta 3 – quite possibly the most boring road. In the world.

As well as being very boring, we knew Ruta 3 would also be fast, and that we'd be covering a lot of miles in a short time – a task that Emily's rear tyre was certainly not up to. We'd looked for a new one before we got to Ushuaia in the Chilean city of Punta Arenas and, after trekking round about ten shops, each one recommending the next, had come across a mechanic that we'd heard of on our travels who knew how to get hold of tyres for big bikes (though he doesn't keep any in stock). He told us that we could get one in Rio Gallegos on our way back up through Argentina, and so, after riding through Chile for the fifth and final time to get out of Tierra del Fuego we arrived in the city with high hopes. We found the motorbike shop and indeed they even had a selection of tyres for us to choose from. As it was so well stocked we also asked about a new rear sprocket. We had sprockets waiting for us in Buenes Aires which Jacquie kindly brought back from England for us, but the old one was really on its last legs. We guessed they wouldn't have the right one for Emily's bike as not even BMW has that one, but thought it was worth a try. They didn't, and we were ready to drop the matter, but then they took a look at the bike and realised the gravity of the situation. They were very concerned that the sprocket wouldn't make it to BA and didn't want to let us continue as we were, so they started searching their sprocket pile all over again, this time to find something that could be machined to fit. It was a tricky decision – the sprocket had done 24,000 miles and had only 2,000 miles to go, but we decided that the risk of having an accident and being stranded in the middle of nowhere was too high, so when they found something that would work we went for it. The new sprocket has a couple more teeth which means Emily's bike has 5% better acceleration – woohoo! – but uses a bit more fuel (though still not as much as Ric's bike...).

Days 188 – 192

To get an idea of Ruta 3, picture a long straight road over flat terrain. Imagine just shrubs and grasses on either side, as far as you can see, without a tree, river, lake, hill or any other landmark in sight. Now add a 40-60mph constant crosswind. Apart from a few more guanacos and nandus there is really nothing to break the tedium on the road as you're motoring along at a raked angle to fend off the wind. So to give ourselves a few breaks we made some diversions off the highway, figuring the extra few hundred miles was worth it.

We took a boat trip from Puerto Deseado to nearby “Penguin Island” – the only place outside the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas to all Argentinians; a topic of conversation we tried to avoid) where you can see the very funky Rockhopper penguins, along with the usual Magellanic penguins, sea lions, elephant seals (enormous blubbery things weighing up to 5 tons!) and lots of sea birds that can be seen all along the Patagonian coastline. Ric also spotted some Commerson's dolphins (black and white ones) from the boat (Emily just saw a splash) and we were both lucky enough to spot a whale despite it being totally out of season for them.

The next side trip was to see a petrified forest. We'd passed signs to a few of these along the way but this was the first we actually managed to visit. It was a bit unusual in that it wasn't a standing forest but a whole load of washed up tree trunks: the rivers that washed them up were long gone, and the wood had since been petrified. Of course we didn't even consider putting any petrified wood chips in our pockets, so we weren't at all concerned when the park ranger made us empty them out at the end. (!)

The final detour was to Peninsular Valdez to see a bit more wildlife. Again we were lucky enough to see a rare sight for the time of year – Orcas! They swam by just past the shore full of sea lions that we were watching from. Much to Ric's disappointment, though, we didn't see any beach themselves to try to catch the sea lion pups.

Days 193-195

The push north continued to Buenos Aires with a couple of beach stops, one to view masses of parrots, the other to view masses (and we mean masses) of people in Argentina's favourite beach destination Mar del Plata. Think Brighton on the hottest day of the year in England, then triple it and you're still not even starting to get close.

Our journey up from Ushuaia has taken us from cold and rainy to hot and sunny – a change we like. We've also suddenly got lots of time for the rest of our trip up to Rio, since we haven't needed too much of our 'emergency time' thus far, so we're looking forward to a relaxed next few weeks!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The End Of The World, As We Know It

Days 179-181

After a few days on Ruta 40 the gravel finally gave way to tarmac, and we celebrated with a walk around the spectacular Fitz Roy range. Mount Fitz Roy itself is covered in clouds so much of the time that it was thought to be a volcano giving off smoke (the nearest town is named “Smoking Mountain” in the local language) so we were really lucky to have a bright sunny day affording us fantastic views of the mountains and glaciers.

From Fitz Roy we headed to nearby El Calafate, the base for the mighty Perito Moreno Glacier. This glacier is enormous (the fourth largest body of fresh water in the world, apparently) and great fun to watch - the face of the glacier is changing all the time as bits crack off and land with a reverberating crash into the lake beneath. As far as glaciers go it's really fast-moving at 2m per day, and you can get really close from the viewing platforms on land and by boat on the lake.

Since we hit Ruta 40 we've been meeting a lot more bikers and El Calafate was no exception – four other long-distance biking parties were at our campsite (including two Triumphs both with sidecars, travelling separately) and we had a good time sharing stories and tips for the road. The increased volume of motorcycle adventurers does make our trip feel a bit normal at times, though!

Days 182-183

Break over, we hit the road again and crossed back into Chile, with soaring condors offering a new distraction from the familiar side winds. Controversially we decided against going to the acclaimed Torres Del Paine national park due to time shortage, the price tag, and Ric's newly dodgy knee (acquired on the Fitz Roy trek – he's getting old, you know). One for next time, perhaps; it looked beautiful from a distance.

Instead we travelled straight to the ferry terminus of Punto Arenas in order to cross the Straights of Magallen and get onto Tierra del Fuego the following day. On the ferry we met yet more bikers, a group of Italians who we'd heard about from our German friends, but we left them for dust when we left the ferry – literally: a very dusty road led us back to Argentina and to the tarmac of Ruta 3 which we road all the way to Ushuaia. Yes, that's Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world!

Day 184

The actual end of the road is a bit beyond Ushuaia in Tierra Del Fuego national park, so on day 184, six months to the day since we landed in Alaska, we hopped on the bikes and did the short journey to the end of the world, “Fin Del Mundo” as it's called here.

We waited for a group of tourists to leave before getting our bikes in front of the official sign, at which point of course another big group of tourists arrived. They were very obliging and took our photo for us, and then, obviously realising how cool we looked, a few people asked if they could pose with our bikes. Naturally we agreed and a few people had a go, but while we were being distracted by other people asking us about the trip a rather vertically challenged lady with, presumably, very little knowledge of gravity clambered onto Ric's bike and sat straight up on it. With no hope of touching the ground on either side to hold the bike steady it was only a moment before the bike fell off the side stand and onto the ground. The fun was over for the tourists – we had the bikes out of there quick smart! (The lady and the bike were fine, just a bit of dirt on the former, and a slightly more misshapen pannier on the latter.)

So now we've made it all the way from Alaska to Ushuaia it should be an easy hop, skip and a jump to get back up to Rio de Janeiro for carnival in around five weeks time. Emily's reinforced pannier rack is still going strong with only a tiny bit more dirt road to go, but we do need a new tyre reasonably urgently now, the Garmin GPS has suddenly become very temperamental, and we can't pick up Emily's new sprockets until Buenos Aires. Watch this space!

Monday, 4 January 2010

New Year, New Challenges

Days 171-172

We were sad to say goodbye to Jill as she drove off in her transfer to the airport but knew we had to gear up for the next part of our trip – getting to the bottom of South America! We rode back into Argentina (crossing between Chile and Argentina will be an ongoing theme all the way down) and down “seven lakes road” - a beautiful stretch featuring at least seven lakes which were only marred by a little bit of rain. We continued south to the winter ski resort of Bariloche where we tried to stop for the day but found the first few hostels full and were a little put off by rain, so just bought the obligatory chocolate from the one of a multitude of chocolatiers and carried on to the smaller and more chilled out town of El Bolson. One good reason for stopping there was the market the following day where only handmade goods are allowed. The list of things that Emily would have bought had Ric allowed them on the bike (this list started with a coffee table in Valparaiso) grew dramatically but we escaped with only a new ring and a few yummy empanadas to weigh us down.

Days 173-175

From the Argentinian Lake District we breached the official border to Patagonia and crossed back into Chile, so that we could ride the Carretera Austral – the road that Pinochet carved out to connect Southern Chile, famed for it's beauty (and it's rough surface as it remains mostly unpaved). And it was indeed beautiful: lush green woodland and pastureland backed by dramatic snowy mountains and dotted throughout with tranquil lakes and rushing rivers. It was most beautiful, though, when the clouds weren't obscuring the view, which unfortunately was less often than we'd hoped. Emily recalled that she learned in geography lessons at school that Chile has a similar climate to England. Arriving to Chile in the middle of the desert we were slightly dubious of this assertion, but after experiencing mid-summer in the lake district and further south we understand better – we had rain most days and temperatures ranging from 10 to 15 C, so it really does feel like home!

While riding on the Carretera Austral on the second day we saw some motorbikes pulled over at the roadside taking some photos and decided to stop for a quick chat. As we pulled up we realised it was none other than the German couple Christoph and Silke who we met in Peru! We had kept in touch with them but had thought they would be ahead of us on this stretch. We rode with them this day and the next, New Year's Eve, when we found a beautiful and inexpensive cabana on the lakeshore of Lago General Carrera to spend the evening. A trip to the “supermarket” in the very small town revealed we should have planned a bit ahead, but we cobbled together a very nice meal, improved by good pisco sours, nice wine, and cheapy bubbly to bring in the New Year!

Days 176-178

On New Year's Day morning we all went on a boat trip out on the lake to look at some marble caves, and then after a lengthy breakfast (we cooked pancakes as there was no bread in town!) we set off, parting ways 100km down the road. We skirted round the lake in lovely weather and crossed back into Argentina.

Once over the border we rejoined Ruta 40, another famed road, about half paved, with vast distances of empty Patagonian wilderness, lots of gravel, and hellish winds, and of which our guidebook says “Just be thankful you didn't set out on a bike or motorcycle.” Hmm. The riding conditions really aren't great: you're riding in a thin tyre track which has gravel piled up on each side – the wind blows and blows, trying to push you into the gravel bank on one side and then the one on the other. The wind also reduces the range of both bikes and the gas stations are pretty spread out. Added to this there's always the risk that you'll arrive at a fuel stop to find no fuel... as we did in middle-of-nowhere gas stop Bajo Caracoles. “The tanker didn't come” explained the attendant, “We think it might come tomorrow night”. Thankfully, however, some Germans with a big spare fuel tank who were camping next to us helped us out, otherwise we might still be there waiting.

We spread the love the following day when we found some guys with KTMs on the side of the road. One of them had a broken chain and they didn't have all the tools they needed to fix it, so Ric's “ridiculously oversized” (according to Emily) tool bag saved the day.

The road wasn't all just wind and gravel, though. As well as stopping at some interesting 9,000 year old cave art, we also saw some funky wildlife: guanacos (llama-like deer), nandus (emu-like birds) and even a small armadillo all crossed the road in front of us.