…”we got fun ‘n’ games”. The bugs ate me alive, I broke my speedometer, tent, laptop, sleeping pad and got stuck in Brazilian customs. Oh…and then there were the snakes…Fun ‘n’ games? Oh yeah…
Trip distance and Time trip correct at La Paz, Bolivia on 28/11/11
More photos in the galleries Bolivia 2011 – Chile 2011 – Argentina 2011
The motorcyclists amongst you may also like the
‘Trails of South America…a photo journal’ gallery which supports my ADV Rider thread
Continued from Chapter 27…
After a painless border crossing at Copacabana (I’d exited Bolivia there in 2009 and so knew the system) I rode on to La Paz only to arrive at Hostel El Careterro just as Mark & Claire appeared on foot to take a look at the place. They’d been staying elsewhere but soon moved when they realized how much they could save my moving to El Careterro.
Will she hold…leaving La Paz
Graham & Graham were the first English overlanders I’d met since meeting Richard Harwood in Chile back in January. Young Graham (22) had flown his bike into Toronto in April and ridden north to the ice roads before turning south to cross the USA. Old(er) Graham had started in Los Angeles and the pair met in Guatemala, joining forces for the ride through Central America. We stood on the roadside for an hour or so having a good chat, swapping stories and info. At 4000m the sun on the road from La Paz to Lake Titicaca was pretty intense and after so long in the shade of the city I’d forgotten just how quickly my head burnt. After six months without seeing another overlander I was clearly back on the ‘Gringo’ trail; not since leaving Brian & Fie in Thailand in March 2007 had I seen three British number plates together.
It would have been frighteningly easy to have left Brazil and entered Paraguay without having had any paperwork processed. Fortunately for me I’ve crossed enough borders now to know what needed to be done, even if finding someone to do it became a task in itself!
I visited three offices on the Brazilian side before I found a guy prepared to make a few phone calls in an attempt to track down someone to process Lady P (my bike) out of the country. His telephone calls led to nothing and for the next twenty minutes I watched from his office window as he wandered from office to office in his pursuit of a customs officer with the ability to process my temporary import document. Eventually he found someone and it wasn’t long before I was on my way.
I rode across the bridge into Paraguay and could have ridden straight into the country without even having my passport stamped, let alone having a temporary import document issued. Once I’d cleared immigration I had to ask around for the location of the customs office and after several false turns, eventually found the ‘Aduana’ where the process was quick, friendly & painless.
As I rode out into the traffic so the difference between the two countries hit me immediately. Bumper to bumper traffic was overlooked by bill boards advertising ‘Tax free electronics’ and hemmed in by street vendors stalls and when the traffic did move parking touts chased me along the street in an attempt to direct me to ‘their’ parking area.
All of the banks, money changers and jewelry shops had security guards brandishing pump action shotguns and wearing cartridge belts across their shoulders like the Mexican cowboys in Westerns. Not wanting to leave Lady P out of sight, I parked on the pavement outside a bank and tried to enter. The revolving door though was locked and the shotgun wielding security guard was gesticulating at a ‘drop-box’ into which people were depositing their phones. Trying to explain that I didn’t have one, in broken Spanish, through an inch of bulletproof glass, proved rather difficult and when I unzipped my jacket to show the guard I wasn’t carrying anything I thought he was going to pull the shotgun on me! All was well in the end and I left town without further hitch.
The rain drove me out of Paraguay after just three nights which was a bit of a shame. Despite all the ‘warnings’ and comments like “OH!! You’re going (to Uruguay) are you?” I liked it. It had an ‘edge’ to it that was more akin to SE Asia than the other South American countries I’d travelled through but despite that, everyone I met was polite, friendly and helpful.
Back to Argentina
After a fairly painless exit from Paraguay and entry to Argentina (though the Argentine Customs system did say that my temporary import document from Patagonia 3 months earlier was still ‘live’ despite my having departed to Chile, returned to Argentina and departed to Uruguay since then!) I rode out into the rain but not before noticing two Chilean registered Harley Davidsons on a trailer heading back to Chile….poofters!
At the first police checkpoint, a few hundred kilometers from the border I was stopped. This was quite unusual as I had passed countless numbers of them in other parts of the country and had rarely been stopped. When I had and they realized I was a tourist, I was sent on my way with no further questions. This time however, I was asked for my driving licence and ‘seguros’ (insurance). My heart sank. After spending the past few months in Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay I’d forgotten all about Argentina’s requirement for seguros and it hadn’t been mentioned at the border. When I couldn’t produce seguros I was escorted to the office where the ticket and receipt books were produced and a fine of 300pesos (GBP 60 quid) demanded. Fortunately for me I’d got into the habit of keeping most of my cash tucked away with just enough left in my wallet to look like a realistic amount. I produced 125pesos and the boss just laughed and walked off. When he returned he started ranting about wanting 300 so I shrugged and pulled 15k Paraguayan pesos (10 Arg pesos) from my wallet then tipped it out to show it was empty. After more ranting he told his junior to write me a ticket and a receipt. What little of the explanation of the ticket I understood suggested I had 30 days in which to buy seguros and produce it, along with the ticket, at any police station. I couldn’t buy it that day as it was Sunday.
I rode into the next town, collected some more cash from the ATM and rolled out of town straight into another police checkpoint where I was once again stopped. “Driving Licence & Seguros” – Bollocks…here we go again! As soon as I entered the office I asked to use the toilet where I quickly redistributed the cash I’d just withdrawn about my person. In the office I produced my previous ticket for no seguros and explained about being stopped at the previous checkpoint. They read the ticket and said it was for a licence infringement and that they were going to fine me for not having seguros!! (it pays to speak/read Spanish here!!) I flatly refused to pay anything and said “You are holding my licence. What is the infringement?” They didn’t have an answer of course because there was nothing wrong with my licence. This seemed to agitate them and it seemed they wanted me to return to the previous checkpoint to get the ticket corrected. I flatly refused and pointed to the telephone on the desk at which point the two policeman started ranting in Spanish and so I started ranting in English! Suddenly, the one holding my licence handed it back and briskly lifted his chin towards the road in an Italian style ‘Go on…fuck off’ gesture. So I did.
I couldn’t help but think this was all a deliberate scam to extract cash from non-Argentinians coming across the border. Ultimately though, the incorrectly completed ticket (an therefore it’s carbon copy) was for a licence infringement and negated my need to buy seguros. IF anything was ever said about the ticket I could produce my licence and say “No entiendo”!
For the rest of that day and all of the next I rode across hot, straight, flat boring plains where the only things of any interest were the combine harvester crews towing their accommodation blocks behind them. Finally, 1060km from Paraguay, the foothills of the Andes came into view with just a faint, hazy line above the distant tree line. South West of San Miguel de Tucuman I turned onto Ruta 307 and headed for Tafi del Valle and immediately I felt like I’d been teleported to another country. The damp air was in stark contrast to the heat of the plains, moss covered every tree trunk and the temperature plummeted. The road climbed swiftly through the lush green gorge, up to a plateau at 1900m where I found a great spot to pitch my tent on the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi at the opposite end to the town of Tafi del Valle.
After a night by the lake I rode on past Tafi del Valle. The road soon turned to ‘ripio’ as I headed on up to the pass at 3000m from where I descended through a treeless rocky pass full of huge cacti. I rejoined Ruta 40 for the first time in several months and set about finding my may to the old Pre-Inca Indian ruins that are Quilmes. I managed to pick the wrong trail and rode along an ever steepening and narrowing track towards the pueblo of Quilmes and not the ruins of Quilmes. By the time I’d realized my mistake, turning round was quite difficult but after much sweating and cursing I managed it and as I did so was afforded a cracking view through giant cacti and across the valley.
I eventually found the ‘correct’ Quilmes which was worth seeing but would have been far more interesting, had there been some sort of literature explaining the site.
All but the first 20km of the 160km from Cafayate to Cachi are ripio. Adobe houses are scattered amongst the immense rock formations where the (mainly indigenous) inhabitants manage to scratch what, for most, looked to be a meager living. Rounding a corner I was surprised to encounter a lake beyond which lay a good sized farm. The lake marked the beginning of a fertile valley that ran all the way to the pretty town of Cachi at 2400m.
Whilst camping on the surprisingly well kept municipal campsite above the town I met Per and Emma from Sweden. They were nearing the end of their three month trip around Argentina and were on their way back to Buenos Aires where Per worked for the Swedish Embassy. Over a few bottles of wine I learnt that Per was also a ‘Eurocrat’ in Brussels but I tried not to hold that against him.
I left Cachi via the Parque Nacional los Cardones, a large plateau at 2800m where giant cacti grew (bizarrely) on one side of the road only. Leaving the plateau, the air became rather cold as the road climbed to 3300m and turned once again to ripio. The road headed for what looked like a dead end but turned sharp right to reveal the magnificent Quebrada de Escoipe. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…
At the end of the valley the road intersected with Ruta 68 at El Carril. Once again I’d managed to ride into town in the middle of siesta and spent a while riding around looking for a shop in which to buy supplies for dinner. Eventually I found somewhere and after stocking up I headed south out of town so I could see the ‘Quebrada de Cafayte’ in the late afternoon light. It was a good decision as the low sun cast a gentle light on the multi-coloured rocks, adding extra warmth to the already spectacular landscape. Spectacular rock formations mostly coloured red like western Australia, but also greens, browns, turquoise, pinks and so on. Once again, having my own transport meant I could easily avoid all the tour buses that drive out from Cafayate late in the afternoon and I was able to snap a few photos…
Salta was my best chance of finding tyres for Lady P and so I spent four nights there taking in the sights, looking for tyres, repairing trousers etc. Amongst the sights was the Museo de Arqueolologia de Alta Montana (MAAM) where the star attraction is one of the three 500yr old child mummies found perfectly preserved in 1999 by an Argentinian/Peruvian expedition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llullaillaco). I met a few good lads in the hostel and courtesy of Thomas (Switzerland), enjoyed a rooftop ‘asado’ (Argentine BBQ where the coals are arranged thinly under thick steaks so they cook very slowly….mmmmmm…..) along with Chris (ex-pat Kiwi) and a few French lads.
I had a few things to post home so headed for the correo (post office) with my parcel addressed and ready to go but left open for inspection. My first trip came to nothing when I learned they only accepted overseas mail between 0900-1100 and even then, in a different building. I returned the following day and when I got to the front of the queue was told they wouldn’t accept it unless it was wrapped in brown paper! What difference does that make I asked, only to be told “Those are the rules”. But this is Argentina… not Germany! I exclaimed before heading off down the street to find brown paper. I eventually found some in a pavement newspaper booth and after making a purchase returned to the correo, and the queue. “FM…How much!!” It was a good job nobody understood English when they told me it would be $233pesos (GBP 45 quid!!!) to sent it to England…but I REALLY like that hammock so I bit the bullet and begrudgingly gave Dick Turpin his money.
North of Salta, the old Ruta 9 was a smooth, narrow (single lane) road that wound its way along a valley of trees draped in vines almost all the way to Jujuy. From there on it was much bigger but climbed 1300m as it headed north through the picturesque valley of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. I spent a few days in Tilcara visiting the Jardin Botanico (full of Cacti) and the Indian ruins of Pucara. Similar but smaller than the runs at Quilmes they had much better signage and were therefore far more interesting.
Before leaving Tilcara I fitted the new front tyre I’d bought in Salta and adjusted the steering head bearings. My next destination was the small village of Iruja, accessed via a 49km ripio from Ruta 9. The ride was stunning. I rode through a few tiny hamlets and forded a few shallow rivers before climbing to 3954m for a view across a mountain with a coloured peak of sand(?) unlike anything I’d seen before.
The road then descended via a series of switchbacks onto a plateau in the valley below. Across the almost dry riverbed, the cliff face rose up 200m to a patchwork of fields seemingly precariously perched above. Descending again through another series of hairpins, the road met the river and followed it past some spectacularly eroded rock formations to Iruja. The streets of Iruja were so steep and narrow that I found somewhere safe to park Lady P and set about wandering around to find accommodation. There was plenty to choose from but seemingly none with parking. When I did find somewhere with a courtyard there was nobody home. The sun was setting when I finally found a place on the plaza (which itself was hidden behind a maze of small streets). There was no ‘secure’ parking for Lady P so I unloaded everything and chained her up outside the front door. A lovely old lady fed me well in her ‘restaurant’ close to the plaza and it was a good job she did because breakfast the following morning was shite! Once again I enjoyed the ride back out of the valley and once back on the main Ruta 9 I headed south again and stopped off in Urquia to visit the little cactus roofed church built in 1591. Its most unusual feature though, was a series of poster sized paintings depicting angels wearing 17th century battle dress and sporting shotguns!
By now my regular lunch stop whilst on the road had become the YPF petrol stations. I’d camped in several and knew they generally served croissants and toasted sandwiches but most importantly, the best Café con Leche I found in Argentina – and all at the right price. So, after a YPF lunch back at Tilcara, I rode a little further south and turned west onto Ruta 52 and the rather nice little village of Purmamarca, famous for its mountain of seven colours.
Two blocks from the central plaza and immediately behind the church I found a campsite, pitched my tent and sat in the afternoon sun sewing up all the holes in the fingers of my now rather tatty riding gloves. An early night was followed by an early morning to try to catch the low sun on the mountain of seven colours and so after a few attempts to do the scene justice, I packed up and continued west. Once again the scenery didn’t disappoint and the road hugged the left side of the valley as it passed by multi-coloured rock formations eroded into shapes even my camera struggles to portray. Across the river, tiny small holdings with goat and llama pens were dotted along the bank and up the valley sides. Further along the road began a long series of switchbacks as it climbed steadily to 4200m.
There’s something about being in the mountains that raises my spirit, invigorates me, makes me feel alive. When I look at the rock I think about time, inconceivable lengths of time, Mother Nature. I feel humbled surrounded by this greater force; perhaps this is how religion affects believers? I once heard the timeline of Planet Earth described thus: ‘If the planet were 24hrs old, the human race would be but the blink of an eye’. Hard to comprehend until you come here and stand amongst these giants.
Ruta 52 is the main route to Chile via Paso de Jama but I wasn’t headed that way this time. Instead, as the road dropped down to the salt plateau of Salinas Grandes I turned onto a ripio track and headed south west to San Antonio de los Cobres. Along the way the track not only got rather sandy but the sand was a brilliant white and despite my black visor I was blinded several times and had several near crashes after getting cross-rutted and riding into pot-holes when I couldn’t see. I ended up wearing my sunglasses under my black visor which worked well against the blinding sand but had the visual effect of looking at an underexposed photograph.
I found the only hostel in San Antonio and was in the middle of making some lunch when the manager told me the Tren a las Nubes (Train to the clouds – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tren_a_las_Nubes) would be crossing La Polvorilla viaduct in 20mins time. “So what?” you all say. Well the Tren a las Nubes remains one of the world’s most spectacular railway journeys, La Polvorilla viaduct is its most photographed feature and this was the first train to run in six months. I skipped lunch, jumped on Lady P and rode the 16km to the viaduct just in time to watch the last carriage clear the structure – bollocks! What a difference 5mins would have made to the photos.
Walking around town that evening I felt I was truly in the Andes for the first time. Not only was I at 3200m but there were very few Latino Argentineans; this was home to the Quechua Indians. Old American pick-up trucks with families of seven wedged across the front seats cruised into town, mothers carried babies in multi-coloured blankets strapped to their backs and older women wore bowler hats. The town’s dirt roads had many shops but as none had signs to indicate what they sold I took a stroll around, peeking through doorways until I managed to find enough ingredients to cook dinner.
Back at the hostel Marcos, the owner, invited me to park Lady P inside. I was grateful for this as the old ‘failure to start from cold at altitude’ had raised its ugly head again and it would be -5°C overnight.
Despite being parked inside overnight, Lady P once again failed to start despite parking her in the sun whilst I loaded up. Fortunately, around the corner there was a hill to bump start her down. Unfortunately, she still didn’t want to start! Once again I parked her in the sun, sat around for an hour and finally she fired up.
San Antonio de los Cobres (Argentina) to San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) is 350km, the first 250km of which is ripio. The route has been superseded by Paso de Jama and as a result sees little traffic. When I arrived at the Argentine border I was not only the only one there but I was the only person they’d seen that day. The younger employees were very friendly and efficient but there boss was a miserable bastard. It was a pretty remote posting so I forgave him! I climbed away from the border post past rock formations reminiscent of Arizona’s Monument Valley and headed up to Paso Sico itself. The approach to the crest was spectacular as the distant multi-coloured peaks slowly came into view. A truck rolled by in the opposite direction and was only the third vehicle I’d seen that day and it was 3pm.
As the road descended so it turned a corner into a most amazing valley(?) where the grass tufts were a golden yellow and seemed to carpet all but the ripio that cut a line through the bottom and out of sight over the horizon. As the road began its climb out of the valley so I had t stopat the Chilean customs post. Despite being as desolate as the Argentine border post this was a truly breathtaking location and looked across to a salt lake invisible from my initial descent. I went into the office and removed my crash helmet to complete the necessary paperwork. This was the first time I’d realized how sore my ears had become from taking my helmey on and off all day taking photos (If anyone fancies donating a Nikon dSLR with live preview I’d appreciate it!!!)
Chatting with the border guards I learn that the overnight temperature here (4200m) was currently -10°C but would drop to -30°C come August! By the time I left the Customs post it was 1530 and there was no way I would make it to San Pedro before dark. I had to start looking for a suitable place to camp but given my problems getting Lady P started in the morning I needed to find some high ground so I could bump start her in the morning. Luck came my way a little further on when I came across the turn off for Lago Miscanti. The road headed up over a ridge and from where I was it looked as though there was some sort of shelter at the top. Sure enough, at the top of the track I found the entry kiosk for the National Reserve with a curved wall built next to it. Not only was the space behind the wall just big enough for my tent but it was located perfectly to shelter me from the wind. I soon had my tent pitched and dinner cooking; watching the sun go down, coffee in hand. All being well I would have eaten and been in my tent within half an hour of sunset as the temperature was sure to plummet. All was not well though as three female park rangers arrived to tell me I couldn’t camp there. Pissed off? You bet! Communication was entirely in Spanish and therefore limited but I managed to explain my problem with Lady P and my need to be on top of a hill. They wanted me to leave but as the sun would set in another 30mins I flatly refused stating that I didn’t ride in the dark, especially on ripio. Eventually we struck a compromise that involved me re-pitching my tent next to the rangers house inside the reserve which meant missing the sunset, pitching my tent in the dark and eating cold rice for dinner.
I set up my laptop on my camp stool and snuggled into my sleeping bag to watch Gandhi but the battery didn’t like the cold and expired halfway through the film. I awoke to a glorious morning and had to stand my 5ltr water container in the sun to thaw enough water for a cup of tea. It had frozen solid inside my inner tent thanks to the overnight -10°C.
With the best of the scenery behind me I rolled into San Pedro de Atacama but not before noting it was the first time I’d ridden with five volcanoes within my peripheral vision. Made up largely of single story adobe dwellings San Pedro was a tourist trap. Every third shop was a tour agency and the two in between either a restaurant or artisanas. I hung around for a few days and visited the spectacular and unusual ‘Valle de la Luna’ (Valley of the Moon) before moving on to Calama where I camped on a site owned by a retired detective. I was the only one there and in place of a camp toilet block/kitchen he gave me the keys to one of the cabins and so I slept in my tent but had the use of the cabin the rest of the time. On my first morning there I awoke to fog! Unheard of in this, the Atacama desert. Luckily for me it cleased by late morning and I rode 16km north to the mining town of Chuquicamata in the hope of getting on a tour of the worlds largest open cast coppermine. Thanks to fellow overland traveler Goh (from Singapore), I had the GPS coordinates to the car park the tours left from and sure enough I arrived to find several other gringos waiting for the coach.
Chuquicamata is now a ghost town, the last resident having left in February this year. It was quite eerie to visit somewhere so new and yet deserted. The mine had expanded so close to the town that it was deemed unsafe for residents to remain. Our guide had been born in the local hospital, said to be the most technologically advanced in Latin America when it was opened in the early eighties but it is now buried under millions of tons of spoil.
Despite having previously visited Western Australia’s ‘Superpit’ the hole in the ground here was incomprehensible. Already 10km long, 3km wide and 1km deep, it will be 15km long by 2015 when the current three sites are linked. The mine produces 2000 tonnes of copper per day but in order to do so 600,000 tonnes of material are excavated! To help move this, the mine has a fleet of 100 giant tippers including 30 Liebherr T 282B’s – the world’s largest tipper truck with a capacity of 400 tonnes – about the same as a fully loaded jumbo jet!!
Back to San Pedro
From Calama I made an aborted attempt to visit the Geiser del Taito after getting caught in a sandstorm. Instead I headed back to San Pedro then south to Toconao where I picked up the ripio to Peine. En-route I detoured to Laguna Chaxa, a favoured spot for pink Flamingoes.
The route from Peine across the Salar de Atacama and the Cordillera de Domeyko was recommended by Axel (from Santiago) and gave me a real surprise. My maps of the region have no contours and without then this route looked nothing special but after passing several salt mines as I crossed the Salar so the road climbed 500m as it crossed the Cordillera from where it was downhill all the way to the ocean.
After losing one pair of pannier padlocks on the Carretera Austral, I managed to lose the other pair on Paso Sico. The few days I spent in Antofagasta were spent searching the Ferreteria’s (hardware shops) for a set of four padlocks all using the same key. Try explaining that in Spanish! Eventually I found a guy who knew what I was talking about and he showed me a picture of exactly what I wanted on the back of the packaging of one of the manufactures. He didn’t have any locks though. He did however phone the local distributer and after waiting half an hour for a return call was told they didn’t have any either. So four separate padlocks with four separate keys it was and what a pain in the arse that is!
South of Antofgasta I made a quick photo stop at the ‘Hand in the Desert’ before riding on to the coastal town of Chańaral. I was riding around looking for a place to stay when I was flagged down by a guy in a pick-up truck. I told him I was looking for a place to stay and he said I could stay at his mum’s hotel. I was a little suspicious but decided it was worth a look. When we pulled up I immediately spotted the big poster of Chilean Dakar competitor Carlo de Gavardo who, coincidentally is a friend of Axel in Santiago. Eduardo’s mum offered to move her car so I could park my bike inside and that was it, deal done. I ended up with my own room, an evening meal and breakfast all for the same price as a cheap hostel dormitory. A chat with Eduardo revealed the connection with Carlo de Gavardo. Eduardo was his mechanic! – Small world.
Paso San Francisco
It had been my intention to cross the Andes three times before winter set in and the snow came. Paso San Francisco was my second of these crossings and once again provided breathtaking scenery.
The valley road through Diego de Almagro followed the old mining railway until becoming ripio near Potrerillos and climbing steeply through a series of switchbacks onto a plateau at 3500m. It was bloody cold in the wind and so when I got to the Chilean border I fitted my handlebar muffs and got a mug of boiling water from one of the officers so I could make coffee.
20km or so further on the road turned east and it was this east-west section that provided the most amazing scenery. Away to my right were three peaks over 6600m whilst to my left was the turquoise Laguna Verde.
Once again I was virtually alone. Just one truck had passed through the order whilst I was there and it remained the only vehicle I saw since Potrerillos. I had hoped to camp at the Argentine border but it was at the bottom of a ‘bowl’ and so there would be no chance of bump starting Lady P the following morning. Instead I rode on and turned south into a wide valley where the late afternoon sun repeated the ‘golden carpet’ effect I’d seen on Paso Sico. Refugio’s started appearing at regular intervals and I was lucky to come across one on a bit of a hill with 40minutes or so of daylight remaining. I had hoped to ride all the way to Fiamballa but once again all the photo stops had eaten into the available daylight.
Sunsets in the mountains don’t normally amount to much but I was privy to a beautiful post sunset sky before setting up camp in the refugio and cooking dinner.
Sure enough, the following morning, Lady P didn’t want to start. I was at 3600m and it had been just below 0°C overnight. I tried bump starting but the incline of the road wasn’t steep enough and the knobbly front tyre (Pirelli MT21) created too much drag for me to get any speed up. Once again I resigned myself to waiting for the sun to rise and warm her up so I got my book out (Khaled Hosseini’s: A Thousand Splendid Suns. V.good) and sat by the roadside. After a few hours it became apparent that as the sun rose so the cloud increased and the expected increase in temperature didn’t occur. I unloaded everything and tried bump starting again but this time instead of jumping on before ‘popping’ the clutch I just stamped her into gear and kept running alongside to keep the speed up. On my third attempt the engine started just before my heart stopped. Bump starting alone at 3600m is not recommended!
The palaver of the morning was soon forgotten once I’d pitched my tent at the thermal springs above Fiambala where I spent the evening in the splendid complex of naturally heated outdoor pools that ranged from 35-43°C – marvelous!
Cafayate – again!
For the third time I found myself back at the campsite in Cafayate. I had wanted to stay high in the Altiplano and ride through the remote Antofagasta de la Sierra to Susques and my final Argentina/Chile Andes crossing at Paso de Jama but I needed to return to Salta to buy a new rear tyre and to do some research into my cold starting problem. I got up before sunrise with the intention of making an early start but once again Lady P didn’t want to play ball. I left her in the sun and walked into town for breakfast but when I returned an hour later she still didn’t want to start. I took her to bits, checked the battery voltage and connections but everything seemed normal. Once again I unloaded everything and this time pushed her out of the campsite and along the road out of town to the bridge over the river where I hoped to bump start her down the incline of the bridge. Three times I pushed her up the bridge until eventually she started. Up at 0730, engine started at 1315. I wasn’t very happy.
Second time around I stayed at the Correcaminos Hostel where I was able to park Lady P in the courtyard and which I liked so much more than where I’d stayed previously. Free Wi-Fi enabled me to do plenty of research into the starting problem but rather than be a fault with my bike in particular it seemed to be a generic BMW F650 problem. Suggested solutions included; pull the clutch in when starting, change oil to 10w40, change to synthetic oil, update the BMS (Fuel Injection Software) and most commonly, ensure the battery is in tip-top condition. When I’d replaced the battery in Chile in January I’d been unable to buy my battery of choice (Yuasa) and therefore had my suspicions about the one that was fitted. The BMS had been updated in Singapore in October. I also learnt from a friend in England who is the workshop manager for a BMW dealer, that BMW had released a modified decompressor lever to aid cold starting.
Along with a new rear tyre I managed to find a new Yuasa battery but I couldn’t find 10w40 oil anywhere. Walking back from the tyre shop I saw a BMW GS1150 parked outside a hostel near the plaza. I was sure I recognized it and returned to my hostel to check my photos. Sure enough, it was Nicos, the dreadlocked Ecuadorian American I’d met in Ushuaia, ridden to and camped with in Rio Gallegos back in February. The following morning I knocked on his door to be met by one very surprised Nico. He and his girlfriend were on their way back to Ecuador and so I’ll catch up with them again in a couple of months.
Hostel Correcaminos was full of good people including (amongst others) Ian from Florida, Dave & Ali from Bournemouth (UK), Rich from Yeovil (UK). All were staying for several days and a good time was had by all including another splendid asado and a few rather messy late nights.
Paso de Jama…or not…
I left Salta, passed through Purmamarca and continued up to Susques where there was a nice looking place to stay on the main road just out of town but where the price was so ludicrous I didn’t even bother to start haggling. Instead I rode into town where the advertised hostel was still double what I wanted to pay and eventually found myself in a bit of a dive but it did the job for one night and I was able to cook in my room. Guess what happened…or rather didn’t happen the following morning? Yep, Lady P failed to start – so much for my new 50 quid Yuasa battery. Even bumping her down the hill into the town centre didn’t work and once again I sat around like a right lemon, waiting for the sun to do its job.
I was more than pissed off. My planned route into Bolivia was across Paso de Jama to San Pedro de Atacama (again) then into Bolivia’s south-west corner at the remote Hito Cajon and past Laguna’s Colorado and Verde and onto the Salar de Uyuni. The route is ripio and sand and almost entirely above 4000m with night time temperatures of around -10°C, and with the exception of some mining traffic is only visited by 4×4 tours. There was no way Lady P would start in that climate and the effect of the sun at that altitude would be limited. If she wouldn’t start until lunchtime the route would take twice as long and I would have to carry double the food and water. Just like Lady P, the idea was a non-starter.
So back to Ruta 9 it was, and the ‘conventional’ route from Salta to Bolivia. I had hoped to camp in the little pueblo of Yavi, east of the border town of Quiaca but the riverside campsite was inaccessible by bike and so I returned to Quiaca where I found a room at the friendly ‘Cristal’.
By now you all know the drill that ensued the following morning and so whilst Lady P was sunbathing I sat in the bar drinking coffee. Finally, at 1145 she fired up and after using up all my existing Argentinean pesos in the petrol station I rode to the border.
Exit Argentine Aduana, exit Argentine immigration, ride across bridge, enter Bolivian immigration. So far so good…but where’s Bolivian Aduana? Back across the bridge in Argentina I found the Bolivian Aduana.
“Seguros!” (insurance) was the first word out of the officers mouth. Of course, I didn’t have any. All of my research had suggested the only place I required it was Argentina but this guy was having none of it. Being a Sunday I couldn’t even by any. I tried my luck with my travel insurance policy and nearly got away with it but because it only had my name and no vehicle registration number he eventually declined it. Once I realized it wasn’t a definite ‘you can’t come in’ I started negotiating and after a while he suggested he would let Lady P in for 60 days. I had a 90 day visa and eventually bartered him up to 70 days but I couldn’t get him to give me the full 90 – whatever, I was in Bolivia!
Outside town I had a good chuckle at a toll booth for the gravel road that led north. I spent my first night in Tupiza where the following morning Lady P once again refused to start but a group of friendly locals offered to bump-start me down the road. It took a while to find the right route out of town but once I did I had a great days riding. The track was being improved in many places and there were many detours. It ran along a dry riverbed for many kilometers crossing lots of streams and a few rivers along the way.
Just south of Potosi I had my first encounter with a ‘Chollita’ (country woman). I stopped at the roadside for a coke and had quite a chat with her – all very friendly. When I came to pay the price was 5 Bolivianos (Bs). I offered her a 10Bs note but she shook her head. “No tengo cambiar” (I don’t have any change). I pointed at some of the other establishments nearby but she shook her head “No hay” (there is none). I pulled out 4Bs in coins from my pocket but she just looked at me in disgust so I shrugged my shoulders and put all my money back in my pockets. Then, with a face like thunder she rummaged in her apron pockets and produced 5Bs change! So began my education of the distrust/dislike between Campasinos and Latinos.
I met up with Aussie Adam Mulvanny in Sucre and spent a few nights at his place before moving into the homestay he had recommended where I spent a month with the family of Julio, wife Lilian, sister Roxanna and son Sergio. I spent 4hrs a day in Spanish school but to be honest I struggled. Despite a fantastic teacher my reading and writing improved enormously, my speaking improved some but my understanding remained/remains very poor. When someone is speaking to me, I’m still translating word no3 when there on word no10! I guess I’m just not cut out for languages but I’m still trying.
Whilst at the school I met Tom. English by birth but Aussie by residency, he was travelling with his girlfriend Juliette and daughters Luca 10 and Isla 7. A lovely family who’s company I enjoyed immensely. They had rented a house with a great view across the city and we spent several evenings eating, drinking and sharing a few yarns.
The Che Trail
Back in 2006 Maarten, Ilse, Danny and I all stayed with Dutchman Maarten Munnik and his Thai wife Tip (Tippawan) when they lived in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Since then however, Maarten and Tip had moved to Samaipata, approx 160km west of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
The ride there took me through ravines and river valleys and reminded me very much of northern Pakistan but without the really jagged peaks.
Maarten and been sick for a few days prior to my arrival (the thought of sharing his house with an Englishman I suspect) which was a real shame as it was Tip’s birthday on the Sunday and she had a picnic planned. All was not lost though as Maarten had arranged a surprise party for her and around 20 ex-pats and locals turned up. There are somewhere in the region of 12 different nationalities living in the small town of Samaipata.
Maarten added a few ‘roads’ to my map that weren’t marked and when the time came to say goodbye I followed ‘Ruta del Che’ to La Higuera where Che Guevara was executed by the Bolivian Military on 8th October 1967. Along the way I stopped at the Che museum in Valle Grande and visited the hospital where Che’s body was presented to the press the following day. It was a good history lesson as I hadn’t realized he had been involved in so much fighting in Bolivia.
La Higuera itself is reached by a dead-end track, 300m and several kilometers below the ‘main’ track from Valle Grande. 50m from the memorial is the beautiful guesthouse ‘Telegrafista’ where I spent 1½hrs reading and watching the sunset from a hammock. I was the only guest.
I awoke to low cloud, mist and drizzle. I hoped it would clear – it didn’t. As I climbed away from La Higuera and into the cloud I stopped to don my waterproof jacket. It was the best decision I made that day. It was a real shame about the weather. Every once in a while I got a glimpse through the clouds to the stunning valleys beneath. In places my speed was reduced to 20km/h because of the visibility in the mist, in others it was reduced to 20km/h because the dirt road was like ice and I could touch neither the clutch nor the brakes. I descended out of the clouds through a leafless winter forest to cross Valle Grande where once again my thoughts turned to NW Pakistan. It rained harder but now I was below the clouds at least I could see. Despite the weather it was a fantastic ride on which I met only two other people during the first 250km or so. Just how good would it have been with good visibility? I guess I’ll just have add it to my ‘must return to’ list.
I rejoined the tarmac near Tarabuco and stopped in a lay-by to clean my chain. When I went to rock Lady P off her sidestand, one side sank into the ground and it was all I could do to stop her falling over. I was stuck. I couldn’t let go and eventually managed to flag down a passing mini-bus by shouting and shaking my head. I must have looked a right lemon.
I spent the night in Sucre with Tom and the girls where I was glad to get out of my wet boots and have a hot shower. In 8hrs of riding I’d stopped only to clean my chain. The following morning I picked up a new front tyre (Metzeler Karoo 345Bs – 30 quid!!!) before leaving town. Tom and Aussie Don had taken a taxi to Potosi (160km) and I met them there. We checked into the Carlos V Hostel where Lady P had top billing parked in the lobby and booked ourselves on a mine tour that afternoon.
The state mine, which dominates the landscape around the world’s highest city, was closed by the government in the ‘80s and is now operated by cooperatives formed by small groups of miners. Small quantities of silver are still mined but these are substituted by lead and other minerals. Working conditions are 18th century and the whole experience reminded me of an Indiana Jones film. Dressed in waterproofs, rubber boots and hard hats with lamps we entered the mine above 4000m and waded through 20cm of water as we crouched and walked through the maze of tunnels. Wooden trapdoors alongside the tunnels covered ladders that led to smaller tunnels we scrabbled through on our hands and knees. Some weren’t even tall enough to get through on all fours and it was more akin to pot-holing than mining. At the workface miners hammered chisels into the rock to make holes for dynamite and chewed coca leaves for energy and to help with the effect of altitude. We all carried gifts of more coca leaves and bottles of drinks to share with the miners. 4hrs was a long time to spend in the mine but it went surprisingly quickly. On the walk out I noticed the (frighteningly few) wooden roof supports covered in ice.
If the day-to-day working conditions were tough, the long term conditions were deadly. The majority of miners live a relatively short life due to the exposure to noxious gasses. The next time you hurl your alarm clock across the bedroom on a Monday morning, just think about where you could be going to spend your day…
I spent a few more days in Potosi, visiting a few museums and wandering through the streets and among the markets with my camera.
Thinking the road I’d entered Potosi on was a ring-road I zig-zagged my way through the maze of one-way streets to the outskirts of town where I’d entered only to find it wasn’t. Back through the city, past the central market and on out of town to the first toll booth where I checked I was on the right road – I wasn’t. 1km back towards Potosi I turned onto a dirt track that led me to a road of pristine tarmac – well, for a few km’s anyway.
The days ride was 225km of ripio that started at 4000m, climbed to 4300m, descended to 3400m and ended in Uyuni at 3700m. The riding in Bolivia (if you like ripio) is awesome. I stopped off at the mining village of Pulacayo, SE of Uyuni and hope to the Train Cemetery which contains the first locomotive in Bolivia and the train robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And I got to play Casey Jones for half an hour…whooo whooo!!
In Sucre I’d managed to change my engine oil from 20w50 mineral to 10w40 synthetic. This was one of the suggestions that had come up when I was researching Lady P’s starting problems back in Argentina. It hadn’t cured the problem but it had certainly seemed to make a difference. As a result I was going to make a second attempt to visit the remote SW area of the country around Lagunas Verde and Colorada. Both my maps of the area were different and other than a few waypoints I picked up on the internet I had very little in the way of GPS information. I spent a morning wandering around Uyuni’s many tour operators, looking at their maps, writing down villages and routes, talking to a few guides and gathering the information I needed to alter my maps and plan a route. The best piece of information though, was that there were sufficient 4×4 tour operator running trips into the region that if (or rather when) the track split into many options, I could stop and wait for a passing 4×4 and ask directions.
Maintenance…then more maintenance…
Whilst fitting my new front tyre in my hostel (Tati Laura) I gave Lady P a check over and found a missing subframe bolt, a broken cradle bolt (again) and leaking waterpump. I had a parcel of spares being delivered to La Paz from the UK and decided I could get away with topping up the radiator until I got to La Paz where I could carry-out all my maintenance in one go.
The following morning I loaded up, checked out then checked the water level only to find oil in the radiator – I wasn’t going anywhere. I checked back in, unloaded, replaced the waterpump and flushed out the radiator as best I could. Italian Paulo and his Japanese wife staying in a room a few doors away invited me to share their pasta lunch they’d just cooked with Paulo’s brother, his wife and a few more friends. It was the perfect invitation – cheers Paulo!
Whilst cleaning the clutch cover gasket it split but I took a chance and re-assembled it anyway – bad decision! When I fired up the motor it wasn’t long before she was pissing oil out. I went out to buy instant gasket before the shop closed but it was too late in the day to start the job again. The next morning I found the courtyard full of tour operators 4×4’s and it was some time before there was enough space to work on Lady P. I took the clutch cover off and replaced the proper gasket with instant and booked another night as it would take 24hrs to cure properly.
It was roughly -10 °C overnight, enough to freeze the water in the toilet bowl, all the water pipes and put an inch of ice on the 50 gallon drum outside the toilet block. I hadn’t experienced water that cold since trekking in Pakistan’s Hindu Cush.
I didn’t get the early start I wanted as once again Lady P refused to start despite a few hour sunbathing. When she did finally start I was delighted to find no leaks – apart from a tiny drip from the waterpump drain screw (I didn’t have a new copper washer).
I queued for fuel for 45mins then finally rode SW out of town and after 90km came to San Cristobal where I saw a sign for fuel. Filling up there would give me added security for crossing the Salar de Uyuni at the end of my planned loop. In the petrol station I got chatting with 3 Landcruisers full of Italian tourists. Many questions followed leading eventually to “How old are you?”… “41 errr…well 42 tomorrow” and with that I was sung an impromptu ‘Happy Birthday’ – good job I still had my lid on as I was glowing like a baboon’s arse.
I checked the route with one of the guides and continued on past Alota before turning south past a lake where a herd of llama’s were drinking and on towards Culpina K. A little further on I came to a split in the road; straight on alongside the river or across the river and onto a sandy track. A sat there for a while scanning the horizon when I spotted three dust clouds heading my way. Once they were close enough to ensure they were 4×4’s and not local trucks (which could have been coming from any of the remote settlements) I crossed the river and picked up the sandy track. After a second river crossing the track climbed again passing some spectacularly eroded rock formations away to the west. The track became little more than a single vehicle wide and I rode in one deep sandy wheel rut around blind bend after blind bend praying nothing would come the opposite way – it didn’t. As I entered the the Valle de Rocas a smaller track led into the vast expanse of peculiar rock formations I’d once read described as ‘Mars on Acid’.
It was a beautiful location and so after finding as sheltered a spot as I could I built a small wall out of rocks and had a great place to pitch my tent. Like all good bush camps I had the place to myself and after an early supper sat on top of a rock watching the sun change the colours of my surrounding as it slid rapidly behind the distant mountains.
I had a fairly leisurely breakfast and let Lady P bask in the sun until 10am when she started fairy easily. I had a slow puncture in the front tyre for a long time but it was so slow I couldn’t find the hole. Checking the tyre pressures the front was indeed low so I pumped it up before leaving camp. At the first bend in the track I narrowly avoided crashing as the front wheel tucked under on me and so I stopped to alter the tyre pressure. Again I stopped to adjust the pressure but again I nearly fell at the next corner. Back on the main track I was struggling to maintain control. The surface was rutted and in places soft. It wasn’t that bad, but whatever I did the front end just wanted to ‘plough’ in the ruts. I stopped again and this time noticed the left fork seal had blown. I couldn’t (and still don’t) believe this was the sole reason for my bike’s poor handling but the track would get much worse further on and I decided against continuing on. It was my second attempt to get to the SW corner and it was the second time Lady P had decided she didn’t want to.
Salar de Uyuni
Instead, I returned to Uyuni, filled up with fuel and headed out onto the Salar de Uyuni – the world’s highest and largest salt lake. Although cold, it was the idea time of year to cross it by bike (ie dry). Ever since I began researching this trip back in 2004 I had wanted to camp on the Salar and doing so on my birthday was a bonus. A few people had relayed the story of a couple of German cyclists who’d been run over in their tent in the middle of the night by a couple of locals racing around in 4×4’s with no lights on. I figured you’d have to be pretty damn unlucky to get run over in the middle of 12,000km² of salt lake but nevertheless I chose my campsite carefully. Any vehicles crush the salt ridges that form the patterns on the lakes surface and so it was easy to pick a spot where nobody had been. Far away from the edges of the lake I parked up and spent several hours taking photos and observing the routes taken by the 4×4’s. Once confident I was as safe as I could be I ran Lady P’s motor until the fan came on then wrapped the engine/tank/radiator in my insulated groundsheet to keep the wind out. I was expecting -10 to -15°C overnight + windchill so I figured limiting how cold she got would help when it came to starting in the morning. I pitched my tent, cooked supper and absorbed all the beauty of the ever changing light as the sun set – a truly memorable campsite.
I awoke just before sunrise and got up to watch the sunrise. At -6°C it was much warmer than I’d expected and again I had a leisurely breakfast and took many photos. At 10am Lady P started up fairly easily. Wrapping her up had obviously worked and I was soon on my way to Isla Incahuasi (also known as Isla del Pescado), a coral island raised up from the sea bed and covered in tall cacti. After walking the trail to the top and back I rode north towards Tunapa Volcano (easy navigation!) where I exited the Salar at the ancient pueblo of Tahua. Riding past the stone walls and dwellings I continued north, skirting the volcano along the roughest track I’d encountered in a long, long time.
My leaking fork seal was soon pissing out oil and I ended up with a piece of rag tied around the fork leg to soak it up before it got into the front brake. A few more pueblos passed by and I entered another dry salt lake as I rode in a big anti-clockwise loop to the pueblo of Salinas de Garcia-Mendoza where I expected to meet the ‘main’ track that runs NW and on to Huari where I’d hoped to spend the night.
A new ripio was being built alongside the old one and I was constantly diverted on and off it. The new sections were like a billiard table but the detours were a different matter. Ruts, potholes, bulldust, sand and dried mud were the order of the day. Not to mention the multitude of tracks that spread out across the plain as traffic had obviously tried to avoid the worst parts during the wet season.
To the south, a vast plain stretched out into the distant mountains and it was as though I’d been transported to the Kazakh steppe – only the llamas gave away my true location. Stopping at the Miguel y Alex Tejada Meteorite crater I climbed the cactus wood observation tower but as it swayed in the wind I opted not to stay long and rode on.
It was late afternoon, the road was running in the same direction as the one on the ‘World Map’ on my GPS (no detailed map for Bolivia) but not ‘on’ it. It could be a mapping error, it could be the same road, I would never be certain. What I did know was that it was late afternoon, there was no sign of Huari and there was nowhere out of sight to camp. I rode on.
The sun was getting low in the sky and the diversions off the new ripio all ran on the opposite side of the road several metres below and hence were in the shade. Every time I was diverted I had to lift my visor to see and after doing this several times I ploughed into a huge pothole and got a face full of bulldust. It was a while before I could see again and continue riding; all the while the sun was setting.
Off the track I rode through a small pueblo I hoped was Huari – it wasn’t. Behind the pueblo I was delighted to find a way onto an un-opened section of new ripio but my delight was short lived s I soon found my way blocked by piles of earth. The sun had virtually set and so I had no choice to ride into what looked like some abandoned adobe buildings nearby. Scouting around, some of them were indeed abandoned but others were obviously used by passing shepherds. I made myself as discreet as I could (but not as discreet as I’d have liked) and waited until after dark to pitch my tent. Having not been able to scout around properly in daylight I was uneasy with my choice of site which was compounded by my proximity to the pueblo and combined with an overnight temperature of -10°C it was a restless night. I need not have been concerned. Up early to thaw out my frozen water bottle in the rising sun before I could make breakfast, every local who cycled past gave me a friendly wave.
14km (20 mins) up the road I rode into Huari and onto tarmac for the first time since leaving Potosi eight days and 900km earlier. I rode straight through Oruro and onto the pueblo of Tolar where I turned right onto a 29km ripio and the natural thermal springs of ‘Thermas de Urmiri’. The track climbed to 4100m, turned a corner and presented a magnificent view of Illimani (6439m) before descending to the termas at 3600m.
After three night bush camping at temperatures from -1 to -10°C and lots of sweating in between, I arrived stinking like a pole cat and spent the following day in and out of the thermal pools, sauna and swimming pool. Watching the Milky Way appear in the night sky from the warmth of a hot spring was pretty special. Stepping out of the pool into the night air was not.
Blown head gasket?…least of my problems…
My plan for the day was to ride to the border with Peru to try to get permission for Lady P to stay in the country for another 20 days as her papers were due to expire in four days. I hadn’t topped up the radiator for a few days so before setting off I did just that. I continued the descent to Sapahaqui and followed the valley out to the main Oruro – La Paz road. Whenever I stopped to take photos so Lady P would drip coolant…sometimes leaving a sizeable puddle. Several times I stopped on my way into town, let her cool down and topped up the radiator. Twice she blew out a large volume of coolant from the header tank overflow and once again I was concerned to find the radiator cap covered in oil.
Founded by the Spaniards in 1548, La Paz is said to be the world’s highest capital city though it seems many think of Sucre as Bolivia’s capital. Whether it is or isn’t, it is surely one of the world’s most spectacularly located cities. From its airport at 4058m the city sprawls into the canyon some 500m below where building cling to the steep sides, affording views across snow capped peaks.
Concerned about finding somewhere to stay before Lady P came to a complete standstill I was overjoyed to see a hostel pop up on my GPS. Maarten Munnik had given me all his waypoints of the Americas from his RTW trip and if he had stayed there, there must be parking – there was.
The staff at El Carretero were friendly and helpful and between us we bumped Lady P up the few steps from the cobbled street and into the courtyard. Knowing I had some maintenance ahead of me I took a single room with bathroom for 40Bs and unpacked.
I had a spare fork seal but needed a few special tools to fit it and so took it to the local Honda dealer who replaced it for 50Bs. With Lady P re-assembled I checked the water level properly and took her outside where I ran the motor until the fan came on – no leaks. I ran it for 5 mins more – no leaks. Once cool I checked the water level – normal. I waited until the following day (Sunday) when the traffic would be quieter before going for a ride. 35km – no leaks. Again I let her cool down and checked the water level – normal. Conclusion – pilot (ie. Fuckwit) error. I think that when I set out for La Paz I’d inadvertently overfilled the cooling system causing it to expand beyond the volume of the header tank. The oil in the radiator I concluded to be residue from the waterpump failure back in Uyuni.
I hope it is/was a false alarm as there is no BMW dealer in Bolivia and I would need to have the parts flown in from Chile (v.expensive).
Time out in La Paz
On the Monday I collected my parcel of spares from the UK, had Lady P washed and set about servicing the brake calipers, replacing seals and pads. When I removed the rear wheel I made my customary check for vertical play in the swingarm as the link arm bearings have a tendency to fail. On a good day there would be no play, on a bad day there would be perhaps ½”, today there was 2”. FM!! 2”!! The whole shock unit was moving up and down.
It’s a long job to remove the shock as the whole pannier frame assemblies, rack, seat and tanks and exhaust have to be removed before the subframe and underseat fuel tank can be unbolted and tipped up to reveal the top mounting bolt for the shock. At least it would have revealed itself had it been there. It had in fact sheared off allowing the shock body to impact the frame damaging the top of the unit (cylinder head), the shock of which had snapped the U-bracket on the opposite end – OH FUCK!!!
I emailed the Manufacturer – Ohlins – in Sweden to get the part numbers I needed, then emailed all the South American distributors – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru. It took a few days but they all replied – nobody had the parts. I emailed Ohlins USA who had most of, but not all, the parts but even if they did they wouldn’t sell them to me. I would have to ‘find’ a dealer prepared to post to Bolivia and have them order the parts from Ohlins USA who would, in-turn, order them from Sweden! I did find a dealer in California who’s website claims to be the ‘World’s largest Ohlins dealer’. I figured there had to be a chance they’d have the parts in stock so I emailed them only to have them contact Ohlins USA. I received a reply saying “It seems you already know what’s going on” ! I emailed the UK distributor who also had most of, but not all of the parts I required. Again I emailed Ohlins in Sweden, told them who I had contacted and asked if they could supply to me directly. I received a reply saying they had spoken to the UK distributor who had told them they had all the parts! I promptly forwarded them the message saying theUK didn’t have the parts and received a reply saying “Please order your parts through the UK distributor”.
Even if I did manage to get the parts I would still have to fly to Santiago, Chile, to have the distributor make the repair. At GBP156 a plane ticket was the cheapest way to get my shock to an Ohlins agent. The Chilean dealer quoted U$250 labour only and the bill for the parts was running at U$350 + shipping…not good for the piggy bank.
Whilst all these emails were flying around I walked miles up and down the hills around La Paz seeking a solution. It’s tarmac all the way to the Ohlins agent in Lima, Peru, approximately 1600km away and if I could make a temporary repair to get me there I could avoid paying for a plane ticket to Chile, have the parts delivered regular mail instead of paying for a courier and leave Bolivia before my visa expires (Lady P’s papers expired a few weeks ago so I’ll have to wing it at the border).
Worth hanging around in La Paz for was an AC/DC cover band playing in a local club. They were awesome. How a Bolivian managed to sing in a high pitched Geordie accent I’ll never know.
Three German overlanders rolled into the hostel on their way south from Alaska. Husband & wife Carlos & Monica, and Richard were the first overlanders I’d met since Patagonia back in March and it was good to be able to share some info. When I watched Carlos and Monica leave I couldn’t help but wonder why it was my suspension that had broken!
Eventually I was given directions to another Honda dealer on the other side of town. The guy I spoke to indicated that the ‘experienced’ mechanic would return soon and that I should wait. Two hours later I was freezing my ass off. Wearing just a T-shirt as the sun set I said I’d return the following day. I did exactly that and met José. I had hoped we could remove the broken U-bracket and have a new one CNC’d but we couldn’t. Instead we made a shield to protect the rebound adjuster knob from the heat of welding after which I jumped on the back of José’s ’83 Kawasaki Z650 and we rode across town to find a welder. I’d never seen aluminium ‘stick’ welded before but by now I had nothing to lose so shrugged my shoulders and let them get on with it. The finished article wasn’t/isn’t pretty (I know…neither’s the rider) but one can’t complain for 15Bs.
Back at the workshop, Josés’ assistant had finished turning up a new spacer for the top of the shock. Final bill – 50Bs. I couldn’t thank José enough and hurried back to the hostel where I spent the afternoon re-building Lady P. All the needle rollers in the linkage to shock bearing fell out and had to be cleaned and re-assembled, the link arm bearings are again worn out and the linkage to frame bearings are seized. Given that I replaced the link arm bearings and seals and cleaned and greased all the other linkage bearings when I arrived in Chile I’m not very impressed.
So, after two weeks of emailing, waiting and walking, Lady P is finally back in one piece; but will she get me to Lima? Tune in to Chapter 20 to find out…