Monday, June 30, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 9

Sunday 15th Monday 16th

We set off late to allow time for the sun to gain strength after a freezing night shivering for warmth. Well freezing for Dani and I. Michael, camped atop the coals of last night´s fire complains of being too warm in his tent, until we silence him with hostile stares....

A day of miles... endless tarmac.... pedals tick tock in time.

We pass buildings straight out of a Star Wars set in Santa Maria...

Time and mile pass... tick tock...

We descend. Trees absent at higher altitudes return to the landscape. The night is still freezing; so for warmth, we burn some of them.

Monday - We ride into Cafayate, another wine town at the entrance to stunning canyon country. We collect bottles from roadside artisans to fortify us against the cold of the coming night. Try before you buy reveals more sherry than wine and inner warmth at least for tonight is assured.

The road meanders sinuously....

Past awesome Martian rockscape... with names such as "Devil´s throat", "The Obelisk", "The Amphitheatre" and "The Toad"

At camp we witness a moonrise as the earth burns gold...

Climbing a small escarpment the river blazes crimson, as warmth and light drain from the day....

I descend and drain crimson warmth from a bottle of the strong stuff.... It´s another late night around the camp fire.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 8

Friday 13th Saturday 14th

We are awoken in the plaza early that morning by the sound of children playing on swings and by lorries passing by. It´s next to the main bus terminal as well so we get around 3 hours sleep. We decide shopping for food is better than riding and finally get away late.

Strange warning signs on the road.... Honest, we didn´t eat your cow...

We enter another vast valley and ride slow on aching legs before calling an early stop to catch up on sleep. Who´s stupid idea was it to ride 24 hours anyway....

Saturday we hit a new type of ripio - this is sand and gravel and sucks at the wheels. Deep sections lurk undetected; waiting to drag the bike down and we take a couple of spills. In places it degenerates so much and is so lumpy it threatens to destroy all chances of fatherhood as bike-saddle and tender bits clash repeatedly.

We climb another 500m to around 2200m and camp freezing at the roadside. Our fire does nothing to keep out the cold and I measure minus 10 inside the tent. It´s colder outside! Michael who´s sleeping bag is made for sunnier climes, buries the fire in sand and pitches his tent on top of it to stay warm. Tents set solid in ice and water bottles freeze. It´s an ominous sign of what´s to come. If this is 2200 metres of altitude - what is in store at Bolivia´s more lofty 4000 metre altitudes. That kind of thinking keeps a cyclist awake at night....

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 7

Thursday 12th

We´re behind schedule. And to make things worse, Salta has moved. It was only 1000kilometres away when we left Mendoza, we look again and it´s now closer to 1300kms. Should have planned this a bit better. And maybe checked a map...

We need to make up time so we hatch the plan to ride for the next 24hrs straight. Actually Michael and I thought it would be a good idea to attempt this back in Mendoza. Dani was never keen (for obvious reasons - it´s insane) and it´s taken us a few days to convince him.... Today is the day.....

We start well as the road undulates into the forever....

Roadside shrines with water bottle paths....

We even get a couple of downhills as we ride down into San Blas de Los Sauces, a collection of about 10 villages all joined together in a beautiful green valley.

60km/h action shot from the bike....


Then the road passes through a deep valley where rivers drain across the road. Most are dry now, but the going gets tough as every couple of hundred metres the road drops 10m, runs across a rough drainage channel before rising sharply 10m back up. We cross maybe 150 channels with about 10 still flowing water. It´s exhausting.

Then Michael gets a puncture.

Then a second.... but we carry on in the growing gloom as the sun sets. Spectacularly!

Full dark now, we see the lights from 2 towns in the next valley and check the map. They can only be Londres and Belem which are 65 and 85 kilometres away! It´s amazing how far you can see here and we ride and ride without ever seeming to get closer.

The temperature plummets to around freezing as Michael gets his third puncture and spirits are low as we stop and cool down as he makes frustrated repairs.

65kms later riding into Londres the temperature suddenly plummets. In the space of 300 metres it goes from zero to maybe minus 15 degrees!! I´ve never experienced anything like this and by the time we stop and don extra garments (maybe 2 minutes) I have lost all feeling in fingers and toes.

Michael dresses for battle....

And gets his 4th puncture riding into Belem. He´s definitely not happy now! We pull into a petrol station to make yet more repairs, when, from nowhere a man appears in front of us asking if we need a hotel.
"We have tents" reply we.
"Camp in the Plaza" encourages he.
"On who´s permission?" ask we.
"On mine" assures he.
"Who are you?" enquire we.

He only turns out to be the director of Tourism for the town. What he says goes around here. He just happens to be passing at 3am after a late session of playstation. We turn to discuss options for a second while he promptly disappears back into the night without trace. To our tired minds we wonder if it really happened and he was ever there. We turn to the evidence - his business card nestled snuggly in Dani´s cold hand. Those cycle gods do move in mysterious ways....

We gratefully take up his offer and find ourself pitching tents on the town´s main plaza and cooking pasta at 4am in the morning.

We never made the 24hrs, but managed to do 190kms on tough roads and rode for 16 hours. And Dani is still talking to us. We failed, but I guess it´s just good training for the next attempt.....

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 6

Wednesday 11th

Taking down the tent we find intersting bed fellows. This guy was sleeping under Dani´s tent.

Entering Chilecito I decide to be German for the day... These guys have long memories of the war for the Falkland Islands in 1982 and maybe being English is not a bright idea in this town.

The siesta demon hits us again and the welder is not available until 4pm. We kill time, but the cycle gods again provide. He does a great job, refuses to accept payment and gives Michael a big bag of fruit for his troubles. It still goes down as a good day despite only managing 40kms.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 5

Tuesday 10th

The day starts well. Where the map shows rack destroying ripio, we find a construction crew laying fresh new tarmac, and we make good speed along virgin black. It´s untouched by other wheels - we are the first.

It couldn't´t last and after a few kilometers, the fresh becomes too fresh as the tar softens and our wheels sink. But not before spraying our bikes and legs with sticky tar goo. We have to ride the ripio at the roadside and now spray gravel and dust at the goo, which continues to be sticky. Suddenly the tarmac ends and we stop for a cleanup.

Tar is hard to clean....

At least we have the consolation that our tyre tracks will forever be part of Ruta Cuarenta (route 40).

This is the (clean) face of a man who´s bike has mudguards. Dani - this is not funny. Mudguards are now on my shopping list for future tours.

The land changes as we ascend. 6 metre cacti sprout from Martian red soil carved and cut in tortured sculpture.

We hit ripio again and start to climb the pass proper. It´s a bottom gear grind as we crawl ant like to the summit.

Dani dwarfed by the landscape as he toils upwards....

The view from the top....

And looking back down....

We stop at an abandoned building to recover, eat, and put on layers for the descent. The next valley yawns before us and the road is a riot of high speed ripio as we squirm and skid the 1000 metres back down.

Just as we spot a campsite, we see a 4x4 make a U-turn, turn to follow us and slow down beside me - I fear the worst. Only to see a grinning face deliver a large bag of bread through the window to me as I ride. Without a word the driver zoomed off. We camp just short of Chilecito and eat and again give thanks to the cycle gods. Tomorrow we find an aluminium welder...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 4

Monday 9th

Last night we saw the lights of Guandacol glowing maybe 6kms away in the valley. This morning we ride nearly 20kms before reaching it and we get our first taste of the lack of scale here. Distances telescope in clear air and we are forced to re-adjust our estimates.... This is a BIG place.

We ride in valleys maybe 50kms wide, mountain ranges to either side with even more distant snow capped peaks behind. Checking maps reveals them to be monstrous 6000m peaks, 80kms away!

Dani climbes past tortured twisted rock...

Climbing steeply over into another valley, we hit our next disaster. Michael´s rear rack, good since a repair on the Carretera Austral some 2500km ago, has sheared again. The bolts holding it to the frame have snapped and we are lucky it has not dropped into a moving wheel and eaten the delicate spokes. We stop to make temporary repairs and check maps for potential towns with welders.

Villa Union is the next candidate, but we hit the siesta problem again and have 4 hours to kill. Eating is the only option. But worse still - the towns is recovering from a weekend siesta and there is no meat. Anywhere!

It gets worse as the rack is aluminium and the welder can only fix steel. He makes more temporary repairs and we manage just 60kms for the day. Tomorrow there is a welder in Chilecito - 100kms away and over the "Cuesta de Miranda" a rough tough ripio pass with over 1000m of climbing. We redistribute weight to reduce the strain and hope for the best....

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 3

Sunday 8th

Leaving Jachal Route 40 begins to ascend on ripio past a hydroelectric plant and into a stunning steep sided canyon.

We descend serpentine drops into the next valley....

Before passing through a tunnel into another world....

The soil turns Martian red and the rock gives testimony to the sand blasting power of the winds. Today they are mercifully silent....

Then we hit the endless tarmac of route 40 again....

Before finding a perfect sunset to camp by in a wide valley 90kms further on just before Guandacol. The lights of the tiny town glow invitingly below in the valley.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 2

Saturday 7th

We set off early for Jachal as the road stretches before us.

Foolishly we forgot to take water from Victor and the church yesterday, perhaps due to excess wine and supplies are now low. We rely on tiny Talocasto, the next and ONLY town before Jachal to top up.

This is Talocasto....

An old railway station town that has long since been abandoned as Argetina´s British built system of lines slowly decayed. This is not good news as we have definitely left the cold of the South and temperatures soar.

Dani and Michael discuss the problem.

We have to make Jachal and post 145kms for the day to meet Padre Orlando at the church.

Victor in Rawson has done us proud and Padre Orlando presents us with 3 options.

1 - Sleep in the church, but be woken by kids Sunday school classes early the following morning - bad news.
2 - Be put up in a local hotel at the churches expense! Tempting, but perhaps not the best use of church funds and a difficult one to explain at confession.
3 - Sleep in the Padre´s part built private house with no electric or gas supplies. It´s got water though, so that will do us nicely!

We even get a local from his flock to drive us for supplies and he delivers church candles to create just the right atmosphere around the fireside...

I keep having to say this.... but I cannot thank the people of Argentina enough for their hospitality. Many thanks Padre Orlando

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Road to Salta - Part 1

Wednesday 4th, Thursday 5th, Friday 6th

Another late night sampling Mendoza´s finest and toasting Dani´s arrival on the team sees us leave late the following morning. Cycling out of cities with hangovers is becoming a bad habit and we think Dani is having second thoughts about joining us as he worries over an invisible "fault" in his wheel rim. We convince him he has no option.... and we ride.

Salta we reckon is about 1000km North over a couple of tough-ish passes, but generally an easy ride through wide valleys.

Or so we think. Should have spent more time reading maps than drinking wine..... And more time looking over Dani´s suspect wheel rim.....

Day 1 starts well as we clobber some distance and we make 120kms on endlessly straight Route 40 despite bad heads and late starts.... The cycle gods are also smiling on us as I find a horseshoe in the road to Christen Dani´s bike with. This completes the set sported by mine and Michael´s bike after collecting from the world´s dumbest horse and Dani officially joins the team.

Day 2 is less auspicious as we make an easy 40kms before that "invisible fault" in Dani´s wheel becomes all too visible and we are in trouble as a large split appears....

He hitches a ride and we meet him at a bike shop in tiny Villa Aberastain.... which is closed for the next 4 hours due to siesta....

And then they don´t have the right rim!

So we ride at lame horse speed 14kms to Rawson on the edge of San Juan.... Which by chance turns out to be the cycle capital of Argentina, hosting race meets every weekend for a 6 month season every year. The cycle gods provide again as we find a shop that can fix him up.

Michael and I look for accommodation while Dani is re-wheeled and are told about "an adventurer" Padre Victor at the local church. Bemused we investigate and are offered free accommodation in the church from a man who travelled over the Mendoza pass ON FOOT. Next year he cycles Ushuaia to Rawson, about 2000km in one month.

Day 3 Padre Victor insists we accompany him on a city tour in his 4x4 before going to a friends house for an asado (BBQ). Arriving we see the Parilla (grill) loaded with about 5kgs of steak and 5kgs of chorizo sausage and nervously wonder how many people are coming. It turns out to be only 3..... Us, and we cheerfully put away half a butcher´s shop between us, plus a couple of bottles of industrial strength home brew wine. Many, many thanks for a unexpectedly fantastic day...

Raul, Padre Victor, Dani, Raul´s wife Gabrielle and Michael

We finally wobble bloatedly away and manage a meat fuelled 15kms to camp outside of town to manage 175kms in 3 days. Salta is a long, long way away at this pace.

On the bright side Victor promises to phone 140kms ahead to a friend - Padre Orlando in San Jose de Jachal - the next town and our next accommodation looks secure. Suddenly we are on a holy mission!


Sunday 1st to Tuesday 3rd June

Mendoza is a beautiful city! Set in a warm valley, surrounded by vineyards, and overlooked by the now distant Andes to the West, it is the best possible place to recuperate and thaw out after the freezing mountain pass. A glass or two of the local brew helps this process along nicely....

Walking around the city, one notes the broad tree lined boulevards and massive central plaza, a contrast to other Argentine cities so far. The explanation - a massive earthquake in 1861 which levelled the place. Upon rebuilding it, planners included huge plazas (space for evacuations), and wide avenues to allow room for buildings to collapse into. The next earthquake is yet to arrive....

Mendoza also contains the largest urban park in the whole of South America and it´s a gem. Park General San Martin is a huge 1000 acre area housing 3 sports stadiums, including the site of Argentina's 1978 world cup win, forests, museums, a lake with an island, a camp site, tennis club and a small mountain with great views of the city. Beautiful.

After meeting up with Maxi - the professor from the school where we slept in Ponvaredas who works weekends in Mendoza, we spend Braulio´s last day before he takes the bus back to Santiago exploring the park. Madeline from our hostel joins us.

Michael, Braulio, Maxi and Madeline entering the park

Art deco style museum

Painting from the Gallery of Modern Art

Entering the world cup stadium

Sunset by lake and rowing club, distant Andes in the background.

Michael with Madeline "Strange" and Maxi.

I met Dani as I passed through Pucon in Chile, he´s another cycling legend from Germany and veteran of tours of Scandinavia, Mongolia, New Zealand, plus others. We meet up again in Mendoza after he scales the mountain pass alone from Santiago that we just climbed as a 3. We agree to ride out of Mendoza together to Salta in the arid North, and then on to Bolivia..... if he can put up with our singing on the way.... The team is back up to 3 as Braulio bows out and Dani joins the crew.

Welcome to Dani!!

Tomorrow, WE RIDE NORTH!