Saturday, 24 December 2011

Adventures on the Carretera Austral Highway

The Ferry from Hornoprien
 We had rest day at Simon's farm where we made use of the workshop for some routine maintenance on the bikes and a had a quick tour of the farm. It was interesting to here about the challenges in adopting a New Zealand style of farming here in Chile. That evening Simon put on a fantastic bbq for us.

The next day it was back on the bikes and heading for Puerto Montt. This is the starting point for the Carretera Austral highway which runs down the edge of the Patagonian fiord's through remote and rugged country and was one of our must do rides. In places the highway is more like the width of a driveway and the roadside mowing was well out of control of the local crew which made for an even narrower carriage way. Most of the highway is gravel but there is some large scale road works going on and an increasing amount of pavement.

The northern section of the highway requires a few ferry crossings, the first was no problem and after about an hour wait we were away. We arrived at Hornoprien early and went straight down to the ramp to check out the next ferry. "Manana" was the response we got which means tomorrow so we had a delay but thanks to a local sea kayak guide that we met on the previous ferry we were directed to a real nice camp right down on the waters edge with a nicely crafted wooden dinning area over looking the water which just happened to have dolphins playing about when we arrived.

This was a really beautiful place, surrounded by mountains, some volcanic and the family running the camp were really friendly. I striped down the DR and explored some of the local trails during the afternoon. I've been happy with the way the DR650 is performing, it may not be as stable and comfortable on the fast gravel and paved sections of road as the big tourers but when all the luggage is removed it's trail bike qualities make for a fun ride in the rough.

The next morning it was down to the ferry where we met some fellow motor bikers who were also waiting to head south. There was Marcelo and Fleur from Chile going 2 up on a Transalp, Alex from Germany on a nicely set up BMW 800GS, and Kat and Vido from the USA who purchased 2 Chinese 200cc trail bikes locally. The ferry crossing was 4 hours which gave us time to exchange stories at get to know one another. This was followed by a short road section and then another ferry across a fiord that must have been in the too hard basket for the roading engineers who had already impressed with determination to blast a road through shear rock walls above the waters edge.

Kat, Marcelo, Fleur, Vido, Joe and Rob

The ferry landed us in the middle of nowhere and we all headed off into the wilderness with a plan of meeting up in Chaiten. This section of the road was closed in 2008 when a nearby volcano let rip, we could see sections of mountain sides with dead trees and some of the houses in Chaiten were still well buried in ash. Rob and myself were first into town and headed straight for the "supermarcardo" which means supermarket, but really in NZ terms these are really more like an "micromarcardo" and it can be difficult find a decent selection of food in these small towns.

I was approached by a person in the micro store who was keen to communicate and after much confusion and arm waving I determined that he must have just travelled down the same road as us and was trying to tell me that " a moto was down back up the road 20km". He must have recognised me from the ferry with all my motorbike kit on. Without delay we set about heading back up the road to offer some assistance and fearing the worst. We got as far as the local medical centre just down the street and noticed Marcelo's bike parked up. Alex was inside, he had gone down hard and was unconscious for some time and had suspected chest injuries. Kat had travelled with him from the accident site and Vido stayed behind with the bike which was a mess and un ridable.

Alex was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Palena and then later transferred up to Santiago. He had broken 5 ribs and was undergoing further observations. The road from the ferry was open and fast but had sections of loose and rocky surfaces which really require full concentration. He had obvously gone down at high speed. It was a very real reminder of how easily a day on the motorbike can go from the best to the worst in a split second. We all stayed in a camp that night with a "thermo" natural hot spring but it was a subdued atmosphere knowing that Alex's ride was over.

After saying farewell to Marcelo and Fleur and arranging to met up with Kat and Vido down in Coyhaique we set off for the day. And what a day it turned out to be, the riding and scenery was stunning. In places the narrow gravel road wound around lakes and up over mountain passes, over massive steel suspensions bridges that spanned the fast flowing glacier melt waters, but it was not all good.

Earlier in the day we pulled into fuel up the bikes and have a bite to eat. I had a problem, a big problem, my insulin kit was no where to be found! I went through all the possible hiding places and still no insulin pens or blood glucose monitor. I went through everything again and still no sign. By know I was getting really pissed off as I just couldn't figure out where it must be and this was about the worst thing I could loose besides the motorbike! Bugger, I must have left it back down the road 15km where I had a hypo and had to park up, test my blood sugar levels and have a munch on some sugar. I had no choice but to back track up the road and search. Rob helpfully offered me a sandwich before leaving which only annoyed me even more " no I said, I can't eat the f$%#ing thing without what I just lost!!! Back up the road there was no sign either. I must have placed it on top of my saddle bag and rode off down the road. I checked the road sides carefully but it had vanished. Good thing I packed a spare kit deep down in my pannier bags otherwise I would have been bloody hungry for a day or two or maybe a week or so? Still, I'm pretty pissed as now I have no back up.
Carretera Austral "Highway"

Around each corner there was something special, it just went on and on, lakes mountains and when we finally reached Coyhaique it was late and we nackered. Coyhaique is one of the larger towns on the Carratera Austral and we made use of the services here and had a day off riding, cleaned clothes and bike air filters etc. It's also the town near where i was building mtn bike tracks earlier in the year. I only know about 3 locals from this town about the size of Motueka and one just happened to turn up at the motorbike shop while we were there. Funny how someone just turns up when we need a translator!

more Austral highway

With clean clothes and our bikes breathing easy we pulled out of town with the aim of making Villa O Higgins at the far end of the Austral. Tagging along for the ride to O higgins was Vido fully loaded on the Euromat 200 and at full throttle, just below redline! The 650 "s were just cruising. We enjoyed Video's company the previous few days and were keen to have him along. It goes to show that you don't need the latest and greatest bike to have some fun while bike touring. With more mountains, gravel, corrugations and dust eating cycle tourers behind us we knocked off another day and camped up just short of Cochrane.

As we rolled into Cochrane on the pavement Vido noticed his rear wheel felt flat, but it wasn't, closer inspection revealed that 4 spokes had broken under the extra stress from the corrugations and luggage. Fortunately Vido had done his home work on the euromat and knew the spokes were a weak point so was carrying 5 spares, we had to shorten them up a bit but there was just enough thread to get the job done. So with the rebuilt wheel it was all go again. The last 100km into Villa O higgins is pretty interesting stuff. The road leaves the mighty Baker river and heads up a narrow gorge up over a saddle and down to a fiord of which a ferry is needed and then continues through an area of rock and swamp with stunted trees. The place has a very Baron, cold and unforgiving feeling of being at the end of the world and with Antarctica not to far away I guess it is.
Vido with insect protection on an the mighty euromat 200

The lads way way down near Villa O Higgins 

With some heavy showers passing by and the end of the day approaching we decided to camp with a bunch of cycle tourers at a shelter by the ferry ramp and the next day did a quick run down to Villa Ohiggins and back to catch the 1 pm ferry back so we could carry on back up to Cochrane. The Carratera Austral is very popular with cycle tourers and from Villa O Higgins they can cross a lake by boat and carry on south to Chaltan in Argentina, us however on the motos had to back track up to Cochrane. Both Rob and myself being keen cyclist found it interesting chatting to the bikers about their adventures.

Once back in Cochrane it was time to finally leave the Carretal Austral and we headed west around the southern edge of the massive Lago General Carrera and on to Chile Chico. The area reminded us of the southern lakes in nz on a bigger scale. Meanwhile Vido headed back up to Coyhaique. We had a meal and a beer with him the night before and wished him luck with the rest of his trip. He needed it as another 5 spokes had broke and he still had over 300km to cover. The last we sore of him was with his bike all loaded ready to go, a six pack of beer and a sign that said said something like " free beer for a lift to Coyhaique" just in case the wheel gave out on him. A couple of days later via email we were clad to hear that Vido was able to drink the beers himself, the wheel had pulled through!

After Chile Chico we crossed the border into Argentina ( made sure we got the right doc's this time) and then rode south alongside the border on a track that was recommended to us by a couple cycle touring. The route varied from wide open fast road to narrow 2 track through high mountain sheep farming country with interesting rock formations and colours. With a few snow flurries and the famous Patagonian winds building it was a cold and battering ride down Ruta 40 at the end of the day to make our destination at a sheep and beef farm homestead.

We met 3 Australian motorbikers the night before and they recommended the homestead. The last 15 km involved a straight section of gravel road. In most situations this would be easy but the side wind was particularly fierce and with the bikes leaned well over it was a challenge to stay on the road. I had a close call attempting to cross the centre ridge of loose gravel and went into a wild fishtail down the road at around 90km, fortunately I held it together. We blew our budget at the homestead with a meal with the assuies but cooking out in the wind was not appealing.

Obtaining fuel in Argentina has proved difficult so far and we were about to test the limits of our bikes. We thought we had a further 150k's to reach some fuel, but after some clarification with the station owner it was now another 270km. We cleaned out the farm fuel supply and headed off with the Aussies. More loose gravel roads and more winds, this was the famous Patagonian Ruta 40 after all. We were heading for the tourist town of Chalten, home of Mt Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We hit the pavement and the road turned directly into the wind which was relentless. With the impressive granite spires sticking up 3500m in the distant range marking our destination we tucked in low for maximum aerodynamic ness and just hoped there was a big pot full of fuel at the base of the mountain.

Just after passing the 60 km to Chalten sign the DR started to miss, I switched the fuel tap to the reserve position and away she went. I had two problems though, getting the last fuel out of the big Safari tank can be difficult, i had to blow into the tank cap breather pipe to pressurise it. Secondly my fuel tap was leaking
badly in the reserve position loosing precious fuel. I felt like all my efforts to conserve fuel were running down my leg! My thoughts were continuously switching from the increasingly impressive towers of granite looming up ahead to the possibility of running out of gas. Finally we made town, Robs Tenere missed a couple of beats as he pulled up to the pump and proceeded to put 23.5 ltrs of fuel into the 23 liter tank. I fixed up my fuel tap before adding 34 litres. We had just travelled 740 odd km between fuel stations and were thankful for the fuel we obtained at the homestead.

The hive of activity in Chalten was a real change from the previous two days travel through sparsely populated semi arid station land. We parked up the bikes for a day and clicked the legs into gear as we hiked up close to the base of Fitz Roy, this is a truly stunning environment with humongous granite spires sticking up out of the glaciers and ice fields. We got talking to a young NZ couple, Lucas and Whitney on the trail and arranged to meet up for a Christmas dinner.

Mt Fitz Roy

Rodeo at Cochrane

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