Tuesday, March 16, 2010

El Calafate to Ushuaia...Two days to the End of the World.

As you can see from the map below, Ushuaia is located on Tierra Del Fuego a lump of land claimed by both Argentina and Chile but under a boundary treaty of 1881 it is now shared by both countries. The division of territory meant we would have to cross between the two countries twice in the next couple of day to reach our final destination. First off, we had to see the spectacle that brought us to El Calafate, the Perito Moreno Glacier.


The glacier is on the list of  'One thousand and one things to do before you die, right up there with 'Make sure not to leave any of your inheritance money to the tax man!'. Of course the list is completely subjective, if you asked me, I'd include things like 'learn to play a musical instrument'. If you asked Sue, well, "Put the bloody top back on the toothpaste" would be fairly high up the list! 

Satellite image of the glacier.

The 30km (19mi) long Perito Moreno Glacier is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that are not retreating and one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonian Icefield, a landform shared with Chile that contains the world's third largest reserves of fresh water. The terminus of the Perito Moreno Glacier is 5 kilometres (3 mi) wide, with an average height of 74 m (240 ft) above the surface of the water of Lake Argentino and has a total ice depth of 170 metres (558 ft).  
As planned Johannes and Jude arrived at our hotel the next morning in their hire car and as there was only room for three in the back, Sue, Chris and Dave went in the car whilst I froze my arse off on the bike...Oh! how I laughed. The weather was holding up and the ride to the glacier afforded some spectacular views across Lago Argentina towards the Fitzroy mountains.

More shots of BOB and mountains.

Riding on my own I was able to have a bit of a burn up on the way to the glacier and so I arrived before the rest of the group and more importantly before the tour buses started to arrive, so I managed to get a few shots without anyone in the way.

This is the first glimpse of the glacier from the road that runs through the park.
There's a tour ship in front of the glacier, just right of centre to give an idea of scale.
It's just a breathtaking chunk of ice.
Up close it looks like a giant 250 foot meringue!
Bloody Glaciers Tourists!
It was impossible to get far enough back to capture the full expanse of the glacier in one shot.

So I stitched two photos together, impressive eh!

The Glacier is stable for most of the time, it is neither advancing nor receding. Occasionally it gets too close to the land mass in front and then the flow of water from the neighbouring lake creates huge arches, which result in a process called 'rupturing' where rainwater eventually weakens the bridge with spectacular effect.
The last of these was in 2006, the clip below is of news footage at the time. Keep an eye on the top of the screen when the arch collapses, huge chunks of ice fly off with tremendous force like glacier missiles. This is one reason why visitors are no longer allowed to get too close to the glacier and are now restricted to walkways at a safe distance. Between 1968 and 1988 over 30 people were killed by flying ice shrapnel!

We never got to see such a spectacle, but we were lucky enough to see the 'calving' of a chunk of ice the size of a house fall off the face of the glacier and I was even more fortunate to get most of it on video! Jude was well impressed as you can hear by her Oh! Wow! comments in the background.

The colour of the ice varies from sky blue to a deep turquoise, apparantly the older the ice, the darker the colour.
Group photo.

Coming back from the National Park I had a very near miss, so near in fact it was one of those soiled pants moments! As I was coming round a curve some guy pulled out of a dirt road in front of me. It was clear he had seen me as I saw him look my way just before I slammed the brakes on, BOB behaved impeccably with only a little slide on the loose gravel and by the time I had composed myself the pick up truck was off in the distance. Now I can only assume he didn't want to be behind me because as soon as I caught up to him and made an attempt to overtake he would speed up. I wasn't trying to overtake out of badness I was just travelling at a speed that was clearly too much for the pick up, after about three attempts I gave up trying to pass and allowed him to keep in front. A couple of minutes later I picked up the familiar smell of overheating metal and that lovely blue smoke that goes with it. OK, so if he wants to ruin a perfectly good engine that's fine. All of a sudden the pick up veered off the road and onto the dirt in a plume of dust, then back onto the road dragging shit and gravel with it, I was far enough back to be able to slow down and avoid all the crap on  the tarmac and came to a halt just as the driver dug a huge groove in the dirt on the hard shoulder. When the dust settled I got a look at the problem, his rear axle had snapped! What a shame, of course I made sure he was OK and managed not to laugh in the process. The scary thing is it could have failed just at the moment I was overtaking.

"That's wheely bad luck Mister.
BOB 1 - Pick up 0.

When I finally met up with the others Chris discovered he had lost his wallet somewhere between the Park and El Calafate. After having no luck with the lost and found department at the park he did the safe thing and organised to have his credit cards cancelled. Now here's where it gets weird beyond coincidence, later on that evening he rode into town to get some cash on another card and as he gets back on his bike to ride off, a guy runs out of a nearby restaurant and exclaims " Your Chris Cockerell, I've got your wallet" Chris is dumbfounded as the guy hands him his wallet, credit cards, cash, the lot! It turns out the guy's father had been visiting the glacier and picked up the wallet and brought it back and handed it to his son who runs a restaurant in El Calafate. The son was looking through the wallet when he recognised the bike parked outside from a picture on Chris's business card....Lucky Bastard! (must get him to buy me a lottery ticket).
It was going to be a long day the next day with a border and a ferry crossing so I typed up a bit of the blog whilst Sue went out for Tango lessons with Johannes and Jude....She came back with two left feet. 
On a more positive note, yesterday Sue received an email from her boss accepting her resignation from her current job, Crikey! what are we going to do now when we get home?........ How about Africa!?

Today was probably our penultimate day on the road before Ushuaia. Dave's leg was still painful and he was apprehensive about getting on the bike and doing a long day's ride. Johannes and Jude would leave later and return the hire car to Rio Gallegos before joining us somewhere down the road. Fortunately most of the day's ride was on tarmac and the odd sections of gravel were reportedly easy?, it was only a short run out of El Calafate to the sign that would fill us with dread if we were heading north. As it was we were heading south and the road surface was as good as we could wish for.
Back on the dreaded Ruta 40 (mostly tarmac this time).
Someone's missing!
Looking back towards the Fitzroy range.
It was absolutely freezing and Dave had seriously underestimated how cold it was, so added more layers.
It also gave him time for a toilet break!.

We stopped for a break about 10:00am at La Esperanza and when I came out of the restaurant Chris and Dave were surrounded by geriatric biker groupies. There's always interest in us and the bikes, the blokes usually want to know about the bike and the women are interested in the trip.

Not long after we left La Esperanza we were overtaken by Johannes and Jude on their way back to Rio Gallegos and shortly after that Sue and I stopped to celebrate another milestone in the trip. It was exactly 30,000 miles (48,000km) ago that we started the trip, leaving home at 4:00am with 6088 miles (9650km) on the clock.

BOB was slightly dustier and battle scarred but had managed to get us this far with relative ease. Some of the problems were self inflicted and others we could have done without but we wouldn't swap him for any other form of transport. (cue for sentimental music!)

When we arrived at the border with Chile we were stunned to find the queues coming out of the Migration and Customs offices and down the side of the building. No one had told us that on Saturdays half the population of Argentina cross over the border into Chile to do their shopping in Punta Arenas which is a duty free port. Sue stood and watched the bikes whilst Chris, Dave and I queued for three hours to get us and the bikes through. Whilst we were waiting for the queues to recede Johannes and Jude arrived accompanied by Phillipe and Obi who we'd last seen a few thousand miles ago in Banos, Ecuador. The now customary banter of reunited friends eased the boredom of standing in line but we were probably an hour ahead of them in the queue, so when we had been duly processed we left them once again and agreed to meet up at Cerro Sombrero, our planned overnight stop. We rode on quickly as the border crossing had taken way too much time out of our day and when we arrived at the port there was a ferry docked but a long line of cars waiting to board. As adventure motorcyclists or travellers you have an assumed right to drive to the head of any queue oblivious to the rants and obscenities hurled at you by motorists who have been waiting long enough to grow a beard!. True to form we rode up the outside of the long line of vehicles straight to the ferry just as it was about to close the ramp and set sail, the captain looked at the bikes and motioned us onto the ramp and Hey Presto! we were crossing the Magellan Strait.

The Magellan Strait comprises a navigable sea route immediately south of mainland South America and north of Tierra del Fuego . The waterway is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, but it is considered a difficult route to navigate because of the unpredictable winds and currents and the narrowness of the passage. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the Magellan Strait was the main route for steam ships traveling from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

This is a dull photo of the Magellan strait, which is a pretty dull stretch of water.

Once on dry land we rode the short distance to Cerro Sombrero and booked into the first hotel just off the main road. The bikes were parked so as to be visible from the road and we just hoped the others following would see them.

Hotel Tunkelen, Cerro Sombrero.

Eventually everyone arrived and we had dinner in the hotel restaurant and caught up on what had happened to Phillipe and Obi since we left them. It also turned out that Ingo and Cecilia had made it to Ushuaia and were about to leave on their way back up country, Jude had been in contact with them and had arranged to meet up in Rio Grande the next day. After almost 8 months on the road. Sue and I had only one more day riding south to complete our journey from the Arctic to the Antarctic so with that prospect in mind we retired to bed.

 From Cerro Sombrero there are two routes available, one is pavement, the other gravel, the sealed road is the one used by the majority of traffic, trucks, tour buses etc. but it's considered the most hazardous (we were still at the mercy of the winds and would be for the next two thousand miles) so most riders take the decent gravel road. Dave was holding up well enough with his bad leg so we left the hotel and took the gravel road.

The first 100km was all gravel, cold as hell and windy. How windy? well if you've read the blog on our trip down Ruta 40 you know the answer!.

We arrived at our second border crossing in two days and everything seemed to be going well until I got to the counter and for some unknown reason everything stopped. Why does it always happen to me? everyone goes through like clockwork and I end up with the guy who's the classic example of why we should be pushing stem cell research! When I finally got processed I threw a tantrum outside (unlike me?) to everyone's amusement, but I have to say it was worthy of an 'Oscar'. After I'd calmed down we rode on to Rio Grande and arrived at the petrol station rendezvous to have lunch with most of the original 'Cosmotos'.

  From left to right: Obi, Phillipe, Johannes, Jude, Sue (Isn't she pretty!) Dave, Me (What a guy!), Chris, Ingo and Cecilia.
'Cosmotos' motos.

There was now only 200km to go, the weather looked like it was closing in but we were back on tarmac and would be in Ushaia in just over 2 hours even with Dave's toilet breaks. I'm not sure if I expected the sudden change in scenery but one minute we were riding across windswept open pampas and the next we were into the relative calm of  forested mountains.

The view from the top of the Garibaldi pass. Hidden lake is in the foreground and Lake Fagano in the distance. 
Isn't she pretty!.
   What a guy!.

Bloody Tourists!

No sooner had we dropped down from the pass than we arrived at Ushuaia, the 'other end' of our trip. All very unassuming, a few buildings and signs at the entrance to the city that only has relevance for those that have seen them first hand.

We've made it!
With a little assistance from BOB.
The sign at the entrance to the city and the mural depicting it's origin as a penal colony.

Ushuaia is located in a wide bay on the southern coast of the island of Tierra del Fuego, bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and on the south by the Beagle Channel. During the first half of the 20th century, the city centered around a prison built by the Argentine government to increase the Argentine population here and to ensure Argentine sovereignty over Tierra del Fuego. The prison was intended for repeat offenders and serious criminals. Following the example of the British in Tasmania and the French in Devil's Island, escape from Tierra del Fuego was similarly difficult and as a result the prison population  became forced colonists and spent much of their time building the town with timber from the forest around the prison. 
Ushuaia today.

This wasn't technically the end of the journey for us, in Alaska you can ride as far north as Deadhorse and there the road stops, virtually on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. In Ushuaia we were still a good way from the Antactic Ocean but Ruta 3 officially ends in the National park 20km away. Some of the group wanted to ride on to the finish but it was getting late and in the end we settled for finding some accommodation and dinner, besides, we would be here for a couple of days and could do the whole 'photo shoot at the end of the world thing' tomorrow. That night we all went for a meal to celebrate our achievement over a glass of champagne, we toasted ourselves and those that we'd ridden with, those that had been here or were still on their way and those that would have to come back another time. I don't think the enormity of our achievement sank in straight away, some people who have done it will tell you it's just part of the process of travelling from one place to the next but for us it was special.
The next day we messed around waiting to go to the park, the weather wasn't good and it had threatened rain all day but in the end we left at 4:00pm, the apprehension of finalising the trip getting the better of us. It wasn't cheap to get into the park to say there's not a great deal there other than a couple of signs but you're not about to turn round and say "I'm not paying that"! The 20km of dirt road wasn't lined with waving spectators like the Dakar, there were no breathtaking views or National monuments to marvel at but we knew the dirt under our wheels on this stretch of road was the realisation of a year's planning and over 30,000 miles travelling for just an ordinary couple who decided to do something 'different'. 

One last dodgy bridge.....

And then we were there, Fin Del Mundo (end of the world) and officially the end of the road, we had ridden from the top to the bottom of the continent. We still had a few thousand miles to go but this was what we had set out to achieve, the rest of the journey would be mostly about 'going home'.

Bloody Well Done tourists!

In maneuvering his bike around the posts that protect the sign Chris managed to rip off one of his panniers, Oh how we all laughed! (except Chris).

You drive all this way just to trash the bike?
Another Whoops moment!

 The trusty steeds.
Bloody Acrobats!
Get a room you two!.

The next day was spent organising the trip north and deciding on a route, the prospect of riding 3,000km + all the way up Ruta 3 was a mind numbing prospect. There is virtually nothing to see on the east coast and then there's the wind!, if we rode 500km days it would still take us a week. Most travellers take this route because it's the quickest but we still had one or two sights to see up the west side of the country. Johannes and Jude had already decided to do the 3 day ferry cruise through the Chilean fjords from Puerto Natales to Puerto Monte so we agreed to do the same. The Navimag  ferry would save us 1,000kms riding and give us a well earned rest for a few days. Phillipe and Obi couldn't afford the cost of the ferry so would leave the day after us for the long slog up Ruta 3. 

Photos of Ushuaia

The city is on every South American cruise ship's itinerary
Ushuaia harbour overlooking the Beagle Channel.

Cheer up darling, it's not the end of the world....Oh hang on!

That's better.
The view from our hotel.

So that's the Due South part finished with, I suppose the next episode should be entitled Due North. Hopefully we'll be in Buenos Aires in a couple of weeks, till then, watch this space.....