Sunday 22 October
As I look at the notes I took from discussions with Nick Sanders and his wonderful better half Caroline, I now realise that Tom and I took the wrong route yesterday. No matter – 12 hours on Ruta 40 was an education, and I am sure we are the stronger for it. Even if the bikes are not. Route planning is something that we pore over daily. The continent is of course rather large, and there are an almost infinite number of ways to get from the top to the bottom. The most obvious, and maybe the most widely travelled by those simply wanting to link the start and finish locations is the Pan-American Highway, which takes a direct route. This comprises much of the Interstate system in the US and similar large roads in other countries. Most of it is not for us. For most of our travels so far we have sought out mountainous regions, where the roads are winding and considerably more interesting, and the views and landscapes are worth the detours.
It may therefore be a little ironic that amongst all the twisty roads in the hills we made for the flattest place on earth, and that’s official. The Salar de Uyuni is a salt flat formed many millennia ago from the drying of various salt water lakes. It is certainly big, extending over 4086 sq miles, and the salt forms a crust several metres thick on top of brine lakes (with an abundant supply of lithium, apparently). The word ‘flat’ is also appropriate – the elevation over all this huge area varies by less than a metre. Why go there? Because it’s fun! The map shows several roads on the salt, but they don’t actually exist. However a sat nav recognises them, which means that navigation is easy. Where else can you take a bike (or car) and just go in whatever direction takes your fancy? A bizarre and beautiful place, with unique perspectives allowing fun photography. However, the Salar being at 3656 m above sea level and almost pure white does make forgetting the sun block a painful mistake!
The lure of the Salar makes Uyuni a magnet for travellers and after weeks of not meeting other adventure bikers we have met several around here. Joshua and Joana are a young German couple in their 20s who have been riding around S America for the past year on a pair of 190cc Hondas. It would be good to stay in touch to hear what their next adventure will be.
Uyuni turned out to be our final stay in Bolivia. I had been looking forward to coming here and it seems such a short visit; there is so much more to see. This is a theme that keeps cropping up: so many roads but we can only take one route at a time. The obvious response is to put the other, untraveled routes into the box labelled ”Next Time”. So next time seems to have come into being without any conscious thought or intention, all on its own. I think that thought should stay there, on its own without food, water or light.
Next stop was Chile, a day’s ride across a high plain surrounded by volcanos, towering up to 6000 m or more. The road is rudimentary and has frequent “Desvios” or diversions; these are usually just across the ground alongside the obstructed road and might as well be a sand pit. Riding is tricky, and more than one bike goes down; these are slow speed tumbles and neither bikes nor riders are damaged.
But the roads are far from benign, and take their toll. If not made of stone and gravel and therefore very bumpy, they are frequently covered in fine grit and sand which develops washboard ridges, taxing the suspension and continually vibrating. Anything that can become loose does so; screws and bolts that are not tightened down hard or fixed with Loctite shake free. Loose nuts… indeed! The Givi hard panniers on Tom’s KTM detached themselves from their frames a few weeks ago in Ecuador, and have been held on with webbing straps ever since. The securing device on one of my Metal Mule panniers lost an articulating screw and the pannier hit the dirt, strewing contents over a wide area (are you still following Rob? No major damage done, and the pannier in question was the previously used one). The pannier is now locked to the frame using cable ties and duct tape – the travellers’ toolkit essentials. More of an issue is that the pannier frames on Tom’s bike have lost several screws, so now the panniers are not just held to the frame with straps, but separate straps also hold the frames to the bike. If we can’t find the right bolts, it is only around 1500 km until we get to Santiago, where we have bikes booked in for scheduled maintenance. So far, Mark’s BMW 800 GS has held up well and he has clocked up 5000 miles since joining us in Bogota. The only issues so far are recurrent headlight bulb failure and some dented wheel rims which seem to be rather soft for an adventure bike. Mark is thoroughly enjoying it, and is lavishing it with love and attention! Ian’s Honda Africa Twin is still in its “modified by Dalton” state of course, but is running well and Ian is finding more and more how capable it (and he) is.
That paragraph was in itself a Desvio – back to Chile. Well, not for long. There was nowhere to stay for 100 km so we headed for Calama and a very decent hotel which we all felt we had deserved. The evening was enlivened by James and Juan, both pilots of a private Gulfstream jet waiting for their client who was driving his Bugatti Veyron around Chile and Argentina on a Bugatti-organised jolly. Then the next day, a glorious ride for us across a bit of the Atacama desert, before climbing up 2000 metres to the Argentine border. Where I inadvertently left my ignition on, draining the battery and requiring a jump start from someone who turned out to be one of the logistics organisers for the Bugatti event. Sadly, the jump was from his 4×4 and not a Veyron, but the jump leads were very impressive!
The air here is thin of course, which allows light to travel unimpeded and give a great clarity to the immense vistas. I keep stopping to take yet another photo. Colours are intense, and flamingos really are pink!
After one night just outside Susques, at a junction with Ruta 40 (pronounced Ruta Cuarenta, of course), the four Nuts split into two pairs for the ride south. Ruta 40 is well known for its long course running down the length of Argentina, historically unpaved over wild terrain, and challenging to ride. We will meet it again later on. More and more of it is being covered in tarmac every year. The section from Susques to our next destination remains in its native state. We had had discussions with Nick and Caroline (Sanders) in May when Tom and I spent a weekend with them in preparation for this trip (Nick is a veteran long distance rider and author, with many books and records to his name). His suggested route would take us to San Antonio de los Cobres, which happened to be 125 km down the R40 from our hotel in Susques. It so happened that also staying in the hotel were a charming Argentinian couple, who had just ridden up the same route on a large BMW. They were doubtful about the ride down to San Antonio, reporting that it was difficult, with deep sandy sections and had taken them 5-6 hours. However, they enthused about the road going on southwards from San Antonio to Cafayate, which was to be our next stop. Apparently, it was “lovely gravel” through stunning scenery. Mark and Ian decided against riding any of the unpaved R40, and embarked upon the 480 km paved option, slightly to the east. Tom and I decided to attempt the whole R40 route, hoping to manage the 427 km in one day. Unfortunately we only came to this decision at breakfast, when it was too late for a super-early start. Well, it started out fine. The road was not too bad at all, and we were at times wondering where the treacherous sandy sections were. In fact it was a glorious ride through lovely and wild landscape in early morning low sun, with ice still on the small rivers crossing the road. After an early lunch and a fuel top up in San Antonio, we headed again south on the R40, which now climbed steeply to a pass at 4895 metres above sea level, making it my current personal highest point on earth. At around 3 pm we still had over 200 km to go. We pressed on a bit quicker once we had lost some altitude and the road had some straighter sections; before long we were having great fun with a modicum of control as the normal constant relationship between tyre and road surface became more variable. Then at about 6.30 as the sun was dipping Tom had a puncture in his rear tyre. In fact there were three small holes, all very close together. These we plugged successfully and set off again, 120 km to go as dusk fell, and arrived in Cafayate to join Mark and Ian for a late supper at 9.45, after two hours riding in the dark on sandy washboard, tired but strangely elated.
Ian related that he had had one of the best rides of his life on the “boring option”, at least according to our Argentinian friends of the night before. Mark agreed – they had clearly had an epic ride on the RN 52 and 68.
And so I came to look again at my notes: Nick and Caroline had specified the RN 52 and 68. not the Ruta 40. Something else for the box marked “Next Time”?