12 February, 2007

Fastest R65 in the World!

After getting myself through Argentinian immigration and passport control, I walked out of the arrivals hall to find a friendly, familiar face smiling at me through the crowd. Lizzie was on her summer holidays from her headteaching job in Lima, Peru and had popped down/over to see how things were going and join in a wee motorcycle trip around her favourite South American country, Argentina. Thinking I'd be arriving last Wednesday, she had arrived last Thursday. I had to inform her that the bike was still to come. She has good Spanish and would certainly prove invaluable when negotiating with Argentinian Customs to get the bike through.

Lizzie had accomodation organised at a lovely wee hostel in the middle of town. We took a taxi through the strangely peaceful and quiet streets of Buenos Aires. My first impression was of a large European city with much more colour. Wide streets gave a great feeling of space. I was fairly jet-lagged so couldn't in any way be described as great company. My plan of staying awake overnight in Johannesburg so that I could sleep on the plane had been scuppered by the lady who sat next to me, nudging my arm every so often. Not hard, but just enough to keep me awake for the whole flight. I needed some sleep.

A good meal sustained us both and we repaired to the hostel. We'd little to do until the bike arrived but play tourist, which wasn't too much of a burden in such a beautiful city. We went to the heart of the Boca, where Diego Maradona grew up, and where Tango seems to be the only dance allowed. Neither of us felt wholly confident in our abilities there so we watched admiringly from the sidelines. We even had a day out in Uraguay, where we found this imaginative flower-pot. It was raining most of the time but it was an interesting and pretty wee town, just a fast boat-ride across the River Plate from Buenos Aires.

Getting the bike off the Wednesday flight was time consuming but not overly difficult. Lizzie used her feminine charms and impressive Spanish skills to great effect with the Customs officials, I all the while gibbering away uselessly in broken Portuguese. The men seemed reluctant but the women in the office showed much more eagerness to assist. Eventually, just before closing time, a huge box with 'PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS MOTORBIKE' as well as my home and e-mail addresses written on the side, emerged from the warehouse wobbling alarmingly on the tines of a forklift truck. A childlike glee filled me as I opened the biggest parcel I'd ever received, even though I'd sent it to myself.

When the handlebars had been re-arranged, the winshield put back and we had put the litre and a half of fuel into the tank, the battery was reconnected and the bike rumbled immediately into life. Hurrah, happy transport in South America! As we rode back into town, the bike seemed somehow happier than it had been in some time, pulling strongly, even with two on board. Happy to be back on the ground after achieving what I imagine to be something of a record for an R65 BMW - 570mph, without even turning a wheel, in the hold of a Jumbo jet.

With the luggage re-organised and some left behind in the hostel, we left Buenos Aires under heavy clouds, rain threatening. The road was flat and straight, not exactly ideal motorcycling country, but we should make good time. The Pampas (any extensive flat bit of Argentina) stretched to the flat and featureless horizon in all directions. It was green, clean and well cultivated, but the absence of any other scenery reminded me of Libya. This would be a long, long run. But it didn't rain. According to the map, it would take at least two days to reach the Andes.

Almost every town of any sort of size had a flying club, each with its own hangar and runway. This in much the same way as all wee towns at home have their bowling or golf clubs! And yet this part of Argentina would be perfect for bowling, it's so flat. We never saw any flying unfortunately, so I've no idea whether they have Tiger Moths or F16s to play in.

They were all to one or other side of the new road. They were also very neat and well-organised. Stark contrast to Africa, but I'll need to avoid any such future comparisons. They're hardly fair on either continent. We were stopped by the police only once, but the officer was more thorough than any I'd previously met. He needed to see everything. This is encouraging becuse it'll deter uninsured people from being on the road, but it is time-consuming and, for me, pointless, since the officer can't make out much of what I'm showing him. I'm tempted to think I could point at almost anything offiicial-looking and it would be okay. He told us to be ready for more checkpoints but there weren't any.

Our only other mishap was to run unexpectedly out of petrol 30 miles before I would normally need to use the reserve tank. Must have been some very poor petrol. We plodded on slowly for 25 more miles, trying to make the reserve last. At the inevitable, the bike spluttered, I pulled in the clutch and we coasted to a stop. I would have to take the fuel tank off the bike and carry it into the nearest town to get fuel, leaving Lizzie to guard the bike and our belongings 'with her life'. I had just unpacked all the luggage when Luçiano rolled up on his 200cc Honda trail bike. He had been riding since 1am in an attempt to get back to Buenos Aires from the Andes in one day. He was still lively enough though, had lots of information for us and - amazingly - a two litre Coke bottle full of unleaded petrol! Excellent! After a lot of thanks, handshakes and exchange of e-mail addresses, we were off. No pushing or carrying required! "That's how it is in the motorcycling fraternity", Luçiano insisted (translated by Lizzie). I remember it being just so some time ago in the UK. It's a bit less so nowadays as bikes become more expensive, complicated and there are fewer 'enthusiasts'.

600 miles of deadly flatness later, some hills poked out of the horizon in the distance. Still far off, these were the beginnings of the Andes. By evening we were camped in Uspallata, with the snow-capped Andes all around. Thin air and accompanying mild flu-like symptoms meant we were high up and suffering some altitude sickness. The temperature had also dropped considerably, but this meant we'd have a better night's sleep.

Some amazing scenery surrounded us next day on our trip towards the Chiléan border. Aconcagua, at 6959m (roughly 21,000ft) the highest Andean mountian, stood high and white-capped. The Puente del Inca was a fascinating natural bridge formed by the accumulation of mineral deposits which really did cross a river and was easily strong and wide enough to support humans. Thinner air also meant the bike was struggling on the uphill sections, its carburettors sooking only what little oxygen they could. But it was great to use the sides of the tyres for a change on the downhill bits as my toes lightly scraped the road for the first time since Ethiopia. A sign at the border reminded us that those "Argies" just won't let it lie! I wonder whether there's a similar signpost about the Falklands anywhere in the UK? If there are two islands coudn't we ´give´them one, in the spirit of sharing? Or maybe give them some islands near the UK in compensation? Guernsey? The Scillies? I was in Norway during the Falklands 'Conflict' (on my first bike trip, as pillion, with my brother Alf) and heard there that the late, great Sir Denis Thatcher was director of a company which owned two-thirds of the sheep on the Falkland Islands. Funny that!

Wonderful switchbacks, the stuff of motorcyclists' dreams, stitched their way back and forward down smooth roads. Some smelly old trucks helpfully provided mobile chicanes to enhance entertainment during the very few straight bits.

The Chiléan border was on a par with the more awkward ones I've dealt with in the past. Lots of stamps required from particular persons neither immediately available nor co-operative. With two, we could do the 'good cop, bad cop' thing, Lizzie on the verge of losing her temper in Spanish, and me raising 'help me!' eyebrows at the frustrating officials. 'It's all about patience and smiling,' I quietly insisted to Lizzie as she stormed off to confront yet another official. She had visited Chilé before and been unimpressed by the welcome she'd received then. Now her Spanish was better, like Headteachers the world over, she wasn't going to tolerate any silly nonsense from anyone. A headteacher on a mission - nothing can stop them! Budding Rambos and would-be Schwarzeneggers turn to jelly before their gaze, shrink back and start running when they speak!

Three times we were told 'that's it, you're through', only to be stopped by the next uniform and told to go back again and get the stamp we hadn't been told we needed. Our good/bad strategy worked eventually (or maybe they got bored), although the Egyptian record of 14 was seriously challenged when at long last the 12th Chiléan official we'd spoken to smiled with genuine warmth and said 'welcome to Chilé'. This after 'only' two hours. Of course, we didn't believe him, but one of them had to be right in the end.

Rumbling back up through the Andes next day, the generator light on the bike's console began to glimmer. This suggests that the charging system to the battery isn't working. If the generator doesn't charge the battery, then it's only a matter of time before the battery flattens and the whole thing stops. It could be a loose wire, but it would need to be investigated. I don't have the magic box that electricians point at your bike to ask it what's wrong, so we'd need to find someone who did.

It used to be customary among my motorcycling chums to take embarrassing photies of those motorbikes which broke down. Here's me showing my delight at Lizzie's following that tradition.

Miguel was going blueberry picking the next day but helped all he could before calling in his pal Willie who had the magic box, also known as a 'Voltmeter'. Meanwhile Miguel's granny Martha had been a hairdresser before retiring and wouldn't let me leave with a beard like that! She kindly got her old tools out, sat me down in front of the mirror and gave me a trim! No extra charge! The fault was traced to the regulator. None available here, one was sent from Bob's BMW in Washington, USA. Could take five to ten days. It took nine.

Meanwhile Lizzie's Chiléan antipathy softened in the face of all this kindness, and we relaxed in an excellent (if cheap by Euro-standards) hotel. Lizzie crossed the border once before from the Argentinian Patagonia in a hired car - always a good opportunity for a border guard to have some fun! A second time she'd visited Santiago for a conference. Illapel's high in the Andean countryside where there are no border guards and people don't need to have the restrained, security-conscious nature of their city-dwelling relatives. And I suppose it has to be remembered that it wasn't too long ago that Chiléans in uniforms were doing all manner of unpleasant things to their civilians under Pinochet's fascist régime, making everyone fairly understandably wary and jumpy.

We had time to kill, so maybe we'd get the bus to the Atacama . . .


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