26 February, 2007

North Towards Lima

The border crossing was the usual average adventure. Smile and be patient. "Yes, I realise that I don't have the correct documentation but I am a foreigner in your country and I don't understand where to get what I need. Can you help?". The whole process was compounded by busloads of people having to be processed one by one, their drivers screaming at them all the while to hurry up and get into this or that queue. But of course there were no queues and everyone squeezed in front of whoever would let them. I stood there with what I hoped was a friendly, tolerant smile (but could have been a grimace), waiting patiently to turn it into a beaming jokey conspiratorial ("isn't this just nuts?") giggle whenever approached by anyone official-looking. People jostled and squeezed in front and I resorted to my jovial Scots, laughing; "Aye, so you'll be needin' in front o' me then!?"

My theory is that if I can make out to these people that I'm actually having a pretty good time observing all the mad goings on, and that I am by no means in any sort of a hurry to get on at all, I'll remain calm and things will eventually happen. They get such a big kick out of watching the 'Gringo' get annoyed if you really are in a rush, I hope that by looking as if it's all such fun, it won't matter. I can even join in a little bit whenever a Gringo nearby starts getting steamed up, looking at them askance.

This works in that I do end up sort of enjoying it, as long as it's not too hot. I can even laugh at rudeness, joking away out loud with myself in what I hope to be an unintelligibly strong Fife Scots accent. If you smile as you say "aye, well an' you can awa' an' bile yer heid aswell, ye wee niaff!" They seem to get the point that I'm maybe slightly irritated but not really offended. I get things humorously off my chest, they don't understand the extent of my frustration (if any), they see me smile and when I come back with whatever nonsensical bit of paper they've asked me for, we start off by smiling; "mind o' me, ye wee scunner? Here's thon bit pipper ye were efter, a' filled in, stampit an' sortit oot fir ye." And they don't understand so I get to laugh at myself for using words I'd rarely even use at 'hame', and pray there are no other Scots lurking in the vicinity to register my cheek. This whole approach serves also to confuse border guards at least as far as not knowing quite where I'm from, but concluding I can't be a fully-qualified Gringo. Gringoes, I am told, are really from the US (but all peellie-wallie types are initially regarded as such) and seem fairly unpopular here, if the transition in attitude between the grumpily asked question "de que pais? (which country are you from?)" and the happily amazed response to "Escoçia!!?" is anything to go by. I've learned with smiles all round that some Peruvian bloke plays for Rangers this way. Football, the universal language outside the US.

The first thing I noticed about Peru was that they had pill boxes, probably to protect themselves against any Chiléan onslaught. The thing was that, in the desert, these were painted in the green camouflage colours. So it must be that they were painted long ago when the deserts were verdant or they were painted optimistically in the hope of water arriving here soon, or just that the Peruvian Army haven't quite worked out the idea behind camouflage. No wonder they keep losing wars!

The next thing was very confusing. I went to buy fuel and noticed that there were big differences in prices between ordinary, extra and super. I went for the cheapest until I realised the fuel was being sold in Gallons! For years I've recorded fuel consumption in mpg (miles per gallon) since the speedometer is in miles. Because it's sold all over Europe in litres, this has meant a quick calculation, which is good exercise for the brain. At first I thought this would make the job easier, but then I realised these were USGallons, and not 'Imperial' ones! USGallons (3.7litres) are smaller than Imperial ones (4.5l). All calculations are on hold, until I find a calculator. So whereas in the UK we sell fuel in litres but cover distances in miles, the reverse exists here where fuel is sold in USGallons, but distances are covered in kilometres. Mad!

The desert didn't stop at the border but kept going right up to Lima. I'd like to say it was as inviting as the Sahara for camping in, but the simple truth is that it was so dry and inhospitable that I was fairly intimidated by it. The sun was so hot during the day whenever I stopped, the air so thin, and the wind so strong that I felt I'd wake up next morning - never mind the protection of the tent - as something like a human raisin, with all the moisture sooked out of my body. Old and wrinkled before my time. So I rode on, finding hostels in whichever town looked as if it might have one. Apart from marvelling at the incredible beauty of it all (but then you'd hardly move) there was little else to stop for. Despite suncream on my face and lipsalve on my lips, the wind whipped my skin red and dry, cracking my mouth and making smiling painful.

Stopping for lunch in Tacna, I was escorted by a friendly policeman to the nearest ATM for Peruvian cash. Then I found an extremely friendly place for my dinner. They had a menu! In Chilé, the menu was almost always the same; meat, fish or chicken with rice or chips. Here was something different. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but yellow Inca-Kola was interesting!

Sometimes the road wound and twisted through amazing scenery, with hills and mountains all in beige. Some twisting along the coast at the foot of a gigantic beach, the Pacific fresh-cool and grey-blue on the left. Others wound through barren inland mountains with Humboldt's sea-breeze still reaching; strong and very cold that high up. There were occasional oases of fertile valleys between these huge sandy hills. These usually had trickles of rivers flowing down to the sea with a distinctive brown colour to stain the ocean. At fewer times there would be a sufficiently flat bit of desert for the road engineers to have designed a straight that seemed to go on forever.

On the second day and 577miles into Peru, I'd spent much of the day being amazed by the coastal scenery, when I came to a pretty wee village called Chala strung haphazardly along the beach. Despite the dull ache in my posterior, I disciplined myself and refuelled in preparation for the next morning's early start. Maybe, if I really went for it, I could make Lima in a day. The fuel attendant kindly directed me to the best/least expensive hostel. Tired after what was now a straight seven days' riding, I squeezed the bike through the doors into the courtyard and was given an excellent room overlooking the beach. There were four single bunks in this room but I was assured there would only be me in it. The sun dropped into the sea as I read my book after tea.

A young lad appeared. Would I mind if he shared the room, only there wasn't another bunk for him. I didn't mind too much, and he was delighted. Alonzo was 16 years old and full of beans, he wondered if I might like to accompany him out dancing that night. There were 'chicas' and dancing (he rolled his shoulders and bent his arms, shimmying in a fair impersonation of any teacher 'dancing' at the school disco) and it'd be great! I could meet his mates. He hadn't any English and was struggling to comprehend much of what rubbish I was saying. His mum was a primary teacher as well (ah, so he'd known the dance then!), and he was going to be a lawyer. He hadn't any money but hoped to make it to Lima soon. I told him if he could get a helmet by the morning I could give him a lift, but I'd be leaving at eight. He said he'd try. I couldn't really imagine myself shoogling about with him and his 16-year-old 'chicas' and anyway it was late. We agreed I'd leave the key in the door, and I bid him goodnight

I was lying in my bunk at midnight listening to the comforting sound of the sea, when I remembered - the wire!! I leapt out of bed and went back to the bike. It was still plugged in, six hours after I'd switched off! I disconnected it and returned, cursing my fatigue, to my bed.

Next morning, of course, the bike wouldn't start. The battery was entirely dead, and who knew what else may have fried itself. A man from the hostel helped me try to bump it, pushing it along the main road. It coughed once or twice and then gave up. A passing lorry driver very kindly disconnected his battery and carried it over to the bike. But the connections on motorbike batteries are too small to take proper jump leads. Connecting these through thin wires had some small effect, but not enough to turn the engine quickly.

There was no 'eletrista' (auto-electrician) in Chala and anyway I was already having nightmares thinking of the language I'd need to describe the Illapel "botch" that had brought me this far. I was 400miles short of Lima and the safety of Lizzie's flat. What to do? The lady in the hostel assured me it could go on the bus. I had a mental image of dragging my bike into the seat next to me and commanding it not to move. Less hassle, perhaps than sitting next to a fidgetting stranger. Then I remembered I'd seen buses with cargo trailers. She sent me to her pal at Comité 4, at the other hotel. They would sort it out.

"No problem", said the man, "come back at 3pm and I'll let you know the price. But first I need to go for my afternoon nap." It was at this point that I learned that Peru was two hours behind Chilé! It was still early. At 3pm the man's daughter told me he was still asleep. Subsequent visits every hour got the same response, until at 6pm, he was awake! Yes, the bike could go on the truck (truck!?) tonight at 3.30am, but I would need to be awake to help with the loading. This would cost 300Solés and a further 20Solés would get it all the way to Lizzie's flat. This is about 50GBP, and seemed to me to be somthing of a bargain when compared to the 25GBP I'd paid for 100miles of slow destruction on the truck in Kenya. "Let's just see if it happens" Lizzie said ominously in an e-mail.

I've broken down in less attractive places.
I went back to the hostel with my receipt (more official-looking than the one I'd got for putting it on the plane in South Africa!) and settled in to read my book. As I was preparing to get about four hours sleep, the lady in the hostel wanted to see the receipt. "You're not paying all that!!" she scolded in Spanish, "See that fridge? I got that down from Lima for only 50Solés. It's about the same size as your bike! Wait till I see him. What did you pay all that for?" She wasn't happy. It was a shame for Peru that I should be ripped off so much. "But you'll be going on the truck as well?" "Ehm, no actually," I had to get the bus next day. Another explosion of disbelief. I protested that I was just a daft tourist and whenever anyone wanted money in an emergency I had no option but to pay. It was a fairly official-looking receipt so I had to assume that little of what I'd paid was going in her friend's pocket. She went off, after this rather fraught exchange, all in Span-uguese, and I went back to my book, a bit nervous, especially with the addition of Lizzie's scepticism.

Fifteen minutes later she came quietly up to me, "Hola amigo," she said slowly, all calmed down; "how much does your bike weigh?" I told her about 200kg. "And your luggage?" I'm not sure but maybe about 100kg? She had phoned the head office of Comité 4 and found out that the price really was 1Solé per kg and 20Solés for the extra distance to Lizzie's flat. With that relief, I went quietly to bed.

At 2am I pinged awake. Good because I'd wanted to get everything sorted and ready in the off-chance I could blag a lift on the truck. All sorted and the front door knocked, it was Alonzo, back from dancing with his 'chicas'. He said he'd wait around to help with the truck at 3. The truck arrived promptly and we began loading the bike on. A huge plank was produced and the driver, his mate, the man from Comité 4, Alonzo and I all got it on board. All the while the lady had appeared and began arguing with her friend, the Comité 4 man. When the bike was on and all strapped down I got ready to go back to my bed, but no! I was to go on the truck after all. The lady had sorted it, but I wasn't to be giving any more money to these two truckies even if they asked for it. She was warning me like I'd be in big trouble with her if I was to disobey! I thanked her profusely, grabbed my remaining stuff, said my goodbyes and jumped on the truck. The driver's mate went immediately to sleep in the bunk just behind the front seats. Off we roared into the night.

The road was busy and we had to stop a few times with various deliveries and pick-ups. Since the mate was asleep I happily helped out in these tasks. There was little chance of my sleeping anyway. Coming past Nazca and its famous 'lines' I realised I'd never have seen them from the ground anyway and all the wee aeroplanes proved the best way to see this amazing spectacle. Maybe later when I'm rich! For now I can look at photographs.

We got to the depot in Lima and the bike was unloaded by forklift and straps. But it still had to get to Lizzie's flat and I stood around waiting, anyone who came over to me to ask what I was up to got the sign-language for 'bike with me, when?'. This was solved when the phone rang and I was old it was for me. Lizzie's kindly secretary Laura was calling to find out how things were going. Some to-ing and fro-ing of the phone and I understood that I was to get a taxi and the bike would arrive at the flat at 4pm. Grateful, I went off to find some food and a taxi. The bike arrived on time. Now I had to find a battery charger.

19 February, 2007

Into the Atacama

Impossible to describe, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves as best they can and keep my babbling to a minimum! Mainly high on the tops most of the day where it was cool because of the altitude, then down to the beach to camp, where it was cool due to the sea breeze.

In the same way that the Mexican Gulf Stream crosses the Atlantic to keep the British Isles and southern Norway cozy and warm in comparison to other countries at the same distance from the Equator, so the Humboldt Current comes up from the Antarctic to cool this tropical coastline.

I went back to Santiago (quiet young lassie there, screaming baby on return trip! Not bad.) on the bus, stayed the night and returned with the rewound rotor. That wasn't it. Willie's son then pulled out everything in a panic as I searched the sky for an answer. Frustrated, I left them to it, and when I returned, they'd come up with this 'botch', which they assured me would get me to Lima so long as I remembered to detach the wire whenever I stopped, reconnecting it again whenever I wanted to drive away. No problem!
Leaving Illapel, I found I had to beware of crossing chinchillas reducing my velocity. I didn't see any!
This was the road that started as the smooth, wide and tarred one (above) through the Chinchilla Park! Not quite the sheer cliffs of Bolivia, but I wouldn't want to be pushing anything back up these slopes!
¿Shall I bring the desert menu? This us our finest Atacama. The purest desert in the world, it never, ever rains here and the only moisture comes from a "mist rolling in from the sea, my desire . . . " (Careful here kids - this is a 'play on words' look in the dictionary for the difference between 'desert' and 'dessert')
The fuel stops are few and far between with no roadsigns to tell you how far, and you can only guess how few - no map that I could find. This is strange because the signs warn you about almost everything else. These friendly Brazilian bikeys told me where the next one was.
Lovely campsite that night, shelter, barbeque, waves gently lapping . . . I think that sign is discouraging, but the locals were completely otherwise.
It's going to be a long, long day . . . Do you think if they really faked the moon landing, "back in the summer of 69", it might have been here?
At the next camping beach I was welcomed by David (left) and George. David's a student in Antofagasta (good name) while George works as a miner in the biggest copper mine in the world. He gets about 350GBP a month for it and is very angry that all the wealth of the country ends up in the capital, Santiago. See? It's just the same all over the world! They were camping with all their friends and family in a group of tents under a communal shading cover. Huge camps all along the beach looked like Atacaman Nomadic camps.
The huge, pretty and friendly city of Iquique keeks back from in front of this giant sand dune.
On top of the world!
Geoglyphs - pre-Columbian artwork lying by the side of the road. The artist just (ha!) puts darker rocks onto lighter ones. Not easy to get right on this scale though. See the lad climbing the ladder in the top right corner? AMH says this is in Peru, 'near Nazca' but in fact it's about 800miles south of that in Chilé.
This Customs House in Arica was designed and prefabricated in Paris by Gustav Eiffel, he of tower fame, and then shipped here to be assembled. They are very proud of it.

And that was Chilé. The Peruvian border next . . .

12 February, 2007

Illapel all alone. 14,779miles

We didn’t get the bus to the Atacama, it was too far, and we didn’t know exactly when the part might arrive. Instead we took a bus to La Serena for the weekend. The bus was extremely comfortable and very well organised. Just the one guy standing felt it was fine to stand with his bottom on my shoulder. He was only there for an hour or so though. The bus seems to be the preferred method of travel here. It was packed, the seats reclined and calf supports emerged for your legs to lie on. A man brought biscuits, and tea! A video was played, and the Andes rolled by on one side, with the Pacific on the other (after the man and his bottom got off!).

At La Serena we took a boat trip around some islands. We were privileged on the way to the island to be accompanied by some very playful dolphins. These bounced around and wrestled with each other. Naturally, the batteries on my camera decided that this was the perfect time to run out, and Lizzie had left hers in the hostel! Here's one of some alpaca or llamas just before the camera gave up. Sometimes it’s better to see than to be looking down a lens waiting for the illusive perfect shot. The islands were home to some northerly Humboldt penguins, sea lions and even a huge elephant seal. The elephant seal woke up, at the calling of the informative guide, roared back and even gave an encouraging wave of his giant flipper. Well, it looked encouraging to us - it could have meant something quite different to another elephant seal! It was a great day.

Later that day we went on an evening trip into the mountains to a space observatory, outside Vicuña. I had a top education here, from an excellent and very funny astronomer, about the Southern Cross, the southern constellations, and those which are visible from both hemispheres. One slightly worrying fact he gave us was that the moon would be 15 times farther away from us in only 1000 years! This will make a mess of the seasons, Earth’s axis, tides and everything! So if we don’t manage to break the planet ourselves before then . . . we’ll need some serious triple glazing to keep the centuries–long winters at bay!

It seems that Chilé is the very place to put up your telescope, if you have one. Special laws are being introduced to reduce light pollution and in the near future people will be fined or taxed heavily if their white lights point upwards at night. Light pollution has become so strong all over the northern hemisphere that most astronomy is now done using the Hubble Space Telescope, but here in the southern, Chilé competes with South Africa and Australia as the place to build the next generation of huge telescopes.

Between the two trips we made, the lady organising it for us took the time to phone us at the hostel to make sure we were having a good day! This, even though it was Sunday.

The bus trip back to Illapel went through some fantastic scenery which we'd come through on the bike before.There were no parts on our return to Illapel, but a warm welcome from the ladies at the hotel. When I phoned to check, the man I spoke to in the US told me the parts had been sent, but they’d no idea where they were since they went by Priority US Mail. “It’s only if you'd sent them by FedEx, that we’d have a number, and they’d probably have arrived the next day, but that’s far too expensive.”
“How much more expensive is it?” I asked, on a gentle simmer.
“Oh, for a box your size? I guess it’d be around 250bucks.”
I boiled over. Lizzie and I had just spent around 500 “bucks” hanging around Illapel, a lovely wee town - don’t get me wrong - but we’d far rather have spent our money doing what we wanted to do - getting to the Atacama!! It now looked very much as if we might spend another $500 waiting here, and then it would be too late to ride back to Buenos Aires, and Lizzie would need to buy a $200 flight back there from Santiago. No explanation could be given for why I had not been offered this FedEx option. I had used these very words during the original call; “is that the fastest way? I don’t live in Chilé, but am travelling.” The man I had spoken to responded in English. "Two nations divided by a common language", Churchill said.

I slowly took some time to get over the infuriating frustration of this and we re-organised, leaving the bike again after a couple more days of relaxation (watching films on the Cable telly!), and going down to Santiago to get Lizzie on a flight. More buses, but Santiago was quiet, peaceful and pretty for a city. We stayed at a purpose built hostel, clean and cheap, but not overly friendly, near the bus station. We walked to the park and had a look around the steam engine museum, outdoors and baking hot, no cameras!

In the evening we got talking to Vanessa, an effervescent Brazilian on her way home for Carnaval after studying in Australia. We agreed on much of what was wrong with the planet, laughed about Portuguese, English and accents, and exchanged e-mail addresses. I was tempted not to miss the “party of a lifetime”, especially as Vanessa was going to Salvador. This is where my pal from school lives. Vanessa, from Sao Paulo, and Susie my pal, agree that Salvador has the best Carnaval.

On further reflection and research however, I found that if I rode like the wind for eleven days and nothing happened either to me or the bike, I could maybe get to Salvador the day after Carnaval ended. Sadly, my days of wind riding are well in the past and are now restricted to dinghy sailing!

The bus home was interesting since of course, being alone on public transport, I had to sit next to the teenager with ADHD, big elbows and two cellphones. I am coming to accept that this will always happen to me and so then I find myself almost looking forward to seeing which minor torture will accompany me on the next bus trip! One has simply to laugh!

When I got back to Illapel, the part arrived alright, all the parts. Then I had to begin negotiations with the Post office. The taxes I owed couldn't be paid to them but only to the bank along the road that had closed for Friday half day and wouldn't be open again until Monday. Sometimes it gets like a really poor 'comedy' film, the faces I feel myself making! Eventually I managed to pay the PO 5000pesos extra (about 5GBP) so's they'd go to the bank for me on Monday. They gave me the parts. Then I had to go and find Willie. He did all he could before discovering it wasn't the regulator at all (oops - silly him!) it was the rotor which he could mend maybe the next day, because the place that mends them in only one hour is in Santiago and is closed on Saturdays anyway. Sometimes, for adults, a little red wine is the only medicine that prevents insanity. All these negotiations, in what was becoming my 'Spanuguese', made my head spin. Luckily the Chiléans have their own particular grape, Carmenére, which is extinct elsewhere in the world, for just the purpose of preserving adult sanity. It works well!

It was also lucky that I brought the special tool with me, for removing BMW rotors. Riding the bike back to the hotel from Willie's, I found that although the bike would run fine without the rotor or even the alternator, the lack of a rotor sealing against the front mainseal sent oil flying everywhere, but more particularly all over the front wheel, break, mudguard, tyre and road to be picked up on the back tyre. Luckily, it was dark so I'd no idea of any of this until I reached the lights of the hotel in a smoke screen of oil which was happily burning itself off onto the exhaust pipes. Nice puddle too!

Without Lizzie kindly insisting that it was her holiday and she'd be paying for any 'luxuries' (who was I to argue?), it was tempting to move to a cheaper place. But then that would have meant packing up all the stuff and pushing the bike, fully-laden to the cheaper hotel. I'd miss the cable and the breakfasts were so lovely and always on time. Birds, bushes and hands having that special relationship, I stayed put. Do almost anything to justify a bit more luxury time!

I walked round to Willie's in the morning. He couldn’t mend the rotor. I'd just have to take it to Santiago myself on the bus, (oh joy!) only all those buses for the next day were full so I´d have to wait until Monday. Illapel was completely closed on the Sunday and I had a real job of it finding anything to eat that day. Plenty of subQ would keep me going.

I am fine being on my own, really. I get to think more clearly for myself, whenever there isn't anyone else to suggest things I might quickly and erroneously agree with instead of taking the time to think them through properly. I get by pretty well in the main and I even think I manage fairly well to entertain others along the way sometimes. The worst bit for me now is just not being able to move. It's frustrating to have to stay in a hotel room, but not nearly as bad as being stuck in a tent.

I have to say, I'm not getting quite as good a feel for SA as I very quickly got for Africa. South America is more organised, more like Europe - dare I say more "sanitised"? Everything works here, all is to hand, or at least, it can be found and done. Less challenging? I am reliably informed that things will become much more 'interesting' when I eventually leave Chilé and head north.

This breakdown itself is just a minor blip, an occupational hazard when riding a bike as old and 'characterful' as mine. I do suffer from some superstitions, but they are normally of the positive or occasionally Murphy's kind. I wouldn't have this any other way. Nobody else from Europe was riding a road bike through Africa, and no-one had anything anywhere near as old. I suppose maybe I'm trying to see if it can do it. What a daftie - I'm not at all sure that it can!!

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 . . .

African Summary.

Is a quick summary of Africa possible? How dare I! It has been a fantastically wonderful place full of the kindest people you could ever imagine. Diverse cultures throughout the continent have amazed, educated and entertained me from top to bottom. There are no favourite countries since some excelled in their scenery and wildlife while others in the extreme kindnesses and warmth of their peoples.

I managed - somehow, and not wishing to tempt the fates – to get through without any punctures, without paying any bribes, without being assaulted or mugged or having any guns pointed at me maliciously. On the whole policemen and even bored border guards treated me well and with courtesy, if not always efficiency. In most of the countries I passed through I had no language, but I smiled and made ridiculous gestures and almost always got what I wanted with smiles as a bonus. Neither did I get ill in any kind of way whatsoever. I did eat some fairly dodgy food from time to time as well. I was reading the NHS's advice on going abroad the other day - 'boil it, peel it or forget it', it said. I was to ensure that all food was piping hot, avoid salads, stand my drink in a bucket of ice rather than put ice in the glass (ice!!? HA! HA!), peel all fruits and vegetables . . . I really would have starved if I'd done all that. When you are hungry, and the entire menu is already in front of you, on the tea plate, there's just no time for any such fripperies. And you will definately appear rude. So you eat it, hot, cold or lukewarm. Sometimes (like the vinegar bread of Ethiopia), you choke it down, and those who served it to you smile indulgently as you apologise for not finishing it, then finish it themselves, right in front of you, and rightly so! But these people have little enough as it is. A stronger (unbearably hard-necked) social constition than mine would stop to measure temperature and ask for it to go back. I concluded that this must be advice for use in Europe, the Americas or the Far East. I'll try to remember it when I get there.
In every country there were kind, friendly, extremely happy and very helpful people. When I think about it, I’m entirely overwhelmed by the inherent, unthinking, open unselfishness of those who I’ve been privileged to meet along the way. They were either put into my path by friends at home or appeared, as if by some sort of magic, of their own accord. They fed, watered, housed, entertained, saved, patched-up, fixed, helped and, in many ways, made the trip what it was – brilliant! From Adel, the taxi driver in Tunis who took me right into his home to feed me, through Paur, who kept me sane in northern Kenya, all the way down to Ian and Jayne, who dropped me off at Johannesburg Airport at 3am, having first taken me along with them to another friend’s birthday braai! I can only hope I didn’t take too much advantage, or overstay any welcomes. Thanks so much to them and to all those in between, without whom the African leg of this trip would have been much less fun, and the experiences that bit less illuminating. I hope you’ll all consider my home to be yours, if ever you, or any of yours make it to Scotland!
I would very strongly encourage absolutely everyone to do this trip. I'm sure that anyone could, and there really is nothing at all to fear. Don’t believe a word you read in the papers or hear on the telly. You maybe wouldn't want to bring an elderly, road-oriented motorbike necessarily, but any decent 4WD will do it. And you'd even make it in a reliable 2CV, or anything with reasonable ground clearance. Certainly the dafter the vehicle the better, I’d have to say. People seem more willing to interact positively if they get to have a giggle and you haven’t got the latest high-tech gizmo-machine. Maybe it’s pity, but I don’t really think so. I think it’s more about appearing that bit more vulnerable. I was never entirely in control of events and I often needed external assistance. I set out from home knowing I’d need that, sure that I’d get it. Some other travellers I met had everything arranged and relied on no one. They tended (though not always) therefore, to be naturally more insulated.
Africa is an experience I'll never, ever forget. Every day was an adventure, just being in Africa is an adventure. I never quite knew what was going to happen next – cool!! I'll be back with an old 4WD when I retire, or win the Lottery I never buy tickets for, definitely. Then I'll hope to take a year or two or three to go very, very slowly round the whole continent. Coming?