Tuesday, September 19, 2017

London to Cape Town by motorbike 2017/2018

So this is the plan:

30 countries - 25,000 miles or so - once I've meandered - as I am wont to do.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Stopping Starting to Overtake the Going

Bolivia greets me with the familiar vaporous light that drips like honey over both sides of Lake Titicaca. The border is relaxed and the touristy town of Copacabana is bright and welcoming but I push on for the capital. I cross the Estrecho de Tiquina on a rickety barge, struggling to keep my wheels from falling between its wonky planks.
As I approach La Paz, my fuel level drops to about half, enough to bring on my fuel pump's indigestion and I barely stutter my way into the suburb of El Alto and to a gas station. I will be going no further without petrol. However, the attendant has other ideas and refuses to serve me. It eventually becomes clear that the problem is that I don't have Bolivian plates. I end up waving around my customs papers which results in a policeman being called. He takes my papers away for ten minutes and when he returns he tells me they will sell me gas but only at the foreigners' rate which is 3 times normal. I digest that and say fine. Not like I have any other option. Then the comedy of the attendant and the policeman trying to figure out how to do the paperwork for this freak occurrence. They giggle, I shrug, at the absurdity. The whole process takes about 45 minutes. Thank-you Evo Morales. Bolivia is going to be odd.
I ride down into La Paz, a canyon papered with little box houses nestled in the folds of the hills and with snowy peaks all around. A picturesque town but yikes the traffic is heavy.. I stay on Plaza San Pedro, right opposite the infamous prison, in a residencial that hasn't seen so much as a lick of paint since 1952. It is however very cheap and the friendly owner, Juan, is happy to let me perform surgery on my bike in the lobby. I can't do much until my new fuel pump arrives from Austria so apart from long-winded enquiries at the Kafka-inspired Edificio de Communicaciones, I spend a week wandering the steep streets, pausing every block to catch my breath, and sup Chairo a delicious corn soup and eat little pasties called Salteñas. La Paz streets overflow with stalls and whatever you want to buy, they always tell you arriba! - up -  they like to make you pop your lungs.
The mercado de hecheria - witches' market - is stuffed with herbs and charms and I marvel at the llama foetuses, they bury them under a doorway to bless a new house.
Museums here are generally in gorgeous buildings. I enjoy the musical instrument museum the best.
I get my steering head bearings replaced and fix a whole bunch of other little broken things. At this point in the trip everything I have needs gluing, sewing or welding back together.
After a week my parcel makes it as far as La Paz airport and I decide to take a trip out of town while it runs the aduana gauntlet. As long as I carry enough spare fuel and don't stray too far from a pump, I should be OK. I am heading down the infamous 'camino de los muertos', mind you, well-known as the most dangerous road in the world... A narrow strip of dirt that plunges over 3000 metres in 60km with huge drop offs from the crumbling edges. Just to add spice they swap from driving on the right to the left too. Of course the day I tackle it there is heavy fog. So at least I can't see how terrifying the falls are apart from teasy moments when it lifts...
The fact is that the road is not nearly as scary as some I have travelled recently and in fact the real danger was always having to squeeze past other traffic apparently which, since they built an alternative route on the other side of the valley, is not much of an issue and the road mostly just functions as a playground for mountain bikers these days. At its bottom is Coroico, smothered in fog and chilly, not the sultry hammock-and-pool hangout the Lonely Planet sold it as! I ride a lovely road to Chulumani through valleys of luminous green coca fields
and stay with Javier at his 'Country House'. The son of a diplomat, he spent half his life in New York and went to Woodstock. Like many who went, he was never quite the same and he talks a blue streak of conspiracy theories and tales of Nazis and Jews living uncomfortably side by side here in the 50s. Eichmann hid out here. Before the coca took over, there was apparently a lot of citrus grown and his wife started making marmalade. So you have the glorious image of Eichmann sitting at a stall in Chulumani market, selling pots of his preserves... Javier points me to a house down the road where he says Klaus Barbie lived until he was captured in 1982.
Piles of Dutch gold bullion found stacked in his basement. Wikipedia says Eichmann lived near Buenos Aires so these might just be inventions of Javier's but it's fun to contemplate them as I hike through the ferny hills.
The road from here back to La Paz is, with the bypass for the 'camino de los muertos', technically the current 'most dangerous road in the world' and it is hair-raising but I survive despite the continuing deterioration of my fuel pump (some anxious forced stops) and my pannier rack falling to pieces with the pummeling of the potholes.
Back in La Paz, my parcel still hasn't surfaced despite a long walk to the other side of town to have my fingerprints taken by customs... It takes two more days but I finally find out that someone mistook a 9 for a 0 in some paperwork and after a few more trips across town to random warehouses I get my fuel pump. I splash petrol all over Juan's lobby fitting it but he doesn't seem to mind.
Newly mobile I head south to the Salar de Uyuni, my last big destination before I head home. On the way to Oruro a policeman stops me, tells me I was speeding and would I like him to help me pay the fine seeing as the banks are closed today..? I hold my ground and refuse to pay without an official speeding ticket. He eventually lets me go.

As I head on to Potosí, I stop to fill up. Suddenly petrol is pouring out of the bike and all over the forecourt... At first I think I have a hole in my tank but then it becomes clear I didn't tighten up the seal on the fuel pump enough. Out with the tools again.
Potosí is a captivating town and infamous for its silver mines that bankrolled the Spanish crown for centuries. The description of claustrophobic tunnels filled with caustic fumes puts me off the tour though. I buy fuel canisters, camping supplies and a blanket in preparation for a cold night on the Salar and get my pannier welded back together for the umpteenth time.
One of these days I must learn some good knots. I missed out on the whole scout thing it would appear. For the life of me I cannot lash my petrol containers down without them coming loose an hour later.

A lonely little handful of streets on the edge of a vast plain, I like Uyuni immediately. I find a lovely guy, Valerio, who agrees to drop fuel for me at Laguna Colorada. This should allow me to make my intended circuit through the Lípez mountains, along the Argentine border, up the Chilean border and to the Salar. The ironic thing is that, with the foreigner petrol levy, for Valerio to buy the petrol for me and transport it 400km into the wilderness it will be cheaper than me buying the gas myself!

The end of the journey to balmy Tupiza is stunning canyons worthy of Morricone.
I am nervous about my trip around the SouthWest. It is very remote and a breakdown could be pretty dangerous especially with nighttime temperatures below minus 20. It does not help when I discover a problem with my back brake that I cannot fix.

I head out bright and early for Quetena Chico, the first leg of my journey. I follow some railway lines up through more beautiful cowboy canyons.
Just a few miles up is the place where they shot Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Shot as in killed not filmed, but the scenery couldn't be more cinematic. A warning light comes and when I check with my diagnostic tool, it tells me there is a problem with the fuel pump. Apparently the bike is in 'Limp Home Mode'. Nooooooooooo! I clear the faults and ride on. Maybe the bike falters a couple of times but I'm not sure if I'm just being paranoid... Then I get lost... I find myself criss-crossing a river and getting soaked up to the hips. After a couple of hours I eventually come across a guy with a mule and he directs me up a valley which turns into a dead end.
I backtrack and after some time pass a 4WD. The driver tells me the only way to San Pablo de Lípez is to return to Tupiza.... I accept my fate and turn back, following the truck, splashing back through all the river crossings. One particularly gnarly bit of gravel has me over and I lose a chunk of shin in the process. Not my day. Back in Tupiza I figure out where I took my wrong turn and regroup for another attempt tomorrow.

Bolivian Odyssey take 2. This time I take a left at the tranca (checkpoint) and am rewarded with a lovely ascent surrounded by deep red 'fins' of rock formations.
As wild a place as I have ever visited and I feel very happy. I find a micro stuck in sand and help them extract themselves.
Out here people have to help one another! Most of the time my only company is alpacas and ostriches.
It takes 6 hours to reach San Pablo de Lípez so I decide to hole up there for the night. The pueblo is an otherworldy collection of mudbrick miners' houses and an army post with incongruous colourful statues in front.
The falling-over drunk soldiers befriend me and I spend an afternoon getting drunk on Tupiza wine mixed with coca cola in their barracks. Robert only speaks Quechua and Juan gives me a slurred and surreal translation.
They proudly show me their paintings and sculptures and tell me how they protect Bolivia from the Chileans and Argentinians. They give me a mobile phone and then take it away as I leave. The next day I plough on down the track.
I find a beautiful spot with Llamas grazing by a spring to eat my lunch.
There are two San Antonios. The second is a ghost town at nearly 5000 metres. The shells of houses are now home to Vizcachas, somewhere between wallabies and rabbits, bouncing through the rubble.
Laguna Colorada is an arresting sight after all this sand and dirt. The blood-red waves lap at a salt-white shore picked over by flamingos and scattered with eggs. Amazing.
I head to Huayllachas alojamiento a few km away but disaster strikes as I get sucked into a deep pit of gravel and bottom out unable to move.
While I struggle to extract my heavily loaded bike, a pickup stops and the guy helps me. He offers to take my luggage to the alojamiento but I say don't worry I can make it from here. A bit prematurely it turns out as when I go to set off I find I am going nowhere. I have burnt out the clutch! I am absolutely furious with myself. This means no Salar and after all the pain I have gone through to get there I could scream with frustration. It's getting dark and in the middle of a huge expanse of nothing I rage and shout and swear and finally start walking in the direction I believe the guesthouse is in. After about 10 minutes, a calmer thought strikes me - maybe I can adjust the clutch and get the bike going on whatever I have left of the clutchplates. So I follow my footprints back to the bike and with a few tweaks from a spanner the clutch bites. There's not much adjustment left but it gets me to the guesthouse. Its compound is filled with about 20 landcruisers taking tours. I find the gasoline that Valerio has brought for me and set about filling my containers. As I wrestle with ropes, two girls from Atlanta ask me about my trip and when I explain their jaws drop. A much needed ego-boost!

After a freezing night it is a relief to be up and moving at 5am. The sweet lady there makes me a breakfast of cold pancakes and coffee and I hit the road/sand. I have not gone more than 4km when the bike starts faltering. Nothing to do with the clutch, this is a recurrence of the fuel pump problem. WTF! It has a new pump and controller unit. Somebody up there hates me. I decide I need to check the connections to the pump. That means emptying out the tank partly and I have nowhere to put it. I definitely can't afford to waste it. I get a lift from a passing landcruiser after a while and a hyperactive guide called Marcelo bullies his very reluctant driver into taking me to a station a little ways down the road where I borrow a canister. With the laguna twinkling in the dawn sun I couldn't have chosen a more picturesque place to get my tools out... I have a second breakfast of petrol as I siphon the tank. Damn that's a foul taste! No problems with the connections and the problem persists so I stop again and make a new bypass cable for the controller. This seems to work and I am off again. I return the container to the señora as I pass. I manage to get a bit of speed up and all seems well but the engine stalls when I come to a halt and I feel the clutch slipping a bit in 4th. I put it all out of my mind for a moment while I stop to photograph the curious Árbol del Piedra.
Then the engine problem returns with a vengeance and I find myself kangarooing across a moonscape, the stopping starting to overtake the going. Fate has chosen an evil place to test me. Then I start to see a tiny dot on the horizon. Some sort of house? It is a tense and jarring 20 minutes but on the very last legs of the engine I stagger up the hill to the building. It turns out to be a hotel. Yassir there is exactly the sort of person you need to meet in a crisis. He calms me down and makes me tea and offers me a shower. Then I spend the afternoon seeing if I can do anything with the bike. I laboriously check the oxygen sensor and then replace the fuel pressure sensor - by a fluke I ordered one with the fuel pump. This seems to help. I do a test ride and the engine seems OK. But of course now the real problem is the clutch which is slipping more and more... I call it a day and haggle a room at this rather pricey hotel for $50. I have dinner with a slightly insane but lovely french girl from La Rochelle called Marie who is cycling across the desert from Chile... I envy her the simpler mechanics but not the eye-watering challenge of propelling a heavily loaded bike through this sand!

Yet another horrible night of that drowning breathlessness.. As the light begins to turn the desert from freezing to scorching I consider my options. Clutch or engine, it's a toss-up which will let me down but if I make it to Uyuni, it will save me a lot of money and I figure I will know pretty soon if I have to limp back here. So I head off. The clutch slip is worse and the sand is awful, I am soon on my back trying to lift the bike up. It takes every bit of my strength here at 4700m. The slip increases and I get out the spanner but there's no more adjustment left. That's it, I will have to turn back. Only 6km from the hotel but I finally run out of all traction 50 metres from the door. I have to take the luggage off and then come back for the bike. I meet Marie about to leave and warn her about the deep sand. She cuts across some scrub. We make a comic pair, each pushing our hapless machines. I feel close to a cardiac arrest as I wrestle the bike up the slope. Luckily the hotel has a radio and Yassir radios Uyuni for me.
It's also lucky that I know Valerio as apparently no-one would come out without cash in their hand usually but Valerio agrees to send a vehicle to pick me and the bike up and trust that I will pay the $180 he wants when I get to Uyuni. Once this is settled a big emotional wave breaks over me and I have a compulsion to talk to Emma. Of course when I try to use my satellite phone it crashes and only when I take the battery out and rub it, can it be persuaded to make the call. I get her voicemail anyway...

I walk to Ojo de Perdiz, a waterhole nearby. In the midst of all this nothing it is odd to see water break through. I sit on a rock and meditate on where I am. There are few purer locations on the earth.
I stare at the mountains, all that separates me from Chile. That and an array of minefields apparently.

It is extremely unlikely that I will find new clutchplates in La Paz and waiting 2 weeks for them is not an option as my flight from Santiago is booked. So I will probably have to pay a fortune to have the bike trucked to Chile. A shitty and inglorious end to my odyssey. I stare at the sand and try to come to peace with that.

When the car finally arrives, the driver, my saviour is appropriately called Jésus. A smiley hamster of a man. The rear of his landcruiser seems awfully small but with 5 of us we manage to squeeze it in on its side.
The door doesn't quite close so I have to take off the numberplate. Sitting shotgun I can enjoy the stunning scenery. The road is so awful I am torn between relief I don't have to ride it and disappointment that I can't. We pass Marie just before Laguna Cañapa and she blinks in surprise when I pop up like a genie and hand her a sausage sandwich.

I wake to find a biker in the room next door. A lovely guy called Klaus from Freiburg. He helps me have the confidence to open the bike up and check what kind of plates it needs. Meanwhile I have confusing conversations with motorbike places in La Paz and Santa Cruz. Then I get my real stroke of luck. The La Paz shop calls and says they are surprised but they actually have a set of clutchplates that they randomly ordered! I then embark on a bus odyssey - there is a night bus to La Paz in an hour so I scramble to make it. A hellish 13 hours later, having taken hour after hour of beating from the corrugated road and been diverted across open country to avoid a roadblock by striking miners and I make La Paz. I blearily pay the extortionate price for the clutchplates and turn straight around and get on another night bus back! Insane. My room stinks like a petrol station. A few mugs of tea and I get the bike on its side and start the surgical procedure. Luckily Klaus arrives back from his own night on the Salar just as I am finishing up. He helps with the tricky last stage of getting the cover back on.

So I go for a ride around the block to test it. It feels great! Just then I notice a big group of bikers and stop to chat. Would you f$%^*ing believe it the guy offers to buy my bike!?! Talk about timing! In the end I decide not to sell to him as the logisitics are complicated by him being a peruvian citizen and the dodges I would have to make to avoid problems with the law. He also wants the bike for parts and that is just heartless! I go get drunk with Klaus.

Finally I am on the Salar.
It has assumed the proportions of myth in my head by this time and with all the troubles of the last 2 months. And it lives up to them. Riding across the salt with its beautiful geometric patterns is like riding a Intergalactic Jet-ski.
A full hour of weightless whiteout gets me to the Volcano on the north side and another hour of oblivion to the islands. I walk around a tiny islet and contemplate the freakish cactii and the frozen swells of salt around the beaches.
Magical. The silence is like being wrapped in cottonwool. I ride around like that character in a film that can still move when all else is freeze-framed and find a spot to pitch the tent. Driving the tentpegs into the salt is like chiselling at granite but I manage to get enough purchase using a large spanner to beat them. I cook pasta and watch the shadows grow kilometres long and then crawl into my sleeping bag. I can hear every tiny noise inside my body. There is not a breath of wind and nothing else living in 30km. At first my skinny sleeping bag seems up to the job with the blanket I bought in Potosí, and I fall asleep cosy and feeling a deep sense of satisfaction that, despite all the obstacles, I have actually made it here. Later, in the small hours I awake, bone-cold and panicky. I need to wrap myself up but when I cover my face I feel I am suffocating. Horrible. Somehow I make it to dawn and then it all gets better as I witness an alien sunrise made just for me.
I cook oatmeal and massage the crunchy crystals in my waterbag until I can make tea. Then ride to Isla Pescador. It's only 9am but already there are a few tour groups here. There's even a señora living here who makes me a coffee.
Then on south to Chile. A bit of a sandy slog to San Juan and then a lovely ride across a sweeping valley to Avaroa. Another godforsaken border crossing. I bounce across the railroad lines to find the Migración hut and then wait 2 hours for the Aduana guy to finish his lunch.
And on into the thirteenth and last country of my adventure.

Chile starts very third world with a shitty road down from the mountains but after an hour or so it morphs into quite good and then finally the smoothest, silkiest bit of tarmac ever. I want to stroke it! It has lines and even cats-eyes! I've been riding for almost 14 hours today and when I get to Calama I find chicken and chips and crash.

In the morning I find the damage that yesterday's rougher than rough roads have wrought. A huge bolt is missing from the bike rear frame - lucky the seat and tank hasn't collapsed onto the rear wheel! - same goes for the pannier rack, whose weld has broken. And I have broken the eighth pair of sunglasses for the trip. With the aid of a wrong-size bolt and lots of gaffer tape all is bodged. Today is the first day of a week celebrating 202 years of Chile's independence so nothing is open. Proper repairs will just have to wait.
I get lunch in ultra-touristy San Pedro de Atacama. I could be in a gastro-pub in Islington. On to Toconao which is much more my kind of place and find a nice cheap room with a family.
I make elaborate plans to ride the rough roads to the coast via Mina Zaldivar, asking around for maps and finding somewhat sketchy ones from the police. I also track down a house that sells illegal petrol and arrange to pick some up in the morning. Then I watch the dancing with spurs and handkerchiefs in the plaza. In the morning I ponder the journey. It may be a little close on gas and... Oh F&*k it! I'll just take the tarmac. I have had enough of bloody rough roads and their tooth-loosening corrugations! I am so ready to be home...

So I backtrack to San Pedro de Atacama and pick up an email from my friend Phil who has serendipitously sent me a contact for his friend Rachel who lives in Antofagasta, a perfect distance for my ride today. I have a lovely afternoon and evening chatting to her as she juggles her 4-month-old and treats me to her delicious cooking and comfy guest bed. I ask her about all the flags and she says that you can be fined here if you don't fly the Chilean flag!

I ride on down to Caldera and nearby Bahia Inglesa.
I am pretty over deserts and the Atacama is just more of the same scruffy grey desert that I have been seeing all the way down from Ecuador. On the ride to La Serena the following day, I start to see a welcome splash of green. The next morning I finally find a few places open and get the salt from the Salar washed off the bike, not a moment too soon and find a replacement bolt for the frame. I then zero in on the GPS waypoint for Bob's cabin near La Ballena and catch them for a lovely sunset on the craggy cliffs there. A gorgeous spot and I spend a weekend sleeping off all the stress and miles of the last fortnight and listening to the roar of the ocean.
Very therapeutic! I check out Bob's building project - a solar powered tower-shaped house.
Bob is a biker who rode all over the Americas a few years back and who is now organising the shipping of my bike back to England. I stay at his place in La Reina, a suburb of Santiago while I get the bike to a warehouse near Valparaiso. There I take off the front wheel, mirrors and windscreen and generally try to squeeze it into as small a space as possible and strap it to pallets so they can build a crate around it.
I sign forms to give them clearance to deal with customs on my behalf and then I am a civilian...

Santiago is nice but my heart is not in it.
I just want to be home. The one highlight is wandering Pablo Neruda's gorgeous house, La Chascona, with its lovely nooks and paintings. There is the beautiful symbolism of his death just 11 days after Pinochet's coup.
24 hours of discomfort and boredom later I have swapped spring for autumn and I am sitting on a London tube and then home and it rapidly starts to feel like it was all a dream...