10 km short of the end of the Carretera Australs gravel trail disaster struck. Adam, riding in the lead, entered a corner to find himself rim deep in silty mud. In the throws of inevitable panic and acting on little riding experience and previous advice, he promptly rapped on the throttle, hoping to power out of his slippery predicament. Unfortunately the desired result was never to be realised, as he tank slapped his way into a dramatic and somewhat intimate meeting with Tierra Firma. Still sore from several stacks in the previous weeks, it took a long time for Adam to rise from the mud. Tired, bruised and battered, standing in the cold insistent rain it was obvious that this was a very low point for him; however, as a true warrior of the road, with help from his sympathetic amigos, he continued to limp his bike, bent forks and all, into the nearest settlement.
Villa Amengual is a small encampment nestled amongst the snowy peaks of a dramatic Andean backdrop. Smoking chimneys plume from quant cottages, refuge for the many road workers who fight the constant war on pot-holes. As we rolled in, cold gripping the very base of our spines, a sense of relief flooded my helmet. A warm bed, shelter from the rain and a fire place to dry our soaked gear was the only thing on our minds, and we were in luck! Having circled the village a few times, knocking on several doors we found exactly this, to be accompanied by a hot broth of seaweed, meat and potatoes. Although run by a some-what unwelcoming women, this refuge was our oasis.
Waking in the morning to an unsubtle pressure from our host to be on our way, we donned our almost dry gear and ventured out into the cold mountain air. It took us into the early afternoon to limp Adams bike the 100 km to Coihaique, thankfully on a well sealed road. Luck proved to remain on our side as we found yet another friendly motorcycle mechanic, able to help with our predicament. New handle bars (the third pair to feature on Adams bike), some beating and fork straightening and Adams workhorse was back in action so we thought. All packed up and ready to roll the next morning we discovered an electrical issue, preventing the bike from starting. While Adam methodically made his way through his wiring harness with a multi-metre, Mike and I wandered into town where we ended up chatting in a caf for several hours with an enthusiastic young Kiwi couple touring on a GS1200. Trading war stories and advice I couldnt help but feel a little hardcore, comparing our non-existent budget, free camping motive and DIY spirit with these gadget-clad BMW riders.
As we said our goodbyes and wandered back out into the crisp air of Coihaiques cobblestoned town centre we were approached by an Aussie couple who lived in the area. Travellers and motorbike enthusiasts themselves (more GS owners yet again) Roman and Charmaine invited us back to their log cabin for the night. Fuelled by an accidentally super-hot curry cooked by myself, pisco and the warmth of the fire we talked through the evening in a much appreciated and refreshingly relaxed environment. Roman is a deep water diver who works several contracts a year, welding pipelines for oil rigs. His partner Charmaine is completing her PhD in Anthropology, preparing a thesis on a proposed hydro dam in the south of Chile. Both educated environmentalists, Roman having been born in Chile, conversation flowed as freely as the Pisco, proving equally as satisfying.
The following day we ventured south, cutting across the Andes into Argentina through the Southern most crossing, 20 kilometres north of Cochrane. This minor gravel road, potholed and wind swept, was an adventurous transition from the lush Chilean lakes district into the vast nothingness that is Patagonia. Huge rock formations, rolling hills and endless plains swallowed us from the world as we enjoyed the first rain free day in a long time. Herds of wild horses stared on curiously, temporarily interrupted from grazing the horizons. Guanaco, (picture a lama crossed with a camel!) scatter the landscape, poised roadside woolly reminders of our foreign environment. Our night spent camping in the heart of these wild hills, just across the Chile/Argentina border, was accompanied by huge night owls, their powerful legs and talons an insight into the life cycle of this stark land. As the last of the dry hills disappeared from our rear vision mirrors, Routa 40, with its preceding reputation lingering in mind, crept its way from our worn map book and consolidated its position firmly under our tires. We fuelled our bikes in Bajo Caracoles, with an additional auxiliary 5L tank each and set out for the long haul. 50 m down the road Mike and I sat staring at the last road sign we would see for a long time as Adam disappeared into the distance. 340 km to Bajo Caracoles or more importantly, 340 km of gravel road with hurricane force winds until the next fuel! We promptly turned around and loaded Mikes bike with an additional 5L.
Routa 40 turned out to be exactly what I was expecting. A long straight gravel road through one of the most sparcely populated regions I have set foot. Never have I found riding so intense and all consuming. We battled to maintain direction on a 30cm wide section of dirt in the centre of the road, loose gravel piled threateningly on either side, while the roaring forties battered us mercilessly, forcing us to a 45 degree angle simply to maintain a straight line. Occasionally a section of loose gravel would send my tires squirming for grip; my immediate reaction was always the same, accompanied by an instant cold sweat. I would wind off the throttle and with no power to fight the side-wind, hold my breath and hope that my tires could maintain enough traction to bring me to a stop without washing out, and before I was forced off the edge of the road into the waiting jagged rock garden. Routa 40 is regarded as initiation into the adventure motorcycling community by many, not because of its stunning remoteness, but as an absolute test of nerve and guts, as I now know! However, despite these trialling factors, we managed to make it out unscathed almost
After a hard days enduring, weary and with wired eyes, we set up camp behind a giant pile of gravel – shelter from the wind at last of course as soon as we geared down the wind changed direction, sending our tent pitching into a kite flying experience. Pegging into a solid layer of stones didnt help the situation either, my bent pegs leaving me regreting my decision to ignore previous advice to buy steel! The following day was much of the same. I enjoyed the experience, but admittedly wouldnt describe it as fun. A few kilometres short of Tres Lagos, our saviour the holder of fuel, Adam once again found himself outside of the realm of control – fighting for the right to remain vertical. I missed the grand event; however Mike struggles to give a recount without breaking into laughter. Apparently Adam put up a valiant fight, sliding out a full 180 degrees at 60 km/h, miraculously remaining upright! Mike recalls watching Adam riding backwards for several metres before eventually stacking, a somewhat comical sight. At least the crash was not without a slice of fortune. Adams rear sub-frame had been slightly skewed from his last hard hit, but now sits straight!
As I look back at the gruelling hours spent battling dry winds through the plains of Patagonia the glorification of the experience is duly justified. Although Im sure many more trials and tribulations are held in the future kilometres of this expedition, our triumph over the Routa 40 will forever be remembered. Patagonia is a force to be reckoned with its vast nothingness proving to be a deceiving strength of character. Sunsets over an endless earth, and gigantic moons; Patagonia is for me Mars on Earth. I have explored, survived and been left standing in silent respect for one of Earths great treasures.