We’d enjoyed and endured about as much snow as we could take in eight days – white sheets had fallen in a fierce Patagonian wind for a week. We’d also been scarred as much as the bleating goat had been scared out of its skin upon our Caviahue departure. The bikes were calling and it was a profound joy to be deposited out of the snow onto silky smooth roads again. Back onto Ruta 40, we cruised through the bland town of Chos Malal and unexpectedly, the main drag took us through a dramatic scene of volcanic dessert, crested caracara country and a steppe landscape whose rocky hillsides were tiered in reds, russets and dusky pink. What a contrast to Caviahue under the mantle of winter.
An unanticipated interruption was the following afternoon’s angry wind. Forewarned with what felt like a williwaw – a sudden violent squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast – we were torn right over on our bikes, teetering on the fringe of the road. I just about regained control, on the edge of reason. This sharp blast of wind had come from nowhere, even if we were climbing close to 2,000 metres and advancing towards an ascending gulley between the mountains. On the approach, the gale picked up another nasty notch; it took on the power of the Hulk. It demanded a Herculean counter-strength just to keep moving through the wind tunnel. The strongest force we’d encountered on the trip to date, it took my breath away.
In a half a heartbeat, the wind blew me uncontrollably off the road. Just like that. No time to react, lean or unseat. At lightning speed, I careered across into a large patch of gravel – miraculously keeping Pearl unscathed and upright. Shelving an appreciation that I’d just spent one of my nine cat lives for later – all too aware that our hilly ascent had past vicious drop offs without road barriers – reflex took over. I swiftly shoved a rock underneath my side-stand to give Pearl a little leverage against the thick gravel in the howling wind. Despite that, Pearl was still dangerously at risk of being blown over and I had my full weight astride her stationary! Two workmen rushed over to offer assistance while Jason manoeuvred my bike around the corner, out of the screaming 60 may be 70 mile per hour winds.
The following morning saw us ride in the saddle before a serene vista of windless wonder. Heaven. I was in front of Jason, taking the twisties with a contented ease and around a corner is an approaching double-carriage road train. Advancing in my lane! Fortunately I had ample braking distance to swerve around to the safety of an empty lane again, free of oncoming traffic. No point getting rankled even if this trucker had almost sent me reeling, this is South America! I’m loathed to advocate that things always come in threes but suspicion started to seep into my stomach.
In a largely flat landscape, I was humming away “Ride, Sally, ride” to Mack Rice’s Mustang Sally when WHAM! A medium sized bird with a mocha brown plumage smacked straight into me. It dropped like a lead weight to the road, knocked out on impact. What with witnessing the blood sport of goats, almost falling to my own windblown death and guilty of birdslaughter – life on the road gives you ample time outside the comfort zone.
A few parts of Ruta 40 still remain unpaved. A couple of sections are a lot more rugged than most yet still used as a main road. It wasn’t until completing one of these sections I reflected that timing is sometimes so perfect, I’m left too stunned for speech. We hit the ripio – gravel but my usual ‘warm up’ half hour of ‘screaming and snotting’ (as Jason puts it) down the Scala intercom didn’t come. Neither did my vexed concentration nor fear of every lump and bump. Something clicked. Without conscious thought, I really opened Pearl up and started getting groovy on the gravel. In third and fourth gear, I was having something of an epiphany.
In a Eureka afternoon-prolonged moment, Pearl skimmed over the severe corrugations, carved the thick gravel and gnawed through the gnarly terrain. The ripio was no longer foe but a fond friend, I was relaxed without feeling complacent. The transformation was impeccable, particularly as this was the roughest stretch of Ruta 40 we’d incurred to date. I was even a little crestfallen when the ruts, sand and stones were replaced with the tedium of tarmac. The transition in my off road riding sustained me on a natural high – my mind was buzzing for the whole day. Letting go was cathartic, I was having the time of my life. How could I not love this life more than yesterday but less than tomorrow.
Just above Bardas Blancas on Ruta 40, we’d read from a reliable source that stepping inside the Reserva Provincial El Payén was ‘mind altering’. Well it was an Andean national park I suppose host the world’s largest concentration of volcanoes. 800 of them in fact. Okay – lets hope we get no eruptions so we can recce the place. I only prayed that Pearl who was truly being put through her paces could cope mechanically. In the last few weeks, I’d noticed that she was tolerating an intermittent electrical fault between the ABS light and fluctuating speedometer; missing part of her chain adjuster and had a dislodged headlight whose beam was better at spotting owls than illuminating the road. Oh Lordy Lou, was that another Rule of Three manifestation? Taking umbrage at the notion, I parked it altogether.
53 miles of hard riding over bone-jarring gnarly ground got us to the other side of Reserva Provincial El Payén. My mind hadn’t exactly ‘altered’ as much as it was awed by around 10 of the 800 volcanoes off in the distance. I was too busy concentrating on the demons of the dirt road to cast a wider glance at my surroundings – a necessary evil for me sometimes. Our intentions to wild camp were a little ambitious as the day hadn’t risen above a chilly one degree Celsius. The night only promised well below sub-zero temperatures, the park was officially out of season and the risk of being marooned in this remote region, without a soul in sight was too great. We turned around and I continued to savour at how much better I was coping on the sandy, stoney dirt roads. At last, I’d turned a thrilling corner.
After a pitstop in Malargue, we took guidance from the GPS as opposed to our older paper map equivalent and hit what we thought was a disused section of the old Ruta 40. It was meant to be a more interesting passage through to our next destination Mendoza, avoiding some of the uneventful tarmac that now paves the majority of Ruta 40. Wending down a confusion of narrow tracks, the route got increasingly deeper in sand until the soft, loose terrain started exasperating the pair of us. It was interesting alright. And technically, I was also in too deep: Drop bike. Curse. Check for broken bones. Reflect on how ‘bad ass’ we are. Lift bike up. Pant. More reflection. And repeat. And repeat again. Marvellous, another one to throw into The Power of Three pot. Our GPS was telling us porkies – serves us right for mistrusting the map but better to have uncovered this 11 miles into the 97 mile sand-riddled stretch.
We were also dreading the prospect of getting trapped in this isolated place. If my enthusiasm, waning as it was continued to outweigh my capability, I’d end up cracking a rib. Admittedly, the sandpit we’d ridden into began to take its toll on my skill as much as my spirits. I decided to take stock before my wits completely fled and I’d rue the impulse to ‘keep at it’. And to add insult to near injury, we’d reached a dryish riverbed – getting the heavy bikes stuck in sand or even quicksand would be back-breaking if not downright disastrous. Despite the low temperature, the sun in this desolate spot was beating down like a fiery hammer and we were carrying minimal water. After winding myself one too many times, I could smell the sharp, acrid tang of fear creeping in. The sand was sucking every ounce of my ability as much as my engine was sucking the sand in. The pair of us were mindfully happy to turn around and head the 11 miles back the way we came.
San Rafael was our chosen reststop to soothe some minor aches and pains. We had reached the end of the continent’s southernmost ‘V’ – over 7,000 miles and just shy of three months in – latitudinally, we were now on a par with Montevideo – our first port of call from the cargo ship. A small pang of pride permeated even if this was just the tip of the South America’s iceberg. The ride up to Mendoza redirected all thought to Tupungato Volcano Provincial Park. This was where we espied Mount Plata and Tupungato Volcano, towering above the clouds; 6,800 metres above sea level to be precise. Catching sight of this mountain range was the most impressive I’d ever seen. Through the foothills we rode at full tilt for nigh on an hour towards these mammoth mountains, and they simply weren’t getting any bigger! That’s how big they were. My mind was blown.
Back home, friends were preparing to enjoy the Horizons Unlimited event. This is an annual festival that takes place around the globe with an emphasis on travel. Those present, as Graham Field puts it perfectly, “are there to inform, inspire and encourage, share experiences and get enthused by others’ experiences”. The essence of this was not lost on the pair of us as we’d recently made contact with a local biker in Mendoza named Juan Pablo through the Horizons Unlimited website. Through his and his friend Toto’s combined generosity, we ended up kicking the side stands down inside a gated complex ‘Posada Olivar‘ in Lujan de Cuyo.
Complete with outdoor pool amid lush green grounds; a bedroom bigger than our old cottage – boasting a super-king that’d comfortably sleep six; rustic furnishings and a fully equipped granite kitchen in which Gordon Ramsay would be fulfilled. Yes, I think we’ll be happy here. Looking shabbier than a stray cat, I felt utterly unfit to be striding through such decadent surroundings. On top, we were being charged a rate on a par to some of the more scruffy hostels we’d recently taken up temporary residence. Relaying “Muchas muchas grasias! Esto es EXCELENTE!” to Toto and Juan Pablo with all the heartfelt gratitude I felt somehow wasn’t quite enough. We were engaging with local people again, different from us but sharing that common denominator – two wheels.