Los Vilos to Puente del Inca – 19 January 2013
Hampered by an ailing bike the previous day Mike and Neil were keen to do some serious Dakar spectating today. The set off soon after waking and planned on being at the special stage by 8:45am.
Meyer made another attempt at repairing his bike while Gus, Daniel and I packed up at a leisurely pace. Gus was really keen to make tuna with noodles for breakfast and was very keen to have us try his cuisine. Daniel decided it was time for him to hit the road and after our farewells, he took off, bound for Santiago.
Once packed, I helped Meyer a little but there wasn’t much to be done. Now Meyer was actually battling to start his bike and the battery condition was weakening. With this potential problem in mind we decided to go on ahead of the others while Daniel and Gus would wait for the other two to arrive.
Our route would take us south to within 100km of Santiago and then we would turn east to cross the Andes again. We had been warned that rockfalls had caused the road to be closed in one lane and the authorities had decided that it was best to have traffic flow between Argentina and Chile during daylight hours and between Chile and Argentina during the night time. We had to be at the start of the tunnel by 4:00pm to take our place in the queue for the tunnel opening at 8pm.
Once started, Meyer battled to get his bike to rev. By opening the manual choke I was able to get the bike to rev a little and so I suggested that Meyer make use of the manual choke when his bike threatened to stall. With this little trick up our sleeves we headed south down route 5.
It was a really festive atmosphere. Being a Saturday the route was lined with Chilean spectators wishing to catch a glimpse of their Dakar heroes. Each flyover carried more spectators and flags and it reminded me to some extent of the atmosphere along the route of the Cape Argus cycle tour. There was a strong police presence but they seemed content to,let the crowd simply enjoy the moment. As we travelled down the highway we were passed by a number of support vehicles and Dakar competitors in all of the different categories. The trucks were the scariest of all. These awesome vehicles came past at speed with their large knobby tyres making a loud noise on the smooth tar of the freeway.
As Meyer and I passed the crowds we were frequently waved at and given generous applause. I must believe that we were mistaken for competitors. However, it was good to wave back at the crowds and the atmosphere was cheerful and festive. Riding alongside some of the competitors also gave us the opportunity of capturing them on video with most riders and drivers quite happy to give a wave or thumbs up as they went past.
About 120km before Santiago we pulled into a service station to refuel. Not knowing where the next fuel stop would be we wanted to be prepared for a long haul. It was also a good time to stretch our legs. Once again we chatted to other riders who were following the Dakar and were pleased to wet riders from Argentina, Chile, Brazil and New Zealand. While we were stopped we also bumped into the Imperial Toyota team. Giniel de Villiers team mate, Duncan Voss, had been forced to withdraw on the second day. The team noticed our flag and chatted to us as they made their way to the finish, at least happy in the knowledge of having one of their cars on the podium.
Just 100km short of Santiago we left route 5 and turned east towards the Andes. The temperature shot up despite the fact that we were climbing. We rode through a number of very pretty small towns set in some beautiful countryside with well manicured equestrian ranches. The ranchers seemed to be affluent. The roadside was lined on either side with tall poplar trees and we also passed the odd vineyard in amongst the paddocks.
The road became steeper and more twisty as we progressed towards the tunnel and, with about 30km to go, we found a small fuel station and convenience store. Despite our bikes being fairly full, we took the opportunity to use up any remaining Chilean pesos on fuel and cold water. With the temperature near 40degC we kitted up and continued our journey. Just 5km further up the pass we came upon a queue of cars and that is where our journey went on pause. It was 3:30pm.
A local police car indicated that all vehicles should park as close to the right hand side of the road as possible. There were no trees to offer shade and the tarmac seemed to ooze heat. Fortunately a light breeze picked up later in the afternoon. Some of the drivers would remain in the air conditioned vehicles with their engines running. Other would get out and walk around chatting to others in the queue. I sat on the curb very grateful that I had remembered Meyers warning to bring a small travel umbrella for the harsh sun. At one point a young guy from Argentina came and introduced himself to me. Agustin was a student traveling with his family back from a vacation in Chile. We chatted for an hour or two about the trip, our families and his dreams of becoming a photographer. Thankfully his good English compensated for me poor Spanish and it was a real pleasure to meet him. This is surely one of the joys of motorcycling – the opportunity of meeting complete strangers while traveling around.
Meyer took the opportunity to re-tension his chain. Once done there was not much more to be done and so he lay on the roadway in the shade of his bike and waited. And we waited and waited. 4:30, 5:30, 6:30, 7:30 pm. At 8pm some of the people returned to their vehicles and started their engines. But this was false hope. Finally at 8:30pm, sun still shining, the line of vehicles began moving slowly forwards. Once again Meyers bike played up and it cut out once or twice causing us to lose our place in the queue. By the time we got to the toll booth all bikes were together again. We paid the toll and were about to move through when Meyers bike cu out completely. With a dead battery and a dead bike we had to move out of the way of the many vehicles impatient to get to the top of the pass. Thankfully Meyers bike has a kick-start lever installed. He used this to good effect as he built up a sweat trying to get his bike to work. Nothing doing. Then as he let out a loud curse word the bike fired and we were back in business. Using the choke once again to increase the revs we got going. By now more than 50 cars must have passed us and the sky had grown dark. We headed up the narrow twisty pass. I counted some 30 switch back turns as we wound our way up the steep single carriageway pass to the tunnel at around 3000m above sea level. Once on top we went through Chilean passport control which was nothing more than an official scribbling our registration number on a small scrap of paper and then handing the sheet to us with a direction to,continue on our way.
We continued on for a few kilometers when we reached Argentinian passport and customs. Here the vehicles were split into three queues and the busses into a fourth. The going was very slow and the air cool. We arrived at the control point around 10pm and it reminded me of the old days of waiting in the queue to purchase entry tickets to the local drive in cinema! Around 40 minutes later we found ourselves at the head of the queue and were directed into a large covered area. We pulled up next to a booth and presented our passports which were duly stamped.
Next we moved to customs. It was rather strange to us but the booth contained two customs officers, one from Chile and one from Argentina. When we crossed the San Francisco pass into Chile the customs personnel seemed to be in training possibly ahead of the Dakar caravan that was moving into the country the following day. The officer attending to me seemed very unsure of things and apparently never gave me an import paper needed for Chile. Now, on departure from that country I was caught short. The officer was addressing me in a raised voice and despite my protestations seemed to believe that I had received the papers. After a while, and on seeing that all of the others had the necessary papers, he waved me through. As I moved to the Argentinian side of the cubicle he took one last opportunity to moan at me again. I continued to smile and apologize to which he replied that all was okay(!?).
Argentinian customs took a little longer as the supervisor was the only person able to attend to us and he was on lunch as it was near midnight local time. We took the opportunity to find some confess and sandwiches from a local stall and then waited. By 1am we all had the necessary papers and were given the approval to enter Argentina.
As the road was dark and twisty with poor road markings we chose to stay at the first lodging we could find and not to press on through to Mendoza. We headed down into Argentina and within a few kilometers came upon the s,all village of Puente del Inca. On the roadside was a ski lodge and the keeper was still behind the counter at 1:15am. He confirmed that we could have a single room with three double bunks and a shower and within minutes the bikes were unpacked. Everyone was tired and it didn’t take too long before we were all in bed. We were sure that Gus was asleep before he leant over to put his head on the pillow.
That had been a very long day and we were very thankful for these lodgings.