Monday, 27 August 2012

Disaster finally strikes and my lucky escape

Where to start….today turned out to be my personal Everest.  So far I have got away without anything going too badly wrong, but this run ended today.  It all started when I left the motel car park and stalled and un-ceremonially dropped the bike right at the entrance to the road.  I was so annoyed that without thinking I just picked the thing up.  So I have now solved the problem of how to pick up a dropped bike - Make sure people are watching you - you´ll then find through embarrassment the strength to pick a heavily laden bike up.  This incident was nothing compared to later though and was if anything only an omen to what was to happen.

The bike was fine so after stocking up on food, I headed towards the Cuesta.  Cuesta is a name given to any mountain pass in Argentina, the full name of this one is “la Cuesta de la Chilca”.  Its not really well known and I only heard about it from the blog of another rider.  Not even Argentinians I spoke to had heard about it.  It lies north of Andalgala and after reaching the top turns into Ruta 47, the whole section is only 90 kms, so I only planned to take a few hours to cross it and then join the famous Ruta 40 after.  

As I left the town some locals on motorbikes led me to where it began and as I thanked them I soon hit the offroad ripio section that would pass through a few small villages before the climb up the pass began.  The cuesta was like nothing I had ridden before, it was both rocky and sandy and above all else narrow with no barriers and some seriously impressive drops.  Death Road in Bolivia is nothing compared to this.   

I took it pretty slow as the combination of a narrow sandy track and massive drops is pretty sobering.  I lost track of time and the number of twisty curves I took, but I guess it took me about two or three hours to reach the top, and in all this time I passed five cars, some a little too close for comfort as you can see from this video.

Reaching the top there were two or three adobe type houses with goats and cattle scattered around and not much else, and after this there was a long section of bends as the route made its way through the top of the mountains.  

Later the route dropped down in altitude and the scenery changed again, opening up to a wide dry plateau packed full with cacti as tall as trees and countless dried up river beds.  

The gradient of the track kept changing too and the terrain became more difficult to ride as it constantly changed from ripio, corrugated gravel, sand, deeper gravel and even jagged stones. Much of it was new to me in terms of riding a bike and in places there were streams blocking my path so I had to ride across them as well.  

It was challenging but enjoyable and had to concentrate hard and choose where to put the bike.  There were quite a few mini accidents and I nearly came off several times.  It was to be like this for the next 50km and after going for several hours I couldn’t wait to find an even consistent track or even asphalt, which was now a distant memory.

Still all was going well until I hit a particularly bad section of rocks, where climbing up out of a dried up river bed at about 60km/h the rear of the bike began swinging wildly behind me 45 degrees in each direction.  It took all my strength (and I’d like to think of course unlimited natural skill) not to fall off, and I stopped to look to see what was the problem was, but I already knew in the back of my mind I had a puncture.  

I was not too worried as I had the emergency can of air/sealant aerosol which had worked in the past, but when I went to use this it failed miserably.  The inner tube must have completely burst and it left me in a bit of a situation as although I had a spare inner tube, I stupidly had no pump.  I was 20km from Ruta 40, 40km from the nearest petrol station and 50km from the nearest town that could help (Santa Maria).  On top of this I had seen no more than eight cars all day and that was back on the cuesta not on this last section of the route. 

I had to work out what to do so was trying to remember what Bear Grills/Ray Mears would do, but considering I didn’t have a camera crew and a hotel nearby like they always have, I realised I needed to try something else   I decided to try to ride the bike in first gear and lean my weight over the front forks and try to make it the 20kms to Ruta 40, where there would be more cars.  This was tough going and I only managed 5km in two hours and was worried my tyre and wheel would be ruined so I had to rethink.  

I only had two hours of daylight left so I set up my telephoto lens on my camera and started to take pictures in all directions and then zoom in on the pictures after to see if I could see any signs of life anywhere.  The only thing I could see was a house to the East about 10km away and some smoke in the north even further away.  The house was nearer so I started to walk a little towards it only to see later that it was derelict, so I walked back to the bike.  I then took some water and decided to head towards the smoke in the north.  The plan was to walk until dusk and if I didn´t find any life in that time I would walk back to the bike and set up camp for the night and then walk on in the morning.  So I took off but first left a note on the bike asking anyone who found it to go north in my direction.

The derelict house in the distance
The smoke on the horizon I tried to walk towards
As my time was running out I could see the smoke in the distance was not getting any nearer and I was about to turn back when out of pure luck I saw a 4x4 was coming in my direction.  I was so so lucky, no one uses this track much.  It was a couple from Cordoba who happened to be on holiday and were the only people to pass in hours.  I must have looked retarded walking in the middle of nowhere in full bike gear, but it didn’t matter, I had help just when I was resigned to sleeping out that night.   In bad Spanish I explained what had happened and they drove me back to the bike.   On the absolute remote chance that someone would pass and steal the bike we decided to find a tree to chain it to.  We loaded my things into their car and then I rode the bike another 1km until we found a tree big enough to chain the bike to.  We then propped the bike up with rocks and took the rear wheel off and drove onto to Santa Maria, about 45km away.  

The couple who I owe so much to dropped me off in Santa Maria, and soon after I had another stroke of luck as there was a motocross bike shop there better than I’ve found in bigger towns, and for the price of £20 they would fix the bike and balance the wheel again.   

 By this time it was 9pm and it didn’t look like I would get back to the bike that night with the repaired wheel so I asked the mechanic if he knew someone with a truck.  After a bit of a search he found his brother in law, Santiago, who would take me and his truck to the bike that night for £30.  I was knackered by then but had to get the bike to safety so we set off, although the truck was not suitable for offroad at all we made it to the bike.  We had a bit of a time dragging a one wheeled bike in the dark to the truck and then lifting it up into it, but we did it after a few attempts and drove back to Santa Maria.  

Fighting with the bike to get it secured
It was after 11pm when we returned so had to knock at the door of the motoshop to get the owner to let us drop the bike off.  Santiago then drove me around until I found somewhere to stay, but before he dropped me off we found a greasy little empanada shop too so I could bring some food back.  The second nasty hotel in two days, it smelt terrible, but it was fine, I was very lucky to get out of that situation in that way.  I’d made it alive 14 hours since first setting off and had been rescued from a very remote area with the help of some kind people who I owe so much to.  The empanadas were best thing in ages and as I ate them on the bed I crashed out until the next morning.

Santiago and the most unsuited offroad truck ever.

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