Pearl my bike is painted blue, a colour as calming as a Patagonian sky. However she’s built more for comfort than speed. Over the past few weeks in the saddle, Pearl and I have pretty much fused together to ride as a unit. It’s just as Lois Pryce described in Lois on the Loose after months in the saddle through the Americas – she felt herself transforming into some mythical Greek creature: half woman, half motorbike. It’s pure jubilation when you have this relationship with your bike, moulding comfortably as one. For me, there’s increasing trust and understanding of how to handle Pearl respectfully – if I keep it up, she may just get me all the way to Alaska. But what a daring distance to go until I can have strength in that conviction. Two months and three countries into South America, we had put just over 5,000 miles on the clock.
The Carretera Austral through Chile is a road that will satisfy your soul beyond conscious comprehension. We were initiated onto the Carretera Austral by completing a series of rides that saw our derrieres slanting off the saddle and leaning over like we were aiming for first prize in a limbo competition on motorcycles. Stunning scenery aside for a day-prolonged moment, the wind was back with attitude; so much for it being a shade more sheltered west of Argentina, up through Chile.
We spent a week riding Carretera Austral’s dirt roads, which was well worth the extra effort involved through the gravelly, muddy and corrugated parts. The pothole-peppered track took us hundreds of metres above sea level on Mount Jeinemeni, which gave us day long views of a lake the size of a city. It was so lofty from atop, I felt like I could see half the world. Mammoth-sized mountains engulfed us as well as voluminous lakes under even bigger skies. Everything was sized on a mega scale – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up and down the mountain passes taking extra care. There were no barriers on some of the steep hairpin bends, which were loose and corrugated to add to the fun and games. Some former travellers had described these mountain passes as “hair-raising on two wheels” although it was often so stunning, forgetting I was on more technical ground was made easier. I also had the intercom-benefit of being mentored over the tricky bits too – learning a rough wisdom a whisker above my skill level took me places I would ordinarily not have had the confidence to ride solo. Number one addition to my overland adventure motorcycling configuration: my man!
Further north past Chile Chico, the terrain either side of the Carretera Austral changed dramatically where barren plains gave way to a grassy, lush landscape. The orange, reds and russet leaves of autumn were just appearing here. Soaking up the vegetation-dense vista was like having a sponge bath, it was good to drench the soul in something green for a change. I made a mental note to get some cruciferous veggies inside me too, it’d been a while since eating anything leafy or green. My stamina throughout the day wore on the further we rode. The rutty ripio took a desultory toll on me after a while, which after riding it ‘up on the foot pegs’ all day finally gave me a respite at dusk when we hit the tarmac. The tarmac soon turned into an icy obstacle course 850 metres above sea level. The snow turned ice left remnants of slippy patches all over the road. Daylight was no longer on our side so we manoeuvred round as fast as safety would allow. Digging a bit deeper to reach some lodging was not optional.
Riding down into a mountain village called El Blanco and glimpsing a warmly lit homestay was wonderfully welcoming. Greeted by two elderly women – waiting on us hand and frozen foot – served a hot drink on arrival. One seated us around their roaring log fire while the other rubbed warmth back into me. I gave them a shock when pulling up with purply blue lips and a nose redder than Rudolph’s; their expressions were priceless and one that confirmed we’d reached a new level of crazy upon two motorbikes in sub-zero temperatures. I don’t know if I inadvertently returned a similar expression though as one of the ladies greeted us with a plastic bag on her head from the local supermarket. A DIY home-hair treatment perhaps? What a honey. I relished having my electric clothing, which had worked wonders. The jacket and gloves had kept me comfortable in inclement conditions all day but my lower body had numbed, cold to the core – it just goes with the territory sometimes. No wonder we weren’t seeing any other touring bikers!
Wind was replaced by rain, and the loose gravel ripio stayed more or less present with us on the Carretera Austral. Bizarrely, the ripio was broken up with the odd small section of brand new tarmac road, no longer than a mile or two. There was neither rhyme nor reason as to why the tarmac would suddenly appear for a short stretch and then disappear in the moment of a gear-change again. With ripio comes the road less travelled, the scenery to be seen from being off-road is always a sight to behold. Especially on the serpentine trails we were riding through amid temperate rainforests shrouded in as much mystery as mist sometimes.
Pulling into Queulat National Park for an evening gave us a chance to kip alongside nature for the night. Hostels and homestays are agreeable when it’s cold although camping has its merits too. We pitched the tent amid virgin evergreen forests and made a cosy fire to stave off the chill. Every so often, it was impossible not to hear those all-familiar, deep-seated rumbling noises of the glacier. We had this Jurassic place to ourselves – all because we were mad enough to camp in the cold. First light, we practically raced through the temperate rainforest, up to the Mirador viewpoint. The Hanging Glacier was a prehistoric sight to behold; it was like the mountain wore a protruding blue cravat – a triangle of thick suspended ice. Two glacial waterfalls blasted down the mountain face, falling hundreds of metres south. That is, until a giant piece of ice broke off and stopped the waterfall flow entirely. Resuming again a couple of minutes later, it was a rare moment. And unexpected, it even raised the park rangers’ eyebrows when retelling them about the occurrence.
The end of the Carretera Austral deposited us at Chaitén – what an unparalleled road that was. The best we’d ridden in South America to date, which has our strongest recommend for anyone on two wheels. Detouring on the island of Chiloé didn’t overly inspire us riding through farmland so we headed for Puerto Montt back on the mainland, which also had us zooming past at full tilt upon the mass of urban sprawl on offer. We rocked up into Puerto Varas instead. An inviting little town with a gorgeous German influence in the culture, people and architecture. It overlooked the sparkling freshwaters of Lago Llanguihue and the snow-capped Osorno Volcano as well.
This was what it was all about – no reliance on public transport supplying us with a flow of spontaneity on tap. We checked into Hostel Klein, a rustically worn and shabby place erring on the side of endearing. Despite no heating in our room, it mattered not as the Fräulein of the hostel couldn’t have been more warmly attentive towards our every need and whim. It was cheap, our bikes were secure and we were comfortable in the living room with to a wood-fired stove at our constant disposal.
Before heading further north, we came off the main drag on Ruta 225 and weight-shifted up a Scalextric track of tight hairpin bends for an encounter with the ‘King of the South’. A 2,652 metre tall stratovolcano between Osorno and Llanquihue provinces in the Los Lagos region of Chile. Reaching the snow-capped volcano took concentration in trying – without succeeding – to get my knee down. Fantastic fun. Being as close as we got gave us a thrill – the volcano was textbook conical in shape and loomed imposingly over the emerald green waters of Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanguihue. Not a bad Monday morning by any stretch!
Ruta 231 on our map marked as the 215 on Google maps led us through Puyehue National Park, out of Chile and back into Argentina. Around the sweeping roads we rode, curving up around the mountains and back down until we were hit by a powdery place of volcanic ash. Tall trees robbed of life and leaves perforated a thick carpet of brown flakes either side of us. It was like riding through the land of the dead where all colour had fled the world. Instead the world was awash in sepia. Nature woke up again in Villa La Angostura, an upmarket town in which we stayed overnight; a resort gearing up for the imminent ski season. We took our gear and zoomed straight onto Ruta 234 via a pitstop in the touristy town of Bariloche, renowned for its sickly chocolate. Time to hit the road, leave these resorts to it and get our backsides out of busy towns. The 184 kilometres of Ruta de los Siete Lagos – the Seven Lakes Road was set to facilitate just that.
Pearl my bike had thus far been a trusty and law-abiding travelling companion. That is, until she had a brush with the law en route to San Martin de Los Andes. Upon seeing a halo around the sun, forming a complete rainbow ring, I pulled Pearl off the road into the gravel to get a longer look. It was the first time I’d ever seen this natural phenomenon, which apparently can happen anytime in any season when sunlight passes through ice crystals in cirrus clouds. The crystals bend direct sunlight, projecting it elsewhere into the sky and at 22 degrees, a halo can be seen around the sun. What a ‘Wow’ moment seeing one on the bike!
One minute I’m cursing my iPhone camera for its lack of SLR properties and the next, I look up and see a van hurtling dangerously close towards Pearl and me. BANG! The van careered over the road’s white line at high speed and clipped my aluminum pannier with a crunch. I rushed around my bike to see the damage but the driver had left naught but a scratch down a ripped sticker. Possibly one of the rarer occasions when a motorbike comes off better than a four-wheeled vehicle in a collision! Pearl wobbled like a Weeble momentarily but essentially took the knock on the chin, unscathed without any cause for concern.
Grateful that the Argentinian driver returned to see if I was unharmed and inspect any injury he’d inflicted on Pearl, I was more sympathetic towards the scratches and dents left down one side of his newish looking van. The guy was distraught. Pearl was taking no prisoners on that day, armour fully in tact and testament to MetalMule’s durability. What I didn’t expect after leaving on amicable terms was to ride on for a couple of miles only to be pulled over by the local Policía. Oh no, what version of events had this guy relayed to the roadside authorities? Despite Jason having footage of where I’d safely parked up off the road, I was still wary of any trouble I may have landed us in.
Half an hour of copious paperwork, checking my papers were in order with a fine toothcomb and failing to be understood, the police officer in charge concluded that Pearl and I were free to go. Phew. On we rode still feeling sore for the van driver, whose concentration either lapsed or may be the sun was in his eyes. A mile on and we were pulled over again. Drat, what have we done now? Nothing. Just a routine spot check for contraband. Nope, none of that being carried – the chap on patrol satisfied after unzipping just one of my pockets. Might we be on our way now please officer? “Por qué muchas grasias Señor” – Why thank you Sir.
The lagos of the Seven Lakes Road were aptly named for their salmon fishing, beauty, clarity and hidden aspects – we wouldn’t have missed this road even if it did feel a little wrong to be riding on asphalt through virgin coihue and colihue cane forests.
The day’s song ended on a sweet note as we dared to hope that a steep trail would zig-zag us down to a mysterious looking lake. The day peaked on a harmonious crescendo as we stumbled upon it, Lago Lacar. A long, narrow bar of opaque blue mist hung beautifully over the freshwater. Behind me, I saw hills rising wild as far as the eye could see covered in trees that no axe had ever touched. I saw the last of the sunlight glinting off the lake and clouds sweeping in from the west. I even saw a caracara circling. I waved at him as late afternoon drew upon us, shadows growing long. Dusk arrived and left to a fleeting tune of pinks and oranges. Overhead a half moon peeked out through the scuttling clouds, beneath which a stillness settled over my mind. The stars looked like eyes, watching over us in this secluded spot with only each other for company.