Diesel and Dust

[Jeff] Leaving Valparaiso involves riding down the narrow network of cobbled streets towards the harbour and through Viña Del Mar to get to the highway. Sally manages to navigate us through without a hitch and we are free, it's good to be back on the road again!

The pier at Los Vilos....seen better days that one.

We are heading for Antofagasta, 1300km north, where we will need to stop and source new tyres. Today we will ride as far as Los Vilos, a small coastal town. It's an easy ride, about 200km. In Los Vilos we have a hostel booked, we park in their courtyard and have a chat to the owner, Joachim. He is Chilean, but speaks wth a French accent and is happy to chat about his story. As a student he was involved in handing out anti-government propaganda during the Pinochet regime, and this led to him getting shot by the police. He was then jailed. The rest was a long twisting tail of war, espionage and international relations between Chile, Argentina, the U.S. and France, worthy of a novel in itself. Ultimately he was among a group of prisoners sent to France on an agreement drafted by the French ambassador. He spent many years in France and eventually came back to Chile to take over his father's business of the hostel. He now spends six months each in France and Chile.  

The parking at La Serena

The next day, we pack and head for La Serena, 250km. We're unsure of the road ahead but are pleasantly surprised that it's all paved, in fact the road is nearly brand new. La Serena is a larger town, but we find our way to the hotel without any problems. They let us park in the narrow courtyard, only possible for motorcycles.

We take a walk to the beach, unlike the black volcanic sands further south, here is nice golden sand. There is a lighthouse on the beach and other structures which look like they might have hosted some sports events in the past, but now show signs of wear that put into question the wisdom of building directly on the sand. We find a bar for dinner right across from the beach and enjoy a west coast sunset over the ocean - a novelty for us east coast dwellers.

In the morning, we leave La Serena and could not have guessed at the incredible road leading out of town. The road reaches a mountainside and ascends in a series of steep switchbacks, so that each straight section is almost directly above the other. Looking above, you see the traffic - almost all large trucks - making their way along what looks like an endless set of steps leading up into the clouds. Looking down is a view of the ocean. We are so enthralled by the view both up and down that our speed drops off to the extent where a large tanker truck has to overtake us, much to our amusement. Unfortunately there was nowhere safe to pull over for a picture. The temperature drops as we move into the clouds ourselves, but it only lasts a few minutes and we pop out above them and the temperature rises to a comfortable level.

It's a long ride today, just over 400km, but we manage a fairly early start and it's good roads all the way. We are in the Atacama desert now which covers 40,600 square miles of northern Chile. It's the driest desert in the world. There are places in the Atacama that have never recorded any rainfall and most of it records on average 1mm per year. Soil samples taken from Mars are similar to those taken in the Atacama, NASA uses the location to test Mars instruments. The soil samples NASA has taken from the Atacama show no trace of DNA - it is totally sterile. It's not too hot at this time of year though and it's not flat, so the road winds it's way up and down and around the hills. There is a lot of changing terrain to look at as we ride, from sand dunes to hills in shades of red and yellow. 

It was an easier days riding than expected and we arrive in Caldera late afternoon. It's a small, rather run down desert town and we have to walk the length of it to find somewhere open for dinner. 

The next morning, we head out of town, as usual chased by packs of dogs nipping at our heels. In my first 16 years of riding I had been chased by a total of 2 dogs. I'm not keeping count, but in the last three months I would put that figure at.......about 58! Most are harmless and you can tell it's just a game. If you watch them at work, you notice they will only give chase if they are waiting at their start position, and after each chase they trot back tail wagging and wait in the same place for their next victim. This means that only the front rider usually gets chased as the dogs can't get back to their starting point before the second rider arrives. Some dogs only chase cars and some only chase motorcycles.

The road out of Caldera follows the coast for a while. There is the usual sea mist rolling in which wets our visors. The road is quite spectacular, in one magic moment I ride over a crest and have a head on view of a huge blowhole erupting. After a while we pick a spot and ride down to the beach for a photo session, I'm rewarded by getting slightly stuck in the sand - Sally was fine as she knows better than to follow me when I have a great idea.

We stop in a small town for lunch, as we go to leave there is a line of traffic which we initially pull up and stop behind. A Swiss couple wander past and we ask them if they know what it is. They say it's an accident and the road will be closed for two hours. However, we've seen enough blockades to suspect something else is up. We pull out and start riding down the wrong side of the road, the line of traffic is immense, about half way down I spot two police bikes roaring head on towards us - uh, oh we've had it now. Sally heads right back into our line of traffic and I head left in to the opposite shoulder, the police bikes split the gap and fly past. With a shrug of the shoulders, we continue to the front of the line. I'm a little cautious to go all the way to the front, not knowing how Chilean protesters will react compared to the ones in Argentina. As soon as I am sure it's a protest blockade (burning tyres, lots of people, logs and debris blocking the road), I pull up in the shade of a parked bus. A couple of guys walk past and say they think we'll be let through if we go to the front. We start the bikes and move up, a few seconds later our police friends show up, but they're not interested in us. Sure enough, almost immediately a couple of the protestors motion for us to come around the blockade, we ride over the burnt debris and are off - boy we love our bikes!

Old train outside our hotel in Taltal.

We ride into Taltal where we find a hotel to stay the night. The hotel has my kind of view....

We are allowed to park our bikes around the back, but this involves a ride over a tall kerb and into a passage with just a few inches to spare - all on sand (which is covered by a long rug...I didn't ask). Nevertheless I went first and made it, just scraping my pannier once. The passage opened out to a dirt covered area, I turned my bike around and kicked the side stand out. As I got off the bike the stand broke the surface of the dirt and sunk right in. For a moment the bike teetered as I tried to hold it up. Only determination at not wanting to drop it now, having managed the passage, and a loud exclamation of Arnie's CAAAMEEEONN!!! gave me the strength to pull it back upright and move it to more solid ground.  

Sally didn't witness me almost dropping the DR just around the corner.

Left a bit....bit more...

We take a wander along the beach and I find a Crane to play with.

The next day is our final leg to Antofagasta. Once again the road hugs the coastline for a while, then winds its way inland to rejoin the Pan American - Ruta 5 in this part of the world. Practically the whole 230km is some of the best riding road I've seen. It's perfectly smooth and careens and undulates through the desert hills. We stop at the roadside for a bite to eat (sandwiches we bought in Taltal), taking advantage of the only shade in sight - my trusty DR. As we're eating, a couple of riders go past and then turn around and park next to us. They're Chileans on a tour of Chile and Bolivia, which is just what I need because that's where we're heading! Out come the maps and we have a long chat with Hector about the conditions and route, they took a road to the Bolivian border which I wanted to take but was very unsure of as it's not shown on all the maps. Now we know it's ok. Sally takes a photo of us and we get Hectors email address so we can send it to him later.

The brilliant road continued right to the edge of Antofagasta. We have a hotel booked, which our friend Laura helped us find in a nice part of town. Laura came from Antofagasta so knows it well. Turns out to be a nice hotel, very reasonably priced, air conditioning and fast WiFi. It's a good base for a few days as we have a couple of things to take care of......

Tyres, tyres, tyres. Since Valparaiso I have been mulling over a problem which I knew would be coming. In this part of the world you are not guaranteed being able to get hold of motorcycle tyres in any town. It's possible to get them shipped to you, but this takes time and/or is expensive. To give yourself the best chance, you have to look ahead to the big towns where you should be able to source something, the choice is very limited but you can usually get by with what they have. The problem is that our tyres have some life left in them. Plenty to get to Antofagasta which is a big town, but I doubt the tyres will make it to the next big town after that - La Paz 1500km further. When we arrive in Antofagasta there is enough tread left on our tyres that it would be wasteful to change them, but I just don't know if they'll make it to La Paz. We have a lot of salt riding and ripio to do which might accelerate the wear too. 

As any rider will tell you, when you ride and are alone inside your helmet, it's a great opportunity to ponder life, the universe and everything. It's during one of these 'contemplations' that I come up with a solution. We could buy new tyres for both bikes and carry them until needed, but new tyres are heavy and we would have to find room to attach two tyres each to our bikes. What we need to do is maximise the distance we get from our current tyres......it's with this thought that it all falls into place. We'll get new tyres for one bike and fit them. We'll keep the old tyres (still some life left in them). When the tyres on the other bike finally wear out, we'll chuck them and put on the used spares, which should easily last to La Paz. This way we only have to carry one tyre each and they will be much lighter to carry than brand new tyres.

Now, you would think in a big city that it wouldn't be that hard to find some tyres, but it is. It's almost biker folklore, secrets only to be whispered in dingy bar corners and back alley dealings....'go and talk to Jorge...he knows where to get the good stuff' etc. It usually involves finding the tentative start of a thread and after three of four dead ends going to bang on the closed doors of some backyard mechanic with the secret knock. This time around we find a bike shop and enlist the help of our hotel reception to call them and ask if they have the sizes we need. They have a front tyre of the right specification, but for the rear they only have one that is two sizes more narrow than it should be. It'll have to do. We're already running rear tyres one size more narrow than they should be since that's all we could get last time.  I head off to the shop alone. At the shop (no one speaks English but they are friendly and helpful), I pick up the front tyre no problem, it's even a good one (a TKC80 for those in the know)! However, the rear tyre they said they had on the phone, is nowhere to be found. No one in the shop - there's only three of them - remembers getting a call an hour ago about it. After much searching I find a 130/80 - one size wider than standard, but it's the only rear tyre the right diameter, it'll have to do. There's no one who can fit them (it's Saturday), so I'll have to do it myself.

Tyre changing

Back at the hotel I decide to split my oncoming pain and only do one tyre today, I'll do the other tomorrow. I tackle the rear and get it on without too much trouble.

The next morning we decide to take a short trip out into the desert to see the 'Hand in the Desert', a statue of a giant hand by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrãzabal to express human emotions.

As we turn out of the hotel, I feel a pulsing sensation at the back of my bike, accelerating it starts to wobble uncomfortably. We pull over in a quiet side street. A close inspection of the rear tyre shows that it is not seated on the bead properly (for the uninitiated the bead is the inside edge of the tyre which holds it in place on the rim). I deflate the tyre completely and re-inflate it to try to get it to seat, to no avail. We ride back to the hotel so I can work on it, where, with much encouragement from tyre irons and repeated deflate cycles it settles into the proper position. While I'm at it I decide to fit the front tyre. Sure enough, lesson learned I check this one before putting the wheel back on and it hadn't seated properly either. More work with the tyre irons and I get it to behave.

Tired of tyres, we head out to find a bar near the beach. We find a nice one with a roof top terrace, it's wonderfully warm and the sun is on it's way down so I feel a Mojito is in order. I've been disappointed by the last few I've had in various places, but perseverance pays off and we are rewarded by the best one I've ever had. Another Mojito and a round of Quesadillas as the sun dips below the horizon and we sit watching the basketball and football games in progress on the beach - splendid.

The next morning we head off again, this time everything is fine and we make it to the giant hand. 

The next morning it is time to leave Antofagasta, today we are heading east to Calama, a 230km run through the desert. The only vehicles we occasionally see are mining trucks. The largest (by volume) open pit copper mine in the world, Chuquicamata is out here. They do tours, but I would really only be interested if it were an underground mine where you could go into the ground, so we give the tour a miss - (I can't tell you how relieved Sally was). Anyway we see the mine on the way past - BHING (Big Hole In The Ground).

We didn't see much to take our fancy as we were riding through Calama's dirty, dusty and narrow streets, so we parked our bikes at the hotel and just ate at the restaurant next door. Getting out the next day was more of the same, felt like going in circles - how hard can it be in a town in the middle of the desert to get back on the highway? We just had a short run, 100km to San Pedro de Atacama in the east of Chile. We started taking our altitude medication a couple of days ago as SP de Atacama is at 2400m and depending how we get to Uyuni in Bolivia we might end up at 5000 or so. 

The road starts out much the same, an easy run past huge power stations in the desert gathering electricity with wind and solar energy. About 10km from SP de Atacama, the landscape changes dramatically and starts weaving through some volcanic hills, some look like they just erupted yesterday and some look ancient. This is interspersed with glimpses of canyons and flat areas dusted with white salt. The altitude has increased here and the bikes are slightly sluggish in top gear due to the thinner air, but shifting down a gear sorts it out. We roll into San Pedro de Atacama where we'll stay put for a couple of day to take in some of the terrific tours that are available here.......to be continued.