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March 24th, 2012 | Chile

Africa without the “F”…!!

Having paid for my room, loaded the Big Fella, and bid Daisy the owner of Camino del Inca goodbye, I rode slowly up to the bus station, barely a 100 metres up the road, and stopped there to have a Cafe Grande with leche…

This was the only place that made the large cups of coffee that I enjoyed, and charged a reasonable price to boot…!!

Our 500 km route to the Pacific Coast and up to Iquique...

It was still cool at 9.00 am, and I sat down on one the plastic chairs outside to enjoy my coffee and contemplate the day ahead of me…

I had bled the clutch the afternoon before and while I did not notice any air escaping from the line, I felt that bleeding it would at least take care of one of the possible problems I was experiencing with the bike…

A large pack of stray dogs wandered around the cars, taxis and buses parked in the dusty square, hoping to find food of some kind… They all seemed in fairly good condition, so I guess this was a successful hangout for them…

I had planned to ride as far as Iquique on the Pacific Coast, a ride of just on 500 km on a road that I was told was in very good condition…  Allowing for a fuel and lunch stop, I figured six hours would do the trick, and sat sipping my coffee and watching the goings on around me, in no hurry to be on the bike and away from this place…

I stared out at the mountains of Bolivia to the northeast of where I sat, trying to visualise what it would be like riding at high altitudes for days on end, remembering Roger’s descriptions of his rides there… I realised that a part of me still hunkered to take the risk, and ride the Big Fella back the way I had come and up through Bolivia…

I looked over at the Big Fella, parked in the scant shade of a scrawny tree that grew on the edge of the parking area, feeling the power that sat there waiting for me… I smiled to myself and shook my head… No, this journey was about the both of us, and I would not let my ego be responsible for a big breakdown that could possibly end our ride…

We took the first climb on the outskirts of San Pedro at full tilt...

I finished my coffee and walked over to the bike, got my I-Pod hooked into all my Dire Straits albums, jammed my helmet on, and swung aboard the machine that had long ago become a part of me, and was the single constant that I had identified with since we had started our epic ride around the world…

The engine started smoothly as usual; the clutch felt stiffer than it had before; a light tap of with my left foot, and it dropped smoothly into 1st gear… We bumped our way slowly down the dusty main road and out onto the tar beyond it… Once there, I shifted quickly through the gears, pouring on the power and roaring down the long straight that led to the first narrow pass that climbed up into the mountains to the east of town…

After two days of sitting staring at each other, we were once again moulded together… The freedom of the open road was ours to savour, and I felt the strength of purpose surge from both within and from under me…

The first pass was series of fairly gentle bends that took us steadily up to almost 3 000 m, then leveled out for a few kilometres before climbing again to a little over 3 500 m… I could see far ahead of me and using the whole width of the road, I rode as fast as I was comfortable, (which is pretty fast…!!) trying to ascertain if the lack of power I had experienced a few days before was a permanent problem or not…

Up at 3 500 m, and blasting through the desert of the Chilean Altiplano... Windswept and sun-scorched, this is the driest place on earth, and accordingly, one of the most inhospitable...

Although the engine was revving a touch higher than usual, everything was working perfectly…!! I slowed down deliberately going into some of the sharper corners, changing down through the gears even though I didn’t need to, wanting to make sure that the clutch was functioning normally…

We barreled towards the next town of Calama, 100 km away and got there in under an hour… The Big Fella as responsive as ever and seemingly eager to prove it…!!

The Pacific Coast at Tocopilla beckoned...

We skirted the sleepy looking town with its brightly coloured houses, and headed back into the desert… We were still up on the spine of the continent, as the Andes here in Chile are dubbed, but began steadily dropping down to lower altitudes the further west be rode…

In the distance ahead I saw a mountain that somehow did not fit in with those around me.. It was just too angular… It took another ten minutes of low-flying to get up close enough to see that this was no “mountain”, but an enormous man-made pile of sand and earth…

Then I remembered that I was close to the largest open-cast copper mine on earth…!! Chile has relied on its exports of copper for decades to drive its economy…

Chuquicumata is by excavated volume, the biggest hole on earth that man has dug…!! It is now almost four and a half kilometres long, three kilometres wide and a kilometre deep…!! It has to date produced more than 30 million tons of copper…!! Staggering numbers…!! And it is still producing… In fact it is still recognised as the largest copper deposit known to man…

Man-made Mountain... This is just a portion of the soil that is creating a new range of mountains in the area...!!

Eet's beeg peeple...!! Very beeg...!!

And to move that much rock, you need a massive fleet of trucks like these...!!

And this is just one of four large copper mines in the same area, but none of the other come close to Chuquicumata in size… In this mine alone, 600 000 tons of rock are excavated every day…!!

From this, 1 500 tons of copper is extracted, and at present almost a quarter of it goes to China… They need a lot of coins there apparently…!!

We rode up the flank of a broad mountain and looking back I could see into the open-pit of one of the smaller mines, and even this one seemed massive…

Huge yellow dump trucks, the size of small buildings, trundled down into the centre of the pit, looking like little beetles from so far away…

And who says the desert can’t be bountiful…!! Copper is just one of the minerals mined in this region of the Atacama Desert, the area is immensely rich in Nitrates as well…!! I would see evidence of this later along the coast, where vessels loaded nitrates from small ports built for this purpose only…

A haze of fine dust hung in the air for miles around, and it would take half an hour of riding before the air around me cleared enough to take decent photos again…!!

Many miles away, the air was clear again and the bright blue sky formed the backdrop to the harsh desert we thundered through...

We crossed the Pan American Highway and slowed down to reach Tocopilla without having to use our spare fuel...

I kept the speed up, running due west for the intersection of the Pan American Highway, planning to cross it and keep going until we reached Tocopilla on the Pacific Coast…

The last few kilometres down to the coast had to be taken carefully... Sharp bends and steep declines had me paying careful attention...!!

On either side of the road, a veritable forest of power lines ran directly towards me and back to Calama, feeding the massive demand for energy required to run the mines…

There were seven rows of these pylons, enough to supply electricity to an entire city, and I wondered where all this power was coming from…!!

The answer became apparent as I wound my way down a very dangerous section of road a few kilometres from the coast…

The road had been carved through the mountains that ran right down to the coast, and it twisted and turned every which way, at the same time coming down off the heights of the plateau from 1200 m down to the town of Tocopilla, over a very short distance…

"Welcome to Tocopilla - The Town of Energy"... And the Pacific Ocean, which I had last seen in New Zealand, three months ago...!!

In the centre of town stood a huge thermoelectric power station, which sent the electricity it generated 150 km away to the copper mines of the central Atacama…

I was dangerously low on fuel and cruised into the large Shell garage near the port just as I felt the Big Fella begin the few burps that indicated he was frightfully thirsty…!!

Parked outside the kiosk, were four motorcycles; a Honda Goldwing, a Suzuki V-Strom, a Harley Cruiser and a smaller Honda of indeterminate age… It was a weird collection of motorcycles, and they belonged to a group of Brazilians from Recife, who were on their way to Cuzco in Peru…

The friendly bunch of Brazilian bikers who I met in Tocopilla....

The tall guy on the left of the above picture had ridden on most continents around the world over the years, and seemed to be leading the group… By the way he spoke, I could tell he was a veteran biker, and the three couples and their friend on the small Honda, greeted me and congratulated me on what I was doing…

At this point, I plan was still to ride to Iquique... It was 1.00 pm already, and surely Arica was too far away...?? Or was it...!!

They stood around the Big Fella while I drank the coffee I had ordered, asking questions which the tall guy translated…!! I think they had overnighted in Tocopilla, as they were heading for Arica on the Chilean border with Peru, that same day, which was over 500 km away…

They still looked fresh, and with the little Honda and the Harley in the group, I did not think that they managed more than that distance in a single day…

They finished their coffees and after all shaking my hand, roared off up the coastal highway…

I finished my coffee then refueled… I went back inside to pay for my coffee, but the lady behind the counter waved my money away, and explained that the bikers who had left had already paid her for it…!!

Thanks Guys…!! Hope to see you on the road again some day to return the kindness…!!

I was about 15 minutes behind the Brazilians by my reckoning, and wanted to catch up to them to thank them in person, and maybe ride with them as far as Iquique, so I headed out of town, and onto the coastal highway…

The Ruta 1 ran down the narrow gap between mountains and sea, making it a ride I will always remember...!!

Within minutes the Big Fella and I were in our element…!! The rugged range of multi-coloured mountains on our right, marched right down to the sea on our left, forcing the road through narrow section of the only flat pieces of ground available… In one place, the road was barely three metres from the water’s edge…!!

The red flanks of this mountain was evidence of the volcanic nature of this entire region...

It skirted rocky headlands, went through a long tunnel, and sometimes climbed high up over the shoulders of mountains whose tall cliffs made it impossible for the road to go around…

When the road couldn't go around a mountain, it blasted straight through it....

I passed the Goldwing and the V-Strom about 40 kms into the ride… They were parked well off the road and below me, in the arms of a picturesque little bay, snapping away with their cameras… I hooted and stood up on the pegs as I passed them, saluting them and pumping my chest with my left hand in a gesture of respect…

They waved wildly as I passed, and then another sharp bend came up and I had to sit down and lean the Big Fella through it… The first sixty odd kms north of Tocopilla, was one of the most exhilarating rides I had made in a long time….

A great surface, coupled with amazing scenery and a very eager and responsive bike made it so…

On one of the long straights I leaned forward and patted the tank, saying,

“You like being at sea level, huh…!!”

“Yes…!!” he purred underneath me, “Like you, I draw power from the sea…!!”

In some places the mountains stood back from the sea, and then threw themselves back towards the water edge again...

The road always found its way around or through the natural obstacles in front of it...

Chileans road authorities are well-known for their ability to exaggerate...!!

I had always loved the sea…

Not so much where it gently lapped at sun-kissed sugar-white beaches, but more the places where it crashed headlong onto rocky shores…

There was something relentless about the sea that appealed to me… The way it never seemed to give up, always driving forward, crashing again and again onto the shore, as if trying to reclaim and absorb something that it believed belonged to it…

With global warming and the rise of the oceans, I wondered if this road would still be here in a few decades…

I passed little fishing villages, consisting of no more than a few dozen houses… I saw small wooden skiffs being held steady over the kelp beds just off shore by burly men using long wooden oars… They were harvesting shellfish and the kelp itself, stacking it up in piles on the beach…

One of the many tiny fishing villages that we zoomed past along the Chilean coast...

These villages were many miles apart and I got the impression that nothing had changed here for decades…

Now that's what I call a can of Coke...!! At the turnoff to Los Verdes, stands this monument to the most popular drink on the planet...!!

I passed the other two Brazilian bikes, parked at a roadside truck stop at Rio Loa, which was also the border between provinces, and where a customs checkpoint stood…

I realised then that the Brazilian’s strategy was to let the smaller and slower bikes ride on ahead and wait for the Goldwing and the V-Strom to catch up and leapfrog them… That way the quicker bikes got to enjoy their rides rather than puttering along at speeds they did not enjoy…!!

Just short of Iquique, I passed the airport, where a huge Emirates Air Cargo plane was being loaded, it’s “head” tilted up to the sky while pallets of cargo were being loaded into it…

Two other planes were being loaded as well… I looked around at the bleak surroundings, and wondered what on earth an airport was doing out here in the middle of nowhere, and what they were loading…??

At the far end of the airport, a squadron of military jets stood on the apron of the main runway…

I was that intrigued by what I saw, that I almost stopped to ask what the heck was going on there… Guards armed with machine guns made me think better of it…!! I guessed that they were not about to explain their business to passing gringos…!!

I rode into Iquique, and down along the main road leading towards high rise apartments that lined the shore… Traffic clogged this road as far ahead as I could see, so I ducked onto a quieter road and headed towards the city centre, and found myself down near the harbour where hundreds of car carriers were being loaded with vehicles brought in by ships from the far east and North America… I saw Chevrolet’s and Toyota’s and a few other logos I did not recognise…

It was by now after 4.00 pm and on a whim, I rode up onto the bluff above the town to get a better look at it… I saw a grubby, mostly industrial city, with low-cost housing on the slopes of the dunes below me, leading down to mutli-storeyed apartments down on the beach…

I climbed up onto the plateau high above the city, and decided to just keep going…!! It was just over 300 km to Arica on the Peruvian border, and I calculated that I would arrive there just as the sun was setting… Perfect…!!

Back into the desert north of Iquique, with very few places between here and Arica...

When we ran out of fuel, I emptied the four litres I had been carrying since Asuncion into the tank, and rode on towards where there was said to be fuel at Cuya...

I stopped to buy water at a fuel station and to check where the next petrol could be found… I was assured by the attendant that there would be fuel at a place called Cuya, about 190 km away… I knew I would run out of fuel long before that, but had 4 litres of spare Paraguayan fuel with me which I did not want to carry around any more…

I decided to chance my arm and took off again without refueling… I knew that I would reach Cuya with all the fuel I had, if I took it easy and did not ride too hard…

I ran out of fuel after exactly 400 km from Tocopilla where I had last refueled…), just about where I had expected to come to a spluttering halt…

All was going according to plan… I emptied the spare fuel into the tank, and set off again for Cuya…

I was a little concerned that I had passed only one small settlement with just a few houses on each side of the road… This area was as uninhabited as any I had ridden through in the ride from San Pedro de Atacama…

I arrived at the so-called town of Cuya, with what was probably only a litre of fuel left in the tank… It was more like a police control point than a town, and I looked around in bewilderment…

I checked to see if this really was Cuya, and the policeman on duty confirmed that it was indeed…!! He also confirmed that there was no fuel available there, nor had there ever been…!!

This is not a good spot to get stuck without fuel...!!

In broken English he urged me not to worry, because Arica was only 100 km away…!!

I patted the Big Fellas fuel tank and said, “Nada, niks, zip, nothing…!!”, hoping he would understand my predicament…!! He did, and began stopping passing cars to see if they could help… Fifteen minutes later we struck lucky…!! A woman in a blue sedan said she had 5 litres in a plastic container in her trunk, and was willing to sell it for 10 000 Pesos… The going price at the pumps was 4 000 Pesos…!!

Casting long shadows in the desert....Sunset was not too far off...!!

I pretended to be shocked at her audacity to charge so much, and bargained her down to 8 000 Pesos, which she accepted with a grin… I knew that 5 litres might not be enough to get me to Arica, but it would get me close…!!

I thanked all concerned, shook hands with the officer, and rode slowly away from the first place I had ever been stranded without fuel, silently cursing the little bastard back at the fuel station in Iquique…!!

The sun was setting, and the time I had wasted waiting for fuel, and the slow speed I had to ride at to conserve the little I had, would ensure that I would now arrive in Arica after dark, if I was lucky…!!

The shadows lengthened and spent the next hour counting off the kilometres and taking a very keen interest in my surroundings… I could very well be spending the night in them, you see…!!

The road climbed up onto another plateau, and then began easing down towards the coast… With only 20 kms to go, it began dipping between a series of low hills, and then cutting across the shoulders of a long broad mountain… It was downhill all the way from here, and I had the throttle almost closed and doing 80 km/h for most of the ride into Arica…

The sun had sunk into the Pacific as I eased the Big Fella into town, amidst much grumbling and mild protestations...!?

I sighed with relief as I entered the town, and then missed the first fuel station I passed because I was on the wrong side of the road to make the turn, and traffic blocked the other lane…!!

Gigi informed me with a sigh, that the next one was 1.3 km away, and I slowed down even more and rode onto the forecourt grinning to myself…!! It had been another very close call, but helped to alleviate the boredom of a long desert ride…!!

Not the largest room that I have ever had...!! But the bike was safely parked behind a large gate, and the internet worked...!! Good enough for me...!!

I rode downtown, looking for a hostel that I had been told was the best in town, but found that it had no parking for the bike… It was also in an area whose street-lighting left a lot to be desired…!!

I saw another hostel on the next corner, and by chance the owner was just closing a large rusted gate as I rode up… He indicated that I should ride in, and closed the big door behind me…

We haggled over the price of the room good-naturedly for a while, and settled on half that which I had paid in San Pedro…!!

He showed me to a small room in the rear courtyard, and with much sign language, conducted a tour around the dining and kitchen area, to show me where everything was…!!

I had a quick shower and then went to look for something to eat in the dimly lit streets nearby… I stopped at a Chinese restaurant and ordered “anything with noodles” and a pair of chopsticks to eat it with…

This had the owner beaming broadly, and set off much chattering amongst the staff…

It had been a very long day, in which I had covered 800 km in the space of 11 hours…

It also heralded the completion of the second part of my South American tour, a day earlier than I had intended…!!

La segunda parte de mi ruta a través de América del Sur es completa ...!!

We had now been through 5 countries and covered over 16 000 km since we set out from Santiago on the 2nd of January…!!

But the best news for me was that the Big Fella was his normal self again, and today he had proved that with an effortless ride through the Atacama Desert all the way from the Argentine border to that of Peru…!!

I now knew what to expect when we tackled the higher altitudes of Peru and Bolivia over the next few days…!!

©GBWT 2012

 

9 comments to Africa without the “F”…!!

  • Mark Behr

    Glad to hear the Big Fella responding so well. Me rthinks there is some of this post still to come.

  • Mark Behr

    I was right. Very relieved to hear how well your ride went. Hope that you enjoy Peru and Bolivia.

  • Tony Royle

    Must have misread the earlier post. Was expected drama in the desert! Kaput clutch, ieeki petrol, camping in the dunes.

    glad to hear big fellow is feeling better and you continue to live on the edge when it comes to fuel replenishment!

    ride safe
    Tony

  • Charmz

    GypsyBiker….the day will come when there is no lady to sell you petrol. Why do you put yourself and us your family back home through this? Please make sure you fill your spares again. You are going to need them again sometime, of this I am 100% sure. Enjoying your posts and we are glad to see Big Fella smiling again. Give him a hug from us and thank him for getting you to these wonderful places safely.
    Love you,
    Dad, Mom and me

  • Tony Royle

    guess I shouldn’t talk. managed to run out of petrol on way home last week (computer said 7 miles range to go!)

    luckily rescue services (in the form of the wife was only a phone call away and a few miles away!) even had 2 motorists stop to ask if I was ok. didn’t think they did that in the UK!

  • Steve Knight

    Ronnie: It just occurred to me that you may cross paths with another RTW rider that we hosted here on Salt Spring. Watch for Sherri Jo Wilkens on a 690 KTM that looks like it has done the Road of Bones in Siberia. Google her: “The Because I Can World Tour” and you’ll meet a kindred spirit with a sense of humour to rival your own! I have told her to be on the look out for you too. You never know…it is a small world.
    She will be in the same neck of the woods that you currently inhabit about now.
    Cheers,
    Steve.

  • Dolores

    Hi Ronnie ur blog is very amusing and a good laugh daily. Where in the world do u go after South America am i right in saying u finished North America. Please please answer me. Ride Safe Lots of love Aunty Dolores.

  • Ah Charmaine… Yee of little faith…!! There is ALWAYS petrol somewhere…!! You just have trust that you will ALWAYS find it…!! R.

  • Kenny(S/Suburbs)

    Early morning rain in Johannesburg.Traffic a nightmare and just got into the office.
    Reading your blog makes all the silly things we worry about seem trivial.
    Wishing you a fantastic ride.
    Cheers

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