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January 6th, 2012 | Argentina

Cuevas de las Manos to Bajo Caracoles…

We shared a packet of peanuts and the inevitable bag of sweets I always seem to conjure up, while our bikes cooled down…

“Ronnie….!! Your bike is like a free shop….!!” Ezekiel joked, “You have everything…!!”

Los Argentinos take a breather while we wait for the guide...

Them that got us here in one piece...!!

Geared up and ready to hike into the canyon....

Earlier that morning when I had my pannier containing my spares and tools open, they had stood amazed at what it contained… Pablo and Augustine work in the Toyota factory in Buenos Aires, and commented that my tools were good enough to start a moto de fabrica…!!

A few cars arrived and before long there was a small crowd waiting with us… They gathered around the bikes, ooh-ing and aah-ing, and you can guess which bike drew the most attention…!!

We were issued with hard hats for our hike, and then set off with our guide to walk the barrow path that hugged and the mountainside above the beautiful canyon below…

The Rio Pinturas flowed down through a geological crack in the earths surface, cutting it’s way around the harder volcanic rock, and it is in this pristine valley that the indigenous Indians hunted and used as a temporary base over 10 000 years ago…

Cuevas de las Manos was one of the items on the list of places my friends had wanted to see...

Guanacos, related to the Llama and Alpaca of Peru and Bolivia, roam these bleak plains, and were extensively hunted by the Indians who lived here...

A series of caves housed them during foul weather, and it is on the walls of these caves and overhangs, that they used minerals taken from the surrounding area to make paint with, that their rock art is prominently displayed…

Most of the paintings are of the left hand… They placed them up against the rock face, and then blew paint over the hand using a hollowed bone or quill…

While we hiked out along the narrow path, I was excited to see an Andean Condor lift off it’s nest on a ledge on the opposite wall of the canyon, and soar up into the pale blue sky…

I would later see three of them circling above us as we made our way back to the bikes…

Although the vast majority of the paintings are of hands, they also contain drawings of the prey that was hunted here… Guanacos, Rheas (ostrich like birds who have no road sense whatsoever…!!) , and cat-like creatures which may have been Pumas… There are also geometric scribbles, zig-zags, circles which depict the sun and the moon, and hunting scenes….

Our guide led us along this narrow path towards the caves and overhangs...

Akin to our Bushman Paintings, these date back thousands of years...

"Will they start waving at us if we stare at them long enough...??"

I stood off to one side, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live here hundreds and thousands of years ago… I wondered what the people looked like, how they dressed and what customs they practiced…

The wind made eerie noises as it nosed it’s way between the cracks and gaps in the rocks around us, and I got the feeling we were being watched by the spirits of the people who long ago called this place home…

Some of the hands are painted quite high up on the walls, and one of them has six fingers...!!

There are very few paintings of people, and these were thought to be made about 2000 years ago....

Hunting scene from ancient times... The Indians used "bolas", stones tied to lengths of sinew and strips of animal skin, to throw around the legs of their fleeing prey...

We spent more than an hour wandering along the path, and I was grateful that I had got the opportunity to see this special place… Had I not been riding with Los Machos, I would have breezed straight past the turn-off, and not known about Cuevas de las Manos at all…

A feeling of well being swept over me, and I was grinning from ear to ear as we hiked back to the ranger station…

Down in the valley below, a lone gaucho was herding cattle along the river’s edge, assisted by two dogs, their tiny figures just visible in the distance…

I would have liked to spend a few days doing just that, sleeping out in the open, a horse and a few dogs for company, and a herd of cattle to get from A to B…

Gaucho at work... Great place to call one's place of business...!!

The Rio Pinturas winds it's way through the canyon, sustaining life that is absent up on the plateau above...

I had a "hairy moment" just after I took this photo...!! Serves me right you will say after reading about it...!!

We rode back the way we had come, the first section of the road back up onto the plateau smooth and flat, and then took a “short cut” to get back to what I thought was the tarred road…

Turned out to be 60 km of atrocious road, which the park ranger had specifically told us to avoid… Augustine, who was riding out front had obviously forgotten his advice…!!

I slowed down to take the turn that would keep us on the great dirt road we were on, and was rather annoyed to see that he zoomed straight through the intersection and into the worst kind of ripio we had ridden on that day… I saw Ezekiel shake his head and follow us… Pablo was nowhere to be seen…

They are not too big on roadsigns in this area...!!

I was certain that he would take the smoother road, and by the time he arrived at the crossroads, we would be out of sight…!! This was not a good way to ride when you do so in a group…!! There should always be at least one other rider in sight at all times, but maybe Augustine and Ezekiel had given up on always having to wait for Pablo…

I was uneasy about the way we were riding, having learned a valuable lesson in Tanzania in 2008, when I was guilty of leaving a riding buddy “in the lurch” with a dead bike, surrounded by a herd of elephant…!!

The morning ride on the ripio had instilled a certain amount of confidence in me, and I began to enjoy the challenge of riding quickly on a surface that was my least favourite… I stood up on the pegs for the entire ride to Bajo Caracones, even managing to do so one handed, using my left to take a few photos as I went… I stopped doing this when I hit a particular nasty patch of loose marbles and completely lost control of the bike…

Had I been on a lighter bike, I would have gone down for sure, but the heavier Big Fella ploughed his way out of trouble and back onto harder ground, without any discernible assistance from me…!!

“Would you mind putting that bloody camera away while we are doing this…!!” I thought I heard him growl…

I did as he suggested, but only because I didn’t think my heart could stand another incident like the one it had just experienced…!!

At 7.00pm, we arrived at Bajo Caracoles, having been on the road for 11 hours and covered just 300 km...!! It felt like a huge achievement...!!

We came down into a long valley and out in the distance I saw a line of trees and a few buildings… I figured it was a hacienda or farmhouse, but I was wrong…!! This was our destination… Bajo Caracoles…!!

Relaxing on the front porch of the Bajo Caracoles Hotel...

"Ronnie Ripio", so dubbed by Pablo, celebrates his first day out on the gravel roads of Patagonia...

It cannot be called a town or even a village by any stretch of the imagination…!! There is a small service station, a hotel with just a few rooms, two or three houses, and what looks like the remains of an old homestead… Abandoned and rusting trucks and farm equipment lie scattered in the scrub…

We found the hotel (not too difficult…!!) and were lucky enough to get a small room with four single beds in it… We had already checked in when Pablo came tootling down the same road we had taken…. He had followed the plumes of dust we had been throwing up…

“Ronnie, Ronnie…!!” He said as he pulled up, shaking his head slowly from side to side… “You say you no like ripio, but you ride so fast…!! Por que, mi amigo…?? ” This all said with much hand signaling to indicate a sudden loss of control and a big fall…!!

“It is not me Pablo…!! It is the bike…!! I am only a passenger…!!” I replied, which was fairly close to the truth I felt…!!

When Pablo saw the room we had booked into, he turned to me and using his index finger on his right hand, pulled down the eyelid of his right eye and pointed at his two companions with his left hand, then said,

“Ronnie…!! Be careful…!! Augustine and Ezekiel…. Gay…!!”

He then pantomimed that I should sleep with my back to the wall, and keep one eye open all night…!!

We all fell about laughing in the corridor outside our room, and the people who had just arrived in a big bus, and were lining up for the toilets in the same corridor, must have thought we had gone crazy…!!

Throughout it all, Pablo kept a straight face, which made his comments even funnier…

Pablo tries out a "real" bike for size...!!

While I try to figure out which way is best on his...!! Photo by Pablo.

Our tiny room was soon filled with gear...!!

The hotel was once the main house of a hacienda, and today serves as a stopover for fuel, supplies and if you are lucky enough, a room to sleep in, otherwise you will have to pitch a tent somewhere in the scrub to either side of it...!! Not a pleasant thing to have to do when the howling wind comes looking for you...!!

We sat outside, watching the people from the bus taking photos of our bikes, feeling quite proud of ourselves as they snapped away and then came over to ask us the usual questions…

We shared a beer and I was alarmed to see Pablo and Augustine add Fanta Orange to their portion of beer…!!

“What the hell are you doing…??” I asked in horror, “You are spoiling the beer…!!”

Neither of them drank much alcohol and this is the way they would always have their beer, leaving more for Ezie and I to share, so in the end, it actually worked out very well…!!

Basic fare, but delicious none the same... Our first meal of the day was welcomed with cries of delight by the hungry riders...!!

There was no menu to speak of when we asked about a meal… The smiling owner jabbered something in Spanish, which basically told us what was available, which we all gratefully accepted…

“I don’t really care what it is…!!” I told my friends when they tried to describe what was coming… “All I need is to get something down my throat…!! I’m starving…!!”

“It ees the…uh…cerebro de una vaca…!!” said Pablo, tapping his skull and then using his fingers to make horns….

“Cerebro….!! You mean brains…?? Bugger that..!! I’ll just have bread then…!!” I exclaimed loudly…!!

“I’m not eating anything that some cow has been thinking with…!! No sirree…!! You can keep that in the kitchen, and nor am I sitting at this table while you eat that stuff…!!”…

Much laughter from my friends…

“No Ronnie…!!” Ezie eventually said as I made to move to another table before the “food” arrived… “Pablo is loco…!! It some other meat…!! Don’t worry…!!”

We shared a bottle of wine with our dinner, which turned out to be meatballs made from an as yet undetermined animal, boiled potatoes and a delicious gravy… Whatever it was, we enjoyed the meal and followed it up with a bowl of ice-cream…

It was close on 10 pm when we left the dining area and went outside to watch the sunset…

Sunset in Patagonia...!! Eye-wateringly beautiful... A perfect ending to a wonderful day....!!

The sky was painted with a myriad of colours, and I walked to the back of the hotel to get an uninterrupted view of it all… I was lost in the beauty of it all, staring in wonder, when I heard the crunching of footsteps on the gravel behind me…

“Magnifico, si…??”, Ezie’s voice floated softly towards me…

“Si….!!” I replied… There were no other words necessary to describe what I was looking at… “Magnifico” would do just fine…

We stood quietly together for a few minutes, watching as the light bled away, leaving the sky dark and star-filled… I wished again that my nearest and dearest family and friends were here to share this with me…

We both let out a deep sigh, and then chuckling to ourselves, walked back to join the others, who were busy oiling the chains on their bikes and tightening up bolts and nuts that the ripio had worked loose… I discovered that a bolt holding my left cylinder head crash guard had disappeared, and Pablo found a spare one in his toolbox that fitted perfectly…

I replaced the bolt, checked to see if there was anything else amiss, and then put the cover on the bike, patting the tank as I did so to acknowledge a great day’s riding…

“There’s much more to come tomorrow, my friend…!!” I whispered as I walked away…

“Bring it on…!! After today, I know we can do this thing…!!” came the muffled reply from under the cover…

My first day on Ruta 40’s ripio had been all that I had expected it to be… Tough, uncompromising, and hard on the muscles of arm and back…!! But we had all made it through our first day unscathed…

Nightfall at the Hotel Bajo Caracoles...

It was a relief to be finally riding the part that I had dreaded for so long… The weather had been more than kind to us, which had made our introduction to the gravel roads a gentler one than most people had received in the past…!!

As the lights went out in our room, I wondered if our luck would hold…

©GBWT 2012

2 comments to Cuevas de las Manos to Bajo Caracoles…

  • Mark Behr

    It is a great blessing that you have met such a pleasant bunch of riders to share this all with – it could have been quite lonely. Glad it is going well for you!

  • Charmz

    And a great time was had by one and all. You have once again met some fantastic friends. Hope you guys can ride together for a while longer. You seem to be enjoying their company even with a few hand signals every now and then. Try and learn a few Spanish phrases from them that could help you further down the road. Lovely pics….
    We miss you madly,
    Your SA Family

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