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March 22nd, 2012 | Chile

Stressing in San Pedro…

The few days I spent in San Pedro de Atacama did not improve my initial impressions of the place…

Early morning in one of the main streets near the centre of town... An hour later, with buses trying to pass each other, forcing pedestrians to duck in and out of shops to avoid them, the area would be clogged with dust...!!

Considering how many tourists visit this area, I would have thought that they would have at least made an effort to tar the roads and have them properly sign-posted…

I unkindly, dubbed it San Dumpo de Atakaka, which a number of back-packers I spoke to, agreed whole-heartedly with…!!

The old church on the main square... I did not venture inside, because the roof was in a state of near collapse...!! A large sheet of blue canvas had been draped across it's roof to cover up the holes in the structure...

Back-packers seemed to wander the streets searching for a specific place that they never found… The same couple walked past Camino del Inca where I was staying, four times in the space of two hours, looking for a hostal that had been recommended to them by a friend…!!

"But officer, that guy over there rode a bloody big bike straight through the square yesterday, and you didn't stop him...!!" complained Miguel bitterly... "Yes, but he looked hot, bothered and really angry yesterday, and we did not want to risk an international incident...!!" replied officer Vasquez...

But all this was the very least of my problems…!! All that concerned me was the apparent ills that had overtaken my bike…!!

I sent off a string of emails to friends and technically minded guys to ask their advice and explain my fears… Fears that grew as I waited for them to reply…

Most of the building have mud put over their tin roofs to try and make them cooler inside... The dew that collects on the roof at night, and the odd drizzle they have here, causes the mud to run down the whitewashed walls, giving the place a rather grubby look...!!

To make things a little more interesting, a water pipe burst in the driveway of the hostal, and prevented me from leaving to test the bike out on the roads around the town...!!

In my mails and requests to Skype, I explained that I was having trouble changing gears; could not find neutral on the Big Fella; the clutch seemed to be slipping between fifth and sixth gear; the clutch had “gone soft” on me, and was “taking” right up against the handlebar; and, I was experiencing a loss of power that had me worried…

There was too much at stake for me to move on without getting a handle on what was up with my usually reliable steed…!!

I thought about the surprised looks on other biker’s faces when I confirmed that I had already traveled all this way with this very bike… I’d stopped counting the times people asked,

“And how many bikes have you used…??”….

The direction in which to move on to might also have a huge impact on the outcome of my entire journey…

If my clutch was giving in, I would have to get the bike to either Santiago in Chile, which was 1 600 km away; or Buenos Aires, 2 100 km away; or try to ride to Lima in Peru, also 2 100 km away; by the shortest route I could find…!!

I have to go to great lengths to charge my cell phone...!!

I met this interesting French couple, who stayed the night and then left again the following morning... They had bought their bike in Buenos Aires and were on their way to Cuzco in Peru, and then would ride back through Bolivia to sell their bike in Argentina, before flying home again...

Two up on a 250cc...!! They could only manage 60 km/h going up the mountains...!! I guess where there's a will, there's a way...!! I also met another French biker, Olivier, who had dumped his much battered GS1150 in a river in Bolivia, and had to be towed out with a 4 x 4...!! When discussing Bolivia, he used the F-word quite often...!!

There was no way I was prepared to cross the border into Bolivia by the southern route, and run the risk of a major breakdown…!! Trying to get the bike out of Bolivia by truck to Lima, would have taken days, and much red tape, and then having a clutch replaced would possibly also take a further week…!!

If the transport and repairs took two weeks out of my trip now, it would mean that I would probably not get to Alaska in time, and would never get the chance to do so again…

I felt in my heart of hearts, that this trip and the goals I had set myself, were a case of “now or never again”…

There are those with a sense of humour in town... This was the name of a small shop who sold scarves, woolen hats and knitted jackets....

The indecision was gnawing at me, as I sat in my room going over my options…

I Skyped with Allan Karl in San Diego, California; with his friend Cristian Munoz in Santiago, Chile; with Mannie Koutsoudakis in Johannesburg, South Africa; with Roger Arnold in New Zealand; and with Michel Jongens, who was now in Colombia…

They all agreed that if it was my clutch, then going into Bolivia, where I would be riding at high altitude and climbing up and down mountain passes all day, for days on end, was out of the question…

These two volcanoes dominate the skyline behind San Pedro....

I emailed my friends in Salta, who offered the services of their Yamaha dealership, and suggested I bring the bike back to Salta… This would mean climbing back over the Paso de Jama I had just ridden through, with a clutch that was faulty…!! I didn’t like the sound of that…!!

Daniel’s parting words in his reply to me, “Remember Ronnie, you have friends in Salta…!!” were heartwarming, and I smiled to myself as I read them… Indeed I did have friends in Salta…!! I knew that if I broke down, they would somehow arrange for me to get back there safely, one way or another…

Snow...?? No, it's a salt deposit out in the desert in the Valle de la Luna...!!

Dealing with all these people in four different time zones, kept me up until the early hours of the morning for two days in a row…

The information I managed to glean from my conversations were as follows:

  • The altitude definitely affects the bike (Michel had the same problem with his 1200GS;
  • The near freezing cold I had ridden through might have affected the master cylinder for the clutch;
  • There might be an air bubble in the clutch fluid line that had increased in size the higher the bike climbed;
  • After almost 150 000 km, my clutch might well be worn;
  • If that was the case, getting stuck in Bolivia would be a nightmare…!!

Painted hills... The many different colours of layered sediment which have been pushed through the earth's crust by volcanic activity...

On my second day in San Pedro, I bled the clutch, as suggested by many, hoping that any air that might have been in the line was flushed out…

Cristian in Santiago managed to find a 2nd hand clutch plate off a bike that had a complete engine failure after 2 000 km, and the BMW folks were selling all the working parts cheaply… He could air freight the parts to Iquique in northern Chile if I could get the bike there…

So that sorted out the parts in the cheapest manner possible…!! ($720.00….)

This rock formation is known as the Three Marias... If you have half a dozen Tequilas, you will easily see that the two still standing are shaped like a woman in prayer.... The third rock fell over a few years ago, when a stupid tourist (who had half a dozen Tequilas inside him...!!) climbed on top of it to pose for a photo... Unfortunately, he was not hurt when the rock collapsed under him...

After much deliberation, I decided that the safest option was to ride the bike down to the Pacific Coast in Chile, to see how it went… (The bike, not the Pacific Ocean….!!)

Iquique was barely 500 km away, and a major city… If the clutch was worn, I would collect the spares that Cristian would send, and ride north to Lima and the BMW dealership there to have it fitted…

I would have to climb a few smaller mountain ranges that went to about 3 500 m and this would allow me to see how the Big Fella performed at altitude as well…

We climbed up a steep and rocky path, to see the caldera of this volcano from above...It really looks like a moonscape from up here...!!

At first I was disappointed that this meant that I would not see Sucre in Bolivia, a city that Roger said was for him the most beautiful in South America… Neither would I be riding the high mountains of Southern Bolivia…

“Never mind, Bro’… You’ll have enough high mountains to ride in Peru and around La Paz…!!” he told me…

Although the sand dunes do not compare with those in the Namib Desert of Namibia, they are still impressive...!! Especially when you have to climb them in 35 degree heat...!!

Roger had been the only guy I had ever met who gave Bolivia the big “Thumbs Up”… Everybody else who had been there has said either, “once was enough,never again” or things that I cannot print here, but left me in no doubt that it was a tough destination for bikers…!! I also remembered that this was where Allan had broken his leg so badly, that he had to be air-lifted back to the USA to have it re-set…!!

Having made my decision, I wanted to get out of my cabin and see a little of the desert surrounding San Pedro de Atacama… There are dozens of tour operators scattered throughout town, on almost every street (if that’s what you can call them…!!”)

Stones on a dune... The patterns made by the wind can be mesmerizing... I stood staring at them for ages, not quite knowing what was holding my gaze....!!

I chose one where the operator spoke perfect English, and then chose one of half a dozen tours they offered…

There was a tour to the geysers that left at 4.30 am… I figured I would not have to get up that early to see the ones in Yellowstone in the USA, and that they would be far more spectacular…

I rejected the one to go see the Altiplano Lakes, because I had ridden past a number of them on the way here…

I also had seen more Flamingo’s in my life than I could shake a stick at, so that particular tour did not interest me either…

In the foreground, one of the driest places on earth, and in the background, snow-capped volcanoes...!! All within a few miles of each other...

I settled for the Valle de la Luna, a four-hour trip that took in four different areas in the desert surrounding the town, and boarded a bus along with twenty other people…

I guess the longer I travel, the higher my expectations have become… I have seen and experienced so much, that it now takes something really special to get me excited… I nevertheless enjoyed the vastness of this wild and bleak place, formed by volcanic action over the millenia…

Our bus wound its way down narrow canyon roads like this one...

The weather eroded, mountain scenery, was something I would probably never see anywhere else in the world though..

But after a few minutes at each place, I found myself wanting to get back in the bus and take a nap… I slept soundly between all the places we stopped at…!!

We climbed up another steep path to look down on a valley that was studded with huge mounds of solidified lava.... The white layer on this rock face is Gypsum, used to make amongst other things, Plaster of Paris, dry-walling and ceiling-boards for the construction industry, and to make cement set and dry faster...

Perhaps it was being alone on the tour with nobody to talk to about what we were experiencing… But then I had done that hundreds of times before, and felt a kick out of what I was seeing… But not this time…

I think the late nights and the mental strain I had put myself through while trying to decide what I should do about the bike, had finally got to me…!!

Out on a ledge... The tour guide became rather animated when he saw me standing out on the edge of the crater...

The final stop to see the sunset was just plain disappointing… By the time the guide got us back into the bus, the sun had set behind a large block of a mountain, which was miles away…

There were no spectacular flashes in the sky, as there were very few clouds about for the dying rays of the sun to reflect off, which for me, always make for brilliant sunsets….

The best views were from the window of the bus as we drove back to San Pedro… I thought of asking the driver to stop, as most of the people were crowding against the windows to take photos of the few clouds that had drifted over the town and were now making for a half-decent sight…!!

Taken from inside a speeding bus...!! The sun had set on my stay in San Pedro de Atacama...

I was looking forward to riding again the next day, and with what should only take about six hours, I did not have to get the usual early start…

Little did I know that I would have an 11 hour ride the next day…!!

©GBWT 2012

3 comments to Stressing in San Pedro…

  • Mark Behr

    Feel for you at the moment buddy – not really knowing what is wrong and worrying about costs is never pleasant. We will keep you in our thoughts and prayers in Brisbane and really trust that the remedy will be swift and financially painless. Go well and stay safe!

  • patricia

    Wow baby, those are awesome photos!! Thinking of you….. Mucho amor para usted !! Besos, besos, besos…!!

  • Kenny(S/Suburbs)

    Fantastic pictures.Sorry to hear Big Fella has a problem.Not bad considering the distance he has traveled.I sure hope you manage to sort it out with the least amount of fuss.

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