After spending two fabulous reasonably sunny and mild days in Ushuaia, it was time to say Adios. We were excited to be heading north after 4000km of riding south, despite waking to a heavy sky, sleeting rain and single digit temperatures. Kind of appropriate given that we were now officially en route to Alaska. Packing bikes in the rain had its challenges, particularly given the overflowing gutters and the smell of sewage wafting up from the storm drains below us. A small group of fellow travellers looked out from the hostel window, grinning in amazement as we lugged our gear out to the bikes and somehow made everything fit. Tardis panniers indeed. Dr Who would be proud! With six layers of clothing and our wet weather gear on, we must have looked a sight. We rode off into the rain amid much hand waving, smiling and calls of buen viaje from hostel staff and guests.
We took the scenic route out of Ushuaia which runs alongside the Beagle Canal. We navigated through plenty of deep, muddy-water-filled pot holes , before joining Ruta 3. We made our way over the Garibaldi Pass, the highest point on Argentina’s Ruta 3. (about 430m ASL). It was freezing! Rain turned to fresh snow and the winding roads with steep drop offs became slippery and hazardous. I must have been breathing pretty heavily as my visor kept fogging up and I was forced to have it partly open for the ride through the mountains, feeling the stinging cold of the rain, snow and wind on my cheeks. Pretty damn exhilarating! As we descended down the mountain, the road followed the edge of Lago Fagnano and then passed through the small town of Tolhuin (which means ‘like a heart’ in the Selk’nam language). Not sure if the guys from “Top Gear” thought it had much heart when they were pelted with stones while filming there after deliberately provoking the locals over the Falkland Islands conflict. The people of southern Argentina in particular are renowned for their passion in relation to the reunification of Las Malvinas with Argentina and signs expressing Argentina’s claim over the Falklands, “Las Malvinas son Argentinas”, along with numerous memorials to the fallen soldiers can be seen in every town. The issue stokes passions here as furiously now as it did back in 1982.
We rode on towards the border-town of San Sebastian, feeling comfortable having ridden this stretch of road before on our way south. Until the all-too-familiar savage wind hit us with a vengeance. From Rio Grande, to the border town of San Sebastian we were blasted by cross winds, which grew ever stronger as we picked our way along the gravel road to the ferry that would take us across the Straits of Magellan. I was exhausted and managed a quick 20 minute nap on board the ferry before being roused back out to the deck where we quickly jumped on our bikes and tore off amid trucks, petrol tankers, campervans and family sedans loaded with luggage and children jumping around on the back seat (it would appear that seat belts, like motorbike helmets are optional in Chile).
Deciding not to fuel up before crossing the Magellan Strait turned out to be our biggest mistake yet. While the map indicated that there were plenty of towns and fuel stops between Punta Delgada and our final destination for the day, Punta Arenas, we learned that you can’t always go by what the map says. The first main town (as depicted on the map) San Gregorio, is pretty much a ghost town with deserted buildings and old warehouses dating back to 1882. We rode past the wrecks of two 19th century cargo ships that were washed up on these wind-swept hostile shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was blowing a gale as we rode through the decomposing town and while we would have loved to have explored the old warehouses and ship wrecks, we needed to push on through the wind and find fuel if we were to make it to Punta Arenas that night (or at least to a sheltered camping area along the way).
A little further along the road we came across a small run-down fuel station on the edge of what looked like a large oil and gas operation (they drill for oil all over the place here!). The surly attendant was inside the small cottage on site and was quick to point out that they had closed 20 minutes earlier. We pleaded for just a few litres of fuel, but he was not having a bar of it and actually started mocking my voice and gestures. The first rude (bordering on nasty) Chilean we had met! With only about 3 litres of fuel between us, we pushed on hoping to find a safe place to camp by the roadside, as the nearest town was about 35km away and we couldn’t be sure they had fuel or if they would be open.
I was so tired of being blasted by the wind which always seems to pick up in intensity in the evenings and just wanted to get off the bike and find a sheltered spot. We made the decision to ride onto a large property, negotiating the rocky driveway towards several well-maintained houses and farm sheds. Given our last experience with the midnight police check of our camp site, we weren’t going to risk camping on anyone’s land without permission. What seemed like a million farm dogs heralded our arrival with loud barking and we were relieved to see two men chatting near one of the buildings. The men greeted us with a mixture of curiosity and intrigue, as we explained our plight in our well-practiced Spanglish mixed with our own version of sign language. It turned out that one of the men was the owner of the farm who took pity on the two cold, wind-swept “fuel-less” gringos, allowing us to pitch our tent under a stand of trees on his property. It was blowing about 40 knots and gusting up to 50 knots and even the thick stand of trees provided only limited protection. A camp bed next to an open fire in one of the workers huts would have been nice…but beggars can’t be choosers and we were happy to have a safe place to sleep. We cooked up a quick meal of couscous and tuna (not our usual two-course gourmet meal!) and jumped into our sleeping bags, exhausted but happy knowing we would be able to buy fuel in the morning (even if it was from the surly attendant down the road) and make our way to Punta Arenas.
This region of Chile is known as one of the foremost sheep farming regions in the world and the estancia that provided us shelter is one of many in the area. Sheep farming (for wool and meat) is big business here with an estimated 2 million sheep distributed between about 300 farmers. We learned from the owner of the property we camped on that he imports (or maybe he said exports?) genetic material from/to New Zealand so of course we had an instant connection and momentarily shared his passion for sheep (Richard is a New Zealander after all).
We left the farm behind, waving goodbye to the million dogs (happy to be released from their kennels) and headed off to buy fuel. The surly attendant hadn’t changed his demeanour and was quick to inform us there was no fuel. What???? We couldn’t believe it and actually thought he had taken as much of a dislike to us as we had to him and just didn’t want to sell us his fuel. We hung around for a little while daring other cars to arrive just so we could prove our point. But after a truck pulled in a drove off again without fuel, we realised he was for real. Damn!
There was no other option but to push on towards Punta Arenas and see how far we got. After only 10km, Richard’s bike spluttered to a halt. Great. My fuel light was flashing and I knew the same thing would happen to me in another 20km or so. We pulled off the road and waited, not entirely sure what to do next. Hitchhike to Punta Arenas (some 70km away) with our fuel bladders and then hitch a ride back? Ride my bike as far as I could get and hitch from there? As we were contemplating our options, a police car drove by and Richard frantically waved his arms continuing to do so as the car sped by us. Luckily, the driver saw the frantic gestures and turned around to see what the problem was. Using google translate we told the two carabineros what had happened. They made a call to the surly service station attendant and were informed that an electrical fault meant the fuel couldn’t be pumped out of the tanks. They then offered to drive to the next town (some 30 km away) and fill up our two 10L fuel bladders for us. We gratefully handed them $10US and sat down next to our bikes and waited. And waited. And waited. Surely we weren’t being ripped off by the local police?
After close to two hours an ambulance pulled up. The driver jumped out calling us over to his vehicle all the while speaking excitedly in very very fast Spanish. We had no idea what he was saying, but when he opened up the back of the ambulance and pulled out our fuel bladders and handed us the receipt for the fuel we understood completely. Our friends, the carabineros, had filled up one fuel bladder (apparently that’s all our 10 USD would buy) and had asked an ambulance driver to deliver the fuel back to us - how awesome. Richard was somewhat amazed to see our fuel jammed into the back of the ambulance along with stretchers, resuscitation equipment and oxygen tanks.
We divided the fuel between the bikes and were ready to set off. The only problem was, I’d left my hazard lights on (safety first!) and had completely drained the battery. Richard pushed me out onto the road, but having never attempted a clutch start on a motorbike before I failed miserably and so we reversed roles. I pushed and Richard managed to clutch start the bike first go. Relieved we rode to the next fuel station (another run-down shack with a hooded attendant and his mangy dog) only to find that he too was out of fuel. Somehow neither of us were surprised! We just laughed….what else was there to do? It also explained why it took so long for the carbineros to get the fuel back to us. From where we had run out, it was a 140km round trip to Punta Arenas. How’s that for service? We have learnt that despite frustrations of time and apparent chaos from government officials and their bureaucracies, people are incredibly helpful and do the an amazing job working the system in the best way they can. We are so grateful for the way our carabineros helped us two hapless gringos and we so wished we could have seen them again to express our thanks.
With only one bar of fuel registering on our instrument panels (about 3-4 litres) we rode the 50km into Punta Arenas, arriving 6 hours after leaving our camp site some 70km away. A stack of 20L fuel canisters right beside the petrol pumps at the service station in Punta Arenas is a stark warning of the distances between fuel stops and vagrancies in availability of fuel in Chile.
Our experience is all part of motorcycle adventure travel and certainly makes for a great story! And we learnt a few important lesson along the way:
1. Always top up the tank where you know there is fuel.
2. Never assume that towns indicated on maps and road signs will have petrol stations (or even inhabitants!)
3. Never assume that petrol stations will have fuel.
4. Always carry a 150km reserve of fuel with you.
And probably learn a bit more Spanish before travelling through South America!
Gracias los carbineros!