The Road Less Travelled

Some of you may have heard of the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I first read it when I was given a copy at a summer camp in New Jersey, USA in 2001 where I was a counselor. Ever since I have loved the poem and while travelling through Argentina earlier this year, it came to mind alot and you will soon see why one of it’s lines (The road less travelled) is appropriate as the title of this story…

After leaving Ushuaia and meeting up with Guy again in Rio Gallegos, we had 5 frustrating days in this really uninteresting and dismal city before we could finally get on the road in the little citroen. It turned out that she needed alot more work than Guy originally anticipated, but thankfully he found a great mechanic (70 years old and still going strong) who was passionate about Citroens and specifically 2 and 3 CVs, so she got lots of love and attention. We must have looked a sight on the Monday morning after Guy found the mechanic a few streets from our small ‘hotel’ as two gringos (Spanish for foreigners) had to push the car backwards down the road, across a few intersections and around the corner. Everyone seemed pretty patient though and there was no hooting or anything like there would have been at home. So there she stayed for a few days with Guy spending alot of time with the mechanic learning the intricacies of this type of old car. I really believe that we were probably the two foreigners who have ever stayed longer than a night or two at the most in this town – it literally is only worth staying over if you are too late to cross the border into Chile etc. In the end she was as good as new and thankfully we could leave Rio Gallegos behind and start our journey inland to the Andes and the famous Perito Moreno Glacier in Parque National Los Glaciares.

The first day was cold, overcast and rainy and I quickly discovered that the weather outside is basically the same as inside the car. There are lots of little gaps for the wind and rain to come in and we drove along with scarves, gloves, beanies and jackets on. My primary jobs as co-pilot at that stage were mate (tea) making and DJ. Guy was very pleased to hear that I had an Ipod as he has not had music most of the journey so far. Dale, a BIG thank you for stocking it with more music as he would have been subjected to mostly the Parlotones and the Killers if it had not been for you :-). Besides the gaps etc, the car goes really well (although never faster than 70km at the absolute most and only 40-50kms if there is a headwind). So most days we have not done more than 250kms. But half the fun of having a car and not being on a bus is the ability to stop when ever you want to take photos, admire views, climb hills (and occasionally fix things on the car), so we were never in a rush to get anywhere.

The highest point of the Glacier is nearly 60m and the front spans 4km in length - truly an unbelievable sight

The first highlight of the roadtrip was the glacier. Anothe perk of the car is we could leave the town super early (7pm and still pitch dark) and get to the national park way before the tourist buses pulled in. We got to see the sunrise over the glacier and the snow on the surrounding mountains was an amazing pink. We had the glacier to ourselves for at least an hour and a half and it was unbelievable to see it and watch the colours transform on its edge as the sun rose. It is going to be so hard to describe this in words as it is definitely one of those things you have to see to believe. The front of the glacier is 4km long and the height is 60m at the highest part. You walk along boardwalks facing the glacier and can watch if from all angles, heights and viewpoints. This is one of the most active glaciers in the world and you could constantly hear cracking and see pieces falling into the lake below. The sound was like a mixture of thunder and gunshots. Because we were some distance from the actual glacier (probably 50m at the closest), most of the pieces that fell looked small, but in reality they must have been metres wide. The most amazing site was when we saw a gigantic chunk that was about 45m high (basically the whole height of that section) fall off and create quite a wave in the lake. This happened when we were still alone there which made it extra special. Watching the glacier became addictive as you didn´t want to take your eyes off it in case you missed a spectacular fall.

Guy was able to capture a spectacular ice fall where a piece the entire height of the glacier broke off and created a huge wave in the lake (Photo: Guy Lejeune)

We spent about 5 hours walking on the boardwalks, but in the end it got too much with all the tour buses full of old Latin Americans. So we had a quick lunch of soup next to the car – another bonus of the car is that we have a mobile ¨fridge¨ in the boot (so cold in Patagonia that everything stays cold on its own) and can make food with a small gas cooker when ever we want instead of having to buy food in the greatly overpriced cafeterias etc.

Our next destination was El Chalten in the north of the same national park. This is apparently the trekking capital of Argentina and has amazing views of two quite famous peaks in the Andes (Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre).

Our only view of the famous Fitzroy peak

Luckily we got to see them as we drove towards the mountains because the rest of the time we were there they were in the clouds. On the first full day there we decided to do a small day hike as we were planning on then doing 2 nights/3 days camping in the mountains. We must be the only people who as a ¨warm-up hike¨ choose a 12km walk to the top of the only mountain you can summit here without rock climbing etc. It was an increase in height of 1000m and apparently has brilliant views of the peaks I mentioned. Unfortunately they were hidden the whole time. The hike was actually pretty easy most of the way until right near the end when you have a very steep climb to the summit which has no trail and so you have to decide yourself how to get to the top. It probably wouldn´t be so bad if there weren´t deep snow drifts on the way to the peak and then driving snow and gale force winds trying to do everything to push you over.

Somewhere behind me in the clouds and mist is the famous Fitzroy Peak

Thank goodness Guy was infront of me so I could use his footsteps in the snow to guide myself. Hiking in snow is not something I have had to do much of (any actually) whereas being European Guy was a little more experienced than me. We didn´t realise how steep the last part was and in the end (probably with only 30m to go to the top), Guy reckoned it was just too steep and dangerous with the snow and wind. Going down was the worst though as I thought many times I was going to fall from the wind and become a huge snowball rolling down the mountain (like in the cartoons). So yet another Andean peak got the better of us 😦

From that afternoon the weather got steadily worse but we still prepared to go camping the next day, being the eternal optimists that it would get better. It never did and an hour into the hike the next day we turned back because of the driving rain and wind. The wind was bad enough at pushing you on your own, but having a large backpack on your back was like adding a sail to yourself. We got back to the hostel totally soaked and the next day decided to start heading north as we had no idea when the weather would improve. The frustrating thing about this part of the world is that as soon as you are close to the mountains the weather is bad, but drive a couple of kilometers east into the Patagonian desert and the sun is out.

The little yellow Citroen on Ruta 40 in the middle of the Patagonian Desert of Argentina

So from there we started heading north on Ruta 40. This is quite a famous route in Argentina (just like Route 66 in the US) and the part we were doing was the most isolated of the whole 3000 odd km road that goes from north to south across the country along the Andes. This included 600km of dirt road which we were warned were bad for 4×4´s and yet we were going to be doing it in a 35 year old Citroen. Nothing like adding extra challenges!!! Everyone we asked in Chalten for advice on what to expect on the ruta thought we were totally mad to be doing it is this car and basically told us the road was closed for the winter. One guy was giving us advice about what to do if we saw pumas and how to avoid guanaco´s (similar to Llamas) if they ran across the road. Guy joked that I was a handly person to have around since coming from SA I must be good at dealing with wild animals. Jen, I told him about the ¨trip your buddy system¨ which he thought was quite harsh, but I told him it is survival of the fittest in Africa. The research we did on the ruta before starting had me a bit nervous, but we were well prepared with provisions and extra fuel etc in case we had to camp in the desert. There were days we did not see another car or sign of life between ¨towns¨ so we had to be prepared. The first day the road was not too bad, the wind was bearable and the views over the desert were amazing. So we felt really good about everything.

Our amazingly beautiful, but unbelievably windy campsite in the Perito Moreno National Park

The next day we took a detour to one of the least visited national parks in Argentina (mostly due to the bad road getting there). Most sensible visitors only go to this park in the short summer months from Nov to March and we were the only visitors they had had since Easter. The park guards did not want to let us in as the weather was due to turn bad in a day or so and the roads apparently become impassable even to 4x4s. Basically they just did not want to have to rescue two crazy people in an old car, which is fair enough. But we said we would only camp one night and they let us in. Here is where the wind got really interesting. The one guard told us that it was blowing at about 80km/hr and this was basically constant. I think it was a miracle that we managed to get the tent up and even more of a miracle that we didn´t get blown away in the middle of the night. Despite the wind, it was a really special night as it was full moon and you could see all the snow capped mountains around in the light of the moon. We kept ourselves warm with a well deserved bottle of wine, but unfortunately that did not help me sleep as the wind was blowing the tent so badly it kept waking me up. The next morning we had amazing views over the lakes and mountains of the park along with a rainbow as the sun rose and reflected off the snowy mountains. Truly special to be there by ourselves.
But little did we know that the road to and from the park were going to wreak havoc with the car. On the way to the park we had had such strong headwinds that we could only go 20-30km/hr, but on the way back the tailwind meant we could go quite fast for a certain stretch. The suspension on the car feels great and at a speed of 60kms you can kind of skip the worst bumps and corrugations. The first disaster struck when we started heading north again and the tailwind became a very very strong cross wind. Guy wanted to get out and take a photo but as he opened his door it got wrenched way open. It took him pushing from the outside and me pulling from the inside to get it closed. Something had gone wrong and it didn´t close properly, but we couldn´t look at the problem in the duststorm we were in the middle of and decided to look at it later when we got to the next town. So from then on we both had to get in and out of my door. The road got steadily worse and Guy reckons that since he was so tired from the night in the tent he probably drove a bit roughly. But everything seemed fine until we got to our destination for the night (a ¨town¨ of about 15 buildings in the middle of the desert). We then discovered that the back door´s one hinge (which had been threatening to break for a few days) had broken, the metal parts covering the front wheel on the driver´s side were loose and one bolt had broken completely and then there was the problem with Guy´s door not functioning as a door any longer. Also we had lost the speedometer somewhere on the way due to the bumps. So we checked into the only hotel which was also the petrol station, supermarket and pub and then spent a couple of hours trying to fix these problems. Next job of the co-pilot – hold bits of the car while repairs are being done – sounds easy, but try and do it in the freezing cold, gale force wind.

We thought we had fixed things as best we could and unwisely decided then to head to the Cueva de los Manos which were some caves in a nearby canyon that are famous for their rock art. The distance was 47kms which should have been fine even though it was late in the afternoon, but the road was terrible (surprise, surprise) and we had to stop a few times to tighten bolts and re-attach wires etc. But we got there and had a quick tour and then headed back slowly in the dark. We were going slowly and thought all was fine when the second disaster happened. We heard this incredibly loud bang, both jumped out of my door and found that the entire metal covering of the wheel had broken off. Thankfully it had not blown far and I managed to hold it down against the wind (gale force as usual) while Guy went to see the damage. He found a petrol pipe had come loose and was spilling petrol everywhere and we had left the engine running. He quickly turned the car off as one spark and this story could have had a very different ending. We wedged the piece of the car under the car to stop it blowing away and then had to fix the pipe and check for other damage. Holding the bonnet open I thought myself and the bonnet were soon going to be blowing away in the desert and I could hardly hold it open against the wind. Guy managed to reconnect the pipe thankfully, we then managed to get the huge metal chunk into the back seat and decided to carry on since the engine still worked. We had to drive extremely slowly as we were scared the pipe was going to become loose again. It took us about 3 hours to do the last 20km or so and we were both on edge the whole time and very very tired by that point. I have never been so happy to see lights materialise out of the darkness ahead. We must have looked a sight walking into the hotel/pub covered in sand, oil and grease at 11pm and the men there looked at us so strangely (which they probably would have done anyway as I don´t think tourists come through this place often). But we had a beer with them all later on and they were cool.

The next morning showed us just how bad the damage was as the bolts hadn´t just come loose as we hoped, but the metal had actually snapped. There was no one in this tiny place to help us (although the town drunk did try to offer some useless advice) and so our best bet was to get to the next bigger town 126km away. Guy managed to secure the one light which was vitally important to keeping the other side of the front body in place and we somehow managed to fit all our bags and provisions in along with the huge metal chunk and we headed off onto the terrible road, with the incessant wind again. It took us 4 hours to do the 126kms and again we were watching for every bump and bad patch in the road. But we couldn´t avoid all vibrations and bumps and I constantly thought we were going to lose some other part. We must have looked a sight, firstly being in an old car that no sane person would take on this road and secondly with half the body of the car missing. The third major disaster happened when we were driving along on a really exposed piece of road with a very strong cross wind which was trying desperately to wrench the back door from its last remaining hinge. I had to jump out and hold the door in place while Guy tried to find a way to secure it in place. So while I got totally sandblasted, he managed to tie some rope inside the car to keep the broken hinge in place and then had to make a string of cable ties to keep the lock in place. I swear he is a modern day MGywer. So then we were not only watching the front parts of the car, but also the back to check that everything stayed attached. We eventually made it to the next town where Guy went to find a mechanic. I have to admire mechanics in Argentina as these guys were amazing and not only welded the wheel part back on, but also fixed the back door with a new hinge and managed to fix Guy´s door too – in the end by the light of torches as half the town did not have electricity. So besides not having a speedometer and one small side piece of the body (which is forever lost in the desert) the car was back in working order. It is funny how

If only a sign could adequately describe the strength of the wind in Patagonia

when I first considered doing this trip Guy warned me about how old the car was and I was fully prepared to have to deal with mechanical issues such as those in Rio Gallegos. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined having to run after metal car parts in the desert night or hold pieces of the car back in place. The wind in Patagonia is unrelenting and I have never felt anything so strong in my life. Never again will I complain about the wind in Cape Town. Not only was it horrible for the car, but I also felt it was draining all my energy and I startd hating having to go outside in it. Even inside it kept me awake at night as it was so loud. But everyone says ¨it wouldn´t be Patagonia without the wind…¨

We made it over the worst stretch of Ruta 40 and the car felt a little like this road sign in the end. But despite missing one small piece, she was in good shape...

Thankfully we made it over the 500 odd kilometres of dirt road and we were all grateful to get onto the paved portion of Ruta 40 again. It was luxurious after the stress of the bad road and wind to be able to do 440km in one day on smooth tarmac. As I am only putting this into a blog a few months after my adventure in the desert, it almost feels like a dream that I even did such a trip. Who would have known that I would make a great friend along the way, have to hold pieces of a car together, get to camp under the stars with no other people for kilometres, see a glacier up close and personal and really get to experience a “Road less travelled”… So this is why I mentioned the poem at the beginning of this story as this trip has personified doing things a little differently and it has made me realise that the some of the best things in life happen when you are told you can´t achieve something or it will never happen etc… We were told so often that we were crazy to do this trip and we probably were. The road itself is a challenge to new 4×4´s, but Guy decided to add another challenge to the mix with an old car. But despite what was thrown at us, we had an amazing time and this is part of my South American adventure that I will remember forever. This little car is truly special and has attracted attention where ever Guy has taken it. At the time of writing this in April he had done nearly 6000km and everyone on the road flashed their lights and people at the petrol stations and anywhere he stopped wanted to know all about it. It has made me really want to travel in a unique and different way where ever possible, despite the challenges this brings…

Hell it is the challenges themselves that make the best memories!

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