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Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
December 28, 2004

Ruta 3 Ė to Ushuaia

On to Rio Gallegos

Camarones is right on the ocean, and protected from the winds that makes themselves felt inland, at slightly higher elevations. So Iím a few miles down the road toward Ruta 3 before I experience the full fury. Even at that, it is hitting me squarely on the nose of the bike, mitigating the handling problem. I turn south on Ruta 3, with my right side to the very high velocity and continue south to Comodora Rivadavia. Though sometimes a struggle to control the bike, I cover the 170 miles (300km) by 3pm and stop for a late lunch, and to make a decision. I clearly havenít covered enough miles to stop for the day, but the conditions are very bad. The next town south where I will be able to find a hotel is Puerto San Julian, another 270 miles. Even in the high winds Iíve been averaging about over 60mph (100kph) so I should be able to cover that in just over four hours. I should be in at 8pm, and itís light at this latitude (and just past the summer solstice) until 9:30am. I push forward, again checking the tires.

While there is a fair amount of traffic, particularly big trucks, there are few settlements and not much gas. Lonely Planet lists Patagoniaís population density at one of the lowest in the world. My mantra while riding in foreign countries is to ďget gas often and early.Ē At 35 miles to the gallon, I have a theoretical range of about 210 miles (350km) on my BMW. Under ideal conditions, that number jumps to 240 miles (400km) or higher. Unfortunately, my tank shows empty at 165 miles (300-km). Although I believe the theoretical calculations, driving with a ďgas lowĒ light on drives me crazy.

Gas help at JaramilloI pass on gas at Caleta Olivia because I just have 50 miles (80km) on the tank, and from my map, there is a major intersection another 50 miles down the road at Fitz Roy or Jaramillo. But Fitz Roy is a dry hole. There are a couple of houses, but nothing resembling commercial development. I continue on to Jaramillo, another 15 miles.

Iíll make this story short, as it is really nothing more than an interesting anecdote. When I drive the four miles (7km) off the road to buy gas in Jaramillo, Iím met with nothing more than a rerun of Fitz Roy. Iím still 170 miles from Puerto San Julian, and have no guarantee of gas on Ruta 3. Quite the opposite, actually, as Iím told that there is no gas before Puerto San Julian. A local resident confirms that my best option is the local police, but they have none to sell. They do, however, send me to the city offices, where Iím given eight liters and sent on my way with a smile. As is normal with Argentine (actually, South American) hospitality, they wonít accept payment. Gosh, am I in debt to these folks, or what? While back on the road with a gas tank thatís nearly full, Iíve lost an hour.

As I head south to Puerto San Julian, the wind reaches gale force. I have no way of measuring it, but my best guess is a sustained velocity of 50 mph or higher, with frequent gusts. The bike is constantly heeled over at 20 degrees or more, and at times Iím looking over the left-hand corner of the windscreen. Gusts blow me from the right to the left track of the right lane, as I fight to get back over. Often a decrease in velocity, alone, is enough to move the bike back there. The wind tears at my helmet and riding jacket. It is literally trying to pull the helmet off my head, up and to the left. Only the chinstrap negates its efforts. The engine noise from the motorcycle, quiet to begin with, is simply lost in the howl, which is deafening. When gusts hit, the howl temporarily becomes a high-pitched whine. The noise is overwhelming.

Crossing back into Argentina on Tierra del FuegoAbout an hour or two north of Puerto San Julian, I catch up to three motorcyclists. They are struggling mightily, heeled to the right, and being blown back and forth across the right-hand land. Based on the size, their bikes are around 650cc, and so easily 200 pounds (90 kilos) lighter than mine. Iím getting beat up badly, but they are getting absolutely punished. When I finally pass them and wave as I do so, they are so intent on the conditions, that nobody looks up. The wind never abates for the four hours from Jaramillo to Puerto San Julian, where I get a motel by the highway around 10am in failing light. Simply exhausted from the riding I crash into bed and donít wake until after noon on Thursday.

(Note: I guess the obvious question is why didnít I stop. Certainly the conditions were unsafe, and riding was hazardous. My answer is that in Patagonia, the winds can howl like this for weeks at a time. Stopping may work, but also may not. Also, the land is so flat, that there is virtually no place to stop to get out of it. At times, I did slow to as little as 40mph.)

Claudio helping me with a flat tireThe winds are still high, but much better on Thursday, and I easily make the 240 miles (300km) into Rio Gallegos by early evening.

When I again inspect the front tire on Friday morning, I decide that it has at least another 1,000 miles (1,600km) of life left. The back tire, though, looks pretty well done, and I decide to change it. In over and hour I find four garages that could change it, but just donít have time. At the fourth garage I ask the manager for an opinion, and he assures me that Iíll make the 350 miles (600km) to Ushuaia without a problem. Iím skeptical, but the pavement has been excellent so far. There appears to be about 100 miles of gravel in this upcoming section, but as quickly as things are changing down here, Iím hoping that it might be paved. I canít get a confirmation one-way or the other.


The final push to Ushuaia

To reach Ushuaia, you must clear Argentine customs, enter Chile and cross the Straits of Magellan by ferry to reach the island of Tierra del Fuego. For 100 miles (160km) you traverse Chile, and then cross back into Argentina for the final 150 miles (250km) to Ushuaia. Just south of Rio Gallegos, the wasteland that is eastern Patagonia turns into semi-arid rolling grassland. This is the home of enormous estancias (sheep ranches). The Italian clothes maker Benetton has one such estancia that Iíve seen quoted as 177,000 hectares. If my math is correct, thatís an incredible 437,000 acres.

I drive five miles (8km) into Cerro Sombrero for gas, as I have no guarantee of any other gas in the 240 miles (400km) between Rio Gallegos and Rio Grande. I easily complete 80 miles (130km) of gravel and regain pavement before Rio Grande. At Rio Grande Iím 130 miles (200+km) from my final destination in Ushuaia. Iíve been that half of that is gravel.

Itís about 7pm when I leave Rio Grande, but it will be light until at least 10pm tonight. Iíll make it with no problem.

Literally, the end of the road in the AmericasAs I leave the eastern shore of Tierra del Fuego and swing southwest toward Ushuaia, the rolling grassland yields to the foothills of the southern Andes. Itís nice riding, although cold, and I make good time. The pavement is good, but my suspension seems to be a bit soft. The bike wants to waddle a bit in the frequent curves, and I silently curse my Ohlin shocks, with which Iíve never been all that happy. At about 90 miles (150km) to Ushuaia, I enter my last section of gravel.

But it is not gravel, as much as a construction site. The road is simply horrible, with big rocks sticking out of hard-packed earth. I mentally note some concern and slow considerably, but Iím not much past the village of Tolhuin when I feel the back end begin to sway, even on the rough gravel road. I pull to the side to check things out. My back tire is flat; only the second flat on the entire trip from Alaska to here. A quick inspection reveals that a rock has torn out a chunk of rubber, about the size of a US silver dollar, and has exposed the cords. The air is noisily being pushed through the cord, and the only fix available is to replace the tire. Itís about 8pm. I need to remove the back wheel.

Iíve removed the luggage and hard cases by the time Claudio and Marisa, heading from Ushuaia to Tolhuin, stop to help. Claudio and I push the bike to the roadside, and hide my gear in the bushes. After I lock up the bike they take me the six miles (10km) back to Tolhuim to a repair shop. My new tire is easily installed, and I suggest to Claudio that I can get a ride back. He will have none of it, and not only drives me back, but helps install the wheel and rear brake, and waits until I repack my luggage. Itís after 10:30pm, and the light is fading.

I remount the bike and head toward Ushuaia, barely able to make over 30mph on the gravel in the darkness. For several miles the road parallels Lago Fagnano, and the full moon reflects on the lakeís surface. Even though the road surface is pitch dark now, the mountains stand in black silhouette against the remaining twilight. It is an extraordinary scene.

As I slow for the police checkpoint at the eastern end of Ushuaia, I check my dashboard clock. It reads 11:46pm. Itís Christmas Eve. While I ride to the central district where Iíll look for a hotel the road is high on a hill, and the city below is illuminated. A giant Christmas tree, clearly beyond the port area, is truly conical, and perfectly lit up. Ushuaia is a fairyland tonight. Thanks for the welcome.

(Note: I need to take responsibility for my lack of judgment. First, faced with the same circumstances, Iíd ride again in the high winds. Quite frankly, there were few other options available. Second, while valuing the tire managerís opinion, the decision to not change the tires was mine alone. I should have waited in Rio Gallegos until I found someone to do it. Finally, I should have stopped at the first sign of the back end swaying. Unfortunately, that is exactly the same symptom as shocks going bad. But they donít go bad all at once, do they? A blown back tire at high speed is a serious danger on a motorcycle. My judgment was surely clouded by riding too long in tough conditions.)



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