In early September 2014 my friend and work colleague, Nathan Copan, had casually mentioned how he had spent this and other weekends racing dirt bikes. As we chatted about various machines and equipment, and I mused out loud how I always wanted to traverse the Andes on a motorbike.
I had actually made some quite serious plans about a decade before but never got it off the ground. The conversation quickly evolved from a loose idea to a definitive plan spearheaded by Nathan.
It was decided we would ride from the colder south to the warmer north, which is generally the opposite route offered by touring companies. The two of us were also in agreement that we wanted a one-way route to maximize the geography and experience. We needed a rental company that would permit us to return the bikes 2,300 miles from where we started, internationally and without a guide. The list of caveats though short was quite problematic.
Nathan ultimately found an adventure motorcycle touring company who agreed to let us do as we pleased after we had met some reasonable additional surcharges and spoke to the company owner by telephone.
Nathan and I planned the route so that we could be flexible. We rode when we wanted, and we hiked, ate, and drank when we wanted. It was important the ride never became a mission. We work hard enough in our daily lives, and we didn’t want to feel like our venture was a job. Therefore, we incorporated wiggle-room in the itinerary.
As scheduled, we picked up the bikes in Punta Arenas. We presented our paperwork, signed a couple of pieces of paper, and we were on our way with no trouble at all. The machines we rode were BMW GS600 Enduro style bikes in excellent condition, fully excursion ready including brand new tires.
We set off in light snow and sleet with temperatures around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. With the correct gear for the conditions our comfort was assured. To attempt this type of trip without the appropriate motocross and foul weather gear would be ill advised. I had briefly considered using only snowboarding gear, and Nathan forwarded me a few weather reports after I mentioned that sorry idea.
Every item you brought down had to fit on the bike, on ourselves, in a dry bag, or in hard panniers. I had allotted a significant amount of space for additional tools and simple medical supplies for repairs and scrapes. In my mind it is essential to have basics for potential problems. This then precluded carrying much more than riding gear, underwear and in my case a pair of flip-flops.
Although I had 25 years of motorcycle experience none of it was off tarmac whereas Nathan had both the disciplines mastered. The owner of the touring company advised strongly me not to attempt our chosen route without significant off road riding ability. In fact he suggested a delay or change of plans during our phone call. I assured him that I would acquire the necessary skill. In retrospect, he was right and I was fortunate he was so adamant.
Of the 2,300-mile ride about 900 miles were unpaved. Given the gear we were to carry (around 80 lbs plus additional fuel) and the conversation with the owner, I took an intensive dirt bike course in south Jersey with a good instructor. A real wake up call awaited…
The first couple of hours on the dirt bike were challenging, just a very different experience than casually bumping around in the mud. The instructor was clear I wanted to ride gravel and sand to match what we could expect in Patagonia, and that was the full agenda. Initially the machine felt like it wanted to screw its self into the ground, and I was struggling.
Interestingly almost everything I knew about road riding was largely irrelevant. The Eureka moment came when I finally gave up trying to ride the road on mud, and did exactly as I was told. Those ten hours of tuition was absolutely essential. There is no doubt in my mind that minus the knowledge and skill learned from that day I would have struggled mightily.
Each machine carrying five liters of additional fuel turned out to be essential. We took the larger tanks after initially considering the smaller footprint two-liter tanks. We were very fortunate in that decision, without that little bit of extra fuel we would probably have lost hours perhaps even a day stranded. We rolled into gas stations and farm stands on fumes a fair number of occasions.
Beginning the trip a few hundred miles from Antarctica dictated random and inconsistent weather and road conditions. One day there were sixteen hours of
daylight with forty miles per hour winds followed by incredible cloud formations and sunsets and the next day grey with hailstones and cloudburst rain. Not infrequently all of the above occurred in the same day. We each gave a good deal of thought to how we were to photograph the journey.
Nathan went traditional with an SLR and iPad, whereas I chose to go with 35mm
film. I shot mostly black and white on an ancient Pentax with one 28mm lens.
Keeping it compact and low tech was important. I was adamant that I not see the mountains through a viewfinder. Frame the shot, press the shutter, and put it away. No reviewing editing or retaking. I really wanted to stay in the moment, and this philosophy worked.
The mountain passes were magnificent, with ever-changing landscapes and the
sky as a backdrop. Stopping and framing shots for us to ride through was a really fun aspect of the trip. We experienced an array of stunning vistas and wildlife, things that I have never seen before. The locals say that Patagonia is where the planet Earth wind begins, and in truth it really does look and feel like JRR Tolkien had a hand it its creation: dead forests, thousand foot cascading waterfalls, ice-flows, just extraordinary stuff.
The magic of this ride, even the very reason for it, is the peace and solitude and the total introspection that riding of this type allows. Patagonia is magnificent. The people in Argentina and Chile are wonderful and genuine. The wine is cheap and delicious and the riding challenging and perfect. However, be warned there are major changes afoot.
There is so much development in the mountains and national parks already underway. Countless road crews are hard at it. This inevitably will make the tiny mountain passes we rode newly accessible by large and numerous vehicles.
I have to think that this will be a very different ride in only a couple of years. Great busloads of tourists are just over the horizon; indeed we saw a number of them in the northern segment of the ride. It is an inevitable reality that will radically change the tiny villages and towns and likely the entire experience.
Far be it from me to lament progress for the people of Patagonia, it is entirely from a personal perspective, but I cannot help but have deep reservations. With that knowledge, if I were ruminating an adventure in Patagonia, I would suggest making plans much sooner rather than later.