Riding South America
A PASSION FOR PATAGONIA
“Have a spare bike on that South American trip we’re doing, do you want to come?” read the text message from a mate in Australia. One of the team had to pull out at the last minute and it was easier to fill the spot than cancel bookings for a bike and accommodation.
My husband and I were in southern Chile, he was working and I was perfecting doing nothing at all. I didn’t think twice, and had my husbands’ full support.
I’d done no training and had never ridden a bike bigger than my Honda CB500F parked under our house back in Australia. Its P plate was still firmly attached as I’d only bought it a year ago. The spare tour bike was a BMW G650 GS, a learner-approved dual-sport that meant my insurance was good to go.
I’m 54, a mother, a grandmother and a retired flight attendant, so plenty of travel stories in my past, but none as extraordinary as this.
All my gear was in Australia so the boys shared the load. As it turned out, they did this for the entire trip, not just getting my gear to South America.
ON THE ROAD
My adventure boots were bought from Andy Strapz by one of the riders I was yet to meet, and were express posted and on Chilean gravel, before the butterflies had settled in my stomach. I’d been a strictly sealed-road rider until now, and these boots were to be my saviour on more than one occasion.
Patagonia is a big place; more than a million square kilometres in fact. We were going to complete more than 5000km during the 21-day trip with 1800km of that on loose gravel. But not just any gravel, Ruta 40 gravel that looks more like scattered fists covering up Argentina’s ‘finest’ road.
Carretera Austral in Chile has stretches to challenge the Ruta 40, too, including acres of volcano ash that you’d just sink into if you missed your line, not to mention wearing it in every crease and crevice possible. It was at times impossible to see through the visor, so I ended up with an ashen face, gritty eyes and sandpaper lip balm.
At least it made for nice exfoliation.
I had some pretty major issues with the bike off the bat. Loose connections on the battery terminals was the final diagnosis, but it took days to figure out. Three of the five bikes had traces of dodgy fuel or dirty filters, including mine.
The loose battery terminals caused it to stall and behave like an unbroken horse in a pit full of rattlesnakes. Then I dropped it on a steep camber in some oversized road base with tennis ball-sized gravel. It’s a wonder I didn’t drop it more often. It was exhausting to ride. Ten kilometres later, I found myself on the wrong side of the road facing a wide mound of gravel I thought I could cross with an oncoming bus straight ahead.
Inexperience had me sliding sideways for the second fall of the day. To bring home the trifecta, we all pulled over to regroup an hour later and one of the boys clipped my pannier and I was rubber side up again! I was in pain, much pain, but nothing was broken apart from a clutch lever and dislodged mirror. Could’ve been worse, and I was still laughing at least.
The boys were fabulous. One always raced to me and the others to the bike to put it right so I could climb back on.
When I threw my leg over for the last time that day it was with great difficulty and some extra grunt. The grunt always helped.
I was ever grateful for the experience of the group. We had our tyres slashed in Torres Del Paine on the third day and the guys managed to fix them all and have us on our way and at our next digs in relatively good time.
I appreciated being able to follow their line through some of the worst of the gravel knowing someone also was waatching my back. When it was dusty and I couldn’t see a thing I just said an extra few prayers and hoped our Bluetooth headsets had failed so nobody could hear me swearing. Somebody must have been listening.
I’ve been astonished by so much on this journey. The scenery: nothing short of spectacular. From the barren, thirsty expanse east of the Andes to the majestic, gobsmacking mountains covered in snow and divided by valleys filled with lakes as big as oceans and rivers the colour of which I’ve never seen.
The team: four farmers and me. I only really knew the guy who sent me the text message.
Another I’d met a year before and the remaining two I met just before we picked up the bikes. It worked, and it worked well. I never ceased to be amazed that I was on the trip.
I’d been asked to join them very unexpectedly, and that meant that someone – and ultimately all of them – trusted that I could do it. Each member of the team bought special qualities from which I gained experience. I am forever indebted to them.
BERNADETTE’S WORDS OF ADVICE
Me: I’ve never failed at anything I’ve put my mind to. However, this was more than just my mind, it was whether or not my body would hold up with no training. Well, it did and I’m feeling a whole lot more motivated to get to the gym in preparation for the next adventure.
My husband has booked us on a road trip in Italy in June. Bring it on!
Word of advice: just say “I can do this”, repeatedly when nasty doubts creep in under the helmet and never, ever compromise on safety gear.
If you slide in sideways then you know you’ve given it your best. Stay safe and grab life by the handlebars.