After 10 days of continuous riding, covering 4810km, the expedition team have enjoyed their first bed and bath since leaving Punta Arenas, courtesy of Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Chile. In the charming surroundings of the Embassy with the Andes as a backdrop, the team have had the opportunity to service their bikes, clean laundry and plan the next leg of the journey. Tomorrow they depart for their next great challenge - a 1000km crossing of the Atacama Desert into Bolivia.
UK to Punta Arenas, Chile
After farewells to family and friends, the expedition team met at RAF Brize Norton on the evening of Wednesday 8th March 2017. Looking rather incongruous among soldiers returning to the Falkland Islands, the team boarded a trooping flight bound for the South Atlantic via Ascension Island. After a brief stop in the equatorial humidity of Ascension they arrived at Mount Pleasant Airport on the open expanses of East Falkand. Here they were impeccably hosted by 30 Battery (Roger’s Company), 16 Regiment RA for two days before boarding a civilian flight to Punta Arenas, Chile.
Punta Arenas - Ushuaia
In the historic Chilean town of Punta Arenas, famous for the point of departure of many iconic Antarctic expeditions, there was enormous relief to find the bikes all intact and still upright in their container. Once unloaded, final modifications were made and the luggage loaded for the 20,000 mile ride to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The first objective was to head south to Ushuaia Argentina, the most southerly city in the world, or as the sign on the edge of town states; Welcome to Ushuaia – ‘Fin del Mondo’ (the end of the world). This lonely outpost marks the beginning of the Pan-American Highway. After a ferry crossing to Tierra del Fuego and a 300km ride, the team stopped for the night in the Patagonian forest for its first night under the stars and for a chance to sit around a fire and really begin to get to know each other.
The expedition begins
From Ushuaia the expedition began by retracing its route south through Argentina and into Chile. From the empty tundra and forest covered mountains of Tierra del Fuego the team headed for the world famous Torres del Paine National Park and the beginning of the Andes and a continuous line of mountains marking the route all the way to Alaska.
There was a definite air of trepidation amongst the team and a certain intangible atmosphere of tension as the scale of the task ahead began to take hold. As expected, some very testing riding was experienced as the team travelled along hundreds of miles of gravel tracks. In places the gravel was so deep it caused the bikes to fish tail from side to side as the riders struggled to keep their bikes upright with the extra weight of the luggage. Luckily some valuable training prior to deployment paid dividends and the team have made it through so far, with man and machine unscathed.
Once back on the asphalt the team rode through the notorious winds that come uncontested from the high Andes across the Argentine plains. Hour after hour this riding was particularly exhausting with the constant strain on neck muscles and extraordinarily loud wind noise rushing over the helmets which gave the sensation of having one’s head stuck in the back end of jet engine.
Torres del Paine, Chilie
After crossing back into Chile the team entered the Torres del Paine National Park, a magnificent mountainous region with sheer stacks of glacial topped rock faces ascending thousands of feet vertically into the sky. Here the team enjoyed a swim in a glacial lake before getting back on the road and more gravel tracks.
Heading back across the border into Argentina the team camped by a river as a band of rain blew in off the mountains to welcome us. The following morning, slightly damp, we visited the remarkable Perito Moreno Glacier, famed for of its rapid rate of recession and frequent shearing off of apartment block sized chunks of ice from the 70 metres high face, into the lake below. Departing here we rode north across the vast Argentine ‘pampas’ with only lamas and emus for company. At Lake Belgrano we returned across the border for the final time into Chilean Patagonia.
The next three days were spent traversing the wild mountainous landscape of Patagonia along the Cerretera Austral, a road forced through some of the most challenging terrain on earth by General Pinochet in the 1970s. Patagonia remains one of the most pristine and dramatic landscapes on the planet with temperate jungle rising to snow-capped peaks, intersected with crystal clear rivers. With temperatures dropping significantly at night, we were frequently brushing frost off our bivi bags in the morning. The routine of the expedition was beginning to take shape with reveille at 0600, a mug of coffee and a slice of bread and jam before beginning our ride at 0700. We have since averaged 400km and 10 hours riding a day before stopping between 1900 and 2000 in the evening. Our campsites may be a simple fields or woodland clearings, but have always been accompanied with draw-dropping views as a backdrop. After a simple supper of pasta the team are usually in bed by 1000 for a much needed sleep before rising two hours before dawn. The further north we headed we noticed the temperature begin to climb and had to adjust our riding and sleeping gear accordingly with a confusing mix of thermals that weren’t quite warm enough at night but were definitely too warm during the day.
We have since averaged 400km and 10 hours riding a day before stopping between 1900 and 2000 in the evening. Our campsites may be a simple fields or woodland clearings, but have always been accompanied with draw-dropping views as a backdrop. After a simple supper of pasta the team are usually in bed by 1000 for a much needed sleep before rising two hours before dawn. The further north we headed we noticed the temperature begin to climb and had to adjust our riding and sleeping gear accordingly with a confusing mix of thermals that weren’t quite warm enough at night but were definitely too warm during the day.
Patagonia – Santiago
At the southern town of Puerto Montt the route left the wilds of Patagonia and travelled north through the rich farmland and vineyards of southern Chile. The final stretch of 1000 km to Santiago was a welcome relief for the bikes. By now they had covered over 1500km off road and the strain was beginning to show on motorcycle and rider, both in need of respite from the unforgiving roads. In just 24 hours in Santiago under the guidance of our REME mechanic Staff Sergeant Tony Cotty, the team changed six rear tyres, engine oil, the fork and broken spokes. The team have had a reassuringly successful start to the expedition and now look forward to the next leg to Colombia and the expedition’s greatest challenge – crossing the Darien Gap.
Major NG Foulerton