Chile / Argentine Boarder September 2009

Of all the Drives I have done, this remains the most foolish and as close to Death I have come. Not because of any near accident or highwaymen: I just underestimated the environment and the changing weather across the Argentine pampas.

This is the tale of two fools and their Mistress.

Jim and I left Coihaique, Chile, late afternoon with the sun still shining bright above the Alfa, and proceeded to chase the sun east across the Argentine border and in so doing enjoyed whipping up long tails of bellowing dust behind us.

We had a clear plan of taking rest at the border town; a well defined town on an international map. The run to the border caused us no problem, simply the road remained unremarkable quite for the entire journey, making us doubt if we were on the right road! When our eyes finally caught sight of the border sign rising out of the long rolling barren landscape – ‘Malvinas belong to Argentina’, – we both knew then, with some trepidation, this was the right road to the Argentine, possibly the Wrong road for two Englishmen.

The sign aside, the border guards posted to this desolate post – as desolate as their poor father soldiers had been posted 25 years past onto bleak islands of the Atlantic – made us as welcome as they would any Foreigner, rather than as Englishmen ready to squabbling over islands(!)

We were, I am sure, the first car of the day, if not all week. And this showed in their agreeable smiles, even if bemused no end over an old Alfa Romeo with no roof, and her confusing accompanying paperwork. Forms past back and forth, pleasurable gestures flowed between us all until eventually Jim and I were free to be on our way to drive deeper in the Big Lands and risk being seen no more.

This inhospitable road over the Andes travels at over 3000ft. There are no high peaks; on the contrary a vista of wonderful rolling countryside of burnt yellow ferns from the ever present wind keeping this backdrop bare.

As I have said Alta Rio Mayo may have a presence on international maps, and in so doing gives an illusion of a reasonable expectation from this Dot. I do not think it had more than four buildings, two locked, two derelicts.

Jim and I had not seen a single car or a single person since the border and would not until the early hours of the following morning.

Fortunately the daylight remained high and 75 km further on the next town on our international map of the Argentina, Centro Rio Mayo (again a Dot is a better explanation, town’s and Dot’s have the same status)  we both hoped would see the end of this day’s drive. The further on we travelled along the repio the point of no return was before long reached.

The falling light was one concern, an Alfa with dying oil pressure and little oil another. The Cold entrapping us to play on our Minds, and then the heater sputtered dust and Died first.

As the sun fell away and the Lamps of Heaven came out Jim spoke for us both ‘This is not ideal terrain for an open broken car on our own.’ I could only mumble back, more talking to myself, that he had stated no more than the obvious, and if this is all he could say, best not said. I do not think he heard me for he was pulling the blanket closer to stop his shivering, and to do so drew his neck into his round shoulders and continued to gaze over the top of his glasses into the distant dark beyond.

Centro Rio Mayo offered no rest to two extremely weary drivers, even if there was life here at this Dot. There was no understanding to our predicament, no hotel, no fuel, no restaurant, not even the local Mate (very common Argentine hot brew) on offer, only the frightening stares of the Locals at Outsiders in an eerie open car.

And so we carried on. Slow 75km toil across Patagonia to the next Dot of Rio Mayo. As the sun fell the temperature followed very rapidly. The wind was still and the night cloudless. Soon it was bitterly Cold. It was dismal looking out into the blackness of the pampas, and we both knew home was a long, long way away. As the hours passed and the temperature fell to below freeing both Jim and I knew, without saying as much to each other, a night under these stars would be the end of us.

We stopped once to pull on more clothing to try to stop shivering, including three pairs of Socks each. But still my hands and feet froze solid and all I could do was watch the falling pressure gauge which seemed to be exceptionally clear in the darkness as if to make fun of an edgy driver. Then on repio that had never given any trouble, I saw, and can still see, this smooth half shaped solid rugby ball lying in wait and taking advantage of our weak lights to smash into our sump guard. It flicked the sump guard away and lifted high the frontage of the car, cracking the sump once protected. To listen in blackness to this Bolder bounce all along the under part of the car, finally leaping and bouncing away on the repio behind, the Devil – with laughter from his work in the seconds it takes – flash’s brutally the forthcoming consequences.

Yet nothing was said, for there seemed little point in saying what we felt to add further gloom to this pitiable moment. The damage was done to finish us. Oil was now spilling out and the gauge fell further and the Cold seem ever more biting. A desolate loneliness settled upon us.

With Gods faith we carried on and hoped we may at least be able to limp home.

The only beauty was the Heavens. I have never seen such a wonderful night of stars. Before the Rock changed our sentiment and our emotions became fearful, we had even slowed, turned off our lights and stared high at one of nature’s most beautiful sights.  It’s a pity that modern living draws a net curtain over such a breathtaking outlook.

We did limp into Rio Mayo in the very early morning, for fortune had smiled on us.

I will just add that the following day I woke refreshed to reflect on the foolhardiness of our drive, our great good luck, and the appalling dangers that can jump at the unprepared. The wet dirt streets of Rio were iced over and the red Alfa covered in White frost.