In Search of Tierra del Fuego

Alaska and Chile are both fairly remote, both beautiful, and conveniently connected by one landmass, ideal for Thelma and I to tackle. Having previously mastered the varied arts of dodging the Iranian secret police, fleeing from elephants and battling the deserts of North Africa, the California Highway Patrol, llamas and a bit of Arctic Circle would be a breeze.

But it’s never as simple as it seems. From the Arctic Ice Road leading out of Deadhorse, Alaska along the length of two massive mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Andes, dodging volcanoes and skirting glaciers, across the driest desert on the planet to the wind-blasted desolate tracks of Patagonia, all to reach the world’s most southerly road and the legendary Tierra del Fuego – this was to be a huge test of endurance, ingenuity and the limits of the human sense of humour.

I found myself travelling (at various times) with Janet, a 65-year-old American grandmother, Siobhan - an Australian vet, Galway girl Maggie and my nephew and sister.

It turned out to be a trip totalling 40,000 often perilous miles, with 14 months on the road and 17 countries, almost all of it just me and Thelma against the world (no doctors, no security, no back-up land cruisers).

In Search of Tierra del Fuego is full of tales of endeavour and mishap, scrapes and scares played out to an incredible backdrop of the most amazing geography.

Key Points

Endeavour:

  • Riding California’s infamous Death Valley in 50°C plus August temperatures wearing black leathers (this could also come under mishaps, scrapes and scares – or just Bad Ideas)
  • Skinny-dipping at midnight in a Nicaraguan lake, home to the world’s only fresh-water sharks
  • Bumping into an international posse of macho bikers and joining them on a five days off-roading rally dodging volcanoes in the Andes mountains
  • Battling gusting 120mph side-winds in Chile’s Patagonian highlands that threw Thelma onto her side even when stationary

Mishap:

  • Thelma blowing up on US highway I90 leading to a huge struggle to get the bike back to Seattle and culminating in crawling through the dog flap of the locked back door of a mechanic’s empty house at 1.00am.
  • Having to stay in Seattle for the next three and a half weeks, working for my keep until spares arrived from Europe
  • Being distracted from watching the famous divers of Acapulco by the small matter of a major oil leak(tackled with nothing more technical than a plastic bag)
  • Smashing a hole in Thelma’s engine in Chile after losing an argument with a boulder, and having to be towed by a pick-up truck using a ridiculously short length of rope for 10 miles through gravel and sand follwed by a  90 mile hitch-hike to the nearest town
  • Getting arrested not once but twice in Sao Paulo – by the same policemen each time.

Scrapes:

  • Being pursued by Nicaraguan mafia across the border into Costa Rica after a minor contretemps over Thelma denting one of their flash cars
  • Finding the most chivalrous extortionists in the world are the Federales in Peru – having been repeatedly pulled up for non-existent “speeding offences” then being let off every time the helmet came off - with “Oh, señorita, no problema”
  • Venezuela - an attempted mugging in downtown Caracas where the mugger came off worse than his intended victim (me)
  • A surreptitious trip across the border into Colombia to get cash on the black market – small denomination banknotes in such huge bundles they were spilling out from inside my motorbike jacket, thus breaking the two key rules of any black market transaction – subtlety and discretion

Scares:

  • An Alaskan solo trekking trip that almost ended in tragedy when I was confronted by a black bear – having just read the newspaper headline “woman attacked by black bear”
  • Being woken at night by something attacking the tent on a Nicaraguan beach only to find a huge turtle trying to dig under it to lay her eggs, while thousands of others crawled out of the sea to do the same
  • Feeling the piranhas nibbling my ankles as I waded through a river in the Amazon