Repairs, a False Start and Heading North.

I had a long wait ahead of me to fix the bike. I probably could have found the parts I needed in Chile, but I decided to get them sent from UK instead. The gears that were broken were part of a modification that I wanted to maintain and my parents had loads of other stuff to send out to me too. Still, I was enjoying life at the Adventure Park. Mario and I had become good friends and I was genuinely happy to be able to help him with his hectic life. I took full advantage of Mario’s kitchen and I’d generally cook us something for lunch. Mario happily eating anything I would come up with.

Once all the bits and pieces had been ordered, I was going to head out of Temuco to check out the surrounding areas while waiting for the parcel to arrive. I even went as far as buying a new rucksack so that I could go trekking around Villarica and Pucon, but my good intentions where lost when I made some new drinking friends and then never managed get out of Temuco for the whole 2 months I was there.

The only time I did leave Temuco was to go and collect my parcel when it had arrived at Santiago. DHL told me that due to the package being valued over 1000 dollars I would have to collect the parcel in person to import it as personal goods. I took the night bus and went straight to the airport, where after an hour of paperwork, I was able to clear everything from customs without paying any taxes. Opening the box was like Christmas day except that I’d bought the things myself, but still I was super happy to have the parts in my hand along with a new sleeping bag, kindle, new boots (thank you Haix), helmet camera (old one went missing somewhere in Patagonia), there were even some parts for Mario’s bike, which I had dropped one night and damaged the foot rest. I called in to say hello to Fletch but then headed straight back to Temuco on the next night bus to crack on with the bike. I missed the bus at the terminal and vowed never to be without my bike again.

Back at Temuco, we dropped the parts off with Marcelo at his workshop. I asked when We would be able to start work as I had made it clear that I wanted to be involved in the repair. Marcelo said it would have to be after the weekend so I left him to it. Later Mario called me with questions about the oil pump, that had me worried that Marcelo had started without me. I went around to see him. He hadn’t done anything yet but I arrived just in time. We put the crankcase halves back together and I tested the gearbox operation. It wasn’t smooth at all and Marcelo was convinced that it was because the engine needed a gasket between the crankcase halves. I was dubious, as it hadn’t had a gasket when Carlito had rebuilt it and one didn’t come with the gasket set that my parents had sent, but I went off and bought some paper and Marcelo made a gasket. We closed the engine and Marcelo assured me that I was to do all the other jobs myself. The next day I found out that there really shouldn’t have been a gasket, but I wasn’t worried as we could just open it up and take it out. I couldn’t hide my shock when I saw that Marcelo had completed the engine the next day. I was so frustrated. He had used all the new gaskets and security washers, single-use parts that had been sent from home. Marcelo sensing that I was unhappy, left me alone to use his tools to dismantle the engine again and take out the gasket. Fitting the cylinder head, we found out that the wrong head gasket had been sent. Marcelo said the old one was fine and I refitted it.

It was hard leaving Temuco after 2 months. I said goodbye to Mario and La Panchita. I’ll definitely have to come and see them again sometime so she doesn’t forget her Tio Andy (uncle Andy). Mucho gracias a Carl y Marcela for letting me stay at their place too. During the two months of inactivity my health had taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps it was the changing seasons. I’m sure the drinking didn’t help, but perhaps my body and bike have somehow become linked. I had had a cold for weeks and my face had come out in boils that I had to get seen to by a doctor when I got to Santiago.

The weather was crap when I came to leave and I rode for hours in the rain before sleeping at a petrol station. I felt like shit when I got to Santiago and I checked into Ventana Sur Hostel to chill out for a few days, which of course turned into another week of excesses. Finally, I rode out north with James who I had met in Coyhaique as we went to pass back into Argentina on the Agua Negra mountain pass.

After a couple of days on the road we arrived at La Serena and immediately noticed that I had an oil leak. It was very difficult to see where the oil was coming from but it looked to be the head gasket. It was getting towards the end of the day and all I could really do was get the bike cleaned to try to confirm where the leak was. We rode 50 km to Vicuña in darkness, taking it easy in case the leak came back. The next day I couldn’t find any trace of the leak at all and I opted to delay crossing the pass for a day (we hadn’t been sure if the pass was open until now) so that I could have a confidence run, thrashing the bike around the local twisties between the various pisco distilleries in the nearby hills and valleys. The bike was good, with no more oil leak so we set off early the next day to cross the 4780m pass. It was freezing cold on the pass and I was feeling the altitude near the summit. Later we met a french cyclist who had taken 3 days to cross the pass and had camped out on the top. This reminds me that no matter what I’ll do on this trip, some mentalist will have done it on a cycle!

The next day the mountains were all capped with snow, making us most likely the last riders to come through the pass for the season.

I split up with James a day down the road in La Rioja and I went to hang out with Yanina’s family in Chilecito for a few days. When I arrived at Racho’s Finca (little farm), he and his friends were busy slaughtering a cow, which didn’t appeal to vegetarian James and he rode off while I got involved in the only all-offal barbeque I’ve ever had.

After a few days visiting friends in Chilecito and La Rioja I wanted to go back to Villa Carlos Paz to say goodbye to my friends there before I would leave Argentina. US rider John, had told me that the boys were all going on a big excursion to ride the mountains around Tucuman that weekend. This fitted in great with my plans as I could ride north with them then head off to Bolivia. I arrived late in Carlos Paz to find everyone busy with preparing for the trip, but being a Thursday, there was an asado to attend. The oil leak had re-materialized and looking at it with the boys we came to the possibility that it was the crankcase breather hose that had got damaged. I had checked this in Vicuña, but it wouldn’t hurt to change it anyway. I worked on the bike while the meat was being grilled and I got to have a proper chat with Erik, the moto-guide who had said hello to me in Patagonia. Erik has traveled all over South America on various bikes and has worked with well-known Brit motorcycle overland nutter, Nick Sanders.

The majority of the boys were taking their enduro bikes to Tucuman on the backs of camionetas and trailers, so it was only John, Diego and myself who were actually riding up to Tucuman. The day started early, and we took in some amazing mountain dirt roads towards Cruz del Eje at the limit of Córdoba province. The oil leak was still there and I was stopping frequently to make sure it never ran low but otherwise the bike was running fine. The plan had been to ride as many dirt roads as possible to get us to Tucuman, but with the distance of the trip we had to abandon this plan and make up the km on the asphalt. I was really tired on some of the boring straight bits and I would have stopped to have a nap at the side of the road had I had been on my own.

About 50 km outside of Catamarca something had gone wrong. The bike sounded different and had consumed about half a litre of oil in a shockingly short distance since I last checked. John and Diego wanted to follow me to a workshop but I told them that I’d be fine and they could catch me on their way back through Catamarca after the weekend. I was even optimistic that I could fix the bike and catch them up the next day. I limped into Catamarca with a noisy engine and found a hostel and chilled out for the night. The engine did not sound good the next day. The different sound I had been hearing had now turned into the same rattling sound that the bike had when I had ruined the piston and cylinder in Brazil. How could this have happened? especially since the bike had always had oil.

The hostel was quite a good distraction from my problems though. There was a big mixed martial arts event in town that weekend and all the fighters where staying at the hostel, with opponents staying in different dormitories. I was convinced that the head gasket was the problem and on Monday morning I went to find a workshop to open it up and have a look. Alberto, the first Falklands war veteran I have ever met, let me use his car workshop. He was really friendly with me and we chatted about the war and loads of other stuff. Sadly, it was confirmed that the piston had been slapping as we could push it back and forth against the cylinder. How the hell had this happened? Again?

John and Diego had arrived from Tucuman and I was trying to think what to do next. I wanted to ride back to Carlos Paz to fix it there, but with then engine deteriorating so quickly I didn’t want to damage it any more and I looked into transporting the bike to Carlos Paz. Local companies wanted about 3000 pesos, but I put the word out on the street to see what else I could find. I had become well-known on the street of the hostel being the only gringo with a big noisy moto and I had loads of people looking out for me. The owner of a wine shop I’d been going to told me his friend would be going to Cordoba in a few days with his truck to pick up meat if I wanted to go with him. Paulo, a traveling salesman who was staying at the hostel had kindly offered to take me from Cordoba to Carlos Paz so I was all set to go.

I rode the banging moto around to the butchers shop where we loaded the bike onto the truck. Being a refrigerated meat wagon, there wasn’t any places to tie the bike down so I had to take the tank off and lay it on its side. The journey was to be an all-nighter so that they could get to the slaughter house early in the morning. The drive was made easier by chewing coca leaves, drinking mate and listening to folklore music with the owner, Gustavo. We arrived in Cordoba the next day after a 3 hour stop off were I was dropped at a petrol station so that he could load up the truck with pork. I was met by Paulo, my friend from the hostel and we tied the bike to his trailer and continued into Carlos Paz arriving in time to catch the boys for coffee at the Esso garage.

Erik was there and he told me that we would take the bike to his friend’s workshop after the weekend. I felt so much better about repairing the bike when I was surrounded by friends. I went to stay with Paulo (Turko) and Diego lent me a cycle so I could get around the town. I dismantled the engine at Daniel’s workshop with Erik. The decision to not ride the bike was a good one as only as the engine only required a new piston and re-bore. The piston pin wasn’t damaged so an engine split to fit a new con rod wasn’t needed. John took me to Cordoba where we found a piston kit and gasket set pretty quickly. I’d hoped to find original Yamaha parts but being that the piston had to be 1 mm bigger all I could find was pattern parts. Still, the piston I found is Japanese. I couldn’t find anything bad about them on the net and it seemed exactly the same but only time and distance will tell. Lots of people helped with the job with Erik, Leon and Rodrigo all helping to get the cylinder re-bored. I enjoyed working side by side with Daniel, him on a KTM enduro and me on my bike. When the bits were ready to go back together, Rodrigo came to give a hand and John turned up in time to hear me kickstart it back to life. It took a while, but it ran sweet and quiet making me happy that the job had been done properly. There was still the problem of what had a happened to cause the piston to seize in the first place. Daniel told me that the engine was probably running lean due to the dodgy head gasket and had overheated. This sounded plausible to me and there was some stuff on the net to back this up.

With the bike functioning again I was ready to hit the road again. I had been staying at Rodrigo’s place and he got everyone together to do an asado leaving party for me, although I didn’t leave for a few days and when I did, I was messing around trying to buy insurance for the bike that I didn’t get to properly say goodbye to all my friends who had come to the Esso to see me off. It didn’t matter though, as 45 km down the road a very worrying oil leak had me turning back to Carloz Paz. Of course there were jokes but everyone was supportive as usual. The leak was found to be due to two rocker cover bolts that were missing washers, a problem that I would have found sooner had I had gone for the trail runs that I had said I was going to do. Being back in Carlos Paz meant yet another Thursday asado and another hangover but this time I managed to get away for good. I rode back to La Rioja to see my friend German and then rode the next day to Fiambalá and the start of the San Fransisco Pass.

Even though the engine sounded good, I was still paranoid about overheating because with no temperature gauge, it was impossible to tell if it was running hot or not so I was very happy to pass 1000 km since the rebuild with no problems. The engine had just been run-in so I set about changing the oil and filter. After draining the oil tank I found that my 17 mm socket needed for the sump nut had disappeared and I had to ask around for tools. San Fransisco pass was closed at the time and there were truck drivers camping out at the petrol station who had tools to help me. The gendarmaria had told me that it was only the Chilean side of the pass that was blocked and I was welcome to ride up to the pass if I wanted to. This was good for me as I hadn’t really decided where to go next but there were many places that I still wanted to see on the Argentinian side. The ride up to the border was stunning. Although the skies were clear, it was very cold and windy and my bike was chugging along without power for the majority of the pass. Getting back to Fiambala, I went to the Termas (hot springs) to warm myself up and I wild camped up a mountain for the night.

The next destination was to be Antofagasta de la Sierra, a remote village at 3300 m up in the puna (altiplano) in Catamarca province. I’d wanted to get some more high altitude riding done as I was mentally preparing myself to ride into Bolivia via the ‘Lagunas Route’, another high altitude route that friends have told me about. It wasn’t clear if any of these roads would be open, as my many delays had now put me right in the middle of winter. The ride up to Antofagasta was amazing, starting with fun ripio river crossings then an asphalt road leading up on to the puna followed by more desolate ripio to the village.

The road to Antofagasta de la Sierra continues north up into Salta province. Rodrigo had told me that this road would be a real adventure and few people thought it would be open at this time of the year but chatting to the people in Antofagasta it looked like it was open, although they thought I was crazy for wanting to ride it. I went to see the gendarmeria to find out what it was like. The chief was telling me to be very careful but I got the impression that he didn’t really know the road just that he knew that people passed through. Later I met a local in the hospedaje who had passed through the road recently. He told me that there was lots of snow, impassable for cars but that it was passable for a bike. I spent most of the night thinking about what he had said. Its difficult to gauge the conditions of routes based off what people say. As my friend Nick says ‘some people think dirt bikes are magic carpets and can go anywhere’. I was nervous and I couldn’t sleep. It was exactly like when I passed Sico pass last year. The combination of altitude, cold weather, dodgy conditions and long distances without fuel or assistance always fills me with apprehension, but then again that is what adventure is all about. I was up at 7 am and quickly set out on the road.

The information I’d been given turned out to be spot on. It was only really the first 90 km that was bad. Heavy corrugated ripio with deep sandy sections that was occasionally covered in snow. I was able to dodge most of the snow but I go stuck on one section and I had to unload the bike and rock it back and forth while revving to get it free. Later I would just go off-piste when I saw tracks left by others who had done the same. After the snow sections, I arrived at the Salar del Hombre Muerto (Salt lake of the dead man). The instructions I’d been given here hadn’t made a great deal of sense but I followed them anyway. Turning east to follow the edge of the salar, I saw my first signs of civilization since Antofagasta when I saw a truck racing across the salar. The truck was heading to a lithium mine along a perfect dirt road that had been built across the salar. This was the road I’d been told to find and from here I rode the next 150 km on pristine ripio at 80-100 kmh into Salta province where I picked up the Ruta 51 that I had previously passed last year and headed to San Antonio de los Cobres.

I’m now in Salta, staying at the same hostel where I met David and Fletch last year. All the fun at altitude has gotten me ill again, but I feel mentally ready for my trip into Bolivia. The Lagunas route doesn’t look possible at the moment as the north western passes into Chile are all closed with snow. So I’m chilling at the moment but I’ll be going into Bolivia in the next few days by a different route.

Its great to be back on the road again. Fingers crossed I’ll have no more problems, but the bike has done well over 2000 km since its rebuild and its behaving as it should. Although I’m having a great time out here, months of inactivity aren’t good for moral. A few weeks ago I said to John that I sometimes ask myself ‘what am I doing?’ but when I’m on the road its obvious. I’m living my dream of riding a motorbike around the world.

One thought on “Repairs, a False Start and Heading North.

  1. Your sequence of photos on the road to Salar del Hombre Muerto is a stunning set! Hope you’re “match fit” now you’re heading into Bolivia? Great to read about adventure once again, jealous as always, Mark.

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