Patagonia – Kevin Machtelinckx (issue 25)

An early summer stillness filled the air as I made my way out of a sun-bleached, wooden hostería and onto the warm asphalt. The main street leading out of my adopted Chilean town laid stretched and empty, inviting escape. I closed my eyes and listened closely, feet bare on black top as if expecting to feel the thumping in the road before hearing the vibrations through the air. The first tree at the end of a long row of Eucalyptus lining the road wavered, followed in sequence by the second and third. By the time the gust of wind had reached halfway down the line, I heard it. The familiar frequency of a purring motor reached my ears, matched shortly by the arrival of a second. I opened my eyes. Two Yamaha Ténéré 660z’s appeared on the horizon and opened their throttles, mixing fuel and fire to close the distance between us. The twin machines brought a pair of masked riders rolling to a stop on either side of me. A visor popped up and our grinning eyes met. “So, did you bring the croissants?!” came the voice from behind the helmet.

In 1996, my dad, Alain Machtelinckx, and his French colleague, Didier Blanc-Gonnet, signed the paperwork to officially open their first bakery business in Portland, Oregon. My childhood days were spent slaloming through perpetually-faulty bread ovens and ducking below creaky dough rollers as the duo worked tirelessly to ensure their business stayed afloat. Over the course of two decades I watched as their complicity in business helped forge a deep friendship.

In twenty years of operating the business, my dad and Didier had never taken a joint vacation fearing that their butter-filled enterprise would slip up and fall on its face without their watchful eyes. However, in late 2012 the business reached a level of unprecedented quasi-stability with all four locations operating smoothly. The lull in restaurant mishaps and management crises was begging to be taken advantage of.

It was during a Skype call with Dad from my 2nd storey apartment in La Paz, Bolivia, that the plan was devised. He and Didier would take a month off, fly down to Santiago, Chile and rent two motorcycles. Being that I had quit my job several months earlier to backpack, volunteer and climb around South America, nothing kept me from rearranging my plans to meet them somewhere in Chile on a two-wheeled steed of my own. From there we would set our sights on the land of fire and wind, Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of the continent.

We blasted out of that little town 500 miles south of Santiago like a trio of old-Western bandits, panniers loaded with riches and eyes fixated on the distant horizon. If the two Yamahas were the athletic, fuel-injected mustangs of the herd, my carburetted 2010 Kawasaki KLR 650 was the grunty, reliable mule. I bought the blue Kawasaki from a friendly Austrian I had made contact with on ADVRider. Fitted with Hepco & Becker crash bars, pannier racks, touring windscreen and nearly new dual sport tyres, I could not have asked for a timelier set-up to take on Chile’s backroads.

The man-made spine of Chilean Patagonia is the unpaved Ruta 7, better-known as the famous Carretera Austral. Spanning 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O-Higgins, the unpaved highway meanders through dense Valdivian temperate rain forests, glacial fjords and Andean mountains. At a handful of small towns along the way, one can opt to cross the border into Argentina to brave the hanging valleys of the Andes only to be spat out into the sprawling emptiness of golden Patagonian steppe.

With dreams of carving fast gravel lines through pristine valleys and soaring glaciated peaks, we stepped out of our cosy guest house in Puerto Montt ready to earn our first stretch of austral dirt. Two short ferry-rides and 100 miles later we staggered into a stuffy boarding house from under blackened skies, utterly defeated. As Oregonians, we know better than to trust a sky to remain blue for long. Yet, we convinced ourselves that this rule wouldn’t apply during our month of travel through one of the rainiest regions of the world. Weather is quick to put you in your place in Patagonia. An apron-clad woman peeked her head out from the kitchen doorway at the extranjeros locos, grinned knowingly and went to work preparing three additional meals. Outside, droplets of rain sizzled and vaporized on hot exhausts.

Wandering thunderheads peppered the sky during the course of the next few days, intermittently dousing us with biblical deluges. We rode under a patchwork of blue sky and dark clouds, occasionally exchanging bone-soaking rain for spirit-lifting sunbeams.

The 430-mile stretch of gravel separating Puerto Montt and Coyhaique is a trip back through time. Ferns the size of dump trucks spill out from the edge of the road, vying for space that was once theirs. Some sections of the Carretera would barely qualify as a forest road in the United States, whereas others are nearly four lanes wide.

I like to think that I am a conscientious and safe rider, which is why the expletives tumbling out of my mouth in the instant before sampling Patagonian dirt could only be aimed at myself. With eyes constantly checking my mirror, the right-handed, decreasing-radius curve caught me by surprise. I went in with too much speed, my vision fixated on the spot of soil I wanted to taste on the far side of the curve. The rear wheel went out as I attempted to correct my imprudence too hastily. I braced myself for the impact and landed on my right shoulder as the bike skidded away. Adrenaline pumping, I hoisted the hissing KLR upright, revealing asymmetrical crash bars and gouged plastic. Dad and Didier came into sight.

“Ça va?”
“Yeah. I fell, but I’m OK.” My shoulder ached, but it was my pride that had taken the brunt of the fall and they knew it. Dad looked the bike up and down, already coming up with solutions for the broken blinker and cracked plastics as if his garage and tool cabinet were just down the road. Like clockwork, Didier leaned back in his saddle and pitched in with a few jokes. A good riding partner knows how to get a bike back on the road. A great riding partner knows how to ensure your spirits are lifted as well.

No Patagonian odyssey is complete without riding at least a portion of the Ruta 40 in Argentina. The legendary ruta nacional is Argentina’s longest, at just over 3,000 miles, and links the sun-baked north to the sparsely-populated south. Though its gravel expanses feature prominently in adventure travel lore, much of the southern portions have been (or are being) paved. It was the allure of sampling Ruta 40’s vanishing dirt before it goes extinct that coaxed our internal compasses into a westward heading along the northern shores of Lago General Carrera. To reach it, however, meant attempting our first border crossing.

A lonesome shack stood amongst the small handful of trees that adorned the sides of an otherwise rocky hillside. The wind blew with intermittent ferocious gusts, violently rattling the window panes of the drab structure. Passing through the doorway revealed a surprisingly cosy space, a reprieve from the maddening noise outside. Two chairs faced a neatly laid out desk, behind which sat an Argentinian border officer, the man whose coveted approval would grant us passage to Argentina. Methodically, he reviewed Dad and Didier’s papers, with the rental bikes’ information. He made no eye contact as he handed the documents back to the two riders, who thanked him gleefully, like children who’d been given permission to ride their bicycles across town unsupervised for the first time.

The officer waved me forward. I unconfidently handed him my awkward bundle of temporary vehicle registration papers, Belgian passport, Chilean ID card, and USA driver’s license. My heart sank as it became obvious from his furrowed brow that this was the first time he’d been presented with such a panoply of international paperwork.

“Espéreme,” he said as he picked up a phone. I waited quietly. After describing what sat in front of him to whoever was on the other end, the officer listened to a muffled voice. A long, drawn-out silence ensued.

“Sí, mi comandante.” He hung up the phone. The wind howled like a banshee outside. The windows vibrated in their frames. Filtered light danced on the officer’s desk as he flipped the papers mischievously through his fingers. Every once in a while he’d glance upward, his eyes meeting mine. At times, his hand reached agonizingly close to the stamp, only to retract it as he appeared to contemplate a new piece of information. My fate was in his control. He knew it. He loved it. Then, as if buckling under the weight of his own fantastical power, he clumsily stamped my passport and shooed me toward the exit.
“Pásele.” Argentina, scoured in wind, lay ahead.

Although each day of riding offered serious “helmet time” for self-reflection, we spent evenings swapping stories of teenage stupidity, past regrets and far-off dreams. With cuts of meat sizzling next to the glowing coals of an Argentinian asado, I listened to Dad relive the time he plugged a hemorrhaging crankcase with a piece of gum in the Spanish deserts, 30 years ago. Didier’s tales of avalanche rescues as part of a ski patrol unit in the French Alps kept me on the edge of my seat, questioning my own alpine ambitions. I flipped the flank steaks and salted the meat as I once saw a gaucho do and the pair jumped into a story about being stopped at gunpoint while on a motorcycle tour of northern Mexico. Silently, I debated whether to tell them about the lightning strike that obliterated a tree 500 feet away from me two months prior while canoeing deep in the Amazonian jungle. That one would have to wait. At the tail end of these evenings, in the ephemeral seconds before drifting off to sleep, I realized these were the moments I would be retelling 30 years from now.

We rounded a corner one mid-January day and there it was, the sign indicating the end of the continent. Ushuaia is a special destination where the voyages of travellers from all over the world culminate. These endings are not only celebrated by the travellers themselves. Locals passing by are well aware of the trials and tribulations of the wanderers. As we shared a few moments between ourselves, pausing under the entrance sign to the city, trucks rolled by offering thumbs-ups and congratulatory honks.

Instead of going out for a victory dinner that night, I spent it frantically being shuttled around by an off-duty mechanic, trying to source a new chain and front sprocket. Throughout the trip, I had become increasingly concerned at the rate I at which I had to adjust my chain. I misjudged the amount of life left in it and the chain jumped off the rear sprocket as we entered the city that evening. I later found out that the front sprocket installed prior to the trip by a mechanic was the incorrect pitch and had eaten through a brand new DID chain in 6,000 miles. Fortune shone upon me as we dug through drawers of spare parts in a garage and found a 15-tooth sprocket with the same output shaft pattern as my Kawasaki.

Ushuaia was fading fast in our rear-view mirrors now, having come and gone like the wind of Tierra del Fuego. Dad and Didier had 10 days to return their rented Ténérés to Santiago. My future became more defined when I received word that I had been offered an engineering position on the coastline of Chile’s Atacama Desert. I had left my belongings in the town we had met in and it was there that we’d go our separate ways.

Knowing our paths would soon diverge, we let off the throttles and allowed ourselves to be driven only by our desire to relish the riding instead of the need to pursue a destination. South America has a way of reshaping the way you plan your day to match its relaxed pace of life. So, when we found ourselves only 60 miles down the road from where we camped the previous night and mesmerized by the mountains surrounding El Chaltén in Argentina, we called it a day on the bikes, set up camp in the town and went for a hike.

Our trio criss-crossed barren plains, navigated to forgotten border posts and sped through towering larch forests to return to the location of our initial rendezvous just north of Temuco, Chile. The month of Patagonian motorcycle splendour came to an end as I watched a friend and a father rumble slowly away, around a bend and out of sight.
I stood next to my black and blue KLR the following day, staring at it as if trying to establish the kind of bond shared between a pair of lifelong riding partners. A mechanical gaze stared back at me. The muddied and scarred heap of metal and plastic wouldn’t offer me the conversations and laughter that Dad and Didier did, but I could sense the first murmurs of a unique trust found only between man and machine. With a grin slowly spreading across my face, I swung my leg over the Kawasaki like I had done hundreds of times before, cranked the starter and pointed my thumping companion north. The arid moonscapes of the Atacama beckoned.

This is an article which first appeared in issue 25 of Overland Magazine