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Month March 2014

arrived

Back-posts in a few days. Check below for posts being filled in.
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two days to Ushuaia

An hour from now it’s going to start blowing a gale. And it’s a hardish dirt ride southwest to the Argentinian border
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The day’s track. To the end of the world, the furthest south
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For the first hour, nothing except this
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We’ve been riding away from the coast for a while, then we turn back through some hills. Plenty of Guanaco around. Every few days you see the dried remains of one that didn’t complete the jump over the endless fence and got hung up
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Down to the sea
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A lot of road shots recently. I think because it’s been pretty barren since the Carretera and the surface has been more of the adventure. Anyway, here we have a good track to follow despite the wind.

(on that subject I just read that Jeff crashed in the wind approaching Tres Lagos (see the post to Chalten) and came across two Brazilians whose bikes were knocked down simultaneously. So it looks like me and Jerzy were the only people we know who didn’t crash somewhere on Ruta 40. Heroes in our minds, both. Jeff said the wind which Lucinda thought was about 50 mph was more like 70 to 80 for him)
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Past a fishing shanty
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Blowing but beautiful. Just the road and the sea
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Then inland
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We have to cross into Argentina yet again. I’ve counted all these crossings in my passport-stamp-space issue. More on that to follow. Anyway, here we are, some outpost in the middle of nowhere. Very quiet, no breeze
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But because they’re rich, the Chileans make a show of their border post. It’s efficient, no more than 20 minutes and we’re through. I’m bored by the lack of border buzz in South America and have a hankering for the chaos and corruption of say, El Salvador. No kidding, the worse it is, the more addictive
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And so don’t bother with the Argentine crossing photos today. More straight, cold distance killing
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Then we start gaining elevation slowly
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Through a 100 mile forest of tough low confers
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I saw another of the many small foxes here
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Then our first view of the southern mountains. I had no idea if the pass was going to be snowed over or not as the only person I know in the area is Jerzy and I’m not sure if he’s on the same stretch. We both decided to do the full 450K to Ushuaia today and not stop at Rio Grande I was to learn later.
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I don’t stop for many photos. We’re headed through Paso Garibaldi (really) somewhere ahead
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Past a lake. Christ it was cold
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A moment of sunshine however
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Another lake
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The trees
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The final climb up to the pass
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Nice
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A gigantic peak
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It had been snowing in the pass. We’d been fighting a big headwind for the last few hours and it was near here that we got hit with a directionless (maybe straight down) gust that was so strong I was momentarily confused and nearly lost Lucinda. I had no idea what direction it came from but it was like we’d had a collision with something
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The last hour was a frozen struggle against the breeze. Of the nearly 4000km’s on the Carretera Austral and Ruta 40 since Puerto Montt, already pretty far south, about 2500 has been dirt and 1000 in strong wind. This isn’t much short of the drive from Vancouver to Toronto Google Maps tells me.

We’re here. Ushuaia
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two days to Porvenir

Only 700K south to Ushuaia now.

The landscape from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas was mostly a cold wasteland. We woke up to the wind screaming, relieved we had a paved section for the day. Distorted trees outside of town, the last we’d see today
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The day’s track
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We’re at the top left of this, the tip of South America
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This is what it looked like the whole day
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With the slight exception of this
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And the last 20 miles, when we ran beside the ocean
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What was noticeable was the cold. I bought another cheep fleece layer back in Calafate and was now riding with 3 layers under my jacket, long-johns and glove liners (also bought in Calafate)

Featureless riding day number 4 out of 550 and the coldest yet. Because of the wind, colder than riding through snow in Rugby, North Dakota or Lake Placid, New York.

Punta Arenas was a pretty town and a huge surprise. The last ‘civilization’ ran out about 2500k of riding ago
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Quite formal, very clean and tidy
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A military parade in the town square. It reminds us of Arequipa
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Interesting architecture
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Excuse the bad shots. And we’re behind posting, so no history lesson today.

The next morning we leave for the ferry to Porvenir. This is exciting – our first crossing of the Magellan Straight and a reminder that we’re extremely south. The words remind me of our own magnificent Georgia Straight but best not to think about that. It makes me sad and homesick. But I have a feeling that’s a good thing somehow.

On our way to the dock Lucinda wants a shot beside a PT type boat
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At the terminal there are two boats – ours is the more interesting blue one
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And we see Jordan and James. They’ve got matching retro Honda 600’s, matching work jackets (over a riding jacket) matching pants, matching everything. They’ve gone for the dirtbag look, I guess for security through Central America. I don’t comment. Great guys
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And Yay! Jersey and Monica are here too. We all chat
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Monica and I laugh that chatting is Jerzy’s favorite thing. You’ll notice she’s heard this story before however, probably several times
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The bikes are tied down in a neat row. I use tubular webbing because I don’t carry cargo straps
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Leaving Arenas
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The boat’s half empty
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The bridge is nice
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Inside the Captain rolls pesos tightly. Considering we bought our tickets at the dock this is a mystery
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The helmsman turns these things to steer the boat
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Into the tiny town of Porvenir
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We wait for the foot passengers to disembark before easing off at an unnaturally slow speed, up on our pegs balancing the bike and blipping the gas as we ease through them. Anyone who doesn’t showboat (at the right time and place) in 2nd and 3rd world countries is suffering from depression Lucinda says
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Porvenir’s a small fishing village but perfect
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almost

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to Puerto Natales

Calafate was a good place to hang out before the last days south. We explored the area and rode as far around the lake as the road allowed. One breezy morning on the waterfront we had a big surprise. P1020510 Flamingoes again!

I suppose my childhood introduction to flamingoes were African photos in National Geographic so I think of them as tropical. Also, for my generation, African shots from National Geographic were our introduction to something else just as spectacular and seared into my memory but anyway. There are three species of flamingo in South America, this is P chilensis and it clearly doesn’t mind the freezing cold.

As well as the flamingoes they’re plenty of horses around. They look too sleek to be wild but there’s never any signs of enclosure P1020518

I was walking down the main street and saw a Triumph Tiger parked outside a restaurant. I may have mentioned it before but there’s one universal thing among long-distance riders: Tiger owners love their bikes. Normally I’d be somewhat frightened by anything made in England but there’s no arguing with the riders, the bike seems to do this well. I walk in the restaurant and meet Steve. I borrowed a photo from his Porvenir ferry ride as it’s better than mine crossing the magellan straits

He’s riding from Buenos Aires to Alaska then New York. Being Scottish he drinks and we did. So here’s a story: what would you like to be most if you had to hang out in Guatemala City? A just-retired British Commando with the 29th regiment, with a tattoo of a huge dagger and the word COMMANDO in big letters beside it. Also perfect for the El Salvador/Honduras border crossing. Riding skills? Currently races motocross, showed me a photo of himself about 30 feet in the air. Experience overseas with people trying to rob or kill you? Tours of duty in Afghanistan, Beirut, etc etc. He OK’d me to write this. Steve’s the guy who told me that regarding self-portraits ‘if you don’t pose, nobody knows’. There are only 5 towns from here on down so if there are any riders around, we’re going to meet them, and being a bit off-season they’re likely to be the hardier types. Me, I’m just late.

Off to Puerto Natales. The day’s track on Ruta 40 Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.36 PM

In the big picture it’s here Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.03 PM

The ride out of Calafate takes us up onto a plain P1020559

Before a long dirt road ahead we’re greeted by this spooky person at a cattle grid. Click the video to the left (click, click enlarge, click HD). I’ve developed a superstition about ride videos and so no more of those until I get over it

The road’s an unusual packed rock and dirt and fast. There’s not a lot of landscape today, so this is more of a ride report than usual
P1020568 Another of the many streams that cross the flats P1020570

Spectacular riding, changing surface all the time
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We think we see something on a pond
P1020606 Sure enough, more flamingoes

We approach slowly and discover something. Flamingoes don’t fly away, they walk away P1020609

We scare off a group of other birds. The wing markings are extraordinary, no idea what they are P1020614

They’ve decided to flatten out some of the long dips by pouring a rock road P1020621

The surface is lousy. Maybe 50 miles of on-the-pegs lousy P1020595

An unusual sight: sheep
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Further along something that’s fairly common, a fox. I’m guessing they eat the bird’s eggs. They’re very small, maybe 20 lbs
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Back onto great although rocky road. The Ruta 40 has every type of surface. Even sand and mud back in Belen

The road turns crappier than usual and we have to pick lines
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We cross marsh and ponds on the elevated road. If you click in this photo, tons of flamingoes
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On the other side and up close, these two swan-like birds. They’re huge but have duck bills, not swan bills
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We come to crossroads and the end of the dirt. There’s a gas station, closed. No problem, we’ve lots of gas
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The windows are covered in traveller’s stickers, including this one
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Now we’re racing for the border again through hills
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Through a border town, the name escapes me, under various layers of clouds
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First out of Argentina again. My passport stamp space is scary and causing me some stress. Photos coming up. The building’s a converted house and quiet. In fact I’m the only one there
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I give my speech and they’re brilliant and find a small spot for the stamp. Then off to the Chilean building. I’m in luck and they also find a tiny space for the stamp. I think the harder it gets the more they enjoy this. At least when I give my speech they all look up and listen intently to the gringo with a problem. A small epic is fun for everyone
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Downhill and another maybe 50 miles to Puerto Natales. The wind is strong and blowing us across the road again
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A panel truck, blown off
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Into the town. It’s blowing a gale
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Interesting buildings
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What look to be Coast Guard boats
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Around the corner in the lee, fishing boats
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Looking up the sound, here we are at last. Tierra del Fuego
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to Calafate

The day’s track
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Climbers will know what I came to Chalten to see. But first, it had snowed overnight. This was slightly worrying as I have further south to go, and one more low pass ahead. It’s late in the season and although I’m sure there are other bikes behind me, I only know of one
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Early, it’s beautiful over Chalten
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To the south
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And that’s Cerro Torre! Fitzroy never appears
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The sun catches it. Click this photo
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El Chalten is a small village with an outdoor bent
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A last look back at the town before I leave
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To the gas station. A converted container or two
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Snow on the hills lower down
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The lake and the Andes behind
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A long uneventful paved road with few features except this. Very coldP1020471

The river
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If you look carefully you can see the road weaving across the landscape here
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A giant river, glacial blue
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Into Calafate for a long rest
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Saludos
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to El Chalten

I woke up to the sound of the wind exactly as expected. In fact I’ve expected today to be like this for more than a year. It’s the toughest stretch in South America and in a way it’s not even technical. It’s blowing maybe 30 mph when I wake up, strong and nasty on gravel but not terrifying
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The day’s track, including another route error, which cost 40 minutes against a brutal headwind later in the day, total 348k’s. This road is a legend.
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The Google Earth
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We leave early out of town and up onto a plateau. The breeze isn’t too bad, the plateau has a moderating effect
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We ride through nice curves and join Ruta 40 again. There’s about 100K of pavement, which ends here. At this point it’s blowing over 40 from right to left. Very hard work and the hardest wind so far on the trip, much harder than Lake Michigan, but the easy part of the day. I lean poor Lucinda into the wind at 20 or 30 degrees at this point
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I stop to get a picture of an approaching car to show the dust being blown level. Stopping at all would be impossible without being blown over very soon. The camera leash is lashing me hard. This picture shows one of the two main difficulties, other than just being blown off the road. The tracks made by cars and trucks leave tracks that are free of gravel but pile up small berms of loose rock between them. And this is the big joke, known by all who’ve ridden here: you have to stay in the track. If you hit the berm you may lose all grip in the war with the sidewind and you crash. The only way to do it is solo – I can’t imagine having anyone else around for this private battle. Check out the berms here. Just loose gravel, normally you don’t think about this. But in this breeze they can be the end
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There are many horror stories about this leg of Ruta 40. Just recently a friend of Ben’s got blown off the road 4 times. Steve (who you’ll meet here in a couple of days) got blown off the road further south once and blown over stationary once. Trevor, a pro who I rode with in northern Argentina said that in his 75,000k on this trip this was the only time his heart was in his throat.

Fortunately the wind was no more than about 40 here. Around the corner below is the long hard stretch of about 100K of much higher wind. Here the road is loose gravel with no tracks or berms which was even harder, but predictable
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Then, out on the plains, it blew over 50, the heaviest wind I’ve ever experienced bike or not. How can I guess? Years of sailing and talking to the locals. I kind of know what 40 feels like and guess from there. Obviously no pictures were possible for the 3 hours of the central section.

Because of the gusts we couldn’t ride the extreme right side in case of being bounced off it to windward in a lull so picked a line most of the time about 3 or 4 feet from the right and about 10 or more from the left.

Threading the line between the berms was a nightmare. Keeping the bike moving forward at a crazy lean angle I won’t even write a guess of here, full strength fighting the gusts and keeping straight was almost an impossible task. Every time you hit a berm you nearly loose the front end. That happens a lot and you don’t get used to it. Maximum speed was about 30mph for the hardest 100K.

Twice we got blown completely over the road but by some miracle not off the road. The moment you lost it and you raced across the road is unforgettable. You’ve lost control, the three-way conversation you had going now excludes you and is entirely between God and Lucinda. Somehow what happened is that we recovered before disaster and I no idea how. This was a very difficult time – when the wind had picked up to its maximum, well over 50, and I’d just survived two huge crash misses with 100K to go I seriously thought I wasn’t going to make it. But there’s no way out at all. No shelter, no options, no-one to help if you crash and you can’t stop or you’ll get knocked down. So I just told myself and Lucinda to ride it 10 feet at a time and hope for the best and not think about not making it. We didn’t crash once for which, as they say, I’m extremely grateful.

In two areas the landscape breaks up, you get partial shelter and can take some pictures without being blown over.

Here’s a typical sheltered road shot
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At one spot it was even pretty and the road clean
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Heck, there was even a junction later, the only feature for 200K of nothingness except the earlier hours of survival hell
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Towards Tres Lagos there are about 10 miles of pavement in 3 sections
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Rare company
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And into Tres Lagos. Lots of deep gravel before town but who cares, the winds backed off
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The town. It was freezing and I was dehydrated after neglecting to pack more than one bottle of water. So I rode through this near-Ghost town looking for a tienda. There was a building with an old Pub sign. I parked and opened the door to a dozen ruined people crashed out on adjoining mattresses and squalor
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Then onwards to El Chalten on pavement. The lake
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Screaming wind
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Very strange weather as we approached the mountains. It looked like it was going to rain, or was raining, but it never did. The air just looked thick with grey
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Riding against a gale headwind was murder. I could only manage 50mph maximum. Jeff just got blown out of one attempt into the mountains it was so extreme, I just learned
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Hills to the left
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and to the right
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Then El Chalten, tucked into a small valley
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It was over. I was completely exhausted. But happier than I can describe.

to Gobernador Gregores

A fast start out of Bajo Caracoles towards the town of Gobernador Gregores, the largest town in a very big area
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A sign with the scary words ‘Tres Lagos’ on it
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But anyway, the day’s track
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The Google Earth
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Ruta 40 is going to be completely paved one day. In the interim there are standard dirt sections
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And brand new paved sections that appear quite randomly
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We passed over a huge river plain, once again covered in birds
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I rode fast today and there wasn’t much to photograph anyway. Just endless nothing. So this marks the shortest ride report ever, but we can’t have blanks in the ‘day’s tracks’. Tomorrow’s a big day.

Into town
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