Inspiration: Big Trip

Mark Holmes and his Triumph Rocket X in South America

Rocket Man: Part 3

South America surprises

The penultimate leg of Mark Holmes’ emotional tour of the planet on a Rocket X sees him shattering some of the misconceptions that haunt South America. His journey of rediscovery began a year earlier after the death of his wife and has continually surprised him along the way. Read the beginnings of Mark’s story

Here are six things that stopped him in his tracks… almost.

The kindness of others

I’ve learned there are two ways to solve every problem when you’re travelling solo. One is to deal with it yourself and the other is to benefit from the kindness of others.

As I collected my bike, crated by air from Australia to Chile’s capital Santiago, I was unsure what to expect of this collection of southern hemisphere nations tarnished by the world’s media. The front tyre was deflated to squeeze my bike in and the tank drained leaving less than a litre of fuel, so riding five miles along a busy motorway to the first fuel station was terrifying.

I ran out of fuel and luck, and walked to the fuel station to find they didn’t sell fuel cans. A forecourt assistant dug a plastic bottle out of somewhere. Problem solved. I then discovered that the tyre pump at the garage was broken. Cue a truck driver who stopped and attached an airline to his compressor, even showing me a gauge to verify the pressure I needed.

Cracking natural beauty… literally

Santiago, like much of South America, is a mix of 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial architecture and culture, with a vibrant modern buzz. The country stretches from the Atacama Desert in the north to mountains, fjords and glaciers in the south. That’s where I headed, riding 8 to 10 hours a day until I reached the Perito Moreno Glacier just over the Andes in Argentina.

This monster of a glacier slides gracefully down the southern tip of the Andes and tumbles into a cloudy blue lake. As it does so, chunks fall off. A crack-like gunfire, followed by rumbling, splashing, gurgling and yelps from tourists like me, tingled my spine. It’s a truly awesome sight and experience that happens several times a day throughout the summer months. Global warming is not to blame. It’s been happening like this for millennia. Summer temperatures are always above freezing and the lake surface is only 180 metres above sea level. It ends its glacial life with inevitability.

The incredible Perito Moreno Glacier

Gormless llamas in Patagonia

The further south I rode in Patagonia, the flatter the landscape became. The trees are shorter, the bushes spinier and the grasses coarser. Llamas are the most common animal and I amused myself by noticing the gormless look on their faces. We had many a conversation as I slowed down to ease past them. Strange things go on inside my helmet when there is no one else to talk to. I don’t expect to see many more armadillos crossing the road on my travels, but there are quite a few in southern Patagonia.

Football and falls

I knew I’d be drawn in to Buenos Aires by its passion for football, but the extent of its near total hold on the city and people was still a shock. River Plate and Boca Juniors’ stadiums are both in the middle of town, alongside beautiful buildings, art installations, colourfully painted walls, modern architecture and places offering tango lessons. It’s as if art and the beautiful game are inexorably linked here.

Three days riding north from Buenos Aires, the temperature and humidity rises as I cross the Tropic of Capricorn, the border between Argentina and Brazil, taking me close to the Paraguay border next to the Iguazu River and the Iguazu Falls. With an enormous 2.7 kilometre run of 275 waterfalls, it’s the largest waterfall complex in the world. The drop is 80 metres, so there’s a lot of spray and every ecstatic visitor is drenched.

Iguazu Falls

My Rocket is human after all

Now this was a real shock. I was heading for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil through the urban sprawl of Sao Paulo when something broke inside my bike. Fighting back disbelief that my previously unbreakable Triumph Rocket was only human after all – it had been around the world and hadn’t missed a beat so far – I kept going. Selecting a gear now required several attempts by hitting the lever and hoping to find a sweet spot for it to engage the next gear. It was rideable but with a sickening crunch.

Triumph has an amazing network of dealers in most countries and, luckily, it has an assembly plant and a good service network in Brazil. There is a big dealer in Sao Paulo and another in Rio. I decided to risk reaching Rio and the gamble paid off and Triumph Rio Barra served me well. I was in Rio for 11 days waiting for a part to arrive. A spring! Yes, after coming all this way it was just a spring that had broken inside my gearbox.

Rio is fascinating and beautiful in equal measure, full of wonderful people, football, jungle, rainforests, huge rivers and the samba, all overlooked by the Christ the Redeemer statue, which took 12 years to build, perched 700 metres above the city on the Corcovado mountain. But no visit is complete without watching some football and mine hit an exciting high when I went to the Maracana stadium to watch Vasco da Gama beat Fluminense 3-2 in the semi-final of the Carioca Cup. Although there are team ‘ends’, opposing supporters sit happily enough with each other and everyone hugs each other at the final whistle.

The Rocket has travelled the world with barely a hitch

Smiles against all odds

As soon as I entered Bolivia I wondered if I’d done the right thing. The border was like a scene from a disaster movie, until a man in fatigues ushered me through and a customs guard whispered: “We know we have problems in the east, there is no money.”

I stayed in some terrible places without air conditioning, a basin guarded by dogs and not much in the way of curtains, but I was always surprised and grateful for the big smiles of the people.

The road quality was adequate up to Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city. I changed from Ruta No 4 to Ruta No 7, but a few hours down the road I had to stop at a roadblock where residents wanted to draw attention to the fact they had a school but no funding for a teacher. After four hours we were allowed through and the broken road disappeared into roadworks, the unpaved surface gave way to gravel, sand, mud and eventually deep soft shingle. I could not go any further. I had to turn back.

The prospect of good roads the following day when I was due to reach the capital – La Paz, 3,650 metres above sea level – energised me. But halfway there with 100km still to go, the road disappeared into a full-scale road reconstruction project. Both sides at the same time. I made it, though exhausted. The Rocket is made for tarmac but it powered through the rough stuff.

This is a poor country, with only tin, agriculture and textiles to support net earnings but, despite that, the people were kind.

The biggest surprise I have learned on my travels is that those with the least often give the most.