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Southern Chile Sojourn - News - bespk

Southern Chile Sojourn

Posted on Tuesday, 26th March 2013 by Eunice

The beginning of a new month and we headed the comparatively short distance, (well after the last few days) to Copiapi; where we planned to meet up with the three Austin 7’s from Buenos Aires. 
The driving seemed much easier than previously and there was increasing evidence of foliage; still mainly along the roadside, where the condensation on the tarmac provides moisture.  The Pan-American highway bypasses the town; the entrance is marked by a splendid stainless steel statue.  Copiapi lies in a green cultivated valley and is a bustling town with plenty of industry.  We drove around town looking for a hotel, getting lost in the one way system and eventually returning to the one hotel we had seen. 

It was not long after our arrival, that the three cars from the south arrived and after a Dr. Livingstone moment between Guy and River, greetings all round, all the cars were parked in front of the hotel for a photo shoot to record the event for prosperity.  It was really good to meet up with all five of the team and after an afternoons rest we met for complimentary Pisco Sours followed by dinner (which was not complimentary) in the hotel that the evening.  Stan having walked into town earlier in the day proclaimed there was not really anywhere else suitable to eat.  Being serenaded over dinner made having a conversation somewhat difficult, but once the appropriate volume level had been established a great evening was enjoyed. 

Lots of information, advice and items were exchanged the following morning over breakfast before we set off again on our separate routes.  We had been told by Jack and River that the roads to the south are good and mainly dual carriageway.  We stopped at a fuel station on our way out of town and the car seemed to draw a bigger crowd than ever before. There was incredulity, lots of friendly chat, good wishes for the remainder of our journey and some distribution of fliers to promote our cause.

As we travelled south the shrubs got bigger and greener, there was increased evidence of dwellings and we saw our first goats since leaving mid Peru.  Along the roadside there were stalls selling fruit, honey and cheese, each decorated with brightly coloured flags to attract the attention of the travellers passing by.  Much beeping of horns and waving, as has become customary on our journey, but the Chileans seem more enthusiastic than ever.   By midday we had seen our first tree outside a town for several days.  We stopped for the night outside the towns of La Serena and Coquimbo, finding a seaside cabin right down by the ocean.  This made a nice change from being in the town centre and all the hustle and bustle of a large hotel.

Having decided to enjoy the view from the decking at the front of the cabin with a few beers and a bottle of wine, we then realized the nearby restaurant had closed.  On enquiry the owner rustled up two delicious pots of food, which we ate in our cabin.  It seemed a long time since breakfast and we had forgotten the effects of alcohol as an appetite stimulant.  By the evening it was surprisingly chilly and an extra blanket was required.  In the morning a small breakfast was brought to the cabin on a tray and it was not long after that we set off on our way to Los Andes, where Guy had arranged to service the car, having been offered the use of a workshop by Willem Grondhuis.
The road is now dual carriageway with far more gentle gradients.  The scenery gets more beautiful and as you drive along the coast there are crescent shaped bays with near perfect waves crashing on the golden shores.  Things really seemed to be getting better and we really felt that the end might be in sight.  In fact driving through a tunnel there was a big bright light at the end! 

They say not to count your chickens before they hatch.  We had stopped to pick up some fuel just outside Los Vilos at a Service Area. We needed the Wi FI to write down Willem’s phone number. We spent some time talking to many of the interested people who gathered around the car.  Then we were on our way again.  However within five miles the noise from the engine changed to a distressed tone.  Guy pulled the car into the side of the road whilst he tried to puzzle out what had happened.  Cars passed hooted and their passengers waved.  A real sense of despair descended as the likely cause was a 'big end' (a fundamental bearing in the engine) had failed. 

We had been parked up for all of 10 minutes before Saint Serendipity arrived in the form of Mauricio.  He obviously knew about engines; he and Guy, a pen and paper communicating what they thought was wrong in spite of the language barrier.  As there was no way we could drive any further, he offered to tow us twenty miles to the town of Pichdaqui where he lived.  He was very sympathetic in his towing, maintaining a very low speed, but despite this Guy claims that he used the brakes more in that 20 miles than in the whole journey so far.  

We were parked safely off the main highway whilst Mauricio and Rosa and their friend went off, having invited us to join them for lunch.  Guy was reluctant to leave the car unattended and as it was already drawing a constant crowd this was a wise decision.  Our lack of Spanish had led us to understand that he had a friend with a tow truck, but this was not the case.  After an hour and a half, Mauricio and Rosa returned, the truck laden with planks of varying lengths, rope, tension straps, a hammer and nails.  A ramp was constructed with the planks and using the incline of the bank and the help of members of the crowd, the car was pushed into the back of the truck, the rear wheels hanging over the back ledge.  All was secured with rope and tension straps and after a good inspection by Mauricio and Guy; was declared safe.

We then set off on the 100mile journey to Los Andes.  As we drove into the town of La Calera, the side of the road was lined with women holding covered baskets and waving short poles with white rag flags attached to them.  On enquiry we were told they were selling the local pastilles - light pastries filled with dulce de leche (caramelised condensed milk) and meringue.  Before we knew it Mauricio had stopped, purchased a selection and a large bottle of kiwi juice. He was concerned that we had not eaten. We hadn't realized how hungry we were and were very grateful for his generosity as well as the experience of tasting a local delicacy.

As road rose from gradual ascent to steeper gradient and tighter bends and the sun began to sink in the sky, creating a most vivid array of reds, oranges and purples, we crossed the mountain pass that leads into the valley in which Los Andes lies.  Both Guy and Eunice were wondering if this was indeed the sun setting on the journey and how we could continue.  We had made contact with Willem Grondhuis earlier in the day and he was aware of our crisis.  He and Mauricio had spoken on the phone and arranged to meet outside the city, from where Willy would take us directly to his workshop.  The initial plan had been for Guy to do a full service on the car here, but now we were looking at a mammoth repair.  By the time we arrived it was after 9.00pm and pitch dark.

Willem's garage houses his impressive collection of classic and modern cars: a Willys Whippet, two 1930’s Buicks, a 1930 Model A Ford.  For Mauricio; with his fascination for older cars this was the perfect ending to a long day.  After unloading the not so mighty Austin from the back of his truck, with the help of Willy, Juan (described as Willy's farmhand) and Guy, Willy very kindly letting him take the driving seat of the Whippet where his face lit up.  A joy to behold and small return for all the incredible kindness he had shown us. 

Meanwhile Rosa and Eunice practiced being princesses in the back seat of the beautiful Buick.  After refreshments and large bunches of grapes from Willy's vineyard it was time to say a fond farewell to these two amazing people, knowing that they had to drive the 100miles back and both to go to work in the morning.  It is impossible to express our sincere gratitude for such amazing kindness and generosity of spirit.

Guy, feeling rather low by this point expressed his concerns to Willy as to whether there was any solution to the problem and if it would not be best to simply get the car to Buenos Aires and ship it home.  Willy was having none of this defeatist attitude.  He took us to our hotel in the centre of Los Andes, advised a good night's sleep and arranged to collect Guy in the morning so he could begin the process of getting the engine out of the car, stripping it down and diagnosing the problem.

So began a series of five long days of intense engineering and problem solving; Guy leaving the hotel early in the morning and returning well after dark.  Meanwhile Eunice explored Los Andes, drank coffee, discovered we had run out of money and set about rectifying that.  Thank heavens for her Kindle and iPad; also for fellow travellers she met in the hotel (John and Nancy) who invited her and later Guy to join them for dinner.

Having stripped down the engine and discovered, on day two, ironically that the problem was broken teeth (all these years of dentistry!!) on the timing gears and thankfully not a big end, the dilemma of how to fix it was solved with the help of Willy.  Unfortunately there are no longer Austin agents in this part of the world, as in John Coleman's time. Sourcing spares is not an easy task, but thanks to the camaraderie of classic car owners this was not such a problem.  Guy and Juan took a trip back to Valparaiso on the  coast where a possible source of the parts had been identified.

Incredibly; this was through the son of the Austin agent who had helped John Colman in 1959/60 - Daniel Elton Heavey; that salvation came.  He has two  Austin engines in his workshop and was prepared to sacrifice one of these (1937) to provide the spares for our engine.  The matched gears were removed and transported back to Los Andes, where it is discovered there is a difference between those in our earlier engine and the later model- all of 3mm.  Day 3 involves Juan and Guy going to various workshops to remove the broken gear and then to a machine shop where a new sleeve and key is made to fit the gears to our engine.  Thank heavens there are still really skilled people here.

The engine is cleaned from all of the grime accumulated on our journey, particularly our desert crossings, serviced and reassembled.  New spokes replace those broken in the wheels and things are looking up.  Day five entails getting the engine back into the car.  Guy is determined he can do this by lifting it in, but after several attempts is helped by Juan and a fork lift truck, with which they manage to get the engine and gearbox "in one lump".  This is a first for Guy, but maybe a lesson that some assistance makes the task a lot easier!  With anticipation the engine is turned over and starts on the second attempt. 

An enormous sigh of relief for all involved and a great sense of achievement.  Now we can complete our quest.  As Willy said it would be a shame to give up when we are so near the end.  We are, however both aware that the car like us is beginning to get very tired and the likelihood of things going wrong increases with each days driving.  By now we have driven over 19,000 miles since the car was rebuilt, driving on average 160 miles per day, for the last 7 and a half months, so it is not really surprising.

On the evening of March 7th, Guy drives the car back to the hotel late in the evening; we pack and prepare to leave the following morning.  Willy and Juan arrive just after breakfast; this is not just ‘goodbye’ but they are going to put us on the right road.  Willy has also contacted his friend in Punta Arenas who will help us ship the car back to the UK. The advice is to go straight there, using as many metalled roads as possible.  They see us out of town, after much waving and horn blowing we are on our way again.  Willy's one desire for all his help is that we make it to the end.  Such overwhelming generosity!  We are glad to be on our way again, but more apprehensive than ever about what will happen next. 

Fortunately we have something really wonderful to look forward to, as Guy's sister Ruth and her husband Charles are visiting Chile on holiday and have changed their plans in order that we can meet up and spend some time together.  Our journey takes us 220 miles south of Los Andes to the city of Tulca.  The road is mostly dual carriageway and with careful directions from the team in Los Andes, we manage to avoid Santiago, using the subterranean bypasses.  Fortunately the gradients are not too steep and despite Guy's anxiety about the engine, the car is running very well, seems to want to go faster and is indeed much quieter, which is a real relief.  Our stops at fuel stations draw the usual crowd of people keen to be photographed with the car and some generous donations for the charity.  They also give Guy a chance to reassure himself that his engineering skills are up to scratch and tighten the cylinder head down.

Our journey took us through the many vineyards and orchards that benefit from these high valleys unique climate, apple, peach and nectarine trees laden with fruit.  There is habitation alongside the roads and lots of agricultural industry in evidence;.  large outlets for Global fruit processing similar to those seen in Costa Rica.  We reach Tulca in the early afternoon and drive towards the city.   We find a hotel next to a pleasant square that has just been opened.  The Eco Hotel.  It is extremely clean and comfortable; the staff enthusiastic about their new venture.  When Guy pulls the car up onto the forecourt we just hope it 85 year old incontinence does not manifest itself too badly.  After a walk around the town, with its interesting bustling centre, many food outlets and big mall, we went back to the hotel to eat, passing the park with its beautiful multi-coloured cascading lights in the trees.  Neither of us had realized just how tense we were about the day's drive and it was with a sense of relief and building confidence that we went to sleep that night.

Ruta 5 heads south down the Central Valley and begins to rise slightly, taking us into a landscape similar to that experienced on our journey towards the Alaskan highway, with large areas of coniferous forest, arable farms growing wheat and maize. Large grain silos and of course lumbar trucks - not to be forgotten!  It feels like we have nearly completed our trip around the world.  We are even visiting cities we have previously been to, deciding to stay overnight in Los Angeles.  Fortunately it is a lot smaller than its namesake in the USA and after a brief detour down an unmetalled road we manage to make it into the city centre.

We are given the name of a hotel and directions by a motorcyclist, but have to stop to make further enquiries.  As usual a large crowd of interested people gather around the car, keen to know about our journey and of course to take photographs.  We are directed to the hotel by a kind family in their car.   It is small, compact and a family run establishment. Small and compact being an understatement, the walls of the room reachable from the bed and the bathroom requiring some clever manoeuvring to use the facilities, but we managed to sleep, despite the noise outside and being woken by the most unmelodic church bells we have heard.  The previous evening we had walked round the town trying to find somewhere to eat, but it seems the further south we go the later in the evening people eat.  Having not found anywhere open by 8.30pm we settled for the restaurant in a large hotel, where the waiter was very keen to hear about our project and took photographs with us after the meal.

The following day’s journey was comparatively short by our standards, (less than 200miles.  We have arranged to meet Ruth and Charlie in Pucon, the centre of the Lake District, taking a short detour off our southerly route.  The excitement of seeing family after all of this time is thrilling.  We also have the drama of the milometer on the car going back to 0000,0 for the second time on our trip.  The countryside we pass through is so similar to that of Southern England and Europe, with lush green pastures, trees, streams, grazing cattle and horses.  The only clue that we are in another part of the world are the conical snow-capped peaks of the volcanos that can be spotted in the distance.  Pucon, is a mixture between an Alpine resort and a Lake District town, lots of hotels and hostels, adventure resort centres, outfitters and a wealth of eateries.  We check into our hotel (Swiss chalet style, but with a Welsh sounding name) and decide to walk to town  whilst awaiting Ruth and Charlie's arrival. 

Needless to say they arrive before we return, decided to come and find us, miss us and we all meet up at the hotel eventually.  They have had a wonderful time walking in the Patagonian Glacier National Park and are heading towards the wine growing area of Chile; we had passed through two days ago.  We celebrate our reunion with an enormous feast on the first evening, various types of tapas, including meat, seafood, smoked salmon and vegetables, requiring an extra table on which to put all the food.  Guy and Charlie manage to do justice to the delicious repast and we are all grateful for the walk back to the hotel. 

The following day requires some exercise to walk off the excesses of the previous evening and we set off to explore the countryside in their hire car.  Neither Guy nor Eunice can believe how spacious and comfortable it is despite most of the roads travelled being unmetalled.  The countryside is truly spectacular, lakes, volcanic mountains and forests.  Along the roadside grow wild fuchsias, resplendent with their red and purple flowers.  We visit a small farmstead where they profit from the three beautiful waterfalls that grace their property charging a small fee that's well worth paying. 

Now; early afternoon we head back into town to find a cup of tea and ice cream, stopping in a delightful cafe, where three ice creams between the four of us fills a hungry space and tides us over until dinner.  This is eaten in a Parilla (steak grill), with a large fire outside and the tantalizing scent of delicious steak wafting in the air.  It is surprising how hungry a day’s walking can make you, but we did modify our ordering after the previous night’s embarrassment.  Portions here are large and it seems fine to eat meat or fish only, forget about the vegetables.

The following morning we say our fond farewells and head in opposite directions.  We make our way south, down country lanes then turning east onto the road that takes us to the pass over the Andes, between Osorno and Bariloche.  We stop at Ruth and Charlie's suggestion at the Monocupoli Auto Museum, where Bernard Eggar indulges his passion in Studebakers and other collectibles, with his wife's encouragement and the assistance of Sergio, who is undertaking his Master's degree in business studies and is helping with the marketing of the museum. 

We are made so welcome and Bernard shows us around telling us of his lifelong passion with cars, of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s as well as the music, the sad tale of his parents death in an automobile crash, when he was 13 and the eventual recovery of the very car they had at the time.  A very poignant tale; and for him a mechanism to help give a sense of closure.  He runs a large dairy farm, which funds his passion for cars.  In this world of enthusiasts he of course knows Willem G.  He even has a chain driven car smaller than the mighty Austin, but in the same colour scheme.  (Okay it is a child's peddle car!)

Meanwhile Bernard's wife very kindly arranges accommodation for us in a friend's hostel in Entre Lagos; a beautiful establishment that looks out over the lake to the Andes that form the border between Chile and Argentina.  It is now much colder than previously.  We have closed the windscreen as the air conditioning is no longer necessary. Additional layers are beginning to be piled on and Eunice is grateful for the exhaust pipe that runs under the passenger side of the car to keep her warm.  A good dinner and a good night's sleep see us up and ready to face the crossing from Chile to Argentina, via the Cardinal's Pass.

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