Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ride to La Mina

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Thursday, June 01, 2006

On my previous ride to Termas Del Plomo I came across a fork in the road. A hand-painted sign stated that "La Mina" was to the left, and "Las Termas", to the right. Just as I was pondering what route to take, a pick-up came down the road. I waved for it to stop, and asked the guys in it how long it would take me to get to both destinations. "Oh, 'bout half an hour for the termas". And the mine? "Oh, prolly 'bout half an hour too". I thanked them, and they carried on.

Since there wasn't much sunlight left, I decided to head on to the Termas, and you already know what an amazing visual spectacle that turned out to be.

I set out on this ride with the firm intent of going as far as I could, and perhaps a bit beyond; it was the Mina or bust, and I'd surely have to travel deep into the Andes to get to it.

The route was familiar by now, and the only think I was disappointed about was a mostly grey sky. Every now and then the sun broke through meekly.

Every excursion to the Cajón del Maipo gives me a bit more confidence with dirt riding. In a way, I feel like I'm discovering unique handling qualities of my motorbike. I say unique because the vast majority of riders that have XR250Rs and do dirt riding use knobbly tyres, and I use more street-oriented ones. Obviously this isn't ground-breaking, but I certainly feel like I have no point of reference with respect to what I can and can't do with this setup. Progress is slow, as I'm feeling about in the dark, not wanting to take it too far and end up taking a fall.

The Embalse El Yeso looked quite a bit duller than last time. A grey sky can really kill a scene.

The biggest difference with the past ride was the snow. That was certainly noticeable. Mountainsides that previously were dusty and brightly coloured were now covered in snow.

I reached the fork in the road, and started off with great expectations toward the mine. The narrow road did a U turn, so now I was looking down on the valley, towards where I came from. I hand't gone 50 m after the turn, when I came up to a truckload of dirt placed squarely in the middle of the road, blocking it. It seems the mine had been closed-off for the winter. I got off the bike, pushed some of the larger stones aside, compacted the earth a bit with my foot, and went over it. I carried on, imagining the valleys and gulleys that surely awaited further up in the Andes.

The road started to switchback. I had a pretty good view of the valley, and far away, some glaciers.

Now there were some patches of snow up ahead, which I avoided, but as I carried on, it eventually became impossible to avoid them. The snow was about 10 to 15 cm deep, and underneath it was mud, and sometimes stones. I stuck my feet out, and advanced slowly. Everything went fine, and I soon realised that snow would not be a problem on this ride.

Up and up I went, but instead of taking me to another valley, the mine turned out to be a series of small flat areas dug out of the side of the mountain, overlooking the valley. I have no idea what mineral was being extracted there. The piled up rocks were grey-white and had sedimentary-ish stripes through them. The wind was amazing, in fact the snow was already nearly completely covered in pebbles, sand and grit in some areas.

The view towards the valley, from up top. In the ristance, the river.

And this is the view looking West, or at least where I came from. Below are some other parts of the mine.

I looked for shelter from the howling wind and took out my ham sandwich. It's hard to communicate the feeling of alone-ness you feel up there. The cold, the wind, and some slices in the mountainside as the only evidence of human existence, and it all conspires to make you feel quite insignificant.

I finished my lunch and came down. I had originally intended to go back towards Santiago, but a road caught my attention. I remembered that someone once told me that they had taken this side road, and so I set off to have a look. Here, another view of Embalse El Yeso.

The turnoff from the main road was beside this strange giant mound of rocks and dirt.

The next pic is looking back down on the valley where I was before. As a matter of fact, one should tecnically be able to see the main road, but it is not visible. On the other hand, there's something quite unexpected in this photo: a path, probably just for humans and pack animals, snaking up the side of a mountain, visible only thanks to the accumulated snow.

The path I was following seemed to go up a side valley. A peak rose in the distance, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was the trail's destination.

On I went, and things got more complicated. Large loose rocks and snow; everything seemed to suggest that turning back was a wise choice, but I carried on, despite mashing my soft delicate body parts against the seat after riding over a particularly large rock or two.

Finally, I had to turn back. A snow drift had come down the side of the mountain, and was packed extremely hard and deep. A narrow path, hard compacted and frozen snow, dual sport tyres and no riding buddies really did not spell out safety.

This is the view just before I turned back.

Back to the Embalse, and I wonder if that's the same jeep that's in the picture from last time?

A ray or two of sunlight poking through the clouds, but that's about it.

The ride back to Santiago was slow and boring, but at least now I know what La Mina is like. It's a pity that I'll have to wait for things to thaw out before finding out what's at the end of that path.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ride to Termas El Plomo

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Monday, May 15, 2006

The day before I travelled back to Curacaví to see the judge about the ticket, I set off for the Cajón del Maipo. Ever since I've had a motorbike, I've heard about the Embalse El Yeso and the Termas El Plomo, and how beautiful they are. I never went up on the XR 125; after the trip to Chillán in November I gained more confidence with riding on dirt roads, but despite this, it never really came about. Maybe I always started out too late: Cajón del Maipo looks deceptively close to Santiago, but the lack of petrol stations after San José de Maipo is something to be kept in mind.

The first poke at the Embalse was on a Sunday, motivated by frustration and with tarnished by a late start. I got to the Embalse, but by then it was nearly dark, and my headlight was aiming too low (adjusting it is a tedious task).

The trip back home was certainly interesting: no moon in the sky, and a headlight that cut off 5 or 6 metres ahead. I even left the road at one point, taking an alternative route for a few seconds.

But now, freshly-returned drivers license in hand, I set off for the Cajón, to do a proper ride.

It took me an age to get there, particularly due to the idiotic 50 km/h limit on Av La Florida and Av Las Vizcachas (two large, double-lane avenues). I detest that mediocre practice, favoured by some municipalities, of leaving the road signs in such a state that the lack of investment in their repair not only saves money, but earns some through traffic tickets.

Driving a vehicle in Santiago while obeying absolutely every single speed limit is a more complex exercise than one might imagine. You should try it some day. I don't mean driving under the 60 km/h limit imposed uniformly in all urban zones, but respecting all and every single sign that you see, during the whole stretch from it to the next one. You'd think that sometimes they "forget" to raise the speed limit again after lowering it to something like 35 km/h, once you are out of the zone that would merit a lower speed limit.

After a slow trip through the valley, looking at my rear-view mirrors constantly, I got to San José de Maipo. I filled the tank, and set off again. Eventually I got to the end of the dirt road, and that's where the dust started.

The washboard, gradient and dust made the first few kilometres quite frustrating. Also, given my lack of experience on dirt roads, the first few kilometres are those in which you have to switch mentalities, from the rigid and precise control you get on the asphalt, over to the constant swaying and motion you get on dirt.

After hearing and feeling how my rear wheel bounced on the washboard, sapping traction and effective power, I decided to adjust the rear suspension. I don't know anything about suspension at all, so I just left the compression damping on minimum, and didn't touch the rebound damping, mostly out of laziness, since the adjustment screw is harder to get at.

At some point there's an old abandoned mountain refuge complex. It looks quite military in its design and aesthetics, but there is nothing left to indicate what its purpose might have been.

The air got colder, and acquired that freshness that you get at altitude, that mountain feel. I was also starting to feel the subtle pressure in my head that altitude gives me.

The hills had those surreal colours that would seem to justify keeping them under a layer of snow half the year, as if to preserve their luminosity.

And I got to the Embalse El Yeso. The road that snakes around it is quite narrow and dusty, with a drop down to the water on one side, and the bare rock on the other.

After the Embalse, I carried on. I wanted to see where the road went, to see if I might find the Termas.

The road got narrower and more deteriorated. Some shadows hid ice, and some mud puddles were actually frozen mud.

Things finally opened up onto a flat valley, and the road disappeared. I guessed that it must cross the wode stony riverbed at some point, so I rode off in that general direction. It wasn't hard, and it was fun to see that I could just ride in a straight line, no matter what was in my way (water, rocks, earth, sand).

I took a small horse path up the side of one of the smaller valleys that opened onto the main one, and saw a car parked way down below, as seen in the next pic (how did it get here?).

I took that pic looking back down the valley, because I had only just managed to turn the bike around, after about 10 minutes of pulling, working the clutch and brakes and so on, sweating like a pig. The rocks had begun to get larger as I made my way up the trail, and there was a point where I was trying to ride over jagged pieces of rock the size of a shoe box. That's when I decided to turn around.

I came down, and finally got to the Termas. There were about 3 or 4 tents set up, some cars, a few jeeps, and I was told that some 3 other cars had just left. It would seem to be a popular destination. The water, at least where I stuck my fingers in, was not warm, but not freezing either. I guess something the temperature of a cold swimming pool is quite tropical for the Andes.

There were other routes that I wanted to explore, but the sun was setting, and I wanted to get back with some light.

I did half the road back in complete darkness, and though I had tried to adjust my headlight, it hadn't improved much. As I was coming down, I caught up with three SUVs. They were going fast and kicking up a load of dust, so the visibility behind them was almost zero. Due to their speed and the dust it was hard to get close enough to pass them, and when I came up to the first one, I waited patiently for a minute or two, but he made no effort at all to let me by. What's it to him? It's just a motorbike. It's not as if I were going to kick up more dust than he was already driving through. I nipped past him anyway, and once I was a bit further away, reflecting upon his stubbornness, I lowered my heels and dragged them on the ground. Now that really kicks up the dust :-)

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Camping in Colliguay

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Monday, May 15, 2006

As promised, here are the pics of the ride to Colliguay with Ben Kenobi last month. I confess I hadn't published them yet because I was quite bummed out about a ticket I got for running a stop sign at a booby trap outside Curacaví on our way back.

Colliguay is somewhere in the Cordillera de la Costa, north of Curacaví, where we first stopped for essentials at the local supermarket (chorizos, beer, coal, bread, mayo, cheese, water). The bikes were already pretty loaded down (the pic is before we tried to add another 10 kg of shopping onto them) and finding enough room for the groceries was not easy. A beer can was punctured on a sharp corner of Ben's Givi top case, spraying everything. We ended up tying the coal and some beer cans on top of my pack, and set off.

The earth road was good at first, but it deteriorated progressively. Ben was worried about the Transalp's suspension, but I kept telling him that it would be fine.

After a long road, and with an hour of daylight left, we started searching for a camp site. We chose the Rancho Alemán. Cheap, nice, we're staying here!

Upon opening Ben's top case, we found that another beer can had exploded. The vibration and friction had worn through a thin part. A t-shirt absorbed the bulk of the beer, and that was hung out to dry.

We put up the tents, started a fire, hooked up the speakers and iPod, put on "Feels Like Home" by Norah Jones, and began enjoying the tranquility.

Next door, some 5 cyclists had arrived shortly after we did, and since we had a few chorizos left over, I took them over, and chatted for an hour or two. After that I hit the sack.

On the ride to Talca, I forgot my sleeping bag, and I slept in my biking outfit (leather jacket and all), shivering and miserable with a cold. In Siete Tazas, I took a thin sleeping bag but no pijamas, so again I had to sleep fully clothed. Would it be any different this time? No. Even with a thicker sleeping bag and pijamas, I froze. I got up as soon as there was enough light to walk about.

I gathered some twigs and made a fire to toast some bread and boil some water for tea. I had a look at the bike, and it was covered in frost!

The cold I felt was certainly not imaginary, after all.

After breakfast, we spoke to the owner, and he recommended two rides, both set off from the main road and led to mines, one iron, the other quartz. We were'nt able to get to the quartz mine, since the Transalp wouldn't fit past the gap at the side of the gate.

We carried on up towards the iron mine, and that was good and dusty.

The colours were amazing. Blue sky, red-orange rock...

We came down, and found somewhere for lunch, with tables under a grape vine and a tree-climbing chicken. Yes, you read that right.

We went back to the camp, and packed the bags. We took a different route back.

Unfortunately the Transalp was tail-heavy and going a bit too fast, and on one of the curves, the front wheel lost traction, and went down. Ben was unhurt, but the plastic shroud on the right side was cracked. Bummer.

On our way home, leaving a Copec petrol station on the Ruta 68, a cop stopped me for not having come to a complete standstill at a stop sign. Whatever it takes for the visitor to feel at home in Curacaví, right?

The moon rode along with us after dark.

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