Apologies for the long gap since the last posting, events have conspired to prevent it. Often although Wi-Fi might be available it is so slow as to make it impossible to work on line long enough, or we have been late arriving at our destination or ……. read on
28/2 Los Andes, Chile
Willie very kindly came to see us off from the Hotel, so we had a chance to thank him again for his kindness. We had seen him leave the night before in a Mustang, changed for the Triumph, which had suffered a water pump failure on the way back to Los Andes. The Triumph Stag is fitted with a Ford 3 litre V6 in place of the original V8 due to the difficulty of obtaining spares, his being the only Stag in Chile.
Heading due west we passed to the north of Santiago and Valparaiso and joined the Pan American Highway towards Coquimbo, our altered destination for the day. We were combining traveling days between Buenos Aires and the border between Chile and Peru to enable River to catch a plane back home where he has work to attend too.
At first the roads were, as we had become accustomed to, rather narrow with a poor surface in places keeping you permanently alert for holes and ruts. Once we turned north however the road became a dual carriageway and the surface was superb. We made swift progress and apart from fuel stops, buying water and breaks for a short rest we covered the miles rapidly. The day was hot and the road relatively uninteresting but we enjoyed spotting the changed outlook to that in Argentina.
Frequent toll booths, soon had us realising the differences in cost between the two countries. By the end of the day we had spent a considerable sum in tolls and food, drink and fuel all of which are similar to or above European prices. We did however have a very warm welcome from the people we saw on the road. Lorry and bus drivers being the most enthusiastic, although private motorists were keen to take photos.
We arrived in Coquimbo at the end of a 285-mile day. Its size was something of a shock. Cresting a hill we saw suddenly in front of us the town spread across the hilly outcrop upon which it was founded and the sprawl in all directions it has become joining onto its neighbour La Serena. It looked huge and rather overwhelming as we had spent the major part of the day in open desert with few if any houses. We stopped to buy petrol and asked directions into the town. The number of people on the pavements and in the town itself was amazing. It was around 19:00 and the the place was hopping. We stopped briefly in the main shopping street and were immediately swamped by shoppers and strollers asking questions, taking photographs and surrounding the cars. Moving on was difficult, children stepped out, almost under our wheels, and adults into the speeding traffic to take pictures and demand that we stop to be photographed. The hotel we were looking for ‘The Plaza’ was variously described as being in front of us, behind us or not in town at all. Neither policemen nor locals could actually think of any hotel by the name or one we might try and the two or three we eventually located were full or for other purposes.
As the light faded and losing heart, we decided to go back a short distance to a beach district before the town. Eventually we found a Cabana site and booked in for two nights. By now, all were exhausted and feeling the strain of playing follow-my-leader-round-the-block to find accommodation. Amanda and I had spotted a restaurant we thought looked inviting so we walked the short distance and enjoyed a particularly tasty and well-presented meal.
1st March, Coquimbo, Chile
After a fruitless search for breakfast locally, Stan, Amanda and I took a taxi into town, in need of Chilean Pesos and some items of shopping. Deciding that we could do little until we had money, we tried several banks only to find that there was just one establishment in town where it was possible to exchange currency. The queue was over 60 long, but our need was great, so we began the process. I went in search of a cafe and shops suitable for our needs, returning to the Cambio several times to gauge progress, which was glacial.
An hour and three quarters later Amanda and Stan reached the desk and then encountered a frustrating exchange culminating in the rejection of many of the various dollar bills proffered, about 45% being handed back as not suitable. After a two-hour delay we stepped out onto the streets nearly Peso millionaires between us. Lunch was now very welcome (papas bravas and fig ice cream), breakfast having been non-existent. By the time that was done it was nearly 16:00, so we spent a further two hours finding the three or four items needed and returned by cab to the cabanas. Diana and River had been fixing a few items on the chummy, being helped by the cabana owner with the resources of his garage next door.
That evening, after spending the remaining daylight hours attending to the cars, we enjoyed Pisco Sours at the restaurant with Diana and River before turning in, for an early start to avoid the fiercest of the day’s heat in the afternoon.
2nd March, Coquimbo, Chile
We left shortly after 08:00 and soon got back onto Highway 5. Our favoured filling stations from the day before had been Copec, where we had found good available and breakfast was an inviting prospect. It is a phenomenon of Chile and to a certain extent Argentina, that it seems every day at work is like the first day again. Suffice to say, after four attempts the five staff managed to serve two of us with a media luna and a cup of coffee made from beans rather than Nescafe, the favourite of the nation it seems. In the meantime the queue that formed was out of the shop and onto the forecourt.
Our destination today is Copiapo and overnight we had been in touch with Guy and Eunice Butcher who are traveling south from Alaska in their chummy who will also be at Copiapo tonight. After a few miles following the coast, the road strikes inland towards Vallenar, winding over several passes and the beginnings of the bad lands before reaching the Atacama proper.
The heat was intense and several times the chummy stopped to cool and to restore petrol flow from its bulkhead tank and a filter, which suffers from low head pressure and the ambient heat allowing, the petrol to evaporate in the filter. Stan’s propshaft or torque tube coupling was vibrating rather badly and he stopped to grease the sliding coupling and torque tube joint.
At each stop the name of the next town was tried with a different stress on various parts of the word, until, confused, it became “our destination” instead. We passed several toll booths on the road where the average charge was $2,500 Chilean Pesos (£3.50 per car approx) the lead car paying for all three to save Stan having to get out and run round to pay and collect a ticket. All the while we were passed by tooting, camera-waving car drivers, passengers and trucks, our presence being taken in a largely enthusiastic, friendly manner.
Text messages passed between Guy and River and finally we rolled into Copiapo looking for the Antaya Casino Hotel, found eventually despite several well-meant but misleading instructions given by people in the streets.
Guy had been on the lookout for our arrival and came to meet us on the rather grand forecourt, with its fountains and circular drive. We lined up the four cars in front of the hotel, there being no more inspiring backdrop and took photos, in between introducing ourselves and each making enquiries about the others’ journey. Guy, Eunice, Amanda and I being members of the Bristol Austin Seven Club, we convened the smallest most remote meeting of club members, and arranged to meet at 7pm in the bar.
Because of the very hot late afternoon sun we soon went to register in the cavernous foyer. The general example of size versus speed soon became evident, my observation being that the larger and grander the hotel, the longer the process of checking in takes and this was no exception; the small hotels and cabanas we had used till now taking a matter of a few minutes, the Antaya Casino Hotel more than 30 minutes. Eventually we gained access to our rooms and a welcome shower restored good humour. We had arranged to meet Eunice and Guy for a celebratory drink and time to swap experiences over dinner. No sooner had we sat down in the rather sumptuous surroundings than a singer began to entertain the dining room, our party of seven and the only other people a Chilean family of five, sadly the music was at such a volume that all normal thought was wiped out, let alone speech! After two appeals to the staff the volume reduced a little, but made conversation difficult all evening.
3rd March, Copiapo, Chile
One benefit of the hotel was however a very good Wi-Fi connection and speed so I was able to post a new blog and finally sleep after a very fulfilling day. We met again over breakfast and gave and received information on the routes ahead for both parties. We had a short day ahead and decided to take advantage of the facilities for various domestic and organisational tasks enabling us to wave off Eunice and Guy, as they departed before us.
We left for Chanaral slightly later than planned and followed the coastal Route 5, with views of the dramatic coastline and Pacific Ocean. There were remnants of the huge amounts of extractive mining that have dominated this coastline, there being loading facilities on the rocky shoreline and the Pacific surf pounding in. The 109 miles were covered in a little over four hours and we arrived in Chanaral in daylight to find a hotel in this rather shabby-looking town. We pulled up outside a likely place which turned out to be where Eunice and Guy has stayed two nights previously, and were again swamped by local people anxious to ask questions and have their photograph taken draped over the cars.
Stan was still encountering vibration from the transmission and decided to fit a new fabric coupling, the old one showing signs of de-lamination. Diana wanted to do more checks before the desert crossing and in particular the chummy was making a strange sound from the gearbox in neutral and first.
After our basic day checks, Amanda and I walked into the town centre and found it be a much more pleasant place than we had anticipated. Amanda bought some replacement shorts and we found some supplies for the next day’s early start to tackle a section of desert we had learned was likely to be testing for the cars and occupants.
Opposite the hotel was a small restaurant, which had been recommended by a local man we met outside the hotel, his english learned while he was in the merchant marine and during shore leave in Liverpool. When we went in he was there and later we found to be the proprietor, although all the work was done by a woman who neither spoke to him nor acknowledged his presence. There was no menu, but the woman mentioned fish soup and the decision was made. On its arrival proved to be a delicious broth over various shellfish and large pieces of white fish. Entirely filled by this, we retired to an early-ish bed and sleep.
4th March, Chanaral, Chile
Rising before dawn we crept past the night desk clerk who had been on duty since midnight and was asleep at her desk, the TV’s blue glare giving enough light to see our way out. We had hoped that we might find a petrol station open or somewhere to get coffee but were out of luck and so began the first of several long climbs into the cloud- shrouded hills.
The car seemed to be pulling well and since it was cool, the chummy had no problems with fuel vapourisation.
After a couple of hours the landscape became more barren and inhospitable, I tried to attract Stan’s attention for a stop to have some bread and honey.
When we finally stopped after a fierce climb, I thought that the engine sounded a little different, there being a noticeable “chuff”. We had a twenty-minute break and got on our way again, but now the engine was definitely down on power and after struggling on for a few more miles, we signalled a stop and I did a quick check on plug sparks, which were all in order, the symptoms were so indicative that I reluctantly concluded that the head gasket had gone between cylinders 2 and 3, exactly as had occurred just before the New Year back in the UK.
We knew there was a petrol station a few miles ahead and so Amanda and the spare petrol can transferred to Stan’s car to reduce weight and I managed to coax it up the hills and finally rolled into the petrol-station forecourt. To one side was an abandoned building with a cable drum for a table outside and a little shelter from a small overhanging tree. I parked in the shade and dug out the compression tester which, in a few moments confirmed the two centre cylinders were low. With all the luggage removed and access to the spares under the rear seat base, a gasket and the necessary sealants were found.
The head came off with little trouble and sure enough the head gasket had blown in the same place as before. Under the strong Chilean sunlight I noticed two small marks on the head, which had not been noticeable under flourescent light back in December in my garage. I had brought with me a low-compression gasket which it was suggested might be more forgiving of minor blemishes so decided to fit that.
River and Diana had begun to have recurring vapourisation problems and as we were now approaching the very hot part of the day, it was suggested that they press on at their own pace and find accommodation for us all in case we were late getting in. Just as we were about to apply Wellseal to the head and gasket a wind sprang up and within minutes everything was coated in a thin layer of Atacama desert sand. The gasket had to be cleaned and recoated before the head was finally back in place and the ancillary parts attached.
With trepidation I pressed the starter and it fired and ran smoothly. Leaving it to warm through, we gathered up and pack away the tools and reloaded the luggage. After allowing the engine to rest for a while, the head stud fastenings were retightened. Two and half hours had elapsed and the sun was now fully on the car. Only later did I discover that thin disposable overalls are not sun proof; my back was burned through them. We set off in pursuit of River and Diana, but shortly had to stop several times for Stan, whose vibration was now more severe than before. At one of these stops Stan reported a loud bang and worse vibration, I rode with him for a while and the vibration seemed to have gone altogether, when in the wilderness of the desert we saw in the distance a Police car by the side of the road.
As we neared the scene, a policeman stepped into the road and in best PC Plod mode, held up one hand in a theatrical gesture, stopping us. He walked slowly to the passenger window and shook hands with me before holding up a radar speed gun and showing me a figure of 121 km/h. I think he would have heard the thud of our jaws hitting the floor, before we began to realise that this was impossible, the car being only good for about 65 anyway. He, with a very straight face invited me to get
out and only then did I twig that he was having a joke and this was not a serious accusation. The relief must have been palpable on our faces, as he began to laugh and we joined in. He then organised a photo shoot, with himself and colleague in front of the car, behind the wheel, all of us in front of the car, him with his arm around Amanda and so on. and after many questions and more laughter we were on our way.
The progress was however temporary as the vibration on Stan’s car was back and worse. It was then that Stan noticed an error in the way the new fabric coupling had been fitted and set about re-bolting it, as the same police car pulled in behind us. One of the policemen came to see what was happening, the other appeared a few minutes later from the direction of our car, saying, “You shouldn’t leave these in the car, as someone might steal them” as he dropped the keys into her hand. Attached was a Carabineros de Chile key ring.
They left to harass other motorists and, on restarting, the vibration on Stan’s car had gone. By now we were late and we hurried on towards our destination wondering if we might be able to hook up in the dark with the chummy team. It grew dark and in the gloom we approached Antofagasta, tired, hot and bothered. We stopped at the first petrol station low on fuel and unsure what to do. As we were filling one of the petrol attendants came across to tell us that our friends had passed through not too long before and would be in touch, as at that moment we received a text message from them.
The instructions sounded simple and half an hour later after a long and perilous descent in speeding traffic and a road under repair and reconstruction, without lights or road markings to help, we arrived in Antofagasta and soon spotted River on the pavement waving us into the secure parking below a delightful Apart Hotel.
5th March Antofagasta, Chile
A search for breakfast lead us to a an ‘Jumbo’ Supermarket with cafe and below it a large DIY store where we bought various supplies we were in need of. We had been told that the road north from Antofagasta beside the sea most of the way was not to be missed so we took it and it proved to be as billed. Soon after leaving the town we passed a large monument on our right which marked the Tropic of Capricorn 19.8 deg south. The road rose and fell over the spurs of the mountain range which came hard up against the coastline in places. Small fishing communities eke a living here, amongst some of the best fisheries in the world, where crab, shellfish, seaweed and vast numbers of fish can be found.
A shortish run of 137 miles saw us reach Tocopilla around 17.00 and we found accommodation in the Royal Hotel a building reconstructed after the 2005 earthquake, however the rooms were almost unbearably hot until nearly 23.30.
Across the street was a bar and restaurant serving chips and gravy we were led to believe by a visiting Liverpudlian, marooned in this small scruffy town to commission a water plant. We of course made a duty visit and Stan found the dish with beef and melted cheese, chips and gravy to be very much to his liking. We strolled into town to buy supplies for the longer day ahead and found dried fruits, water and cereal bars to keep us going.
6th March, Tocopilla, Chile
We resumed the journey at 07.30 and enjoyed a further run along the coast with some climbs and the winding road following the coastline.
A few involuntary stops held us up for several minutes each time but in general we were making steady progress. Towards the end of the journey Amanda and I stopped to explore a road-side graveyard which it is hard to describe in its strangeness. Near the beach, most graves had a surrounding wooden or iron fence, some with a wooden plaque presumably showing details of the burial, now almost illegible, bleached and scoured by the wind and blown sand. The bone-dry atmosphere and lack of rain had conserved the wooden structures, the iron rotting and scabbed from the salt laden wind coming in from the ocean. Above all white paper flowers were wired to sticks and poles on nearly every grave, a truly eery sight.
Slightly behind the others, we picked up our pace towards Iquique. We caught up with the chummy and overtook on a hill where they were still suffering from fuel starvation and pulled up over the brow of the hill.
As they got going again we started but immediately noticed a change in the engine note and very soon the “chuff” had returned and quickly we began to loose power, our nemesis was back and this time it was not going to allow us much leeway. After a mile or so we were approaching a police car and as we slowed the engine cut and we came to an involuntary stop beside two policemen examining car papers.
We drove the car on the starter motor to the hard shoulder and got out to examine the damage. One of the policemen came to say hello and as I took the radiator cap off, the lack of water in the header tank spelt end of play for the day. I suggested to the policeman that we would need a truck to take us to Iquique and he promptly used his mobile to call someone, who he said would be with us in twenty minutes. We then began a slightly bizarre sequence given the unlikely circumstances. Ignacio, the policeman, introduced himself, sent his colleague across to their car to fetch sun-cream for our bare arms, showed us pictures of his grandchildren, called a friend who showed up ten minutes later to witness the spectacle, radiod ahead to the next check point to ask that the other cars be stopped and informed of our mishap and then organised a photoshoot with himself, his reluctant junior assistant, his mate and finally the truck driver who arrived and very efficiently put Bertie up on the sliding bed. More photos were taken, we were arranged with different people and finally Ignacio, his arm around Amanda, the whole army of massed people were snapped by his very grumpy assistant. As I went to shake Ignacio’s hand and thank him for his help, he grasped me in a friendly bear hug and then kissed Amanda goodbye.
The truck driver had been a Tuna fisherman in the south of the US and spoke some english, so I explained the problem and that I would need the services of a machine shop if he knew of one. After about ten miles we saw the chummy beside the road, where it turned out the others had stopped at a beach-side Cabana site. The driver skillfully dropped the car by the cabin and offered to wait while I removed the head and he would deliver us and the head to the machine shop. The head was off in about 15 minutes and River and I went with the truck into Iquique. The shop turned out to be a veritable cave of machinery and engine parts and from it emerged three engineers who immediately understood the problem, produced a straight edge and feeler gauges and declared the head to be 0.8m out of true in the centre. It was by now 17.00 and they reasonably offered to have it done by 08.00 the following morning but our driver was adamant that we needed to have it today and so it was agreed that it would be ready by 18.30 that evening.
Roberto offered to drop us at a supermarket in town and we parted with many thanks for his considerable help and kindness. River and I shopped for supper and Diana’s birthday on the following day and returned to the machine shop to collect the finished head. With our shopping and the beautifully-finished head we returned to the cabanas and Stan kindly offered to help get the engine back together. By sunset it was done and I was in time to enjoy the sun sinking into the ocean from the veranda of our cabin, G&T in grubby hand. Yet more “trail magic” had been experienced and the total cost of truck, machining and return taxi being less than £70, plus we had enjoyed a very convivial hour or so with Ignacio.
Later that evening a local driver guide, Roberto, came by at about 22.30 and Diana, River Amanda and I booked a tour to Humberstone to visit the abandoned town and Nitrate works. During the evening Diana had been talking to Vince Leek and emailing about the gearbox problem which had now become a very real worry. the noise was getting worse and it had been difficult to engage second during the day.
For some, a happy conclusion to the day, albeit with an underlying concern about future reliability, for others ongoing concerns and as yet unresolved technical issues.