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The speed slowed, down from 75 to around 45, the bike's engine dead again, just the noise of the dry chain clattering on the dusty sprockets.  I needed another 150 yards. The Gaucho, head lolling rhythmically to the stride of his horse, looked like he could handle the stallion he was atop. With the clutch pulled in, coasting the few extra yards, timing in these situations is critical. I cruised level with the cowboy, popped the clutch, the engine fired into life with an almighty backfire. I'm doubled over in tears laughing, the Gaucho is left dangling from the reigns of the whinnying nag, Andy, my brother, is heaving so hard he can barely keep his own bike upright.

Foreign travels do this to you. You wouldn't dream of doing it down the back lanes at home, but when you’re crossing the great Pampas plains of Argentina, bored out of your pants, frustrated with a dodgy bike, your mind plays trick and the devil comes out. I’m impressed though, had it been me on the horse, I’d be flat on my back in the ditch, cursing Gringos for years.

We've flown four dirt bikes down to Santiago in Chile with no plans other  than to see a desert, some huge mountains, a massive waterfall and make it to the end of the earth, (as we know it).  A loop would work, and four fit bikes would be a dream.

Santiago is hilarious, I’ve got Pinochet and a military junta on the mind. Kidnappings, torture and corruption are flooding my senses, so when the customs guy wants to talk about our bikes, in immaculate English, I’m convinced I’m two minutes short of joining the great missing.  Doesn’t take me long to realise that Chile has probably the most efficient customs in the world, and the whole country takes corruption seriously.  Strange it’s doesn’t even feel like Latin America

Pointing the bikes north through the streets of Santiago, aiming for the Atacama,  it took us two hours to clear the town..  Well, actually it took five minutes, the rest of the time was riding in circles trying to find the right road.  A worrying indication of my navigational abilities considering the country has one major road that runs north to south, and is squashed between the Pacific and the Andes. 

It didn’t take long to start looking like a circus act. If you ride about with your bike on fire, it does nothing for your image.  I’d slung a set of soft bags over the bike to carry my gear, the five minute test ride down my local high street hadn’t quite got the exhaust hot enough to do any damage.  Here on the road to the driest place on earth my one spare set of trousers were burnt through the crotch, my underpants a tattered mess and fleece had ended life as it begun, a molten, gooey pulp.  Terrific, these bikes brilliant for blatting around the back hills, were useless for being loaded down like a pack mule for 14,000 miles. I wired  a discarded tread off a truck tyre to the exhaust pipe to keep the bags from touching, and spent the next three months enjoying the scintillating stench of burnt rubber.

The coastline, stretching from Peru to the tail of the continent is staggering in it’s beauty and remoteness. The only problem, was getting to it. The Chileans, with a dash of Roman blood in their veins, have built quite possibly the world’s straightest road the length of the country. A couple of hours riding this monotony was about all I could take, and was searching tracks that would cut down into the fishing villages below.  Their was no real solution. Every road we took to detour off the Pan American highway invariably led back to the tar. When I found a route through, the tracks would carve down the shear walled canyons from the pristine highway above, into a harsh, basic fishing village on the Pacific Ocean. There’s no tracks along the coast, and with the canyon walls plunging straight into the ocean, the only route was back up along the fresh black top.

The push north continued. We were aiming for the Atacama proper, actually more to the shanty town of San Pedro de Atacama at the foot of the Andes.  Scratch the notion of rolling dunes as far as the eye can see, the Atacama Desert is a harsh barren landscape, filled with dirt and rocks.  Every last drop of moisture has been sucked from the air, the dryness racking your body. The first to go are the lips, then constantly sore running eyes and finally deep fissures in your fingers, splitting them further whenever you twist the throttle or pull in the clutch. There are weather stations here that have never recorded an inch of rain in their entire history.

Like every town described as an oasis, San Pedro de Atacama is a fly ridden, expensive heat sink, good only for rest and refuelling. Sitting at the foot hills of the Andes, it’s surrounded by bleak desert, and yet when petrol is low and the bike running on fumes any town that has food, petrol and cold beer is an oasis.

From the shade of a dusty dry bar, we studied the map and circled Iguaçu falls over on the Argentina/ Paraguay border. To the uninformed, distance across the pampas and over the Andes is no concern. The bikes, however, had a different take, spluttering and reeling from lack of oxygen while we climbed the switchbacks aiming for the high passes over the Andes into Argentina. As the bikes slowed so did my groggy brain. Towards the top I’m dizzy, and when a flock of pink flamingos cruises past, I know I’m ready for the loony bin and hallucinating. Up here the landscape burns tinder dry, the noxious sulphur fumes bite your throat and the little water that is available runs toxic. It’s time to get over  the mountains into Argentina.

And it’s here, at the world’s highest, loneliest border crossing you bump into a three story high sign declaring Argentina’s territory claim.  Not with Chile mind you, no, the sign reads in enormous capitals “LAS MALVINAS SON SIEMPRE ARGENTINAS” (The Falklands are always Argentinean). I couldn’t wait to pull out my British passport. Serving the equivalent of  an outer Siberian posting, the Argentine conscripts had no idea what to do with us.  The up side to this waiting game was knowing I wasn’t stark raving mad. The others had seen the flamingos too.

What I wasn’t hallucinating about was the corruption in Argentina. It’s rampant. The army and police litter the country with road blocks, taxing cars, buses, trucks and foreign motorbikes. Most often they were unimpressed with our own paltry supplies but playing the dumb foreigner is too easy when your Spanish really is crap. We spent an hour shredding through our dictionary at a check point as the police threatened to arrest us and confiscate the bikes as we weren’t carrying some safety item.  When it turned out to be a fire extinguisher, we couldn’t contain ourselves. Knowing the ruse was up, they couldn't see the back off us fast enough.  Where was the fire extinguisher when my bike was lit up like Guy Fawkes night?

And this is how we ended up riding across the Great Pampas plains of Argentina.  Poor planning, the dullest travelling ever on a motorbike, we even looked forward to the corruption checks. All for a set of waterfalls we’d heard about years ago in a geography class. Mr. English, you’d have been proud of us, I even remembered how they were formed, what I wasn’t expecting though was how god dammed huge and impressive they were. Iguaçu Falls, if you ever need an excuse for south America, this is it.  Go just for these. There are thirteen falls in all, with waterfalls on top of falls. Niagara would be lost in the smallest of them. The debate rages as to which side of the border to view the falls, but if you failed to be awed by their spectacle from either side, nothing in life will give you a kick. Wherever you walk to see the falls you’ll get soaked, sometime a mere mist, often with the full force of a hurricanes, good training for Patagonia where we were heading next.

Had I to ride in South America again, I would have limited myself to riding up and down the goat tracks of the Andes. My pocket book map tells lies on a daily basis.  Every inch I measure I’m convinced will take an hour or two.  The real distance, with the bribery check points, takes a few days at best. Heading south towards Tierra del Fuego, the Patagonian winds pick up their speeds.  The gusts are incredible, on the rare chance they are behind you, an 80mph ride is like being cocooned in a vacuum. Sideways or head on they slam at you from morning until evening or until you can’t take it anymore. So what’s down here?  Ice floes, wind, the odd small bush, whales spouting water plumes, glaciers and people walking about at funny angles.  Everything you’d generally expect at the end of the earth. 

The bikes played up, one would mysteriously just pack in from time to time, the tyres are bald, the chains needing replacing and my backside sore from riding all day.  So why on my way back to Santiago I got talked into visiting a volcano on the back of a mule, I have no idea. Fearing bad karma, I did get chance to play Gaucho for the afternoon, even though my feet could barely stay in the stirrups. I’m not quite Che Chevarra, but the choice between riding a horse or a bike, I’ll ride round South America on a bike any day.