The Walking Dead
I spot the cemetery from a distance which isn’t difficult when the flat desert spools out from under us for miles in every direction. At first a nudge from the corner of my eye then, when I turn, the battered wooden crosses stand out in sharp relief against the blanched, sandy ground. I tap Jamie on the shoulder and point. Our intercom is only working intermittently and now is one of the times it has chosen to go AWOL. He turns his head and sees the cemetery then lifts the visor of his helmet.
Do you want to see?
He shouts back at me.
I shout back. The wind bellows around my face, whipping the word away but he hears me somehow and we make a u-turn on the empty road. A large shrine decorated in ragged red flags with a statue of the Virgin Mary stands by the side of the road, an empty truck beside it. Apart from the anonymous truck driver, there’s no one about. We turn off the highway on a dirt track and slowly trundle our way across the lumpy surface to the cemetery gate or what’s left of it. A man appears from nowhere, strolling towards us and for a moment, I think he is going to charge us entry or tell us to go away but he waves and shouts
At us before getting in his car and driving away. Just another onlooker, curious about the rotting crosses and rusty filigree out here in the middle of nowhere.
Leaving our helmets and jackets lying on the ground beside Robin. A sign pronounces the name of the cemetery, Cementerio Oficina Something or other. Oficina or office denotes a mining town in these parts, of which there are many. The cemeteries are sometimes a way outside the towns and often, the towns themselves are abandoned, doors swinging in the wind, like Humberstone, the empty town we visited the day before. We walk in through the splayed gate and find ourselves amongst the dead.
Our feet sink in the sand which is littered with disintegrating pieces of wood, wire hoops that once held clutches of flowers in wreaths, rusty paint pots. The paint pots clutter the edge of the cemetery, trapped in the gaps between the fallen fence posts. Some still stand guard at gravesides, faded cloth flowers poke their heads over the edges, dirty petals fluttering in the breeze. A few of the graves are made of stone and edged with curlicued ironwork, monuments to wealthier men, but most are simply dessicated wooden stakes pushed in to the sand. Once, they were crosses and one or two remain but most have lost part or all of the crosspiece and now stand at crooked angles surrounded by splinters disseminated by the desert wind.
The names are visible on a few and the dates. Some as late as the 1990s, others 1964, 1947, earlier. Most are nameless, abandoned and probably forgotten forever. There are over 170 abandoned mining towns out here and likely, these men came from one of them. I scan the landscape to see if I can see any signs of a town. There is nothing but the pulsing sunshine, empty sand and bone dry mountains in the distance. There are ugly stories attached to many of these cemeteries. The dead are said to rise from their graves and roam through the night at La Noria, an empty town to the south of us which we attempt to get to but can’t manage the sandy tracks that lead there. Some of the graves there have, over time, been uncovered and the coffin lids popped off to reveal the grinning skeletons beneath. No doubt this is the work of nosey kids and tourists after a photo opportunity but the internet buzzes with amateurish websites dedicated to uncovering the truth behind the disinterment of the dead miners. The walking dead! the websites pronounce, The mystery! The horror!
At other sites, the tales are less wild but have some truth behind them. Chacabuco, another abandoned town nearby was used by Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s infamous leader from 1973 to 1990, as a concentration camp. Pinochet racked up an estimated 3000 deaths and 80,000 people tortured during his time in power. Scholars, artists, doctors were all locked up and subjected to a great deal of misery in Chacabuco and some 80,000 others in camps and prisons elsewhere. By the end of 1990, when he finally stepped down, Pinochet would face over 300 charges of human rights violations and also the small matter of having illegally accumulated $28 million. Today, Chacabuco is home to one man who acts as guardian to the grisly history of the place. You can visit, wander about trying to imagine what went on there, read the information boards but beware of eighty landmines that still dot the surrounding area just waiting for an artist or scholarly type to stroll on by.
The strains of Chile’s past are still evident wherever we go. Unoriginal to the end, Pinochet was accused of dramatically increasing the divide between the rich and the poor in Chile and even today the place gives the impression of somewhere that is trying to pull itself from the mire but can’t get it’s feet free. Political graffiti covers many of the buildings like in much of Latin America where the people are used to having to rail against the corruption above them. The cities feel like a tussle between wealth and poverty and the little towns that cling to the coast all the way down have an edgy, clapped out feel as though the money came and went, came and went again. Much of it reminds me of a sort of post apocalyptic San Francisco; attractive wooden houses painted in merry colours, sunshine, the ocean but a creeping rot around the edges. The paint peels off, water marks streak the walls, grasses growing from the gutters. It’s slightly eery but sort of beautiful too, as though the towns are sliding back in to the ground, as though Chile is eating them up.
From the dreary city of Antafogasta, where we spend a strange night eating chicken and chips from plastic bags in a bed and breakfast, we drive to The Hand Of The Desert as it is known in English. The great fingers poking out through the Atacama ground are a mainstay of overlander’s photo albums when they drive through Chile. They appear on Facebook with great regularity as each of the bikers we have met pops by for a quick snap. When we first spot it, it looks small, quite ordinary as though without filling a picture frame and ringed by grinning travellers, it is diminished. There is a family there getting back in to their car when we roll up with whom we exchange a few hellos and wait impatiently for them to leave.
Once we are alone, we squint up at the hand.
It’s made of concrete…
I say, rapping on the rough surface with my knuckles.
I thought it would be a big, carved bit of stone or something…not concrete.
But despite the slightly shonky finish and the adjustment from the Facebook utopia to real life, the hand is quite impressive. It’s slightly stylised fingers seem to be made of the ground itself, reaching up for the tented skies above. I imagine it grabbing a passing cloud and squeezing out the rain, flowers blooming where the earth is dampened.
I prop myself across the gap between the index finger and thumb, a couple of feet above the ground and Jamie takes photos of me feigning relaxation despite the uncomfortable pose. We park the bike in front of the palm and take self timed photos of ourselves grinning. Finally Jamie rides the bike in circles around the hand and I film it on the miniature effect setting on our camera which makes everything look like a tiny model and also captures the action in a jerky fast forward not unlike cinefilm. We laugh at tiny Robin zooming in circles around the hand and Jamie wants another go but a couple of cars and a lorry have arrived and people are standing about waiting to take their own photos so we make our retreat.
Robin grinds over the strewn rocks and gravel of the short path and I am sure we will fall off but we wobble back on to the tarmac unharmed. We haven’t come off once since a slow, comedic tip in a petrol station in the Peruvian mountains. Rosy cheeked, altitude hardened men on tractors turned to see what had happened and laughed at the two gringos splayed on the ground and we had quickly got the bike up, snickering and embarrassed, Jamie blaming the potholed concrete below us. Since then we have been lucky. I am not a believer in jinxing, in fate, in anything like it but every time the thought pops in to my head that we haven’t fallen off in ages or hurt ourselves seriously even once, I squeeze in from my mind, unwilling to invite tragedy. Just a few more days, I think, and you can think about it all you like from the safety of Santiago from out of the saddle.
If that even happens…
Still, we have not had a response from anyone who could send Robin home for us except the one man who hasn’t a single mention online as a reliable bike freighter. We are a few days away and have no further leads. We are panicking a little because if we reach Chile’s capital and no one is their to meet us, we will have just driven over a thousand miles for nothing. We will have to fly all the way back here after Christmas and work it out then which could cost us a small fortune. When we reach Caldera, a misty, sun washed town by the coast, Jamie spends the evening sipping cheap fizzy wine and studying Google maps with a frown on his face.
We are staying in a tiny, comfortable hostel right out of town with a friendly cat and barrel shaped dog with sand on its head for company. There is nothing to do out here in the quiet suburbs where the road surface suddenly ends in sand and the evening light glows in the empty streets. We drive to town and pick up the wine, a packet of tortellini and some salad in the strange, slightly end of days supermarket. Sipping the delicious fizz later and absentmindedly chewing on a piece of pasta, I realise, with a wash of pleasure that I am drinking Chilean wine in its country of original. You don’t get to say that very often and the word ‘Chile’ on the label has never meant much to me before but here I am, drinking Chilean wine…in Chile.
Says Jamie, interrupting my reveries again
I have been thinking…
I put down my glass and look at him.
We can still make it to Buenos Aires in time to send the bike back before Christmas.
He says with a challenging glint in his eyes. I look back at him. The date is the 8th of December. The company we have had recommended in Buenos Aires need two weeks notice and four days with us when we arrive to get the bike ready. That leaves 24 hours deciding time before we must contact them and be away to Santa Cruz in time for the 24th. That gives us six days to reach Argentina’s capital.
How far is Buenos Aires?
I ask Jamie, taking a gulp of wine.
He says, looking at me with a wince. We haven’t had a day off from riding in five days so far and those distances give us maybe one day off if we’re lucky over the next six days. Riding pillion on Robin has been eye openingly exhausting for both of us. The wind buffets, dust gets in your eyes, we swerve around pot holes, boil in the sun, suck in the smokey exhaust from every stinking lorry. In short, 11 days straight on the bike may sound like a piece of cake but we will emerge battle scarred and dizzingly weary from it when we reach Buenos Aires and still have four more days of work ahead of us.
I say to Jamie and it is set, we will see Argentina as well.
So the next day, at dawn we wave goodbye to the dog and set off down highway five towards a pretty coastal city called La Serena. The desert gradually gets greener as the miles pass until carmine coloured flowers sway in the scrubby fields and grasses tentatively line the road sides. The Atacama Desert is used by film directors in place of sending their actors to an expensive demise on Mars. Most of it is barren, sandy and lifelessly dry. Long stilled lava flows line the mountain sides in shades of red and brown and it is not hard to see why it used as a stand in for the Red Planet. So the greenery that begins to appear is like a wonderful balm to our stinging, water starved eyes.
At La Serena, trees in full leaf billow in the sea breeze and flowers burst from the hedges. The garden at our lovely, hideaway hostel is rudely green with a spongy lawn and carefully tended allotment full of racey looking lettuces. I pad about in the grass sniffing pink hibiscus flowers. A small brown dog appears, looks at me and grins then changes it’s mind and growls whilst wagging it’s tail.
I say and the dog’s back legs collapse in submission and she grins again and makes as if to come over, then chickens out and sheepishly slinks in to a hedge and vanishes. I stare at the vacated spot for a moment and decide I must be a monster.
That evening we dip out toes in to Pacific Ocean for the last time on the journey. Tomorrow we head east where the Atlantic will catch us at the other side. The waters this far south are bitingly cold and we sit on the beach watching the odd brave soul inch their way in for a swim. Despite the icey waves licking at my ankles, the sun is a constant here and beats down on us steadily as we chat about the past eight months and shuffle shells about with our toes. When, finally, hunger gets the better of us we brush a few kilos of beach off us and put our shoes back on. We head languidly back down to the hostel which is hidden down a sandy track in a strange area of forgotten wilderness in the city. Inside, beneath the gentle sway of the old pine trees, we sit on the patio, curled up on the comfy wicker seats that smell of warm resin and drink wine. We have managed to find some French goats cheese in the huge local supermarket which we eat with a baguette. The cheese is sharp, creamy and tastes like heavenly summer holidays in Languedoc. In fact, with the long, evening shadows, the sun slowly collecting in the old, grey stones of the building behind us and the garden nodding under the weight of the bees, lends an entirely French feeling to the place which is delicious after months in less familar surroundings. The cringing dog comes to visit us with her braver, hairier counterpart having been finally convinced with a small piece of steak and some scratches behind the ears, that I am not a monster.
This is Wimpy Dog.
I say to Jamie, nodding at her. Her back legs collapse from under her and she looks up at me with a cringing smile, waiting for a stroke or some goats cheese, preferably the cheese. Jamie leans over to stroke her but he is evidently a barbarian and she scurries off in to a bush again, occasionally reappearing to repeat the act with wibbly legged stoicism.
The evening passes like that in a gorgeous faux French haze and improves further when we are joined by an attention crazed cat who comes to sleep on our bed and headbutt us if she is ignored. I fall asleep with the cat balled up beside me, her paws curling and uncurling to the rhythm of her purrs. I wake up once in dark as Jamie lets her out, see her snake around the door frame, and the next thing I know the alarm is going off signalling that our time out in France has come to an end.
Groaning and muttering I get out of bed. I have lobbied hard for our one day off to be here in this little walled paradise but have failed to convince Jamie who wants to get some miles under his belt first. So, back in my heavy bike gear, I trudge out in to the morning air towards the bike, yawning. There is no one around. The place is quiet but for the whittering of the birds. So quiet in fact, that we can’t get out. No one is on reception to activate the gate so for forty five minutes we are stuck circling the grounds ringing doorbells and peering through windows until we manage to accidentally wake the owner who lets us out with a wave.
Our destination, our final night in Chile, is a small town called Los Andes which, unsurprisingly, lies in the shadow of the famous, towering mountain range. The snow capped peaks are visible from all over town. We drink cold beers in a buzzing, little bar off the main square and remark on the Gallic atmosphere to the place. Once again, the tranquil, plane tree lined streets and chirping restaurant scene feels just like France but a little less wealthy, a little rugged about the edges. It is as though we are spending the night in a small Alpine town that has fallen on slightly hard times and if we just drive a little more, we will rock up suddenly in Calais to peer across the little gap to the chalky edges of home. I have to keep reminding myself that we are still thousands of miles from England and it is Argentina that lies ahead of us instead of fields full of sunflowers with Paris at their centre.
The only thing that shatters this illusion is the Andes. We cross them the next day, following a slinking road through a great, rocky valley upon which the morning sun illuminates the snow in yellow and blue. The Andes have held me in a kind of horrified awe since the age of 12 or so when I first watched a film based on the true story of a Chilean football team whose plane crashed in the great, forbidding range that divides the two countries. My friends Rosie and Clare on either side of me at their house in the Pennines, I watched in morbid fascination (as is my wont) as the story unfolded. The desperate survivors shivering as they tied ripped up seat covers around their heads and later, with John Malkowich sombre tones over the top, weeping over tasty mouthfuls of the victims buttocks. The Andes, in my mind became a place of unhappy, freezing demise and a terrible loneliness came over me whenever I so much thought of them. Just before we set off from London to come here the film popped in to my mind when I realised we were headed in to plane crash territory. If you type ‘Chilean football team crash Andes‘ in to Google, photographs of the icey looking survivors leaning against the wreckage of their plane appear. Some wave, some even smile and beside them, a human spinal column, stripped of flesh but bright, ruby red against the fallen snow. We can get used to anything if we have to.
Jamie points to the south as we drive towards the mountains.
It happened somewhere south of here, not far away.
He says, preempting my question when I say
I’ve just thought where we are….
I sweep my gaze over the rugged stretch of mountains and think of that plane lying in the wilderness. Two of the survivors walked out to get help in the end and made it. The wreckage turned out to be only thirty miles from civilisation. That’s the thing I don’t like about such huge mountains though, once you’re amongst their hulking, echoing bodies, you are completely in the lap of the gods, lost and insignificant, tiny and expendable. With a twitch in the wind or balling of the clouds, they can flick you out of existence a mile from your car.
I shudder a little as we approach the bottom of a steep climb achieved with the help of 27 switchbacks so that the massive freighter lorries can trundle between countries. Dirty snow lies in patches beside the road and a huge, warped shipping container lies abandoned at a funny angle on a ledge below one the bends. Clearly not everyone manages the climb successfully. Thankfully though, today is warm and sunny and we ascend the mountain easily without fear of slipping in ice or rain. At the top, a long line of lorries wait patiently at the goods customs office, a wretched, rusty looking place we are pleased we don’t have to visit. Passport control and customs is somewhere down the other side of the mountain and a there is merely a sign stretched over the road which cheerfully announces we are leaving Chile and another that welcomes us to Argentina.
We are handed a mystery slip of paper with ‘motorbike‘ written on it and a gendarmerie stamp on the other side by a policeman leaning from a small, yellow gatehouse. We are at the top of a big, scooping valley surrounded by dark green mountainsides and boulders strewn about in the grass. It’s a little like a supersized Wales but also, unmistakeably the Argentina we have studied in photos online. I admire the great swoop of the land, the almost empty road in front of us. It’s strange to be here in this country we were at war with just before I was born. As a nothing more than a bump encumbering my mum in 1983, my name was ‘Malvina’ after the remote islands we were squabbling over with Argentina for ownership of. Evidently a ‘Helen’ would fit in better in the playground and the name disappeared as I appeared, but the recent and real history suddenly strikes me in a way that it never has before from the cosy confines of the UK.
So! This is Argentina!
Crows Jamie. I blink and look around. Argentina it is! Land of steaks and great wine. Last stop for Robin, I think ruefully. From here, we go on foot.