After a 19 hour flight from Dubai to Buenos Aires, (Argentina) it was straight onto an overnight bus to Montevideo, (Uruguay) another 8 hours away.
I caught a taxi to the port and waited an hour before the shipping agent opened. The truck had arrived from South Africa a week before and was waiting for me outside their office. It had taken 2.5 weeks from port to port, which I thought was quite fast
I decided not to use a clearing agent and to do the clearance of the truck myself. It took 4 hours of running around at least 15 offices, both inside and outside the port. Everyone was very helpful. I’m glad I know a little bit of Spanish, otherwise it would’ve been very difficult. Not many people speak English.
Lots of stamps and bureaucracy later, they released my truck.
I was happy to drive out and be on the road again. I headed for Canelones, a town of around 20,000 people, north of Montevideo. It was an easy 1.5hour drive to Canelones Aeroclub. The weather wasn’t very pleasant, low cloud and rainy, but it didn’t dampen my mood.
Joaco and Alejandra were waiting for me at the club. I had made contact with them a couple of months prior to ask if they could help me out. They were more than happy to oblige. The club was very well equipped, with a couple of hangars and club rooms, with a kitchen and eating area.
There was also plenty of space to park the truck for a few days.
The following couple of days was spent sorting out the flight. I found a place to refuel the balloon. It was the national distribution centre, and an impressive operation. For the small gas bottles they had an automatic refueling system on a conveyor belt. I had never seen that before.
They took the basket away on a forklift and refuelled the tanks inside. It was the easiest refuelling I’ve ever done.
I also met some of the club members, including the most well regarded pilot in Uruguay. He was a fighter and test pilot for many years.
We arranged for children from an orphanage to come for a tethered flight. On the day of the flight, the weather was perfect. Uruguay is generally a windy place, so I had to pay attention to the weather many days before.
When I drove onto the airfield I hit a soft spot and got bogged. There had been so much rain over the previous couple of weeks, that I knew it would take a bit to get the truck out again. I decided to offload the balloon, then we got the club’s tractor to tie the balloon to.
Around 25 kids came from the orphanage. They were so happy to see the balloon, and even happier to get the chance to get a tethered flight in it. It is funny to see how they react when we take off. Some extremely excited, others a bit nervous or apprehensive.
After flying them all, Joaco and I took off. The wind was quite fast, around 50km/h at 1000ft. Uruguay is very flat, with low rolling hills in places. Dairy and beef farms are everywhere. The difficulty was finding a dry place to land.
I aimed for a main road and found a field to land in right by it. Sure enough, it was quite soft, so we decided to take out the tanks, burner, etc and carry everything over to the road. Getting the truck bogged once in a day was enough.
Joaco’s Father and the club’s president, Alejandro, had followed us in a car and took me back to pick up the truck.
It took me about 45mins of digging and using the Maxtrax to get the truck out. I was happy to have the Maxtrax. Maxtrax had donated a set to me way back in Australia, and it was the first time I’d had to use them. I thought I might need to use them in a more exotic place than an airfield though.
We returned to the balloon, loaded it, then headed back to the club for a TV interview. In the afternoon, I went to visit the kids in the orphanage. The facility was well kept and the staff were very good. No one else was free to come with me, so I managed with my very limited Spanish. Thank goodness for Google Translate too.
We exchanged postcards and the kids showed me around. It was interesting to see how they lived. We had a lot of fun.
There was another TV interview the following day, and then I took the truck to a mechanic. I’d found that one of the wheels was not locking properly when engaging 4×4. It was an easy fix luckily, which only took a couple of hours.
It took two days to get to my next destination, Merlo, in Argentina. The drive across Uruguay to the border town of Frey Bentos was easy. Border procedures were just as easy. The Uruguay and Argentinian officials share the same office, so you just have to pass your documents around. It took around 30mins to get through.
One of the most interesting pieces of road was the Vicoria to Rosario Bridge. It crosses the Parana Delta, is 60km long, and made up of bridges and earth-filled sections. There’s quite a bit of bird life, and must be quite impressive when its in flood. It took 5 years to build.
I parked up in the small town of Cruz Alta for the night at a service station. I got talking to a guy sitting at the table next to me. He was originally from Hungary, but had lived in Cruz Alta for a number of years and really loved it. He also introduced me to the manager of the station. It was a good sociable evening. In the end, the manager told me to worry about the bill for my meal. It was a very nice gesture.
The road was not very interesting. It is pretty much flat all the way until just before Merlo. Agriculture is big businesses and you pass hundreds of kilometres of various crops and farms. It is industrial farming on a large scale, and the backbone of the economy.
I arrived into Merlo in the middle of the afternoon, and met Fede and Fermin. Fede had got in touch with me last year and said he would be happy to host me. They are looking at setting up a balloon business. Merlo’s claim to fame is that it has the 3rd best microclimate in the world, thanks to its location in a very wide valley; on the western side is the enormous Andes mountains, (you can’t see the main mountains from Merlo), and towering above Merlo are the very first foothills of The Andes.
A lot of people from Buenos Aires come to visit Merlo, and many have holiday homes there. It has become more popular over the years because of the weather, its good hiking trails, and quiet life. It is very safe, and the San Luis province has the best run government in Argentina.
We spent the following days arranging the flight, visiting Merlo town, having bbq’s, and trip planning. We also went to the school where I would fly from to talk to the kids about the project and encouraging them to follow their dreams. The school was quite modern and very well equipped. It had a roll of only 200 pupils.
On the day of the flight, the wind on the ground was light, but just above tree top height was quite fast. All the kids came to watch the balloon take off, as well as a number from the local community. Word had got around the whole town that a balloon was going to fly and everyone was very excited to see such a unique thing.
I managed to tether a few kids, before taking off with Fermin as my passenger. We were travelling at 30km/h almost instantly. It was a beautiful flight, watching the sun coming over the mountains on one side, then the rolling, forested landscape on the other. I was happy we had some speed as there was a lot of forest to cross. I was aiming for the only good road and hoping there would be enough of a clearing for me to land. Luckily there was, and after a beautiful 45min flight, we landed in a small clearing. The low lying bush reminded me of Africa. Fede was there, as well as Bob, an ex fighter pilot and very experienced airrship pilot, from the USA. He is a friend of Fede and Fermins’ and we had had a very nice dinner at his Family’s home the night before. He was excited to see a balloon again.
We packed the balloon and went back to the truck, where we had a TV interview. Then we went to the school to exchange postcards. After I invited the guys for Churrasco to celebrate a successful morning.
I stayed in Merlo a couple of more days, before heading to Mendoza, the gateway to the Andes Mountains. It’s quite amazing when you see the mountains appear on the horizon, they’re very impressive.
Friends of Bob, Eliana and Dante, met me at a service station on the outskirts of the city. They had kindly offered to host me for the night.
I left the truck at the petrol station for the night, (I was a bit apprehensive after the events at the service station in Namibia) and they took me to their apartment, a beautiful spot right in the middle of the downtown area.
Eliana and Dante showed me a few sights around the city. It is a beautiful place, with tree lined streets, interesting architecture, and great public spaces. We went to a very nice restaurant that night, and also sampled the local wine, which Mendoza is famous for.
We said our goodbyes the next morning, and I made my way towards Santiago, Chile. I was excited to cross the Andes. I’d flown in a plane across them many times before, but I’d always been interested to see what it was like from the ground. I was lucky with the weather. The crossing had been closed for the previous few days due to snow. You must carry chains with you when crossing.
The climb from the Argentinian side is relatively gradual. The views are spectacular.
It can be slow going at times as there are hundreds of trucks. It is one of the busiest roads through the Andes. There used to be a train that ran through, but it was stopped in 1984 and the line is left abandoned. There has been talk of resurrecting it again. It would take a lot of work to get it up and running again I would think.
The border between Argentina is the 3km long Cristo Redentor Tunnel. There is talk of a new tunnel being built at a lower altitude, which would cut the trip time by 3 hours. The current pass is at 3300m.
Just past the tunnel, I was stopped by a very long line of trucks waiting to pass Customs. I waited for around 45mins before they started to move. I couldn’t pass safely as there was no space to pass. As we started moving, a police car came and escorted me to the front of the line.
Border procedures were easy, taking around 45mins. The road immediately after the border facility on the Chilean side is amazing. Very steep and windy, it goes straight down the side of a mountain. Definitely the most amazing bit of road I’ve seen. It is not surprising that there have been quite a number of trucks who have lost their brakes going down.
The road eventually becomes more straight and the landscape becomes more open. I continued on to Santiago, reaching there in the late afternoon.
I picked up Rick from downtown. He is a fellow New Zealand balloon pilot, who has been living in Chile for the past 5 years. He took me to a house he’s been renovating. We were thinking to park the truck there, but the space was a bit tight, so we got hold of a Chilean balloon pilot, Christian, and I went across town and stayed with him for the following week.
The week was quite busy. I looked for new tyres for a couple of days, but couldn’t find suitable ones. I got the truck’s wheels aligned and a slow puncture fixed.
I also got the locks changed on the camper, and got the Webasto heating unit serviced at a very impressive specialised vehicle company, Bertonati. One of their main sources of income is a contract to fit out 400 ambulances a year. I was surprised there is such demand for ambulances in Chile. I was looked after very well by the owner and his Son.
By the end of the week, I knew the industrial areas of Santiago very well.
On top of doing that, I helped out Christian with a balloon tether and I was introduced to a number of other balloonists there. We had a meeting with the Chief Inspector and the Balloon Inspector at the ANAC, (Civil Aviation Authority). Chile is well known for its strict aviation authorities, so I expected I’d have to jump through some hoops to get permission to fly. To the surprise of everyone, the Chief Inspector said, “No problem, go and do it’’. It was a big relief.
We tried to fly in Maria Pinto, around an hour outside of Santiago. Fog had been forecast, but was expected to clear. Sure enough, there was a thick fog in the valley. Maria Pinto sits in a big basin, so the air is very stable. The Balloon Inspector also came to check us out. When we could see we were in for a long wait, Christian decided to have a bbq. We were at a football ground and it had bbq facilities. We had a great time, and a really interesting chat about aviation in Chile.
After a few hours, the fog had only lifted around 100m, so we decided to postpone it for another day.
A couple of days later, I went back to Maria Pinto with one of Christian’s balloon crew, Pablo. It was the same story again, thick fog covered the valley. I wasn’t going to wait around, so called Christian and asked about the second flying area we had got permission for, in Riconada de Los Andes, 125kms away.
I asked Pablo to call the municipality to make sure it was OK. All was fine to use their football field. We were met by a council worker, who let us in to the field. We told him what we were doing, and he asked if we would like to invite the local school. 45 minutes later, the whole school of 300 kids came to watch the balloon take off. Before the flight, I talked to them about why I was there and answered their many questions.
Conditions were perfect. Sunny, cool and stable air, with almost no wind. The backdrop of the Andes was spectacular. The wind was very slow, which was a bit of an issue as there were vineyards everywhere and not many places to land. I flew out of the town and aimed for the biggest field in the whole area. I managed to get there. Pablo and the council worker were waiting when I arrived. The council worker took me back to the truck, which I picked up and drove back to get the balloon, while Pablo waited.
I was really happy that it all turned out so well.
After a busy, but enjoyable week in Santiago, it was time to move on. I headed for Antofagasta 1400kms away. The roads in Chile are great, though the tolls are expensive. I enjoyed the easy drive, and stopped in Los Molles, next to the Pacific Ocean, as it marked the point that I had officially driven around the world, from east to west. It was nice to enjoy the moment. A local got chatting to me. He was a diver and a keen 4×4 enthusiast. We had a good chat, (as much as I could with my limited Spanish) before moving on.
The scenery is beautiful, but barren. The landscape goes from relatively barren, to barren to extremely barren as you head further north. Some places have not received rain for a very long time.
I parked up in a service station for the night after covering around 800kms.
The last 600kms to Antofagasta were straightforward, though there was one stretch of road which was a bit rough. Memorials to crash victims line the roads, some of whaich are quite ornate. Many of the crashed cars are just left there.
I arrived at Antofagasta Airport 20mins before Des’s place was due to land. Des travelled with me across Asia a few years ago, and it was good to have him along again.
We parked up at a service station right in the middle of Antofagasta. Quite a noisy place, but very safe.
We headed off early the next morning and headed for San Pedro de Atacama. After starting at sea level, we steadily climbed to 2400m to San Pedro. There are a large number of copper mines in the area, including the largest open pit mine in the world, Chiquicamata. The overburden is enormous.
The area is no good for farming as it is one of the driest areas in the world.
We reached San Pedro de Atacama at around midday. Just before the town, we came across the old owners of my truck, Robert and Clary. They bought a bigger overland truck and are still touring the world. We had all ready been in touch and had agreed to meet up the next day.
We found the compound of some balloonist friends of mine in the town. Commercial balloon flights were growing in popularity in the area, but the indigenous people have put a stop to it for now.
My friends weren’t there, but had put us in touch with friends of theirs, Mora and Oscar.
They provided us with a very nice lunch and we looked around San Pedro in the afternoon.
We went to the Valley of the Moon the next morning. It’s a spectacular place with amazing rock formations.
In the afternoon, we went to Robert and Clary’s camping spot for a chat with them, and a few other overlanders in the area. It is always good to get information from others who have all ready done what we are about to do.
We had dinner with Oscar in the evening.
We left San Pedro early the next morning and headed for Bolivia. The drive is stunning as you climb higher into the mountains. The highest pass is over 4000m.
I was hoping to find a fuel station at the town by the border, but surprisingly there was no fuel station. I asked around and found a guy who had diesel in drums. I paid twice the normal price, which I guess was not unrealistic given how far away we were from civilisation.