I don’t think any day on the trip so far had been so hyped up as today had been. The distance we had to cover was only 380km, but the route was an entirely separate matter. From Rio Gallegos we had to drive 60km south to the Argentina/Chile border whereby we had to reenter Chile for a short stretch. From here we needed to drive a short distance to the coast whereby we would board a ferry to cross the Magellan Straits in order to reach the island of Tierra del Fuego.
If this was safely completed, we would then need to traverse over 100km of unpaved, gravel roads, and if the car survived this, we would reenter Argentina, and drive 80km into Rio Grande. Could this all be completed in one day though, and would the SRZero be able to survive the inhospitable roads of the Land of Fire? Or, would we end up stranded with a broken car in one of the world’s most isolated locations? There was only one way to find out…
As the team were sleeping over in the Sanchez family farmhouse some 150km away from Rio Gallegos which is where the car was being held, we had to get up very early to ensure we could drive back to the city, pick up the car, and make our way south before it got too late. So, at 5.30am, the team was up and getting ready, and after a quick breakfast of coffee and bread with Gonzalo, we said our goodbyes and thank you’s, and headed off east into the rising sun.
At 8am we arrived at the race track to pick up the car and to meet with Chris and Cynthia. They had been up until 4am that morning getting the bike fixed, and how they had managed to succeed and be at the rendezvous on time and awake is a real testament to their resolve to see the trip through. We thank them for this because without them, Claudio would be unable to capture some of the incredible shots that he does.
With everyone assembled, we started the day’s drive, and I don’t mind admitting that I was feeling pretty nervous. I had a feeling that something bad was going to happen today; there was just so much that could go wrong what with the crossing of 4 border posts, a ferry across very turbulent waters, and a huge length of gravel road which we had been told would be uncrossable with the SRZero.
With the finish line so near, and all that we have worked for over nearly 2 years in the balance, there was so much to lose. We could afford no slip ups or mistakes. There was no safety net, and there were no second chances. Today required the utmost concentration and dedication from everybody. Despite all this, we were ready, we were focussed, and we were determined.
The first 60km to the Chilean border was quick and smooth, and there was nothing much to report here. However, despite being told that the border crossings down here should be fast and easy, we quickly found ourselves sorely disappointed. Huge queues to get our passports and paperwork stamped awaited us, and there was nothing we could do other than stand in line and twiddle our thumbs. With every second counting to ensure that we were not driving those gravel roads in the dark, this was not the best start to the day!
Finally we made it to the desk where a bunch of what looked like fresh new recruits where messing around and trying to flex their newly acquired power. For some reason, it took nearly an hour to certify that we, and the vehicles we were travelling in, were leaving the country despite this only requiring one stamp in each of our passports. Fortunately, when it came to dealing the with the vehicle paperwork, we were greeted by a very friendly woman who completed all the paperwork in a matter of seconds. With all the papers signed and stamped, we ran back to the vehicles and again continued south.
Before entering Chile, you have to pass through the Chilean border post, and alongside getting your passport stamped, you also have to reregister the vehicles despite having been in the country just a week earlier! Fortunately, this border post was exceptionally efficient, and we were in and out within about 20 minutes. This enabled us to quickly move on towards the coast and to hopefully be in time for the 1pm ferry.
Arriving at the ferry with 25 minutes to spare, we joined the back of the short queue, and went to pay for our tickets. With this done and a few more minutes to spare, we drove the van back up the road to check some signs that we had seen, but could hardly believe. On both sides of the road, for several kilometres, big red signs warned people not to step off the road and into the fields as there were still active mines peppering the farmland. Apparently this area is still hotly disputed between Chile and Argentina and hence the minefields. We were tempted to throw stones into the field in the attempt to cause some sort of explosion, but we didn’t want to miss the ferry so we headed back!
At 1pm bang on time, the ferry arrived and lowered its ramp to allow the cars and trucks on board. This was not a massive Calais/Dover style operation with harbours, big modern ferries and huge ramps; this was just a normal slipway and a small ferry large enough for perhaps 40 vehicles.
As the SRZero lined up to drive up the ramp and onto the deck, I was not feeling particularly confident. Despite the ferry having its ramp resting on the ground, it was swaying wildly left and right in the fast waters of the Magellan Straits, and how the car was to board mere centimetres above the water and with the ship swaying to and fro was, at the time, a mystery.
However, the captain managed to hold the boat steady just long enough for us to drive up the ramp and onto the ferry, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief when the SRZero made it safely aboard. The efficient operators of the ship promptly loaded up the rest of the vehicles, and within minutes we set sail. The wind was strong but the waters remained relatively calm as we made our way across the short channel, and within 15 minutes we had reached the other side and unloading could begin.
Getting down the ramp was more of a problem than getting up because the angle was steeper and our long front splitter was grounding out as we tried to get off. However, with the help of the ship’s operators and some handy wooden planks, we got the car off without a scratch! We were all exceptionally chuffed! For some reason, the crossing of the Magellan Straits was a big deal despite its quite small physical stature. This was the point where, nearly 500 years ago, the first sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was discovered which completely revolutionised world sea trade until the opening of the Panama Canal over 350 years later.
Anyway, with the ferry complete and one less thing to worry about, we preceded towards Cerro Sombrero; the last village before the gravel roads began. We thought it best to eat here as we didn’t know when we would be able to eat again, and after an initial struggle to even find a restaurant in this village of only 900 inhabitants, we found a place to eat. The food took quite a while to arrive and so we ended up leaving somewhat later than anticipated, but by 4.30pm we were driving again, and the surfaced roads had well and truly run out…
We were lucky in some ways as the weather was good and daylight was scheduled to last for another 6 hours, but the roads were not as kind. The gravel was very bumpy in places, and the air was extremely dusty, especially so when some of the heavy trucks rolled past. From the van we could see the SRZero bouncing around, and we were hoping with all our might that we wouldn’t have another shock absorber failure!
Meanwhile, Andy and Toby in the car were just praying that the car (and themselves!) would stay in one piece after hours upon hours of constant battering! For nearly 6 hours we pushed and pushed, constantly staring at the odometer to see how much torture we still had left to endure. Each of us had driven gravel roads before, but nothing anywhere near as long as we had today. Each of us knew how tiring it is, and as time ticked on we were becoming more and more impressed with the way Andy manoeuvred the SRZero along the best possible line on the road without making any mistakes. Here is a fantastic reason as to why the word “Endurance” is etched into our name and ethos!
Before the gravel road ended, we had to exit Chile and we were keen to make this a fast process. Fortunately, the guards took great interest in the car, and when it came to sorting out all our paperwork, they sped it through and we were on our way very quickly. However, by now the sun was getting very low in the sky, and long shadows were being cast over the road making it very difficult to spot bumps and potholes. These last 14km were probably amongst our slowest, and we were pushing it as fast as we could to ensure that we were off the road before nightfall.
Finally, we could see the lights from the the Argentine border post twinkling in the distance, and this signified the end of the gravel road. Before long we had made it, and for the first time in 6 hours, the SRZero felt smooth tarmac under its wheels! We were absolutely delighted; the car had conquered the most challenging road yet without missing a step, and Andy had done a fantastic job driving it! Both Andy and Toby jumped out of the car and collapsed onto the road, stroking and kissing it with joy! The pictures and videos will not show how tough and draining this road was for the SRZero and her occupants, but take it from me, it was a massive achievement and the boys deserve every credit for sticking it through nonstop and without a word of complaint!
Fortunately, to help with our progress, the Argentine border guards were quick to help with the paperwork, and again, we were through the border without much hassle; 3 quick borders out of 4 in a day is not bad going! Next to the last 100km, the following 80km, which were on perfectly smooth road, are literally not worth talking about, and despite the night driving which is always slower than driving during the day, we arrived in Rio Grande just 1 hour later.
We were now just 210km away from Ushuaia, the object of our dreams for so so long! Despite being on the road for 17 hours in total, we were pumped with energy and so excited to be here! The feeling was fantastic! What was not so fantastic however, was the hotel we had booked; it turned out to be dingy and pretty unsafe-looking. We were not about to keep the precious little SRZero and our van full of equipment in such a place, so we made our way to the best looking hotel we could find, strolled in, and made a deal.
We managed to get 50% of the cost of our rooms which brought it well within our budget, and given the quality of the hotel and rooms, this was an absolute steal! It reminded us of Las Vegas where we did something very similar. So, after checking in and having a quick shower, we met back downstairs for some food and a very excited chat over how well the day had gone.
After dinner, which finished at 2am, we were all utterly exhausted! The day had been tough on so many levels, and the team and car had come through absolutely fantastically. Despite some high stress situations, we worked as a team through it all, and that’s the main reason why we now find ourselves here at the bottom of the world with just 210km to the finish line! I am very proud of the team as well as Claudio, Paul, Chris and Cynthia who have also pushed themselves to the limit in order to get here…well done guys; just one last stretch to go!
All this being said, we are not celebrating yet. There is still one last drive where anything can happen, and all our focus and attention is on that. For Sunday and Monday we will be staying in Rio Grande organising the last few things in Ushuaia as well as a lot of things to come afterwards; the work isn’t over yet. As such, the next blog post you read will hopefully be once we’ve reached Ushuaia…please keep your fingers crossed!