Reunited with the motorbike I left behind in Santiago, my ‘great retirement project’ resumes

Pandemic scuppered my plans to ride from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. Now, 2½ years later, I have returned to Chile to begin the journey

The flight from Santiago began its slow but steady descent towards Punta Arenas, wheeling left across the Strait of Magellan, the passenger windows on the right side of the plane tilting upwards to give me a glimpse of the snow-capped Andes.

Los Andes! Again, and at last; so close I could almost touch them – the same feeling I had 2½ years previously when mask-wearing soldiers stopped me just outside Puerto Natales to say, politely, no, I could not go further.

“Co-veed,” they said, as if I needed telling.

Now, in November 2022 and with the curse lifted for almost everyone everywhere, I was back, a bundle of excitement and anxiety. Excitement because this was the resumption (resuscitation?) of “the great retirement project” – riding a motorbike from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, alone and without the pressure of any deadline to get to place X by such and such a time or date.

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When I told my doctor about the trip, he commented ‘ballsy’, half admiring (I suspect), half thinking (I also suspect) that there’s no fool like an old fool

This would be no race, no “lads together having a blast expedition”. I wanted, and still want, this to be a journey of encounter and exploration, a journey partly along the famed Pan American Highway but one with the freedom to go this way or that, as the mood and the moment takes me.

But there’s also more anxiety this time. Maybe its post-Covid angst? Maybe its appreciating better than last time the anxiety I am causing to others – my wife, my children, my wider family – by doing this. But my selfish self is still doing it. Maybe it’s the gnawing realisation that, nearly three years on, I am now in my 70th year and do not have the strength or fitness that I had even in 2020.

I have a touch of arthritis in the joints where my thumbs join my wrist. Sometimes I can’t twist the lid off a jar. My doctor has me on statins (a very low dose but heart pills nonetheless) and also something for blood pressure. When I told him about the trip, he commented “ballsy”, half admiring (I suspect), half thinking (I also suspect) that there’s no fool like an old fool.

So what makes me think I will be able to upright a toppled over BMW R1200 GS Adventure, a vast machine by any measure, when, inevitably, somewhere along the way to Deadhorse, Alaska, it does indeed topple over?

Dunno, but I’ll find out!

The waters of the strait looked unusually calm from a few thousand feet up but the bent-over trees around the airport remind me that this is a place of extreme winds, the great south wind that blows, and blows and blows, seemingly without end. It’s late spring/early summer in the southern hemisphere but the ground below is very visibly burnt and bone dry, showing little evidence of winter growth for grazing.

When I come through the airport, there’s no sign of Eliana who said she might be there to meet me and bring me into town. Eliana runs the Hostal Patagonico on the way into Punta Arenas, the place where I stayed last time, for no reason other than hers was the first bed-for-the-night sign I saw having crossed the Chile-Argentina border very late and as it was about to shut for two weeks that turned into two years. In the interim, Eliana and I had kept in touch via Facebook Messenger. She’s a hoot, Eliana – friendly and kind, funny and playful. Her hostel is an Aladdin’s Cave of stuff – stuff everywhere, stuff that hasn’t been opened or used for yonks, broken down stuff, and other stuff that likely will never be used. It’s like living in the middle aisle of Lidl.

I go for a stroll to a nearby supermarket to acquire vital supplies, such as wine

I jump into an airport taxi and on arrival, the hostel door bursts open and Eliana throws out her arms to give me a great big hug, laughing a laugh that says, “Well, isn’t this just gas?”

“Peeeeeeter! Ha, ha, ha cómo estás, amigo?”

How am I? Grand, I tell her, just grand. Great to be back!

Inside, everything’s much the same as before, except the massive TV – it must be at least 60 inches across – which in March 2020 was blaring out the end of the world from its wall mounting, now lies flat across the breakfast table, smothering it almost entirely. “Muerta?” I ask. “Si, muerta,” she says. Never mind, I think, feeling sure it will be kept nonetheless... finding a home maybe with the two dead cars out back and the other bits of debris, a bicycle, some class of Husqvarna compressor and lengths of timber and plastic. Later out there, Eliana shows me a small corner that’s been cleared and wooden pallets laid to give an even, solid surface but leaving enough space for two plant beds along a rear and side wall.

“Tomates?” I ask.

“Si, maybe,” she says.

On the way to my bedroom, at the turn in the creaking stairway, there’s a 3ft tall, pound store Santa Claus, smiling and wishing me a Feliz Navidad... and I get the eerie feeling that he was there too when I stayed here first, on March 16th, 2020.

After I unpack my rucksack and catch my breath, I go back downstairs. Eliana has news for me. Beaming, she tells me that she has a new man. Two and a half years ago, she was still in mourning for her then recently deceased husband – “my best friend” she would say, telling me, eyes welling up, that she thought of him every day but would try to lose herself in her hobbies, which were painting, photography and bird watching.

“Alex!” she announces to me, simultaneously summoning the new man for presentation. He’s a little stocky (Eliana herself is small in stature) but broad-shouldered and muscular. He has a big smile and shakes my hand warmly. He tells me that Eliana has spoken to him a lot about me.

I ask if they are married, pointing to my own ring to circumvent my appalling Spanish, or lack of. But no, they are just together, they say. Living in sin, I pronounce and they both laugh uproariously.

“Es un hombre muy excelente,” Eliana says proudly, adding that he was her “compañera de viaje”, her travelling companion and this was how they got to know each other.

I go for a stroll to a nearby supermarket to acquire vital supplies, such as wine. On the way, it is strange to see spring flowers in suburban gardens – dandelions, millions of them everywhere, but also peonies, laburnum and yellow broom, sometimes fashioned into bright hedging.

Returning with the wine, Eliana invites me to join her and Alex’s late afternoon Sunday lunch of empanadas and pickles. The wine goes down well and I go to bed wondering what tomorrow will bring.

When in late March 2020 the Chilean government announced a curfew in the coming days, suggesting it could last months, it was clear that my plans were scuppered. I had just interviewed a local Chilean/Irishman, Patricio Corcoran, who ran a food distribution company and three mid-sized supermarkets. I suspected he had warehouses, or at least access to a warehouse, and might be able to store my bike... for a couple of months, as I then naively thought.

Patricio is quietly proud of his Irish heritage. In his office, he keeps the two old British passports belonging to his grandfather and father, both of which show Irish birth places.

His grandfather, Charles Peter Corcoran, was born in Cavan but lived in Dublin. Patricio’s father, Arthur Bartholomew Corcoran, was born in the city in August 1919 – a difficult time in Ireland, politically and economically. So when the Chilean sheep farming company, the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego (Company for the Exploitation of Tierra del Fuego), recruited among the Irish and Scots for pioneers to emigrate to Patagonia, Charles Corcoran signed up, taking with him his one-year-old son, Arthur.

Today, Arthur’s son Patricio is the embodiment of the successful immigrant story. He and Sylvia, his wife of 43 years, have three children and 10 grandchildren. Apart from the food business (Patricio is regional agent for Kerrygold, by the way), he also owns a farm near Punta Arenas, which has some 2,500 sheep (the local average would be closer to 5,000) and 500 Angus beef cows. The calves are matured on another farm near Punta Montt, north of the Patagonia Ice Field, from where they are sold for slaughter.

My plea for Patricio’s help in March 2020 was answered with an immediate and generous yes, and so I left my wonderful, almost new bike, on March 31st, in a Corcoran Express warehouse, under a cover and with various bits and pieces stuffed into two bags and hoisted on a pallet up on to the top shelf of the huge building.

I press the starter button, it snaps into life with that deep-throated, satisfying GS purr. The past 2½ years of enforced inactivity are blown away in an instant, and with it all my worries

So now, 2½ years later, I really didn’t know what to expect – the bike’s battery would surely be dead but could it be revived? And the tyres, had they deflated and would the rubber have cracked and perished? The petrol and oil would have to be drained; I’d have to get the whole bike serviced, surely?

I emailed him. “Patricio!” I wrote, “Am finally in Punta Arenas. Would it suit if I called around at 11am tomorrow morning.”

“Peter,” came the reply, “your bike is ready. We have to pick it in a garage I sent them. 11.00am would be great...”

Down one of the roads near my hostel, Alejandro Lago runs a pristine workshop where he services machines used by a company specialising in motorbike tours of Patagonia. Patricio drove me there and it’s obvious from the workshop – from the equipment, the bikes being worked on, the big Dakar sign over his workbench and all the stickers left by visiting long-haul, adventure bikers – that Alejandro knows his stuff and is a mechanic well trusted by bikers.

Mine is there – gleaming clean, fully serviced and, when I press the starter button, it snaps into life with that deep-throated, satisfying GS purr. The past 2½ years of enforced inactivity are blown away in an instant, and with it all my worries. A spin north, out across the Patagonia Steppe by the airport, and on towards the Argentine frontier, proves that everything is running perfectly.

Everything I left behind in Patricio’s care is retrieved – all the biking gear, the camping gear (not yet used), and all the related equipment; every single item.

That night, Patricio invites me out to dinner where, over locally caught king crab, octopus, abalone, grilled fish, pisco and wine, we talk Chile, Ireland, England, politics and family. Self-evidently, Patricio is well-known, and well-liked, by the restaurant owner and staff. As we exit, he pauses at one or two other tables to chat briefly with friends who are also dining.

I walk on slowly so as not to intrude. The waiter sidles over to me and smiles, gesturing towards Patricio.

“Rock star,” he says.

I cannot but agree. In a day or three, it’ll be time to head... south.

More to follow. You can follow Peter Murtagh on Instagram (Tip2Topadventure), Facebook (Peter Murtagh) and Twitter (@PeterMurtagh)