6 February 2012

South America plans - February to April 2012


Five months from now, I’ll be getting on a plane to Buenos Aires and dropping off the edge of the earth for all practical purposes. I’m going to look at birds and reptiles and mammals and amphibians, some amazing scenery and perhaps the odd human too. And I’m going to be doing this on a bicycle.
South America is hardly a backwards place, but the way in which I intend on seeing the continent is hardly expeditious. For one reason or another*, I am going to try the hi-tech / low-tech approach. It will be MacPro, iPad, iPhone, Nikon, sore ass, leg power, tent and a bicycle. While I may be disappearing for a long time, I certainly wont be quiet - if there is something I like doing more than talk, it is write.

The donkey work started last year - downloading some 2800 bird calls one by one. The scanning of field guides into PDF’s - over 4000 scanned pages and counting. There has been so much digital work to get through that I have been using two computers almost all the time. Reading through acres of trip reports to establish the best tour itinerary per country etc - the journey that I am undertaking has never been done from a wildlife perspective, not in length, geographical coverage or method. So plenty of this is sheer guess work - and plenty more will be made up as I go along.
 January and February were dedicated to building the transport. I had initially planned on converting my current commuter bike into a tourer. This turned out to be a logistical nightmare that I was not able to overcome - so out went the old frame. It is only once you break a bike down and then build it up again that you realise how many components are involved. It took the best part of a week to sort out what I needed, what was compatible with what etc. By Friday this week I had all the parts (the ones I knew I needed anyway) and got building. By Sunday evening the bike was at the stage of looking like a duck, but not quacking just yet. Two integral parts were still required on the frame. By next weekend I should have the bike completed and outfitted with racks, panniers etc.
A few weeks ago I came across a song that encapsulated my attitude and hence forth the motto for my trip. Iron Maiden’s call to freedom : The Clansman.

When alone on the hills
With the wind in your hair
With a longing to feel...
Just to be free

*The reasons : 
  1. Buying a motorbike and cavorting about like ‘Che’ was what I wanted, but Stasi style bureaucracy put a dent in that plan. 
  2. In 2001 I hatched a plan to cycle from South Africa to England - see Heinz StΓΌcke (http://bikechina.com/ct-heinzstucke1z.html), it’s all his fault - still is. That never happened of course, but in an ironic twist - the bike I had built for that journey was stolen - not in South Africa, but Richmond, London 2004.

Transport is now finished. Over a week has been spent messing about with the incorrect chain - what a difference 2 extra links make. An even bigger difference since 116 link chain is practically unknown amongst the local bicycle stores. I have 6 stores within a 2 miles radius - none of them even had an idea of this chain length. The problem with high street chains is that far from increasing your options, they are limiting them to the commonest denominator. Well, unlike the high street chain, I can get everything I want online - and they will even ship to whatever South American town / village I happen to find myself in when I am short of a part.

Having loaded the bike with all it's component parts, it went for a weigh in. An eye watering 19kg. That doesn't include everything else that I am taking with. Air France do not take bicycles for free, it is counted as part of the luggage. So the free limit of 23kg is going to be exceeded, the question is only by how much. The confusing part is that between Air France's sales department and their on-line guide - I have been quite unable to work out quite how much more this is going to cost. 

"When the sport equipment weight exceeds the free allowance, there will be a forfeit charge to be paid, which will be 55EUR if the bike is less than 23 kg."

The free limit is 23kg, so I cannot be under and over surely. According to the website, the Golden Number is 32kg - up to that will cost me another €100. Over 32kg and I am looking at €300.

On a more positive note, much time has been saved in acquiring various details on travel, accommodation, directions and wildlife related info by downloading entire websites. If ever you find yourself needing a cast amount of source material available to you offline, just download the website and take it with you. Site Sucker works well on Macs at least. 


Having finally accumulated all the gear that I consider necessary, it was time to pack and weigh. The magic number, at least from Air France's point of view was 32kg, but the amount of visible gear suggested this may have been a little optimistic. Using the somewhat inaccurate method of a bathroom scale, myself and the gear - it turns out I am fully 5kg overweight already. 

The next trick was getting all this to fit into my panniers and then to keep the bags balanced weight wise. To my surprise, the panniers took all the gear with space to spare. Have a number of additions (albeit small) to make once I get to Argentina (food, cutlery, basic toiletries).

Now I only need to go for live a practice run. So a weekend in April should see me going on a 100 mile round trip with an evening spent 'stealth camping'. 


I dawdled all morning about making a live test run today, before extricating my finger and getting on with things, albeit at 15:00. The potentially inclement weather - I say potentially as it threatened to rain with gusto today, but despite plenty of huff and puff, there was nothing doing. Due to such a late start, I did not proceed to my intended destination - that being Farnham, but settled on a more local venue, Wimbledon Park. 

The main objective was to ensure that my bicycle, fully weighted would not fall apart. Secondly, it was necessary to erect my hammock so that I didn't look like a nobber somewhere in Uruguay in a few months. Things got off to a shaky start - partly down to the fact that I have not been on a bicycle in some time and secondly to the enormous increase in weight and wind resistance. Progress started slowly, learning my new dimensions with respect to everything else while trying to maintain some semblance of balance and direction. 

Bicycle held up very well - bit wobbly in the front, but nothing untoward. Having satisfactorily tested the bicycle out, I spent half an hour looking for what few birds were knocking about. Pleasantly surprised to find a Eurasian Treecreeper, but tardy in getting my lens focussed, so quality of images are a little poor.

Next up was the curious Hennessy Hammock. This was my impulse purchase - sense said get a tent like everyone else. Cannot even remember how I came across a reference to this hammock, but the few people who used them for cycle tours absolutely swore by them. Setting it up was relatively self explanatory, my only downfall was a complete knot tying amnesia. Settling for a few large 'granny knots' to complete the job, I jumped in. To say that this is the best impulse buy I have ever made is some understatement. More comfortable than any bed I have slept in - one day when I am finished my travels, I will be having one of these instead of a bed.

Made a mess of my liquid fuel stove. Something to play with tomorrow when there is a little more time and less wind about.

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