This day started with me annoyed at something minor, and ended with us both chastened by the extremes of nature and how lucky we are. I decided after the beating we’d taken on the ripio over the last few days, it’d be a good idea to check the tyre pressure on the vehicle. I asked around and was told that COPEC, the ‘petrol station’ (a wooden cabin with one pump outside) had one of those air-thingies that check the pressure and pump it up if necessary.
After the usual rigmarole of getting the van ready for travel (take the table down, stow everything, check drawers are properly closed, turn off the water pump, make sure the waterproofs are in the car, etc) we headed over to COPEC, and asked if we could use the air thingy. Sorry – technical name? Air pump? Tyre pressure gauge?
No, we couldn’t – but the friendly attendant would do it for me.
Even better – I am happy to let people do things for me 🙂
Unfortunately, this approach didn’t work out so well, as despite confirming the tyre pressure as low in the first one he tried, he accidentally let a lot of air out. Hmm. Well, just fill it back up again please….. Oops, the air thingy couldn’t handle that kind of pressure, and neither it seemed could he, as he retreated to hide in the cabin and sent his friend out….
Friend had a go and also failed. Great. We now had three slightly underinflated tyres, and one massively underinflated one.
And no way to fill them.
Why had I been so bloody conscientious? They’d probably have been totally fine.
Lauren was lost deep in a book and barely looked up, while I paced up and down and tried to contact the van hire company. They have been exceptionally responsive on the small things – where to buy gas, which mechanic to use to check the chains etc – but this time neither phone number was answered and emails also went without reply. Not, looking back, that they could have done much.
Attendant’s friend told us about a gomeria (tyre place – every tiny village has a thriving gomeria in this part of the world) a couple of KM away, so we limped over there to see if it was open. It was just a guy’s house with a tyre painted yellow stuck on the driveway, but sure enough, when we pulled up, he emerged and fired up a diesel generator to run a more heavy-duty tyre thingy.
He put in what he thought, but then the on-board computer went beserk, flashing and saying all the tyres were the wrong pressure. He convinced me I needed to drive a bit to ‘let the sensors catch up’, so we drove about 10km out of town, before stopping for breakfast. Computer still said no, so we backtracked to gomeria man, and he adjusted them again and again until computer didn’t say anything (which we took to be a ‘computer says yes’).
I was a bit annoyed – we didn’t end up setting off until after 11am after all this faffing – but we had loads of time, and I had built in all that time exactly for this kinds of situations, so we set off with a vague plan of heading north til we were tired.
After a couple of hours and a stop for a walk and some lunch, we came to a queue of traffic. It being unusual to see much traffic at all, I parked up and jumped out. There were 5 cars waiting at a lone traffic light, showing red. Some cars were unoccupied, and others had people asleep in them. This wasn’t going to be a 5 minute delay for roadworks.
Turns out, we had reached Santa Lucia, where three months before there had been a devastating and fatal mudslide, that killed 24 people and destroyed a number of houses and the local school. The army has been clearing the mud – since December – but there is still a lot to do, and the road is therefore only open for three one-hour intervals a day. We had missed the 1-2pm slot, and would have to wait til 6pm.
This could have been somewhat annoying, but the sheer scale of the disaster soon became clear, and was instead incredibly sobering. People didn’t have a chance. The vast amount of mud must have come down the mountainside with such force, it just pushed everything in its path in front of it. Utterly wrecked houses stood next to untouched ones, and you could easily make out the mud’s path. This is over three months before remember.
Every 3-5 minutes, a huge truck would carry another load of mud away from the site. The excavators worked constantly. One of the army guys we chatted to told us they worked 7 days a week, all day with the exception of those 3 one-hour intervals. And still, the mud was everywhere.
When we were eventually allowed through at 6pm precisely, it was in a stream of about 20 vehicles, and we were driving straight through thick mud – I only caught glimpses as I needed my eyes on the road, but as we climbed the mountain after the village, hundreds and hundreds of metres of forest was dead, and it was like driving through a scene from a horror film – at one point, on both sides, all you could see was total devastation and dark sticky mud. The village was actually on the extreme edge of the flow – a bit further to the south and the whole village could have gone.
It was a sobering sight, and a reminder that Patagonia is no joke for the hardy people who make their homes here.