Our first day on the road although we feel somewhat like imposters discreetly driving a renta-Chev a few cars lengths behind three MGs. RIP, Blue B and Navy Car are driving to Louisville via Auburn where we will visit the Duesenberg Museum while Red and Green Car are taking the long way around via Nashville to satisfy their love of Country Music.
A quick recap of the group’s trip so far after they all met again in Vancouver 3 weeks ago. Most of the group have had a pretty uneventful drive enjoying the Rockies and meeting MG enthusiasts along the way. This trip has generated considerable interest among US and Canadian enthusiasts because they are all gathering at the MG National Meeting in Louisville running from 13-17 June. The others have found that some of the people they meet remember more about our previous adventures than we do just from reading the various blogs. A few glitches along the way – Red Car burnt an exhaust valve and failed an overdrive solenoid. Green Car had an alternator failure and Navy Car burnt out its brand new starter motor. There’s a bit of a pattern here. All the parts which failed apart from the exhaust valve are Chinese or Indian copies of the Lucas parts which were fitted to the original cars. It seems the clever after-market replicators have managed to incorporate all the original faults and added a few new ones so they are now totally rubbish. Oh well, all part of the experience I suppose… A few hours work yesterday in the Chicago hotel car park and everything is working again ready for our trip today.
An easy drive out of Chicago using the express toll lanes and we were soon across the border and driving through the lush green corn fields of Indiana. No dramas at all and after a short lunch stop we arrive in Auburn where we find the museum dedicated to some of the most exclusive cars ever built in the US –Duesenberg, Cord and Auburn. Fred and Augie Duesenberg were German immigrant self-taught engineers who started building engines and race cars firstly in Minneapolis then moving to New Jersey and Indianapolis. Good engineers don’t always make good business people and they experienced several financial disasters before being rescued by E.L. Cord in 1926. He wanted a US built Duesenberg to compete with Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce, Hispano-Suiza and Isotta Franschini. Cord had built a serious manufacturing empire including companies such as the aero engine builder Lycoming but even with his backing the company ultimately failed in 1937 but not before they had built some very beautiful and technically impressive cars. A few years earlier, Cord had also bought the Auburn manufacturing business from the Elkhart brothers, less expensive than the Duesenberg but still a hard sell in the depression years. Cord also wanted a more technically advanced and innovative car bearing his name and in 1935 the 810 Cord designed by Gordon Buehrig was launched at the NY Motor Show. Words don’t do the Cord justice so the pic on the right of the middle row will give those who haven’t seen them before some feeling for how advanced this car was for 1935. Unfortunately the clamour of orders which followed encouraged Cord to start deliveries before all the teething problems were sorted so it was all a bit of a disaster but that hasn’t stopped the Cord 810 being one of the most collectible cars ever produced in the US.
Dinner tonight was courtesy of Bob Evans, yes, the Bob Evans chain of family restaurants which means they don’t serve alcohol. Still we persevered signing a pledge of abstinence so we could enjoy their promotion of everything with bacon. Lorraine was about to tuck into a vegetarian salad until she spotted the liberal addition of bacon and I reluctantly turned down the opportunity to enjoy strawberries with bacon.
Our last few days in Melbourne before leaving for a week in New York and then meeting the other adventurers in Chicago. The plan is to drive the cars across the US and Canada to the easternmost point – St John’s Newfoundland via Louisville Kentucky where we will meet up with MG people from right across the US at their National Meeting.
Navy Car has spent the past year stored in a garage in Los Angeles waiting to be fired back to life. Well that was the plan but of course the battery was flat when Simon turned the key so a new battery did the trick. Simon managed to find Mal, the Mobile MG Mechanic operating in Los Angeles – a former Pom who is probably making a fortune looking after the hordes of MGs still surviving from what must have been one of the most successful “export or perish” efforts of all time. Britain was on its knees and broke after WWII but the GIs who had spent their war years on the other side of the ditch had fallen in love with British sports cars. Jaguars, Austin Healeys, Triumphs and MGs were exported in hundreds of thousands to the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Then they discovered they were all fitted with Lucas electricals and bought Japanese cars instead. Oh well, it was good while it lasted.
Simon also discovered Moss Motors just around the corner who also make a fortune selling bits for old cars past their use by date so a new starter motor was top of the list!
After an easy drive up the west coast, Simon and Madelaine have now joined the four other teams in Vancouver and today they are on their way from Banff to Calgary enjoying the grandeur of the Rockies. Hopefully all plain sailing over the next couple of weeks before we join them in Chicago.
Our last day and we are driving solo to Lima while the rest of the group spend another day in Nazca taking light plane trips over the Nazca Lines. We are very tempted to join them but we don’t have much information on the road ahead and want to get to Lima as early as possible to catch up with Simon and Maddy. A nail-biting moment as we load the car and turn the key to hear a dull clunk as the starter solenoid refuses to engage – again. Five more times the clunk is repeated before the starter whirrs into life and we get away. Phew!
We stop in around 20 km at the viewing platform for some of the Nazca Lines closest to the highway – not the same view as the others will have had but at least a feel for the size of the mysterious shapes created in some earlier time.
Then off for the remaining 430 km knowing that we can’t afford to switch the engine off unless we can find a good down slope to get started again. The road is much slower than we expected, at first winding through desert passes and then through several busy towns including Ica and Pisco – the home of the famous Pisco Sour cocktail. With around 200 km to go we still hadn’t found anywhere to stop and the road became a 4 lane Auto Piste running parallel with the coast. At least we could cover some distance quickly but what a lost opportunity. In any other country you might have expected plenty of exits down to beautiful sandy beaches but this road is lined with never-ending sheds housing battery chickens – hundreds of them, probably producing eggs for export markets all over the Americas. And the smell! Wherever there was a gap in the egg farms there were desolate communities living in tiny shacks with no water or electricity. A tough life for some.
Finally the desert gave way to irrigated green areas and we are in Lima – a sophisticated city of 9 million people. The Country Club Hotel is a bit of misnomer now. Built in the 1920s it is a grand hotel right opposite the golf course now smack bang in the middle of the financial and embassy districts. We feel a little under-dressed being welcomed with a glass of champagne among all the beautiful people of Lima while we are dressed in shorts and T-shirt but they probably haven’t just had the adventure we have had.
Now for the next adventure.
PS Just heard
from Simon that the starter has been repaired. Once again full of water and mud, probably from all the water crossings on the road from Cusco after the last repair. Lorraine suggested the skid plate may be directing spray from the front wheel straight into the starter. I think she may be right – obviously hanging around engineers far too long, she is starting to think like one!
Only three more days to go before we hand over the car to Simon and Maddy in Lima. After 14,000 km and a bit of tweaking along the way it’s running better than ever and with a rebuilt starter we feel confident about making it to Lima alone after we leave the rest of the group in Nazca. The run from Cuzco to Nazca is over two days with an overnight stop in Abancay which still needs to discover something exciting before it becomes a tourist destination – or maybe they are happy to be left alone. The town just happens to be located in a valley between two 4000m passes which wind through some of the most beautiful lush scenery imaginable. Like the NSW North Coast but with slightly higher mountains. The only vegetation which looks out of place are the eucalypts which dominate the mountain sides even up to 4000m. It seems remarkable that they have taken over from so many local species in each of the countries we have passed through from Chile and Argentina to Bolivia and now Peru. They are used for structural timber and firewood but no-one seems too fussed about their effect on the environment. Fortunately they haven’t yet intruded far into the Sacred Valley around Machu Pichu but they are only around 20 km away.
That evening in Abancay we are treated to the sounds of a band marching down the street preceded by groups of dancers in elaborate and colourful costumes. An extension of Carnival, the procession is held each year to mark the start of Lent so everyone is getting into it before the chill of whatever abstinence takes their fancy.
The next day’s drive through to Nazca on the coast is our last with the group so we get the honours of taking the lead. You would have though by now that we would have gone with instinct rather than the GPS but no, we were Garmined again leaving Abancay. Still, most agreed that it was an interesting drive down an ever narrowing rutted track before, with the encouragement of a few locals, we finally arrived back at the main road. Boring! But as we climbed further to around 4550m the road became more interesting . Very challenging with many hair pin bends, no safety Armco and sheer drops to the valley below. Beautiful scenery, snow covered peaks in the distance and flocks of Alpaca’s. We reached over 4500m three times over the next 250 km, sharing the road with trucks and road-repairing vehicles. We managed to avoid a number of recent rock falls and saw more accidents in one day than we had seen the last two months, including 2 overturned semi’s and a burnt out tourist bus. The last part of the drive into Nazca involved a drop of 3000m in 30 kms, mostly through thick fog. We were now at around 500m and in the Atacama Desert – reportedly the driest region anywhere in the world.
Nazca is a dusty desert town and on first sight not very appealing, full of trucks, buses, Tuk Tuk’s and bikes. We were on the hunt for fuel, some cars more desperate than others. Red and Green cars had already run out and topped up from their jerry cans. Then the most important and often the most challenging part of the day – finding the accommodation. It wasn’t where the Garmin suggested, so we asked at the servo. It was in a hacienda a few kms out of town, accessed via an unmade road (of course!). Will have to leave cleaning the car to Lima now.
This was our last evening together and the others are leaving early in the morning to fly over the famous Nazca Lines. Lots of good wishes and toasts on both sides – for everyone else who is continuing to the US and Canada and for us as we head for Lima and the Galapagos. We’re all looking forward to the get together back in Australia when it is all over.
A rest day in Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by over a million tourists every year. We are booked on a half day tour to see some of the archaeological sites starting with Tambomachay high up on the mountain side above Cuzco. Well maintained now it was almost lost to development in the 1970s before there was much interest in Inca history so private houses and farms border the park fairly discreetly. We were entertained by a mother and son shepherding their flock of sheep, goats and llamas along the fenceline just behind the restored remains.
Then it was off to the nearby fortress of Sacsayhuaman, a vast area of huge interlocking stone walls and other remains where the Inca attempted to withstand the Spanish. Unfortunately they lost the battle and only 30,000 of the original Cuzco Inca population of 250,000 survived.
The final stop was the Inca’s most sacred building in Cuzco, Korikancha or Temple of the Sun which was flattened by the Spanish to form a site for their Santo Domingo church. There are now excavated remains of the original Temple on display showing some of the technologies used by the Inca to enable the buildings to survive seismic activity. The technologies included interlocking stones along with hidden metal links which helps explain why these and the Machu Pichu structures have survived more than 500 years in an area which has such regular seismic activity.
The afternoon was free and we had booked a service centre to give the cars some attention before heading for Lima. The booking was made with the help of Rod, our travel agent and his brother-in-law, Zac who has lived in Cuzco for 10 years and now operates a microbrewery there. Rod and later Zac were both involved in operating bus tours in South America and the major function of the service centre is to maintain a fleet of large 4WD buses – a declining business because there are now few unsealed roads and tourists prefer luxuries like aircon and wifi. What a soft bunch!
Navy Car needed a little extra work apart from the usual grease and oil change. Our skid plate had taken a bit of a beating in Juliaca where the road lead us across the railway lines and a hidden 20 cm drop on the other side. One of the skid plate mounting bolts took a direct hit, ouch, and couldn’t be removed so an angle grinder came to the rescue. Meanwhile Zac had picked up our dead starter early in the morning for a rebuild so with the skid plate out of the way this could be reinstalled and we were all back in top shape again ready for another day.
To celebrate our success, a small group decided to test Zac’s brew at the Norton Bar right on the main square. His Zenith range got the thumbs up but the real surprise was the featured beer – Old Speckled Hen. Now very few Peruvians would know the connection between Old Speckled Hen beer and MGs. The beer is brewed in Abingdon UK and named after the MG vehicle used by the factory in the 1920s to test new bits on the test route around Abingdon – apparently its bodywork wasn’t exactly pristine so someone gave it the nick-name Old Speckled Hen so why not call a beer after it…
The day didn’t begin well as Ian joined the growing number of our crew who have come down with the dreaded “South American Belly”. So out with the medical kit and drugs – Imodium, Antibiotics and Panadol to reduce the fever. Fortunately they worked sufficiently well in time for him to join us.
We left our cars in Urubamba where they would be secure, packed an overnight bag and caught the “Visadome” train to Machu Picchu Pueblo previously known as Aguas Calientes before the marketing people got into the act.
Machu Picchu is Peru’s number one tourist destination so we were not surprised to see so many people in town. The Peruvians manage the logistics of moving so many people with amazingly efficiency with buses leaving the station every few minutes to take the narrow winding road up to the citadel.
Machu Pichu is surrounded by a lush forest and perched on a saddle high above the Urubamba river gorge at an altitude of around 2400 meters. It sits between two mountains – Huayna Picchu (young peak) and Machu Picchu (old peak). During our 4 hours there the mist rolled in and out, the sun came and went, and the occasional sprinkle of rain had us reaching for our rain coats. Perfect weather for wandering around this ancient city. Built during the 14th century by the Inca Emperor, it was home to between 600 to 900 people. It is understood that Machu Picchu was never completed and was abandoned during the second half of the 16th century. It was never lost, as commonly thought, and was occasionally visited and inhabited by local farmers. In 1911 Professor Hiram Bingham visited the citadel and was so impressed by its beauty and majesty, that he returned the following year with a multidisciplinary team of professionals who began excavations and research. And so began the world’s fascination with Machu Picchu.
Some of us caught the bus up the mountain again on Friday morning to watch the sunrise, with bus loads of young travellers. Ross decided that our group of five had raised the average to around 40.
Since arriving in Peru we have noticed that there has been an invasion of Tuk Tuk’s. In fact there were so many in Puno that you could have sworn you were in India. Added to the Tuk Tuk’s are bicycle trishaws, and of course the vans, buses, trucks, bicycles, dogs and humanity in general. Driving through the towns gets pretty hectic so you need to have your wits about you. The reason for the Tuk Tuk’s -they are much cheaper than cars, and the taxi business is pretty lucrative here. Of course they don’t come with air bags or any other safety features and their drivers take huge risks squeezing in and around the traffic so you could be putting your life at risk getting into one. About 50 km after leaving Puno we arrived in Juriaca, a busy market town town which Rod had warned us about. At first it just seemed like a normal hectic town but on the outskirts the road deteriorated into a million huge potholes and then without warning had us criss-crossing the railway line with the rails protruding well above what passed for a road. One was so bad that all the cars scraped heavily and Pete became beached for a few moments until he managed to rock it free. The skid plate on our car hit so heavily that it bent one of the mountings so far out of shape that we needed a big hammer and angle grinder to remove and replace the mounting bolt.
Our destination today is Urubamba where we will stay the night and leave our cars in secure parking as we head to Machu Picchu by train. We passed over the Alto Plano (high plains) and crossed the highest pass so far – La Raya at 4,338 meters above sea level. A few kms later we got the first sight of a Peru Rail train similar to the one we will be catching tomorrow – all of the trains are meticuluosly cleaned and polished, so different to most of ours in Australia.
We then followed the course of the Urubamba River as it wound its way through the Sacred Valley. The land is so fertile that every available space is cultivated creating a rich tapestry of green. Already we are noticing how much more substantial the dwellings are for the rural people. The one roomed adobe houses have been replaced by homes of brick or rendered mud brick and terracotta tiled roofs. The Urubamba River provides much of the irrigation for the crops of corn, potatoes and quinoa. Cows, pigs, llamas and sheep are common, often being cared for shepherds, and not a tractor in sight.
We arrived at around 5.30pm to our accommodation at Tambo del Inka after covering over 400 kms. The prospect of not being in Navy Car for a couple of days was appealing and Ian hasn’t been feeling great the last couple of days.
Today we visited the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca. Nearly thirty years ago a friend visited these islands and lived with the Uros people for a few months and since then I have been fascinated by the tales she brought back with her.
The Uros are descendants of a Pre-Inca group who live on forty-two self-made floating islands. The island settlements were originally defensive, as the Uros were escaping from the Incas. Their original language disappeared some 500 years ago as they intermarried with the Aymara and adopted their language.
We took a boat to the settlement with our guide Carlos who has been working as a guide to these islands for eight years. He explained that the tourism industry had provided the Uros with an opportunity to earn money to supplement their very simple lifestyle. Each day boats come and rotate around the different islands, so each has an opportunity to sell their handicrafts.
We visited a small island which was home to four families. Each member of the family was involved including the children as young as three or four. As the children ran and tumbled in the reeds I realised there were no skinned shins. Grubby faces, runny noses, enchanting smiles and little tour operators! The surface of the island was bouncy, not dissimilar to a waterbed, from the layers of reeds (about one meter deep).
The Uros also make reed boats, two gondolas braced together like a catamaran, and these are used to ferry tourists about. We took a ride on one of these and the children entertained us with songs they had learnt at school – some in English as well as French. As we left each child came and shook our hands – they had been trained well.
Their very simple reed houses generally last about one year before they need repair and many are opting for plastic, timber and corrugated iron to extend the life span of the houses. Unfortunately these materials spoil the integrity of these settlements.
About two thousand people live currently in the Uros Islands off Puno (there are other settlements in Bolivia) and as Carlos explained, they may not last all that long into the future. The children go to high school on the mainland and many are being enticed by the trappings of modern city life – education, a job with real income, electronic gadgets with connectivity and a city social life none of which is on offer on the island. Carlos feels that in the future the culture may gradually disappear and at best (or worst) become a “Disneyland” experience to show what it was like in the past.
Compared with our precarious drive into La Paz, the drive out along the auto piste was a relative breeze. We are now getting used to dodging the hundreds of mini-buses and taxis which form an almost continuous line along the inside lane and leap-frog each other as they pick-up and drop-off passengers all along the road. Our attempts to fix the starter motor in the hotel garage proved fruitless and as it was a Sunday there was no chance to take it to an auto electrician for another rebuild. This starter is internationally famous having been rebuilt in Adis Ababa and later in Turkey but it may be getting close to the end of its useful life. The next chance for a replacement or rebuild is Lima so that’s a lot of distance to cover without stalling and a huge thanks to all the team members who give us a push start each morning. During the day we usually manage to find a slope to stop on so a gentle rolling start gets us going again. We made it up to the volcano rim at El Alto and then drove out through miles of unfinished buildings . Our guide had explained that a finished house incurs a tax of 20% of the cost when it is completed which unsurprisingly proves a major disincentive to finishing anything at all. Don’t know how they get out of that one.
The next fun for the day was a short ferry ride across the narrow neck of Lake Titicaca near Cococabana. We had heard it was a bit primitive, and the barges certainly were, but the whole operation was brilliant. One crew-member on each barge managed the entire loading, pushing off, starting and steering and then the tying up and unloading at the other end. Just two cars per barge and the movements of the four barges were choreographed superbly. We left and arrived almost simultaneously without any of the barges running into each other. All for the princely sum of $8 per car.
Then it was onto Cococabana to see the famous Cathedral with its strong Moorish influences along with hundreds of back-packers and others who could be described as wandering around in a semi-delirious state. A cheap place to stay and eat but we wouldn’t put it high on our list of places to re-visit.
Another border crossing, this time into Peru. The first steps were quick and efficient but then arrived at Peru Customs to get the paperwork for the cars entered and signed. With a bit of help from both sides we finally managed to get the process sorted but it still involved a lot of laborious hand writing which was then duplicated in the adjacent office by entering the same data into the computer. Maybe they just don’t trust their IT? Part way through the process one of the officials went out to move the stake tethering one of the sheep happily munching on the grass around the office. He had a bit of a chat with the sheep and then got back on the job. John noticed that up until our arrival they had only processed 15 cars since the start of the year so it was a big day for them.
Another 150 km along the lake shore, did I mention this is a seriously big lake, to our overnight stop at Puno, the jumping off point for our tour tomorrow of the famous floating villages. From around 20 km before Puno we could see this large hotel like building perched high on a promontory of the lake and as we drew closer it became obvious this was where we were to stay. This is where one gets a serious guilt attack having just driven through the rough and tumble of Punos and then driving up to the grand entrance of a 5 star hotel. Very helpful and well trained staff, excellent dining; we can only hope our small contribution helps the local economy in some way.
Another entertaining drive yesterday getting out of Potosi – fortunately this was a Sunday and the traffic was more manageable but the GPS became fairly confused so there were some hilarious moments driving down the narrow streets in what seemed like circles before the way out of town was sorted.
Another excellent highway although only 2 lane as far as Oruro, a bit over half way through the 500km journey, where it all turned a bit pear shape. Oruro is another mining city but unlike Potosi appears to have no redeeming features at all. Rod, our Melbourne based travel agent had described Ororu as somewhere ideally suited for the testing of an atomic bomb. Dirty, dusty, chaotic and not a single completed commercial or residential structure to be seen – in any direction. We finally found a way to access the high level 4 lane highway heading towards La Paz but this involved driving through some even less appealing parts of town. Casper was a bit concerned that we hadn’t got the message about how to find the on ramp – somehow our response was lost behind some other UHF transmission so they waited for us on the very steep ramp. On attempting a restart, Casper stubbornly refused to climb the grade. This has been a problem for most of us because the engines develop very little power at low revs at these high altitudes so the only way to get going is rev the engines to over 2000 rpm and slip the clutch – not at all good for clutch longevity. By the time we arrived Casper was boxed in by a couple of trucks but luckily after a few attempts they got going again.
The drive into La Paz was even more exciting. We later learnt there is an easy way to reach downtown La Paz on the auto piste but our GPS decided on a short cut which basically involved launching our cars off the edge of the volcano rim where the satellite city El Alto sprawls and down incredibly steep grades to reach downtown located 400m below the rim. Even more exciting for Ross who lost his brakes. Our only major incident occurred at an intersection with traffic lights where the locals interpreted a red light as the signal to go. We bluffed our way through on the green light but not without some serious intimidation, especially from a min-van who screeched to a halt a few mm from Lorraine’s door. All a bit scary but we got there unscathed.
Next morning we had a half day city tour booked with our guide Carlos. First off through the very affluent area of La Paz to some interesting rock formations at Moon Valley overlooking the south east corner of the city. Then back up to El Alto to an observation area from where almost the entire city could be seen sprawled out across the crater and up the steep sides.
Then it was into the main plaza to see some of the grand buildings from colonial times and finally a visit to the Witches Market where one can buy everything from herbal remedies to miniature samples of anything you may wish for in your life. All the things you would expect such as tiny houses and cars but a few surprises also such as the tiny set of spanners one of the team bought especially for Ken.
La Paz has a population of over 4 mill including its satellite towns with a huge disparity between the incomes of rich and poor. Average income is only around US$100/month but a downtown apartment costs close to $400K and there are many houses costing $1-2 mill which are only affordable for people involved in lucrative industries such as mining. Bolivia is fortunate to have most of the world’s reserves of lithium, a material now in high demand for battery manufacture especially in Japan and China. Everyone wants to know about the influence of the Incans in pre-Spanish times but we were reminded that their domination was for a relatively short period – just over 100 years before the Spanish arrived. The major influences came from the Tiwanaki period stretching from 2000 BC through to around 1200 AD when there was a lengthy drought which the Incans were able to take advantage of. Today their descendents, the Aymara people, are still the dominant indigenous group and strongly supported by the present government which has a policy of recognising and supporting all 38 ethnic groups making up the Bolivian population