Perils of Polly: Gravel, gravel everywhere ...

Polly begins changing the only flat tire of the trip, after miles and miles of gravel.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

Gravel! I got so tired of gravel! More than 1,100 miles of gravel!


Washboard gravel took us toward Torres del Paine, Chile's most famous national park. We paid the steep 30,000 pesos or about $62 and continued chattering our bones, teeth, and all the nuts and bolts in the car.

I had read and reread what to do in the park, and all I could find was that most people came here to backpack what they called "the circuit." We are not backpackers. We didn't have the gear nor the inclination to climb up steep mountains. There was horseback riding, which I did want to do, but the wind was nearly blowing us over every time we got out of the Kangoo. It would grab the doors and whatever paper was in the front seat would fly across roads and parking lots sending us chasing after it. I didn't relish the idea of horseback riding in this.

More than 60 percent of the park had been burned two weeks previous, but since we didn't know what it looked like before, it didn't matter. The beauty of the scenery was mostly the sharp rock peaks and aqua lakes. The scrub land was just gray sage anyway, so the fact that it was singed dark brown didn't really detract from the scenery.

We drove through, took lots or pictures, and then crossed the border back into Argentina. Next stop was El Calafate and Perito Moreno glacier. We thoroughly enjoyed touristy El Calafate, ate lunch, then headed toward a campground which was closer to the actual glacier.

We turned onto the gravel road. It was fairly smooth. OK. We could handle 40 km of this. Halfway down we hit our first washboard, jarring our teeth loose. Gone was the smooth gravel. We finally found the campground, discovered it had no facilities like bathrooms, found a flat spot a little bit out of the wind, and set up camp. Not good, but not too bad -- yet.

As we pulled stuff out of the back of the car, we discovered one of our water jugs had tipped over and leaked, soaking our sheets and blanket. We strung them all over the trees, tucking them tightly into branches. The wind was good for drying, but not if the sheets and blanket ended up on the ground. We only had about an hour until dusk.

But that wasn't our only trouble. As we were nibbling our hard-boiled eggs, I gazed toward the car and gasped, bug-eyed. Sue followed my gaze. Our tire was flat.

Cris at Andean Roads had showed us where everything was to change a tire, but that was nearly two weeks ago. Could we remember? We detached the tent, I began dumping out all my stuff from the storage compartments, and we found the wing nut that lets the spare tire down. We found the jack and the spinner.

Jacking up the car was no problem. Loosening the lug nuts was another matter. Neither of us could do it. Finally Sue stood on one end of the spinner and I pulled up on the other with all my might, and slowly we loosened each lug nut. Success! It only took us about a half hour!

Dark and cold finally settled in, and we curled up under damp sheets and blankets.

The next morning, praying that our spare tire would survive the gravel, I gingerly crept back down the 40 km of gravel like I was driving on eggs. We headed toward the spectacular Perito Moreno glacier and oooed and awed with the multitudes drawn to this Argentine tourist attraction. It was much grander than any glacier on the road system in Alaska.

Back at El Calafate, the first thing we needed was a tire shop. A little boy guided us to one, and his dad fixed our tire for $10. He then brought out a shredded truck tire and in Spanish warned us about the future: Do not take Route 40!

Route 40 was the only way north, so we brought out our atlas and asked him which way to go. He highlighted a route which took us almost all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean! But it avoided a piece of Route 40 that to an unsuspecting tourist seemed the easiest way to go. It was still all gravel, but I guess some gravel is worse than other gravel. We thought we'd seen the worst of gravel in Torres del Paine, but apparently not. At least we didn't shred our tires.

So, we headed north on gravel. And more gravel. Then gravel along a newly paved road that we weren't allowed on, as it was under construction. We couldn't resist the temptation.

There was hardly any traffic anyway, and no construction vehicles, so we swerved over a berm and zipped onto the newly paved section of road. What a relief! Suddenly it ended and we had to swerve back onto gravel.

We were about to repeat our shenanigan on the next stretch when we saw a construction vehicle approaching, zipping down the pavement. We watched in jealousy. He shook his head at us. Ah...more gravel. When would it end?

Find Polly's next peril in next week's Peninsula Clarion.