By Korie Marshall
In 1974, Bob Weeks drove to the Mexico border on his Norton motorbike after quitting his job at Mount Robson. Since then he’s wanted to go farther, and this past winter, he went all the way to South America and back.
“It was a really amazing trip,” he tells the Goat while sipping coffee at the bakery. He’d biked across Canada several years ago with his wife Janey, and had recently gone on a trip to the Arctic Circle with a friend. Just two of his many incredible experiences on this latest trip were straddling the equator in Ecuador and standing on the southern-most point of the Americas.
Weeks left the Robson Valley on his Suzuki DR650 last fall on Oct. 15th, and traveled through Kamloops, the Okanagan, Washington, Oregon, Death Valley in California, and crossed into Mexico at Tijuana. He traveled down the Baja California peninsula, took the ferry to Mazatlan and then crossed from southern Mexico into Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. From there, he put his bike on a 120-foot-long sailboat built in 1903. He and 16 other bikers set sail for the 27-hour journey into Cartagena de Indias in Columbia. It was the first time he’d ever gotten sea sick, though he’s spent lots of time on the water. From there he got to go snorkeling, straddle the equator in Ecuador (he got the t-shirt too) and got to experience the Andes Mountains.
“The Andes were really special, the altitudes were unbelievable,” says Weeks. Seeing the high mountain passes was one of his goals on the trip, and he often camped at elevations near 15,000 feet (over 4,500 meters). One road he traveled on went up for over 150 miles without ever going down.
Weeks says he doesn’t like traveling with a big group, but often met up with a few people who were heading in the same direction, and on his trip home he even stayed for a week in California with a guy he traveled with for a
while on the way south.
In Peru, he met up with a few other guys who were traveling on bikes, and they were all served coca tea in the restaurant, a common remedy to combat altitude sickness.
“It kind of looks like a bag of pot, but it grows all over the place there,” said Weeks. People either chew the leaves or drink it in tea form, but one of the guys in the group didn’t have any, and as they got to 13,000 feet, he felt like he was driving drunk. He had to go back down to a village to get some coca tea.
Weeks hiked to the very top of Machu Picchu starting very early one morning. He took some amazing photos of the abandoned Inca city with incredibly carved and fitted stone-work before the tourists arrived. He had to get more creative with his photos as more tourists showed up, but he says he didn’t really go there for Machu Picchu.
“It was cool sitting in a cafe having a beer in Cuzco,” he says with a little smile. And on Christmas Day he got to have a burger at the Norton Rats Tavern, named after the bike brand from his younger biking days. Those were some of the experiences he enjoyed most.
“I didn’t really like Bolivia; it was too corrupt, too difficult to get gas.” He didn’t have many mechanical problems on the trip – he’d taken his bike completely apart before setting out – but he did get bad gas once. That caused him some grief for a few days, with the engine overheating in the desert. But he did go through four back tires – wearing one of them right down to the cords before he could find a replacement.
Traveling into Chile, Weeks felt the dramatic temperature change between the coast, where it was warm, and the mountains where it was much colder. Throughout Chile, the colors of the rocks and mountains changed at every turn. The highways turned into gravel, then dirt roads as you got higher; then you were driving on rock as you crossed a pass, then down into dirt, gravel roads, and highways again.
Weeks hadn’t realized he’d need a visa to get into Argentina, and he’s not very experienced with using a computer, though he bought his first one, a net book style, specifically for this trip. He was amazed by the kindness and hospitality shown to him everywhere, especially by two young women who helped him get the paperwork in order so he could get into Argentina. Other than that, most of his border crossings were good, with not much wait. He paid a guy to help him through the border in Honduras, but they hardly even looked at him. Another guy was stuck at that border for 4 days. On one particular day he was stopped 12 times, but was always treated with respect.
He did have some close calls though. At one spot in Mexico, he came across a road block near where 43 students had gone missing after a demonstration in September. At one point, nine guys surrounded him wanting money – and he was the only “gringo” in the crowd. But another guy came through the crowd and offered to guide him through. Parting the crowd, he safely led Weeks through people, barricades, piles of dumped debris like dirt, rocks and logs, and the police on the other side.
Somewhere else he encountered a guy standing at the centre of a bridge in a uniform, looking for money for passage. But Weeks realized the guy didn’t have a gun, nor a radio – and he figured this wasn’t a legitimate toll booth. He ripped past the guy in uniform on his bike, and looking back, realized that the uniform was a Boy Scout uniform.
And on one of the passes across the Andes, he came across a roadblock that was just a stick being held by a few guys across the road. He didn’t think it was going to be a good place to stop, especially all by himself, so he aimed his bike at the guy holding the stick and dropped a gear. The guys scattered and Weeks continued on his way.
Weeks made it all the way to the Tierra del Fuego national park in Argentina, the southern-most spot of the Americas – over 3,000 km from Buenos Aires, the capital and largest city in Argentina and over 17,800 km from Alaska. Traveling along the horn, the southern tip of the continent, there was snow next to the road in the middle of South America’s summer. And it was really windy in every direction, often forcing Weeks to ride with a sideways lean. The ferry across the Strait of Magellan, which separates the southern tip of the continent from South America, was also really rough. The strait goes mostly through Chile but also separates the Argentina mainland from the Tierra del Fuego park, and is an important natural passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, but it is dangerous because of unpredictable winds.
After reaching the southern tip, Weeks loaded his bike onto a cargo plane and flew to Miami. There he visited with his friends Don and Susan Beeson at their winter home, and took a trip to the Florida Keys (he won’t likely go back there, it was too expensive at $65 a night for tent camping). Then he drove across the southern states and back up the California coast, finally arriving back home in March – five months and over 38,000 kilometers later, with a pile of amazing photos and even more amazing memories.