Going Nowhere in Calama

Broken Suzuki


Calama has trapped us.  Just as Santiago seemed to exert some form of gravitational pull  on me – I kept returning, four times and for several months in total – Calama is now doing the same. I first visited the town in March last year and stayed for a few days whilst my exhaust was repaired. After two more visits – post Dakar and then with Pau as we awaited the Suzuki – I thought my time here was done. But when we finally left the town, we only made it 80km before the siren call sounded again. The same evening we were back, and that was a week ago now.

We set off north last Saturday afternoon. The plan was to drive about 200km to the border with Bolivia and camp there – a steady ride to allow Pau to get used to driving on dirt roads. The brief was straightforward: Pau would ride ahead of me until the point where the asphalt road turned to gravel. Thereafter I would ride at the front, to set the pace, pick out the best line and warn Pau when we approached difficult sections. A sensible plan, but this time the Universe chose not to be party to it.

A very strong tailwind was blowing as we headed towards the volcanos that straddle the border. On motos without a substantial screen to shelter the rider, the direction of the wind makes a big difference to the rider’s perception of speed. Driving at 100kph into a strong wind, you get very buffeted by the relative 150kph winds in your face. Driving with a 50kph tail wind, however, the air is calm and quiet. I find the noise in my helmet generated by airflow is the main factor that regulates my speed. With Paulina in the lead, and savouring the freedom of the open road after two frustrating weeks, this tailwind pushed her along at a fair pace – a little too ‘fair’, it turned out.

All seemed well, until I saw a large cloud of dust kick up behind the Suzuki. The rear of the bike started to ‘fishtail’ and I immediately knew she had hit a patch of sand. When this happens, it can be very unnerving and a rider’s natural reactions – to hit the brakes, sit down and put your feet out as stabilisers – are exactly the opposite to what needs to be done. Keeping the power on and standing up on the foot-pegs is the way to ride through sand. I held my breath. After a couple of seconds the Suzuki stabilised, but moments later it was fishtailing again, this time more aggressively. I sensed it before it happened; Pau and the bike parted company, the former landing in the road and the latter leaving the road before coming to an abrupt halt in the desert.

Recovering the motoPau was fine. The Suzuki wasn’t. Wing mirrors and lights were broken, and when I picked it up and checked the front end it was clear the bike had hit something hard and at speed. The front wheel and the handlebars were misaligned by about 20 degrees and one spoke had been snapped. I loosened the bolts of the triple clamp (the piece that hold the front forks to the frame) and attempted to realign the wheel, but it wasn’t happening. It quickly became apparent that we had only one option – to return to Calama. Within an hour we had flagged down a pair of miners in a 4×4 and were heading south. On Monday morning the moto was back in the hands of Edwin and his sidekick, Jose.

It’s been a frustrating week awaiting the repair of the bike. On inspection, it turned out that the triple clamp had been bent in the crash – quite a feat, and a serious problem. A new one would be expensive and would take two weeks to order. And nobody in Calama seemed prepared to attempt what they considered a complicated repair. Then yesterday afternoon, Jose called to tell us he had fixed it himself. I’m not sure how he did it, but we can only trust that the problem is solved. We are now so close, yet still so far. All we need is one new spoke – but no one in town has the right size. I’m annoyed with myself for trusting the process too much. I should have checked at the beginning of the week to confirm if the correct spoke was available, thus buying us time if we needed to order it. How quickly I forgot what I proclaimed a week earlier – if you want something done properly, do it yourself.

There is not much to do here. Calama is a very ordinary mining town in the middle of a desert. There is a lot of money in the town – Calama exists primarily due to Chuquicamata, the largest open cast mine in the world. The copper mine is lucrative, the miners are well paid and they spend there money here. But apart from the large mall on the edge of town, this wealth is not evident. So patience is the name of the game. “What shall we do today?” is a daily question which usually goes unanswered. We just want to leave!

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