Alastair's Blog

The Great Amazon Adventure 2015

Alastair Caldwell - Thursday, November 26, 2015

This promised to be an intriguing event, travelling through the Amazon rainforest, driving on some of the most amazing raods in South America. A coast-to-coast drive from Suriname on the Atlantic coast all the way across to Lima in Peru on the Pacific coast, and on the way seeing French Guiana, Brazil, the mighty Amazon, Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Nasca Lines.

Here is a map of the rally route, superbly organised as usual by Bespoke Rallies

I decided to take the Mercedes 280SL with me on this trip, and apart from some badly worn tyres, it lasted pretty well on this very challenging route!

Here is the trusty 280SL outside the hotel in Paramaribo; And me, by the hotel pool drinking the local brew.

   


In Parbo now, there are lots of lovely old run down wooden buildings in the town; Suriname was formerly Dutch Guiana so there is a heavy Dutch influence here and some beautiful wooden buildings.

   


All the buses, have slogans all over them with these pictures of fit kids. Sadly most of the passengers do not look like this! 



After Parbo, we visited Parmaribo in Suriname. It has the world's biggest wooden cathedral.

   


The houses are very ornate and beautiful, here's another from Parmaribo and also the Mercedes outside the president's house.

   


On our first day we went from Paramaribo in Suriname to Kourou in French Guiana. Of course, no trip would be complete without a brush with the local police! They chased us for speeding but they picked on tail-end Charlie so we got away fine! We then had a fun wait for the ferry across yet another huge river, which forms the country's border.

   

We had no problems to enter French Guiana, amazingly it is part of the EU. Their currency is the Euro, they have French cops, the lot, this must cost the EU a fortune! It's now where the French launch the Ariane satellite rockets. Here we are boarding the ferry on our way across to French Guiana.

   

We left French Guiana, heading for another border and a ferry to Brazil. On the way we went to see the satellite launch site where the French send up their Ariane rockets and lots of smaller Russian ones. We had a lovely drive through the jungle to the Brazilian border, here we are waiting for the ferry in a small town on the bank of the Oiapoque River which forms the border, very hot and humid, no place for a white man at all! 

   


To Brazil now and another great day's driving with a long dirt section of road with lots of little wooden bridges, holes etc. We ended up bright orange "Tangoed" by the dust, as we caught and passed several vehicles in the dust. 

   

I had an embarrassing moment when confronted by a convoy of traffic coming off one of these one-way bridges after a blind brow. I had two options: one was to have a head-on with the lead car and the other was to take to the bushes. I chose the bushes! No harm done apart from my ego which will recover, and it gave Angus, a fellow rallyist, a triumph as he was able to winch us back up to the road. In Macapa now, about to board the ferry for our trip up the Amazon. 

   


We had very poor wi-fi in places so weren't always able to send photos, but we had a great few days sailing up the Amazon on the good ship Bruno going from Macapa to Santarem. It took 4 hours to load the boat, it was just like a movie set. There were no vehicles, cranes or mechanical devices, everything was manhandled on and off the boats, hundreds of people involved, complete ordered chaos, great fun.

The cars were loaded on very slowly on wooden gang-planks across a big gap, then two hundred turns later lined up on the lower deck. We had two nights and a full day sailing with many passengers all sleeping and living in hammocks, we all bought hammocks as well and joined in though we did have tiny cabins with a/c and loos. Santarem to Itaituba was a good trip but I had a bit of a problem as my engine's sump sprang a leak towards the end of the day. I had to buy lots of oil to get to the hotel but found some good guys to help and soon fixed it by welding it up myself. Itaituba to Jacareacanga was the best drive yet, 370 km through the the jungle through the Amazon national park, wonderful red dirt road, tiny wooden bridges and for the last half, a wet road which made staying on the road very tricky and passing vehicles in either direction very exciting as the road was like ice as soon as you were out of the wheel tracks, just like the dry line in racing. My friends the Kanes had a bad day in their Mustang as it broke the rear axle casing and then the half shaft itself but with my supervision and fantastic help from the locals we got it mobile again overnight. Great effort and on a Sunday to boot! They had to drive very slowly to Porto Velho two nights away when an arriving navigator brought them new parts. Our next stop was Apui, more jungle, more dirt and dust. We were not a pretty sight and at the end of the day, tired and dirty but happy with the driving and the trip.

Here we are on the boat trip up the Amazon, with a well-loaded pick-up leaving the port and another Amazon ferry like ours, waiting to depart.

   


We had dinner on board the boat, it was absolutely delicious, although it was hard to say exactly what it was! And here is a fellow passenger having a watermelon dinner, there are lots of them everywhere and they are just delicious.

    

 

If you've ever watched one of the "Top Gear" specials, this scenario might ring a bell or two for you! Here we are getting off the ferry, having crossed the Oiapoque River. Click the Play button on the video to watch.




Here is the Mercedes on board Bruno, our transport up the Amazon for two nights and one day.  We all bought hammocks and joined hammock culture!

   


There were 3 classes of travel on the boat: middle deck, air con & hammock space; top deck, open hammock space; and then posh air con cabins, we all used the hammocks during the day. 

This is another typical wooden bridge. There are masses of vultures along the road all the way often with roadkill to clean up.

   


Then we had a problem with the car - it had oil bleeding from the sump. It was an easy fix but was embarrassing on the ferries.  And here I am at an informal petrol stop where it was dispensed in 2-litre bottles, all very efficient and reasonable price considering the alternative which was walking 600 Km with no gas station!

   


Dead Mustang on the road behind the Mercedes, awaiting rescue. Their rear axle housing broke and then the half-shaft inside gave up as well so no drive. It was expertly fixed that night by local garage. Dead Mustang being revived on the hoist most of the night.

   


Light aircraft using the road as a runway, lots of this going on and this particular one was very impressive as it must have been very heavy and it was very hot so it was below the trees for what seemed like forever before it eventually staggered into the sky.  On the road next day and crossing on yet another River ferry.

   

3 classics on the rally

A rare sight of the 3 classics on the rally waiting for a ferry together. We'd had a day off the previous day, so the Mustang was further repaired and got a new non-welded half-shaft and was then fighting fit. The Lotus front suspension collapsed the day before when we had another long run on some atrocious badly maintained roads, but it was welded up and was ok as there weren't many dirt roads after that. Shame as I enjoy the challenge :). Ferries were barges with tugboats fastened by the bow on a swivel fitting like a tow hitch, strange but very effective. This one was named in homage to Senna.

   

Very grubby Mercedes with hundreds of butterflies massacred on the front, there were huge amounts of them all along the road on the last jungle day, it was very tricky all day as there had been massive thunderstorms which by sheer luck we missed but this turned the road into a very slippery affair. 

   

Rio Branco to Puerto Maldonado

We had a very busy few days after this, long runs in extreme heat and humidity leaving Brazil and crossing into Peru. The last day's drive in Brazil was a mixture of good and bad, several hundred kilometers of rough but good fun dirt road with rough bridges to cross, then really bad dirt roads with corrugations that shake the car to bits, followed by good tarmac with bad holes and some like bomb craters! Crossing into Peru took a while but it was all good humoured and a bit of a party. The Peru roads were a complete contrast, flat smooth tarmac all the time. We spent a good day off in Puerto Maldonado, took a dawn trip to see thousands of parrots feeding on special clay that occurs naturally on the river bank and then in the afternoon another trip to a guided jungle walk to a walkway of little wooden suspension bridges high up in the canopy. All in enormous heat and humidity, we all survived ok! I gave the rally doctor a ride, which he seemed to enjoy! 

   


During our travels we saw lots of teak being transported on the roads. Here are Toby and Phenella with Rod the photo man on the parrot lick trips. A lovely shot of dawn on the river, we had a 4.30 start!! Parrots in the trees waiting their turn to get to the magic clay 

   

   

Our next excursion was a trip to the aerial walkway, where we passed a stall selling piranha fish, which are huge and apparently quite delicious, or so I'm told.

   


Here you can see us at the start of the walkway, in the canopy. And there is Allison, halfway across a very wobbly suspension bridge!

   


We had an impromptu lunch at 15,000 feet, it was fish and boiled potatoes washed down by coca tea, very good. Also evidence of a slight wound on the Mercedes, caused by the Mustang!

   


We met a very cheery pineapple sales lady - there are lots of fruit stalls around, delicious!

    


Peru

Now we reach Peru and see a lovely lady waiting in her Sunday best to go to market in the family alloy shelled Tuk-Tuk. Marvellous old flame tree in a local park, with Sunday football going on in the background.

   


Machu Picchu trip

The next part of our trip was to Machu Picchu. We got our first view arriving after a 2 hour train trip and then a very steep climb up the mountain on expertly driven tourist buses for half an hour, but it's well worth it when you get there. It was lovely weather when we were here, cool nights, hot but dry days, heaven after the steaming jungle! Here I am in a temple doorway showing off the very bitten legs, midges who don't believe in repellent at all! One of the original water sources that supplied endless water which allowed the city to be built where it is. Central courtyards where games, parties etc were held. Me with the astrological stone that they used to mark the passing of the seasons. 

   

   


We came across a cheeky local, looking for food and conversation! And these are reflecting pools, used for observing the stars.

   


This is a marvellous condor carving, with wings behind it, matching rock and mountain carving.

And here we are having another lunch, this time it's fish and chips while wearing a fur hat!

   


Visiting a floating island on Lake Titicaca near Puno

We made an early start the next day (3:30am) as there was talk of strikes in the Cusco area over government proposals to privatise the tourist sites, so it proved when we were faced by rocks across the road about 5.00 am. We got busy moving them and protesters putting them back then launched the car over them and the next one and made our escape, they intend to block all the roads in Cusco province, which will be horrid to be caught up in. All the rally made it through one way or another. We then made it to Puno early and went on a boat trip to the floating islands where the people went to get free of the Spanish. Very touristy but still nice. Display of produce; General island scene with rallyists; Island ladies dressed to meet us; Little model of island life 

   

   


We went condor watching one morning and saw some really close up. We'd had a great drive the day before on really tough dirt roads but good fun for me. We also saw pink flamingos on the salt lakes. The car is fine in general but is refusing to start at high altitude and in this heat. We went to just under 16,000 feet yesterday and again today, all fine as long as we don't stop! I spent last night taking out and repairing the water radiator as I realised the strike busting crossing the rock barrier had pushed the water radiator back onto the power steering pulley which had now made a hole in the radiator. It took a couple of hours work with Paul's help, we had it all done and then went off to dinner. After condor watching we went back to the hotel, then a leisurely drive down to Arequipa, only 7,735 feet so everybody was feeling friskier, especially Toby the support mechanic, who felt the altitude badly and has been using oxygen all the time and was still unwell. Click the Play button on the video to watch the condor.



Little girl Peruvian girl with her mother on the Condor site stall; Mercedes and Lotus at rest; Potato types in a tiny museum; There are lots of roadside shrines to people killed on the road, some of them are very touching and well done.

   

 


Arequipa to Paracas

We had another long day driving 784 kilometers from Arequipa to Paracas, great roads with lots of traffic to keep me interested. We averaged 95 kph, so lots of fun. The next day was a day off to sort out the cars and get them ready to ship. Mine is going off to Panama to do the Maya Classic next February, this is a drive from Panama to Veracruz, Mexico. These photos show: a moody shot of the active volcano which overlooks Arequipa; Our first view of the Pacific Ocean, coast to coast in 21 days; We stopped to climb the viewing tower to see some Nasca lines; Big dunes and great views all the way along the coast; Nasca line drawing in the desert, hand of the frog! 

   


The end of the rally

The rally was all over now, the Mercedes is being delivered to the shippers today where it is being sent to Panama to do the Mayan Classic early next year. We then went off to the airport, back to UK, then straight off the next day to do the Thunder Dragon in India and Bhutan in the Porsche 912. It's hard work but someone's got to do it! Some pics of badly worn Mercedes tyres; George the rally doctor in the Merc after new tyres have been fitted; Lima evening rush hour traffic from hotel room, pollution and traffic is a big problem in Peru, it's rare to see the sky! And here I am doing a bit of Merc servicing to prepare her for the Mayan Classic. 

   


You can see even more photos and videos of this and other rallies on my Facebook page, please head over there and "Like" the page to follow other rallies that I take part in. 


Round the horn to finish 2nd

Alastair Caldwell - Wednesday, December 11, 2013

It is so good to be back in Argentina for the Cape Horn Rally in November. Brought back some great memories and we created a few more!  As always I wanted to win and cross the line to see the chequered flag but sadly just pipped into 2nd place by Paul and Sandra Merryweather in their 1974 - Mercedes 450 SL - well done to them after a hard fought drive.

I was joined by Laurel Smith in my 1968 Mercedes 280SL Sports, gleaming red under the beautiful Argentinian sky at the start line. That look didn't last long however as no sooner had we started than the head gasket blew! But I'll come back to that in a minute.

Before the rally started we arrived into Buenos Aires in good time so had a couple of days looking round and doing a few visits to old haunts from my days coming here with McLaren in the 70s. The Grand Prix in '74 win was a memorable one for me as we won after local hero Carlos Reutman led the race and Juan Peron, the President of Argentina at that time, flew his helicopter to the track late in the race to view this triumph. The army used tear gas and gunfire to control the crowd and then Reutman's car failed and Peron left swiftly as Hulme won the race. It wasn't a friendly end to the race and and we had to be guarded from the crowd.

Anyway, after reliving some of those great memories the rally, as I said, got off to a very bad start when the cylinder head gasket failed on the very first test! So we finished the day in a cloud of steam but actually leading the rally. With the help of the rally mechanics I changed the gasket that evening and the car ran very well after that - although it proved very hard to start when hot which is an old problem.

The next two days were very good. The second day test was cancelled and we won both tests on the third day so finished off after three days still leading and still smiling.

17th November saw us crossing the desert - what a scorcher it was! Sadly Laurel's navigation duties were suspended as she went down with a tummy bug from the day before. So combined with car action, stress and heat she had a horrid day. The following day we had a rest day in Mendoza so a chance to recover for all of us.

The following few days saw a lot of activity with Paul & Sandra just 8 seconds behind us, a Chevy, a few dinks here and there and some clouds of steam from cars in our rear view mirror. There's never a dull moment on these rallies!

The last week of the rally went relatively smoothly driving through and visiting some great places with some majestic sites.  Glorious weather and a great drive over the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago - great drive over the Andes up to 11000 feet and down again with such beautiful views.  When we arrived in Santiago, Chile after the day's test, we had a second day as a rest day and ended up sitting by the fantastic pool of the Grand Hyatt Hotel.  At this stage all was still going well on the rally, car running well and still leading - but Paul & Sandra closing the gap.

I spent a lot of time as we travelled trying to locate another head gasket to replace the one I used on the first day - not tempting fate just like to make sure we had one in reserve in case the rally took its toll again.

Sunday 24th was a rest day in Bariloche, Argentina and still all going well and the car still leading the rally - just! We stayed in a fantastic hotel - Resort LLAO LLAO - which they tell us is the leading hotel in the World. I can believe it. Perched on top of a hill surrounded by lakes and snowy mountains. It was probably the best place to discover that we were no longer leading the rally, my good friends Paul & Sandra finally overtook us, which is fine with me.

We finished the rally in Ushuaia, Argentina second to Paul & Sandra, with the 1966 Ford Mustang GT 289 Cabrio of
Christian Dumolin and Regine Dumolin-Petillion third behind us. Felt really happy for Sandra as not only did they win it was also her birthday so a double celebration for them.

Great drive, great rally, some marvellous sites, great racing and good times with some great friends in wonderful hotels en route. Can't wait until the next rally!!

Keep following here and on my social media channels – updates coming when I can get time.

 

 


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