82. Dinosaurs (Bariloche, Argentina)
Finally the deal was done, and they took off to the coast as the first part of their Argentine road trip. They were kind enough to let me look after (i.e. live in) the house they've rented here for their six month stay while they're gone. The house is nice - a typical 3 bedroom house in suburbia with a front and back lawn, a parilla (BBQ) out back - but after living in Argentina for 2 years in cramped monoambientes (studio apartments) it feels like a mansion!
Work has gotten quiet again - I've only done a couple of trips in the last 3 weeks. Mark, an American guy I met in BA came to Bariloche and has been staying with me in the Kiwi's house and it's been great having some company. My girlfriend finally came back to Bariloche a week ago so now it's the three of us here, until Hamish & Lisa come back from their road trip some time next week.
Many of the cars on the roads around here are shit heaps. Back in July, Alex over at Not a Blog posted a good short post about cars in Argentina. Here in Bariloche there are no car wreckers nor junkyards - the locals just keep on driving the cars literally into the ground - wheels wobbling, exhaust dragging, gearbox stuck in first gear and all. When Hamish finally picked up his car the first thing he did was give it a service - during which we found out it didn't even have an air filter fitted. The air filter box was empty and full of dust! Given that many of the suburban roads around Bariloche are dirt roads, I shudder to think how much dust the engine's sucked through its pistons. I can't fathom the mentality of the last owner - hmm, my car's running a bit foul - oh the air filter's clogged. I'll just take it out then!
Anyway, the main reason they're able to keep on driving these clapped out shitheaps into the ground is that there's no mandatory yearly safety inspection on cars. And the police don't care if your car's roadworthy or not either. So just keep on driving, no worries!
However, as a commercial transport operator, I have to get my vehicle's safety certified every six months - the usual test of brakes, suspension, exhaust emissions etc. There is a local safety inspector here in Bariloche - but because I have regional certification on my vehicle (i.e. I can work anywhere in Patagonia) I have to go to a national safety inspector, the nearest of which is in Neuquen City, Neuquen, 430km away.
So on Wednesday I set off at 10am in order to make it to my 3pm appointment with the safety inspector. About an hour into the trip my van conked out at the top of a hill. I didn't have any cellphone coverage so I flagged down a passing 4x4 and asked them to send a mechanic from the next town, 60km away. 2 hours later no mechanic had turned up but I'd been able to diagnose the problem - the same faulty cable on the fuel injector pump's valve. A passing truckie stopped and with his tools we were able to fix it and I could get going again.
The landscape on the trip north to Neuquen City is quite interesting. Bariloche is green and wet because of the rain shadow cast by the Andes - so much so that about 30km the landscape quickly changes to high hills and dry steppe. About 50km out you've got these huge natural rock towers and formations that remind me of Salta in the north of Argentina. The high hills and steppe continues for another 150km or so, until the landscape flattens out and it's nothing but red soil and arid plains as you descend through Neuquen Province to Neuquen City, losing about a metre of altitude every kilometre.
Along the way there's not many towns, and none of them are worth stopping at. But about 80km from Neuquen City lies Villa El Chocón, one of 3 dinosaur tourism spots in Neuquen Province. Ruth and I had tried visiting here on our way to Bariloche back in July, but at that time the road was blocked by protestors so we couldn't get through. We'd been tempted by the cool roadside billboards:
Since this time there were no road blocks, I was able to get through and visit Villa El Chocón, a small purpose-built company settlement originally constructed to house the workers on the El Chocón Dam, which supplies up to 30% of Argentina's electricity.
It wasn't the dam I'd taken the short detour to see, but dinosaurs. In little ol' NZ I don't think we had any dinosaurs, but back at primary school we all learnt that the T-rex was the largest carnivore dinosaur in the world, and that the lumbering Brontosaurus was the largest herbivore. What kid didn't have a couple of plastic dinosaurs discarded under his bunk bed? However, a bunch of discoveries made in Neuquen in the early 90s stole the crown from those species - the discovery of the Argentinosaurus, the largest proven herbivore, and the Gigantosaurus, the largest carnivore.
The 5m tall Gigantosaurus
The museum at El Chocón ($2 peso entry fee) didn't have much on the Argentinosaurus apart from a model of one of its vertibrae, but it did have a couple of Gigantosaurus models. Mas vale que este muerto (We're better off that it's dead) remarked one of the museum's visitors as we gazed at its huge skeleton. The museum was small but still pretty cool. One of the exhibits had fossilised dinosaur bones that we were allowed to touch.
Note: in researching this post, wikipedia tells me that Egypt's Spinosaurus was the largest carnivore. But don't tell the folks at El Chocón's museum that, as having the World's Largest is their main drawcard.
From the museum I went and checked out the dam, and then my van broke down again, same problem again, and I was again stranded for over an hour until I got some help from the Army guys stationed there protecting the dam. I finally made it to Neuquen City at about 7:30pm, too late to get my safety inspection done, and too late to find a vacant hotel as everything in town was booked out, and amazingly there are absolutely no youth hostels in Neuquen. So that night I had no choice but to sleep in the van.
The next morning I got the van's safety inspection done and had to fork out $600 pesos to get my brakes overhauled (ouch!). At some point during the day I lost my cellphone, or had it pickpocketed from me by a gypsy woman palmreader who grabbed me in the street, which really bummed me out as all the travel agencies in town have my number (double ouch!). The brakes took all day and once that was done I had to redo the safety inspection, which this time it passed.
By then it was 8pm and I was out of luck in trying to find an autoelectrician to fix the faulty cable. I was able to find a friendly mechanic who soldered it back on for me free of charge, so I finally set off for my return to Bariloche at 9pm. I stopped for a couple of hours to sleep and made it to within 60km of Bariloche before my van conked out again at around 3am. My torch's battery was flat so all I could do was sleep and wait for the morning, where with the sunlight I was able to get it running again and limp into Bariloche.
Since I hadn't planned on spending a night in Neuquen let alone two nights, I hadn't packed a change of clothes or a toothbrush. So I was glad to finally be back. I got a couple of ideas about trips I could offer too, as no one is offering the dinosaur experience from Bariloche,so maybe I'll do that. And fortunately movistar, the cellphone company, gave me another SIM card free of charge with my old number on it, so the agencies can still call me, I just have to get another cheap phone.