It was midnight when we realised why this was such a wide river valley bottom. I woke up to what I initially thought was another vehicle coming to park nearby us…engine I thought was rather loud. However, I soon realised this was no vehicle but the sound of raging water.
It had rained up in the mountains….possibly most of the afternoon and evening. From 4000 meters up the rain had cascaded down the side of the mountains into the river valley, which was now a raging torrent going at full speed down to the next main river the Rio Grande and right past us! The noise was unbelievable. I woke The Blonde…deep in sleep as usual. I was out of bed into my shoes, grabbed the keys for the car. Outside the camper the noise was even louder and scarier….you could hear the rumbling of rocks obviously being washed down stream but it was pitch black, raining and actually…pretty bloody hairy! I turned on the headlights….SHIT….the water was less than 5 meters away and I could literally see waves crashing over the rocks…..I reversed the car into a space by the side of the camp in fear that the sodden ground may be more boggy than I first thought, but no worries, four wheel drive engaged. Excellent, managed to get the camper pointing back along the 100 meter track we had come down to the river edge and as the headlights went up the small incline to the main road, I could already see a small stream of water rushing over it…we needed to get out of here and fast. We fair flew up the incline on to the road….The Blonde in the back of the camper holding on for dear life and trying to stop cupboard doors opening and things crashing out…I cared not…. I just wanted to get us to higher ground and as quickly as possible. On to the main road….OK…this is good…but even here we could see streams of water coming down the side of the road. I decided to go up. We had seen another pull out near a bridge about a kilometre or so up the road and I thought that would make for a good place to hole up. But when we got there I could see the river raging down the valley in our headlights plus a car transporter passed us coming down the valley flashing his lights. The place on the side of the road was also boggy and so I decided to turn around and follow the truck down hill and see if we could find a spot as far away as possible from the river. Now….in our haste to extricate ourselves from the riverside camp, I had jumped into the drivers seat minus clothing….well not totally true, I had a pair of Crocs on my feet. Two kilometres back down the valley there were blue flashing lights. We pulled over….me pleading with The Blonde in the cabin in the back to retrieve some item of clothing that I could use to cover up my “embarrassment”. Fortunately, the young police officer did not drop his eyes to take in the full scene as he approached the cab…otherwise…well who knows whether driving naked in Argentina is an offence or not….offensive maybe? He informed us that the road was “cut”, we were not altogether sure what this meant. But it was clear that two kilometres down the road we were not going to be able to go any further. We looked for another spot on the side of the road as far away from the river as possible to camp….meanwhile all we could hear was this amazing noise as water cascaded down the valley bringing with it all manner of flotsam and jetsam, rocks and mud. We found a gravel pit….it was a 100 meters I guessed from the river, as far as I could work out with the torch…. and probably 5 meters higher….it was not great but it was much better than where we had been….I got dressed and then spent the next hour or so “supervising” the rivers progress as best as I could see it….it had stopped raining at least for the moment. A little nervously I announced that I thought we were about as safe as we could be and best now to stay put until daylight. We didn’t sleep well…..but we were safe…..I think this counted as a "near miss", and one we will remember for a very long while.
After our slightly scary encounter with the flash flood, we were both very tired as the sun rose. The rain had stopped around 3am as far as I can remember but the noise from the river continued. By 7am it seemed a little less noisy and The Blonde decided to walk down the road to where the trucks, cars and transporters were lined up. Just before she went however she noticed that the rear driver's side tire was looking very flat. I had a suspicion when testing the tire pressures in Humahuaca that the valve on this tire was not so good. It had let out air after disconnecting the hose and though it appeared to have stopped it was now obvious it had been slowly leaking all the time.The Blonde returned with news from "the front". There had indeed been an avalanche. A small stream now a large flow had cut down the slope to the river and had washed rocks and mud over the road. One of the trucks had decided he could make it through and was now firmly stuck in the middle. There was apparently a lot of debate going ones to how to extract the vehicle... eventually another truck driver from
Paraguay came to the rescue producing chains and proposing he demounted his trailer and used his tractor unit to pull the truck backwards out of the mire. The police stood and watched...all four of them....and ate tortillas, now on sale by some local lady entrepreneur who recognised an opportunity when she saw one! Nobody initially wanted to get their shoes wet or muddy and hook up the chain, especially the policemen...eventually the driver put plastic bags over his feet and waded in and hooked up. Hey presto...a couple of good pulls and he was out...but wait for it...the bloody idiot decided to have another go at getting across....revved up the engine and yep...got a little further in and got stuck again! At this point The Blonde had seen enough and returned to the camper for coffee.
If at first you don't succeed....give up!
I was somewhat concerned about how long we could sit where we were, before setting off down into Purmarmarca to find a "gomeria", a garage, to repair our tire valve. An hour passed and we saw more vehicles coming through so we decided to get packed up and go down and checkout the situation. When we got to the mud and rock slide area there was a JCB at work clearing the road...the truck had been pulled out and there was a long line of traffic coming from the opposite direction. We pulled up and spoke with a local guy who told us the nearest garage would be back onto the main road and then north...about 10kms away...but it was Sunday and Carnaval weekend and whether he would be open or not...who could say. The other guy, part of the roadworks crew, told us a different story. He said there was in fact a garage in Purmarmarca only 2kms away. OK, so we weren't going anywhere just yet....and it was nearly another hour before the road was sufficiently clear to let traffic through, and of course they let the other side come through first...very frustrating as I could see the tire was much flatter. Eventually we got our turn and we headed into town....I could now hear the tire wall was rubbing on the road. We pulled off at the top end of town and asked a policeman where the garage was...he did not know! Excellent! In the end I decided there was nothing for it but to change over the tire. This accomplished we then went into Purmarmarca town and had a great couple of hours walking around the central plaza and the carnaval market there and found a nice little street restaurant for empanadas and tamales.
The Blonde in Purmarmarca Square
We decided that as the new tire seemed to be holding up ok, we would make our way back down through Jujuy City and then start our circuitous journey around to Calilegua National Park, some 250kms away. The drive was not spectacular and we sensed that we were now leaving The Andes behind as pushed on further east….I feel we were both very thoughtful about this….for the past almost seven weeks we had travelled up the spine of The Andes in both Argentina and for a short time in Chile….it had been an amazing journey of such contrasts. We were going to miss the mountains and volcano’s.
We drove into Libertador General San Martin, a sugar cane town just outside the national park late afternoon. A quick top of with fuel and water and then we headed out to the park itself only 3 kms north of town and then a fairly well made gravel track 11kms in to the park entrance and the free campground…we found a nice area in the rainforest off the side of the track with a bbq and table and bench set….perfecto…but lots and lots of mosquitos. It was a very hot and humid night...well, it is supposed to be sub-tropical rainforest, so what should we have expected, especially as we are here in the rainy season.There were some strange "calls" during the night...not sure what they were. We had neglected to get water in town so as the water from our tank was smelling rank....again....we needed to go back and at the same time do a little food shop.The Blonde had managed to get some good info from the ranger and we decided to get the shopping done as quickly as possible and then get back into the park. The road up and over the pass in to the interior of the park actually continues on through the mountains some 150kms and eventually arrives back at Humahuaca where we had stayed for Carnaval. Not that we were going to attempt this journey, our thoughts were more closer to hand and a little hike into an area where there was a bird hide. The ranger had told The Blonde that they recommended nobody hikes any of the main trails after 5pm, partly because they want people off the trails well before dark and partly because in this remote area there is recorded a lot of large cat activity, in particular Pumas but also Jaguars as well. Certainly it is not recommended you hike "solo". What the ranger neglected to inform us was that several of the trails up to the mirador some 15kms climb up the side of the mountain, were in fact closed. In the end we drove straight up to the guards lodge at the top of that section (the ranger fast asleep in a back room..well it was siestas time) and sat at the mirador/lookout and listened to the cicadas, watched beautiful butterflies and admired the amazing variety of trees in the rainforest. By almost 4pm we decided it was a good idea to head back down and at least stretch our legs on one of the shorter trails that would take us to a bird hide. We parked up at the trailhead, having only encountered two other vehicles making their way up the narrow gravel track and both fortunately at places where there was space for us to pass easily. The trail to the very rickety and ramshackle three storey high lookout/bird hide was less than 500 meters. We climbed to the top, heeding the notice of "Only Maximum Of 5 Persons On The Lookout At A Time"....I was not too sure it was strong enough for the two of us...at the top we had a little platform with a couple of bench seats where we could take in the view. We spent 30 minutes or so enjoying the relative peace and tranquility of this amazing location, noting in particular the abundance of butterflies...but no sign of any birds and certainly no big cat sightings...not surprising really the undergrowth is just so thick.
We heard approaching voices...no chance of bird sightings now with this noise....three guys climbed up to the platform... two locals and a Spanish gentleman who informed us he was cycling from Montreal to Buenos Aires and had been on the road for the past 9 months. OK…. so whatever floats your boat. They stayed less than 5 minutes and descended back into the rainforest and pushed on further up the trail. We remained another 10 minutes or so and gave up on any sightings and retraced our steps back to Tojo…I sensed we were being eaten alive and feared that The Blonde would suffer from this unwanted attention. We drove back to the same spot by the river we had had our lunch. It was more open than the camp from the previous night and we hoped that there would be some breeze there to cool things down a little. It was now a little after 6pm and The Blonde needed a cup of tea, which she took outside and on one of the large river defence berms that had been constructed to stop flooding of the nearby road, she took up pole position on a large rock looking west up the river valley.
Time for a cuppa before the storm hits...
It was at this time we noted the incoming storm clouds, seemingly moving south and away from us, but as we watched the lightning strikes some 20kms away, we realised that this storm now looked like it was coming straight down the river valley towards us....after our previous near miss experience at Purmamarca we decided being parked up for the night next to a large river valley with an incoming storm was not such a good idea, plus, it was apparent that since we had had our lunch here some 5 hours previous, there was already signs that more water coming down the valley. We moved back to our original camp spot in the designated campground area for the park, which was higher up and away from the river.
Just before 10.30pm the rain started, following a series of amazing lightning flashes and then...well it really did not stop all night. The forecast had called for "showers", well, if these were determined to be showers then goodness knows what a full on storm would look like…this was a tropical deluge! It was so humid and "close" both of us were finding it difficult to sleep. I had set up the "spare" single bed in the dinette area so at least we both had some space. I probably had the better end of that deal, sleeping "downstairs" at least meant I had more space in terms of headroom and so not as claustrophobic as sleeping over the cab, plus, proximity to the larger window for some air. Not that there was a breath of it to be had anyway, as it was just so still outside with the exception of the continuous torrent of rain falling. The thunder continued to rumble ever closer and just before midnight amidst another but even more vivid lightning show, two unbelievably loud thunder claps erupted overhead, literally shaking the Tojo....a few minutes later and as the rain seemed to increase in volume again, if that were possible,….. there was a loud crash outside. I grabbed the torch and shone it out through the window. A large tree had fallen directly behind the camper....the top branches were actually lying on the drivers side of Tojo. Of course now there was no sleep to be had....where was the next tree going to fall?
Tojo and our near miss!
The Blonde was awake and in all sorts of discomfort with the mosquito bites she had picked up from our little rainforest walk earlier...it is always so amazing to me that as she says, they are biting me as well, but I am so lucky that I do not react in the same way, with huge welts like oversized bruises covering both her legs and arms. So....for a little respite from the stifling heat, I turned the engine on and with the AC at full blast managed to cool down the cabin for half an hour to make it somewhat more bearable. The rain continued and then, whether it was just the same storm circulating or another one rolling in, we were treated to another round of sheet lightning which lit up the sky every few seconds…. that then went on for almost half an hour before more enormous claps of thunder again closer and closer. And so it continued right through until daybreak, which arrived just before 7am. We went and checked out the river at the bottom of the campground…it was now in full flood….a good job that we did not camp down there where we had originally considered yesterday afternoon. There was nobody at the rangers office to check with to see what condition the road may be in back to town….that in itself was a little disconcerting as it likely meant nobody had been able to get through. But then we heard two or three vehicles go past and so we decided to try and make our exit. Over the small bridge outside the campground we could see the small stream we had witnessed the afternoon before now a raging torrent of brown water, mud and rocks. The road was slick and there were several quite deep muddy patches but we managed to go through them ok. Our spirits lifted and our confidence grew when we saw there were new tire tracks on the road ahead. Eventually we came to the point which I was concerned about where I had seen a large culvert coming across the road when we had driven in the day before…as we got closer to it we could see several vehicles parked up….but it was all good. There was a small 20 seater bus coming from the other direction which had disgorged its passengers and they had been moving rocks out of the culvert which had been washed down the hillside, they could now get the bus across. We took our turn to cross over…and then headed into town. As we reached the main road a policeman stopped us to ask what was the condition of the road…we think he had been sent out there to stop people going in and we were the first people he had seen come out the other way. Back in town we went to the service station to get wifi and to check on the weather reports….when we came out, The Blonde saw that the tire we had changed in Purmamarca was also now flat!! Fortunately I had pumped up the spare tire with the faulty valve and had managed to stop the valve leak….so we changed over the tire again and went to find a Gomeria/Tire Service shop. The guys at the shop were great….we had a serious puncture in the original spare, but it could be patched and repaired, the valve on that tire was also faulty so we had this replaced and also the faulty valve on the original tire that had gone down….in 20 minutes all was good again…$20……bargain!! We had lost some time….but hey, all was present and correct now….our next focus was to get across country to the most northeasterly point of Argentina, to Iguazu Falls….1500kms away.