TUESDAY 14TH MAY The Autumnal air chills my fingers as I cruise out of Colonia del Sacramento north along the not-quite-coastal Ruta 21. I’d picked out a promising-sounding wild camping spot on the Ioverlander app up at Carmelo 80km away, so the crisp, sunlit jaunt promised to be short and sweet
The sun shone brightly but the Rio de la Plata air stole its warmth, chilling my bones all the way to snappily named Parque de Pinos Eduardo María Arbeleche Ércoli camping spot. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t too busy, but it was far too open and public for camping. Ioverlander reviews tend to cater for motorhomes and this place would have been fine for that. But a tent here? Nah! It reminded me of an out-of-season Billing Aquadrome back in Northampton.
I rode to the end of the peninsular to basque in the sun to warm up, lizard-like, for a while and just observe the local activity. Cars drifted in, sniffing around like sharks before leaving again and I soon saw how this would be one of those spots that low cars with loud exhausts and music systems would like to hang out.
Early afternoon, I was hungry and needed stomach fuel since the sun wasn’t penetrating past skin deep. I trickled out of the park in second gear wondering whether the effort of searching for another spot was worth more than a peaceful night. It was still early so it would be a long wait anyway and I joined the main road to follow a bus across the river into the city grid of Carmelo.
Lo de Pepe is a Mediterranean-looking pastel-pink restaurant with large Latin-looking arches and I could see that the sun angled its beams through to warm the window tables inside. I sat next to a window in full sun and ordered a Chivito with a Cafe con Leche then hooked on to their WiFi to scan what the map revealed north of here. I was still without GPS since my phone drowned in Urubici back in Brazil all those months ago, so navigation relied on memorising place names and road numbers while scanning for signposts.
Not many options appeared on Ioverlander except one 35km north at Playa Agraciada. The review said that off-season it was free, but not all reviews are accurate – sometimes people slip by unnoticed, and after lunch I rode Northwest, squinting into the descending afternoon sun.
Nueva Palmira, I took an uninspiring detour off the bypass toward the centre, which appears to be a dedicated port town, nothing touristy or inspiring about it and I turned north to the campsite without bothering to stopping for fuel since I still had over a quarter of a tank on the gauge.
With no GPS to tell me “In 300 metres, turn left,” I almost missed the unassuming-looking, unsigned junction towards the campsite. Confirming the odometer reading, I turned left off the vacant ruta 21, noticing a handy-looking store set back off the road opposite. I rode on making a mental note for when I got hungry.
It’s 6km to the campsite along a straight and generously surfaced road, which I had expected to be the usual dirt track.
Arriving to the fanfare of barking from a quartet of motley-looking dogs that chase the bike through the gate past the sign that read “Prohibido Ingresar con Perros.” I parked the bike at the monument next to the river to admire the wide watery border to Argentina. I’d already glimpsed Buenos Aires distantly over the Rio d la Plata from the lighthouse in Colonia and admired the skyline of Posadas across the Paraná River from Encarnacion in Paraguay. This time, a couple of km away, I could see nothing but the rough silhouette of shrubs.
To my right, a couple of unoccupied caravans in the trees with ramshackle shelters cobbled around them. No sign of anyone between here and all the way from the tranquilo main road.
I walked up to the house in the woods near the gate and knocked on the door. He might be the caretaker, I’m not sure, and he waves me away pointing with a sweeping motion of his arm over the site with what sounds like affirmative tones.
I took to the woods, far away from the caravans and the shower block, erected the tent next to an electric point. Two dogs galloped from the house and bowled into my legs, the lighter coloured dog looked more laid back but easily led and the burnt-toast-coloured one had a puppy-like exuberance set to annoy. Any affection was returned with jumping and pawing so I learned that to ignore was the best strategy.
I struck the hammock up between two pines and slumped back to watch the sunset over the mighty Rio Uruguay. So much better than the park back at Carmelo. This would do nicely!
Uruguay in Autumn isn’t what you would call warm, especially on the waterfront in the mornings. About 60F or 16C. I’d say it’s on a par with October in the UK, and after the sun went down I tucked up early into my sleeping bag for a peaceful night with just the sound of a breeze through the pines and the occasional thud of a pine cone falling to the pine carpeted sand.
I woke up uninspired and made it worse by sleeping in until midday and burnt-toast laying on the tent caving in one wall. I unloaded the rest of the luggage stashing it in the tent and took a run out to the store back at the junction.
The isolated store reminded me of a Frontier post. It didn’t have a lot but what it had consisted of a little bit of everything. A short, stocky late middle-aged woman patiently negotiated our language barrier. I bought food and a carton of wine so cheap that I thought I hadn’t been charged for it. I wanted some charcoal for cooking but I couldn’t make myself understood and was offered a range of objects from a cut of steak to a cigarette lighter. I took the lighter and gave up on the charcoal.
I didn’t go anywhere the next couple of days but collected what little twigs and logs that were available for cooking for when the bread and wine had been consumed. The wine tasted OK but gave me a hangover after about an hour. I didn’t have to wait until morning.
Come the weekend 5 days later, I decided it was time to take a shower. The heavy grey sky threatened rain and chilled the atmosphere. Inside, the block itself was cold, dark and grubby; the dim lightbulb struggling to illuminate the dark dank walls. But I pleasantly discovered luxurious hot running water. A hot shower after 5 days feels like an orgasmic pleasure for the senses no matter the state of the decor. I beat the thunderstorm back to the tent and fended off the annoying dog from forcing its way inside before it retreated back through the rain back to its house and I settled down to watch a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones.
Sunday 19th May. I never feel it’s worth going anywhere Sundays. Shops often stay closed unless it’s a big city. Recreational sites also bustle with families, so I tend to hunker down. As I would today. Perhaps half a dozen families came and went during the day; busy by recent standards and it even looked as if the site restaurant was open although I stayed put to light the grill before transferring a large smouldering log by me to warm me in the hammock.
The little ferrying I did 6km to the store and back sipped the dregs of my fuel and the needle hovered over E. The next gas station was 40km North at Dolores, my range was less than 20 which necessitated a retreat south to Nueva Palmira. I hate backtracking and regretted not stopping for fuel on my way just because “I wasn’t in the mood.” Still, it was an excuse to find a cafe and check my messages as I hadn’t been online for nearly a week.
The low grey clouds were pregnant with rain. I probably didn’t have enough fuel for an extra trip to the store and back plus the distance to Neuva Palmira for gas so the choices were to stay hungry or race the weather into town.
I found the petrol station without trying too hard and cruised down to the waterfront. All was quiet and grey with a single freighter moored up at the pier. I cruised around the quiet streets until the clouds delivered on their promise and raindrops began spattering on my visor.
A couple of blocks back, I stumbled upon Cafe Laskina and I settled at a window table opened my laptop and ordered coffee and tostados to while away a few hours while the Uruguayan weather tapped on the window pane. An email from the British Embassy announced my new passport had arrived. What to do about that… I was far from Montevideo and not even halfway around my excursion. Should I go back or carry on. I’d think about it…
Meanwhile, I post on Social Media:
“I’d stopped for an overnight camp… I’ve been here a week now as it’s so nice. Free camping, free electricity and hot showers. No wifi so I thought I better come into Nueva Palmira and check to see who misses me. Turns out nobody apart from internet marketers and the Embassy, which has now received my passport. Last Facebook notification 5 days ago. It just reminds me of how quickly we’re forgotten once we’re dead.
Where email acts like a dam when unread emails stack up over time. Social media is like a bucket of water: once you take your hands out the ripples on the surface quickly fade to a flat calm.
Rainy day here in Nueva Palmira, Uruguay. Just like a British autumn: Gloomy grey sky, 15C, and coarse drizzle. Waiting for a break in the weather so I can make the 15km run home.
Have I been using the time to catch up on writing and work? Have I ‘eck. I’ve spent my time watching the ships on the river, collecting pine cones for the fire, dozing in the hammock, daydreaming and watching Game of Thrones, and my newly discovered series of Westworld.
A town named the same as a Westworld character lies 35km to the northeast. Could that be a clue in the big adventure game called life? I’ll head up to ‘Dolores’ and find out when the weather brightens up.
Rain is forecast for the next few days so I’m hanging around a while longer. I’ll be offline for a few days more.”
I’d caught up on all my messages and the News of the World but the weather had anchored itself to this port town until further notice. I made my escape as soon as the rain eased to a spatter only to open up again just a few blocks away. I sheltered at a store and sat under the awning after buying some supplies, and watched the torrent of water in the gutter wash over the tyres and through the spokes of my wheels.
An hour later, the rain eased again and I set off: mission accomplished with full tank and supplies. 5kmfrom home, the heavens opened again and I arrived back just as water penetrated my final layer of clothing. Peeling off my clothes in favour of a dry layer, I tucked up in the sleeping bag with a glass of wine and snacks to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones. The conclusion of that episode left me feeling like that was the end of an adventure but here I was, still on my own.
Burnt-toast had hung around all night, disturbing my sleep by shuffling around on the side of the tent she made for her bed. The cool grey morning hung suspended under spent clouds. The river had risen up to the steps of the monument, threatening to breach the low bank and flood the woods.
I estimated it had risen a couple of feet and had a couple more to go. I would monitor the weather to try to avert potential disaster.
Meanwhile, I dedicated the day to a hot shower and laundry, hanging it out to dry in the cool river breeze.
Wednesday 22nd May, I liked it here and considered staying one more night but Burnt-toast had won, she’d frayed my last nerve by bowling into my legs and abusing my tent. Time to move on… and I started to pack away.