The Wait At The End Of The World

We’ve done a lot in the past 3 weeks but it was really dominated by the discovery of metal shavings in the transfer case of our truck during an oil change. It’s sometimes frustrating to have to have an older truck with what feels like frequent issues simply because we couldn’t import a newer one than 25 years old into the US. It’s such a dumb rule. We try to think of it as part of the adventure but it disrupts our plans somewhat and stresses us out anyway. Nevertheless, we are back on the road again and having fun. Here’s the catch-up.

We’d been having a great time exploring the Atlantic coastal towns of Argentina working our way south. We’d gotten ahead of Ivan as he had to wait for his parts to arrive. Since the last time I wrote something here, we stopped in the town of Julian for a night and did some truck maintenance in a municipal campground there. It was time to grease the truck. With the exchange rate, these campgrounds end up being very inexpensive and they include electricity. Pretty much all campgrounds in Argentina have electric because I think many people use portable heaters and need hot water for mate. It is a really nice thing to provide for people and we appreciate them if we’re wanting to stay in town.

On the outskirts of the small town of Santa Cruz, home to 36 foot tides, there is a lonely Magellanic penguin colony that you can walk out to. You can make a day of it and not meet a soul out there except all the penguins and horses. Some had their chicks, others were still sitting on their eggs hoping and others just standing around looking good or on their way to or from the sea. It’s funny to watch them pass each other enroute. You don’t really notice much communication there! And we can’t really tell who is who male or female really. It was so much fun to just sit and observe them, to see all their footprints and to walk both on the beach and inland some in the grassy areas to see just how far up they come to nest. It’s amazing! Some are at least a third of a mile inland from the sea. Some even up a hillside. For so many living things, the drive to reproduce is an amazing feat of perseverance.

We enjoyed taking lots of pictures and observing what penguins do.

Not much conversation between them!

Next up was Monte Leon National Park, just a bit further down Route 3. Set on an old sheep farm, it was very picturesque with many outbuildings and had a little museum and friendly visitor center. A park road led through pretty painted hills to another penguin colony and a temporary haulout for sea lions. It was battered by waves at high tide and didn’t seem like a relaxing place to be at all if you were a sea lion. And then, if you were a penguin, it wouldn’t be relaxing either because there’s a high density of pumas in the area and the parents teach their cubs to kill penguins. So it was a little like a murder scene there at that colony. We stayed until nearly 7pm to try to see a puma but we only got really cold. We spent a couple of days there exploring the trails and walking the beach. We continue to be blown by high winds at times, then get a break, then back to wind again.

Then we turned back and headed to Julian so that Jon could help Ivan replace his brakes. It’s nice the way they can help each other with truck projects. We’d had a leaking seal on the shaft of the differential box and we’d finally gotten the oil & new seals needed to change it so Ivan & Jon worked together to empty out the oil and replace the seal. Upon changing it though, there were metal fragments on the magnet of the rear drain plug. Not great. Also, the oil looked shiny. Plus, they could only get the drain plug off for the rear of the box, not the front because the bolt was buggered up. So something wasn’t right and we needed to get that front plug off to do a full oil change and learn more.

So we headed back through Santa Cruz to do the penguins again with Ivan on a beautiful sunny day. Remember…. Seize the day!!!

It was so muddy walking back on the beach that day!

Then we went to the small city of Rio Gallegos just before the Chile border to wait out some high winds and also to find a welder who could weld a socket onto the drain plug so that Jon could get it off and do another oil change. On the way, the guanacos (like a llama) that line the highway down here are in the middle of their mating season and the males are fierce with each other biting each other’s butts and running out into the middle of the road to do it. Meanwhile, the truck has been running great and loves it’s new muffler, but we were scared that at any moment the gearbox could blow up. We found a welder at a muffler shop who added the socket in a jiffy and we headed over to the campground to do another oil change. Again, more metal shavings. Again, it was a soft metal and so we felt reassured that it wasn’t the gear that was the problem, more like a bearing or a spacer washer. But still you don’t know… And so began the quest for parts (anything that Jon thought we might need) which are very hard to find because even though Mercedes is an extremely common brand throughout most parts of the world, this is also an unusual version of this truck being that it’s 4×4 all the time and it was never sold down here. Also, it is a 1988…. Argentina and Chile both have issues with shipping things in a timely way. On the way out of the city we passed the hospital and there was a dog curled up at the entrance. Funny!

Crossing in to Chile was no problem really, they took every speck of produce but were really nice about it. Then we could add our Chile sticker to the side of the truck. We’re finally here! We followed the “Ruta del Fin del Mundo” as they call it because it heads down to the southernmost point you can drive to in Chile south of Punta Arenas. But for now we went straight to Punta Arenas to the Mercedes dealer. We keep thinking that the Mercedes dealer is a good place to try to have work done (but it actually never works out that way). They had a look at the gearbox, drained the oil (yet again and more shavings this time too) they said they would work on it and we scheduled the work to be done the following week since they were fully booked. We went around collecting what bearings and seals we could to help our chances of having what would be needed for the repair. We also visited some parks, took some hikes, stocked up a little and explored the city some.

Then the waiting started. That was fine, because we could then follow the road to the end of the world after all and do some hiking in beautiful scenery and sort of collect ourselves. We contemplated what the end of the world should feel like and with the unstable weather that changes literally every 30 minutes, the quiet feel and the distant snowy peaks, it seemed to warrant to the name, almost. We hiked out to the lighthouse and watched the ships traversing the Strait of Magellan where our trucks had already passed through in July on their way to Buenos Aires. It was good to finally get there ourselves! This was a beautiful area.

A couple of days before, we’d visited the Victoria Museum that has life sized replicas of the ships of famous explorers like Magellan and Shackleton.

Over the 5 days, we slowly retraced the 70km back to Punta Arenas, the land of perpetual wind, slanted lamp posts, wind gnarled trees and enclosed bus stops- for good reason. Showed up at the dealership for our Monday morning appt and they said they had decided they would look at the truck but not do anything to fix the gearbox. Huh?? OK….. but they did give a suggestion of another mechanic to try; he came and met us & took us to his shop to have a look. It was professional, we felt good about it and we got set up for the next day. So we switched gears again, went and got Chilean Chacarero sandwiches like the ones Jon remembers from the old days working in Boston (they have green beans in them but that doesn’t make them healthy!) and took a walk along the waterfront.

Careful attention to line things up right

We entered the bay at the workshop the following morning and Jamie & Jorge, the mechanics, got underneath the truck right away to check out the transfer case. A couple of hours later they had it unbolted and were cleaning it off to bring into the shop for disassembly. Thus began 2.5 days (though it felt like a lot longer) taking it completely apart and examining everything. Right away, they could see that a shim washer on the center shaft had shredded and those were the cause of the metal shavings. The one on the backside of the same shaft was going too. Good. We were hoping it would be this. No one knows why it happened. The bearings all looked fine, the gears pretty much like new and there were no other glaring issues identified. There was a little scoring on the flange but it isn’t considered abnormal and Jon can order a new one at some point and replace it himself. It was pretty freaky seeing such a complex gear all laid out on the table in pieces and knowing that we weren’t going anywhere until that was put back together and back on the truck. The stressful part would be finding new shims to fit because they are part of the fine adjustment from Mercedes at manufacture rather than a specific numbered part. I’ll make the story short- Jamie did find new shim washers in the end and they could put the transfer case back together with those and the new seals that Jon had found. Turned out we didn’t need the bearings that we bought in town, and fortunately, the case gaskets were OK to re-use because even though Jon ordered new ones into Mercedes Ushuaia, we had no way of getting them to use.

We felt really confident about the expertise of both of these guys and the careful & methodical way that they handled the parts and they reassured us more than once that they had 30 years experience and not to worry. Jon still watched pretty much every move for both days and now his back is letting him know how it feels about all that standing around. Ivan helped to translate, bounce things off of, lightened our mood and stood by the whole time for moral support even though he didn’t have to. What a great friend! I caught up on chores around the truck and cooked a lot to make at least that part a little more enjoyable. And then there were other friends, including Stefan, a Mercedes mechanic from Germany who has invaluable info, Sandie & Karsten, Diego, helping from afar with advice and answers to Jon’s questions as he muddled through different scenarios trying to be ready for what they might find when they opened the box up. The goal has always been to get us moving again as fast as possible. And it seems to have worked! After a test drive, everything feels OK so far and we’ll do another oil change in a couple of weeks. We hope we caught the problem early and will have a quiet period for a while.

It felt SO GOOD to get back on the road and be free again! We do need to get to Ushuaia. We crossed to Tierra Del Fuego island that same afternoon on the ferry and found a great campspot by the narrow part of the Strait of Magellan. The weather has been beautiful and shockingly without wind! We walked for miles there as we have some catching up to do on our exercise!

See the funny pattern of the molting one on the right?

We visited the Penguino Rey King Penguin colony yesterday afternoon which was great. They look a whole lot like emperor penguins but they are about a meter tall. Beautiful colors, their white feathers shine like satin and the one “baby” was funny looking because he was half molted. Our pictures turned out pretty terrible but here is an idea of what we saw.

We’ve had TWO evenings of sitting outside having happy hour now, looking at a beautiful view. I think maybe summer is coming!

7 Replies to “The Wait At The End Of The World”

  1. I enjoy reading your posts, as you seem to travel even slower than we used to and discover sights we missed.

    I really stopped for a moment when you mentioned help from Sandie and Karsten, who we know too (but haven’t seen in what must be a decade by now, they’re still in the States). Amazing how overlanders still connect across the globe!

    Have an enjoyable New Year at Tierra del Fuego and lots of great experiences in the one coming!

    1. Hi Juergen, Well we sure are enjoying it down here, for me Ushuaia is a serious highlight. And funny you know S&K too. We lucked out meeting them through Neil & Pat off Cloud 9. Happy New Year. We are pretty excited about celebrating down here. Best wishes.

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