When I walked into breakfast after packing up the car, our friends sang 'Happy Birthday' and the hotel manager brought a chocolate bun with a candle in it. What a great start to the day.
After three days of non driving, it was now back to reality - 663km of driving (over 200 of which that was on gravel roads - 'ripio') a ferry crossing over the straights of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego and a border crossing from Chile to Argentina.
The first stretch of 'ripio' road out of the Torres del Paine national park was mostly good driving but with a rather bumpy, corrugated middle 40km on a twisty road through the hills. We had left at 7.25 a.m. and there was very little traffic on the road, but we had to leave a good distance between us and the car in front to avaoid getting a broken windscreen from flying stones. We sat for a while behind Jean, going at a moderate pace, being careful of his repaired (welded) axle shaft that had broken in northern Chile. Eventually there was a safe passing place and we were back up to a happier speed of 45 mph where the vibrations lessen as the tyres and suspension flex in tune with the washboard. Even so the noise is startling and you wonder constantly what is going to fall off, whilst keeping your eyes pinned to the road for sharp rocks to avoid.
Charlotte drove most of the next long stretch of good metalled road down to the and alongside the straights to the ferry port. Amazingly, in the middle of nowhere and after 3 days of no phone reception, my mobile phone rang and it was Rachel to wish me a happy birthday and we had a nice chat. The ferry was quick and efficient and we were doubly lucky; firstly to arrive just as a ferry did and secondly to be called up front to start a new row - right by the exit to be first off. That'll serve Rick right for jumping us in the queue! We were also entertained by a few dophins sharing this narrow part of the straights separating Tierra de Fuego from mainland Chile.
Back to another 120 km of ripio road - and some of it was really horrid with deep bumps. The car performed superbly with just one nasty moment when we both gasped as a deep rut bounced the car 3 feet to our right when I was already well over to make way for two trucks coming round a corner towards us. We put two wheels over the banked edge of the road, but the car responded swiflty to a light touch of the steering wheel and leapt back into line on the road. It is always a fine line on a bad road between getting shaken to bits a lower speed and retaining good control of the car. We erred slightly more towards getting shaken to bits after that!
After an easy customs crossing and 12km of no man's land between the border posts we were in Argentina and heading quickly on a good road to Rio Grande. We were keen to arrive at the hotel early to arrange birthday drinks for everyone (rally tradition.) Despite hosting a wedding party for 300 hundred they were able to accommodate the forty of us in a separate area for champagne (well, Argetinian - but owned by Moet and Chandon) the best empanadas of the rally and some cheese and ham.
As cars and people, covered in dust from the road, arrived at the hotel, the toll became clear: Two tyres completely wrecked on the gravel road (Rick and David,) a fuel pump catching fire on Jens' Bentley, a leaking petrol tank on D&D's Jag, another puncture and sadly, only one kilometer from the hotel, the axle broke again on Jean's Mustang. The second last day of the rally, with only just over two hundred k to drive tomorrow to the finishing line, had been a cruel one. The local tyre dealer was woken up and the tyres replaced. Paul spent another evening in the car park helping out and there were some distincly grubby hands and faces at the birthday drinks as well as much appreciated champagne and beer glasses on their way to the car park in front of the hotel. The challenges of the day made for a great release of tension at the drinks party and a good time was had by all - especially me.