RALLY OF THE INCAS
TWO KIWIS’ EPIC JOURNEY THROUGH SOUTH AMERICA
When Mercedes-benz aficionado Garry Boyce told us early last year that he was seriously thinking about entering The Rally of the Incas 2016, our immediate thought was that this is not some short, weeklong jaunt around a couple of tourist spots in South America; no sir, Rally of the Incas is an epic 28-day journey in November and December, starting from the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires. It first heads south along the Atlantic coast to the world-famous Valdes Peninsula before turning inland to the mountains and the spectacular volcanoes of the Chilean Lake District and reaching the Pacific coast of Chile. Then north through the high Andes, taking in the vast landscapes of the arid Atacama Desert, the verdant Argentine wine region, and the windswept Altiplano. It also includes a few unforgettable days in the land of the Incas, visiting Lake Titicaca, the ancient Inca capital of Cusco, the Nazca Lines, and the lost city of Machu Picchu, before the grand finish in Lima, capital of Peru.
With his trusty 1964 Mercedes-benz 220SE — which Garry’s owned for 22 years — loaded to the gunwales with spares, he and codriver Ken Williams set off on the torturous 10,000 km journey, and here they share their story from the start. Take it away, Garry.
The scrutineer asked if we had prepared the car ourselves. Yes, we replied, and, after a short discussion about the things we had done, he gave us the stamp of approval that meant we could go on to ‘ documentation’. Then to the signing on, many declarations and many signatures. Next to the route books, maps, timing sheets, and all the regulations — the pile was about 100mm high.
Ken and I sat down and started to read the information and tried to get our small brains around how all the different timings, tests, and regularity sections worked together; it’s not easy. About two hours later, we started to feel that we had our heads around the system. Then it was the main briefing, with all the usual warnings about what will happen if you are bad boys. By now, we were raring to go and looking forward to the start at 9am the next day — we’d leave from position 25, so start at 9.25am.
Day one began with torrential rain, thunder, lightning, and high winds. We had a small misdirection as we headed for the autoroute out of Buenos Aires. At this stage, a car with a roof and windscreen wipers was just fine by us. It was only 5km before we saw a Bentley
with its bonnet up in the rain and some poor sod spraying CRC.
We arrived at the first test track; it was still pouring down. Ken took over and peddled the car at an astonishing speed for the conditions.
Then it was on to the first regularity section. We expected rough dirt roads, and, yes, that is what we got. Dirt and clay with no shingle, and massive ruts that if you got a wheel in them would give you some testing moments.
The average speed was set at 70kph over the distance, but, the way the event is run, you do not know where the finish will be. So they hide around the corner, and you get about 10 seconds to stop, and that may be anywhere through what might be a 20 km distance. You have a set of tables that show you distance against time, and the navigator has to keep telling where you are at, at all times, as the finish may be just around the next corner. That 70kph was a challenge, but I loved it. We finished two seconds fast. Then it was on to a BBQ lunch at a cattle ranch.
The second regularity was also at 70kph, on a smoother dirt road with smaller ruts but still a challenge. We got held up by another car at the checkpoint, so were 15 seconds late. Many expletives.
Transition to the hotel in Mar Del Plata came after 524km for the day.
In the morning, the noticeboard said that car 35 — us — was in eighth position out of 38 cars in the classic section — we were chuffed. Many seasoned veterans of these events were well behind us.
It was a 7.55am start, with a timed drive to the Museo Juan Manuel Fangio in Balcarce — what a great museum in honour of the man, many others who have been part of Argentina’s rich car racing history, and Mercedes-benz.
Then it was on to the Autódromo Juan Manuel Fangio circuit for tests on both the small and main tracks. Ken pushed the car to the absolute limit — boy, you could smell the brakes at the end. His times were just amazing.
Then it was on through passage controls to the hotel in Bahía Blanca. Again, our timing was perfect, so no penalty points, and 518km for the day.
As there had been no regularity stages on day two, we had dropped to 10th place, but this is an endurance rally not a sprint. We were not unhappy, as there would be fewer track tests and more regularity stages coming.
Day three was a big day. We left Bahía Blanca at 7.55am, with a 120.9 km transition to a time control, then on to a new transition to a test circuit at Autódromo Viedma. Ken did the track test, which went really well. This circuit suited the more powerful cars, but we were boxing well above our weight. Then we had a further transition to the big regularity section for the day. Yay, we were back on shingle — much like the roads at home. The section length was 52.72km, with a control speed of 80kph. Ken and I set up a new system of average speed timing to make it easier for both of us to understand where we were in the section to within 10m. We had a long drive on shingle along the coast, and the wind just got stronger and stronger the further south we got into Patagonia. Then it was back on tarmac, and long straight roads south through timing and passage controls. We estimated the headwind
speeds at up to 90kph, meaning your foot had to be well down on the pedal to maintain 110kph — we estimate we used a third more fuel.
After 769km, we clocked into time control at Puerto Madryn at 6.20pm, with no time points lost.
Day four was a rest day in Puerto Madryn. Everybody, including us, was working on their cars. We cleared all the stones out of the top of the belly pans, adjusted the brakes, replaced an exhaust-hanger rubber, adjusted the fan belt, and washed the car. Some of the other cars had much more to do than us.
We were still in 10th place, but our starting position had changed from 25 to 41.
The slowest cars go first, with each car going a minute after the one before, so we went at 41 minutes after the control time. They do this so that the field bunches up, and the sweeps do not have to wait for the last car — to go later is recognition that you are faster than all the other cars in front of you.
We started with a 75 km transition to the Autódromo Mar y Valle, where Ken did another good time. Then it was on to Gaiman, to the Ty Gwyn Welsh teahouse for tea and cake. After leaving Gaiman, we rejoined Ruta 25 for the long 159 km transition to the next time control.
Then things started to go wrong! The fuel station at the passage control had run out, and we had already put our spare fuel in the tank. Everyone was in the same situation, so we just had to carry on towards the next fuel station at 50kph, driving as economically as possible, knowing that we wouldn’t make it. We had travelled about 30km when the sweep arrived, and we managed to get eight
litres from it, just enough to get us to the time control with only six minutes to spare. We were out of jail, so we had an ice cream and learned a lesson about fuel: it would not be available all the time.
We were still on sealed roads but heavily potholed. Next was an 84 km transit on shingle — long, straight, and dusty. Then to Regularity Pampa De Agnia at a 70kph speed on rough, hard, sharp gravel. Our system was working well; we were about 10 metres ahead, but the finish-line timers were hiding in a gully and caught us at onesecond late.
Another long 111 km transition on shingle to Regularity Colon Conhue, arriving two seconds early, then 22km to the hotel at Esquel, for a very late arrival, after 692km — much of it on shingle — with no time points lost.
We were now in 11th place and working hard to stay there. We left Esquel with a 123 km transit to the Regularity Butch Cassidy. Good shingle road at 70kph, but we got caught out with a sneaky finish line — six seconds over. Then it was on to Steam Train Station for lunch, before heading out to the next regularity, El Maitén, going well on shingle and very dusty. We got tricked by the finish around a very sharp hairpin bend, and were late late by four seconds. We decided to use the Garmin GPS in future, and monitor the shape of the road for up to 500m in front us to see if we could predict where the finish would be so we could compensate accordingly.
Next, we were on to a test at small track Kartodromo Lewis. Ken peddled it well.
We were now in the picturesque part of Patagonia. We came off the shingle and transitioned to the Hotel Llao Llao in San Carlos de Bariloche, the best hotel of the event so far — it would be hard to beat.
Day seven was a rest day. We worked on the car, changed the plugs — we thought we had a bad one — checked the fuel filter and the air cleaner, found a crack in the flexible pipe between the air filter and the throttle box and fixed it with a surgical glove with the fingers cut off, and found and refitted screws missing from the mountings for the extra radiator fan. We went to wash the car, but all the car wash places had closed, being Saturday, so we found a place where we could back the car down by the lake and washed it with a canvas bucket I had been given at an event in Sonoma some years ago.
The next day we’d be going to Chile.
Day eight took us north, as we passed the last of the lakes of northern Patagonia, then on to very rough gravel and the first regularity hill climb, Passo Del Córdoba. It was rough, steep, and twisty, with only a 50kph set speed, which was impossible for us to maintain.
We were 34 seconds late. Two transition sections followed, with time controls as the rally controllers tried to keep all the cars together. The second regularity was cancelled, as word was out that the crossing to Chile would be time-consuming. The road up to the remote border at Paso Mamuil Malal was rough. We knew you were in winter snow country by the marker posts on the side of the road.
Passing out of Argentina into Chile took about two hours. What a contrast! The road was sealed, with kerb and channel. We had an 84 km transition to the hotel in Pucón.
Ken drove out this morning, through countryside that reminded us of the Waikato during the transit to the first regularity at Flor Del Lago. The set speed was 60kph; it was very rough and slippery. Ken overcooked a downhill hairpin bend and hit the bank. We got the car out and set off for the end — time lost: 60 seconds. We pushed the right front guard out with the help of a log of wood and the power steering.
We were now in volcano country, at the entrance to the Conguillío National Park. We paid the entry toll and headed into a magic area of lava flows, ash, spectacular volcano views, and green-water lakes with petrified tree trunks sticking out. The road was very rough, and soon we heard the most horrific noise from under the car. A sway-bar bush, I thought, but it just got worse. We pulled up in the middle of a lava flow, jacked the car up, and got under to see that one of the studs that holds the back of the belly pan had dropped out. We found a replacement in Ken’s icecream container of spare bolts and nuts, and were on our way in about 10 minutes.
On through two time controls to the second regularity at Valle Del Culenco. It was back to me driving. The going was very rough and slippery, and I spun the car sideways and ended up sitting us across the road. We got ourselves out and back facing the correct way and got to the finish late. We decided to back off a little. This event is a marathon, and we wanted to be at the finish in Lima. Then the transition to the hotel in Concepción. It had taken us four days to cross South America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The day started early, with the first car out at 7.30am. We were the 40th car to go, starting at 8.10am, on very rough, fine-dust roads to the first regularity, San Rafael. Within the first 2km and the first logging truck, we knew we had no chance of finishing within the 60 seconds, so just crossed through to get finish points. Most cars did the same, with one car driving past the finish line, as there was a logging truck going past it at the time and just no visibility because of the thick dust.
We then started the long 634 km haul north to Viña Del Mar, through three time controls and a passage control, past vineyards, apple and fruit orchards, hectares of kiwi fruit, paper mills, pack houses, and heavy-industry plants to arrive at the city at about 6.30pm.
Today was a rest day. We had completed 10 of 27 days. The rally had lost two cars. The garage was a hive of activity that morning as radiators were being taken out for rebuild and other major maintenance work was being done. We worked on our fuel problem and felt we had done the best we could to keep the car’s idle from surging. Other maintenance was done to keep the old Benz the best she could be. Tomorrow, we’d head back to Argentina over the low Andes.
The day started with the threat that the border from Chile to Argentina would be closed by a customs strike. Luckily, it reopened, so all was go. The first regularity was cancelled to allow extra time at the border. The climb from sea level to the border in what they call the ‘low Andes’ was interesting but uneventful, though things were about to change.
In Chile and Argentina, the fuel is 12 per cent ethanol, and this has a tendency to cause vapour lock. The higher you go up and the hotter your engine gets, the worse it gets. As we rounded the bend at the foot of the Paso Internacional Los Libertadores we thought to ourselves, my God, we’d never seen any road as intimidating as this climb — 25 switchbacks up what looked like a vertical rock face. At the bottom, the car was going OK but down on power, then, as we climbed, we started to lose cylinders one at a time, until we were down to three and hardly moving. We were about halfway up when we had to stop for roadworks. This was a godsend, as it allowed us to bring the engine revs up to 3000 without load, and we slowly got all six cylinders back. When we started to move again, we progressed on towards the top of the staircase and reached the top on four cylinders. Again we stopped, and ran the engine at 3000rpm. Once satisfied that we could proceed, we got in behind a truck and bus and moved in through the Túnel Cristo Redentor at 10kph to an altitude 3475m.
Once out of the tunnel, we simply drove on through Chilean customs and into Argentina, via 12km of no-man’s land to the Argentina border post. The line of cars, trucks, and buses banked up from the day before meant that it took more than two hours to get us, our car, and customs inspections through the system. It was downhill from there to the time control. Then we drove to a passage control, where we could choose to take a direct route to the next time control or a rough but spectacular one. With the fuel issues, we decided to take the direct route. We continued to the hotel at San Juan.
We were back in Argentina, after a big day of many challenges, but we had made it on time.
We now started at position 36, as there were 46 cars left. First, a short 13km to a track test at the Autódromo El Zonda. Ken nailed it at 4.19 minutes better than some of the Porsches. It’s called ‘late braking’, which is hard on the floor of the passenger’s side, but a great ride.
This is not some short, weeklong jaunt around a couple of tourist spots in South America; no sir, Rally of the Incas is an epic 28-day rally
We then had a 22 km transition on shingle and dirt. This was the most difficult road we had been on so far in this rally, with many dips that were washed out, and you had to approach the washout at 45 degrees to get through. With its independent rear suspension, our car worked a treat. Many big rocks gave the belly plate a hammering.
On through a time control to the Regularity Valle de la Luna. Ken was at the wheel today, so it was a hill climb on a sealed road. With his usual late braking and fantastic driving, he nailed it at four seconds too fast. A great result and ride. We then transitioned through the most spectacular high desert landscape, with many geological features.
On to the next track test at La Rioja, where Ken did it again with a spirited performance that was starting to be noticed by the crowd. The heat was an incredible 37°C, with a wind blowing like a blast furnace. For the first time, we travelled with all the windows down, the quarter-lights just enough to stop the buffeting.
It had been a fantastic day of endurance rally experiences, but there was a hopeless parking situation at the hotel, with many cars parked on the footpath and a big commotion when the tow trucks arrived. We got a great spot right outside the front door.
After Ken’s great efforts the day before, we were back in 11th place. We left La Rioja at 8.36am, as we were still running from the number-36 start. It was hot and got hotter as the day went on. The first regularity was cancelled, as the road was just too rough after recent rain, so it was transitions on through time and passage controls, and a long day’s driving through northern Argentina, over mainly flat, scrubby country. The one regularity of the afternoon was a hill climb on a sealed road. Only three cars made the time within 60 seconds, so the rest of the fleet, including us, got the maximum 60-second penalty, making us fourth equal.
For the first time in the rally, we had some wet riverbed crossings but not deep enough to test the air-inlet snorkel. It was a long, hot 516 km day to the Sheraton in Tucumán.
RALLY OF THE INCAS
In part two of this story, next issue, we’ll follow Garry and Ken on their incredible journey north, through Argentina and into Peru to the finish line.