Over the Andes . . . in a 2CV!
It was too much for the boys from Top Gear, but six Kiwis, including two from New Plymouth, made it look easy.
Allan Inch and his mate, Tony Barnes, took Inch's little 1986 Citroen 2CV across the Andes, driving up steep hills, along narrow passes and across deserts on a 51-day, 9500-kilometre journey of a lifetime.
It was too easy to motor along the main highways, so they took the back roads similar to those the team from Top Gear had attempted, Inch says.
"Top Gear went on some of the roads and gave up, saying it was too hard. We did them and more.
"We would have embarrassed them."
The trip was organised by Rosco Pennell, of Northland, who takes motorbike trips through the Andes. This year, he organised an adventure called Shadow of the Andes, driving Citroens instead.
Inch saw the trip advertised in a Citroen magazine and invited Barnes to go with him. They were good mates and he knew Barnes was a good driver.
They visited Argentina, Peru, Chile and Bolivia. and the way they criss-crossed the Andes eight times meant they went through 10 border crossings.
At every border, they had to hand in the papers for the car and then go to the next building to get new papers for the car, Inch says.
"Then in the next country, you'd do it again."
The car had to be exported out of one country and imported into the next. They were often stopped by police to check if they had the car- ownership papers. In one city, they were stopped six times.
The roads the convoy travelled on were usually between 8000ft (2400 metres) and 10,000ft (3000m) above sea level and one pass was at almost 15,000ft (4500m).
"That was a real struggle," Barnes says. They would have their foot flat on the accelerator, but would have no power because the air was too thin.
"We'd be going 20km an hour because the car was out of power. At 602cc, it's like a motorbike engine. On the 64km of the Road of Death we climbed 10,000ft in 64km. That was at the headwaters of the Amazon in Bolivia."
On another hill, they climbed 7000ft (2100m) in 50km.
Driving at altitude had its problems and the cars struggled in the thin air, Inch says.
"In the Bolivian desert, we lost power because of the thin air. The car's air cooler needs oxygen to make the pistons work.
"We'd be screaming in first gear for hours on end. If we stopped, we were in trouble."
Sometimes Barnes wanted to stop. A nurseryman, he would often see an interesting group of plants by the side of the road when they were chugging up a hill.
"The roads were so steep and the cars were struggling so much because of the thin air we couldn't stop. I got a bit [annoyed]."
But if there was an old Citroen CV by the road, they could stop and look at it for ages, he jokes.
Sometimes, they had to stop, such as when the petrol pump failed in the middle of the Atacama Desert.
Pennell was worried about what they were going to do, Inch says.
The last town was 250km behind them and the next town was still 100km away.
"I said, 'We have three options. Tow me for 100km, or put a petrol tin on the bonnet and a pipe to the carburettor.
"He said, 'What's the third option?'
"I put my hand under the seat and pulled out a petrol pump. I'd been leading him on."
In the 2 1/2 hours it took them to fit the new petrol pump only two trucks went past. It was totally desolate, with not a tree, blade of grass, bird or insect for hundreds of kilometres - just sand and rock simmering in the blazing sun.
They always took the rougher roads, because it was more of a challenge, but one day when they were meant to be heading up through some mountains, Inch and Barnes decided to go down the main road.
"We were tired, so we'd taken the easy way," Barnes says. It was the right choice, as it turned out.
The other two cars went 50km, 2 1/2 hours up through the mountains, when they met some cyclists coming the other way who told them the road was out and they would have to go back. There were no signs saying the road was closed and there was no point in asking the police, because they wouldn't know, Barnes says.
One road was 50km long up a hill and at the top they travelled into a desert. Along the hill road they counted 14 truck runoffs, for truck drivers to go safely, if the brakes failed.
At the top, they met a landcruiser carrying their fuel. When the driver saw the three little Citroens he got very agitated.
"The only cars that go into the desert were big four-wheel-drives. We just followed him."
Another road they went on was a single lane with a 2000ft (600m) sheer drop beside it, with no crash barrier.
But the only time Barnes was worried was when they were going from Chile to Northern Argentina through Paso Jamo.
"Rosco was in front, still in motorcycle mode, and driving like a maniac. We were struggling to keep up. At 12,000ft (3600m), the road was so windy and steep that I kept thinking we were going to go over the edge trying to keep up. That was the one time I was a wee bit agitated."
Another day, after crossing numerous rivers and creeks, the wheel-bearing packed it in, so the New Plymouth pair went to a village to get it fixed, leaving the other two cars to carry on ahead.
So the next day they took a 600km shortcut across a desert to catch up, Inch says. "That's a lot of kilometres to do in a little car."
On the journey, they hit lots of rocks, bent rims and had to take tyres off and straighten them, and the brake pads wore out.
The cars are designed to go across ploughed fields, he says.
They were first built in France after World War I and they stopped making them in 1990.
"They hid the prototype when the Nazis invaded."
Driving in a convoy of Citroens created a lot of interest and they got a lot of thumbs-up signs as they drove past.
A lot of people wanted to get their photo taken sitting inside the cars, because the steering wheel was on the other side.
Because none of the Kiwis spoke Spanish, it was difficult to communicate, Barnes says.
It was frustrating, because they didn't have anyone to tell them about the country they were passing through, so they relied on books such as Lonely Planet.
However, at Machu Picchu, they had a guide who was a professor of anthropology.
"That was great, a highlight. Inca history is fascinating."
The people they met were lovely, he says.
"They are friendly, generous, patient, used to a hard life."
Bolivia is a very poor country, where people earn about US$300 (NZ$360) a year and, for some reason, they are not allowed to sell petrol to foreigners or, when they do, it costs twice as much.
So sometimes one person would stand in front of the car to hide the number plate, while the other would fill up the tank, so the cameras couldn't tell where car came from.
The Kiwis always carried petrol with them.
"Petrol stations are so far apart and there was no guarantee they would have petrol anyway."
Inch reckons they needed twice the amount of time to see the region properly.
"It was fascinating, especially the churches and the really old buildings. You could see the Spanish influence."
Barnes says he is not a car person. "But I have huge respect for the little 2CVs and I always wanted to go to South America. I'd go again in a flash."
Taranaki Daily News