Despite the clear crispness of the air the smell of petrol still lingers on my jacket. Everyone had told us that to negotiate the hundreds of kilometres of gravel road that constitute the Southern tail of Ruta 40 we would need a spare petrol tank. We took this to mean that we would need a full petrol tank, our reasoning being that if we ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere (and the windy plains of Patagonia are more nowhere than anywhere I’ve ever been before), then we would be able to fill up and keep on going to the next huddled cluster of buildings and maybe – but probably not – find some petrol.
Apparently we were mistaken, the thing to do is to take an empty spare tank and then flag down a passerby and have them take you to said huddled cluster of buildings and then, presumably, have them take you back to your forlorn car.
Back in Buenos Aires when we told Argentines about our decision to keep the spare tank full of petrol they laughed at us, at our naivety. But I suspected that they had never been to Patagonia, that they’d never been on that dastardly stretch of Ruta 40, between Los Antiguos and Tres Lagos, because apart from there being very little vegetation and precious few communities (some of which are composed of and managed entirely by sheep), there are no cars.
Imagine the scene: our car dies on the gravel road, 200km from Tres Lagos, I try to open the car door to get out and see what’s what but the wind won’t let me. So we all sit in the car and wait for a passing sign of life. Hours pass. The sky is yellowing as the sun falls and I know that Bear Grylls would be trying to make a fire while telling us about the vital importance of making a fire. I mention the vital importance of making a fire to the group but they ignore me, because they’re all American and they haven’t heard of Bear Grylls. I try to think of the American equivalent but can only think of Steven Seagal’s massive head, which convinces Ian but not the girls. So we continue sitting in the car. Days pass. When it rains we roll down the windows and point our open mouths up to the heavens. We eat the weakest, uncooked. Weeks pass. I’m the only one left. In a final pathetic show of resistance I try to open the door. But the wind’s too strong. I expire.
That’s why we filled up our spare petrol tank. But in the end we made it to El Chalten, and then beyond to El Calafate, without needing to dip into it. At the hostel we emptied out our bags but left the petrol tank inert in the boot. The next day, snaking around the thin roads that led to the blue crispy glacier, Perito Moreno, the tank, previously held in place by our snugly fitting bags, fell over and leaked all over the boot, leaving a congealed layer of sticky tarry gunk over every surface and especially in the hole where the spare tyre sits.
At the place where you take a boat and chug up to the glacier’s walls a car park attendant told us that our car stank of ‘Nafta’ (from ‘naphta’, not ‘North Atlantic Free Trade Alliance’). We looked at him, perplexed, then in unison we breathed in deep and full before collectively retching so thick the stench. ‘Ah, yes, it appears you’re right’, I try to communicate in Spanish. ‘Thank you.’
Much of the following day was spent bent over the boot with wire brushes more suited to cleaning dried pasta off a plate than scraping out congealed petrol. The car would stink until we reached Reta in Provincia Buenos Aires, where we were able to leave all the doors and windows open for three days and three nights. Quite how the people at the car rental company didn’t notice is beyond me. I suspect they’d overcharged us for the car in the first place and so let slide the suspicious smell and the patches of dissolved paint.