Two Brits follow Che Guevara's route on a journey through Latin American each aboard a Norton 500
A Norton 500 in South America
Two Brits have followed in the tire tracks of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and written a motorcycle diary of their own along the way. Chronicled in a book written by co-conspirator Stephen Holmes, To Infinity and Beyondtells the story of the pair’s epic 5,000-mile trip on two 1940s Nortons through some of the world’s most dangerous terrain.
Che Guevara’s epic journey through Latin America on a 500cc Norton single in 1952 is one of the most famous, and arguably most important, motorcycle trips of all time. What he saw on his travels changed him forever, and led to Guevara becoming one of the key figures of the Cuban Revolution and one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century.
His epic trip with Alberto Granado has been the subject of a best-selling book and a major movie, both called The Motorcycle Diaries. Beyond repair after countless crashes, Guevara’s Norton 500 never finished the trip, and he completed his 5,000-mile journey by other means. Fifty-seven years later, Holmes and fellow traveler Peter Sandford followed — and completed — Guevara’s original route on period Norton singles.
The trip came about after 55-year-old Sandford, who runs a windsurfing business in the U.K, watched The Motorcycle Diaries in January 2008 and thought it would be fun to replicate Guevara’s trip — and actually complete it on two wheels. A quick call to friend Holmes, a 53-year-old truck driver, assured him of a traveling partner and the challenge was on.
To recreate the journey, Sandford and Holmes would have to travel through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela. Along the way, the pair would have to contend with some of the toughest environments on Earth, including the Atacama Desert, the driest region on Earth.
And as if that wasn’t going to be tough enough, they’d be making the journey on period Nortons, just like Che. “I thought it would be a blast and a heck of a challenge to do the trip on a Norton exactly the same as Che’s,” Sandford says. The problem was, a 1939 Norton 500 Model 18 like Guevara used was hard to find. After three months of searching, Sandford found one on eBay and another through the British Norton Owners’ Club, both costing around $4,000. They weren’t the exact 1939 Norton 500 Model 18 that Guevara used — they’re both a few years newer — but they were as close as possible to the original.
The plan was to allow eight weeks for the trip and to stay true to the spirit of Guevara’s journey, which was to travel alone, without back-up, staying with locals whenever possible or camping the rest of the time.
After a year of planning, sourcing bikes, settling on a route and sorting out a thousand other issues, the two Nortons were crated up and sailing over the Atlantic in late December 2008. Sandford and Holmes would fly out to meet them at Buenos Aires on January 10. Or at least that was the plan; it took nine days for the bikes to clear customs, and to add insult to injury, the authorities charged them for nine days’ storage expenses.
January 18: More than a week behind schedule, the pair finally set off from the site of Che Guevara’s old apartment at Calle Araoz 2180 — the exact spot where the original journey began. A last minute surprise was the appearance of Gustavo Agra, who turned up to wish the pair luck. Agra built the replica 1939 Norton for the The Motorcycle Diaries movie.
Cheered on by Gustavo, the Argentinean press and a crowd of locals, the boys finally started out on what would prove to be the adventure of a lifetime. Holmes noted in his diary: “As we headed away from Buenos Aires I had the grin factor. This is why James Lansdowne Norton had created this machine all those years ago. It was an amazing feeling.”
That “amazing feeling” was soon replaced by a serious concern over the bike’s handling capabilities, laden as it was with at least 155 pounds of luggage, but they pressed on. Riding into Bahia Blanca, Argentina, the pair was again accosted by news crews and journalists.
As in Guevara’s time, the roads through Argentina were demanding. “Riding here you need to concentrate 100 percent, all of the time,” Sandford wrote in his diary. “You’re constantly scanning the road surface for the best route to take around the bumps, lumps and holes. Even so, sometimes there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but just hang on, grit your teeth and take the jump, both wheels in the air.”
January 23: The duo turn their backs on the Atlantic and head inland towards Patagonia. After a 200-mile ride on a road that only had two corners, Sandford and Holmes started looking for a place to camp in Choele Choel. “We rode up to the campsite, which was in a beautiful setting on a small island on the Rio Negro. We were mobbed by families who were enjoying barbecues, and before we could dismount, we had each been given a cold beer and invited to join the family get-togethers.”
Four days and 250 miles later, they were in the foothills of the Andes. Despite the rigors, the bikes were holding up well. “The Nortons responded to the challenge and any questions asked of them,” Sandford says, adding, “and for the first time I felt at one with the bike.”
Leaving San Martín de los Andes in Argentina, the roads got worse. “About 20 miles out of town we rounded a bend and the road turned into a dirt track with deep ruts, rocks, gravel and great chunks of fallen trees. If it wasn’t for the other traffic, I would have thought we’d taken a wrong turn. It was almost fun for the first mile — the only way to stay on the bike was to stand on the footpegs all the time,” Sandford says. “At one point I looked back and Steve was gone. I waited awhile and he eventually thumped into view, minus his headlight lens. His light had flown apart twice in 50 yards. Both of us were thinking to ourselves, ‘This could be the end of the trip, there’s no way these old bikes can take this punishment.’ But 37 miles and three hours later we emerged from our worst nightmare and were back on terra firma. When we stopped for gas and took our goggles off, we looked like those old shots of Stirling Moss with the panda eyes.”
After the horrendous Patagonian roads, the ride out of Argentina and into Chile was a dream. “The ride around lake Nahuel Huapi was fantastic,” Holmes says. “After a while you just seem to become at one with the bike, picking out cornering lines and clipping apexes without having to think.”
The next destination was Los Ángeles, Chile, where Guevara’s two-wheeled adventure came to an end. Guevara’s Norton 500 had been getting more troublesome by the day — unsurprisingly, since crashes sometimes numbered nine a day — so he and Granado brought the bike to Los Ángeles for repairs. They got permission to put it in a fire station and to sleep in a tiny room there. When the bike turned out to be unrepairable, they put it on a truck and rode with it to Santiago, where they continued their trip on foot. Sandford and Holmes wanted to find that fire station, as it played such a vital role in Guevara’s journey. “We wandered around and found it at 11 p.m. and got to chatting with a fireman who knew all about Guevara’s visit. He opened the big doors to the station and gave us a guided tour. We saw the actual room where Guevara and Granado slept. To know they had walked around those same rooms was quite spine-tingling.”
Sandford and Holmes’ faithful steeds were still going strong. “We were leaving town on bikes and felt like we had been passed the baton to complete Guevara’s journey,” Holmes says. “Any mile past that place was a bonus.” They tried to make Santiago in one 300-mile day, but bike problems, including a frayed throttle cable on Holmes’ bike, slowed their progress. Forty-five miles short of Santiago the bike died, and they spent the night in a field making repairs.
After Santiago, it was into the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. “I have never known anywhere so remote, so bleak, so strange, or so cut off from the rest of the world. Its sheer beauty cannot help but capture your mind, your soul and your heart. It is a beautiful remote wilderness,” Holmes wrote in his diary. It’s also shockingly cold at night, as they discovered when they camped. “All night I was woken by the cold, but I was so exhausted I didn’t have the sense to turn round so my feet were facing the wind,” Holmes says. The contrast with daytime temperatures could not have been greater. “The heat steals the air from your nostrils,” Holmes wrote the following day.
Back in relative civilization in Calama, they tried to find a replacement drive chain because of a suspect master link, only to be told the closest available would be in Santiago — 1,000 miles behind them! Another improvisation job had to suffice.
February 9: “Heading towards Arica and Peru, the road is an endless succession of ascents and descents of enormous, bare-rock mountains. The wind is really strong up here, and is either against us or trying to blow us off the side of the mountain,” Sandford wrote in his diary. “Of all the places we’ve been, this is the one where you’d least want to break down.” And then it happened — the split link in Holmes’ chain shattered. “We took a link out and somehow managed to make it fit. In all the time we were stopped, not one vehicle stopped to ask if we were okay. In Argentina we found that even if we only stopped to take a photo, cars would stop to check if all was well,” Sanford says.
Once into Peru (after passing signs warning of land mines), Sandford started suffering from altitude sickness. At one stage it took two-and-a-half hours to cover just 38 miles. For Holmes, this was the lowest point of the entire journey. “We were at 15,000 feet, wet through in freezing temperatures with sheer drops on either side of us and no headlights,” he says. “At one point, Pete disappeared into a 6-foot ravine after looking back to check if I was still there. If it had been at the other side of the winding mountain road, he would have died.”
Eventually, Sandford and Holmes dropped down into Cusco where they found the Norton Rat’s Tavern in the central square. Despite it being a hub for all overland bikers passing through, the American owner, Jeff Powers, assured them that theirs were the first Nortons to ever visit the pub; taking pride of place behind the bar is a huge British Norton Owners Club sticker.
Leaving Cusco behind, the pair headed for Nasca, passing the mysterious Nasca Lines as they pushed on towards Lima, Peru’s capital. Then it all went wrong. “We saw a few little dust storms off to the side like we’d often seen in Chile,” Sandford recalls. “But as we got nearer, we realized it was a sandstorm. In hindsight we should have turned around, but we tried to ride through it. My bike soon stopped and we both tried to shelter behind a little bush. After trying to sit it out curled up in a ball for over two hours, wearing helmets and goggles while attempting to keep our mouths and noses from clogging up with sand, we made a decision to abandon the bikes and try to get a lift to safety. Luckily, we managed to flag a truck down and the driver took us to the nearest town, some 40 miles away. At that moment I felt like I never wanted to see the Norton 500 again. Twice in three days I’d feared for my life, and when the storm eased and we set out to recover the bikes, a part of me hoped they might have been stolen and I’d feel free to go home and back to my family. We got the bikes and had to spend a day getting sand out of every nook and cranny.”
It was now March, and after dealing with sandstorms, floods, landslides and being chased by packs of mad dogs, Sandford and Holmes loaded their bikes onto a riverboat and headed down the Amazon towards Colombia. Once in Colombia, evidence of the country’s claim to being the most dangerous in the world wasn’t hard to find. Stopping in a local baker’s for breakfast, Sandford and Holmes were greeted by a guard armed with a pump-action shotgun keeping watch over the bread!
A cargo flight got the Nortons to Bogotá. “It gets dark early here and we’ve been warned not to ride Colombian country roads at night as the FARC guerrillas are very active round here,” Sandford noted in his diary.
Thankfully avoiding any trouble, they headed for Venezuela and the end of the trip. Amazingly, the bikes were still holding together, although, Sandford noted, “I don’t know what we’d do without webbing roof-rack straps. I’ve got four holding my luggage on, one holding my headlight on and another going around the frame and the gearbox to try to hold it in place.”
March 17: Approaching the bridge that would take them into the last country of their epic trip, Sandford was amazed at the traffic conditions. “The traffic is crazy,” he wrote in his diary. “Lots of huge 1970s American cars and motorcycles all jostling for position, trying to cross the bridge into Venezuela. There’s no sign of any officials on the Colombian side, so we go with the flow and end up on the Venezuelan side of the bridge.”
But that was the easy bit. “When we pull up outside the Venezuelan Customs building, the lady looks at our passport stamps and explains that we need to go back to Colombia and check ourselves and our bikes out properly. Not wanting to fight our way through the traffic again, we walk back over the bridge. At the Colombian customs hut the staff are really helpful, but explain that they need our bikes to do a brass rubbing of the engine and frame numbers. One of the customs guys fires up his scooter, gets Steve on the back, and speeds across the bridge with the brass-rubbing kit. They’re back 10 minutes later and everything gets sorted,” Sanford wrote.
“We lost six hours all told, but finally cruised into Caracas at around 3 p.m. and high-fived each other,” Holmes says, while expressing mixed feelings about reaching the end. “It was quite an emotional day’s ride. I was sad that the journey had come to an end, but joyous I would soon be home with my wife and family.”
With the bikes loaded onto a cargo plane and heading back to the U.K., Sandford was also glad to get home but very proud of the pair’s achievement. “I have to say this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and far tougher than I ever thought it would be. I can see why other motorbike adventurers use modern equipment, but that takes the ‘adventure’ out of the journey, and for this trip that wasn’t an option. It had to be original Nortons like Che and Alberto’s. That’s what made this trip so special for us and the hundreds of people who stopped to ask us about the bikes and what we were doing.”
Little has changed in these countries since Che and Alberto made their trip, but despite being impoverished, the people still manage to keep smiling. And while Sandford says it’s impossible to select one defining moment from the trip, one incident particularly symbolized the warmth and generosity of the South American people. “There was a little old guy in Ica, Peru, who ambled up to me moments after we’d been dropped off after hitching a ride out of the sandstorm. Steve had gone off to try to find somewhere to stay and I was at the roadside watching over our bags. I was absolutely covered in sand and very emotional, as I’d genuinely thought we might not make it out of the storm. This guy, who must have been 80, shuffled up to me asking what had happened. Moments later he was inviting us into his house to eat with him and his wife. This was typical of the kindness shown to us all over South America, often by very poor people.”
The Unapproachable Norton 500 did them proud. James Lansdowne Norton, we salute you! MC
Editor’s note: Read the full story of this incredible adventure in Stephen Holmes’ book, To Infinity and Beyond.