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The Great North Road

April 27th, 2009

Driving to João Pessoa from Minas Gerais

br101For many readers, the Great North Road relates to the old A1 in England. Here in Brasil, many would see it as the BR101. Its very mention brings shivers to the spine. Men huddle in corners and tell dark stories of pot-holes; of roads like Swiss cheese, bandits and ten kilometre long queues of three trailer trucks stacked high with scrap cars or tyre slicing sugar cane.

“I want to drive North” I said innocently to my Brasilian friends and I was pulled to one side as if I were a child been pulled from the path of a raging bull. “Taken leave of your senses, have you?” Well no says I. Its just the airports are in turmoil and really I thought it was a good way to get to know Brasil.

I approached several people including those who had driven from Fortaleza and Natal to Sao Paulo and Rio on a monthly basis. I also looked at all the websites that came up after entering “BR101 into the search engine. Not encouraging. Not a good word to be found and horror stories abounded, enough to put off the faint-hearted.

I made a list of all the things I should and shouldn’t do.

* Don’t drive at night
* Don’t drive after 17.00. Start looking for a hotel.
* Don’t engage in friendly banter with petrol pump attendants.
* Anyone asks were you are going tell them you are going where you came from.
* Only use petrol stations with the “keeping an eye on the fuel quality” signs.

What to do. My family had been thinking of going North for over a year. I had been reading the good Captains posts about João Pessoa. The city seemed so inviting and now there was all this trouble at the airports.

Driving nearly three thousand kilometres with two children and my good lady wife seemed a little bit crazy but she was all for it. Our friends were shocked “you’re not flying” they said, well no one else was I thought. We prepared our tank ( our 4×4) and put four new tyres on it before putting it in for a full service just before we left. My wife bought lots of toys including jigsaws from the R$1.99 stores and some big plastic trays to put them in. I fitted a DVD player onto the passenger side headrest (a bit Heath-Robinson but it worked) and put a portable fridge in the boot.

I had planned my route meticulously. Going all the way North alone the Fernao Dias (BR381) to Belo Horizonte, Ipatinga then Govenador Valadares, followed by the BR116 up to Feira de Santana. After that we would take the BR101. “No, that’s crazy” said my friends “your only choice is to go through Rio on the BR116, cross the Niteroi Bridge and take the BR101 up to Captain Bill in João Pessoa.

That route would add nearly 600kms and a day to my journey, could my family take that? Our well travelled lorry driver friend persuaded us the Rio route was the only option as the aforementioned Belo Horizonte route was a death trap of pot holes, bandits, drug induced lorry drivers, stress crazed car drivers trying to over take long convoys of wagons. “So lets get on with it and go through Rio” said the wife dreading the pot shots of the favela snipers.

br-116We left on a very sunny morning in December 2006. We made excellent headway on the BR116 from Sao Paulo to Rio. We had to negotiate an awkward junction opposite Vidigal Geral, a notorious favela in Rio, so I planned the route carefully. It was about there that my wife saw a sign which said something like ” Tourists in big, dark windowed 4×4 causing huge tailback turn right here” which we obediently did and got lost. With traffic hurtling by on both sides and cars crossing central reservations at every opportunity it seemed like the world had gone crazy. As we trundled along I thought “now what would I do in England”, and of course I would ask a policeman. In the broken battlezone around me I saw a black and white beaten up police Blazer parked up outside some boarded up shops. I hadn’t noticed that the police had some unfortunate ne´er do well pinned up against one of the shop shutters. Our dark, black windowed tank purred up the grey concrete slope to where the police were parked. My wife’s window slide down. Immediately, a shrek like police officer armed to the teeth (in fact his teeth had braces, but it looked as if they were armed) appeared at the window. He appeared so quickly, I thought he must have been sitting on the roof. Another officer stood behind him, serious and unsmiling. My wife asked the way. The shrek poked his head in to the car interrupting Barbies “Princess and the Pauper” on the DVD. He didn’t speak, rather he grunted and pointed down the road and gesticulated a tad too fast for me but my wife seemed to understand and eventually we were crossing the Niteroi Bridge to the sounds of “you’re just like me”.

The rain fell gently at first as we made our way to Campos. The gentle patter turned to a heavy drumming on the car. The rain was now falling so hard that it was like a fire hose turned onto the wind screen. The wipers wouldn’t move the water about the same time as a petrol station loomed into view. We parked up in the car park, but stayed in the car. The water was flowing around the tyres and the wind buffeted the car. Eventually, the station was packed with cars and no end to the rain. To avoid been boxed in, I pulled over to the exit and then decided to leave. The petrol station was flooding. Reaching Campos was out of the question so we stopped at a little hotel in Casmiro de Abreu. It was still raining and continued to rain throughout the night.

There was a steady stream of trucks going both ways along the BR101. I asked the hotel desk clerk if it was always like this. He replied yes, all the way to Vitoria, 24 hours a day. I thought the road through Belo Horizonte couldn’t be worse than this. The road itself was in good condition though the sleeping policemen in the road as you entered and left the towns were really annoying.

The next day was very overcast. As we made our way to Sao Mateus, I found the scenery to be as equally dull and uninteresting, nothing like how my friends had described. The road conditions were good. Approaching Campos is quite surreal. Everywhere around the city is completely flat and then your have this city with its high rises which looms up in front of you like a scene from Mad Max 2. We lost a lot of time driving through that city just because of poor traffic management. Our well intentioned lorry driver friend had given us a “Flecha” hotel guide. The hotels were basic but sound. However, when we finally reached Sao Mateus we found that the hotels were part of a petrol station, bus terminal, truck stop and the noise from the bedroom was unbearable so we drove a bit further to what appeared to be a nicer hotel called “The Royal Palace Hotel”.

By now the rain had taken a firm hold on this side of Brasil. As we slept, Sao Mateus flooded and its main bridge carrying the BR101 was under water. “It can’t be passed” the hotel manager said gleefully “you’ll all have to stay here” he said to the assembled guests. The thought of staying there one more night spurred us into conversation with a fellow traveller. He was a local travelling salesman. He had been on his mobile chatting to all his friends, working out an alternative route. He announced to the assembled throng that he had found a way round but it was a 184km detour! With “you’ll have to stay here” still ringing in my ears I said that I would go with him. Then he added “don’t worry, I’m not going to kidnap you” which in my book meant he was.

Off we went hurtling back the way we came the day before. In the middle of the highway he decided to pull over. I had noticed he had been talking constantly on his mobile. “The bridge is still passable in blah, blah, blah town” he shouted across to us and then belted off down the highway. We entered a little town and then on to an estrada da terror or earth road. It was still raining heavily but it was manageable for our tank. He drove like a man possessed up hill and down dale until we came to a town with a long line of slow moving traffic which eventually took us to a bridge with the river water beating at its sides. That’s where he left us along with three packets of dried spaghetti samples. Imagine the headline “Trusting Brits kidnapped by spaghetti salesman”. Doesn’t bear thinking about being tied up with spaghetti. Our next bridge was actually under water but passable. We drove up through the valley to Nanuque and then onto the BR418 between Teofilo Otoni and BR101. “Go East young man” so off we went. The Bahia side of the BR418 was in terrible condition and really only passable with the aid of a man with a red flag walking in front of you. It was on this stretch that I was soon to learn a very valuable lesson on which I will dine out on for many years to come.

We don’t see the police very often in our part of Minas, certainly not the Federal police. When you do see them it’s because they are lost. So it was with some trepidation that I approached a police check point. Yes, there was a barrier across my half of the road and there was an arrow pointing to the right but I thought it couldn’t be for me, it must be for truckers or buses and anyway I couldn’t see any policemen. So I went left around the barrier and off onto the horizon. At this point I would like you to imagine a dark black windowed shadowy 4×4 cruiser purring past a police check point, then accelerating into the distance. I was well over the speed limit listening to Joan Sutherland going through the motions, when I was aware of alternating flashing headlamps and red and blue lamps in my rear view mirror. “He can’t mean me” I thought but he did. I pulled over and stopped, lowered my window, motor running, heart beating fast and the last ten minutes flashing before me. Yet another very large policeman walked into my life. “Documents” he boomed. I handed over some out of date papers.

I could see the gleem in his eye as he said “2005?. There followed a panicky rumble through my car folder for the up to date papers. “Check-mate” I felt like saying as I flourished the up to date papers before him. In my best Portuguese I explained everything to him, introduced him to my family and told him what a difficult job he had but what a fine job he was doing. The children were very polite and he seemed to be charmed by them. He told me there was a fine for speeding and seven points on my licence for passing a police check point but he was going to let me go. We shook hands; I blessed him, his family and parted amicably leaving his colleague quite bemused. From that day on, whichever state we were in, whenever we approached a police check point we slowed down, lowered all the windows and got the children to wave at the policemen. It was the only time we ever saw policemen.

Once onto the BR101, the road conditions were so good that we were able to cruise for long periods at the legal limits. We did come across the odd rough patch, even a hole here and there but really nothing to write home about. What impressed me was the virtually empty roads, and long stretches of very straight road at times running through the Mata Atlantica. I was reminded of the Roman roads in England. This meant it was very important to have enough fuel to get to the next city.

Although we had plenty of snacks on board we would buy occasional things by the road side. In small villages, the car was besieged by street vendors as it stopped to go over a lombada (read low wall). You could buy water and soft drinks, fruit, roasted corn cobs, fish, prawns and parrots. Yes parrots, obviously not to eat but what would you do with a parrot flying around the car! It’s illegal to buy them anyway. I am told that if you do buy one it will fly back to its owner who sells it again.

broken_sinkThere comes a time when nature calls and you have to stop. Choose your station wisely. While the restaurant may look very clean the loos may be exactly the opposite, to the point of making you retch. There are no clear guidelines as even some stations, which looked liked brand new developments with restaurants and snack-bars, had really lousy toilets. One particular find was the hole in the floor which I had never seen before. No pan, just a ceramic hole in the floor with foot-treads either side. At first I thought someone had stolen all the pans! Heaven help the person who walks in there in the dark. However, there are places which show a bit of ingenuity. While washing my hands in one place, I realised my feet were getting wet. Ingenious! The waste wasn’t connected so as you washed your hands, the water ran straight onto your feet. Obviously they thinking about the people who had put their foot down one of the toilet holes.

Then in one particular restaurant (I use the word loosely) the waitress was keen to impress by personally showing me everything in all the trays. “There’s probably something here you’ve never had before” but looking at the congealed lumps of unidentifiable food, I could only think it would be botulism or salmonella.

We did eat well though, in most places, which meant the children slept for a couple of hours. I ate rather too well on one occasion and while driving had to open up my belt and top button of my bermudas.

About an hour up the road, there was a call from the back of the car for a “pee” stop. I obliged by pulling into a service station. They all got out followed by yours truly. There followed one of those “past the point of no return” moments when as I stretched my arms one way, my bermudas went the other, gravity being the aggressor. This greatly amused the children and annoyed the wife. The impromptu pantomime over, I made my way to the café with my dignity in tatters.

It took five days to get to João Pessoa with nearly 3000kms travelled. We crossed the states of Sergipe, Alagoas and Pernambuco very quickly. I had consulted DETRANs website on road conditions and had expected something a lot worse than I had read or been told about. Instead, in most areas, I came across well paved roads and a super highway being built in Pernambuco towards the borders of Paraíba. This is not to say they were perfect but they were far from being described as Swiss cheese or full of holes.

There was, however, something incongruous about the signs along the highways in these states which read “Preserve the Mata Atlantica”, for on most occasions there was no “Mata” to be seen. Stretching out for as far as the eye could see were fields of sugar cane. For me it seemed like the Mata didn’t matter and Joan Mitchell singing about trees in a tree museum had an eerie ring of truth about it.

mstAnother thing about these states was the increased presence of the MST or people without land. Their tiny ramshackle, timber and polyethylene homes were built right up to the roadside. Signs said “We have no food” or “give us food”. As a complete contrast there were new “casas popular” in the small villages en route all brightly painted, in little rows. These were obviously built by the local council.

The BR101 through Paraíba and João Pessoa as far as Mamanguape was in excellent condition with long, straight, fast roads and little traffic. We stayed in João Pessoa for several weeks. We didn’t know on arrival that our return journey would be by a different route.

Back to Minas from João Pessoa.

Basking in the warmth of João Pessoa, we were now faced with the return journey home. Several factors were to influence our change of route. It was now mid January and there would be more holiday traffic going South. According to Journal National news programme, everyone was doomed. Flooding everywhere, bridges collapsing (25 in Minas alone) roads breaking up or closed due to landslides, buses being burned in Rio and people being shot, Campos (RJ) underwater in several areas, the list of disasters was growing day by day. Even the bridge at Sao Mateus was still underwater and our own home town was severely affected by the floods. All on our route back home. There was no alternative but to take the BR101 back down to the BR418 after Teixeira de Freitas. I was reliably informed that this road had been reduced to rubble by lorries all the way to Teofilo Otoni. I could have gone south via Feira da Santana and Vitoria da Conquista also known as “the bull road” or Estrada do boi. However, the tales of daring do to negotiate this route put me off.

When we set off, we left João Pessoa under a thunderstorm. We also started to break some of the rules given to us by those who travelled the route regularly. We drove at night to get to our first stop in Aracaju, Sergipe. As a consequence the city hotels were full though we found a place on the outskirts. A Sao Paulo driver on his way North said he hadn’t had any problems. Hmmm, the seed of doubt had been sown. The next day we pressed on. Wherever we stopped we talked to other drivers about where they had been, asking about road conditions etc. I noticed that the bus drivers and lorry drivers didn’t sit together. The bus drivers in white shirts and black tie were all finger bowl and napkins while the lorry drivers were sort of salt of the earth types. However, they were all willing to give me some feedback of the way ahead. In a way I had too much information now, but there was one common denominator. The road to Belo Horizonte had as many holes as Swiss cheese.

The truth is quite the opposite. As I previously stated, the Bahian end of the BR418 to Teofilo Otoni was very bad but the moment we crossed the border into Minas Gerais the roads became perfect for fast motoring. The scenery was fantastic, much better than that on our way North. We passed by the strangest mountain range I had ever seen. The mountains were actually gigantic sized boulders looking as if they had been dropped out of the sky. One could actually drive to the foot of these monoliths and touch them, an incredible feeling. There was even a conveniently placed restaurant where you could buy reasonably priced quartz samples. Incredibly, I saw similar samples for sale in the science museum (London) for 1800 pounds sterling. We drove on and up into mountains only to be stopped in our tracks by the Tolkienesk view of twin waterfalls flowing down from the top of one of giant mountain boulders. Only minutes before we had passed a mountain with a big smile on its side, lips and all. This was too much. I would never forget the mountains of Minas. We found a very nice hotel in Teofilo Otoni and were again told by guests and locals that the roads ahead of us were passable but poor.

In contrast, we found the roads to be in good condition through Govenador Valadares , Ipatinga and into Belo Horizonte. My wife was ready to mark down all the bad points but in the end we marked only three very short rough areas which included a road widening scheme. Not enough to condemn a whole road. After leaving Ipatinga there is one point, high up in the mountains, where a viaduct road is being built to cut out the mountain curves. It’s quite a sight to look across from the curved road at the tall white columns lined up like domino soldiers. Beyond lies a huge expanse of green valley. Absolutely marvellous, absolutely Minas. As we approached Belo Horizonte the rains hit us hard. The route through was very well signposted and we reached the last leg of our journey on the Fernao Dias or BR381. The rain showed no mercy so we eventually had to pull over into a petrol station. For some reason I thought it would be safe to park under the big canopy over the petrol pump area. The wind had picked up and large tree branches were being blown across the highway. It was my very observant wife who noticed the roof lifting on the garage in front of us. Men were running for cover under the main canopy but suddenly I felt very vulnerable. Bits of roof were flying through the air in front of me along with branches and goodness knows what else. So it was reverse and just get out of that area. We couldn’t go back on the motorway as many of the juggernauts were speeding by in the rain without lights. We held fast in the open, away from the trees. The storm seemed to die down a bit so we took a chance and drove on. At least now we could see out of the windscreen. The storm hadn’t quite blown itself out and gave us a bit of a rough ride for the next 20kms after which the rest of the journey was plain sailing. For the first several hundred kilometres of the Fernao Dias we only hit one pothole near Perdoes. Other than that it was a fast, smooth ride home even if we did get back at 11.00pm.

Short version.
Anyone thinking of going to the North Eastern side of Brasil from Sao Paulo (or thereabouts) should seriously consider the Fernao Dias BR381 through Belo Horizonte and onto Govenador Valadares. You won’t be disappointed. You will encounter good roads for most of the way, fascinating scenery, a varied choice of restaurants and hotels and a shorter route than the BR116/101. If dissuaded by well intentioned friends, ask when they last travelled it. When I next drive to João Pessoa it won’t be via Rio.


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