The end of the world and beyond

Cape Town shimmered and blushed like dying embers of a camp fire as I said my silent goodbye to her in the pre-dawn glow. It had felt good to have had a brief stomping ground and a familiar place to roam although once again I had to say goodbye to new friends and itchy feet was an understatement, the urge to move again for those last few weeks was unshakable. In all I had spent three and a half months in the city, living and working in a backpacker´s hostel, waiting out the alternative, the callously bitter winter of Southern Patagonia. My African sun tan had long since faded and the beer belly was making a come back. I´m six whole kilograms heftier thanks in no small part to Castle Lager, regular braais (barbecues), indulgent days and hedonistic nights in the city.

Halloween in Cape Town
I perused my Spanish phrasebook for the first time on the flight to Buenos Aires. On arrival the Argentinian customs official poked curiously around my bike box, I attempted to explain that I was cycling around the world. The look of confusion etched onto the official´s face told me that my cramming hadn´t worked, although I couldn´t be sure if he had failed to understand my ropey Spanglish or just the concept. Maybe ropey doesn´t quite cover it, the only response I heard for days was “como?”. It began to feel like I was in a Fawlty Towers sketch surrounded by Manuels, but really I´m the idiot.

Buenos Aires was a city that demanded my attention, no matter how much I felt a burning urge to fly south and get cycling, and it had it immediately. I meandered through the streets of the new city, map-less, aimless and carefree, now one of my favourite pursuits, and couldn´t help admire the dapper Argentinians. You can sit in the centre of Buenos Aires for hours and people watch and it´s just one big parade of Adonises with not a blemish for hours. No prominent noses, no flapping ears and despite the long history of Irish and Welsh migration to Argentinian soil people´s eyes are a shockingly conventional distance apart. God bless the watered down gene pool. Half the population of Argentina if transported anywhere else in the world would be courted by model agencies and photographed for glossy magazines. Most of them of course know this, the girls mince through town, swaggering and strutting and playing up to the audience. Confronted by all these stunning ladies there was only one thing to do. I started learning Spanish in earnest.

I studied the dictionary daily whilst staying with an Irish friend Sarah and her lively posse who were all busy living, loving and learning Buenos Aires. A Spanish disaster was imminent when Sarah asked me to pick up some strawberries from the local Supermercado. I entered the shop only to realise I had forgotten the Spanish for “strawberries”. I did however recall the word for “red” which led me to a regrettable decision – miming a strawberry. An audience of bemused customers and staff gathered and after an awkward few minutes, several tomatoes and a red pepper later, the store keeper delivered me what I was after. If things don´t get better then I may forget about learning Spanish completely and concentrate instead on my fruit impressions. I can already master a particularly convincing lemon.

I spent hours strolling through the streets basking in the creative buzz coursing through Buenos Aires, a city where artists, musicians, bohemians and performers clamour for attention. Eye contact is important in Argentina and most people speak more with their eyes than I am used to coming from London where intentional eye contact on public transport could leave you liable for prosecution for Grievous Bodily Harm. It is also an undeniably sexy city – tango dancing, the luscious Spanish accent, the patent good looks, all that eyeball love and public shows of affection abound. But exchanging my bike for a tandem not really an option and with no space for a Latino senorita on my bicycle I left Buenos Aires and flew south to the wild Land Of Fire – Tierra Del Fuego, further North the vast lonely windy plains of the Patagonian Pampas unfolded for miles.

As we made the approach to Ushuaia the plane dipped in low over dramatic snow encrusted peaks, so low that tourists and locals alike began to fidget nervously in their seats, the elderly man next to me clutched the hand of an angst-ridden backpacker on the other side in an effort to reassure. The plane seemed to lurch and pitch suddenly downwards as it flew a heart-thumpingly minuscule distance over the Southern Ocean, but just as it looked like we were about to land in the sea a runway appeared out of nowhere and we touched down at latitude 55 degrees South. Ushuaia – “the end of the world” – is the most Southerly city on earth and closer to the South Pole than it is to Argentina´s northern border with Bolivia. I had arrived in early summer, the snow line sat just fifty metres or so above the city and there were around eighteen straight hours of sunlight each day. Night is slow to materialise here, the sun lazily edges towards the horizon and remnants of day remain for hours after it sinks and before the brief gloom descends.

From now on my front wheel would be pointing vaguely North until I reached the top of Alaska and could go no further, perhaps around twenty months from now. Panniers packed I realised that my gear was much heavier than I had planned for and I rode out of Ushuaia with an impending sense of doom – where had all this extra weight come from? But within the hour I was sporting the sort of excessively broad grin that makes you suspect someone is mad or on drugs or both. I was chuffed to be cycling again, it was as simple as that. The tortuous road swung through a forested valley presided over by imposing and ominous snow capped peaks. Automatically I scanned the trees for monkeys and then remembered I wasn´t in Africa anymore. Melt water tumbled down sheer cliff faces collecting in the mountain streams hidden under the green coat of conifer. The weather was as flighty as my mood with polar shifts from bright sunshine to rain, hail and gale force wind. The unique fauna of the island made a fleeting appearance. Beavers, birds of prey and Patagonian fox observed me briefly from afar and then made off into the smattering of eery lime green trees with long spindly wisps of moss draping from the stunted branches. In the twilight I could imagine those ghoulish trees animated, creeping onto the road to carry me off into the murk. The end of my first day of my new venture north was spent with a young family who invited me in off the road to join them for an “asado” –  a barbecue Argentinian style – and the kind offer of a bed for the night.

One inescapable trial for the long distance cyclist is the occasional grapple with boredom. After Tierra Del Fuego came the Patagonian plains, a seemingly limitless empty space which has all the ingredients for a dull day – flat, bleak, featureless and uninspiring terrain. Add in a vicious headwind and desolation and boredom is inevitable. If you are reading this from the stale interior of an office on a rainy morning in the UK then I apologise. I know I have no right to complain but I wanted to try to illustrate the price you pay for being too stubborn to take a lift. Some places in the world are simply too dull and boring for anyone to want cycle through. This was probably one of them. Eventually a bend in the road, excitement builds only to evaporate as bleak uniformity stretches out to infinity and the road returns to it´s undeviating course. Everything´s been put in place just to taunt me. I ignore the speedometer but the roadside kilometre stones serve as a painful reminder of my leaden crawl. The constant motion of oil pumpjacks in the fields – up down, up down, up down, adds to the sense of drudgery and my building lassitude. Most of the time I manage to let my mind visit weird and wonderful places but there are times when stubbornly it refuses to shift beyond the mundane monotony of the present, and for times like these I try anything to escape, or to at least avoid clock watching. I strive to remember all the places I slept in a country I passed through seven months ago. I try to recall all the causes of Chronic Renal Failure. I do innumerable calculations involving hours, kilometres and average speeds. I ask myself questions I could never know the answer to (Does Argentinian Patagonia have more guanacos than people? Answer, after three hours of deliberation – not sure) and more recently I have taken to conjugating Spanish verbs although my imagination sometimes then flits to unlikely scenarios involving beautiful and lonely Chilean farm girls.


In the last couple of weeks I have run into lots of fellow cyclists, almost as many as I met in the whole of the African continent, including a breed who to me will always remain an enigma. Head low, back almost horizontal, maximum two panniers and eyes scanning the trailing asphalt, nervously stealing fleeting glances at the odometer. It´s The Speedster. Over the last few years Speedsters have become as ubiquitous in this world as drunk British nineteen year olds on Gap Years. This entity seems to exist only on busy highways and dreary parts of the world, never on rough roads, never in those wild places. When we do cross paths the conversation follows a predictable pattern, often beginning with “So how many kilometres have you come?” Followed swiftly by “And how long did that take?” 

Cue furrowed brow, mental arithmetic is in progress as The Speedster tries to calculate exactly how many more kilometres they cover per month than you do. Perhaps I´m verging on being one of those conceited know-it-alls, the type of irritating traveller who seems convinced they are exploring the world in a superior way than most, but to me it doesn´t make sense. The bicycle is the best medium to explore a country in detail, why race through? To see a lot but to experience little? To any Speedsters out there who may be reading this I have a few suggestions to make life easier. First off – a urinary catheter, to obliterate the need for all those time wasting toilet stops. A straw into your mouth connected to a huge hat containing carbo-rich liquidised mush, the kind of stuff NASA gives to it´s astronauts. And lastly, a tiny video camera on the handlebars recording everything that occurs outside your twenty degree visual field. That way if something interesting happens to your left or right there´s no need to turn your head, creating drag and sacrificing velocity. Just watch it on tape afterwards from the comfort of your own home whilst you tell your friends and family how amazing the experience was, although you wish that puncture on the N2 hadn´t dented your November average. And next time we meet – have some empathy, please. We´re not all like you, so lets not talk in numbers. Tell me a good story instead.

There´s a reason why so few people inhabit these southern lands, why the birds fly so low over the ground, why there are so few trees and why the ones that do exist bend out of the ground at bizarre tangents. El Viento – The Roaring 40s – the famously imposing Patagonian Wind. It´s the wind, not the hills nor the rain that is the real nemesis of the cycle tourer. These southern latitudes are amongst the windiest places on earth. I happen to be riding through them against the prevailing winds in November, the windiest month of the year. The cool air rushes across from the Pacific, sweeping over the glaciers and ice fields of Chile and then icy and unchallenged rages across the open plains of Patagonia. When it blows there is nothing to break the attack and nowhere to hide, aside from the tubular storm drains which run beneath the road, the same drains in which I hid from the merciless midday sun in the Sahara a year ago. It´s inside these I gulp down strong coffee and ready myself for another blasting. These are conditions, which if they occured back home, the media would issue severe weather warnings about days in advance and then document the destructive aftermath on the front pages. In Patagonia, this is business as usual.

As I rode across the plains the reputable wind bore it´s teeth day after day, my weather meter displayed constant wind speeds of forty miles per hour with gusts up to sixty. Again and again I found myself suddenly lying prostrate in the dust, tangled up in bicycle and panniers after being blasted off the road by yet another punchy gust. On days like these seven kilometres per hour was the best I could expect. It´s common to see cyclists pushing their bikes through these extremes in Patagonia, not able to ride, not worth the effort or just too disheartened to bother. So it´s coffee, music, scream frustration into the windswept void and then keep on pedalling. I opened my handlebar bag to retrieve a snack but the muscular arm of the wind wrenched several items out, sending them skyward. Collect, curse and continue. The howl is sonorous, angry and unyielding. Less a force of nature, now an animated being in my mind conspiring with the road to test my resolve and hinder my passage north. Occasionally I pass Refugios and small empty shacks by the road, but these are often used as toilets by passing motorists. Hundreds of miles of nothing and the truckers have to shit in the only retreat Patagonia has to offer. Brave the stench or brave the cold and the gale.


24th of November 2011 was a washout. I´ve had a few, and I´ll have some more. Days that stand out for all the wrong reasons and usually due to a mixture of circumstance, misfortune and misjudgement. Freezing my arse off trying to traverse the French Alps in mid winter. High fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhoea after a dodgy kebab in Egypt. Or the perfect storm of crap that descended on Nyomi and I in Tanzania, a catalogue of disasters including nine punctures in three hours, two broken bike pumps, a measly thirty kilometres and a drenching in a thunder storm. The 24th of November 2011 makes the list. Here goes my tale of woe…

I wake up with a start to the groan and murmur of the wind, the shudder and flap of my tent. As I pack up my gear I make a School Boy Error – I forget to weigh down my brand new tent as I unpeg. In an instant the wind heaves it into the air, transporting it expeditiously across the plains, skimming over gorse and then snatching it again, throwing it into another broad loop. I give chase for almost two hundred metres, the tent appears static at last, only a few metres and a fence separate us, I attempt to hurdle the obstacle, my trailing leg clips the wire sending me crashing into earth and gorse. I shriek from pain in my knee and blood starts to ooze from my shin. I get up and limp across to retrieve my overly mobile home only to find two holes ripped into the outer lining. I bellow profanities into the wind but count myself a little fortunate, at least I actually have the tent, things could be worse. It´s not long until they are. The headwind is unrelenting and I trundle along despondently at six kilometres an hour. I cover my face with my Buff and put on my IPOD, at least I have music to wile away the hours. By 2.30 pm my speedo reads 31 km. At last the road abandons the plains and drops over the lip of a wide valley. The wind keeps up it´s torment but I´m grateful for the downhill. After an eight kilometre descent I notice my IPOD is no longer attached to my handlebar bag, the wind must have ripped through the leather attachment. Slowly I backtrack up the valley. At the very top I spot the IPOD, and then to my dismay note the dusty tread marks on the case and the smashed screen. Someone has driven over it. I pedal off delirious with rage and frustration and now thirsty as well, the slow progress and backtracking has left me waterless. Eventually I reach a small farmstead, my knee delivers shooting pain on every turn of the pedals and I have no choice but to rest here. I knock on the farmhouse door and explain to the farmer in Spanish my problems, I tell him about the strong wind, about my sore knee and about my need for a little water. He looks straight back into my eyes, slowly the corners of his mouth begin to curl up, soon his whole face is contorted and creased and beaming back at me, he holds his arms aloft and in loud English bellows “WELCOME TO PATAGONIA!” before erupting into belly clutching fits of mirth.

So the end result of November 24th 2011 was a broken tent, a broken IPOD, a broken knee, a broken spirit and 45 kilometres further Northwest. Not a great outcome. The next day the knee was twice the size than the day before so I rode the 40 km to El Calefate at a snail´s pace and it´s here I´ve been stuck for the last week, held up in a Backpackers with an ice pack on the swollen joint, growing steadily more impatient and frustrated. There´s now one Spanish word I will never forget – El Viento – etched onto my memory forever through hard won kilometres and the horrifying recollection of my tent doing aerial acrobatics across the Patagonian plains.

Next up is an unusual and adventurous border crossing into Chile, the renowned Carretera Austral, some of which I have ridden before, a few zigzags and hopefully back into Argentina with a rough plan to reach Bariloche for the New Year, but only if my knee behaves.

I also wanted to let everyone know about the new page on Facebook – check out the box below, get liking it and sharing it and I´ll keep everyone updated…
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Comments (8)

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    So happy to be able "to read you" again… was waiting for your progress with impatience. Congrats for your way of writing as well as for your "way-of-discovering-the-world"-perseverance. Wish you the best of luck! Keep going and never give up, you're doing great!!
    Ingrid

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Jocelyn

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    Ah, fuck the 24th. Sounds a bear.

    I keep thinking what culture shock you must be having–even outside the crazy winds and loss of intactness experienced the 24th and beyond. From Africa, which seems to have won much of your heart, South America must seem bizarrely uninteresting so far…maybe the lay-up is giving you time to–HAHA!–shift gears.

    Anyhow, I'm still your biggest fan, with ever-deepening affection. Byron and I think you're a peach.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    Hello Steve

    Great to have you back on the road, although a
    windy road!

    Take care & hope the knee gets better asap.

    Cheers,
    Robert

    Reply

  • Avatar

    Anonymous

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    Hi Steve, I am with you all the way. Ouch, it must have hurt to see your Terra Nova tent blowing away in the wind. I will learn from that experience when I travel with my Terra Nova. I hope your knee gets better soon and that you are able to mend your Terra Nova. I would find cycling in that wind scary. Well done!! Thanks for sharing your travels with us all.
    Cheers, Elaine

    Reply

  • Avatar

    John Berry

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    Steve:

    Commiserations. I hope the knee gets better and that you can fix the flysheet. You'd have more of this to look forward to if you were going to do the NE coast of Canada or go west through the Tarim Basin in China, but you're not, so you can smile when this is over!

    John

    Reply

  • Avatar

    notjustagranny

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    Dear Steve. as always a fab post and full of the details we love to hear. you are an extraordinary writer and I, like others, have been waiting impatiently for your next blog….it seems to have come at a price on your end! gosh what a blow about the tent and the knee. shame you cant carry a spare joint or two around with you 🙂
    So glad you enjoyed Cape Town (my home twon) and as you so rightly predicted I am sitting in a 'stale interior of an office on a rainy morning in the UK', albeit now afternoon! And boy do I wish I was cycling instead of typing.
    how on earth are you going to settle into dull, boring routine when your journey is complete? Do it again? haha.
    I hope you recover soon, although from the date of this entry I am guessing you are already on the road again…in which case I look forward to the next blog.
    Wishes for a very Happy New year and may 2012 be filled with wonderful events, experiences and friends.
    Happy travelling.regards
    Cindy
    @notjustagranny

    Reply

  • Avatar

    RGET72

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    Never met ånyone who enjoyed that journey. Similar to your comments about the 'head down honchos', I don't understand the completer finishers?…the bus can be very pleasant, leaving more time to really enjoy the perfection of the carretera austral

    Reply

  • Avatar

    RGET72

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    Similar to your comments on the 'head down honchos', I wonder why the completer finishers can't skip the rubbish bits and savour the perfection that is the carretera austral

    Reply

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