The Snail-way to Serendipity

One more day on the road

My alarm clock makes no sound, she breaches distant hills and warm filaments of rubicund light filter into my tent, gently spurring me to wake. I rise and prepare for one more day on the road.

I munch and I guzzle, carbs and caffeine my first call. Over the next half hour my tent is slowly purged of its contents and my bike becomes bulky, panniers and dry bags tethered to the rack and frame. Packing up is an automatic ritual now, whilst my hands complete the task my mind replays the events of yesterday, or any other day behind me. There’s no radio or TV news in the background, the world is a mystery. I could guess the time but I don’t know it, there’s no deadline to rejoin the road and nobody will get upset if I’m late, but I never wait long, I look forward to the moment too much.

I roll my bike back onto the road I left in the dusky dregs of yesterday and the moment begins. Time slows for peaceful speculation, some seconds of intrigue and of calm. I zero my speedo. My eyes stray to a point somewhere up ahead or I muse over my map, imagining what the dots and lines have in store. Yesterday feels a long time ago.

Maybe today I’ll breeze across perfect tarmac through a desert on a raging tailwind clocking up two hundred kilometres before sunset. Maybe I’ll battle, curse and sweat up rough tracks high in the mountains covering little ground.

Maybe today I’ll be bullied into roadside dust by the hasty drivers of city and suburbia, maybe I’ll freewheel in solitude around deserted lake shores and through sprawling forests, redolent of pine.

Maybe today I’ll spot exotic wildlife and snatch for my camera, maybe I’ll face the stench of anonymous roadkill, maybe I’ll hear strange sounds but never glimpse their owners.

Maybe today I’ll join some locals for food or tea, maybe I’ll swap tales with another cyclist, maybe I’ll yearn for company, maybe at the end of the day I won’t notice or care that I haven’t spoken with anyone.

And when that end comes perhaps I’ll wish the sun could hover above the horizon for a few more hours and I could ride on, or perhaps I’ll retreat from the road, defeated and depressed, wishing that today never was, whatever the case I know that tomorrow morning there will be a moment of time waiting for me when I will ponder again an unknown future that comes hand in hand with the drift of the road. If I ever lose that moment I will know it’s time to come home, but tomorrow there will be other roads to ride and I’m hungry for them. Tomorrow is full of maybes and tomorrow will be different, in small and subtle or brilliant and explosive ways. The surprise of tomorrow is just one more reason for aiming my sights at the horizon and pedalling on into one more day on the road.

The journey continues…

The Andes lined up like children in a school photo, distinct rows of rock increasing in stature, rising up from the east. In there somewhere was Aconcagua, the lankiest pupil in Class Andes, it’s peak resides at almost 7000 metres above sea level. In there too was Paso Libertadores, my route back into Argentina, the busiest of the forty or so connections between the two countries. For me it was just another jaunt through the mountains but for the Chilean biker I met en route to the pass it was more like a pilgrimage. He told me that his father had died six years ago, his ashes had been scattered at the top next to the four tonne statue of Christ the Redeemer on the old road that marks the frontier. On this day every year he cycles the pass, every year he talks to his dead father as he pedals.

The road to the pass followed the twists and turns of the river and a claustrophobia built as I became more hemmed in by the surrounding rock. The peripheral sky shrank away, traded for the craggy shoulders of mountains, which framed an ever diminishing blue streak above. For half a day of riding the road clung to the river, but when the bond was broken it was a dramatic parting, the river idled away around some corner of the valley and the road took a desperate leap up the side of a mountain in a series of sharp, intimidating chicanes. Locals refer to this section as Paso Caracoles – Snail’s Pass. Everything that climbs up does so at a snail’s pace, trucks, cars and me. The Andes in summer are unlike any mountains I have seen before, the spectrum of colours from oxidised minerals, all shades of brown, yellow, amber and deep scarlet, fashions an unearthly feel. The popularity of this pass with motorists took out some the adventure the other Andean passes had offered but there is a certain kudos that comes with tackling Libertadores. At the top of the main section of switchbacks it was possible to see at once just how far I had come up, the drivers could see it too and for hours they honked, waved, cheered and applauded. At 3200 metres there’s a tunnel, my bike could have been loaded onto a truck but the old road up to the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) looked too tempting to pass up, a rough road leaves the tarmac and wiggles up to 3832 metres above sea level. Not only would this be the highest I have managed to cycle so far but the gain in altitude would be fairly quick, enough for the effects of low levels of oxygen in unacclimatised lungs to add to the challenge. I had camped at 1300 metres the night before so I faced a continuous climb of a meaty 2600 metres over one day, dwarfing my previous biggies, riding from the Dead Sea to the Kings Highway in Jordan and The Blue Nile Gorge of Ethiopia.

Translation – Mountain road. Take precautions. Steep gradient for 55 km.

The suplhur stained rocks of Puente de Inca
At the top of the pass stands Christ The Redeemer of The Andes, a statue donated by the Bishop of Cuyo to help ease tensions between the two countries. In fact Chile and Argentina were on the verge of war when various religious figures stepped in like school teachers forcing two feuding pupils to shake hands and make up. The statue was carried up in pieces by mules in 1904 and the two armies, who were days before ready to do battle with one another, fired gun salutes together. A plaque on the statue reads 
“Sooner shall these mountain crags crumble to dust than Chile and Argentina shall break this peace which at the feet of Christ the Redeemer they have sworn to maintain.”

The last three hundred vertical metres were tired, hypoxic ones but I gleefully freewheeled down the other side, weaving my way through loose stones with just the afterglow of dusk and a full moon to guide me. It was cold at the top so I decided against camping with Jesus.
In Santiago there is a rebellious group of bikers who call themselves Los Furiosos Ciclistas – The Furious Cyclists. On the other side of the pass I wished I had joined their ranks. Trucks careered past, too close for comfort, emitting the long hard horn blasts that say “Get Off My Road!”. Last month two Dutch cyclists on a tandem were hit and killed by a truck in Argentina and it’s easy to see how it could happen. I have nothing against truckers in general, they helped me out when I hitched across Europe, they have stopped to give me fruit, they often give me a wide birth and I have even grabbed the back of them to get up mountains in Ethiopia, but I fantasised about what I would do if I ever caught up with one of the careless idiots on this road. I memorised number plates. I imagined myself strolling into a roadside cafe and walking out minutes later, in the background a trucker is face down in his fried breakfast.

Just as was I losing my rag with another speeding juggernaut a character arrived on the scene to cheer me up. Winold, The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist.

Winold was on a six week loop from Buenos Aires, I asked him a few questions about his journey.

“So why did you choose to ride Argentina?”
“One day I was, you know, picking the shit out of my nose and I just thought “Argentina!” he announced with a thick Slavic accent
“Oh I see. Is that a GPS you’ve got there?”
“Yeah. My girlfriend gave it to me”
“Good present”
“Yeah. Then she dump me”
“Oh right”
“Yeah. She say me or Argentina. I say Argentina. She say fuck off”
“I see”

Winold The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist then shoved his hands into his lycra shorts and rummaged vigorously
“Ahh my ass and balls man. They are really suffering! I tell you!”

Winold was a good companion. His propensity to erupt into profanities in both Polish and English never failed to amuse me. We rode together for a few days, explored Mendoza’s wine routes and sampled some of the produce as we went but entering the city was a minor fiasco. We were stopped on the road by a young earnest looking Police Officer who began a detailed search of our panniers. He made a point of smelling the contents of our wallets and head bags, hunting for narcotics. I had a sinking feeling when he removed the tube of electrolyte tablets, the feeling was akin to the one you get when you lose your balance on a downhill and know you’re about to hit the ground but haven’t yet made impact, this feeling was because I knew that the tablets had long since crumbled into a fine white powder. He eyed the container with suspicion and pried open the lid sending a puff of white into the air and when his eyes met mine they were wide and dangerous. I laughed, I think I had to, and did my best to explain. To our relief he gave us an irritable wave and permission to continue.

After I split from Winold The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist I made good ground with the help of a couple of days of tailwinds and flat terrain. To the West the arresting form of the Andes exploded from the plains, there were no rolling foothills, just the sudden silhouettes of giants. It was harvest season for the wineries, trucks full to the brim with grapes passed by. The air felt dry and torrid in the morning but it became muggy in the afternoons and violent summer storms gathered by the early evening, the rain was usually slight but the lightning spectacular and intimidating if amongst it. My plan was to tackle a remote pass back into Chile but it was only open for four days of the week leaving me two days to kill in Villa Union. Whilst I was wondering about what to do with my two days off in a small village, Belinda, my bicycle, decided for me. The gear cables leading to my Rohloff Hub became detached. It had happened two weeks earlier on the approach to Santiago. I rode in on one gear and went to find the head mechanic of a renowned, clean, shiny bike store, the largest in Chile’s capital. He charged me a whopping sum and now two weeks down the road the problem was back. In Villa Union I found the town’s only mechanic. I suspected his work would hold up because everyone knows that a mechanic’s ability is proportional to the blackness of his jeans, the level of chaos in the workshop and the volume of the ambient music. He was swathed in oil and grime and shouted questions to me over the blare of Argentine pop whilst he sifted seemingly without focus through vast containers of metal parts amongst the total disarray of his grubby garage. He had never encountered a Rohloff Hub before but half an hour later the job was done, he had given me a couple of tools and a tutorial in case the problem recurred and then refused all payment.

I decided to leave my bike in Villa Union and hitch hike to Chilecito and back to use the Internet and ATM, a simple plan that fell apart in the best way. A Chilean family on holiday took me there, the journey was interspersed with gasps and sighs of delight, behind the glass of the car windows the views were sublime. Layered sheets of rust coloured rock, ancient layers of sea, lake and river sediment, jutted out at angles, teetering ships sinking into a red sea of sandstone. The cliche here was unavoidable – the enormity of nature, the insignificance of me amongst it. The bulbous tops of columnar cacti the height of small houses poked up from the precipitous drop next to the road and the vista was a tricolour, the deep blue of summer sky, the blaze of dry red earth and the deep green of cacti, succulents and other foliage. It was a combination of contrast, one that felt desiccated and tropical at once although the latter is a fallacy, rain is sparse and fleeting here.

I tried to hitch hike back in the afternoon but ended up sitting roadside, bored and fed up, the traffic had completely dried up as the town prepared for Carnival. After four hours I had no choice but to return to Chilecito to spend the night, but when down and frustrated, serendipity struck. I found the cheapest hostel in town, from the garden I could hear music. Outside two girls were dancing, waving handkerchiefs in the style of zamba dance, two were singing in perfect harmony and a guy strummed a guitar. The music was the traditional sound of folklore, gentle and breezy. They were practising for a performance that night in the town and invited me along. We danced and partied until the earlier hours. The next day they left Chilecito to continue their tour of the regions Carnivals, aiming for the most popular shindig, La Rioja, on Saturday.

The next day I tried again to hitch back to Villa Union. After two hours without joy three Chilean hitch hikers turned up. No cars came by but at least I had company, we played drums, danced and joked about for hours in the sunshine. Somehow they had blagged two roast chickens from a previous lift, these were used to entice truckers but eventually it dawned on me that we had no chance of catching a ride. I had to return once again to Chilecito to find a hostel, the next day I heard there was a bus to Villa Union. I had with me just the clothes I was wearing, a bottle of water, my wallet and my journal and the next day when I was told that the only bus was full I had no idea what to try next, but as I digested the grim news and pondered my options a bus for La Rioja turned up. Without hesitation I jumped aboard. I knew I had to make the most of a bad situation and it was this philosophy that put me on a four hour bus ride in the opposite direction to my bicycle and almost all of my belongings, wearing the same clothes for the last three days, in search of some dancing musicians and a flour fight.

The Carnival in La Rioja is known as La Chaya and most of the fun occurs in the stadium outside town and is set to the musical stylings of folklore artists and musicians. The origins of the festival lie in a tragic love story told by the native South American Indians. Chaya was a very beautiful girl who fell in love with a young prince of a tribe. The families and elders of the tribe forbade the relationship and Chaya became so sad she disappeared in the mountains, becoming cloud. The Prince searched for her in mountains without success and then drank himself to death. During La Chaya it looked to me like young Argentinians were doing their best to imitate the prince, but for a less noble cause. The entire city was sloshed.

I tagged along with a group from my hostel after failing to reach my dancing musician friends. Once inside the stadium one of my new friends asked me whether I was ready to be part of the party. When I nodded he tipped half a bag of flour over my head. Within half an hour an immense flour fight had begun, nobody escaped the action. Every one of the 15,000 inside the stadium was caked in flour, people threw bags of it and sprayed their friends and strangers with flour guns.

Eventually I made it back to Villa Union, sat on the bus, still wearing the same clothes but now also wearing a thick coat of flour. It’s in moments like these that people so often muse that everything happens for a reason. I don’t honestly believe that some higher power had directed me to be amongst 15,000 revellers covered head to toe in flour, and serendipity may be an overused and corrupted term, but I think it fits.

I apologise for the paucity of photos this month, I didn’t have my camera with me when most of the fun was happening. On the next stage I will be rubbing shoulders with some of the highest volcanoes on earth. I plan to take a remote pass back into Chile, hauling 12 days of food and climbing to over 4000 metres via a pass that is only open for thirty odd days of the year. Then I loop back through another pass that climbs to almost 5000 metres, the second highest between Chile and Argentina. I will report back next month.

Shadows and dust

I’m the dot, riding across a volcano in Central Chile
It looked like a cloud clinging to the horizon, some lonely, benign clump of cumulus at the edge of the vast blue expanse of Patagonian sky. But locals made shifty, furtive glances in its direction because they knew better and so did I. That whitish grey smudge came from deep inside the malevolent belly of the earth itself. Last June, after laying dormant for half a century a volcano named Puyehue suddenly and violently erupted, not from it’s old caldera but instead by ripping a huge gash into the surface of the earth, six miles long by three miles wide, two and a half miles away. Bariloche, the town I found myself now, had been covered in a thick coat of ash. The tourist industry was predictably decimated and is still recovering as the volcano continues to belch out thick plumes of ash, enough to warrant closing not just Bariloche airport but also an airport the other side of the Pacific in Melbourne, Australia. Chile makes up part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and boasts a chain of about 2,000 volcanoes, the world’s second largest after Indonesia. Some 50 to 60 are on record as having erupted, and 500 are potentially active.
The eruption in June ( photo from Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)
Ongoing ash plume visible from Bariloche
Guide books bragged about Argentina’s Route of the Seven Lakes, I counted two, a grim haze hung across the land and a suffocating slate-grey membrane eliminated light and space, extinguishing the promise of pristine lakes and majestic mountains. The dank, sodden coat of ash filled crevasses, lined ridges and dowsed every mountain for miles, the hint of grey giving the only clue that this was not snow. The air was thick with the volcanic dust, the sun just a torchlight searching for distant targets through a foggy night, finding none.  The wind didn’t lift the murk the way fog drifts skyward on the breeze, instead the air was thick and tepid, carrying with it more burnt earth in its gripe. Houses and trees had slate-coloured tops of powder, lorries sprayed the streets with water to wash away the gunk, cars drove with headlights on full beam and people shuffled along holding handkerchiefs to their mouths or wearing surgical masks. Ash was regularly cleared from the road and sat heaped up in huge soggy banks by the roadside. Eventually every part of me and my bike wore the sticky residue. My eyes watered, my mouth dried up and when the faint shadow of another cyclist brightened out of the gloom I realised my mistake, I wasn’t prepared for this at all. The figure was clad in a huge overcoat, donning a surgical mask, a broad rimmed hat and swimming goggles. 

Gringos in the mist
Roadside ash piled high
North of San Martin the dust made way for undulating sheets of gold. This side of the Andes is an arid semi-desert, the mountains wrestle any moisture out of the atmosphere so it remains fresh and green in Chile, yellow and dusty in Argentina. I relish the kind of freedom that a life on a bicycle allows, I treasure the moments when I can abandon all my plans on a whim or after some sketchy advice from another cyclist. In San Martin, after two minutes with an Argentine biker, my schedule was upended and a new plan was coming together. The road map of this region looks like two interlocking trees, side by side. The trunk of the first is Chile’s main highway that connects most of the major cities up to Santiago and beyond, part of the famous Pan-American. The trunk of the other is Routa 40 in Argentina which runs the length of the country. Branches flow east and west, trying to connect but often not finding their opposite, an invisible obstacle, the Andes, won’t permit it. But a few link across, jerking left and right in violent erratic wiggles as they close in on the Andean peaks. I traced my finger over the network of rough roads, the long thin ends of the branches, trying to find vertical links, there were a few. I penned a rough route, my roads of choice were nestled high and deep in the Andes, where settlements were sporadic and wilderness king. The loop I had drawn ran through seven national parks, nudged up against several volcanoes and finally delivered me back into Argentina via a remote, and not strictly speaking legal, Andean pass. Immigration didn’t exist here, I was destined to become an illegal alien in Argentina and I’d have to deal with that later. I would need a lot of food, the bike would be heavy, the road tough but the plan was simple, spontaneous, slap dash and full of optimism. The plan was perfect.

So that was how I found myself set once again on a course bound for Chile and as I neared the borderlands the looming cone of stratovolcano Lanin was there to greet me. Lately I had been riding from tourist-ville to tourist-ville but now I was alone and I stopped every so often just to appreciate the stagnant, sublime silence. The failing sun cast its final rays over the cliffs, submerging the land in liquid gold and monkey puzzle trees became silhouetted against the colossal volcano creating an aura of pre-history.

After the pass rural life played out over my handlebars. Mine were the only inquisitive eyes here, there was no reason for other tourists to come this way, that had been the reason to take this road in the first place. When I asked how many kilometres to the next village people just shrugged, they may have lived here all their lives but their answer came in how many hours it takes on a horse or an ox drawn cart, that was my first clue, I was getting off the tourist trail. When I ate lunch children would approach and begin a silent vigil, staring, intrigued but mute despite my encouragement (clue 2) and when I stopped to ask directions, a bunch of strange looking men grunted and smiled inanely (clue 3). Some years ago I guessed a brother and sister had gotten a little too close. This was Chilean hillbilly country.

As villages became more and more scarce and I began to enjoy the increasing detachment, a truck pulled up. The passenger, a woman, began a rapid-fire babble in the harsh dialect typical of rural Chile. I strained to make sense of the torrent of words and gestures, she emphasised and repeated the important bits but never reduced the pace. I discerned a few bits of information, enough for vague terror to build.

A volcano is erupting
It’s name is Sollipulli
It’s in the direction you have cycled from
The eruption has melted a glacier
We are driving around to tell people

I had a thousand questions, my pidgin Spanish denied me most. I asked the only one my language skills would allow. “Was I in danger?”

A shrug, more babble, brief concurring with the driver, wild gesticulating and then an answer which I interpreted as “if you were cycled the other way then “Yes”, but you should be OK”

I wondered if they knew just how slow my battle down this bad road was, I wanted to explain that bicycles were not the best machines for outrunning volcanic eruptions. As they drove off, my mind raced. They weren’t the army. This isn’t an evacuation. I can’t see anything on the horizon. I should be OK. But whilst the thought process seemed vaguely logical it didn’t stop me glancing tentatively in my side mirror, half expecting to see the forest behind me rapidly consumed in pyroclastic soup.

Finally I left cultivated land far behind me and cycled along Routa Interlagos, by evening I had found a campsite and had been adopted by the family in the tent next to me. I was the father’s nominated drinking buddy for the evening, he was a raging alcoholic. His family seemed relieved more than happy to have me there, probably just grateful that the mindless drunk was now my responsibility. Alcoholics are never the best people to test your language skills. If you make a mistake or can’t think of the right verb they do little to help aside from an arm around the shoulder and some slurring in a tone unintelligible to any ears.

The next day I started into one of the National Reserves, it was clear this was real volcano country. Alert systems were in place on the outskirts of every town or village and signs advertised the risks. Soon I was amidst a surreal, black desert of basalt. The last eruption here was in 2008, they expect one every five to ten years. In the background to this bare arena were colourful hills, metal ores painted the rocks red, green and amber. Over lunch I sat admiring the volcano, sheltering from the wind behind a van with a camera crew taking photos for a European sport’s brand. The guide addressed the group “Just looking at him makes me exhausted!” gesturing towards me as everyone chuckled.

A volcano alert system on the outskirts of a town

Alone, I descended over the other side of the volcano, the track became smaller, less distinct, soon barely traceable. I didn’t have a good enough map of the area to navigate properly. A brutal climb disappeared upwards, I began to push, for hours I continued onwards, shoving, dragging, panting. Every so often a river crossed the path, I had to dismount and carry my panniers over two by two. After an equally huge and steep descent I knew that turning back now would mean a gigantic effort.

Where roads turn into rivers
Soon came the inevitable questions, each filled with dread and unease – Is this right? This can’t be the way. Maybe I should of taken that left at the lake. What if… It was abrupt, that sense of vulnerability that seemed to sprawl out over the hills and mountains, bigger than the sky, further than the horizon, insurmountable and unbeatable. I realised then I was scared. The root of my fear lay in everything I didn’t know and could never know. Whether I had enough food, whether I was on the right track, how long until I got to a village, if I should turn back. I was scared too that I didn’t have it in me, physically and mentally. For two days I didn’t see another human being, deep in the Andes, scared and alone, every decision a burden, heavy in self doubt, and out here it was a lot to carry.

Then finally through the trees I sighted a river and by the bank, a few tin houses. Suddenly elated I ditched my bike and ran to the bank, there was no bridge and it was too deep to wade across but a rickety basket attached to a pulley system would do the job. A man on the far side spotted me and over the next half an hour he helped transport my panniers and bike across the river. The relief was almost worth the panic and toil. I was back from the brink.

I got some information from the locals, I was only thirty or so kilometres from the pass but then once again with no map, no signs, no people and no obvious route I had to freestyle my passage across the mountains. I waded through milky rivers with rocks stained yellow and where the eggy stench of sulphur swirled on the breeze, soon I began wondering once again if I was lost in the Andes, at junctions I would recce on foot and make a choice and if I was lost now, I was getting more lost. I tried to mark my route in case I had to backtrack. Horseflies plagued my every move, biting through my t-shirt. Even when swatted and convincingly dead the invincible critters re-inflate and fly away to torment me again.

Things got tougher but I began to be hopeful I was on the right track, my compass agreed with me and the road. Fist-sized chunks of ancient volcanic debris littered the ascent and I slipped and landed heavily, bicycle on top of me. I lay still in the dust and began to laugh, suddenly everything was hilarious. I laughed that it had taken me three hours to cover ten kilometres, that I had been effectively lost for most of the last three days, that I was totally alone and that bikes don’t belong here. Finally I laughed at the fact that I was lying in the dust, under my bike, on a remote Chilean mountainside and could only guess where I was heading, because that probably shouldn’t be funny.

It was a few hours later that I lumbered up another switchback, edged over another ridge and there before me, naked and clear, land in every direction, most of it beneath me. I had made it. This was the pass. 

I took a small stone as a souvenir and headed down through a peat bog, a lake and a faint silhouette of what appeared to be a hut were my targets. An astonished Mapuche farmer, perhaps believing I was an apparition or an evil spirit eyed me nervously. I has staggered onto his remote farm through a peat bog, dirty, grimacing, heaving a bicycle in front of me and probably groaning. In hindsight his expression made perfect sense.

In Caviahue I sat for a whole day in a cafe, watching a violent thunder storm roll in, reading, writing, drinking beer and chatting to other customers only to find out with the aid of a decent map and some local knowledge that I had completely missed the pass I was aiming for, I had crossed another one, one not featured on my map or, as I found out later, on googlemaps.  I thought about the nature of optimism, of how it can be a duplicitous beast. Without one side of the sword I wouldn’t have started my journey, to travel you need an undercurrent of positivity, the feeling that the world isn’t as perilous or angry as the media might have you believe, that chances are things will work out OK in the end, that it’s always possible and that the faint line on my map zigzagging over the border was doable on a loaded touring bike. But it was that same hope that had led me to a baron, lonely track, lost, with a redundant map not detailed enough to navigate. It was foolish, naive, blind faith. I had underplanned, I had carelessly pushed on regardless. Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects. A healthy dose of pessimism leads to ‘what if… ?’ and then maybe a contingency plan.

“If pessimism is despair, optimism is cowardice and stupidity.
Is there any need to choose between them?”

I made my way down from the hills as wild fires blazed out of control through the dry Argentine scrub. Soon I connected with route 40 which tossed me from one hill to the next. The land was dry and bald but stark and serene, especially in the minutes before sunset. I passed through a succession of small dusty towns where the kids looked bored and stray dogs outnumbered people. I found the odd campsite, places where the owner greets you with a sympathetic frown which says “I’ll take your money, but are you sure you want to stay here?”, places where strays come and go as they please, pissing on people’s tents, where you have to usher away a hurd of cattle in order to reach the bathroom, where scorpions occasionally venture inside your tent and where nearby campers play Cumbia loud into the night (to the uninitiated Cumbia is the acoustic equivalent of being tied naked to a cactus and ravaged by rabid Rottweilers)

The scorpion that found its way underneath my sleeping mat. I found him the following morning
Without a Argentine stamp in my passport I could be in real trouble so my plan was to take another remote pass back into Chile making it appear that I had never left in the first place. Getting information about these passes is near impossible without some local knowledge. Hours on Google was time wasted so it was lucky when I met three more cyclists, one had come down from Alaska. The message was that the pass was possible by bike, although they hadn’t come that way themselves. And more luck, just as I was readying to leave Malargue I met a dutch couple who had actually cycled the pass. Unfortunately there was immigration but I decided to go for it anyway. The couple drew me a map that looked as though it should describe the location of buried loot and was full of landmarks and instruction that only cyclists would consider relevent.

Turn left at the dead cow
Big climb after the angry dog
Good wild camping spot between the wonky trees

I have cycled across the Andes six times now, and I’m not done, but this one, Paso Vergara, was my favourite of all. Tough at times, a rugged blend of prodigious mountains, bleak desert and verdant plains where horses grazed. I was getting nervous as I approached the Argentinian border post, the last trace of civilization was three days behind me, being turned back was not an appealing option. In every country people have a penchant for hearing how great you think their country is, but nowhere is this more the case than in Argentina. If you forget to add some praise in conversation an Argentinian may well go fishing for it with “Do you like Argentina?” as wide, pleading eyes await the predictable and courteous response. Not yet satisfied the game sometimes continues
“And the landscape? Do you like our mountains?”
“Do you find the people friendly?”
And if it’s a guy inevitably “And the women? What do you think?”
“Que hermosa!” I would reply “how beautiful!”

There’s a strong sense of national pride in Argentina and the Argentinians are suckers for flattery, my plan at the border post was to exploit this quirk. I entered the small lonely hut which sat in the shadow of the mountains and served as immigration. I approached the official, firm handshake, eye contact and straight to business, schmoozing.

“What a beautiful place! The mountains, the lakes, beautiful!”

His expression was interested and warm, inviting me to continue  
“Yes, I think so too” he said
“I’ve been cycling for two years now and Argentina is my favourite country of all”
“Verdad?” he blurted, “true?”
“Yes. The people are so hospitable and helpful”
His eyes goaded me on. Time to lay it on thick
“The food is incredible, there’s so much to do and the women, wow!”
That was it, he was putty in my hand. By this stage I could have surrendered a kilogram of uncut cocaine to the customs official and he would have winked and waved me through.
“Oh, and… I have this little problem with my passport…”
Two minutes later he was reaching for the red stamp and I had “salida” across another page despite the lack of an “entrada”. When I reached the Chilean immigration post twenty kilometres later I realised that in his flustered state the Argentinian official had forgotton to give me the slip of paper I needed to gain entry into Chile. “I’m so glad to reach Chile, its much better than Argentina” I told the official and freewheeled down the pass into the green hills of the new country.

The descent was a rapid rally through forested valleys with white frothy rivers and then into lowland central Chile where vast vineyards owned the panorama. I cycled north on route 5 to Santiago, knowing that the Andes to my right were gaining in stature all the while. Every pass north of my next one climbs to over 4000 metres, but I know I’ll be back, The Andes are a prize and a punishment and one I can never refuse. My bike and my tent have suffered a bit lately as well and need some good repair work, but it’s all been worth it.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the cost of an IPOD so I have some banging tunes to listen to. Next post will come from Argentina once again after (at least) one more mountain pass.

A motley peloton and the Carretera Austral

Backpackers heaved off their weighty packs, exchanged tales of testing bus rides, skimmed through Lonely Planets and made plans. I sat and watched them gloomily, still waiting and still glum because I was still here. As each group came and left I remained in the hostel, hostage by virtue of a swollen knee. Two Polish bikers arrived and they were stuck here too. Their tent had undergone some mini disaster and they were waiting for the Argentinian snail mail to cough up new parts. At least now my life had a focus. I knew that I had to get out of here before the Poles. The race was on. Every day I peeked tentatively under the covers and studied, stretched, flexed and massaged my knee. After a week I decided I could no longer risk postmen, big parcels and jubilant Polish faces. I had to get out of here.

I began cycling out of town, uneasy and unsure, but after the sameness of the plains in the far south Patagonia began flaunting it´s tail feathers, I was entering the realm of the Andes, the longest chain of mountains on earth and my majestic companion for the majority of South America. The Patagonian peaks are a lot smaller in stature than their cousins up north but formidable nonetheless, they glared at me from afar, daring me closer.

I soon joined forces with Vincent, a 27 year old Frenchman who carried his luggage in a slick, egg shaped, perfect white trailer. No corners, just curves and a hatch for access. It looked like space age technology. A French flag stood proud and sturdy and in the breeze towards the rear. That evening I found myself rough camping with three other cyclists, we were all travelling north and all planning an audacious adventure across a remote border post into Chile. Alongside Vincent and myself was Tim, a conspicuous Dutchman, tall with refulgent yellow panniers, a luminous yellow jacket and an equally luminous grin. The most notable part of Tim´s plan was the absence of one. He claimed no solid time line, direction or schedule. Instead he would simply ride vaguely Northward through South America whilst his money lasted. For Tim this was an insouciant jaunt where the best plan was no plan. The last member of our motley posse was Michel, a sixty two year old Frenchman with the wiry appearance of someone for whom travelling by bicycle has been habit for decades.

The team
The next morning we set off early to avoid that gusty menace characteristic of Patagonia. The four of us performed a ballet, tucked into slip streams, shuffling and re-ordering, buoyant and giddy to be riding as a unit. We swept into El Chaiten as condors swooped and glided in elliptical circuits above, the midday sun cast their shadows down to earth, they darted across the ragged terrain like sinister predacious beasts. The knobbly white facade of snowy crags and peaks dominated more and more of my gaze until we were all cowering under their prestigious glint. The sheer granite cliffs of Fitzroy took precedence over the rest, it stood aloof and self important in centre stage, flouting its juts and angles in the glare of summer sun. Mountaineers packed into the town seeking the rare weather window to make a summit attempt, a technically tough climb and a vicious micro-climate make tackling Fitzroy the preserve of only the most experienced climbers. We knew a few bits and pieces about the route ahead, some rough facts gathered from other riders we met coming South. This would be adventure cycling at it’s truest, with all its tests, trials and hopefully, triumphs.

Thirty km rough road. Probably very windy.
First boat – leaves at 5pm daily (unless very windy)
Camp the other side of the lake
Very Tough Stretch – 22 km, most is unridable. Carry bikes and panniers through rivers, swamp etc
Second boat, leaves twice a week – don´t miss it. Nowhere to get food.

Tim and I set out together into violent gales. My weather meter clocked wind speeds of 60 and 70 miles an hour, Beaufort ten, almost hurricane force. We abandoned pedalling but found it tough to even stand in the face of the gale. The road surface became airborne and the stinging particles drove into our faces, it would be a “sand blasting” in the desert, this was a “dust whooping”. Huge ethereal columns of dust surged upwards from the road and raced towards us. The clouds overhead tore across the sky as if someone had pressed fast forward. Luckily the shape of the land began to provide some shelter from the wind, we could ride again and made enough progress to ensure we wouldn’t miss the boat. On arrival a local man gave us the grim news – “El Barco” he explained was “Kaput”.

This was normal, he divulged, the boat usually breaks down a few times a week. The others arrived and I explained, we were all aware what this could mean. No boat today meant we risked missing the second boat which departed only twice per week. I watched Vincent digesting the news, he shook his head and sighed his frustration. Tim’s grin was replaced by a troubled frown, he muttered profanities in Dutch. My attention shifted to the 62 year old Frenchman, his eyes met mine, he shrugged, grabbed an invisible Senorita and began dancing through the pelting rain with his imaginary girlfriend whilst singing ´La Bamba´. At least we were all in this together. Four more cyclists then arrived, two Brits, a Spaniard and a Romanian, we all began sniffing around for information. At the last minute a van arrived and it seemed, the boat´s captain. Relief spread through the party. We were leaving tonight after all.

From left Andre, Tim, Vincent and Nick

Eight cyclists
Sunlight flooded our free campsite on the lake shore and one by one I watched as another head peered out of canvas, eyes admired the pristine lake and then tentatively glanced at the hills and the daunting prospect upwards. A few of us braved the chill for a quick dip in the glacial melt waters of the lake. A few Argentine backpackers gathered and pointed towards the bobbing bodies in the water, “Mira!… Europeans!” they gasped as if we were exotic creatures. Now we set off through the trees. Over the next five hours we pushed and dragged our loaded bikes through dense bush on narrow tracks and through thick mud, hoisted them over huge dead tree trunks, carried them on our shoulders whilst wading through rivers knee high in water, hauled them up impossibly steep slopes and edged over slippy tree trunks traversing turbulent rivers below. A Slovenian trekker amongst us was the only one to have travelled this route before. He was finding it tough to disguise his glee at our painstaking passage.

“Are we past the worst bit yet?” Came a hopeful voice

“No no no. Of course not!” replied the Slovenian with mischief in his eyes. He paused for dramatic effect and to ruminate over this fact

“You haven’t even reached the first swamp yet! And then of course there’s the huge climb to the pass, oh and the river with no bridge, and the second swamp and… “

I had to cut him off before more unwelcome details emerged  “… and then the dark forest of death and the valley of the doomed, but you should reach Mordor by sundown”

Perhaps it was because we were new friends and there was some male bonding going on, or perhaps it was simply out of necessity but at times our journey seemed interspersed with moments that belonged to melodramatic war films. Every so often weary legs would lose their footing, another cyclist would arrive at their comrade’s aid, hauling the fallen to their feet and returning to action. In between the groans of effort and dismay emanating from our inching party and the scraping of panniers and rattling of racks came odd music of strange birds, siren-like calls echoed through the forest. Heads low, shoulders hunched, faces wearing the strain but with underlying resolve we moved onwards. It seemed improbable that there would be anything marking the border crossing out here but as we edged over the crest of another hill the words “Bienvenidos a Chile” slowly rose up to meet triumphant yet jaded eyes. There was nothing else here of course, but the sign meant everything. We summoned the energy to pose for the obligatory group shot under the sign, munched biscuits, gulped down water and descended. I passed two cyclists coming up and had to fight the urge to tell them to watch out for “The First Swamp“. After another icy dip in another lake the much heralded boat arrived to take us to Villa O’Higgins and the very beginning of the infamous Carretera Austral.

In Villa O’Higgins Tim and I headed off together before the chasing pack. We were both meeting friends in Bariloche for Christmas and so had to make quick ground. I had a dirty secret – the deadline felt good. It’s a romantic notion I can’t fully claim to enjoy – taking off into the wild without deadlines, schedules, routine or constriction. In a life without structure I can’t resist creating some. Tim and I were a good team and rode at a similar pace. Tim was a racing road cyclist in his previous life, competing in La Marmotte in the Alps amongst others. On tarmac climbs he would power past me as I span a slower ascent, but on rough roads the tables were turned and the figure of the tall Dutchman would slowly diminish in my side mirror. Of the many lessons Africa imparted, riding fast for hours on bad roads was a prominent one. Cycling at speed meant of course that when we hit supermarkets the result was carnage. Five minutes after passing through the checkout we would both be sprawled on a bench or just the ground, only metres from the exit and surrounded by empty family packets of crisps and chocolate wrappers with beer cans in hand. On at least one occasion we failed even to make it outside the store before descending into gluttonous scoffage.

Serendipity comes with the territory on the Careterra and usually it’s easier riding with a buddy but I am sure Tim´s tendency to tempt fate didn’t always help us on our way. He would emerge from his tent in the morning declaring ´Today will be perfect, I can feel it!´. An hour later, in fierce gales and pelting rain his attention would turn to the graded road ´God this road is great! I bet it stays like this for ages!´. After an hour of bouncing over washboard-like terrain and skidding and sliding over tennis ball sized rocks I would shoot daggers his direction as he sealed our destiny ´Well it has been tough today Steve, but it can’t get any worse tomorrow´.

The Carretera Austral was Pinochet’s baby, a rough road connecting the southern settlements of Chile, swinging through thick forests, fjords, glaciers and steep mountains. More than 10,000 Chilean soldiers helped construct the road, many lost their lives in the process. It stretches for over a thousand kilometres and seems to slip perfectly into this pocket of Patagonian wilderness. The Carretera is also something of a bottleneck, cyclists invariably choose this path over the windy and dull alternative through Argentina. It’s the first thread on a spider web and afterwards a multitude of different options branch off, scattering cyclists to different corners of the continent. The route is hardly ever flat, the ups and downs though serve to satisfy every cyclist’s inner masochist. The dips, rises and curves of the roller-coaster make every minute a different one and every corner and crest reveals a new view. Sometimes it felt like I had cycled through a portal, suddenly transported to another distant place on the planet. The road veered around emerald lakes, courted deep blue rivers, bounded over the foothills of glistening, snowy giants and then floundered deep into moist, mossy, deciduous green. Black faced Ibis cawed and Kites and Hawks languidly glided overhead. Some of this won’t last. HidroAysén is a controversial mega project that aims to build five hydroelectric power plants in Chile’s Aysen Region. Two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River. The project is estimated to flood 14,579 acres of natural reserves. But for us, for now, we could immerse ourselves in nature and we embraced it, cooking over campfires, drinking straight from glacial streams and jumping into icy lakes when we felt the urge.

Some of this was familiar, I had cycled the length of the Carretera twelve years ago, as a nineteen year old punk on my Gap year. Then it was April, blustery and colder than now. But there was actually a lot I had forgotten, it made me worry about how much of my world tour I will be able to recall in my dotage. Now it was summer and there were definitely many more cyclists than I remember, and Patagonia was in bloom – lupins painted the surroundings with scintillating, uncompromising hue, the air was thick with the scent of pine and pollen. Only one thing spoilt the party – December and January are months for what locals refer to as the “Tabano” – a biting breed of horsefly. Every day they tracked me up the hills, feeding on me in my weakest moments.

Me and my brother in 2000, Carretera Austral, Chile
Vincent was maybe a day or so behind us, the young French cyclist with curiously hairless legs. It had emerged that Vincent had taken to shaving his legs, reasons for which could only be guessed at. A popular theory was that his girlfriend urged him to and that he relented. Tim and I of course were unable to let this lie and it became an ongoing jibe on the Carretera. We often met cyclists travelling in the other direction and we were unable to resist passing them messages to relay to Vincent behind us
´We love your shiny legs´
´you´ve missed a bit´
Sometimes we´d hand them a razor to pass on when they came past him, along with the message
´in case you run out of wax´.

This region was cyclist central and every day I rode past a blur of riders taking on the hillocks and troughs. I came across the Lycra clad Speedsters and the ponderous meanderers. I met those on two week breaks from work, others on epic trans-continental expeditions and a few who had pedalled down from Alaska. I came across the super-lightweight and the unprepared and overloaded. I ran into solo riders, couples on tandems, threesomes and cyclists from twenty five different nations (that’s right, I´ve been counting), the cycling-mad French topping the league table. I met trundling pensioners and a couple with a three year old toddler in a trailer attached to Dad’s bike. I met the enthralled, the absorbed and the defeated, a few looked ready for a bus ride home.

In a small, inauspicious village along the Careterra was a Casa De Ciclistas. These refuges can be found throughout South America, they are homes whom the owners have opened solely for passing cyclists to spend the night. No money changes hands and nothing is expected in return. There were ten riders sharing the space that evening, we all relished the free shower, the bed and the good company. Hundreds of others have passed through over the years, their scribbles, sketches, cards and photos were crammed inside the guest book. Some wrote poems, one had added an altitude map of the road ahead. There were numerous messages of gratitude to the owner as well as addresses of blogs and websites. Up to eighteen had stayed here on a single night last year. We all crammed inside, loaded bikes were stacked up against each other in the open plan living room, people rummaged for pots and pans, pasta simmered away, stiff limbs were stretched, journals were scribbled in. We shared food, stories, tips and time. Maps were studied and discussed, our futures just lines and dots, soon a picture, later a memory, one of many. Tomorrow we would all leave, the house will be empty again until the late afternoon when more weary bodies in mud splattered Lycra shuffle inside. A few days later Tim and I camped under a bridge to shelter from the rain. We obviously weren’t the first to take cover here either. On the concrete bridge supports other cyclists had drawn simple sketches of loaded cyclists riding through a mountainous backdrop. Like primitive cave paintings by hunter gatherers they had documented their presence for others to see.

The Carretera stunned and challenged us all over the next couple of weeks. Tim and I rode through nasty bouts of gastroenteritis, the Spaniard’s chain snapped twice, Michel’s bike would suffer a major technical problem and he would have to hitch hike north, the Tabano seemed to have a particular taste for Romanians and of course Vincent had to endure constant taunts about his shiny, hairless legs from cyclists coming in the other direction.

The next bit, strangely, I remember in detail from my time here twelve years ago. Queulat – a lush rain forest decorating the Patagonian Andes in which waterfalls drape from virtually every cliff face. The Queulat icecap and associated glaciers lie high and deep amongst the peaks. It rained of course, it usually does, some parts have 4000 mm of rainfall annually and over 300 days of rain per year. In 1766, the Jesuit Father José García Alsue explored the area searching for The City of Caesars, a mythical and enchanted city which was purported as having mountains of pure gold and diamond. Instead he found Queulat and almost certainly got a drenching for his trouble, though for me there really was mystery here and slowly it all began to come back to me. The roadside was as dense as I remembered with understories of bamboos and ferns and every vista dominated by evergreen trees and the huge exotic leaves of Chilean rhubarb, two metres in girth. I remembered too the sudden, sullen, all-encompassing envelope on entering the forest, I remembered the ashen clouds loitering unnaturally low, waist high to mountains and ephemeral rainbows. I remembered how the waterfalls looked like twine, tethering a huge unsullied white tarp of snow to mountain tops. And I remembered the all pervasive sounds of moiling water, the trickle and gush of a thousand creeks, rivers, brooks and streams.

My 25,000 km milestone in the murk
Soon afterwards we crossed the Chile – Argentine border for the fourth time. On Christmas day we pedalled still, along the lakeside the inhabitants of nearby Bariloche were coming out to cook meat on barbecues, drink wine, play music and swim. I made my deadline and was reunited with old friends I hadn’t seen in almost two years after a twenty day mission with just one day off my bicycle. So I’m resting over Christmas and the New Year and then I set off north once again through Argentina towards Mendoza and Salta. A volcano spewing ash might make things tricky but as Tim would say “Its only a volcano. What could possibly go wrong?”

Finally… I need a new IPOD this Christmas so if you feel like helping me out by way of a belated Christmas present, even though I got you precisely zip this year, please check out the right hand column of this blog where you should find a blue button where you can donate just three pounds to help me get some music back in my life.

Have a great New Year

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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