Posts Tagged ‘Argentina’

Waiting for flying idiots

I’m a complete idiot. Only idiots make mistakes like this.

The thought repeated itself as I moodily shuffled through Salta’s empty streets, cleats clipping the cobblestones, carrying two bike tyres. The part of Salta that wasn’t sleeping peacefully was on their way to or from church, because it was a SUNDAY, not a MONDAY as I assumed it must be. I couldn’t leave Salta without some bike parts and gas for my stove, items that are easy to find on any day of week in Salta, except SUNDAYS. And it was definitely a SUNDAY. That was clear, as clear as the fact that only nomadic, dreamy idiots who have been travelling for over two years make mistakes with the day of the week and end up staying an extra day when they should be en route to Chile.

So finally I escaped the clutches of the cosy city and I cruised up a cloudy gorge, Quebrada del Toro, to San Antonio, brimming with the same sense of nervous excitement that always builds when I know I’m about to leave civilisation behind, this time for around five days. But I was a little sad to leave Argentina behind, it’s the largest country I’ve travelled through so far and I have spent more days cycling here than any of it’s twenty nine predecessors on my route so far. So it’s lucky that it also happens to be one of my favourite. The landscape of the North is captivating and hugely varied, the people are helpful and friendly (although as a Brit I had to ignore the occasional whinging and muttering concerning the Falklands), the tourism industry is organised, the food is great and many small towns have free campsites for tired bikers like me. Plus there’s the girls… enough said.

Paso Sico – another venture above the 4000 metre mark. Paso Jama, a little further north is the paved and popular route into Chile, making Sico a kind of reclusive kid at school nobody wants to know. After a few days of lung crunching, leg breaking, lethargic ascent I arrived at the far flung and lonesome Chilean border post and wondered what the Chilean policemen could have done to get stranded out here, on the side of a mountain, two hundred kilometres from the next sizable town. I decided that at least one of the three men who worked out here had got a little too drunk at the Police Christmas party and said something inappropriate to a senior officer. They were ticking off the days they had left on the wall like prisoners in a jail cell. To brighten their spirits I told them how beautiful I thought it was up here in the mountains, but my comment was met with a derisive laugh that said “you want my job? Have it!”. They warned me of a monster that roamed around the mountains, a name I hadn’t heard for twelve years, the legendary Chupacabra. When I was last in Chile farmers told me tales of this mythical beast, a bit like the Beast of Bodmin or the Loch Ness Monster, which they blamed for disappearing livestock (Chupacabra literally means ‘goat sucker’). It was good to know that the Chupacabra was still alive and well, although if animals were going missing then I probably should be more worried about meeting a puma, the more likely culprit.

A Chupacabra
The battle for Sico really began when I left the Chilean police post and a steep climb and storm force headwind teamed up against me. In retaliation I enlisted the help of James Brown via my IPOD. Nothing can stop me and James. Sico soon relented. I could have reached San Pedro on my penultimate day in the mountains but I wanted one more night of quiet isolation before I hit gringo central. The next day I rose early and began my morning routine which has become full of strange rituals –

Check for scorpions hiding in my shoes
Put water bottles in the sun to melt the solid ice (its usually around minus five degrees C at night (23 F)
Curse when I eat porridge because I’m fed up with it but there’s no alternative

I’ve been around tourists a lot of late and I don’t really mind the questions. The trials and joys of a cycle tourer are intriguing to other travellers, and my answers to their questions have become fine-tuned and automatic, but perhaps in a year’s time I’ll resort to barefaced lies in order to avoid the predictable inquisition…

‘Hey are you travelling by bike?’
‘Ummm no. Definitely not. I don’t even like cycling.’
‘Isn’t that your bike?’
‘Oh that. No no. I’m just watching that for a friend.’
‘Is that Lycra you’re wearing?’
‘Errrr, yes. I always wear Lycra. I like how it feels against my skin.’
‘Wait a minute, isn’t that a spanner in your pocket?’
‘I’m just pleased to see you’

Somebody once told me that a burden of cycling around the world is that you will be expected to talk about it at every dinner party for the rest of your life. Fast forward thirty years, I can envisage the following scenario.

‘Hey everyone, this is Steve. Some years ago Steve cycled all the way around the world! He’s got some great stories. Go on, tell us a story Steve’

Shotgun to temple
Chh chh boooooom!
I ruin the dinner party

So to avoid brain landing in someones lemon sorbet thirty years from now I have devised a few alternative answers to those common questions, answers designed to stupefy, perplex, outrage and entertain. From now on I will be using these when anyone asks a question about my life on a bicycle, be it backpacker, journalist or curious local.

Why do you travel by bicycle?
It was part of a deal brokered by my defence team at the trial. My prison term was commuted to bicycle touring years. The judge, the prosecution and my victim’s family all agreed that five years of bicycle touring was a fair trade for twenty five to life in solitary. I went along with the plea bargain. Mostly, I wish I hadn’t.

Isn’t it dangerous?
Yes, it’s very dangerous. I wear full Kevlar body armour underneath my Lycra, I carry heavy arsenal in my rear panniers and I have a handlebar mounted flamethrower which I can discharge by tugging on a piece of brake cable.

What has been your favourite country so far?
England. I especially enjoyed the M25 ring road and the suburbs around Milton Keynes. To be honest, it’s all been a bit underwhelming since then.

What do you eat?
I live off the land. Most days I stop a few hours before sunset to collect nuts, berries and wild mushrooms and to trap field mice and hunt small game. In cities I live almost exclusively on deep fried confectionery.

How do you afford it?
People smuggling. I can just about fit a refugee in my rear pannier. But only small ones. After a few border runs it can be quite lucrative.

Where do you sleep?
I usually just lie down in a ditch or put the bike on autopilot and slump across the handlebars.

What do your family think?
I didn’t tell them. In our culture bicycle touring is shameful. They may have disowned me.

How many kilometres do you ride per day?
It depends on many things – the wind, the road, the hills and the quantity of amphetamines I managed to score from the last big town en route.

What type of bike do you have? How much did it cost?
Very little. I constructed it myself using common household items. The handlebar is half a broom handle, the frame is composed of central heating pipes welded together and the rims are hollowed out undersides of metal trash cans.

How much does your kit weigh?
Difficult to answer because I no longer work in kilograms. Like most cycle tourers the unit of weight I am most familiar with is the Packet Of Pasta (POP). My gear usually comes to around 68 POPs. More with a refugee on board.

Do you ever take lifts?
No. Although sometimes I give backies to tired motorists.

Don’t you get lonely?
No. I have Jake.
(which begs the question ‘and who’s Jake?’)

Oh you’ve not met Jake yet? He’s around here somewhere. Here he is, hi Jake!

(at this point I will produce a sock puppet and begin a conversation with Jake the Sock Puppet using a high pitched screechy voice for Jake)

How long have we been friends Jake?
Since you started cycling Steve
You’re my only friend aren’t you Jake
Yes I am

I will continue the pantomime until…

1. Someone asks another question or
2. Everyone slowly backs away from me and I am alone or
3. I feel a sharp stabbing sensation in one of my buttocks. A syringe wielding orderly has just dosed me with a potent dose of antipsychotic medication and I will soon be rendered unconscious. But at least I won’t have to answer any more questions.

How do you cross the oceans?

(I hate this one. Since teleporters have yet to be invented there aren’t that many options, are there? Perhaps it doesn’t deserve an answer, but to appease all the curious idiots out there…)

First I will politely ask Curious Idiot to bend over. Once in position I will insert the end of a bicycle pump and inflate, rapidly. Before 50 PSI the Curious Idiot should be airborne, at which point I will shout ‘Like that!’ in answer to their question (hence the title of this blog post). If the Curious Idiot isn’t a projectile then they probably have a massive hernia, better call the paramedics. No need to apologise though.

What will you do when you come home? Will you write a book?
No. I will walk a bit funny for a while and then marry my bicycle. Eventually I will probably shoot myself in the head at a dinner party when someone asks me a question about what I will do next. And then someone else will write a book about it.

If anyone is interested in the real answers, I have recently updated the FAQs on my website.

So here are some shots from Quebrada del Toro and Paso Sico –

Another milestone

Finally I made to San Pedro where I had to wait until I received a parcel from home containing essential bits of new kit for Bolivia, a parcel that still hasn’t arrived, a parcel that was left in a corner of the customs building in Santiago whilst everyone ignored it, a parcel that has been the bane of my life for the last two, boring, expensive, stir-crazy weeks. Whilst looking for a campsite in San Pedro I asked some street side hippies for direction. Just camp with us! came the invitation. OK. They had been working converting their home into something that I couldn’t quite tell yet, mainly because after five years ‘working’ on it they hadn’t got very far. They worked harder keeping the tourists and inhabitants of San Pedro stocked up with marijuana. Around mid-morning, after smoking vast quantities of weed, one of them would forget where they had left the joint and so they would usually abandon the days work on the house at this stage to find the missing drugs. Occasionally they would go to the nearby sand dunes to take LSD, a place called ‘Valle de la Muerte’ which translates as Death Valley, perhaps not the most sensible option if you plan to take potent mind altering chemicals. I tried, with limited success, to be as constructive as I could be in San Pedro – I wrote, pitched and submitted freelance travel features (a new line of work), I read several books, I visited the valley of the moon, even though I’d been there before and every country seems to have a valley of the moon, and I helped the hippies locate missing marijuana.

I realise that on the whole this has been quite a moany post, so on to a more optimistic future. Bolivia is next, a place that will undoubtedly contrast sharply with my experience of South America up until now, being as it is, one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. I will cycle to and across the world’s largest, most famous and most photographed salt lake, The Salar De Uyuni and then make my way up to the capital La Paz from where I’ll send the next post. I can’t wait, even though thanks to a certain international courier, CALLED DHL, I have to. (Hence the title of this blog post).

Running down dunes in Death Valley, near San Pedro (there was no LSD involved, I promise)

The silence of the llamas

Paso Pircas Negras, 4200 m above sea level

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way Belinda. What’s it to be?”

It was a subdued response, I didn’t really expect an inanimate object like my bicycle to react fervidly when quizzed, but there was something in the curve of her handlebars and glint in her side mirror that made me suspect she was game for an adventure as well.“The hard way it is then Belinda”. Her silence was telling.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The EASY way…

300 km up the now familiar route 40, probably with a couple of climbs but nothing to really test the quads. Mostly smooth tarmac, plenty of traffic, shops and places to find water. Three days of plain sailing.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The HARD way…

A 800 km loop through the high Andes taking around two weeks. It would involve riding for over 200 km at an altitude of over 4000 metres, climbing two Andean passes on the way. The first, Paso Pircas Negras, is a remote crossing 160 km from the nearest town and open only 35 days of the year. The second, Paso San Francisco is the second highest pass between Chile and Argentina at 4767 metres and nudges up against the highest volcanoes on earth. Over two weeks I would climb more vertical metres than from sea level to the height of Mount Everest, and with no shops for 12 days I would be forced to carry a large amount of food. With every extra kilogram, every vertical metre promised to be an extra effort.

Signpost on approach to Paso Pircas Negras
(translation – danger of getting stranded in snow, danger of hypothermia, temperatures less than minus 15 degrees Celsius, no telephone signal, roads in a bad state due to snow, no shelters with facilities)
Spurred on by the concrete support of a bicycle which I have christened a girl’s name and talk with frequently I was heading once again into the high Andes, and this time riding higher than ever before. Unless Tescos or Wallmart had expanded their operations to include siting a store on top of one of the 6000 metre high volcanoes in the vicinity, I would need a lot of food, and that’s when I had entered the cyclist’s vicious circle – the more food I carried, the heavier my bike, the slower I go and the more food I need. In case you wondered, this is what 12 days of food for a hungry cyclist looks like…

17 kilograms of stodge
This is on top of my 20 kg bike, my 35 kg of gear and my 8 kg of water. A total of 80 kg verses a diminutive 70 kg of me. Too much, maybe, but some challenges of the road I can handle – brutal climbs, fierce weather, hours of boredom and weeks of solitude, but completely bland food has no place in my lifestyle. I look forward to cooking and eating, it’s the reward for putting up with the rest.

The details of the route were afforded me by the trailblazing and hardcore Pikes, a British couple who took a year a half to ride around South America, tackling some of the highest passes and toughest roads and then studiously collecting the details so that others could follow in their tyre marks. Check out their amazing website Andesbybike. This time I needed accurate information, if you regularly follow this blog you might remember that I got lost in the Andes several weeks ago, close to where the Uruguayan rugby team crash landed in a plane in 1972 and turned cannibal in order to survive, immortalised by the Hollywood film ‘Alive’. You may think that it’s a bit of a stretch to compare my situation to theirs, after all I hadn’t recently survived a high speed plane crash and I wasn’t combating the effects of hypothermia in thick snow, but at least they had a ready supply of food, even if it was the frozen corpses of their recently dead friends. I was down to my last packet of Super Noodles.

My first task was to get an exit stamp for Argentina in Vinchina, the last town for two weeks. At the Gendarmeria I was told that they only stamped people out Wednesday to Sunday, it was a Tuesday. I argued, debated and reasoned, stretching my Spanish to it’s limits. When told to return in three hours I came back in one. Sick of my pestering, the official finally relented and I had my stamp.

The symptoms started early. Too early. My ascent was rapid and my bike heavy enough for me to guess that some symptoms of altitude sickness were inevitable but on my third night, at a mere 3200 metres, I started to develop a headache, lethargy and breathlessness, tell-tale signs of Acute Mountain Sickness. Why some get altitude sickness and others don’t is an unfolding mystery and theories abound. Serious mountaineers reading this would probably scoff at anything less than 6000 metres but in terms of risk factors, I was sitting on a full house. Physical exertion – tick, rapid(ish) rate of ascent – tick, previous altitude sickness – tick, male sex – tick, someone who participates in regular physical activity – tick. To push on when so symptomatic is never a good idea so I decided to call it a day after a slow and laborious twenty kilometres and hold up in a mountain refuge where some kind soul had left two packets of biscuits for the next to scoff. A mountain guide came by a few hours later and told me that someone lived in the next refugio on my route, this person allegedly didn’t like visitors and I made a promise that I wouldn’t stay there.

28,000 km milestone
I’m one of the lucky few who can sleep through anything, especially after a day on the bike, but that night I was plagued by insomnia, my oxygen depleted unconscious mind deciding that sleep would only make things worse and over-riding my desire to get some. Day break was blurred by low hanging clouds. Feeling tired but slightly clearer mentally I packed up and started to pedal up towards the pass, my eyes often on the sky, weather changes fast here and it pays to watch for the warning signs. The world was now a pink, green and black one, the colours were smeared onto the hills, melting into one another like the swirling blend of gases in pictures of distant planets. Clouds often obstructed the sunlight so bright beams scanned the hills and reds and greens came to life momentarily and then faded sharply as the sunlight passed again. The breeze was light and so the soundscape of this strange world was almost a total silence but occasionally I jumped to the “mwa” of a guanaco, a relative of the llama, an alert call to the herd when I got too close after which they fled in a loping gallop across the rose scree. Then suddenly some movement in my rear view mirror. I squinted, nothing. I turned around, still nothing. I pedalled on. Minutes later I was sure I had seen something once again, it looked like the reflection of another cyclist behind me. I stopped and looked but couldn’t see anyone. Once I even shouted out, but to no avail. It seems slightly crazy to me now that I wondered why the cyclist in my mirror didn’t come over and say hello, why they were hiding from me in the hills. Crazy, because there never was another cyclist, just some weird artifact of a tired and oxygen deprived mind resting on a tired body, cycling a heavily loaded touring bike through the Andes.
Paso Pircas Negras

25th June 2012
Dear Doctor,

Regarding patient: Stephen P Fabes

Thank you for referring this patient

Clinical history –

Mr Fabes is a 31 year old cyclist from the UK who developed a rapid progression of symptoms in early 2012 which evolved from talking with himself in the initial stages to development of a delusional relationship with his bicycle, whom he referred to as “Belinda” and soon afterwards frank visual hallucinations.

Earlier this month Mr Fabes was taken into custody by the Argentine police after he was found dragging his bicycle through thick snow at over 6000 metres in the Andes Mountain Range. He was completely naked, suffering from hypothermia and covered in blood. Inside his panniers police found the dismembered carcass of what is believed to be a recently slaughtered llama. When questioned about this the patient is reported to have said “I was just fed up with pasta.”

The clinical picture is one compatible with the increasingly prevalent ‘Toured-Out Syndrome’ (or TOS) which is seen almost exclusively in long distance cycle tourers. An essential component of this condition is the naming and conversing with a bicycle although in severe cases patients have also been known to talk, and even develop friendships, with spanners, Allen keys and inner tubes. Other features of the syndrome include an unkempt appearance, an insatiable appetite, poor short term memory (especially concerning the date, people’s names and when they last changed their clothes) and various obsessions, the most common of which is the refusal to accept the value of everyday goods and foodstuffs which often manifests as compulsive bartering.

These patients typically take a long time to recover and to reintegrate into society. Indeed it is not uncommon after they return home for sufferers to be unable to sleep in their own bed but to instead create makeshift campsites in their back garden, cook goat’s meat over open fires and relate rambling stories of their travels to anyone who will listen. Interestingly prognosis in males is related to the density of nasal hair at the time of diagnosis, in females the length of armpit hair is a more useful prognostic indicator.

Treatment is usually supportive and involves weaning the patient off a pasta-based diet (abrupt withdrawal can be dangerous as can be seen in Mr Fabes’ case), encouraging better personal hygiene and hoping that the patient will eventually give some consideration to their personal appearance and to social norms, although sadly the latter is often not achievable. Counselling also has a role although group counselling sessions have proved to be counterproductive as the conversation tends to become dominated by the pros and cons of Rohloff Hubs and the different varieties of Schwalbe tyres.

If the patient ever recovers to the extent that they become employable then bicycles must never enter the daily routine, especially on the commute to work, as a patient may suffer an acute relapse. On occasion I have been called to deal with such cases to find the patient slumped by the side of a cycle lane, hundreds of miles from their place of work, covered in daily milk chocolate and surrounded by empty packets of Super Noodles. In another case a patient was detained in a branch of Sainsbury’s after attempting to barter for seventy five Yorkies, forty tie wraps, some electrical tape and twelve litres of cherry flavoured Fanta.

There are some that maintain that TOS is a ‘lifestyle’ and shouldn’t be medicalised. After spending many years treating and counselling these patients I wholly disagree. These individuals are more than just unbalanced, they have serious pathology that warrants immediate treatment.

I hope this clarifies the issue

Many thanks

Professor Jones

On with the story…

Up, up and up, past the snowy humps and creases of Cerro Veladero, to 4400 metres where I met the frozen Laguna Brava and a brief snow shower. After some technical problems with my bike I found myself at dusk outside the shelter the guide had warned me to stay clear of. On my way I had been trying to solve the mystery of who could live here, in this utterly remote, bitterly cold refuge, high in the Andes. I imagined it to be a hideous recluse, someone so ugly they had been shunned by humanity. I approached the refugio, mildly terrified and found it to be empty but then, on the edge of the desolate plain to the east, stood a red Andean fox, glistening in the golden light of dusk, inspecting me at a cautious distance. I realised my Spanish had failed once again. This must have been the tenent the guide had warned me about. Sorry mate, this place is mine tonight. But despite the absence of Frankenstein’s monster the refuge had a spooky quality that only deepened as I explored the inside. I found a miniature dolls head which had bafflingly been wedged into the rocks of the shelter, I shuddered as the wind howled around me. I explored the outside and as I peered into a pile of stones my eyes met a jaw bone, human, my eyes reluctantly took in the bigger picture and I found a skeleton gaping back at me. A few trinkets had been added to the makeshift grave, I could see now that’s what it was, the skeleton was still wearing a pair of trainers and scraps of clothing remained.

The next day, once again after little sleep, I made some more progress but then something strange happened. At around 4300 metres my vision suddenly blurred. I stopped and checked my vision in each eye. My right was fine but everything I could see through my left eye was indistinct and fuzzy. I have no idea what had caused this but after I descended to below 4000 it resolved. Any medical colleagues reading this please give suggestions!

Later that day I came across a temporary camp for some mine workers, population seven, they examined my tatty, sweat stained t-shirt and torn shorts, shrugged and invited me inside. So the night after I ventured sleep but failed, shivering and sick with altitude in a lonely mountain refuge next to some human remains I found myself sat amongst a band of cheery mine workers, fresh from a warm shower, eating roast chicken, drinking coca cola and watching satellite TV. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
The descent

Pass number two, San Francisco. Acclimatised now the first ascent to 4300 metres was an easier one. I dropped down to a salt lake, Salar Maricunga, a field of white penetrated by tent shaped islands and rocky outcrops, on it’s edge stood a lonely warehouse which served as Chilean immigration. I got my exit stamp and slept peacefully inside the immigration building before climbing once again. 

On the way up a car stopped and the driver asked where I was going but I couldn’t remember my destination, I realised this was probably not a good sign. I’ve never passed out before but a few minutes after this was as close as I have ever been. A sudden dizziness preceded the tunnel vision, I stumbled off my bike and slumped against it in the dust, seconds before a black out. On the basis that I had spent almost a week at altitude and all of my other symptoms had faded away, and perhaps more significantly that I had stopped hallucinating cyclists in my side mirror, I decided to continue, but this time at a crawl. Fortunately the terrain flattened out at 4400 metres and by nightfall I had reached Laguna Verde, essentially a base camp for mountaineers taking on the surrounding volcanoes which consisted of two geodesic domes, a long drop, a batch of tents and some 4 by 4s in amongst some thermal pools. A group of Russian climbers were planning to ascend the nearby Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano on earth and the second highest peak in South America. Some Chilean climbers and two German couples had been up and down some other surrounding cones, one of the Chileans was suffering with the altitude more than anyone else, he lay in the foetal position next to his tent.

After a better night’s sleep I nursed a mug of hot coffee and took in the unfolding early morning tableau. The first rays of light had illuminated the ridges on the far shore of the lake, creating jagged shadows which fell into the still water. Steam drifted ethereally from the termas over white rubble and ridges which contributed to the appearance of a lunar landscape. Amongst this the climbers were rummaging through rucksacks in beanies and bright puffy down jackets. The placid mood of the air, the sky and the lake contrasted to the exuberance of those amongst it, the Chilean climbers exchanged words and then hugs with the Russians, I guessed wishing each other good luck in their respective tongue. 

Salar Maricunga
Laguna verde

Altitude sickness isn’t a two way street and as I descended I was pondering the injustice of this. Surely once I’m acclimatised to the thinner air at altitude then there should be some happy effects of all this excess oxygen after I descend. I should feel suddenly clear-headed, energised, pumped up, buzzing with serotonin. But no, all I have to take down with me is the memory of brain splitting headaches, sleepless nights and a hypoxic hangover. But the descent was quite fun. From the rocky slopes of baron mountains, where winter snow is permanent and little vegetation can survive, I whistled through the Puna, a region of high elevation montane grassland which lies above the treeline at 3,200 – 3,500 metres elevation, and below the permanent snow line. A road sign warned “no moleste a la fauna”. I know it’s fairly obvious and innocent translation, but Spanish words have a funny way of sounding like English ones with a slightly different but related meaning, in this case I couldn’t help envisage an elderly, horny German tourist running naked through the Puna after a panic stricken llama. 

After 175 km, a descent of 2500 metres and with three hours of daylight left, I reached the town of Fiambala to discover that my plastic water bottles containing air from four and a half thousand metres up had crumpled under the new atmospheric pressure. Another sleepy town, another wait. Siesta is taken very seriously north of Mendoza and if you want  to buy food staking out the local supermarket until it reopens is all you can do. At 2 pm sharp metal grates are pulled over shop fronts and the streets empty as if some legal curfew has been enacted. Even the ten year olds on scooters which usually ply the streets of every Northern Argentinian town disappear. In some towns the buses stop running and campsites lock their gates and as I walk through the dead streets eyes watch me from house windows and I wonder if they are contemplating alerting the authorities about my refusal to heed the sacred Siesta. The only places that stay open are the ice cream parlours, a perfect base camp.

Then, finally, I was back on the conveyor belt of Route 40 which delivered me sweaty and tired into the peaceful charms of the The Santa Maria valley. It was a Sunday, the smell of grilled meat on asados wafted through the small villages and men reclined on their porches cradling bottles of local brew and just about summoning enough energy to manage a lacklustre wave as I past by. For one morning I cycled with Dirk, a Belgian biker. The difference between me and ‘The Holiday Biker’ has become extreme. There was a sheen to Dirk’s bright white panniers and neat cycling jersey. His bicycle was a picture of perfect health and it purred perfectly as he pedalled. We both produced maps to compare routes, his a brand new folded chart, mine a crumpled mess which had long since disintegrated into almost ten sections, each oil stained and most unreadable. My clothes were ripped and dirty. My handlebar grip looked as though a Samurai warrior has unleashed a furious attack on it. Someone observing this meeting might assume that Dirk had cycled straight out of a local bike shop whilst somewhere in the direction I had cycled from there had been some near apocalyptic event and I had just about managed to escape with my life.

Down the road to Cafayate more bike trouble was followed in predictable fashion by a sense of panic. I used to have the same approach to bicycles as my mum did with computers. My mum would press a single key on the keyboard with such deliberateness that 27 of the same letter would flash across the screen, the next five minutes would be a flustered hunt for ‘delete’. Luckily we have both improved. I think I have had well over my fair share of bad luck when it comes to bicycles but maybe fixing bikes and fixing people aren’t all that different – here are some striking similarities:

1. Prevention is better than cure
Stop smoking, lose weight, oil that chain, check that spoke tension.

2. Listen to your patient
Every medical student will have been subjected to the timeless medical adage, usually retold by a bald, bow tie wearing Professor… ´Listen to your patient and they will tell you the diagnosis´. Not literally of course, that would make doctors defunct, but the implication is that the clues are in the medical history, the same applies to bikes. When bikes make new and strange sounds it pays to investigate before it’s too late. When my bike makes a new sound I stress for about an hour and then put on my IPOD in the futile hope that Kool and the Gang will give me some inspiration.

3.  Hitting elderly patients with large spanners will not make them better, and may make them worse
I believe this is one of the first things they teach you at medical school. Apparently it also holds true for old bicycles.

4.  Leave it to the experts
Don’t ‘have a crack’ at the following if you are not 100% sure what you are doing – brain surgery, wheel building, coronary artery bypass grafts, bearing transplants.

5. If you can’t fix it / him / her, give up and move on to the next one
(just joking)

The Puna
Fiery tongues of sandstone light up the surroundings on my descent to Fiambala
Finally I embarked on a another loop, taking in the famous quebradas, or gorges, of Northern Argentina, South of Salta. The landscape was, well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…

Quebrada de las Conchas…

Quebrada de las Flechas…

Cuesta del Obispo and Los Cardones National Park…

I arrived into Salta and looked over at Belinda, but this time I didn’t bother to pose the question. Next up – Abra Del Acai – the highest pass in Argentina at 4972 metres above sea level, then the remote Paso Sico into Chile which involves various climbs to over 4000 metres and finally the rugged Lagunas Route into Bolivia and to the edge of the world’s largest and most famous salt lake, a place I have dreamt about biking for years – The Salar De Uyuni.

Paso San Francisco

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