|I’m the dot, riding across a volcano in Central Chile|
|The eruption in June ( photo from Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)|
|Ongoing ash plume visible from Bariloche|
|Gringos in the mist|
|Roadside ash piled high|
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.
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|
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.
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.
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.
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|
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.