Thanks to my new friend Mr Pisco Sour, and his accomplice Mrs Chilean wine (middle name: delicious), when the time comes to pull on my lycra shorts for the first time in a little over two weeks – they feel uncomfortably tight.
As I take the first few pedal strokes my knees are dragged from what they assumed to be an early retirement – their moans are audible on the first few revolutions:
Left knee: ‘Oh bloody hell, not again. I was all settled here and midway through season three of Breaking Bad…’
Right knee: ‘For goodness sakes. Will she never learn?!’
When looking ahead at a route to take us out of the city, I decided that all attempts to select a ‘good route’ were futile. All roads tend to lead to UGLY when escaping cities, so you may as well just pick one and crack on. Instead of researching a route, I simply traced my finger over our mapping app in a southwards direction, left a wobbly red line in its wake, and off we tootled.
As it turns out, random-ness rules! And after a few hours of truck dodging and traffic light stop-starting, we find ourselves on a rather serene, beautifully paved road, winding up and over our first mountain pass. Better still, on the other side of the pass we discover something rarer than a panda in a pie shop – a bike lane. Huzzah!
Alas, such serenity is not to last, and much as we do our best to avoid it (often by taking longer, unpaved side roads), during in the first two days we are forced to spend some time pedalling down Ruta Nacional 5 – an activity which has affectionately become known as ‘fun on the 5’.
The RN5 runs almost the entire length of Chile and is the main, often only, route for northbound or southbound traffic. Think of it as equivalent to the UK’s M1, and you’ll get the picture. Although the traffic moves swiftly on these national highways, I actually never feel overly unsafe – because with big roads come big shoulders, and so Faye and I glue ourselves to the outer edge of a 3 metre wide piece of RN5 tarmac, and claim it for our own. It is however still a less than pleasant riding experience, and the noise of the traffic alone is enough to make me want to tear my own ears off and run them over.
Realising that we need some fuel for our stove, we indicate off the highway (like good road users) and into the next petrol station. We funnel in behind the cars, and queue up in a very British fashion for the petrol pumps. The diners in the adjacent cafe seem bemused – they look up from their machine coffees and cans of coke, and stare in disbelief at two girls on bikes sandwiched between cars. We simply shrug and give them the ‘What? Girls gotta eat’ look and move along in the queue.
Upon making the front, we duly hand the nice pump man our gas stove bottle. He delicately puts the nozzle in the red metal canister, and delivers the princely sum of 300 Chilean pesos (45p) worth of unleaded 93. That’ll cook us dinner for the next 10 days.
Back on the RN5, and firmly re-engaged with the fun, we begin to notice that a lot of cars are flying Chilean flags. They’re stuck out of windows, flapping on poles and jammed into truck doors. In fact, one in every five cars has a flag on it somewhere. Then I notice a line of six fire trucks on the opposite side of the carriageway, a sight which seems a little out of the ordinary. Then a van then passes with mattresses piled high in the back, and again flying a Chilean flag.
The next car has: ‘vamos fuerza Chile!’ written on it, and the following one is piled high with white boxes covered in red crosses, and says: ‘voluntarios’ across the rear bumper.
I mull over the sights… fire trucks… volunteers… flags… And then I realise it has been usually hazy all day. Snippets of news items absorbed in the weeks off flash through my mind.
‘Oh Faye!’ I shout, above the deafening roar of the passing traffic.
‘Yeah???’ She screams back.
‘I know what the flags are for…!’
For over two weeks the most savage forest fires have raged in southern Chile. 102 blazes to be precise, leaving 2,000 homes destroyed, 8,000 people homeless and 11 dead. Egged on by unusually hot weather and strong winds, these have now become the worst forest fires in the country’s history.
I suddenly feel foolish, and useless to say the least. Here I am on a jolly old adventure as people lose their homes less than 50 miles away. But it also warms me to see such a display of unity. And to know that when push comes to shove, strangers will sling a load of mattresses on their truck, proudly display their countries’ flag, bomb it down the motorway, and look after others. Just because they can.
Live track us as we head over the mountains into Argentina here: http://z6z.co/AndesAdventure