A 6 month journey to ‘the end of the world’

Greetings from Ushuaia: ‘fin del mundo’ – the end of the world!

The next land mass from here is Antarctica, and we don’t fancy going there (not yet at least). After 9,000 kilometres travelled, three countries, ten border crossings and over 103,000 metres ascended through the Andes Mountains on bikes — now seems like as good a time as any to stop.

Where in the blazes do I begin with the summing up of a six month journey? I’m going to start where you should always start when feeling a little overwhelmed— where it is the most marvellous.

MY FRIEND FAYE, AND I 

Faye and I were putting up our tents for the final time last night when she paused, mid construction, a tent peg in one hand and her ground sheet in the other:

‘Anna…’ she said.

‘Yes mate?’ I stopped wrestling with my own pop-up-palace, and looked across at her.

‘I think we’ve done really well, you know. I don’t mean the cycling, I mean… well… us.’

I smiled. ’Well?! I think ‘well’ is an understatement Faye-bomb! It’s not normal, living the way we have. It’s enough to drive you bananas. And we still very much like bananas.’

There was a moment of silence.

‘I think it’s been the best thing, you know. Us two.’ Faye continued quietly.

‘Me too mate, me too.’ I replied. We smiled at one another, and then went back to putting up our tents, just as we have done almost every night for the past half a year. Continue reading

Down But Not Out

Today we had our first crash.

We are heading for the Chilean town of Puerto Montt on our fifth day since leaving San Martin de los Andes, and it is wet, wet, wet. As Marti Pellow so beautifully put it: ‘I feel it in fingers, I feel it in my toes…’ except, actually I don’t. Because I can’t really feel my fingers and toes anymore. I am instead just making circular motions with my thigh muscles in the hope that they drag my feet behind them. I am also steering and breaking ‘by sight’, as I can no longer feel whether or not my hands are in contact with the bars or brake levers.

With everything we own being sopping wet, we are forced to put yesterdays wet clothes back on for today’s ride. It’s not the most fun day on the bike, and so we choose to take a more direct route into town, via the main road.

Faye and I have just entered the very awkward situation of arriving at a highway toll-booth. The surprised attendant in his little booth-shack (who has boldly paired a hi-viz jacket with a floral shirt) waves us through without charge – largely because they haven’t developed a tariff for cyclists. We pull away from the booths and towards a sign which reads ‘Puerto Montt 2km’. We both whoop in delight and at the prospect of transporting our sodden shaking bodies to somewhere warm and dry. Zooming past the sign, we begin to go down a little hill. Continue reading

The Battle of Bettina

Today was all about Bettina.
We’ve just left a lunchtime break on an Argentinian lake shore. Today it isn’t raining, which is an unexpected treat given the hail storm of yesterday. We are gunning it along the road, using the wind and warm air to dry our pants and socks off the back of the bikes, when we spot a cycle tourist standing at the side of the road. She is next to a golden yellow bike, looks to be in her sixties, with a strong build (calves you could crack walnuts on) and short grey hair.
We pull over and begin to venture a few words of greeting. Seeing as we never know where in the world other travellers are going to be from, it’s always best to start in Spanish and go from there. After a couple of spanglish sentences, we detect a German accent, and the lady rumbles that we are English. Now in (in a more natural English language) I ask her where she’s going.
‘Well, I’m going into Chile, but I was thinking I might stop here and hitch a ride. I haven’t really got enough food, and there’s nothing for a while to get any along here’ she says.
We’re carrying the bare minimum on supplies for this stretch and haven’t got any spare food to give her, but I reach into my front bar pouches and pull out two toffees.
‘Have some toffee power!’ I say, handing over the goodies.
‘Oh thank you!’ She falls silent for a moment, and begins chewing on a toffee. ‘It’s a big mountain to get over you know’ she adds, motioning to the road ahead towards Paso Cardenal Antonio Samoré. ‘And I don’t think I can do it.’

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Caught Between A Storm And A Mushroom

We pedal out of the alpine-chic ski bum town of San Martin de Los Andes at 1pm. We exchange a small hi-five in the supermarket carpark on the way out, congratulating ourselves for such an ‘early’ departure. Usually, we aim to leave towns at 10am and roll out at 4pm, and so a lunchtime getaway is a real triumph.

Pedalling away from traffic, restaurants and cafés we wind our way around the shores of Lago Lácar, just as the mercury tips 38 degrees celsius. At this temperature, Faye is like a pig in poop because despite being a redhead, she absolutely adores the heat. I on the other hand reach optimum heat-appreciation at around 27 degrees. Anything more than that I feel is just plain unnecessary. Excessive heat for me means sweating out all available bodily salts and a requirement to drink gallons of water, water which I must of course carry on my bike. See? Unnecessary.

‘It’s so hot!!!’ Says Faye, plugging away on her pedals behind me.
‘I know, It’s so hot! Too hot!! I’m dying here.
‘I LOVE it!! She exclaims
‘I’ll remind you of that when it’s too hot to sleep tonight and you’re lying in pools of your own sweat’ I retort – a vain attempt on my part to dampen her chipper approach to what I consider to be fiery hell-like conditions.

We stop at a few lakeside ‘miradors’ (lookouts) of which there are plenty on a road that is leading us through the ‘seven lakes’ region. A region where there are, wait for it… six lakes. I’m kidding, there’s seven. On the fourth lookout we begin to note a slight shift in the skies. Dark, bulbous clouds have gathered on the horizon. Looking back towards San Martin, I can see that it is now caked in what looks like from here to be a fine grey mist, but I know must mean a deluge in town.

‘Eeeek. I hope that doesn’t head our way…’ says Faye, pointing at the ominous cloud-wall of black and grey.
‘Nah, we’ll be fine.’ says I, optimistic (read: deluded) as always.

Thirty minutes later we begin to feel the light pitter patter of raindrops on our shoulders. Thunder rumbles overhead and there’s a flash of lightening in the mountains in front of us.

‘Woah! Did you see that?! SO COOOOLLL!!!’ I shout at Faye.
‘I don’t like it!’ she yells back. Poor Faye-Bomb. She is like a household pet when it comes to storms. She would far rather be inside snuggled up next to the fire than dancing with potential lightning death.

The rain gets a little heavier and, seeing as how Faye is in a strappy vest and I am in a t-shirt, we decide to pull over to put our rain jackets on, which (of course) are at the bottom of both our panniers. The storm sees it’s chance. It spots two stupid optimistic, englanders scantily clad, rummaging around in their panniers with the contents strewn across the grassy verge and it strikes, with vengeance. The heavens open and we are soaked to the skin within a minute. At least we both just about manage to get our jackets on before the hail starts.

‘Awwww! Ouch! Ow!’ I yelp, as the first few ice bullets make contact with my rather shocked body.

This is no ordinary hail, this is marble sized, evil Patagonian hail. It feels worse, far worse, than the time I went paint balling and decided to go ‘over the top’ of the Blue team’s trench. A block of ice thuds into the back of my neck, another onto my hand, a third on my thigh and Faye and I can begin dancing like cats on a hot tin roof.

‘Where are you going???’ she yells as I begin a dart across the road.
‘To find shelter!! To a tree! To… anywhere!!!’

I spot a roadside shrine with a corrugated metal roof and we scamper across towards it, ditch our bikes most unceremoniously at the roadside and take cover under the shrine. It is bedlam. Passing cars have also stopped and are seeking shelter from the hail by driving onto the verge and under trees as it smashes mercilessly onto their windshields.

For twenty minutes we stand under our flimsy metal roof, any conversation drowned out by the deafening sound of ice colliding with metal just inches above our head. The hail gets harder, and the balls grow larger until the whole road is carpeted in white marbles. Both of us begin to shiver – the icy rain has now made it through to our base layers and reached our skin.

There’s a bright flash of lightening, swiftly followed by a loud rumble of thunder, which seems to be right overhead.

‘Errr Anna…!’ Faye hollars at me.
‘Yeah?’
‘What are we supposed to do in lightening? Are we safe here?’
‘Well, umm… we’re lower than the trees around us, I guess. But we are under a metal roof…”
‘I don’t think metal roofs are good, are they?’
‘I’m not sure. I read something about getting low to the ground. Let’s mushroom?’

And so we both crouch on our heels, tucked up like little cold wet, wild mushrooms, hoping against hope that the lightening doesn’t choose our shrine sanctuary a its passage to earth. Ten more minutes pass and eventually the hail turns back to rain. We breathe a small sigh of relief and slowly uncoil from our individual mushrooms. We are 20km short of our scheduled daily mileage, but we’re both beginning to get rather cold and don’t fancy cycling on through the wall of water, so we decide to set up camp somewhere nearby. We turn to look at a flat patch of grass, just behind the shrine:

‘Here?’ Faye says.
‘Here will do!’ It’s not the most glamorous spot, right next to the road, but for tonight: it’s paradise.

And so we dance around a little more in the rain, wrestling with tents and pegs and poles before crawling into our makeshift homes and peeling off layers of sodden clothing. We both get tucked up in our sleeping bags and listen to the thunder rage on. The excitement seems to have taken its toll because what was supposed to be a little nap before dinner, turns into us both falling asleep for the night at 6pm. An adventurer’s bedtime by all accounts.

Metres ascended on bikes so far: 68,597m

Live track us as we continue to hail-dodge through Patagonia here: http://z6z.co/AndesAdventure

Patience Is A Virtue 

My alarm goes at 5am and I am wrenched from my dreams to the present. Where am I? I think. Why (oh why) is Birdy’s Skinny Love (my longstanding alarm song of choice) going off at this UNGODLY hour? And then I remember…

The previous day had been full of all of the many joys that come with a pedal through the Chilean lake district. We packed up from our forest camp spot, hoiked bags and bikes back over the fence onto the main road, and began pedalling off down a dirt road. Yes comrades, after many many ribbons of baby smooth tarmac – we at last found some familiar dusty tracks once again.

In fact, these dusty tracks are the dustiest we have encountered thus far. Dustier than Dusty Springfield, dustier than a dust-buster – dustier, even, than Dusty from the Three Amigos (and boy is that dusty). Car upon car would plough past and cake us from head to toe in a fine grey mist. Every now and then, I would run my tongue over the surface of my front teeth and find there to be enough for a three course meal.

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A Difficult Question

‘Oh would you look at all those dinky little roads Faye-bomb? I bet it’s super dooper quiet down there…’

Faye and I are pouring over the map and planning our assault on the ‘lake district’ area of Chile. An intricate web of small roads weave their way in between large patches of blue on the 2D page in front of us, and we instantly fall in love with the idea of what is to come: deserted wild camp spots on the edge of glacial lakes, rubble trails running between tiny villages, and smiling people. Oh how there will be smiling people, everywhere.

Of course before entering what we perceive to be Chilean utopia, we must cross the Andes mountains, and the inter-country border once more. After zooming down a long hill, we screech to a halt in front of a smartly dressed female Argentinian border guard, who is stood next to a white and orange barrier. Making our way inside to the neat wooden guards’ building we find three more female border dudettes sat at desks. How refreshing, I think, delighted to have happened upon the most femme-friendly of country crossings. The young woman sitting at the desk closest to us looks up, says hello and asks the most taxing question of the day so far: ‘Where are you going?’. Continue reading

A Longing For Home

I really struggled today.

Normally I wake up naturally around 8am. My eyes ping open, I have some vague recollection of a vivid and bizarre dream (usually involving a dragon) and I swing into action right away.

I reach behind me to unzip the tent a little and let some air in (and perhaps the odd pasta fart out). I sit up, unpack the clothes from my makeshift pillow, stuff them into dry bags, remove myself from the sleeping bag, stuff that away, let the air out of the sleeping mat (enjoying the ride down to earth as it deflates)… It’s a routine that I do on autopilot every single morning. And usually with a little smile, or not much going on in my brain at all.

Only, this morning, something is different.

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The Crossing Of The Andes

‘Errrr… Faye… what in the world is THAT?!’

I am stood outside my tent, midway through brushing my teeth, when a distant rumble distracts me from a love affair with Colgate Triple Stripe.

Around the mountain track in the distance, surrounded by plumes of dust and silhouetted against the early morning sun, come twenty horses. Atop those horses are people, and they are atop them in style – carrying flags, banners and all manner of brassy things which catch and deflect the suns rays. I’m rooted to the spot with my mouth is wide open (collecting its fair share of road dust) when all of a sudden two military trucks appear around the nearest bend, and three men hop out. They nod in our direction, as if finding two white chicks in their pyjamas at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere (mouths open, toothbrushes in hands) is perfectly normal, and they begin setting up a video camera. Continue reading

Waterfalls, Glacial Lakes and River Rides

Our hard won, slightly bumbling, battle to re-enter Argentina is well worth the effort. After thanking the biker gang profusely for the offer of joining them for dinner (with or without meat, and or vegetables), we decide it’s still early in the day (4pm) and that’ll we’ll push on for a few more hours yet. There’s more hugs, more cheek kisses, a hefty dose of ‘good luck’s’ wafted in our general direction, before we ride into the mountains beyond.

During our chitter-chattering with the group, we had been reliably informed that the next part of the ride is ‘muy lindo’ (very pretty), and it does not disappoint. Within 20km of leaving the Argentinian immigration building, the landscape has transformed from dusty golden brown to lush green. Waterfalls tumble from the hillside – those that are closest to the road are modest in size and we can stop to drink from them, stick our faces in them and marvel up close at the cool glacial meltwater. The taller more spectacular falls are way up in the mountains, and we can only but stop and stare from a distance at the cascading white lines they cut against a backdrop of slick black rock. Continue reading

‘You May Not Enter Argentina!’

‘You do not have the correct stamp in your passport. You may not enter Argentina.’

The day started in splendid style, we leave our riverside camp spot and begin the rubble-tastic slog up and over the 2,500 metre Paso de Vergara.

The borders here tend to happen in two stages – you get stamped out of one country, then some kilometres later, stamped into the other. I’m not entirely sure who owns the land in between the two, perhaps they share it and use it for inter-country picnics or polo matches on weekends? I can only hope.

On the way up Paso de Vergara, we pull over at the Chilean border. There we greet five guards in uniform who are stood outside, and begin the passport ritual. Among the five amigos is one who speaks some english (his Dad lives in Miami he tells us), and so it becomes a rather lovely border-crossing experience. Despite having the facilities to, the guards don’t make us do the pointless ‘bags through scanner’ ritual, and instead we have extra time to chat politics and weather as Miami-man goes about his paperwork. He hands us back our passports and off we wobble, up the final section of the pass.

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