The real secret to lighting a fire (it’s not what Ray Mears would say)

‘It’s going to go out, it’s going to go out, it’s going to… Oh bugger It’s gone out.’ I slouch backwards and sigh.

Faye and I are sat outside our tents around our MSR Whisperlite stove willing it not to die on us. Our green soup cups are half-filled with dried mashed potato flakes, cold cut up sausages lay dormant on the upturned soup cup lids, and a slab of cheese has been delicately carved into chunks – patiently waiting to be plunged into a steaming pile of mashed potato.

Alas, there sits the water in the pan, cold still, over a flame that simply will not stay lit. We unscrew the red petrol canister and peer inside. There seems to be rather a lot of ‘black stuff’ and so we conclude that the fuel will filled up with in Coyhaique must been of a less than ideal quality. Continue reading

Chile’s legendary Careterra Austral: When hype doesn’t equal reality.

Ah the Careterra Austral. These are two words both Faye and I had never heard until we began cycling in South America. But everywhere we went, and from every cycle tourist we met who learned of our route south, the question was the same: ‘So you’re going to DO the Careterra Austral, right?’

Based on these conversations (and our tendency to perform minimal research into route options) it seemed as if there were only one way to travel through Northern Patagonia. And so ‘DO’ the Careterra Austral, we would.

In the words of the Lonely Planet: ‘The Carretera Austral begins where Chile’s Lakes District ends, snaking south for 1240km into a land of dense forests, snow-tipped mountains, glacial streams, islands and swift-flowing rivers’ Continue reading

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.
‘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:

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.

Continue reading