Saturday, 24 March 2007

Part 2: Cochrane to Coyhaique

It was with some trepidation that I got back on my bike for the next stage of the Carretera Austral. After raining solidly the night before our departure from Cochrane, by the time we´d packed the tents, it was clear, and blowing a gale... The weather changes so fast, and the wind really was rather strong...

For the first 2 days I felt great - rested and keen to "attack" the hills, I found the gusting winds fun, adding a new element to the daily battle of negotiating the roads. By day three, the novelty of being blown all over the place, sliding around on the gravel, and jolting over the ruts had worn a bit thin though... My whole body hurt, and in places the road was unspeakably bad. There are no words really adequate to describe it, you have to ride on it with loaded panniers and no suspension for several days to really appreciate the full glory. I dreamt of reaching the tarmac just one day away...

At one point, after a particularly bad patch of road that is painful just to recall, we reached a beautiful stretch. A smooth, hard-packed mud road winding through the trees and I found myself grinning from ear to ear. The sheer joy of being able to ride effortlessly was so intense, it was quite remarkable, and rather thought-provoking. I will remember the feeling forever, but was it really such a good thing that something so simple as a few minutes of easy cycling could give me so much pleasure? Being as we were in the middle of nowhere, life had been reduced to nothing much more than sleeping, eating and cycling. I think it´s great to get away from the regular bustle of everyday life at home (and things like blogs...), and to appreciate the small things, but if something so minor was so wonderful, didn´t that mean that the rest of the time was just too hard?! It`s something I´m still pondering...

The views though were just great, and the sun often shone - we saw a heumal, a rare local deer, just metres away, and of course lakes, rivers and mountains...

Despite the condition of the roads and the wind, we made good progress, and after four days, reached the long dreamt-for tarmac. And started climbing immediately. Which was fine - we knew that we had to go over a high pass, and it was rewarding to reach the top - great views and nothing but 80kms of flat roads between us and our destination, the town of Coyhaique. But then we rounded the corner and found... WIND. Parallelling this road north through Chile, there is the infamous Ruta 40 through Argentina - miles of dirt road through the flat and windy pampas. The Chilean road is much wetter and hillier, but there is more to see, and the whole point is, it isn´t windy. That´s the deal - the risk of rain, endless hills, but no wind. Or so I´d thought as I battled ahead at 4-8 kms an hour. I´m sure that in the UK, less strong winds blow rooves off houses... The others laughed at my frustration (having cycled across tierra del fuego, they´d dealt with days on end of much stronger winds, and were more than entitled to tease me!). It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that there was nothing I could do but continue to grind ahead in my lowest gear with the wind whistling in my ears and I found it soul-destroyingly horrible. There was nothing enjoyable about it in the slightest, and there wasn´t even anything interesting to look at! Not that you could really look anywhere but a metre ahead without risking being blown off the road...

Coyhaique itself is the biggest town on the carretera austral, and a pretty chilled-out place to spend a few days of wind-recovery therapy (which involves eating lots of chocoate cake...). As I´m running out of time to get back to Buenos Aires in time for my flight home, unfortunately I´m going to have to say goodbye to the winds and take a bus for the next section though... And then its back on my bike to cycle across the border and back into Argentina. More hills and bad roads, but fingers crossed, since I´m heading East, I might even have a tailwind... I can always hope!

Saturday, 17 March 2007

The Carretera Austral

Having spent rather a long time travelling "with" my bike (as opposed to "by" bike. I´ve been bumping into people from the trip to Antarctica ever since leaving the boat, and having initially thought that I was a tough cyclist, they think its hilarious that I´m taking the bus everywhere...), I decided it was time to get back in the saddle. Having done some hiking, to ease my way back in, I started off by combining the two - trying the well-known "hiking carrying a bike". A once-only in the life-time experience, I wouldn´t recommend it... Crossing from Argentina into Chile, I was making my way from El Chalten, past Lago del Desierto to Villa O´Higgins, which involved man-handling my bike 5kms along a footpath that looked like:
Great fun with a fully-loaded bike, as you can imagine... I thought it was going to be 7kms, so I was extremely glad when I got to the end early, to find the long-awaited sign telling me I´d arrived in Chile!

It was then another 15kms ride down a terrible road, dragging my bike through an icy-cold river to get to a tiny hamlet called Candelaria Mancilla, the border control and Lago O´Higgins, the next obstacle:
A massive (and beautiful in the sun) lake, the boat across it goes supposedly every Saturday, but its schedule is a little "subject to change", and is one of the reasons (along with the path and road) why this border is very seldom used. It only seems to exist as both Argentina and Chile want the land around it, and the whole area is in dispute. Still, having made it thus far, there was NO WAY I was going to drag my bike back up the road and through the forest again! In the end I was lucky - the boat was only one day late. I stayed in a little estancia with a wood-burning stove (actually, the only place to stay), and it was the perfect enforced rest that I needed after all the hiking. It poured with rain outside, but I just sat inside drinking tea, eating freshly baked bread and talking to the other "intrepid travellers" who had made it there.
The goal was to get to the Carretera Austral, a road leading 1,200 kms north through Chile from Villa O´Higgins to Puerta Montt. And disembarking from the boat, in torrential rain in the pitch dark, I´d made it, along with four other cyclists. We pitched the tent right where the boat docked, unable to cycle anywhere in those conditions, and for the last five days, we´ve been pedalling our way north. The area is incredibly remote, and the weather extremely changeable, so it´s been fantastic to cycle with others - a French couple cycling around for 6 months, and a crazy Austrian couple on a tandem who´ve been cycling for two and a half years, so far...
As for the Carretera Austral. Hmm. This is my favourite sign (after the one indicating that the road is about to go downhill of course). Chile, the most developped country in South America, is proud of the fact that it has built a bridge... And the road, initially pretty good, doesn´t really bear mentioning. A dirt road, it´s actually more like a gravelly, rocky, pot-holed and hideously rutted track with a big pile of stones running up the centre. The great debate (taking up many hours) is whether to cycle on the gravelly stones in the centre, slip around all over the place and use up loads of energy, or whether to take the ruts along one side and jar every bone in your body. Its a difficult choice, and as neither seems really good, endless hours of fun can be spent trying first one, then the other...
Its not really so bad, and when the going gets hard, I just have to look up and remember that I´m cycling through Patagonia, in one of the remotest parts of the planet. The first couple of days it rained a lot (my tent loved it...), but after that, the sun came out and we had a spectacular couple of days. Cycling in the sun through beautiful valleys, alongside lakes and rivers glistening in the sun, past mountains with dollups of snow sprinkled here and there and the odd glacier. Again, maybe some photos can describe it better than me...

We´re currently in a little village called Cochrane, the first place we´ve come to, and taking a day of rest (laundry, drying everything, internet, maybe even a glass of wine later!). The last few days we´ve been camping next to a river, literally in the middle of nowhere, eating around a campfire and watching the stars. Its an incredible experience - not easy, I won´t pretend it is, but then the best experiences rarely are... Tomorrow we confront the rutted road again for another 6-ish days cycle ride north to Coyhaique, the next "town" on the route. I´ll see if I can come up with some more choice words for the road then... In the meantime, I hope you´re all safe and having fun! Helen.

Glaciers galore, and SUNSHINE!!!

Continuing my journey (by bus) north, I headed back into Argentina to see the Perito Moreno glacier. A massive, advancing glacier, I saw a photo of it a few years ago and have wanted to see it ever since. And it was huge! 5 kms wide, and 40-60 metres high, it was impressive. I´d have loved to get right underneath it to appreciate its real size, but as chunks keep breaking off, it´d have been rather dangerous, to say the least, and we were kept well away. The noise it made was fantastic - a constant cracking and crashing emanated from within it, and every now and again, a huge piece would fall off into the water. At one point, a piece the whole height broke free and crashed into the lake. It was hard to appreciate watching from a distance that it was the size of a building!

From one huge glacier, to many smaller ones - my next stop was the gorgeous little climbing village of El Chalten, a little further north still. I knew I´d like the place as soon as I saw it, nestling in the valley with mountains towering all around. The clouds parted as I arrived, showing the two main mountains, Cerro Torre and Mt FitzRoy, in all their glory, and the sun shone the entire time I was there. I was incredibly lucky, and made the most of it, hiking my heart out. How to describe the scenery - the photos hopefully will do it some justice! The first couple of days, I explored everywhere I could with Sue-Ann, a Canadian girl I met on the bus. And she killed me. An avowed knitter, smoker and avoider of all exercise at home, I practically had to run to keep up with her on the hills... and I had thought I was fit!

After climbing to a lookout point on the first day (first photo), we then hiked to see Mount Fitz Roy on the second day (the big, solid mountain behind me), and then every valley around... It was amazing - huge mountains everywhere, beautiful lakes, trails meandering (usually uphill) through enchanted-like forests, and crazy glaciers tumbling and falling off the mountains into the lakes, sparkling in the sunshine. Stunning.

Cerro Torre itself is a crazy mountain - tall and pointed with a snow-cap on top making it a nightmare to climb. I can´t imagine how you´d even begin! I was more than happy looking at it from a distance!

The glacier leading to it though was cool - and I got to fulfill another long-held desire: to use crampons and an ice-axe. Having hiked our legs to exhaustion on the first two days, Sue-Ann and I decided to give ice-climbing a try, and headed up to the glacier. True to form, she made it look incredibly easy, dancing up the ice on her first attempt. It didn´t come quite so naturally for me, but unfortunately, I think I´ve found a new sport... I loved it! The guide was great, teaching us everything we wanted to know about climbing techniques, knots, putting in the ice-screws and the like, and then we went hiking on the glacier. Now I just have to find some more ice to go and play on!

Friday, 2 March 2007

Torres del Paine

Arriving in Puerta Natales, the wind was just silly (I felt fully vindicated in baling on the ride from Punta Arenas; I´d have never made it!), so I donned my hiking boots (finally, it´s been worth lugging them with me these past months!) and headed into Torres del Paine national park for four days of hiking.

It seems you use very different muscles for hiking than cycling... being a little overzealous on the first day (probably to prove to myself that I wasn´t a wimp for taking buses, why am I so stupid?!), I was practically lame the next couple of days, hobbling around the mountains like an 80-year old. It was embarrassing!

The park was stunning - forests, massive turquoise lakes, some with glaciers tumbling down into them, and huge rocky "towers" - the Torres that the park is named after. Breaktakingly beautiful and unbelievably windy! At times it was impossible to do anything but go (stumble, trying to lift my useless legs over the rocks and tree-roots always trying to trip me up...) with the wind, at speed! But the weather, despite not being particularly good (ok, generally pretty terrible), actually added to the whole thing. Along with the wind, one minute it was raining so hard you couldn´t look up, the next it was sunny, and then it was snowing! It made it really interesting and fun!

Some nice lakes - the second one has chunks of really blue ice floating in it that have broken off the glacier further north.

A couple of the glaciers - and an indication of the weather!

On the final morning, I got up and hiked up to a view point of the towers for sunrise. 5.30am alarms, how I love them! Losing the path, I ended up struggling for an hour across a snow-covered boulder field in the dark, but coming to the top and seeing the sun hitting the Torres made it all worth while! It was beautiful and peaceful up there, and within ten minutes, the clouds had come in, obscuring the view, so I was really lucky.

Tierra del Fuego

So now I think I have an idea what people mean when they say it can get a bit windy in this part of the world...

My introduction to Tierra del Fuego could not have been easier or more beautiful - Ushuaia. I love it there - a fun town, amazing views of mountains and sea, a beautiful national park, outdoor pursuits galore, last-minute trips to Antarctica, and great steak! Plus, it was always sunny when I was there. Or maybe that is why I have such fond memories of the place. Likewise Antarctica - I saw both the Drake crossing and Antarctica itself on its best behaviour. Seeing the glaciers sparkling in the sun, I just wanted to put on a pair of skis, grab a tent, and head inland to explore... luckily I wasn´t allowed (this time).

So back to Tierra del Fuego. Disembarking from our ship nice and fresh (hungover and horribly short on sleep) and raring to go after ten days eating onboard, I spent a day in Ushuaia sorting myself out, had a final dinner with people from the boat, and then early to bed for my first day of cycling. I should have gone out partying - not used to being onshore, the bed felt like it was moving as if at sea, and I only got two hours sleep due to comings and goings and snorers in my dorm...

I left in the morning anyway, disgruntled and tired, but after a while, the sun came out and I had a beautiful ride through the mountains to camp next to a lovely lake. I slept like a baby listening to the waves lapping gently a few metres away. A great day´s cycling, and the only one I managed... Since the next day was rainy and windy, I jumped on a bus. Feeling guilty later, I went for a ride out of town, and got my first taste of the wind. Riding was horrible, and I don´t even think it was particularly strong...

The end of the road, west of Ushuaia, right in the south of Argentina.

Cycling out of Ushuaia, through the mountains and past some lovely lakes.

I get the impression from the trees that it can get a bit windy here... Idyllic camping by Lago Fagano, one day´s ride out of Ushuaia.

The next day I bused it to Punta Arenas in Chile - and my guilt about taking a bus disappeared as I saw the terrain.
Miles of nothing - grass (being blown flat by the horrendous winds), sky, road and a few sheep. In good conditions I´d have made the trip in four days by bike; in those conditions, probably never... Crossing the Magellan straight by ferry, at times the wind was so strong it was hard to stand up, let alone walk.

Now, out of Tierra del Fuego and in southern Patagonia, things didn´t improve. My plan was to cycle to Puerta Natales, 250kms north, but after 30kms, my feet were blocks of ice, I was making just 8kms an hour, there was nothing to see, and I had the prospect of several days of the same... In the interest of my sanity, I therefore decided to turn back to Punta Arenas, and my bike, I, Jimmy and Jemima (the omnipresent squeaks from my left and right pedals, respectively) got on another bus.

The plan remains to do some more cycling; but only when the scenery is more interesting and/or the wind drops!