Monday, January 31, 2011

Monday - A relaxing days cycle

Hmm, it's almost like we are on holiday. It was a relatively short days cycle to Cochrane, and as our camping spot was safety hidden from the road, we had a relaxed start to the day. The road continued to wind between the mountains, although the dense forest had opened out slightly and there was now areas of grass between the trees. Within 10km, we hit the major climb of the day. Neither of us really had any power in the legs today, so we used some good excuses to stop and take photos and eat snacks. Despite the huge plate of pasta last night I was having a 'hungry day', and despite the fruit and biscuits we'd eaten on the climb, I was ready for lunch by the time we reached the top. We ate our cheese rolls with a great view across to the edge of the north Patagonia icefield.

We'd also managed to locate and solve the annoying clicking from the front of the drive chain (one of the screws holding the eccentric bottom bracket had worked loose and the eccentric was moving slightly) . The weather had also improved, and my nose needed a dose of suncream - the first for many days. Just before setting off again, we met a cyclist coming the other way. He told us it was 23km from Cochrane and we assumed he must of had a late start to the day, like us. Having freewheeled a significant part of the 23km into town, we decided he'd actually had quite a tough morning!

Cochrane seems a fairly relaxed place.  The campsite is good and has hot showers, cooking facilities (gas and BBQ), as well as garden furniture and sunshine. We've actually managed to dry the tent out for the first time since Argentina! After many attempts, we got cash out of the ATM. Despite advertising the fact it takes visa (debit), it only seems to work with MasterCard. It does mean that we have plenty of cash to see us through the next stretch, so we may stay here a second night to recharge the batteries.


Sunday: leaving Tortel, more rain

As we travel it is interesting to see the changes in wildlife that reflect the change in habitation we pass through. Crossing from the near desert of the Argentine steppe into the Andes and Chile will always be a most distinct example, but even in the 150 km odd we have traveled on the carretera we are noticing changes. We have long left behind the giant horseflies that bugged us through the border crossing - a most disturbing insect when crawling lazily on your cycle glasses, it looks like some alien invader! Our first days and nights were plagued by buzzing biting mossies. They now seem less in number, thank goodness, and today for the first time we saw Patagonian bubblebees (as we call them). These are just like their UK counterparts, only have loss their black stripes, meaning you have bright yellow or orange balls of spiky hair flying around the flowers. Most odd!

Flowers are another thing: until today they have been very few but we definitely see more now we are in wetter and more fertile land (I expect all the volcanos had a part in this).

On the subject of rain, the clouds that sat over us all day yesterday in Caleta Tortel appeared to up-stumps this morning, and wondered up the valley to join us on our way to Cochrane. So from elevenses to after lunch we were fully coated head to toe in waterproofs, for the first time ever on a cycling holiday. It was even sufficient to help me discover my waterproof gloves aren't, which 3 UK winters never previously managed to highlight. The frogs certainly seem to like this weather though, so their unusual croaks - like someone tapping out Morse code on maracas - accompanied us for most they day as well as throughout last night just outside our window.

The afternoon was real sunshine and showers affair, which at least let us dry out and warm up a bit, and around 5 we found a great place to camp on a hidden "mezzanine" level between road and river, just as we were getting drenched through once more. Hoping for more sun, less showers tomorrow!


Saturday: rainy Caleta Tortel

Day 3 on the carretera Austral was also the third consecutive day of rain. It started lightly, but by the time we reached the town it was pretty persistent. It turned out that to get to the free (and only) campsite would require several kms of hefting the bike down steps and along slippery boardwalks, and again tomorrow to leave, so having done quite enough of that already for one week we decided to opt for a room in the closest hospedaje instead. The landlady was obviously used to this situation and showed us the bicicaleta parking space before even showing us the room, even though we hadn't even mentioned having a bici parked up around the corner. The ride in had been a fairly gentle 24km mostly downhill, so we'd not really warmed up much.  Coupled with rain, and general skank of 2 nights wild camping, we were very glad to get a shower and warm room out of the rain by midday. We then went to explore the town.

As mentioned above, there are no streets and buildings are connected by an elaborate if occasionally rather adhoc series of boardwalks. For most of its 60 year history it had no road access, only boat, and coupled with being built on sheer rock face around the natural bay, houses and pathways on stilts was obviously the solution that evolved.

Perhaps due to the rain, the town seems nigh on deserted, despite being peek season, and we visited 3 out of 4 of the cafés/restaurants through they day whilst seeking cover from the rain, and were about the only customers in each. All the tourist services seemed to have grown from people opening up their private house to guests, so you get a strange mix of formalities such as no written menus, but staff that jump on you asking in rapid language what sort of fish you want to eat, when really you want to just hide in a corner with a drink for a while!

Passing the junction on the way in we'd noticed a tent in the gravel pit we'd eyed up before choosing our spot the previous night, and recognized it as that of the German girls we'd shared the border crossing experience with. Sure enough, in one restaurant there they were tucking into chicken and rice (after much effort it seemed this was the only item on the menu, and even that seemed to run out shortly after) so we were able to catch up with them and compare notes on the previous two days.

The rain did not let up all day, but only got heavier, so after doing what sight-seeing we could, we retreated for a final drink before an early night. Maybe with an early start tomorrow we can crack through a good chunk of the 128km to Cochrane, where we hope to finally find some wifi coverage to clear our blog backlog! 


Thursday, Friday : setting off on the carretera austral

(Emma writes) We had a lazy morning in Villa o Higgins, eating a leisurely breakfast and doing some more shopping. We made an attempt to drill out the sheared bolt (supporting a front pannier rack), but only succeeded in breaking drill bits. We'll have to make do with cable ties holding it until we find some decent workshop facilities. It's not quite as bad as the front rack on one of the bikes we travelled with on the crossing, which had broken three fixing points on one side! The owner was not recommending the use of aluminum racks on ripio, not surprisingly.

At 1:30 we rolled out of town, keen to get a few miles in before our lunch of cheese sandwiches and biscuits. We seem to have settled into a routine of eating approximately 1packet of biscuits a day. There is generally quite a wide range of biscuits available, and after sampling many packets, we are getting to know which ones we prefer.

Shortly afterwards we passed the couple of Germans we'd done the crossing with, who seemed to be taking an extended lunch break. The views along the road were beautiful, with the road winding around lakes, beside rivers and through ancient beech woods. After about 30km we started seeing cyclists coming the other way, and gathered more info on the road ahead. Shortly after turning west into the head wind, we met the French cyclists we'd done the crossing with coming the other way. They were not confident of finding anywhere to camp along this stretch of road and so had decided to head back to a cabin a few kms back down the road and ask to camp there. We decided to eat a few more biscuits and talk about what to do next. Until now, when we've been going into a head wind, it's been the wrong decision to try and press on. We decided to carry on nonetheless! We found a great spot to camp about 12km further on, unfortunately it was also inhabited by thousands of mosquitoes. The combination of rain and biting insects made the decision to cook inside the tent a fairly easy one. It wouldn't be possible if we were running the stove on petrol, but as we've still got gas at this point, it wasn't a problem.

We set off around 9:30 on Friday, and started climbing almost immediately. It was the first, and smallest of the 3 climbs we knew about before Rio Bravo. The road surface wasn't great, with lots of loose gravel and shale. Descending was an interesting experience, and we actually came off the bike at one point. We gained a couple of bruises, but nothing serious. Less of an issue than the current set of mossie bites! The problem is that the corners have worn away to become heavily cambered, and have collected some deep gravel. Add large stones into the mix and it's easy to end up going sideways.

We made it to the ferry at Rio Bravo in time for a late lunch. Unfortunately we'd missed the 1pm ferry by about 40 minutes and had to wait until 5pm for the next one. There is a new Refugio at Rio Bravo with toilets. Good if you miss the last ferry, or merely need somewhere to sit out of the cold and rain. One of the people waiting was a chilian cabanero with a small fuel tanker. When our ferry finally arrived, another small tanker, along with a bigger tanker got off, and started filling the tanker which had been waiting.  Ourselves and a waiting car loaded onto the ferry, then had to wait whilst the tanker was filled before rejoining the ferry.  I guess the larger tankers can't manage the road south of Rio Bravo. Having cycled some of it now, I would say the roads are actually worse north of the lake though -  certainly steeper!

On the north side of the crossing is a great shack selling food and snacks. As we thought there was an outside chance of us reaching Caleta Tortel by nightfall we thought we'd better have a snack to keep us going. There was a young girl at the shack who after asking which country we were from, brought out her collection of foreign currency, and a piece of paper with translations between England and Spanish for numbers and parts of the body. We sat with her while we ate and added some more words to her list. I managed to find a 20p piece for her collection too.

The road from the ferry went straight up, which combined with the extra time spent at the cafe made it unlikely that we would make Caleta Tortel before dark. On the long descent through a gorge that meets Rio Baker we found a somewhat exposed spot to camp just off the road on a hair pin corner. It has great views across the next valley, with a glacier above, and is hidden from the road so should be a good spot to bed down so long as the wind doesn't rise too much.

 map (Thursday) 

 map (Friday) 

Tuesday and Wednesday: border crossing to Villa O'Higgins

When I was young, I always imagined land border crossings must be in the remotest locations, requiring battling through forest and mountains to cross. This probably was a consequence of being brought up on a island, but integrated Europe meant I always found it rather an anticlimax when I did eventually get to cross borders by land. Until now.

We left El Chaltén Tuesday morning with a feeling that this was the first place we'd visited that we'd really liked to spend quite a bit more time in. The previous evening had turned out fine weather after a damp and windy afternoon, so we'd taken the opportunity to do a 1 hour hike up to the mirrador Laguna Torres. Beside the Fitz Roy mountain this offered great views over the valley behind the town and other granite peaks, and glaciers. I can start to see the real attraction of ice treking which many of the agencies offer.

We took our time cycling out to lago del desierto, knowing we had a good 5 hours to cover the 38km before the 5.30 ferry. More great weather and views of Fitz Roy as we passed by meant many photo stops.

We also fitted in a 45 minute hike to see the huemul glacier, and enjoyed a lunch or barbequed chorizo in bread ("choripans") from the park attendant.Once across the lake we had to decide how to split the 7 + 15 km hikes either side of the border - although passport formalities are down on exiting or joining the ferries at either end so effectively the whole trek across is in no-man's land. Knowing that carrying a tandem would be challenge enough we were keen to hire a horse to carry the panniers, so when we found the only option was to set off that evening and stay the night at the horse man's hut, just over the border, the decision was made.

On the Argentine side the track is a very poor mud walking trail - much less maintained than any the previous trails we've used this trip. Coupled with the fact it is steep - effectively climbing to a pass over the Andes - and of course with a tandem bike in tow, this was quite a job of work. Several river crossings, without bridges, also added to the adventure.

Eventually, with a lot of heaving and shoving and quite a few scratched ankles, soaked shoes, and fruity language, we made it to the border itself. As this was a location that gun fire was passing over around the time of my birth, it was quite evident the location was very important, with a cast iron marker half way between the respective welcome to Chile/Argentina signs. Almost immediately beyond that, the mud track turned to gravel track. Not up to NCN standards (excuse the cyclist's sarcasm!) but quite rideable compared to what came before. 15 mins later we were setting up our tent by the horse wrangler's shed. (Evidently an ex-military border-bullying building).

There we met his wife and daughter, and numerous cats (one had even led us into there from the other side of the border sign!). It must be interesting to live your childhood in no-man's land like that, with no motor vehicles about and only access being by ferry at either end of the road; a virtual island up at 700m altitude in the mountains.

As we were setting the tent, I heard a shout and looked up just in time to see some luggage (including  a bob-yak trailer!) being kicked way into the air by a bolting horse. Bolting straight towards me! A moment of indecision, and then I leapt to my right and it shot pass and crashed into the woods behind. As we hastily moved our tent to be a bit further from the bolt-hole gap in the hedge, it passed through my mind just how far we were from anywhere at all in this strange island-like location, let alone from NHS care!

Next morning we continued the journey toward the Chilean border post. Despite being twice the distance we covered it in much less time as the roads are for the main part rideable, except some gravelled steep descents (with sheer drop to one side with no railing, of course!).

The history here is that under pinochet Chile wanted to push this road right through to join up Puerto natales and the magallenes region with the rest of the country. Snag being the southern Patagonian icefield means the only possible route goes through Argentine land, and Argentina weren't so keen on this. Hence the roads being more substantiated on the Chile side, but Argentina doing the least possible to now allow it as an expedition tourist route, but not encourage any more Chilean integration ideals. In fact El chaltén was only established 25 years ago, as a means to reinforce Argentina's claim to the land.

On the final descent to the northern end of the road, the moment happened that we'd been anticipating since we left the UK. We met a tandem coming up the hill toward us. Not any tandem though, this one was carrying my work colleague Steve, and partner Steph. Of all the coincidences we'd both planned the same trip along the caraterra Austral at about the same time, both on tandems, and without knowing the other was doing the same. We had a good catch-up but only wish the boat timings had been such that we could have spent more time with them over an evening; they need to catch flights this coming weekend so need to make good time over the crossing, and unfortunately horses were not available for their trip. Hope the get across ok.

 map (Tuesday) 

 map (Wednesday part 1) 

 map (Wednesday part 2) 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday & Monday: El Chaltén at last!

Sunday was a long tough day. One of our hardess days on the bike. It started out well enough; just as we finished breakfast the wind died down, and we had easy cycling in warm morning sun for the remaining 30 km of paved routa 40. Quite a contrast to how so many of the previous miles on that road had been. Great views over lago Viedma with the Andes and southern Patagonian icefield looming up behind it.

Around lunchtime we bade farewell to r40 and joined the regional 23 that would take use the final 90km to El chalten. West. At first the headwind was what prior to this trip I would have classed strong, but now consider fairly tolerable. We made good process so were lured into setting our sites on getting to the town that evening. Of course, the closer we got, the more intense the wind became. All afternoon we crawled west, for ever towards the same mountains. The perspective distortion is startling: with each  passing hour we would increasingly understand just how huge these mountains are, and hence just how very far away they were when we started.

For the first time we had to stop and cook an evening meal, and they continue the final 20km to the town. As we turned slightly north to climb up into the glaciers national park it became clear the mountains were not going to afford any shelter from the gale, but instead they just funnel and hone it to always be a headwind, whichever way we'd turn. It's not a particularly high pass, but being able to cycle past glacial flows is really quite magnificent. It's a pity we were both so exhausted by this point as not to be able to fully appreciate it. The final descent (all be it one we had to work hard to achieve 5mph down) is even more magnificent. As the town appears, nestled at the foot of so many towering peaks like the most quaint of Austrian village, so too does the view of those mountains appear. When it became clear we would finally be able make it, we even managed to stop and grab a photo in the fading light.

On waking Monday morning, we were greeted with a spectacular view of mount Fitz Roy, the distinct sheer granite slab that towers over the town. I managed to grab a quick snap before it was lost in cloud for the day.

After doing washing and admin we learnt that they ferry on lago desierto is not running until tomorrow.evening, and the subsequent ferry over lake O'Higgins only runs Wednesday and then Saturday, which pretty much sets our agenda for the next couple days. Checked into a hosteria to get descent shower and good night's sleep before we head out for the remote border crossing into Chile, to join the Caterra Austral.

Saturday: hiding out from ruta 40 headwind

So the riverside fishermen turned out to be quite friendly, if a little noisy and full of beer. Around 9pm just after we'd turned in they finished their catch for the day and turned their attention to cooking and eating and drinking and singing. Unfortunately we'd pitched our tent just the other side of the tree line from the campfire ring, so didn't get a lot of sleep until gone 1. On the plus side, we're now familiar with quite a bit of Argentinian folk song, including one that sounded like "mi perro no quiero".

On waking it was clear we were in for a blustery day, so didn't hurry to leave. Sure enough, despite being told the wind was always from west or southwest in this area, we were treated to a strong northeasterly for the day. Our path for the day of course being 90km of north bound road. Another day of crawling at 5mph and regular adhoc refuges under thus road. Gone midday, we stopped for shelter behind a works depot and found a tent with two sleeping cyclists inside. When they stirred they introduced themselves as Mike and Kerry from USA, heading southbound but had had to stop due to the sidewind pushing them into the traffic. As we were heading in the opposite direction it was merely trying to push us off the road - much safer! We sat for a couple hours and had a good chat, giving advice to one another of what to expect ahead. Turns out Mike is from mountain view California, which I know from work trips, so we also swapped tales of the cycling around that area.

Late afternoon we left them and pressed on a bit more, finding a restaurant with camping field by the river to stay in. 42km covered in 6hrs, plus 4hrs stopped! The restaurant appears to be run by resting mountaineers, mostly existing on coach coffee stops and occasional group stays. But they're very friendly and welcoming, and hopefully we'll get a quieter night's sleep too!

 map of route 

Friday : The Return of Ruta 40

We had a lazy morning doing the final chores (changing money, more washing etc), and eating a leisurely breakfast with Amit and Shoham (Pancakes, stewed apples with sultanas, fruit salad, yoghurt, doughnuts, honey and of course dulce de leche, Yum!). It was getting on for lunch time by the time we'd packed up and found somewhere to store all the additional food we are now carrying. El Calafate is the last time we see a supermarket for a while, so we're carrying a fair amount of dry food (we cross into Chile again in a few days, so we have to eat the fresh food by the border control). 1.30m, our latest start (so far) . A tail wind saw us get to the ruta 40 junction in about a third of the time it took to go the other way! We then headed north toward El Chalten. The land is still very dry and featureless, so when we saw a suitable camping spot next to la leonaLeona  river we decided to stop. We are a fair way off the road, but it seems to be the favorite local fishing spot as two vehicles turned up while we were eating tea. They don't seem to have a problem with us camping here though.

 map of route 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thursday : Glacier Perito Moreno

The bus ticket for our excursion to the glacier stated that we would be picked up from the campsite at 8am. We thought it would be nearer half past, and so wandered across to the entrance with our breakfast in hand at 8am. After going back to the tent a couple of times and having polished off breakfast (yogurt with dolce de leche, mmmm!), the bus arrived around 8:30. It was only a 16 seater bus, not the full coach we were expecting. This was a good thing as it meant we got a couple of extra stops on the way to the glacier, and the guide could answer any additional questions we had. She also had a great folder with pictures of some of the local wildlife. We are slowly learning more of the names of the plants and animals.  We were lucky enough to see several condors at one point, and everyone rushed for their cameras when we stopped by a fox, although we've seen plenty of those already! We failed to get any more cash yesterday, and had forgotten we needed money to pay the entrance fee for the national park.  This meant we didn't have enough cash to go on a boat trip to get closer to the face of the glacier. We spent all our time on the viewing balconies instead. It really is an awe inspiring site. The top of the face of the glacier is around 40m above the lake, and has 80-120m below the water. The width of the face is around 5km. The glacier is unusual in that it is not retreating like many, but remains a stable size and advances around 2m a day. It takes around 300 years for the snow falling at the top of the mountain to reach the face. I've seen a number of glaciers, but the sheer scale of this was amazing, as is the way it interfaces with the water of the lake. We got to see a number of icefalls while we were there, and you could hear many more. It's not something you can easily take a picture of though, as after long periods of nothing they happen too quickly. There was a major collapse of ice a couple of weeks ago which actually damaged some of the viewing balconies closest to the face. You could still see some of the larger chunks of ice on the rocks.

Tuesday & Wednesday: ruta 40 strikes back

From tapi aike we had two options, paved ruta 7 to la Esperanza and then double back onto ruta 5 towards El calafate, or keep with our friend ruta 40 to shortcut some 50km off the total distance but this would mean a day of rough ripio. We'd been warned this was a particularly poor condition section, but chose to use it anyway as it would mean much less traffic, and as it turned out it wasn't all so disagreeable as we had a southwesterly tail wind all morning that helped us through all but the worst of it. The worst being where a short rain shower turned a sandy section to porridge, which stuck between wheel and guard making progress twice as hard. Other than that, a glorious sunny morning.

Shortly after lunch we reached the junction with ruta 5, where we turn north west, finally towards our destination. We knew this would be a transition from tail to side wind, and heavier traffic, but better condition roads. Still we were doing well as we'd heard others took a full 12 hours going the other way on the shortcut, so decided to press on a bit further before sleeping.

For the main part this was high exposed ground with little shelter. As we climbed higher, the wind picked up too, but remained tolerable. At one point we passed a couple touring bikes stopped by the road. We could not see the riders, but eventually decided they must be well hidden away from the wind as we had been several days prior.

Eventually the road topped 1000m altitude, and then we got our first proper descent of the trip, down for 10km on the way into the lago argentino valley. Part way down we paused to see if the estancia there might offer camping, but spotted a tree line another 10km or so across the floor of the glacial valley floor, so reasoned that must be Rio bote and headed for it.

Our assumption was right, and when we finally reached it we found a good sheltered spot under the trees by the river. (You'll notice by now rivers are the only place you'll ever see a tree in the steppe)

Shortly after pitching camp, a pair of cyclists appeared, clearly with the same idea. It was the riders of the bikes we'd see earlier. (Shoham & Amit - We pointed them to an area right under the bridge that looked good, and they joined us. They cooked up a huge evening meal, and insisted we could help them consume it, so we had a second supper of a delicious Arab/Israeli lentil dish. 

Next day we only had the remaining 40km straight into El calafate to do, so we took it fairly easy but were still away soon after 8. What a job of work! It took until 1pm to finally make the town, the headwind was that strong. Along the way we passed Amit and Sha's abandoned bikes once again - it took them an hour or so more, so perhaps the tandem does still hold some benefit in blustering headwind.

We found the central campsite and spent the afternoon shopping, and washing clothes and ourselves and went out for a big evening meal.

Unfortunately the campsite parella libre (all you can eat carnivores BBQ) we'd been recommended was fully booked (who ever heard of booking the campsite restaurant?) But we eventually found another in one of the town side roads. It was a little more plastic canteen buffet style than the swish faux log cabin of our the campsite, but it did the job!

 map (Tuesday)  

 map (Wednesday) 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Monday: final escape from the blockades

We decided it was time to leave Chile and it's civil unrest, and make a break for the border. We heard that after allowing people to leave the park during the last few days, no-one would be allowed out today (except cyclists obviously) . The park was also not allowing anyone else in. Phil and Isa will have a very quiet great circuit walk! There was also talk that the cities would be shut down for the day again. This made for very quiet roads leaving the park (we saw five vehicles on the road out - two were very obviously locals, and one was an ambulance). This meant we got to see a great deal of wildlife including many guanaco, rhea, flamingos, gray foxes and even something which looked like an armadillo!

We had some waking and bike chain issues first thing in the morning, so weren't sure we were actually going to make it to Argentina today, but after lunch ('interesting' polenta, again), we made good progress and crossed the border at about 4pm. They were quite surprised to see anyone coming into Argentina, and were interested on what the situation was like at that point.  The bike was again admired as a way to get around in Chile at the moment. As we were making good progress, we decided to press on and do the 40km to Tapi Aiki. Once we got onto ruta 40, the tarmac was great. The last 10km turned into a slog though as we developed a headwind. It's frustrating to go from traveling at 20mph on an incline to struggling to do 10mph downhill!

We'd been tipped off (thanks Phil & Isa!) as to a good sheltered spot to put the tent, so quickly pitched it and had a nice risotto feast (packet said serves 4, ha!)

map of route 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday: hiking las torres

If you've only got one day in the Torres del Paine national park, there's really only one thing to be done - the hike out to view the Torres. This one-day out and back is often combined with other sections to make 5 to 10 day expeditions around many of the glacier fields that make up the park.

The Torres themselves are three huge granite columns that surround the smaller Torres glacier, and it's associated azure glacial pool. We got there around 12 after best part of four hours hiking, the final 40 mins up quite steep grades and across the rubble fields of numerous avalanches. Unfortunately the peaks of the Torres (literally, towers) themselves were shrouded in cloud, but nevertheless an awesome sight, like a cathedral of rock with the vertical strata lines the organ pipes. The way back down we were rewarded with sun and clear skies and some amazing views.

We benefited again from the general strike and road blocks - since Wednesday guests have been gradually  leaving the park as they complete their itineraries and manage to find a way out, but no new visitors are able to come in. Normally this hike would be boarding on crowded at this time of year, but instead we saw maybe a dozen other walkers over 7 hours. It would be so tempting to stay longer and make use of this rare opportunity to do a longer circuit, only we lack more serious hiking gear and also there's a chance the park will have to start closing down if petrol and food start runing low. And we have plenty more to do on our itinerary!

Some introspection on the first two weeks

Two weeks in - what we've learnt, or reminded ourselves of, so far (in no particular order).

* Ruta 40 should not be underestimated (we've got a few more days on this beauty coming up...)

* If in doubt, take more water.

* "Mañana". We're in Latin America, stuff will happen eventually and stressing about it doesn't help.

* We're here to experience the journey, not tick off a 'to-do list'. Taking an extra day to enjoy something now is better than rushing to meet a schedule.

* Don't forget to top up the suncream regularly. Having sunburnt/windblasted lips is not pleasant.

* The Patagonian landscape is truly amazing.  It makes New Zealand seem cramped.

* Around these parts, cycle tourists are positively waved through road blocks by protesters trying to distrupt tourism!!?!

* Rhea's are really odd,  and guanaco (llamas) are really, really stupid when it comes to traffic,  but still better than sheep.

* A cyclist cannot survive on carbs alone.  For cycling day after day, more protein is needed to aid recovery.

* Whilst it is windy in Patagonia, it's not normal for it to be gale force strong everyday, mearly strength draining strong.

* Cycle touring is fun! We knew this anyway, but we thought we'd confirm it in case you hadn't realised :-)

* Riding a fully loaded Dobbin is like sitting in your favorite armchair on a magic carpet. It is slightly less comfortable on ripio (gravel), but we don't seem to suffer as much as solo bikes.

* The measure of self sufficiency is having the ability to cover a distance in a longer time, not covering it as quickly as possible.

Saturday: got to Torres del paine

Another day where cycle tourists are king of the road, moving freely where others struggle to.

We left camp around 9 this morning, as our other cycling companions were organizing their breakfast. We wanted to make good time to get best chance of meeting up with our friend Jonathan who we met in new Zealand 2 years ago, and who is currently volunteering for the the park rangers.

We had fantastic warm start to the day, first time cycling in spd sandals and short sleave top this trip. After 1 hr the smooth road was replaced by ripio, but it was not awful and we got to the park entrance around 1pm. Like yesterday the roads were virtually empty, just a couple cars or vans today ferrying strandees towards the border. Given January is peak season you'd normally expect constant traffic, with large buses every few minutes, so we were truly lucky to have the road to ourselves.

As we neared the park a steady stream of folks hiking the other way, something like refugees, on the 90k slog to the border. Petrol must be running low within the park soon now too, and it seems there's still no end in sight to the protester blockades. In this situation, cycle tourists really do have a freedom to roam like no-one else. It's quite surreal, even unreal.

Tent pitched, we made use of the hot showers and then lit a camp fire near our tent using the free logs supplied at the site. Cooking over an open fire is great fun, even just boiling up water, and making an omelette! Relaxing by the fire next to a stream, with a mug of cheap Chilean red, we felt more like we're on holiday than anytime up to now!

Whilst waiting to meet up with Jonathan one of the camp attendants came by and let us know they had free food available, presumably for the benefit of those who'd be stuck here for days without means. Never one to pass a free dinner we hurried up there and found a couple picnic benches loaded with campers tucking into mash spud with chicken casserole. In amongst them were our 4 cycling companions from earlier, typical cyclists they'd arrived just a few minutes before and headed straight to the free food.

After a very agreeable second supper, Jonathan arrived and we sat around the roaring fire catching up on the last two years. Back in NZ we helped him survive his first multiday hike on the routeburn trail. Now, he's training to be a mountain guide!

map or route  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Friday: escape from Puerto natales

How a day can turn around: One moment we're in a town under siege, the next we're having best day cycling ever on smooth closed road through stunning scenery.

We had conservative expectations for the day, mainly just wanting to get out of town and out of Chile, so didn't hurry to get out first thing. Reading up on overnight developments on the web gave us even less optimism about the situation and so we resolved to just pass by the road block on the ruta 9 turning we'd seen the precious evening - which would have taken us to the Torres del Paine national park - and instead head straight to the nearest border.

As we approached, at around 11am, we were surprised to see no trace of the blockade. Curiosity got the better of us, so we decided to take a little look up that road, knowing there's another side turning a few k up that would take us back towards the border. It was very pleasant cycle along the side of the lake, then a short climb brought us towards this junction, and we could see vehicles all around. Another blockade.

As we got nearer we saw three policemen stood about chatting with an agricultural truck driver, presumably a protester. As we drew level we enquired "Cerro Castillo?" towards the officers one of whom nodded and pointed straight on, through the roadblock. The truck driver realized what we were asking and replied in surprisingly fluent English, yes we were most welcome, come on in!

So we carried straight on over the junction, passed the folks stood around there and squeezed on between the trucks blocking the road, and we were through, without even stepping off the bike! As we negotiated the blockage, several protesters smiled and waved and said "hola", I'm sure the tandem has a big part in this!

We carried on and then found ourselves on 65km of newly paved road to cerro Castillo, with not another vehicle the entire way. The wind was almost still, the sun warm and the road pleasantly rolling. It slowly climbs a glacial valley floor, with numerous lakes along the way and weaving amongst hills that gradually are replaced by mountains. On more than one climb we caught the strong scent of the purple lupins that are abundant along the way. A couple spots the road is bordered by barbed wire and minefield warnings, a hangover from the feared Argentine invasion of 1977. We'd read about these and it was one motivation to keep to the road and not attempt to pass any further blockades by off-road deviation.

At cerro Castillo we were the center of interest from a few groups of stranded tourists, attempting to get back over the border but thwarted by a few minibuses blocking the 20 meters from the mainroad to the border post, and didn't fancy the 14km hike to the Argentine border control beyond it. Several offers for our bike were made!

We popped in to the café and found it pleasantly well stocked so got a couple hot sandwiches, drinks and snacks. As we pondered our next move, east to the border or west into the park, we saw a group of cyclists coming in towards us. They stopped in the café and we established they were two Argentines and two Swiss that had adhoc joined up in El calafate for the ride down. They expected no trouble with blockades, I explained the warnings we received back at our hostel but Damian (an Argentine who's been cycling down from Alaska for last 3 years) was fairly skeptical of there being problems, stating they can't do proper protests down here, they should go to Buenos Aires to see how it's done!

So we setoff as an enlarged peleton of 6 on 5 machines, towards the park. It's useful traveling with others who've been to areas we plan to travel to, to get up to date info on roads and facilities and conditions. And of course for the company too. A few k on it was just pass 4 and they decided to stop for thr night at a river where there's some shelter. We wanted to press on further and did so for 10mins, climbing the next rise. This revealed a view out over 20k or more of exposed plains, with some heavy weather bearing down on it. We took stock, deciding whilst we could push through it we wouldn't make the park entrance before it closed, and we'd likely spend a good chunk of tomorrow on the final stretch in so we may as well make a day of it on the bikes and keep with our new found company. A quick descent and we were soon pitching our tent, and spent a pleasant evening chatting with Phil and Isabel, the Swiss couple, who are just in their first week of a tour that will be at least 6 months - they've not yet decided on how long!

map of route

Friday, January 14, 2011

Adios(?) Puerto natales

Through the day most shops timidly  reopened, so we've managed to restock on food and camping gas and even found a spare chain for Dobbin (at double UK prices...)

Late afternoon we passed a group of marooned tourists heading to the cabanarios (law enforcement police) station to hold their own protest. We played our Britishness card and ducked out of involvement in local politics. Later on we heard of another gathering, this time apparently to get an update. We went along to hear what was what, but ended up being marshalled in a group of maybe 300 strandees right a across town to a empty school (it's the middle of summer hols here) where a red-cross station had been hastily assembled. Understandably all they could offer was registration of everyone there and said they would undertake to contact us all back as and when transport routes out of the town reopen. I did notice the hardened backpacker element being rather disgruntled that there wasn't even any mattresses or hot food laid on. Guess we're not in that league yet!

Had a good meal and surprising good beer in a brewpub just around the square from our hostel and now preparing to attempt our escape tomorrow.

No one knows how long the siege will last though, could be days.

Our plan is to load up the bike and head to the northern blockade. We know pedestrians are passing through there fine, so hopefully we can too, and from there onto cerro Castillo. If not, we'll head east back up the hill to the border and try and cross back to Argentina that way and back onto our beloved ruta 40 more-or-less where we left it.

Now, either I missed it, or Rossetta Stone is sorely missing a module on negotiating one's way past a blockade of pitchfork wielding locals.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cycling through a hurricane?

Last night Emma pointed a page claiming that the wind was 122 km/h in Puerto Natales on Monday. Conveying that to British units via Beaufort scale - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia gives gale force 12, hurricane force.

No wonder it was no trifle of a day for a bike ride up on the moors.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The contradictions of Region XII

We've had a good wander around town and seen the extent of the "gas strike". Other than hostals, the only thing open is a pharmacy, a net café and of course  the petrol station (for reasons I will get to). All outdoor shops, grocers, launderettes, bike shops, restaurants and bars are closed. Which is a bummer when we'd hoped to spend the day cleaning clothes, stocking up on supplies, and generally renourishing ourselves.

The mode of protest involves groups of flag-waving vehicles patrolling the streets with horns blaring, and presumably enforcing the town-wide strike. Unfortunately the one guy in our place with good English is not in today either, so we've found what we can from the internet. 

And this is where it gets interesting. The issue is about the reduction in state subsidy for domestic fuel in the southern region, building on a general tension between south and main part of Chile with some vague tones of independence thrown in. But the specifics are a reduction in gas subsidy from 80% to 60%. To an outsider that sounds like from almost free to still a pretty good deal. The locals feel however that as the Magellan region has gas reserves, gas should be and continue to be virtually free here.

It's hard to imagine every single shop, travel agent, bank and even post office in town feels so very strongly on this, so you start to get the impression there is more purpose to the horn-blaring cars than just creating noise. And of course, they need petrol themselves to keep driving their 2 tonne pickups around the town all day.

And so on the face of it this is a town now entirely centered on a tourist industry that depends on the area of outstanding natural beauty to the north - Las Torres del Paines. But yet everyone of these bohemian / outdoorsy / organic eco establishments has its sign or bin liner up supporting the cause for free fuel, at least superficially. This is unlike any other outward bound tourist town I've seen that at least displays a veneer of wanting to attract the "green" dollar. Perhaps veneer is just it.

There's no doubt free fuel influences habits and infrastructure to a deep level. I'm sat writing this next to a fierce gas fire sat in the corridor of our hostal, under a skylight of thin corrugated plastic and thin wooden walls. In an town where almost everyone wears fleeces and gortex jackets just walking from closed shop to closed shop. It all seems so odd to us, coming straight from "frozen Britain" the temperature - around 13°C is pleasant, and we had to request both here and our hostal in Rio Gallegos that they not light the heater in our room - rather surprised they would be so keen to burn fuel for our minimalist room rate. (Presumably there's a similar subsidy over the border).

Hopefully shops will reopen tomorrow and we can restock and head on towards the park. Only the roads to the park are blockaded against buses and tourist traffic! Have to see what they make of a tandem.

Tuesday. Puerto natales ahoy!

Map of route

A slightly more relaxed morning saw us set off around 8. We had two hours of great riding, reasonable ripio nice terrain good scenery and NO WIND!! We saw several oxbow lakes with flamingos, several more gaggles of emus (which Emma has now identified as Rheas), many horses and sheep, and several as yet unidentified birds. We spun through 20 miles in good time, but then as we started to hit what must be foothills of the Andes we started to feel the aftereffects of all the effort battling the wind the previous day. As if to gloat the matter, it was around this time that the wind started to return for the day. So proceed the now familiar pattern of gradually diminishing progress, this time increased by a general lack of energy. It seemed the effects of 3 days on dehydrated carbs (and cheese), with no meat or veg, had taken its toll. But we would soon be half way through the remaining distance to our destination, which held the promise of shops selling food, which drew us on. Sporadic sections of tarmac lured us to believe of easy riding to come, but as we reached El turbio, just short of the border energy got so low we resorted to glucose tablets. We knew once we hit them our bodies wouldn't have much interest in burning anything else, so it was just going to have to be a case of rationing them to see us through. There was a small climb up to the boarding crossing, and with the formalities down to leave Argentina and then enter Chile (after 3k of no man's land) we were in a new country! The Argentine guard had kindly refilled our bottles so with that to aid us we just had to battle our way down the Chilean paved road to reach the town. It's quite something when a fully loaded Dobbin cannot just freewheel down smooth road but we did find a couple descents with sufficient grade to allow us to gather some momentum. Then it's just a case of holding on tight as the wind does all it can to redirect you! Momentum greatly helps you here though. In Puerto Natales we headed to the Patagonian Adventure hostel we'd eyed up that morning, and an extremely friendly guy happily found us a double room for two nights, rearranging other bookings to enable this, and a room for Dobbin too. The showers are hot and the wifi is fast, so we're pretty happy to chill out here for a day, to restock and recover before our next adventure! Just as well, as it looks like we may be here a couple days as a regional strike has cranked up and the road north is apparently blockaded. Ah well, there are definitely worse places to be stranded!

Monday: El viento gets angry

Map of route (incomplete)

We stirred before sunrise and got on the road at 7, hoping to make best use of the still before the wind got up again. Unfortunately the wind had similar plans, and before we'd gone 10 km it had become so strong we had to dismount and push the bike to get over the bridge at El Zurdo, virtually on the Chilean border. We managed to get going again and made slow and fitful progress until the road turned northwest and made it 60% sidewind (remainder from ahead of course) at which point it became impossible to keep the bike heading forward. The loose gravel meant the slightest turn would send the front wheel skipping to the edge of the road, the front panniers acting as a sail. Attempts to 'tack' up the road were thwarted by it being impossible to 'bring her around' on such loose ground. One time it even spun us a full 180 and we suddenly found ourselves gathering speed in the wrong direction! The thought did occur that we could be back in Rio Gallegos, undoing 2 day's work, in just a few hours. At least we'd be able to get some fresh food there! But DNF is not an option.

Eventually I found the only way to get any control with the sidewind was to hold an unmaitainably high speed, so we took to having bursts of effort followed by recovery stops. By now it was so hard to stand that recovery was also hard work, and the wind chill became serious even though the sun was strong. This routine sonn became stints of pushing the bike from one refuge to the next - we discovered that all along this stretch of road there were half completed concrete drain culverts around a meter wide and high, that you could crawl down inside and hopefully get some shelter if neither end happened to be funneling the wind. Occasionally, on larger ones, the opening itself would make a good barrier and then you could sit in the sun almost oblivious to the gale above you save for the occasional whipped up sand blast. We joked that this - sitting in a half abandoned construction site next to a mud pit with discarded building material all around - was as close as we'd ever get to a beach holiday!

The sitting to walking ratio grew, and by 3pm we were spending an hour or more at a time just sheltering. We cooked up a couple tasty meals and started to consider plans. If the storm blew itself out we could set off again anytime in the evening as it's light until gone 11pm and even then it's just twilight never truly dark. Or if the wind persisted, perhaps we could board up one end of a culvert and bed down there. If it started to rain heavily too? Well, lets just hope it wouldn't.

We had a lot of time for observations, and one that occurred to me was that not only was this a tough road through tough country, but these were tough people too. Did the land select the people, or shape them? As an illustration at most stops we left the bike by the road as we sheltered out of view. In the UK, an abandoned bike by the road will generally very quickly cause a passing vehicle stop and come looking to check there's no injured rider in the hedgerow, hence the reason Randonneurs always hide their machine when kipping in a field! However out here, when a vehicle did pass (around once an hour) it would speed right past, maybe with a short toot. Most were large pickups; had any stopped to offer a ride we'd have gratefully accepted. Due to the wind you never heard them approach until they'd passed, so if it came to it we'd have to stand out on the exposed road and flag one down!

Around 6.30 we the wind had become more gusty: less relentless but just as strong. We decided to have another go for it, and discovered it was just about possible to cycle. We progressed for 90 mins covering about 7 miles, slowly climbing up to higher moor land. In the distance we had seen a radio mast which normally delineates the high point. As we got nearer it became evident the support building next to it was larger than first thought. Maybe a house! No, maybe a hotel! Which did indeed turn out to be the case, but abandoned several years prior. A door was openable, revealing evidence of previous temporary occupants and a deeply musty disused hotel smell. However there were trees and out buildings around the outside making an ideal spot to put the tent in some shelter. Then we noticed more buildings a few hundred meters down the road and so decided to look there before selecting our camp. The road fell about 100 meters and suddenly we were in amongst stumpy trees, green vegetation and a large river! The sudden contrast to high moorland was vivid. We hurried to refill the water bag, and noticed and fairly sheltered spot in some trees right by the river next to remains of a fishman's campfire. Soon the tent was pitched and we treated ourselves to a pasta meal (as there was an abundant water supply) and sat eating by the river under a beautiful sunset. Unbelievable to think just a few hours earlier we'd been looking at sleeping in a drain!

Sunday. Ruta 40 gets nasty.

Map of route

The wind dropped right down by midnight. It's amazing how suddenly not only could you then hear wildlife, distant birdcalls and unknown critters grubbing around our camp cooksite, but also there are smells that you otherwise cannot sense. There seems to be some plant that gives a strong sweet smell, not entirely dissimilar to that which wafts out of many a house in brixton, but a little more woody in nature.

We rose at 7, an hour after sunrise, ate the last of the bread for breakfast and struck camp. From here on it's dried foods only, unless beyond all hope we do discover a shop on the way.

With the wind gone we made better progress, getting through the 25km to Bella vista in a something over wn hour.

Along the way we managed to fill all water bottles and a 4L water sack, first stopping at a tiny stream with just a trickle of movement, and then the more substantial Rio Gallegos Chico river. The filter plus micropure tablets work a treat, and the water tastes better than tap water back in B-A.

Shortly after we got our first taste of the trials to come: we'd hit the head of the road improvement works, and were diverted onto temporary surfaces and eventually the original ripio road. This is tough enough, but then around midday the wind started to get serious once more, and strengthen throughout the rest of the day. I've not travelled for 20 mile stretches entirely in the granny gear before, having to keep pedalling to keep moving down as well as up hill. Sometimes a corner means the wind would switch from block headwind to slight side. This is probably worse, as it catches the front panniers making steering more difficult, and also reduces the small aerodynamic advantage you can get on a tandem. All this constant effort is not only energy sapping, but also means limbs and contact points get no rest. Coupled with uneven surface it means regular stops to drink and recover are required further slowing progress. This 200 km connection is now looking like a four day epic!

As we crawled along there's plenty of opportunity to observe the surroundings (or at least, between dodging rocks!). For the most part, this is barren scrubland burnt bear by the arid wind. Emma likens it to Dartmoor but bigger and drier. I'd add winder too.

Occasionally we saw solo of families of flightless birds. The babies are the size of chickens, the adults almost as large as human. We've not yet worked out.what they are, so for now we're calling them emus.

As the day progressed slowly the horizon changed, we worked around some low hills then onto higher moor, and now we have a view to the southern Andes. At last something significant to look at and gauge one's progress toward, and the first destination on our itinerary to boot.

By 3pm we were cold and tired from a small but cold and heavy shower, and had reaffirmed that chocolate is no substitute for a proper lunch. Out of bread, we stopped in a shelter of an old gravel pit and Emma cooked up some quick stock and polenta. Magic! We then had a few hours of contented pedalling but by 5.30 the intense wind had worn us out once more, so we started looking for the best shelter we could find for camping once more. This is of course our second full day cycling after best part of a month of due to the early UK winter, and Christmas. And it's a big jump for the body to go from midwinter fat building to midsummer fat burning mode, and we're both feeling the effects of this now. Maybe we'll get some easy miles later to ease ourselves in a bit more, but not for the next few days!

Saturday. Dobbin hits the road

We got Dobbin and got cycling, and got a taste of the infamous ruta 40

Map of route 

Having been told dobbin would not arrive until midday, and being skeptical about even that given he was already 2 days late, we took a relatively lazy morning. We enjoyed our 10 peso breakfast of bread and a hot drink, and checked out at 10 on the dot. Being three blocks to the cargo depot we hefted the bags around there and just as we approached Emma exclaimed "Dobbin!". I assumed at first she was optimisticly calling in case he was nearby, but no she had indeed spotted him sat outside the depot. Evidently too large or troublesome to have been carried inside at that point. We ran up, saw he was looking very well indeed, and ran in to do paperwork. Funnily enough the staff knew exactly what we were there for, and made some humorous comments including something about azul. I said "Si, la bicicaleta azul!" But it turned out they were implying the blue sack truck sat beside him. We had a laugh about that and I reaffirmed it was very definitely that blue bici I was collecting.

Despite him arriving in fine condition it still took over an hour to get him road ready, removing all the wrap and pipe lagging and getting everything straight, plus improvising a replacement for the missing mudguard bolt with a cable tie (...what else!)

We were keen to hit the road, so around midday we rolled out of town and onto ruta 3, dual carriageway for the first 20 km. In retrospect, we weren't fully prepared for the day ahead, but it was all fairly easy going to start with so we didn't think much of it. Past the town airport, we turned to face due east and got a taster of what was to come: solid headwind, slowing us so we'd feel happy if we held 10 mph. Couple hours later, after our first police checkpoint (what exactly do they do with these stacks of ID card numbers collected every minute?) we reached the turning for the fabled ruta 40 road. This was the very southern end of this 'back road' route the stretches almost the whole length of the country along the western (Andes) side. It's far less inhabited, as well as far lower grade, than the eastern highway we'd come down on the bus the days previous.  This was little concern to us though, as we were only to follow it for the first 200k or so, taking us across the country from Atlantic almost to the Pacific and leaving before the real distance started. We had to negotiate a slightly peculiar road block to join it, but then were delighted to find good quality newly laid tarmac, not the ripio (gravel) we'd read so much about.

As the afternoon progressed the wind got stronger and stronger. 10 mph was now a distant memory; we were pleased to hit 7. Around this point the reality started to dawn: this was not going to be the gradual build up to the ambitious cycling we have planned for later in the tour, this already was the main event. Furthermore, as afternoon turned to evening we came to understand the 'towns' sparsely dotted on our map are not necessarily even hamlets, but perhaps just a remote farmstead or abandoned buildings. This has big implications for our ability to pickup food, and more importantly water, as we progress. Still, at least we were well prepared with our expedition grade water filter and treatment tablets. Only, a water filter is not much use without water: the quite manageable 25 miles or so between rivers on our map is a serious undertaking when you're traveling at around 5mph. We already past the first river by the time we realized all this, and it turned out that was to be the only one we'd see that day.

We got pretty tired out by 6pm, especially me due to the extra effort needed for the steersman in windy weather, and only had one water bottle remaining so decided to camp down for the night and see if we could fair better in the morning. Finding a good spot to wildcamp is hard anytime, but ruta 40 passes through some of the most barren landscape: no hills (hence so much ground level wind), no plants (as nothing can grow beyond a foot high in this wind, and again meaning there's no shelter) so the best you can hope for is a mud mound left beside the road after the recent upgrade works. We eventually found one that gave some shelter from the wind, but left us more in view from the road than ideal but it would have to do. Then there was the small matter of dealing with the tufts of dry grass, that turned out to be surprisingly spiky - not what you want piercing your Therm-a-rest - but eventually we had a tent up. Some quick polenta and tomato sauce and we were done. Slept fine through the wind even with 2 hours of sunlight remaining.

It had been a tough day, but at least the road surface was good and maybe we'd get to Puerto natales in 3 days rather than the 2 originally hoped.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wed eve - Friday : Into the unknown

We arrived at the bus station with plenty of time spare, so sat in the station cafe with some beer. At twenty to eight our bus still wasn't on the electronic displays, but we moved over to the waiting area by the platforms. At two minutes to 8 I heard a tannoy for the bus, and Joth spotted it pulling into a platform. We joined the back of the queue to deposit our luggage, and went to find our seats. We didn't manage to get seats next to each other when we booked, but for the first part of the journey there were two unused seats together so we used them despite the bus being fairly full. Most people on the bus were only traveling for a few stops, and as soon as people got off, another person would join and take the seat. Fortunately we managed to either find spare seats, or swap seats with someone else to enable us to sit together for the majority of the journey minimizing the number of strangers we had to sleep up against! We had read conflicting advice regarding food availability during the journey, so took some sandwiches with us - luckily as it turned out! We got a biscuit and hot drink facilities in the morning, but that was all. We took it in turns to run into a bus station when stopped, so managed to buy more snacks enroute. The general feeling of the journey was that it was a bit like being stuck in suspended animation. During the day at least half the busses occupants seemed to be asleep, and at night, virtually everyone was. Other than watching the occasion film (english subtitles if we were lucky!) and watching the endless pampas out of the window, there really wasn't anything else to do. The time seemed to pass remarkably quickly though. Long bus journeys must be a good source of time for the history monks (Editor : Terry Prattchet reference) . One of our reasons for taking the bus rather than flying was to take a good look at the terrain. Our first few days of cycling are over the southern end of the pampas. The most concerning aspect of the terrain was the lack of shelter and water sources. Rivers and streams were very far apart. Being summer I guess many of the smaller streams had dried up. It was also interesting seeing the animal and bird life we would be seeing more of on our travels.

The other useful thing we had the chance to observe from the bus was the protocol for the police checkpoints which we came across periodically. Generally it was just a passport check, although they were also doing some searches. At Trelaw we had to swap buses, which resulted in a humorous moment when all the locals disembarked leaving a bus of backpackers. The guy with the best Spanish was fairly sure there was no change, but eventually we put together the announcement and ran off to retrieve luggage to ensure it made it to the next bus. We arrived into Rio Gallegos around midday (approximately 1 1/2hrs late, not bad really). After a few taxi journeys and some carrying of panniers, we determined that Dobbin hadn't arrived at the cargo depot, but may arrive mid afternoon, and that the campsite office was closed until 3pm. We booked into a cheap hotel instead and took much needed showers. After food shopping and determining that Dobbin hadn't arrived on the afternoon van, we grabbed a steak sandwich snack (nom!) and went back to the hotel to repack the bags into cycling configuration and have a quick snooze before going out for some more food. At least, that was the plan. I don't think we realised how tired we were though, as when we briefly awoke it was already time to sleep. In all we had a solid 13 hour kip - who would have thought 40 hours dozing on a bus would be so tiring!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Thoughts from Buenos Aires

We arrived late into B-A and outside an airport, one city looks pretty much like any other (although I'm pretty certain it wasn't Gatwick, the traffic was far too civilized).

We'd booked a decent hotel for a couple of nights as a stress free way to getting our bearings in the country. It's always good to know that there is a decent shower waiting for you when you climb off a long haul flight too. On our cycle to the hotel from the airport we passed one of B-As more 'interesting' areas. The following morning, from the breakfast room on the 22nd floor, we could see the shanty town we'd passed. The rich overlooking the poor. There is some desperate poverty in this place.

I'm beginning to think that S. America is a great place to cycle. Certainly the food, in particular the cakes /puddings are excellent. We had some mighty fine chocolate puddings in the airport at Rio, and the cakes, puddings and sweet pastries in B-A have been divine!  The food in the cafes and restaurants has been good here, and I can see how the city has gained it's reputation for good food. The beer range only seems to include lager though. I guess you can't have everything.

The architecture of B-A is mainly European. Built by nations trying to keep the country 'on side'. It includes a clock tower donated by the British, which  surprisingly, sits across the road from the Argentine memorial to the Falkland's war. There is still a great deal of feeling about the islands, and as well as the guards standing at the memorial,  there are banners and graffiti around the city expressing their opinion on the sovereignty of the islands. Most of the business sector of the city could be anywhere in the world though,  especially the high rise office blocks, and the recently redeveloped port area.

The tango is definitely something which belongs here though. The pedestrianised streets in the center are full of people advertising tango shows, people dancing the tango and even a man who appeared to be dancing with a ventriloquists dummy!

The Recoleta Cemetery is another thing that you'd struggle to find in the UK. It contains a huge variety of grave architecture styles and in all states of repair. For the tombs of notable citizens,  as well as space for family on monuments, additional space seems to be left for friends to show they remember you in later years. A fine sentiment, but I do find it a bit odd when the building you're attaching your plaque to is in mid collapse. The cemetery was originally the orchard for the monestry on the site. The monestrys church still stands, against the cemetery wall. The two floors above the church were used as monks cells and storage area. They now hold an interesting collection of religious art. It also has a number of windows which still have alabaster in place of glass. It does let the light in, but the view through them isn't great!

Lasting memory is that B-A is a good place to visit, and a great place to eat.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dobbin updates!

To all well-wishers: Dobbin survived the flight uninjured, and he is now packed off on the next leg of his voyage!

Been rather hectic for the last couple days, so just got the chance to make an update. Monday evening, after a very long 10 hours in Rio airport (just one snack bar selling reheated pizza to pass the time; BAA would be aghast at the wasted retail opportunity!) we took off half an hour late, and finally landed in Buenos Aires after 10pm. Being the "Domestic" airport, the international arrivals area left London City looking like a major transport hub, so it took another hour to get through immigration, and finally got to the baggage area...

And there, waiting right by the enterance, was a large Dobbin-shaped pile of torn CTC flight bag and "fragile" tape! We dug through it and hiding under it, just a little nervous, was the good steed himself, completely fit except one lost mudguard stay pinch bolt. Shortly after we had all the other hold-lugage collected, and went through customs to a few of the ususal surprised looks.

The logistics of getting to the hotel (less than 5 miles away) proved more challenging than the transaltantic flight. The domestic side of the airport was heaving, and elbowing in amongst the locals to attempt to book an over-sized taxi cab in broken Spanish was rather in at the deep end. After a long wait (in which time I confirmed at the LAN desk that they will not fly our out-sized family down to patagonia) the cab arrived only for the driver to take one look at the poor double-bike and ran a mile. So there was nothing for it to empty out the luggage and rebuild him from flight into cycle format, to ride the short distance to the hotel. Dobbin took it all in his stride though, and the moment we jumped on and pulled out of the airport (onto some 5-lane wide highway...!) we felt in our element.

The hotel were equally bemused/confused/enchanted when we turned up. Despite being a 1000 room establishment they failed to have any spot indoors for any guest bike (the first time we've failed to manage this) so we settled for a quiet corner of the underground car park to lock him up, under the watch of a security camera).

First thing yesterday we headed across the road to the main bus station, to inquire at the cargo depot about shipping him down to the south end of the country. Suffice to say, much Spanglish and handwaving ensued, along with a few more humorous (but friendly) smiles, and eventually Dobbin was in the hands of the packing staff, having half a roll of shrink-wrap applied, before being carried out of sight to the warehouse for shipping. We have a receipt for collecting him from the 6th at our destination. In our favour, we did see another customer check in a motorbike for shipping, which gave confidence as to their capability, and also helped us choose amongst the many companies there.

So this just left the small matter of shipping ourselves south! We'd already checked and flights are now all booked until the weekend, so there was nothing for it to go back up to the main bus depot and book ourselves in for a long-haul coach ride down the length of the country. All 2000 miles of it. Lands end to John O'Groats, and back again. Best part of 40 hours on a bus!

So we now have the day to look around B-A some more (sight-seeing details will follow in our next installment!), and will check-in at 8pm this evening for a night-and-a-day-and-a-night on board El Pinguino omnibus. Surely it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The end is in sight for the "outward" leg of our journey. Once in Patagonia, we will load up and start the cycling for real. We're now really looking forward to the freedom and control of one's own destiny which that brings.

(Editor's note: for some reason Blogger's spell checker seems broken and will only spell check in Spanish on this computer despite me being logged into a distinctly English looking Blogger site. Coupled with a crazy keyboard, it's hard to compose content. Please excuse any gratuitous typos!)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Boarding at gate X

Checking in a tandem for flying is always a heart in your throat kind of experience. If you think your plumber does a good line in incredulous stare, head shaking and saying it can't be done, you should try this. Or not.

First guy patrolling the checkin line declared it not possible, then stated it must surely fold?, and finally settled for they could do it, but it'll cost ya (£40). The guy at the desk itself didn't blink whilst taking our three hold pieces and handing us the forth bag slip to do as we wished with.

So that just left the nice chap at the oversized bag desk. After a look of horror, then asking us fruitlessly if the airline handler would be waiting for it airside, and declaring he couldn't swab it as that involves all manner of paperwork, he suddenly realized it would fit down the chute just fine. So we bagged Dobbin up in his CTC polythene bag (a perfect fit), and within minutes he was bouncing down a conveyor out of sight. All done in half an hour; that's bit of a record.

With luck, we'll see him next in B-A in about 30 hours.

With luck. Definitely worth saying that twice.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bag packing

24 hours until we fly, we’ve almost got the bags packed.

We’ve gone on plenty of 10 day cycle tours, and for the main part packing for 3 months is not as different as you might think, as either way we can only carry a couple days worth of clothing which get washed as we go along. This time, we’re preparing for a wider range of conditions which does add a bit to the packing list: from desert heat to below freezing overnight on the high Andes passes, from the Patagonian wind to tropical rain-forest rain.

Perhaps the biggest unknown though is preparing for a continent neither of us has travelled in before. For example, I was grateful to receive a small world-band radio hoping to pickup a bit of “This is the BBC...” world service on shortwave, but only the other day I found out BBC have ceased South American broadcasts.
Another example is working out what sort of camping gas canisters will be available along the way. We have an Omnifuel stove which can take unleaded petrol or even diesel, but it’s much easier and quicker to use gas with it when available. Things is, there’s at least 3 different connections and different ones can be prevalent in different areas. We do have adapters but they’re very bulky should they not be needed, so we’ll go without them and use petrol if needed. Anyway at least this article suggests MSR gas should be available. 

So, over the last few months, and in particular the last couple days, we have iterated our packing list to the point we’re happy with it. Of course, travelling by tandem means we only have one bike’s worth of pannier carrying space, so it’s a fairly fine tuned list. Will be interesting to see how it compares to what we carry by the end of the trip.

Final task for tomorrow will be to wrap up Dobbin (our touring tandem) for flying, and do a quick final check of those bags.