March 2016 archive

Barrancas – Bariloche: thirsty work

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

After leaving Barrancas we followed the Ruta 40 through seemingly endless rocky wilderness. We climbed the switchbacks up the mountains bordering each valley, to descend rapidly into the next 10 mile expanse before repeating again and again.

Eagles soared overhead, as did the vultures. Armadillos and tarantulas broke up the silent stillness.

Rocks everywhere. Volcanic. Igneous. Massive. Rocks like honeycomb. Rocks like chocolate mousse. Rocks like pistachios. Food must have been on my mind. Sophie and I kept repeating the same conversations about what we wanted to eat.

But it was the water that caught us out. Studying the maps, we saw rivers running under the road every few miles. We’d topped up five two litre bottles for a three day stretch, figuring it would be plenty for washing, cooking and eating, what with the river water everywhere. But being the end of the summer, the rivers had of course all dried up. By the end of the first day we’d realised our mistake and subsequently rationed carefully. But by the second day our mouths were sandpaper dry and our morale had dipped.

We never want to be in that position again!

On arrival in Zapala, we quenched our desert thirsts and vowed to err on the side of caution in the future. We topped up over 24 litres for the next three day stretch of wild camping, weighing our bikes down heavily, but keeping us happy that water would no longer be an issue for us.

On the journey southwards to Junin de los Andes we experienced the strongest winds we’d come across – the famous Patagonian winds that can cripple entire days for bikepackers. It was a fight to keep pedalling.

It had been a debate of ours for a couple of weeks whether to follow the Ruta 40 all the way to its start in the south, or whether to avoid the winds that would surely hit us on the 40 and cut instead to Chile, to take the apparently stunning Carretera Austral. The 40 would be paved nearly the whole way and would take us through endless wild grassy steppe and past the Cueva de las Manos. The Carretera Austral would have a tougher riding surface as nearly the entire road is rough gravel, but the scenery is said to be more interesting and we wouldn’t get battered by so much wind.

After experiencing a touch of how tough the winds can be, the conclusion was a no-brainer. We’ll cut into Chile and head to Villa O’Higgins – the southerly point on the Carretera Austral. The plan is to then take a couple of small ferries to land near El Chaltén in Argentina, where we’ll push the bikes for 12 miles along a footpath before re-joining the road for the final push south.

We’re in Bariloche now after cycling through the stunning ‘Road of the Seven Lakes’ and super excited to be heading down the Carretera Austral. We’ve heard it’s one of the most incredible roads in the world, with dramatic wild scenery – mountains, glaciers, lakes, fjords, forests, the Pacific – at every turn. Heading south into the autumn may be ‘un poco loco’ (most bikepackers tend to start in the south in the summer and work their way northwards – far more pleasant weather), but we’re prepared for biting cold and like the idea of doing things a little differently.

We’re unsure how much WiFi we’ll be able to get for the next couple of months as we wind our way down the empty road, but soon as we do, we’ll be sure to post updates.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

 

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

dry riverbed

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

arid desert

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

skull in the desert

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

small shrine

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

switchbacks

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

frosty morning

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

on a cold morning

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

sunset over lake

 

Into Patagonia

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

Leaving the plains surrounding Malargüe, the road passed paleolithic sites where fossils from the extinct giant sloth have been discovered. It curled around to the right as bronze mountains loom ever larger to our left. We dropped to the lowest gear to climb brutal switchbacks right up the side of the mountains, sweating and grunting as the gigantic surroundings chewed us up. We reached the top and descend for miles, as though we were being swallowed deep inside Patagonia’s ancient belly.

A silver river – the Rio Grande – snaked slowly through the valley. The road followed the river’s course for a few miles, surrounded on all sides by mountains, each in misty layers of blues and greys. A wicked western wind, biting and pristine clean, whipped against the bikes and wobbled us whenever we stopped concentrating.

We were in Patagonia alright.

The next town, Barrancas, was 50 miles away and we had heard that this stretch would be a real challenge, with rough gravel replacing tarmac and constant hills to test the legs. We had ensured we were well stocked with enough food and water to last the three days expected to reach town.

A storm was brewing on the evening of the first day and we settled on finding a sandy patch of ground just off the road to pitch camp, high above the river. We didn’t want to take any chances with flash flooding as fork lightning began to cut across the sky.

That night was a mess. Our tent has a snapped pole right on a join where it’s tricky to fix. The break means the structural integrity of the whole tent has been damaged. The wind that night got so powerful that the damn thing collapsed into itself, leaving a gap under the fly sheet wide enough to allow sand to blow up right through the lining, caking ourselves and our sleeping bags with a fine grey dust.

Needless to say, sleep didn’t come quickly.

Morning brought calm and a glorious view out across the river. We took some photos, drank some mate and shared some jokes to boost morale.

For the next two days we dug deep, dealing with the trying conditions and enjoying the incredible scenery only when we could relax enough to do so.

The challenge took its toll, and emotions did get high. When Sophie saw the slippery stony road give way to smooth tarmac, she couldn’t hold back the tears. “I just want to be on the tarmac”, she had said, feeling salvation close by.

Arriving at tiny mountain town of Barrancas, we gorged on biscuits and milk and fizzy drinks – the food we had been craving through the tough days. We took a rest day and sorted a few niggles that our kit had picked up.

The road we are taking should be paved now for at least the next couple of hundred miles. But we feel we’ve earned our stripes and are becoming hardened to the challenges of this wild part of the world.

We plan to be on the famous Route 40, or ‘La Quarenta’ as it’s affectionately known here, right the way to its start. The road runs the length of Argentina – 3,200 miles that cuts through high altitude desert, lush forest and dusty steppe, with the Andes always close on the western side. As we journey down towards Antarctica, it will get increasingly windy and, eventually, snowy.

Whatever the coming weeks throws at us, we’re confident we can push on through, following the Quarenta to Tierra del Fuego and beyond, forever south.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

 

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

riding-Patagonia

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

a river runs through it

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

courtesy of Sophie Abreu

Taking the scenic route

There are two roads from Salto de las Rosas, slightly south of San Rafael, that take you to the town of Malargüe on the Ruta 40. The direct route takes you along relatively flat land, firstly toward the Andes and then due South. The second is the scenic route; an extra 30 miles that carves firstly through numerous vineyards with their bodegas and free wine tasting, before cutting down inside the Cañón del Atuel, following the river along, and then up again to the plains above.

If we’re cycling all this way, we aim to see scenery. The scenic route it is!

The first of our three day ride through the canyon was slow going. There’s a certain bush in this part of the world that releases needle sharp thorns a couple of months each year. They’re difficult to spot when riding and pierce straight through the tyres. Between us we picked up eight punctures that day. We found a campsite tucked into the trees by the fast-flowing blue waters of the Río Atuel, fixed up the bikes and settled in for the night.

what a spot to pitch the tent!

what a spot to pitch the tent!

The next morning we got up and out early, hoping to give ourselves time to find shade from the hottest part of the day. The road continued along the river, heading down to the bottom of the canyon, then past the touristy campsites and small businesses offering white water rafting and rappelling, then on through the town of Valle Grande.

Out the other side of town, the road crosses a small bridge over the river before taking a steep turn upward. It was our first taste of real tough riding together as the tarmac snaked back and forth, winding up and away from the first of four hydroelectric dams.

I kept telling Soph that the worst part is over, that it would flatten out and get easier. No such luck. We reached the end of the tarmac and hit the stony track that would be our road for the next two days.

By mid-afternoon our water was dangerously low and we knew there was no chance of us getting out of the canyon that night. The situation was starting to get concerning. The river was now far below us and there were no buildings where we could top up the water. Push on. Make as much ground as we can, drink sparingly and resign ourselves to a cold dinner of dry fruit. The only option until we get more water.

twilight in the canyon

twilight in the canyon

A couple of hours more and then the road crossed a dry river bed. Tucked away by the road we see a small spring with water spouting freely. Relief! We fill the bottles and push on to find a suitable space to camp. We learned the importance of always taking your opportunities when you’re handed them.

Camping that night was the most restful night I’ve ever had in a tent. No artificial light and total silence. Not even the sound of crickets. Just us and thousands of stars of the Milky Way spread out above us.

The final day in the canyon we reached the river again, where we could clean ourselves, cool off and top up more water.

cooling off

cooling off

And then to a small free campsite in El Nihuel after making it through. There are tonnes of these free campsites in Argentina, all with grills and plug sockets. It sure makes things easier and cheaper for us.

Now we’re on the Ruta 40, the road we’ll follow for the next 2,000 miles to Tierra del Fuego in the far South, through Patagonia and into the cold.

We’re ready!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

Sensible decisions

There was an afternoon when we were faced with a dilemma: we were at the entrance to a tiny village, with only 10 miles to the closest town that promised food and a higher chance of finding a decent place to pitch camp for the night. Reaching the town would make the following day easier, with less of a distance to ride. But there were storm clouds gathering. Should we risk the weather and push on for the next hour, or stay in the tiny village of Fortuna where there didn’t seem to be any shops?

storm clouds gather in Fortuna

storm clouds gather in Fortuna

We settled on staying in Fortuna. Right choice. Not only did we escape what turned out to be a deluge that Noah would have thought impressive, we were taken in by Gladys: a kind-hearted grandmother figure who fed us chicken and gave us a bed for the night.

Making sensible decisions is always the right choice.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

Overcoming challenges

It’s been over three weeks since I last posted and Soph and I have adapted to being on the road together. We’ve overcome a few challenges and found a steady rhythm that works for us: not too fast, ensuring we get plenty of rest and time to enjoy the places we stop at.

The environment has changed plenty in three weeks. We’ve gone from the flatlands of the Buenos Aires and La Pampa provinces to the edge of the Andes. The temperature has cooled from uncomfortable baking heat to a far more pleasant warmth and, as we’ve climbed out from the wet ground of the low-lying areas, the number of mosquitoes has nosedived.

floods in La Pampa

floods in La Pampa

The mosquitos had been a total nightmare for Soph. Maybe her blood is sweeter than mine, I’m not sure, but they went wild for her. No respite for days on end, they swarmed around her even when cycling, causing nasty swollen blotches all down her legs and back. We lay in the tent at night, watching the bastards queue up on the netting, waiting for us to leave the tent so they could eat us. With her red blotchy face and road fatigue, it’s a wonder she decided to keep on keeping on instead of packing it all in.

She’s also done well to overcome her crippling arachnophobia. The sight of the smallest spider used to make her shriek. Valentine’s Day was an experience, camped next to a rusting oil tanker by the side of the road, covered in sweat and grime, with the mosquitoes swarming and the spiders hanging around on the outside of the tent. It was sink or swim for her that night. I think, looking back, that was the start of her dealing with her fear of spiders. We both know they’re going to get larger and meaner as the trip goes on.

Soph at the border of La Pampa

Soph at the border of La Pampa

Another challenge had been the oppressive lack of shade. In La Pampa and San Luis especially, the long empty roads offered no shelter from the powerful sun. Never a tree or a bus stop. Just the sun, the road, and the miles we had to ride. When making lunch on the roadside one time, a cop pulled over just to make sure we were ok. Reassuring. We’re both glad the temperature has dropped as we head into autumn.

And we’ve overcome the challenge of learning how to be on the road with each other. It was never going to be easy, spending 24 hours a day together in relatively trying circumstances. We had our teething problems but we’ve settled down and found a balance.

I can remember the night when there was a shift from me taking control of everything, and generally being a bit of a domineering ass to us working smoothly with trust: we had arrived in the small town of Rancul after a long day riding. We found a free campsite with electricity sockets and a swimming pool. ‘Perfect!’ I thought. ‘This is ideal. Let’s pitch up here, take a swim and chill for the night’. Soph was unsure. I got a little frustrated when she said she wasn’t so happy with the place, feeling that perhaps she was being too picky. Why, after all, should we leave just because she had ‘a feeling’. But her feeling was totally vindicated when she heard two boys talking about how they could steal our bikes, and when a young man approached us asking if we had any dollars on us. If we stayed the night there, I have no doubt that we would have been robbed. ‘Feelings’ may be intangible and irrational, but instinct can be a powerful leader.

I learned to let go and allow Soph to take control of certain situations. We have different skillsets, which complement each other nicely. Through overcoming situations and learning how to work effectively together, we’ve become a strong team. Long may it continue!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)