May 2016 archive

A roadtrip through Southern Patagonia

The distances are huge. We aimed to drive further down the Carretera Austral to take in the scenery before cutting over to Argentina for the Cueva de las Manos, Fitz Roy and Ushuaia. To make them all before heading north to Puerto Natales, we would be covering more than 2,000 miles.

We had the truck for six days – Sunday afternoon until Saturday afternoon.

Sunday 24th: The Carretera Austral lived up to its reputation as being one of the world’s most beautiful roads. It zigzags up and down through dramatic mountain landscapes, skirting fjords, rivers and the Pacific. We pulled up in a lay-by to watch the pink sunset over misty lakes before settling down for the night in the truck.

Monday 25th: We followed the road to the east to cross the pass into Argentina at Chile Chico. Passing the cabins for excursions out to the lakes for fishing and kayaking, I knew one day I wanted to return.

An hour detour off the Ruta 40 took us to the Cueva de las Manos – a site of 1archaeological importance. Situated in a canyon, the cave shows hundreds of beautifully preserved examples of cave painting from as long as ten thousand years ago. The cave is named after the many hands that have been painted on the walls: negative prints made by blowing paint mixed with a fixative through a straw onto the rock. There were also scenes depicting the hunting of guanacos. We could look out across the canyon landscape and really imagine seeing prehistoric man chasing the herds with their weapons of rope and spear.

Cueva de las Manos

Cueva de las Manos

Our aim was to reach El Chaltén before sleeping, giving us the next day to enjoy hiking around Fitz Roy in the Los Glaciares national park. We stopped at Tres Lagos, a few miles east of the park, as we knew there would be a petrol station where we could fill up in the morning.

guanaco roadkill

guanaco roadkill

Tuesday 26th: The petrol station couldn’t accept card and we had no cash, so we had no choice but to make the 300 mile round-trip to El Calafate to find a cash machine. As I say, the distances are huge.

We arrived at El Chalten in the early afternoon and were lucky enough to accidentally park right by the start of a trail that would take us to a glacial lake looking out onto the famous Torres del Paine mountains. We couldn’t have timed it better, reaching the lake shortly before the sun dipped below the line of the mountains, causing the different lights of the evening sun to twinkle and sparkle across the lake.

Approaching Fitz Roy

Approaching Fitz Roy

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine

After the 10 mile hike we got back in the truck and headed down to Rio Gallegos where we slept by the side of the road close to a military base.

Wednesday 27th: On the map, Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia doesn’t look far: both are on the toe of Argentina. But it was a full day behind the wheel, setting off at 8am, catching the ferry over to Tierra del Fuego – Land of Fire, the massive island at the base of Argentina – and continuing south until the end of the road. Tierra del Fuego is barren desert steppe in the north, much like most of the rest of Argentine Patagonia. As you head south, you pass skeleton forests of hardy trees with their leaves ripped off by winds and branches spiking out to the sides, sculpted by the inhospitable environment. It’s only when you get right down to the bottom that snowy mountains appear. The road climbs up and over a couple of mountains and as we drove through we were hit by a snow blizzard. Risky, as roads sometimes get closed down here and we had to make the boat on Saturday.

Tierra del Fuego tree

Tierra del Fuego tree

snowy roads

snowy roads

But coming down from the mountain into the cradle of Ushuaia and the snow eased to a light drizzly rain. We found a place to spend the night before heading out for a meal to celebrate our reaching the end of the world.

Ushuaia

Ushuaia

Thursday 28th: Plenty of cycle tourists we’ve met along the way have advised not to bother with Ushuaia. We kept hearing the refrain that there’s nothing much there, and that the monotony of the landscape for hundreds of miles north of the city makes the journey a waste of time. But we loved it. Aside from the poetic element of being located at the world’s most southerly stretch of land, we found the scenery as stunning as Chilean Patagonia, with lakes, mountains and autumnal forests untouched by human interference.

We spent the day walking around the Tierra del Fuego national park and breathing in the pristine air, happy that we had made it and excited that our journey from here would be taking us northwards for the very first time.

the End of the World

the End of the World

We were lucky to have the truck. I can understand why people had advised against visiting, simply because on a bike it would take you a good two weeks to get from Ushuaia to the next point of interest, which would be the Los Glaciers national park. I would imagine those two weeks would be gruelling and lonely. But in the truck we could enjoy the landscapes for what they are and appreciate the long open desert roads for their space and seclusion.

Friday 29th: We saw the Atlantic and then the Pacific within a couple of hours of each other and soon enough we were in Puerto Natales. We found the truck drop-off point, the office for the boat we would be catching, and drove out of town again to enjoy the evening sun.

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales

Saturday 30th: The road signs in Puerto Natales all show a picture of a mylodon – a sport of giant sloth – in the bottom corner. Not far from the city is a huge natural cave where in the nineteenth century a settler found fossils from the extinct creature. We drove out to the site and took a walk around, learning about megafauna that lived there thousands of years ago, back when huge channels of ice were still carving the landscape.

And then back to town to drop off the truck and board the boat that will take us north through the fjords to Puerto Montt.

It’s been a glorious holiday from the bikes in one of the world’s last remaining wildernesses. Goodbye for now Patagonia. Hopefully I’ll see you again.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

and now, Northwards!

and now, Northwards!

To Coyahique – drenched and defeated

We made it to Futaleufú confident we’d be able to tackle the road ahead. A quick internet search suggested the weather would be cold at night with relatively mild days. There would be rain, but probably broken between sunny spells.

the border

the border

The scenery changed soon as we crossed the border. The Argentine side was spacious, with wide valleys full of golden grassland dotted with feeding cattle. The mountains bordering the valleys were tall and dramatic, but far enough to take them in from a distance. Chile was more compact, with narrow roads winding through the mountainous passes, following rivers and lakes coloured greys and milky blues.

The road changed from tarmac to stony track and we talked about how the surface was much better than we had expected. We were prepared for deep gravel of the kind we experienced further north on the Ruta 40. Indeed, we had been mentally preparing since leaving Malargüe for 20 mile days with constant battles to heave the bikes through the stones. Instead we found relatively smooth surfaces and could easily put in 35 miles a day even with the constant pouring rain.

The famous Carretera Austral seemed then to not be such a huge challenge after all. We would be able to make steady progress down to Villa O’Higgins, where we would, so we had planned, catch a couple of small ferries across a couple of lakes, push our bikes along a 12 mile dirt track and then emerge in Argentina close to Mount Fitz Roy.

But it was the day we left La Junta, with a five day stretch before we would reach town, that we realised the difficulty of what we were doing. The forecast was for constant drenching rain and powerful cold winds, with little chance to dry our kit until we got into town.

The first day of riding we grinned through it as much as we could, keeping our morale up with songs and jokes. But the night was a different story. The relentless rain soaked through the sides of the tent, wetting the sleeping bags. Wind pushed the tent down on top of us.

As with the night of the dust storm, we got no sleep.

Now being cold is ok, as you can layer up and warm up. Being wet is ok as you can dry out. But being cold and wet? No chance. If you are unable to dry out, hypothermia is coming quick. Facing four more days of riding before town, it wasn’t long after putting on our sodden trainers that we realised hitchhiking was a must. No amount of pride is worth your health.

The second vehicle that passed us was a truck with plenty of space in the back and seats for Sophie and me. Antonio stopped and said he was going all the way to Coyhaique.

His English was lacking as our Spanish, but it was still fascinating talking to him best we could about his job driving up and down the Carretera Austral to plant trees in government directed areas. The road is gradually being asphalted and after sections are finished, people like Antonio head in to help bring the surrounding area back to dense forestland.

And we talked about our plans to catch the boat from Villa O’Higgins – a route that most cycle tourists in this part of the world seem to take, albeit heading south to north and in the summer. Impossible, Antonio said. The boats only run until the end of March. The area pretty much shuts down over the winter. To make it south, we would have to cross a pass into Argentina and follow desert roads hundreds of miles against strong winds.

We had some thinking to do.

In Coyhaique some internet searching made the decision a no-brainer for us. The boat we had planned to take from Puerto Natales up to Puerto Montt, through the fjords of Chilean Patagonia, was having its last service of the season on May 1st. There would be no more ferries for half a year. To make it to Ushuaia and return back up north, we were faced with two choices: either struggle through two months of monotonous desert scenery in Argentina just to be in with a chance of making it the end of the world, or rent a truck and get the chance to relax a little while visiting all the sites we wanted to see (the Cueva de las Manos, Fitz Roy and Ushuaia itself). We would be able drop the truck off in Puerto Natales in time to catch the boat.

It was mixed feelings as we sat in the rental office in Coyhaique. Excited to be giving ourselves this break and allowing ourselves to visit the places I had been dreaming about for so long, but disappointed to be letting my sponsors down after they had donated for cycling the entire way.

I’m therefore putting it to you guys to decide what challenge you would like to see me accomplish before this trip is out. What would you like me to do? I’m thinking perhaps a marathon in the Atacama desert, an ultra-marathon (somewhere more hospitable than the desert though, please?), or perhaps something more wacky? I’ll make a shortlist of three that I’d consider, then leave it to you guys to finalise which one.

As ever, all money from sponsorship will go directly to the Teenage Cancer Trust.

Email, Facebook or tweet me your ideas, or leave a comment in the box below.

Thanks all.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

approaching the border

approaching the border

on the Carretera Austral

on the Carretera Austral

moody skies

moody skies

IMG_7300

IMG_7302

A shaggy dog story

The dogs had stuck with us since the night before we crossed into Chile. They had come down to the road from an old ranch just as the soft evening sun was sinking behind a mountain. Curious but cautious, they approached slowly to suss whether we would be friendly. We encouraged them closer and their tails started wagging as they ran up to lick us and be petted by us.

We pedalled on for a further mile before pitching camp by a golden field of wild grass. We organised the tent and had a little time to enjoy watching the colours in the sky change through blazing pink, orange, purple and into deep blue.

I expected the dogs – a border collie, about 3, and an old English sheepdog pup, less than 1 – would head off for home after we climbed into the tent for the night. After all, we hadn’t fed them. But they made themselves comfortable just outside the tent door and bedded down in the darkness.

The following morning we wake to hear our new friends whining for our attentions. We unzipped the tent to a double assault of tongues licking our sleepy faces. They seemed to really like us.

The entire morning of riding to the border they stuck close, trotting happily ahead to sniff out the road and doubling back to us again.

‘They’ll surely leave us at the border,” I said to Sophie, confident they would. “They’re smart creatures and know where their home is”.

But a few hours later, our passports stamped with Argentine bureaucracy, we arrived at the Chilean customs and immigration office to find a problem.

“Are these dogs yours?” – the official.

“They joined us from a farm 10 miles back, in Argentina” – us.

“This is a problem. If you don’t have papers for them, they can’t cross. I’ll have to kill them. I don’t want to kill them but I’ll have to.”

Yes, a problem.

I take the dogs back to the Argentine side and speak to the officials there. They take me round the back of the small wooden office block and show me a gated pen with a kennel at the end. They tell me to tie the dogs up.

I do as suggested, ensuring the gate was carefully shut behind me, and head back to the Chilean side, feeling sad at turning my back on these loyal friends who had trusted us so much.

But soon as we were making progress with immigration we heard the patter of paws and look up to see both dogs running up to the door.

A real problem.

I couldn’t imagine having any dog killed unnecessarily, let alone these two who, for whatever reason of their own, appeared to want to be with us. Judging by their excitement – whimpers and wagging tails – they seemed to actually love us.

There was nothing for it – I’d have to ride back to where we had met them the day before and leave them at their house.

I rode fast, keen to return to the border and enjoy the afternoon in Chile. The dogs didn’t tire and kept close.

When we finally reached their farm I approached the house, calling to see if the owner was around. Finding no one, I tried round back. Still nobody. Just wooden pens with hundreds of sheep crammed inside.

I left the dogs and hop back on the bike. They ran out to the road and followed me. I was forced to bring them back to the house and tie them up to a post there. I crumbled a pack of crackers I’d brought along and filled up a couple of bowls with water.

I felt rotten leaving them there, tied on a short lead. At least the land they were on was ideal for them, and they’d love having the sheep to look after. I just hoped the farmer would be returning soon.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

Rex and Ted. Close friends.

Rex and Ted. Close friends.

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 :)