Monday, April 21, 2008

Carretera Austral

Friday 18th

Today we climb. From about 150m at the lake, up a windy pass to 1120m against some fierce winds (for a change). It´s tough going (for a change) - 4kms of switch backs in our bottom gears at one point, but the scenery is amazing and worlds away from the dull dull pampas of the last month. It´s quite sudden how it has changed. And the weather changes as well. It´s sunny, grey, raining, windy and calm all at the same time...

As we crest the pass, the road meanders over rolling hills beside a river and the scenery becomes reminiscent of Alpine Europe.

At 65kms we both crash off the bikes in sweet synchronicity. One second we are going forward, the next the wind grabs the front of the bike and we pirouette in perfect unison to face back the way we came, hard on the brakes to prevent losing precious ground. The winds here are not as strong as Tierra del Fuego, but the gusts are just unbelievable. We ride on and again crash off to the other side of the road, one bike a mimic of the other... It´s almost funny.

As if by magic there´s a sign for a campsite and we decide maybe a stop is in order, until the forest ranger lets us know it´s closed, no services, but he´ll still let us camp.... for 12 US dollars. 12 dollars in his back pocket for nothing - rip off. So we cycle on another 5kms doing our bizarre stuttering comedy fall off routine. At one point I´m laughing hard at Michael as he drops the bike and runs down the slope at the side of the road to keep his footing. Next minute I hit the deck. I wasn´t even moving, but the wind was strong enough to just knock me over.

We see an Estancia (ranch) and again talk our way into some sweet indoor accommodation, complete with a wood stove and mattresses. The storm outside is ridiculous, I can feel the walls of the building bowing inward with the ferocity - seriously. The power goes out, and the rain falls from all direction and physically stings in a swirling wind. It rains all night.... 12 dollars for a camp site - Ha ha ha ha. I love my mattress and wood stove - and walls not made of canvas!!

Lazing about on boats

Thursday 17th

We have time to get another spectacular 2 hour breakfast - it´s good to stock up the old calorie count. After again getting 3 different prices for the boat - this time from the ticket office staff we find out the boat leaves today at 5:30 - even we can´t miss that.

The crossing is memorable as we finally move out of the Pampas and start to see some real terrain. The mountains loom large in the distance and the sunset is a fiery warning of what is to come.

A 2 hour crossing gets us in to Punta IbaƱez by the light of the full moon. We find a free camp site, but are more ambitious than that. Buying provisions at the local supermarket, we enquire and get the offer free accomodation on the floor of a storage outhouse behind the supermarket.... shared with a family of stray cats.

How could we refuse such a luxury dwelling. Good sleep - big day tomorrow, the Carretara Austral and the start of the steeps....

What Time is It..... Ask a Policeman

Wednesday 16th

We need to cross the border and cycle just 15kms to Chile Chico to catch a ferry across the lake. No problem. Except we ask several different people about the ferry times and get the following "3pm", "4pm", "not today", "not tomorrow"?. We ask the price and get the folowing "30 US dollars", "15 dollars", "very expensive", "25 dollars". We also get told there is a 13 dollar charge to use the road??

I´m starting to realise that Argentines give misinformation about Chile and vice versa - they are not on the best of terms and border towns can be tetchy. We surmise that the ferry goes in the afternoon, costs less than 15 dollars and the road might just be free - like the other 1000 miles so far!

We settle in for a little tent fixing and a long leisurly 4 course breakfast - eggs, cereal, toast, porridge with Julian another crazy American who´s WALKED from Ushuaia - now that´s crazy. He teaches us to fish and gives us some hand made lures...

And then Martha - the kleptomaniac turns up looking distinctly guilty. We decide to give her a hard time, partly because she´s the number one suspect in the sock investigations, and partly, I admit just for sport - she´s not a nice person. She cracks in a most amusing way and storms out.

Not so amusing when the police turn up 5 minutes later. Martha accuses us and Carlos of going to hit her, plus victimisation. It´s all getting very entertaining when the site admin get involved as well - I just watch and play the dumb foreigner (an easy part, I admit), No entiendo - I don´t understand, but it´s clearly emotional. I debate about getting the camara out, but decide against it.... it might not go down too well with the cops.

I get the low down from Michael later - "Sticky Fingers Martha" who has also been impersonating a site worker is to be evicted and Carlos´s who dog turns out to be a stray he adopted is also evicted for eating too many tents - he got Julian´s as well.

We decide not to take up the offer of free accomodation and leave for the boat.....
and miss it by 20 minutes. It did go at 3pm - 3pm Chilean time which is an hour behind. We would still have made it but Michael got a puncture on the way, but at least it does go tomorrow.

We camp in the municipal site which is amazing complete with BBQ pit. Mmmmm steak and chorizo.

Los Antiguos Crime Statistics

Tuesday 15th

Should have gone North!! Lago Buenos Aires has mountains on one side where the wind can get up some speed as it descends, it crosses the lake with no obsticles until it hits a cliff on the other side. Unfortunately the road runs at the base of the cliff - so you get the full force of a trapped wind. Fun fun fun - even the lake have white caps and wind generated 2 foot waves along it´s shore.

We camp in border town Los Antiguos and go for a last Argentine steak before we hit Chile.

There´s been a crime!! We came back to camp to find a pair of socks stolen! Who would steal a pair of cyclists socks - we should be able to track them down like the bisto advert by following the brown air trail.

Then I get back to my tent and find the straps for my awning have been cut and a pair of shoes are gone. No I´m annoyed and we go to the camp site admin to complain as Michael can speak Spanish fluently.

Then things get interesting. There are 2 Argentines being housed on site in cabins until they have houses built for them (?). Carlos owns a dog and we soon find the shoes minus a couple of bits, plus a few teeth marks. Apparently the dog has the sharpest teeth in the world and chews through tent straps. The straps still look like they´ve been cut to me. I don´t know, maybe the dog is part shark, maybe he carries a flick knife but Carlos is OK so we drop that one.

Martha is the site Kleptomaniac and a known thief, plus she left the site as soon as we started to make some noise. Looks like that´s where the socks went. We bitch and complain enough to get a refund for camp fees and a free stay as many nights as we like.

So we fill in the forms (South America loves to write things down before losing all trace of documentation in large filing cabinets) and add to Los Antiguos crime stats.

The crime scene!!

Rabbits Sighted and Lost

Monday 14th

Those rabbits were no challenge.

We (Michael and I) put in a hard 65kms in to the winds to reach Perito Moreno. We worked pretty well as a team taking turns to take the wind for 10kms while the other one sits behind and "drafts", then you swap. This way you get a real rest before the next blast of wind.

Perito Moreno is the first "real" town I have reached, tourists are unheard of here; so we are full-on gringos and you get the boggle eyed stares from locals. We learn from the police at the start of town that the other 3 cyclists rode in only an hour before us.

We catch up with them at the supermarket (where else - all cyclists hit the food supplies as soon as possible) and learn they stopped after 35kms last night and then took 4 hours to do 30kms in the wind where we did all 65 in the same time. I assume they could not draft each other - Itcha cannot ride a straight line and there´s no way Charlie´s guitar would fit behind another cyclist!! It´s becoming clear that riding with them might be a no go. The border crossing is coming up and they want to ride North round Lake Buenos Aires, we want to go the South route - it´s windier and further, but the scenery is way better - and we get to ride a ferry... So we decide to part.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Ascent

Sunday 13th

Sunday - a day of rest... well for others maybe. Into the canyon for us.

The descent is easy, as is the river which is more of a stream. Michael says bridges are for wimps as he is the mountain man.

But the ascent is tough.
If you are hiking.
With bikes and gear, it´s really tough.

We push the bikes between 2 as far as we can, then remove all bags and carry bikes on shoulders to the top of the cut. Then we form a 4 man, one woman human chain and throw bags up to each other as far as we can. Then the chain forms again slightly higher up and we repeat.

Many times....

I try to take the odd photo, but for some reason get objections. Something about "put the camera down and push" type comments, but it may have been stronger - Spanish not that good yet.

4 hard hours later - this is the view back to the hut where we started.

The 30kms on a drovers track is a breeze by comparison after that and Michael getting a puncture just as we hit the paved road of route 40 as the sun sets is good reason to make camp.

For me and Michael anyway.
We are a couple of kms ahead of the rest and by the time they catch us, there`s a conflab and the other 3 decide to carry on in to the night and try and make Perito Moreno - 50kms away in the dark.

The breaking of the fellowship - and so soon. We opt to stop and catch them on the road tomorrow as we go way faster.

Rabbits to chase down.... I like it.

Cueva del los Manos

Saturday 12th

After a night sleeping on the bus, we set out for the "Cave of the Hands" 50 freezing kilometers along some ripio. Strange to be cycling with a group after so long solo.

May I introduce The Team

Charlie (the French Spaniard) has never cycle toured before, so doesn´t yet realise just how bad an idea it is to bring along a full size accoustic guitar....

Herzuz (one of the true Spaniards) is on a mission after waiting 8 days for Charlie to get equipped - by buying every single item (bike, panniers, tent, sleep bags etc etc etc) he needs in Punta Arenas. He thinks we should cycle all night if needed to catch up some time....

Itchaber (the other Sapniard and girlfriend to Herzuz) has to get off the bike and change gear by hand when the going gets steep and cannot cycle in straight lines???

Michael (the American) who fanicies himself as the mountain man, has fashioned sling shots from old inner tubes to catch rabbit and wants to go self sufficient by fishing all the lakes in Chile....

Should be interesting.....

The cave of Hands is located at the side of a deep canyon

It´s a cave with some hands painted on and around it... so no real suprises there. The good part is that they are up to 9000 years old and perfectly preserved due to good cover and the cold. Some have 6 fingers - due to inbreeding apparently.
Or just an ancient with a good sense of humour.

We spend some time debating tomorrow´s route back to Ruta Cuarenta (Route 40)
1) 100km round trip on windy ripio.
--- Distant Plan C - the wind is a freezing killer.
2) 20kms along the canyon, a (maybe) knee deep river crossing, plus a hike with the bikes along a track where 2 people disappeared last year.
--- Plan B - freezing rivers and dissapearances???
3) Descend into the canyon, cross a bridge and hike/climb the bikes 250 vertical metres up the other side, plus 30kms of ripio.
--- Plan A - insane, but the best of a bad set of options.

This is the cut up the other side where we climb.

We spend so long debating that the tour guides take pity on us and allow us to camp behind the ranger huts for the night with some good shelter.

You know those nights where you think - get some good sleep - big day tomorrow......

The Calm Before the Storm

Friday 11th

Got talking to Matt and Chris on the bus back from the Glacier... which lead to many beers.... which lead to missing the morning bus back to El Chalten the next morning... which lead to a calm day in Calafate.

Took the afternoon bus back to El Chalten to arrive back at 10:30 just in time for drinks back at my hostel.

11:10 Michael - my American cyclist friend arrives to inform me the bus for Bajo Caricoles leaves in 50 minutes and the 3 Spanish cyclists (one of whom turns out to be French) are going as well. The storm is me trying to pack, say goodbye, get to the bus stop buy a ticket and dismantle the bike in time for the bus....

Friday, April 11, 2008

That´s Not a Glacier - THIS is a Glacier

Thursday 10th

Caught the 7am bus back to El Calafate to visit Perito Moreno Glacier. Glacier Grande yesterday has now been relagated to "ice cube" and is in fact rubbish.

This is a glacier.

Well half of one - it just laughs at attempts to photograph it by being too big.

This is the other half.

5km across, 60m high, advancing 2m a day, 180m below the lake water, 13000 square kilometers apparently. Difficult to envision - just BIG!!

And it makes some big noises when bits falls off it. There is no sense of scale as ice drops in slow motion forcing giant waves in the lake as new ice bergs are formed. Apparently 20 people have been killed by waves and rocks crashing down since 1968.
Or was it 32.
Since 1978.

Some people have died in the last few years cos this glacier is BIG!!

Fitz Roy Hiking

Wednesday 9th

El Chalten is famous for the Fitz Roy range of mountains and the hiking is reputed to be the best in Argentina - a bold statement. As Fitz Roy is 3405 metres and the cloud cover starts at 0 metres I could be hiking in my own back garden and see more, but..... there´s not a lot else to do in Chalten a town of about 1000 people, so I head for the hills.

The hike is a really nice route starting right out of town and climbing through beech forests to Torre lake where there are supposed to be stunning views of Cerro Torre - 3100m high towers of rock. I see clouds, Hmmmmmm.

And I´ve found another hiking machine trying to kill me. Nadia, an Australian from Sydney has a bus to catch and is on a mission. We make the lake (4 hours according to the guide) in under 2 hours and are rewarded by great views of Glacier Grande on the far side. There´s a snow covered ridge that takes us closer and as we´ve made such good time - it would be a shame to miss it.

We meet several people who turned back in the snow, and Irishman "David" at the top, replete in his straw boater hat (a de riguer piece of hiking equipment in Galway - apparently) and a waterproof jacket safely contained in a carrier bag. As it´s probably below freezing and the wind is pure ice, I just go along with the old stereotype about the Irish being crazy. At least the inside of his carrier bag is fully waterproofed and won´t be getting cold.

The scene is amazing and 3 sets of footprints in the snow is proof that we are the only ones to enjoy it that day. Shame about the cloud cover obscurring the mountains though.

The hike down is a blur - Nadia ("I don´t like going downhill") runs down all the steeps - apparently it´s easier that way and protects the knee joints. So we complete a 7 hour hike in 4 hours. She´s another one I need to take out on a bike to get my own back!!


Tuesday 8th

Everyone is in El Chalten. I walked into a hostel and met 2 girls that stayed in Puerto Natales (Karaoke Claire and Michelle) so Tuesday was a rest day followed by another drinking night. The locals have a strange kind of chivalry here. One took a real fancy to Michelle and was asking my permission to talk to her (which really pi$$ed her off).
I just agreed to sell her to him - I still had Claire, and I think I would have got a good price.

Only kidding Sue (and Michelle!!).

Michael is a cyclist that I met in Ushuaia right at the start and we´ve been trying to meet up ever since after he got a bus out of there. He´s in Chalten as well, so at least I´m gonna have some company riding out of here, which will be a bit safer now the weather is turning.

I met another Spanish couple cycling into Punta Arenas about 3 weeks ago - they have been in Chalten for 5 days waiting for a friend - and the 3 of them may join us. Rumour is that 2 more Spanish riders are a day away, so I go from solo cycling to just another man in a peloton and it looks like I need to improve my Spanish rapidly!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What no Autumn?

Monday 7th

Well the weathers changed. It was light rain when I pitched the tent.
This was the camp in the morning.

I think Autumn lasted about 4 minutes before winter set in.

I got up early to try and beat the wind, and get to El Calafate, and it was just too quiet when I woke. I now know snow is a good sound muffler. And it´s cold as well. But I already knew that.

The snow was coming in horizontally on strong winds, and after 4 hours in the tent waiting for a break in the weather, I just had to break camp and hope for the best. I really didn´t want another night by the road in this weather.

By the time I had packed up the wind was back to full strength and the snow was coming in horizontally. 5 upper layers of clothes, 3 for the legs, 3 pairs of gloves, 2 hats, cycling hard and still cold. How can that be?

I made 14 kms in 2 hours and had set solid as a cycling shaped person with helmet icicles when 2 guys (Louis and Carlos) in a mobile home stopped and peeled me off the bike. I didn´t want to take lifts, but this was getting serious. They were going to El Chalten (my next stop after Calafate), but they had hot tea, so I went El Chalten instead.

This is the oldest mobile home in the world.

Comedy moment 1 when Louis dropped his phone and all 3 of us tried to grab it before it fell down the boot sized hole in the floor where the gear shift goes through.

Comedy moment 2 when the only working wind screen wiper dropped down and started polishing the front of the bus.

But I am oh so grateful to these 2 guys. Thanks Louis and Carlos.

Note gloves and coats - no heating in this old boat, about 2 degrees inside but it felt warm to me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Ruta Cuarenta

Saturday 5th Sunday 6th

Finally started to travel Route 40 (Ruta Cuarenta) the infamous road that travels the length of Argentina to Bolivia. It begins rather gently on tarmac heading East - the first time I´ve got to travel with the wind, and it´s just a joy to "be Lance Armstrong" and cycle like you´ve got an engine. It only lasts 30kms (less than an hour) but such an easy 30kms. I am a wind driven smile machine.

Then it all goes horribly wrong. The map has red lines - good tarmac. Thick green lines - good ripio, thin green - bad ripio, and orange. Ruta Cuarenta turns North - meaning cross winds, and orange - meaning I knew not what.

This is orange...

... and we got a man down - my first crash. This is more pebble beach than road.

To be fair it´s not all like this. There are some bits where the stones are embedded in mud and my delicate derriere gets minced like burger meat with the vibrations.

There are other bits where the stones are exactly like ball bearings and you slide and roll about and then the wind simply blows the bike from under you.

Other bits are just crap ripio and you try and follow narrow tracks made by cars - impossible in the cross wind. I go from a 30km per hour smile machine to 3 fall offs per hour and about 6km progress. I find that elbows are not the best tool for flattening stones each time I fall off.

If it sounds like I´m complaining - it´s because I am - I hate orange....

Puerto Natales to the Border

Friday 4th

Finally left! Back on the road - feels a little strange to be alone. Well nearly, Mark a cyclist from the Erratic Rock rode the first 20kms and we picked up a local street dog on the edge of town. He followed for about 25kms, long enough for me to start wondering whether this would violate the rules around crossing borders with fresh meat.

Views back towards Puerto Natales.

Starting to climb (view back down road)

Got to Cerro Castillo at the Argentinian border - a small town that seems to exist just to pick up trade from buses passing to Torres del Paine National Park. And be windy. There are 2 hostels - both closed, so I got a lovely pitch for the tent in a tree lined garden behind one of them.

Erratic Rock

Sunday 30th to Thursday 3rd
The "Erratic Rock" hostel is a dangerous place and it sucks you in. Where did the time go. I can justify some of it. I needed to do laundry - all that hiking and cycling makes a man´s clothes less bendy than when new! And I needed to rest the ankle, but 5 days! The place is like a giant magnet and I´m not the only "traveller" to not travel far from here. I have made the top 10% list of long termers though according to Bill the owner, and you know when you´ve stayed a while when the greenhorns start coming to you for information. Really cool place.

Not all wasted time though, checked out a few local restaurants including Africano - a well recommended (if strange) combination of African / South American food, plus a Pizza joint that does Pizza deserts - fantastic. The highlight was a 5am session in the local Karaoke bar with Claire, Michelle, Ian and Connor from the hostel. I don´t normally do Karaoke, but apparently Pisco Sours (Pisco - a whisky type drink from grapes, lime and egg white) has that effect. A wireless microphone really helps as you can "give it large" and strut your stuff in fine style all round the place. The bar owners tried to close the place by turning off the machine - but we just made up our own songs, playing Spanish tunes - but we just made up our own words (Pisco makes you fluent in Spanish). Eventually they gave us carry outs to get rid of us which seemed like a good deal. Ian made a 7:30 bus the next day which was impressive. Michelle slept til 2pm - less impressive.

On a more productive note, did a couple of gentle rides to mobilise the leg again, 60kms down along the Puero Natales sound where you get some great views of the mountains around the town and there´s plenty of (unidentified) birdlife including flamingos - I know that one. 25kms to Mirador (forgot the name) the rock outcrop that Erratic Rock takes it´s logo from, where there´s a nice 600m climb for panoramic views of the flat plains Puerto Natales is built on and the mountains and hanging glaciers surrounding. Fine views - sorry no camera.

Stayed long enough to see my hiking buddies Marcin come out of the park after finishing the circuit and Jeff arriving back from Punta Arenas for a steak and beer session.

Got my own back on Marcin (the machine who tried to kill me) by persuading him to cycle to some prehistoric Milodon (large pointy clawed sloth like beasty thing) caves 30kms away. He suffered the following day in a most satisfying manner. Marcin - you hike like a man but cycle like a girl.

This is Bill.... and Erratic Rock. Bill says "send all the cool people".