Saturday, 19 December 2009

Ushuaia to Punta Arenas

So.... It's hard to know what to write about our first weeks' cycling, to try and describe the vastness and impressive wilderness of the windswept landscapes we have been (slowly) moving through. Ja has even on occasion been moved to use the adjectives bleak, tedious and arduous, leading me to suspect he is finding it slightly less enjoyable than myself. That and the utterance that he thinks his next vacation will be a 2 week package in Teneriffe with a good book. 

The last minute preparations in Ushuaia ended up having to include mutt-proofing ourselves, after the surprise discovery that Ja has a phobia of dogs (or, more specifically, barking South American dogs). My suggestion that a brief course of CBT would be the easiest solution to this did not go down very well, Ja instead preferring to protect himself with the more concrete measures of an electronic dog dazer, a can of pepper spray and a large stick. I am sticking with my tried and tested method of barking back at any dog who comes close, which so far has worked a treat.

Our departure was delayed slightly by bumping into Christian and Eduardo, two Swiss cyclista's who had just made it in from Quito (Christian actually started in Alaska!!), so we made the most of being able to pick up some tips and recommendations, before finally getting underway early afternoon. Not far down the road we found an old estancia serving food and coffee, and decided to take a short break, which turned into a massive roast dinner for two; the meat being hacked off an enormous splayed lambs carcass which was roasting whole over an open fire. Even hardened meat eaters would be slightly taken aback at the gusto with which we dug in! We have vowed to only eat organic vegan food for year after we get back to repent!!!

Anyway, it seemed to do the trick, and in spite of not getting back under way until early evening, we managed to put in our longest ever day (at 100km), stopping in a small campsite just outside Tolhuin (where in spite of not speaking a word of the language, and before the tent was even erected, Ja had managed to convey to the proprietor his need for beer, who jumped in his car and reappeared 20 minutes later clutching 2 cerveza for us!!! - you wouldn't get that in Wales!)

The cycling since Tolhuin has been quite challenging, although this is largely psychological resulting from the headwind into which we are constantly battling, and the sheer barrenness of the countryside. Nothing that we've done in Europe had really prepared us for the distances we would be covering between any form of life or civilisation, and as a result initially we weren't carrying enough food and water to cover us.

It took 2 days to get to Rio Grande, and by the time we got there we needed a day off to recover, rehydrate and buy extra water carriers and food supplies. Luckily we had a fantastic place to stay, in a boat house/hostel/campsite, and here, as everywhere we have been so far, we have been bowled over by how genuinely lovely, kind and helpful everyone is (even in spite of any ongoing sentiment over the Malvinas!!- actually we are told this is largely political, and not something most people are too worried about).

From Rio Grande we pushed on to the Chilean border at San Sebastian in one (extremely long, wind battered and challenging) day. Here we discovered that there are strict border controls meaning no animal or vegetable products or by-products can be taken into Chile. 

This meant that, like the hungry caterpillar in one of my favourite children's books, we had to munch our way through One very large tub of pasta and bolognaise sauce, Two large blocks of cheese and Three hard boiled eggs each, before being allowed to enter the country. Unlike the book, this protein feast had a much less pretty outcome than the emergence of beautiful butterfly, and also had the unfortunate effect of clearing out a large proportion of our food stocks for the 142km to Porvenir. Luckily (!?!) just over the border there was a cafe, the owner of which decided he would be willing to part with a bag of pasta and a bar of chocolate for $12 (USD!!!). Anyway, we weren't really in a position to negotiate, so meals for that part of the road consisted of the most expensive (and disgusting, following the addition of a tin of tuna and sachet of soup) pasta I have ever eaten.

As soon as we entered Chile the sealed road ended and the ruta 3 becomes ripio, which is much like I imagine cycling on a graveled washboard would be. Except much, much, much windier.

The whole distance of the road we probably only saw about 1 truck every couple of hours and the lack of human contact available out there was apparent by the willingness with which people would stop to talk; from the farmer who drove up one night we were camping and pretty much wordlessly shook us by the hands, before getting back in his tractor and driving off, to the Gaucho trotting past on his horse (who knows where he came from, or went to!!), and many of the cars and trucks who just stopped to chat on the way past!

Ja unfortunately developed a sore knee whilst making this epic crossing, and we had to push the bikes for about 40km of it. Just outside Porvenir a truck stopped and offered us a lift, and Ramon, a Chilean business man gave us a ride into town, and ended up offering us his house to stay in whilst he is out of town!! Yet another act of random generosity that is leading us to wonder about the side effects of London living on our psyche!! Anyway, tomorrow we will cross the water to Punta Arenas, where we plan to do very little for a few days in the hope that a bit of RnR will sort Ja's knee out in time to get to Peurto Natales for Christmas (which we think will be preferable to spending it wild camping in a ditch on the road side!!).

Friday, 18 December 2009

From the end of the world to the (other?) end of the world. Or; from Finisterre, Spain to Fin Del Mundo, Ushuaia

Having edged back from Finisterre we spent a week or so in London sorting the bikes out and generally lounging around. The bikes needed a surprising amount doing to them, given we have only been on them a couple of months, including another new bottom bracket (probably due to poor fitting of the last one), new crank shaft, headset, chains ...etc etc. You might notice in future photo's that Ja's bike now appears to be a rather fetching shade of blue. This isn't a trick of the light, but rather the result of a rapidly put together new frame, built specifically to carry the extra kit (after the last one developed a rather alarming wobble under strain!!). I have taken this to mean a relaxation in the weight rules, and put in an extra pair of trousers (go on, treat yourself...)

The journey ended up being astonishingly easy, and against all the odds both Ja and I arrived in Ushuaia at the same time as the bikes and all the luggage!
Argentina has rapidly become my favourite country yet visited. It is beautiful, incredibly varied and having spent too many years living in London, unbelievably friendly.

Ushuaia is the Southernmost town in the world, at the mouth of the Beagle Channel, and surrounded by beautiful, if rather intimidating (when you are about to cycle off into them), snow tipped Andean peaks. We stayed in a small apartment which was a great find; no more expensive than a hostel, but a full living space where we were able to put the bikes together, make some final preparations and chill out a bit before setting off. 

The owner (who I think thought we were completely mad) couldn't have been more helpful, and even got a part of Ja's bike welded back together when we found it had been damaged in transit!

We had time to take a trip out into the channel and get all gooey about the baby penguins and sealions, making us wish we were able to take longer (or rather be richer, as it is prohibitively expensive) and go all the way to the Antarctic.

Finally sorted, we started the cycling with a 50k round trip to the start of Ruta 3, figuring since we're so far south, and like most good stories, we may as well start at the very beginning.
Will update as to our progress on the first proper leg of cycling, Fin Del Mundo (Argentina) - Punta Arenas (Chile), very soon.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

It's the end of the world as we know it... (and I feel fine...)

34 days, 1895km, 1 puncture, 1 broken bottom bracket, 1 snapped gear cable, far too many hills and some really horrible weather after leaving Puy, we finally arrived at the coast previously believed to be the edge of the world: Finesterre. It looked a bit like Cornwall. We decided against joining the tradition that has built up amongst walkers to burn ones boots upon arrival; historically this was probably a very sensible health precaution, but with the advent of vibram soles means that there are rather unsightly piles of burnt plastic everywhere. Anyway, cleats are expensive and we'll probably be needing them in South America.

We don't have too many photo's to put up this time, as the weather turned again as we left the flats of the meseta. Mostly this led to miserable driving rain, which turned to miserable driving snow with altitude and meant risking hypothermia to get the camera out.

The cycling wasn't made any easier by the gradual reduction in functioning of gears on my bike. Initially I lost all high gears, meaning I looked liked a mouse in a wheel on anything that wasn't a steep incline (bizarrely meaning that we spent 2 days hoping for plenty of hills!). Functioning ceased completely about 70km outside Santiago, and we made it into the city with my bike having effectively become a singlespeed, stuck in a mid gear that managed to make both the ups and the downs challenging! Following this I can confirm that singlespeed touring bikes probably aren't a good idea, and whoever it was that said bikes don't need more than 3 gears, was wrong. Luckily, alongside his many other talents, Ja is secretly a mechanical genius (and he didn't even make me write that!), and managed to recable the whole bike using little more than an allen key and an old pair of stockings. Or something like that. It looked quite technical and meant I got gears again, so I was pretty impressed.

For some reason I had imagined it would be all downhill from Santiago to the coast, but I couldn't have been more wrong, and as a result we had a couple of overnights enroute, staying in the tiny village of Olveiroa, on a working farm in renovated 17th century outhouses (sadly the weather was too hideous for photos). It was here we decided to try the Galician regional specialty of Caldon Gallego which is, I understand, usually a cabbage and bean stew (obviously supplemented with the obligatory serving of chorizo) however in this instance involved the largest plate of cooked meats we have ever seen, served with something that might have been cabbage when it started stewing 2 weeks earlier. Good job we're still on that vegetarian holiday!

Back in Santiago we had a final evening of tapas and Ribeira, wrapped the bikes in clingfilm (an unusual stipulation of the bus company before travel), and got the night bus to Bilbao to enjoy the 30 hour 'mini-cruise' crossing to Portsmouth. The less said about this the better, and I am still left undecided as to whether I was more disturbed by the on board 'entertainment', or the fact that Ja appeared to thoroughly enjoy it.

Having added a couple of weeks to this part of the trip, and with the bikes in need of some serious servicing, we have now decided to leave for Argentina on the 5th December, and will be spending the week or so until then gloating about not having to be in work and trying to come up with ways of becoming independently wealthy so as to be able to continue this lifestyle indefinitely.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Llegamos a España ...

It feels like forever since our last rest day (which turned into 2½ rest days after Ja had an unfortunate encounter with some crusty bread, necessitating an even more unfortunate encounter with a French dentist). Luckily we were staying on a campsite in Lauzerte, in a very lovely yurt, with an even lovelier patron, who helped us get it sorted (thanks Theo!!). Actually it's only been 14 days since then, but in that time we've covered a further 975.5km (a total of 1397.5km) crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and grown a beard (well, one of us has).

We had about 4 days of rain as we came through southern France and into Spain, making crossing the Pyrenees pretty hard work; initially it was cold and wet, which wasn't so bad; putting the mp3 player on random and becoming reacquainted with loads of tunes not listened to in ages was actually quite fun (and I kept myself entertained by trying to list all the bands I've seen, in order, since Radiohead in 1995. This is probably the mental equivalent of alphabetising ones CD collection; ultimately pointless, but extremely cathartic and strangely enjoyable). As we got into Spain it became warm and wet, which was much less fun, especially as the Russian roulette of the Mp3 random function started playing songs I don't even own (I still don't understand how I ended up listening to a Peter Gabrielle track).

The differences between cycling through Southern France and Northern Spain have been striking, highlighted by our absolute ignorance of the Spanish language meaning we have had to resort back to the good old British method of international communication – speaking English, slighter louder and more slowly, and in Ja's case with an odd spaghetti western style accent. We have, however, been diligently listening to our Spanish lesson CD's and I'm fairly sure we will soon be fluent, courtesy of Michel Thomas. That said, I am not entirely convinced by the utility of this as a functional language course, as having reached the end of the introductory course we are now able to confidently ask for an opinion on the current socio-political situation in Spain (which given the global economic situation, and whilst cycling through Basque Nationalist territory where the population are openly supportive of ETA, is conversational ground upon which even the most fluent would be hesitant to tread), however have yet to be endowed with the capacity to ask if there is somewhere to buy bread nearby, or whether we might be able to get a bed for the night. I'm hoping this might come up in the next CD.

At some point since we came away Ja seems to have made the decision to give up shaving. Consequently he is currently sporting what he believes to be a manly facial growth (think somewhere between Russell Crowe; Gladiator and Gary Oldman; Dracula). I am not making comment on this (although if pushed would probably suggest it is closer to Shaggy; Scooby Doo). Unfortunately (or not), don't think many people will have the opportunity to see it in the flesh, as after seeing a photo of it Sarah has announced that she is more allergic to facial hair than she is to cats (and she is very allergic to cats), and that it has to be fully removed before we are to be allowed back in the flat.

I had hoped that in Spain, as in France, we would be able to maintain our vegetarian values (all be it with the taxonimical flexibility that allowed the rather fine pan fried margret de canard we rustled up in one of the gites we stayed in (well it is practically a fish isn't it...?). Unfortunately however I have had to concede to a vegetarian holiday, as I can't find anyway of considering the large quantities of chorizo we keep being presented with as a fish, let alone a veg.

Although never really discussing it, we seem to have decided to finish the whole of the Camino, and are currently around 400km, 7 days (and an awful lot of hills/mountains) away from Santiago. With hindsight, this decision may have been made shortly after discovering and making full use of the 'Fuente del vino' - a free fountain of red wine in place to fortify tired pilgrims and travellers. As you can imagine we ensured we were fully fortified before moving on, and even took a little for later fortification.

We are not planning another rest day until after we reach the end of the world (also known as Finisterre on the coast about 90km after Santiago, where the Pilgrims of old believed the world literally ended), and so we may not update again until we're back in the UK. It's looking likely that we might go for a weeks skiing or possibly mountain biking after we get back, as a problem with Ja's bike means we can't go straight out to South America, so hopefully we'll have time to catch up with everyone as well. I'll finish with another series of cycling photo's - particular effort made to ensure they aren't all of Ja's back....

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Nous sommes arrivés dans le Puy en Velay

We finally arrived in Puy following a long but fairly pleasant and uneventful journey (provided 1 set of forfeited ferry tickets, 2 surplus train journeys, an unfortunate misunderstanding resulting from their being more than one train station in Calais and an extra 12 hours, counts as uneventful). Although ideally we would have shared the 8 hour drive across France, Ja had rather inopportunely picked this week to send his liscence off to have the address changed and as a result the driving was left to me. Every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say, and in this instance I was provided the opportunity to learn the appropriate way one ought to drive – as it transpires, after all these years, I have actually been doing it wrong. Having learnt, among other things, the correct way my hands ought to be positioned, the most appropriate road position, and when indication is required, we finally agreed I had learnt enough and decided to spend the majority of the next 7 hours in silence.

Puy is a pretty city, famed for it's lentils, lace and large quantity of religious iconography. Although it had rained heavily for the majority of the journey, the weather cleared when we arrived and we were able to take in the impressive, if somewhat bizarre, views of the Statue Notre-Dame de France, Cloitre de la Cathedrale and the Rocher St-Michel d'Aiguilhe (direct translation should be, although probably isn't, Church on a very high rock).

We spent the night in Puy in a campsite, resulting in us leaving typically late for what was to be a particularly difficult first days cycling. The particularly fine shot of Ja doing his best catalogue pose is on the steps of the Cathedral; the start of the route Chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle, that could potentially take us all the way to Santiago.


In trying to keep a record of many hours of repetitive exercise, and turn it into a blog that isn't just excruciatingly dull, I seem to have turned myself into some kind of twisted Bridget Jones type character....

Fri 9th October – Puy en Velay

Bike weight – 41kgs

Alcohol consumed: beers - 0, bottles of wine - 1 (between 2) (technically beers consumed = 1, but continental beers are so small as to not count. Unusual alcoholic temperance resulting from oversight in supermarche, and apparent lack of off-licences in France).

Rather alarmed to discover this morning that bike has actually managed to gain weight since Wessex Way trip. This in spite of radical wardrobe-ectomy prior to leaving. Must find way of subtly redistributing more weight into Ja's panniers.

Sat 10th October – Puy en Velay - Saugues

Bike weight – 42kgs

Distance cycled 50kms

Meters ascended – 1100

Alcohol consumed: beers - 0, bottles of wine - 1/2. (unusual alcoholic temperance resulting from exhaustion – not physically capable of staying awake long enough to drink any more).

Disappointed to discover that excess bike weight not resulting from secret clothes/make-up stash, but from re-distribution of communal weight by Ja. Still, probably a little churlish to complain as he is still carrying all the camping kit.

Had to complete an extra 2 hour 500m climb this eve after discovering that proposed campsite was closed for the winter. Arrived in Saugues in the dark, only to discover their campsite also closed. Ja appeared to take this as some kind of indication of national constitutional weakness on behalf of the French, reminiscing fondly about the number of sub-zero temperature winter nights he has spent in a tent in Wales. Managed to subtly rearrange face from relief at prospect of bed for night in to convincing disappointed face just in time. Arrived at Gite positively glowing...wont be long before we are fit, beautiful and positively irresistible (I'm sure cycling can do that for you).

Sun 11th Oct - Saugues - Aumont-Aubrac

Bike weight 42kg (careful guarding of panniers ensured no further redistribution)

Distance cycled 50km

Meters ascended – 600

Alcohol consumed: beers – 0 (calculated flawlessly as 3x the amount we had on Friday 3x0= 0) bottles of wine ½

Slightly easier cycling day today, weather cleared and ended day in sunshine meaning wouldn't have minded camping, although couldn't find open campsite (and no matter how much Ja tries to persuade me, I still object to staying anywhere that doesn't have running water – and no Ja, a river doesn't count).

Have become concerned though that as a result of aforementioned wardrobe-ectomy, healthy glow is rapidly turning into rather unpleasant odour. Also alarmed to discover that thighs are still growing at disconcertingly fast rate; whilst toned and athletic may be desirable I fear I am rapidly moving toward muscular (next stop shotputter?).

Mon 12th Oct Aubrac-Aumont - Espalion

Bike weight 43kg (extra weight resulting from litre of 'emergency' vin de table Ja decided we needed to be carrying)

Distance 66km

Alcohol consumed: very little (alcoholic temperance becoming alarmingly commonplace)

Awoke to howling wind and rain. Everyone else in Gite up and on their way by about 7am. Ja refused to get up. By time we finally managed to set off (having spent at least an hour adorning enough wet weather gear to fair any storm) the worst had passed, and by afternoon it was gloriously sunny again. We took more humour than was probably right in thinking about everyone who had set off early and got wet.

Found campsite that was open by River Lot.

Tue 13th Espalion – Conque

Distance – 53km

Meters ascent - alot

Alcohol consumed – very little (resulting from unplanned religious encounter) 

Arrived in Conque in early evening, feeling ambivalent about the amount of downhill – certain to mean that tomorrow will be entirely up. Odometer registered max speed of just over 50km/hr (I don't think my car will even go that fast). Conque is quite amazing place, where nothing seems to have changed since the 11th century. Apparently it has a population of 50, but with no shop and only 1 bar/restaurant (closed) it was hard to see how it even supports that many people. The campsite was (of course) closed, as was the Gite, which left us with only the option of staying in the church (who provide accommodation for those doing the route to Santiago as pilgrims). I was convinced we were going to be turned away for not being Catholic enough (or indeed at all), and very nearly fashioned myself a wedding ring out of a can-pull, just to be on the safe side, but it transpired our fears were unfounded, and we were given the most hospitable welcome; provided with cups of tea, an amazing evening meal, and a very comfy bed. We were even invited to make a reading at their evening service (to which Ja's face contorted with such horror that I think they assumed he was illiterate).

Wed 14th Oct – Conque-Figeac

Distance – 59km

Fears were realised this morning, with what felt like a kilometer of climb out of Conque, followed by mostly uphill all day. Discovered on arrival in Figeac that there was an open campsite 10k further on, so continued on without spending any time in the town. At the campsite Ja decided that the extra weight of the emergency wine was too much, and pretty much singlehandly polished it off, before falling unconscious for the best part of 12 hours, and waking with what he proclaimed to be the worst hangover he has ever had. I suspect this could have been predicted as in spite of Ja's belief to the contrary, even in France it can't be usual to pay only 1euro for a litre of wine, and he was probably lucky to wake up with his sight still intact.

Sat 17th October – Lauzerte

Am getting a bit bored of the Bridget style diary keeping. Although the more I think about it, the more parallels I'm noticing... I have been told more than once that Ja shares more than just a passing resemblance to a certain Mssr Grant (although no matter how hard I squint at him I've still yet to see this). Also, although Bridget's support pants would never have made it through the wardrobectomy, these cycling shorts are equally hideous (whilst ironically having the exact inverse effect). 

We are, today, having a rest day, having come a further 130km in the last 2 days (mostly flat, obviously) The highlights have been waking each morning to the condensation on the inside of the tent having frozen (I still maintain this must the point at which it is officially too cold to camp), and spending a memorable evening sharing a bottle of wine sitting on a washing machine in the launderette of a campsite (it wasn't even turned on, but seemed to be the only place in walking distance with a power supply and a door). Ja has promised to try and top this excitement this evening (I'm hoping he isn't just planning to do some washing), so will update the next time we are online.