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.