Friday, 31 December 2010

WINDS OF WRATH ON ROAD TO HELL









When I read this title I wonder if perhaps I’m not exaggerating the experience – but that just shows you how easily one forgets! Previously, cycling South along the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, I’d had some troubles – mostly relating to rain and cold conditions. Since my last report from Coyhaique however, I’d started to experience some unnervingly strong winds even before crossing the border into Argentina. Fortunately those winds were mostly in my favour as I was moving in an Easterly direction by that time (the wind in Patagonia is mostly from the West, but don’t rely on that as it can change in a minute!). I’d taken the ferry across the wind-whipped Lagos General Carrera to the town of Chile Chico, from where I crossed into Argentina and was blown through the semi-desert scrub Eastwards along the shores of the same lake (now called Lagos Beunos Aires) to the farming town of Perito Moreno. This was the point from where I was to tackle the INFAMOUS ROUTE 40 South. Not unexpectedly my good fortune soon ended, the paved road didn’t last long, and I was now moving Southwards with the wind almost directly side-on. Just keeping the bike on the loose stony surface became an exhausting task, and any form of shelter for setting up camp at night was rather scarce (I camped in ditches along the road, in the storage shed of a government road camp, and behind a rather inadequate thorn bush – providing me with a puncture for my troubles). I also had to carry plenty of water, as most of the rivers indicated on the map were either dry, or far and inaccessible from the road. The loose road surface meant that I had no base from which to resist the wind, and on one particularly exposed stretch I was not only being blown off the road while cycling or pushing the bike, I was also being blown over just standing and trying to hold the bike upright (in my ignorance I used to think that such powerful gusting winds should have a name and be mentioned on TV News – which usually includes a damage report!). After a number of spectacular crashes I was sitting in the dust next to my bike wondering what to do next, when a pickup truck appeared from beyond the horizon and thankfully gave me a lift to where they turned off – after that some hills provided a little protection and I could struggle onwards to the tiny village of Tres Lagos (luckily there was a protected camp site, as well as a shop – I was running out of food due to the lack of “pit-stops” along that isolated route). Enough of the woeful stories, because further South there were more paved roads and I managed to grind my way through Argentinian Patagonia back into the Southern part of Chile. (I stayed over a day in the touristy El Calafate, and on Xmas eve I was camping in the shelter of the petrol station at a hamlet called La Esperanza – and the locals kindly invited me to their Xmas party where I was stuffed full of meat and beer). Back in Chile at the hostel campsite in the town of Puerto Natales, the day after Xmas, I met up with Leana again. She had been stuck there for a couple of weeks and she could still barely walk from the ankle injuries she sustained while on a trek in the nearby Torres Del Paine Nat Park. Although my rough plan was to carry on South to Ushuaia, we went to enquire about the ship back North to Puerto Montt. The Navimag ship “Evangelistas” was leaving on the night of the 27th- I was also looking forward to getting back out of the miserable weather – and when Leana offered to pay for my passage I wasn’t going to refuse! It turned out to be a wonderful 3-day voyage through the maze of fjords and channels, with close views of glaciers and snowy mountain islands (not to mention the good food and rest I got on the ship!). So, more than 4 weeks and 2000 km after heading South into Patagonia, I’m happy to be back in Puerto Montt. Since we´ve arrived this morning it feels incredibly hot and humid – probably in relation to the cold which I´d become accustomed to in Patagonia (I´m looking forward to cycling in shorts/t-shirt/sandals). From here we’ll probably take a more leisurely and slightly different route North than what I did on my way South (hopefully Leana´s feet can hold up to the cycling). Daily distances cycled since my last report from Coyhaique have been:- Cerra Castillo 90 km; Chile Chico 36 km (+ ferry); Perito Moreno (Argentina) 79 km; Unnamed Camp 103 km; Bajo Caracoles 35 km; Las Horquetas 95 km; Lagos Cardiel 96 km; Tres Lagos 68 km (+ lift); Lagos Viedma 56 km; El Calafate 117 km; La Esperanza 167 km; Tami Aike 81 km; and Puerto Natales (Chile) 114 km. Total distance cycled so far in South America is 2 985 km, and total for the trip is 69 454 km.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

WELCOME TO PATAGONIA







The city of Puerto Montt is regarded as the gateway to Patagonia (on the Western Chilean side of the South American continent). The Carretera Austral (Route 7) runs South from there for more than a thousand k´s, mostly a gravel road which is linked in places by necessary ferry crossings. Most of the ferries only operate in the short summer season, and as the ferries on the Northern section of Route 7 were not yet running I carried on South to Chiloe Island via an extention of the Pan Americana (Route 5) on which I had been cycling since Santiago. From Quellon in the South of the island I was then able to take a ferry back to the mainland at Chaiten, from where I could cycle South on Route 7. Earlier I´d been informed that there was a daily ferry, but upon arrival in Quellon I discovered that the ferry made the crossing once a week, so I had 2 days to kill (luckily I could stay with local people Mauricio and Sylvia - see previous post). In the early morning the ferry docked at what´s left of Chaiten town in atroceous weather, and I wasn´t at all impressed by this "cold" welcome to mainland Pategonia. A couple of years ago Chaiten Volcano erupted, just about burying the whole town under ash - also making it difficult for the ferry to dock as the new "beach" is closely adjacent to the docking area. Fortunately all residents were evacuated in time, and people seem to be returning to dig their houses out of the ash. Before long I was on a gravel road, sometimes quite good surface but sometimes not so good. As I had expected there is not much flat land around here, so it´s up and down all the time with the occasional bigger mountain pass. After meeting only 1 other cyclist in Chile so far (Jean-Marc from France), I met 4 cyclists moving North on the day of the ferry crossing (Joachim and Sabine from Germany, and Jeff & Rosemary from Australia). The weather hasn´t been wonderful, and I´ve only cycled on one rainless day in the past 2 weeks. On that day I met Marc from Switzerland cycling in the same direction as me, and we camped together for 2 nights (on the 3rd morning he left before me, and has been missing ever since). After suffering the cold on a number of occasions I am now convinced that I´m not properly prepared for the weather, and today I bought a pair of leather boots, as well as waterproofing spray for the boots, my gloves, and rain gear (which have been rather ineffective in the constant freezing rain - and the snow which I´ve run into twice on high ground). Please don´t misunderstand me, I´m not complaining - due to the weather and the topography, this area is absolutely spectacular (I´ve nearly crashed a few times just staring in awe at the magnificent scenery). Now I´ve rested in Coyhaique for 2 days, a fairly big town and capital of this region. Perhaps I´ll stay another day, as every now and then I still suffer the after-effects of the illness I had in Borneo 6 months ago (I´m still losing hair, but a more awkward problem is the joint pains which recur every now and then). Besides that, there´s a New York cyclist staying in the same hospedaje as me - I don´t even know his name yet, so we still need some time to swap war stories. Daily distances cycled since my last report from Temuco have been:- Mafil 136 km; Osorno 126 km; Puerto Varas 94 km; Puerto Montt 26 km; Ancud 98 km; Chonchi 110 km; Quellon 75 km; To Ferry 6 km (plus 4 hr ferry to Chaiten); Villa Santa Lucia 88 km; La Junta 68 km; Puerto Puyuguapi 46 km; Villa Amengual 92 km; El Balseo 106 km; and Coyhaique 49 km. Distance cycled in South America since leaving Santiago is 1 848 km. Total distance cycled since leaving Cape Town at the start of this journey is 68 317 km.

THE LAND OF THE DOG





In Chile, a dog´s life is not necessarily a bad life - there are hordes of dogs around, many of them seem to be packs of strays. Dogs apparently hold a special place in local society, and anybody who harms a dog could find himself in big trouble. I´ve learned to look around a bit, scanning the area for dogs before I set up camp, but before long they usually sniff me out. Initially there´s a bit of barking involved, but as soon as they realise that I´m about to prepare dinner the dogs pretend to be a lot more friendly. After my last report from Temuco I continued on my way South, and when I enquired around at the small town of Mafill regarding a camp site a local man (Juan Ernesto) invited me to camp at his humble home. Of course Juan Ernesto had a dog which he tied up on one side of the yard, leaving me hardly enough space to pitch my tent (and the dog disturbed the whole neighbourhood for most of the night, barking at my tent). I also had dinner with the family that evening, and my attempts to communicate with the help of a dictionary were rather futile as Juan Ernesto turned out to be illiterate. In Chile I also introduce myself as "Ernesto", otherwise the people don´t quite catch my name (as in Mocambique, where I had a sign on my bike advertising this blog - leading some of the Portuguese speaking locals to think that my name was Ernesto Nbike). Further South on Chiloe Island I had to wait for the ferry from Quellon back across to the mainland, and I stayed at the home of the welcoming Sylvia and Mauricio (unfortunately their dog didn´t share that attitude, and had to be tied up before I could leave the house). Sylvia has done cycle touring in the past, so they are keen to accommodate cyclists who have to spend some time in their town, Quellon (contact Mauricio on e-mail morrispet2108@hotmail.com if you don´t mind camping out on the lounge floor). The other night, after a long cold and wet day on the bike, I found refuge in an auto scrap yard, where I shared a breezy shed with the two resident "Junk Yard Dogs". They weren´t at all mean towards me, and probably considered adopting me as one of their own when I let them eat my leftover dinner from the pot. The following morning I awoke to a freezing wet day, with fresh snow low on the surrounding hills. After a few k´s on the road I stopped to eat some peanuts which I had with me, but before I could even help myself to a second handful of peanuts there were 6 dogs in close attention (where did they come from!?). I carried on cycling - dogs in tow - and after about 10 km most of the hounds had called it a day. However, 2 of the dogs managed to stay with me (lagging behind as I sped down the hills, but they obviously knew the road because they kept on going and caught me on the inevitable uphills). Later I sheltered from the rain in a tunnel and decided to reward the dogs by giving them some of the peanuts, but they didn´t want any! (they just wanted to run along with me, it seems). When I was crawling up the subsequent mountain pass I coudn´t feel my hands and feet anymore, and then it started to snow. Those 2 dogs trotted ahead of me through the drifting snow, looking around every now and then to make sure that I was still following. I got the feeling that they may have been angels guiding me through trouble, but then it struck me that they were both pitch black dogs (probably what I deserve, anyway!). Once over the top of the pass the sky cleared for a moment and I could see the town of Coyhaique about 10 k´s away at the foot of a large mountain. I felt rather awkward leaving those 2 dogs like that on the big downhill after they´d run with me for 27 km - but all I could think of was a nice warm room in one of the hospedaje´s in town (and the inevitable wood-burning stove which these places have for heating). Later, in my warm room, I was sitting in bed watching cable TV (just to hear a bit of English for a change). I glanced out of the window and was overcome by a strange feeling when I saw the 2 black dogs sniffing around the supermarket entrance across the road where I´d done my shopping about an hour earlier.