Archive for September, 2012

The Wild Patagonia

September 28th, 2012 by Ian

The past 9 days have definitely been some of the wildest and most remarkable of the trip so far. I’m now in El Calafate, Argentina after windblown cycling on the historic Ruta 40, days gazing at the jagged and stunning Mt. Fitz Roy, standing awe-struck at the Perito Moreno glacier and crossing an international border that is tenuously connected by footbridges and horse tracks. Getting from Chile to Argentina over Paso Mayer took 2 days, a lot of willpower and a pinch of faith where the road ends and the compass takes over.

It all started with the figure they call Mauche. Mauche was the man who apparently lived on a mountain 40kms from Villa O’Higgins and it would be his land I’d need to cross before finding the wooden footbridge over the glacier fed river and follow the subsequent horse tracks through the dead forest and by the copper coloured streams that led to Argentina – so I was told. It all sounded a little Lord of the Rings and to be honest I was mad excited at the prospect of some very different trails indeed.

Upon arrival however, things were not to be as I had colourfully imagined. Firstly, Mauche didn’t live on a mountain. In fact, Mauche lived on a little brown hill and a poor excuse for a hill at that. When I approached his wooded hut at 12pm and in search of directions to the frontier, Mauche was so inebriated that his help and advice was lost within the several cartons of cheap red wine that lay scattered on his kitchen table. With Mauche’s continued struggle for words, I realised that I’d need to depend on the vague information and directions provided from the border police which issued my exit stamp. I had three things to do – 1) Find the Passarella or wooden footbridge, 2) Follow the tracks on the other side to the dead forest and 3) Cross the marshes and rivers to the Argentine migration station.

I spent the next 4 hours dragging my bicycle down a rutted horse track which I was assured would split just once and where I was to take the right hand turn, cross the river ahead and wind along the remaining path to Río Mayer and the beginning of a gravel road to the Passarella. One track split to two and two to four, four to eight and by 6 o’clock with a long bicycle shadow cast on the grass and just fat woolly sheep for company, I was assuredly lost. I had been careful to note the mountain peaks along the way and had created a mental roadmap in my head of where the Chilean migration post was. Defeated, tired and with 4kms travelled in those 4 hours I backtracked until I recognised the first horse track and so on until the police. They seemed genuinely surprised that I couldn’t follow their simple directions which earlier involved pointing and shouting ‘Allá, allá’ (There, there). Not caring for anything other than sleep I camped in a rice filled shed close by and scribbled down a map of what I had seen throughout the day and hoped for luck and sensibility the next morning.

Presentation of my fine artwork the following sunrise was met by red pen, a bold line and the words Frontera (Border). Although with best intentions, the police failed to see that I needed advice based on what I had seen and not just which mountain to point person and bike towards. I set off at 8am as a pessimist and with the notion I would have to take a risk in locating this footbridge. Over the next 4 hours I crossed 6 rivers, took my bicycle apart and reassembled 7 times and spent 1 hour crossing a slatted and swaying bridge that was half a metre wide and 200m long over the reasonably deep and glacial blue Río Carrera. Just locating the bridge involved a couple hours travelling on Vulcan logic that any river big enough to merit a footbridge must be flowing from an area heavily snowed in and occupying a valley.

With Río Carrera passed and technically in Argentina I had just the dead forest and marsh left. However, no track or sign of previous passage existed so I whipped out the compass and navigated towards the southeast where a point on my map indicated something of an official nature – perhaps the migration. It took fortune’s intervention when I noticed what seemed like a tyre track in some patches of sand between the rocks and pebbles that lay in the open valley. I went with it and travelled 10kms, losing the trail at times over more streams and whenever I ran into a sharp bluff. Every time I continued up and over the obstacle presented and continued to disassemble panniers and reassemble on the other side. 7 hours passed when I noticed the ground getting soggier and some leafless and lifeless trees on the horizon so we followed the only probable path through a new valley until a fence halted progress. In the distance, about 2 kms away, a red roof glinted in the afternoon sunlight and there lay the migration station – a mere 15kms from where I departed road over 24 hours previous.

Stamped and told once more that I was the first cyclist through of the year, I bolted out and onto the beginning of a new gravel road through the most beautiful mountain valley closed in tightly by the snow blanketed, leaning mountains that guarded over pond-wading pink flamingos and horses, sheep and cattle grazing the plains. This reward more than satisfied after an exhausting trial in the empty space between two countries.

I slept soundly in an Estancia that night as the Patagonian wind howled and rattled loose galvanised metal that lay against the worker’s outhouse I was resting in. Waking to a picture perfect morning of scattered clouds, the wind remained incessant but was coming over my right shoulder and so carried me 60kms in 3 hours where the only resistance to movement were the numerous farm gates I needed to open and close. And on those occasions I’ll never forget the force of that wind over the minute it took for the task to be completed.

Until El Calafate where I now write it has been rough going. Anybody that faces into a Patagonian gale will understand the almost futile attempt at progress yet one has no option but to continue. Keeping the bicycle steady on the stone laden road becomes the only thought and activity. 12 cars passed in 5 days with services and towns almost as alien as a respite from struggle here. Low on food and water I stopped once a day to tell my story and hope for some charity which was forthcoming before I ever got to uttering “Can I have some more, Sir?” I camped with a road crew who shared meat, bread and pizza and filled water regularly from the tanks located near heavy machinery that was off duty from grading the roads. Argentine Patagonia is drastically different to Chilean where a stream crossing was kilometre regular and purer than pure but out on the pampas it’s dry and almost lifeless with just the vision of distant mountains as that oasis on the horizon.

2 days of quieter wind allowed me to make up some time to Tres Lagos where I found a market and bed for the night before a 6am start and 120km run to El Chaltén and the indescribable mountain that is Cerro Fitz Roy. It has been an image and dream of this trip to arrive here since leaving Prudhoe Bay and to see it get bigger, sharper, snowier and more jagged on the day’s approach is a real smack to the senses. Even more incredible is the giant ice-God – Perito Moreno. This glacier is 60m high, over 5km wide and stretches for many more up into the mountains west of El Calafate. It’s cracked ice-blue facade command silence with the loudest noises emanating from the crashing of its pinnacles into the frigid water below. It’s alive and kicking, a true spectacle and nature at its most dramatic.

I am extremely honoured to be nominated as a Better Together Charity Hero for 2012 because of the 350South charity cycle in aid of The Carer’s Association of Ireland. The Better Together campaign seeks to highlight the efforts of voluntary workers in our community and allows the public to vote for the nominees with the chance of winning €1,000 for their chosen cause. I would really appreciate your vote in this and it concludes on November 19th with 1 vote allowed to be cast each day. Please read some more here and click Vote Now to support this cycle and Irish Family Carers. Thank you!

Total miles/kilometres: 16,308mi/26,246km

Current location: El Calafate, Argentina

Carretera Austral Part II

September 19th, 2012 by Ian

KM 1,240 signals the very southern limits of this road in Chile. Beyond Villa O’Higgins, a settlement of 500 people nestled in the shade of the dwindling Andes lie Ice-Fields, fjords, forests and wildlife that

are truly remote and pristine in every sense. Reaching this outpost on the southern frontier was a special moment not for the physical achievement but for travelling a road that provides relatively easy access to such beauty and wilderness yet still feels as if I’m the very first through the gates.

I left Coyhaique last Wednesday with Andre, a German cyclist I travelled with in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. 30kms out and with an creaking sound coming from the back wheel Andre headed back for repairs and I shot on, over the first pass of the final sections of the Carretera Austral and hoping we’d meet a little further on down this gravel, single lane road. A few easy days running up and down river valleys were succeeded by some of the tougher climbs of the trip where 13% grades, laced with loose stones and dented with muddy water potholes were on the menu. Looking across the valley and gazing at the road but taking hours to cross definitely puts you in your place. Progress isn’t made quickly but after the washboard roads of Bolivia and excuses for tracks in north-central Peru, I was happy to tackle these.

The Carretera on this side of Coyhaique was cloudy and rainy for the most part meaning that the majority of scenery I wanted to see was blocked out. It wasn’t at all disappointing though as I managed to experience life as normal and was often encountered by men on horseback coming out from the forest with dogs in tow and strong, healthy horses for company and transport. Even in areas where there were no houses or signs of settlement it was easy to notice work afoot – cows and sheep grazing on mountainsides, rutted trails leading off in all directions from the road and land fenced determining the limits of private property.

It can be a lonely life too for those spending time here and out of their natural environment such as the military, ferry captains and work crews maintaining the roads. On the descent from my final mountain pass in Chile I arrived to Puerto Yungay, a collection of houses and satellite dishes that takes up as much space as half a football pitch and was to be camp for the night before the last ferry of the Austral to Río Bravo – 45 minutes away across the fjord. Upon arrival I was hurried into the military quarters and forced fed spam sandwiches by a man that was obviously desperate for company in an area that receives just 5 to 10 cars daily passing through. It’s one of Chile’s final outposts here on the Carretera Austral and more a symbol of strength and sovereignty to Argentina than anything else; a country lying very few kilometres away on the other side of peaks I could almost touch. Such is the calor humano or human warmth of people here I was given space on a late night ferry travelling in urgency to the other side and given a tour of the captains deck – just 2 screens of GPS points and colours I didn’t recognise. Heading off from Yungay however, the military official who first commandeered me was recognisably upset I didn’t stay for the night and drink mate with him during a period where he may rarely receive a visitor or knock to the door.

As I write by candlelight in Villa O’Higgins (the electricity has gone out) I’m yet again reminded of the remoteness of this place. At least 1,000Km from the nearest big town and looking so fragile in the shade of glaciated peaks around it’s a wonder people settled here. This road now ends and I must cross into Argentina with no path to guide me towards the border and a bare river crossing in the way. Patagonia will show one more time that it is wild and strong, a land untamed and unanswerable to humanity. I first honestly realised this at the headwaters of Río Baker just 4 days ago, where Chile’s largest volume river crashes into a sinuous path from Lago Bertrand and towards Caleta Tortel and the coast. This river, turquoise blue and energetic is staring down the barrel of a damming and a flooding of thousands of acres of land with hundreds thousands more destined to be tainted and spoiled by power lines and transformers. The photo below shows rocks, water and myself rained upon whilst looking out upon the Río Baker’s source and the ultimate purity of a world – our world – which yet again is up for sale. For me this was a great trip moment. You can read some information on this environmental issue in Chilean Patagonia here.

Total miles/km: 15,893mi/25,578km

Current location: Villa O’Higgins, Chile

Flickr photos from the final days of the Austral begin here

Carretera Austral Part I

September 10th, 2012 by Ian

I’ve been looking forward to cycling this ribbon of road through Southern Chile for some time now and to say it has exceeded expectations would be an understatement. Fjords, glaciers, ice-fields, crystal clear rivers, new wildlife and an agricultural living in this isolated region of the world are all elements of the northern Austral which I pedalled by last week. Word on the street is that this is nothing compared to what lies after Coyhaique, the town where I’m currently putting the feet up.

A brief history of the Austral road tells of General Pinochet’s desire to connect the rural communities of Chile’s Patagonia with those of the north, not only to physically join the dots of settlement in the country itself but also to build a nation united, so the route in that sense was and is highly symbolic. Construction began in 1976 and only in the last decade was it completed, meaning the effect of connectivity is still in infancy throughout the area. My first night of the ride was spent in a Resedencial (a home with beds to offer) in the small, 10 home settlement of Gualihue where I chatted to the family about the significance of linkage to Puerto Montt, the city on the northern end of Golfo de Ancud Bay. Before the Carretera Austral appeared it was necessary to take a lancha (small boat) to the city for provisions, to sell goods or visit family. And when they turned up early in the evening to let a soaking wet, sorry looking cyclist into their home, their car was packed full of bags from Puerto Montt’s shopping mall with discount jeans, shoes and Gucci knock-offs. Even though it’s just 70km by road and one ferry crossing away, it takes over 3 hours to get there. The smiles on this woman’s face showing off her new pants told me it was a proper day out and one she wouldn’t have only for the narrow, gravel path than ran past her home.

The next day brought with it the second and third ferry crossings of the trip – a necessary part of travel as deep canals limit the ability to drill out rock to fit a road. The boat from Hornopirén was a real cracker however as we sailed down a fjord with stunning views into Parque Pumalin, an area of private land owned by Doug Tompkins, the founder of Patagonia outdoor clothing and now running from coast to mountain border, in effect cutting Chile in two, as some researchers on the boat told me. Inside the park is where the real action is at though and lazily crawling out of the tent to sun the next morning I knew I was in for some amazing landscape. Lago Blanco hit first with waters so still that the face of Volcán Chaitén and surrounding forest was reflected back like a mirror. Then appeared crossings of small glacier fed streams with that colour which hints at a source ‘far away and up there’ where a bank of ice hangs firmly to a mountainside covered at its sides by leafless trees that could as enigmatically conjure images of the Siberian steppe. Even the lower level ageing and haunted woodland gives colour to this country. Down at my altitude too, ferns as big as people prop distant mountain peaks on their shoulders and present a completely unique palette around each and every corner.

I could wax lyrical about it for a long time and perhaps the moment can overcome one whilst there. But when I’ve been removed from this type of scene for very long I realise that it’s the exact type of countryside that I like and am suited too – apart from the rain! Well, not entirely as I actually do like a drop or two every now and again as it keeps things interesting. However when I woke at sunrise last Friday half way up a 500m mountain pass to beating rain and damp clothes you can be forgiven for closing the eyes again and wishing for Mexico in the summertime. The despair didn’t last long as I eventually pedalled slowly to the top and the rain turned to sleet and then to snow and a pained expression to a smile. It was something else – a tunnel of thick forest, lightly blanketed in snow and some fierce looking cloud shrouded mountains on either side making a sandwich of it all.

The Carretera Austral is a tranquil, quiet road too. There are very few people living down here and the majority of Patagonian Chile resides in the big towns of Puerto Montt, Coyhaique and Punta Arenas which stretch out over 2,000km leaving lots of space. The condition of the road is pretty decent and has allayed my fears of 50km days. It’s mostly compact gravel littered with potholes but it’s smooth enough to keep a pace when those crazy grades aren’t getting in the way. Thank God for Peruvian road engineers I cried a few times as despite being in the heart of the Andes, those guys knew how to wind a 40km road at a decent grade up a mountain. Chile seems to adopt a “Ah, there’s a hill – let’s just build the road up and over it and ignore all that flat land either side of it” approach so being breathless and still pushing hard in granny gear isn’t uncommon.

Thoughts of wilderness and conservation have dominated thoughts as I cycle too. Being within a land as big as Patagonia and looking left, looking right and seeing absolutely nothing but nature take course leads to a rekindling of the passions that these areas must be protected. For example, I have no water filter at the moment and drink out of the rivers almost entirely; refilling just one bottle at a time such is pure water’s frequency here. What few places can we actually do that? Where can you cycle a 30km mountain valley, following a river’s course back in time from stream to source and never witness a darkening of the water or plastic bag littering the edge? Not many I reckon, especially where we have the privilege and ease to drive or cycle them. Big news here at the moment is the Sin Represas (Without Dams) campaign which I would encourage you to take a look at here An international energy company plans to dam many rivers including the Baker, Chile’s largest volume water flow which will see green mountainsides, fertile valleys and important wildlife habitat criss-crossed with power lines, transformers and steel pylons as well as draining the life out of critical watersheds. I’ve never seen a as community together in opposition – everything from the businessman’s laptop to the street popcorn seller’s stand is decorated with the Sin Represas sticker. However, when there is but a few the voice needs to be as loud as possible.

Total miles/kilometres: 15,528mi/24,990km

Current location: Coyhaique, Chile

Flickr Photos from the Carretera Austral

The Final Frontier

September 3rd, 2012 by Ian

Tierra del Fuego may actually be the final frontier for this journey but it all feels like I’m moving somewhere very different at the moment. I’m in Puerto Montt, Chile a clapperboard town that lies at the head of the famous Carretera Austral or Southern Road and will be the last major settlement for weeks to come as the time has arrived to venture back into the isolation and quiet.

I’m also very glad to have generated a new energy since booking my flights home just over a week ago. The past month or so had been tough and a motivation drain for lots of reasons but a spring has returned to the step and I’m relieved to know I now cycle the last 6 weeks in a frame of mind conducive to fully enjoying them.

There is very little to say about geography and scene for my last leg. I pedalled 1020km in 8 days from Santiago to Puerto Montt on the open, flat and hard-at-work Ruta 5 highway. For most, this is a route only travelled to make time as the other pedalling option is across the mountains in Argentina on Ruta 40’s winding asphalt which provides many more breathtaking vistas and shivering Andes towns to enliven the spirit. Yet, I fell into the first category of traveller and making time it was to be in countryside which others may consider bland and numbing. I felt I needed it however – some predictability, time to think and plenty of petrol stations to camp at and down cheap lattes.

Towards the end of Ruta 5 the trees got bigger, the grass got greener and wider, deeper rivers cut across the land, snaking their way the Pacific. So it wasn’t any surprise when the rains came… and they came hard. It’s a very damp land down here and one battered by the elements on a scale I haven’t witnessed yet. The wind picks up after noon and if I’m lucky, it forms into a tailwind which at least blows the rain at my back and not into my face while adding a few kilometres per hour to the speed. But there’s also something exceptional to cycling in this weather and I’ve found that since day one. It’s definitely not boring and of course a respite is needed now and again but it’s another type of challenge. It’s possible to sustain one’s mental activity on a daily basis solely through heavy breathing, wiping rain from the beard and stemming the water flow from pants to shoes to socks. No big thoughts but some big, honest work and no want for much more.

Tomorrow begins the Austral and I’m like an excited child at Christmas thinking about it. In short, this was and is one of Chile’s most daring and ambitious infrastructural projects. 1200km of gravel road that connects the northern and southern portions of Chile’s most remote provinces; lands that once could only be reached by float plane or boat. Needless to say, the road has had a huge impact on these once secluded communities and I’ll be interested to explore opinion as I move along it. The other notable point is that it was not built just for interconnectivity on a physical level but it is also a cultural and national symbol of a nation in union. General Pinochet ordered its construction as it was to be seen as the ribbon of road that would tie this disparate geography and people together.

On the Carretera Austral I’ll also be filming a documentary short film. I was asked last year to shoot a documentary for the Irish Latin Film Festival in 2013 and this has been an idea toyed with for a long time so hopefully I can capture a unique snapshot in time of the road and landscape in physical beauty and cultural diversity. I have a cameraman too – kind of! Andre from Germany who I cycled with in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua is about town so we’re setting off together and the company is much welcomed.

As communications are bound to be few and far between this may be the last blog for a little while but by the time the next comes around there should be a story or two to tell.

Total miles/km: 15,147mi/24,377km

Current destination: Puerto Montt, Chile

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