Archive for October, 2012
I tried not to think of Ushuaia as the ultimate goal for almost the entire length of this bicycle journey. After all, it should be the bits between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and here that really count. Yet, rolling around that final snow-lined corner to see the southernmost city in the world neatly spread along the shores of the Beagle Channel inspired such a rush of emotion it’s hard to believe that it will ever just be a normal town for me again.
I have a very distinct memory of cycling in chilly weather close to the Kluane Range in Yukon Territory, Canada last year. It was the first day I borrowed Lee’s IPod and to the sound of Mumford and Sons I imagined what it would be like to lay eyes on Ushuaia for the first time with many months, countries, people, environments, good days and bad days behind. This place never seemed so far away yet now after a few days reflection in Tierra del Fuego it very much seems as if I just blinked my eyes to appear here.
Knowing what influence the trip will have on me is something I won’t discover at this very minute. I’m pretty sure a return to home and readjustment to the pace and demands of life will decide that. However, I’m certain that my way of thinking has been altered from experiences with others and the reading of a real-life story of people and place that played out before me every day. As my good friend Michael emailed me recently – “A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it” – George Moore, The Brook Kerith. 15 months on the bicycle is sure to bring with it even more questions once I reach Ireland again.
I cannot doubt that I’ve seen more aspects of the world and more specifically the Americas than many others could dream of and have been extremely privileged for that. As I stood down by the listing ship San Cristopher in Ushuaia’s harbour just after arrival with the southern Fuegan mountains on the horizon behind, that was probably the dominant thought. I know how lucky I am to even have developed this as a seemingly crazy idea in Denver in 2010. If I hadn’t attended that work meeting and initial ice-breaker session where a representative from a Wyoming conservation group replied he would take a man called Goran Kropp for a drink, I would never be here. If I had zoned out for a minute, not kept that initial intrigue or lived so close to the library I may never have borrowed Kropp’s book and become inspired to get out here and do something about it. The sliding doors aspect and fortune of just about everything in life always fascinates me and that was one big moment that hit at exactly the right time.
And what about the bicycle as the means to take this all in? In short, I’m convinced there can be no better way to see the world. Although it involves a lot of hard work in all sorts of climates, topography and terrain, you are repaid tenfold for the efforts. After all, life is nothing without a challenge and the bicycle gives you just that. Travelling at your own pace, stopping when you want, leaving when it feels right and visiting places the tour bus can’t or won’t go to is a very liberating feeling. There are no schedules to abide by but just the want or need to move on again and go somewhere new. It also brings you into contact with others you couldn’t meet unless you were walking or running (and I’ve met a few of these!). In northern Colombia at a little town called Sahagún last May, a crowd of about 20 people gathered around me on foot, motorbikes and bicycles just a minute after one person stopped me to see what I was doing. I had breakfast, met the grandparents and received a half-hearted marriage proposal in one of those family’s homes by 10am! The intrigue of a rather burnt looking European cycling through their town was enough to cause a stir in a place where the bus will never stop and that, in essence, is the greatest advantage of bicycle touring. It’s also very disarming to see someone with 35kgs of gear pedal past as the bike is a common denominator in perhaps every country of the world and definitely in developing nations which can do nothing but place you on the same level and encourage conversation.
I could talk and talk about experiences and what I’ve learned from this journey but that may take alot longer than the attention span could handle. However, there is one overarching thing/observation/lesson that I have seen repeated on enough occasions to draw the conclusion that it must be true, although others may disagree in part or in whole; and that is realising the world is not as scary as it’s made out to be. Too many times I was strongly advised – and on another shouted at – for my decision to cycle through Mexico, Central America, Colombia and other places. The scare stories that cloud our perceptions of these areas do an incredible injustice to the human warmth, generosity and culture of their people. I cycled through these three aforementioned regions over a total of 6 months and the only threat I ever faced was poisoning by beans or chicken from the countless meals people would buy me whenever I stopped close to a restaurant. The fear factor we have come to accept as reality is normally driven by those in western society who on many occasions have never visited the area in question – yet, this is easy for me to say as I’m privileged to have the time and resources to do just that. But, I was scared at first aswell and thought drug wars before Aztecs or Mariachi when I pictured Mexico. I’m glad to have broken down that barrier.
A secondary observation to these places was put very plainly and truthfully by Buff3y, my good Pan-American cycling friend a few months back when remarking that those who seem to have the least are often the ones that smile more and appear happier. That’s a pretty big assumption I’ll grant and maybe it’s just a Latin American thing but one can’t doubt that the willingness of these people to share with each other or the importance of family and local or regional culture has the air of a very rich way of living. And not that it’s doom and gloom or our side but thinking back to before this trip and getting caught up in the insignificant, meaningless everyday problems seems pretty silly to me now after spending time with people that live with far less than us.
I’m readying to leave Ushuaia right this moment. The bike has been disassembled too which just seems plain wrong after the service it’s given and personality now attached to it. Putting her back together will be a first day job at home and who knows where the road will turn next? I should touch down in Dublin on the 18th to see family and my girlfriend Áine once again – words can’t describe the excitement! I plan on keeping the website active and will be updating it over the coming months with a full photo gallery and videos from every stage of the trip. I will mostly likely write one more blog entry after some time at home and share any more news from Ireland once the ‘settling in’ part is over. The big project I really hope to start soon is writing a book based on some frequent thoughts banging about my head on the road over these past 15 months rather than a chronological diary of the actual trip. I’ll be sure to post some updates in this through the 350South website, Facebook and Twitter.
Finally, I want to thank every person who has ever contributed to the beginning, middle or end of this trip. That includes everything from financial donations to myself or The Carer’s Association, words of support, comments on the social media or the friendly face on the road. The journey would not have been the same truly exceptional experience it was without these. Thank you so much.
Total miles/kilometres: 17,006mi/27,369km
Final location: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
The wind beaten streets, the old industrial buildings and the converted turn of the century store fronts hint at a place located at the ends of the world and in another time. Names such as Avenida Magallanes and Calle Menendez point to stories of discovery and exploitation. Punta Arenas is the largest settlement in the world under the 46th Parallel and almost as far south as you’ll travel on mainland South America. It’s also my penultimate stop as on Saturday I set sail for Tierra del Fuego and the final 5 days of riding to Ushuaia, El Fin del Mundo.
It seems to be coming full circle as southern Patagonia begins to remind me of northern Alaska. The weather is as moody as that Arctic climate and as we say in Ireland, ‘four seasons in a day’ hasn’t been uncommon. Last week out of El Calafate I cycled from 100m to 600m and met the snow on top again. It’s funny to think I needed to climb to 4900m just 3 months ago in Peru to reach the same environment. The oil and gas boys are back too and I’ve found myself running by pipelines once again, as I did 14 months ago on the Dalton Highway. Trucks packed with oxides, pick-ups with girders and construction equipment and the occasional petrol lorry are about the only souls traversing the plains down here and only for them contact with others would be days apart.
The riding remains tough though and the land here is not giving up without a fight. Although I’ve very little to compare with, I believe fortune has shone in waves when squaring up to the wind and elements. The former is one obstacle to progress that has battered relentlessly for weeks but I haven’t been forced to hide within old houses or behind walls as others have in these parts. It’s also the greatest mystery how one can cycle all of north, south, east and west in the one day and never – not even for a second – appear to catch a tailwind!
With that in mind, finding a safe camping spot has become a mission of great strategic importance. The presence of industry, although never a pleasant feature of Patagonia, has meant some security for the night time hours and more than once the guard station has acted as windbreaker and kitchen, social contact and temporary warmth. These little things can become the most pleasing aspects of a day – just coming across a place that has a kettle so I can have more than one cup of coffee in the morning, somewhere to leave my wet clothes in to dry overnight or on occasion, the chance to sleep inside on the floor. Being out here makes me realise that the greatest of satisfactions are often the simplest and keeping thoughts and attitudes like these when I return home will perhaps be the some of the most important lessons and experiences I can take from the journey.
Punta Arenas is also a place where human paths cross. As it did for Shackleton, Magellan and sea farers before, the new generation of discovery is alive and kicking here. I’ve met Antarctic scientists and mechanics right off the boat from Polar latitudes and the arriving glaciologists, destined for South Georgia and the Falklands. The howling wind, tormented sky, tinned roofs, ships in dock and scattered islands on the horizon generates a sense of place which touches that part of the consciousness craving adventure and discovery. It’s amazing to think that this living museum still exudes a history while co-existing with Italian coffee shops, department stores and an international airport.
In the town centre, the Naval and Maritime Museum tells some harrowing tales of past glories and sacrifices made by those at sea. A remarkable film entitled “Around Cape Horn” documents one man’s rounding of the continent in 1929 on a ship called the Peking. The maps of 16th and 17th century shipwrecks stand side by side with torpedoes and machine guns. The Antarctic flag hangs proud reminding us of the delicate state of play between those nations that claim a piece of the ice-covered continent just days away and accessible to anyone with enough cash in the wallet.
I think I’ll stick to dry land for now and absorb as much caffeine as possible today in preparation for crossing tomorrow. If all goes to plan I should grab a piece of this wind at my back and sail strongly for the first 150kms before turning south and rounding the southern Fuegan hills to Ushuaia. The fact that land and journey’s end is just days away hasn’t hit me yet and maybe it won’t once I arrive either. I’ve read countless bicycle blogs about trips even longer than this where those finishing just stop as they always do and don’t experience this huge ‘wow’ moment that may be expected. As bicycle toruing has become the way of life now I’m not sure what will happen so am trying not to think about it but just wait and see what happens. The pure satisfaction of turning this idea into reality and then some will surely set in more intensely and as I’m so excited to return to Ireland I guess I’ll probably be beaming as I dip my wheels into the Beagle Channel. I’ll check in again in around 6 day’s time…. but naturally only after I’ve downed my much dreamed about, unreasonably priced but reasonably deserved €12 pint of Guinness in Tierra del Fuegos’s very own Irish Bar. I can already taste the goodness!
Below is a video of the recent cycle down the Carretera Austral or Southern Road in Chile. I would also like to thank the staff of Hickey’s Pharmacy, Gorey who have had an exciting and worthwhile week of fundraising for the Carer’s Association through head shave/wax nights, store giveaways and a skydive tomorrow. Thank you all so much for your efforts.
Total miles/km: 16,688mi/26,857km
Current location: Punta Arenas, Chile