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!