Thursday, 14 January 2010

Viento Puta

That was one of the phrases Jaun taught me that's not supposed to be used in polite company. It's 270km from Peurto Natales to El Calafate, and in the interests of easing Ja back in slowly, we allowed for 5 days food, hoping it might not take that long. It did. They say there's nothing better than cycling along with the wind behind you. We wouldn't know, as for the first 3 days we had nothing but a 40k/h headwind to cycle into.
Without wanting to go on about it too much again, it really is quite soul destroying. At one point we lost 600meters of height over about 2 kilometers – what should have been a lovely quick drop into a valley, largely in the hands of gravity. Not so; it was an 8k/h grind in the lowest gear, fighting not to be pushed backwards! On a number of occasions it was so bad I could barely even push the bike, let alone cycle it. I spent most of the time desperately wishing that the wind would change direction, but with a niggling trepidation that if it did that saying my mum always used might come true, and my face would be stuck forevermore in a horrible fixed grimace. Anyway, then something wonderful happened. (and it isn't true – if the wind changes your face doesn't stick like that). Halfway through a particularly grim and slow morning the wind suddenly seemed to be be making less noise, then gradually without even properly realising it we were suddenly flying along at between 30-50k/h!! It was a most bizarre experience – the wind must have been gusting around 30k/h, as at this speed it was almost completely silent to cycle – we could talk to each other as if we were standing still; it was almost like being in a silent movie. After a horribly slow morning we managed to finish the day covering just shy of 100k, with an enormous grin on our faces, and remembering that it can be fun after all!

Our thoughts that some of the landscape we were cycling through was a little bleak were confirmed when we happened to get chatting to the owner of the Estancia we were cycling through, and he told us he farms 60 000 hectares of land (600km2), but that the land is so barren it takes 3 hectares to support 1 sheep!!

One piece of good news was that the border crossing back into Argentina was far easier than it had been into Chile - they didn't even check for offensive weapons, let alone seem to be worrying about any offensive vegetables we might be carrying! We finally limped into El Calafate yesterday, and plan to take a couple of days off (mostly just to eat, sleep and enjoy the sensation of finally being clean again!!), before cycling out to the Parc Nacional los Glacieares to see the dynamic Perito Moreno Glacier, around 80 windy km's west of here. We'll update again on our return.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine is Chile's largest (and, according to the Lonely Planet, one of South America's finest), national park. Finally bored of his enforced resting, we decided that a bit of hiking around the park would be just the thing to strengthen Ja's knee and get him cycle fit again (probably). So, with 6 days food in our backpacks, and very little clue what we were going to do, we set off with Nicolas (a guy we had met in one of the hostels), to explore the park.

As it happens there are a couple of fairly standard, well trodden routes around the park, so we picked one that seemed to give the best opportunity to see both the glaciers and the Torres (the 3000m granite spires which tower majestically over the park), and spent the rest of the week being awed by the incredible views (or at least I was, having never seen a glacier before. Ja was slightly more taciturn, claiming that if you've seen one glacier you've seen them all, but I think he was just being grumpy as he was still taking it easy with his knee and didn't want to climb the full 800m to view it in it's full glory).

The weather was typically 'Crowded House' (4 seasons in one day); going from gale force winds and hail stones one moment, to glorious sunshine the next, meaning we managed to get sunburned in spite of being freezing half the time. And, it turns out (probably unsurprisingly), that carrying all that weight on your back is even harder than carrying it on the bike. Still, it was a pretty amazing week, and even better; by the time we got back Ja was feeling ready to get back on the bike (probably for fear I would suggest another week of hiking if not!), so next stop - El Calafate!

Punta Arenas – Puerto Natales

During our aborted attempt to move north, Jaun; a Spanish cyclist, had arrived at the hostel. As it was apparent that Ja's knee was going to require some more serious R&R, and Jaun was bored of cycling alone, it seemed that the most obvious solution was for Ja to go on ahead by bus and for Jaun and I to cycle it and meet him there.

Everyone talks about the wind when cycling across Patagonia. It's one of those things that you know about, cos everyone talks about it, but somehow think it won't be as bad as everyone makes out, or that maybe they were exaggerating. It turns out, of course, that it is, and they weren't. If the Inuits supposedly have a hundred different words for snow I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the Patagonians have as many for the wind. I certainly came up with a few choice names for it as we were going along. Jaun added to my Spanish vocabulary by teaching me some of the words he was using to describe it (none of them printable). Suffice to say it was another four days of incredibly slow going into a head wind that seemed determined to keep us from getting there. It was like a bad joke at times, repeatedly being pushed off the road, getting off the bike to push it back onto the road, only to be pushed back off again. This was particularly disconcerting when cycling through what looked like fairly innocuous landscape, only to notice that the signs indicate they are actually live minefields; a reminder of the political volatility that is still such recent history between Argentina and Chile.

We found some great places to stay along the way though, the first night spent in a shed outside one of the estancias, the second in a derelict outhouse offered by the owners of a cafe (where my dog protection plan backfired completely), and the third in a really cool camping spot just off the ruta. The outhouse we stayed in was protected by what, at first sight, seemed to be a vicious guard dog who barked incessantly, kept trying to chase the bikes and bite our feet and panniers. I employed my usual technique of pretending not be worried and barking back, I don't know how my bark translated, but from that point on the dog refused to leave my side. It turned out he was only a few months old, and I think was very starved of attention. The first indication that dog was becoming a problem was when my coat disappeared. Obviously with such a limited wardrobe as the ones we are carrying, every item is sacred, and the loss of my jacket was much mourned. Initially we wondered if the wind had blown it away, but this wasn't likely, and unless it had been taken by a large German motorcyclist we had been briefly chatting to (which seemed unlikely) the only other suspect was the dog. Extensive searching failed to turn it up although we did find 2 chewed tea-towels and an apron in his kennel, further adding to the suspicions) and eventually I had to leave, without coat. We were however accompanied by the dog, who was repeatedly trying to attach himself to my foot. This was amusing for the first kilometer or so, assuming he would soon tire and go home. After about 10kms I started to get worried, but we had gone to far to take him home, so hoped that consistently ignoring him would do the trick. After 20kms he was still going strong, I could just hear his little paws tapping along besides me. At 30k he resumed his attempts to try and get onto the bike; jumping up every time I slowed down, until I accidently ran him over, at which point I was unable to ignore him anymore, having to check he was ok (which he was, and absolutely loved all the attention he got). When we found a place to stop for coffee after 40k the owners assumed he our dog and bought out food and water for him, after which he jumped onto my lap and kept trying to lick my face. In total Dog followed us for 60km, before finally turning back for home (I hope) after a particularly long downhill stretch where there was no way he could keep up. For the next two days I kept imagining I could hear his paws, and turning round expecting to see him. I imagine he might turn into some kind of Lassie character, helping out other cyclists and performing heroic acts on his long journey home. Ja was a little more cynical about the dogs potential fate when he heard what had happened.

Jaun and I finally arrived (minus dog) in Peurto Natales in time to join Ja for New years eve, which we celebrated with dinner, followed by another midnight bbq, and finished off with dancing till the small hours in a local bar.

A nice welcome to 2010!!!

A Chilean Navidad

We left Porvenir for Punta Arenas by ferry, after being honoured to a fascinating tour of Ramon's textile factory by his manager Robert; it was really interesting to have the opportunity to see a different side of Chile from the standard tourist and service industry one tends to be exposed to!

Ja's knee continued to cause problems when cycling and it was suggested that it needed a period of 'complete rest' in order to recover. Ja was of course delighted by this (especially as the hostel had wifi), and took the notion rather literally; spending the best part of a week re-aquainting himself with the internet and barely moving other than to occasionally venture out to adjust something or other on one of the bikes. I took the opportunity to make preparations for the next leg (243km to Puerto Natales) and do a bit of the tourist thing (the slightly 'The Prisoner'-esque photo was taken in the cemetery-a vast marble city lined with these incredible topiaried trees!)

We were given a very fond farewell as we finally set off for Natales, with lots of hugs and photos and being waved off by the owners Pamelita and Eduardo. Pamelita was so concerned that we were going to spend the festive period in a ditch, and that Santa wouldn't know where to find me, that she gave me a christmas present of the rather fetching stuffed penguin who now adorns my handlebars. Pinguinita flaps his wings in an amusing fashion in high winds, and plans to travel with us until I find a more worthy home for him (or gets blown away, whichever happens sooner). Anyway, all this attention surrounding our leaving made it rather embarrassing when after 65km Ja realised that in spite of all his intense resting the knee wasn't going to make it another 180km, and it was more sensible to return the way we had come than to continue. Luckily we were welcomed back with just as much gusto, and were in time to spend a very lovely Christmas Eve in traditional Chilean fashion, joining Eduardo, Pamelita, their entire extended family and the other guests at the hostel in sharing a midnight bar-b-q (paradilla) of whole lamb and choritzo, and drinking pisco sour till the early hours. We did, of course, drink a toast to absent friends and family, and send everyone much Christmas love and cheer.