Tuesday, 16 February 2010

El Calafate to El Chalten

From El Calafate to El Chalten is 220km, the first wonderful 35 of which usually have a tailwind, followed by 95km of debilitating sidewind, followed by a final 90km straight into the headwind. After a late afternoon start we were looking out for a suitable camping spot about 60km in, when a truck driver stopped and asked if we would like a lift. This seeming too good an opportunity to turn down, we chucked the bikes into the back of his very large truck and jumped in, affording us a far more rapid and entertaining (although I suspect a little less safe) shortcut, dropping us off at the cross road to face the last 90km on the bikes again.

Angel, the driver, was on an 8 day journey across Argentina to pick up a load to take back to Buenos Aires, and was keen that we enjoyed the beautiful scenery we were driving through – winding his window down so we could take photos (and taking photos himself, when he wasn't texting, or making the near constant supply of mate he shared with us on the calor gas stove he kept lit, next to the gear stick).

This was our first proper experience of mate, and we were pretty much instant converts. Mate is the Argentinian tea, which seems to be more of a national activity than a drink, and the preparation and sharing of which is surrounded by a multitude of social niceties, to which we are of course largely oblivious. It is drunk out of little pots, often very ornate, which all Argentinian's seem to carry with them along with a thermos of hot water (or in Angels case a little gas stove). Watching him make it reminded me of the way dad used to smoke his pipe – spending far longer cleaning out the bowl, repacking it with leaves and topping it up than actually smoking (or in this case drinking) it! The taste is very strong and bitter, and easy to see how it could be quite addictive- Ja even suggested we might carry the extra weight of a mate kit ourselves (and he hasn't even weighed it yet!)

After the warmth and comfort of Angels cab and the mate, cooking and camping on the side of the dusty road in wind that must have been gusting up to 90km an hour seemed particularly challenging, although had we seen this little fella before we pitched the tent rather than when we packed it up in the morning I think we would have had an even more uncomfortable night!

The last 90km were probably the most challenging we have had so far, and after taking 10 hours to cover 45km we were absolutely exhausted, but could find no-where out of the (by now quite scarily strong) wind to camp. Eventually we came across an estancia, where Sandra, the cook in the workers kitchen took pity on us, and allowed us to camp in a relatively sheltered area just outside their building. We were surrounded by cats, dogs and what must have been hand reared sheep judging by their repeated attempts to get into the tent, but it was lucky we found the place when we did, as the wind was so strong through the night I don't think the tent would have survived without the shelter. Sandra invited us into her kitchen, which was like stepping back in time, with a huge woodburning stove, enormous pans of stew bubbling away and cuts of meats hanging from the ceiling and served us soup and the homemade fried bread-rolls; pan frite. I don't think anything has ever tasted so good, until the following morning as we were leaving when she gave us freshly made rolls for breakfast, still warm from cooking, and tasting like savoury crusty doughnuts!

In spite of another windy 45km, and a big climb into El Chalten Sandra's kindness (and pan frites) kept us going the whole way. We have been getting used to people slowing down and taking photo's of us as they drive past, but on this last climb someone actually leaned out of the car window and handed us biscuits! We arrived in El Chalten cheerful, well-fed and relieved to have finally come through the worst of the wind; ready to face the rain of the Carretera Austral.

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