Team Pedaling South is broken down in El Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina.
Just north of town, the hub of Lucie’s back wheel barfed aluminum shrapnel all over the highway and then sounded a lot like a popcorn maker. My mechanical instincts told me it was something serious. Luckily, Calafate has the region’s only bike shop. Things could have been worse.
In fact, it probably would have been worse if Lucie’s wheel hadn’t exploded. This mechanical mishap has given us a much-needed forced rest, which is the only kind of rest we’re allowed until we reach Ushuaia. We have little time left until our flight home in April, and the shrinking daylight hours along with our blown-to-bits budget mean it’s “go go go” till the end of the world. We’re just hoping the rest of our parts and gear (and our bodies) don’t fall apart before we get there.
We’re really worn out. Our default mode, of course, is “darn tired”, because we pedal big metal pack donkeys all day, every day. But now we’re totally wasted.
How did we get so weary? The Carretera Austral definitely helped.
The Austral is a beautiful, tough and hilly 1200-kilometer gravel road in southwestern Chile that gets a lot of rain. It wouldn’t have been that bad, except that we needed to catch a ferry out of its southernmost town, Villa O’Higgins, and the ship only sails once a week this time of year. We also needed to catch two other short ferries, one before and one after the Villa O’Higgins sailing. Having all these boats to catch meant that for the first time since the beginning of the trip, we didn’t have the luxury of waiting out the rain. We pitched the tent at night and packed up in the morning under a non-stop downpour, and we rode through weather from which we normally would have stayed hidden.
We had a bright moment of warmth and mirth, however, in Rio Tranquilo, somewhere around about the Carretera’s half-way point. We met our friend Nina coming the other way just after we’d rolled out of town in late afternoon. We first met this fit German schoolteacher in Trujillo in northern Peru, then again in Cusco, and ended up crossing Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni together. She managed to convince us to turn around and head back to the village with her. Just as we re-entered the little Patagonian pueblo, we ran into Margo and Chris, a retired couple from Vancouver who we’d met a couple of days earlier. Naturally, it was pouring rain. Chris and Margo invited the three of us to stay in the cabin they’d rented. Lucie and I made a big supper, Nina went out and bought a jug of wine, and the five of us sat around the table talking, laughing, eating and sipping wine by a piping hot wood stove until well past midnight while the unbroken rainfall pelted the cabin’s tin roof.
During the next 400-odd kilometers of the Austral, we saw about six or seven vehicles on the road per day. On the final 100-kilometer stretch, this number dropped to about three.
We made it to Villa O’Higgins with one night to spare. One really has the sense that this cute yet gritty town is the ass-end of nowhere. It obstinately squats at the end the Carretera Austral, hemmed in by frosted mountains, accessible only by boat, plane and fools with bicycles. What it’s doing there at all seems something of a mystery.
Our campground in town was fantastic. The kind owner let us sleep in the dining hall, and we had the whole place to ourselves. She started the fire for us in the wood stove and we set up some lines to dry our sopping gear. We made a gallon of chicken stew and quickly made it disappear.
The next morning we were up before sunrise to catch our big boat across O’Higgins Lake. We saw the sun for what seemed like the first time in a week, and the views from the ship were magnificent. I bounced in my seat (while Lucie napped), excited about the adventures ahead, feeling that we’d just finished an important chapter of our trip.
The boat dropped us off near the Chilean customs outpost at the south end of the lake. We had a challenging 16-kilometer ride on a crude road that led to a “Welcome to Argentina” sign in the middle of the woods.
Then things fell apart.
The road turned into an unmaintained trail that quickly turned into a badly eroded and narrow muddy ditch sealed off by thick thorn bushes on both sides. It was so narrow that my overloaded front panniers didn’t fit; luckily Lucie’s bags did. Since there was a ferry waiting for us at the other end, we were forced to hustle. I had to jog through thick mud hoisting my front wheel several feet off the ground. The three river crossings and knee-deep bog sections were especially memorable.
It was possibly the most harrowing stretch of the entire trip. It might have been fun with a lighter load and without the time constraint. It would have been a lot of fun on a horse. With my ride, it was like entering Paris-Dakar driving a motorhome. Absurd. I growled with the effort. I cursed. I yelled. We reached the Argentine customs shack and made our ferry with seconds to spare. We disembarked shaken and broken on the south bank of Lago del Desierto. The next morning we slept in, made a big fire and started at noon, but still weren’t fully recovered.
Since then we’ve riding over wide open plains, bucking against the Patagonian wind whose power must be experienced first hand to be believed. To give some idea, the other night we slept in a concrete culvert after sealing off the windy end with a ton of rocks. There was nowhere else to hide, and pitching the tent just wasn’t an option.
Now that we’ve had the chance to put our feet up, sleep in and get out of the wind for a couple of nights, we’ll be in far better shape to appreciate our journey from here down to Tierra del Fuego. We become increasingly aware each day that we’re nearing the end of the road, and the taste is bittersweet. We’re looking forward to sharing the final miles of our adventure with you.