The Careterra Austral

I am now deep into Argentinian Patagonia, heading south towards the most southern city in the world. It’s crazy to think how fast time has flown since setting off, back in October, from Alaska. If I’d been a little smarter and quicker, I would be at the bottom of the world in time for Laura’s birthday today. As it is, I have just over a 1000 kms left and a whole lot of stories from the past couple of weeks…

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One more border crossing to go as I briefly have to head back into Chile

The journey started a couple of weeks back, from Santiago, with over a 1000 kms to ride, hugging the shoulder of the busy autopista, Ruta 5. This journey was about as entertaining as the Canadian TV channel which only has a fire place on loop 24 hours a day (this really does exist). I averaged over 100 miles (160kms) a day to churn through the miles and get to Puerto Montt as soon as I could before the winter really set in. I stopped in one town along the way and was treated to more Chilean hospitality. They let me camp in their back garden and then woke me up on two occasions to tell me to come inside as it was too cold to camp…not a chance I was going to leave my toasty sleeping bag by that point. The rest of the time I found some really nice spots to camp along the side of the highway. It was here I noticed the chord had snapped on one of my two main poles which has resulted in me now having to piece together the World’s most boring and basic, 12 piece puzzle, every time I set up my tent. Another highlight included one of the best lunches I’ve had on this journey; Chilean Canzuela with a blueberry muffin cake the finishing touch. A really good feed has me smiling for hours afterwards and prompts me to sing the ‘Almuerzo’ (lunch) song I created a while back. This just involves trying to fit in Almuerzo into the dance classic ‘Insomnia’ as many times as I can for 40 minutes whilst belting out the tune…there are also dance moves but these I will keep to myself and the countless motorists who’ve seen me perform them. This is just one of the many recent observations I’ve made that my sanity is beginning to take a little turn for the worse almost 7 months in.

As soon as I rolled into Puerto Montt, the weather the region is famous for, struck with vengeance. Strong gales and rain which would make any Glastonbury goer proud to be in, rocked the city and I quickly found a cheap place to stop for the night to dry off. I stocked up to head south as the road was going to get a lot more sparse from here. I had heard so many amazing things about the Careterra Austral and it’s bumpy stone roads. The weather was forecast to be miserable for the first few days but nothing could dampen my spirits as I set of for the road through Patagonia and the last 2500 kms of this long journey.

I had one boat to catch the first day to get to 2 more longer boats the second day. These cross small sections where there are no roads and it’s not possible to get around. As I pulled up after an afternoon’s ride to the first boat I watched as it unloaded, empanada (Cornish Pasty) in one hand and camera in the other as I stuffed my face. I learnt the hard way that Chilean boats run on militaristic timing and as soon as the cars had unloaded and a solitary single car was on the boat, it set off, leaving me at the top of the ramp, now empanada-less, with a slightly confused look on my face. The next one wasn’t for another hour, which at least gave me time to buy one more empanada and get ready to race onto the boat ramp as soon as this next one came in. I had 60 kms of unpaved, bumpy roads to navigate before the next crossing, this time a four hour ride across a fjord. The rain was hammering down and after turning down two offers for a ride, a lady from a house along the road waved me into her cosy home, introduced me to the grandparents and young hijo (son) and cooked me up some dinner, insisting it was far too cold to be in the rain. The next day I headed off early to catch the boat in time.

The boat ride should have been beautiful, but the rain was hammering down so there wasn’t much to see. It turned out to be a good morning though as I bumped into two awesome Kiwis and a juggling, Italian cyclist. Kim and Gi-Gi were touring round Patagonia in a camper van and as it turned out, I would be bumping into them a lot along the road. Enrique was a 21 year old student taking a sabbatical after a strenuous first year of university (I was always under the impression year 1 was already a sabbatical). It was obvious to us from the start that perhaps the happy Italian had rocked up to Patagonia’s winter a little unprepared. The region is famous for its freezing rain and snow this time of year, but Enrique had only plastic bags to cover his shoes (albeit stylish, Italian shoes) and no waterproof gloves or bags. He did however, more importantly, bring a ukulele to get himself through the cold conditions. We took to his happy nature straight away and after we all spent a night camping together out of the rain, he joined me for the morning and I was happy to keep waiting for him as he was nice company on the road. By the afternoon however, it was getting colder and after scrawling in a message onto the gravel road for him, I set off over a pass and as the snow began to fall, was offered the back of a pick up truck under a garage roof to sleep in and the use of a nice man’s kitchen. With the rain and the cold it was a constant battle to keep my tent and clothes dry so any help along the way is greatly appreciated.

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You can just spot the town in a thick cloud of mist

I headed south and set up camp along a stunning shoreline before heading off once more for another 100 kms of rough, bumpy road. After leaving the lake town a stray dog came happily towards the bike. I have to admit to a bit of resentment towards dogs now (if it wasn’t obvious in my other posts) so I looked upon my new companion the same way you might an uninvited guest. This dog though was no normal dog, a champion of the canine world who kept up with my albeit vastly slower pace on the bad tracks, for an astonishing 91 kms! I couldn’t quite believe it and after he/ she finally collapsed exhausted in the next village, I left the newly named ‘Forest’ one of my cheese sandwiches as a sign this ‘Mo Farah’ of pooches had earnt my respect. As the tracks turned back into tarmac, I found a lake further down the road and for a pleasant surprise, my Kiwi amigos setting up for the night. We arranged to meet up in the only big town in the region, Cohaique, a further 138 kms down the road. Gi-Gi had his heart set on landing a whale of a trout so their van kept popping up along side my bike along route. They rented out a ‘Wicked Camper’ which are an Aussi company who always deck out the vehicles in cool graffiti. When they had first set out from Santiago they kept wondering why so much attention on the horns was directed their way from passing cars. After translating the graffiti on the back they realised it said ‘Honk if you love the ‘Holy Plant’ (for the benefit of my mother and other innocent minded readers this plant has no biblical references). From then on they were worried the Cabineros de Chile (police) might stop and search their van but they found the laid back police over here to be the most enthusiastic on the horns. I suppose it’s to be expected from a police force with two crossed over shotguns for a badge.

 

I met up the two of them in Cohayque and we found a back yard they could pull their van into and I could camp in. After we all caught up on showers, the always generous pair treated me to a good few beers and a feed before we parted ways again the next day. It wasn’t long before I’d caught up again though after clearing a snowy mountain pass and camping up alongside their van the next day. It would be a few days before I’d catch them again as I made my way through the ever worsening, slow bumpy road, which was starting to take a toll on my bike. I wanted to head further south on the poor roads but I was a little grateful for the fact that the border crossing I wanted to use wasn’t possible now winter had arrived. I chose to turn left and head towards Chile Chico as it was the only route really available to me at that time.

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This campsite couldn’t be in a more pristine spot

I rocked up to Puerto Guaral, a tiny town on the shoreline, and after wolfing down some food, looked for an abandoned building to stop in for the night and dry out my tent and clothes. The only respite I had from the pouring rain that day was from another lovely couple who saw me on the road and offered me a masala tea in their camper. I saw cars maybe once every hour or two so was always very appreciative to get out of the cold. I’d started mooing at all the cows I passed to try and get them to respond…the second sign my sanity was waning. As I was in the town that night, a local my age called me over and in perfect English told me he had a couch I could stay on for the night. Cristian was working on some land his parents bought around the lake, building a sustainable campsite/ farm. Really cool guy and we happened to share some coincidences with our travels. He was digging a trench and connecting water from a stream to his campsite the next day and seeing as I had to mend my bike anyway, I decided to stop round for a day to help him out.

 

All the digging, and filling in went smoothly, the only slight spanner in the works was when his Dad moved an old pipe a little too much when connecting to the new pipe and it burst, filling the newly dug trench with water. With nowhere to buy fittings to connect two pipes together in town, I was introduced to the ‘Chilean Way’ of using a blow torch to melt the plastic pipes and then force them together. Will have to teach that one to my old building boss, mentor and all round legend Jon the builder, when I get back to work in the summer. After we finally got water gushing towards the camp (through the pipes this time) we headed for a very nice and authentic Chilean family lunch and I got to practice more Spanish with an amazingly nice family. After lunch we returned to the picturesque campsite to fill in the trench and honestly, for a day off from the bike, I couldn’t have chosen a nicer one. Some people like beaches, I’m pretty content with a shovel and an unbelievable view, to have a wind down. I am now however, rocking a slightly average impression of Harry Potter, as I rolled over in my sleep, off the couch and cracked my forehead on the table. Annoyingly the table won and there was a bit of blood to clean up.

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Blue bird day
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A special place

After tapas with the family again, I headed off towards the border and for the first day ever, blue bird skies with some of the most stunning views I’ve seen on this journey. The cycling was tough, really tough, 105 kms of terrible roads which constantly soared upwards and screamed down again. But the views kept me entertained as I headed to the border town and caught up again with the awesome Kiwi twosome. As the sky was finally clear, I didn’t set up my tent, just kept warm next to their van in my toasty sleeping bag next to the water. The police rocked up in the night and after shining a light into their van and seeing Kim, then seeing me on my mat outside in the icy cold, assumed we had had a domestic and banged on the door to tell her to let me in. On seeing Gi-Gi open the van door they quickly realised their mistake and promptly left, allowing me to catch some more Z’s in my toasty sleeping bag. We said our goodbyes in the morning, knowing hopefully we will bump into each other again in Ushuaia as we all headed to the Argentina border.

The weather has been stunning here, albeit it a little on the cold side on the Pampas. It was so cold on my first night that by midday the next day my breakfast sandwiches still hadn’t defrosted and my bottles took most of the day to finally melt. That night I had opted not to sleep in my tent, just my bag and the stars, with frost forming around anything my bag wasn’t touching. I wasn’t sure to be wary of the pumas but from what I’ve heard, nowadays you’re more lucky than unlucky to see one (unless the puma fancies some gringo pie). As it happens, I didn’t come across any pumas, just the sounds of llamas close by through out the night. If you’ve ever heard llamas the sound they make could be compared to a wheezing asthmatic, who smokes 20 a day and has just ran a marathon. I found an abandoned hotel to keep me warm the second night through this sparser stretch of land. I had heard the Argentinean side would be even harder to source food, as I went 350kms these last two days with only one small shop in the middle. One kind couple did run alongside me in their van with outstretched arms containing two peanut butter and jam sandwiches. I’ve kept myself entertained over the long stretches of vast pampas by Olympic commentating on the llamas jumping the fences that line the road every time I come near…the third sign my sanity has taken a turn for the worse.

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Although the scenery has been spectacular the riding has been tough, especially at this time of year. Keeping kit dry from pouring rain or melting ice in the mornings has been a constant battle and one which has around 7-10 days to go, assuming the strong Patagonian winds continue to be kind to me. The total raised so far is almost at 85% with just over £3,000 left to raise. That total was pushed higher by the work of an incredible friend, ‘Frankles’ Walsh, who always seems to pull off a success with all she does. Thank you to her and to everyone who continues to help and donate to this worthy cause. Laura would have been 37 tomorrow, please let’s give her the birthday present she isn’t here to receive. We miss her every day but I know she would be happy knowing so much money has been raised in her name by so many people. Please keep donating and pushing that total towards its final target by following the link below and sponsoring a mile today.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

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