Sitting in the waiting room at the Argentine Customs post of San Sebastian, my dream shattered on the floor in front of me. It had turned into some kind of living nightmare that I couldn’t escape from.
Tormented by the wind for days on end, occasionally a little respite, exhausted, demoralised, full of self pity I did the only sensible thing I could do at that time, I ate.
It was around midday. I had dug deeper than I thought I had just to get here.
The room was heated, there was a sink with running water, even a stove to cook with. Next door was the en-suite toilet, the only thing missing was a shower. The perfect staging post to collect myself together and go again.
My head however, was gone. The final kilometres to get here had broken my will. I sat there and decided that this was too much, I was in over my head.
I knew this first part of the trip was going to be one of the hard parts because of the wind. I underestimated it, maybe I was just hoping that I’d get lucky and it would be ok.
It wasn’t ok, it was far from ok.
As the wind roared outside I got out my sleeping bag and went to sleep for a couple of hours that afternoon. I was mentally drained and physically exhausted. Rest was what my body was crying out for.
That evening I sat and considered my options, a number of hitch hikers came and went, all managing to get lifts.
One even had news of a Japanese cyclist that had left Rio Grande the same day as me but had made it a long way down the road, they had stayed in a shelter together the previous night. This further stripped my confidence. He must have gone twice as far as me in a day when I physically couldn’t.
This road was good for a certain breed of person, much stronger than me, physically and mentally. That was it, I was out of my depth.
I thought I could turn up here and carry on my European summer cycle after a month in Buenos Aires getting lazy.
The other issue was the road from here on was gravel and there were no settlements until Porvenir, 160km away. It promised to be open land which the wind would take no prisoners on.
The information I had was that it was 15km to the Chilean Border post, another 25km to a shelter of some description by the road, 20km to a bus stop, 40km more to another bus stop and an estancion you could camp at. All possible places of safety, of shelter from the wind. Then the final 60km or so, nothing apart from the relief of the land might promise some protection.
I looked at my out of date wind speed forecast for the next few days and with it showing up to 100kmph wind at the worst it just confirmed that it wasn’t possible to cycle it.
I went to sleep on a wooden bench that night in the waiting room with no real intention of getting up to cycle in the morning. When I woke, the noise outside confirmed my worst fears. Needing no further encouragement to abandon any attempt at trying to cycle, I had breakfast and went to speak to the border guards.
My problem was if I was to try and hitch out of there, I needed to get stamped out of Argentina first as a lift wouldn’t wait. What if I didn’t get a lift though? What happens then? After some discussion, they said go get stamped out, so I did.
I walked back to the waiting room, now officially between countries and wrote Punta Arenas on a piece of cardboard.
It was 8.30am. I had quietly and quickly thrown my dream on the floor and went about asking for a lift from anyone with a vehicle that looked big enough to get the bike in. As you might imagine hitching with a bike and lots of bags is not very easy. I got two lifts, both however upon realising there was a bike said no.
I was that close to getting out of there on four wheels not two.
3.30pm came round and I was sick and tired of trying to get a lift. I was now wallowing in self pity about not even being able to get a lift out of there. I did also wonder what the border guards would do as I had been stamped out of Argentina that day. I decided I would cross that bridge when I got to it.
Unable to cycle, unable to hitch, my only other option was to cycle back to Rio Grande and get a bus from there to Punta Arenas. This utterly depressed me and seemed like such a bad option even though I thought it my only one.
I think it was the spark that made me rethink.
I looked at the wind forecast again and the distances to the shelters. The wind was forecast to be less at night, still strong but manageable, not the 80-100kmph but more like 50kmph.
I started to work out a plan. I managed to convince myself that although it seemed nuts to cycle into the night in this wind on this road that it was infinitely better than cycling back to Rio Grande.
My mind was set, I would leave at 9pm, ride to the Chilean border, rest for an hour or two, then try to reach the first shelter. If I could make that shelter I was still in the game.
With that decided I needed to get some sleep and eat before I left, as I climbed into my sleeping bag, one of the familiar border guards came in and said, what is happening?, you have stopped asking for lifts.
I said, it’s ok, I leave at 9pm. He seemed pleased and left me to it.
Just before leaving, whilst I was packing my final things, four English guys arrived on bikes. They were planning on hitching from where we were instead of riding the road. I told them about my experience and left them to ponder it overnight.
As I cycled out of the border post, down the dusty, bumpy gravel road, the horizon stretching out in front of me, west towards the setting sun the excitement came back. The wind wasn’t bad and it would make you wonder what all the fuss was about, however I knew what was coming.
As the sun sets so late at this time of year, it would only be properly dark not long before reaching the Chilean border post. Sure enough as night follows day, my nemesis returned. As it got dark the wind started blowing hard.
Arriving at the Chilean border post just before midnight, I left the bike outside and walked into the office.
Still wearing my cycle helmet I approached the immigration desk, a line of officials behind the counter. I understood enough that there were saying to each other, what the hell is this guy doing on a bicycle at this time of night?
I told them in stilted spanish about the wind, they know about the wind here, it’s not a glamour posting. They tended to agree that it was less at night.
Instead of having my bags x-rayed and a sniffer dog trying to find an illicit lump of cheese I got a man with a torch who didn’t want to be outside in the cold. I volunteered the small amount of honey I had left as a sacrificial lamb and he didn’t look very hard in my bags. That will be the benefit of crossing the border at midnight. Formalities complete I went back inside and asked the immigration official if I could just rest there for a while.
He was fine about it, clearly thinking I was barking mad for cycling at this time of night. A slow procession of people came though whilst I sat there but not many. I stripped off my layers and dried them on the radiator, I had been sweating to much and was now cold. As I stood next to the radiator warming myself, the same immigration official called me over.
Would you like a coffee, he said?
Si, si, si, por favour, muchos gracias!
What an absolutely top guy, he didn’t need to do that and probably shouldn’t have. I sat and drank my sweet, black coffee and felt the warmth of not just the coffee but the human gesture feel me up with energy.
It was gone 1am when I decided now was time to go. I didn’t want to get to where the shelter supposedly was before it was light as I had no idea what I was looking for and really didn’t want to miss it in the dark.
I thanked the immigration staff profusely, zipped up and went outside to hear the sound that now sends shivers down my spine. It’s the whining noise the wind makes as it goes past a building or flag pole at speed. It lets you know that when you clear the cover of the buildings, you know what is coming.
I had to go, I had to try. The safety net I had was if it goes wrong and it is to much, I can turn around and the wind would bring me back to safety very quickly.
I set off, clearing the lights of the border post thinking ever more about what the hell I was doing. I just kept telling myself, 25km, that’s it and you are still in the game. There was very little traffic, the second car I passed stopped and gestured me over. I thought he was going to check I was alright. He asked me directions to somewhere. I laughed and apologised, I’m not from round here.
The wind slowly but surely turned up its intensity until I was once again struggling to keep it pointing forward, the bags acting like a sail, pushing me into the deep gravel whereupon I would have to come to a stop to avoid falling over.
I checked my distance after two hours and found I had barely done 12km.
That made me think I wasn’t going to make it, I couldn’t turn around now so had to throw all my chips in. I turned the anger and frustration into pedaling motion and emptied my tank, I thought I just had to speed up and risk not making it.
Finally at around 5am, with the sun rising I saw a shelter but it wasn’t enough kilometers down the road, it was 3km short. In my exhausted state, I looked in it, thought maybe the ‘real’ shelter is better, got back on the bike and made another 300m or so down the road before reality kicked in and I realised I was being nuts. I turned back around. Once in the shelter the force of the wind disappeared. It’s a glorious feeling. I quickly ate something, got my sleeping gear out, laid it out on the metal bunk frame (yes really) and went to sleep.
I awoke some five hours later, got up, ate something and went back to sleep for a few more hours.
I decided to leave at 3am (sunday) that night and make the 20km to the next shelter, a bus stop. The forecast told me Monday was going to be next to no wind so I just needed to keep moving and hope for a good day Monday.
Getting out of my relatively warm sleeping bag at 2am was a feat in itself but the motivation to make it to Porvenir was enough.
Off I cycled in the dark, at 3am, into a bitingly cold wind. Thankfully the effort of riding a laden bicycle into a crazy headwind soon warms you up.
I made the bus stop and found a hut with a door! Amazing. Time for another breakfast and a rest.
I was feeling ok and decided to try a bit further.
On the roof of my last shelter someone had drawn a map of the road showing where you can get respite from the wind. There was apparently an abandoned building another 20km down the road. I aimed for that.
Then a strange thing happened. The wind died down, it no longer gusted in waves and merely provided a chilling effect.
It started to become enjoyable, there was no traffic at all on the road, a beautiful blue sky and the Magellan Straits in front. There was even some foliage by the road and lamas running around.
That was when I knew I would make it. I carried on past the abandoned building, to Estancion Amonium where four old men live and tend to their land. They let me camp for the night and filled me up with as much water as I could carry.
Monday was another beautiful day, the road got hilly and hard but thereby also sheltering me from the wind that was there. I camped just short of Porvenir in a spot out of the wind with a fantastic view. Deciding that there was no point riding into Porvenir that day as there was no ferry on Mondays and I would end up in an expensive hotel.
Tuesday came and the wind was back but I knew that even at my slowest pace I would get there in a couple of hours, hard going but not far. The road surface was loose and bumpy, but my frustration soon went each time I thought of what it had taken to get here.
Arriving in Porvenir was a milestone, a reminder to look back on that I can do this.
If I fail without trying then I’ll always regret it.
If I try, I might, might, just do this.