Mar 262015


After a couple of days rest in the town of Loncopué I left on a Monday morning.  As I pedaled up the hill out of town there was no power in my legs.

Sometimes after a rest it’s hard to get going again, I’m not sure if it is partly mental, but your body has shut down for a few days and needs a reminder what it’s supposed to do.  So I ignored it.

The wind was blowing in my face a bit so it wasn’t overly surprisingly, I thought.

I was heading out in to a wide valley, the next town some 60 or 70km to the north.  I constantly have this issue.  Road signs contradict each other on distances, I end up hedging my bets most times.  That 10km could be significant.

I knew there wasn’t much water, I could see a couple of rivers on my map but a fair distance between them, so not wanting to get caught out, I was going to fill up given the opportunity.  Fill up in this case was my three bottles which equates to 3 litres.

After an hour I started thinking something was wrong with me.

Was I ill?

I felt really bad.

It wasn’t food poisoning, I’d have been sick after about 12 hours and I was past that window, maybe I just ate something that didn’t agree with me.  I didn’t think so.

It wasn’t water poisoning either as I would have thrown that back up within a short time of drinking it.

What was wrong?  Had I caught a bug, a virus.

I hadn’t felt that good the day before but put it down to the wine and beer from the night before.  At the time the way I felt hadn’t correlated to what I had drunk though.  I should know, it wasn’t the first time.

I even debated with myself on turning around but the thought didn’t last long.  I can’t think of anything much more dispiriting than to retrace my tracks.

So I carried on, slowly, making progress.  Nicolas the Frenchman told me, on my day 5 out of Ushuaia, in the face of a horrendous headwind, “as long as you are moving, you will get there”.  It still sticks with me, I use that phrase on myself frequently.

On I trudged, thankful for the first small river and then subsequent ‘streams’ crossing the road.  I realised with hindsight, these weren’t streams, the beautiful clear water belying the fact they were most likely irrigation channels and therefore not fresh water.

My befuddled mind not focusing on if the water was good or not, just that it was water and it ‘looked’ good.  It wasn’t cold was the obvious thing, but again that only registered some way down the road.  If it’s cold, it’s got to be fresh water, no one is refrigerating the water out here.  If it’s not it’s likely coming from stagnant water somewhere and therefore not good to drink.

The wind had got up, further slowing me.  I found some shade, a rarity in these parts, just a few trees but at the right angle that i could sit out of the sun.  I felt better out of the sun, getting some food into me, still not right.

Reassessing where I would get to that night, I wasn’t going to make the town but I needed to make a water source, the river the next town sat on followed the road some way south.  I didn’t have much option but to get there.

Later that afternoon, flagging badly, I approached a farm, I could see a man on horseback, a gaucho.  I sat there on the road looking at the gate to the farm debating whether to go ask for water or just carry on to where I thought the river was.

Sometimes I have to kick myself to do the sensible thing and ask for help.  I don’t whether it is an innate shyness or an innate stubbornness that I don’t need help.

Go and bloody well ask for water I said to myself, probably out loud.

Leaving the bike at the gate I made my way around the buildings to where I had seen the man. At that point a young lad, probably early teens rode out of a building on his horse.  He looked so proud and small on the big horse, he smiled.

At the same time, two men came into view and beckoned me around the building.  I tried to speak and realised my voice had gone.

I’d noticed my throat was dry almost as soon as I’d had a drink all day but now I could hardly speak.  I was also exhausted, that was abundantly clear.

After having just had two and a bit days off and not a long day today, something was most definitely wrong.

I asked for water and he said “quince pesos!”, luckily I hadn’t lost my sense of humour and managed a smile in response, which he reciprocated and then burst out laughing.

Pulling the running hose out of a trough of water he filled my water bottles and then told me that the river was 200 metres down the road, ‘agua mineral!”, he exclaimed.

My eyes lit up at this news, not 2 kilometres, 200 metres he was saying, I double checked.  Then thinking to ask, can I camp there for the night?  “Si! Si!, no problemo!”

He was a jovial, shouty, confident man, in his element.

Sure enough, just a few hundred meters down the road was the river, parking the bike on the barrier, I looked around.  Fences everywhere, hmmm not good.  No trees but some large bushes and what was definitely lovely water in the river.

He did say I could camp here so surely he knows I’m going to have to jump the fence.

I had spent a good ten minutes scouting around and found the best compromise, I realised as I walked back to the road there was a gate in to this field that wasn’t locked.  As I got towards it, the gaucho and the young lad arrived on horseback with their dogs.  Checking once more, now it was obvious where I wanted to camp that it was ok.  It was.

Getting the bike to the camp spot, instead of unpacking, I just got out my water bag and filled it in the river so I didn’t have to go back.

Laying in the shade supping water until I needed a wee.

Then it dawned on me.

The most obvious thing.

I had missed it completely.

I realised I hadn’t had a wee all day, how on earth had I not realised this?  My urine was yellow, I was badly dehydrated.  I must have been when I left that morning, riding in the heat all day, compounding it, hand over fist.

It was so not like me.  I always drink a lot of water.  I don’t drink fizzy drinks or soft drinks, I just drink water all day.  Looking back over the weekend, for whatever reason, I must have not drunk a lot.  It would explain why I felt worse than I should have done after the booze.

The solution was obvious, drink loads of water and stay out of the sun, thankfully I could do both now.  I had trouble eating that evening, really not wanting to have my unappetizing concoction but knowing i needed the calories, I slowly made my way through it.

Putting this down to the heat and my bodies preoccupation with cooling itself rather than digesting food.
I had successfully drank plenty of water, needing the toilet three times that night told me so.

Wanting an easy ride the next day, I knew I wasn’t going to get it.

The ride to the next town of El Hueco wasn’t too bad, I made sure I drank plenty and stopped at the first house I saw, to refill my bottles.

In response to my request for water, I got “zinco pesos!”, at least the price was coming down!  My smile once more was reciprocated and my bottles filled from a running hose.  The sight of all that lovely water just running away into the soil for nothing making me slightly sad.

The town was bigger than I thought, I scouted around for some vegetables and came away with a chocolate bar.  I knew when I left town I was straight into a 400m climb and the thought of some chocolate later would help act like a carrot on a stick.

Watching the road grader trundle away up the hill I was about to embark on, improved my outlook.  At least the surface will be better than it was a half hour ago.  Seeing it coming back towards me after about ten minutes making me laugh.  Well at least a short section might not be too bad.


I was looking forward to the summit so I could have lunch.  As per every day for sometime, there were no clouds in the sky, the sun unrelenting, no where to rest in the shade in the barren landscape.

As I got to the top I looked around, nothing.  I just need something bigger than me that I can sit behind out of the sun.  It was well past my lunchtime and obvious I needed to eat so I wasn’t going to be picky.

Spotting a large rock, I say, large, it was bigger than any others.  I could see a reasonable shadow.  Staring at it from the side of the road I decided it would have to do.

Crouching down in as much of the shadow as I could, realising most of me was in it, apart from my head.

Not good.  That’s the bit that needs to be in the shade.

Leaning over, like I was resting my head on someone’s shoulder whilst sitting with my knees up around my chin then i was just out of the sun.  Chuckling at the ridiculousness of this I munched through cheese sandwiches and a very, very ripe pear.

The contorted position distracting me from how I was really feeling.  However I was now at the top, the next guaranteed water stop was the town of El Cholar, some 20km distant.  Yet again I thought I had enough water and set off on the downhill.

I got to the bottom much sooner than I hoped.  It meant I had further to cycle on the relatively flat part which meant it would take longer.

Passing dried up stream or river bed after another, not a drop to be found.

That morning before I left I was hoping to get past El Cholar today, to shorten the day after.  I knew by this point there was no way, I needed to get to a guaranteed water source and recuperate, once more.

Finally seeing the town, the metal roofs glinting in the sun,  I rolled to a stop at the first buildings.

Looking to my left there was a tourist information office, in this small town where there are no tourists?!

What is it doing there, it was situated up a hill, not 50m away, I sat there panting, like an overheating dog.

I could hear my brain chirping away, why did they put it up the sodding hill? What a stupid place to put it.

I could see a man by the office looking back at me, like he was willing me to come to him but saying nothing, just staring.  He probably thought that of me.

Becoming aware of a man in the front yard of a house talking at me, I turned towards him.  He beckoned me over.  I grabbed a water bottle and walked to him, he was jabbering away in Spanish.

Realising how whacked I was and that I wasn’t controlling my breathing very well, I stammered out ‘tienes agua por favor’.  Still talking at me, I couldn’t understand a word, he was talking so fast and my brain was on shut down mode.  There were two young lads there, one could understand my Spanish so he translated my Spanish to the older man.

Shown to a seat in the shade I thanked them profusely.  I really hadn’t realised how hard I must have been working over the last hour, I just sat there and tried to answer their questions as the world slowly came back into full focus.  It was only when the man returned with the water I realised he was drunk, his eyes bloodshot, slightly unsteady on his feet.  No wonder I couldn’t understand his Spanish.  He was a harmless, caring drunk though.  The best kind.

Clearly I wasn’t going any further that day and one of the young lads cycled with me to the municipal camping site, adjacent to the town’s football pitch.  I would be laughing in the morning as they used a road grading machine to level off the dirt pitch.

One more day and then a rest, I promised myself.  Rehydrated once more, carrying nearly 7 litres of water I set off for Chos Malal, nearly 50% further than the day before’s cycle.

This might seem foolhardy but the options were limited and I would end up 300 metres lower in altitude by the end of the day, hence more as to be down than up.  I hadn’t however appreciated how much up and down it would be.

I left at 9am, determined to get some riding done in the cool of the morning, before it was even 10am I was dripping sweat.  The first section out of the town was just up.  Motivating myself by saying at least I was doing it in the coolest part of the day.

The scenery became stunning, the road followed a canyon but a long way up from the river, clinging to the side of the steep walls.  I was pretty alone out there, a couple of cars passing an hour maybe.  At times stopping for a rest, I could hear the sound of silence.

No wind, hot sun, not a good combination.

The road was literally like a rollercoaster, never pausing on the flat, heading up or down, weaving back on itself, corkscrewing around the canyon walls.


A mixture of sand in places, rocks and always corrugations.  It was like sitting on a washing machine that had a missing foot.  Being bounced all around, the uphills which were sandy and corrugated were just tortuous. So draining to cycle on.

Eventually the road dropped down into a wide valley, time for lunch.  This occasion using some tall thin trees to get some shade. It hardly working, as the sun moved the small patches of shade moved with them.  The ground was full of sharp little twigs waiting to spike me.

There was however a tiny little stream of mostly stagnant water, no good for drinking but plenty good to dunk my shirt and cap in, soaking them, before putting them back on again.  The chill from the shirt as it went on feeling so good, it was heavy with water.  Knowing it wouldn’t last but it would provide some temporary respite I carried on.

It didn’t take long, maybe 5 or 6kms before the shirt was dry and I was feeling decidedly bad.  I felt nauseous, from the incessant bumps, my lunch and the heat.  The combination not proving a good mix.

It was hot, much more so than the previous two days.  I’m fair skinned, I go bronze, not brown in the sun, my genes are not optimised for these conditions.  Even so it was oppressively hot.

I was drinking water every few hundred metres, thinking I can’t go on.  I had found a line and gone over it, this was too much, my body was crying out that it couldn’t do this.

My options weren’t good, however there were a few cars passing, it was possible I could get a lift out of here.

Something inside me won’t allow that, even when things feel desperate, there must be a better option than giving up.  That’s how I see getting a lift; giving up.  Whether it is healthy or not to think that way, it’s how I feel.  I so badly don’t want to give up.

Coming to another dried up river bed that passed under the road I stopped, I had to get out of this sun.  There was enough room under the road to sit up in the shade.  Taking my shirt off I sat there, firstly getting my breathing back under control and my heart rate down.  Then starting to think through options whilst supping extremely warm water.  Everything seemed much better sitting in the shade, it wasn’t cool but it was so much better than in the sun.

Then a wind blew through the tunnel, cooling me directly, like someone was watching over me and was rewarding me for taking a break.

I don’t know how long I sat there but it was long enough for the wind to become a regular feature.  I felt refreshed, knowing I had at most 45 minutes to go to get back to the tarmac and Ruta 40 which would take me into the town of Chos Malal.

I hadn’t known it at the time as it was hidden behind a short rise, the majority of the remaining gravel road was downhill to the highway.  Rolling onto the tarmac, I was passed by two petrol tankers within a minute, reminding me the reason I went the ‘back’ way here.

The remaining kilometres on the tarmac into town felt so easy, I chuckled at the speed I was doing, even with a headwind, it seemed wrong somehow.

After finding somewhere to lie down in the dark and drink water for a day or so I looked at the current weather report on my phone.  At 5pm it was 33 degrees and more importantly the humidity was 5%.

Five per cent?

I’ve never seen that before.  No wonder I was suffering, presumably my sweat immediately evaporated and was why in the afternoon no matter how hard I was working I was dry as a bone.

My body was overheating, the intake of water keeping me hydrated enough but it couldn’t help me cool down.

Another lesson learned, they just keep coming, a never ending steeplechase.

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  7 Responses to “El Agua es Vida”

  1. Amazing to read mate – for some reason this post made me really, finally realise what you’re doing, and how big a deal it is…obviously I “understood” the thing you were doing, but I only just “got” it – if that makes sense.

    Keep going bud, and make sure you’re weeing all the time 😉

  2. Since you’re probably sweating like hell, make sure you get enough salt into your system. Or you’ll end up fealing weak with huge cramps 😉

    • Hi Jeroen,
      Thanks for the tip. I make sure I have an unhealthy amount of salt in my diet! It’s not difficult to do in this part of the world.

  3. Great reading Iain, it amazes me that even though you are pushing yourself close to many limits, you are still able to write a gripping account. Respect in spades from Palau (where it’s 95% humidity….) Keep going!

  4. […] time since the last post, El Agua es Vida, has been yet another tale of woe.  I’m not going to regale it at length once more.  […]

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