I arrived in Punta Arenas, toasty warm, after a two and a half hour ferry crossing from Porvenir.
Wanting nothing more than somewhere to rest for a few nights, I went to a hostel that had been recommended by another cyclist. They had no beds but I could camp in the garden. Bugger.
It was the worst camp spot of the trip so far. Hardly any room, uneven ground and the wind was swirling around the enclosed yard like a demented monster. Along with having to hammer in a peg of the tent door during the night, slicing a bit off my thumb in the process, it wasn’t a restful nights sleep. Thankfully I got to spend the following two nights in a warm bed.
On leaving Punta Arenas, bound for Puerto Natales, I felt I had been rushing around for the last few days. I should have stayed an extra night. Mentally, at least, I wasn’t rested. A bike weighed down with five days worth of food didn’t help.
The wind was kind that morning, helping me along that first hour until I was well out of the city and back into the barren landscape. The kind of inhospitable, intimidating scenery that reminded me how insignificant a person is in nature.
Twice, I crossed valleys that were completely flat for around 20km. No where to hide, no where to run, no shelter. I just had to keep going and trust that I would get to the other side and relative safety at some point.
Approaching Morro Chico on the Sunday, I noticed in my mirror a cyclist catching me. In these parts cyclists always stop for others to pass tips on shelter, where to get water and just to say hello. I slowed up until I was caught by Jose, a Chilean teacher who was on his holidays. Clearly mental as he lives in Punta Arenas and knows what the weather is like but still chose to start his cycling trip here!
We got acquainted over lunch, sat in the dirt in an abandoned barn outside a police station. Myself having cheese sandwiches, tuna and rice for Jose. We cycled the rest of that day together, into the wind, taking it in turns to lead. Both of us having enough at the same time. Upon spotting a few small trees and bushes decided it would suffice as tonight’s accommodation. Climbing in and out of a couple of large ditches to get to it was worth the extra effort for the shelter it provided.
In the morning, just as we were about to set off, another cyclist, Jan from Norway, arrived. We had actually seen him (although didn’t know it at the time) curled up in a sleeping bag asleep in a bus shelter the previous afternoon. My solo cycle become a threesome as we took it in turns to lead and break the wind.
My normal pace was a lot slower than these two guys and I didn’t have the power on the hills that they did.
It was touch and go at times whether it was worth the extra effort to stay on a wheel or just drop back and use that effort for the wind. A cruel ultimatum to have.
Jan and I camped early on Monday afternoon while Jose continued on to Puerto Natales. There wasn’t much socialising, as soon as the tents were up the rain came. We both squirreled ourselves away in our respective tents only emerging to cook dinner.
A tough following morning got us both into Puerto Natales for a four night Christmas break.
On Saturday, with a good weather forecast, Jan went to Torres del Paine National Park. I left for El Calafate, once more a five day leg with no resupply.
That morning, leaving Puerto Natales I felt strangely alone again. Having spent just two days with other cyclists, I still felt exposed leaving on my own despite the vast majority of the trip so far being spent alone.
It was a long hard climb up to the Chilean border post of Dorotea. I crossed back into Argentina and enjoyed the free ride down to the Argentine town of Rio Turbio and my source of food for the next five days.
Leaving town, I headed into a darkening sky which soon changed to a rain filled one. It was a dirty road passing an industrial plant of some nature, the scenery being full of ugly scars on the hills, mud everywhere.
Turning back on to Ruta 40, I soon escaped the rain, left alone with my thoughts as I climbed slowly but easily up a valley. The wind deciding to have a day off from tormenting me. Once more, camping by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I felt safe again. Helped by using the relief of the land to shield me from the road and elements.
The next day was monotonous, back to rolling open land with nothing there, apart from ridges teasing you into thinking that is the high point. I arrived at a junction of the road, called Tapi Aike. It is named on the map but there is no town. There was a petrol station, a police house and a road workers house.
I had been told it was possible to stay here. I asked at the house and was led to a Portocabin on wheels and shown a bed!
Being inside makes so much difference to my mental state. I spend far too much time worrying about the weather. Constantly scanning the surrounding land for spots to shelter from the wind, even if just for a ten minute break. My other major worry is rain. I hate it. Being wet is a sure fire way of getting cold and all that implies. It also makes cooking next to impossible. I never like being wet, cold and hungry.
The Portocabin on wheels calmed these worries in a stroke.
Having enough water is my other major worry. You need water more than anything, running out is something I am paranoid about. I always try to carry more than enough to cater for unforeseen circumstances. In the mountains I have no problem with just taking directly from streams but not in this flat agricultural land full of sheep and cows polluting the water. The opportunity to fill up with water, always gratefully accepted.
Monday came and I was up before dawn, wanting to leave early as I expected it to be a long hard day. The wind was always worse in the afternoon.
Today’s ride was over a long gravel road (ripio) heading for another road workers camp and possible safety. The road was really bad, a lot of extra effort required to ride, never being able to roll, hitting big rocks, bouncing you this way and that. Constantly trying to find the flattest part of the road to ride on, often weaving around. It didn’t matter what side of the road I was cycling on. I didn’t see another living soul for the first two and a half hours.
Of course, as I got close to my destination the weather decided not to let me go easy. I could see the storm clouds coming my way. They were dark and menacing, the type to run away from. The type I run from. Despite the vague promise of somewhere safe to get to, I was desperate not to get caught in the rain. Doing the one thing I hate doing.
I pressed on.
Getting more and more wound up by the road surface deteriorating and the wind, slowing me down. I kept looking over my shoulder at the clouds, further demoralising me.
I looked one to many times and the wind blew my unbalanced self into the deep gravel. The inevitable over correction as the gust dropped slid the front wheel from under me, I knew enough about what was happening to jump off and let the bike crash to the floor. Never a good idea, unfortunately for the bike, my health and well being take precedence.
My frustration well and truly boiling over, roaring animal noises at the wind, at the road, at nothing at all.
Shouting at myself to stop and take a breath.
Ignoring myself I immediately tried to go again and dropped the bike in the gravel once more. Just about realising I was spiralling out of rational action. I managed to get a breath, take a drink and start off once more.
A building came into view, a few kilometres in the distance, realising it must be the road workers camp I tried to slow down as my heart was pounding and my breathing rapid. Not wanting to immediately stop that level of exertion and the inevitable painful surge of lactic acid through my muscles, I slowed as I approached. It felt like an age covering that last final kilometre, the wind battering me, teasing me, keeping my goal just out of reach.
When I arrived I was greeted by a friendly Argentine man, my basic Spanish keeping up a stilted conversation with him. He was the only one there, a lonely existence. Once he realised I wanted to stay for the night, despite it being 2pm, he showed me to a small building. For a fee of just over one US dollar I could stay for the night. There was even a mattress on the bed.
Two nights inside, sheltered from the elements, two beacons of light to me, vastly helping to soothe my worries.
Leaving in the morning, later than planned, two nights inside making me lazy, carrying enough water just for the day. There was a hotel I would reach in the afternoon where I had been told I could get water.
Arriving at the hotel (Rio Bote) that afternoon, my spirits dropped when I realised it was an ex-hotel. It was closed down.
I needed water.
Knocking on the doors of the various buildings it was obvious someone lived in one and was around somewhere. I tried in vain to find someone, shouting out, knocking on the doors. It was no good, no one was in earshot.
Turning the handle of the front door, it opened. Shouting hola with the door open, still no one came.
I could see the kitchen sink.
Stuck in two minds. To enter someone’s home and take water from them without permission or to walk away with no other options I knew of to get water.
My need for water was too great. I went in and filled my bottles from the tap. Embarrassed, I quickly left.
The road, from here, went directly west towards El Calafate, my destination. There were very few opportunities for camp spots. In the end, picking a spot that was below the level of the road and what I thought was sheltered from the wind. Lots of flies and sharp grass hardly made it ideal but I had been looking for a while and had seen nothing better.
Facing my tent parallel to the road, west, to take the brunt of any wind that came, I went to sleep.
Although I didn’t sleep.
The rain came and then the wind. The tent was flapping all over the place, eventually freeing itself from one of the pegs.
Having to get out of the tent in the night is something I really try to avoid, doing it in the wind and rain is reserved for when there is no choice.
Come dawn, it sounded still outside the safety of my tent, I had a lie in, getting up at 7am. I got out the tent and was immediately scared by the sky. Huge, black menacing clouds loomed all around me. Frightened enough to bypass my morning coffee, I sprinkled the instant coffee powder on to my breakfast oats to speed things up.
My frightened demeanour subsided as I got moving. Instead of scaring me, I could now soak in the beauty of the landscape. The threatening sky framing the rolling hills and high ridgelines, reminding me of parts of Scotland. Images of home are always a sure fire way of calming my nerves, it’s the familiar that creates the illusion of safety.
The rain never came, I managed to relax a bit, took my time, treating the morning as a recovery ride, helping the body recover from a couple of hard days.
My thoughts turning to the pleasure of the ride, where nature threatens but ends up entrancing.
After all, it is that feeling that led me here.