I had got in to a bit of a funk back in San Martin de los Andes. I didn’t quite limp into the town but arrived deflated, devoid of enthusiasm and energy with a unusual soreness on my right knee.
Before arriving I had decided to have at least a day off. This despite only having riden two days since my last day off. There was something peculair about the soreness in my knee and with a history of problems with that part of my body I was taking no chances.
When it comes to niggles, my rule of thumb is that I want one clear day when I don’t notice the niggle anymore before I continue. This is my self preservation check, designed to prevent myself from over doing it. Non-negotiable, it’s Standard Operating Procedure.
I stayed four nights. I was well rested when I left and my knee felt normal again.
Having had plenty of time to consider my route forward I went for the back roads, seeking less traffic, less people and in my book, more fun.
This was why I had crossed back into Argentina; to avoid the busy highway north in Chile. Seeking out the quiet roads in Argentina was therefore a no-brainer.
Turning off Ruta 40 at Junin de los Andes I immediately noticed the traffic die away. There was a clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight, hot but not excessively so, a little breeze providing some comfort.
That day I was aiming to reach the River Malleo. I reckoned on being able to camp at the junction that night, bridges over rivers are always a good possible location. Nearly always you can get down to the river, the fences don’t run all the way to the bridge. Water being the other major factor, this location was a good distance from any towns so I gambled on being able to drink the river water.
Normally I would only take water from streams that feed rivers, water coming down off the hills and mountains that I know is fresh as it is cold. Realising my options were more limited I decided to try the river water. Only drinking small amounts at first to see if my body reacted to it. I needn’t have worried.
The road I followed had a gentle incline for 150km following the River Alumine all the way up to it’s source in the mountains.
I often remark on the condition of the road, to myself, on this website and to people I speak to. I shout, I swear, I curse it sometimes.
Around the Lago Alumine, I laughed at it, mocked it, for being the worst piece of ‘road’ I had ridden on yet. It was basically a beach, with corrugations.
It was so bad it was fun.
Trying to cycle a loaded bicycle along deep sand that is corrugated is a challenge and a half. Speed is the answer, until it goes wrong….actually it’s not speed, it’s momentum I think.
If you can keep moving, you have a chance, stop and you are stuck. The main problem is you can’t really steer, not in the convential way.
You have to drift the bike, allowing the front wheel to slide, not panicing and trying to fight it, but using your weight to get the back to slide to counter the front. The result is a snake like movement forward, judging by the trail behind me, anyway.
The road was steep from that point. After about 5km, the road branched, I took the road less travelled as it headed north as opposed to east. My direction of choice.
The little traffic thinned out more.
Passed by the odd motorcyclist giving me the double thumbs up. I don’t mean with both hands off the handlebars, but a thumbs up, hand removed, then thumbs up reinstated. This has happened before, it always makes me smile. I take the gesture as ‘this road is going to get hard, fair play to you.’
The road was closely following the river, surrounded by monkey puzzle trees, giving me hope of a good camp tonight.
Cresting a rise, I was confronted with a wide open valley, the contrast made the valley look stunning, the camping options not so good.
The wind was blowing down that valley, thankfully in the direction I was travelling.
My speed that day had averaged down in single figures, a very slow day. I wasn’t concerned, I thought this section might be slow and I knew the following day wouldn’t be.
Getting to the other end of the wide valley, just after passing someone’s house masquarading as a ‘shop’ (I use that term in it’s losest sense), I saw what looked like a good camp spot and called it a day.
Now the nights are drawing in and sundown is around 8pm I thought it about time I try some star gazing.
Normally I’m asleep by the time it’s dark enough or in a town where the light ruins the show. That evening I was at around 1600m with no light sources for kilometres.
Before it got dark I cleared an area of grass of sheep and cow dung so I had somewhere to lay down and look at the stars. A beautiful clear night, as ever, gave me what I was after, I even saw something cut across the sky, burning up in the atmosphere, before disappearing.
Shortly after setting off in the morning, I was bizarrely passed by a minibus towing a trailer full of lightweight racing bicycles. We were a long way from tarmac and I had no idea what he was doing out here, the passenger gave what I think was a triple thumbs up!
I crawled the final 10km up to the summit, somewhere around 1800m. Taking around an hour and a half.
What followed was the longest downhill of my life. The first 10km were on the bumpy gravel road and took half an hour. I then reached the tarmac, stretching out before me was 40km of downhill.
Time to pump the tyres up hard, eat, drink and check everything was securely fastened down.
Turning on to the tarmac, the grin spread across my face as the whirring from the hubs increased in pitch and volume, before I had even turned the pedals.
There were two slight hills I hadn’t bargained for but that aside it was downhill all the way. The 40km including the two small climbs took just over an hour. The tailwind had helped push me along even the remotely flat parts at speeds that my bike was undergeared for.
At the bottom, well overdue a lunch stop and a decision to make I reached a junction.
Straight on was Las Lajas, just 10km away and with this tailwind, I would be there in no time at all.
Left would take me towards Loncopué, what I thought was 50km away.
The factor that was preventing a decision was Las Lajas was just a rest stop to me, it was the wrong direction. After a day or two resting, I would be coming back this way. I was struggling to get past the thought that the 20km round trip was a waste of time/energy.
I couldn’t make a decision like this on an empty stomach, but the sun was beating down and I could see no where for some shade.
Stuck in two minds, I gambled and went left towards Loncopué, desperately seeking some shelter so I could eat. Luckily there were the remains of a building, mostly demolished, but providing a big enough slither of shade for me to rest and eat.
I wouldn’t make Loncopue that night, it was too far cumulatively on top of today’s distance I had already done, despite the 50km downhill.
However I had enough food to rustle up something for dinner and I could make Loncopue for lunch the next day.
What about water?
I had two litres left. My map showed the road joined the river some distance ahead, with promises of two tributaries coming in to it. They seemed further than I thought.
Something was wrong with my distances.
I was around 10km out, it must be 60km or more to Loncopué.
Tired, confused, I wasn’t completely sure anymore.
I was also slightly worried about the wind, it was blowing fast and hard, taking me back to the bad old days on Tierra del Fuego. In fact the scenery was in someway similar, only now I had the sun beating down and no clouds in the sky.
I was going to have to cycle into the wind for a few kilometres but then, if it didn’t change direction, would be a sidewind at worse….oh how I can convince myself of things to give me the answer I want.
The road would also enter the protection of a wide canyon after some 20km more, surely offering some shelter from that wind. Another wild supposition stated as fact, in my argument, to myself.
Decision made, I would try and manage another 30km, find water, camp, complete the remaining distance in the morning.
It wasn’t long before my first litre had gone and I was down to my last bottle.
Concerned, but not overly worried as there were plenty of vehicles on this road should I need help. Reasonably confident in my shoddy earlier reasoning.
Upon reaching the entry to the canyon I wasn’t so confident.
The wind certainly hadn’t died down, it was now in my face and I was quickly getting through that last litre.
Spotting a plastic water bottle by the side of the road, containing liquid, I stopped.
Strapping it to the front pannier before getting going again. I quickly thought, ‘why not see if it is actually water first, then just put it in one of your empty bottles instead of carrying it?’.
Taking a quick sip, it was very warm but it was definitely water, thankfully…there was only about a quarter of a litre but it was something.
Half an hour later I was approaching a pick up truck driving slowly towards me on the gravel shoulder. Eager not to look a gift horse in the mouth, I stopped them and asked if they had water.
But they knew where I could get some!
Conversing in Spanglish, myself and the passenger translated each other’s mime into their own language.
He was telling me there was a small river a few kilometres in the direction i was going in.
It didn’t have any water in it though.
But there was a pipe with a ‘tap’ that was fresh water from the mountain.
After double checking the directions he was giving me, the driver, his father I guess, said we will show you where it is. Muchos gracias senors!
I carried on, they went the other way, before passing me five minutes later, waving but driving slowly. I was hoping they weren’t expecting me to keep up.
As I rounded a bend I could see they had stopped next to the road in the distance. I pulled up next to them, alongside the dry stream bed, looking at the big black snake of a pipe that wound under the road.
Grabbing all my bottles and water bag, as I wanted enough to camp that night and get going in the morning, I got down under the road. The son then promptly removed a cap, rather than turn a tap and water freely gushed out this pipe disappearing into the earth.
Oh! I quickly filled my bottles and water bag so he could put the cap back on before anymore than necessary was wasted.
I would never have thought, or dared, to have taken that cap off myself. Very glad they had crossed my path and I had asked for help.
Confirming it was about 30km further to Loncopué, it was time to find somewhere to camp and drink my abundance of water.
In hindsight, this was the first shot across my bows to think carefully about how much water I have and how much I am drinking.
The environmental conditions had changed and I hadn’t picked up on it. The sudden change in conditions is something I’ve not been keeping up with. I’m entering environments I’ve not been in before, let alone exercised all day in.
A reminder to keep on top of my health and to monitor it because there isn’t anyone else to do that. The days ahead would demonstrate that to me loud and clear.