Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)
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Saturday, 13 February 2010

Heading South

[Phil] I'm writing this as we sit in comfort in the 'Coche Cama' section of a bus heading through sunny Patagonia to Rio Gallegos; team policy is not to slum it too much yet. I cannot recall a corner or a tree since we left the outskirts of Trelew a couple of hours ago, nor can I see that changing for some time. Extending out to the horizon on both sides is an endless expanse of nothing. Barren, dry scrub land, dotted uniformly with a carpet of only the hardiest scrubby shrubs and tufty grass. Nothing can be bothered to grow above waist high. But there is wildlife. I just spotted a couple of nandus – emu like rhea birds which stand about 4ft high and trot around minding their own business in these parts.
Since we left Buenos Aires a couple of days ago, it's been busy. Our basic aim is to get to the start line, but this being over 3000km South of BA, on a separate bus to our bikes, it was always going to take a while. We headed first down through the stunning Pampas, setting out on Wednesday afternoon. Huge skies, and endless miles of flat land, but in the Pampas, of course, it is endlessly fertile. We passed massive fields of soya and rather unhappy looking sunflowers, which these days break the beautiful monotony of the traditional cattle herds. Occasional white gates led down long avenues of poplars and eucalyptus to estancias huddled within clusters of trees, and we passed through a number of rural town with their industrial seed companies and dusty truck stops.

A typically stunning sunset was followed by dinner on board and a couple of rather good DVDs – long distance Argentine buses are not the 'South American' ones you imagine, no chickens clucking about the luggage racks here. We both slept soundly on beds that recline flat, although I needed to improvise a bit with our luggage to ensure they extended to 6ft 6!

On arriving in Puerto Madryn, around 1400km South of BA, we sprang to life like coiled springs. We negotiated a deal on a little white car to hire for the day, and headed straight out to the Peninsular Valdes, one of Argentina's natural jewels. Neither of us had been before, and it was a treat. We drove nearly 500km in the day, half of which over the kinds of long, wide, straight gravel roads – 'ripio', as they are known – that we had better get used to. The trick is to keep the wheels as much as possible in the tracks that have been worn by other drivers and avoid losing your teeth over the corrugated iron type rattly bits. This was just a means to an end, though – the end was the wildlife.

We went first to the Punta Piramides. We could smell the whiff of fish and hear noises from what we assumed were a mixture of sea cows and sea sheep even before we looked down from our cliff top perch. The sea lion colonies were clustered in families, alpha males towering above their harems of women, and little groups of tiny, new born graphite coloured cubs splashing around in rock pools. There must have been 300-400 all doing their thing, just being sea lions. Occasionally they would flop down the rocks into the sea, where you could see them transform from sumo wrestlers waddling on shore into the sleekest of Olympic swimmers. Otherwise, they just hung out, looking after each other in groups of a few dozen, snuggling up with each other in the sun against a backdrop of spectacularly eroded cliffs and sapphire blue water. The only interruption came from the odd attempt by a young male to invade another's harem – invariably beaten off with a flap of a flipper. Amazing to watch.

We drove on to see more, further North at Punta Norte, the furthest flung reach of the 4000 sq. km peninsular. It is the breeding ground for a number of species, including right whales, which sadly aren't around at this time of year. Nor did we see the killer whales that – at high tide – can be seen snatching sea lions from the beach. But we did see even more sea lions at even closer quarters, strung out in more families along a beach that Liz said could have been Chesil Beach – wild, windswept and raw, with almost nobody else around. Because the wire separating us from the animals is so minimal, nobody goes beyond – it's enough just to be there and watch.

We drove on South, and after an hour or so more of gravel roads, we came to the penguins. We had assumed that if we found them, it would be at a distance, but how wrong we were. We pulled off the road and almost fell over them, as they walked up to within a few feet of us, totally in their own habitat. Hundreds of them, waddling around like Buenos Aires waiters. They live in holes in the sandy slopes that run down to the water, and would pop in and out. Every so often one would pull his wings back, thrust out his chest, point his head up and let out a cawing call. Liz was thoroughly excited by seeing them. And actually, so was I. Brilliant.

Our last stop was the elephant seals. Huge, blubbery, immobile, but fantastic. We saw a group of 8 or 10, lying huddled together by the water's edge – so far as we could make out, in order to avoid having to haul their great bulk too far from the sea. Not unlike some of the cruise liner passengers we'd spotted earlier in the day.

Then it was time to head back to the mainland, which meant 3 hours of driving into the slow sunset through the sparse Patagonian landscape, following the ripio until the tarmac began again, and the infinite lines of telegraph poles. We drove on to Trelew, where we spent the night at Hotel Touring – a step back into the 1930s, with a completely unchanged bar that could only be photographed in sepia, and rooms that haven't been upgraded much since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed there during their Patagonian hideout.

This morning, we headed a few kms down the road to Gaiman. Gaiman is a small Welsh colony – there is a heavy Welsh influence around those parts dating back to the 19th century settlers, and the place is a bit like arriving in small village in Snowdonia. The streets are called things like Calle Michael Jones and Calle Juan Evans, and there are tea rooms which avoid being kitsch selling Welsh cake. Several of the houses are built so as to look like Welsh miners' cottages and corrugated iron rooves abound. We walked through a pitch dark tunnel that the early railway men had carved into one of the low cliffs that wrap around Gaiman, but which never quite earned its railway line. Quite surreal, but we photographed several red dragons and ate fruitcake.

Our current bus onwards was delayed in leaving by 90 minutes, and we may be delayed by rather more in starting on the bikes. The tracking system that we checked at the bus station told us that our bikes are still in Buenos Aires – contrary to what the nice men in the freight office vowed to us when they gave us our word that they'd be in Rio Gallegos within hours of our arrival. We are investigating constructive ways to spend the next few days, as Rio Gallegos is not a natural tourist hot spot...

POST SCRIPT - I'm only now posting this about 24 hours later, following a good night's sleep on the bus and a day looking at our options and wandering the streets of a windy Rio Gallegos. We've just discovered that in fact we'll be spending a couple of extra days here, as the first bus that will take our bikes - which did appear at the freight department of the bus station this morning, phew - is on Tuesday morning. Bit of time to catch up with ourselves, and we are looking on the bright side!

2 comments:

  1. sounds amazing - thank you for sharing it all.

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  2. Penguins... "Hundreds of them, waddling around like Buenos Aires waiters." You, Mr B, have made my day. Bon voyage from India..!

    ASL

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