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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Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It´s the End of the World...

I mentioned today to Liz, as we paddled symbolically on a stony beach opposite Ushuaia´s harbour, that something ´wasn´t the end of the world´.  And then I realised, actually it is.  We are here.  You can´t go any further South without taking to the southern oceans and heading for Antarctica.  And yet, looking at the last couple of days, it´s about as unbleak as you can get.  Until the clouds rolled over the snow capped peaks that form the backdrop to surely one of the world´s most stunning city locations, we hadn´t seen a cloud in two days since leaving Rio Gallegos.  Whilst I worked this morning on extricating our bikes from by now two rather tatty cardboard bike boxes, it was properly hot.

We are staying in a fabulous B&B up the hill from the town - Alejandro and Frances have been the consummate hosts and allowed us to test our tent on the lawn, tinker with the bikes and make ourselves at home.  All seems very normal and homely until we look up and see the mountains looming over us all round, and the opal blue of the harbour down below, with more snowy wastelands across the water.

It´s the colours that have been striking us most over the last couple of days.  Yesterday, we spent almost 14 hours on (and off) the bus from Rio Gallegos marvelling at what we were seeing.  And there was more of the same today, albeit without the travelling.  Rio Gallegos, for all that the guide books write it off as somewhere best passed through, really grew on us in its understated way and began this frenzy of colour.  An enforced 3 day break there no doubt did us good, and allowed us to wander blocks that would switch suddenly from looking like a downtrodden back street of Baltimore - all breeze block houses, stray dogs and rusting cars - to neatly kept little corrugated iron-clad homes painted with all manner of bright colours.

Yes, the wind was pretty continuous and unnerving to those about to jump on a bike, not least on the banks of the Rio Gallegos itself.  But we found a fantastic restaurant overlooking the rolling hills of Patagonia on the far bank for Valentine´s night, and the Patagonian lamb and Malbec helped soothe our windphobia.  Central Cafe catered to all our coffee and wifi needs for a couple of very agreeable afternoons, overlooking the main Calle Roca.  However, by the time we waved it goodbye yesterday, we were ready to leave.  Brian, the brilliant Aussie whom we spent a lot of time with, had had a week there waiting for his bike to arrive from ´just´ 700km up the coast, and admitted that he was close to losing the plot.  Fortunately, it did get there finally yesterday and he was able to start his own solo northbound voyage.  Thank you, Brian, for improving Rio Gallegos immeasurably.

Anyway, back to those colours - wow.  Everything comes to life under bright blue skies, but out here it´s something else.  We saw every kind of scenery - in fact, we had to laugh: a couple of hours after I´d said to Liz that the only scenery we hadn´t seen was mountains, what should loom up but the mountain range behind Ushuaia.  You can´t believe the number of different shades of green grass, straw coloured tufty plants, yellow gorse, violet heather, and bright blue lagoons.  All in what is meant to be ´bleak´.  We went seemingly forever along both tarmac and gravel, sometimes dead straight with infinite horizons, sometimes weaving our way up and down roads that the Road Runner would thrive on.

Sometimes it would make you think of how New Zealand is meant to be, sometimes more like Iceland´s raw beauty.  In the completely uninhabited stretches, when it looked as though a rough wool blanket had been thrown over the distant hills, Mongolia would come to mind (I´ve never been to any of those places, though!).  Then it would make you think of the backlands of Montana, as lonely estancias popped up from time to time.  They all looked slightly as though they knew they´d got away with it - it should be impossible to bring building materials this far, or make a living here, so their corrugated iron rooves and walls would tend to look in need of a decent lick of paint, but the neat settlements still look stunning against such rugged landscapes.

Maybe best of all yesterday, though, was the fauna rather than the wild flora and geography.  We had already seen nandu-rhea-emus trotting around, but now they came cheaper by the dozen.  It was the same with the llama-like guanacos, which we noticed have a tendency to find a high spot and stand looking down on the world, a bit like one of those cut-outs of Spanish bulls in Spain.  They canter elegantly, and we spotted them a couple of times hurdling the fences (put in to control them, we think) with all the athletism of Red Rum crossed with Jessica Ennis - sort of.  Lovely to watch, anyway.

When we got to the short and millpool-calm crossing of Straits of Magellan, we saw black and white dolphins jumping out of the water alongside the ferry.  They were joined by penguins bobbing around in the water as we drew in to Tierra del Fuego proper.  And perhaps most surprising of all, flocks (?!) of bright pink flamingos standing to attention in several of the crystal clear lagoons that we passed.  Even non-bird watchers couldn´t help be impressed by the huge birds of prey that would circle above and occasionally perch on a fence post to preen themselves.  Then there were the desert foxes, squadrons of geese flying overhead, swans...  Sitting in the two front seats upstairs in the bus, it was like an Imax cinema.

Today, it´s been Ushuaia - there can´t be many more dramatic places to build a city.  And it´s a thriving place now.  You definitely sense a whiff of success here, with plenty of people who have made an educated choice to be here, in the freshest of air and most dramatic of scenery.  We must just hope that the huge casino under construction further along the coast doesn´t mark the start of something less wholesome.

We saw several fully loaded motorbikes heading off in what can only be a northly direction, which brought into the focus the meaty bit of this trip.  Our bikes.  They are in one piece and almost ready to roll, but the last 2 hours of the bus drive yesterday gave us cause for concern...  The Garibaldi Pass, it turns out, is a 700m climb from sea level, and effectively the first 40km or so will be lightly, or not so lightly, uphill.  This caused a few intakes of breath from both of us.  I think Liz got some sleep, but I´m not entirely sure!  Fortunately, the supermarket is giving us plenty of ideas for culinary excitement, mostly out of packets, so we will just take it slowly and steadily till we are over the pass.  The rest of Tierra del Fuego is flat, but the wind may become an issue.  All will become clearer on Friday.

For now, we have one more day of pre-bike.  We are planning to welcome Mark Beaumont to Ushuaia tomorrow.  He is the former world record holder for circumnavigating the globe on a bike, and we have been following his progress from Alaska to here, via the peaks of Mount MacKinley and Aconcagua.  Watch out for his BBC documentary next month - you can find out more at www.bbc.co.uk/cyclingtheamericas.  We thought it would be fun to have the imaginary baton handed over to us, and quiz him about what lies ahead.  Although not too much detail might be a bonus...

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