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

Location: London. Back.

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

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Sleeping around

Who'd have guessed the first three nights on the road would be in beaver country, in a bakery and at a crime scene?

Well, as Liz's recent updates have already told you, we are under way.  On bikes.  Properly.  The bikes work, we appear to work, and we've tucked away a decent distance - getting on for halfway across Tierra del Fuego (even writing that feels rather exciting somehow - we're so lucky to be here!).  Liz has, I think, defied her expectations and worst fears and has gone from 'embryonic' cyclist to fully fledged ciclista in very few days.  She's outpaced me for good chunks, which doesn't in itself mean she's the next Lance Armstrong (and my excuse for some of it was a slow puncture!), but it does mean we seem well matched for going a long way on our steeds.

[Incidentally, she has now christened her bike: Winifred la Pinguina - named after her late grandmother and her favourite of the animals we've encountered so far... in that order]

The story so far: we set off to a rousing reception from Mark Beaumont, fresh from his mountainous conquest of our route in the other direction and a whole day of media interviews, and the wonderful Steve and Sarah Blake, adventurers all.  Mark was fantastically generous with his time, enthusiasm and knowhow, even after getting up the day after arriving at 5am for a BBC Breakfast interview from his hotel room.  Great man with more incredible adventures ahead no doubt.

Once we were finally on the road, we kept the first day conservative, and ended up at the foot of the Paso Garibaldi after 34km.  On day 2, having swept gracefully(ish) up this 9km, 430m pass we hastened on through flattening country, leaving the snow capped peaks behind us but never quite altogether.  For much of the afternoon we tracked along an undulating road (all smooth and tarmac so far) that followed the royal blue Lago Fagnano, much like a Norwegian fjord.  At the end of it was Tolhuin, a town we'd almost feared didn't exist on our way through on the bus, but which we rather fell in love with.

First stop was the Panaderia la Union - an 'obligatory stop' according to one book.  We were greeted by Emilio Saez, local superhero who both thrives on and plays down the adulation of the town.  His bakery is far more than that: he set it up 25 years ago when Tolhuin was 150 people strong and it is now the throbbing heart of a town of 5000 with more than a whiff of Twin Peaks about it.  Today its walls are covered in pictures of him with Argentine celebrities, and 24 hours a day you can enjoy its neon strip lights to buy bus tickets, use telephones or internet, meet friends, or just hang out and eat sticky buns as we did.

We didn't stay up late enough for the asado he kindly invited us to, but we did make full use of the small cyclists' bunk room (small room, not small cyclists, thankfully) and spotlessly clean bathroom he has built into the corner of the flour warehouse (see photos - you couldn't make it up) .  Our clothes that we washed and hung on a wooden ladder over a heater ended up with white, flour go- faster stripes!

Emilio is keen to establish an exchange scheme with the Falklands/Malvinas for linguistic/diplomatic purposes, which seems especially topical at the moment.  Within days he had achieved part of this generous aim of shrinking the world slightly: we later learnt that Andy Seiss, whom we ran into the next day, and who has cycled from Minnesota in just 5 months, has been given work there.

After breakfast, I went to buy some 'quick' lunch supplies.  I hadn't reckoned on Pancho.  Pancho is a true gent, who lost a fortune in the divorce courts and now runs a wonderfully rambling little corner shop.  But that's not the half of it.  I had half an hour in there discussing, among other things, the ubiquity of Shakespeare's themes and his interviews with the likes of Borges and Sabato during his journalistic career, and being shown his radio studio through the back of the shop.  I kid you not, he is currently broadcasting to Tolhuin, but plans to go Tierra del Fuego-wide.  If he has a customer, he puts on music to kill time over the airwaves.  As a Shakespeare fanatic, you can't imagine his excitement when I introduced him to Liz, the infamous former RSC actress...

We did 60km on day 3.  On the way, we ran into Andy and his new cycling buddy Marcelo, who had joined him in Chile, and another highlight was Steve and Sarah stopping their car on their way North to make us a roadside cup of tea with their camping stove.  Nectar.  That was just as we were presented with a new joy - rain.  It drizzled on us for much of the afternoon, a gentle introduction but one that made us happy to get to the Camping John Goodall that we had spotted on the way past in the bus South a few days back.

But we didn't know about the Camping John Goodall...

It had the feel of somewhere strangely deserted.  The low, dead trees were covered in rather mournful moss, and the chain across the double white entrance gates was hardly welcoming.  What we hadn't spotted was the 'Peligro' red and white police tape blowing in the wind.  We found a half built shack with a roof and four walls and set to work erecting our tent out of the rain, tying guy ropes to bits of timber and round oil drums, and getting the camp stove going.  That was when Marco arrived.  Marco is a policeman, with a huge grin and a huger gun strapped to his thigh.  We made friends with him, and he explained the story: that the place had been closed shortly after a 3 year old girl had disappeared there in September 2008, an unsolved riddle that apparently resonates here like Madeleine McCann in the UK.  We had completely failed to make the link between the pictures pinned up in windows everywhere and this campsite's sad fate.  The whole area is still being investigated by police, geologists, you name it.  We had picked the worst possible place to camp!

Marco sweetly brought us two cups of coffee from the tinny police caravan next door and said he'd speak to his colleague who was taking on the next watch from 8pm to 2am about us staying.  Luckily, Francisco was just as good about it, and we got to stay and enjoy an excellent meal of Knorr alphabet soup, 4 cheeses rice with chorizo and kiwi fruit in our 'dining room'.  It was only the next morning that Liz and I admitted that we'd both been quite freaked out at the concept of a little girl manifesting herself with nobody else there but Francisco, not least when one of the wedges of wood we'd used to prop plastic sheeting over the windows had crashed down at about 2am!

We sneaked away just as the next watch arrived at 8am looking stern.  'No se puede acampar aca' - what, us, camp here?  You must be joking...  A sub-par night's sleep was not the best way to prepare for our next introduction: headwinds.  As described by Liz, a concept even more fierce even on a normal day than we had feared.  Luckily, we stopped off shortly after starting day 4 in the Estancia Viamonte to ask for water, and there ran into Adrian Goodall, a direct descendant of Lucas Bridges, the author of The Uttermost Part of the Earth , who actually built the estancia.  What a fascinating stop off it turned out to be.

Far from just filling our bottles, we were introduced to his daughter Christina, who is married to Tomas who now runs the farm, and several of his grandsons in the kitchen whose ancient aga and storage pots suggested reassuringly little had changed since the early days.  It must be quite like being brought up in the far North of Scotland, with all its many pros and some undeniable cons.

Adrian took us on a tour of the estancia.  We saw the rusty old steam engine, which powered the sheering shed until 1961, the huge kitchen building which at one point fed 60 employees who worked the 100,000 hectares and 40,000 sheep (today around half the number of sheep have to make do with, 'oh, about 35km that way'), plus the working sheering building.  This huge shed is little changed, and it was fascinating to see Tomas and a couple of other farmhands sheering the part corrodale, part merino flock.  The smell of the wool bales was intoxicating, but didn't make us giggle nearly as much as the adjoining artificial insemination lab, which was unique, in allowing the lab technician to be able to do everything from the lab via a sheep sized hole in the wall!  We were incredibly lucky to be able to see all this in action, not least to see the source of our merino kit trotting to and from the sheers.

The morning stuttered to begin - shortly after Viamonte, we came across fantastically 'keeping-it-real' Aussies Ross and Kalindra, who had taken up a stake out position on a bleak part of the rocky beach the previous day to keep an eye on an Antarctic penguin who had decided to set up camp on the beach, and to clean up the area from rubbish.  They have been living out of the back of their 'ute' and have yet to pay for one night in their six months in Argentina and Chile.  They are travelling properly, making sometimes glacial progress, but doing it on a shoestring and clearly thriving, with some fabulous tales to tell.  And they make a mean cup of tea.

And so on to Rio Grande, into headwinds that saw us often progressing at barely walking pace.  We realised just how strong it was when we sped the last 10km into town with the wind at our backs, still feeling it behind us as we hit 35kph and got into the top half of our gears for the first time all day.  Rightly or wrongly, we have decided our day off was earned...


  1. Hi guys.

    Slightly concerned by the playlist... as someone who is regularly subjected to Dolly Parton's Greatest hits to placate the girls, there are some worring long-term effects. Try mixing in a bit of techno... how about the Prodigy: the miles will fly by!

  2. Loving your updates and very impressed with the photography.

  3. South America is much in the news - I make no connection with your presence there ;-). Hope things continue to go as well as your start - the pix are fantastic. I am envious of course... Loving the blogs. Keep pedalling, Lovelies.


  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Well done you two - woof woof!!

  6. All gone worryingly quiet - hope all well?
    So exciting so far

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