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 March 2010

A Bike-By leg wax and other contradictions

I am tapping away on our laptop from a green leather crescent chair, in a wonderful 1970's cafe in central Neuquen, sipping a delicious coffee, nibbling in a ladylike manner on a sugar covered croissant and aware that in a matter of hours I will be erecting our green nylon (or teflon or rayon or krypton) tent, blowing up my own bed and preparing for a wet wipe shower somewhere unknown, shortly into 604 kilometres (I like to be very specific) of near perfect emptiness.

Such are the contrasts of this trip. Each day is a mini Odyssey, without, in the main, the Homeresque thunder bolt wielding gods, nymphs or six headed monsters, but with plenty of rough and smooth.
And so to the leg wax. There are some standards a lady must maintain. Therefore Phil (his brilliant translation skills slightly tested by the Spanish for leg wax, depilation or hair removal - not sure there was much of that in Cervantes) found himself joining me on an Epic Quest in Zapala to find someone, anyone, with the requisite skills to render me rather more glamorous than I was becoming. We didn´t anticipate that this would be a Challenge Anneka type challenge. But we were wrong. The matter was complicated by the fact that Zapala is a town where literally ´the streets have no name´. You too, would have been perplexed! Some helpful human has obviously made it their life's work to remove every form of sign, label or any other indicating device from ALL the roads. This town, that has grown up in the middle of dusty nothingness since 1913 and is centered around a railway that terminated rather unexpectedly there having been meant to carry on to Chile, has a temporary feel. Perhaps the road sign makers, confident that one day it will just disappear, decided not to bother. And so, seeking the heavenly sounding 'Depiplus' involved a comic number of wrong turns, raised eyebrows and indistinct directions. We enquired in the paint shop, in a rival (full) salon and on the street and just as it seemed hopeless the least likely candidate in the world (although actually he was extraordinarily hairy so perhaps he was more intimately acquainted with Depiplus than one might imagine) gave us a definitive steer. It was on Ruta 22, the road we would be taking the next day. We went in and the completely charming owner understood my plight and agreed to strip my legs fur free the following morning at 8.30, allowing us to pop in as we headed on our way. We manifested ourselves duly at the appointed hour in full cycling pantage, bikes loaded and ready to go and I found myself yet again in a brilliant antithetical weirdness. One moment in a salon of water feature loveliness, being offered Mate by my quite brilliant wax technician (best wax ever girls) and having a sort of normal N1 life experience, the next back on my bike, legs cooking gently in the baking sun, out in the ´beyond Zapala´ emptiness.

And boy is it empty out there. Ever since we left Junin de los Andes a week ago and waved goodbye to lakes and trees we have seen a great deal of mind blowing emptiness. Emptiness on an epic scale. The sort of emptiness that allows you to see the road that you are going to be taking stretching ahead of you for 20/30 kilometres. Vastness so epic in fact, so magnitudinous and mighty, that it would genuinely not be a surprise to see the massive dinosaurs Phil described in his last blog, galumping round a corner. It is a landscape designed for that kind of massive beast, not for us mini creatures with our little legs whirring round and round.

This emptiness contains it´s ups and downs, both literal and metaphorical. We saw lung threshing, vomitous, leg weeping climbs curving before us. I had to call up some real head down, churn out the kilometres, hutzpah at moments. Thank you ipod for your thumping tunes and soul saving songs, providing by turns pain distraction and inspiration. It was odd though to conjure up these other world sounds. Removing the earplugs the silence would boom and the tumbleweed (in all its prickly, thirsty, sunburnt minimalist florality) was the only audio joy.

The visual treats were overwhelming though. I think if GCSE Geography had impressed upon me what fire, ice and water can do I might have taken the subject at A level. The sweeping craters, the riven divides, the mineral striped, thorn bush sprinkled, multi coloured cliffs would leave us in wonder. I´d have my head down, legs pumping away and I´d look back and I´d get a lump in my throat. The ribbon of road we´d just triumphed up or across would be stretched behind me. And then I´d turn ahead and there´d be a surprise. Round one bend there was a salt lake with toothpaste scum edges filled with pink marshmallow blob flamingos unconcernedly munching or drinking or whatever it is bubblegum coloured birds with odd long necks do in the white blue water. FLAMINGOS!! Over another rise the Andes suddenly appeared, stupidly, mindblowingly long and elegantly stretching in a line right and left. I cried. And a volcano dogged us for a whole day, with a perfect snow capped upturned V point, coming and going round bends, near and far, near and far.

Then pain would be replaced by arm waving joy as we´d reap the climb rewards and descend. Zapala, three empty days from Junin, is 1200m above sea level. Neuquen, where we are now, is a mere 200m! I´m not brilliant at maths but even I knew that was good. We picked Cutral Co, a town sort of midway in the 190k gap, and with the wind at our backs (and my uber smooth legs remember) cruised in, 74k and 3 and a bit hours later. We were giggling with adrenalised amazement when we arrived in time for lunch. Quick, slow, quick-quick, slow that is how we twirl along.

Quick, slow, big, small, solitude, company the contrasts go on. Big Phil, was a jaw dropped delight to the diminutive young boys who walked past him in the school we were welcomed into (see Phil´s last blog), the tallest man they´d EVER seen. Small Phil was dwarfed by the replica of the world´s largest ever dinosaur found lying about from 90 million years ago, in the museum we visited in Cutral Co. So much emptiness, then sudden, almost secret habitations, where people let us stay, filled us in on history and politics, shared a bit of their lives. Excitement at having a hotel room (albeit in a place littered with rather worrying papier mache mini dinos), dismay that we were sharing it with approximately nine million mosquitos, excitement again at using our mossie net and at the room suddenly taking on a sort of exotic four poster feel (sort of), dismay for the mossies as we systematically annihilated them with the aid of a hand towel. Ravenous hunger, so that on finishing dinner at the great place we found in Neuquen, at the end of our first over 100k day, we wonder if we can just order the same again, ludicrous stuffedness in the ice cream parlour of Marcello and his family who after a fellow bike fanatics chat, insist we sample ALL their flavours, tell us all about themselves and then refuse to let us pay. Such loveliness.

Serious countryside and then a serious city. Days of pretty empty roads suddenly hot up, nodding oil wells (like servile entry guards) line up, houses appear, poplars explode all over the place, fruit is being sold by the side of the road, vines hove into view, road signs increase and suddenly we´re on the equivalent of the A40 and big notices instruct us that bikes are forbidden to be there. The locals sail by merrily on theirs, racers returning from Sunday pursuits, and we´re engulfed by Neuquen. Home to over 380,000 people. An oasis, a manufactured lush place instigated by a late 19th century dam and irrigation plan. The Wine, Dino and Apple route.

From a desert to this des res destination. Museums, a massage and mooching. Soaking up city sounds, fumes and furniture. Not biking but walking. Being quite normal, feeling very clean. Lovely news from home, thank you all for so much support, a bit of admin and a load of laundry. A wonderful chance to catch up with a friend of Phil´s mum. Ernesto transports us from roadside sardines leaning against a dusty wall, to La Toscana where we eat a seriously sophisticated meal in an air conditioned ocean of zen cleanliness. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts Ernesto.

So our amazing journey continues with ít´s twists and turns.

Now, back to that coffee. 604 kilometres more of cafe free road are tomorrow´s story.



  1. Tell us which tunes kept you going on your iPod? Kirsty will be intrigued! x

  2. Great writing - I must read more often. And great photos too; thanks, JD

  3. Big hello from big Andy in Edinburgh. Enjoy your time on the road. I wish I was out on the road myself.

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