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

Location: London. Back.

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

Wednesday 31 March 2010

The Campaign of the Desert

Phew.  We have now had a couple of days of recovery from what was probably the toughest leg of our journey so far.  Liberal doses of ice cream, air conditioned cafes, steak and cold, cheap red wine have combined to leave us feeling considerably more human than when we arrived in General Alvear.  That afternoon, it felt as though we were cycling over the glowing coals of an asado; now we know how those steaks feel.  Any hotter and I think one of us might have actually burst into flames.  As it was, I could have sworn I saw whisps of smoke coming out of Liz's ears in the last few kilometres into town.  In places, you could push your thumb into the black asphalt that we cycled over.  So, how had it come to this?
The desert, that's how.  There's nothing out there.  'Nada'.  We were told this a number of times on our previous stretch, leaving the Lake District, and yet had contrived to find semi-regular (as in every 30 or 40km regular...) oases.  This time, it was true.  For stretches well over 100km at a time there was nothing.  No villages.  No livestock.  No trees.  No shade.  No water.  And often no cars or trucks for 20 minutes at a time.  Barely a bend in the road.  We pushed through almost exactly 500km of desert in 6 days.  The longest day was 106km, the shortest 70km.  It was unrelenting in a number of ways.

As we left Neuquen feeling refreshed and ready for a challenge (or blissfully unaware...!) we did at least know the distances we were taking on.  We pedalled away from Neuquen over the damn that Cipoletti had built almost exactly 100 years ago to create Argentina's immense fruit valley, feeling upbeat.  Not that this wavered entirely as we went on, but what we had not quite worked out was that the desert is hot.  Properly hot.  And these late summer temperatures have, we have been assured by locals, been unseasonally high.  We eventually found our only hope lay in early starts, which meant a high speed scrabble around after daybreak, taking down the tent, knocking up breakfast, packing the bikes and endeavouring to be on the road by no later than 9am.

At that time in the morning, the smells and temperature of the desert are delicious and remain so for a couple of hours.  This is not desert that Lawrence of Arabia would recognise.  Replace his sand dunes with dried, dusty earth, sprinkle it all over with vegetation ranging from thorn bushes to gorse, and fringe it by the roadside with softer, golden grasses that brush your legs if you pass close enough.  That morning smell is of fresh vegetation and building heat.  The millions of tiny white and yellow flowers that we passed come to life.  Tiny pale coloured butterflies flutter in front of you on the bike.  Gabriel Garcia Marques would love it.  It doesn't sound like the Sahara, exactly, does it?  But it is desert in some unmistakeable senses: there is no water, it is stonkingly hot, and you have to have a very good reason to live here.  Any hint of water had seemingly been eradicated: any ramshackle aluminium water mills that once drew water up from wells had buckled and collapsed, presumably from the effort, former streams were now mere dust beds, and occasional salt 'lakes' emphasised the salt bit over the lake bit.

By about 2pm, the real heat had arrived each day.  It didn't drop until long after the sun had set.  As we rode along utterly straight roads, often for 20km at a time without a bend, it was like cycling into a hair dryer.  The wind was hot, hot, hot, yet when we stopped every 20km or so to breath, there was not a breath to cool us down.  We would just stand and drip.  One evening, we sat in the shade of a truck stop and, between us, downed the equivalent of 10 pints of liquid in the space of an hour.  And that having ploughed through innumberable bottles of water during the day.  Ah, the water.  Our bike bottles warm up within an hour or two each day, and by the middle of the day our hydration is entirely functional - there is no pleasure to be derived from water with a background taste of plastic drunk at a temperature that you still wouldn't be rejecting a cup of tea.

We had reckoned on a boringly flat part of Argentina, but the 'flatness' was more insidious than that.  For the first few days, there were constant undulations.  It was a case of one huge, wide, low valley after another.  You would reach the top of one valley, stand up on the pedals, craning your neck hopefully to see what happened over the top, only to see another 15km of needle straight tarmac descending gradually before starting another 25 minute gentle grind upwards.  And because of the hugeness of these plains, you fall for optical illusions.  There is nothing to get your bearings from on either side - so the downs look steeper than they turn out to be and the ups end up being tougher than you expect.  At least that gave some variety - the last couple of days were so flat that we could work out to the minute when our next stop in km would be.  Ninth gear on our poor bikes must be exhausted.

But the fun bit was, as ever, the experiences along the way.  For the first time, the actual pedal rotations began to feel like a job, getting to Alvear like starting the weekend.  However, in the absence of places to stay along the way, we had to improvise.  The first night we stayed at La Escondida, a truckstop 90km North of Neuquen which we immediately warmed to - on arrival, a group of half a dozen 4-9 year old cousins were in a state of high-pitched excitement having just found a rat in the land behind the building.  The lady in charge said we were welcome to pitch our tent here, which we duly did.  It was part tip, part arid desert, part recycling area for broken bottles and oil drums that stood as much chance of being recycled as we did of finding anywhere to wash that night.  But the place was brilliant - a true outpost, with no running water and a sense of the post-apolcalptic which was exacerbated by the view, down the hill we would be descending the next morning, to what looked like an endless sea of indefinable desert below.  We spent the evening inside the truckstop, eating one of the world's great milanesas with mashed potato, watching the silicon-enhanced Presidenta Christina Kirschner on the background television, as flies buzzed and trucks came and went outside, grinding up the hill.  That's a great sound, by the way, if you know you're due to go down it.

All along, we couldn't help but think of the 'Campaign of the Desert' led by General Rocas in the early 19th century.  This was the time when Europe was arriving in Argentina with colonisation on its mind in a big way.  The native people were a distinct nuisance to the early arrivals.  The area we were biking through was the epicentre of what was effectively a genocide.  In a sense, and if you can remove what actually happened from your mind, you have to take your hat off to Rocas and his men for eradicating a population so clinically in such an inhospitable and massive region.  But when you hear, as we have, just how ruthless he was, and how he resorted to cute little tricks like simply poisoning their water supplies, you begin to realise how Argentina's national identity is nothing if not confused.  There was some pretty hideous stuff that went down in the first half of the 19th century, and the descendants of the native people who survived have not, for the most part, fared well.  Sobering.

Back to the 21st century.  Our lunches in the desert have been in a variety of places whose common theme was: shade.  We reckoned getting out of the sun was the only option for an hour or so during the hottest part of the day.  Indeed, we would try to knobble 60-70km by late lunch time, to try to minimise the chances of blowing a gasket later in the day.  One day, the only shade we found was - obviously enough - under the solar panels of a lonely roadside gas outpost.  Another time, we did better - pulling off the road into a cluster of road building graders and trucks, we met Jose.  Jose was almost exactly half my height, but a fantastic guy - he quickly rearranged the two wonky chairs in his ancient wooden caravan and invited us to have lunch inside.  The Lanesborough wouldn't have looked any more inviting.  We took photos of each other afterwards, him so that he could add us to the 850 photos of people he has taken and put in a scrap book for his grandson during 28 years working on the roads.

Another day, we found a welcoming YPF service station and took full advantage.  We not only had an early lunch, but showered, did our hand washing in the shower, hung it out on the small patch of grass by the forecourt, stocked up on food and water, and avoided the worst of the sun.  Who ever said bicycles didn't need petrol stations?  For yet another lunch, we found a little village, the disproportionately named Algarrobo del Aguila, which supplied us with huge tins of peaches and sticky buns, plus a pet tortoise that kept trying (and almost succeeding) to escape.  It was a place that operated at that kind of pace.  Another time we were less lucky, sheltering in the strip of shade under the 'Welcome to Mendoza Province' sign only to find a family of mosquitoes had taken an equal liking to it. 

But it's been our night stops that have been most memorable.  Take our final night.  We knew Cochico was the only place on any map in the final 165km to Alvear.  We were therefore kind of keen that it might offer us somewhere to put our heads.  Little did we know...  Alba is a lady of 56, and has run the truck stop there for the last 7 years.  If you rigged her up to the national grid, her hot air could run most of Mendoza province.  But she was so welcoming it defied belief.  Initially embarrassed about her lack of facilities, when we pushed her gently she invited us to use her bunk room where she lets truckers and their families sleep if they fancy getting out of their trucks for a night.  A Presidential Suite wouldn't have been any more perfect for our needs.  Even better was the bathroom - a roughly concreted affair into which we were able to feed a hosepipe that made for one of The Great Showers of our time.

Once we were clean and our body temperatures had dipped below 50c, we wandered across the dusty forecourt.  We paused as the sun set spectacularly, and watched dozens and dozens, flocks, of deep green and yellow parrots squawk noisily overhead on their way to 'roost' (what do parrots do?) down the road, lined up neatly on telegraph poles. Alba's place has clearly not changed in 50 years.  At all.  You just couldn't make it up.  She is the consumate hostess/bar lady, selling everything from goats cheese to washing soap and beer to firewood.  Adorning those walls not covered with metal shop racks were River Plate team memorablilia, old beer adverts and calendars, and raw hide gaucho whips hung from the ceiling.  As the evening wore on, we met some of her customers: the diminutive neighbouring gaucho with his wide brimmed hat and sharp features who became less and less taciturn as the cold Quilmes took effect; the charming young doctor who had been playing in a charity football match just down the road in which all the local medics and nurses had clubbed together to raise money for their local border First Aid centre.

As we later learnt, once Alba got properly stuck in on her soapbox, this local football match was symptomatic of the mess Argentina is in right now.  Certainly, she is nothing if not opinionated - her most admired women include Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana, and she truly believes that in a former life she lived in a dank village in the North of England.  Be that as it may, if there is even a grain of truth in her anti-Kirschner points, the sooner La Presidenta (Kirschner, not Alba) is ousted, the better for Argentina's rehabilitation to begin.  Is it really a good idea for a country like Argentina to ban all exports of beef and leather, cut ties to the US and Europe, foster closer ties to Cuba, Iran and Bolivia, to run inflation of 30% or more, or to have the president's right hand man widely acknowledged to be closely affiliated to the Mexican druglords who are, according to Alba, destroying a whole generation in Argentina?  It was a grim jolt of reality after all the kindness and positivity we've been shown by all and sundry over the last two months, but all part of experiencing a country like Argentina.

We digress.  Another great night - in hindsight - was our first night of 'wild' camping.  We rolled the dice and put in extra kilometres to find what had been described as an estancia as the sun set.  It turned out to be an entirely tumbledown gaucho puesto, with the usual chicken, turkey and dogs trotting around in the dust.  Paco, a gaucho, arrived and was sorry not to be able to let us camp there - his boss would have been cross.  So we put our tent across the road.  The ground was too hard to tent pegs, so we secured each end to one of our bikes and had to cook under headtorch light.  The best we could do for water to wash and wash up was a bucketful begged from Paco across the road.  As 3" sand creepie-crawlies appeared more regularly, and an electric storm flashed silently over the horizon, we began to think it would be a sub-par night.  It wasn't great, but there was (inevitably!) no rain, and the rogue cow that had threatened to be a nuisance failed to trample us to death.  Paco trotted over to visit in the morning.  Once he'd calmed down his bucking horse, which panicked at the sight of our bikes, he was charming and wished us luck.  A portrait artist would have revelled in his craggy features and traditional gaucho garb.

Another night, we pitched our tent sandwiched between a YPF station at the gloriously named 'Cruce del Desierto' and a deer and nandu enclosure, and enjoyed hearing the comings and goings of the lonely old articulated trucks that ply these roads and wave to us by day.  The one night of respite - ie. no canvas - was in the little town of Santa Isabel, where we found a cheap cabanas with - Lord be praised - air conditioning and a real live shower.  Santa Isabel's dusty streets, simple parrillas and brightly painted central square can rarely have been more appreciated.  It's amazing how simple 'civilisation' can be so wonderful after just a few days with no creature comforts and some undignified roadside moments involving bottoms and chamois leather pain relief cream.

And so to General Alvear.  We love it.  Little has changed in our lifetimes, we suspect.  Old pick ups and Ford Falcons chug up and down the main avenue.  The Plaza is spotlessly clean, beautifully lit by night and adorned with fountains.  It feels like the set from Back to the Future.  For three hours over lunch everything stops - the heat forces every shop to close and barely a car moves.  When the heat is less oppressive, everyone seems to get around on brightly coloured bikes with huge squishy saddles.  We couldn't ask for a better little town to recharge the batteries.

We even fell into a physio set up - we were into Doctor Alberto's office within 3 minutes of knocking on the door, where he confirmed that Liz's sore knees need some R&R after their recent beating but are not damaged as such, and we then spent 20 priceless minutes teaching him across his desk about the mysteries of the borders in England, the UK and Great Britain.  He passed us on to Ana Maria who, aside from being able to give Liz's sore knees ultrasound through what look like two giant loo rolls, is able simultaneously to massage the growing knots in my shoulders and back.  And she has invited us to have dinner with her, her husband and three boys tonight.  It's that kind of place, General Alvear.

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