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 2 March 2010

It's elemental...

This week we have been more than made aware of the power of the elements. Dominating the airwaves, and the conversation here is news of the terrible earthquake in Chile. As the death toll rises, and the tensions mount it becomes an increasingly sobering picture of how helpless we can be when nature exercises it's power. With Haiti so recent and the incredible storms in Europe this week, there are reminders everywhere.

Our own difficulties with the elements are therefore put into perspective. When we left Rio Grande last week to head on up Tierra del Fuego and back onto the mainland we went headlong into a series of challenges. First came a puncture on Phil's bike only about 3k into the journey. Then a side wind so strong that it kept pushing us off the road and when any sizable lorries went past (and there were an enormous number) we almost completely lost control. 9k in and we realised we were risking our lives and so when we saw what we thought was an Estancia we decided to seek shelter until the wind abated a bit. It didn't.

We spent a frustrating afternoon, at what turned out to be an agricultural school in the grounds of a nineteenth century mission, watching the already bending trees bending further to the west, the buildings creak and groan and the sea kicking up a storm. We played Scrabble and made up wind related words and finally realised we weren't going anywhere. We could still see Rio Grande in the distance. We felt pretty despondent. When we found we were not allowed to stay at the school we made another attempt at the route but 200 metres in I was blown off my bike, and we headed back and begged! This time we struck upon a senior member of staff and, some great chat later, Jose said we could camp in the grounds out of the wind.

'Out of the wind' proved tricky to find but in the end a field at the back, with a metal cow designed to teach the art of plough attachment, some sheep and a shrine, provided a spot. We pitched the tent and made dinner in a shack that was sheltering a well. We saw what we thought was a person outside and went to investigate only to have a horse poke it's head in to see what we were up to! And so we slept with the horse munching by Phil's ear, desert foxes pottering about and checking us out and geese squawking overhead.

At 6am the next day we woke and there was little wind. We struck camp quickly and headed off. The first hour and a half were bearable but then after our breakfast, in a very glam storm drain, gradually the wind speed increased. We ground on determined to make it to an Estancia we had seen on the map, close to the border with Chile, but as our speed fell to 5k an hour we were really struggling. It is the most extraordinary feeling pushing your legs round and going nowhere. You keep your head down and stare at the road beneath you as it inches past and you are battered by gusts of what we reckoned were up to 80kph. We tried to increase our leg rotations and Phil managed to achieve a princely 8km an hour (!) but I was in trouble. Back on day 4, en route to Rio Grande, I had been blown off my bike by a gust of wind and I had twisted my left knee trying to save myself. Our time in the city had, we hoped, given it time to recover but pushing so hard rotation after rotation with the wind hitting from the left was making it worse. Finally I had to accept that for the time being I wasn't going anywhere. I felt terribly guilty but I knew I had to stop. I started to walk but it isn't any easier pushing a loaded bike into the wind and so at a desolate spot near kilometre mark 2810 (from Buenos Aires) we decided to hitch to a place I could rest.

Our knight in shining pick up was Andrea who fed us empanadas and grapefruit juice and even though he wasn't going to San Sebastian drove us there anyway. So wonderful. He was inquisitive about life in England and such a warm character. It was he who told us about the earthquake and the early reports coming out of Chile. He so kindly got us to the border and there we found an ACA (Automovil Club Argentino) Hosteria and I was installed.

Phil then set off to bike the route we'd just driven and to try an experiment. He biked in the opposite direction. It took him an hour and a quarter with the wind behind him to cycle what would have taken us 9 hours going north. He made speeds of 65km an hour, was able to lift his head to enjoy the scenery and he had an epiphany.

We were at a crossroads both literally and metaphorically.

The border crossing was an extraordinary spot. There were the border buidlings, a petrol station, the ACA Hosteria and a little trailer playing loud tango music and selling snacks...and that was it. The spot was so bleak, with plant free flatland all around and a grey relentless sea stretching away and the wind battering its every inch. Activity centred on the Hosteria, with the YPF petrol station man, the three staff and the 'on their break' border officials joined by long distance truck drivers to hang out. Everyone knew everyone. It was the centre of a mini universe. Pamela, Alicia and Carmen of ACA were so charming. Pamela found everything funny, particularly Phil's height (she was, without exaggeration, half his size) and exclaimed about everything in high pitched tones with gasps of horror or laughter and arm waving. Alicia was quieter, keen to make sure we had everything we needed, and got ice for my knee and served us our dinner - a one choice menu. The option was hamburger and chips or hamburger and chips. Luckily just what we wanted. Carmen was in charge. She moved about with amazing robustness with her three pronged walking stick and was very sweet and restrained. We found out the next morning that we were her last ever guests. She was leaving that day, going to Rio Grande because her husband had died in December and she had decided to be close to her children and grandchildren. We wanted to mark the occasion and so hand drew a card and pinched some flowers from her garden. A huge chapter in her life was ending after ten years on that border. It was a tearful goodbye and very moving.

And so, watching the news and the earthquake updates with the ACA crew, we decided too that a mini chapter was ending. The wind had won (for the time being). It was a difficult decision but we realised that to push on in the face of all the evidence and relentlessly try and plough north from San Sebastian was going to be a mistake. Nature was dictating that we try something else. Ahead of us lay the Patagonian wastlelands of Santa Cruz and Chubut, notoriously empty and with a couple of hundred kilometres between places. We could get in real trouble if we were only able to manage 40k or so a day into the wind and sometimes none at all. We need the wind behind us to complete that stretch. It is elemental (!) my dear Watsons.

And so...nothing has changed in the sense that we still plan to complete our route. It's just that some sections will be done in the other direction and there will be some jumping about going on. We will be pedalling North but with bits of pedalling South thrown in . We are now travelling North on, what seems to us, absurdly quick buses, chewing up kilometers at an alarming rate to begin anew at Bariloche. We will cycle north through the rest of the continent from there and then near the end of our journey we plan to come back, set a sail on our bikes and travel back through Patagonia going south.

We will get some physio for my knee in the ski centre of Argentina and hope that we don't have to wait too long to get back on the road again. Our bikes are looking a bit reproachful as we load them on buses and that 2810 kilometer sign is waiting.

In the meantime we hope for the calming of the situation in Chile, and that the aftershocks stop soon.

More anon. x

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a plan - take care of you and enjoy the adventure. It should not be a chore.