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 22 December 2010


Finally - FINALLY - we left Sarmiento.

That is no particular reflection on what was the embodiment of your average, smallish, perfectly decent Patagonian town.  But to be brutally frank, there is only so much fulfillment you can get out of such a place.  Especially as we became increasingly conscious of the ever shrinking number weeks left of our trip.  And the sense of claustrophobia in a place like Sarmiento is only exacerbated by our well engrained sense of impotence against that wind.

We left fully five days after arriving.  Not many tourists are treated to such an experience.  There are no open top double decker bus tours of Sarmiento.  There aren't even any double decker buildings - they would get blown over.  After the second night, we had done Sarmiento's restaurants.  The liveliest bar in town peaks at 10.00am, when the gauchos doff their berets to fuel themselves for a day's work with shots of something not far removed from unleaded.

To give a sense of what it was like, 'entertainment' in a place like Sarmiento includes:

- Taste and cost comparisons between the coffee on offer in the two different petrol stations.  There are no cafes in Sarmiento.
- A comical walk to the bus station, where we were promised we would find the nearest Sarmiento offered to a proper cafe.  This was an exaggeration.  What was more exaggerated still was the wind en route: the kind that whipped up mini dust storms along the ripio sections of the streets and stopped you dead in your tracks, battling at a 45 degree angle to the wind.  You really couldn't be outside.
- Laughing at the coordinated zebra skin patterns of the curtains, bedcovers and tablecloths in our room.  Cabin fever set in to some degree, and we ended up naming the bathroom door.  You get the picture.
- Flicking through the tomes on offer at the Biblioteca Municipal - impressively stocked, in fact, but notable for how the multi-volume history books on the shelves all start, curiously, either in 1492 or 1810.  Not much 'history' before that, it appears...
- Hanging out in the internet joint - as and when it decided to be open / have reception / not be filled with cigarette smoke (delete as applicable).
- Perusing what we dubbed the Chinese Container Shop - full of more cheap and tacky Christmas decorations, plastic pencil cases and kitchen utensils than you could shake a 10 peso note at.
- Pondering the life size dinosaurs at the optimistically named 'theme park'.  It didn't quite measure up against the last one we visited, in California...
- Enjoying double bills of the BBC series 'Spooks', whose downloads have kept us out of trouble in recent weeks.
- Chatting to local residents, whose favourite topic of conversation (like the English with rain) is - you guessed it... the wind.
- As ever, chatting to local canine wildlife.
- Laughing about the wind.  Again and again and again.

One way or another, we escaped. 

And having built up such a head of steam, we were pretty much ready for a big day.  Little did we realise quite how big a day.  Indeed, the first 25km, across a huge, flat plain just South of lakes Musters and Cohuel Huapi, had us thinking it might less eventful than we feared.  The wind was broadly behind us, and our waiting and careful reading of the meteorological tea leaves appeared to have worked.

The next stretch led us over a short pass and down to another 30km plain, somehow dodging the rainstorms that we could see on our horizon.  By now, we were well into Argentina's oil heartland.  On both sides, those telltale, garishly coloured nodding donkeys pumped away, extracting the black stuff that fills the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of YPF and Petrobras tankers that have passed us the length and breadth of Argentina this year.

Of course, it is not just the tankers, but all the support and technical teams that come with the energy sector.  We must have been passed by 500 grey or white pick ups that day, plus dozens of yellow 'PetroSar' buses, shuttling oil professionals and workers to and fro.  And then all those trucks laden with piping, and supply trucks for the workers, and so on and so on.  We reckoned 80% of all traffic in this part of Argentina is oil-related.

This has its upside for the cyclist.  Crossing this plain, we saw a sign for an YPF service station that couldn't have been more welcoming if it had said 'Complimentary Weeks in the Caribbean and Massages Available'.  If we have learnt one thing on this trip, it has been not to trust roadsigns until you see physical evidence.  In this case, however, it was spot on, and we found one of the great YPFs to spend a couple of hours in.  Great, partly because it came just after a stiffish climb; partly because it started to rain as we were propping our steeds up against the familiar plate glass windows alongside the forecourt; and partly because it was stuffed with friendly oil workers launching into huge parrillas that were arriving from the kitchen sizzling and smelling irresistible.  Even the Christmas decorations were tasteful.  We are fully paid up members of the YPF fan club.

Unfortunately, the cashier's advice on the road ahead was accurate too.  She rolled her eyes and said it went on up for a while.  And it did.  For about another 25km.  We hadn't counted on this.  Immediately after we left, the landscape became like the bleakest of Scottish Highlands, with the road snaking up it.  After a few kilometres, the rain returned.  A few hundred metres further on, it became noticeably colder.  The rain started blowing at us hard from the right.  Another few hundred metres and it became hail - like being in an ice hairdryer, only wetter.

This was not great.  We had left behind the comfort of the YPF and its Christmas tree, and were now 85km into the day.  We had been climbing for an eternity, and still had nearly 70km to go.  There were no other inhabitations marked on our hail-obscured map.  Luckily, I could listen to Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, the two great Australian batsmen, on my iPod as they grumbled about the intense heat in Australia during the latest test match.  Oddly, it helped.  What did not help was what came next.

We thought we'd experienced most kinds of weather on this trip.  40c heat, -20c cold, 100kph wind, thick fog.  We've been lucky with the rain, admittedly, although it had done its best to make up for it when it did rain.  But there was one missing.  Snow.  Not any longer.  The higher we climbed, the fluffier our 'hail' became.  And soon we were in a blizzard.  Flakes of snow the size of ping pong balls were hurtling into our faces, ice was gathering in the creases of our gloves and waterproofs, and the ground was going white.  I looked anxiously at my thermometer as 3c dropped to 2c and we were still not at the top.  The one thing we didn't want was for the wet roads to start to freeze.

In fact, it only lasted for less than an hour.  Mercifully, the mercury never dropped below freezing, and Argentina's notorious drivers once again acquitted themselves well - plenty of hazard lights and careful driving, to say nothing of some of the best faces and reactions of the trip as car occupants stared out at what could surely only be recent escapees from Sarmiento's loony bin.  A few waved so hard you could see the car bouncing.

At the top, we began crossing a plateau. It was one of the most beautiful few minutes of the trip - the bare Patagonian steppe dusted with pure white snow, a watery sun glistening off it and a wheel-deep layer of steam rising from the road.  Soon after, we started descending.  And that was it for the rest of the day.  It was down and down for 50km, winding down sparse, shrubby valleys as those yellow PetroSar minibuses and pickups sped past us.

It's funny how, even when the air is close to freezing, a steady 40kph descent can warm the spirits - even if not the fingertips.  And a good solid milepost can even warm those frozen digits.  We had all of these things that afternoon.  After 135km we rounded a bend and there, in the far distance, was a thin blue strip of ocean.  The Atlantic.  Our first sight of it since February in the early days of our route North.  We had completed an unbroken line across the South American continent from Pacific Lima to Atlantic Comodoro Rivadavia.  Not exactly the most direct route, but certainly one of the more eventful.

We paused to take it in, and as we did so I looked down at my bike computer.  It said 10,001km.  Somehow the fates had conspired to take us through our biggest statistical barrier so far at the exact same time as we spied the Atlantic.  It was an emotional moment for both of us.

By now, on something of a high, the final kilometres flew by.  We rolled merrily through the traffic lights and truck showrooms and high rise apartment buildings along the waterfront and into the familiar streets of Comodoro Rivadavia.  Who would have thought that 152km could feel so good?  There must have been some adrenalin playing a part.  It was our second longest day of the trip, and had included one of our longest and least expected climbs.  We toasted our arrival over a huge pizza and better than average Torrontes.

So there we were, back in Comodoro after all these months.  It was a curious sensation of familiarity mixed with a sense that we were now viewing places like Comodoro through a lens shaped by rather more time on a bicycle than back then.  We have definitely done some stuff since February.

That didn't mean we weren't going to enjoy Comodoro in similar ways to last time, though!  We returned to our favourite sandwiches de miga joint (whatever happened to the egg and olive ones we'd been so looking forward to?!), and gorged on the best 'tenedor libre' buffet in town.  It is a very underrated and overinsulted city within Argentina, with most Argentines imagining it to be no more than a filthy oil hub.  In fact, it has all the comforts, facilities and prices that go with oil.  Oil tankers float at anchor off the coast and big-engined foreign cars cruise up and down the main streets of Rivadavia and San Martin.  There is a palpable air of wealth to the place, with women in designer sunglasses cruising the streets dedecked in boutique shopping bags like Christmas trees.  It is the nearest Patagonia comes to Buenos Aires.  And it might as well be a different country to the northern provinces.

Finally - FINALLY - we had reached the East coast.

But little did we know that progress from there would be even more stuttering.

1 comment:

  1. Hemos hecho ustedes dos, ¿qué eres una inspiración para muchos. Tomar una copa en mí. ¡Salud