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 7 December 2010

A Hitchin' Time Takes Spine

Patagonia, as you may have gathered by now, just wasn´t really designed with bicycles in mind.

Whether it´s good old Zephyrus the rock star, or the Broom of God that we encountered in February in Tierra del Fuego, or the -25c winter temperatures that we have heard about, it does its level best to make two wheels plus two pedals a poor choice of transport.  Either you freeze to death or get blown off the road.

So now that we are right in the thick of it, we are having to resist the temptation to face it off directly.  Swaggering into the teeth of it, with our guns (or paniers) swinging in their holsters, just isn´t an option.  Instead, we are having to outwit it with cunning and stealth and deviousness.  Or at least optimism.

Oh, and motorised vehicles.

The last few days have been a tale of hitching lifts.  By hook or by crook, we have still managed to cover every part of the road between Lima and Sarmiento, where we are currently holed up, by bike.  So far, the wind has not defeated us and our pretty red line on the map remains intact.  But it has been a battle of wits and patience that has tested us.

After our marathon 174km day to Facundo, we had veered dangerously towards ´confidence´ territory.  Perhaps this wind could be our friend after all?  We should have known better.  On our next day on the bikes, the wind reduced us to staggering at 2.7kph along the road West to Rio Mayo, struggling to avoid being blown off our feet.  It was time to pull the ripcord and limber up our thumbs.

Three hours later, and half an hour since the last vehicle passed, we were still waiting, huddled from the cold wind behind a distinctly unfit-for-purpose crash barrier.  Granite coloured clouds were looming over our shoulders and time was running out.  It was getting cold.  Plan B was to try to set up our tent behind a row of poplars in the valley below and get through a night there.  This was not an especially appetising prospect.

So imagine our joy when Pablo turned up.  Pablo was stocky and unstoppably smiley and has the kind of shiny ringlets that a 1980s South American football star could only have dreamed of.  His white van was half filled with boxes of his electrician´s tools that he would need for his job near the Chilean border, but we somehow managed to shoehorn our bikes and 12 bags in and around them.

That was nothing compared to the circus contortions that Liz and I had to perform for her to squeeze onto my lap in the front seat, head bent over to fit under the windscreen so that all she could see was the wing mirror.  But Pablo was full of the joys of life, clearly a bit of a man about town in his native Sarmiento as you might expect from someone with a chopper motorcycle that he charges (no pun intended) around on at weekends.  And he would accept not a peso from us to thank him for his efforts over those 50km.  A thoroughly good guy who really had saved us.

We had decided to spend a day off in Rio Mayo.  This was not least to reassess our decision to take the Chilean route South.  During our time there, we decided on a change of plan.  The Carretera Austral offered us several hundred kilometres of steeply undulating ripio, combined with a good chance of rain and snow, and the need to take a notoriously rough 4 hour ferry crossing, walk the bikes along 22km of unmade muddy paths and probably hire horses.  Suddenly tarmac, even in the spring time wind of the East coast, seemed a better idea.

But first we had to take on Rio Mayo, Argentina´s National Capital of Sheep Shearing.  What a place.  We never saw a sheep shearer, nor many sheep, nor a bona fide sheep shearing shed.  Mind you, plenty of the buildings we did see in this dusty, remote little town might have made such sheds seem rather an attractive option.  It is not in the best condition - there just isn´t the money around to maintain things.  As we sat in another reliably warm and friendly YPF station, the wind swirled outside so fiercely that thick clouds of dust came tumbling down the rocky streets and oil drums were blown around like loo rolls.  Outside was not the place to be.

Fortunately, we found the Hotel Covadonga.  The manager, Dionisio, assured us that it had been built in 1943 by the Spanish and that it was ´todo auténtico´.  It certainly felt like much of it was at least 67 years old, not least the gas heating system that produced enough surplus gas to make us distinctly twitchy about turning the lights on and off.  Any hoover they had appeared to have been on sabbatical since before the end of World War II. 

That evening, we sat in the echoey dining room as the only diners, admiring the tangerine coloured vinyl of the bar (complete with matching faux leather armchairs - probably not 1943...).  Dionisio served us a bowl of thick pasta soup each.  A few minutes later, we began to wonder if we were expected to take the bowls through to the kitchen ourselves.  As we pondered, Liz looked up at the television screen in the corner.  "Ah, that´s where he got to".  Sure enough, there was Dionisio, holding forth with considerable gravitas to an interviewer.  This was the Rio Mayo Cable Channel in all its glory - broadcasting live from the house a block up the road.

Now Rio Mayo is a town of 3,500 inhabitants.  And it doesn´t actually feel as big as that.  The television channel was something to behold.  It was as if we´d arrived in Middle Wallop and found the Queen´s Arms pub beaming Middle Wallop TV through to the 4 assembled drinkers.  The interviewer was struggling to stifle yawns, the background hoarding (which was largely obscured by interviewer and interviewee respectively) sat at a slight list, and the adverts dividing the broadcast were for such global enterprises as Tamy´s Kiosko - believe it or not, in Rio Mayo.

What Dionisio was elaborating on - and actually doing it rather well - was the following day´s annual showdown on the football field.  The two Rio Mayo teams, Tony ´A´ and Tony ´B´ would each be playing one of local rivals Facundo and an invited Chilean team from across the border 120km away.  The Tony teams were run in memory of a beloved local coach who had trained Dionisio´s generation until his death 10 years ago.  This was the mysterious Tony´s memorial tournament.  We simply had to go.

And we did.  Next day dawned much calmer and therefore better for football.  After lunch we stumbled our way along a few blocks of loose ripio running through the town centre to the Club Atlético de Rio Mayo.  Wembley this wasn´t.  If we had thought the Peruvian match between Moquegua and Tacna was slightly lacking in raw talent, we hadn´t seen anything yet.  And yet we loved it.  This was local and international rivalry and friendship at its best, the Chileans taking on the might of Tony B in the opening encounter.  Local support was barely into double figures, and yet crucially there was a high, barbed-wire topped fence all around the pitch to prevent invasions.  The spectators stayed largely in their cars out of the wind, drinking maté or bottles of Quilmes and hooting whenever a goal looked likely.  We ran into Blanca, our rotund hostess at the albergue a couple of nights previously in Facundo.  It was that kind of event.

The players belied their bewildering range of ages, girths and hairlines and took it supremely seriously.  For the home team, there was the robustly efficient and robustly built silver-haired gent in centre defence for Tony B, the scowling middle-aged goalkeeper in the Chelsea top, the diminutive but angry guy in the beach shoes on the right wing, to name but three.  Yet the goal they scored in the first half was a thing of divine beauty, a flowing move down the left that will have those involved propping up the tangerine vinyl bar for the next 12 months.

The bad news was that both Rio Mayo teams lost.  This did at least mean we wouldn´t have to spend a second day in the town to see the Sunday final.  For all its merits, if Rio Mayo wasn´t going to show us sheep being sheared, we weren´t staying.

So the next day, we headed back to the YPF.  We were blowed (again, no pun intended) if we were going to cycle those 50km to get back to the main road to the East coast.  It wasn´t part of our re-re-jigged route.  So we decided to revert to hitching.  What we hadn´t realised was that Sundays are quiet in Rio Mayo.  Although it is on Ruta 40, it is just where the tarmac runs out, so most sane motorists try to find alternative routes.

Sanity was not important to us, however.  A lift was.  We wanted to get back to our road and on to Sarmiento, ushered along by a roaring tailwind.  Two hours later, we were still sitting in the warmth of the YPF, chatting to our friends behind the counter and slurping their excellent as ever cafés cortados.  As Chief Negotiator, my main achievement so far had been securing a lift leaving between 3 and 4pm in an ancient, rattly converted bus - Patagonia´s answer to a Californian RV, but at least 30 years older.  It was an enticing prospect on the basis of its pure randomness, but would leave us with a bit of a rush to cover the 70km to Sarmiento.

Just then, an equally ancient Ford pickup burbled into the forecourt.  I immediately computed our needs and saw that he had a largely empty back area and no passengers.  Perfect.  I shimmied up to the driver.  ´¿No vas a Sarmiento...?´  He wasn´t going all the way, but he was going to our junction, which was just fine by us. 

Then he got out of his vehicle.

I blinked.

We had blagged a lift with a monk.

This was Brother Andrés, in all his flowing brown-robed glory, sporting a magnificent wooden cross round his neck and a broad smile.  After our travails in finally finding Pablo two days before, this could only be divine intervention.  Andrés turned out to be an exceptionally good guy.  He is 30, speaks excellent English, and is doing missionary work on secondment from his monastery´s base in Entre Rios.  The three of us chatted away merrily for an hour, admiring his unorthodox driving technique of focusing his attention largely on the left side of the road.  He splits his week between Rio Mayo and nearby Rio Senguer, and tries to convince locals to return to the church.  It is a tough job, but we were left in no doubt that he must be better at it than most.

We liked him very much indeed, and swapped email addresses and hugs as he left in the howling wind at the junction.  He had had to choose between his girlfriend and the church in his early twenties, and opted for the latter, but is still friends with the former.  His whole approach was refreshingly non-dogmatic, and he has friends from all kinds of other religions around the world whom he has met through his work in various parts of Argentina.  We hope he comes to London one day to see his friends there and in Liverpool - and indeed us.

The promising strength of the tailwind at that point, however, soon became more than promising.  We found a vaguely sheltered spot for our tuna paté sandwiches, but by the time we stood up again we could barely stay on our feet.  We learnt a lesson that afternoon.  After the first few kilometres of direct tailwind, something became abundantly clear to us: unless it´s directly behind you, an 80kph wind is no good to the cyclist.

We wobbled our way through a hilly section, finding ourselves buffeted by winds funnelled from unpredictable directions through the hills, but then emerged onto a broader valley.  That wind cannot have been more than 15 degrees away from the perfect tailwind, but with our fat paniers acting as sails, it simply pushed us across the road at 45kph.  It was too dangerous to go on.  We pushed for a while, our heads trying to process the idea of pushing the bikes downhill with the wind behind us and the brakes on, but even like that we were being blown off our feet.

We would have to wait for a lift.  How long would it take this time, 2 hours, 3 hours, longer?  We put down the bikes, turned around and held out our thumbs wretchedly to a white pickup 200m away from us.  It stopped.  IT STOPPED!  We couldn´t believe it.  Perhaps hitching wasn´t so tough after all.  As Liz ran to retrieve my helmet which was blowing wind assisted cartwheels down the road, I hauled the bikes into the back and clambered into the spectacularly overheated cab with strong-but-silent Carlos at the wheel.  We chatted away with his bubbly wife, Gladys, and 10 year old daughter Angélica.  Gladys multi-tasked, keeping 6 month Maia happy on her lap, whilst Angélica charmed us completely and we told her about England´s foibles.  45km later, they delivered us to the centre of Sarmiento, where the wind appeared to have all but petered out.  Frustrating, but at least we weren´t stuck out there.

So in a way, it made us feel better that the comical gusts of wind hit the town later that evening as we sat eating raviolis.  We discussed how it´s actually quite a healthy experience, to find yourself completely at the mercy of the elements, up against a properly irresistible force with no way out except the unpredictability of hitchhiking and no protection from it.  In a way, it was as disorientating as the Salar de Uyuni had been.  You just have to deal with conditions, and our expectations have definitely been managed downwards.  With wind like that, you go nowhere, no matter what direction it is in.  We have to view this leg of our journey like climbing a mountain.  If conditions open up, we have to go for it.  If they don´t, we have to hunker down and wait.

Yesterday morning, we wanted to beat the wind and get back early to the point that Angélica and her family had picked us up the previous day.  We took our now unladen bikes back to the main road and set out our stall on adjoining corners to find a lift back up there so we could make our way back to Sarmiento.  Such are the ways we will have to find to complete our trip.  We stood there for three hours.

At the end of those three hours, we had become quite familiar with the rock carrying trucks ferrying back and forth, pickups heading around locally, and even the petrol pump attendants whom we weaved around to buttonhole potential drivers at the pumps.  We even saw Pablo the Electrician again - alas, he was going the wrong way.  There were plenty of smiles, friendly "I´m just going up the road" gestures, and discrete flirtations with Miss Hurran.  But nobody wanted to take us.  And by then, the wind that we had hoped to avoid by getting there early, was back to its strength the previous day.  We hoisted the white flag.

Crestfallen, we headed back into Sarmiento, for a day of passing the time, visiting the arrowhead-filled paleontology museum, drinking coffee and posting photos.  And so this morning, as we resumed our same posts.  It was like Groundhog Day.  But it felt like our luck was due to change after yesterday.  Sure enough, on a much stiller morning, it took barely an hour before our casting resulted in a fish biting.  And what a fish it was.

We have come to the conclusion that the more unorthodox the vehicle, the better our chances of a lift.  And the ancient bus that Caio and his sidekick Toto have converted into a mobile Patagonian mini-department store qualified with ease.  You simply could not make this one up.  We shuffled the bikes along what would once have been the bus aisle, propping them between clothes hanging on either side in dry cleaners´ plastic coverings.  Liz sat on the one passenger seat, juggling plastic footballs in netting bags that kept jumping off the wall at her; I stood in the footwell; Toto perched on a shooting stick behind the gear lever; and Caio drove.

What a character he is.  Part ageing hippy, part entrepreneur, effusively charming and hilariously irreverent as only a pure blood Argentine can be.  We chatted away animatedly about his life - how he dumped his ´boring´ financial job in Chubut´s provincial capital of Rawson 30 years ago, set up a small business that ended up as a substantial network of shops, and then left it all behind (including two small children in the hands of family) as he and his wife packed their backpacks and took a multiple-month overdue honeymoon to Europe.  He was in Europe for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 200th anniversary of France, and came back enlightened but with no clue of what to do.  There was only one thing for it - get into the fish filleting business on the coast.  As you do.  Perhaps I should consider it?

One way or another, he has been running his mobile store for 18 years now.  It sells everything from high fashion to bicycles and mattresses.  He must be an institution around these parts of Patagonia - and elsewhere, to judge by stories of his trip to Tunisia earlier this year with his wife.  Toto couldn´t get a word in edgeways.

As a by product of our Magic Bus Experience, we did indeed manage to get back to where we´d ditched it two days earlier.  And now the sun shone, and the wind was gentle and all seemed right with the world.  We belted down the hill and onto the Lago Musters flood plain to Sarmiento at an average of 25kph.  This time a gentle tailwind was at our backs and ever more beautiful combinations of pale blue cornflowers, heathery purple flowers and indeterminate splashes of yellow flanked the road.

By the time we reached the poplar protection of the flat Sarmiento area, we could almost have been on the pampas of Buenos Aires Province - cattle grazed contentedly, grasses were verdant and soft, irrigation canals were home to elegant herons and strutting geese and the occasional parrakeet.  This was how Patagonia can be when the wind grants its permission.

And so the next stop should - wind permitting - be Comodoro Rivadavia, on the East coast.  As and when we get through those next 140km, we will have completed our coast to coast line across South America, and passed through the 10,000km mark.  Both of which would be rather satisfying in a somewhat geeky way.

For now, however, we have to keep our fingers crossed that the 80kph gusts forecast by Accuweather and Yahoo for the next two days don´t materialise.  As snow dictates terms in the UK, we are having a similar situation with the wind.

Only this stuff doesn´t melt.  We´re just going to have to outwit it.


  1. Yes Phil I think being a fish filleter would do well by you. Liz could do the marketing! Sounds like this leg is like Sisyphus...and you will make it up the hill. The hitchhiking, football game, new unique experiences are doing well by you. Remember they are all getting something from your experience!. Wonderful following. Nancy

  2. Well done you guys!
    Across the USA, across South America and 10,000km in the saddle - what an achievement!
    I'll have to buy you a beer on your return. See you in a few weeks and enjoy those last few weeks.
    Andy and Tracy

  3. Any reason you are not venturing into Canada and Alaska?

    Heard about you through! Have you guys tried to raise money for your project.

  4. I don't know a heck about driving. Neither do I about South America. But your perseverance and resilience speak a word or two about human character. "Namaste!" and All the Best from India.