It is beginning to feel as though we are a long way south, although in fact we are only as far to the south as Chamonix is to the north, at just over 46 degrees of latitude. Newcastle and Ian’s home of Donegal are both just north of 54 degrees. But looking at the map, we seem to be near the tip of South America and further south than Hobart, Tasmania. Even Invercargill at the bottom of New Zealand lies nine minutes to the north of us. Only more South America lies closer to the South Pole than we are now. But there are more than one thousand miles to go before we will arrive in Ushuaia, and we will not be taking the most direct route.
While this feels a bit like the Yukon in that there are very long spaces between habitations, and endless wilderness, in reality this is a more compact and in fact more inhabited region. Chile and Argentina are thin here, the feeling of space is constrained by the knowledge of the oceans to either side of us. The mountains have been our constant companions; we have criss-crossed them frequently, hopping from Chile into Argentina and back again so many times we could write a comparative review of the border crossings.
Since the last instalment of this blog a couple of weeks ago we have made initial rapid progress before meandering a little, but we have also spent some time engaged in other studies in the wine regions of both Argentina and Chile. The conclusions are that in Argentina Montes Alpha takes some beating, while in Chile lots of wines hit the spot but grab some Casas Patronales if you can find it. I hope you find these extensive insights fascinating; we have worked hard to arrive at them.
After three days in Mendoza we crossed into Chile at the Portillo border crossing. Mendoza is on the east side of the ridge of the Andes, Santiago in Chile is due west. On the way, the road passes by Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the whole North and South American continents. Mendoza was warm and sunny; it became progressively colder as we climbed the pass, reaching zero at the top with flurries of snow, before warming up again as we descended towards Santiago. Three days here allowed us to get the bikes serviced again and re-shod with their fourth set of tyres (second for Mark). There were few other issues with them and thus far they have been remarkably trouble-free (touch wood – long may that last). The Triumph had new fork oil which has transformed the suspension; the old oil apparently had an appearance and viscosity not unlike milk. As an aside, in the last three days the clutch of Tom’s KTM decided not to fully disengage; on investigation we found the handlebar hydraulic reservoir was empty. Not a good service! Of course, down here in Patagonia getting the specified fluid is impossible, but Shimano mountain bike brake fluid appears to work just fine. So we are all rolling well again.
On our way south, I again took a small detour, this time to visit a small settlement by the name of Cholila. This was a lovely ride through wide open plains with a low sky ending in the middle of nowhere, ringed with snow-capped mountains. Much to my surprise it turned out to be the place where Butch Cassidy, along with the Sundance Kid and his gun-moll Etta Place, fled to on leaving Utah in 1902 pursued by men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The three of them set up a ranch here with 500 heads of cattle and 1500 sheep, living a quiet life until their itchy fingers got the better of them and they started robbing banks again. If they were looking for somewhere remote, they could not have done better. The story of the final shoot-out in Bolivia was probably a fabrication; it was first reported in a magazine in 1930 but no one knows the source of information. It did however result in the desired effect of leading the authorities to believe that they were both dead.
Unlikely as it may sound, Patagonia is home to a sizable Welsh community. It is common to see signs and place names in Welsh, and apparently the Welsh language is still spoken here. Bruce Chatwin comments on the 153 Welsh colonists who landed from the brig Mimosa in 1865 in his book In Patagonia: “They were poor people in search of a New Wales, refugees from cramped coal-mining valleys, from a failed independence movement, and from Parliament’s ban on Welsh in Schools. Their leaders had combed the earth for a stretch of open country uncontaminated by Englishmen. They chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate…”.
The lakes in Chile and Argentina at this latitude are stunning. It has been a bit of a shame that for a couple of days we were peering at the scenery through heavy rain, proving Chatwin’s point. But this lends its own drama, and has not detracted too much, except for the fact that my Tom Tom 410 sat nav, a specific item designed for bikes, has developed condensation on the inside of the touch-sensitive screen which as a result no longer works. Any helpful suggestions appreciated! Mark’s similar item has been fine, as have the two Garmins. Back to maps for me.
Ian has studied the various possibilities for route in this region, and come up with a series of spectacular roads linking some of the most beautiful terrain. It so happens that his conclusions closely matched the suggestions made by Caroline and Nick Sanders. On the western side of Patagonia at this level there are two main iconic roads: the Carretera Austral to the west of the mountains in Chile and the Ruta 40 in Argentina to the east. Both are famed for their remoteness and tales of their gravel surface, and the high winds in the region. We have yet to experience the worst of the Ruta 40, so I won’t tempt fate. The Carretera Austral however is behind us now, and turned out to be not at all as I at least had been led to believe. It is one of the ironies of the trip that some of the roads that we expected to be tough have been fine, while other less heralded roads have turned out to be a nightmare. The road we took from Trevelin in Argentina westwards to the Carretera Austral had a gravel surface, about which the four of us had differing emotions. Ian took a decision very early to turn back and so missed out on this Chilean section. Another irony, as it was he who had discovered this planned route. He was then able to find how remote the Ruta 40 can be, riding 580 km alone (having politely refused offers of company) before coming across anywhere to stay that evening, or even any villages despite some names on the map (that turned out to be single homesteads), and then running out of petrol before arriving at Perito Moreno. We all are carrying an additional supply of petrol, so he was able to top up and continue.
The remaining three Nuts continued westwards on the gravel, displaying a confidence that in my case proved to be misplaced, and resulted in me hauling the bike out of a ditch. No real harm done to me or the bike (an indicator needed repairing), but my enjoyment of the gravel has taken a bit of a battering. An hour later we arrived at the Carretera Austral, and oh joy! Lovely swooping tarmac! Except where it was gravel. And a stretch where a landslide had obliterated the road and the only diversion was by ferry.
Two days later we were reunited with Ian in Perito Morales, after a 110 km stretch of gravel that Mark manages with such aplomb. His advice? Go faster. Tom heeds it. For once the description “couldn’t see him for dust” is an accurate description. I stay under 60 mph.
All of a sudden we are in the end stage of the trip and our goal is in sight. We have begun to think about our journeys home. And what life would be like if we didn’t have a bike to ride every day, in such very foreign lands. Feelings are mixed, and each of us has our own take. We have each booked our flights home, which is both exciting and a touch saddening. But let us not get ahead of ourselves – there is a little way to go yet, and through some of the wildest and most remote areas of the entire trip.
Footnote: Both Mark and I have found to our amusement that we frequently have the same thoughts at the same time. So it was no surprise that we find that not only had we both set to writing a blog at the same time, but we covered almost the same topics. We decided to publish them both – if only so prove I’m not making it all up! – Phil