27 November 2010

CYCLING ARGENTINA - Ushuaia to Puerto Natales

24 November Cape Town, South Africa - Ushuaia, Argentina

I was up at 5h00, ready for my early morning flight to Ushuaia via Buenos Aires, a 9h20min flight, and then a further 3h30min flight to my final destination. All went well, except that I had to pay for my overweight baggage on the final leg. I easily found a taxi at Ushuaia airport to take bike, my bags and me into the town and to Hostel Haush where I stayed for the next three nights. At last, I had arrived on the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego; an island shared with Chile and cut off from the main land by the Strait of Magellan.

Ushuaia is picture pretty but also freezing cold. There are more than enough outdoor stores to stock up on warm cloths. It remains light until rather late, so it was hard to go to sleep with it being so light outside. By 23h00 (24 hours since I woke up) I finally went to bed and slept like a log.

25 November - Ushuaia
With its snowy mountain backdrop, Ushuaia reminded me a bit of Alaska. With many brightly painted corrugated iron homes, it is quite a picturesque village. The city is situated on the Beagle Channel and at the foothills of the Andes Mountain Range and is known as the southern most city in the world. With a population of about 64 000 it is not much of a city. The southern location also means that it remains rather cold year round with a high of only 9 degrees in the warmest months. Heating systems remain on all year (including the summer months).

Therefore, off to the shops I went to spend a fortune on a pair of very nice Merrell hiking shoes. I only have a pair of sandals, which will not do here. I wondered around the many shops stocking up on all I may need for the days ahead. I found some gas for my stove at an equally high price. I also found a rather nice bike shop, Ushuaia Extremo; they put my bike together again.

26 November - Ushuaia – Tierra del Fuego National Park - 50km
I dressed in my warmest clothes (including my brand new shoes) and set off into the National Park. The Park gate is only about 12km from the centre of town and an easy cycle along a dirt road. Although freezing cold the scenery was quite spectacular. The end of the road in the park is also the end of Ruta 3 and known as “The-end-of-the-world”. It may be the end of the road for others, but it’s the beginning of the road for me. I took a short hike around the park and then headed back to the village. I could not believe my eyes as I saw fine snowflakes fall from the sky. They unfortunately melted immediately and now I cannot even say I cycled in snow!

After much deliberation I bought myself a pair of rain pants as well as a beanie for the cold weather ahead.

27 November - Ushuaia – Tolhuim - 109km
I was excited to get on the road and see what lay ahead. The road headed uphill out of Ushuaia and over the mountains, past numerous ski resorts; some even with chair lifts. Not a bad road, a bit narrow but sealed. Motorists were friendly and always gave me a wide berth and a little warning hoot. After about 50km I reached the top of the pass Via Paso Garibaldi, with a view over Lago Escondido and Lago Fagnano. The mountains provided some shelter from the wind, as I sped downhill past Lago Escondido and onto Tolhuim, situated on the shores of Lake Fagnano. It was a bit of a strange town and hard to find accommodation or shops, maybe there just weren’t any. I was fortunate enough to find a good enough spot to lay my head for the night.

28 November - Tolhuim – Rio Grande - 113km
I woke to lose corrugated iron roof sheets, banging in the wind. I knew instantly that it was going to be a long hard day riding into the wind. I left Tolhuim with dust swirling in the dirt roads and headed north in the direction of Rio Grande, straight into the infamous Patagonian wind. It was freezing cold and rain pelted down, driven by the near gale force wind. I was wearing almost all I had but still felt the cold.

As if that was not enough, my rear gear-cable broke. Despite this, I battled on working with the three gears I had left. It did not make all that much difference, as I was only going at an average of 10km/h, if I was lucky. As the day wore on the wind grew even stronger, slowing my pace to a mere 5km/h. Still I battled on, past vast, wind swept and barren looking estancias. About 20km from Rio Grande, a friendly Argentinean offered me a lift. I could smell victory over the harsh conditions and declined, but could have kicked myself as soon as he left. My goals became shorter and shorter, four x 5km sounds a lot more doable than 20km! Every 5km I stopped and had some sweets or biscuits took a sip of water and then headed off into the howling wind again.

The barbeque is a way of life and I notice people stopping just about anywhere (out of the wind) along the road to light a fire and throw some meat on the coals. I was dead tired by the time I arrived in Rio Grande, found a room and went to bed. I was rather pleased with myself for surviving such a harsh day on the road.

29/30 November - Rio Grande
I slept and slept, and eventually woke to the smell of coffee and toast! A nice breakfast was included in the room price (standard in Argentina); a typical breakfast is normally coffee and croissants or some other pastries. At least the weather cleared but the relentless wind did not abate, I don’t think it ever does. Irrespective of what one might read or hear about the wind, nothing can quite prepare you for the reality. If Ernest and I had not battled for days into the wind along the Red Sea Coast in Egypt, at 5km an hour, I would not have believed this possible!

I was pleased for a rest day as my backside and my knees were sore. I could feel a bout of laryngitis coming on (it must be from breathing all that icy cold air). First thing was to find a bike shop to have the gear-cable repaired. The friendly chap and the bike shop also advised me to get off-road tyres for the dirt road ahead. He could only get the tyres the following day so I left the bike at the shop and did not complain about waiting another day as the wind was blowing at 85 - 100km per hour.

1 December - Rio Grande - 19km
I was up and rearing to go. Unfortunately, the wind won the day, 10km out of town I eventually gave up and turned back. It’s not just that it was hard, it was just too dangerous; I was blown across the road like a rag doll, totally out of control!! Back in town, I found Hostel Argentino (bit cheaper than where I stayed before) and found three more cyclists heading in the same direction as me. They were also waiting out the wind, hoping that the weather would improve by the next day. I don’t have much hope of that but I will wait and see what happens. We had some good red wine and swamped war stories until bedtime.

2 December - Rio Grande – San Sebastian – by car to Punta Arenas - 38km
I woke and thought the wind looked less fearsome than the previous day. I packed in a hurry and was out the gate as soon as possible; to my horror, the wind was as strong as the previous day. I was battered kilometer after kilometer; each turn of the pedal was an achievement in itself! The wind, however, blows in gusts and every so often I was blown off the road and had to get off the bike, push it back onto the road and to try again. Worse was that it also blew me into the road, which was rather narrow and even although the drivers were very courteous it was still nerve racking. It remained freezing cold and soon it started hailing!! A friendly truck driver stopped and gave me a lift to San Sebastian. With renewed energy, I set off again. The border crossing between Argentina and Chile is quite low-key but it still took a while before all was checked and cleared. This is the end of the tarred road and from there on it was a dirt road. That was about as much as I could take. I felt rather sorry for myself pushing my bike (in high wind) along this long and desolate road.

So I weakened and when a friendly Chilean driver stopped and offered me a lift all the way to Punta Arenas, I got in and was grateful for the warmth and safety of the car. The people here are so incredibly friendly, I’ll have to watch out or I’ll be given lifts all the way through Patagonia!! (Although it may be the only way, I’m going the get through it)

3/4 December -Punta Arenas
I camped at Hospedaje Independencia, easily the cheapest accommodation in town and therefore packed with backpackers from all over. Much of this region once belonged to one person namely Jose Menendez, wool baron of his time. Even today, it is still a sheep country and wool and lamb is big in this area.

Francois (whom I met at the Hostel Argentino in Rio Grande) arrived by bus and it was like meeting an old friend. The weather station put out an alert for high winds in the area (according to them over 100/120km per hour) so there and then I decided to stay put and check the weather out the next day.

5 December - Punta Arenas – Puerto Natales - By Bus - 21km
The weather looked good and after a slow start, I decided to cycle, once again. I only cleared the city limits (about 10km) and the wind hit me with full force. I truly don’t know how people do this. I’m just too scared. I turned around and flew back, down-wind into the city centre.

From there, I took the bus to Puerto Natales, as I had already arranged with Yutta and Francois to do some trekking once in Puerto Natales. Even the bus seemed to have great difficulty staying on the road. What an unforgiving area this is! The plains are rather barren, treeless and windswept. Every now and again there were a lonely and fore lone looking estancia, some even deserted. Once in Puerto Natales I found some good camping in Josmar Hostel with a nice campground and restaurant.

6 December - Puerto Natales
I met up with Francois and Yutta again. The day flew by as we prepared for our 8-day Torres Del Paine trek. I rented a bag and walking sticks from the local shop and bought food. The bag was rather heavy and I wondered if I’d even make the first few kilometers (and that was even before I packed the wine). Just the very essential stuff like tent, sleeping bag, food and warm cloths was already a lot of stuff to carry.

7 December - Torres Del Paine - Las Torres – Campamento Seron
Things were rather well organized to get to the Torres Del Paine National Park. Francois, Yutta and I grabbed a 7:30 bus to the park and then a small minibus to Hotel Las Torres, where we started our first day hike, a short and easy walk. I heaved my heavy pack and we strolled off to our first campsite. We had lovely views of the snowy mountains and lakes nearly all the way. Our first campsite was a bit exposed to the elements and of cause the wind blew as it can only blow in Patagonia. We managed to cook food and I was quite sure that I was going to lose my tent during the night.

8 December - Torres Del Paine - Campamento Seron – Refugio Dickson
I woke with sore ankles but paid little attention to it as little aches and pains normally come with the territory. We packed at leisure and then ambled along to our second campsite. Again, it was a short and easy day, which I was happy about as it started raining and it drizzled all day. By the time we reached Refugio Dickson we were wet and cold, my ankles were throbbing and I found it quite difficult to walk. Dickson is, however, one of the nicest camping areas on the trek, and has a lovely Refugio with a fireplace; communal sitting area, coffee, tea and one can even order food. Well you can just imagine all the wet and cold bodies (and boots) huddled around a small fireplace.

Outside it was bitterly cold, I dressed in all I had to ward off the cold, but nothing seemed to work. Soon it started snowing and turned the entire landscape around me a brilliant white. Falling snow is quite a novelty to me, but it was not as romantic as I imagined, instead all it was, was freezing cold. I thought my poor tent was going to collapse under the weight.

9 December - Torres Del Paine - Refugio Dickson – Campamento Los Perros
Once again, we were very slow at packing up. We knew it would be a short walk to our next camp and as rumors were that it was even colder there, we only left at around 12h00. I was really struggling with my ankles and to later thought that I should have stayed an extra day at Dickson. The walk however offered stunning views of the glaciers and surrounding mountains. I was going slower and slower, Fran├žois walk with me as I growled along at a snail’s past. I wobbled along; aided by my two walking poles I dragged myself to camp. I felt bad that I was holding up Francois and Yutta, but there was little I could do. It was bitterly cold by the time we arrived at camp and I knew that I should get my tent up as soon as possible.

People are just so incredible, all offering painkillers and creams. I, however, knew that there was no way I could even think of crossing the pass in the morning. I understood that the pass was a steep climb of about 1 000m in deep snow and that it was at least a 6-hour walk to the next camp.

10 December - Torres Del Paine - Campamento Los Perros
I was stuck inside my tent and could not move! My ankles and feet were so sore that I could place no weight on them. I waved Francois and Yutta good-bye and then had to think about how to get out of where I was. I understood that one could get a horse, but with no command of the Spanish language, I felt lost and very sorry for myself. Eventually I understood that I could not get a horse from Los Perros, but had to walk back to Dickson and maybe I could arrange something there. Just how I was going to achieve that, I did not know, as I found it quite impossible just to stand up.

Later that day a group of British horse riders arrived, and it was good to hear a language I could understand. The guide offered to take my pack back to Dickson, if I thought I could make it there by foot.

11 December - Torres Del Paine - Campamento Los Perros – Refugio Dickson
I soon discovered that two of the horse riders were South African doctors, now working in London. True to nature, they had a fair amount of medicine with them and offered me some painkillers. Thanks to them, I could at least get out of the tent on could stand on my feet. I waited for the tablets to kick in and then, aided by my walking poles, shuffled back along the path. This was not only embarrassing but also very painful. I kept on telling myself “it’s only pain” but it did not work for me!! I knew that I was not doing my ankles a favor by walking back but what could one do?

I was proud of myself for making it all the way back to Dickson, where I found three other trekkers waiting for horses. I pitched my tent and did all the necessary things, like filling up with water etc., as I knew that once I sat down there was no getting up again, I had to keep on moving until everything was done. Exhausted I flopped into my tent and stayed there until the morning.

A storm strength wind picked up and I desperately had to get outside to strengthen my tent ropes. All I could do was to crawl on all fours around the tent and hammer in the pegs and tighten the ropes! What a sight that must have been! Still, I was not sure that the tent would hold up in such a strong wind. (Fortunately it did)

12 December - Torres Del Paine - The “rescue”
Early morning, and quite unexpectedly, I was told that a horse had been arranged for me. The horse was however on the other side of the river. I took my last four painkillers, waited a while, and then tried to pack up. It felt that the tablets had no impact on the pain. I tried my utmost to pack my bag and tent in high winds. Eventually the owner came to help and I set off towards the river. The wind was blowing so hard that one could barely stand. Driven by the wind the river was a torrent. The oarsmen tried everything, but could not get the boat hooked up to the cable, already spanned across the river. In the meantime the ranger with horse was waiting on the other side! Eventually everyone gave up, and we headed back to the Refugio. We had a hearty lunch after which the men went to check on the conditions of the river and wind again.

Eventually the boat was hooked up, they loaded my backpack and me into the boat and we made it across, by pulling the boat along the cable spanned across the river. Getting out the boat, across the rocks and onto the other side must have been quite a spectacle. Eventually we met our very patient ranger. (I later discovered that he was the most experience and longest serving ranger in the park). I was heaved onto the horse by strong hands and off we went!!

I was lucky to see a seldom seen part of the park as we followed one of the horse trails. After about 2 hours (and with a sore backside) we arrived at a small road where a driver with a van waited!! I had no idea it was going to be such a mission. With a most skillful driver, I set off on a very exciting ride through the park. The jeep track went up over mountains; through rivers and marshlands and past some of the most stunning sceneries the park can offer. What an adventure I had, albeit a bit unnecessary.

Arriving at the main gate of the park, I found an ambulance waiting!!!! How embarrassing, they loaded me in and took me all the way to Puente Natales Hospital. At the hospital, x-rays were taken, feet examined and I was declared fit and healthy except for a twisted ankle pulled ligaments and tendinitis. I had the luxury of an intravenous painkiller but as far as I could figure it did absolutely zilch for me!! It was 23h00 by the time I look a taxi to the hostel. Finally, I could rest my weary feet. Total cost US$470!!!!!

13/14 December - Puerto Natales
Not all was well yet! I still needed the medication from the pharmacy and had to ask one of the staff at the hostel to get it for me. At least I shuffled along and had a much-needed shower. Thank goodness for my little laptop! At least I could sit in my room and type up my embarrassing adventure. To be quite honest, I very much suspect that the problem was due to a lack of walking. After nearly 4 years on the bike, my ankles are not very strong. So overall, it’s my own fault for once again thinking that I can do more than the body is capable!!!

Both Yutta and Fran├žois arrived back from their hike and both had a great time, I was very envious of them.

Still I waited for my ankle to improve, but it was slow in healing itself. I helped it along with some painkillers, just so I could go to the bank and do some shopping.

The Argentineans are quite a unique bunch of people. The men are rather macho but in such a boyish way that they endear themselves to you. Men still whistle as you cycle past (I thought that only happened in South Africa). They are warm and passionate people and I am happy that I wasn’t here when they lost in the Football World Cup.

With so many ranches, it is not unusual to see farmers on horseback along the way. This is cattle country


Anonymous said...

I didn't have the opportunity to go to Ushuaia, but I visited the downtown Buenos Aires hotels .
Someday I'll visit the South!

Anonymous said...

This was really interesting. I loved reading it.