Somewhat stupidly I never really expected Patagonia to do heat.. proper, intense, stuffy heat that causes your eyes to fill with sweat on the climbs and leaves the taste of flinty dust in your mouth as you ride. But it does and it does it well. The last 7 days have seen a spell of almost unbroken sunshine and increasing heat day by day. The last couple of evenings I’ve watched from my tent with a sense of anticipation as storm clouds threatened to the east.. but each time they come to nothing and the next morning dawns hotter and more sultry than the one before. Remarkably the last 2 days have not seen even a breath of wind…. indeed it is preferable to heavy rain and cold… but for the the bugs. They like the heat. Big, chunky flies with a set of jaws that will go through thin cycling clothing with ease. I have never come across such aggressive creatures that appear to positively relish a drop of bug repellent on their meat. They follow their meals on wheels at remarkably high speeds and on the climbs one can watch the shadows of hundreds of the little beasties following in your slipstream. But don’t let that put you off visiting :-)
Anyway, I digress… from Rio Tranquilo then I pointed my wheels west up into the Valle de los Exploradores… It was a slow day at an average of barely 11km/hr The track is in poor condition and the cold wind was fresh from the west but I barely noticed either of those things. The scenery was wonderful.. and wonderfully empty. All day while riding I saw one person and he was a friendly old chap on horseback. Perfect. The night before a bus of Israeli backpackers had arrived in Rio Tranquilo.. in a place so small they are hard to ignore, indeed in packs their behaviour often has more in common with the flies, an angry sort of buzz that is always there. All over S America there are some establishments with signs saying “no Israelis”. Oh if I could have a cycling jersey that said “no flies please”.
Anyway, the track wound its way west through ever more spectacular scenery, past waterfalls and below hanging glaciers gleaming in the sun. I sat and ate a lunch of bread and avocadoes by a terrific waterfall cascading down a granite cliff while a pair of enormous Condors circled lazily overhead in a crystal blue sky. There are pumas in these forests too though I doubt one will ever show itself.
44km up the valley I came to the house of an enthusiastically friendly German couple, Katrin and Tomas who have been living out there in the wilderness for 10 years with a couple of spare rooms for guests that make the effort to head out that way. The live a sustainable lifestyle and they even have a 10KW water turbine in one of the streams cascading down the cliffs behind their house. They proved to be engaging company so I pitched my tent in a small clearing in the rainforest behind their house before continuing west on my bike to the Exploradores glacier and a fine view of the edge of the San Valentin section of the permanent icecap.
I took my stove and a fruitloaf with me so at 5pm I sat looking out over the glacier with a very English mug of tea and slab of cake brought from Rio Tranquilo… ah, who am I kidding, I ate the whole cake.
That evening my stove remained cold… the prospect of a delicious homecooked dinner of slow cooked lamb and potatoes cooked by Katrin was too good to ignore :-)
In no hurry to head back to the Carretera I spent a lazy morning exploring the local area on bike and foot before moving camp further west along the valley to a sublime spot where, in the warm sun, a swim before dinner seemed a fine idea. It was a very short swim. The lake is fed by the glaciers. It felt good though as did the evening as I sat by my driftwood fire and watched the sun set behind the peaks and glaciers to the west.
The plan was to wake up to a fabulous view of the snowy peaks to the west bathed in early morning sunlight… Typically however the cloud was down around the mountains, its cold, damp tendrils wrapped themselves around me as I thought “oh sod it I’ll swim anyway”. It was just 7am but when I’m hungry I get restless, and it is light from 4.30am at the moment. It was ‘refreshing’.
On my way back east down the valley I called in on Tomas and Katrin to say farewell and thanks for the good grub but mother in law answered the door, both of them were in bed with a fever :-( So with no further reason to linger and with the wind at my back I got on with the business of enjoying the ride.
As I moved east I left the cloud behind and arrived back in Rio Tranquilo in time for a late lunch in glorious sunshine. While I wolfed down empanadas at a cafe a local chap enthusiastically told me about the fishing out west where I had been. Salmon as large as 30kg he said… huge fish. Dubious as it sounds I had met a German chap fishing here a few days earlier an he showed me photos of salmon he’d caught well over 20kg… so 30kg.. believable I think. That’s the size of a sheep, would certainly fill the freezer nicely :-)
On the way through Rio Tranquilo, outside the grocery store, I spotted a fleet of 4 familiar looking bicycles with Rohloff hubs and the butterfly bars favoured by Euro cyclists. It was the Swiss gang I’d met on the boat from Chaiten 3 weeks earlier. They were buying beer for New Years Eve, something I had quite forgotten about. They said “oh we are camped 1km south by the beach, you should join us”. So I did. Instant New Years party. Hurrah! Had this been Argentina of course meat for the BBQ would have been easy to come by. In Rio Tranquilo however not even the carniceria had anything more substantial than miserable little paper thin hamburgers wrapped in plastic. Ugh. I had cleverly dumped mine, along with the bread, avocadoes and so on by my tent while I took my beer down to the beach. With the fire glowing and ready for cooking I went back to my tent to find a telepathic cat enjoying the thawing burgers. Telepathic because the moment I swore quietly and thought about skinning and cooking it instead of burgers it scarpered.
2011 dawned absolutely windless, cloudless and already hot when I rolled out relatively late at 10.30am. I’d had a rough night with streaming nose.. a head cold and nothing to do with beer… so when, after just 44km, I came to the suspension bridge across the straits where the clear waters of Lago Carrera pour at a rate of knots into Lago Bertrand I decided to camp on the tiny pebble beach below the bridge.
With very little traffic on the Carretera it was a peaceful night. Until 3am when someone thought it a good idea to ride a horse across the metal deck plates of the bridge. The weird and awful racket woke me up, I got out my tent in a daze thinking the world was going to end until I eventually realised what was going on :-)
Awake at 6 with the sun streaming into my tent I was on the road at 8am in the relative cool so it was a nice ride to Puerto Bertrand and a cafe in the forest with decent coffee and kuchen too good to resist… Most expensive cake stop in the world though I think at about £8 for coffee and cake.
I met familiar cyclists again on this stretch. The Carretera brings together cyclists journeying from all over South America, concentrates them into one southerly bottle neck like grains of sand in an hourglass :-)
Beyond Puerto Bertrand there are few places to camp and it turned into a proper climbing day. There are three successive climbs of around 600m each with no respite. All steep with grades up to around 20% on a very difficult surface… soft and heavily corrugated. The heat was intense with no wind and there was possibility to camp and no water so I just put my head down and hammered all the way to Cochrane.
Hard climbing suits me but I still felt a bit funny when I arrived at 4.30pm.. a litre of chocolate milk, an icecream and finally a cold beer sorted that out :-)
Cochrane is another one of those frontier sort of places. Feels a bit like Las Lajas in Argentina.. in the rainshadow of the icecap to the west it is hot, dusty and a little bit scruffy with very little life evident when I rolled into town.
I’ve only been here about 18hrs and already stitched up. I took a cheap room in a little hospedaje. The chap of the house, a laid back sort, said “yeah, wash your clothes in the kitchen, no problem.” So I did.. or rather I got halfway through before the lady of the house walked in, one of those small, wrinkled but determined types, and gave me a proper ear bending… I was consigned to an old bucket in the dusty yard for the remainder.
Happy New Year and thanks for reading in 2010!