I think he wanted to play at Captain but instead was being forced to deal with The General Public.. oiks like me for example ;-) Unlike the captain himself the chap managing the boarding and taking tickets for the ferry to Porvenir was a grumpy old duffer… or maybe he just hated cyclists. Either way when we had questions or asked where to put bikes we were ignored with nothing more than a brief but dirty look. An orange overall clad regular crewman came to the rescue and bikes were stowed at the side of the car deck amongst the juggernauts.
As the HGVs drove onto the narrow vehicle deck foot passengers swarmed through them in gaps less than a metre wide in their haste to get on board… with no attempt made at separating people from enormous trucks it was surprising no-one was killed.
I was happy to be on board for the 20mile crossing to Tierra del Fuego. Punta Arenas left me somewhat underwhelmed for the 28hrs I spent there. The place I stayed was very friendly (Hostal Fitzroy for the record) but the folk I came into contact with in the bars and cafes, and indeed from expressions of many people in the street, seemed to be a rather dour lot… I am sure not everyone is like that so maybe it was just me, maybe it is just the difference between the city and the small & friendly country towns.. or perhaps it was the cold, grey weather. Whatever it was I felt quite depressed the morning I spent wandering in the town centre. Not even an expensive-but-good coffee and slab of cake in an atmospheric little cafe could lift my mood. I missed the simple beauty of the countryside… even the pampa ;-) I was glad when it was time to ride the 6km to the port.
If the weather is stormy it can take 4hrs or more to cross the Straits of Magellan… I was lucky, the weather was calm so after just 2 1/2hrs we were docking in Porvenir at 7.30pm. It was a pleasant, albeit chilly, crossing. I watched groups of Magellanic Penguins doing what penguins do.. i.e bobbing and diving and fishing… and on the approach to Porvenir dolphins were enjoying themselves in the cold evening light.
Incredibly four of us cyclists rolled off the boat, myself and Sergio the Italian who I came to think of as Lego thanks to square blocky view from behind of his orange panniers and his overwhelmingly orange dress, and an Austrian couple, Philip and Valeska who had come from Alaska (after Europe & Africa) and were a mere 4 1/2 years into a trip of unspecified duration… “probably Japan next” they said. As with the vast majority of cyclists they were all good fun. Sergio had no English and no real Spanish so we got by in a weird mix of Spanish & Italian, the two being just sufficiently similar.
Porvenir, hiding behind a headland, revealed itself to be a windswept pastel wash of metal homes in a bleak location at the western end of Tierra del Fuego. I liked the place. There is no camping in Porvenir itself so as it was getting late I had planned to find the Albergue Municipal for the night, tip from a friend up the road, but was hijacked on the way into town by a couple in a 4×4 offering rooms for 5000 pesos. At first inspection the beds, in what was a scruffy residential, looked fine so, given the low price, we all agreed to stay before heading out in search of food.
On our return what had appeared to be decent beds turned out to be little better than a few sacks of potatoes disguised with a six-inch layer of dusty blankets that could have easily have been discarded by Magellan 500 years previously as unfit for purpose. I did not sleep well.
This part of Tierra del Fuego is as stunningly bleak as expected, the road east from Porvenir is a rough dirt affair that goes all the way to the Atlantic coast and Argentina. The first 100km or so the road follows the Bahia Inutil… The Useless Coast. A wonderfully empty, windswept stretch of coastline, populated only by the occasional fishermans hut… “Pampa on Sea”.
It was a good wildlife day as I pedalled east with a fresh breeze at my back.. on my left, the landward side, plenty of wild Guanacos and the occasional Rhea.. and on my right Skuas, the occasional lonely penguin on the beach and a few dolphins off-shore. It is a very dry stretch, just a couple of brackish lagoons dotted pink with flamingos. The only option for water is to beg at estancias along the way.. they are a friendly bunch of people so it is no problem.
I managed 122km before fatigue really started to make itself felt, not so much from the distance but from hammering of the rough ripio. For camping out here it is simply a case of finding a roadside patch with some shelter from the wind but without trespassing across the endless fences onto estancia land. My last night in Chile was a comfortable one just a few metres from the road although with no additional water than that on my bike. The few trucks that passed were a friendly lot, all happy to give a wave and a blast of the horn as I sat eating dinner. No idea where the rest of the gang off the boat were other than Sergio was somewhere up the road ahead, very much on a mission, and the other two were cruising somewhere behind… I was somewhere in the middle :-)
To my horror I awoke to find the wind had done something it rarely does down here… it had swung 180 degs to blow a gale from the south east… I had to rapidly revise my expectation of reaching Rio Grande that day so when, after 5hrs grovelling along in my granny ring, I reached the Argentina border control after just 40km I decided I really had had enough and parked my tent on a patch of waste ground at the back of one of the buildings that forms the San Sebastian border and retired to the cafe for fried meat and chips.. and a liter of beer. Contentment.
I had met Ian from England in the 15km of no-mans land between the Chilean and Argentinian border controls. He had the air of a classic randonneur about him.. woollen trousers tucked into long socks and a cable knit roll-neck jumper. I could imagine him lighting up a pipe outside his tent of an evening. His bike was obviously well travelled, a battered old frame in Italian steel with a rusty bell and well worn Brooks. Not a shred of lycra or carbon in evidence :-) We chatted in the wind as long as the pentrating cold allowed before he happily disappeared west with the gale at his back and I struggled on for the last few km…
The border control for Argentina is situated right on the Atlantic coast of Tierra del Fuego. An incredibly wild & bleak place with nothing but a cafe, a gas station and the administrative buildings. That afternoon I rode my bike down onto the beach… in the cold mist it was a lonely land without definition.. the dun pampa behind me blending into grey shell studded sands blending into the grey, stormy Atlantic waves in turn blending into the grey sky. With my wheels pointing north-north-east I thought about the Atlantic shores of Cornwall, home, some 13,000km away.
Philip & Valeska showed up at the border around 5pm and pitched their tent alongside mine. We bought more beer and sat in the misty cold working up the motivation to cook dinner. They were great company :-) There is a small ‘refuge’ at the border with a hot water tap and a couple of benches… you could spend the night in there, indeed one old toothless but talkative Argentine chap waiting for a ride on a truck did, but with the gas heater permanently on full blast the heat was unbearable to us, acclimatized as we are now to living outdoors in the cold.
That evening the wind dropped to nothing… it was the prelude to the roughest night I can recall spending in a tent. At midnight I awoke to a severe gale and torrential rain. It was wild. At about 2am I crawled out to add some more pegs to the guys as the noise of the storm increased beyond what I thought was possible. Eventually dropped off back to sleep at 3, to wake at 6 to a deathly calm and freezing cold…
Fearing a return of the easterly wind we were on the road early while conditions were calm for the remaining 80km to Rio Grande. The wind did return but it was a good wind, a breeze from the west. Not enough to avoid pedalling across the flat pampa but it certainly helped :-)
Sunday afternoons are generally not a good time to arrive in Argentine towns… devoid of life and with all businesses shut bar the gas station and supermarket Rio Grande was a depressing prospect. Serving only as a center for Tierra del Fuegos mineral wealth it is a concrete affair in a grid layout on a bleak stretch of coastline… I felt a little uncomfortable riding in, there is a military base and airfield with a large memorial to to the lives lost during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.. and a big sign saying “Las Malvinas sos Argentina”. I decided to be Swedish for the duration of my stay…
But.. there is a very cool place to camp that changed everything. At the southern end of town there is a scruffy bit of dockside with some grass next to a big metal shed. The shed serves as the local kayak/nautical club and has showers and a small kitchen. We camped outside for a few pesos with a fine view of some old waterfront sheds and put our feet up in the warm shed with our very friendly hosts. With lots of character and that interesting view I am happy to stay here a couple of days to rest my legs before the final push to Ushuaia. After all, beer is cheap here, Argentine bakeries are generally excellent and despite my British passport the locals are a brilliantly friendly bunch as indeed they have been all over Argentina :-)
- Tierra del Fuego… the Land of Fire. So called because Magellan spotted the smoke from the fires of the native peoples… indeed originally he named it the Land of Smoke but it’s name was later changed… not dramatic enough I imagine ;-)
- check out Philip & Valeskas website online, you can find them at www.2-play-on-earth.net
- as I write these last words in Rio Grande it is once again pouring with rain and the wind is raging. Another rough night :-)