Arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina by bike

We did it!
Anchorage, Alaska – Ushuaia, Argentina
30,893km, 1009 days, 16 countries and a million memories.

“Whatever a penguin does has individuality, and he lays bare his whole life for all to see…sometimes solemn, sometimes humorous, enterprising, chivalrous, cheeky – and always a welcome and, in some ways, an almost human friend.”
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard

 

For me, a visit to Tierra del Fuego – the island nestled at the foot of South America – wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to the recently re-established King Penguin colony between Porvenir and Camerón. As a long-time admirer of this funny little waddle machine, I was looking forward to the visit with great expectations. (And it would take all of my self-control not to sneak one of them into my panniers before leaving).

Second only in size to the Emperor Penguin, the King is usually found in the much more southerly regions of South Georgia and Antarctica. As these areas are only accessible by long and expensive boat trips, we were keen and privileged to be able to access their colony by bike.

We were also lucky to have the place to ourselves. Camping there with three other cyclists, we had the last of the evening’s sun to nip down and pay them a visit and then the following morning, we returned to watch them stretch, wake and explore – a little more closely than we could ever have anticipated…

Sarah

Penguins territory on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magical Patagonian evening light is the perfect time for viewing…

Penguins preening themselves on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…as the penguins busy themselves with preening…

Calling penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…calling to one another, and not-so-gracefully flopping down on the grass.

Penguin standing alone on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

These are the penguins that grace the cover of well-loved paperback books…

Penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…or the shiny red packets of school-day chocolate bar snacks.

Penguins walking across the pampa in Tierra del Fuego, Chile

There’s something about the way they move that seems so human. Perhaps they feel the same – that we seem so ‘penguin’, and so over they come to investigate.

Two penguins approaching Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Karen is the first target. Once one has decided to check her out…

Penguins lining up to meet Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…the others soon follow…

Penguins gather around Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chil

…and before long it’s a veritable penguin party.

Penguins approach James on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Then they’re headed James’ way.

Penguins bowing in front of James on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

First, they respectfully bow…

Close up of penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…before they invade his space. “Does he have a beak like us?…

Close up of king penguin feathers, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…Are his feathers as beautiful and smooth as ours?…

Close up of two king penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…and can he carry off ‘regal’ like we do?”

Penguins approaching Sarah on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

“How about the female over there…

Penguins appraoching in a line, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…let’s check her out!

Penguin feet close up, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Are her feet like ours?…

Penguin biting a shoe Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…hmmm, clearly no good for Antarctic swimming.” 

Penguins with Sarah on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

And finally they decide we are no longer interesting…

Four king penguins, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…and off they waddle…

Three king penguins standing together, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…to discuss more pressing things.

Compañeros

January 15th, 2014

When I handed in my notice and announced plans to make this trip with James, I distinctly remember amongst the mix of enthusiasm and bemused faces, one of my colleagues raising his eyebrows and with heavy sarcasm wishing us “good luck”. When I asked him to explain, he replied “…all that time together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’re going to need some luck; it’ll make or break your relationship”. He was wise and knew well before we did that although the weather, the budget, the physical strain of riding the Americas would all be challenging, perhaps the greatest challenge of all would be spending so much time in the company of one other person.

James and I both worked two jobs for well over a year before we left and saw relatively little of each other in the effort to save as much as possible to make the trip happen. Then, in a pure reversal, we boarded the plane to Alaska to begin a journey which would see us spend practically every waking minute together. In the course of two and a half years, there haven’t been many hours where we have been apart. So undoubtedly our relationship has evolved.

At times it’s felt like a pressure cooker – tough physical moments, sickness, confusion, deliberation and unparalleled highs – just waiting to explode. By nature, thankfully we’re both pretty placid and not inclined to argue but we’re also both opinionated, used to getting our own way and always think we are right; as a result the air has occasionally turned blue during some spectacular foot stamping barneys. As time has passed, the unusual situation of only having each other to depend on has, thankfully, made our relationship stronger, particularly during the frequent low periods when we were ill.

Whilst the relationship might have lost some of its sparkle through the repeated daily routine of riding our bikes and setting up camp, living in our little world of just two cyclists has seen us become each other’s agony aunt, financial advisor, entertainment system (impromptu pedalling concerts being a speciality), chef, life coach, nurse and friend.

I had assumed that we would be the only friends each other had during this journey. Making new friends on the road was never something that I had considered, perhaps because it seemed so improbable. The very nature of our lifestyle, with us always moving, choosing different routes, riding in different rythyms had the odds stacked against any meaningful relationships forming. And besides, just because we are all cyclists doesn’t mean we should instantly get along does it? I have happily been proven wrong however and there are brilliant people we have spent time with – both on and off the bikes – that I truly hope to meet again when we have finished. People who have inspired us, people who have clicked with our sense of humour, people whose riding styles mirror ours, those we have taken under our wing and those who have taken us under theirs.

Spending time with others and travelling with others has eased some of that pressure of 24-7 with one another too. As a couple, you bicker less in the company of someone else, discussing opinions with an ‘outsider’ helps galvanise the opinions you share with your partner and if you all have mutual appreciation for bicycles, coffee, food and language, the myriad of variety within those topics can fuel conversations for hours on end.

Our cycling buddy Lee ticked all of these boxes for us and cycling together with him at the beginning of our trip was ten weeks of taco fuelled silliness that saw us through Baja California, mainland Mexico and into Guatemala.

We went our separate ways in Guatemala after attending Spanish school in Xela. James and I got back on our bikes and Lee stayed behind to continue his studies and fulfil a long held desire to learn salsa. In doing so, he met Heidi and nine months passed before he dusted off his bike and carried on with his tour. Like in all good fairy tales, the heroine wasn’t left behind and Heidi decided to get herself a bike too and came to join him in Colombia. From Bogotá they rode together and had been chasing us throughout Peru and Bolivia. We were finally reunited during our new year stop in Mendoza and made plans to ride on together from there.

Sarah

Lee carving a piece of vacio at Hostel Alamo, Mendoz, Argentina

New Year seen in with seven other cyclists, an asado feast for Heidi’s birthday, Argentine Tango, a merry go round of gear fixing interspersed with ice cream trips and artesan beer drinking. Our time in Mendoza was hectic but fun and most of all it allowed us to eat…a lot.

Cat graffiti on the road out of Mendoza, Argentina

Leaving the city as a foursome, we roll past some graffiti for a local gym.

Sandy stretch of Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

Extra supplies are essential on the next stretch though as there’s nothing out here on the old Ruta 40. In fact the road is not much more than a sandpit.

Car heading into the distance on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

Only the occasional vintage car…

Dying trres on the Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

…a row of tree skeletons…

Grasshopper on a blade of grass on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

…and a plague of pretty grasshoppers keep us company.

Lee and Heidi eating biscuits on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

A shared love of biscuits presents the perfect excuse for regular stops to munch and chat…

Heidi, Lee and Sarah cycling along the old Ruta 40, near Pareditas, Argentina

…before we continue up and down on the dirt. 

Sunset over Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

Camping around here is pretty and easy…

Lee riding in the early morning on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

…and with bleary eyes, we ride in the early mornings – before the sun and wind pick up in the afternoons. 

Big insect on Lee's hand on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

We pick up a stowaway hitchiker. This little guy got folded up in Lee and Heidi’s tent and miraculously survived. We release him back into the wild 60km from home and wonder if he will hitch a ride back?

Sarah and James' bikes on the Ruta 40 near Lago Diamante, Argentina

The 40 continues, with little to distract, until… 

Lee drinking maté near Lago Diamante on Ruta 40, Argetina

…we are invited to drink Argentine maté with a family on holiday at a refugio in the middle of nowhere. Maté (a caffeinated herb) is held in awe in the same way that tea is revered in England and so there is a distinct etiquette and culture surrounding its making and drinking. Lee already knows the most important rule – don’t touch the bombillo (straw).

Lee and James chatting in the road on Ruta 40 near La Jaula, Argentina

Busted! Catching up on all things coffee. 

Lee and Heidi riding away from La Jaula, Argentina

The early morning climb out of La Juala sees Lee and Heidi chasing their shadows up the hill… 

Lee riding across an enormous plateau near La Jaula, Argentina

…bringing us to a huge plateau. We think we’re doing well, until we realise we have miscalculated the distance to El Sosneado.

Lee on sandy Ruta 40 to El Sosneado, Argentina

Lee of course takes it all in his stride whereas Heidi and I don’t find the extra sandy 20km quite so funny. 

An amardillo on the parilla at a campsite in Malargüe, Argentina

A day off the bikes in Malargüe and we plan an asado feast. Our neighbouring campers already have their grill on the go and their speciality dish of the day is armadillo.

James, Lee and Heidi eating an amardillo foot at a campsite in Malargüe, Argentina

We are invited to taste some of the leg and vote overwhelmingly that this poor little critter won’t be making an appearance on our bbq any time soon.

Cycling towards the Chilean border from Bardas Blancas, Argetnina

From Bardas Blancas, we head towards the Chilean border…

Goats running home near Bardas Blancas, Argentina

..and chase the goats home to their corral. 

Lee and Heidi in the road to the CHilean border near Las Loicas, Argentina

As we contemplate the hot and dusty road ahead, Lee and Heidi discuss the finer points of salsa technique…

Putting a tea bag in a hot drinking bottle near Las Loicas, Argentina

…and it gets so hot that the only way to deal with our nearly-boiling drinking water is to stick a tea bag in it.

James, Lee and Heidi in the river near Las Loicas, Argentina

A cool, rushing river is incredibly welcome at the end of a long hot and dusty day. We wallow, we splash; and when it’s time to get out…

Heidi leaves the river near Las Loicas, Argetina

…Heidi does it in style.

Goats in the road near Paso Pehuenche, Argentina

Climbing up towards Paso Pehuenche and the Argentine/Chilean border, a menacing herd of goats brings us to a stop.

Lee and Heidi cycling past Campánario near Paso Pehuenche, Argentina

They graciously allow us through and we continue to climb, past the spectacular peak of Campánario…

An Islas Malvinas sign at the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

…to the border, where a final opportunity is taken to remind us that the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas as they are known here) are Argentine.

Chile sign at the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

Into Chile.

Heidi cycling downhill on pavement into Chile after the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

Now heading downhill and on pavement, we are flying…

Sarah overlooking Laguna del Maule near the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

…towards Laguna del Maule.

Lee and Heidi sheltering in the shade mear Laguna del Maule, Chile

Time for some lunch and the fierce sun means we have to improvise and make our own shade.

View of Laguna del Maule near the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

A post lunch swim is tempting but it’s a long way down. So we continue towards Talca, where we have Warmshowers host Daniel waiting for us.

Moon over the valley on the way to Talca, Chile from Paso Pehuenche

All that remains is a 100km downhill through a spectacular valley with, of course…

Lee and a handmade Chilean tortilla, near Talca, Chile

…a few stops to sample some of the roadside food that’s on offer this side of the border.