April 14th, 2014
April 13th, 2014
Suddenly, the name that we have been heading for so long is close. Too close for comfort, in fact. So close that we might have to start thinking about what comes next.
We scrutinise the map, searching for a way to delay the inevitable. Our escape presents itself: a dirt road looping away from the tedium of the asphalt into the heart of Tierra del Fuego.
It’s the perfect ride: Patagonia in all its multicolour autumn glory, perched precariously on the edge of an icy winter. If I could finish anywhere, then it would be here – on the dirt, in the middle of nowhere, with just the guanacos for company. This is where I feel at home.
But the magnetic draw of the finishing line is too strong. We reach the asphalt once again. End of the World ego trumps my romanticism, and we push on, Ushuaia-bound.
April 7th, 2014
“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
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…
April 5th, 2014
For the stretch between the end of the Carretera Austral in Chile, all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego (some 500kms) we barely ever cycled alone. Part of a merry band of bikers, we enjoyed the social riding – the endless banter, the clash and blend of personalities, and of course the food…always the food.
March 15th, 2014
It’s almost impossible to write anything about the Carretera Austral without lapsing into full-blown cliché. This, after all, is another of South America’s iconic rides, the much-touted “best dirt road” on the continent, stretching 1000km into the wild heart of Chilean Patagonia (see, I’ve done it already). And on paper, it had all the ingredients we love rolled into one: dirt, isolation and unspoiled natural beauty. So why then did I ride into Villa O’Higgins at the far end of the Austral feeling, well…slightly anti-climaxed? Relieved to have got it out of the way rather than re-invigorated and inspired?
At the time I put it down to a simple case of travel fatigue, as my gaze inevitably turned inwards and the senses began to shut down towards the end of a long trip. After all, the Austral did have some undeniably special moments: our first glimpse of the turquoise Lago General Carrera in the morning sun, following the roar of the Rio Baker towards Cochrane, or simply camping wild night after night in perfect silence. But still, as beautiful as it was, something was missing.
I thought back to some of the dirt roads we had ridden further north in South America, in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; the ones we already talk about as the “golden days” of this trip. What made them so special? I realised that a large part of it was the lack of hype factor. If we had stumbled across the Carretera Austral in the way we stumbled across many of our favourite roads, then it would have been a different experience. Instead, we already had a clear idea of what the Austral was going to be like in our heads before we set foot on it – and that’s pretty much how it was: predictably beautiful. No surprises, good or bad.
Of course, that’s no fault of the Carretera Austral. It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise that riding one of the most hyped routes in the world, along with half the cycle-touring population of South America, would be something of an anti-climax. You’d have thought that we’d have worked out what makes us tick by now. And I think we have – but the trouble is, it’s actually quite hard to swim against the current and completely turn your back on these “must-see” routes. Try telling another cyclist that you’re not going to bother with the Carretera Austral because “it’s a bit clichéd” and watch their eyebrows go skywards.
But ultimately I’m glad we rode the Austral. Partly because it showed us an undeniably beautiful part of Chilean Patagonia. But also because it re-affirmed to me everything we’ve learned about how and why we love to travel. Our best moments on this trip have been the least-expected ones, not the “don’t miss” ones. That doesn’t mean we deliberately side-step the “must-see” sites – in fact, we’ve seen almost all of them along our route. It’s just that, on their own, they leave us unfulfilled.
We’ve realised that for us, surprise is the magical travel ingredient. The best part of travelling is to be surprised – and definitely not just by landscapes, but also by people and places. Take away this element of surprise and travel becomes little more than a predictable tick-list. Does X Wonder of the World look like the photo? Yes, tick. Next…
So where does that leave us as travellers? In a clique of tedious traveller-types obsessed with a quest for “authenticity”? Maybe, but I hope not. The world might be becoming more homogeneous by the day, but surely it remains too diverse, too rich in these moments of surprise and discovery to be reduced to a list of “1000 places to see before you die”? By all means go and see them. Ride the Austral. But then throw away the guidebook, pick a place you’ve never heard of, and go and explore.
And the best thing about travelling by bike? That it makes it so easy to break free from the tick-list approach to travelling, to just throw a dart at a map and go. Because for every Carretera Austral, I guarantee there are a hundred other dirt roads out there waiting to surprise you.
February 24th, 2014
In my experience, when given the choice between a lake and a gate, cyclists would normally always opt for the lake. Throughout our trip, pedalling past beautiful lakes has brought us peace and contentment. The two mighty lakes of Atitlán in Guatemala and Titicaca in Bolivia spring immediately to mind, but there have been countless lakes along our route to relax by and enjoy.
Gates on the other hand have always represented a temporary or permanent obstacle in our path; an annoyance. Either we have been completely unable to pass or, in deciding to tackle the gate, we have had the onerous task of unloading our bikes, heaving them over the gate and loading them back up again – not much fun with two bikes and ten bags between us.
On this leg of the journey however, it was to be the reverse. The lakes, although pretty, were hidden from us behind a succession of wet and grey days and instead it was the series of gates that were the real pleasure along the road, tempting us along towards the Carretera Austral.
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.