February 29, 2004

Looking back on a month of cycling

Now that we have arrived in Calafate, I realize that it is a month since we have set off from Ushuaia. This is a good time to reflect on the assumptions I had about the trip before setting off and to re-evaluate my motivations to take on such a challenge.

For starters I have found that the time actually spent cycling and travelling is much longer than the average work week. We either get up much earlier or cycle well into the evening, sometimes past sunset to reach our destination for the day. So far, gathering information and researching interesting topics for the classrooms website and documentary film has been much harder than anticipated. Several things have contributed to this. The first is that although my spanish is improving very rapidly, it is definitely still hard to express more difficult concepts. Discussing biology of the lenga tree or to discuss the morphology of the glaciers in the region has been a real challenge.
I am learning to be more careful in choosing good sources and seeking out the municipal library before getting poor word of mouth information. I trust my reading comprehention much more than the oral comprehention for the moment.

In this first month, our spare energies have been definitely dominated by mechanical difficulties on the tandem. Here is a list in approximate chronological order of the items we have had to fix: Breaking the aluminium trailer hitches, Constantly breaking spokes on the back wheel due to too much torque on the hills, having a rear chain and freewheel wear out pre-maturely, Shearing the replacement freewheel after only 3 1/2 days of use (don't buy made in china Tracer freewheels), Breaking a cheap replacement chain 500m out of Puerto Natales (also made in china), Denting the front rim on a really bad strech of rocky road (sadly no marshmallows included), Ripping through 2 tires due to bad road conditions and going a little too fast with the wind at our backs, Shearing two screws on the front rack, bending the front derailleur when the back chain breaks once more.

Did I mention that not many days have gone by without a mechanical problem. I really thought that I was well prepared, but so many of the failures were un-predictable and even harder to manages as the spare parts are difficult to come by in Patagonia. So far it has taken away a lot of the energy I would have devoted to learning more about the local geography and cultures. Luckily nothing has been a complete show stopper, and thanks to good positive support and ingenuity from Damien and Ryan we have always found a way to limp forwards into the next town and find whatever spares are available.

The resulting diurnal emotional highs and lows sometimes cloud the big picture down here. We really are having a great time!
Patagonia is so remote that cycling through such vast landscapes devoid of people for long periods of time can make you feel very small and vurnerable. The severity of each little problem is amplified. When we finally arrive into a small town after 200-300km of cycling in the wilderness, we are relieved and sometimes we even feel euphoric. While preparing this expedition, I went to Cuba with Tania and found that every country road had so many people that you always felt a human element in the environment beyond the road. I have been reading the Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux and he wrote "Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography into oblivion." which down here really applies when you have not seen another soul all day.

The really positive element that has come out of the last month of cycling is that I am learning to adapt my travelling experience as an individual to that of the group with Damien and Ryan. The necessary compromises have been natural and easy and we are steadily growing to be good friends. Damien and Ryan both have unique perspectives that are helping me notice things to which I would have otherwise not given a second though, had I been travelling alone.

It has been a couple of weeks since my last posting, so I am going to bring you up to speed. Fifty kilometers north of the town of Puerto Natales in Chile there is a famous national park that brings most of the tourists down to this otherwise small town. It was pretty funny for us to see groups of backpackers walking in a daze through the streets after 5-7 days of trekking through the park. Puerto Natales now seems completely devoted to being a tourist service center, preparing and outfitting people to go trekking through the park. Every business has pictures of the Torres reminding you why you came here. We were easily able to rent good backpacks and set off for our own trip through the famous park. During the six days and 73km of trekking we did through the Torres del Paine national park, we really enjoyed spending a few lazy hours watching the Grey glacier creak and groan as it slowly slithers forward into lago Grey. We had decided to visit the Grey glacier first as part of a trail that forms a "W" through the collection of spectacular valleys in the park. This was the less common way to hike the trail but we were happy to leave the "best" to the end. It is a collection of monolithic granite towers from which the park gets its name. Torres del Pain is a reference to the native name for the towers which means Azul, blue. This is not however the first name the towers have had. In 1878 Lady Florence Dixie, daughter of the seventh marquis of Queensbury explored the region by horse. During a month long expedition they made it to the park region where she named the towers "Cleopatra's needles". Florence Dixie later wrote a book about her time in the region called "Accross Patagonia" (London 1880) which must be quite interesting. I am however a little skeptical that she truely was the first non-native to see the towers as during this time Punta Arenas was already an outpost serving ships crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice-versa through the strait of Magellanes. However it is those who write about their trips who are remembered! The park is truely a visual smorgasborg of beautiful mountains and glaciers.

Now as I am writing this entry we are one the shores of the Brazo Rico of the Lago Argentino watching and listening to the Perito Moreno Glacier. From here we only have a hint of the massive South Patagonian ice field that connects Perito Moreno to the Grey glacier we saw in the Torres del Paine park in Chile.
With 13 000 square kilometers of ice, it is the third largest collection of fresh water in the world after Greenland and Antarctica.
For us, by bicycle, we had to follow roads. These roads lead us out of Chile and away from the Andes back into the Argentina plains (pampas) and the big open skies. We then proceeded north and turned westward again to find the Los Glaciares National Park at the foot of the Andes. In a week we have rolled in and out of several distinct and very geographically narrow climactic zones. The Andes act as a very large barrier that creates a very effective rain shadow over all the pampas to the east. To us the pampas often seem to have the characteristics of a desert with dried out river beds and little vegetation. Only a few rivers still have water in the summer and our only other source of water is the occasional sheep farming estancia or service station close to the road.
There is however a very narrow band of lush vegetation on the leeward slopes of the mountains. This vegetation is there because of the glaciers that flow east and nourish the lakes such as Lago Argentino.

As a side note we have finally adopted the Argentina ritual of regularly drinking Yerba Mate. The mettal straw (bombilla) and cup (mate) is now part of our cookware. I have a feeling that the thermos is not far behind.

Yesterday we spent so much time watching the glacier that we had a very late start leaving the park (8pm). We decided to go half way back to Calafate and camp near the side of the road. It has been so dry that we did not even have to pitch the tent and it was really nice to fall asleep looking up at the stars. We are also able to break camp very fast this way.
On our way back to Calafate today at about 11:30 a small VW car passed us slowly while filming us with a big video camera. This was a first for us, we often get lots of waves, flashing lights and honking horns to encourage us along and even the occasional picture. But this time we were suprised when the car stopped 100m ahead of us and signaled for us to ride up to an already tripod mounted TV video camera. A very animated animator called Fabian then came up to us mic in hand immediately launched into an interview before Ryan had a chance to catch up. Fabian and the cameraman were very excited that we had just come from the Los Glaciares park. Fabian was fairly easy to understand and we answered his questions in our best spanish possible. At the end of the interview he asked us to make a station call for his program. By the time we had said "you are listening to Te Veo en TV" he was jumping up and down on the road with excitement. I am hopeful that we will soon be on TV for this program out of the Provincial capital of Rio Gallegos. Maybe we can even get a copy.

Our next challenge will be to cross the Andes to the windward west coast back into Chile. We will be trading the strong north-west winds of the pampas for the rain. The path we will take is called the Carreterra Austral, which is a collection of dirt roads and ferry crossings of a few fjords that link together the remote communities of the bottom third of Chile from the Lago O'Higgins to Puerto Montt. This will be a very exciting part of a little-travelled part of Chile since there are no buses. Few backpackers ever make it down this strech.

Posted by gwendal at 10:16 AM | Comments (2)

February 11, 2004

Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales

After a week of somewhat stressful rest (waiting anxiously for my knee to feel better and trying to find a solution to a back wheel that keeps on breaking spokes) we were able to set out again with a true wheel and a well aligned knee, from Punta Arenas.

Before I describe the trip to Puerto Natales, let me just add that we were invited to a kareoke bar with a fellow resident of our hostel in Punta Arenas 'los tres hermanos'.

He was a architect down for a few days for a contract. He introduced us to interpretive dance kareoke! something I had never seen before. He did an incredible performance to the tune of 'Rock DJ' by Robbie Williams. The fortunate/unfortunate consequence was that is got the whole room of the somewhat seedy bar dancing and kareoke was no longer possible.

On Saturday there was a big Chiloe Islanders cultural festival on Magellanes University grounds with music and food. I am now very excited to visit the Chiloe Island as the food at the festival was very interesting. Many many giant barbeques with several lambs on racks roasting around the fire


There are also giant rolling pins wrapped in a 5cm thick roll of potato flour that were then roasted over the coals. Once cooked, the Chochoca were unwrapped from the rolling pins and filled with chicharones (fried grissly lamb) and served as a sandwich. For cyclists who are burning a lot of calories every day this was a very appetising prospect. We also found Milcao which is very similar but made into patties that are fried in oil but just a little more fatty!

The following night the family who runs the hospidaje where we were staying had a big feast to celebrate the birth of a new boy in the family. So the night before our hopeful early rise to beat the wind, we were up till 1am dancing with the kids and the family in the kitchen. There was no early start.

But there was a start at around 11:30 and we were very pleased to find that a beautiful ribbon of solid concrete links Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas for the entire 250km. On the first night we had to camp in a ditch next to a culvert to avoid the winds that blew in the evening. The second day, after an early start at 6am, we had 3 hours of cycling before the wind was too much. We set up a wind barrier on a fence with a tarp and waited 7 hours for the winds to abate and finish cycling for the day. On the last day after saying goodbye to a very friendly carabineros at Morro Chico (looks like 'Uluru? Ayers rock from afar in the pampas) we cycled the 100 km to Puerto Natales. The Carabineros have been incredibly friendly everywhere in Chile so far and that night they offered that we use the barn as a wind shelter which was great because that night we heard some of the strongest winds which, accentuated by a creaky wooden barn, were scary. The third day was our longest day of riding so far, mostly because it was overcast and for nearly the first time the wind never came.

Ryan, Damien and I are really doing well and it is fantastic to have such a support network with you when you are challenged by the elements and equipment.

We broke three spokes on the back wheel. This is going to be a problem that definitely needs more attention. Wheel spokes were just not designed with a fully loaded tandem bicycle in mind. Currently we are trying to find horse pacing cart wheel spokes which have been described as 'rebar' compared to regular bike spokes.

My knee is feeling better every day and with a few new excercises should hopefully be fine for the rest of the trip (fingers crossed).

As promised in the last entry I am still researching my classroom entry. Tomorrow I am going to meet the rangers at the Torres del Paines National Park. So hopefully I will have a complete story to tell after that.

Posted by gwendal at 02:14 PM | Comments (1)

February 05, 2004

Saying goodbye to Tierra del Fuego

I will elaborate on this tomorrow. But in the meantime as I get my thoughts in order I wanted to let people know that we did make it from Rio Grande to Porvenir in Chile. Today we finally crossed the Magellan strait and arrived in Punta Arenas after three days of waiting for the ferry. It was actually very relaxing.

A quick summary of what it was like.

Wind wind wind and more wind..... my ears were sometimes ringing at the end of the day.

As mentioned earlier Damien has retained his status as minister of fat. We now never leave any place without at least a pound of butter.

Several ailments have however been identified:
- Cyclosis, the discription given to those cognitive ailments that result from excessive amounts of cycling.
- Spandexia, the severity of the ailment is proportional to the distance of the affected from their bicycle(s).
- Helmetitis, affects those who spend a lot of time with a cycling helment on their head. They are prone to walking into homes and commercial establishments , totally forgetting that they even have a helmet.

Things are really going well as we are well acquainted with our main obstacle.

There are now more pictures in the gallery.

And those of you checking the classrooms section. I am very close to finishing the research on the next challenge. Please check again in a couple of days.

Posted by gwendal at 02:55 PM | Comments (2)