Pampa, Parakeets and Penguins

There’s only one road south from Puerto Natales and it’s not memorable. We hope for a tailwind but it never materializes. For once, the pampa is still. The grasses stand tall.

image

Nevertheless, we take shelter in a large barn in Morro Chico for the night. The wind here is a shifty character, untrustworthy and liable to change at any moment. Iria pedals up late in the day and we share the space. In the morning we share conversation, a distraction from the diminishing kilometers. She has the patience for my Spanish and I find that I know more than I thought.

image

Bus stations here are a more serious affair: four solid walls and a door that closes.

In Villa Tehuelches we part ways. We head for hills and for the coast. She heads to town.

image

For a moment or three we turn into the wind. It’s manageable and soon we turn south again and it becomes a friend, allowing me to pick my head up and look around. At the Rio Verde municipal building we ask to pitch our tent and are given permission. The whole complex exists for a coal mine on the island across the way. The big trucks we see on the road service the salmon farms up the way. Parakeets fly around. These are the same birds we saw in the lakes district and it seems they live here, too.

image

image

We turn off the gravel road, go through a gate and down a two track to the beach.

image

The wind stops and the sun comes out. It is a good day to be here. We stop and go, stop and go, puttering along the hard packed sand looking for treasures. Tyndall walks just to prolong the bliss.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

While investigating the dunes for camping, something catches Tyndall’s eye. Upon closer inspection we discover sea lions: two big ones and a little one. They are resting in the dune and throwing sand around. They give a gurgley roar and we scurry away.

image

We search a bit more and find an unoccupied dune, making it ours for the night. The night is calm and still.

image

Sound carries. In the morning we hear other sea lion noises, seemingly closer. We take turns going to investigate, but see nothing. It is a good thing, because neither of us is sure how to deal with a creature like this.

The beach riding ends and we return to empty dirt roads. We learn the coal mine nearby ceased operating three years ago and the penguins that used to nest here in the summer have been chased off by wild dogs and too many tourists.

We climb on an empty two track and then descend to the main road that leads to Punta Arenas. We go over gate after gate, finally arriving in an industrial yard. The security guard tries to tell us where we went wrong in our navigation, but we don’t want to go back. He lets us pass and we spin into Punta Arenas.

Where we rode: Puerto Natales – Villa Tehuelches – Rio Verde – Seno Otway – Punta Arenas

Route details can be found here.

Closing In

I have two messages from Katie. She’s writing to say the last 100 kilometers of the Austral are the best. Don’t miss them she says. I leave Cochrane with high expectations.

The road gets narrower and narrower, windier and windier. Thick vegetation lines the roadside. Mist hangs heavy in the air. Lucky for me and for Katie, she’s not wrong. At the very end, the Austral finally becomes the kind of road we love.

image

image

image

In Villa O’Higgins we learn that our friend Scott is only a day behind, but with tickets for a boat the next day, we’ll miss him again. We kill time, waiting for the grocery store to open again after lunch. I watch two boys kill a large, beautiful moth outside the library and then get mad.

Late in the day we leave town, going down the road a short ways to camp on Rio Mayor. A strange animal making strange noises circles our tent in the night. I lay still, not even breathing, hoping it just leaves. I have no idea what it is. In the morning we learn there are pumas in the area. Maybe it was a puma. Maybe it was a very sick dog.

image

We take a boat across Lago O’Higgins, stamping out of Chile before riding a gravel 4×4 track to the border.

image

image

image

There the track becomes a muddy mess of a trail. We slip and slide and even ride a bit to the shores of Lago del Desierto.

image

image

I watch Fitz Roy come out on the other side of the lake while waiting for our second boat to arrive. By the time it does, the mountain is gone and the rain has moved in.

image

We arrive in El Chalten in a deluge. Soaked to the bone I search out a room. We warm up and dry out, the rain still falling outside. It quits, only to come again in the night. We decide to stay.

Late in the day I get a message. Scott has arrived in town. We go searching for beer and ice cream together, only to end up with fernet and Coke instead. We pass the evening, telling stories and catching up.

Heads foggy from too much fernet, we leave town in the morning, Fitz Roy still hiding behind dense clouds. Wary of wind, we look for sheltered camping. A tip from a five year old blog post helps us find this.

image

Since then, someone has moved in, but he’s more than happy to share his space. For him, the observatory is only a place to store hay and meat. We sleep the sleep of the dead.

We wake in the morning only to find it has rained again in the night. We squish through mud back to the paved road. Back in El Chalten we had debated the merits of other, smaller dirt tracks south verses the merits of just kicking it down the paved, main road quickly. With inches of recent rain, our final decision came easily. The earth here is sticky when wet, quickly becoming a muddy mess that’s no good for biking. So, for the second day in a row, we find ourselves spinning easily, covering ground on the main road.

image

image

At the end of the day we crest a small climb. We poke our heads up around the corner only to see a blank, featureless landscape.

image

With no where to call home for the night in sight, we retreat to a small gravel pit next to a mirador. It will do.

Again with the help of the wind we make quick work of 85 kilometers, only turning to battle it for the last 15 to Tapi Aike.

image

Guanacos and rheas don’t mind the wind, neither does a flock of flamingos. But we do, camping early in the shelter of a stand of trees at the police station. Perhaps the morning will be better.

image

The wind howls like a banshee, roaring across the pampa. It works it’s way into my head, prying open all the carefully shut doors and compartments, making chaos out of order, making my shell crack. Even with a tired body, sleeps eludes me.

The morning is no different. We resolve to find another way. Hours later, a man with a small Fiat Adventure delivers us 80 kilometers down the road, away from the worst of the wind. Instead of a Chilean National Park, we find ourselves in an Argentine coal town.

image

The weather makes the decisions for us these days. We’re just along for the ride.

Where we rode: Cochrane – Villa O’Higgins – El Chalten – Tapi Aike – Rio Turbio – Puerto Natales

Another Austral Detour

Conversation lags. After all these months of traveling together through empty places it seems we have finally run out of things to say. We move together in companionable silence down the road. There’s still plenty to look at.

image

Years ago, giant trees were cut down for pasture. They now lie, wasted and decomposing, only a shadow of their former selves.

image

image

Here on the Austral, other cyclists are a dime a dozen. I find I don’t have much to say to them either, never having been keen on talking just for the sake of making noise.

But then in Coyhaique we’re given a tip, an idea, and it sparks hours of debate.

While I navigated the aisles of Unimarc grocery, Tyndall chatted up two Belgian cyclists. There is a boat from Caleta Tortel to Puerto Natales they say. It runs once a week and costs 40,000 CLP they say. It takes 40 hours and sails through narrow fjords they say. Tyndall clutches a website and a phone number in his hand.

We leave town with renewed vigor for our route south. The only problem is that all the information we have is hersey. Until we can find an Internet connection it’s just an idea, possibly even a pipe dream. Through kilometers of paved, busy road we nurse this pipe dream, debating the merits of pushing ourselves to make this alleged sailing in a week’s time.

There’s still plenty else to amuse us though. On the descent towards Lago General Carrera it seems dark.

image

It’s 11:00 in the morning and a blue sky day, but somehow, it seems to be getting colder rather than warmer. The sun is dim. We look at each other in confusion, and then have a light bulb moment. A few days ago a cyclist from London told us that there would be a solar eclipse Sunday. Today is Sunday we realize. Everything now makes sense.

At the library in Puerto Ibañez we connect up. The boat does run Saturdays. It does exist. The government subsidizes the sailings, and as such, charges extranjeros like us three times what they charge Chileans. That’s a deal killer.

We return to our original plan of riding to Villa O’Higgins and the end of the Austral. But first, we make one more detour off, back into Argentina. A ferry takes us across Lago General Carrera to Chile Chico. From there it’s an easy ride out of Chile. Laden with tasty Argentine pastries, we go out into the barren and windswept pampas.

At first Ruta 41 is a wide gravel washboard monstrosity. Motivation lags. We follow a sign for a fishing spot and camp early, not ready to commit to an afternoon climb. Rain comes in the night, as it does every time we come to Argentina. The sandy river wash becomes a bit muddy. We move up the road. It’s empty and it improves.

image

Past the last estancia the road gets smaller, turning into a twisting two track burrowing into the mountains.

image

Rain squalls come and go. The road gets sticky. We debate the merits of continuing on. A weather update from the Delorme makes the decision for us. More rain, colder temps and possible snow. We decide to make tracks while we can, riding through Paso Roballos in the late afternoon light.

image

image

Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

A lull in the wind tricks us into a camp spot. Mother Nature is fickle, and soon she’s blowing from the other direction. Tyndall scopes out other options. There are no good ones. Instead, we build a wall, Tyndall staying up way past his normal bedtime to perfect it. He says it is the best birthday ever. I accept a windy night in the tent. These pampas are relentless.

image

The wind blows all night. The wall works. Morning comes and we emerge. There is fresh snow on the surrounding peaks. We descend past guanacos and sheep, to the Argentine border.

image

From here we turn west, going back to Chile. A greeting committee awaits us at the border.

image

Tyndall asks the Carabineros if the wind is always so strong. Always always it is this strong here he says, but not down below. I insist on knowing how many kilometers until the wind abates. He says 30. I don’t care if he’s telling the truth or not, it’s something to hope for.

X-83 snakes through Parque Patagonia. It’s wild. In 2020 the park will be given to Chile, but for now it’s still a work in progress. Unfinished campgrounds provide shelter for the night. We watch the clouds whip by and a couple of guanacos mill about. The Carabinero was right. The wind does lessen after 30 kilometers.

image

image

The road ends back at the Austral. From here we accept it and it accepts us, having become a narrow dirt road snaking through the mountains. The first person we see is a cyclist, many minutes later, a car. I can handle this.

Where we rode: Manihueles – Coyhaique – Puerto Ibañez – Chile Chico – Los Antigues – Paso Roballos – Parque Patagonia – Cochrane

Although quick drying with a bit of wind and sun, Ruta 41 through Paso Roballas has the potential for sticky, stop you in your tracks mud.

Snaking South

From Chaiten the Austral is paved. It’s hard to be bothered about this when the scenery is so good. We move fast.

image

In Villa St. Lucia I look around for someone to ask for water. All I see are bikers and back packers, no locals. The back packers look like snails, lining the roadsides at intersections thumbing for rides. I wonder how long they wait until someone picks them up.

image

Chilean house shingles

Laguna Yelcho has stellar wild camping, and water warm enough to swim. I clean myself and my clothes, watching the sunset light the clouds pink for a moment.

image

We head for Argentina. As we go east the ground begins to dry out. The grass turns brown. The trees aren’t as thick. Chile lets us go with a smile and Argentina gives us a thumbs up upon entry. Just past the border we spot some unused fairgrounds with a couple other campers.

Solveig and Roland are traveling through Argentina by horse. They remind us of other people and other places.

image

Someday Roland would like to travel the CDT by horse. We tell him the West is great for horse travel, that you can go in Wilderness areas that we cannot.

In Corcovado we find everything we need in the first store we go into. The sky is a lead grey. Rain threatens. We leave town anyways.

image

Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

When I stop stewing about the shit road and pick my head up I see jagged peaks, open grasslands and big sky. I see hints of autumn and remainders of summer. I see places we have been before.

image

The weather catches up and rain falls. I press on, climbing up and up. We stop and slather manjar on fry bread, looking for a quick jolt of energy. By the time we are done, the weather has passed. A quick look at the sky though and I know there’s more to come.

I lay awake in the tent, listening to the wind whip down off the mountains, knowing it’s going to lash our tent before moving on. I brace for it, and then the gust is gone. I like the wind in the tent the least and wish for a proper, paper book to distract me. Instead, my mind fills with other memories of storms weathered in a tent: in the Brooks Range, Tyndall sick and feverish insisting thunder was an airplane and me, knowing better, waiting for it to come; of sleeping on the banks of the Meshik River, it’s waters teaming with salmon, expecting a brown bear to burst in at any time; in the Wind Rivers in Wyoming, listening to snow fall lightly through the night; of all night pouring rain on Caines Head, irrationally expecting a flash flood to come and wash us all away.

But we’re still here, and in the morning the sun shines through the clouds. All day we dodge rain clouds, taking layers on and off, on and off.

image

image

In Atilio Viglione the road runs out. A small bridge takes us to a 4×4 track covered in river rock.

image

It winds through small trees, to the quiet Argentine border post. We are met by a young pup and friendly border agents. He warns of high water at the river crossings ahead, and says we can come back and stay there if we can’t cross. There are no more bridges.

We press on. The pup wants to come too, but I bring her back. She has a home. At the second crossing we run into two fishermen from Massachusetts, staying at a lodge down the way.

image

At the third, a man in a truck tells us we are close to Chile, it’s just a little bit farther.

image

The weather worsens. A pair of knit gloves and plastic bag poagies keep my hands warm. At the border there’s one last gate. On the other side the Chileans have “improved” the road.

In town we’re stamped in by the Carabineros. As such, there’s no paperwork and we don’t have to hastily consume our cheese and avacados. Win win.

The rain pours down. We find the lady in town who rents rooms. She has a fire roaring in her wood stove and is baking bread. It’s easy to stay. I read The Glory and the Dream and listen to the rain fall on the tin roof, knowing I have no where to go and nothing to do.

On the second day we wake to partial sun and make a move. We have our eyes on a small section of the Sendero de Chile. It’s been 12 hours since the last rain, and we think we can get through.

The road out of town winds through pasture past colorful rocks. The ground is saturated and water runs everywhere.

image

image

We turn off the road onto a horse trail, later spotting the two track we should have turned onto instead.

image

We hop a fence and climb. While the horse trail went straight up, the two track has an easier grade. I look at the sky, trying to gauge the weather. It’s no use.

image

image

image

At the top of the second climb the rain comes. We squish through mud. Mist swirls around big peaks, but they don’t show. We roll through pastures and old growth forest. A cowboy camp is home for the night. Tyndall builds a fire and we dry our socks and shoes, knowing they will be wet again within minutes in the morning.

image

The sky clears in the night and the temperature drops. I know this because I don’t wake up sweating, tearing off my woolies in the night. The peaks that were hidden yesterday are out yoday.

image

We follow the road on. It takes us to a summer cowboy camp. We go in for coffee and to talk. The new road pushed through means it’s easy to get big equipment in here now and the land is being cleared. Even quiet places like this aren’t safe from humans. Most everywhere I think, land is either lived on by humans, or used to graze and grow our food. Very little is true Wilderness anymore.

image

image

Two sweaty climbs and two white knuckle descents later we are at the last river crossing. It doesn’t look so shallow, and sure enough, comes most of the way up my thighs. I cross and wait. Tyndall makes multiple trips for our bikes. His legs are longer. But then it’s over and everyone and everything is on the proper side and we’re back on mapped roads, going south.

Where we went: Chaiten – Villa St. Lucia – Palena – Corcovado – Lago Vintter – Atilio Viglione – Lago Verde – La Tapera

Detailed route information can be found here and here.

We rode from Lago Verde to La Tapera on the Sendero de Chile after two days of rain. The trail was wet and river crossings higher, but we never encountered wheel sucking, bike destroying stop us in our tracks sticky mud.