Patagonia. What was all that about then? It’s been a pretty hectic winter since we arrived home in Scotland in January, but here are some words and photos that I put together for Bikepacker’s Magazine about our trip.
“All things look good from far away and it is man’s eternally persistent childlike faith in the reality of that illusion that has made him the triumphant restless being he is.” Rockwell Kent
“How was your trip?”
Where do you begin? Even a quick trip to the shops is enough time to run into an old friend or to get sprayed with puddle water by the no. 54 bus. A week away on a riding holiday can produce enough jaw-dropping views and epic tales to bore your friends stiff for hours at the slideshow. How do you describe two months on the road without exceeding the small-talk character limit? Seriously, the hard part of cycling around the world wouldn’t be the pedalling, it would be using only words to paint a picture of what you’ve seen and done.
In early December, my partner Annie and I followed the sun as it left Scotland for the winter, all the way to the southern hemisphere and an austral summer, to chase dreams that I suspect many of us have, to see the fantastical, far-flung landscapes of Patagonia. Even the name is a touchstone of wildness, mystery and inaccessibility – I can’t remember how long I’ve wanted to go there, because I can’t remember when exactly it was that I first saw a photo of the Southern ice Field, or Mount Fitzroy’s crashing spires.
The plan was a dirt road tour livened up by some ‘proper’ mountain biking at spots where research suggested that a multi-day route might go. Now, two months later, we’ve returned home to a chronically sodden Scotland and that question. It’s a big question though. In an ideal world, the answer would be easy: a blanket rating of ‘awesome’ and five stars on tripadvisor, but the fun stuff never comes easily, does it? This is a story of great adventures thwarted by unexpected difficulties, and of unexpected difficulties leading to some great adventures…
Things got off to a lumpy start before they started at all, in fact. In late November I went for a last run in the hills on the weekend before we were due to fly. A quick slip, a trip and one of those horrible snapping noises later, and I was left with an ankle the size of a grapefruit and a fibula that was lacking in structural integrity. In many ways I was lucky: a basic fracture was bad enough, but a little further this way or that way and I could have been looking at months on crutches. Not that any of that was much consolation as the nurse explained all this at the hospital in Dundee.
At this point, however, a beautiful thing happened: two problems combined in perfect harmony to prove that silver linings do exist, and that two clusterfucks can in fact make a bright tomorrow. True to our penny pinching ways we had booked our flights through one of those disreputable travel agents that you know you’re better off avoiding, and they in turn had stayed true to their ways by failing to provide us with valid flights. A day of stressful, mind-frying phone calls later, and we had new flights a week later than originally planned. We now had two weeks to turn that grapefruit into a viable ankle joint for cycle touring. The trip was (maybe) on…
Fast forward to three weeks later, in Puerto Montt, central Chile. It’s 3am; heavy rain beats a steady rhythm on a small roof over the locked doorway to a bus station. Beneath it, two cycle tourers are sheltering and trying to catch some sleep before the early ferry that will take them to Patagonia in the morning. Our first week in Chile has been a slow meander through the gravel roads of the lakes district, taking it one pedal stroke at a time. Against all logic, my ankle is coping with shorter days of pedalling, but my walking range is limited to a few hundred metres. Originally we had planned forays on to the trails in this region, but at twenty-one days post fracture a mellow road tour still seems like remarkably good luck, so instead we look forward to the expanse of mountains, lakes and plains that is waiting to the south. The thought is comforting during the long, rainy night under the doorway, much more so than the mangy dog that wants to snuggle all night. Wondering what the range of an average flea is I try to shuffle away a little, but every time I open my eyes the dog is cosying up to me just as before.
To Patagonia then. The ferry from Puerto Montt takes 24 hours to thread the needle between the topographic crazy paving that is Chile’s many islands and fjords, until we arrived on a cool and breezy December morning in the place that everyone dreams of. Was it all peaches and cream? The hell it was. Were you paying attention to the quotation at the start? Well, I want to propose Kent’s Law of Bikepacking, which states that everything does indeed look better when it’s far away, especially when it’s on the other side of an ocean or confined to the abstract lines of a map, or even just the far side of a night in a cosy bed. It’s more a rite of passage than a truism, and one that we’ve all surely been through. How easy did that route look when the maps were spread out on the floor and you made sweeping assumptions about timings and trail quality? We do indeed have a childlike faith in the reality of our illusions, which on the scale of a large exploratory trip can be really quite different from the reality.
It’s around this time that what was to be a long, bewildering and ultimately maddening relationship with Chilean land access was born. Conaf is the body in charge of Chile’s national parks and reserves, and apart from some amusement, their answer to the question of bikes off-road was a flat ‘no’. We later learned that the reason bikes aren’t allowed offroad in the parks is not because of environmental concerns, but because of the assumption that you will almost certainly end up hurting yourself and need to be rescued at great expense and effort. Go figure… Even Patagonia itself turned out to be something quite different to the land that I had dreamed about: it might be remote, but cattle ranching has reached even the unlikeliest corners, and almost every other tourer we met expressed surprise about the fences that criss-crossed every piece of this supposedly undeveloped part of the world.
Whether it was national park regulations, inaccurate maps or just flooded rivers, the opportunities to ride truly ‘off-road’ on singletrack were rare, and could vanish just as quickly as they appeared. At one point we arrived at an estancia whose owners were happy to let you cross their land – provided your progress was greased with the princely sum of $50. At another, the mapmaker had forgotten to include a 15m wide river that first hand experience proved to be quite a lot more than face deep. Yet another hopeful route disintegrated into two days of pushwhacking to cover 20km, the dawning realisation that food would run out, and a hasty 100km retreat on gravel road back to the start, so I would be lying if I said that everything came up rosy. All in all, the peaches and cream were few and far between.
I said that this was a story about unexpected difficulties, and we surely had our fair share of them. But from some of them came the very best adventures. The ferries crossing Lago O’Higgins from Chile to Argentina were cancelled for a week by bad weather, which resulted in our spending Christmas in Villa O’Higgins, the end of the line on Chile’s famous Carreterra Austral, which winds a precarious path 1000km into Patagonia before meeting an impenetrable wall of rock and ice. As dead ends go it was fairly definite, and the town only got a road link to the rest of Chile in 2000, but there we found the warmest welcome and friendliest company in the form of a dozen fellow cycle tourers and a shared Christmas dinner. When we set off on Boxing Day to catch the boat across the milky blue lake it had been raining for a week. Across the lake and into the no man’s land between the two borders, what should have been a 20km singletrack meander through the Antarctic beech forest followed the established order of things by becoming unrecognisably testing.
At home in Scotland, we both work as outdoor guides and instructors, and know better than to treat river crossings lightly, but getting our tired, wet bodies and loaded bikes across the many small streams that had become log-filled torrents was nearly more than we were willing to risk. Shuttling the bikes across the worst crossings meant spending several minutes waist-deep in the snowmelt-fed water. Gradually our group split up as folks kept moving to stay warm, and uncertainty abounded about whether those behind had stayed put and opted to camp, or braved the waters and were still loving through the wraiths of fog and leering branches. We really were in no man’s land.
We arrived at the Argentinian border post in the early evening, having taken 6 hours to cover those ‘easy’ 20km. The guards pointed to a barn with a small pile of firewood, which was very quickly arranged into a fire, and soon the air was full of steam and chattering teeth. The rest of our unlikely band of bikes and riders trickled in steadily for hours, every one another voice adding to the wide-eyed tales from the journey. The shared sense of comradeship was strange to see spread over such a large group of people from far corners of the world, pushed together by something as simple as a few cancelled ferries. As the rain cleared and drier people left the barn to begin pitching tents by the shores of the lake, a guy from Colorado tapped me on the shoulder and pointed along the lake’s length to the far end. As the clouds began to lift the peaks and spires of mountains began to emerge below them, the largest we had seen and no less beautiful than anyone could hope for. In one of those comedy double-take moments, it took as all a few seconds to register the other mountain looming behind and above the clouds, dwarfing the other peaks by almost two full kilometres as we looked from 300m up to its 3,800m summit.
Mount Fitzroy is a colossal middle finger pointing skyward, mocking logic, perception and planning permission. Those vertical granite slabs have no place among the more reserved mountains at its feet, and it is the unmistakeable elephant in the room, alongside its spindly henchman Cerro Torre. I had seen plenty of photos before we even set foot in South America, but even so it was at least a minute before anything else but profanities came out of my mouth. I would do it all again, all two months of pedalling and sweating and wondering when the respite would arrive, if I could relive the moment of recognition of that mountain again. Old Rockwell said that things look good from far away, but that’s not to say that they can’t look even better up close.
And plenty of things did look even better up close. Before the excitement of that border crossing, the Carreterra Austral Provided 10 days or so of fantastic touring; mile after mile of rollercoastering gravel road that really felt like just a superficial smear of modernity over a much more ancient landscape. The universal magic of the bicycle worked its stuff, and we couldn’t answer questions fast enough about the bikes and where we had come from (“Ahhh Scotland! Fantastico! You like William Wallace, yes?”) In places like Cochrane the chainsaw aisle was next to the pasta aisle in the supermarket, I kid you not, and where a pioneering spirit is still strong you can always find warm welcomes and open homes. A cuisine that places a lot of faith in fried pastries is always going to be a hit among cycle tourers, too!
Further south, there were indeed rewards waiting in return for persevering with more possible off-road routes when others had failed. It might have taken some hard pushing, but we rode off the summit of a mountain, just a fraction higher than our own highest summit of Ben Nevis, that almost certainly hadn’t felt the tread of a bike tyre before. The night before, we camped at the very edge of the forest, above which the wind and cold was too much even for the almost indestructible lenga trees, and watched the last light of a southern sunset spill between the spires that hold the weight of the Southern Ice Field behind them. Even the failed routes had their undeniable highs: despite having retreated from one supposedly clear trail two days after it had disintegrated into unreadable cow tracks, there were flashes of excellence as we found ourselves suddenly on pristine sections of trail perched above the river and the low bulk of the glacier behind. Trail that was whole kilometres away from joining up with the next rideable section, but that there was trail to ride at all made it impossible not to smile and laugh despite everything else.
But I still haven’t answered the question: was it a good trip? At times I’ve been overly diplomatic, and there really were points when we cursed having come to a corner of the world where we, at least, found a whole load of obstacles facing anyone wanting to go ride their bike on good trails in the backcountry. Patagonia didn’t look the same up close as it had from far away and behind a computer screen, but then what does? For me, it was certainly a learning curve to come to appreciate that good adventures aren’t measured in kilometres of gnarly trail, or metres of climbing. They aren’t even measured in terms of whether or not your original plans worked out as you hoped. If you dwell on what didn’t work, then it was a bad trip. If you scratch out the expectations and start afresh then you a trip is what you make of it. You meet some like-minded folks along the way, perhaps you find some buff singletrack. Add some remote camp spots and sunsets to die for, and when you look back you realise that that was some adventure you had, and is there such a thing as a bad adventure? I didn’t think so. I won’t be letting go of that childlike faith in my illusions anytime soon, and I fully expect it to lead to some hard times as well as some good ones. Remember now, if you’re planning an adventure then Kent’s Law states that it won’t be anything like what you had in mind, but go on, be a triumphant and restless being and do it anyway. Have a good trip.