Rob's Bike Ride

Cycling around the world
Argentina

My last days on route 40

 

 

Mendoza, San Juan, San Jose de Jachal, Villa Union, San Blas, Londres, Cafayate, Salta, la Quiaca, Villazon (Bolivia)

 

I won’t cry for you Argentina,

The truth is, I’ll never leave you

I’ve kept on cycling and been right through you

A mad existence, you’ve kept your distance.

And as for gravel and as for paved

Well it seems to me that was all that you gave

But I still need you.  (my apologies to Mr. Webber)

 

Mendoza sits in the foothills of the Andes at about 1000mts above sea level and is largely known as the capital of the wine making industry in northern Argentina. Like most Argentinean cities its wide avenues are lined with trees and the beautiful squares are filled with historic architecture. I spent most of my time in or around the main plaza, either sitting in a restaurant eating a good steak accompanied by a local red wine or lounging in the square with another local speciality, Crème Helanda ice cream. The dry desert that surrounds the city almost guarantees hot sunny days but it means that the city suffers from an evil little wind called the Zonda. This wind comes off the Andes at over 200Kms an hour and forms what can only be described as an avalanche of warm dust and dirt that blasts through the city like a tornado knocking down trees and making it almost impossible to stay outside.

The Mendoza climate is particularly suited to the growing of grapes and on the outskirts of the city are its vast vineyards. Almost 80% of Argentina’s wines are produced here and my favourite is the Cabernet Sauvignon; a rich and tasty red wine that is exported throughout the World.

It was about a 1000kms north to the city of Salta and I was fortunate to meet two new friends to ride with. Ed and Gaye are Australian and have huge amounts of cycling experience between them; they have ridden from London to Melbourne and around Australia.

This was the first time that I had ridden any distance with other cyclists as it can be difficult finding people who might be compatible to ride with. Some cyclists want to stop every couple of hours for a burger which takes another hour to cook or they might move much slower or simply complain about the road conditions and how difficult it is. I have been happy to meet people as I ride along but set my own course and catch up with them later in the day if we are staying in the same place.

Gaye and Ed are the perfect riding companions, we almost ride at the same speed although they are slightly quicker as they are pulling trailers and are much more stream lined, we have the same amount of breaks during the day and arrive in a town or set up camp at the same time.

After India Argentina is the noisiest country I have visited. I think it has something to do with the daily siesta when almost the whole country closes down between 1pm and 5pm. During these hours most people sleep or relax which means that come midnight they are just getting into the swing of things and want to party. It seemed as if as many as thirty people would perform outside our tents each night, half drummers, half singers. Those without instruments found empty containers or bits of metal to bang and those who couldn’t sing and didn’t know the words sang the loudest.

I remember when I was a teenager my father would constantly complain about how loud my music was, coming into my room he would ask me to turn the music up just a little bit more because he couldn’t quite hear it downstairs or he would ask if the band wanted coffee and I now know just how he must have felt. I’m beginning to get used to the noise and manage to get a few hours sleep but we have decided that public camp grounds are best avoided.

Wild camping is the better option and we have found some wonderful places to  camp, two nights at a thermal pool where we marinated ourselves in the hot water for hours at a time and we even found a roadside shrine to put up camp. I had decided to sleep in the shrine rather than put up the tent; I had slept like this in Iran, India and Bangladesh and was very comfortable.

As Ed and Gaye put up their tent I laid out my sleeping bag on a silver space blanket on the floor of the shrine and just as we were about to settle down for the night the first worshipers arrived. My sleeping bag was rolled in the space blanket and moved to the side of the shrine, it looked like a body bag and I’m sure the worshippers thought that we were on a religious pilgrimage with a dead body. After they had left another small family turned up but they didn’t stay very long and as I got into bed I thought that this is going to last into the night and I lay awake for an hour or so listening for any cars or people but eventually fell asleep.

Our route north has taken us through huge red rock canyons, across the northern desert and on narrow unpaved roads that have wound their way up and down mountains. It’s the unpaved sections of the road that I find nightmarish, I’ve joked that much more of this and I will have a nervous breakdown and will have to be shipped to the next town in a crate. The bike is about as light as I can get it, I’m only carrying what I need but the weight still makes the wheels sink into the sand. Ed has suggested that when I get to Bolivia where 80% of the roads are unpaved it might be better to let some air out of the tyres to make it easier to push through the sand.

Ed and Gaye don’t have the same problem because their pulling trailers and all the weight is off the bike wheels. The road is starting to become busy with cyclists and it’s almost mudguard to mudguard as we push north. A young Russian guy heading to Venezuela rode with us for a day and we met coming in the opposite direction a family on bikes that I had been in contact with since I left London. Nancy her husband John and 12 year old twin sons are riding to Ushuaia from Alaska and the twins will make the world record as the youngest people to ride the length of the Pan American Highway on bicycles.

Our little team of three split up about 150Kms south of Salta. The boy scouts had decided to take an unpaved section of road, climbing higher and taking longer than I would on the Girl Guides paved section but we arranged to meet up again in Salta. It’s the second city in the North and the name means beautiful place probably because of it's setting with mountains to the West and jungle to the East. I had a week’s rest in the city of Salta; from here I expect a gruelling and long uphill ride of  200Kms climbing to about 4000Mts up to the Altiplano (high plateau) in Bolivia. So it felt good to relax in what is a very beautiful colonial city famous for its old buildings, high altitude wine and its main plaza, filled with orange trees. Mikes brakes had a service while I was here and the guy who owned the shop was so impressed with my journey and with Mike that he changed the oil for free. The mechanic joked about Bolivia and I was soon back into ‘’ next country syndrome’’ oil for hydraulic disc brakes on a bicycle he laughed, you won’t even see a bicycle in Bolivia and he advised me to carry a couple of crates of live chickens to use as cash.

So my time in Argentina is coming to a close and its time to reflect on what has been a rollercoaster ride filled with emotion. This incredible road has challenged me every step of the way since I left Ushuaia over 4000Kms and nearly 3 months ago. The road has offered me joy, hope, anger and despair in equal measure, yet it has inspired me never to give up and the more I travel, the more I realize that the most expensive possessions  I owned can’t match the satisfaction I get from finding new experiences, meeting new people, and learning new things about myself.

Mike the bike

Travelling with the boss half way round the world has not been easy and at times it’s been brutal and painful. I’ve hallucinated on the road, I’ve wept and I’ve laughed but I’ve managed to keep going and I haven’t once let the boss down seriously. There were times when he was riding that crazy road in Patagonia when I found myself shouting at him, ‘’I’m not an athlete training for the Tour De France, my ride isn’t measured in how far I can push myself in a day with your big lump perched on top of me. Nor is it measured in how far I can travel on an unpaved road or how many days I can go without a clean or a tightening of the odd screw’’ What I will say in the lunatic bosses defence is that the journey has given me more insight into what I am as a bike than anything I would have experienced if he didn’t own me.

I’m getting ahead of myself so let’s start from the beginning. I’m Dutch with a little bit of Japanese and a lot of German in my blood and I was born in Bromley Kent in the summer of 2008. I remember the day the boss came into the shop to pick me up, nice clothes, smelling of aftershave. I thought he looks like a city worker this one; I will have a pleasant ride from a plush pad in Chelsea each morning to an office in the city. Doesn’t look like he works in finance more the Arty type, he’s probably in advertising I said to a couple of the carbon fibre boys sitting next to me in the shop. I thought I’m going to be on easy street with this boss. Unlike those poor things, only ridden at weekends by some half naked man or woman dressed in Lycra at over 40miles an hour for about 3 hours then they are washed and put away for the week, boring lives these carbon boys lead, they look good, slim and very light, gleaming in the shop windows, they made me feel like an overweight cart horse with my four panniers and big Schwalbe Marathon feet. I did wonder why the boss would need all this carrying capacity. The Bags will be loaded with photos and briefs for adverts each morning I thought and once we arrive at the plush office I will be parked in a warm car park under the building in a special bike rack no less. It’s going to be an easy life for me boys I shouted as I left the shop.

I knew something was seriously amiss when the boss took one of the panniers with him to work one day. I heard him telling a friend that the sleeping bag and mattress had to fit perfectly inside this bag. The next morning there was a bit of measuring going on behind me and talk of weight distribution, broken spokes and the availability of spares in Nepal or Peru. I just put it down to the boss being the eccentric type; I didn’t know he was mad. I will never forget the morning we left. I had been loaded up the night before as if I was some sort of cart horse, tent, tools, guide books, clothes, sleeping bag and mattress. I’m thinking there must be a tube strike and he’s going to have to sleep in the office overnight. Well you should have seen the look on my handle bars when the boss walked me up the ramp and onto that that ship. France isn’t that the country I used to hear the carbon boys going on about, it’s where they have that race they all want to be in. But it wasn’t France or Italy or Greece or Turkey, we just keep going and were still not finished.

At first I started to rebel a bit, I thought this life’s not for me I want out, so I did the odd bit of sabotage. The first night we camped in France I hid the key to my lock in his shoe, well he took ages to find it the next morning, in tears he was, going on about getting the fire brigade to cut my cables and how much it would cost, on and on he went. Then there was the time in Italy when I got my front wheel stuck in some rail lines, which was lucky because there was a lot of traffic on the road and I could have killed both of us. One time I let someone take me off the ferry on the way to Greece. We had stopped at a small island and everything was being unloaded. I thought now’s me chance to escape this lunatic, so I let myself get wheeled off by this young lad and just as we were getting onto dry land I hears the boss shouting from the upper deck. So I was hastily turned around and put back on the ship. He’s a crafty one; he knew the boat had to stop before reaching our destination and that there would be a bit of unloading. So what’s he do, he had set his alarm so he would wake up and then stood on the upper deck watching the unloading taking place. I think the best was when I let one of the back panniers fall off in Turkey. We were roaring down this hill and I heard him humming along to Rage against the machine, so I just let the bag fall off into the road, what I didn’t know was that with the speed we were doing coupled with now being off balance with a missing pannier and the bosses head full of musical nonsense meant that again I could have killed both of us. I did feel bad about it so when the boss pulls the anchors on I made sure we stopped pretty quickly (Shimano XTs, my Japanese brakes) the boss gets off me and walks back up the hill for the bag, well by the time he got back to me you should have heard the language, he gave me a right old telling off.

Slowly, very slowly I might add, I’ve gotten into this riding round the world lark. There aren’t many of us doing it. Two years we’ve been at it and I can count on one wheel how many other cyclists we’ve met who are going all the way round. Sometimes he parks me up and goes off in search of food, water, a jar of honey or whatever it is he suddenly feels a desperate need for, not that he’s going to get it in Bangladesh or East Timor. While I’m parked up other bikes come over to have a chat, you should see their handlebars when I tell them that I’m taking the boss round the world, 16 countries to date I tell them, deserts, mountains, valleys, rain, snow, we’ve seen it all and they can’t believe it. Of course all the female bikes want my blog details and I show them my scares, wounded in action I tell them, this happened in Iran, you’ve been to Iran they say, took him right through the middle of the country I did and this happened in East Timor, where, they ask. So here we are two years into it and with no end in sight because the boss just keeps adding countries. It’s worse when he has that wifi thing in his hotel room, he reads the news online and the next day while he’s riding along he’s telling me about the recession and house prices and state benefits being cut and the two Dave’s who are running the country, then he tells me, not much point going back just yet mike. I think the California coast and north to Alaska and then when we get back it will be the Olympics and all will be well in Dear old Blighty and all I can think is by the time we get back mate there won’t be a Dear old Blighty.

He talks to me about all sorts of things that he thinks I’m interested in. Henry the eight, one day, Henry who I said as he started talking. If he isn’t thinking about robbing banks he’s changing pop stars names or asking me what sort of bike I would like to be or he’s inviting dead people to dinner parties; I just let him get on with it. The music gets me, who should we listen to today Mike he asks, then he puts the head phones on, I can’t hear it I shout and because he has the thing so loud any conversation he has with me while he’s listening means he has to shout. Once we were in the middle of nowhere on a dusty old track, my chain was in a right old state and my Schwalbes were killing me and he’s going on about what we would do if we won the lottery. The lottery I said to myself, we can’t even see a shop that sells water, where are you going to buy a lottery ticket. As we were climbing this steep hill somewhere in Patagonia he shouts, there’s a fantastic view looking down onto a city at the top of this hill Mike, we will get you a new pair of Marathon XRs and a new camera for me, don’t forget to put the lottery on I shouted back at him, who’s he trying to kid, we won’t see another city in a 1000Kms. Often he will say look at that gorgeous view mike, how can I look at the view, if I turn my handlebars to have a look we are both done for. In his defence, the boss is good to me, he’s cleaned me, oiled me and spent hours servicing me, any dent or scratch I’ve got he’s patched me up, in a rather eccentric manner I must admit. When we got to Bangkok he found a shop that sold Bob Marley stickers (someone else whose music I haven’t heard yet) anyway I’m now covered in the things. On the couple of occasions that I’ve been boxed up for flights there has been an awful ding dong in the customs hall when the box has been opened and out pops a metal Bob Marley. Another thing he refuses to do is let me sleep outside and he won’t check into a place unless I can be in the room with him or at least somewhere safe in the hotel. You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve spent the night. One hotel owner in France said that I was a piece of art and had me sitting in the middle of the hotel lobby and all the guests were looking at me, they wouldn’t see me as a piece of art now covered as I am in Bob Marley stickers. Kitchens are great places to sleep as I always get a good feed and in a hotel in Calcutta I was up on the roof. I’m not so keen on police station cells but the boss thinks there fun.

So from me thinking I was born to be a commuter bike owned by an advertising executive and being ridden through the streets of Chelsea to the city each morning my life has turned out to be something special. I would hate to be a commuter bike or a carbon fibre boy or god forbid one of those bikes that fold in the middle. I’m a long haul touring bike, with a few scratches and dents to show where I’ve been. It’s nothing for me to travel in the wind, rain or snow; I’ve been to the top of mountains, across deserts and through the middle of Calcutta and Tehran with the boss perched on top of me and were not finished yet.120Kms a day, easy, I can do more if you want boss. I’ve heard the boss saying that when this is all over he’s going to have me fitted on the wall at home, I can’t see it myself, I’ve got a feeling that once we finish this he’s going to find a way to cross the Bering Sea from Alaska into Russia and ride through China, Mongolia and west towards home, he’s mad enough to do it.

Magic happens

El Calafate,  Tres Lagos,  Perito Moreno,  Rio Mayo,  Tecka,  Esquel,  El Bolson, Bariloche,  San Martin De Los Andes.

As I travel north through Patagonia I can’t deny that route 40 has shown me some of the most beautiful places on earth and what I’m seeing and experiencing every day will leave me with a lifetime of memories and for this I will always remember the 40. In the town of El Calafate I spent a day at the Perito Moreno glacier, not only one of the Worlds natural wonders but also one of only a handful of glaciers that is still advancing. This monster roars down the mountain and when it finally reaches the lake huge pieces of ice break off falling into the freezing waters. I sat and watched the glaciers performance from a specially constructed boardwalk for a few hours and then spent another couple of hours on the lake for even better views and watched as the glacier appeared to change colour in the light of a perfect spring evening.

Further north is Parque National Los Glaciares one of South Americas most famous National parks with its lakes, ancient valleys and snow covered mountains that are millions of years old. The most famous mountain is Fitz Roy sometimes called the mountain that smokes or the volcano by the locals because it usually has its peak hidden in the low clouds. The morning that I rode past I had clear views of the mountain in the distance with a perfect blue sky as its back drop. The park itself has more huge glaciers but none that puts on a show like Perito Moreno. The park has an expensive entry fee and can be like a Tourist theme park with more than 150.000 tourists who visit each year, so having had good views of mount Fitz Roy from the road I felt no need to visit.

I had wondered for days about the red flags waving in the wind by the side of the road every 50Kms or so. Probably memorials to the many brave men and women who have died while trying to ride through Patagonia on bicycles I thought. Gabriel, who I will always refer to as the man who saved my life explained that they are called Gauchito Gil. Gauchos are a South American cowboy who at one time made up the majority of the population living in Patagonia and they made a living by herding cattle on the huge Estancias in this area. He explained that the small shrines are for the Gauchos and the shrines contained water, biscuits and other small offerings and the red flag showed that the Gaucho was welcome in the area.

To say that Gabriel saved my life is a slight exaggeration on my part. He saw me appear on the horizon ahead of him and although he never confirmed this I’m sure he thought why would this lunatic chose to ride a bicycle through this flat barren wasteland on the world’s loneliest road. I’m going to stop and talk to him because this will be a great story for the kids when I get home tonight. Gather round children, you are not going to believe what I saw today, that’s right a mad foreign gentleman on a bicycle in the middle of nowhere. I had stopped by the side of the road wondering how much life the tyres had in them and how much life was left in me when Gabriel stopped got out of the truck and asked me if I wanted a lift. He spoke English, works in the hire car industry and was on his way north. Gabriel and I talked throughout the journey, he wanted to know all about my ride and it was good to recount stories from Europe and Iran, Pakistan, East Timor and many places that I had almost forgotten I had been to. He in turn talked about his life and family in Argentina and about the United States where he had lived for a few years. As we travelled through the Patagonian landscape all I could see around me was what had been described by Charles Darwin in a book I’m reading as ‘’arid wastes without water, mountains or habitations’’ Not far up the road was the small town that would have been my overnight stop, it would have taken me the day to get there but we made it in an hour or so. A grotty looking building that had the affront to call itself a welcoming hostel greeted us along with a gas station with no gas attendant and in a village of no more than twenty buildings we saw nothing and no one. Gabriel had stopped to fuel the truck but we couldn’t find anyone to help us so we moved on to the next town.

As we moved further north the Patagonian countryside slowly began to change from a vast expanse of semi desert to wooded lowland hills and then the snow capped mountains of the Lake District. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves getting closer to El Bolson, a small town in the Lake District that would be my destination. I couldn’t thank Gabriel enough as I unloaded the bike. I will call you in a week or so when I get to Bariloche I said. The last thing he said as he was getting back into the truck was good luck; I replied that you were my good luck Gabriel. To be back among the living was a wonderful feeling and El Bolson although small felt like a large city after my experiences with the villages to the south and I spent a couple of days walking around as if I were in the middle of a big city. What a wonderful feeling it was to find myself walking on paved roads, the first in days and having a cooked meal in a restaurant rather than crackers and tuna while sitting in a tent.

From here I moved on to Bariloche, the main town in the Lake District, famous for the tons of local chocolate sold each week and the place where Gabriel lived. On the outskirts of the town as I was riding in a lady stopped at the side of the road ahead of me and asked me how I was and went on to explain that she and her husband owned a hostel in the town of San Martin de los Andes in the north of the lake district and would I be heading in that direction. I told her that I would but was not sure when and she handed me a card with the hostel details and the last thing she said as she was getting back into the car was ‘’I rode a bicycle with my husband to Argentina from California’’ she then drove off and I thought no more about the brief meeting. Gabriel had told me about a hostel in town owned by a guy who also owned a bicycle shop, so while I was here I could scout around the bike stores and look for good quality tyres. Unfortunately I soon discovered that the stores were either bike shops that sold toys or toy shops that sold bikes and no matter how many tyres I looked at I knew that if I fitted them on the bike I would only have problems. Carlos who owned the hostel told me that it would be impossible to find good quality tyres in South America because they are too expensive and for the same price as a pair of Schwalbe tyres you could buy a bicycle. I was annoyed with myself because I had looked at the tyres I needed in Australia in the shop where I had picked up the bike box for the flight. I had meant to go back and buy them but with one thing and another it just slipped my mind and also the tyres that were on the bike had been in pretty good condition and didn’t need changing at the time. So there was nothing else for it but to order tyres online and have them shipped to Argentina. I had been told that having anything imported into Argentina would be problematic and that although the goods would arrive from Britain within days of me placing the order once they got to the office in Buenos Aires it could be weeks before they would be shipped to Patagonia but I was prepared to take that chance. Bolivia and Peru will have some pretty rough roads and the one thing I will need is good quality tyres on the bike. I would spend a week in town and then ride a circular route around the Lake District for a week and on returning wait a couple of days and if  the tyres don’t arrive then move on.

It was while I was riding around the Lake District that it dawned on me that I didn’t have to ride back into Bariloche. The lady who had stopped her car had told me almost as an afterthought about their bike ride from California. They lived in the town of San Martin De Los Andes one of the most beautiful towns in Patagonia and I had already planned to stop in the town, if I stayed in their hostel they would surely let me store the bike and equipment or at least know of somewhere in town where I could. With the bike stored I could then return to Bariloche on the bus in the hope of picking up the tyres rather than back tracking on the bike. I found the hostel and met Ingo and Melanie and after I had checked in the three of us sat in a very comfortable lounge and talked for a while about our bike riding experiences. I thought now would be a good time to ask them about storing the bike.

Me. I have a small problem and I wondered if you would be able to help me.

Ingo. Ok, what’s the problem we will help if we can?

Me. I’m riding on 26inch Marathon XRs that I have ord

Ingo before I could finish the sentence. Yes we have Marathon XRs they are new and I think the size is 26 x190, what size do you need.

Me.  You have Schwalbe tyres here in the hostel.

Ingo. Yes, we have two unused folding tyres, I will go check.

Me, saying nothing but just sitting there with my mouth open and frozen to the seat.

Melanie. When we came to live in Argentina we had a container with all of our possessions shipped out here, my husband is always fixing bikes and so he had spare parts put in the container if there is anything else you need for the bike he will have it.

Ingo returning with the tyres. Yes I have them they are not 26 x 2.00 as you have on your bike but 26 x 1.90 it’s such a small difference I don’t think you will notice it in the ride, we can fit them tomorrow. I used to work as a bike mechanic so we can check the bike over before you leave here.

Me. Still sitting there with mouth wide open and frozen to the seat.

Melanie had told me about their bike ride almost as an afterthought yet I had remembered that piece of information and assumed they would be sympathetic to storing the bicycle. I also had the hostel address, it was still in my trouser pockets and it was very unlike me to keep it because I collect pieces of paper throughout the day and then either lose them or throw them away. So was it luck or good fortune? Was I in the right place at the right time? Or was it nothing more than just pure coincidence. Whatever it was I now have two new tyres that will carry me through Bolivia, Peru and north through Central America to the States. These new tyres have replaced ones that had been on the bike since Nepal and have come through India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia, well over 10.000Kms and they might have lasted another 5000kms I just didn’t want to take that chance. The border with Chile is only 50Kms from here and when I leave in a day or so I will cross the border and head north to Santiago before crossing back into Argentina close to Mendoza. The route 40 north of the Lake District in Argentina becomes semi desert again until Mendoza but the route north through Chile is much more developed. As for the tyres waiting in Buenos Aires, I might be lucky, they might arrive and I will have then in my panniers as spares when I leave here but if not I’ve lost nothing but have gained two new friends Melanie and Ingo and I have many memories of some wonderful times we had together talking about life on the road and our experiences while riding bicycles around the World.

www.refugio-melingo.com  This is the only place to stay if you happen to be in San Martin del los Andes. Ingo and Melanie will go out of their way to make your stay as comfortable as possible. They have the best breakfasts and Ingo will take you on mountain bike trails or hikes in the beautiful mountains close to their home. He might even have that part you need for the bicycle!

A life in a day

Southern Patagonia.

Riding alone In the middle of Patagonia with no one to talk to other than the bike who I have recently started to call Mike, You might wonder what I’m thinking about and doing for hours on end. As there is a never changing landscape at the moment and very little to say about the last 10 days on the road, here are a day’s thoughts, musings and actions on a dusty lonely road laid out for you, including some of the music. It’s not all here because it would be impossibly long reading. This however will give you an idea of what goes on inside my mind while alone on the road. Please don’t worry about my state of mind, remember I’m on my own for days at a time without a soul to communicate with other than Mike.  My thoughts now that I’m with people and back in the middle of civilisation are much more constructive and normal (I think, I hope)

Mike I’m going to make a list of what I’ve missed most since I started the ride. After composing a long list I’ve managed to break it down to the ten most missed. Family, Friends, Music coming from a pair of Bose speakers rather than iPod headphones.  A good curry. Cadburys fruit and nut chocolate. Gin and Tonics.  Books.  Waitrose.  hot water and normal clothes rather than technical cycling gear. This took ages because I realised that I miss very little.

Mike, let’s put the IPod on shuffle and see what she has in store for us today.

Smoke on the water, Deep Purple (oh god it’s going to be one of those days)

My way, Frank Sinatra.

I wonder how long I can ride along with my eyes closed. After trying this for about 10 minutes and constantly opening my eyes to see where Im going I soon realise that I cant ride like this for very  long.

Mama Mia, Abba.

Metallica, Masters and Puppets.

I wonder how long can I ride along with one eye open?  This one was easy I can go on forever.

Am I going mad Mike or is that a car I can see ahead of us, if it is it will be the first in what, two days, yes that’s the dust cloud from a car coming towards us. Wow it looks like an old Ford Falcon, its seen better days and actually it was probably brand new when they left home this morning but the road has ruined it. Make yourself presentable lad and hopefully they will stop and say hello.

Me.Taking off headphones as the car stops and the driver opens his window, Buenos Dias

Driver. Buenos Dias, Americano.

Me thinking. It must be because I look like a cross between Denzel  Washington and Brad Pitt that everyone thinks I’m an American.

Me. No I’m British.

Driver in perfect English. Ah my wife is British she’s from Wales.

Me. Ah Patagonia has that Welsh connection doesn’t it?

Driver. Where are you going?

Me. North all the way to the States, when I get to Arizona I will make a decision whether to turn right for Boston  and from there fly back to Britain which will be the easy option or to turn left and head up the Californian coast to Canada and Alaska.

Driver shaking his head.  Alaska, Boston, you must be crazy.

Me thinking. Better not tell him what I’ve been doing for the last two years before I got to Argentina otherwise he might just drive off.

Me. yes I suppose I am a bit mad.

Driver. Do you have everything you need?

Me. yes I’m fine, I’ve got food, although if you have a little water to spare I wouldn’t say no, I can pay you.

Driver.  Yes I have water but it’s with gas, I can give you a bottle.

Me. With gas is fine, I will brush my teeth with it in the morning, my mouth froths up like crazy and it will give me and Mike something to laugh about for an hour or so, it helps to pass the time.

Driver ignoring my comment about Mike. There is a small village about 150Kms in front of you and they have a hostel and supermarket.

Me. Great I will push on and I should make it by tomorrow night, how long before the road becomes good again.

Driver. Oh not for at least another 200Kms, could be more.

Me. I will be ok, not much else to do but go forward, at least the wind has dropped.

Driver. As your heading further north the wind is not so strong.

Me. Nice talking to you thanks for the water.

Driver. No problem, have a good journey, bye.

Me. Bye, thanks.

Me to Mike, nice guy that, pity the camera isn’t working he had one of those windswept Patagonian faces and would have made a great photo, as soon as we get to a big town with a camera shop this thing is going if it can’t be fixed. You know maybe we should invest in one of those super duper Nikons with all the bells and whistles, they take great photos, we will see what they say about my camera ( putting headphones back on) Now where were we before we were so rudely interrupted by the only other person on the planet.

Stair way to heaven, Led Zeppelin ( ah there’s a bustling  in the hedgerows and the drums have started, good that means its half way through the song, at this age and on this road I don’t think I have the stamina for the whole song)

Horses in that field ahead of us Mike, we can use this as a lunch opportunity, feed me, feed the horses, then try to tame one and ride it. (Not possible after trying to tame one for an hour or more, they let me feed them with biscuits and get over the fence and run around with them but not one of them would let me climb up so that I could have a ride. (We might as well push on Mike)

Enya, Caribbean Blue.

How loud can I sing, scream, and laugh along to this nonsense. Why is this song on the machine, it must have come already programmed into it.

Beethoven fifth symphony 3rd movement.

This afternoon I will make up names for a rock band, in this band I will play lead guitar, sing , give a half hour drum solo and throw the odd Plasma screen into the hotel swimming pool. After an hour I have settled on the band’s name and album titles. Their to be called, The search engines. The First album will be called, Google it, we will then release, It’s that blue screen again, Why is this connection so slow, Have nothing to do with Microsoft, What’s Face book and our final album which will be a live recording, Yes we have WIFI. The band will then fall apart in acrimony and a bitter court battle over money.

Goodbye yellow brick road, Elton John.

My Way, Sid Vicious.

Knocked up, The Kings of Leon.

Go, Moby.

Although we have done this a thousand times before Mike Let’s Change the names of famous pop stars again. After half an hour the winners are still Broccoli Spears, Mad Donna, Kylie Monotonous, Shirley Brassy, 50 Pence and Amy winerack

Close to the Edge, Yes.

Feel, Robbie Williams.

Four day creep, Humble Pie.

Let’s name all the bands I’ve seen. After thinking about this for about an hour it seems that I’ve seen loads of bands so instead I work out the most unusual band I’ve seen and eventually come up with Westlife. I then spend another half hour thinking why I would have seen them and I couldn’t for the life of me work it out. It must have been a bet or a dare.

Imagine, John Lennon.

Footballer’s wives, Amy McDonald.

Spanish Harlem, Aretha Franklin.

More than a feeling, Boston.

Let’s think about the best and worst concerts I’ve ever been to.  After five minutes I’ve worked out that the worst was Westlife and the best was easily Bob Marley.

Hot, hot hot, The Cure.

Mansion in the slums, Crowded House.

Tainted love, Marylyn Manson.

Amor Amor, Gypsy Kings.

Everybody Hurts, REM.

Since you’ve been gone, Rainbow.

I’ve just thought of a new game Mike; let’s work out who we would and wouldn't like to be if we weren’t us. Time passes before I decide on being Denzel Washington because he’s cool and he looks like me. Another half hour rolls by and I’ve worked out I wouldn't want to be  Jamie Oliveoil because everything he cooks has to have loads of olive oil added. Here we have an orange, let’s pour some olive oil over it and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes, I call this orange oil and it makes a great starter. Mike wants to be a Harley Davidson and he wouldn't want to be one of those folding bikes that you carry round in a bag.

Blowin in the wind, Bob Dylan.

Get up stand up, Bob Marley.

No way back, Foo fighters.

The wind cries Mary, Jimi Hendrix.

Mike how about a game of I spy you go first. I spy with my little eye something beginning with P (Patagonia) boring that was too easy.

La Del Russo, Gotan Project.

Welcome to the jungle, Guns and Roses.

High, James Blunt.

Creep, Radiohead.

Ok I’m going to Plan the best way to rob a bank. After half an hour thinking about this the answer is don’t.

I walk the line, Jonny Cash.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, U2

Comfortably Numb, Pink Floyd.

Operation Spirit, Awake.

I wonder what I would I do if I won $60.000.000 on the lottery. After spending the money on helicopters, islands and closing down Argos I’ve decided that I would buy a new set of tyres for the bike and a new camera. (Another half hour or so gone)

What would I do if friends or family won $60.000.000 on the lottery. After persuading then to close down my least favorite store (Argos) I would ask them to buy me a new set of tyres and a camera.

What would I do if my bank account was suddenly credited with $60.000.000. I’ve decided that there would be no point in trying to steal the money, best just to come clean about it, so after buying a new set of tyres and a camera I would call the bank and tell them that my account has mistakenly been credited with $59.999.000. (Another half hour gone)

Cloud busting, Kate Bush.

Polly, Nirvana.

Where I stood, Missy Higgins.

Wonder wall, Oasis.

Can’t take my eyes off you, Richie Valens.

I would walk 500 miles, Proclaimers. (good song for this road)

Mike I’m going to tell you what I would say to a group of people about Henry the Eight and the reasons for his break from Rome. Its good practice for my return to normal life, remember I will have to go back to Touring, Teaching or something when this is all over. (An hour goes by)

Alright now, Free.

My Sweet lord, George Harrison.

Clint Eastwood, the gorillaz.

Fields of Gold, Eva Cassidy.

I’m going to devise a board game. After half an hour or so of thinking about this I decide that the game will be called Monotony and is based on modern life. Each player is given a home, car, $50000 and a house full of junk. You play it like monopoly; each player throws the dice and works their way round the board. The first person to lose everything and end up with a county court judgment is the winner. (Tomorrow I will design the board)

How you remind me, Knickleback.

Please don’t let me be misunderstood, Nina Simone.

Paint it black, The Rolling Stones.

We are an American Band, Grand Funk Railroad.

Ava Maria, Maria Callas.

Wow Mike is that the time already, we had better start looking for a place to pitch the tent. I heard you stumbling about last night, probably going to the loo; tonight do you think you can put your lights on so you don’t fall over the tent ropes again. How about Crackers and Tuna for tea tonight, it will make a change from last night’s Tuna and crackers. I dare myself to put up the tent in the middle of the road seeing as there is no traffic. (I didn’t do it)

North from the end of the World

Ushuaia, Tolhuin, Rio Grande, San Sebastian, Porvenir, Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales.

Patagonia is a wild desolate place with skies that go on forever and a road that is not only endless but for the most part largely unpaved. Its cold here at most times of the year, even in the middle of summer it can suddenly start to snow. I’ve been told that the only defence against the cold weather is the warmth of the Patagonians and their hospitality. There is another important ritual that lends itself perfectly to cold Patagonian mornings and that’s the drinking of Mati. It’s usually a shared experience, drinking it with people you like or care about, it’s a symbol of trust and friendship and when you share mati you share a piece of your soul. When I wake up in the tent the first thing I do is prepare my morning brew and it’s much more than just a drink of tea. It’s made by brewing in hot water the ground leaves of the Yerba, a South American plant and it can be drunk bitter or sweet. The drink has a high caffeine content making it like tea or coffee a strong stimulant and everyone in Argentina no matter how rich or how poor drinks mati. I drink it each morning before I set off, making sure that I have enough hot water in my flask so that I can top up my Mati throughout the day as I ride along.

Tierra Del Fuego takes its name from the fires lit on the beach by the Indians in 1520 as they watched the first white settlers arrive in their ships. Ferdinand Magellan saw the clouds of smoke rising from the fires and called the area Tierra Del Humo ( land of smoke ) it was the King of Spain who thought Land of Fire a much more interesting name. There were no fires lit for me as I left the Antarctica hostel very early one Saturday morning to make my way up into the Muntial Mountains. The sun began to rise and the air started to warm as I climbed into what were the perfect mountains that morning showing me their kindness by not snowing or letting the temperature drop too much as I rode higher into them.

The more I ride alone through these wild places the more I feel that I am as much a part of the landscape as it is a part of me and that the mountains and surrounding landscape looks after me. Long after I had left the mountains behind and was riding across a fairly flat plane I could make out their snowy peaks in the distance behind me, it was as if  they were saying goodbye yet didn’t want to leave me and no matter how often I looked back expecting not to see them there they where.

It was a long hard 120Kms ride from Ushuaia to Tolhuin, a town with nothing more to offer than a muddy main street and a couple of hostels. Two months off the bike had left me lazy and sluggish and I could feel the pain in my legs and back as I rode along and was happy to spot a hostel on the outskirts of town. As I was checking in a very worried manager told me that there was a serious problem as there would be no food on offer in the restaurant because the gas had been turned off, I asked if the fridges were still working and was there any chance of a cold beer, he told me that the fridges were fine and I told him that I couldn’t see what the problem was.

The next day was another incredibly long 140Kms and my heart really wasn’t in it. I should have been able to do the distance with ease but with aching legs and back it was a tough day. I pushed the bike the last 15Kms into town; I just didn’t have the energy to ride. I stopped at a Pizza restaurant to ask directions and realising how hungry I was ended up eating my way through two Pizzas and drinking a couple of beers before I felt I would be able to move on but  Fortunately just around the corner from the restaurant I managed to find a place to stay.

The wildest, remotest and most solitary part of the ride was from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales and I will carry what I’ve experienced here in my blood forever. It was just under 300Kms between the two towns following the main route 40 north. The road stretches across an endless never changing flat landscape, its sparsely populated land for miles into the horizon with little to keep me company other than birds heading south for the spring, the odd Grey Fox and hundreds of Guanacos, the wild cousin of the Llama. Other than the wildlife I was totally alone.

Off the main road there are Estancias, these are large sheep stations that have opened their doors to tourism to supplement their income. Like Australian cattle stations these Estancias are well off the road and there are always locked gates at the beginning of what could be a 30Kms drive down to the main house and with prices that can reach into hundreds of dollars these exclusive places to stay are well out of my budget. The Patagonian wind is not only famous but constant; hitting you at between 80 and 120Kms per hour and it’s a cold wind that bites at my face and hands even through my warm gloves. Pushing the bike against the wind was sometimes the only option as it was impossible to ride, but I can only walk like this for about 10Kms after which I’m exhausted and my boots are covered with icy water because of the melting snow flooding the road.

It’s a hostile environment and my days have been loaded with emotions, I sometimes feel that the wind will drive me completely insane and I beg for just five minutes of quiet as I hide behind the bike desperate to escape from the noise. I spent one afternoon crouched in a drainage tunnel hoping for a passing car or bus to stop but there’s no one out here but me and of course the wind. Yet even in a hostile place like this it’s still possible to enjoy a sweet moment with a passing stranger. One morning I was pushing the bike along, my body bent double against the strong wind and because of the noise I didn’t hear the car draw up beside me, Out of the window a hand offered me a bag of fruit and some chocolate and then it was gone, I didn’t even have time to thank the person as they drove off. There have been respites from the wind; I’ve slept in disused buildings abandoned by farmers who have gone bankrupt, driven out by the wind and hard life but more often than not I’ve had to pitch my tent in a howling gale, usually close to a remote village with a gas station, a couple of places to repair tyres and a phone box. Places that are not worth visiting but just happen to be on my route.

It is a landscape that could set your imagination free and provide you with the ultimate freedom if that’s what you’re looking for. When the wind is not blowing it’s the quietest most peaceful place I have ever experienced and both the sunrise and sunsets are beautifully spectacular. I’m living in a tent, bathing in cold rivers, shaving in streams and I’ve found freedom and a simple beauty here but I’m not sure I would want it for long. Its not over for me just yet, I have at least another 1000Kms of this ahead of me with about 5ooKms of the route unpaved. I have a bad back, a shredding back tyre and a camera that has decided its also had enough to keep me company.

Slaying the Dragon

Time has passed very quickly while I’ve been in Buenos Aires. It feels like I’ve been here for months but when I leave here in just over a week it will only have been a month since I arrived in the city.  I’m very nervous about the next part of the trip and I’m finding it almost impossible to relax and feel as if I will be sick every time I think about what lies ahead of me. When I’m walking the streets or having lunch my mind is working overtime creating problems that I might encounter when I get to Patagonia and how I will deal with them. In my mind I’ve robbed myself, had the bike stolen, been stuck up a mountain and woken up to find that I’ve been sleeping in a ditch because I was miles from anywhere and had lost the tent pegs. While Riding round the World I’ve kept in my mind the thought that although I’m sailing across rough seas (the countries that I ride through) my ship (myself and the bike) is under control and out in open waters. This thought has helped me not to become over confident particularly when everything is going well and it’s also helped me deal with any situation that might arise while I’m on the road. During my time in Buenos Aires for reasons that I can’t explain Ive started to create reefs and rocks that lie in the waters ahead of me and my ship is constantly running aground. I wake each morning in a blind panic or I lie awake for hours at night creating more imaginary problems. I constantly tell myself how stupid I am and think about what I have achieved so far. I’ve Conquered India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, all very difficult countries to ride through. I’ve dealt with problems on the road and have always come out ahead but still that nagging doubt about South America persists. One of the problems of course is that I’m not riding the bike and therefore have the time to play out these imaginary disasters in my head. I have only heard positive things about Argentina and its people and since arriving here I have experienced at first hand as I have in many countries only incredible generosity. I have read nothing negative about the places that I plan to visit and have only been given positive information about the people and what I’m likely to find when I reach the southernmost tip of Argentina. I know that it’s all in my mind and so I think that now is a good time to leave Buenos Aires. I need to get back to work riding the bike and if there is a Dragon to slay then I’m going to slay it.

Walking is the best way to get to know a city. I’ve spent days wandering aimlessly around the hidden lanes and alleyways of Buenos Aires exploring its rich history and beautiful architecture. The city has an interesting daily rhythm; it’s always bustling with Political demonstrations, long lines outside banks, shoeshine boys, newspaper sellers, men in grey suits rushing to work and beggars on the streets. Not far from my hostel is Plaza De Mayo one of the most important meeting places in the city. Overlooking this square is Casa Rosada an impressive Pink House with its famous balcony from which Eva Peron captivated the Nation.

She was the second wife of three times Elected President Juan Peron and in the 1940s Evita was probably one of the most influential and important women of her time. She struggled throughout her life to provide the needy with opportunities and a better standard of life that was unknown to them until then. Her death in 1952 at the age of only 33 left Argentineans in despair and was greeted with the kind of grief and hysteria demonstrated after the death of The Princess of Wales and just as in Britain Argentina had never seen anything like it before. The song I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales was written in 1927 at the height of the popularity of Edward, Prince of Wales and when I found myself visiting what had once been the private office of Eva Peron  I spoke to a girl who spoke to a man who worked for Eva Peron. Often close to tears, he talked at length about this amazing woman as he showed me through the rooms that she had once used. Nazi sympathies aside, Evita had the drive, passion and charisma that are all too often lacking in today’s politicians. To this day she retains a Saint like status amongst many and it’s almost impossible to go anywhere in the city without being reminded of Evita as a child, as an Actress or as The First Lady of the country.

This is also the square where a small group of mothers gathered in 1977 during the last Military Dictatorship in order to share what little information they had about their children and husbands who had disappeared (detained by the armed forces) during the Dirty War. At the time the city was under armed siege and the security forces ordered the mothers not to stand and demonstrate but to keep moving.

They did around the Pyramid De Mayo. They chose a day, Thursday and as an emblem a white head scarf. Slowly these mothers became the symbol of the fight against a brutal Dictatorship and still they return today, every Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm they walk around the oldest monument in the square wearing white scarves on their heads and photographs of the Disappeared Ones hang around their necks. The Madres have become one of the most important organisations in the World in support of human rights.

I have spent my Sundays waking around San Telmo. It’s one of the oldest parts of the city and since 1970 an antiques fair has opened here at the weekends. It reminds me of the Portobello Road in London with stall holders selling all kinds of objects most of which we couldn’t live without. Old brick warehouses line the narrow streets and are packed with people selling dishes, ornaments, magazines and the sort of junk you suddenly see and think you need when you don’t have a clue what you’re looking for. I’ve been told that there are over 200 shops in the area selling good quality antiques, everything from glass to furniture old gramophones to musical instruments. It’s a day when the bars and restaurants place their tables outside and I’m tempted by every dish of the day as I walk past them all. Argentineans like me love to eat out even if it’s just sharing a slice of pizza on the street.

Once or twice I’ve been caught out by a female Tango dancer who has invited me up to dance and I’ve been embarrassed when my photo is taken by tourists as I concentrate hard not to step on the dancer’s delicate toes. Tango didn’t originate in San Telmo but on Sundays when the market is buzzing musicians sit in small groups on the street playing the violin, guitar and accordion while the Tango dancers perform for the tourist’s often inviting people from the crowd to dance with them.

Another interesting walk is through Recoleta cemetery. Even in death the rich and famous rival each other in prominence and style with many of the tombs imported from Italy, France and Spain. Buried in Recoleta is a real celebrity gallery of Argentinean history with several former presidents, politicians, Military heroes, writers, artists, poets and of course the most visited tomb that of Eva Peron.

I have been very lucky in my choice of hostel. It’s in the centre of all the action and only a short walk to everywhere. The Staff at the Lime house has been incredible. They have understood exactly what I have needed and have directed me to a good bike shop where I picked up oil for the chain, an excellent camping shop were I was able to get some warm weather gear, the best book shop in town for my South American road maps, the local medical centre so I could get my Yellow Fever vaccination and they were never fazed by my strange questions day or night about Patagonia and the rest of South America. Are the roads really that bad? It’s cold but will it be raining? It’s remote but is it as remote as the Australian Outback? What’s the Spanish word for Tyre, inner tube or chain and how do I say ‘’ can the bicycle sleep in the same room as me.’’ (Puede la bicicleta quedarse en la misma habitacion)

When I leave Buenos Aires I’m taking a four day bus ride to the southernmost city in the World. Ushuaia is on the island of Tierra del Fuego and less than 1000 miles north of Antarctica. It’s been described as a land of windswept bleakness, cold winters, cool summers and gales in spring. It’s a place that has held a fascination for me since I started the ride and I just want to see what it’s like at the end of the world and if there is much to see. Even if it’s only the Beagle Channel, rich in marine wildlife such as sea lions and dolphins surrounded by mountains and wild forested peaks then I will be happy to say that I’ve seen it. My route north is on the RN40 it’s as famous here as Route 66 in the United States and stretches from Patagonia to Salta a town in the north of Argentina. It’s not what you might think of as being a main route. In places it’s so isolated that the road if you can call it a road is overgrown with wild plants and I’m told it’s almost impossible to follow. The ski season is just coming to an end and won’t start up again until early December. Hotel prices will fall as I’m travelling in the low season and the crowds will have packed up and gone home not to return for a few months. The summer weather although cool should be dry with clear blue skies but I will still have to do battle with some pretty strong Patagonian crosswinds. I’m hoping that with the Spanish lessons and some cool Tango steps under my belt I will be ready to conquer southern Argentina, Chile and beyond.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, The city of Tango, Steaks, Maradona, Eva Peron, The Paris of South America graced as it is with European buildings, trendy shopping malls and its great restaurants and bars. Not that any of this has meant much to me, there is almost a 12 hour time difference between Buenos Aires and Sydney. Last night was my first night of normal sleep since arriving here and I’m only just getting the effects of the jet lag that has plagued me for the past five days out of my system. I’ve been awake when I should be asleep and asleep when I should be awake. It hasn’t bothered me, my normal life on the road can be extremely active pushing the bike from one town to the next, not only seeing the views of mountains, forests, lakes and the wild landscape but peddling through the middle of it. So when it’s time to stop and take a break for a while I really do stop. I have no desire to go rushing out on onto the streets of the city and filling my days with sightseeing, museums and galleries, there will be lots of time for that. I’ve been happy just to sit in the hostel, kick back and relax.

The flight to Argentina was long and uneventful, almost 15 hours with an hour’s layover in Auckland. The highlight was at the check-in desk when I was told that the bicycle would travel for free, a saving of a few hundred dollars. It’s not a lot of money but if you have already paid well over the odds for a ticket because there is no competition any saving is a good one. Aerolineas is the National Airline of Argentina and other than Qantas they are the only Company that fly’s direct to Buenos Aires and flying direct is an important consideration for me, who knows what might happen to the bike if I have to change planes. As Airlines go I thought they were great. A new comfortable plane with free drinks and movies, there isn’t much more you can do when flying. I was told a few horror stories as I waited in line to check in. One was that they have a hefty fee for extra luggage, this turned out not to be true. I was told that the food was probably the worst of all the Airlines; I never eat the Airlines food but must admit it didn’t look to good. The worst story of all came from a South African man standing a few passengers in front of me who told the woman behind him that Argentina’s Airlines have a very bad safety record,  again it turned out not to be  true as I’m writing this in bed in Buenos Aires safe and well.

The people relating the stories were not Argentineans but from Bolivia and South Africa. It took me back to when I was in Turkey and was warned that Iran was a very dangerous country and I would never get out alive. Then Iranians asked me why I would want to travel through Pakistan and did I know how unsafe it was.  In Pakistan I was told to fly over India and the Indians said have nothing to do with Nepal. So it goes on, although no one in Australia warned me about the dangers I might encounter in Argentina.

My plan is to spend about month in the city before I head south to Patagonia by bus, then I will ride north through South America starting with Argentina and Chile. My time in Buenos Aires will be fairly productive, I need to take some Spanish lessons, it will take me almost a year to travel north to Columbia and I have no excuse in not being able to chat with the locals even if its on a very basic level. Parts of Chile and Bolivia are remote and few people will speak English. Maybe some Tango lessons to help keep me fit while I’m not riding the bike could be fun, I’ve never tried to dance  The Tango but it was started here so this should be the place to learn. No photographs of the city just yet as I haven’t ventured far from the hotel. The room I’ve been given is quiet and at the end of a long corridor away from all the partying space cadets. On the walls there are two pieces of Modern art with Bicycles and little stick people as the theme. It’s the perfect room for me.

Ive found a fantastic hostel in Buenos Aires, the Lime house has very  helpful staff  who know everything about everything there is to know in the city and they are very bike friendly. Google limehouse.