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the big blue…

Or, rather, the Straits of Magellan… wind, waves, ice, whales, more wind,… and all that….

I’m at sea and offline for the next six weeks or so. I’ll be back with ocean tales to tell.

puerto natales

CHILE: PUERTO NATALES

The hand of god.

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pampas pedalling

ARGENTINA/CHILE: CALAFATE — CERRO CASTILLO — PUERTO NATALES

There is a story to be told, but I don’t have the time or good enough internet connection to do so right now. I will revisit this post, but in the meantime, some photos…

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fox

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Miracle.

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PUERTO NATALES.

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psychosis

The wind rises like psychosis, a black mood. It is imbued with both menace and malice.

It toys with me. A game of cat and mouse.

It screams and curses. Mutters. Threatens.

Pounces. Seizes. Worries.

It has teeth.

There is no fighting back. My efforts are futile. It takes possession of me completely, with the embrace of a lover whose practiced violence leaves no visible trace. I enter into the affray stripped naked. So vulnerable. Utterly known.

It leaves me weak. Defeated. My will, crushed and broken. I offer myself up to it because I can do nothing else. It knows my inner weaknesses better than I do myself.

And surrender only incites greater brutality. There is no end to this wind’s spite, no way to placate it.

Cerro Castillo playground, with it's wind break, serves as the cyclist's campground.

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perito moreno

ARGENTINA: EL GLACIAR PERITO MORENO

Yes, it is a tourist circus. Yes, it’s ridiculously expensive. But don’t let that stop you going: — Perito Moreno is a thing of wonder and beauty that nothing can really detract from.

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Celestial blue. Glaciers make me think of heaven.

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A great day, spent in the company of Sam and Jen, fellow cyclists, from the UK. We hitched - patience and persistence are key to this strategy - from Calafate to economise where we could.

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untrustworthy winds

ARGENTINA: EL CHALTEN — EL CALAFATE

I’d been promised that I was going to be blown out of El Chalten all the way to the first junction eighty or ninety kilometres away with barely a pedal stroke. It would take me maybe three hours to reach the ‘pink house’, a derelict hotel complex that provides cyclists and other bypassers with a sheltered place to sleep in Argentina’s windswept Patagonian pampas.

With this in mind, I don’t end up leaving El Chalten until around 4.30 in the afternoon, neglecting to note that the days was calm and still. It wasn’t until I am actually on the road that I realise that I am pedalling into a faint but definite head wind. How has this happened?

The morning is bright and still...

... and I take advantage of the fact to get a bit closer to Fitzroy and friends, who I have still neglected to visit, thus far into my stay in El Chalten.

Eventually I do leave...

...even if I can't stop looking back. The customary tailwind out of El Chalten is not playing the day I leave and, despite the promise that I will be blown all the way to the 'pink house' in three hours, I actually pedal against a very slight headwind and consequently end up camping beside a big rock that houses a shrine to Difunta Correra instead. The same conditions prevail the following day and so at least I am spared the crosswind on the main highway.

I guess wind is a tough one to pictorialise but this sign seems simply absurd in a landscape without a single tree - let alone a palm tree!

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Then finally, as I turn into El Calafate, the wind suddenly picks up. I ride against it, in the company of Sam and Jen, a young English couple I first ran into in Villa O'Higgens. 30 hard won kilometres take about 5 hours. Halfway there, we meet the French tandem couple zooming along in the opposite direction.

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entertained by an angel

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Hebrews 13:2)

But, then again, some – and perhaps I am now among them – must surely also have been entertained by angels.

When I meet Flor for the first time, arriving uninvited at her house in the company of two other cyclists, she apologises as she greets me because her hands are covered in flour. She is just whipping up a batch of gnocchi for the fifteen or twenty odd strangers in her house that day. She shows me a spot in her back yard where I can pitch my tent, asking if I need any help, before returning to the kitchen. It isn’t long before she’s back to invite me inside to eat.

Flor's house.

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I spend a week all told in and around El Chalten, camping in Flor’s backyard, when I am not trekking.

I have a tendency to accumulate too much food and so, when I am packing my panniers to finally leave El Chalten, I give an unwanted potato to Flor who is next to me in the backyard playing with the kittens. Flor thanks me politely for this dubious gift and, soon after, disappears inside. When I call her to bid a final farewell she reappears bearing a lunch box containing the potato, fried with rosemary and salt, and some fresh home-made bread.

“For your journey,” she says, handing it to me.

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lamb

ARGENTINA: EL CHALTEN

When a group of hungry cyclists get together things can get out of hand.

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A fourteen kilo lamb and fourteen people. That makes sense, doesn’t it? The only other thing on the menu was bread. And wine.

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ice fields

It’s not often that you find yourself somewhere that you never really imagined could exist.

I set off from El Chalten on a four day walk with Mike and Karen, a Canadian couple I met in Villa O'Higgens.

We walk away from Mount Fitzroy and its companions, shrouded in cloud.

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This is the world as I know it.

The transition...

...is gradual...

... but the terrain soon starts to change...

... and by day two we are walking on ice.

This is a glacier, right up close and personal.

They are big.

Really big.

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But it is only once we cross the Paso del Viento that I catch a glimpse of the other world - the one that I had never really imagined existed. This is the edge of the Great Southern Ice Field.

The trail skirts along the ice...

... for kilometres...

... and kilometres.

There is no way, at all,...

... that it will all fit inside my camera. The wind is howling off the glacier and there is nothing at all soft or hospitable here...

... but, then a gap, another pass, leading back to the sunshine world.

The way is not easy though and the trail is elusive. It's a very steep rough descent through the autumnal trees on an uncertain path.

Yellow...

... and red.

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The toe of the glacier fronts Lago Viedma.

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crossings

CHILE/ARGENTINA: VILLA O’HIGGENS — CANDELERIO MANCILLA — EL CHALTEN

Lakes, borders, bridges: there are always crossings to be made.

The route between Villa O’Higgens and El Chalten is somewhat famous or infamous, depending on your predilections.

The boat out of Villa O'Higgens is loaded with tardy cyclists. I miss the other, cheaper, boat by a matter of hours, arriving on the evening of the day of its last voyage for the season.

Crowd scene: twenty or so cyclists, disembark and load up...

... before gradually stringing out along the road...

... to the border between Chile...

... and Argentina.

single track

The road stops at the border and then the real fun begins.

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Heavy loads and thin tires don't work so well here but the group I find myself riding with are a hardy bunch and discover that most of the trail is pretty rideable without any remarkable bikes or bikepack styling*...

... with only the occasional dismount for trickier sections.

The evening boat is cancelled due to inclement weather but the following morning just about everyone piles into another boat to cross Lago del Desierto.

However, Karen and Mike, a Canadian couple I met in Villa O'Higgens, and I stay behind. We backtrack on foot in search a French couple on a heavily loaded tandem to help them with their multiple burdens...

... and all get back to the lake in time for the evening boat.

* None of us felt the urge** to try the trail by Lago del Desierto as an alternative to the overpriced boat, though.

This option sounds pretty arduous by any standards but a group of five, not particularly lightweight, cyclists heading north did, in fact, emerge from the trees some time in the afternoon looking pretty damn shattered after a full two days of hauling bikes and gear through this 12 kilometers of more or less un-tracked lakeside forest. Power to them!

**Actually, I did feel the urge – but I didn’t do it.

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