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meeting argentina

ARGENTINA: PUERTO MADRYN — VIEDMA — BAHIA BLANCA — CORONEL DORREGO — SANTA CLARA DEL MAR — LA PLATA

Sometimes it is all about the riding, sometimes it is all about the landscape, sometimes it is all about the people. Once I hit the Atlantic there is no option but to turn north on Ruta 3 and that leaves just one of those three things for my enjoyment — the people.

VIEDMA

In Viedma, I stay with Marco, Andrea and their daughter Anita, after contacting them through Warm Showers, a hospitality network for cycle tourists.

Marco is a biologist, with a special interest in scorpions, and a passion for archery. He also loves to talk about politics and provides me with an admirably coherent and balanced picture of what is going on in Argentinian political life.

...

These arrows could easily kill someone and I can't help feeling that in many places you wouldn't be allowed to shoot them at will in an urban environment under such uncontrolled conditions. I rather anxiously let a couple of the lethal projectiles fly myself and manage, to my surprise, to hit the target,

Anita...

... is a warrior princess and, probably, a great archer in the making.

BAHIA BLANCA

In Bahia Blanca, I spend a couple of nights with Diego and Natalia, a couple who spent their honeymoon on bicycles in Missiones, a choice both their families considered dangerously eccentric.

Diego and Natalia have big plans for future bike travels. We talked bike routes and gear choices late into the night.

THE FARMHOUSE

I detour into the unremarkable town of Coronel Dorrego in pouring rain with high hopes of a hot shower and a warm dry place to sleep with the bomberos.* But the bomberos, it turns out, aren’t keen to host a passing cyclist and so I leave town, as dusk falls, to search for a dry spot to pitch a tent.

Then I get a flat tire. It’s just one of those days.

As I repair the puncture by the roadside out of range of the spray raised by the wheels of passing trucks I spy a track leading through an open gate to a group of trees which obviously shelter a couple of buildings. I decide to try my luck again so I ride up to what turns out to be a once handsome building in a current state of sad dilapidation. A dog barks hysterically and a young man emerges. He immediately grasps the situation and before long I am warming myself by the wood burning stove while Juan continues to paint the kitchen.

A portrait of Juan's grandfater, or maybe it's his great-grandfather, graces the walls of the run down old farmhouse that Juan and his brother are slowly renovating.

In the morning rain pelts down as wind lashes the trees into a frenzy. I decide to remain in bed which is the only warm place in this cavernous farmhouse.

But there are plenty of elegant details...

...too admire on the occasional chilly trip to the bathroom.

THE RAILWAY LINE

Eventually, late in the afternoon, I leave the farmhouse. Given the torrential rain that been falling the decision to strike away from the highway onto a dirt road that follows an old railway line might not be a choice everyone would make. But given speeding trucks on narrow wet tarmac vs. mud… well, to me, there’s only one option.

The road follows an old railway line. These now defunct railway lines are a legacy of Britain's historical involvement in Argentina but...

... the current relationship with the Britain is not a happy one. Not a single village is without some visual reminder of Argentina's claim to the islands that they call the Malvinas and which they see as their sovereign territory.

Farmyards the world over are littered with rusting cars. I spend some time in this one waiting for the arrival of a pick-up truck that is still running to give me a lift around a couple of kilometre section of the road that is more than knee deep under water. Apparently, I have underestimated that amount of water that fell over the last few days and the flat terrain doesn't encourage it to move anywhere fast.

LA PLATA

Finally, after two and a half weeks of largely uninspired riding, I arrive in La Plata, a university town about 70 kilometres out of Buenos Aires where I plan to have a well earned rest before taking on the capital.

La Plata is an early example of one of those geometrically designed cities that idealistic urban designers like to believe will create order out of the chaos of human existence.

A stone marks the exact centre of the city where the cities founders...

... indulged in a bit of open geo-caching.

But I find the unofficial record of the city's (and Argentina's) fortunes and concerns more interesting and relevant. First. there are expressions relating to ideology and social justice. This feminist mural reads: Bread and roses; -- for the rights of working women; -- enough of violence against women, and; -- not one more death caused by backyard abortions.

...

Then there are politics and economics. This mural reads: Nationhood or Vutures! Argentina is currently threatened with yet another massive financial crises due to some complicated financial shenanigans by unethical financiers - the vultures - with a good nose for an unearned dollar. The matter is before a hostile US court at this very moment and the country anxiously awaits the outcome.

And finally, there is simple whimsy. The lamb...

... and the wolf.

CARTONEROS

Life is clearly quite tough for a lot of people. People who make a living collecting cardboard and other useful or recyclable bits of rubbish off the street are called 'cartoneros'.

And there are quite a few of them around.

A SUNDAY RIDE

In many ways I am a reluctant cyclist. I consider cycling transport and I don’t generally do it for entertainment. But since other people see me as a cyclist I do sometime get roped into going for a ride.

I'm staying in La Plata with Lili, who I encountered, initially, through this blog, and she is definitely a keen cyclist.

She belongs to four different cycling clubs that organise group rides and tours.

I am tired and Lili has a cold so we choose one of the less demanding options for this Sunday ride and quickly arrive at the destination...

...where people soon get to grips with the real business.

In Argentina, it's always all about the meat.

And the maté, too, of course.

There aren't that many fancy bikes or trailers, here...

...but they seem to do the job, just fine.

MEMORY

On the way back through La Plata we pass by a melancholy memorial to the excesses of Argentina’s ugly political past.

A house in La Plata that was attacked and destroyed by the military has been preserved, as a memorial museum to remember the dead and the disappeared.

These faces represent six of the, perhaps, 30 000 victims of Argentina's military dictatorship. The death of the four young men and one woman in this case appears certain - the plaque states they were killed - but mostly people simply vanished. The three month old baby girl was kidnapped and probably adopted into a military family. In Argentina's version of the stolen generation, this was the apparent fate of several hundred babies who vanished along with their parents during the period of the dictatorship and who are only now, in some cases, being reunited with their natural families.

*bomberos = firemen

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go east

CHILE/ARGENTINA: PUERTO MONTT — PUERTO MADRYN

RAIN

Puerto Montt must surely be one of the top contenders for the title of The Wettest City in the World and so unsurprisingly I arrive to torrential rain, combined with lashings of those famous Patagonian winds. From the snug confines of the hostel where I am the only off-season guest, I contemplate the prospect of crossing the Andes one last time. And despite the inclement conditions, I decide that since it hasn’t actually snowed significantly yet to tackle the Rio Puelo crossing – a route that links Puerto Montt in Chile directly to El Bolson in Argentina and is marked on my map as suitable for foot traffic and horses. A bike is kind of like a horse, isn’t it?

Sigh.

Will I never learn?

A bike shack -- leaving Puerto Montt the relentless rain makes any form of shelter welcome. On a dirt track leading into the mountains, I prise open the door of tiny structure by the side of road. Somehow me and my bike fit inside and we take shelter for the night from the rain, the relentless rain.

There is not much more to be said about this final hike over the mountains except that it might of been a nice walk, in summer, without a bicycle.

GO EAST

Argentina is largely flat and treeless and there are a lot of roads to chose from.  As far as navigation goes, the only thing I really need to do is head east until I run into the Atlantic ocean. I decide to follow the Rio Chubut, largely on the basis of having recently re-read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia* in which he mentions this river, but also for the practical consideration of having access to fresh water.

I leave the Cordillera behind as the temperatures plummet and snow flakes begin to fall. I made it over the mountains just in time, it seems.

I follow the Rio Chubut which heads generally east over the pampas.

In Cushamen, I am invited by Maria Eugenia to spend the night with her family. She offers to wash my clothes and it is the first time they have seen the inside of a mechanical washing device for many months.

This was once the bottom of a vast lake and the pampas are enlivened, in places, by...

... interesting rock formations...

...but mostly it is just sky and distance.

When the river starts to turn further to the south than I care to return, I strike out more directly east choosing at random from the roads that crisscross the wide featureless expanse on my rather inaccurate map.

...

Just about anywhere is a perfect camp site - except for the lack of water.

It is a time for meditation...

...as the day passes...

...under an immense sky...

... until the arrival of the luminous night when the stars continue to invite me to contemplate infinity until the sub-zero temperatures finally drive me into my tent.

Given the huge distances between any form of human habitation and the lack of potable water, the failings of my map prompt me to discuss my planned route in detail when I do come across occasional settlements. A man in the shop at the tiny village of Mirasol points me onto this diversionary diversion which winds its way...

...to a high tension power line and then follows it east across the pampas cutting off a couple hundred kilometres of boring highway.

It's a local trail barred by frequent gates with an ingenious locking system that can be baffling to re-close.

The few people that I met out here don't get a lot of visitors and are initially suspicious but offer me maté once they ascertain that I am not the unlikely emissary of some mining company.

...

...

...

It's not as dry as you might think. The are plenty of signs of recent rain and a lot of the road looks like it would be well nigh impassable when wet so I scan the horizon a little anxiously.

Sun down again.

THE ATLANTIC

After ten days, I arrive in Puerto Madryn. I’ve crossed the continent and gone as far east as I can. Now it’s time to turn north.

The rusting abandoned boats here are on a different scale to the rotting wooden hulls of the fleet in Chilean Patagonia.

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Maria Dolores.

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*I re-read In Patagonia on the Porvenir. Ken’s copy of this venerable book is notable in that it was sent to him as a Christmas gift in 1992 by the Argentinian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was not singled out for special attention by the Minister: everyone in the Falklands phone directory received similar gifts. March of the Penguins was also deemed suitable material for winning the hearts and minds of the population of these contested islands.

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learning to float

CHILE: PUERTO WILLIAMS — PUERTO MONTT (BY BOAT)

The Micalvi Yacht Club in Puerto Williams is a charming marina - I know a charming marina when I see one because I've haunted a few, in the past, hoping to find my way to sea. The clubhouse is an old ship run aground, casually listing, complete with original fittings. Lovely!

SETTING SAIL*

We leave Puerto Williams in the early evening, after an afternoon of frustration and debacle at the post office**.

It sunny and beautifully calm and the plan is to travel all night.

A SNOWY START

Leaving before dawn doesn't necessarily mean an early start - it doesn't get light until about 8.30AM, this far south, at this time of year.

When the wind picks up (if, as is generally the case, we are heading into it) we find a sheltered place to anchor, rather than push on into it.

When the weather is otherwise fine...

... a walk or other land based exploration generally seems in order.

Another snowy - but, in this case, mirror calm - morning. We chug away.

LIFE AFLOAT

Life aboard a yacht, even a very small one, is far snugger and cosier than travelling by bicycle and living in a tent. There is potential for heating, for one thing. And the possibility of far more elaborate cooking. I can bake bread and make jam and otherwise indulge my domestic sensibilities, such as they are.

Jam making involves picking calafate, a native blueberry that grows on an extremely spiky bush. Just about nothing pleases me more than gathering ‘wild’ food. (Photo: Ken Passfield)

Calafate are small berries, with a thickish skin and a lot of seeds, so it's best to remove both skin and seeds. I improvise a straining system with an old sock, which I am promised is clean. (Photo: Ken Passfield)

the oven

The Porvenir boasts a clever camp oven that works very neatly...

... to produce...

...perfectly respectable bread.

Mmmm, warm bread and freshly made calafate jam. Life is good.

The wood (or coal) burning stove is a very nice touch. It keeps the cabin toasty warm and is good for all manner of waste disposal, too.

With a hull of only 32 feet the Porvenir is pretty tiny. Ken has fitted out the boat himself and I admire it immensely for its practical minimalism and lack of nautical preciousness. There is not a lot of vanished woodwork or polished brass on display and the cabin is surprisingly roomy and liveable. My bike (wrapped in blue canvas on the left) gets to share the main bunk with Ken while I sleep with my feet tucked in underneath it on a bed that doubles as daytime seating.

NAVIGATION

There are various electronic aids aboard - radar, GPS, and even electronic charts - but I am very happy that Ken maintains an ample collection of paper charts. The charts please me on as aesthetic level, as well as providing a better sense of general overview than electronic charts do.

Yachties, too, it seems, have their guidebooks -- the Chilean Channel bible is a pilot book written by an Italian couple detailing hundreds of safe anchorages.

THE CHANNELS

No crystal blue waters, swaying palms, white sandy beaches. No, no. Snow and ice. Clouds. Rain. Wind.

Glaciers.

Evening light.

...

...

DOLPHINS

I’m not really sure where dolphins get their mystical reputation from: as far as I can see, there’s no two way about it – dolphins are rev heads.

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TIDES AND EDDIES

The idea of navigating these waters before they were charted is truly terrifying. We take a technically illegal but nonetheless commonly used*** short cut through a narrow channel where the tidal currents...

... are pretty impressive.

Ken, however, finds his way through the wild waters...

...with...

...total confidence!

BAHIA WOODS

Bahia Woods, a beautiful open bay, is perhaps the nicest place we anchor. The cape in the far distance is the southern most tip of the South American continent and boasts a monumental cross.

Fox prints on the beach.

...

...

...

Watching the passing traffic...(Photo: Ken Passfield)

...as...

...night falls.

LABYRINTHINE LITTORAL

Walking on the islands that give form to the intricacies of these channels can prove pretty challenging. The rocky shore line is normally bristling with dense spiky scrub and once free of its clutches... (Photo: Ken Passfield)

... the terrain tends towards spongy moss and swamp.

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...

Back on the water, the occasional wreck is a cautionary note more vivid than any beacon.

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Another wreck - this one, an insurance scam, apparently.

Rain, rain, rain. Plenty of fresh water to be collected in these parts.

PUERTO EDEN

Our first port of call is Puerto Eden,...

... a ramshackle village of slippery wooden boardwalks...

(Photo: Ken Passfield)

... populated and ruled by dogs, of course.

The predominant themes are the melancholy ones of old rotting boats and mildew.

San Pedro, of the fishermen, sets symbolic sail with his own framed zarpe****.

There are only a few tenuous connections to the rest of the world.

PUERTO AGUIRRE

Our second brush with human civilisation is Puerto Aguirre.

...

Just another one of those 'how far' signs. Valparaiso, Aysen...

... and the South Pole.

SAILS UP

Finally!

As soon as the winds do turn in our favour, the sails go up! I am far, far, happier.

We even manage to raise three, on one occasion.

...

...

CHILOE AND HER ISLANDS

Chiloe, marks the end of the Channels proper and the beginning of our final approach to Puerto Montt.

Famous for historic wooden churches...

...and fisherfolk...

...

... Chiloe and her outlying islands are a well populated contrast to the uninhabited islands further south.

The streets of Castro, Chiloe's principal town.

A village on one of the smaller islands -- now I no longer have the charts at my disposal I can't remember the name of either the village or the island.

Local traffic - is either bovine, or...

... water based.

The distinctive local architecture consists of wooden stilt houses perched above the waters at high tide.

Despite a very visible and theoretically lucrative local industry of salmon farms, the Channels dominant themes of gradual decay in the face of the elements...

... appears to hold sway here, too;...

...

...but, still, there is plenty...

...of beauty...

...to be found...

...in those themes.

It's all about...

...shingles.

—————————————————————————-

*In a manner of speaking – actually, we leave Puerto Williams under engine power.

The truth about sailing – in this expedient world – is that most sail boats spend way way more time burning diesel than gathering wind. Disappointing, perhaps, but that’s the way it is. In this case, we are travelling against the prevailing northerly winds and so relying solely on sail would make for a lengthy and arduous trip.

**A note on the Puerto Williams Postal Service:

I have had a previous success with Correos de Chile in similarly remote San Pedro de Atacama: a small package of presents for my baby niece in Australia arrived from the deserts of northern Chile, relatively promptly, and for a reasonable cost. So I am hopeful that a disc containing digital images might find its way to Sweden from Puerto Williams within a month or two.

I arrive at the post office half an hour after the time appointed for recommencement of operations after the extended – really, I mean it, an extremely generous – siesta hour, only to I find the place wide open but mysteriously unattended. As potential customers come and go various – well, two – hypotheses are posed: an (unspecified) emergency has arisen? alien abduction, perhaps?

The post office remains deserted (with the mail and parcels in its care accessible to any casual passer by) for the best part of an hour. Finally, lacking a viable alternative, I deliver my package into the dubious care of the woman responsible when she deigns to return to her post. She relieves me of the equivalent of US$30. (The return of this officer of the postal services occurs in a moment of distraction on my part when I have wandered off to browse in a nearby second-hand clothes shop. Thus, the question of alien abduction is never resolved.)

Eight weeks later the package has still not arrived at its destination. So, in short, my advice is that Puerto Williams Correos de Chile is best avoided. It may well be a portal to another dimension.

***See note below.

****A zarpe is an all important document issued by the Chilean Admiralty to all boats navigating Chilean waters. The Admiralty take a strict and paternal view of its role of keeping the fleet – naval, merchant and recreational – safe from harm. Daily calls to report position and welfare are mandatory and failure to do so can result not only in unnecessary anxiety but, possibly, an unwelcome (and expensive!) search and rescue.

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beyond the end of the world

CHILE: ISLA NAVARINO — CALETA SANTA ROSA — PUERTO WILLIAMS

I arrive on Isla Navarino at the twilight hour. The sun is sinking towards the horizon behind Caleta Santa Rosa,...

...as I set off on Isla Navarino's barely 200 kilometre scrap of road.

I enjoy being back on two wheels in the last of the day's sunshine...

... and so it's not until deep dusk that I stop to camp.

The inexorable creep of winter lends the graveyard...

...of a vanished indigenous community an extra dose of melancholy,...

... while a wolfish mask mysteriously adorning a bridge, adds a sense of intrigue.

Melancholy and nostalgia dominate, though.

Autumness.

...

I arrive in Puerto Williams already wondering how on earth I am going to retreat from this far edge of the world, where I have, half unwittingly, found myself. Transport off the island is notoriously unreliable and expensive; the short ferry trip to Ushuaia, across the channel in Argentina, costs well over a hundred dollars and regular services have already ceased as the town starts to wind down for winter hibernation.

Any problem can be, if not actually alleviated, then at least temporarily forgotten, in the pursuit of food. Applying this foolproof strategy, I leave the super-market with a couple of empanadas in hand and manage to strike up a conversation with a man as we pass out the shop door together. As we chat, I discover that Ken has just set off from his home, in the Falkland Islands, on a round-the-world cruise aboard his 32 foot sailing boat. Aha! now this could be a friendship worth cultivating! The invitation to have a cup of tea aboard his boat is readily accepted.

(You can see where this is heading, can’t you?)

So, let’s fast forward: scrolling through a cup of tea, idle chat, a general sounding out, then, the tentative proposal – do you need crew? hmmm, why, yes, perhaps, I do… This followed by the suggestion of time out, to consider, and the proposition of a smaller, a less irrevocable, shared expedition, to wit, a short walk, the following day. I use my time out wisely, preparing a Spanish tortilla to provision the planned trek. Hearts* and stomachs are intimately linked. The day dawns rainy and miserable but, no matter, I arrive at the marina at the appointed hour, rations carefully stowed in my pack. We take refuge from the rain in the cabin and idle a few hours away, talking, before the weather clears.

I think the omelette made a good impression because by the time we are walking up the hill the decision seems to have been reached. I’m signing on as crew aboard the good ship, Porvenir, 1100 miles from Puerto Williams to Puerto Montt. No swaying palms, white beaches, and crystalline blue Caribbean waters for me, my entry into the world of sailing is going to be by snow and ice in the Chilean Channels, against the prevailing winds, as winter draws in.

By the time we trek up the hill above Puerto Williams it is already decided that I will travel to Puerto Montt aboard Ken's boat, Porvenir.

A huge Chilean flag flies above Puerto Williams, a town that exists largely because of its function as a naval base. Puerto Williams has a population of around 2000 while Ushuaia, just across the channel in Argentina's chip of Tierra del Fuego, is home to more than 55, 000. The relationship between the two countries is edgy.

...

We stomp around the top of Cerro Bandeira, trying to get a glimpse of Cape Horn, which is not a true cape, at all, but another island further to the south.

Cape Horn is over there somewhere. There is a four day trek to be done in these hills and I sorely long to but Ken is keen to sail as soon as possible. And he's the captain.

Next time. Sigh.

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* And, also, perhaps just simple goodwill — I have no designs beyond getting aboard.

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ice in the land of fire

CHILE: CALETA MARIA, TIERRA DEL FUEGO — CALETA SANTA ROSA, ISLA NAVARINO (BY BOAT) — PUERTO WILLIAMS

Fair weather still holds as I board Alakush, at Caleta Maria, late in the afternoon. The boat belongs to Andres. He and Jorge (who was kind enough to offer me my passage) are in the process of researching the potential of the area between here and Puerto Williams for boat based trekking and kayaking tours. This is a stroke of good fortune for me because it means we will be visiting and exploring a number of spectacular glaciers and fjords on our way to Puerto Williams.

The calm sunny afternoon affords an uncommonly tranquil moment to the captain and crew of a boat that navigates the infamous Chilean Channels.

...

Finally, we set sail into the gloaming.

Andres and his associates discuss the merits and attractions of various fjords and glaciers in determining our route.

Nautical charts are pure joy to an inveterate cartographile* like me. I love the inversion of positive and negative space - land remains a fatuous blank, while the inscrutable waters of the ocean receive all the attention. These channels were originally surveyed and charted by FitzRoy in the Beagle, with Darwin aboard. The icy cold waters - in many places hundred and hundreds of metres deep - were plumbed using weighted lines. Imagine.

I like to think that Captain Garcia has memorised the charts, although I suspect, in reality, that he has additional electronic aids such as GSP and radar.

Captain Garcia is at the helm all night and by dawn we have been transported to a new and icy world.

Accompanied by dolphins, we set out in the zodiac along the fjord...

... to where we can go ashore for a closer look at the glacier, which descends from the same enormous ice field that I already glimpsed in El Chaten and Calafate in Argentina. We try to find a way...

...across the braided streams running off the glaciers...

... but the going is not particularly easy. The alternative to stream's treacherous quick sands is dense scrub.

These berries are edible. (I think. They taste alright, at any rate, but don't take my word for it!)

More or less thwarted in our desire to walk on or beside this particular glacier, we reboard the zodiac...

... and head off, into the ice...

...which requires some warding off, with the zodiac's emergency oars.

We manage to return, safely, to the Alakush where we find that the sacrificial lamb has been bisected and half is sizzling away on the barbeque...

... while hungry crew members stand by.

The following day, brings us a new larger glacier...

... and this time...

... we manage to get...

... close!

There plenty to look at here, in any direction you choose,...

...and so we spend the rest of the afternoon exploring.

...

...

...

The true drama of a glacier is hinted at by constant creaks and groans and then suddenly revealed with an explosive crack as tons of ice break away from the shifting straining mass of ice in constant flux. It is an truly unforgettably awe-inspiring spectacle...

... and the suspense is constant.

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And then, the next day, there is more.

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Finally, the Alakush makes her way out onto the main channels,...

... and...

...cruises...

...the...

...Beagle Channel...

...

... until we arrive at Caleta Santa Rosa on the north-west coast of Isla Navarino

* I despise GPS and electronic maps.

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a scarificial lamb

It’s all organised. Having ridden to the very end of a dead end road that goes to precisely nowhere*, now by flukey chance, I’m suddenly lined up to go on a four day boat jaunt via the fjords and glaciers to Puerto Williams.

The captain and crew of the boat are mostly Argentinian and so the most important preparation for the trip is to make sure that there is enough meat on board.

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*Where, oh, where, is ‘nowhere’ and what, exactly, is being defined as ’somewhere’  in contrast … but I don’t have time to clarify what I mean right now. Well, actually, maybe I should just make time to — I’m using ‘nowhere’ as a socially agreed synonym for remote, unpopulated, without the trappings of modern life. Nowhere is the place without infrastructure. Nowhere is the place without vehicles. Nowhere is beyond the range of telecommunications. Nowhere is beautiful. Nowhere is where I want to be.

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why i didn’t go to ushuaia (or, how to avoid the end of the world)

Well, the border was closed. The river had risen and the men in uniform deemed it unsafe. I should ride to San Sebastian, cross the border there, and follow Highway No. 3. That is, back track 150 kilometres. And, then, 250 kilometres of pavement, traffic, towns.

The river appears around thigh deep. I appeal to reason. Cite my qualifications, my previous experience of river crossings. Show them photos to prove my case. Deaf ears. These men don’t care. I am a woman, a foreigner. What would I know?

So I ride south on the road available to me on the Chilean side of the border in the golden light of a lingering Indian summer. The day is still, warm, sunny. Last week’s snow, sleet and rain gone as if it never were. I ride through turning trees, across dun brown pampas. Herds of guanaco wheeze at me with aggressive disapproval. Condors soar overhead.

I ride where nobody can stop me – through the forest, past lakes, alongside streams, over two mountain passes – until suddenly the road ends again with another barrier.  A red sign screams – STOP!

This is frontier country. On both sides of the border there is a history of aggressive military government and there are still unresolved territorial claims in this continent’s far southern reaches. Argentina’s chip of Tierra del Fuego is densely populated while Chile’s claim is barely inhabited and that makes the Chileans edgy.

I turn to one side, to a less formidable gate, and enter. Forest closes overhead. The track ends in a footpath which leads to a cottage surrounded by ancient dogs dozing alongside it, all with one wary eye open. I stand before the barking cantankerous pack and call out uncertainly until an elderly man limps unsteadily onto the veranda.

“I don’t know why I am here,” I admit. “But I am looking for the end of the world.”

“It’s a bit further that way.” He gestures.

“There is a gate,” I say.

His wife offers me lunch.

In this house, on the shores of Lake Fanango, I am 30 kilometres from Ushuaia, as the crow flies, and 9 kilometres from the border. It is a three day walk by way of the lake and over another mountain range. The old man, Don German, tells me that you can see the reflection of Ushuaia’s lights, from here, on the snow clouds over the mountains.

I want to walk. I don’t want to retrace my steps to Rio Bella Vista to argue, again, my apparently hopeless case with the men in uniform who will not let me pass a river that is eminently passable and then, thwarted, ride to San Sebastian to cross the border there and ride on to Ushuaia on despised highway. Walking from here would be fun – an adventure – but there is still the border to cross, which complicates things. Those damnable men in uniforms.

I have no reason to go to Ushuaia anyway: it’s just what people on bikes do to finish off their America tour. It occurs to me that I have lost my way. It is a sudden revelation: the Carratera Austral bored me rigid. I realise, that I don’t particular enjoy riding the ‘classic’ routes. That I don’t want to trek in well-trodden National Parks, no matter how beautiful they are. It is not beauty I seek, but wildness.

While I contemplate these thoughts engendered, no doubt, by my proximity to the end of the world, I remain with Maricela and Don German. My tent is tucked away in amongst the trees, which provide an abundance of fallen wood to build a cracking fire at night. The days are still uncommonly sunny, windless, warm. It seems an enchanted realm.

The old man and his wife have lived in this place for 40 years and there has only been a vehicular access road to their property for the last eight of them. It used to be a three day ride on horseback from the nearest estancia, over the mountains, camping on the way, with their two daughters. The enormous cast iron wood burning stove that stands in the centre of the kitchen was carried in that way.

I try, one afternoon, to ride as far as the sea, to Catela Maria, but a bored soldier, watching television in the huts behind the barrier on the road prevents me. The soldiers are responsible for the on-going construction of this road, which will eventually reach as far as the Beagle Channel and connect, by ferry, to Isla Navarino and, thus, Puerto Williams, the southern most town in the world.

Over lunch, Maricela consoles me with the promise of a trip to Caleta Maria tomorrow, in the truck, with Don German – who no-one would presume to stop – and Jorge, an Argentinian friend, who is expecting the arrival of a boat there, from Puerto Williams.

And so, one thing leads to another, and it isn’t long before I find myself on a boat heading to Puerto Williams, marvelling at the serendipity of it all. And I feel like somehow, miraculously, I have managed to avoid the end of the world.

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tierra del fuego

CHILE: PORVENIR — CAMERON — RIO BELLA VISTA — LAGO DESEADO — LAGO FAGNANO

The ferry from Punta Arenas arrives in Porvenir, a scene of former glory, current decrepitude, and undeniable charm .

Everywhere there are old wooden boats with evocative names: Luz Mar = Sea Light

Ricketty wooden structures...

... and abandoned buildings.

I leave the faded glory...

... in exchange for dirt roads and lowering skies.

A bus stop break reveals bicycle traces - I met these guys in the Atacama desert in the north Chile back in December.

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The former glory, it transpires, was funded by gold mining.

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Guanaco's are everywhere on Tierra del Fuego and they stand about wheezing at cyclists with aggressive disapproval before bounding over fences with casual elegance.

But there is evidence that fences do, in fact, pose a hazard to these lovely animals...

...and are responsible for many a sad accident.

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A 'historic' and abandoned estancia building.

Chile is plagued by introduced beavers and their dams are everywhere.

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Lake Fanango.

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penguins

CHILE: TIERRA DEL FUEGO — PENGUIN COLONY

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beachy

CHILE: PUERTO NATALES — PUNTA ARENAS (VIA THE BEACH*)

I am ecumenical and so I manage to enjoy a hundred kilometres, or more, of pavement over the pampas on the road out of Puerto Natales. There is not much traffic...

... and Patagonia's charming bus shelters, designed to protect travellers from the incessant wind, provide handy shelters for a snack and a break.

Letter boxes, roadside signs...

... and lupins all hint at distant habitation.

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And then I diverge from the highway on a beachy route scoped out by Skyler, a like-minded cyclist with a penchant for exploring off road possibilities. Fisherman's shacks,...

... and an abandoned dinghy,...

... windswept vistas,...

...a scrap of weed,...

... with not a soul to be seen, all day.

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It's pretty much all joy...

... until a sudden spider web tangle of barbed wire fences around the slag heaps of an open cut mine. Un-cowed by this show of exclusivity, I hoick my bike over a total of five gates during the course of the day but I am finally deterred from the last part of Skyler's excellent route by the presence of a car-full of people parked beside the last barrier which tips the balance and conspires to make it impassable. It is not the heavy steel but their potential disapproval that bars the way, in my mind.

* See Skyler’s blog for route notes.

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