Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Carretera Austral

By Sanne

We waited until the early afternoon before we finally left El Chalten. Guess we were waiting for the wind to stop, well that never really happened. It did die down a bit though, enough for us to consider it ‘safe’ to be on the bikes. We pulled over in the town of Tres Lagos to top up our fuel tank but were informed that there would be no fuel for another three days. Lucky for us we had filled up in Chalten but we met a couple of people in Landrovers who had no other choice but to bunk down in a local estancia until the fuel arrived. There was also another biker who had put his tent up next to the petrol station. People were really stuck there (and it really was a bit of a sh*thole to be stuck in). So we did have fuel but not enough to go our planned route. We now had to do a 70km detour into a town called Gobernador Gregores to get fuel there.  To get there we had to go through about a 100kms of roadwork (as part of the project to seal all of Ruta 40, a bit of a shame if you ask me but you can’t stop progress right?). The landscape along the road to Gobernador was very barren and dry but even this had a strange beauty to it. Our eyes locked themselves onto the wide horizon spreading out in front of us and the guanacos and nandus running across the pampas. 

Once in Gobernador we rode straight to the petrol station to fill up as we had been told that also here the fuel situation is irregular at best. And we didn’t want to be caught out and be stuck here for any longer than we needed to. We asked for directions to a campsite and were told where it was but the sentence was delivered with the punchline: ‘pero esta cerrado’ = ‘but it’s closed’. We were then told that we could just go to the fire station and camp there, I don’t know where they were thinking we would be sleeping, next to the firetrucks? If a fire breaks out somewhere in town we’ll pitch in? Anyway, we couldn’t find the bloody fire station anyway so we decided instead to look for this closed campsite. We found it almost immediately and saw that the boomgate was indeed down and it looked very much closed. But then we spotted this guy wandering around in there, gringo for sure, and we asked him what the deal was. Turns out he was Aussie and touring South America on a bicycle. He was camping there for the night and as we found out we could open the gate, soon so were we! With John the Aussie cyclist we sat around the table eating our sorry excuse for a dinner - we were on a mission to clear out our bag of old food and the result was cheesy minute noodles, how appetizing does that sound? By now the three of us were no longer alone in this supposedly very closed campsite. Since we had arrived, every 30 minutes or so after that another car would turn up, and other one, and the time we went to bed there must have been about 8 vehicles in this tiny campsite. But we had a quiet night’s sleep and woke up the next morning to set sails for Los Antiguos over 400kms away, usually a bit more than we like to do, but there really is not much in between these places so we decided to push it all the way. Most of the way we had nice riding weather, a little cool but no wind (note: when there is no wind one must remain suspicious at all times, there is no such thing as ‘no wind’ in these parts, it is merely silence before the storm). And it was. We turned a corner and there it was, waiting to greet us like an old friend, only this friend greets you by punching you right in the face. Not a nice friend really. 

With sore necks and arms we arrived in Los Antiguos and set up tent in the municipal campground which was pretty shitty and expensive. The only good thing about camping there was that in the evening a woman walked around selling freshly picked cherries (which is what this town is famous for). Oh the cherries! They were sooo good! And at $2 a kilo quite the bargain. We bought a kilo, then realised as we were mowing down on them that we would be crossing the border into Chile the very next day and Chile is notoriously tough with their restrictions not to bring in any fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. We had just stocked up on those things so we would now have to be creative in hiding it so the officials wouldn’t find it when they would check our bags. The next morning we began our concealment mission. The various products of fruits, veg and cheese got stuffed in between the tent and sleeping bag and in the bottom of Mark’s pannier under some dirty undies (surely no one would be game enough to go beyond those).  At the border we met an Aussie couple from WA and chatted for a bit with them before it was time for the customs officer to have a rummage through our bags. We had on purpose declared one apple, hoping that would throw him off the scent of the other stuff we had stashed. The officer was very thorough and he got dangerously close to the stuff hidden away in Mark’s panniers, but thanks to the before mentioned undies that’s about as far as he was willing to go. Result: we got to keep all our fruit! (except of course for that one apple). 

Chile Chico was a much nicer town to look at than Los Antiguos but we weren’t staying here, just getting money out of the atm before continuing. But as we rode up in front of the bank, we saw the WA couple who told us that the atm didn’t accept foreign cards. We tried with ours but they were right, we couldn’t get any cash out. Lucky for us we still had about $100 in Chilean pesos left, which would probably last us until we got to Coyhaique, a few days ride away. For them it was worse, they didn’t have any pesos and were planning on catching the ferry across the lake the same day. They were going to try to exchange some dollars so we said goodbye to them and wished them good luck. 

Many people seem to catch the ferry across Lago General Carrera but we wanted to follow the road around it. We didn’t know what to expect as no one had told us anything about this route, whether it was scenic or not, so our expectations weren’t that high. Were we in for a surprise. Outside Chile Chico the road started ascending into a spectacular roller coaster road, winding through a dry and arid mountain landscape. To our right was Lago General Carrera, the second-biggest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. A massive 224,000 hectares of wind-stirred blue-green sea in the middle of Patagonian steppe. The dirt road was squeezed in between rock cliffs to our left and sheer drop-offs to our right. Several times we had to weave around fallen rocks - this was definitely landslide territory. The best part of this road was that we had it almost all to ourselves. We barely saw another vehicle during the 100kms we did that first day. 

Late afternoon we pulled off the road onto a track leading into an open field. A few hundred metres down we found a lovely little camp spot, completely hidden away from the road, sheltered by pine trees and with a view to the snow-capped Andes range. It was about time we did a bush camp again. We went to bed that night with the clouds closing in and the sky a dark blue colour. It looked like we might wake up to rain the next day, so we braced ourselves for that. But the next morning the sun was shining brightly down on our tent and barely a cloud in the sky. No wind either – bonus! We packed up and headed into Puerto Guadal where we stocked up on water and bread and were going to top up with fuel as well if it hadn’t been for a power outage. Never mind, we had enough fuel anyway to keep us going, we just always try to be opportunistic when it comes to fuel. From here the road leads along the western edge of the lake and here we joined the famous Carretera Austral, built in the 1980s on the orders of Pinochet and the first road to effectively link these remote regions.
This is where I turned and said to Mark: ‘we are here, we are really here in the wilds of Patagonia’. I don’t know what came over me, maybe it was the feeling of remoteness, the contrasting colours of the incredible milky turquoise coloured lake to the blue skies, white topped mountains and green forests. This is rugged beauty at its best. We passed an incredible number of cyclists that day riding the opposite way to us, a few motorcyclists but they too were riding south. I for one was glad we weren’t heading south, remembering just how cold it was down there. I was about ready for some sunshine and warm weather and today we had that in bucket loads. It was also a welcome relief not to have the deafening roar of wind in my helmet anymore. I could just sit back and enjoy the beautiful surroundings and just have the feeling of being in the now. When the road is straight and boring your mind tends to drift and meditate on all kinds of things, which every motorbiker will tell you is part of the beauty of motorcycling. But when the road is so overwhelmingly beautiful and picture perfect and the weather is great, your mind focuses only on these things and a wonderful feeling appears, the feeling of being not in the past nor in the future, but right now. 

For lunch we kind of trespassed into a private property. There was a fence surrounding a protected little beach but as there was no one around we opened the gate and entered. If it hadn’t been so visible from the road we would have probably camped there but we didn’t feel like getting caught out by the farmer so when our bellies were full we continued. We didn’t have to go very far to find our next camp spot. A sign by the side of the road advertised for camping and as we thought 80kms was enough for the day we decided to check it out. A steep dirt road led down to a little sheltered bay where there was a little timber hut and a few boats. An old man came out to greet us and told us that camping was free if we did the boat tour to the nearby Marble Caves. We had never heard of these caves before but the photos he showed us looked nice so we decided to do it, even though the price wasn’t that cheap at 25,000 pesos (about $50). The small motorboat took us out on the lake and around these marble cliffs and caves. The Marble Caves is an unusual geological formation located at the centre of the lake and represents a group of caverns, columns and tunnels formed in monoliths of marble. They have been formed by wave action over the last 6,200 years. Being on a boat in the lake was cool too. The lake which is of glacial origin is 586 metres deep at its deepest point! Some nutters were swimming in the water when we were there. They must have a massochistic streak because this water was like ice. The colour might have looked mediterranean but the temperature sure wasn’t!

The next day our intentions were to find another bushcamp for the night but as it was Sunday we couldn’t get provisions from anywhere and we didn’t have any food left. So we ended up riding all the way to Coyhaique, a small city of 50,000 inhabitants. The first part of the ride was lovely, but as we headed out of the shelter of the mountains the wind picked up again and the last 50kms into Coyhaique were tough going. Guess we were still on the wrong side of the Andes to be out of those winds completely. Dammit.

Ruta 40 between Tres Lagos and Gobernador Gregores

 Dry and flat but beautiful nevertheless

Just outside Chile Chico

We looked to camp here but the ground was too wet, beautiful spot though

Stunning ride on this hilly road with Lago General Carrera to our right

All roads lead to the Andes

Bush camp at last!

Love riding in this landscape

I mean, what can you say apart from: stunning

The water was so clear, but crazy cold unfortunately

The colour of that water...

Carretera Austral wows you around every corner

River water running into the lake creates this impressive vision

The Marble Caves

First time I've worn shorts in over a month

Impressive formations

A dog's head

This dog decided I was his new best friend

No, this isn't an island in Thailand - it's southern Chile

Big leaves 'round here

The landscape merged into green forest the further north we went

Lunch break next to a river, we would have camped here had we had the provisions

Dead forests can be quite the vision

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

El Calafate y El Chalten

By Mark

We left Puerto Natales after a few relaxing days awaiting for better weather so we could hit the road for El Calafate, where the glaciers Perito Merino is.

We left with reasonably good weather and very little wind which we were very happy about. Good things don’t always last and after crossing back into Argentina and making our way up the famous ruta 40 we were hit with the winds once again taking us both by surprise, even more so for me! We were just making good time and speed up the bumpy and rocky road when I see Sanne ahead of me get hit hard with wind from nowhere, she was sensibly closer to the centre of the road and had room to move if hit by the wind, I on the other hand was on the right hand edge of the road, riding on the smoothest section of road. I was hit twice as hard with the wind and next thing I am off the road, through loose gravel headed straight into the ditch, legs flailing along to keep upright. Luckily I managed to stay on and was even more lucky to have been blown off the road where there was actually a chance to stay on the bike. I don’t think Sanne knew what the hell had happened, just seeing a yellow flash disappear out of her mirrors. I managed to make my way out of the ditch easy enough but could not believe what had just happened. From there on we slowed down a little and I gave myself more space from the edge of the road for if this would happen again.

We stopped for a quick break where the road went back to tarmac and looking over the bike I see once again another snapped bracket off my subframe, again one that holds the pannier rails in place. I think now it would have been a great idea to reinforce the entire subframe before leaving on the trip! Anyways, we had sealed roads and I was sure it would hold until we hit El Calafate. Sanne and I rode into town and headed for the first campground. We were starting to realise we were on the tourist trail now. El Calafate is built on tourism but it was not in a bad way. We had heard of earlier reports that the town was for lack of a better word a ‘shit hole’. Well, I have seen much worse!

So, we were here for one thing, just like everybody else, Perito Merino Glacier. It is one of the fastest advancing glaciers in the world at up to 2 metres per day. At five kilometres wide and over thirty five kilometres long at a height of sixty metres you may have an idea of its sheer size. On our way into the park who do we run into again? Tim and Heather! So we headed off together to the glacier catching up with one another of our past days travel. You cannot believe the scale of the glacier until you are standing up front and personal with it. It is a marvellous sight to behold. We planned to arrive in the afternoon as this is when there is a greater chance of seeing large portions of ice coming off the glacier as it cracks under pressure advancing towards land. The cracking sound is just like hearing low level thunder, as you sit patiently you find yourself on the constant lookout over the face to see that large piece of ice breaking off. The sound even of ice the size of basketballs makes for some impressive noise as it echoes and reverberates through and around the glacier. We sat with awe taking it all in when we realised we had to find Tim and Heather as they were kind enough to let us leave our helmets in their van for safe keeping. As we made our way up the stairs to the carpark and with no view of the glacier we start to hear more cracking and then large splashes as more ice breaks off, bugger. We had seen some good size pieces come off but we wanted big, really big. We all met up back at the carpark and talked about how impressive the glacier was, at this time Sanne was in the bathroom when all of a sudden the cracking of ice became incredibly loud like nothing I have ever heard before, it was a an intense roaring followed by huge splashes, we had missed it! That one big piece that lets go everyday had just broken off and we missed it. We ran to a viewing platform to try to see something but there was nothing, Tim pipes up and says it may just have been Sanne doing a number two!

We got our helmets back and decided to head back to the glacier for a couple more hours to wait for more ice to break off. When we got back down we saw the aftermath of what had broken off earlier. It was a section of ice about 60 metres wide and the height of the glacier also about 60 metres! We did not get to see anything else this big break off but we did get to see a few decent size chunks come down. After all this it slowed down and we dragged ourselves away hoping we would not hear that sound again, and we didn’t.
The following day I had arranged to see a local welder to see to my frame. Well, he must have had a big night as he never showed up, even after an hour of me waiting. But I used my time well and looked all around the outside of his workshop at the dumped and broken down cars. I managed to find a large piece of metal with two holes in the right place that I could use as a brace/bracket to affix the pannier rail back to the bike. I also found some large washers and bolts that would do the trick. After fidling around I got it to fit. It is not pretty but it works and I did it for free. With that done I headed back to camp, we packed up and hit the road for El Chalten and of course our friend the wind would be with us once again.

The ride was not so bad and the wind only gave us a bit of bother on the last 90 kilometres into El Chalten. We were lucky to arrive in town on a clear day and get a great view of the mountain range and of course the most famous point of all Mt Fitzroy standing high at about 3405 metres. Chalten comes from a Tehuelche word meaning 'Smoking Mountain' due to a cloud that usually forms around Cerro Fitzroy's peak.

We set up camp in a very busy campsite, full of hikers. This is the place to come if you want to hike. We did not hit the trails but the closest bar, in need of a cold beer. Slowly with each kilometre north we are noticing a difference in the temperature, finally the mercury is on the rise. We knew of this great little bar that Heather and Tim had suggested and after finishing our first beer and starting on our second who do we happen to see wander past outside? Heather and Tim of course along with their daughter Izzy and ex-exchange student Laura! So we ended up enjoying a few more beers and then went back to their cabana and cooked dinner together. It was great to see these guys again and spend time together.

The next day we had organised a horse ride in the local valley at a nearby estanzia. We were lucky with the weather and this time even the wind had died down a little so it would be more enjoyable. There was about eight of us that went out and we were all given our horses and I was really hoping for a more comfortable saddle; after the last time I rode I was in a whole lot of pain after only two hours, this time we were out for four hours, and I was lucky and my prayers were answered with a nice big cushy saddle. We hit the trail and slowly made our way around this stunning property across flat plains, to wooded forests, crossing streams and back up steep hills to make our way to a little farm house for a cuppa before making our way back to where we had started. Along the way I started to find that my horse liked to eat and that’s all it wanted to do. At every opportunity it would try and shake my hands free of the reins and go munch on some grass. He was so stubborn that at one point he would not move at all and I was left behind the rest of the group until one of our guides came and got him moving. On the return trip though it was not so bad, I think the horses knew they were headed for home and behaved and made their way back quickly, up until one horse was either spooked or tripped and went crashing into the ground with a young woman coming off and she luckily was uninjured, from there her horse was tied to the guide for the last ten minutes of the ride. It wasn’t until she got back on that she realised what had happened and broke down into tears but she managed well to get back with no further problems.

We returned to town on a high and happy that the weather held up for us. We ran into Heather and Tim again who had now joined us at the campground and enjoyed a few drinks together as they were to leave the following day. It was a sad farewell as we were really enjoying seeing these guys now on a regular basis, they invited us to come stay with them in San Martin in one week’s time but it would be too big a ride to make it there and try and do all the sightseeing we wanted to do along the way.  We did promise to keep in touch and hopefully we would see each other on their return south through Chile.

We did manage to get out on the trails for a hike but this was after our horse ride and some one being Sanne was in a little bit of pain from the ride so it made for a hard hike up the mountainside to get a better and closer view of Mt Fitzroy. The walk was great and we enjoyed lunch by a stunning lake with a view of Fitzroy but today its peak would be hidden in cloud.

Our plan was to leave the following day but in the early hours of the morning the wind had picked up ferociously and went about reeking havoc in the campground tearing up tents and blowing over others. Through the night you could hear people trying to fix their tents or pack them up all by torch light. The following morning we got up to see a much more empty campground. Lucky for us our new tent was holding up well but we took no chances and moved to a new spot along a fence line that blocked us almost entirely from the wind. Little did we know that we would sit here for the next two days awaiting an open window of good riding weather to head further north and back into Chile!

Beautiful wild flowers by the road side

Our campground in El Calafate

Anyone up for Maccas? McDaniels that is!

Me, Heather and Sanne at Glacier Perito Moreno

Photos do not do this place justice or show the real scale of the glacier

The darker colour of blue is where we missed the huge amount of ice break off

We did manage to catch some ice breaking off though

I told you it was windy!

 Mt Fitzroy in all its glory

The view from our campground in El Chalten

Another queue, always waiting in lines in this country, this time for 45 minutes to get fuel!

A closer shot of Fitzroy, we were lucky to get clear shots of this mountain

Sanne enjoying an afternoon on a 1 horsepower vehicle

 Stunning scenery everywhere you look

Yes, even I managed to throw a leg over a horse, it was a great way to see the local area

I found a friend...

The gang at our last night together in El Chalten

We even managed a hike up towards Fitzroy and had lunch by this lake

The view on the way back down

It is a rock climbers heaven here, they can have it!

As I said, beautiful scenery everywhere you look