15 February 2011

Tierra del Fuego (10 km after Cerro Sombrero, Chile)

There was light rain in the night. I awoke to the beeping sound of some goose I had not seen before. The morning was cold and cloudy but windless. In the north towards Rio Gallegos it was dark and I could see there were storms. I ate the banana the Swiss had given me and made a coffee. I walked around the Laguna Azul to see how it looked in the morning light and then I rode back to Ruta 3.

The frontier with Chile was 8km away and I ate my last apple before crossing through the Argentine side. The guards at both the Argentine and Chilean checkpoints were impressed I was coming through on a bicycle. The Chileans checked only one pannier for contraband and passed me through into Chilean Patagonia.


A breeze had picked up but it was blowing southeasterly and I was catching part of it as a tailwind. Up ahead coming towards me I saw a fully loaded cyclist, the first one I had seen. We both pulled off onto the shoulder of our side of the road and I walked over and greeted him. His name was Ian and he was English and lived in Vancouver and had started riding from there in June of 2009. He had intended to ride the way back going up Ruta 3 but he couldn’t do it. There wasn’t any more cycling left in him. He had been hit by car in Bolivia and hospitalized for two months and his knee had not healed right. He hoped to hitch a ride from Rio Gallegos to Buenos Aires so he could see Uruguay.


We talked about different parts of his trip and it was strange to hear him talk about places he had been at years ago as part of a journey he was currently on. It was hard to imagine a journey that lasted years.

But how was it from Rio Gallegos, Ian wanted to know. I told him there was no protection from the wind and nowhere to put up a tent. There were no petrol stations or towns either. It is 65 km of windblown riding through the countryside between the small mountains. I will camp then at the frontier, he said. It is better to camp where I did last night, and I told him about the lagoon in the volcanic crater.

Ian told me I would have the wind southeasterly across Tierra del Fuego, mostly blowing with me, and it would not be difficult to reach Ushuaia. At Cullen, on the Chilean ripio, I should stop at the gas facility and ask for Mauricio, the supervisor, and tell him that Ian sent me. Mauricio would invite me to join the workers for an asado and I could sleep indoors.

Ian had come down the Chilean side on the Carretera Austral on his way to Ushuaia, but there were too many touring cyclists and there was too much stopping to talk with each of them. It was too popular a route and he had crossed into Argentina to ride the ripio of Ruta 40. How was that, I wanted to know.

Ian shook his head and laughed. “When you piss it just vaporizes. Even when you piss with the wind it comes back at you as a mist of your own urine. I was like, aghh, here I am covered again in my own urine.”

“But the road could be ridden?” I admired him for riding it. It was maybe the hardest touring route in the world.

“The wind on ripio can be impossible because you lose all traction on the stones. I was once walking the bike and the wind snatched it away from me, and I watched the bike roll three times down the road. Three times. A fully loaded bike.” Ian grinned. “It is the hardest riding I have ever done. I began at 5am in the darkness every day to beat the wind. But there was no one and I did not have to stop and talk to other cyclists.”

The wind had really begun to blow now. I took out my rain jacket and put it on.

Ian looked cold too and I saw his teeth were chattering. “A coffee would be great. And we could talk more,” he said.

“I have coffee,” I said and looked around. “But there is nothing to block the wind for the stove.”

“There was a bus stop cabin some ways back,” Ian paused. “But I can’t go back.”

“Yes,” I said. “I wouldn’t go back either.” Going back was something you did not do. We both needed to start riding to warm back up.

“Then I guess this is it.”

“Yes.” I shook his hand. “Ride safely.”

“Yes. You too.”

“Goodbye.”

“So long.”

I would think of Ian later in the day as I had the wind squarely behind me, coasting eastward the last 10km to lthe Strait of Magellan and the ferry at Punta Delgada. Where he was then and where he was going there would be no coasting. He would fight the wind to the frontier and into Argentina and I hoped he pushed ahead the next 8 kilometers and went to camp at the Laguna Azul. I imagined Ian would put up his tent between the same wind-protected lava formations I did the night before. Men who take to the road on long bicycle journeys are always good men and I hoped the best for him.


At Punta Delgada I waited two hours for the ferry crossing. Two ferries came but accepted only camions. While I waited a guy in sunglasses walked over to me. His name was Ryan and he was South African. An hour earlier he and four other guys had swam the strait. It was 4km across and the Chilean navy had escorted them and it was a national media event for the country. They were ice-water swimmers and were planning next to swim the Beagle Channel to Puerto Williams if the temperature was above 4 degrees. I congratulated him and he congratulated me on my riding and he headed off with the other swimmers in a van.


Looking out at the Strait of Magellan I remembered Tom Cunningham and we were standing in the driveway in Chicago on a clear, cold day in the fall and we talked of shipwrecks and Magellan and his men and the swirling currents and remembering took away all the months in between. It felt like last week but it was many months and a long way ago. I had come many kilometers since then and soon I would cross the strait into Tierra del Fuego.


There was another ferry and a man motioned that I board it and I rode down the embankment and to the back end of the ferry. Cars drove in and lined up behind me and when it was full the ferry disembarked. A few Argentines came out of their cars and spoke with me and I did my best to explain how smaller wheels do not affect the speed of a bicycle. It is a hard thing for non-bikers to understand and it is a conversation you have often when you ride something that to most people looks like a child’s bike or a circus bike.


On the other side there was a large group of tourists standing outside two buses and as I pushed the bike up from the water they pointed and talked and began taking my picture. It was like passing through the lines of the papparazzi at a movie opening.



I was in Tierra del Fuego, but it didn‘t look any different from where I had been. There were hills and small mountains in the distance across the yellow brown fields, and the wind was still southeasterly. I had hoped get as far as Cullen, where I could find Mauricio at the gas facility Ian had told me about, but the two hours I had spent waiting for a ferry would make that difficult. There were 125km of ripio beginning at Cerro Sombrero and Cullen would be the only stop before the other frontier with Argentina. Even if I did not make Cullen I could at least pass Cerro Sombrero and start eastward on the ripio with the wind at my back.

The sun was low when I arrived at Cerro Sombrero. There was a small restaurant with a minimercado attached to it and I stopped in and asked if they took Argentine pesos and they did. I ordered a hot sliced meat sandwich with cheese and when I was finished I stood next to the gas stove warming and drying out. I bought some cookies and nuts at the market and back on the road just outside town the pavement ended and the ripio began.

Storm cloud with hail

The wind was blowing strong behind me, the setting sun hot on my back, the dark mountains ahead, and I rode into a dark cloud and there was rain. No, that’s not rain. Hail. It was small bits of hail. I supposed hail was the proper welcome to the Land of Fire.

I did not ride much further before I started looking for a place to camp. On a bend in the road there was a deep trench and I stopped and walked down and saw it provided a good break from the wind and the tent could not be seen from the road. That didn’t matter much anyway since there would be little traffic during the night on a long stretch of ripio in the middle of nowhere.


I pitched the tent and crawled in and changed out of my sweaty clothes into dry ones. There were pieces of metal drums piled in the trench and I made a windbreak for the stove and cooked up the plate of pasta I had planned to have the night before. I had the pasta and a coffee inside my tent and I was warm and it was good to think I had finally gotten to Tierra del Fuego.

3 comments:

Dustin Bradford said...

There are people who would brag and post stories of accomplishing this trip on a motorcycle, much less a bicycle. Nice work, well done, arriving at the Tierra del Fuego en bici.

Ron Clark said...

My hat off to you..You deserve a medal!
I enjoyed the travel log more than you will know.
I have been to those same places you described.
Also a cyclist and triathlete..took the ferry ate at the restaurant cross the same borders, however I was in a small Ford Ranger.
I am a Petroleum Engineer and have worked in this area plus many other countries..
I will pull up your other travel logs.Thanks .ronjclark

D558 said...

Christ Jesus, this was almost 2 years ago. Christ Jesus.

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