It’s hard to say where good fortune comes from but it seemed I had had more than my fair share in the preceding twenty months, as my biking friend Dan had said that if you try not to form them, paths will take their form and you’ll make the most of every inch of them. I liked this idea, partly because of laziness, partly because it goes against what we are brought up to believe, at least in my part of the world and partly because it seems attractively passive yet fulfilling. Anyways, I was so grateful to have met Martin who pulled me 100k of course to El Chalten, the approach into the essentially purpose built tourist village was incredible, flying along the banks of the think pastel blue glacial lake towards the fiercely jagged peaks of Chalten, otherwise known as Fitz Roy. A mountaineers nemesis, though modestly sized at 3500 meters its peak so steep snow and ice can’t grip to its edges, the mountain constantly wore a crown of clouds. Circling the town to get my whereabouts I spotted a recognisable green coat on the back of a modified touring bike and quickly followed and as the hooded figure turned I found Safia. We had started the same trip in Alaska just one day apart and met in Mexico and Colombia since. We’d been in touch throughout our trips and shared a bit of affinity from starting at a similar time as well as a similar sense of humour and approach to travel. It was wonderful to be reunited and she was with a bunch of French cyclists who were celebrating surviving the southern pass from Chile,we set up camp together and got on the beers and chips as a rock licking pit bull terrier tried to decimate my tent. As a bottle neck for bikers in the area there was a good community of cyclists in town to add to the goretex clad, squeeky clean and proud gang of adventurers heading out for treks and climbing.
We woke to a wonderfully sunny morning in a campsite full of cherries and Martin took me into the hills for a better view of Chalten. We trekked up to the base and sat by its glacial lake and took it all in. It was good to get out and trekking again and away from the patisseries and slightly ski resort feel to the village. I spent some more time chatting with Safia before wishing her all the luck, arranging a European rendezvous and heading back out of town and onwards. Halfway between El Chalten and El Calafate I found a pink abandoned restaurant which was famously used by adventurers as a refuge and made it home for a night. It was wonderfully adorned with all its residents stories and artworks on the walls, had an open fire and a river down below to bathe in. I’d learnt that in this part of Patagonia a tent was little use without shelter so any form of structure which provided shelter from the easterly winds were essential for a nights sleep. The strongest tents could not withstand these winds and a pair of socks, a magazine I was reading amongst other things fell victim and make their journey westwards. Korean Lee rocked up an hour later, a wonderfully sprite full and endlessly positive chap who had a liking for a football idol of mine Gabby Agbonglahor.
Another minor detour west into the winds sat El Calafate, a town pretty much built on serving what is considered to be one of Argentinas and Patagonia’s most iconic natural attractions, the Perito Moreno glacier. I’d seen a few glaciers on my trip and a few more on a previous trip around Iceland but nothing came close to Perito Moreno. Driving down the Peninsula de Magallanes the road ends where the trees split and merely half a kilometre separated a complex of miradors staring directly in the mouth of the glacier, nearly a hundred meters tall and with a surface area the size of Buenos Aires. On a damp, drizzling and misty day I stood with a couple of hitchhiking buddies and watched industrial building size chunks of ice periodically shear from the glaciers crystal blue peaks, thunderously crashing into the bay below. Icebergs dwarfed the boat below and gave an incredible perspective to the magnitude and power of this natural force. As much of a cliche, as in Guatemala where me and Will witnessed volcanoes erupting to see land being visibly created before our eyes and in Ecuador where I felt our casa shudder with the force on an earthquake for me there something wonderfully humbling and time stopping about bearing witness to such forces of nature.
A sense of urgency was aided by the darkening skies and I made my way again east across the Pampa, and south towards the next conurbation Puerto Natales, 250 kilometers away in Chile. Looking for a place to get out of the wind I came across a police station and knocked on the door, to ask if I could camp in the shelter of its walls. Unsuprisingly there was no response and an open window proved too much of a temptation of a night absent of winds. Looking around and seeing police reports in the desk I wasn’t utterly convinced it was the most sensible idea but couldn’t resist its four walls. The idea of breaking into a police station as an Englishman, not the favourite nationality of the Argentinean authorities seemed a little risky but sleeping outside probably riskier. I found French cyclist Loic and we rode together, An abandoned hotel made our next nights accommodation, the simple pleasure of a wind break was enough to make us cheer for joy as we settled in for the night in our thousand star abode, more due to the lack of real roof than the hotels service. A pit stop for shopping in tin roof rusted Puerto Natales, over looking Torres Del Paine and on to the southern most city of the continent that had been home for 20 months Punta Arenas. I huddled up in the chaos of Hostel independencia with Loic and a bunch of other bikers and Motorcyclists, did some washing and eating but wasn’t feeling particularly sociable. Just a two hour ferry ride separated us from the ironically named, Antartic wind slapped, island of Tierra Del Fuego and 450 kilometres, I reckoned about four days from Ushuaia. I spent a little time exploring the somewhat grand surprisingly modern Punta Arenas, first settled as a Penal Colony and found a liking for its scruffy port feel, empty streets and more rusted tin buildings. It’s mixed history of forced and voluntary explorers, rich wool merchants and seal hunters gave a rough yet purposeful air about the place. A beer fuelled Sunday lunch with fisherman Eugenio resulted in some epic Chilean story telling and gave me the Dutch courage to master the art of my favourite Chilean word weon. As far as I understood weon (egg) is essentially a slang word with limitless meaning, completely dependant on context, tone, your relationship with the recipient and of course their interpretation. It’s an adjective, a noun or a verb. Usually an expletive though it can mean anything from buddy to asshole, mate to thing, animal to attractive lady. My attempts were for the first time relatively successful, it seemed accompanied with a relaxed confidence with friends you could use it as you wish.
Waking to a howling wind I took a day off and enjoyed the vibe of the city, Croatian schools and community centres, communist centres, Grandiose castle type abodes next to rotting pastel faded coloured houses, the capitalistic palace of Mr Brun and disgruntled graffiti. Siting at the port waiting to book my ticket over to Povenir, head deep in my book , Galleanis the open viens of Latin America US Mike called over to me. His opening line, “Hey man, you know where I can find a boat to South Africa”. I looked around the desolate port containing more historical relics than boats, the odd fishing trawler, laughed at his youthful enthusiasm and we sat down and chatted about his book in hand, a book I picked off my mothers shelf as a young one, “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”. Mike had come down from Chicago and after Ushuaia was planning of heading wherever a boat would take him, we chatted enthusiastically about parts that we had past and looking back had me also yearning for more. The next morning me and Loic joined Mike on the ferry and set off on the Pathagon for the two hour crossing. The flags were already blowing in the opposite direction. The ever consistent winds decided to turn one eighty and what was to be undeniably the windiest stretch of my trip.
Off the ferry and onto Tierra del Fuego the winds now blowing from Antartica cut through every layer of clothing and turned what should have been a days riding into three on washboard mud roads. Late the first night we found Korean Lee in a lone cabana, he had spent the previous day here after getting stranded in the freezing rain, poor Lee was ill equipt for these parts but was admirably pushing on. Inside we found an Ecuadorian and Argentinian biker as well as a couple on a motorbike who had holed up here to get out of the weather. A hilarious hub of human warmth in the middle of the wet and windswept nothingness. The six of us squeezed in tight and warmed each other up. The next night was spent at the border office, where the kind border officers gave us floor space an a kitchen. Loic and I hatched a plan to beat the winds by riding by night, or at least the ungodly hours of the morning but the wind never slept.
Seeing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in my trip was the penultimate milestone with its low tide stretching halfway to the horizon. Blustering along on brilliantly boring routes, pointing out bends in the gas pipe serving the industry that keeps people living this far south became an example of the quality of conversation. Cold which meant biking all day without feeling hands or feet and with a nose like a dripping tap. Cutting through the wind nothing more than a test of endurance, drafting methodically for stretches of two kilometers at a time in workmanlike communication. Only stopping for the ultimate cyclists fuel of sugar for which has incredible properties I have become habitually accustomed to defending. Indulging into a state now referred to sugar zombie mode – a great last resort option when there’s little left in the tank. Consuming so much sugar your soul and mind slips away and you become a machine without any human properties but to maintain an obsessive forward momentum. After three days of torment in the wind me and Loic eventually hit the Atlantic town of Rio Grande and found a nice old school, weather battered bar adorned with the towns sporting heroes and celebrated the purest victory. Martin terrible from Ushuaia had linked me up with his carpenter buddy Juan Pablo who came down to meet me, I tried to put my best fest on though slightly inebriated and he greeted me with the customary kiss on the neck shared between Argentinian men, a sensuous greeting I could get never get tired of. He was the typically likely Argentinian lad and took me to his wonderful self built home, fed me up on a couple of steaks and half a dozen eggs. We went out for ice cream at 2 am with his cousins. I loved this juxtaposition of the lad about town swagger, combined with hitting the town, not to fill the belly with beer but to hang out in the ice-cream parlour. JP presented me with a new cycling jersey in the morning and I left noticing the Argentinian flags drooped around their poles. No wind.
Tierra Del Fuego turned a whole lot prettier south as a couple of hundred meters change in altitude brought with it trees, grass, undulating roads and gentle valleys. Mid way between Rio Grande I stopped in at La Union bakery, the settlements premier tourist attraction. It was every cyclists and indeed passerby’s duty to fill up in this famous escape from the cold and wind. A good selection of bikers were taking advantage of the hospital owners gymnasium and making it home. A kiwi sheep farmer on a bike James, American Mike and a Lancashire lad and his Mexican partner were all staying. Finish cyclist Taniel had flown in to start a trip the other way and had ended up working in the bakery, trying to find a way to fund his trip. It amazed me how many bikers had appeared since getting near to the end of the world, all slightly strange in our own rights and with a distinct feeling of something coming to close or something beginning. Me and Mike with desperate eyes waited for closing time and enquired as to left overs. This resulted in tray after tray of the finest pastries being handed to us and a in a wonderfully indulgent eating contest the six bikers got drunk of sugar and stayed up to the early hours with wonderful stories of routes yet pedalled. Waking the next morning with what felt a sugar hangover, hair of the dog had us devour the rest. Listening to Taniel talk of riding through the wild of Kurdistan without water for 750 kilometres and then alongside the Afghanistan border I knew as well being near the end of something it was definitely to be the start of something else not just for me but for all involved in listening in.
A spectacular days ride through my final mountain pass with the first of the promised tail winds I reached latitude 55 degrees south and the most southern city in the world. Coincidence had it that it was the day before my old mans birthday, he was an enthusiastic traveller and I would have liked to have recounted many moments to him. I remembered the first bike he bought me. Being famously stingy it was the ugliest bike you were ever likely to see, some cream coloured ladies cruiser. I lucked outage made a step up when he found a great tallera in the canal one day and eventually my mum took over and brought me a proper bike. Feeling pleased with myself, looking out of the Beagle channel towards boats destined for where Antarctica must eventually lay. I cracked a beer, ate some cookies and found a warm pub. I went to meet Martin terrible for a catch up but he insisted I stayed for the week to take some more rides, hikes, relax and play some football. Flight up to Buenos Aires booked and a couple of weeks with the family to decide on what next.
The last 21 months were so full of new experiences, challenges, fun, struggle, a connection to nature, learning about other cultures, human behaviour, my bodies potential and my minds workings. I think it will take a bit of time to reflect and I now look forward to doing that. I had a chat with a young Danish chap heading the way a few days before finishing and I espoused the variety in Mexico, the tropical unspoilt wilderness of Panama, the friendliness of the people in Colombia and the humility and sincerity of the folk of Bolivia. We both got excited together, him for what was to come and me looking back on what had been. The balance between looking back and forwards was wonderfully apparent and an enjoyable one to ponder for a moment. Living in a world where people tend to look forward a lot more than backwards. Where plans take priorities over stories. Liberalism over customs. Ambition over gratitude. One can often miss the value of reflection, spanning time, patience, a lack of intentionality, the lessons of history and the wisdoms of tradition. I think making a journey on a bicycle is conducive to slowing things down, letting things get in the way, letting go of expectations and having the time to reflect on and absorb what you see, smell, hear and experience. Not being so in control of what you experience but learning to take what it offers rather than what you expect. Doing such in a way which means you are vulnerable, alone, at times reliant on other people also gives the opportunity to experience how welcoming and connected strangers can be. The southern part of the continents stereotype of the opulent white man who uses money to attain everything is somewhat broken down when you arrive in a town no one else bothers to stop in, shattered, dirty, after a day’s hard graft, looking for food, water and shelter. Without looking like a grotty, foolish gringo I don’t think I would have been invited into so many homes and had the opportunity to see different cultures from the inside which has always been the way I have wanted to travel. It’s very much a cliche but without a doubt the new friends I have made, the people that helped me, small conversations on the roadsides with kids and sitting up until the early hours of the morning communicating in whatever way possible has been the highlight of my trip and a defining experience. The relaxed attitude coupled with the collective spirit of the people of Latin America, specifically in the countries with obvious indigenous roots has for me been nothing short of inspirational and it’s a part of the world I have not only completely fallen in love with but a place that has made me feel more at home than I could have ever imagined. Im pretty lucky to have friends and family that supported me in making this trip, blessed for the new friends I have made and humbled by all the people that helped me along the way.