Alone Again

Alone Again

After more than two weeks rest in Esquel (Argentinian Patagonia), the gash on my leg finally healed. I thanked Maria and her family who were exceptionally kind and had given me a home away from home whilst I recuperated. My partner in crime on the Carretera Austral, Hobo Dan, had traded his bike in and taken a plane to Bolivia so it was time to set off alone. Whilst my Spanish was improving it was still basic and communication was a continuous challenge. This meant as I cycled north I could go days without really speaking to anyone. Cycling through the Patagonian desert I battled icy wind, freezing rain, and snow.  I felt all alone.

The delay caused by having to wait for the cut on my leg to heal meant winter had once again caught up with me. The night before I left Esquel it snowed, which coated the road in a fresh layer of ice. I cycled through Patagonian conifer forests in the foothills of the Andes. Surrounded by tall evergreens draped in snow it felt distinctly like Xmas.

coniferous-forest

One night I asked at a cattle ranch if I could pitch my tent. The cowboy working there said the owner wasn’t home so I couldn’t. Disheartened, I cycled on. Later, with no other viable option, I decided to make camp in a shed behind a run-down house. No one answered the door and with the light fading to dusk I set about quickly getting my tent up. An hour later I was happily cooking dinner when the shed door was ripped open and 6 angry looking gauchos burst inside. After a few tense moments I managed to convince these cowboys I was just a cyclist looking for somewhere to sleep and had no intention of stealing their hay.

Due to the onset of winter I missed the beautiful Argentine Lake District. I chose not to take this scenic route close to the Andes beside the famous seven lakes. The area has a distinct micro climate and the forecast was pouring rain for every day. Aside from the fact I would not have seen much in those conditions, the numbing experience of a solid week of rain on the Carretera Austral was too fresh in my memory. So I took the more mundane but drier route through the pampa on highway 40 but even this route provided its share of challenges.

Late one afternoon I noticed a wooden refugio (shelter) next to the road. It was only 2m x 2m but it was just big enough to fit me and my gear in so I set up my bed inside. The day had been calm but during the night a huge storm rolled in. My sleep was broken and I repeatedly woke to hear the wooden refugio creaking and cracking under the pressure of the storm. Despite my concern for the wooden shelter I was relieved I had not pitched my tent.

In the morning I went outside to go to the loo. The frantically gusting wind seemed to be blowing in every direction, constantly changing its mind like an angry child that does not know what it wants. A ferocious gust caught hold of my urine and threw it back at me, splashing a few drops on my face – this was literally a taste of things to come. I finally plucked up the courage to set off but it soon became clear that not only was the storm getting stronger but the shelter had kept from me its true ferocity. After 30 minutes of pushing and with 80 miles to the next inhabited place of any kind I decided to return to the refugio and hitch. I waited four hours in that storm in the desert for a single vehicle to stop.

For two years, ever since leaving London, I had been hot on the tail of cycling legend  Jilly Sherlock. Sadly, she received some bad news which meant she had to go home and her ride finished. I had been hoping to catch her and we had tentative plans to spend Xmas together. Adding to my feeling of isolation was the fact my brother had just told me he was expecting his first child. Of course I was very happy to hear this but sad not to be there to celebrate with him. Cycling through the wastes of Northern Patagonia I went more than 3 weeks without speaking a word in my native tongue.

As I continued north the snow gave chase. Constantly on my tail and ever threatening to envelop me I had to continuously push myself to stay ahead. Patagonia was not going to let me go without a fight. One afternoon, after a vigorous down pour of rain, I spotted a small village – no more than 300 people. Soaked and not enthusiastic about camping I started to knock on doors and in my broken Spanish ask if I could sleep inside on the floor. It is an interesting moment just before you knock on a stranger’s door and ask to invade their home for a night’s sleep; a mixture of trepidation, anticipation and excitement. With no luck at the first couple of houses it was suggested I try at the Police station. I must have been a bedraggled sight because the officer inside, Sebastian, took one look and welcomed me in. I was amazed to find he had spare beds, a hot shower and heating.

Patagonian Fog

Overnight the rain turned into snow and when I peered through the windows in the morning I was even more grateful for Sebastian’s kindness. There was a very thick fog and I could barely see ten meters. The fog was so thick it was all I could see. It evoked the eerie sensation of a late night horror movie. Once I began cycling the only way I knew I was actually making progress was the occasional road sign which emerged silently through the fog and disappeared just as quickly. For four hours my world was the 10 meters I could see in each direction.

Feeling fresh after a day of rest in Chos Malal I continued north. I began a 30 mile climb again riding through snow and fog but when I reached the pass something very curious happened. I came through the clouds at 1,500m to discover blue skies and sunshine. This was a seminal moment. This was the moment I left the rain, snow and fog of Patagonia behind. Since that day I have almost exclusively enjoyed blue skies and sunshine. Aware of the significance of this moment I decided to stop and eat lunch at that pass with handsome views of the valley below. I wanted to indelibly imprint that image in my mind.

Leaving Patagonia Behind

Leaving Patagonia Behind

For the next week I rode with a smile again. It was still cold at night and the wind still strong but the simple fact that each day there would be blue skies and sunshine dramatically changed my outlook. It felt like a great weight had been lifted from me and I once again enjoyed the simplicity of cycling and camping. I even got to spend another night in a police station (voluntarily) when Juan took pity on me and invited me to sleep in a warm bed inside.

The weather did have another surprise in store for me though. Just a couple of days from Mendoza I cycled into a viscous storm. The wind coming down off the Andes was so strong I had to push and could barely manage 2 miles an hour. There was such a dearth of shelter I could not even flag a lift. It required both arms just to keep the bike upright. After an hour and half of this nonsense a truck driver pulled over and kindly gave me a lift 20 miles to a place where I could cycle again.

Two days later I reached Mendoza where I enjoyed some well-deserved rest as I attempted to drink the entire supply of the city’s Malbec. My focus thus far in South America was simply to reach Mendoza. Having achieved this goal, I began to plan my route north, into Bolivia, and started to get very excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

5 Responses to “Alone Again”

  1. Jimmy Powers says:

    Matt,

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring stories! Wish you the best. Enjoy the warmer weather; It’s officially spring!

  2. Ed Straker says:

    mate,. from start to finish i was locked into the blog. well played mate. enjoyed it hugely and only wanted to read on for more. stay safe buddy.

  3. Emily Harris says:

    Hey Matt, you are writing really well, its lovely to read. Hope the blue skies remain – what a beautiful picture. Take care, Em x

  4. Mary Jaksch says:

    Loved reading this post! I’ve been to Patagonia (but not on a bike). Your writing is really good; you know how to evoke a landscape!

  5. Shirley says:

    That was fierce! and quite an adventure. I do hope you conquer your dream and get to your destinations safely.. luckily, there are enough good people on earth., so I think you’ll make it. Good luck! :)

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