El Gringo

Gringo on a bicycle

There are many explanations for the origins of the word gringo which is loosely applied to all foreigners in South America. One version is that when the US invaded Mexico wearing green uniforms the Mexicans would shout ‘green go’.  Regardless of its roots the term certainly applies to me.  Once again I am a stranger in a strange land. Only now I am completely alone as Andy returned to London after pedalling into Sydney. I know just one person on this continent; an old friend who lives in Cartagena, Colombia. Cold comfort as that is 15,000km away, the end point of my ride in South America.

Despite cycling for 16 months with Andy, riding alone is a different prospect. If cycle touring accentuates the highs and lows of life then cycling solo pronounces them even more. I am both extremely excited and exceedingly scared about what lies ahead; exactly why I am drawn to this endeavor. It’s a great challenge, a grand adventure and the chance to give something back by raising a significant sum of money for the charity War Child. They do wonderful work, helping change the lives of children living in war zones, in unimaginably awful situations.

Flying from NZ to Chile, I crossed the International Date Line allowing me the unique experience of travelling back in time. Technically I arrived in Santiago before I had even left Auckland but if that seems magical, the 36 hour day I had to endure to achieve this feat was not.

One week later I arrived in Ushuaia, the most southern point of Argentina and usually referred to as the most southerly city on earth.  A scruffy place, perched on the Beagle channel, surrounded by mountains. I found it to be charmless, a tourist trap which trades off being both ‘the end of the world’ and where the majority of visitors to Antarctica depart from.

However my plans to leave quickly were shattered; whilst unpacking my bike I broke an important part and had to order a replacement from Europe. To my dismay, I discovered customs take three weeks to clear international packages. This was a real blow; it was extremely frustrating to be stranded. Despite my best attempts to speed up this process (I offered to be tea boy and clean the toilets), they refused to expedite it.

Almost one month later the replacement part was finally cleared. With help from David at Ushuaia Extremo, we fixed my bike and at first light the next morning, I rode out of Ushuaia with a huge grin on my face. It felt liberating to be back on the bike for virtually the first time in two months and to begin my journey on this continent in earnest. The route I chose to cross Tierra Del Fuego was a remote gravel track with few inhabitants (other than guanacos) and no shops.

The Patagonian wind is legendary. Stories abound of wind so strong sometimes you can neither cycle nor push a bicycle. It has even blown buses over and smashed the windows of houses. It was not until I arrived in South America that I learnt my route from south to north would mean fighting this wind, head on, for much of the way. The wind in Patagonia has sculpted the landscape; little can grow except a short, hardy, scrub grass, and some twisted trees bent by the wind bereft of leaves. However, my ride through Tierra Del Fuego was more notable for the absence of any wind.

Crossing Tierra Del Fuego I reached the Atlantic for the first time on my journey. This felt like a significant milestone despite still being a long way from home. It occurred to me that for the first time in 18 months, I am headed back towards London rather than away from it.

The following day I crossed from Argentina into Chile by fording a river. It was only knee deep but it was icy cold and the current was strong. I revelled in the feeling of adventure from wading through a river, crossing an international border in a remote part of a small island at the bottom of the world. I was grinning like a fool.

My excitement quickly faded when I discovered four broken spokes on my back wheel. This problem was compounded by the fact my stove would not work, leaving me unable to cook. After pushing my bike several miles, I was lucky to find a house. The occupants welcomed me in and allowed me to use their kitchen.

Resigned to my fate (my back wheel was too warped to ride), the next morning I hitched a ride 200km to Porvenir. Attempting to chat to Juan-Carlos as we sped along the dirt track, I saw a flock of pink flamingos, each balanced on one leg in a lake. Not long after, we passed a king penguin colony – the only one on earth not on a distant island. I wished I was on my bike, able to stop and fully absorb these amazing sights.

After having the broken spokes fixed in Punta Arenas more broke on the three day cycle to Puerto Natales. Subsequently, on arrivaI in the latter, I quickly found a mechanic who worked out of his garage in a small house on the outskirts of town. He attached new spokes but I prayed he had permanently resolved the persistent problems. With an extremely remote leg ahead, I desperately wanted to avoid more mechanical problems which I would be unable to fix.

Planning to set off for El Calafate early the next morning, at 9pm I had a late change of heart and decided to do a five day trek in the famous Torres Del Paine national park. Joining forces with another gringo, a 6ft’6in Russian cyclist called Dmitry, we excitedly made plans. I had no idea how close this decision would come to killing me.

2 Responses to “El Gringo”

  1. Andrew says:

    Hey dude, hope the travels are going well.

    We met on the road heading toward Bajo Carcoles (in a tiger van) with the vicious wind.

    • Matt says:

      Hey mate! How was the ride up to Santiago?? Dan and I have just finished the Carretera Austral! Back in Argie for a bit. Enjoy the travels and remember you have the ‘eye of the tiger’!

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