It’s quite possible there are days, in Patagonia, when the wind does not blow. It’s also possible the wind might decide, one morning, just to mix it up a bit and blow from the north, east or south, rather than the west. Based on the last 6 weeks, I expect glaciers will be rolling through Hades before this happens, so I batten the hatches, hoist the mainsail and set an easterly course out of El Calafate along the southern shore of Lago Argentino.
The westerlies do not disappoint, and I am soon sailing along at 20 knots under leaden skies. As the lakes in these parts are reassuringly flat, the screaming habdabs I normally get from my legs after a few days of inactivity are absent, but this is temporary. The road soon turns southeast and climbs over a high ridge. “Don’t worry, the worst of it is over” I say to my aching thighs, as I rub them vigorously. This is a blatant lie, but I reckon if I am talking to my legs at this stage of the trip I have bigger issues.
I am soon picking up speed again as the road snakes its way down to the plains, and then heads, arrow-like, to the city of Rio Gallegos on the coast. The wind is redoubling and I nearly miss my turn – I am wondering if it is possible to reach the coast, 200km away, without pedalling. I will never know, as the route to Chile requires me to turn southwest onto a gravel road before hitting the tarmac again 100km further on.
200m after the turn there is a cattle grid guarded by a man holding a black lightsabre. On closer inspection, Darth Vader turns out to be a bunch of clothes sewn together and stuffed with straw. But the message is clear: Jedis and cyclists not welcome! To reinforce the warning, I pass a stricken vehicle (probably a starfighter) a little further on. I lean into the pedals, hoping to put a few parsecs between me and the Empire before sundown, but progress is slow and the warp speeds of 30 minutes ago are a distant memory. A long time ago in a galaxy far away there may have been some pretty nifty technology, but in this galaxy, in the present day, they throw a few rocks on the ground and call it a road.
An hour later, Tommaso Skywalker flags me down. He went on ahead, while I was queuing for money in El Calafate, and found an abandoned house to shelter in. The walls are daubed with messages from other cyclists who, in the absence of bones and discarded tyre levers, must have passed the night here safely and moved on. Sven and Sarah join us later and we grab a room each. I pitch my tent as a precaution, to ward off Death Stars and mosquitoes, and hunker down for the night. The forecast for the morning looks particularly grim, so I plan an early start.
The wind is up before me. I adopt my most streamline posture and head out. The next 7 hours are brutal and relentless, as I try to stay upright in the crosswinds. It is 2pm and I have covered 45km with another 15km to go before the sanctuary of the sacred tarmac, at which point I will be heading due west. There is no traffic to hitch a ride, apart from one 4×4 that Sven and Sarah have managed to flag down. The last 2km I push my bike, as it is easier than riding. Battered and bruised, I see a petrol station in the distance and retreat from the wind, for 15 minutes of biscuit consumption, until Tommaso appears. Even our redoubtable Italian is suffering. Everything, including his beard, is pointing in an easterly direction.
It’s 4.30pm and Argentina are about to play Croatia in the semis. The main road is quiet, but, fortunately, not everyone is watching telly. We swallow our pride and flag down an Argentinian army vehicle, which takes us 40km up the road towards Cancha Carrera where we cross into Chile. Back on the tarmac, and newly invigorated, we pass a few minutes taking videos of us struggling in the wind. These could come in useful later, should I ever apply for a job testing wind tunnels.
From Cerro Castillo it would be a relaxing 60km ride south to Puerto Natales. But that’s for another day, as I am heading north to the Torres del Paine first. Ostensibly, I am doing a recce (to make sure the Torres are still there etc etc) but in reality I am taking photos in case the weather craps out before we return next week. It’s another 50km and, mercifully, the wind only starts howling for the last 15km. Less mercifully, this section is on gravel with a steep climb up and over to Laguna Azul. My head is down and my teeth are gritted as I pass three vehicles and a group of tourists with cameras. Surprisingly, there is something in the bushes even more interesting than a middle-aged cyclist. I do not stop as I am about to enter a world of pain. Big mistake. Later I discover there was a family of pumas not far away. They are super rare and hard to spot. Drat and double drat.
Blissfully ignorant on matters feline, I descend to a campsite by the lake and put up my tent. The views are good and the Torres are peeking coyly from behind the clouds. The technical term for this, in photography circles, is “dramatic”, although “storm-crazed” might be more accurate. I head inside the cafe to get out of the wind. The kind lady tells me I can cook inside if I want to. She does not say anything about burning the place down with my petrol stove, which I (narrowly) avoid doing.
The next day it is tears and farewells, as Tommaso, Sven and Sarah head off to the other side of the park and I head south. My eyes are peeled for pumas, but all that is left are fur-balls and guanaco bones. Never mind, next time perhaps. The winds are favourable and I am topping 70km/h as I arrive in Cerro Castillo once more. I have 5km of headwinds before turning south again, so I replenish my coke and chocolate supply while I have the chance. After that it is Type 1 fun all the way to Puerto Natales, where I am greeted by a giant sloth.
I check into a hotel meeting my exacting requirements (any place that is cleaner than I am) and chisel the dirt off my skin before heading out for some tucker. Cathy has just messaged me saying the baggage-handler strike has been called off, and she and Adam will be on their way over soon. This is great news and a big relief all round, so I celebrate in style with a large bag of caramelised popcorn. Later, I have a hamburger and a pisco sour: we cyclistas know how to live!
It will be another 2 weeks before I am back on my bike again. No problem there as, frankly, I am looking forward to the prospect of resting my cycling legs and my, um, derriere for a bit. While I have another 400 miles to go before completing the journey to Ushuaia, I have done most of the hard stuff in the 2,500 miles (in 110 days) I have notched up so far. I am in the proverbial home-straight. What I have done is, of course, pitifully slow compared with our 2,750-mile ride around Europe back in 1983. Andy and I completed that trip in 39 days. But if you divide my age then by my age now (and multiply by the square of the hypotenuse) you get roughly the same daily average distance for both journeys. This demonstrates something significant, but what that may be has temporarily slipped my mind. I will have to go and have a little lie down and see if it comes back to me.
Next stop, Torres del Paine…