It’s 675km from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia or, in old money, around 1.5 million cubits. This is a fair old chariot ride but, with fresh horses, doable in 5 or 6 days. Unfortunately, my horses are all set for the knacker’s yard, and are braying in protest as I load up the bike and head back to the main road leading to Punta Arenas. There’s a fresh breeze from the northwest, which is no surprise, nor is the fact that the wind is swirling around and I’m getting zero assistance for the first 15km, as the road gently climbs.
The highway turns from east to southeast and I’m finally feeling the afterburners light up. The horses are champing, as I race the rain clouds pouring in from the coast. I pass guanacos and rheas, which bound away over or through the fences on the roadside according to their preference. It’s curious the way they ignore cars and trucks completely, but a cyclist sends them into a spin. Must be my cycling shorts and winning smile.
The fuel levels are running low, and I’m heading south now; it’s a short hop to Villa Tehuelches where I will be spending the night. The campsite marked on my map doesn’t exist but the man at the cafe points at a white house on the other side of the road that has rooms for guests. It’s New Year’s Day, and there’s no answer at the door, so Plan B becomes Plan C. There’s a bus shelter with doors, windows and a roof nearby. I don’t much like the litter inside, or the small red mites that are scurrying around on the floor, so I borrow a broom and give the place a quick spring-clean, before putting up my castle-sized tent at one end of the shelter and crawling inside.
It rains heavily overnight and I wake to find my castle has a moat. The water has come under the door and, following Murphy’s Law, collected around my tent, leaving the rest of the shelter dry. I lower the drawbridge and decamp to higher ground to dry out the tent. After a breakfast of oats and powdered milk, the horses are ready for the 100km haul to Punta Arenas, where I intend to spend a couple of days visiting the penguins and anywhere that serves pizza.
The northwesterlies have moved to the west and are picking up speed. It’s not for nothing that sailors in the past referred to winds at these latitudes as the “Furious Fifties”. Apart from a short stretch of gravel, the first 70-80km are uneventful and the wind isn’t bothering me much. But, just short of the airport, the road hits the Magellan Straits and turns south. This is where the fun starts, as the wind is now coming from the side at a million km/h. The road is busy, but the wind doesn’t seem to care. Nor do the motorists, apparently, as I’m having to push my bike at times to avoid, er, death. A lift would be appreciated, but I’ve only had one short lift since Puerto Montt and pride is trumping common sense. Where possible, I’m on the gravel beside the road and am leaning into the wind at a crazy angle. This helps and I’m able to fall off my bike in relative safety. For some reason, I’m thinking about hedgehogs.
Two hours later I’m in Punta Arenas checking into a hotel. I ask the receptionist if they ever have days without wind. He’s not sure, but thinks they might have had one back in the 1970s. I retire to my room to recover my composure before heading out for food. Later, I am trying to book a trip to see the penguins on Magdalena Island. The lady tells me there are no trips for 3 days, because of a four-letter word beginning with a “w”. This is fine as it will give me time to write my blog and seek therapy.
It’s Thursday and I’m in a coach heading north, before boarding a vessel that looks a lot like a lifeboat. It’s a 45-minute journey across relatively calm seas to Magdalena, where a colony of Magellan Penguins are setting their watches for our arrival. On the way, we see dolphins and I take photos of the space they occupied before disappearing beneath the waves. At the island the photography is easier, as the penguins are not camera-shy and their burrows not far from the roped-off sections we are walking along. The chicks are 1-2 month-old balls of grey fluff. Sensibly, they are staying away from the water for the time being. Nearby, there are gulls with chicks too – they are less pleased to see us, so we pass by quickly.
That evening, I’m on the ferry for the 2-hour crossing to Porvenir, on Tierra del Fuego. I have joined forces with three other cyclists, Steffen from Munich, and Andri and Lukas from Berne. We find a comfortable place to stay a short distance from a restaurant, where I gorge myself on Milanesa. There’s a Croatian flag outside as there’s a big Croatian community here. This is an interesting factoid and might one day be useful in our local pub-quiz; I’m not holding my breath though.
We were last here in 1992 when it was cloudy and grey. This time the sun is shining and I hit the road early, as I want to see the King Penguins 110km up the road. It’s pristine tarmac for the first 12km before the road-builders lose interest, or run out of money. A gravel road then follows the coast, heading south and then east on its up-and-down course. Progress is slow to start with and Steffen, Andri and Lukas whistle past me after 40km. I’m the tortoise to their hare, and finally catch up with them when the tarmac returns 50km later. They continue towards the border, while I peel off for another 15km of gravel, groan.
There’s a queue at the penguin colony, but I tag along with one of the tour groups and save myself the wait. King Penguins are the Brad Pitts/Angelina Jolies of the penguin world (without the acrimonious divorce). But they are at least 50m away from the viewing platform, so I am appreciating their pulchritude through binoculars. I am not going to get much in the way of a photograph here; my iPhone is hopelessly outgunned by the other tourists with their telephoto lenses.
Two hours later I’m back at the main road, where I meet two Americans. One has cycled from Alaska and the other has ridden from Bangkok to the Netherlands, before flying over to South America. When it comes to touring, I’m just a newbie.
45km later I arrive at Paso San Sebastian, having completed a 170km day. There’s a disused building to my left where, I’m fairly sure, the other three cyclists are hanging out. I ignore this den of iniquity and check into the only hotel in this border town. The next day, with border-formalities completed, I’m back in Argentina heading down the coast to Rio Grande. The wind is with me once more and I’m cycling along the city seafront by 2pm, stopping briefly at the Falkland Islands war memorial for old time’s sake. Rio Grande was the base for the Argentinian airforce at the time, and some of the military hardware used during the conflict is on parade, including a French Super Etendard jet. I’m relieved to see no Exocet missiles are attached.
I pick up some cash from Western Union before heading out of town. The forecast for tomorrow is for (shock horror!) an easterly wind, and the timing is good, as the road turns west once more for the final leg to Ushuaia. But I’ll need to get further down the coast first, as I still have 210km to go. I opt for a campsite 50km due south called “Camping Norte” and pitch my tent in a cloud of midges. I set my alarm for 5.30am, hoping the midges are still in bed when I leave.
I’m up and away by 6.30am and the sun is shining. The campsite owner has not received the memo about my early departure, and I am lifting my bike and panniers over a locked gate before I can get to the road. Irritatingly, the wind is from the west to start with, but moves around to the east by the time I reach Tolhuin. The road heads west from there, before climbing over Paso Garibaldi and starting its descent (via another smaller pass) into Ushuaia. The scenery is great and the sun is shining. What’s not to like?
The road’s busy however, and the cars and trucks are flying past, clueless as to what a safe distance from a cyclist might be. Every few kilometres I pass a sign with a yellow star saying “Victima Fatal”. Some of these signs have flowers attached, and others a small shrine nearby. This is the first time I’ve seen these signs in Argentina and assume the road is particularly dangerous. It certainly feels that way. Whatever the motivation, it’s having zero effect on driving standards. I grit my teeth and swear quietly as trucks approach from behind, tooting their horns for me to pull off the road onto the gravel. Wouldn’t want them having to brake and wait for a safe opportunity to pass, would we?
By 3.30pm I arrive in Ushuaia. At the city-gate I’m expecting a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, as I had when finishing John O’Groats to Land’s End in 2018. But my eyes are dry and my throat lump-free. It has been a long journey and, while Ushuaia is a fitting place to end the trip, I have had other goals and achievements along the way. This, together with fatigue after covering 485km in 3 days, might go some way to explaining my sense of relief, rather than elation.
Ushuaia is the most southerly city in the world and, with its backdrop of mountains overlooking the Beagle Channel, is a good place to hang out for a few days reflecting on the past four and a half months, while they are still fresh in my mind. I’ll be flying back to Buenos Aires shortly and, subject to a small detour via an undisclosed destination, should be back in the UK by 20 January. I can then start the task of editing my photos down to something below 10,000 pictures, and maybe even producing a video of my journey (assuming I can master the technology – not a given). I am hoping this will go some way to embedding the trip in my memory once the initial scar-tissue has healed 😁.
The two questions people have asked me the most are my motivation for the trip and whether I have enjoyed the experience. The answer to the first question is a mixture of unfinished business and, yes I admit it, advancing age. There’s not much I can do about advancing age, but the unfinished business is most certainly finished now. I have climbed the mountains I wanted to climb, and well-and-truly scratched the “what is it like to cycle in a remote place with no food, water or oxygen” itch. I can’t see myself doing something similar again (probaby).
As to whether I have enjoyed it, well there’s a question! If I admit to enjoying the experience then it must, officially, have been a “holiday”, and I will be repaying this debt to Cathy for the rest of time. If I did not enjoy the experience, I can characterise it as an “expedition” and I’m in the clear. But why do something you don’t enjoy? On that question, I’m going to have to do what lawyers do best and sit on the fence. There’s no doubt that some of this has been Type 1 fun (fun as it was happening – eg the Carretera Austral). But other parts have been Type 2 fun (fun after the event – such as crossing the Bolivian altiplano on terrible roads) and even Type 3 fun (no fun at all – any day on which the wind made the cycling dangerous and/or unpleasant). How these three types of fun divide up is a moveable feast, and will change over time as memories fade and I rely more and more on photos and my journal to fill in the gaps. If previous trips are anything to go by, the Type 3 fun will soon disappear from the memory-banks altogether.
The bottom line is that the holiday/expedition (whatever) has been tough at times, sometimes very tough. But with effort comes reward, as they say, and by that measure the journey has been very rewarding indeed 😁. I have the pictures to prove it!!