Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Tierra del Fuego: Guanacos, Gauchos and Gravel

I felt a gnawing emptiness within me as I left the sanctuary of the campsite perched high up on the hill of Ushuaia overlooking the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel, surrounded by mountains whose peaks just a week earlier had been bare with a postcard prettiness about them, yet now seemed menacing, daubed in snow, shafts of light piercing them through a squally sky
. I was not meant to feel like this. I was leaving the 'end of the world' and a whole continent and another 12,000km lay ahead of me, I had to be up for the challenge yet all I felt was dread and apathy. 

I struggled with my thoughts as I made my way to the waterfront to take the obligatory photograph of Ushuaia's 'fin del mundo' sign. Cruise ship passengers in pastel jumpsuits and large sunglasses swept past me in a fleeting cloud of duty free perfume, jewelled knuckles clutching garishly expensive handbags, spare hands frantically patting down stiff lacquered hair as the Fuegian wind raged. In a hustle of people I felt so very alone and this isolation and loneliness crept up on me and before I knew it I was engulfed: no-one smiled at me, no-one spoke to me yet why should they? I made no eye contact: I was sullen, detached, afraid. What was I expecting? champagne corks popping, beatific faces, lingering embraces and encouraging words as I set off to cycle my 4th continent?

Evidently I did . 

As I left the crowd and cycled to the outskirts of Ushuaia along a littered highway lined with drab and dusty container yards, trucks thundering past sucking me in then spitting me out on to the gravel shoulder my mood suddenly changed from an unexpected source..

Sunday, 10 March 2013

New Zealand: the Pinball Cyclist

Rather than one of my usual tales about a Honey Seller's bottom or a near mental breakdown in China  I thought it may be a pleasant change to try and sum up almost 6000km of a journey through New Zealand in one blog post with a few pretty pictures and a few words.

Looking at my map on Social Hiking one may wonder if I had no clue where I was heading in New Zealand and I can safely say yep, one is absolutely right! I sometimes feel a bit inadequate when I've peeked at other cyclist's blogs and seen magnificent spreadsheets detailing their plans filling me with admiration.. and fear! Yet I decided to not let it bother me and as I had a few months to explore this country while waiting for extortionate air fares to South America to lower I set off with a view to get to the south island and well.. just go where the wind took me.

What I learnt very quickly is that there is a reason people 'plan'. Planning would have been good for Tajikistan - arriving to cycle up to 4655m in the Pamirs at the beginning of winter could have been avoided with foresight yet  it did turn out to be a great adventure despite having to get rescued

Saturday, 2 March 2013

New Zealand: Helmets, Hitchcock and Binges

Having not looked at a mirror that morning I peered into his aviator shades sheltered under a peaked hat and in the sepia reflection self consciously readjusted the bandana covering my head. The policeman interrupted my preening with a slight cough and my eyes were drawn to his lips, the upper remained taut in a permanent smile yet the lower did the moving above the cleft chin.  His skin perfectly tanned. 
Good god you look like one of the Thunderbird puppets I thought as he continued
"Do you know why I have stopped you?"
Now which one do you look like? Scott or the one beginning with V? it was Scott wasn't it? Scott Tracy? yep must be..
"No, I'm sorry no idea at all" I lied having watched him pass me going the opposite direction in his patrol car on the deserted road as I'd left the Marlborough Sounds on a sunny but frosty day and winced as I watched again as he returned, pulled into the side of the road and flagged me down.
"You're not wearing a helmet. It is the law in New Zealand to wear a helmet, you know that don't you"

I am shockingly one of those people who feel they have a right to choose whether they wear a helmet or not. It's not a big, clever or insightful statement, it is just me being me and you can throw all the statistics you want at me and I know wearing one has saved people's lives, friend's lives even. Maybe having cycled from an early age an eon before people wore helmets or squeezed lumpy flesh into unflattering lycra, where mending a puncture in the back garden was a thrice weekly pastime at the age of 10 is my reason, but this is not a discussion for this blog post. It is just me. 

I thought back to the helmet I'd bought for this journey while I prepared my reply. It had ridden with me for 12,000 km on the back of my bicycle. I'd worn it twice, once with James a cycling buddy for a week in Turkey for a steep downhill after we'd consumed 4 beers then found out we couldnt camp at the top of the hill we were on and once in Hungary when camped in the countryside I watched with alarm as 2 wild boar stampeded past within a whisker of my tent. My slumber reassuringly more comfortable in the knowledge I was tucked into my sleeping bag wearing my helmet should these beasts return and have no night vision. In the end my helmet and I parted ways in a small town in the Taklamakan Desert in China, confusing an old man in a ramshackle bike shop by thrusting my helmet upon him as there was no room for it with all my winter supplies loaded onto my bike nor on my head with all my layers on for cycling in -25'C . Arriving at Auckland airport I saw the sign "$200 fine" for not wearing a helmet. I bought one immediately.

Ok, deep breath and Oscar performance. "Oh gosh" I said patting my head, "where is it?" His perfect chiseled chin lifted slightly in a 'don't try and pull this one on me' confrontation. I blundered I flustered I pleaded as I undid the helmet from the back of my bike and plonked it on my head leaning towards him for another glance at my aviator shade image to ensure it wasn't askew. 

"Do you often cycle without a helmet?" 
"well for the last 26 countries yes! (hmm.. too aggressive). Until I arrived here and I bought one and I've worn it every time but today I visited Pelorus Bridge and I went for a walk and forgot to put it back on. "

That was the truth apart from the 'forgetting to put it back on' bit. I just wanted a day without it. What I didn't mention to him was the relief I'd found in wearing a helmet in New Zealand

The first assault on my head had scared the life out of me. Cycling along a quiet road in wind and rain and then something hit my helmet. I continued, a little unsettled, but dismissed it thinking it must have been a twig or something in this high wind. 2 minutes later my head jolted again and so the assault continued at regular 2 minute intervals for 5km. A few cars passed me but did nothing. Surely surely they can see what is happening I thought as once again I was hit and I stopped to confront my aggressor.

Nesting territorial magpies: the bane of my cycling life in New Zealand during spring time. The worst attack was a 30km stretch before reaching the town of Bulls (incidentally a remarka-bull town where they have insisted on coining everything in the town with a bull attached. The police station "const-a-bull" ,the public toilets "reliev-a-bull", the estate agents "Move-a-bull"..) where these evil Hitchcock film re-enactment birds attacked relentlessly. There was evidently some Magpie Neighbourhood Watch in place as once I'd finally escaped the territory of one nesting pair the residents of the next 3km had been alerted and would begin their attack. I turned to rather aptly named Twitter for assistance. "Turn and face the bird", "wear sunglasses on the back of your helmet", "stop cycling", "Just come home" were some of the helpful tips. Probably the best solution to the problem I saw was a girl on her roadbike, tanned, slim and streamlined in red and black lycra and sporting a helmet with what looked like her grandmother's stash of knitting needles poking out from the top. 

Realising the policeman was not going to wallop me with a $200 fine I succumbed to the fact his face was actually rather agreeable and he asked about my trip and wished me good luck for the rest of my journey. As he seated himself into his car he leaned out of the window and said "Enjoy the rest of your chocolate!" and drove off.

Chocolate? I hadn't mentioned chocolate. I'd babbled a lot but I hadn't mentioned chocolate and certainly not the secret compulsive consumption of the 750g of Nutella I had finished that morning after only 2.5 days. Oh no surely not..

I searched frantically in my handlebar bag for my mirror and found it wedged between my journal entries of 8th and 9th September. I held it up before my face and - with no sepia tinge to hide behind - there it was, the tell-tale chocolate smile from a frenzied spooning of 250g into my mouth that morning. Yet worse was to come as I saw the results of a succession of failed footballer's nose blows leaving a snail-like trail from my nose, across my cheek, before coming to a glistening finale on my right shoulder. 

I had to face the truth I would never have the same etiquette and class as Lady Penelope..

A birthday cake I made from my 2nd 750g jar of Nutella

Like a painting. exploring the marlborough sounds

camouflaged camping
Exploring Queen Charlotte Sound

Pelorus Bridge: scene in the Hobbit where the dwarves escaped in barrels down the river

Friendly locals helping me with dinner..
and the washing up
Marlborough Sounds. Sailing across to New Zealand's south island

The Police Station in the quirky town of Bulls

Note: I am still wearing my helmet on busy roads here in South America

Friday, 1 March 2013

New Zealand : Avalanches and Arrests

As days go this was turning out to be not one of my best ones. I was wedged up to my chest in boulders of ice and snow. My right arm forced aloft, high above my head, hand clutching my walking pole as if in some excalibur re-enactment, a hand rescuing it from misty waters. Damn. The fall into the snow had caused my rucksack to ride up my jacket and it now pressed into the back of my skull, its straps digging into my armpits like a pair of  helping hands trying to prise me out of my icy hole. My right foot was in mid-air, a gap between the snow and the river whose roar I could still hear beneath the avalanche debris field I was on..or should I say in! My left foot was on something solid, a rock, maybe. I shifted my right foot across to join its companion and stood there, encased in snow thinking hmm this is rather misfortunate.

There is something to be said about travelling alone. I never really seem to panic that much. When there's only yourself to contend with things just need to be dealt with instinctively without all the drama that 2 heads may create and my mishaps (to me) become amusing rather than frightening, (or maybe that's just the way I cope with coping) and as I stood there hapless and encased - yet fairly cool and comfortable (apart from the strangling rucksack) having worked up a bit of a sweat on my ascent - I wondered why the 2 young men I'd seen hiking in the opposite direction hadn't warned me there was an avalanche field to cross. At that moment I heard more rocks and snow crashing down from the gully above and then it slowly began to dawn on me, the avalanche had just happened and was still happening. Ok time to get out of here.

I recalled my uncontrollable giggles once watching Harry Hill's comments on BearGrylls trying to get out of an ice hole and with that I, with a swimming action, a flurry of arms, a kick of the legs, belly slapping and intermittent grunts in a manner as cumbersome as the fur seals I’d seen lumbering over the rocks of Kaikoura, flopped out of my icy tomb on to the cold surface and cautiously slid and scrambled over the snow blocks to the safety of the tussocked slope.

The exertion had made me hungry. I sat looking wistfully at the avalanche debris and the Blue Lake beyond, so close yet it now seemed unattainable but maybe after a bowl of pasta I'd feel reenergised and could find another way to cross that was not going to result in me falling through the snow again and deposited this time into rapids for a white water adventure. I’d hiked for 3 days through mossed forests of beech, tripping over the roots, wading through streams, clambering over rocks, keeping warm at nights chopping logs for the woodburner stove in backcountry huts - shared once with a hunter and his gun and the other with a family of mice - to see this remote Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes area of New Zealand's South Island. A lake so pure and clear that there is a visibility of up to 80m.

 It was thanks to being 'arrested' that I’d had this opportunity to leave my bike and explore by foot...

“Yes, we’re arresting this girl. Interpol have been after her for illegal camping around the world for over a year and half” boomed the stentorian voice of Greg from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to the confused young German man in a striped beanie who watched as my bicycle and panniers were loaded into a pick up truck.

 I'd returned to my tent hidden in the trees of St Arnauds magnificent lakeside to find a message pinned to my tent
My temporary home had been spectacular while it lasted. I was unused to rules and regulations in New Zealand having always had to wild camp where possible on this journey and in need of free accommodation more than ever now that my bank account was empty. Yet it wasn't just about it being free, it was about being among the nature, the solitude and away from the ubiquitous white campervans and boggy campgrounds

I wasn't proud of my reaction to the "stop squatting on our land note" nor for my frustrated plea interlaced with a rant about trying to cycle round the world on a budget of zero when Greg came to check if I'd moved. I knew it was my fault and problem and not his of course but he saw my desperation and said look I know a place where you can freedom camp, let me drive you there. After my bicycle and panniers were loaded into his van we left the young German still standing there perplexed with his uneaten bowl of spaghetti in hand. Greg was silent for a while as we drove away from the lake then
Look I cant let you camp the weather is going to be bad. Come and stay with me and my family.

And so it was that I stayed in the garage of this wonderful family who fed me, washed my stinking muddy clothes, shared their lives with me and then lent me some tramping gear so I could make the most of the area when the weather improved and showed me the route I could take to reach the mysterious Blue Lake.

Pasta I need pasta! I was feeling the cold now and probably a little shaken from my snow hole encounter. I reached into my rucksack for my other food bag having split the supplies in two: for the journey to the Blue Lake and for the return. There is one thing I can't abide and that is people who are ill-prepared for a hike, mountain trip whatever. People who forget vital clothing, run out of food, rely on others for a rescue that they themselves could have so easily prevented. Digging deeper I found nothing only the empty bags of my walk-in supply. Panicking I emptied my rucksack. No food bag. My vocal reaction was lost to the deafening roar of the Sabine River that hurtled past beneath me. Idiot I muttered more audibly as I recalled trying to clear up my pannier explosion in the garage as I packed my bags for the trip. I must have packed my food supply into my pannier.

Unable to reach the Blue Lake hut due to the avalanche and realising it was folly with no food too, my other option was a hut across the raging river yet, as luck would have it the river had washed away the bridge! I stared at this torrent of water through the beech trees knowing I could not attempt a river crossing alone at this point so I reached for a few leaves, stuffed them in my pocket and dejectedly began to retrace my steps.

If you've ever wondered, chewing on beech tree leaves is, I imagine, similar to popping a hardened piece of chewing gum that you've had to chisel off a pavement outside of Tesco's into your mouth.

I was fortunate to meet 3 guys in a hut the following night who - trying hard to hide their 'what an idiot, shouldn't be allowed out in the hills' expressions - generously shared some couscous with me, yet were unable to spare any further food for my walk-out.  It was 2 days later that I reached the village of St Arnaud.

"Hey Jilly is steak and sausage and chips ok for you tonight" boomed Greg handing me a beer as I came out of the shower..

Oh go on..beats beech leaves any time...

Eternally grateful to the lovely Carter family!