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..

I got a wolf whistle.

I turned my head with a scowl and saw a parted slime of black hair yet beneath it the widest milky white smile stretching the length of the continent ahead of me. Bon Voyage he seemed to say or the Spanish equivalent. His enthusiasm, his stance of wide open arms in his leather jacket above adidas tracksuit bottoms billowing in the wind as he continued with a "bello", and simply his recognition that I was on a journey and the only way I could possibly go was north brought a smile to my face. I nodded an acknowledgement turned to face the road and vowed not to let any doubt or weakness infiltrate my mind again.

The sky cleared, the container yards dispersed, the rubbish diminished, the street dogs retreated and this was my view as I began the gradual ascent up Garibaldi Pass

Two hours later I was back to silent cursing: it had started to rain and as I ascended the rain became sleet. Fingers cold and wet in useless powerstretch gloves, goretex trainers with holes in squelched. I'd left Ushuaia late afternoon aiming to just cycle the mountain pass and then to find a camp at Lake Escondido at its base. I finally reached the lake after a bitterly cold downhill, saw a dirt track, turned into it and found a small clearing to pitch my tent, cook pasta and collect my thoughts.

First some waterproofing was required, unable to afford new trainers the next best option is ziplock sandwich bags! I have also since purchased a pair of waterproof gloves much to the amusement of an austrian guy Michi whom I met the other day as I proudly showed him my pair of rubber washing up gloves

The next day I rose at a late hour the rain had ceased but the wind still raged and I  began my ride to Tolhuin where I'd heard not only was there a bakery but also they let cyclists stay there for free.

After feasting on empanadas, churros and buying 8 baguettes I set off the next day to begin the cycle ride across Tierra del Fuego. Echoes of warnings filled my mind, "your toughest challenge yet", "say a prayer to the wind gods", "it's going to be tough but if there's anyone who can do it it's you"..  it was maybe this that I was scared of that day I left Ushuaia. not just the wind but the expectations and my own fear of failure. I know I will never give up this journey until I have completed my circumnavigation. I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone else nor in fact to myself, I just feel a compulsive need to complete this journey in the way I have intended: to embrace the hardship/the wild camping, to live frugally, to face, manage and contain my own fears yet at the same time to raise my eyes, appreciate and absorb the environment I am in. With head semi-sorted I scurried north east with a side wind buffeting and reached the atlantic coast. Insignificant to write but for me a milestone.

I finally found the unpaved road I wished to take. A few cyclists go this way but most opt for a wee bit more asphalt up to San Sebastiรกn and then a westerly traverse to Porvenir. The route I took headed west before the town of Rio Grande and wiggles its way through a pampa landscape and what a delight it was, over 300km of pure unadulterated gravel! 8 km in on a bumpy dirt track I decided 100km was enough for the day and pitched my tent on the side of the road

Something rather bizarre happened. the notorious westerly wind eased and I woke to only a gentle flapping of my outer fly tent at sunrise.I packed up quickly, not believing my luck and started the long slog to the border with Chile. How can I describe the early morning sight of gauchos heading off for the day

and how to describe the grace of the guanacos leaping over fences out of my path until curiosity got the better of them

All my fears and negativity dispelled as I headed off down this dusty, washboard track, breathing in the emptiness, vastness and beauty.

I cycled hard I cycled long and reached the border post to cross into Chile.

 I have had many interesting border crossings on this journey. Croatia I was told I was crazy, Romania I received a marriage proposal, leaving Serbia I got into a spot of bother, entering Tajikistan I had a good conversation/interview about English literature starting of course with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,  Uzbekistan I was bitten on my bottom by a dog, leaving Tajikistan I got invited back into the 'checkpoint' and was asked by the lecherous guard while I was seated on a bunkbed with a soldier snoring above me if he could have my email address..

Yet this checkpoint was special. It was only the pathetic yapping from a measly hound that led me to the door of the argentinian border post at the end of the dirt track. I knocked on the door and was welcomed in to a stifingly hot wood burner heated hut by a bleary eyed officer. He studied the inside page of my passport at length and then looked at the outer. For some reason the British passport confuses everyone. So many times they stare at it and then have to ask "where are you from?" The Gaelic bit on the inner pages confuses them too and I had to turn to the page of my photo so my name was not recorded as "Cead-siubhail" It would be a lot easier if we simply replace "European Union United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" with "Manchester United".
He mentioned "river" (rio) with some concern. I nodded and said in my best Spanish "si.. no problem"

I had heard there was a river crossing but for some reason I wasn't expecting it to be on the actual border crossing between Argentina and Chile. What a way to leave a country and enter another. Shoes and socks off, teva sandals on, trouser legs rolled up, bike unloaded. push, lose control of bike in current of river, gain control, focus, leave safely in mud on other side, wade back across pick up 4 bags and carry across river, go back to retrieve other 2 bags plus a spare sleeping bag as summer tent resulting in frozen Jilly, and camera that had been filming the event on what is now a bipod of a tripod after the leg fell off, put cold wet feet into socks and shoes, reload bike, drag up over rocks, find dirt track, cycle to Chile, wake up man in shack, he runs across dirt track and wakes up another man who is about 17 years old. 17 year old in shorts, leggings and plastic shoes and an endearing bedhead runs across to meet me,stamps passport while I'm seated in their kitchen. They offer to fill my water bottles, we shake hands say good bye and then I'm off.

I cycled for another half hour and saw some beech trees and pulled my bike across the thorny earth and pitched for the night.

It was then I heard the sound. I listened hard, my heart with cliche, pounding, I strained to hear more and it overwhelmed me, despite two years of wild camping I have never heard this sound to such an intense extent, a sound that words fail me to describe, impossible to grasp and comprehend and it moved me to tears. I gasped for air then relaxed into it. it drew me in, it wasn't cloying, it wasn't frightening, it wasn't sinister, it was simply the sound of absolute silence..

How do I describe such silence? I can only imagine it to feeling you are the last living thing on earth. A silence so silent it grabs your ears and screams into them the sound of absolutely nothing. Maybe it was the effect of low ominous cloud, pressing down on me, sandwiching me in amidst a landscape of wind beaten grassland and the occasional scattering of gnarled trees, twisted, contorted, scorched, bleached, battered and smoothed by sun and wind,  looking like bodies in the throes of jumping from high buildings captured through a lense, limbs scattered, uncontrolled, awaiting their fate while clawing at the sky yet frozen in time. And Time stood still and so did the sound of Nothing.

However during this stillness I examined the ground I was on and realised I was camped among cow pats so made my own barricade after a few encounters on this journey with animals tripping over my tent in the middle of the night

I woke to a fiery sunrise. Tierra del Fuego - the land of fire, the name given by Ferdinand Magallene - the first European to visit this island in 1520 - as he spied from his ship a coastline lit by fires from the aborginals who built them to keep warm in this harsh unforgiving land.

My legs started to feel the pain as I continued my journey west that morning where I hoped to reach the Magellan strait coastline. Relentless up and down, wheels spinning on loose rocks as I pounded uphill and skidding on scree as I clattered down. I entered the tiny coastal village of Cameron after an 8 hour day and camped in the churchyard next to a steam engine

I found no-one in the village the next day to get water from, even the horse that had been lazily grazing at the entrance had moved on. The day was bleak cold and windy and I began to struggle as I headed north, following the coastline of the steely grey Magellan strait, stopping off at an Estancia (ranch) to fill my water bottles. 3 gauchos in oversized berets stood sucking on cigarettes next to their tethered horses with sheepskin saddles, calling out to their dogs in a cloud of dust and sheep.  The gravel became deeper, the track more rutted, the wind whipped at me, the view monotonous. I finally reached the junction with the road that most people take and stopped to chat to 2 cyclists on their way to Ushuaia, coming to the end of their journey while mine had just begun. I watched as they cycled off and I was back on my own again

Of course cycling across Tierra del Fuego is not complete until you have taken the obligatory photo of the Fuegian tree and a rather dodgy looking person in a variety of bandanas

That night I pitched on the side of the road, the wind dropped and I listened again to the silence as the sun set.

My final day of cycling (I reached Porvenir only to find I'd missed the boat to Punta Arenas so spent the next 2 nights sleeping in a ditch just outside the town as couldn't afford the accommodation) through Tierra del Fuego was simply stunning. Steep roads, the startling blue of the Magellan strait revealing itself as the sun scattered the clouds, flamingos flapping on salt lakes, weather beaten fisherman's huts of tin on deserted coastline. The stark beauty of the southern mountains loomed up in the distance like giant icebergs on the water. 

Having run out of water again I entered an estancia and chatted to the delightful owner - Alex- who, thankfully, spoke English. I told him how envious I was of him living here, how incredibly magical I'd found this island -as I bent down to fill my bottles with the tannin rich water from the outside tap- how it had captured, scared, threatened and enthralled me . His eyes were the calm steel grey of yesterday's sea under a thatch of salt and peppered hair and above a thick black moustache. "We love it here" he said, picking up his grandchild dressed all in red so they can find him in the yellow landscape when he wanders off, "no mobile phone signal, no distractions" He looked intently at me as if we were sharing a special secret and in a few words encompassed all I'd felt while crossing Tierra del Fuego "You can hear the silence"

Flamingo Rat Pack 

Last time I attempted a drop like this was the kamikaze red run on skis!

Sheer gravel joy


  1. Great post. Love the picture of the Fuegian tree.

  2. Jill you are amazing. I really want to visit this place after your evocative description.

    Happy trails.

  3. wow!!!!! WONDERFULLLLLL !!!! I love your pics !!! I hope that your travel will be always like that !!!! except gravel !!!
    nice cycling !!!

  4. Hi Jill,
    How amazing this places are!
    You are a good story teller!
    Keep it up!
    Greeting from hongkong