Friday, 12 April 2013

Patagonia: somewhere in the middle of nowhere

As I sat hunched up in a culvert pipe under the road as a storm raged above I did start to question what I was doing with my life

A few days earlier I'd left the town of Punta Arenas suffering the same doubts and fears as I had leaving Ushuaia. Home, family and friends seemed further away than ever before and that lunchtime before I set off I had entered Shackleton's Bar in the town to skype my father who was getting ready to celebrate his 70th birthday. The ache of not being there dug deep and I fought back tears as I left the town on another overcast and windy day. 

I pitched early just 20km out of town, sheltered among lenga beech trees laced with the whispy green tufts of Old Man's Beard lichen and tried to address my melancholy. I smiled to myself knowing the party would be in full swing now, my dad would view the Happy Birthday video message I'd sent him -recorded a few days before while sleeping in a ditch waiting for the boat to take me across the Magellan Strait from Porvenir to Punta Arenas. He would hate me to be miserable: he's one of the most positive people I know battling and beating cancer with a constant smile on his face and I draw so much strength from that. 

The next day I felt a bit brighter choosing to leave the busy highway to take a gravel road which looped alongside a narrow channel between the mainland and Riesco Island. Short of water I spied an estancia and cycled up the rocky track. A rotund farmer in a corn blue cable knit jumper peered through thick lensed glasses as I held up my water bottles with a feeble cry of "agua, por favor", left his sheep and showed me the way to his front door through a clutter of ochre-coloured outbuildings. 

A wonderful smell of freshly baked tortas fritas hit me as I entered the dimly lit kitchen where his wife, wrapped in a chocolate brown shawl, was piling them up in a metal container. I started filling my water bottles from their sink and after a brief conversation between man and wife I watched with delight as 9 of these delicious, doughy greasy calorie laden cakes were put in a carrier bag and handed to me. Resisting the urge to embrace her I thanked them profusely, got on my bicycle and left thinking how these would last me a few days and make a nice change from my bland diet of pasta and oats. 7km later I could no longer resist and I dropped my bicycle on a steep slope of gravel and prickly shrubs on the road verge, took out the bag and ate the lot. 

It was the car horn of a concerned pick-up truck driver that woke me up and in the cloud of dust that accompanies any vehicle driving on these dusty, stoney tracks I sat up abruptly, confused at first where I was, then raised my arm sheepishly and waved to indicate that this heap of dishevelement with a bloated belly on the side of the road was not a corpse just a very greedy sleeping cyclist. I looked at my watch and realised I'd been asleep for more than 2 hours. 40km and 9 tortas fritas was enough excitement for one day so spied a small dip in the land some 2 metres away, pitched my tent, cooked some pasta and fell back to sleep not before removing the vicious thistles that had attached themselves in a rather uncomfortable place

The following day I felt sluggish as I rode towards Seno Skyring, a rough ride through undulating countryside and I visited another estancia, this one named Rio Verde on the shoreline of the Sound, for more water where I encountered two delightful men. They didn’t wish to give me the water they drank from the river as feared my European stomach would not cope- despite me insisting otherwise- instead giving me 3 litres of rainwater they’d collected in a tub.

 I learned the history of the area from these men- it had been an important passage before the Panama Canal had been created, boats navigating this narrow sound from atlantic to pacific- while a puppy chewed on my trainer before running back to his siblings with the duct tape, that had covered the hole in my shoe, in his mouth. 

Warmed and invigorated by the encounter with these 2 jovial gentlemen I left and finally rejoined the asphalt highway leading to Puerto Natales and some 10km later found a gravel track where I made camp on the side of the road in a small hollow in this flat and windswept terrain, finding some rocks to place over the tent pegs as the wind gathered in force.

And so it was that the next 2 days were spent being battered, buffeted and beaten into submission by the wind. After sheltering in my culvert pipe under the road for an hour waiting for the hail to stop I cautiously extracted myself and stood up, my chin level with the road just as a tour bus went past, vacant faces staring down at me so I smiled and waved as if it was a totally normal place for me to be.“, Alice, did you see that? A woman just popped out from underneath the road”..”Bill, yes I’m sure she did. Just like those giant birds you said you’ve just seen..”

The nandus, wonderful lumbering digitally remastered sparrows. So thrilled I was when I first saw these flightless birds ruffling and puffing out their ballerina feather tutus and sprinting across the pampa grasslands.

As my speed decreased and having covered only 14km in the last 2 hours I realised the wind had won for the day. My knees screamed out with the pain of trying to pedal against the wind. Cycling into gale force winds depletes you of energy and if you’re not careful can start draining you of any joy you’ve ever felt away from you. Clouds raced across the sky like a timelapse video, I spied a bus shelter and decided to make that my home for the night.

An uncomfortable night as windows rattled threateningly, the small shelter creaked and trembled as the wind raged on and on. 

 I set off at sunrise, the wind had eased and I pedaled hard to keep warm on this icy morning. The early start paid off and I reached Puerto Natales 100km away and only became victim to the wind again for the last 40km which took me over 4 hours

While resting in the town, writing blogs, answering emails, doing laundry, having showers though still camping- this time in the garden of a hostel- I debated whether to visit Torres del Paine national park. I wanted to go to see these glorious mountains yet the admission charge was 5 days budget for me, never mind the extortionate cost of camping once there and the hoards of people trudging the well worn paths. I’ve become selfish with my views, I want to absorb them alone, to be camped alone and not in a festival environment. So I headed off taking the gravel road towards the entrance of the park, found a lake, pitched my tent right on the edge on a craggy outcrop and spent one afternoon and morning sitting in my tent absorbing the view and saw noone for 2 days.

I then retraced my route and took another gravel road towards the border of Argentina, a jewel of a ride encountering only more guanacos, gauchos, horses and cows
After another night sleeping in a ditch I left Chile and began the 7km uphill to the top of the pass to Argentina. 

Friends and family know I'm uncomfortable being the centre of attention and I can only look on with admiration at those who stand in front of crowds thriving on the faces looking at them expectantly. Arriving at the border post two bus loads of tourists were there and as I cycled towards them, cameras snapped and videos were taken. I dismounted and suddenly I was surrounded by a crowd of people: Are you on your own? Incredible. Marvellous, can I have a photo taken with you? Where are you from? Where did you start? How many punctures? You're cycling this on a single speed?. Oh you have a Rohloff hub. Is it the same bike. That saddle looks uncomfortable. How many km have you done. How did you get to China. what was Iran like. How long have you been away.. How many km do you do a day. Hope you don’t mind my husband vidoeing this. .Are you going to write a book. You seem so happy. What made you do this. You lost your job?  Where do you sleep? In a ditch? Oh you are so brave. Don’t you get scared? Has anything bad happened? Does your bicycle have a name? In South Africa they speak English too.


The last statement threw everyone. Was this my first heckler?
Oh are you from South Africa? I asked
No, I’m from Germany. Why?
Oh sorry I thought you mentioned south africa?
Yes. they also speak English there, and Canada too but you are speaking English English right?
Er, yes, I’m from England.
My answer seemed to satisfy him and he told me he liked my English.

A gentile American lady took me by the arm, shooing the gathering away – “come on this lady needs to get her passport stamped” and I thanked her and the crowd and stood in a small queue and tried hard to suppress a grin as I spotted a man hiding behind a signpost videoing me. I overheard a group of ladies discussing my journey "she seems so happy doesn't she" and they were right. It wasn’t the attention I’d just received, it was the elation I’d felt those last few days, an elation I’d felt for 2 years now

The absolute beauty of cycling is you see so much: the wide expanse of sky, the endless windscorched terrain,

 icebergs that have broken away from glaciers floating on aquamarine lakes,

  birds pulling fresh carrion off the road, armadillos scurrying among rocks,

guanacos leaping over fences and bounding up steep tufted hillsides, foxes fixing their eyes on you as you cycle towards them

horses tossing their heads challenging you for right of way as condors sweep the sky above

You see miles of absolute nothingness, unable to comprehend that the next village is sometimes 8 days away. Mountain ranges loom up in front of you, and for 90km you have this view.

 You feel every drop of rain, every breath of wind, every sting of hail, your fingers ache with cold, your clothing crisp with dried sweat, you are covered in dust and grime and go for days without washing.

You squeeze your tent into low tunnels under the road, sleep in ditches, derelict buildings, among trees or push your bike across a wide open steppe some 2km from the road and pitch your tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere. 

 You treasure the brief moments of interaction, the beep of a horn, a thumbs up, a flash of headlights, a smile, a wave, motorcyclists who pass you then do a u-turn and present you with their mascot (a koala bear) as you’re struggling up a mountain pass at sunset, gauchos reining in their horses giving a gentle nod to you as they throw their lassoo over an errant cow. 

You feel the joyful relief when you ran out of water 2 hours ago yet then see a stream and fill your bottles and splash water on your face. And as your stove splutters and the fuel has gone, the pasta bag is empty and you eat your porridge that morning with cold water you know you need to reach the next town that night. 

The joy of arriving, to see a shop, to have a shower, to make new friends and share conversations. Yet the tug of the road and getting closer to home returns and you pack your panniers, say goodbyes and head off to tackle the next stage of your journey. 

And you pitch your tent that night, weary and dusty, prime your stove and get the pasta on to boil, eat and then finally relax in your 1 square home;the leaves of the tree you are beneath become your wallpaper as a cold moonlight beams down on your tent and your television set is the display of stars that you stare at from the awning.  The volume control is left to the mood of the wind, your air conditioning also as you turn off the television by zipping up the tent and violent gusts blow under the awning and filter through the mesh inner accompanied with a cloud of dust and grit. 

Yet your heating is a Sigg bottle filled with hot water, stuffed down a silk liner under 2 sleeping bags and you lie there and think of home yet all the sights you have seen and people you have met and realise, despite your tiredness, you have never felt more alive.

I am now back in Chile, tackling the Carretera Austral and tales of this journey will be posted soon


  1. Fabulous Accounting of part of an incredible life journey, Jilly.....You definitely have the Grit and Spunk and Courage of your Father!.....And Mom, too, I bet!....We are all pulling and praying for you here in Ohio, USA!....Blessings!.....Rick

  2. Flipping heck. You write beautifully. And from a tent too!

  3. woooow jilly i can't believe you made this far .. just fantastic amazing work !! you are ... toughest human(!) i have ever seen ! you are just great !

    cheers iman (from iran)

  4. Keep on peddling. You'll have an amazing tale to tell once you get to your destination.


  5. Utterly wonderful and inspiring post. Great writing as well. Looking forward to more updates, have fun out there!

  6. Thank you for taking me on such a wonderful journey, only just found your blog on a link from the EADT website, as i sit in my office on the edge of a hot kitchen in a miami hotel, the pictures that you take are amazing and the writing makes me feel i am there with you, (by the way the self portait at the begining of this post, your eyes are similar to the girl on the cover of the National Geographic, Afghan girl). Anway Thank you for living a life of adventure and i will follow along.


  7. WELL - you've sold the life to me! I can't wait for the highs and the lows. Fabulous pics. Thanks for sharing.