(81) Stuck between a lake and a hard place
After a great time with Sara and the Torres del Paine national park we were now on a gravel short cut heading to El Chalten, the start of the Carretera Austral and hopefully the last of the brutally high winds for now……
Sunday 8th December
We fell into the deepest of sleep but it was hard to shake off the damp feeling. We were happy to be tucked into the shed with the rain becoming more and more persistent. As the sun rose, each time we thought about getting up it would start to rain and being in our warm sleeping bags was a good enough reason to stay put.
We finally got up at 7.30 but not to a cup of tea from Sara. We missed our morning coffee and tea. We got up and tried to clear away our things without getting them wet from the rain outside and the mud floor inside.
We were soon loaded up and sat eating breakfast when our friend the cat arrived to see what treats we had in store – porridge! As we finished packing up Tim noticed Sharon had a puncture which was the second for us in as many days. Having had problems with the glue yesterday Tim glued up the patch and wrapped the tube around his coffee mug to help cure the glue. This seemed to help and we were soon pushing our bikes out on to the gravel road. It was a mess. With the amount of rain we had had the road now turned into a soft clay and gravel mess sticking to everything and with 14 miles to go it wasn’t going to be the fastest ride out to the Tarmac.
We did make progress spotting a condor on a hill as we rounded a corner.
The last 2 miles were the toughest and took around an hour to do as we had to keep stopping to clear the wheels from the ever thickening mud. We made it to the highway just before 1pm only covering 14 miles and feeling shattered we called in to the police checkpoint to see if we could have lunch. They showed us to a large workshop with a generator going where we ate our soup and bread with the sound track of a loud generator running. When we cleared up ready to leave the policeman came out and turned it off which would have been nice at the beginning of lunch!
We headed out onto the highway having to make a few adjustments to Sharon’s bike and rode on battling the headwind. It wasn’t as fierce as it could have been but with a slow tiring morning we were shattered. The road continued to climb which when you’re riding into a headwind already feels like a climb add to that the weight of our bikes needless to say we weren’t going very fast. We stopped a few times for a short break but with no cover or shelter other than the tiny bushes no higher then a 2 foot. we were in the middle if a very bleak landscape.
There was nothing for mile after mile in every direction. The snow camped mountains way off in the distance gave a good backdrop to a baron waste land with a huge sky filled with fast moving clouds that seemed to all be in a big hurry to get somewhere.With the temperature dropping and now at 800 metres in altitude we wondered if we would ever get to go downhill only to find after a final bend the landscape opened out in front of us with a huge lake off in the distance. It was called Lake Argentino and gave a stunning contrast to the mountains and flat lands that surrounded it.
Both starting to feel cold we soon started the long descent hoping to get to the small hamlet of Rio Bote before dark. With the descent going on for much longer than expected with the odd tiny hill we arrived in a much warmer valley with no wind and a place to camp. Managing to cook up a very spicy pasta meal we were both sweating by the time we had finished and were both looking forward to climbing into our tent.
Monday 9th November
Waking up to no wind was a real novelty and knowing we had to go to the town of Calafate to get supplies was annoying as it was a ‘there and back’. We wanted to see the Glacier there which made it a very popular destination for tourists, but with the extra cost and knowing how much we had spent in the short time we had been in Patagonia we had to give it a miss. We reached the junction north where there was a large group of motorcyclists. We went over to ask advice on whether there was an ATM in El Chalten, our next town north. As we got closer we recognised the group as the one we had met outside Torres del Paine and so we got chatting. They were heading for El Chalten but didn’t know about an ATM. They were however willing to change up money from US dollars to Pesos for us which meant we could skip riding into the town and make the most of the lack of wind.
We made good progress but as time went on we knew our luck would run out. We met a French cyclist who had been riding for2 and ½ years and was traveling with an American guy from New York called Jerry who had ridden the Carretera Austral – a stretch of road known for its stunning scenery and where we heading. They were both really great to chat to and time got lost while we were. We must have been talking for an hour before we parted.
We rode on for another 6 miles before stopping for lunch. It was now 30 degrees which felt strange as it was normally 10. We were both tired but wanted to keep going until we reached the junction where we would hit a head wind.
As predicted the wind picked up becoming strong at times. It slowed our progress and cooled the temperature. Sharon’s hand was getting sore again -she was suffering from blisters we think triggered by the sun – so she wrapped it up and put it in the river to cool. We finally reached the start of the next lake where we had been told about a hotel that sold cake and where Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid had apparently resided. We think it was probably the cake that drew them in as well.
With the temperature down to the usual 10 degrees and the wind whistling around the window the thought of heading on wasn’t that appealing. But we did and managed to get within 5 miles of the junction spotting a good spot off the road. When we say a good spot, it was actually a drainage ditch off the main highway but at least it was out of the wind. We stopped just before the camp to take a couple of pictures of the lake and a massive glacier which was over 60 miles away.
This made it hard to imagine how big it was close up. We dropped off the road and set up camp happy with the distance we had covered and wished tomorrow would be a still day as we would need to ride 65 miles west directly into the prevailing Patagonian wind.
Tuesday 10th December
Waking up to the sound of wind overhead wasn’t a good sound. We knew it would be great for the first 5 miles but would soon turn into a full-on headwind. We had a sleepy breakfast and listened to the wind on the lake. We had a great start to the day with the brief tail-wind then as we turned to ride the road to El Chalten the wind hit us straight in the face and didn’t let up all day. It was utterly exhausting and we struggled to stay on the bikes.
If we were doing 5 mph it felt ok but anything less it felt like we were wasting energy. We had no choice but to keep going as there was no-where to rest out of the wind. A lovely Argentinean couple stopped to give us some water and an orange each. They were from Trelew, the Welsh town on the east coast where we had been during the ‘bus journey’. We stopped for lunch only slightly sheltered by a mound and cooked instant mash and soup.
We headed on having only managed 15 miles all morning. We battled on and found it useful to listen to music to motivate us to keep pushing into the wind!
After 3 hours feeling exhausted, we stopped to take shelter in a disused building after we had collected water.
We cooked dinner and hoped the winds would die down. After a while we decided to head on even though it was 8pm. We wanted to get to El Chalten for Sharon’s birthday the following day. We did another 5 miles and stopped at an Estancia (a horse ranch). With the wind bending the tail trees that protect the Estancia’s we were happy to be in the realative shelterbut we just hoped it would ease for the morning.The guy there kindly let us sleep in the garden and even let us have a hot shower! Result! We went to bed exhausted.
Wednesday 11th December – Shaz’s birthday!
After hearing that it may be a still day we woke hearing the wind trying to force the trees to lie down – it was a depressing sound to wake up to. We were however in a nice sheltered spot and cooked our porridge without being blown away. We felt pleased to have covered the extra 5 miles meaning we were a little closer to El Chalten and Shaz didn’t have to work so hard on her birthday. 5 miles of-course doesn’t sound very far but at the speed we were travelling it could mean we were an hour further forward. We left the Estancia waving our thanks to the lady sheltering in the house behind a rattling green door.
We hit the wind and pushed on. With the road changing direction slowly we had a little respite and we even covered the first 10 miles in around one and a half hours. As we started to climb to El Chalten a vivid blue glacier came into view trying to force its way out if a deep ravine in the mountain like a large tongue shaped ice-lolly.
Then suddenly coming around the corner we saw the stunning Mount Fitzroy – a granite mountain which proudly stands at 3,405 metres.It was first climbed in 1952 by two French climbers and is still considered among the most technically challenging mountains in the world – we thought we’d stick to cycling.
Feeling tired from the last few days we stopped next to the park entrance to make a birthday cup of tea. We were about to enter the north part of ‘The Parque Nacional los Glaciares.’ With no biscuits and limited food we made some mash to give us the energy to get into town. We rode on and with the wind increasing it was getting much harder to ride. At one point a large gust of wind took us careering across the road towards an oncoming bus. Having had this happen several times we managed to stop but it wasn’t a nice feeling.
As we neared the town we saw guanacos run away on either side of the fencing calling to each other. They were fascinating to watch and hear their call.
We called in at the information centre where we first asked where the bakery was and then a hostel. There were hostels everywhere and only a few very expensive supermarkets. With it being Sharon’s birthday we picked up some goodies and went to find a hostel. The owner was really nice and said we could put the bikes in the outhouse. We headed out for dinner and were recommended a restaurant called ‘Techado Negro’ – we highly recommend it if you happen to find yourself in El Chalten. The steaks were amazing and just what we needed. We sat with two guys from Italy who let us share their table and it made for a fun night. We were however shattered and staying awake knowing there was a comfy bed in the warm and dry out of the wind was too good to leave much longer so we headed back to catch up on some well needed rest.
Thursday 12th December
We decided to move to a different hostel that we heard was cheaper so we packed up and headed the two blocks over. It was much nicer with a great atmosphere. We went around town, checking out the price of food, cakes and beer and bought a birthday cake for Shaz. We called in at the information place again to find out the latest information for the route ahead. Going north there was only access for walkers and bicycles. The route to Villa O’Higgins –the next source of civilisation included two ferry crossings. We had heard at the first crossing across Lago del Desierto (meaning deserted lake) the ferry was not running due to a dispute between 2 ferry companies and now the second boat across Lago O’Higgins had broken down. There was no firm information so we decided to take the number of the ferry company and try and ring them ourselves. Whilst Tim was quizzing the information guy he met another English couple who were cycle touring called Dan and Eva who were from London. They were cycling from El Calafate – they had only started a few days previous – to Bolivia. We instantly clicked once we realised we shared the same passion for tea and cake and before we knew it we were sat in our hostel drinking tea and eating Shaz’s birthday cake.
We emailed the ferry company and arranged to meet up the following day.
Friday 13th December
Tim wanted to take a walk to see the main glacier in the area (photos below) but Shaz needed to rest. A group of very lovely French girls were heading out so Tim joined them while Sharon rested and watched films.
Dan and Eva called over saying that the O’Higgins ferry company had emailed to say there would be a ferry running Wednesday if not Thursday and the information was that the Lago Desierto boat would run for the first time on Monday. This was great news. Dan and Eva decided to head off the following day but we would wait until Sunday needing another rest day.
In the evening, the owner of the hostel invited all of us to an Argentinean BBQ known as an Asado which refers to the technique of cooking aswell as the social event. We each bought meat which they cooked for us – it was delicious and we had a great evening.
We danced the night away and finished off with a trip to a pub with great Argentinean music.
Saturday 14th December
We woke up late after a late night, pottered around and watched a rather strange Norwegian film called Troll hunter. We ventured out in the afternoon to buy a few more bits of food for the journey to Villa O’Higgins. We bought steak and potatoes for dinner, which Tim cooked whilst Shaz updated the blog but frustratingly the net speed wasn’t fast enough to upload anything. After dinner we did the final bits of packing and Tim copied some photos then we got an early night ready to head off the following day.
Sunday 15th December
After a good night’s sleep we got up and packed the rest of our things. We had breakfast before saying goodbye to everyone and the owner who was probably the nicest hostel owner we had met on our trip. We soon got to the end of town and started the 23 miles gravel road to Lake Desierto where we would hopefully meet Dan and Eva to wait for the ferry in the morning. It was quite windy but the trees gave us a lot of shelter.
As we became more exposed the wind picked up. We were blown all over the place hit by waves of gravel and water that was lifted up from the road and river. At one point a gust of wind pulled Shaz’s sunglasses off her face and blew them down the road. Tim managed to find them and we continued on having to push at times. We stopped for a break as the road changed direction and with it the wind became less fierce. We rode on along a beautiful road with high peaks to each side and glaciers spilling out over with large cornices hanging on to the ridges.
We followed a blue river that was almost level with the road, climbing the odd steep climb until we reached a tiny church just before the lake. We called in to have a look before riding on to see if we could find Dan and Eva.
After some investigation we were told the ferry would not be running for another 10 days and no-one had seen our fellow English friends. The fact the ferry was not running, presented us with a problem. We had heard other cyclists had carried their bikes and kit along the 14km (9.5 mile) tough walking track that meandered along the lake but that it was barely wide enough to walk with steep climbs and descents and meant taking the bags off the bikes. The other option was to return to El Chalten and ride back into Argentina and the headwinds – this was not an attractive option. The path it was then. As it was only 4pm we thought we would get a bit done that day which would give us less to do the following day. We first had a tiny footbridge to cross before the blood, sweat and tears would start.
We found ourselves lifting our bikes over trees, up embankments, over rivers and ferrying our bags up and down steep slopes. Within the first half a mile we passed our 17,000 mile mark and what a tough end and a tough beginning to the next thousand.
We pushed on until 7.30pm where in the space of 3 and a half hours we had heaved and hauled our bikes 1 and ½ miles. With 8 miles to go we were in for a long tough day the following day and needed to get some rest. We decided to cook on the track so as not to start a bush fire. We were shattered and with an increasing number if biting flies we were keen to get packed away and soon headed to bed.
Monday 16th December
Waking up in the woods was nice although it had taken us both a while to get to sleep. We got up and had breakfast and loaded the bikes. We were in for a tough day probably one of the toughest and slowest so far. We had woken late so didn’t get going until 10 but from the start the track was tough. We dropped down to a river crossing having to pull large tree trucks from the path. As soon as we reached and crossed the river it was back into a steep climb having to ferry front panniers then rear then bike and food bag with 7 days worth of food back and forth. It took us 3 and a half hours to cover 1 and a bit miles and with another 7 miles to go we were soon wondering if we would ever make it out. We did get the odd nice bit of track that at best would last 50 metres before we would have to strip the bikes for a fallen tree.
The rivers kept coming and now with wet feet and the rain starting we were starting to get blisters. No sooner than we reached a high path we would drop to the lake sometimes having to push our bikes along the edge of the water, then climb a zigzag track up to 50-100 metres which would at times stay flat weaving in and out between the strewn fallen trees.
It was as if a storm had wiped out half the rotten trees to make way for fresh ones – they all seem to have landed on the tiny track. We stopped around 2.30 for lunch when we met an American guy from California called Taylor. We made him a cupper and sat chatting to him while we warmed up. It felt strange talking to someone else having not seen any one all day – we were in our own little world. We said goodbye and pushed on climbing high and dropping back down always running to and fro lifting what felt like ever increasing loads.
At it started to get late we met a walking group who had met Dan and Eva the day before. This was great news and would mean it wouldn’t just be us on the other side. With another climb the track levelled out and we managed to cover almost ¼ mile. It didn’t last long before we were wading through huge ponds, rock pools and marshes. It was tough and cold but at times strangely fun. As we approached a huge climb we spotted an ideal camp and called it a day. We had covered 4 miles in total and with the climb ahead and it being already 8 pm we needed to rest. We should make the end of the lake the following day but we needed to get up early to make sure. It had been a really tough day often questioning what we were doing but we managed to keep going – we had a ferry to catch.
Tuesday 17th December
We woke in the damp cold woodland still in disbelief that we were only just half way along this path. Our bodies were tired and sore but the thought of a hot cup of tea finally got us out of our warm comfy sleeping bags. We ate porridge in silence thinking of the track ahead and while Shaz cleared up, Tim started hiking our bags up the steep rocky track. We made frustratingly slow progress as there weren’t many bits where we could push the bikes with panniers on which meant walking the track 3 times to and fro. We stopped a couple of times to have a sweetie break and spotted the immigration buildings ahead which was a great encouragement.
The track remained narrow but we were able to put our rear panniers on and hang the front ones off our handlebars to enable us to keep moving. We crossed many rivers and after trying to keep our feet dry, we gave up and plunged in each time.
We stopped for lunch of cheese and biscuits and 3 hikers passed by. They told us they had seen Eva and Dan heading to the Chilean border further along the track so we knew they had survived the walk. We headed on down some really steep terrain and wondered if we would make it the same day. Then came the bogs! We soon got stuck in just as Shaz noticed her walkstool was missing which was strapped onto her front pannier. It must have fallen off. Tim very kindly offered to go back knowing the distance we had covered in the last 3 hours wouldn’t be far and so 30 minutes later returned with it – what a relief.
The track finally started to get better meaning we didn’t have to take our panniers off every 10 minutes. It saved a lot of time and we started to make real progress.
With less than a mile to go we got lost in a woody area then found the right path and tried to make it look more obvious for Joe and Lizzie who we had heard were behind us. Joe and Lizzie were the English couple from Bristol who we had met in Buenos Aires with Sara.
We had one final very steep descent where Shaz’s pannier got ripped off. Tim managed to put it over his shoulder and we soldiered on. The last half a mile was along the edge of the lake and we got totally soaked.
We finally arrived to a grassy area at immigration where we could camp for free for the night. We were greeted by a lovely German couple who gave us some pasta and their Brazilian friend who had all returned from the Chilean border after running out of food after waiting for a week for the O’Higgins boat which we were hearing was not yet fixed. We enjoyed chatting with them as they had spent 3 months cycle touring in southern Africa. As we were chatting two Chilean cycle tourists approached us – they had just arrived by the ferry that was doing a test run – we would have had to wait for 2 days to travel by the boat (although of-course we didn’t know that at the time). They were sorry to hear we’d had to do the ‘walk of doom’ but somehow now it was done, we knew we would look back on it as a challenge well done! We went to bed exhausted but happy to have made it this far.
Wednesday 18th December
We woke to the sound of voices and the sound of a boat starting. It was strange to hear when we had been stuck in the forest for what felt like days on end. We looked outside to wave goodbye to the German guys as they headed back to El Chalten unable to proceed north due to now running out of food. Our start was going to be slow having to re-fix Sharon’s pannier back to its mount, fix the strap on her front pannier and Tim’s spring on the front handlebars – the walk had really taken its toll on our kit and us.
We headed over to the Argentinian border control, stamped out and were shown the track that lead towards the Chilean border. The track was a very steep narrow gully that weaved up the hill for about 1 and a half then fell and climbed through woodland crossing a few rivers and streams.
It was tough going but compared to what we had been through it was much easier. We decided to stop after a river crossing to let our feet dry out only to find when we went another 50 metres we found another river crossing. We were going to develop webbed feet at this rate. We then came across a bog – we had to push our way through grateful to be wearing our crocs.
It felt slow going even with a slightly wider track although there were a few short sections we could ride giving us the feeling of speed. We were making better progress than the past couple of days and having changed our cycle shoes for crocs we whizzed through the rivers without a care. We finally arrived at the border in between the checkpoints that marked where Argentina and Chile met. It was one of the remotest borders we had ever been to. From here on we were in Chile and with it the track pretty much became a highway. The surface was much better and the width of a minor road it was bliss. We still had a few river crossings to do but this time it would be over a bridge all be it a bit rotten.
We got within 6 miles of where we would wait for the O’Higgins boat and decided to camp early to save a few pounds at the campsite after the Chilean border control. The sun was still shining which gave us chance to air our sleeping backs and have a wash before it got cold. It was great to stop early but our thoughts were on the ferry to Villa O’Higgins. Would it run tomorrow like we had been told or Friday like someone else had been told or even Saturday where the 2 Chilean guys who had booked a place. We had just enough food for six days at half rations. The thing we did know was we didn’t want to go back. It had been so tough – we must admit quite an adventure but not again. We had heard there were around 10 cyclists and trekkers waiting for the ferry and with us and 3 behind us there would be 15 all in various stages of hunger. The couple we had met the previous night had told us that the Chilean police were now low in food and we just hoped we would have enough and hopefully get us somewhere for Christmas. All we could do now was have our tea and rest.
Thursday 19th December
We both found it hard to wake up after days of hauling our bikes through forests and up steep banks and crossing rivers. We knew we only had 6 miles to go before we reached the camp at Candelario Mancilla but with the distances we had covered in the last few days if felt like a mountain away. Sharon got up and packed her things while Tim stayed in bed for as long as possible. There was a lot of condensation on the fly sheet mainly because we had all the vents closed so it gave an excuse not to get up until most of it had dried in the morning sun as it pocked its head over the jagged snow-capped peaks.
It was such a stunning place in the sunshine but we imagined in the winter it would be one of the harshest environments to survive in.
We finally got going at 11 with both of us feeling tired which made the last few miles hard. To start with the tree-lined road meandered along and it was lovely riding.
However after a few miles the road got worse with deep rocky gravel making it hard to control the bikes but with a glacial lake appearing in front of us with a small ice blue iceberg floating in the middle it was like a picture from a glossy brochure. The water was such an unbelievable blue with mountains wearing white hats, it lifted our spirits.
We arrived at the Chilean border feeling happy to have completed this part of our epic adventure and stamped in. There was a really cute puppy in the entrance which delayed us from venturing on to the camp. We finally rode on and soon heard voices only to see Dan and Eva down at the lake trying to catch a fish which they had been told by the french that they wouldn’t catch a fish with what they had. It was great to see them again and within a few minutes Eva yelled ‘I’ve got one’ and pulled out a brown trout.
We chatted for a while before finding out we had a couple of steep climbs up to the camp. They felt tough but we arrived to several tents owned by various people all waiting for the ferry. We spoke to 2 Germans who had been camped up for 11 days and were really low on food. We found out from the group that things had got so bad that the farmer had decided to ride off for 2 days in search of his cows. Once they had been located out on the mountain he brought one back to kill. With the cow now gutted and hung up he then started to cut up the cow selling the beef for £2 per kg. With so many hungary poeple it looked like we had arrived at the right time. We chatted to 2 French cyclists who had a spare fish so shared one with us only to find it was a fresh water salmon – delicious! What a great start.
We ordered some beef and after some advice from Andres who was a very nice Chilean man and seemed to be in the role of ‘chief’ we built a fire and cooked our beef. There were 17 of us in total – 13 cycle tourists and 4 trekkers including Taylor who we had met on the ‘walk of doom’.
It had been so ironic having so many people left stranded with no or little food by the ferry company Robinson Crusoe we just had to make it as good as we could and what an amazing place to be stranded.it was stunning looking down to a lake so blue it didn’t look real and had to pinch ourselves at its beauty.
With Sharon making fresh bread thanks to Sara, it was perfect and a good end to a tough week. The only thing we needed now was conformation about the ferry. The ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ferry was not running due to a fault in the engine and as it ran in such a remote area it was subject to some strict tests before being announced sea-worthy again. We heard that it might run on Saturday but it was still undergoing tests. The couple who ran the camp were lovely and in touch directly with the company by radio which meant we got regular and accurate information. They were running low on food and their mother was unwell and needed medical attention. The border police were also running low on food and many of them had missed flights back home for holiday leave. By the end of the evening we had been told that there was a cargo ship bringing supplies to the area and there was a possibility we could get a lift if the Robinson Crusoe ferry wasn’t running.
All we could do was wait and see but with all the promises from the ferry company that had fallen through and people running out of food, would we be left stranded on this beautiful island………
Thanks for reading!